ImageIn The Tangible Kingdom, authors Hugh Halter and Matt Smay have a simple purpose: to address the unsettling feelings of hundreds and thousands (of people) have regarding the church and her current condition (xix). In addressing those, with unsettling feelings and emotions about the church, they hope to provide a tangible picture of how the Kingdom of God can become tangible here and now. In order to accomplish this purpose and aim, they want to present and explain how the contemporary church can become more missional and incarnational, which they believe describe the ancient faith communities in the book of Acts and throughout history (xix).

In this brief section, I want to highlight the strengths of the book that add value to the missional church discussion as well as weaknesses.

Halter, who writes much of the book, has at least three strengths that add value to the missional church and those seeking to become more missional. First, Halter has a deep seeded love for all people, especially those far from God. His passion is evident throughout the book as he shares stories of being intentionally relational with people in his everyday life. By doing this, Halter paints a present day “Friend of Sinners” picture. In being missional and incarnational, it is essential that those who are farthest from God find a loving, gracious, and peaceful environment around the people of God, rather than one of judgment, condemnation, and antagonism. In creating this kind of environment, relational bridges are built that win a hearing (12). Halter has witnessed, first-hand, the gospel do amazing work in lives of many people.

Second, I believe he displays a solid understanding of the condition of the church, its ineffectiveness to reach the lost, as well as the tension present within the church. Halter understands, like many others, that the church has serious problems in North America. However, Halter addresses the fact that not much has happened over recent years to penetrate the lostness of our culture. He argues that what has taken place in the church has been transfer growth. Either the death of so many churches has created a feeder church culture, where much of the church growth has came about through member swapping, or the growth has come about by “rechurching”— those who were burned or burned out by church, but have come back. Conversional growth, according to Halter, is scarce at best.

In addition, Halter addresses a brewing tension within the church, a tension that becomes more noticeable each year. This tension is in regards of issues such as doctrine, theology, and church practice. The emerging missional sect are convinced that people need Christ’s atonement, but do not seem to feel they need to get someone to pray the prayer. They also do not put a lot of emphasis on preaching and programs. In addition, they focus less on behavior. Halter writes, “The best way to characterize this coming civil war is to see the church in two primary camps. One we’ll call ‘Jerusalem Christians’ (those who see the person of Jesus through their traditions and the literal interpretation of doctrine) and the other ‘Galilee Christians’ (those who see the Christian message through the person of Jesus and the narratives about his life.)” (18-19). I think this is a good estimation about what is happening between two evangelical camps and a tension that will likely continue to happen. Other writers have pointed out this contrast and have proposed a “third” way or “balanced” approach. (see Jim Belcher’s, Deep Church; Mark Liederbach and Alvin Reid’s, The Convergent Church;

Third, Halter provides sound advice, wisdom, and discernment for those desirous to lead an established traditional (or conventional) structured church to becoming more missional. He writes, “The key to reconstructing ‘ancient’ forms of church requires patience, savvy, wisdom, and love for everyone in the family…” (26). In addition, Halter expresses, if you try to keep everyone in the same cage, model, or system along the missional journey, you are in for a rude awakening. Navigating such water requires wise leadership and stewarding everyone well (27). Halter is fair towards the established and more traditional forms of churches. He believes they do have a role to play, although not all will be on the front lines of the mission and missional engagement. Thus, he is correct that there are and should be ways to be creative and chart “new forms” that would help more rooted traditional established churches get involved in mission even though they may not be themselves missional in their form. A caveat to his critique, or argument would be, that while many established, conventional, and traditional forms of church are missionally irrelevant, that does not mean they cannot be. Just because churches may not have the same form, structure, language, and praxis as Halter, does not mean they are not missional, incarnational, or relevant.

The strengths of Halter, his story and journey towards missional and incarnational living, are convicting, challenging, and contagious. I desire the same relationships with those who are searching and looking. In addition, I share the same sentiments with him about the dearth condition of the church and the tension that exists among the different forms and structures of various church sects. However, his overly pragmatic and principlized description and explanation of the missional and incarnational church becomes a great concern. It is a great concern because there is a lack of theological clarity. There are at least two examples of a lack of theological clarity to his argument for the missional and incarnational church.

Theological and Missiological Misunderstanding of Posture:

First, Halter in his chapter on posture (how one lives) writes the following,

The idea of posture helps us realize that truth is important, but according to scripture, truth is not the only thing or the most important thing. The most important thing is whether or not people are attracted to the truth, drawn into the truth, and able to understand and receive the truth…. What makes the gospel good news isn’t the concept, but the real-life person who has been changed by it…. In our Adullam Network (Church), we specifically ask people not to try to be ‘evangelistic.’ We suggest to them that if people aren’t asking about their lives, then we haven’t postured our faith well enough or long enough. We’re observing that every story of conversion and transformation happened without anyone being approached with a message. The message has gotten out, not as our main priority, but as our gentle response to their curiosity…. Christ’s example and his scripture show us that God is not proud when we prioritize our message over our posture. Jesus didn’t and we shouldn’t. He doesn’t need us to stick up for him; he needs us to represent him, to be like him, to look like him and to talk like him, to be with people that he would be with, and to take the side of the ‘ignorant’ instead of those in the ‘know.’. . . . For our posture to change, our heart must change. And our heart only changes as we live among the people for whom we will eventually advocate (41-42; 46).

