Book Reviews: The church’s mission and vision, globally and locally

Books | Caleb Nelson

If you enjoy doomsaying and ecclesiastical bad news, then Christ Our Reconciler: The Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization (IVP Books, 2012) is not for you. A published collection of the messages delivered at the Congress held in Cape Town three years ago, this book is passionate, hopeful—and extremely encouraging. From the clear-eyed theological vision articulated by the speakers to the heartrending testimonies of suffering for Christ, this account of Cape Town 2010 will convict and inspire anyone who loves Jesus Christ and His church.

Nearly 2,000 delegates from almost 200 countries were present at the conference, while the speakers—which included John Piper, Tim Keller, Os Guinness Ajith Fernando, and Benjamin Kwashi—represented something of a who’s who of world evangelicalism.

The purpose of the Congress was to cast, in deliberate contrast to the 1910 Edinburgh conference on world missions, a vision for the 21st century church. The 1910 conference sought to bring about ecumenical union between all denominations. To do this, it deliberately minimized doctrine for the sake of what one 2010 delegate called “ecumania.” The 2010 conference, by contrast, opened with a sermon on Ephesians 1 in which Fernando gave a ringing affirmation of Bible doctrines up to and including predestination. But doctrine was not the only topic on the menu: The speakers gave heavy emphasis to living the kind of Christian life that will attract converts, rather than repel them. A Pentecostal pastor from Nairobi preached with Spirit-power from Ephesians 5 on integrity. I had not been so convicted of sin in months.

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The conference was ultimately about the whole church bringing the whole gospel to the whole world, to cities and workplaces, to the global south and the global north. The good news is in Christ Our Reconciler—the good news that Jesus Christ is building His church, and we are privileged to share in His work.  

Shayne Wheeler is so interested in reconciliation and unity that his denominational affiliation is a secret. He pastors All Souls Fellowship in Decatur, Ga., and his Briarpatch Gospel Fearlessly Following Jesus into the Thorny Places (Tyndale Momentum, 2013) is a popular-level treatment of N.T. Wright’s vision of God’s cosmic redemption.

In Wheeler’s hands, the “briarpatch” features prominently, but rather than being a true extended metaphor, it is a catchphrase, a shorthand for the trials and difficulties of life. Chief among these is the fear of people different from us. Wheeler communicates a vision of the people of God that extends beyond the “pasteurized, homogenized churches” of “white middle-class Republican capitalists” to include ex-convicts, homosexuals, and people with tattoos.

As a book on getting out of one’s Christian bubble and actually being salt and light in the world, Briarpatch Gospel is quite helpful. Don’t be overwhelmed by the challenge of slum neighborhoods or neighbors who seem to be on the opposite side in the culture war. Help just one person, one widow, one elderly couple next door. Wheeler’s call is practical—and, what’s better, achievable.

His treatment of homosexuals in the church is good so far as it goes. The church emphatically ought to be a place that welcomes gay people, many of whom, according to Wheeler, want to belong to a church. Homosexuality is not the worst of sins, nor is it in a different category from the other sins of church members, writes Wheeler—but, he affirms, it is a sin. That’s where Wheeler leaves things, drawing no distinction between sins that people struggle against and sins that they have no intention of giving up. Church discipline is not even mentioned.

To Wheeler, the church ought to be “a place where you can belong before you believe.” Such a proposition is perilous—and true.

While it would be unfair to describe Creature of the Word: The Jesus-Centered Church (B&H Books, 2012) as “Creature of the Buzzword,” Matt Chandler, Josh Patterson, and Eric Geiger do use the word “gospel” so many times that even the most alert reader will have difficulty remembering what it means. Intentionality, meanwhile, comes up frequently enough that one finds the authors “astounded” when they “consider how intentional God’s plan for His people really is.”

The book opens with two pastors facing burnout. Their lurking downfall is not scandalous sin or open heresy, but simply the easy process of boredom with the message they both proclaim. The book’s portrait of this Sunday afternoon ennui lives and breathes, and I found it utterly compelling. Sadly, though the answer to the boredom is in fact between the covers of Creature of the Word, it is not portrayed with anything like the same degree of verve.

The answer, of course, is to recover the wonder and exuberance of the good news of Christ’s death for unworthy sinners, with His resurrection and all its consequences. This changes not just pulpit ministry, but everything the church does. How do you make the gospel part of the culture at your church, for the nursery kids and the pastor who’s facing burnout? First of all, you have to experience its power for yourself. Then you have to share it. 

The book’s point is genuinely vital: Unless the church exists to proclaim the truth that Jesus Christ died and rose again to redeem sinners, then it might as well not exist at all. It is a one-mission organization, and the chapter titles (“Jesus-Centered Flower Committee”) make that truth impossible to miss.

Chandler, Patterson, and Geiger do not make the truth exhilarating, but they do teach the truth—and that’s exhilarating. 

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