Ryan Bolger’s The Gospel after Christendom–Book Review, Part I

bolgerThe Gospel after Christendom: New Voices, New Cultures, New Expressions (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012) is an ambitious attempt to conceptualise, synthesise, and internationalise the Emerging Church Movement (ECM). Edited by Ryan Bolger, co-author of one of the earliest books on the ECM, it features 28 chapters by practitioners and scholars. The volume identifies some of the ECM’s main features and evaluates its potential for growth and influence. In this and two more posts, I’ll review the book and identify what were for me some of the highlights.

For those accustomed to thinking of the ECM in terms of its American expressions (with a few token Canadian examples thrown in), The Gospel after Christendom offers welcome perspectives from Latin America, Aotearoa/New Zealand, Australia, Scandinavia, the Low Countries, French-Speaking Europe, German-Speaking Europe, and the UK.

It also reflects Bolger’s concern for mission, as was the case with his co-authored book with Eddie Gibbs, Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures.

Bolger’s attempt to include as many voices as possible in the book is admirable, as detailed in the Preface when he outlines his methodology. He explains that he asked 137 scholar-practitioners from his “church growth, missional church, emerging church, and missiology” networks four questions (p. xxiv):

  1. What are the biggest questions/issues/cultural shifts facing the Western church today?
  2. How might the church address these issues? In other words, how might the church live missionally/embody the gospel in the post-Christendom West at this time?
  3. If you personally have a “big idea” concerning these issues, what is it?
  4. Is there somebody you know who should be a part of this discussion?

Bolger received 76 responses, in which he identified 273 challenges. He then grouped these challenges into themes, and asked particular respondents to contribute a chapter on a theme, grouping these into five areas:

  • “peoples (networks of Christians within a particular people),
  • cultures (six themes),
  • practices (worship, formation, mission, leadership),
  • experiments (case studies), and
  • traditions (denominational change processes” (p. xxvii).

These themes provide the basic structure for the book.

I must admit that is it disappointing that after such a painstaking process, only five of the 28 contributors (Kelly Bean, Nadia Bolz-Weber, Mary Kate Morse, Ruth Skree, and Eileen Suico) were women. This is a missed opportunity, captured well in a comment box by Suico on page 96 (though she is not commenting on the lack of women’s voices in this volume, rather on efforts to foster women’s leadership and participation):

“When an accepted and recognized voice speaks in honor of the “once discriminated,” people are introduced to an alternative and a contrasting way of being in the society.”

The lack of female contributors reinforces the image of the emerging conversation as dominated by white, middle class men. For example, at the recent Subverting the Norm conference in Missouri, Todd Erickson noted:

“It seemed like during the next to last panel, when the ladies (sorry, can’t think of any other way to put it) were up, there were a lot of folks out in the lobby talking loudly (mostly, so far as I could tell, academics) and then, once the panel with [John] Caputo and [Peter] Rollins started, they all came in and watched.

So even at the conference on subverting the norm, that particular norm was unassailable…”

But if one can overlook the lack of women’s voices, Bolger’s attempt to foster dialogue through and throughout the book is admirable. For example, each chapter includes “text boxes” in which authors comment on the work of others, disagree with them, or raise further questions. There are also “sidebars” that feature quotations from Gibbs’ major books, thus putting the entire volume in dialogue with the large body of work produced by this well-known Professor Emeritus of Church Growth at Fuller Theological Seminary.

At 370 pages all in, The Gospel after Christendom is the type of book that you can read all the way through, or dip in and out of, depending on your interest in particular themes. And though I realise I am framing it as a book about the ECM, it need not necessarily be understood this way. It is not entirely clear if all the contributors and congregations featured identify with the ECM, and one of Bolger’s main intentions seems to be understanding how the congregations and communities featured can enrich other expressions of the Church, in all their forms – even the “stuffy” old denominational forms.

In my next two posts about the book, I’ll identify what are for me the “must read” chapters.

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