A Brief Review of
The Missional Church and Denominations (Craig van Gelder, editor)
By Mike Bowling
Craig Van Gelder continues to both deepen and broaden a significant conversation concerning ecclesiology and mission; a conversation which emerged on the U.S. church scene with the popular writings of British missiologist Lesslie Newbigin. The Missional Church and Denominations provides those serving in denominational situations and those in dialogue with denominational congregations a window of perspective on the distinct challenges and opportunities which confront mission minded congregations. However, readers not from a reformed tradition may feel a bit like eavesdroppers.
The book is organized into two main sections which follows an excellent introduction. Moving from generalized theory in the first section to more particular discussions among specific denominations in the second section, the conclusion (Epilogue or Chapter 9) pulls everything together with the intriguing story of the Reformed Church in America (RCA). Every contributor (eight men, one woman) is sensitive with their use of language, making the book as a whole accessible to a wide readership, but at the same time informative.
Van Gelder’s introduction locates the missional church conversation within a specific historical context. From the emergence of the Gospel and Our Culture (GOC) movement in England as the generative source of the Gospel and Our Culture Network (GOCN) in the U.S. to the influence of Lesslie Newbigin on both sides of “the pond”, he carefully sets the stage for the importance of this book and the Missional Church Series of which it is the second volume. Particularly helpful was the list of works which make up the Gospel and Our Church Series and other important books which inform the missional church conversation (p.5).
The first section starts with Van Gelder’s own contribution to the collection of essays. Using the language of genetics, he seeks to identify the DNA of denominations and denominationalism. His starting question (p.13) becomes a lens through which to see the intent of the entire book: “How are we to understand, historically and theologically, the reality of these denominations and the principle of denominationalism that undergirds them in relationship to the visible church of Jesus Christ that the Spirit of God has created and continues to create in the world? There is a scant attempt at surveying the diverse judgments and justifications for denominationalism. One particularly interesting methodology was the parsing of words like “schism” and “sect” as a way to open space for legitimizing denominations. Eventually, Van Gelder identifies the particular markers of denominational expressions. These markers (listed on pp. 27, 33, 35, 38, 42) name the challenges both present and future for those congregations desiring participation in the “missio Dei” (the mission of God). The next three essays in this section attempt to engage the issues from biblical, sociological and narrative/historical sources.
The second section contains four essays offering examples from four different denominational traditions: the Episcopal Church USA, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Evangelical Covenant Church and the Baptist General Conference. While well written, these were very much “ghetto” conversations interesting but not as valuable to readers outside of the denominational “hood”. Wesley Granberg-Michaelson’s Epilogue, mentioned earlier, could have been included in this section, but rightly was pressed into service as a conclusion.
Thus, the book starts great and finishes well.
The Missional Church and Denominations.
Craig Van Gelder, editor.
Paperback: Eerdmans, 2008.
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C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com
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