Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Book Notes: Intelligent Church by Steve Chalke

I was looking forward to this, as Steve Chalke is a colourful and controversial character who has a reputation for making people think. The nature and purpose of the church is a subject which has also occupied our thoughts a lot over the last year.

This book though was a disappointment. Although each section is written with Chalke's customary pithy pizzaz and illustration, the whole thing seemed to lack any coherence other than the author's personal preferences of the moment. As such it seems theologically patchy, with the Bible not being used as the primary source of his thinking but as a treasury of illustrations of his ideas - to be raided only if and when it coincides with his thought. While he thinks that the church should be socially engaged he limits this to addressing 'social sins' but seems to be saying that the church shouldn't talk about personal ethics, as this is judgemental and excluding. However he provides no basis for distinguishing between these categories, nor any answer as to why his selection is not merely arbitrary or a pandering to the whims of the age.

In general terms Chalke, he longs to see the church not as an exclusive circle of the initiated, but as an open place in which non-judgemental space is offered for all to participate and explore the Christian life. Along the way he makes some very good points too. What is surprising is possibly how unsurprising that insight it is, and how much of what Chalke writes, he flags up as if it were innovative or shocking - but would barely raise an eyebrow in even some very conservative churches. What I was looking forward to most were some of his 'how to' pointers at the end of the chapters, which sadly proved to be the weakest part of the whole.

Ultimately though the problem arises in that Chalke seems to be offering the church a straightforward choice, between inevitable decline or accepting his ideas. However, he does not justify this with any evidence either contemporary or historical to demonstrate that the loss of the distinctiveness that his programme would entail would actually encourage growth, or a re-engagement with society. To be sure, Chalke proposes some new compelling distinctives for the church and passionately restates the church's mandate to solidarity with the poor and oppressed; however he does not address the possibility that his vision of a church more atune to contemporary culture might not be the attraction that he asserts. The only piece of evidence he cites is the growth of his own church, in Waterloo, which he attributes to the principles in the book. Critics might also point to his personal prominence, experience, leadership skills, motivational genius, brilliant social concern and the significant resources brought to the project.

So this was a bit of a disappointment. If you want to read about the church, Stott's "The Living Church" provides a very readable biblical vision of what the church is, providing solid foundations for all further discussion. Simon Jones' "Building a Better Body: The Good Church Guide" asks many of the challenging contemporary cultural ecclesiological questions that Chalke does - but I think does it better.

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