December 11, 2017

Review: Life After Church by Brian Sanders

sanderchurch.jpgIs there a compelling reason to read Brian Sanders’ version of “Why so many of us are leaving the traditional churches for emerging churches?”

Maybe. Life After Church is a book many of my readers will appreciate.

I think Sanders gets many things right. I certainly appreciated his emphasis on scripture; a gift to all of us, by the way, from the church of the past. His helpful and pastoral advice to those leaving the church is mature and practical.

Sanders also has a wonderful grasp of the mission of the church, and he’s very capable at making that mission central and appealing. His vision for the church is a positive and enthusiastic vision that will benefit every reader.

Big time applause on the important place of questions and especially the frequency of the Lord’s Supper. Despite a puzzling claim to want leaders who aren’t accountable to structures above them, Sanders’ view of team leadership in church is right on target.

And Sanders knows many of the exact problems that can and should be addressed as churches are reinvented, revisioned and replanted in the world that needs a missional, servant hearted church excited about the Kingdom of God.

Most of all, Sanders helps all his readers see through the eyes and experiences of those who are “leaving” the church in some way, whether they’ve left physically or not. He identifies where churches fail and leavers feel compelled to move on. His diagnosis that churches don’t know what to do with mature members called to ministry outside the walls is outstanding.

But reading Sanders is painful for me. The emerging reinvention of the church has so much in it that I want to affirm. In fact, I’ve been trying to affirm it for more than three decades, going back to the early work of Findlay Edge, Elton Trueblood, Keith Miller and Howard Snyder. (Yes Virginia, there were these same books being written BEFORE Brian Mclaren.) The problem is that my experience of the traditional church, while similar to Sanders, is also much richer and varied, with much more worth valuing.

The church Sanders wants to leave is the church many emergers want to leave, but it’s the church many people in mid-life and their senior years want to be part of. (Are books like Life After Church written for people over 50?) It may be less ambitious, more traditionally programed, more into funding and partnering than leading out, but it’s also the church that visits the nursing homes, provides major funding for the community pantry, builds and maintains a youth center, pays a Christian counselor and has its pastors doing a remarkable amount of pastoral care in the community. In other words, the landscape may look bleak as Sanders describes it, but for pastors and area ministers on the ground in the traditional church, there is real ministry happening, and much of it commendable.

When Sanders shares a story of a rotten church doing cruel and mindless things, it makes me angry along with him. I’ve been in some of those battles and I know the terrain. But those stories of homeless men not fed unless they came to church are not the majority report among traditional churches that care about the homeless. Traditional churches can do things right, too. No joke.

Yes, I will go to the front of the line to share “stupid church tricks” stories. All of Sanders painful examples on insensitivity and blindness to mission are well worth your quarter. But I work at a ministry supported by traditional churches for more than a century. Hundreds of their volunteers build our buildings and donate vast amounts of time and material resources. Traditional churches give us clothes, food and farm assistance. They pay for kids to be at our school, and they pay, in cooperation with other churches and individually, 65% of our multi-million dollar budget. Most of the people who do that are decidedly un-twenty something, un-emerging and so traditional they scare even me.

When Sanders talks about the church of the New Testament and all its awesomely amazing characteristics, ministries and priorities, I find myself turning some pages. What New Testament church are we talking about? Corinth? Revelation 2-3? According to Stark, Hirsch and others writing about the early church, the early church wasn’t anyone’s ideal or ministry. It was God’s instrument for developing Christians who penetrated their culture. And any church, no matter what its form or shape, can be God’s instrument in its community to do many things right.

Lots of churches drop the ball, and stay or leave, we need to deplore that. But many churches also go far beyond the either/or’s that dominate Sander’s descriptions. Churches- whether they are megas or storefronts, rural or urban, twenty-something or multi-generational, denominational or independent, by the book or by the seat of their pants, are never as simple as critics (like me) want them to be.

