So kick off your shoes, lean back in your chair, and get ready for the ride!
Here’s the interview.
1. Tell us a little about yourself and your spiritual journey.
Frank, I was raised in a traditional evangelical pastor’s family. I went to Wheaton College of Billy Graham fame and went off to seminary. By the time I was done I knew more NT than anyone I knew. Yet I found little to connect it with the church as I knew it. In my twenties, disillusioned, I left the church and moved to the city. There, working in the financial business I had an awakening towards the things of God in my life.
I signed up for a Ph d at Northwestern in theology and found myself in the middle of a mega-church-wanna-be church plant. (It did become a mega church of sorts.) I was doing a lot of preaching, thinking and praying. I along with a friend led a small intentional community in Chicago where God worked and shaped my imagination for church. It was there where the seeds for my theological and spiritual development were sown. It was at Garrett/Northwestern where I discovered John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas.
When I finished my Ph.D. and got married, my wife and I discerned God’s leading to plant a church from all we had learned. That became Life on the Vine a place of huge blessing for us. I took a job teaching missional students at a great seminary, God has blessed Rae and I with a son Max and a rich full life of service to God.
2. What provoked you to write The Great Giveaway and who was your main audience?
I think I had a mixture of love and anger towards what church had become. I was really discontent with the unquestioned assumptions that drove the status quo, especially the immense influence of the mega church movement and the ideology that was driving it. I saw young pastors getting killed. I saw a lot of destruction in the communal and missional life of the church.
I don’t want to get specific, but I saw the future of the church crumbling as more and more young men and women bombed out as pastors unable to reproduce the results of their mega church heroes. Meanwhile, I had first hand experience of how bankrupt the reality of this kind of church was. As far as I could see, it offered little hope of reaching post Christendom.
Everything I was learning from Scripture and the history of the church suggested this was more a creation of American business than faithfulness to being God’s people in the world. Does that sound harsh? Whoah sorry!
3. Could you summarize the main points of the book in a few paragraphs?
The first paragraph in the introduction says it all. “The thesis of this book is that evangelicalism has “given away” being the church in North America. Simply put, evangelical churches have forfeited the practices that constitute being the church by either 1.) portioning them off to various concerns exterior to the church, or 2.) by compromising them so badly that they are no longer recognizable as being functions of the church.”
I try to then show how this bold statement is in fact true in all the major practices that have traditionally (as defined by Scripture in the history of the church) constituted the church as the people of God in the world. These practices include evangelism, fellowship, leadership, worship, proclaiming the Word, justice, catechesis of our children and of course intentional Christian discipleship.
4. What do you wish to see change as a result of people reading the book?
I hope people reflect on what we’re doing! And probe the assumptions that drive us to do what we do in the name of church. I hope for a renewed faithfulness in our time to being God’s people in the world.
5. What’s the difference between your view and Alan Hirsch’s view on mission and the missional church?
Alan and I agree on a lot. But there’s some confusion for me (it could just be me) around one of ideas: that missiology precedes ecclesiology. This could all be an issue of what we might mean when we say “missiology.” I certainly agree that the church is determined by its “being sent” by God through the Son by the Spirit. Its existence should be ordered out of this telos. But I don’t believe we can practically allow the shape of God’s people to be determined at “the back end” (as Alan says it) after we have in essence been sent into culture. For this implies that the church changes according to the culture.
Of course it does, but there is also something consistent to the identity of the church. The church is defined by some core practices – one of the most obvious being the Lord’s Table. We form our politics around the death and resurrection of Christ. The church takes take a definitive shape by virtue of who we are in Christ and the practices we engage in i.e. forgiving one another, being hospitable, justice.
So on this founding event our social existence takes shape in a culture discerning it, rejecting some of it, embracing other parts and transforming yet other parts under His Lordship. The people of God become the foretaste of the Kingdom in the midst of those who do not yet know God. I am sure Alan agrees with most of this. For me then, I prefer to clarify it as not missiology precedes or determines ecclesiology but rather ecclesiology is missiology.
