Ask any pastor or lay leader and they will confirm that tension and anxiety are no strangers to the local church. Whether it centers around worship and music, an age-level ministry, or a set of complex relationship dynamics, tension and anxiety are, it seems, always with us. This is not confined to the local church. In Minding the Good Ground: A Theology for Church Renewal (Baylor 2011), Jason E. Vickers points to worry about church decline and uncertainty about the church’s future as indicators of a “present age of anxiety” in the North American church at large.
The Big Idea
“Amid our growing anxiety about the church, we ought to be doing ecclesiology on our knees.” (p. 21)
Throughout the church’s life, a healthy tension exists between prophecy and structure–that is, the fresh and challenging words of prophetic ministry and the traditioned patterns of order and structure. In an age of anxiety in particular, the church is torn between turning to prophetic movements seeking to lead the church into new frontiers on the one hand, and relying on traditional structures to keep the church grounded on the other hand.
Vickers contends that our main problem is a deficient understanding of, and therefore deficient seeking of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church. He presents a theological “framework for thinking about renewal,” naming throughout his work the central role of the Holy Spirit in this work. His framework is three-fold, and the chapters are arranged thus:
- The Nature of the Church
- The Mission of the Church
- The Sacramental Life of the Church
A critical insight of the book is that we too often rush to address the mission of the church without first considering the more basic question, “What is the nature of the church?” In other words, before tackling, “What ought we do?” it is worth asking, “Who/what are we?”
The Church’s Nature
“[A]ll efforts at renewal should begin with the recognition that it is the Spirit who brought the church to life in the beginning and it is the Spirit who will rescue us when we are in trouble.” (p. 44)
By turning first to the question of the church’s nature, Vickers is able to focus us more clearly on a theological perspective on renewal. After taking into account the marks of the church in the Nicene Creed, the Reformers, and in biblical imagery, Vickers takes the reader back to the narrative of the church’s genesis in the book of Acts. There we find a church “whose life depends entirely on the presence and power of the Holy Spirit” (p. 47). We are most comfortable when we feel in control of the situation, so it’s no surprise that “in an age of anxiety, we want above all else to take action” (p. 42). Appropriate action is important, but lest we center renewal on ourselves, Vickers urges us to join earlier Christians in “tarrying together in prayer” (p. 44).
The Church’s Mission and Sacramental Life
“We must remind ourselves that it is ultimately the Holy Trinity, and not the church per se, who has a mission. The church is simply blessed to be part of the Holy Trinity’s mission in and to the world.” (p. 50)
Vickers challenges our rush to mission statements. They place too much emphasis on our action, playing into our culture’s obsession with accomplishing, fixing, and solving. This is where understanding our nature is so helpful. When we understand that the church is a community whose origin and present life and vitality are derived from the Holy Spirit, we see that the initiative is with God and we are to prayerfully discern how we participate in God’s mission in the world. With this foundation, mission statements come in their proper time and place.
The church is not a collection of the already saved. Neither is it simply a group of radical inclusivity, welcoming all but transforming none. Rather, through our life together in worship, discipleship, and mission, the church plays an instrumental role in bringing persons to robust salvation.
The Take Home
“[M]uch of our discourse about what has gone wrong with the church and about how to put things right is functionally deistic.” (p. 102)
In Minding the Good Ground, Jason Vickers provides a theological foundation for renewal upon which other methodological work may be built (and critiqued). And by taking us first back to the question of the nature of the church, he centers renewal on the Holy Spirit, and not in name only. Our temptation is “to leave God out of the equation.” Minding the Good Ground leads us to the antidote.