Like other church denominations in America, Churches of Christ are facing many challenges in the twenty-first century. While the tasks of ministry are the same as they have always been, the monumental shifts in culture have brought new challenges. In many ways, local congregations are facing a realization that the new social context is uncharted territory for which the maps used in navigating previous territory are obsolete. However, this doesn’t mean congregations are helpless and left blindly navigating their way forward. For uncharted territory, Tod Bolsinger says the first task in going forward is a recommitment to the core identity (Canoeing The Mountains, p. 94). As Christians, our core identity is a theological commitment and this is what Mark E. Powell, John Mark Hicks, and Greg McKinzie offer Churches of Christ in their new book Discipleship In Community: A Theological Vision for the Future.
Fresh off the press of Abilene Christian University Press, this book is 190 pages, divided into eight chapters and then followed by three responses as well as a couple of appendices. Though the three authors all teach theology at the academia level, the book is written in very accessible prose. With some basic familiarity of the Bible and Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement (SCRM) history, readers will easily follow along. As the title suggests, the book offers a vision for navigating the way forward by providing a theological framework that is focused on the formation of disciples within the local church. This framework is anchored in the historical Christian faith affirmed in both scripture and Christian tradition. On a personal note, I attended seminary with Greg McKinzie at Harding School of Theology in Memphis where we both had Mark E. Powell and John Mark Hicks as professors. So reading the book reminded me of some fond memories we all shared inside the classroom.
The core work of the book is within chapters two through eight and each chapter builds upon the previous. So rightfully, chapter two provides the theological foundation which is a Trinitarian understanding of of God which then opens space for the eschatological orientation of God’s mission that churches are called to participate in. Essential to such participation is reading the Bible as a practice “called theological interpretation of Scripture, as a way of encountering the living Word” (p. 70). This is a narrative approach that seeks to avoid both populism and perspicuity or the idea that anyone can pick up the Bible and rightfully understand scripture because the meaning is always self-evident. The authors intent is not to suggest that only people with theological education can understand the teaching of scripture. Rather, the point is that understanding the scriptures requires a relationship with God that results in character transformation, which is “to conform to the Spirit’s nature” (p. 81).
Having this Trinitarian foundation that is eschatologically oriented as churches engage in a narrative reading of scripture cultivates a framework for understanding what it means to be church. By church the authors have in mind the Believers Church tradition, which is associated with the Anabaptists but still confesses with the Nicene Creed that “the church is one, holy, universal (or catholic), and apostolic” (p. 94). This brings more clarity in understanding the place of the sacraments, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, in the formation of disciples and what it means for local churches to live as participants in the mission of God.
The vision presented by Powell, Hicks, and McKinzie seek to incorporate the healthy aspects of the SCRM while challenging aspects of this tradition that need challenged. For example, their book encourages Churches of Christ in continuing to take scripture seriously as our Restoration tradition has historically sought to do. At the same time, while remaining respectful in tone, they are rightfully critical towards some of the Trinitarian views held within the SCRM and allow the greater Christian Tradition to correct these views. As hinted at earlier, readers will also find the three responses by Lauren Smelser White, Stanley Talbert, and Carson E. Reed helpful. I was especially appreciative of Reed’s response because while I too see the place of finding continuity with our past, I also see a need for some discontinuity if churches are to go forward on mission with God. A Reed mentions, “To point out such discontinuous spaces with regard to practical theology highlights the need for Churches of Christ to recognize that new strands of DNA may well be necessary for mission and ministry in the twenty-first century” (p. 179). In other words, Churches of Christ cannot realistically expect to find renewal through the formation of disciples if the practical outworking of theology (theological praxis) among local churches remains the same. That’s doing the same thing while expecting different results, which we know is the classic definition of insanity.
One concern I have is what I believe is missing from the book and that is a chapter on the subject of Christology. The authors rightfully ground the foundation of discipleship within a Trinitarian understanding of God and they rightfully help us see that following Jesus is eschatologically oriented towards the future. However, because Churches of Christ are rightfully a people of scripture, the hermeneutical question of how we read the Bible so that we may participate in the mission of God as disciples matters. The answer to the hermeneutical question is answered in part by having a Trinitarian foundation and an eschatological orientation. However, the narrative of scripture is centered in Jesus Christ as the one who reveals God and his mission to us (cf. Jn 1:1-4, 14-18; Col 1:15, 19; Heb 1:2-3). Our participation in the mission of God as followers of Jesus and the moral/ethical formation that demands is centered in who Jesus, so that our lives are increasingly conformed to the life Jesus lived — his beliefs, values, and practices — which willing embraced the cross as the way of redemption. In my judgment, this book would be perfect with a chapter on Christology, explaining how the doctrine of Christ and the logic of the cross that Christ embraced should shape our reading of scripture and thus our formation as his disciples.
All said, I highly recommend Discipleship In Community for you to read. Powell, Hicks, and McKinzie provide a compelling theological vision for navigating the uncharted territory ahead of us. Knowing the three authors, I’m sure they would agree that this book should be read as a conversational prompt rather than holy writ and that is what a good book, such as this, should always do. So don’t wait. Instead, go purchase your copy and read.