Category: Book Reviews

Planting Missional Churches, by Ed Stetzer

August 3rd, 2015

Book review submitted by Christopher B. James, Ph.D. Candidate in Practical Theology, Concentrations: Evangelism and Church & Society. Review originally appeared on

Organic Church, by Neil Cole

August 3rd, 2015

Book review submitted by Christopher B. James, Ph.D. Candidate in Practical Theology, Concentrations: Evangelism and Church & Society. Review originally appeared on

Mission-Shaped Church

August 3rd, 2015

Book review submitted by Christopher B. James, Ph.D. Candidate in Practical Theology, Concentrations: Evangelism and Church & Society. Review originally appeared on

Part 1 – Summary:

Part 2 – Book Review:

Practical Theology: A New Approach, by Marcel Viau

August 3rd, 2015

Review by Francisca Ireland-Verwoerd

Marcel Viau is a Roman Catholic practical theologian who has taught primarily in his native Canada and most recently in Fribourg, Switzerland. The rise of practical theology in the Roman Catholic tradition is directly related to the Second Vatican Council with its emphasis on the work of local churches and pastors. This renewed focus gave the impetus for the study of pastoral theology (later called practical theology) as a discipline autonomous from systematic theology, while remaining intimately connected at the same time. Viau sees several reasons for this new way of doing theology. First, the social scientific tools for pastors have multiplied, and the methods of studying the church’s actions in the secular world have diversified. Second, in North American universities, theology–and even more practical theology–does not always have the same credibility as the physical or human sciences. Third, it is not clear whether practical theology as an ecclesial discourse is institutional or experiential. These issues of practical theology’s ways and fields of study, its unconfirmed academic status, and the tension between its institutional and experiential discourse, point to the problem of “the epistemological status” of practical theology (xi). Viau proposes to lay the groundwork for basic research that will address the problem.

For Viau, practical theology consists of constructing discourses on the basis of faith practices of Christians (xv). His basic research then is “a critical study of the conditions surrounding the production of the discourse of Practical Theology,” with the understanding that the function of practical theology is to “produce a discourse that allows our contemporaries to live faith in a satisfactory manner” (ibid.). The goal of this basic research is to “provid[e] Practical Theology with rules of conduct by sketching a basic architecture, thus establishing it as a discipline” (ibid.). Viau’s new approach is concerned with the question of how practical theology works as it attempts “to take hold of and give an account of its practices, in other words as it attempts to produce a discourse” (xvi, italics his).

In this book, Viau lays the philosophical foundations for an epistemology characteristic of practical theology. He defines ‘discourse’ as a “body of utterances” and ‘object’ as “that to which the discourse is linked” (xvii), and then addresses three questions: what is the material out of which the discourse and its object are made? (i.e. experience; chapters one, two, and three); what is the nature of the bond between the discourse and the object? (i.e. language; chapters four, five, six, and seven); and what is the adjustment of the discourse to its object? (i.e. belief; chapters eight, nine, and ten).

In the first three chapters, Viau begins by studying the presuppositions that underlie every discourse. Here he finds the pragmatic strain of Anglo-Saxon philosophy helpful insofar as it does not fall into idealism, nor empiricism, but rather holds to the notion that “the object of this discourse is external to the discourse itself” (3). For a pragmatist, experience is not confined to a mental reality, but it encompasses everything the mental content implies (e.g. sensations or the ideas formed based on the sensations) as a manifestation of the cosmos (23). The knowing of this experience is not a separate act, but a reconstruction of the experience. On the theological level then, ideas about faith cannot be dissociated from experience. Consequently God, as the object of faith, “cannot be understood without the help of experience” (25). For practical theology this means that “the input of experience allows something of the divine nature, especially as it acts upon the world, to be understood” (ibid.). Via the Realism and the Social Behaviorism of John Dewey and George Herbert Mead, Viau concludes that experience is rooted and manifested in an environment. Human consciousness consists of the experience of a phenomenon in the present time. When that experience drives the consciousness to reach out to other human beings, a social context is formed in which the experience becomes ‘common’ (37). The chapter on Signs in Language, in which Viau expounds the behaviorist sign theory of Charles S. Peirce and the semiotic theory of Charles W. Morris, emphasizes the social context in which signs communicate experience.

The next four chapters provide a closer look at conditions under which a discourse can have access to its object. The function of discourse is not to account for the object itself, but for “the events which constitute the framework of human experience” (89). In Viau’s epistemology, this theological ‘real’ is just as real as the scientist’s ‘real’ because of the bond established between discourse and object. Theology is a certain grammar that is used in a particular discourse; it is the way we speak about God and our experiences of God (97). In order to provide a sure philosophical footing, Viau seeks to ground this ‘grammar of faith’ on human nature—a so-called theology naturalized– rather than on a hypothesis about deity (ibid.). How then can we know that which is unknowable? After exploring various philosophical discourses (e.g. by Richard Rorty, W.V.O. Quine, Hilary Putnam) Viau settles on Ludwig Wittgenstein’s term “language-game” to underscore that speaking a language is an activity in which meaning is delineated by its context (112-113). Any number of language-games exists, each within “the social space of a given linguistic community” and the rules of language construction are determined by this community (114). The language-game of theology enables Viau to articulate an epistemology without the necessity of a priori knowledge of the divine.

