Monday, September 3, 2007

Book Review: Craig Van Gelder

Craig Van Gelder. The Ministry of the Missional Church: A Community Led by the Spirit. Baker Books, 2007.

I have become immersed in the new movement in contemporary, American theological reflection which may appropriately be named “missional theology”. Missional theology has become a very comprehensive genre of theological reflection which strives to understand the sweeping changes that are moving the church into a new era. Craig Van Gelder, professor of congregational mission at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, offers an important new book in missional theology. His overarching thesis is a vision of the Church as Spirit-led.

After an introduction in Chapter One, Van Gelder offers a nice Bible study on the work of the Spirit through both the Old and New Testaments in Chapter Two. In Chapter Three, Van Gelder considers a theme that is common in missional theology: the contextuality of the church. The church must be intentional today to understand where it is, its spiritual and theological location in the world. In response to the constantly changing context of the church, Van Gelder suggests that “the church is always both forming and reforming. This reinforces the logic that the church always needs to be both confessional (claiming and reclaiming its identity in relation to the historic Christian faith) and missional (engaging its context and continuously recontextualizing its ministry)” (Page 54).

In Chapter Four, Van Gelder focuses on the American church, in a perceptive analysis of our history, by tracking the movement of the church in American context from an established church to a corporate church to the missional church (Page 73). This understanding of American church history is very helpful, and precisely defines the change and trauma of our church today as we are in the midst of a transformation from a corporate church to a missional church.

It is Chapter Five which makes this book a valuable contribution to the Presbyterian Church today. In light of the discussions across our church motivated by the Peace, Unity and Purity report, there is now a new appreciation and a renewed interest in “spiritual discernment.” The call to communal spiritual discernment is one of the central propositions of the Peace, Unity and Purity report. Van Gelder also calls for a renewed commitment to spiritual discernment in the church and offers the theological, social and historical rationale for it. Van Gelder offers the idea of “hermeneutical turn” as a way to describe the situation we are in which includes a “diversity of interpretations of reality.” Van Gelder is exactly correct, and I have experienced this repeatedly, that “the challenge facing Christian leaders today is learning to engage diverse perceptions of reality.” I will quote here at length Van Gelder’s description of the hermeneutical turn because, I believe, it accurately describes the challenge before the church and the opportunity for becoming a truly missional church:

“In light of the hermeneutical turn that has developed over the past century, there is no going back to a world that can be framed in seemingly black-and-white categories. The diversity of interpretations of reality, which are manifest both in the multiperspectival character of biblical studies and the different methods used by the social sciences, makes this impossible. This means that part of the challenge facing Christian leaders today is learning to engage diverse perceptions of reality by drawing on a variety of methods that can inform discernment and decision-making process. Relying primarily on one method, whether it is in relation to biblical teaching or scientific explanation, is no longer viable, if it ever was. Diverse perspectives, rooted in different methods and the particulars of social location, bring a multiperspectival dynamic into any discussion. Rather than playing out these differences around power dynamics related to personalities, roles, or the vote of the majority, which is so often the case in congregations, a more redemptive approach is to engage such differences through a process of mutual discernment. This requires leadership. This requires time. This requires a mutual commitment among those who are around the table. And this requires being Spirit-led. Reflected in this approach is the important theoretical insight that we need to develop a practice of ‘communicative reason’ within diverse communities in order to come to shared conclusions” (Page 97).

I believe this beautifully names an important challenge of ministry today. Church leaders must be able to engage diverse perceptions of reality in ways that are Spirit-led and grace-filled. This engagement need not confrontational but must be conversational and discerning. This engagement must not be a power-play or an effort to promote my own agenda, but must be truly discerning, seeking to understand the will of God. I believe that pastors today who are able to create mature, open, mutual, Spirit-led patterns of spiritual discernment will help us move toward the kind of church to which God is calling us.