Letters to a Future Church: Words of Encouragement and Prophetic Appeals (Intervarsity, 2012) is a delightfully conceived volume that is part commentary on the contemporary North American church, part vision of what that church could become.
Edited by Chris Lewis, who is described on the book jacket as ‘cofounder of the Epiphaneia Network, a movement in Canada to equip and inspire Jesus followers in kingdom ministry,’ the book features chapters – or ‘letters’ from some of the ‘big names’ in the emerging church and neo-monastic movements, such as Kester Brewin, Shane Claiborne, Peter Rollins and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove.
There are also letters from heavyweight Christian thinkers of longer standing, like Walter Brueggemann and Ron Sider, and an introduction from Christianity Today’s Andy Crouch.
The premise of the book is an invitation to write an ‘Eighth Letter.’
This premise is of course based around the letters to the seven churches in the book of Revelation, which were meant to both critique and inspire the Christ-followers of that day. (And our day, for that matter …) Some of the chapters in the book are the product of an Eighth Letter conference in Toronto in 2010.
The book benefits from the letters from the ‘big names’, whose reputations obviously add to its selling power. And there is, as would be expected, some genuine insight and top-notch writing in those letters.
But the book is framed by a series of what can only be described as angst-filled love letters by Janell Anema.
Anema, identified in her biography as ‘a waitress, a professor, a former church secretary, and an avid vacationer,’ has drawn on journals that she has kept throughout her adolescence and early adulthood to tell the church how she has felt about their relationship at various stages of her development.
Her letters provide an introduction and a reprise to the book, as well as ‘interludes’ at ages 16, 21-22, and 24-25. They are written in quite intimate language, which is somewhat of a contrast to some of the more detached or analytical letters, such as Sider’s letter titled ‘Seven Dreams.’
The church to which Anema writes is very obviously an evangelical Protestant church. This is clear from the examples of the disturbing teaching and human interactions referenced in her letters.
Throughout, Anema struggles to come to terms with how her faith has changed – and how, unfortunately, she feels that her church has not. For example, at ages 24-25 she writes (p.117-118):
I’ll never let go, but I should warn you … my unwavering commitment these days is less about affection and more about allegiance. I would still feel lost without you, I’d be orphaned, but you have been more like a gang than a faith community. I learned the dress codes and the appropriate hand gestures during worship, and I speak Bible verses like passwords, gaining entrée into the inner chambers of evangelicalism.
So why is it that I commune more with Jesus when I am in the mountains, when I am reading C.S. Lewis, and when I am alone with my journal, than on Sundays when I am with you? … I want to be radically in love with Jesus, passionately submitted to a Father, intimately led by the Spirit. Church, I’m not convinced that you can provide a space for that to happen.
Rollins’ letter titled ‘The Sin of Abstraction’ identifies the fundamental problem of the North American church as one of disconnect between beliefs and practices.
He acknowledges that Christians can identify many problems in their church and their world. But he says that Christians often address the symptoms rather than the underlying problems, privileging discovering right ‘belief’ over engaging in ethical practices (p. 65-67):
Instead of looking “within” in order to find out what you really believe, what if what you believe is hidden in your very material reality and in what it produces? We must remember that the “heart” in the biblical context does not relate to the inner life but rather to the individual in his or her being as a whole.
… It is not enough for you to say that you are falling short of your beliefs, for this very confession plays into the idea that there is a difference between your various beliefs and your actions. Rather, if you will permit, I ask you to remember the radical Christian insight that one’s actions reflect one’s beliefs. That you cannot say that you believe in God if you do not commit yourself to what Kierkegaard referred to as the work of love.
Rollins concludes with some questions (p. 67):
What would it take for you to move beyond your obsession with right belief and personal piety so as to become a force of real change in the world? What would it take … ?
I presume that the authors of the letters hope that the ‘future’ church takes on board the (loving) critiques of the present church presented in these chapters.
And as someone who sympathizes with the emerging church and neo-monasticism myself, I found myself nodding in agreement with the ‘prophetic appeals.’
As for ‘words of encouragement’, yes – some are explicit. For example, Brewin writes, ‘My dear brothers and sisters, you have done so much that is right’ (p. 27).
But for me, the more encouraging aspect was that the writers of these letters are themselves committed to the church.
This commitment is inherent in the very act of writing these letters. They believe that the church will survive and that it has a hopeful future. They want to be a part of the church – not abandon it. And even, in some cases as they write out of disappointment and despair, they believe that with God’s grace the church will be transformed into a better version of its present self.
Readers from the evangelical Protestant tradition, the emerging church and the neo-monastic movements – not only in North American but also, I would venture, in Britain and Northern Ireland – are most likely to identify with the letters in the book. These letters may not offer much that is new to this audience.
But in an evangelical book market dominated by the United States, the book introduces readers to some up-and-coming perspectives from Canada and includes a good smattering of (ethnic) diversity through the letters of Ikenna Onyegbula, Soong-Chan Rah, and Makoto Fujimura. I think listening to these perspectives is important because of the middle class, white male bias of the leadership of evangelicalism, the emerging church and the neo-monastic movements. Despite this, it was somewhat disappointing that fifteen of the 20 chapters were written by men.
Even so, the letters are short and stimulating. They are an ideal length for reading one letter before retiring to sleep in the evening, or for chewing over, lectio divinia style, like a neo-monastic. They are for readers who can say, with Anema (p. 155):
Dear Church, Dearest Church: you had me at hello. I love you.