In the last three chapters on belief, Viau uses the concept of pragmatists that truth is based on belief, to place belief at the heart of a practical theological epistemology. He draws heavily from the work of Charles Peirce and William James, while also referencing R.B. Braithwaite and Donald Davidson. Through their work he concludes that “it will always be impossible to determine a content for belief” and therefore, “the content of religious utterances always remain elusive” (171). However, beliefs can still be known by subsequent behaviors. Religious discourse—as an act of belief—and religious belief are then closely linked (171). In religious discourse a sentence has meaning in so far as the one who pronounced the sentence holds it to be true; it has meaning for the addressee in so far as that one entertains the meaning (188-189). It is true for the addressee when that one assents to the utterance (191). Now a practical theological discourse can develop in which utterances, entertainment and assent take place among other discourses, i.e. in a ‘web of beliefs’ (common sense, scientific, philosophical and religious) (195). Through discourse, addressees integrate the entertained and assented utterances into their own webs of belief by integrating the information and making a decision to act upon the information or not (206).

This book is highly theoretical. Only the introduction, conclusion and an occasional paragraph in each chapter draw the philosophical considerations into the realm of practical theology. In the body of the work Viau set out to lay groundwork for practical theology so that it will have an unassailable footing. His philosophical research is extensive as he discusses various ways in which the issues of experience, language and belief have been treated. The choice for one philosophical framework over the other is guided by his goal to provide tools for a practical theological discourse constructed out of experience.
This foundational work is important for those practical theologies that base their claims on the experience-to-theory model, such as the local theologies of Oduyoye and Isazi-Diaz, and the empirical studies of Van der Ven. In addition, Viau shows that “the truth of a discourse in Practical Theology flows from its ability to set its speaker in motion” (203). This strengthens models that also connect theory with new practices, such as the “practice theology” of Bonnie Miller-McLemore, the “practice to theory and back again” method of Don Browning, and the “proposals for practice” in Mary Elizabeth Moore’s ethnogenic method.

Viau warns the reader that the book is not about the content of practical theology, but about the foundations of its practices (xiv-xv). Yet it is hard to overlook the incongruity of a book on practical theology based on experience, and driving toward action, to consist of almost pure theory. Certain knowledge of theories of epistemology, semantics and the nature of belief is necessary for a good grasp of the book’s content. Moreover, an interest and even passion for the topic is needed to persevere through ten chapters of philosophical explorations. In the context of the fairly recent development of pastoral theology within the Roman Catholic Church, Viau’s work has a place to undergird and even justify the existence of practical theology as a distinct (and yet interconnected) discipline. It seems that Practical Theology: A New Approach is primarily directed towards the guardians of Roman Catholic Ecclesiology and Systematic Theology. The more ‘practical’ theologians may be inclined to leave this book on the shelf.

Sharing Faith, by Thomas Groome

August 3rd, 2015

Review by Francisca Ireland-Verwoerd

Dr. Thomas Groome is Professor of Theology and Religious Education at Boston College. His main research and teaching interests are religious education (history, theory and practice), pastoral ministry and practical theology. Groome has written numerous books on religious education, some of which are widely used in Catholic and Protestant seminaries, as well as several curricula for the Catholic Church, from K-8 through adult studies.1 The heart of Groome’s philosophy of religious education is his belief that people should be enculturated into the faith, that is to say, the faith should be taught through the practices of the faithful. This principle of “shared praxis” firmly situates the believer in a community of faith, informed by Scripture and tradition, and in conversation with the contemporary world. The conviction that the Church speaks – and needs to speak – to the present situation of human beings, has led Groome to rethink some traditional Roman Catholic teachings, such as the male-only priesthood, the infallibility of the Pope, and the inerrancy of the Bible and Church doctrine, and male-only gender pronouns for God.2

In Groome’s own words: “in many ways, my core commitment as a Catholic catechist over the years has been to bridge this gap and to help myself and others to integrate the two – life and Faith—into lived, living, and life-giving Christian faith.”3 This method echoes the practical theological model of moving from practice to theory to practice. With the attention to lived practice, Groome places his theology firmly within the Catholic theology of the sacramentality of life: “This commitment of mine and of contemporary catechesis to engage people’s praxis—reflection on life—in the pedagogy of Christian faith education reflects the Catholic principle of sacramentality.”4 God’s presence and grace in the ordinary things of life justify the every day life experiences as a source of reflection and conation. Likewise, newly gained wisdom needs to be put into action, for the participants to be true ‘agents’ of their own faith.

