I just finished a book titled Missional Spirituality: Embodying God’s Love from the Inside Out by Roger Helland and Leonard Hjalmarson (IVP Books, 2011). Here I will offer my thoughts on this book in four parts: (1) how I came to read it; (2) the book’s basic theme and how the authors develop it; (3) what I found helpful about it; (4) a critique of a few elements in the book.
When I was saved in 1971 as a long-haired drug and alcohol addict, the good folks in mainstream evangelical churches were, quite frankly, fearful of me and those of my ilk. Times they were a changing, and many establishment Christians felt like the culture was getting away from them–moving faster han they could hang onto it. Some churches chose to circle the wagons and cling to their sacred cows, chanting the seven-last-words-mantra of the church of those times: We’ve never done it that way before. The attitude seemed to be that if the churches were to open the doors to us newbies we would sell drugs to their kids after the service. If these hippies were really saved they would cut their hair, shave their beards, wear decent clothes, leave their guitars at home, and sing these old hymns with us. If it was good enough for Paul… (Thank God for the Chuck Smiths of that era!)
Fast forward. After nearly four decades spent in a combination of Bible college, seminary, grad school, and pastoral ministry, I woke up one day and discovered I had become very much like those seasoned believers of yesteryear. Dour, crusty, dispassionate. I felt basically irrelevant. My church had no mission outside itself because I had lost my vision and was burning out. After awhile the church in which I served felt like death. Even if I were to lead someone to Christ–something I had not done in years–would I really want to bring them to one of our Sunday morning services? When your church gets to that point people turn their focus inward and feed upon themselves like famished barracuda. After much prayer and struggle on our part God mercifully provided a way of escape for Connie and me. For the last twelve years of ministry I had been working bi-vocationally as a licensed mental health therapist, and when I quit the church I became a full-time counselor.
For two years I struggled after leaving “full-time” ministry. We church-hopped and felt like we just didn’t know where we fit. Many of the congregations we visited were ingrown and seemed to have little concern for or impact on the surrounding community, while others tried to draw people in by being hip and un-church-like. During this same period I started this website and fired up my weekly men’s group called Fight Club. And then just a week ago I heard about the new book presently under review. Seeing how I had not cracked a book in over a year I decided to give this one a read, especially since one of the authors was an old college buddy of mine.
No sooner had I finished the introduction to the book when I had an enlightening talk with a friend who is not a believer. I asked him if he ever feels uncomfortable with how quickly the world is changing. To my surprise I found that he feels pretty much the same way I do. Technology is ever-changing, the economy is going global, urbanization and transience are the norm, and we are becoming a more diverse and secularized culture. Because I am not a “pastor” any more I was able to share a little with him in a very relaxed way about how my faith stabilizes and grounds me amid the chaos that is my life these days. We have been getting together for several years on Sunday afternoons to jam on guitars and sing “non-Christian” songs, and I can tell you for a fact that he would shine me off pronto if I ever hit him with a canned approach like the Romans Road or Four Spiritual Laws.
Now about the book. In Missional Spirituality Helland and Hjalmarson are well aware that stories like my own are becoming more commonplace among Christians struggling to be salt and light in this critical cultural juncture they call a liminality–”a threshold, an in-between place of ambiguity and uncertainty, disorientation and transition” (p. 14). And they offer some real food for the beleaguered soul in terms of how we can live out our spirituality missionally.
The authors define missional spirituality as an attentive and active engagement of embodied love for God and neighbor expressed from the inside out. The challenges to living out a missional spirituality are defined as disenchantment, excarnation, abstraction, consumerism, entitlement, extraction, and mustant pietism. For a clear and comprehensive discussion of each of these items you will of course want to read the book. The shorter summary is that believers are often too unimaginative, cerebral, theoretical, materialistic, and spoiled by affluence. And they often seem to separate the spiritual from the secular in an unhelpful kind of neo-gnostic dualism. A missional spirituality sees God as active everywhere all the time and connects theology with practice born of love for God and neighbor.