I hope that Sanders’ book inspires thousands of new works, micro-church networks and missional communities. Someone started our missional community 109 years ago to stop Kentucky mountaineers from killing each other, and we are still here educating children and doing God’s work. I pray all the missional diversity, dreaming and drive Sanders wants to see in the church comes to pass. We need many, many more churches of every kind. Sanders’ book is a good encouragement in that direction.

Two final notes. At some point I am going to write a major piece on the relation of Jesus, the Gospel, the Kingdom and the Church. The reason is that many very passionate and well-meaning missional Christians are equating all of these things in ways that are not helpful. The Church is not the Kingdom. It’s crucial to know how the church and the Kingdom interact. The agenda of many missionals to be the Kingdom, yet to reject the structure, confessionalism and traditions of the church is not wise and ultimately, is short-sighted. My post-evangelical contribution to this discussion is to urge we keep what is good and leave what is bad. No church can be all things in the Kingdom, but every church is a sign and witness of the Kingdom.

Finally, I believe there are other reasons Christians leave church that Sanders did not cover. I have a family member who has moved toward Roman Catholicism. His/her leaving is not about mission. It’s about sacraments and the theology of the Roman Catholic eucharist. There is a kind of inevitable leaving in the life cycles of many people, especially in their college years. People will leave the emerging churches, too, for reasons that sound a lot like the traditional church.

Boring hymns, boring sermons and boring programs beg for answers in the emerging conversation. Sanders writes as a Protestant evangelical committed to many things passionately assumed to be crucial to some Christians, but of surprising little interest to others. The missional/emerging church is a kind of church renewal movement, but most Christians won’t be leaving their churches for such movements. How can the missional church offer its insights without becoming elitist and yet another round of restorationists claiming to be the first ones to actually read the New Testament correctly? At some point, we need to get beyond that conversation to a discussion that truly encompasses the church as we find it in the broadest reality of the Body of Christ.

If evangelicalism follows the route I have predicted in these pages, Sanders and other emerging leaders will get their shot at being the church. I expect them to do well, but will they bring along the good things the church has found, done and believed along the way? Or will the emerging church clear the landscape of everything the traditional church offers, all in the name of a necessary “housecleaning?”

(I was supplied a copy of this book for review.)

Comments

  1. Hi Michael,

    Great post. I just read one that dovetails nicely with it on Generous Orthodoxy Think Tank, “Pubs, Clubs, and Altworship.” at http://www.generousorthodoxy.net/thinktank/

    Peace.

  2. Thanks again for a good one. The church has so many “issues,” as so many have noted. The other pastor here and I talked yesterday (He’s 35; I’m 60), and he noted how tempting it seems to chuck it all and start a new church. Yet we’ve talked with another pastor in a 5 year-old church of our denomination (UM) just 3 miles from here who is already facing “mission vs. maintenance” issues.

    God works in all sorts of churches and outside all churches. How do we discern where God is at work and jump in?

    I’ll throw this in too: John Wesley’s “quadrilateral” of Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience seem helpful in this type of discussion. Balancing them is always a challenge and not doing so leads some to leave chruches.

  3. Jonathan Conrad says:

    Michael,
    Thank you for your review. I went to an Emergent seminar over a year ago sponsored by my Synod (I am a ELCA-Lutheran pastor). While I appreciated the new directions for worship, conversation, and art that the speakers touched on I felt at times that they were reinventing the wheel. As you say, many of these issues are cyclical, and the issues that drive people away from traditional churches will creep up in the Emergent scene. I pray that when they do occur, we are there to find solutions and not point fingers.

    God’s peace.

  4. Thanks for this detail review and the thoughts along with it. Sanders book speaks to who it needs to, I think. I had recently left a church a few months before picking this book up. It has helped me to assess my motives and the way that I left. I found it very helpful tool for me to step outside my own emotions. It brought a larger insight to the reasons and determinations of my leaving and what has to come of it.

