The Tangible Kingdom, Creating Incarnational Community: The Posture and Practices of Ancient Church Now by Hugh Halter and Matt Smay (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008) 195 pp, Hard $17.99
As I progressed through The Tangible Kingdom I kept feeling that I had read this book before and, in a sense, I have. Essentially, I read the same message in 1971 in David Main’s Circle Church, in Girard’s Brethren, Hang Loose in 1972, in Snyder’s The Problem of Wine Skins in 1975, again in Tucker’s The Church Change or Decay in 1978 and Tillapaugh’s The Church Unleashed in 1982 and on and on.
More recently the works of Brian McLaren and Rob Bell have repeated the same themes, which are basically that the church is a mess, has lost its way and must either change or die. Fortunately for us, so the message goes out, all these authors have discovered the “secret sauce” (as Andy Stanley calls it in his books) and they are here to share the ingredients. Halter and Smay follow this pattern to a tee (see pp. xviii-xxii, 1-9, 11-28). Even before reading the first page the informed reader is expecting the authors to travel down this path, for the book is published by Jossey-Bass (which has been on the cutting edge of the Emergent Church Movement) and endorsed by Doug Pagitt, Jim Henderson, Mark Driscoll and Brian McLaren, all critics of the traditional church and inventors of new models. While the replacement paradigm for the traditional church varies to a degree among these alternative leaders there is a common thread. Whether the alternatives are some rendition of the seeker-sensitive model or the emergent paradigm, or something different, the common thread is that none of these models is erected upon a careful study of God’s model as found in Scripture. In other words, these church leaders’ ecclesiology is not drawn from Scripture but from experience, pragmatism and the teaching of men. Halter and Smay are no exceptions. While there is some attempt to base what they do and teach on the Bible, most uses of biblical texts are either misinterpretations and/or taken out-of-context (see pp. 25, 44-45, 136-137, 142-143, 168, 172). Careful study of what the Bible teaches about the church is virtually absent.
It is important to understand from the beginning that the concepts being communicated in The Tangible Kingdom are not drawn from Scripture. This does not mean the authors have nothing of value to say. Halter and Smay have planted a church network called Adullam, composed of a number of “villages” (their word for their churches) in the Denver area. Having reacted to both the traditional and seeker, consumer-oriented church, they see Adullam as missional and incarnational communities (p. xix). Whether these are churches or missions (centered around outreach), even the authors can’t seem to decide (see pp. 6, 32-38, 54, 79, 113, 116). This book was written just four years into their experiment and so clearly lacks the perspective of time (pp. xx-xxi, 1-7). Right now they see their ministry as messy, lacking organization and structure, and they are fine with this chaos (pp. 24, 109-111, 119). As a matter of fact messy partly defines who they are. They are not concerned with polish, fancy buildings or slick organization (p. 104). They are concerned with life, and rightly so. They have a deep passion to showcase genuine Christian living among the “sojourners” of this world (people who are spiritually disoriented God seekers – pp. 2, 116) and believe the best way to do this is not by trying to attract them to church services (pp. 93-99) but by allowing them to witness Christ at work in our lives. They write, “Influence doesn’t happen by extracting ourselves from the world for the sake of our values, but by bringing our values into the culture” (p. 31, cf. p. 33).
The authors call this missional, meaning to be sent, as opposed to attracting people to the church. Missional’s twin is incarnational (pp. 38, 42, 60, 125, 144). The authors believe that people in the first century were drawn to Jesus (although they think it was because of His personality not His signs) (p. 46) and the early church (pp. 41, 51) and so they should be drawn to us as we live incarnationally. This means we should live in such a way that people are attracted to and want to spend time with us (pp. 77, 90). As missional believers they are “replacing personal or Christian activities with time spent building incarnational relationships with people in the surrounding culture” (p. 127).
These ideas are the best take-away from The Tangible Kingdom and, if kept in biblical balance, are needed corrections to many traditional churches and Christians. It is too easy for most of us to become comfortable within our Christian subculture and to stay as far away from unbelievers as possible. The authors encourage us to challenge this mindset and actively look for ways to spend time with “sojourners” showing them what a follower of Christ is like, which in turn will hopefully draw them to Christ Himself. There is much that is right about this overarching emphasis. The problem is in the details and methods espoused to which we now turn.
While the authors make no attempt to develop an ecclesiology from the New Testament epistles they do have a hermeneutic (albeit a distorted one) which forms their philosophy of the church. They distinguish between two kinds of believers, Jerusalem Christians and Galilee Christians. Jerusalem Christians are those who embrace the teaching of Paul while Galilee Christians are those who follow the example of Jesus (pp. 19-21, 44-45, 137). Jerusalem Christians are hung up on doctrine and legalism (as the authors view it) while Galilee Christians are less concerned with correct doctrine and more concerned with attempting to live as Christ lived. The following statement clarifies their position:
Would Christians today be different if we only had the four Gospels to interpret? What if we all had to look at over all these centuries were the four accounts of Christ’s life? Would we be better Christians on the streets? I think we probably would. Sure we would be missing a depth of rich theology about Christ through Paul, John, Peter and a few others, but “What would Jesus do?” would not be a wristband we wear but the constant attention of our lives. We would live like Jesus (pp. 20-21)!
Apparently the Holy Spirit made a mistake by including the epistles in the New Testament. If we merely followed the example of Jesus and ignore the doctrinal emphasis of the epistles we would all be better off. After all, “incarnational life requires that we contextualize all the ‘warnings’ found in the epistles with the larger context of the life of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels” (p. 137). In other words, they have a “red-letter” hermeneutic which interprets Paul through the grid of the narration accounts of Jesus. The results are predictably a lopsided understanding of the Christian life and the function of the church. Some examples:
The authors misunderstand the purpose of the church gathered. They don’t care if people come to the services (p.88, 168-169), don’t intend to feed people spiritually if they do come (p. 54), and minimize the value of meeting together as believers (p.104).