Helland and Hjalmarson build their concept of missional spirituality on four theological pillars: the trinity, the incarnation, the priesthood of the believer, and the great commandment (Mark 12:28-31), which they call the Jesus Creed/Shema. The tri-unity of God points us to the fact that He is a relational being by nature, as are we also since we bear His image. He exists in a love relationship and is eternally desiring to express this love from the inside out with His fallen creatures. The Lord’s incarnation and dwelling with us serve as an example of how we must be willing to get our hands dirty in the work of reaching out to others by living among them where they are. Our priesthood as believers speaks to the royal authority that is ours to move out into the world as his representatives. The Jesus Creed connects our wholehearted love for God with the natural outgrowth of love for our neighbor. Of course there is technically nothing new about any of this; it’s just that many of us have either lost sight of our sense of mission, or we do not know how to put feet to it in these changing times.
It is hard to grasp the meaning of missional spirituality without concrete examples, and the authors provide several examples in the form of a brief historical overview of missional spirituality in action. They seem to trace a thread of missional spirituality from the days of the apostles through the early Pietist movement and Phillip Jacob Spener, then through the Moravian movement and ministry of Count Nicolaus von Zinzendorf, next through Methodism and other Wesleyan offshoots, and finally through the ministry of A.B. Simpson and the Christian and Missionary Alliance. For good measure they also mention the various forms of modern Pentecostal and charismatic Christianity. What these historic movements all have in common is an emphasis on inner spiritual formation that works its way out in loving service to believer and unbeliever alike. They all share some claim to a second work of the Spirit after conversion and link it to the references to the baptism of the Holy Spirit in the book of Acts. It was not until I read this historical summary that I understood why, out of all the important biblical doctrines they could have mentioned, the authors chose the four aforementioned theological pillars as the foundation of a missionalspirituality. I was surprised they did not include the Jesus Movement of the late 1960′s and early 1970′s in their historical overview. (Maybe they did and I missed it.)
Once I understood where the authors were coming from historically and theologically I was not surprised to see them encouraging what many would call a more mystical approach to spiritual formation–emphasis on prayer, spiritual disciplines, and listening for the voice of God in our daily experience. Rather than go into any more detail I will suffice it to say that if you are familiar with the works of Richard Foster, Dallas Willard, and Henri Nouwen you will taste the flavor of the book in terms of spiritual formation and devotional piety. When I got to this point in the book I thought perhaps it could have just as easily been titled: Mystical Spirituality.
Nor am I being strictly critical here. God sovereignly brought this book to my attention at a time when I needed a spiritual jump start. I am thankful for the encouragement it has afforded me, and how it challenged me as one who stands within the Reformed Baptist tradition to view things from a different perspective. I came away from my reading of Missional Spirituality motivated afresh to see my daily encounters with others as opportunities to be a channel of God’s love. Having said that let me finish with a few quick areas of question or concern. I will state these as brief points so as not to bore the reader.
1. A narrow view of church history. The feeling I got reading this book was that true missional Christianity could be traced through the ages in a thread of movements emphasizing a more or less common set of beliefs and practices. If I had to use labels I would describe these beliefs as mystical, second-blessing, and either Semi-Pelagian or Arminian. The book seemed to downplay the influence of the Reformed branch of the church. Apparently the Reformation sapped the church of the sense of enchantment that had previously existed and replaced it with a more rational and cerebral bent. Never mind that before the Reformation the church was shot through with pagan superstition and biblical ignorance of the first magnitude. And what about wave of gospel preaching of the Puritans in England? What about the great gospel preaching of men like John Knox? What about the mighty Spurgeon–staunchly Reformed yet warmly evangelical and missional to the core? We might also mention the influence of George Whitefield and the New England Calvinist pastor/theologian Jonathan Edwards. We could also point to the modern ministries of John Piper (Desiring God Ministries) and Mark Driscoll (Acts 29 Network/Resurgence).