6. Do you know of any viable communities where you can say “come and see the living Body of Christ in operation” – a community in which the Lord is expressed and displayed as “a full view of the message of His life?”
There are no perfect ones. But yes, all over in fact there are little missional seedling communities springing up practicing life together in a missional way. I have seen them meet in houses, old church buildings, in storefronts. Most not bigger than 200. Many not bigger than 40 or 50.
7. Can a local church be attractional as well as missional – where the outreach to a local community is the outflow of the life of the Christian community? If so, what does that look like in your experience and/or opinion?
It’s always possible but any attractional church is fighting a head wind, an orbit that works against the missional verve. I’ve seen some mega churches do missional efforts. I’ve seen mega churches siphon off from the budgets of their huge enterprises and fund missional communities But by and large I just think it takes a lot more energy.
8. What, in your view, can we learn from the early church that’s presented in the pages of the New Testament? Is there anything we can take away from the example and the teachings of the apostles? If so, what would those things be exactly?
This is too long an answer. I think you’ve done a great job Frank leading us to ask some hard questions concerning how far we’ve strayed from our original beginnings. I think from Acts we can learn how to do things simply as part of the rhythms of everyday life. I think we can learn from the apostle Paul the importance of “one to another” practices that God in His Spirit uses to transform our lives and then the world. I think Paul’s and Peter’s (1 Peter) letters challenge us to be His Body in ways we’ve lost. I could go on but these are at least some of the most obvious.
9. Who have the most influential people been on your thinking and understanding of spiritual things?
Theologically and epistemologically, Stanley Hauerwas profoundly influenced me. The Anabaptist John Howard Yoder challenged me and gave me handles on so much. I had two extraordinary NT teachers in seminary who eventually taught at Fuller who inflamed in me a love for the NT and the NT church; they were Bob Guelich and David Scholer. My father taught and modeled the Christian life to me. From this foundation I started reading Continental philosophy and the cultural situation we face. Lately, Slavoj Zizek is compelling voice for helping me decipher what is happening with the church and politics in our time. He is an atheist though.
10. If you had to list 5 of the most important elements that you would like to see changed in local churches across America, what would those 5 things be?
OK here’s 4 off the top of my head. 1.) Less emphasis on success and growth, more on authentic Christian living and discipleship. This is the obedience God is looking for. 2.) Less on pandering to Christians who have little time but more money, and more pandering to the poor who have more time and less money 3.) Concentrate more on the simple stuff where one encounters the transcendent living God, less on programming that 4.) Leadership that listens and responds to what God is doing, not orchestrating the future they learned at business school.
11. You speak about servant leadership in your book. In your view and experience, what are the specific marks of a leader within the confines of a local community of believers? And are there other leaders in a local community, in your opinion, beyond the pastoral role? If so, what are they and what do they look like in your experience?
Frank, the marks of a leader are humility, mutual submission, yet courage to speak and interpret what God is doing and where He is taking us. He or she must have a grounded prayer life always in daily prayer depending deeply upon God and His work daily in even the smallest things. He or she has to have the skill of interpreting the Bible to see God at work in our midst and the surrounding community so that he/she can then lead us there. We have 3 pastors and more in training, 12 shepherds and many more people who qualify as leaders in this sense at our church. This leadership is the backbone of any church and I would say you have to have three to start.
12. What are your life goals with respect to ministry? In other words, by the time that the Lord takes you, what would you have accomplished where you would feel that you fulfilled God’s calling on your life?
I have a heart for the evangelical church in N America. I seek to be faithful to Christ in ministering there and striving for a renewed faithfulness. I don’t wish to assume I have any answers or that God has given me a privileged vision. I am convinced evangelicalism is on the path towards extinction and a lot of statistics bear this out. Yet I just try to stay small, working within my own local community, writing with the time God gives me, serving in my seminary to raise up leadership for the challenges of the new post Christendom. I’ll try to not to look or evaluate too many times for faithfulness is not always seen in results or otherwise.