Book Review On Jason Vickers: Minding the Good Ground: A Theology for Church Renewal

8/21/2013

By Chris McAlilly, Pastor of Shannon and Brewer United Methodist Church and Chair, MS Conference Board of Discipleship     

Chris McAlilly
Rev. Chris McAlilly
How will the church be renewed in our day? It is an all too familiar question for us in United Methodism. You are likely weary as I am of the yearly and quadrennial reports of the declining attendance, membership and biblical literacy in our churches, the rapid secularization of our culture and the death tsunami threatening our denomination. We live in an age of anxiety, characterized by pessimism and despair over the current state of the church in America and by uncertainty and fear about the future of the church. Are we living in the ruins of the church?

 

It is hard to say. But, when it comes to how the church might be renewed, there is an astonishing array of prophetic leaders and movements offering proposals today. There's Bill Hybels, Rick Warren, Bryan McLauren, Shane Claiborne. There's the church growth movement, the purpose-driven movement, the emerging church movement, the missional church movement, the new monastic movement, the ancient-future movement, the liquid, solid and sticky church movements, the tribal church movement and the deep church movement. Within United Methodism, we have our own proposals for church renewal. You have the bishops and megachurch pastors like Adam Hamilton, who talk about creating vital congregations in order to make disciples and others who think you have to make disciples in order to create vital congregations (see the work of Mike Breen and 3DM).

 

All of these prophetic visions and movements offer a diagnosis for what is wrong with the church. They herald dreams and visions on how to fix what is wrong with the church. In many cases, they tend to transcend and discount denominational boundaries. Maybe you find yourself self-identifying with one more than another and you think of yourself as more emergent or missional. Maybe you dismiss all of these movements as passing fads. But for those of us serving in local congregations, the sheer number of prophetic voices and movements can be overwhelming. How do you make sense of all the movements of church renewal? Which one has the power to renew our church?

 

Rev. Dr. Jason E. Vickers, an emerging Methodist scholar, wrote an excellent slender volume called "Minding the Good Ground: A Theology for Church Renewal," published in 2011 by Baylor University Press. Mississippi resident bishop for The United Methodist Church, James E. Swanson, Sr. has invited Vickers to Mississippi for this year's Bishop's Convocation begining Monday, September 30.  

 

Throughout his years of teaching within the academy and the church, Vickers has found that the theology students and local church pastors are attracted to one or more of these prophetic movements but that they lack a framework for thinking constructively and critically about the different movements of church renewal on offer.

 

Anytime the church experiences a time of anxiety about its future, Vickers believes, it is accompanied by a tension between prophetic voices and the priests of the church committed to structure and order. The central question that we need to ask is not "does this prophetic movement have the potential to renew our church?" but rather, "how do we discern the person and work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church?"

 

In "Minding the Good Ground," Vickers sets out to provide a theological angle of vision that will help us to identify what the Spirit is doing in the life of the church and that can help us navigate the tension between the prophetic voices in our day and the structure and order that we have inherited or that we create. Sometimes the Spirit moves through prophets. Other times the Spirit works within the structures of the church. Contrary to common assumptions, the Spirit of God and the structure of the Church are not always against one another. Spirit and structure are usually in dynamic and creative tension.

 

If you are going to understand how the Spirit might be working within the body of Christ, Vickers asserts, you need to understand the nature and mission of the Church as well as a familiarity with the person and work of the Holy Spirit. In order to assess the various proposals for church renewal on offer in our day we need to know what the church has been called to be and to do and we need a supple recognition and awareness of the Holy Spirit.

 

Readers who are looking for practical ideas will be disappointed. Vickers does not provide ideas on how to carry out a project of renewal in your church. But he highlights a crucial point that one should never forget when carrying out any project of renewal. The church is a human institution, Vickers states, but it is not only a human institution. It is also divine. This means that our most important resources, our deepest source of POWER, are the ones that we receive from God.  

 

Bishop Swanson strikes me as a man who understand the charismatic origins and nature of the Church of Jesus Christ in general and the Methodist movement in particular. One sees his sensitivity to the Spirit of God in his preaching, in his ecstatic dancing and in his prayers. I suspect that one of the reasons Bishop Swanson has invited Jason Vickers down to the Mississippi Conference is because he recognizes a danger lurking in the language that we have adopted as a conference "The POWER of We." We can draft mission statements. We can raise money. We can update the worship. We can hire new staff. We can call meetings. We can evangelize. We can do mission projects. But as the Psalmist once said, unless the Lord builds the house...  

 

Our hope for renewal and for a future in the United Methodist Church, Vickers states "lies not in our own ingenuity and effort but in the presence and the power of the Holy Spirit who animates and empowers the church, incorporating us into the Trinitarian life of God."  

 

There is no silver bullet, no magic formula or golden movement that Bishop Swanson can trumpet or legislate from Jackson that can renew the United Methodist Church in every local church in Mississippi. But, the Holy Spirit of the most high God desires to renew the body of Christ in every generation. And if we can attune our eyes and ears, our hearts and our attention to the movement of the Holy Spirit, then we may yet find the POWER to be renewed. The Spirit blows where it will. It may blow differently in Senatobia than in Starkville, it may sound differently in Biloxi than in Booneville. But, the conviction is simple: our Church can be renewed in our day if we renew our sensitivity to the movements of the Holy Spirit.  

 

Jason E. Vickers is a man who has something to teach us about the renewing POWER of the Holy Spirit. I hope you will not only come down to the Bishop's Convocation taking place September 30 - October 2, but also pick up a copy of "Minding the Good Ground: A Theology for Church Renewal." The Mississippi Conference Board of Discipleship will be sponsoring a conference wide reading group on this book this fall. If you are interested in joining, contact me at cmcalilly@gmail.com.  

 

And may the Spirit of the Living God fall afresh on you and your congregation in the days ahead.