Reading Theologically (Barreto, ed.)

Eric D. Barreto, ed. Reading Theologically
Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2014

Reading Theologically

I was an idiot when I went into Seminary, or grad school to us church of Christ folks. I am slightly less of an idiot now. Whatever happened in seminary was nothing short of a miracle to get me this far. Of the many accomplishments I can boast, the ability to read is now one of them! As I read through the essays in Reading Theologically I was reminded of lessons I learned in seminary, ideas about the way in which we approach texts, biblical or otherwise, that help us to get the most out of them. I bought this book because a friend of mine, Jimmy McCarty, wrote one of the essays, but I think its value goes beyond friendship and shameless plugs.

The Gist

“What’s wrong with the way I read?” One might ask. Everything. No, just kidding, but maybe some things. Think of how your favorite writer or preacher or professor got things out of a text, be it the Bible or a work of literature or anything else, and you just thought, “Wow, that’s insightful and/or authoritative!” Usually when I try to expound on these kinds of texts myself I feel less in control and way more like a bumbling fool, clumsily trying to show off the beauty of this precious object before I drop it and break it. That is because we lack the same kind of grasp of these texts as our admired authors do. I don’t understand texts as well as they do because I haven’t read them as well as they do. The chapters aim at presenting the basics of deep reading—the ability to really understand a text and to appropriate its ideas in a variety of meaningful ways.

            Reading Theologically is a book written for seminarians, but all of the essays have value for anybody interested in improving the way they read and appreciate texts of any kind. It stands among a group of other classic texts like Adler’s How to Read a Book and Fee and Stuart’s How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, which it cites as supplementary reading. Many of the essays are written directly to its readers, addressing the hypothetical seminarian with statements and questions throughout.

What Stuck

I didn’t dislike a single chapter, but the ones that stuck out to me were the chapters: ‘Reading Basically’ (Melissa Browning), ‘Reading Generously’ (Gordon C. Liu), ‘Reading Differently’ (James W. McCarty III), and ‘Reading Digitally’ (Sarah Brubaker). In the chapter ‘Reading Basically’ Browning aims to orient us to the many textures of reading we do not normally recognize, like the way our bodies, communities, and worldviews impact and inform the way we read. In the chapter ‘Reading Generously’ Gordon C. Liu tries to bring the reader into a more mature way of reading “texts” be they books with arguments or argumentative people. His provocation is to get us to appreciate a thing on its own terms and glean a much better understanding than if we began with a critical eye.

In the chapter ‘Reading Differently” Jimmy McCarty (ahem, a friend of mine, ahem) contrasts three distinct readings of the same text. It is honestly not because I like Jimmy that I think this is the most valuable chapter here for churches. Rather it is because we have such a hard time seeing past our own readings in order to understand how someone else could read the bible so differently. Finally, Sarah Brubaker, in her chapter ‘Reading Digitally’ delves into the online world and the dynamics at work in the way we ‘read’ one another in the digital world.

Memorable Quotes

When we recognize reading as a communal practice, we learn to pull up a circle of chairs, not only for other scholars whom we ask to join the dialogue but also for folks from our community whose lived experiences matter to our work (Reading Basically, 21)

Our commitment to our own conscientization, [that is] to our own liberation and the liberation of others, can allow us to read in ways that create space for transformation. (Reading Basically, 24)

As we read we must deconstruct with a vision of reconstructing. We must ask what voices are missing or marginalized, whose stories are overlooked. Reading toward conscientization means we ask difficult questions of those we invite to sit in our circle of chairs, for we are learning not only to read but to talk back to the text and challenge its claims. (Reading Basically, 25)

Reading generously in fact often depends on extending unflappable hospitality to texts and authors, especially in those instances when we find ourselves disagreeing with them the most. (Reading Generously, 68)

“Chu stands his ground. Yet notice that his position becomes clearer only insofar as he challenges himself to engage earnestly with the intractable and unforgiving stance of Westboro Baptist church. He does not dismiss the congregation for its blatant proclamations of hate…yet Chu carefully gets to know the church and its people. He refuses to entertain their beliefs like a tourist. Instead he honors their humanity and treats their adversarial reactivity with unusual dignity. Chu firsts confirms and respects the perspective of Westboro Baptist Church and then (and seemingly only then) crafts a critique of that perspective. (Reading Generously, 70-71)

