Mark E. Powell, John Mark Hicks, and Greg McKinzie. Discipleship in Community: A Theological Vision for the Future. Abilene: ACU Press, 2020.
For the Audio Podcast version of this book review click here:
About the Authors:
Mark Powell is a professor of theology at Harding School of Theology in Memphis, Tennessee, and the author of Centered in God. Powell served as the general editor of this book. Kingdom Upgrowth readers may remember Mark’s significant contributions to my Gospel of John series.
John Mark Hicks is a professor of theology at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee. He is also the author of six books including Searching for the Pattern.
Greg McKinzie is adjunct faculty at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee, and the executive editor of Missio Dei, an online journal for missions, theology, and practice.
I’ve had the pleasure of being at least acquainted with all of the authors. In my time at HST, I took more courses under Mark Powell than any other single professor. Likewise, I studied under John Mark Hicks at both Harding School of Theology and Hazelip School of Theology, greatly to my benefit. It was what I learned from these two gentlemen that led to the publication of my second curriculum book. Greg McKinzie and I were both students at Harding University during the same window of time. I would have to say that at this stage, I consider myself less Greg’s peer, and more his admirer in light of the great work he’s done in missional theology and praxis through Missio Dei. I’m proud to know all three of these gentlemen and have been a direct beneficiary of their hard work in the Kingdom.
To keep my thoughts focused, I’m utilizing a format for book reviews I’m calling a “4×4” approach. My review will include:
- 4 Points of Summary
- 4 Quotes
- 4 Reflections
- 4 Book Recommendations
4 Points of Summary
In this book, Powell, Hicks, and McKinzie (hereafter referred to as PHM) provide:
1. A Theologically-Driven Vision for Churches of Christ
The chapters in the book are all theological, historical, and practical in nature. The shape of the book follows a good flow. It leads (appropriately) with theology: the Trinitarian nature of God, Eschatology as a primary driver in our reflection, and Scripture as the story of God. The middle section deals with matters of ecclesiology: Intentional Discipleship, the Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and Missions. Having looked at God’s nature and how this nature should inform and inspire the life of the church, PHM’s contributions conclude with their suggested Theological Commitments for Churches of Christ.
As it is PHM’s desire to make these ideas accessible to congregations, they have kindly made the Theological Commitments in Churches of Christ available to download, print, and distribute.
For the sake of accessibility, I’ll list the six theological commitments as abbreviated on page 15 of the book:
- A Trinitarian vision of God
- An eschatological outlook
- A strong biblical orientation in our teaching and spirituality
- The Believers Church tradition
- The sacramental presence and working of God, especially in baptism and the Lord’s Supper
- The church’s participation in God’s mission
2. Nuanced Perspectives and Suggested Applications for the Topics Addressed
Each of the authors contributed two chapters. Additionally, Powell contributed both chapters 1 (“An Invitation to Discipleship”) and 8 (“Theological Commitments in Churches of Christ”). I know the authors well enough to make educated guesses about who wrote which of the internal chapters. But one thing I enjoyed about this book is that it doesn’t feel disjointed. Their collaborative efforts undoubtedly contributed to a unified flow of the content, and a consistent style throughout.
Each of the main chapters is different, but all include some variation of four main components:
- A view of this topic as it was taught and practiced among earlier Restoration Movement leaders
- A view of this topic from the early church and Patristic literature
- PHM’s own nuances and suggestions for a healthy understanding of the topic
- Suggested practices for how churches can utilize insights from the chapter
I would also add that all of the above incorporate a generous interaction with various Scriptures relevant to the topic under discussion. For any reader, this book would provide a broadened perspective on all of the topics covered.
3. A Suggested Shift Toward a Narrative, Future-Driven Orientation
Two strong themes that run throughout the book are an emphasis on a narrative approach to our theology, as well as a future-orientation in how we practice theology and missions. Let me elaborate.
In Churches of Christ, there has been a tendency toward a “blueprint” approach to how we interpret Scripture. In my opinion, the old KJV versions that gave a separate paragraph to every single verse surely must have aided this way of thinking. Every verse was another “rule” in the long list to be followed, at least if it was part of the New Testament, setting the pattern for the church to exhibit in faithfulness and obedience. We frequently use language about trying to be like the first-century church, assuming it as the ideal.