2. Weak and seemingly arbitrary theological basis. If we are going to tell people to love God with everything they have, then is it not vital that they know who God is and what He is like? Why emphasize a concept like the trinity, which must be deduced from various texts, and not start with something a little more explicitly taught, like the holiness or sovereignty of God? When Jesus told the Jewish leader to love God, what God was He referring to? I’ll give you one clue: it was not the god of The Shack. It was the God of the Old Testament–the One whose first commandment was that no other gods than Him be worshipped. Not only that; Jesus claimed in more than one place to be the God of the Old Testament. Bottom line–your love for God is no better than your theology. It is true that information about God does not automatically lead to love for Him. But you cannot love him if you are ignorant or hold distorted concepts of who He is. For more on how a low view of God has rotted the modern evangelical church see my book: Breaking the Box: Rebuilding Faith in the God of the Bible. It is available on Amazon.
3. Artificial head/heart distinction. There is no real dualism here. Your brain is an organ of the body, and thoughts are behaviors. Believing false information about God and His will is just as sinful as stealing or lying. True, one can have a head full of facts and an abysmal practice. By the same token he can cast out demons and do many works supposedly in the name of Jesus without being known by the Savior. He can feed the poor and even allow himself to be burned at the stake, but if he does not love the Lord it profits him nothing. The issue of head and heart devotion is not a matter of either/or. We need both.
Another point worth mentioning here is that whereas we often compartmentalize people into distinct parts like soul, spirit, intellect, will, emotions, etc., ancient Hebrew culture viewed humans more holistically. When Jesus tells us to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, He might not be splitting man into distinct parts; rather the piling up of synonyms is simply for emphasis. It’s as though He is telling us to love God with everything we have.
4. Definition based on a single Greek preposition. In Mark 12:28-34 Jesus’ statement of the twofold great commandment uses the Greek preposition ek to denote loving God out of our heart, soul, strength, and mind. This is evidently a whole different story from loving Him with our heart, soul, strength, and mind. Perhaps, but (FYI) in the two parallel passages in Matthew and Luke the writers express Jesus’ words using the Greek preposition en, which would most naturally be translated with. Just sayin’.
5. A closer look at enchantment. I totally agree that many of us have lost our sense of awe and wonder. And while I am no cessationist I am not sure the best way to retrieve a sense of enchantment is to look inward in some form of mystical practice and listen to our inner twinges and impressions for the voice of God. In my years of ministry I have witnessed healings and some very unusual experiences with the Holy Spirit which resulted in folks getting saved and blessed. But I was never out-and-out looking for such experiences. And when I tried to replicate them it led to contrived and manufactured prophesies, words of knowledge, etc. I dabbled for awhile in the Vineyard and signs-and-wonders movement, and what I remember most was the de-emphasis on Scripture and a total abandon to the emotions. For me the best way to keep a sense of awe and wonder alive is through practicing the providence of God. Disciplining my mind to see the hand of God in everything, from the beauty of creation, to the breathtakingly adorned home Connie has created with her God-given talents, to the complexity of technological ingenuity that is on loan to us from our Creator. This is God’s world, and we breathe His air, eat His food, drink His water, and enjoy the beauty of His creation only because He has given us the ability to do so. God is always at work in His universe. Even so-called laws of nature like gravity do not operate intependently of Him. Not even the smallest sparrow falls to the ground apart from His providential hand. Wow! And if God wants to speak to me or bless me in some extraordinary way, well, that’s gravy.
These items of concern notwithstanding, I would encourage you to give Missional Spirituality a read. It will challenge you and stretch your thinking. Hopefully it will kindle your love for God and neighbor. Reading it helped me erase from my mind those lingering doubts about whether I had flaked out on God by leaving “the ministry.” One thing I have been able to learn through this process is that I am gifted more for ministry with individuals than larger groups. Counseling is a natural avenue for me to work out my salvation missionally. Reading Missional Spirituality really helped me get confirmation of this fact, and despite my few criticisms I thank Roger and Leonard for writing it and God for bringing it to my attention.