In Sharing Faith: A Comprehensive Approach to Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991) Groome argues that Christian religious education as a shared Christian praxis is an overarching approach not only to religious education, but also to pastoral ministry. This book was published eleven years after he first proposed a shared praxis as the “how” of religious education in Christian Religious Education: Sharing Our Story and Vision (1980). Since then, Groome has deepened and expanded his understanding of what “shared praxis” means and does. In Sharing Faith, he gives his readers the revised, “comprehensive” version of his original approach.
Groome divides Sharing Faith into four sections. Part I is centered around the notion of “conation,” by which Groome means the type of knowledge that is grounded in a holistic, epistemic ontology and that encounters the learner as an active agent-in-relationship. In this book, wisdom is synonymous with conation. Groome starts off by revisiting the nature of Christian Religious education throughout Western history and its purpose of promoting the reign of God, lived Christian faith, and fullness of life for all. This threefold purpose and its ontological quality, require a fundamentally different approach to education, namely that Christian religious education is about a person’s re-membered being [reflective and in relationship] in faith, in faith community and in their social and cultural context. Hence Groome’s insistence on conation instead of cognition.

In Part II Groome addresses the approach of shared Christian praxis. The phrase is based on the words praxis, because of his conviction that effective pedagogy takes place through people’s reflection on their own life experiences; Christian, expressing his main intended audience to be those who are “participants in the Story/Vision of the Christian community over time;”5 and shared, indicating partnership/dialogue between teachers and learners, as well as a “dialectical hermeneutics” between the reflections out of people’s own lives and the Story/Vision of the Christian community, i.e. Scripture and tradition.6 Groome lays out the approach of shared Christian praxis as a process of five movements in logical sequence but with overlaps and recurrences; they are more a dance than a step-by-step manual. These movements, corresponding to Avery Dulles’ five categories of revelation, are: Naming/Expressing “Present Action” (movement 1); Critical Reflection on Present Action (movement 2); Making Accessible Christian Story and Vision (movement 3); Dialectical Hermeneutics to Appropriate Story/Vision to Participants’ Stories and Visions (movement 4); and Decision/Response for Lived Christian Faith (movement 5).7 Groome moves intentionally in a circular pattern: helping learners become critically aware of the places where they find themselves, moving into the bigger world of Christianity where Scripture and tradition speak to and are spoken to by the learners’ stories, onto new insight and action. As an apologetic, Groome discusses the nature, rationale and procedures for each of these movements. Every chapter also includes practical suggestions of how to appropriate the movement in one’s teaching, combined with example practices in that chapter’s appendix.

Part III expands the use of the shared Christian praxis approach to Christian ministry by considering all the ministries of the Church through the eyes of education. Groome understands ministry as “initiat[ing] a personal ‘presence with’ people, empower[ing] them as agent-subjects of their faith, and call[ing] them into partnership and community.”8 In that sense, “[t]he whole life of a Christian community functions as its primary curriculum because of the formative power of the symbolic world it constitutes for its people.”9 After an overview of the nature and historical developments of “ministry,” Groome devotes a chapter each to liturgy and preaching, justice and peace ministries, and pastoral counseling. In every case, he defines what the particular ministry is, and reflects on the ‘style’ of shared praxis as an effective way of doing that particular kind of faith-in-action.

In Part IV Groome reiterates and welds together the theological foundations and spiritual requirements inherent in the approach of shared Christian praxis. He does this by way of a personal “Pedagogical Creed.” Although these “articles of faith” are, in a sense, the prolegomena of the book, for Groome they are a “postscript in that [he] could write it only after the work was completed.”10

Sharing Faith is a well-ordered book on religious pedagogy, in which Groome combines the historical and theological development of the issues he addresses, with people’s spiritual/ontological needs and the outcomes desired by educators. Although his method is not based on case studies, he follows the hermeneutical spiral where practice and theory are in constant dialogue with each other. Throughout the book this spiral moves chronologically upward, from the issues’ historical rationale and function to their contemporary application. For Groome, the only “place” to bring life and faith together in a Lived Faith is the here-and-now. Concepts such as epistemology, ministry, [the effectiveness of] liturgy and preaching, [the need for] justice and peace ministries, all require an “overhaul” in order to have the power and authority to speak to people in the church today.

The interesting discovery in Sharing Faith is the extension of the approach of shared Christian praxis from religious education into all practices of the church. Groome takes the renewal of the Catholic Church after Vatican II seriously: his ministry as an educator and an educator’s educator stems from and is dedicated to the idea of the Church as the People of God.11 As he describes it himself,

The Second Vatican Council lamented intensely the separation that Catholics make between their faith and their life. ‘This split between the faith which many profess and their daily lives deserves to be counted among the more serious errors of our age’ (Constitution on Church in Modern World, #43, Abbott 243 [1965]). I vividly remember reading this as a college student and taking it very much to heart […]12

The applicability of shared praxis in more areas than religious education comes from Groome’s experiences of “using shared praxis in a variety of other settings: for adult education and theological reflection, in community renewal and planning programs, in social justice work, in preaching, counseling, retreats, in teaching theology to undergraduate students at Boston College and in teaching fifth-grade CCD.” This in itself is a practical theological method, applied in Groome’s own practice-theory-practice.