I believe there are many theological as well as missiological indiscretions within Halter’s discussion on posture. First, according to Halter the church’s lifestyle of the gospel is more important than the message itself. I take the position that the essence of “good news” is a message not a lifestyle. The message of Jesus—that the King has come to redeem and save people from their sin, reconciling all things to God—is the cornerstone of the church. Halter has replaced the cornerstone of the church—the gospel message—with the church’s posture or lifestyle. Oxygen is another way of thinking about what Halter is arguing. Oxygen keeps things living; it sustains life. According to Halter, the church’s posture/lifestyle is oxygen that causes things to live and breath rather than the message of the gospel. Many times the reason why believers’ posture is lacking—usually means the message has not been a reality, or at the very least, is not a priority.

Second, getting the message of the gospel out is not the main priority, but living the message is. If this was true, the gospel would still be in Jerusalem. Moreover, the Incarnation itself proves that God’s priority is telling the good news (getting the gospel out) of his redemptive kingdom. Jesus quotes Isaiah 61, where the Spirit of the Lord is upon him and has anointed him to proclaim good news… “(Luke 4:18).

Third, as Halter expressed, God is not proud of people prioritizing the message over posture. What is more important, the message that Jesus is Lord or that his pupils live right? It seems that he puts the cart (church’s posture) before the horse (the gospel message). I certainly, in my critique, have swung the pendulum back. However, I do believe there should be a balanced approach to our posture. We are called to be “witnesses,” to “make disciples.” In addition, God’s people have been called to “bless.” Therefore, believers should have a posture that is holistic, where they both verbalize (proclaim) and embody (demonstrate) the gospel. In other words, believers in their relationships should be able to give evidence, verbally, of how their postured lives are centered around their great King, King Jesus. In addition, their postured lives should enact and embody this redemption and restoration in their relationships, vocations, and in their social and cultural involvement. Therefore, I would argue that “posture” involves words and lifestyle, or better known as word and deed.

Fourth, according to Halter, truth isn’t truth, unless others are attracted to and understand it. Thus, believers need to make sure they are living right—living the good news—before telling others. He writes, “What makes the gospel good news isn’t the concept, but the real-life person who has been changed by it….” For me, this is too anthropocentric—centered on man. I would like to view the gospel in a Christo-centric fashion. What makes the gospel the gospel, is not whether or not I am faithful to Jesus, but the reality that Jesus came, lived, died, and resurrected and now invites everyone (all nations) into his good news story of redemption. As Paul exclaims, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes…” (Rom 1:16). On the one hand, I do believe that our lives are signs that point to the power of the gospel, as well as a fragrant aroma that spreads the triumphal fragrance of the gospel—Christ’s victory over sin and death (1 Cor 2:14-15). However, on the other hand, our lives can detract, repel, and muddy the glorious gospel. Yet, that does not mean it fails to still be the gospel, or fails to still be truth.

Fifth, our heart changes for people only when we live among them. In his whole treatise on posture, there is this anthropological focus. Halter has focused on what we do over what Jesus has done. And here, he says that our heart will change for people only when we live among them. The truth is that our heart will not change for people until the message of the gospel has changed our heart. We are inherently sinful, prone to relational strain. Unless the gospel transforms our heart we will not be propelled and compelled to go and live among people who are not like us. Thus, I believe that Halter is theologically and missiologically disordered as to the role of posture in being missional and incarnational. Posture is not something that we can conjure up on our own, but it is something that is birthed from the transforming power of the gospel and empowered by the indwelling Spirit.

Theological and Missiological Misunderstanding of the Gospel?

Halter expresses great concern over posture to the point of over-shadowing the message of the gospel. And it may very well be that the reason why the church has really failed to live out the gospel is that they don’t know, or have forgotten, or have misconstrued what it is. In fact, maybe they have not embraced it as truth. In any case, Halter continues to allow pragmatism to overshadow theological and missiological depth. This time he does so in explaining what the gospel is. He writes, “What was the gospel? What is the gospel? It is the tangible life of God flowing into every nook and cranny of our everyday life” (90).

I struggle with his definition of the gospel. The gospel does not originate from man’s life, but from the divine life. The gospel is that the King has come to save us from ourselves, to save us from our dark kingdom and invite us into his glorious kingdom (Col 1:13), which does invade every nook and cranny of our life (see the story of Zacchaeus). The gospel is the invitation to come and die to our self, our sin, our kingdom, our lives, and receive a new kingdom, a new person, and a new nature. The “tangible life of God” cannot flow from one’s life without the confession, belief, and faith that we are sinful and rebellious and that Jesus is our King, Lord, Savior, and our God. My caution, for those like Halter, would be: do not swing the pendulum so far back to the left, dumbing down the glorious gospel by watering down the sinfulness, depravity, and wickedness of man. In addition don’t swing it so far back to the point of focusing on what the gospel does to the neglect of  explaining what it is. The definition of the gospel is not predicated upon what it does, but what it is. And the truth of the gospel applied to a life leads to the transformation of that life and then to the verbal and demonstrative witness.

While I have my concerns, albeit theological and missiological, with The Tangible Kingdom, I do believe  there are nuggets to digest as the authors call us to embody the gracious, loving, and transforming gospel of Jesus Christ as we seek those who are far away from God.