    I do need to question your assumption in the last paragraph that the landscape should not be cleared. Surely this is constantly happening. There should be no reason to think that a re-imagining of the church is no longer needed. Yes the church has discovered many good things along the way, but part of deconstruction is putting aside a good thing to pick up an equally good thing. Not out of a disrespect, but a continuance of the motives behind the previous good thing. (Please don’t read this as, I think everything should be discarded. Far from it… I think there are many good things that have already been dropped that we need to pick up again… and i think it will happen… it just needs time to sit)

    Lastly, I think you are right that we need more exploration of the Kingdom/Church/Gospel confusion. I pray the best for you in your work on this topic.

  5. You say: “There is a kind of inevitable leaving in the life cycles of many people, especially in their college years.” I agree and I think it’s normal, to a certain extent. However, it appears that in this day and age, the younger crowd leaves and they don’t come back. (I think some other commenter mentioned reading the book “unChristian: what a new generation really thinks about Christianity– and why it matters”, as am I. Very eye-opening in this regard) Who knows what the future will bring? Obviously, something different than what we know now, but I don’t think it involves the current “enticement/entertainment” type church.

  6. Bror Erickson says:

    Thanks for this book review, I think I will get the book to ponder over these thoughts more intently. I belong to a traditional church, and am a traditionalist, all that and just turned 32. One thing you learn being a pastor is none of it is as simple as you thought being a layman, or a Sem student. The nondenominational movement saddens me. I love my denomination despite the fact that almost everyone in my denomination conservative and liberal alike are calling for its death. Even the execs seem to want it dead. Problem is I see the problems, but I also see the potential. I see a scarred but glorious history, and a scarred and glorious future. It is the church militant, we call it that for a reason. I am beginning to think that denominationalism is actually the answer not the problem. There is after all a reason these bohemoths came into existence in the first place. We may be able to do with less red tape, but…

  7. “How can the missional church offer its insights without becoming elitist and yet another round of restorationists claiming to be the first ones to actually read the New Testament correctly?”

    Yes!

    (Though WWLD states that they shouldn’t consider such a question, but rather literally carve Bible verses into tables.)

  8. Question: has Brian Sanders ever visited those parts of the world where evangelicals represent less than 1% of the population and where it is extremly difficult to find a church in your area?

    I still have this felling that quite a few people in the Emerging movement behave like spoiled children, but maybe I am unfair…

  9. Dan Smith says:

    Michael, you wrote above: At some point I am going to write a major piece on the relation of Jesus, the Gospel, the Kingdom and the Church.

    I would ask that you look closely at the Kingdom IS the good news Jesus preached. For years I’ve pointed to 1C15:3-5 as THE definition of the Gospel. Recently, I compared that with Jesus’ teaching and have found that the Kingdom is the primary focus of His message. As Lloyd-Jones said: The Sermon from the Mount is a portrait of a wise and godly man living in the Kingdom.

    Thanks for this review. I have added it to my “to read” list.

  10. Tom,

    Your question about the author visiting unchurched regions got me to thinking…Back in the day I was in the Navy; stationed aboard an aircraft carrier. I remember attending one chapel service where we had: 2 Catholics, 4 Baptists (a couple were hard core, King James only, cessasionists), me (a charasmatic grown up in southern pentacostalism), a vineyard guy, a Seven Day adventist, a Lutheran, and an agnostic who just liked to hang out with us. Here’s the topper: the service was led by a Latter Day Saints Chaplain who, to his credit, was doing his best to accomodate all of our beliefs.

    It was a terrible mish mash of all kinds of ideas, theologies, and pet proof-texts; with the KJ only Baptists trying to evangelize everyone on the veracity of the textus-receptus (or some-such). Still, I remember coming into that service once a week, and singing amazing grace with everyone and feeling the differences drop away while the communal thankfulness for a loving savior rose up with our singing. It was a mess, but its all we had, and it was our mess…

  11. Grub,

    I’m sure you guys had fun!! Too bad there was no Calvinist in your group though, it would have made it more “complete”.