The key argument in Sharing Faith is the necessity for a Christian to live reflectively, in community with other people and God, and in dialogue with the Christian Story and Vision. Out of this argument follow Groome’s historical and theological apologetics for his shared Christian praxis, his movements within the praxis, and his application of the praxis to both education and the other ministries of the church.

From a practical theological point of view, Groome’s movements of shared Christian practice have much in common with Don Browning’s four movements in his critical correlational approach to fundamental practical theology.13 Browning’s first movement, descriptive theology, names the practices that are under consideration, similar to the ‘naming’ of Groome’s first movement. Browning second movement, historical theology, shifts the focus from theory-laden practices to “the central texts and monuments of the Christian faith,”14 similar to Groome’s second movement when people reflect critically on their own “history.” The third movement of Browning, systematic theology, corresponds in a way to the third movement of Groome, where the Christian Story and Vision are considered as a whole for an appropriate generative theme or symbol in dialogue with the learner’s experience. Browning’s fourth movement of strategic practical theology asks the questions What is happening?, What should be happening?, Why should it happen?, and How will it happen?. This could be seen in conjunction with Groome’s movements 4 and 5 where the dialectical hermeneutic and response to lived faith transform Browning’s strategic questions into action. The similarity between Browning’s and Groome’s approach underscores the practical theological nature of the shared praxis process.

Groome’s practical theological approach is effective, first, in its ability to be apologetic, overcoming people’s hesitancy to this new approach by showing its historical and theological foundations, and second, by proving to be applicable to people’s lives, speaking from and to people’s own experiences. His pedagogical “spiral” enables educators/ministers to identify their own learning as “ontic epistemology” and empathize that this approach could be effective for others too. The effectiveness of Groome’s approach is proven by the use of his material, curricula as well as religious education instruction, inside and outside the Catholic Church. He has been able to root his shared praxis deeply and critically in Scripture and tradition as they speak to today’s Church through his use of three hermeneutics: of retrieval, suspicion and creative commitment.15 In addition, Groome recognizes three sources in tradition: the official church magisterium (of any denomination), the research of scholars, and the sense of its faithful.16 In the context of the US, the faithful of all denominations share the contemporary culture, albeit in great diversity. The sensus fidelium could therefore possibly have more in common with other denominations than the respective official church teachings – for instance, in the case of the position of women. It is no wonder then, that theory-laden practice and practice-laden theory which take the contemporary context seriously, would be able to speak to educators across denominational lines.

As a practical theological text, Sharing Faith does not practice its own method. Where Browning uses three congregational studies as the basis for his theory, Groome speaks in general, without giving readers the “life practice” he sees as lacking. This could be because his book is ultimately on religious education, not on practical theology. In addition, the need for this text is based on the widespread perception that there is a gap between life and faith.17 Groome could, however, have started the book with a case study of religious education that fails to address that gap.

Most importantly, Groome’s ecclesiology is too vague. He describes the church in article 11 as a “community [that] will be an effective symbol of God’s reign…”18 This reign of God is the metapurpose of religious education,19 but he never comes to a description of what that would look like. Especially when seeking comprehensive renewal in religious education and ultimately in the Church, a clear vision of the reign of God as symbol of the church is necessary in order to give direction to renewal. Particularly lacking is the diversity element of the local expression of the reign of God. Worshiping God together with unalike people used to be an eschatological concept; now it is a reality for many congregations. What does diversity do to a “shared” praxis? What kind of dialectic takes place in a multifaceted situation where we need to consider our own story, the Christian Story and Vision and a multiplicity of interpretations, hermeneutics and normative practices? Almost twenty-five years after publication of Sharing Faith, the shared praxis approach needs to be expanded with a thorough discussion of the “reign of God” because we are in the throes of understanding what the global version of God’s reign, layered with multiple diversities, means in our churches and society.

Browning, Don. A Fundamental Practical Theology. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991.
Flannery, Austin, ed. The Basic Sixteen Documents Vatican Council II. New York: Costello Publishing, 1996.
Groome, Thomas H. Sharing Faith: A Comprehensive Approach to Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991.
______. Boston College, School of Theology and Ministry, Faculty Profile, “Thomas Groome,” Truth Betrayed: Eamonn Keane’s Calumny Against Thomas Groome, content/dam/files/schools/stm/pdf/Truth_Betrayed_Keane.pdf (accessed September 12, 2013)
Keane, Eamonn. “Thomas Groome: His Influence on Religious Education Continues,” CatholicCulture.Org, view.cfm?id=6515&CFID=9409265&CFTOKEN=97098098 , (accessed September 12, 2013).
Voice of the Faithful, “Biography of Thomas Groome,” ThomasGroomeVOTFWebBio.pdf (accessed September 12, 2013)

