Friday, September 7, 2012

Book Review

Michael Jinkins. The Church Transforming: What’s Next for the Reformed Project?. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012.

The phrase, “Reformed Project”, caught my eye when I first pondered Michael Jinkins’ new book.  It is a good phrase which I had never heard before, but a phrase that immediately resonated with me. The Reformed Project sounds open ended, forward thinking, experimental and innovative. The Reformed Project should be what we are about in the Presbyterian Church. Like all projects there will be false starts and bad choices. Like all projects things may be provisional, and filled with a sort of experimental, ‘Let’s try this attitude’ that is liberating. A project is not obsessed with success. I guessed that Jinkins was onto something very interesting with his phrase “Reformed Project.” And I was right. “When we say we are Reformed Christians, we are simply saying that we are Christians committed to a particular project, the project of reforming the church” (page 12). That is a project we should be about!
Jinkins and I are, in part, preaching the same sermon. I am gratified that someone of Jinkins stature in the church today is saying these things. This sermon that I have been preaching for years, and which I believe Jinkins is also preaching, is about how our church is good and blessed. I want to preach from the highest Presbyterian pulpit, I want to shout from the highest Presbyterian mountaintop: “Can we please stop whining! Can we please stop complaining! Can we put away the “Woe is me!” litany! Do we know how rich our heritage is! Do we know how great our Church is! This Church belongs to Jesus Christ!” I am encouraged that Jinkins is standing with me. He says it better: “When we are mindful of our legacy, however – when we remember the good news of Jesus Christ that fuels our lives and gives us hope as persons – we stop worrying about our survival. And when we stop worrying about our survival, we, as a church, become powerfully attractive to those around us” (page 108). Jinkins preaches: “We really do need to stop whining about the losses we have suffered in numbers and prestige and influence as a mainline church. No one else cares, including (I suspect) God” (page 117).
Michael Jinkin’s Reformed Project includes some compelling components. He offers a rousing call to a “thinking faith.” This is our heritage. This is the air we breathe. Chapter Three which calls us again to a thinking faith is a powerful source of encouragement for every harried pastor and over scheduled church leader who wonders again about the value of theological education and who struggles to find time to read the hard books. We need a thinking faith. My worry is all caught up with Jinkins: “I worry about  what will become of Christian faith – indeed, I worry what will become of the world we live in – if Christians fail to ask the tough, deep, critical sometimes intractable questions about life.”
Jinkins also offers a fresh, creative image of the task of ministry today with his description of becoming a “docent in the house of wonder.” This is a fabulous image for ministry today, and Jinkins develops it with compelling description. What if ministry was truly about helping our people imagine again, dream again, walk again into the rushing stream of God’s grace? “Their vocation is to deliver people into an awareness of the presence of God, in which they will know themselves to be creatures created for God’s own gracious, good and just ends” (page 88).
As a Presbytery staff person, I have a unique perch from which I view our Church. My view sees a lot of conflict and confusion. Jinkins sees the same things but does not shy away from our ugly heritage of schism. In what I consider a brilliant theological reflection, Jinkins dissects for us John Calvin’s theology on schism and unity in the church. For people like me who are working every day with issues of schism, separation, unity and our profound polarization, Jinkins Chapter Four, Schism, the Unintended Consequence of the Reformed Project, is important. The Reformed Project has always struggled with these issues, and our struggle with these same things today may be painful and personal but it is all not new. Our age is not special. These issues lie “at the root of the Reformed Project . . . But, potentially, the seeds for understanding our unity in Jesus Christ also lie in Calvin’s theology, and they may yet render in us a more ‘charitable judgment’ of those with whom we differ (page 67).
Thank you, Professor Jinkins, for a bold call to hope. Thank you for helping us not be ashamed and afraid. Thank you for a lifting our pride and reminding us again of the good gifts we have all received in this Reformed Tradition. Indeed, I would like to print your last sentences as a poster to hang inside the front door of our Presbytery office: “If we can remember who we are and who we are called to be in Jesus Christ, the best days of the Reformed Project are still ahead of us. Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda” (page 121).