Pentecost begins only after eager, well-meaning disciples have torn up strategic plans for restoring the kingdom to Israel. Pentecost is also about timid disciples being led to dream about a kingdom more visionary than they ever imagined. Alan Roxburgh is a good companion for Pentecost because he exemplifies both the tearing up of strategic plans and the following of the lively Spirit.
For decades Roxburgh has been insisting that our churches walk away from our strategic plans for greatness. He’s been on the ground in hundreds of churches, hearing our anxiety, and listening to our plans to restore status, membership, missional impact, and budget. Patiently, with occasional justified outbursts of exasperation, he reminds us what Jesus told the disciples in Acts 1: “You don’t yet even know what you’re asking. Slow down. Learn what God is doing in and through the tumultuous changes around you. Learn, receive, and follow the ways of God’s Spirit.”
Even if Roxburgh does not believe our strategic planning will restore us to greatness, he is no cynic. He is tenaciously hopeful. He believes in the power of the Spirit to enable ordinary Christian communities to find courage and new vision. He has dedicated his life to listening, coaxing, teaching, and provoking us.
Primary Issues and Arguments
Joining God, Remaking Church, and Changing the World is Roxburgh’s latest epistle to the anxious churches of the West. The book is divided in two parts. In the first, he describes what he calls “the great unraveling” of the “long cherished tradition of the ‘Euro-tribal’ churches across North America (3). If you are looking for a brief primer on the progressively degenerative ecclesiological condition of the church of the West since the 1960s, turn here. Roxburgh identifies the source of the anxiety that riddles our churches, and then concisely describes the historical ways we have become aware of the condition and reacted to it. He never dismisses or caricatures these important historical strategies, and his generosity toward us, even in our shortcomings, helps us recognize that God’s faithfulness abides.
The core of the book, and the heart of Roxburgh’s work places God at the center of any hope for renewal in the church. This may be Roxburgh’s enduring legacy. In the end, Roxburgh makes no sense if there is no God, and not just any God, but a God on a mission. This is the section we should read slowly because Roxburgh is trying to get us to quit asking what he calls “the church question,” but he is not trying to displace the church. Instead, he is trying to help churches ask “the God question”: what is God doing among us and ahead of us, in our neighborhoods?
The second part of the book offers a practical theology of missional presence in our neighborhoods. Here Roxburgh draws upon decades of experience. He works very hard to provide small, practical actions that ordinary churches can take toward the end of learning what God is doing in their neighborhoods.
The essential difference between Roxburgh and most “fixes” for the church lies in what he calls the “God question.” God is at the heart of his vision for the church, and this is where Roxburgh is both often misunderstood and most open for critical inquiry. He is misunderstood until one reckons with what God is doing among us and in our neighborhoods. He is simply not interested in helping our churches maintain our status or standing. He might say that such standing only serves to protect us from the challenge of God’s presence and calling. Do not read Roxburgh if you are not ready to be challenged by the holy otherness and intimacy of God.
My hunch is that, even as Roxburgh most wants us to ask the God question, he would most welcome questions about the God question. If we are going to look for what God is doing in our neighborhoods, we will need to attend carefully to our language about God’s action and agency. How do we discern the difference between the living God of Jesus Christ and other powers and authorities, including the state and our own gut? If I have one criticism of Roxburgh, it is that I would like to see more exploration of the centrality of worship to the God question.
One of Roxburgh’s newest terms is the descriptor, “Euro-tribal.” It is a provocative term he employs throughout the book, and it helpfully serves to remind us that our story of decline and anxiety is primarily of white European descent. It helps to “place” us. It reminds me that the church in South America, Asia, and across Africa is where real vitality exists that might ultimately be needed to re-evangelize North America.
Although the term, Euro-tribal, is helpful and provocative, I found myself wondering, why not simply say, “white?” After all, it may be that the primary source of all the fear and anxiety across the land is the loss of white privilege and supremacy in North America. Another possible term might be what Frederick Herzog sometimes called “the NATO church.” Herzog reminded us that the western churches, and our missions, were often parasitic of the military and economic power of the state. I wonder if Euro-tribal says enough.
This brings us back to Pentecost. As the story goes, Pentecost is really just the opening act in story about a great, messy collision between the church and Roman culture as the gospel takes flesh in real human communities. The gospel, made flesh, is no ideal that floats above the land. The gospel only becomes good news as it is embodied in real, flawed people, and the Spirit is the primary agent in the story. Thank God for the ways Alan Roxburgh is calling God’s people to this hopeful adventure.
June 1, 2016