1. Voice of the Faithful, “Biography of Thomas Groome,” (accessed September 12, 2013)
2. See for instance, “Thomas Groome: His Influence on Religious Education Continues” by Eamonn Keane (accessed September 12, 2013) .
Boston College, School of Theology and Ministry, Faculty Profile, “Thomas Groome,” Truth Betrayed: Eamonn Keane’s Calumny Against Thomas Groome, 21, (accessed September 12, 2013)
Ibid., 22.
3. Voice of the Faithful, “Biography of Thomas Groome,” (accessed September 12, 2013)
4. See for instance, “Thomas Groome: His Influence on Religious Education Continues” by Eamonn Keane (accessed September 12, 2013) .
Boston College, School of Theology and Ministry, Faculty Profile, “Thomas Groome,” Truth Betrayed: Eamonn Keane’s Calumny Against Thomas Groome, 21, (accessed September 12, 2013)
Ibid., 22.
5. Sharing Faith, 133.
6. See page 145 on “dialectical hermeneutics.”
7. See Sharing Faith, 490 for an overview of Dulles’ five modes of revelation.
8. Ibid., 332.
9. Ibid., 296 (italics original).
10. Ibid., 426 (italics original).
11. Ibid., 322-331.
12. Truth Betrayed, 21.
13. A Fundamental Practical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991), 47-57.
14. Ibid., 49.
15. Sharing Faith, 230-231.
16. Ibid., 231 (italics original).
17. See “Gaudium et Spes, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,” #43. Austin Flannery ed., The Basic Sixteen Documents Vatican Council II (New York: Costello Publishing, 1996), 211.
18. Shared Faith, 444.
19. Ibid., 14.

Overturning Tables: Freeing Missions from the Christian-Industrial Complex, by Scott A. Bessenecker

August 3rd, 2015

Review by Francisca Ireland-Verwoerd in the International Bulletin of Missionary Research at:

The Irresistible Revolution, by Shane Claiborne

October 18th, 2013


Shane Claiborne. The Irresistible Revolution: living as an ordinary radical. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2006.

Book Review submitted by Xochitl Alvizo, Ph.D. Candidate in Practical Theology, Concentration: Congregation and Community

“Growing smaller and smaller until we take over the world,” is the title of the second to last chapter in Shane Claiborne’s book The Irresistible Revolution: living as an ordinary radical. I begin here because there is an important question this title raises for me – and the assumption that I think it makes. Let me first offer a quick introduction to Claiborne’s book.

Shane Claiborne understands himself to be living the “ordinary” life of a Christian. And, in as much as his life and the life of his community is countercultural and gets to the root of what it means to be a Christian disciple, then he would also agree that he is an ordinary radical (130). Claiborne retells the story of how he left his status as a “cool” person and his comfortable life in order to become a charismatic Jesus freak (41). However, “the fiery newness of it died out,” and soon Claiborne found himself disillusioned and wondering “if anybody still believed Jesus meant those things he said” (45, 72). Claiborne explains, “we were not going to win the masses to Christianity” unless people actually began to live it. In order to learn what a “fully devoted Christian looked like, or if the world had even seen one in the last few centuries,” Claiborne set on a journey in search of a Christian (I can’t tell if he is being facetious or not, but those are his words, 71-72). His search for a Christian first takes him to Calcutta to work with Mother Teresa; this begins his new understanding of Christianity, of the life of a Christian, and what it means to be the church. His book is an autobiographical retelling of the development of his theology and of the community of which he is a founder, The Simple Way.

Two things that are central to Claiborne’s theology and ecclesiology are 1) the church in Acts where it is recorded that there were no needy persons among them and, 2) the kingdom of God “on earth as it is in heaven” (64). These two themes run throughout the book and their importance is evidence in the very direct ways that Claiborne’s life in community is lived with, and as part of, people who are economically poor. However, there is also another theme that runs throughout the book and similarly grounds Claiborne’s theology but does not seem to be compatible with it. One of the lessons Claiborne states to have learned from Mother Teresa was that “the temptation to do great things is always before us;” for this reason Mother Teresa stressed the importance of doing “just small things” (78). Thus, Claiborne learns to see miracles in the small things, in acts of love. He takes heart in the movement he sees among younger evangelical Christians, of which he sees himself a part, and which he experiences to be a “gentler revolution” (313). In the end though, Claiborne wants to grow smaller and smaller “until we take over the world.” The chapter starts off expressing the sentiment of the first part of that phrase – the gospel does not draw a crowd, people are not inclined to line up for the cross – but then the language (and the metaphor) changes. In the last six pages of the book Claiborne affirms that Christians are not called to be candles but fire, “so that the Spirit’s inferno of love spreads across the earth” (352). It seems subtle, perhaps insignificant, maybe even paranoid, but it is grand visions such as this one that may make the difference between understanding oneself as a participant in something Divine because one judges it to be worthy of one’s commitment, and understanding oneself as the ones responsible to bring about the divine plan. Claiborne says that Jesus points the church to its “true identity,” that is, to live close to those who suffer (160), but why must he also aspire to “win the masses,” to take over the world? I cannot help but think it rings of Christendom, of empire, and of the very kind of system of domination that produces the suffering to which Jesus’ good news speaks. I wonder about the witness this kind of theological undercurrent makes to people who are all too familiar with the sins of the church.

