Note to My Readers: from mid-June to mid-August (6/18 - 8/20), I will be taking a summer break from posting new articles for my Thursday and Friday slots. This will only affect my Thursday series on the global growth of Christianity, and my Friday series, the "Theological Bestiary" of birds, both of which will resume in late August. During the summer, I'll be dusting off some of my best essays from the first few years of this blog (a decade ago), as well as my verse play "Thus Ends the World," and re-posting them in the Thursday and Friday slots. All other weekdays will continue to feature new material throughout the summer.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Book Review: John G. Stackhouse's "Church"


Kirche von Moret, by Alfred Sisley, 1893

John G. Stackhouse’s book Church is a wise and winsome collection of short essays and thoughts about the church, especially as it is manifested in the United States and Canada. As such, the book doesn’t follow a consistent line of argumentation, but rather brings up points here and there, in a warm and conversational manner. Therefore, this review will only highlight certain aspects of Stackhouse’s thought that appear to be central to his understanding of the church, while of necessity ignoring other aspects covered in his book.
First of all, Stackhouse’s perception of the church is profoundly relational. All of his reflections come back to solid, common-sense wisdom on the proper ordering of relationships. One of the basic tenets of relationship is the importance of good communication. Stackhouse comes back to this over and over again. In chapter 5, “Are There Any Questions?” he urges preachers to open their sermons up for questions and to actively solicit feedback from the congregation. This theme is picked up again in chapters 10 and 11, in which he exhorts church leaders to actively poll the congregation, to find out their concerns and solicit their advice. This is no easy task, he tells us, since it’s always hard to stomach criticism (which inevitably comes when you open yourself up to feedback), but it is essential—the laity are the heart of the church, after all, and their opinions and concerns ought to be heard.
Another basic tenet of relationship is commitment, and Stackhouse touches on this element in chapter 18, “Are You a Member?” Here he encourages us to commit to a local church body, bemused by the postmodern tendency to shy away from definitive commitments. He puts it plainly (and, I think, rightly): “Our membership in the body of Christ is always expressed in the concrete, particular instance of membership in a particular congregation. There are no free-floating members, committed only to a vague, ideal, universal church.” For Stackhouse, the essence of church is in its fellowship—a group of believers, committed to Christ and to one another.
A second aspect of Stackhouse’s thinking is simply that—thinking. He emphasizes the need to return to a stronger focus on argumentation, on critical thinking, on common sense, and on reading. In chapter 19, “We Need More Arguments,” he advocates the return of hearty debate to North American churches—not argument in the sense of divisive conflict, but of ordered, respectful, logical thinking. When we are able to think clearly and to speak the pattern of that logical thought to others, we open the door for our community to be shaped by the mutual pursuit of truth. In this sense, Stackhouse’s emphasis on thinking returns to his emphasis on relationship. Speaking of argument, he says, “This is teamwork. This is taking each other seriously as thinking human beings. This is speaking the truth in love."
In chapter 12, he laments what he calls “the pastoral brain drain.” Traditionally, the pastorate was a position of high education, of great knowledge and wisdom. Now, cluttered as it is by all the expectations of administration, counseling, planning, leading meetings, and so on, the best and brightest young Christians are opting for different callings. Stackhouse also laments what appears to be a growing trend of subtle anti-intellectualism in the laity and urges pastors to “throw the book at them.” He writes: “Without disciplined, regular reading of thoughtful journals and books, we will have to defer to others who do understand and do know how to act effectively.” Throughout his book, Stackhouse’s essays are infused with a subtle note of lament that Christians don’t know how to think better, that we so often fall into traps of pride and conflict when a simple dose of common sense, rightly regarded and employed, would solve our problem.
This brings us to a third major theme of Church: the importance of humility, which ties in with both of the previous themes. In chapter 15, “Beams First, Motes Later,” Stackhouse accuses the church of focusing too much on the big, shocking sins, like homosexuality, while ignoring the subtle and pervasive poison of pride in our pulpits. This is, he claims, a problem that is desperately in need of address by the evangelical churches. “Is it a bad thing to ordain practicing homosexuals to church leadership? Let’s instead answer a more immediately relevant question that cuts to the heart of evangelical church after evangelical church across this continent. Is it a bad thing to ordain and maintain a practicing egomaniac?” In such intentionally provocative language, he forces us to take a hard look at the extent to which we’ve turned a blind eye to the sin of pride.
The essence of humility is in learning to walk in someone else’s shoes, in seeing an issue from someone else’s perspective rather than your own. Stackhouse talks about this in chapter 21, in which he exhorts us to remember that for every theological or social position we oppose, there is a real person behind that position, a person whom God loves and who is worthy, no matter what their error, of our respect. We don’t have to agree with them, but we need to learn to disagree in a way that communicates the love of Christ. This theme comes up again in chapter 40, a quasi-satirical piece called “Feminism Fatigue.” The point, in short, is that the issues we view as unimportant are important to somebody, and for that reason alone we ought to be careful not to brush them aside. Humility is invariably linked to good community, and so this theme ties back in with the first. Those who are humble will be able to learn how to live in a loving community, setting the needs of others ahead of their own. Those who are prideful, however, will carry selfishness wherever they go, and thus they will always be a force that tears churches apart rather than bringing them together.
The danger of a book like Stackhouse’s, though infused with wisdom, is that it is inherently a critique of the way church is currently being done. And, as with any critique (and especially those that favor brevity over comprehensiveness), it can at times seem unfairly critical. For instance, in chapter 14 he criticizes the normal routine of Christian activities and programs as being mediocre or boring, and that the fault lies with ourselves. This is true, but it’s not the gentlest way to say it. The fact of the matter is that mediocrity is part of being human, and not everything we do can possibly excel all the standards all the time.
Along a similar vein, in chapter 38 Stackhouse criticizes the “What Would Jesus Do?” movement. Granted, it could stand some criticism—any attempt to water down the essence of the Christian life to a single question is inherently flawed. But the imitation of Christ is a great and venerable tradition of spirituality, and I don’t think that most people fall into the error of assuming that they can do Messianic miracles simply because that’s what Jesus would do. I think Stackhouse has given the WWJD movement the short shrift, not realizing that for most people, the answer to “What Would Jesus Do?” comes out with some brilliant results, such as “Avoid sin,” and “Pursue holiness.” We shouldn’t be too quick to brush aside movements or teachings that might well have been powerfully inspiring to a great many sincere Christians.
Critique, as Stackhouse himself points out so well elsewhere in the book, must be united with love. Only because Stackhouse so obviously loves the church are most of his critiques credible. In the end, though, it comes down to this: critique isn’t necessarily valuable unless paired with suggestions on how to become better. Usually Stackhouse provides such suggestions, but not always.
           After reading Stackhouse’s Church, I’ve come away with a few helpful reminders to shape the way I think about the church. First, chapter 4, “Temptation in the Glory,” was particularly helpful for me. Fond as I am of church history and the noble characters found there, it’s far too easy for me to become attached to the incipient Gnosticism that Stackhouse describes—“to commune with noble and sensitive heroes who have in fact been abstracted and idealized from church history….to flee the churches around us for the Ideal Church.” Having seen and known so much of the church’s triumphs throughout history, it is tempting to hold my own local congregation up against that idealized scale. But Stackhouse reminds us that we need to learn to love the church in all its flaws—that the church is about people, not ideas, and that people are imperfect. The real task is to see and appreciate the beauty behind those imperfections.

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