Review of Two New Books by Doug Pagitt.
Reviewed by Amy Gentile.
As Christians learn to navigate what it means to be the Church in the 21st century, there is an important question that must be raised. How do we stay faithful to God’s witness throughout history, the teachings of Scripture and the historic orthodox faith, yet also explore new forms and structures for these teachings as we follow the leading of the Holy Spirit? Doug Pagitt’s books, Community in the Inventive Age and Preaching in the Inventive Age, offer insights that deserve thoughtful reflection.
Pagitt begins both books with a description of several different ages: the Agrarian Age, Industrial Age, Information Age, and finally, the Inventive Age. He also describes some of the unique values of “the Inventive Age” including, but not limited to: “inclusion, participation, collaboration and beauty.” He sees a world being marked by creativity and community, dialogue and openness, and in Community in the Inventive Age, sets forth a vision for what an Inventive Age Church might look like.
Reading his description of his own church community, Solomon’s Porch, brings to mind the early church that graces that pages of Acts 4:32-35. There we see the community working together to meet the needs of its members, becoming a sort of extended family. Pagitt’s community likewise seems warm and inviting; this is not merely a congregation that meets on Sundays, but seeks to live out the whole of the Christian life together.
The reinvigorated focus on community is not the only new thing, however. Pagitt and his community have also reimagined many more “traditional” aspects of church. For starters, the “sanctuary” is filled with couches in a theater-in-the-round setup that allows parishioners to see one another, which fits with the focus on relationship-building. Pagitt also takes the Biblical concept of “the priesthood of all believers” to new levels; at Solomon’s Porch, formal roles of leadership and authority are minimized. Even sermons are discussed by the community beforehand, allowing for open discussion and collaboration. This last point becomes the topic of Preaching in the Inventive Age.
Pagitt calls this new form of preaching, “progressional dialogue.” He strongly disagrees with the most prevalent model of preaching, which he calls “speaching.” He sees speaching as a product of the Enlightenment and the increased professionalization of society; where the pastor/priest is the “resident expert” and must fill the laity’s mind with information about Scripture, encouraging them to apply it to their lives. Pagitt’s vision for the Inventive Age is more comprehensive, he seeks to get every church member more involved. At Solomon’s Porch, the whole church is a part of discussing and formulating the “sermon” each week. This is a noble goal, and his ideas on community and preaching are truly innovative, but not without their problems.
Logistical problems aside, there are a few important concerns that Pagitt attempts to address, but does not completely dispel. First and foremost, if the priest/pastor’s authority is diminished, and all views are given equal weight in the dialogue, doesn’t that leave a veritable breeding ground for heresy? Pagitt discusses this question in both books, but never comes to a satisfactory solution. Instead, he claims that we need to keep an open mind to differing voices and give space for people to work those things out for themselves. Pagitt often claims that people can work out heresies and false statements for themselves, but that has not often been the case in the past. Perhaps it is even more of a danger now, considering our society’s dearth of Biblical knowledge and church history.
Furthermore, Pagitt’s skepticism of positions of power and authority seem to be a profound undercurrent of both books, but eradicating power and authority by distributing it to every person doesn’t necessarily seem to be the best option. In Scripture, we see the Holy Spirit giving different gifts to the community—some are called to be teachers and overseers. These positions of authority are not by nature problematic. Instead of diminishing all authority, we would be better off reminding our pastors/priests about Biblical, humble leadership. There is a responsibility given to pastors/priests to be the “shepherd” of their own respective community; this involves building relationships with parishioners, but it also involves safeguarding the community from false teaching or harmful practice. Of course, this doesn’t mean that the pastor/priest must bear all burdens for the community. The laity can and should be more involved as well; a strong church needs everyone to be using their gifts for the edification of the Body and for serving the world.
Despite these reservations, Pagitt’s books are worth reading, as he offers helpful criticisms and thoughtful imaginings. Sermons should have more room for discussion and engagement—perhaps this can be offered over coffee after church, or even by allowing a short question period at the end of the sermon. Pastors/priests need to be invested in relationships with parishioners, not merely removed resident experts. Parishioners need to be reminded of their integral part in the life of the church, they are not meant to be consumers coming for an inspirational talk. Pagitt’s books offer valuable guidance into how churches can build the relationships that are so important to people in the “Inventive Age,” especially if there is strong leadership in the community committed to fostering dialogue that is also informed by historic, orthodox, Christian teaching.
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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