Emerging Churches, by Eddie Gibbs & Ryan Bolger

October 18th, 2013


Eddie Gibbs and Ryan K. Bolger. Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005.

Book Review submitted by Xochitl Alvizo, Ph.D. Candidate in Practical Theology, Concentration: Congregation and Community

Eddie Gibbs and Ryan K. Bolger conducted an investigation on “the nature of emerging churches and movements,” churches and movements that they consider to be “vibrant and alive” (329). From their study with such churches, Gibbs and Bolger identified nine practices as common among emerging churches, three of them being the core practices out of which the others flow. Overall I was impressed with how much I agreed with the authors; they offered a most generous read on the theologies and practices they encountered through their research and also framed the intentions of the emerging church ministers/founders’ in the best possible light. It is clear that the authors believe that emerging churches are making a valuable and necessary contribution to the church at large, even while pointing out potential weaknesses, or the challenges that will need addressing.

Gibbs and Bolger refer to themselves as interpreters and commentators of the research, and in as much as their book is made up of material from their interviews with emerging church leaders, they state that they are not the authors of much of the material in their book (237). Their objective was to capture a “snapshot of a rapidly changing scenario” and introduce the emerging church movement (and the postmodern culture to which it is trying to minister) to church leaders who “may as yet be unaware of the significant developments taking place” (238). The authors definitely seem to have accomplished their mission, but they do so without offering much of their own theological reflection or critique. They function more like sociologists.

I recall attending a session at the American Academy of Religion Meeting 2008 on “Theology Pub.” It was held at a pub and coordinated by a Lutheran minister who has a similar monthly event at her own church in Denver, Colorado; Ryan Bolger was among her featured guests. The session functioned much like a commercial for the different people’s “cool” ministries – the tone was “check us out.” People were asking questions about how they could do something similar in their own churches – as if emerging church was a product they were considering for themselves. I do not think Gibbs and Bolger have that tone in their book, but I fear that that is the way such a book will be “consumed.” Do we put our congregations, our local communal attempts at faithful embodiment of the good news, up for consumption when we write about them in a book? How can we write in a way that does not contribute to the emerging church simply becoming another trend or marketing ploy to be used up and distorted by others – others, no less, who also call themselves Christian?

It is clear from the congregations that Gibbs and Bolger studied that each of these are born out of their particular context, the particular concerns of the people involved, and out of the participants’ desire to be a more faithful church (even in the different ways they understand faithfulness). However, I worry that when we study new congregational phenomenon we do so in such a way that strips the congregations of their integrity, that reduces them to a consumable good, and if found worthy, offers them as something to be replicated – or if found unworthy, tears them to theological shreds.

In the acknowledgements and the conclusion, Gibbs and Bolger express their gratitude to the congregations who welcomed them and also recognize that many of these congregations are “new, fragile, vulnerable, and in locations subject to rapid change;” however, I wonder if that is enough. As practical theologians who will engage in our own research with congregations, how do we proceed in a way that encourages and supports congregations in their communal efforts toward faithfulness, does not make them into a consumable products, and honors the particularity and vulnerability of their own journey, even while they contribute to ours?

UnChristian, by David Kinnaman

October 18th, 2013


David Kinnaman. Unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity…and Why it Matters. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2007.

Book Review submitted by Xochitl Alvizo, Ph.D. Candidate in Practical Theology, Concentration: Congregation and Community

Unchristian is a book that results from a research project inspired by Gabe Lyons’ interest to “help a new generation of leaders understand the perceptions and images that young people have of Christianity,” perceptions he already suspected to be very negative (13). To this end he partnered with David Kinnaman, the primary author of the book, in launching an extensive three-year research project in which thousands of people between the ages of sixteen to twenty-nine[1] were either surveyed or interviewed about their perceptions of Christianity from an outsider’s point of view. The result of the research shows a predominantly negative view of Christianity by those outside of it – referred to in the book as ‘outsiders’; one that is not based on unfounded perceptions, but grounded in the personal experiences outsiders have had with Christians and with the church (often they are people who are “dechurched” and not simply “unchurched”).