They magnify worldliness as the means of being missional. In order to live incarnationally we apparently must live as much like unbelievers as possible to gain a hearing and their respect. For example, alcohol, pubs and brewing beer are constant themes (pp. 5, 14, 19, 22, 35, 42, 61, 96, 129, 137, 139, 160). Tattoos apparently help, too (pp. 71, 139, 154, 159). Those with other views concerning holiness are seen as narrow-minded, up-tight legalists that portray God “like an old senile, out-of-touch beat cop” (pp. 136; cf. pp 135-140).
In a related category is the promotion of a worldly (they would prefer the word “messy” – pp. 24, 109-111, 119) church. A vital cog in the Adullam system is incorporating unbelievers into the ministry of the church (pp. 27, 96-98,116-120) including places of leadership such as teaching (p. 118) and involvement in worship (pp. 117-118).
Their philosophy is encapsulated in the slogan, “Belonging enables believing” (p. 98). This gets messy, once again, such as when their unsaved keyboard player began to act out his latest heroin fix during the worship service (pp. 119-120). Leadership is supposedly held to a higher standard (p. 118), yet one wonders what this means when one of the village leaders (pastors) decides to marry a Denver Broncos’ cheerleader (p. 117). That this pastor’s wife will be exposing her nearly nude body as she dances (cheers) in sensuous ways before a national audience is no problem for Adullam, it is just part of being missional, incarnational, and demonstrating to the world that not all Christians are narrow-minded prudes.
The authors present a confusing gospel. Virtually quoting Brian McLaren, Halter and Smay don’t focus on who is going to heaven and who isn’t (pp. 19, 94, 143). They mock the idea that belief enables belonging, that is, that those who belong to Christ are saved exclusively by faith (p. 94). Truth, they believe, is not as important as whether people are attracted to it (pp. 41-42) and that will only happen as people are attracted to us (pp. 42, 65). Their emphasis is not on the gospel but on mercy ministries: “We really don’t need more converts; we need more people who are willing to act upon the basis that Jesus taught things like caring for the poor and oppressed” (pp. 54-55). They give Dallas Willard the credit for some of these ideas since he wrote, “It was never just ‘the gospel.’ It is the Gospel of the Kingdom of God” [i.e. a gospel that includes solving social concerns] (p. 84). The problem, as the authors see it, is that Western Christians don’t even know what the gospel is which the authors believe includes social justice, mercy ministries, incarnational living and blessing people (pp. 90-91). For this reason, when one of the authors met an unsaved lady who was involved in all of these types of activities already, he had nothing to offer her. She was apparently living the “kingdom life” without Christ (pp. 86-91) (cf. pp. 115, 123, 143, 173). Evangelism is merely “changing people’s assumptions” about what a Christian is (p. 160, cf. 178).
They are confused about holiness. The authors practice what they call “whimsical holiness” which they define as “participating in the natural activities of the culture around you” (p. 136), or simply “being like Jesus… with those Jesus would have been with” (p. 138). This allows us, in theory, to be with people without casting any judgment upon them (p. 138). In practice this means that in order to attract people to Christ, it is acceptable, even recommended, that believers engage in the activities and amusements that unbelievers enjoy. For example, gambling is not only acceptable (pp. 71, 159) but one of Adullam’s worship leaders is a poker dealer at a casino (p. 139). One person is showcased who uses his resources, gained from building casinos (which rob people of their money, not to mention the lewdness and other forms of corruption involved), for missions in South America (p. 154). Whimsical holiness includes, at best, a soft view of moral concerns. For example one couple in their church who were “growing in faith” were sleeping together prior to marriage. The authors convinced them to cease sexual activity until marriage because it was causing confusion and internal conflict (p. 53). No mention is made of this being a sin against God, a lack of obedience or something for which repentance was needed. The authors proudly affirm that it is not uncommon for believers in their church to live together prior to marriage. To tell people this is an ungodly arrangement would identify you as a WestMod (or Jerusalem) pastor or Christian who believes the Bible is authoritative and that new Christians understand the faith story. It would necessitate ripping First Corinthians from the Bible, they believe, after all people were sleeping together at Corinth (p. 66) (of course they do not mention that Paul condemned this practice). This type of whimsical holiness would allow a neighbor lady to approach one of the authors, as a trusted friend, to ask what he thought of her newly enhanced breasts (pp. 138-139). I would think that even the majority of moral unbelievers recognize that there are some things that are off-limits (such as evaluation of a non-spouse’s physical anatomy), but this is seen as honest conversation by Halter and Smay (p. 139).
Some of the authors’ views seem to be a backlash against their holiness upbringing (pp. 135-136) coupled with the influence of everyone from Mother Teresa (p. 151) to Brian McLaren to Henri Nouwen (pp. 44, 144), as well as charismatic teachings (pp. 84, 128-129). In addition, Adullam is culturally, not biblically based. The authors use considerable space mapping out how Western, Eastern and post-modern worldviews affect the processing of truth and how the church must keep up with the culture (pp. 61-81). If the church does not change it will die (pp. 59, 94). “What worked in the past simply does not work today, and we must adjust to culture” is the message (pp. 108). No mention is made of the timeless truth and instruction of Scripture as being our final authority. Culture, not God’s Word, rules when it comes to the church.
While The Tangible Kingdom’s emphasis on spending time with unbelievers and living out the life of Christ before them is of great value, the philosophy and views throughout are toxic. Extreme caution and discernment are needed.
Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor-teacher, Southern View Chapel