A Feature Review of
The Rebirth of the Church: Applying Paul’s Vision for Ministry in Our Post-Christian World
Reviewed by Andy Hassler
I have spent a lot time over the past decade with Paul. As a doctoral student, my focus was on Paul’s view of the law and justification. Paul and I became pretty close, but not so much in the areas of missiology and ecclesiology. In fact, as the missional church movement was taking shape, I was mostly locked away in an office parsing Greek nouns and verbs, trying to come to grips with concepts like “works of the law” and “righteousness.” After graduating, though, this changed significantly, and I have become very interested in the present state of the church and mission. So when I saw the subtitle of Eddie Gibbs’s book that included Paul, the church, and the post-Christian world, my interest was seriously piqued. By and large I was not disappointed, as Gibbs shows that in the hands of the right person there is profound wisdom to be mined from Paul’s letters, and this wisdom is as relevant now as it has ever been.
The book begins by painting a bleak picture. Western society is undergoing an unparalleled paradigm shift, with no going back. Changes are taking place that are “all-pervasive, discontinuous, and irreversible” (3). Because of this, in the West,
Churches are declining in membership and in social influence. As they find themselves increasingly marginalized and unable to count on the support of the communities they are meant to serve, they are finding that long-established approaches to ministry—well-publicized, attractive services and a range of activities to meet the needs of individuals and families from the cradle to the grave—no longer have the broad appeal that they had for previous generations. (ix)
Gibbs explains that the church is shifting from a Christendom to a post-Christendom environment. Christendom began after the conversion of Roman Emperor Constantine in the fourth century, when there was a “dramatic shift in understanding, of both the church and its relationship to its broader cultural context” (4). The church became “attractional as opposed to missional/sending,” more “static and institutional,” focusing on sacred places of worship, led by a “professional clergy class acting primarily in a pastor-teacher mode,” and institutionalizing “grace in the form of sacraments” (4-5). Even with much variation in the details, this basic model of church prevailed for fifteen hundred years. However, because of shifts in Western culture it has begun to erode, and the present environment is beginning to reflect more of what the early church experienced prior to the fourth century. This requires new ways of thinking, and Gibbs believes there is no one better suited for this than the apostle Paul.