Although the authors consider their research to be “objective” (a word they frequently use both in the book and in interviews posted online), their presentation of the research in this book is shaped by very explicit objectives: “to be strategic agents for the kingdom of God” (8), to “connect more effectively with people outside the faith” (14), “to engage nonChristians and point them to Jesus” (16), and “to be effective agents of spiritual transformation in people’s lives” (19). In an interview posted online Kinnaman states, “The central message of this book is, How do we understand, accept, love and bring the transformational power of Jesus to a generation that is very skeptical, that is very done with Christianity as we’ve expressed it in this culture for the last twenty, thirty years, fifty years.”[2]

Although their study is designed to find out what outsiders think of Christianity, the authors also have very specific ideas about Mosaics and Busters.[3] For example, according to Kinnaman and Lyons, Mosaics and Busters have an “anything goes mindset” (36), an “image-driven, self-oriented mindset” (43), they are irreverent, blunt, skeptical and are “in a nearly constant search for fresh experiences and new sources of motivations” (22-23). What the authors make clear is that even as they set out to discover how Christianity is perceived by outsiders, it is not primarily for the purposes of their own self-reflection and transformation as Christians, but so that Christians can get to know and love Mosaic and Buster outsiders in order to “turn them to Jesus” (96); Jesus being of greatest importance since the authors believe that Jesus is “the starting point” where people’s lives really begin (20, italics mine). It is as if once they know who they are up against, they will be able to adjust their “strategy” in order to “bring people to Christ” – or in other words – once they know their potential customer they can adjust their marketing strategy to more effectively sell Christ to them. This kind of basic marketing approach grounds the book.[4]

The research is very interesting, and to those outside the church (or those within the church who are not insulated by it) the results are of little to no surprise. The research shows that Mosaic and Buster outsiders’ perceptions of Christianity are overwhelmingly negative (9 out of twelve). The three most common perceptions are that Christians are anti-homosexual, judgmental, and hypocritical, in that order. Also, the authors point out that these perceptions are in most cases (50% or more) directly related to outsiders’ negative experiences at church or in relationship with Christians (31). However, despite such interesting and valuable research the authors have seriously missed the mark. Why not simply stop with their research findings alone and reflect on how unchristian “Christians” are? The authors themselves admit to much of the truth that lies behind outsiders’ perceptions of Christians – why not stop there and leave the outsiders out of what is clearly a Christian problem? According to the book Christians have serious problems that go beyond a simple “image” problem among outsiders, so why do the authors not encourage their Christian readers to focus on their own communal relationship with the Divine and their own transformation toward Christ-likeness instead of continuing to get ahead of themselves and strategize to sell a salvation they do not themselves know or have?

Embedded in the book as well is a similar sentiment from the authors themselves. They recognize that Mosaics and Busters “rarely see Christians who embody service, compassion, humility, forgiveness, patience, kindness, peace, joy, goodness, and love” (37) – clearly an internal Christian problem. They admit that as Christians we “need to make continual, honest evaluations of ourselves so that we can uncover the ways in which our lives do not accurately reflect what we profess” (37). Why not then write the book with a focus on those objectives? Instead, underlying the entire book is the very “ulterior motive” outsiders are clearly aware of – Christians “love” you not because that is who they are as Christians, that is people who are called to love, but only because they have an agenda with you (68); the book reflects this very same disgrace.

What is the nature and mission of the church I see underlying this book? The church is a people set apart to live up to God’s higher standards,[5] though unworthy just like everybody else, they are able to do so (though some will admit they fall short) because they have accepted salvation through Jesus’ death sacrifice. As a result, they are now partners with God, commissioned to get everyone else on board to “His” standards and into “His” kingdom. And it is here that I suspect lies a major problem in this project; the authors are functioning out of an understanding of the nature of the church as that of being on the “winning side” of things, the “saved” side of creation. The nature of the church is not truly understood to be about a people who are Christ-like, or about a new divine reality, although this does at times come across in the authors’ content, but is in effect reduced to being ‘winners’ on God’s side. And when one is on the winning “saved” side, one is a little better than everyone else, gives oneself permission to have bragging rights, and feels justified in getting out there and recruiting others to their better, winning team; which is the function of the church most reflected in this book.

I can definitely sense Kinnaman and Lyons navigating the tension of their research findings and their understanding of Christian mission. They grapple with both their desire for Christians to be more Christ-like in their engagement with the other, and their belief that Christianity represents the “winning” team, which in turn motivates their strategizing to get outsiders on their side. Does this, I wonder, render them unchristian according to their own research findings?


[1] More specifically, they studied “outsiders,” those looking at the Christian faith from outside of it, who are from the Mosaics (born between 1984 and 2002) and Busters (born between 1965 and 1983) generations (17).

[2] David Kinnaman, interview on YouTube,

[3] See footnote 1 above for definition of Mosaic and Busters.

[4] Using marketing research to “advance meaningful ministry” is something for which Kinnaman is explicitly commended in the foreword of the book, pg. 7.

[5] References to God’s high standards are made throughout the book. These higher standards are conveniently condensed to seven elements which can be found on page 80.

Does God Need the Church, by Gerhard Lohfink

October 18th, 2013


Gerhard Lohfink. Does God Need the Church? Toward a Theology of the People of God. Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1999.

