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Aim for “good enough” when loving people in church

BOOK REVIEW | Rory Shiner
Friday 4 March 2016

Organizing Love in Church, by Tim Adeney and Stuart Heath, Groundwork, 2015.

It’s rare in publishing for a book to not have a subtitle. The convention is often to have a slightly elusive title, followed by a more descriptive sentence, as in The Gardening Gamble: How to Decrease Your Water Usage and Increase your Kale Harvest at the Same Time. Occasionally, a book will emerge where the title alone communicates the central thesis. Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion would be an example.

The title of Tim Adeney and Stuart Heath’s new book, Organizing Love in Church, is another. It is a perfect title, and neatly descriptive of the book’s purpose, agenda and genius. Organizing Love in Church is about, well, organising love in church. That is, it takes the incontrovertible truth that love is at the centre of the Christian life, and then asks the profoundly practical question: “Do we organise our church life in a way that helps or hinders the cause of love?”OLIC_cover

The book is presented in three simple and well laid-out chapters. One of the great features of this book in general is clear, concise writing style and logical, well-sign-posted and persuasive arrangement of the material.

Chapter 1 gives a theologically rich, analytically sharp, and practically grounded account of how local Christian communities can and do operate in love. It navigates well the tension in this kind of literature between the idealised Christian community on the one hand, and the shrug-your-shoulders, “church isn’t perfect so why bother” attitude on the other.

What this book offers instead is a vision of local Christian community that is “good enough”. The book’s genius is that it somehow manages to make “good enough” something exciting, motivating and achievable.

Chapter 2 explores the structures of a local Christian community as an instance of “social architecture”. As you don’t “just build” a physical building, so too with churches we need to plan and architect our social structures (programmes, groups and events) for love.

Some of the questions in this chapter are searching and occasionally uncomfortable. It critiques for example the ability of a regular Sunday gathering alone to deliver anything like the sort of Christian community and mission-promoting networks that the New Testament envisages as the normal Christian life. Moreover, it critiques the traditional (at least, traditional since the late 1960s) response of small group, mid-week Bible studies to fill the gap. The authors argue that mid-week Bible studies often discourage inter-generational ministry, are the wrong size (both too small and too big in different ways), too event-driven (a thing you attend rather than a community to which you belong) and often have a short life-cycle, lasting often only a year before they are re-arranged.

Adeney and Heath say, “Again, this doesn’t mean that all Bible studies are a waste of time or that no one will love anyone else. Wherever there are people who’ve been transformed by God’s grace, there’ll be people who love each other. But these design-flaws in our small groups may explain why we keep thinking, ‘Bible studies should work,’ even while we reluctantly admit, ‘But this particular Bible study doesn’t work very well’.”

Chapter 3 follows with a series of concrete suggestions for how love might be better organised in a local church community. The strength of this chapter is its concreteness. Some books in this space leave their suggestions at the level of principle, and in doing so leave the readers scratching their heads as to what the principles would actually look like, in practice. Others become overly prescriptive how-to guides that end up flirting with a legalistic sense that if you’re not doing things my way, you’re doing things The Wrong Way.

Chapter 3 of Organizing Love in Church does neither. The concreteness of the picture given serves the imagination rather than burdens the conscience. For example, Adeney and Heath suggest forming communities within a local church of between 15-40, and provide practical examples of patterns of life together that will enable such groups to become relational networks rather than a series of events. Such groups would not replace larger Sunday gatherings, but would help to clarify what the larger Sunday gathering can and cannot be expected to achieve.

There are plenty of things to love in this book:

The authors defined leadership as “creating conditions that encourage love to flourish” (chapter 2), and clarified the fact that we can love a lot of people a little bit and love a few people a lot (chapter 1); two things that are terrifically helpful conceptual tools.

And, if you are persuaded by the book’s thesis and you have leadership responsibilities in the local church, you’ll find plenty of cause for repentance here (I do and I have). But the book is never shrill, idealistic or disheartening. On the contrary, it will embolden you for what a local church could be and do. It will inspire you to pursue a “good enough” set of local church structures to aid and abet love for God, each other and the wider community.

This book is theologically sound and rich, whilst being eminently practical and grounded in the actual experience of church life and neighbourhood life in 21st century Australia.

Despite the tough soil in which we in Australia are planting our churches, I remain deliriously optimistic about what an imperfect but determined local church can achieve. I have no choice but to be optimistic. As far as I know, there is no Plan B.

It was said of 1960s New York band The Velvet Underground that not many people listened to them, but almost everyone who did started a band. My prayer for this book is not identical, but similar. Yes, I’d like lots of people to read it, but more importantly I’d like a few people to grapple with it deeply, work hard at building local Christian communities that reflect the book’s best insights, and in doing so help the rest of us with some concrete models to help us better organise our love in church.

Featured image: ‘National Heritage Church’  by Michael Coghlan. Licence at: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0.

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