While not denying the existence of some intentional patterns and examples in Scripture, PHM believe a more helpful approach is to treat Scripture as the great story of God and humanity. It’s a story in which we now have a part, too. Our teachings and practices ought to come from a thorough knowledge of and deep reflection on the Story. This leads up to where we are. We gain insights from Scripture about where the story will ultimately go. Based on these, we improvise faithfully in our own setting, moving in the direction Scripture envisions.
A few examples of how they incorporate a narrative emphasis throughout the book:
- “Only after the story becomes our way of seeing the world can we begin to recognize the new plot twists and particular purposes God is writing into the story today. Once the story’s world becomes ours, our narrative sensibility increases, and recognition of continuity with the missional plot becomes critical for theological reflection.” p. 82.
- “Starting with God and God’s story clarifies the central beliefs and practices of the Christian faith and allows Christians to hold other beliefs and practices in proper perspective.” p. 106.
- Of their six components for a more robust baptismal theology, four are decidedly narrative:
- Tell the story
- Rehearse the story
- Confess the story
- Enact the story
4. Added Conversation Partners
In addition to the comments they include from Patristic sources and earlier Restoration Movement sources, PHM have included three responses from respectable scholars with ties to Churches of Christ. This was one of my favorite features of the book because it indicates the sincere commitment the authors have to grasping for a theology that our communities can actually utilize. These three responses are from:
- Lauren Smelser White. White speaks especially to the value of an embodied church who worships and connects together in the midst of a textless, disembodied world.
- Stanley Talbert. Talbert responds from the lens of Liberation Theology and urges that the reflections in the book ought to lead us to concrete actions, especially on behalf of those who are vulnerable and oppressed.
- Carson Reed. Writing as one deeply entrenched in both congregational church leadership as well as academia, Reed suggests some aspects with which he sees solid continuity, as well as some points at which he feels there may be a discontinuity between where churches actually are and where we might feasibly go in relation to the book. Not to speak less of the other two, but Reed’s was particularly useful, I felt.
The work is enriched by their contributions.
Here are quotes I found especially thought-provoking:
On the struggle of balancing mission and restoration:
There is a powerful tension here. The Churches of Christ remain deeply committed to the idea of the biblical church (see Chapter Four). Yet, by applying anthropological insights, missionaries have realized that different cultures determine what biblical means in different ways. Moreover, as missiology comes home to churches that have rediscovered grace but have not discovered a convincing alternative to the legal hermeneutic, the insights of missiology become increasingly important for theological reflection among American Churches of Christ.page 145
On overcoming challenges to unity in a postmodern context:
…in the postmodern American stewpot of hypersubjectivity, cultural pluralism, and polarized public opinion, the challenges to unity are textlessness, apathy, and violent discourse. Therefore, the recontextualization of Scripture’s role in Christian unity must involve (1) the rejection of radical relativism in favor of substantive essentials; (2) the advocacy of sincere discourse amid legitimate diversity of opinion; and, (3) in all things, the demonstration of Spirit-given virtues that make unity possible in the first place, such as love, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control.page 74
On the importance of eschatology and its implications:
Eschatology matters because God’s goal defines the human vocation within the creation, contrasts with human brokenness, and entails the redemption of creation along with humanity. Eschatology provides the framework for thinking about the nature of salvation, and this fuels discipleship. God rescues the creation from its bondage in order that God might dwell within, enjoy, and share God’s own eternal life with the creation. When we recognize soteriology as a subset of eschatology, we se the larger dimensions of God’s mission.page 59
On describing the irreplaceable role of the church for producing Christ-likeness:
In a time when it is easy to denigrate the church, we should be careful to honor the church and be thankful for God’s provision of Christian community. (1 Pet. 2:17). At the same time, we must remember that the church regularly falls short of its exalted identity and purpose. The church points people not to itself but to God. The church includes wheat and weeds, saints and sinners, growing together in the field, and even the first wheat is still in the process of growth (Matt. 13:24-30). Still, discipleship takes place in community, and participation in the community of believers, the church, is crucial if we are to grow into the likeness of Christ.page 113.
1. Much Great Content for Preaching and Teaching
There is so much to savor in the book, I doubt that I would try to teach through the contents cover-to-cover in a single study. I think much of the book requires a bit of an academic background to grasp readily, and particularly a background in Churches of Christ.
