what we are reading book

What We’re Reading: The Tangible Kingdom

In light of the fact that we’re all stuck inside, and since there’s a good chance you’re either on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat or watching Tiger King, I thought I’d share some quotes from a good read. The Tangible Kingdom: Creating Incarnational Community is a great read for us in Denver especially, seeing how this was originally written in 2008 by a couple of leaders at a church in the Denver area.

My Overall Thoughts:

I’m giving it a 4 out of 5. When Halter & Smay wrote this book in 2008, I was in college and reading a lot about “emerging church” stuff. If that’s a foreign term to you, that’s OK. There’s a reason. It’s a term that was thrown around a lot for a few years, but sort of sputtered out.

At the time of the “emerging” lingo, though, some great conversation was happening. Generally it seemed there was a broad consensus that something needed to change about the church in order to reach a culture that was quickly abandoning it. However, despite a common understanding that something was wrong, there wasn’t a clear path forward.

Here’s a bit of what I personally saw:

  • Neo-monasticism: Shane Claiborne and some friends formed The Simple Way as an intentional community and now non-profit in Philly.
  • Ancient-Future: Some people like a pastor in Scotland I met started churches with heavy liturgy and high-church practices seeking to reach new crowds looking for ancient rootedness.
  • Young, Restless & Reformed: Lots of younger believers discovered guys like John Piper who were teaching 500-year-old theology from the reformation and loved the Puritans, John Calvin, and Charles Spurgeon.
  • Missional: Others said let’s reorient all of life toward making disciples. Life became about ordinary things with gospel intentionality.
  • House Church: Some said the problem was buildings and focused on moving toward house churches that multiplied instead.
  • Multi-site and Online Church: As Sunday service attendance declined for some, others saw huge growth and responded by ensuring excellence increased, convenience increased, and technology helped spread the gospel. Online & video-venue churches were the result.
  • Or some other things happened, too, but those were some of the most visible from my end.

Why give you this list of responses you probably don’t care about?

It seems to me that most of our solutions to “reach the culture” for a few decades have focused on doing church differently. Relevance, or fresh expressions, or restoring Acts 2 were all conversation points.

This book offers some suggestions, but they’re different.

Smay & Halter aren’t giving that kind of a “do it differently” solution. They realize — and I appreciate — that just doing the same things with the same scorecard in different ways won’t be enough. Or, in their words…

As I once heard, “Doing church differently is like rearranging chairs on the Titanic.” We must realize that slight tweaks, new music, creative lighting, wearing hula shirts, shorts, and flip-flops won’t make doing church more attractive. Church must not be the goal of the gospel anymore. Church should not be the focus of our efforts or the banner we hold up to explain what we’re about. Church should be what ends up happening as a natural response to people wanting to follow us, be with us, and be like us as we are following the way of Christ. (emphasis mine)

Smay, Matt. The Tangible Kingdom (Jossey-Bass Leadership Network Series) (p. 30). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

For me, this is a book which helpfully deconstructs some of the ways the American church (and me personally) has thought about church life — and offers a different way of thinking about it.

I’ll offer some highlights below, but my favorite thing about this book is that it is an honest, practical, simple approach to how Christ’s followers can look like Christ instead of just running the show.

Some highlights:

Our main contention is that what drew people to Jesus, surprisingly, was not his message. It was him. His face, the softness in his voice, the whimsical look he gave the children, how he laughed, and how he lived. His message repelled people. Many people who were drawn to him as a man would leave after he let them in on the message. This is quite a switch for most of us. We try to draw others by soft-pedaling the message and end up repelling them by how we live our lives. (emphasis added)

Smay, Matt. The Tangible Kingdom (Jossey-Bass Leadership Network Series) (p. 46). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

This quote alone is worth the price of the book. And it is forcing me to ask some questions:

  • Is my life good news?
  • If I told someone that the lifestyle of a Jesus-follower looked like my life, would they still want in?
  • Are the kinds of people Jesus drew to himself the kinds of people drawn to me?
  • Has the good news I believe transformed my entire life?
  • What would it look like for my life to be the closest thing to Jesus that people experience?

I wonder what would happen if our posture became that of an advocate for those outside the Kingdom? What if we set aside our apologetics and our theological arguments and just lived as Christ would in front of others? I wonder how God might lead us if we were more concerned about being a “friend of sinners” than a friend to those inside our church or denomination? My sense is that maybe people would begin to have the same feelings for us as they did for Jesus.

Smay, Matt. The Tangible Kingdom (Jossey-Bass Leadership Network Series) (p. 46). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

Great notes here about our posture. Are we advocates for the outsider? Or more comfortable with continuing relationships with insiders alone? I don’t think the authors would suggest not sharing the gospel. Halter in particular is an evangelist from what I can tell. But this word about posture is crucial.

What causes exclusive community is fear. What creates inclusive community is love. In 1 John 4:18, there’s a challenge to this exclusive posture: “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear. . . .” So, what are we afraid of? Weird theology, an occasional swear word, or the appearance of our friends condoning a sinful life? It might be good to remind ourselves that even within a group of typical institutional Christians, trained seminary students, and pastors, there can be some wacky theology and shady morals. Why then do we on the “inside” try to control the behavior and views of Sojourners? This tension is the story of the early faith communities, and if we’re praying for God to move in our world like he did two thousand years ago, we’re going to have to open our doors and create places that may seem messy or dangerous and will challenge our exclusive ways.

Smay, Matt. The Tangible Kingdom (Jossey-Bass Leadership Network Series) (pp. 71-72). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

While I’ve for years found that I’m often more comfortable with radically honest people than clean Christians (I am in Denver, after all), this is still a great question. This week I’m asking myself if there are areas where I’m afraid to be a friend of sinners or allow for some less-than-accurate theology to be rooted out by the Holy Spirit instead of Skylar.

A quick recap may help us pull it all together. The incarnational big-story gospel will require a place of discovery, where people will be able to see the truth before they hear about it. This place will not be a location but a community of people who are inclusive of everyone. These people will be making eternity attractive by how they live such selfless lives now, and will be modeling life in a New Kingdom in ways that will make it easy for other people to give it a try. People like this aren’t desperate to convert everyone; they are desperate to be like Christ and to be where Christ is. Their heartbeat to be transformed into the image of Christ, and to pray and work for little specks of transformation in everyone and everything they touch. Success is faithfulness. The rest is up to God.

Smay, Matt. The Tangible Kingdom (Jossey-Bass Leadership Network Series) (p. 82). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

This is a summation of an incredibly helpful worldview analysis. I think some things have changed in the last decade, but generally I think his analysis is still on point. Additionally, I find his summation and articulation of a solution to resonate with my hope for our community at Cypress.

We have to be honest with ourselves and realize that if the message isn’t attractive, and the people of God aren’t attractive, then we must not be telling the story right, or we aren’t living the story correctly. Maybe we forgot the story, or even worse, maybe no one ever told us the whole story.

Smay, Matt. The Tangible Kingdom (Jossey-Bass Leadership Network Series) (p. 86). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

I’ll finish here with this. Jesus’ message was beautiful. The early church’s message was too. It was the gospel. It was a message about a Lord who gave himself for you so that you could find life in a new kingdom with a new King.

It’s not a perfect book. Some people won’t get the writing style or evangelistic edge. Some people will find the analysis and ideas more abstract than they want them to be. Overall, though, I think it’s a great read for anyone wanting to see the Kingdom of God made visible in their lives.