Each group of people desires to be honest interpreters of the texts and confess the Christian faith. Why, then, do they come to such radically different interpretations of this one story? The short answer is: because context matters. (Reading Differently, 101-02)

[I]t is impossible, in the end, to stand in another’s shoes. Rather, we can listen to other people’s narratives, questions, and answers in ways that illumine our own narratives, questions, and answers. We can learn to think with, rather than above or against, others even if we cannot learn to think the thoughts of others. We can stand alongside others and listen even if our feet are never quite the right size to fit in anyone’s shoes but our own… To listen to others in this way is to practice what Ellen Ott Marshall has called “theological humility.” It is to allow God to be God and to refuse to let our experience and understanding of God be the final theological word. (Reading Differently, 103)

To read differently is necessarily to be continually called to conversion. (Reading Differently, 207)

Like any other public spaces in which people bump against each other, digital environments require prudence, integrity, and care. Occasionally, that means refusing to accept the terms of engagement one is offered or, in this case, using analog practices to resist certain digital assumptions. Accordingly, I will be using “analog” as a metaphor for the slow, continuous, idiosyncratic, and difficult work of reading and engaging viewpoints that challenge one’s own assumptions. For all its advantages, digital technology has made it far too easy to avoid this crucial work. (Reading Digitally, 111)

[These suggestions] are meant to form people whose digital interactions proceed in good faith. They do not, however, promise to be effective, if by “effective” one means “helpful for winning a debate and getting one’s way online.” (Reading digitally, 123)


As I read through these essays I was reminded of the many things I learned to do in seminary. At times I was reminded of the many things I forgot how to do, and in some cases the many things I never learned how to do. As a whole this is a great starting place for people who want to develop the skills necessary to best understand the things they are reading.

Slow Church (Smith & Pattison)

Christopher Smith & John Pattison, Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus

Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2014.

Slow Church“How many kids are in your church/youth group?” An innocent enough question, but the most common, and often the only question I get asked. Apparently we have as a culture developed a significant and complex matrix of understanding that allows us to surmise the value of a ministry based solely on the number of attendants (indexed and actual). No, we don’t really, but in many ways we lack a good grasp of better questions to ask or better metrics to use. Slow Church is one of those books that takes a swing at this problem.

The Gist

Taking their cue from the “Slow Food” movement, Smith and Pattison see the necessity of doing away with the glittering vices of shallow ministry and ecclesial goals: increasing numbers, tithes, and cultural homogeneity. Great! Sounds good already, right? Of course, Smith and Pattison are not the first to write a book about the subject (see: Renovation of the Church by Carlson and Lueken), and certainly not the first Christians to see these shallow ministry goals and practices as problematic. But many of us have trouble figuring out how to do otherwise, and sorting out the systemic levels of thought and practice that push us towards these goals in the first place. That’s the reason I picked this book up in the first place.

What they offer instead of a church-growth model are a set of beliefs, values, and practices that aim at what the authors deem to be truer to the Gospel and at the same time capable of replacing our mania for growth. The book is in a way a manifesto of values of the coming generations, waxing eloquently about ideals like: investing in the local community and heterogeneity. At the same time I think there’s a real spark here of systemic revolution like when they say this: “The extraordinary thing about Slow Church is how ordinary it is. Slow Church is just church—or it should be…What we’re advocating is that we live more deeply into the ordinary patterns of our lives, considering and talking with others in our church about how and why we do the things we do.” I like that.

What Stuck

I think the focus on the location of the church was the thing that sticks out to me the most. Besides the chapter explicitly on this subject, several of the other chapters come directly from this central idea, from discussions of hospitality to doing local and congregational history to using the resources of the church and its members to benefit the broader community. If we could fixate less on putting more bodies in the pews (and more cash in the collection trays) and start doing things like these then we can be confident that we are doing what we’re supposed to be doing, regardless of attendance.

Another thing that stuck with me is something I continually got hung-up on about the book. I called it a manifesto earlier because in so many ways it is just a mish-mash of really good-sounding things mixed together with a very one-sided and un-nuanced critique of the “bad guy” church-growth models. In this respect everything seemed so triumphalistic. As if by doing the things they suggest we do our church lives will enjoy unprecedented levels of serenity. As if mega-churches have no interest in deep discipleship and community benevolence.