The CEI (Command-Example-Inference) hermeneutic, for example, is addressed around p. 72, but knowledge of it is assumed more than explained. A person reading this without much working knowledge of Churches of Christ would likely be scratching his or her head. The editing was necessary as there are a number of parts of the book that, were they to expound on each, would have required the work to be multivolume. I think most church leaders, and especially those with some higher education, will thoroughly enjoy engaging with this book. I don’t know that my “average joe” church member would find it as immediately useful without some help.
That being said, I could absolutely see myself drawing from the ideas presented to create a series of smaller studies with the goal of providing greater depth. For example:
- The Five Acts of the great Biblical Drama (53-58)
- The deeper meanings of the Lord’s Supper and Baptism (123-134)
- Our Missional Journey: The Father’s Direction, the Son’s Way, and the Spirit’s Guidance (146-151)
I expect I will return to this book several times over the next few years when I’m looking to help my congregation deepen their understanding of the faith and how we should practice it.
The chapters all contain suggested methods and practices for bringing the ideas present to the local congregation. This ongoing intention is a valuable emphasis in the book.
2. How do we keep our eschatology from becoming over-realized?
This is not so much an issue I see in the book as it is a thought I’ve wrestled with for a while. As I’ve mentioned, this book pushes that the correction to an overly patternistic past-oriented method of interpreting Scripture ought to be exchanged for a more robust eschatology and future-oriented way of interpreting Scripture. Carson Reed makes a few comments along these lines in his response.
The problem with leaving one orientation to move in the opposite direction is the risk of over-correction. Let me be clear, I don’t think what the authors are suggesting is an over-correction. I believe they would make the case that the way we faithfully “improvise” in our own time as we move toward the future is that we are so well-versed in the story of Scripture that the past and future story set the clear arc of the present. There should be a strong connection in what we do in the present as a continuation of the faith handed down to us.
Even so, just as the authors provide evidence of people who’ve gone overboard in a past-oriented approach, I believe that if it is possible to convert Churches of Christ over to this future-orientation that the next issues we will face could involve some manifestations of over-realized eschatology. Too much future too soon, to the neglect of the nature of the reality we still must inhabit. Some of the ways this has manifested before in other settings:
- 2 Thessalonians. Paul is addressing the problem of people who were more or less detaching from this life because they felt the return of Christ was so immanent. It’s why he makes the famous comment about how those who won’t work shouldn’t eat.
- The Shakers. Though they possess a number of peculiar beliefs, the Shakers exhibit what I would consider an over-realized eschatology. This group existed from the 1700s, and as of the time of this post, there are still two living Shakers, according to Wikipedia. They were an experiment to create a sort of Utopia, drawing from their eschatology. Thoroughly egalitarian, they not only went as far as trying to create equality between men and women in their assemblies and society, but would actually require the dissolving of marriages in order for people to join. All were celibate. While we can be sure the status of Gender will be eliminated in the fullness of the Kingdom, as described in Galatians 3:28, the Shakers didn’t stop there. Jesus himself said we would become like the angels, neither marrying nor being given in marriage, so they implemented this standard in the present. For obvious reasons, it was hard to maintain a religious group over time where no procreation was occurring.
- Health and Wealth Prosperity Gospel. People who try to embody all promises of the future may end up disappointed, and even quite off base. Those under the influence of the televangelist-style prosperity Gospel will lean too heavily into passages like Revelation 21:4, that there will be no more mourning, crying, or pain anymore because the former things have passed away. Still experiencing pain and suffering? Might be a lack of faith. Many of the goals make an inspiring future hope but could lead to great disappointment or worse if expected as an immanent reality.
I don’t expect that any of the above examples are specific risks for us, but wish to illustrate that over-realized eschatology is problematic when it occurs, and its effects are not always easy to predict. Again, I don’t see PHM in any way advocating for an eschewing of the past or of Scripture in order to hop into the Eschaton. They aren’t over-doing it. However, as they describe the early Restorationist views of Scripture and Eschatology, it is clear that some of our founding influencers were not intending the rigid patternistic application of the CEI hermeneutic that exists in many congregations. Knowing the human capacity to overdo things, if we can convince people to embrace a future-leaning orientation, I believe we are wise to be thinking of intentional safeguards against the potential abuses of too many eschatological realities attempted too soon. Whether past-oriented or future-oriented, ditches exist on both sides of the path.