    I belong to a Lutheran parish, but I know that if one day our family has to go elsewhere, our only choice in terms of decent churches will be between a Brethren (Darby-type) assembly and an Assemblies of God Church.
    Those are the only places where we could find Bible-believing Christians in a 20 mile radius.

    Now, I DO care about theology (a lot!!) but comes a time where you need to put some things aside and stop ecclesial hair-splitting.

  12. “Now, I DO care about theology (a lot!!) but comes a time where you need to put some things aside and stop ecclesial hair-splitting.”

    Like when there is precious little alternative. THere’s a saying about how you ‘don’t get to pick your family’…The same can be said in some ways of the Church catholic. SOmetimes you’ve just got to put up with crazy uncle Harry because to do otherwisde would be a lack of love…

  13. Tom,
    Brian Sanders book is not about sewing seeds of discontent and yuppy angst. The book addresses the real truth that people leave. It looks into the reasons and admits that while some people leave for necessary reasons there are equally those who leave for petty reasons.

    The book is to be a help for those who are in this mess to guide them to not give up on the church thing, but to continue to be active in the work of God, and to hopefully continue their interaction with the body in some/any form of church in the future.

    That’s a rough summation.

  14. When Sanders talks about the church of the New Testament and all its awesomely amazing characteristics, ministries and priorities, I find myself turning some pages. What New Testament church are we talking about? Corinth? Revelation 2-3?

    A Mythical Idealized New Testament Church, Perfect in Every Way. And we’ve got to get ourselves back to that Garden.

    Like Salafi Islam, except Christian.

  15. Tom,
    As someone who was in such a group, my advice is: Stay away from the Darbyites. They have very high teachings, but they will also control your life. Run, run away! I’m not an Assemblies of God type person, but my impression is that they have much more love for people.
    I’m sure there are Brethren groups out there that are different than what I observed, but the consensus from ex-members of restorationist-type groups (i.e. “we’re the only true church from the Book of Acts until now”) is that staying in such a place does more harm than good. Pride is an ugly thing.

  16. To David,

    I’m not denying that Brian Sanders is trying to help people and to address a real problem. I’m just saying that THIS problem is not universal. And I make a huge difference between those who leave the church because they’ve been spiritually abused and those who leave a community or fellowship because the programs are not good enough or because there is no Sunday school for their kids.

    To xyz123,

    Do not worry, our small parish still exists. I was just in an “if one day…” mode. My ministry experience has led me to work with all denominations existing in my country, I think. As for the Brethren, it seems to me that there are different shades of them. And, yes, there is an ultra-conservative branch among them. But they’re usually the ones that run away when they see you coming!

  17. anonymous too says:

    Tom
    In reference to an earlier post you made, I think you are being unfair. The sentitment of the book has nothing to be with being spoiled but with having a deep desire to see people who have left the church because they want to be more outwardly focused not loose connection with the bride, Christ’s church. The author seems to offer great encouragement for them to find ways to offer themselves to the work of the Kingdom through some kind of church, even if it means a different kind of church than before. Spoiled is a harsh word towards a brother trying to draw “leavers” back or deeper into the work of the kindgom.

    I don’t think the author claims to have a universal answer but rather writes to a very specific audience. I love the church and I’m not afraid to admit that the current church has many blind sides. I’m glad someone is writing with such care about the topic.

  18. Greetings, lads. (my assumption, since the anonymous poster’s gender is unspecified)

    I am presently half-way through this book and have found it to be the initial of multiple books/sources that are literally an answer to years of prayer for something more from “church”. I appreciate Sander’s thoughtfulness in exhorting “leavers” to be careful to not just leave, but to “go to” the more genuine community that is lacking in the western ritual denominational systems. The key being to “go to” and towards a deeper walk with God in the Spirit. And, if it doesn’t exist in our areas, to be willing to do whatever it takes to create it. This is the baton that I am taking and running with in this race.

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