Book Review submitted by Xochitl Alvizo, Ph.D. Candidate in Practical Theology, Concentration: Congregation and Community

The work of salvation that God has done in Christ is not realized in its full scope if Christ does not take form in the church (footnote, 302). This is a central point for Gerard Lohfink in his book, Does God Need the Church? To help the church understand what this means and help the church grasp the immensity of what it is a part, Lohfink traces God’s actions all through history, beginning with creation, and more specifically, traces God’s actions to one person in one place, Abram in Palestine. The church is a continuation of the work that God began three thousand years ago. The work that God has done for the salvation of the world began with Abraham, culminated with Jesus, but continues in the church. The church (the body of Christ, the people of God, the people gathered, eschatologically renewed Israel) is that through which the whole world is to be saved. The world is supposed to be able to look at the church and see “how God proposes that human society should be” (302). The church is the “realm within which Christ rules” (260), it offers the world an embodied social reality through which it can see and taste, and perhaps freely choose, God’s salvation. 

Lohfink stresses that the church is a continuation of God’s salvation plan for the world, a plan that began in such a small way with one person in one place and time. That God started small for God’s revolutionary plan for the whole world, is no small point. It is important not only because by starting small God is able to preserve human freedom, but it is important because by starting in a small concrete, visible, and tangible place and time, God offers the world an opportunity to “behold and test this new thing” (27). The church is now supposed to be that concrete tangible place, body, where the world can come and see. As Lohfink places the church in the greater context of God’s plan for the world, demonstrating the centrality of its existence for salvation, he then also demonstrates the necessity of the church’s unity, unanimity, if it is to fulfill that identity and purpose in the world. The church is the gathered people of God who have answered God’s call and have surrendered their life to God for the embodiment of God’s new creation. But how can God’s new creation be embodied if God’s people are not of one Spirit, in Christ? Lohfink pinpoints the tragedy of the condition of Christianity, which he likens to a broken mirror that distorts the image of Christ, to the divisions that have plagued the church from its very early history (298). He points out that even Jesus’ farewell prayer highlights the necessity of unity in the church so that the world would also believe. Jesus prayed, “I ask…that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (298). Lohfink then makes the point that the “divisions in the people of God makes it almost impossible for the world to believe” (299).

What is Lohfink’s solution then? Part of it is what he does with this book. The way that he traces and remembers the church’s history within Israel’s history and the way he digs deep into the scriptures as a whole is what he believes the whole church must also do. The church needs to go back to its beginnings, it needs to trace its roots and identity in Israel and understand that the church belongs to Israel. In this way the church can begin to mend one of its very first divides. And to do this the church needs to first and foremost take the history of God’s work seriously as it has been recorded in scripture; the church needs to take the whole of the Bible seriously, not just parts. And as Peter did, the people of God need to believe with their whole passionate selves, they need to repent and stand undividedly at Jesus’ disposal, devoting their lives for Jesus’ cause (306). This is done in obedience, and can only happen “when those assembled finally cease looking at themselves…the miracle of unanimity is only possible when the assembly turns away from itself and its own interests and asks about God’s interests. What does God will?” (301)

Reading Lohfink, with the depth with which he engages the scriptures and the passion out of which he clearly writes, is inspiring and reminds me what I love about Christianity. The way in which God begins a new creation in one place with one person in a very particular moment in history, of which the church gets to be a part and in which it gets to continue, the enormity of that idea, that theology, is beyond words for me, it is something that either takes hold of you or not. At the same time, there are questions I have that Lohfink does not adequately address. There is a hierarchy of power in the church, and in every assembly of its people, that has claimed to know what God’s interests are and acts against others with this claimed “authority”. I suppose we all do, but obviously some much more than others. How do we overcome the (rightful) distrust we have with one another, and with the “offices” of the church in particular, to the point were we are able to stand “undividedly at Jesus’ disposal”? How do we, as part of the church which has historically failed to live into its identity and purpose at unspeakable cost to millions throughout history, even trust one another enough to surrender our lives in unity knowing full well the reality of the misuse of power among us? And yes, it is in God whom we trust, not ourselves or one another, for we know humans are bound to err. But what does this practically and literally mean? What does it look like to trust God in the reality of this world?

Does surrender to God mean surrender to this world and to all its systems of oppression and death as we finally cease looking at ourselves? Does this mean I no longer look to protect myself and others from these systems? For example, does it mean that I go back to Catholicism, regardless of whether it denies my ability to serve as priest, for the sake of our witness, the church’s unanimity? Since my trust is not in the church but in God, do I submit then in obedience? No longer functioning out of the myth of individualism or that of an autonomous self but as one in communion with God? Is unanimity really possible in this time that Alisdair MacIntyre affirmed as the dark ages?[1] Would Lohfink be satisfied to settle for “new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained,” which MacIntyre proposes is the way to survive these dark ages? Lohfink understands the church as having a much greater purpose; the church is to have the meaning of creation shine forth from it (120). Is it enough for it to exist as new forms of community without the unanimity for which he passionately advocates? A unanimity that seems greatly unlikely and too often comes at a great cost to some much more than it does to others.


[1] Alisdair MacIntyre, After Virtue. Norte Dame, Indiana: University of Norte Dame Press, 1984, p. 263.