3. Engaging With Missional Theology
I had the privilege of completing my doctoral studies at Lipscomb University. Their Doctor of Ministry program is considered a dual-emphasis program: Missional and Spiritual Formation. Entering the program, my primary interest was Spiritual Formation. I knew almost nothing about the Missional Church Movement prior to it. I’m more widely read in it at this point, and even my own major project and dissertation are an exploration of some Missional ideas. There are some ways I’ve found the urgings of this movement dearly helpful. There are also some ways I have doubts about how well it can catch on with average Joe and Jill church member in our movement.
There are two main aspects which I find especially helpful:
- A profoundly active view of God. This is a breath of fresh air. All mission is fundamentally God’s work. One of the privileges of the Christian faith is to participate in what God is doing in the actual time and spaces we inhabit. Associated with this is a much-needed emphasis on the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church. Spirit and Mission always go together. This has helped me to articulate healthier understandings with my short-term mission trips, for example. We are not “bringing Jesus to Costa Rica.” Jesus is already there. We are going to discover and to join our efforts to what God is already doing in Costa Rica. After all, whatever we accomplish there, God was already preparing the way. It adds humility to how we view our own efforts, and also awe and wonder at what God is up to among us. Contrast this to what I would call a “Bootstrap Theology” which would say that God sent Jesus, then he left us with our instructions, and now it’s up to us to obey them. Now that you’re a Christian, you had better pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. We have suffered in Churches of Christ, in my opinion, from an anemic understanding of the active presence of God through the Spirit. While thorough ownership of me doing my part in obedience to God is a virtuous thing, it certainly isn’t all up to me. Missional Theology helps correct this.
- A broader understanding of what Mission involves. Traditionally, when we’ve talked about “mission” what we’ve emphasized is “saving souls.” Certainly, this is a critical end-goal of evangelism. But this has also led us to be negligent on occasion of real needs in the present time because we haven’t wanted to concern ourselves with “worldly” matters when souls are at stake. The Missional movement has pushed back that the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God should have much more immanent implications. The abundant life we have in Christ ought to begin now. Holding loosely to earthly sources of status and material things, we pay attention especially to those who are vulnerable and voiceless. Mission involves evangelism, but it also involves caring materially and socially for the weak and poor as Matthew 25 would indicate.
Some of the stronger pushback I encountered regarding the Missional Church Movement was the criticism that in trying to be the Gospel we might neglect to tell the Gospel. In our effort to discover the presence of God who is already at work and bear witness to it, and for fear of colonialism in evangelism, we might be soft on actual efforts to convert people to Christianity. Ed Stetzer is among the most prominent of those expressing this concern. PHM articulate well the risks of imbalance in the church’s purposes:
Far more often, we have simply diminished God’s purposes to a fraction of our true vocation. God’s people have always tended to develop theological nearsightedness. We fixate on our salvation and become self-centered. We concentrate on our holiness and become sectarian. We obsess about our worship and become neurotic. We focus on our expansion and become utilitarian. Salvation, holiness, worship, and growth are all among God’s purposes, but they become distorted apart from the whole story of God’s mission.page 152
I bring up all of this because a key question in my head regarding this book has been, “Will churches embrace these ideas?”
PHM warn about tendency to overly blend cultural proselytism and “church-centeredness”, the end result of which would be church plants in a non-Western culture that are conspicuously Western in their structure and praxis. This is a problem because Christianity itself doesn’t insist on only one cultural form, which is part of its genius, I think. There’s no reason that churches can’t look indigenous, just as our American congregations are conspicuously American in many ways.
But knowing how thoroughly enmeshed Churches of Christ have been in a soul-saving emphasis for what we believe mission is, I’ve wondered how well some of these ideas will be accepted. For example, in a section about missional praxis, and how involvement in mission shapes how we understand Scripture, here is one way PHM define mission:
Participation in God’s mission is then a matter of going into places where God is already at work, encountering God’s presence, discerning God’s purpose, and bearing witness to it.page 88
I feel like some of our people would wrestle to align this with the clarity of what they picture in their heads as the “Great Commission”, to go, teach, and baptize. Likewise, I found the suggestions interesting for praxis in mission. They are primarily about how to engage in theology in the context of mission, less so about how to evangelize. They include (1) a strong emphasis on humility, (2) self-emptying to avoid an evangelism which also colonializes, (3) learning to contextualize by listening and collecting stories, and (4) participating with respect for the communities in which we witness the work of God.
So what should mission look like going forward? According to PHM, it should involve great humility and meaningful efforts to contextualize the Gospel. This is a needed corrective, especially to areas like short-term missions, where groups may do little to no actual listening to the people they intend to help. But in a church culture where the singular rubric for “success” in missions is reduced to the number of baptisms occurring, I hope the suggestions for bringing nuance to how we think about mission will find ears to hear them. I wonder if exchanging the certainty of soul-saving for the challenging work of contextualizing will find its fit in our people’s conceptual palate.
4. The Possibilities of Deepening Our Theological Interpretations
It is really quite an accomplishment how much PHM have fit into under 200 pages. The process of deciding what to include and how to include it must have been challenging. As the value of a more theological hermeneutic for our people is a central concern for PHM, I wanted to mention a couple of places where I see progress in making these ideas accessible.
I happened to be reading this book at the same time I was reading one of John Mark Hicks’ other recent releases: Searching For The Pattern: My Journey In Interpreting The Bible. While reading Discipleship in Community, I found myself wishing there had been some room for fleshing out what it looks like for the church to practice a more theological interpretation. Hicks’ other book provides what I was looking for. He uses for his example the contrast of a patternistic approach with a theological approach in describing the church’s engagement in the Lord’s Supper. He also provides helpful visuals for the process this involves. Though I hope to do some further experimentation with actual church groups to see how it goes, I think the two books work well in tandem.
Another recent effort, commended by Mark Powell at the 2019 Christian Scholars Conference, is from Harding University professor Scott Adair. Adair suggests while we’ve been diligent in our attempts to baptize people Scripturally, our people should be taught better to read Scripture baptismally. Here is his article in Christian Studies. In terms of getting ideas into the praxis and teaching of local congregations, Scott has come up with his own finger exercise (hailing back to Restoration leader Walter Scott) to help people understand the theology in baptism as a way to establish what issues are core, and how they matter to us. Different gestures remind us of different truths; an excellent mnemonic device. I see this as another framework that is easily communicable and likely to be received well among Churches of Christ which is pushing for goals similar to Discipleship in Community.
4 Reading Recommendations
Centered in God: The Trinity and Christian Spirituality by Mark Powell. One of the key areas of emphasis in Discipleship in Community is the importance of a Trinitarian understanding of God. If you’re wanting to understand what your understanding of the Trinity has to do with your everyday walk with God, it’s what this book is designed to help with. See Mark’s Amazon Author’s page.
Searching for the Pattern: My Journey in Interpreting the Bible by John Mark Hicks. John Mark shares his personal story in how he moved from a more pattern-based approach to interpretation to a theology-based interpretation. Discipleship in Community explains the concept, but this is the book that will help you make a deeper dive into how this works. Especially near the end of the book there are some useful frameworks for implementing the ideas he’s suggesting. Truly, there are many useful books John Mark has written. I’d recommend having a look at his Amazon Author’s page.
Missio Dei Journal. Greg McKinzie is the Executive Editor of Missio Dei Journal. It has been a major project of his since 2010, and is an amazing representation of some of the best thinkers in the Restoration Movement, especially in the areas of Missions and Missional Theology. As an online journal, all of the issues are available to read for free online, and are well worth browsing. In a recent article, McKinzie reflects on the last ten years, and shares his vision for what will come next for Missio Dei.
Poured Out: The Spirit of God Empowering the Mission of God by Leonard Allen. I’ve mentioned this book several times before on this blog, but I believe a more robust understanding of the Holy Spirit is of great importance for the future of Churches of Christ, and I believe this study makes a nice counterpart to the goals of PHM in their book.
Powell, Hicks, and McKinzie, along with all who collaborated with them on this project, have truly given a gift to the church. I think some of the assumptions which the content makes about the knowledge of the reader make this book best suited for ministers, academics, and church members who have a working knowledge of Churches of Christ and our particular way of being.
All of the the topics emphasized in the book are worthy of deeper reflection, and the material here lends itself well to teaching and preaching. I have some hesitance about whether I believe our churches will readily embrace the large leap required to move to a more narrative, future-oriented method of theological interpretation, but exposure to the idea and some opportunity to look at familiar texts with a fresh set of lenses may well lead to some productive paths forward. I am grateful for the book and for its invitation to ponder deeply the nature of God, our future with God, and how these ought to shape the present church.