I still think they’re right about their refocusing of values, their critique of church-growth models, and their desire to just “live into the ordinary patterns of our lives.” But, if I’m relying on this book alone, I’m not sure why. It doesn’t do enough to address the real systemic theological and sociological underpinnings of either the present state of affairs or the vision that they are advocating.

Memorable Quotes

The primary work of Slow Church is not attracting people to our church buildings, but rather cultivating together the resurrection life of Christ, by deeply and selflessly loving our brothers and sisters, our neighbors and even our enemies. (33)

Its ironic then that churches that pattern themselves on church growth models tend to resemble the mission stations McGavran so disapproved of. They are Christian colonies, safe havens in an otherwise hostile and foreign world. They become ends in themselves, often devoting an enormous amount of time, energy and money to finding just the right “ministry mix”—newer and bigger buildings, contemporary preaching, inspiring worship, abundant parking, excellent programs and a vibrant cell-group ministry—that will beef up attendance. (48-9)

Many churches have put down only shallow roots in their neighborhood, or no roots at all. We’ve all heard the question, “if our church suddenly moved to a new location fifteen miles away, would anyone in our neighborhood notice we were gone?” But what if we asked ourselves this question: “If our church was magically lifted off the ground and moved to a location fifteen miles away, would we notice the difference?” (67)

The church growth movement’s emphasis on homogeneity seems to imply that it sets its sights on something less than God’s reconciliation of all humanity and all creation (110)

Palmer has written extensively about clearness committees, which he says free us from the pretense that week now what is best for the other person and the arrogant assumption that we are obliged to “save” each other. (118)

[W]e might have to actually inhabit, engage and be present in order to bring justice to overwhelmingly large systems (quoting David Fitch, 122)

One of the primary functions of the ekklesia should be to help people discern their gifts, develop those gifts and exercise those gifts through cooperative work with God—whether that’s at home, in the church, in the community, in a job or as a volunteer. (134)

What if churches became clearinghouses for good work in our neighborhoods, facilitating connections between employers looking for good workers and good workers looking for good jobs? (136)

Sabbath is a way of slowing down and becoming attentive to the reconciling life of God in creation most immediately at hand, in all its complexity and particularity. It affirms work by keeping work in its proper bounds and reorienting it toward the glory of God. IT is also a way of reining in our consumptive desires and cultivating a spirit of gratitude. (149)

Churches that do have dedicated buildings should look to see if those facilities can be sold, rented or used more carefully throughout the week to generate economic activity. (170)

The pressing questions are these: Are we willing to creatively and faithfully plug in to the abundant economy of God? Will we submit the resources we have been given (as individuals and as church families) to the work of God’s kingdom? Are we being attentive to the gifts God has given us, not only in our congregations but also in our neighborhoods? (172)

Every Sunday night, we circle up the chairs in a multipurpose room and have an ongoing conversation about who we are in Christ and how we should share life together in our little corner of urban Indianapolis. (219)

Concluding Thoughts

At the end of the day I like Slow Church but I think the way it gets out is probably more like Ugly Church. Maybe that can be their sequel. I think doing these kinds of things are right, I just don’t think doing them will look or feel as amazing as the authors tend to construe them. Perhaps they don’t give us the deepest insight into the challenges that face us, but I think they point us in the right direction, and I think that churches that embrace this vision will stumble awkwardly into something more closely resembling the Kingdom of God.

The Monks of Mt. Athos (M. Basil Pennington)

The Monks of Mount AthosBasil Pennington, The Monks of Mount Athos: A Western Monk’s Extraordinary Spiritual Journey on Eastern Holy Ground

Woodstock, VT: Skylight Paths Publishing, 2003.

My first encounter with the Eastern Orthodox Church was in college. Up until that point I hadn’t even realized that there was something else besides Catholics and Protestants in Christendom. In Abilene, where I studied, there was a billboard that said, “Come to St. Luke’s Orthodox Church, the real first-century church!” It was a little good-humored slant at the churches of Christ who also claim to have embodied the church of the New Testament. I went one Saturday evening to the “Vespers” service and fell in love a little bit (a crush, as it were). Eastern Orthodoxy is on the ‘high’ end of “high church” and in some ways filled a great religious void in my life. As the sign implied, it was indeed a natural extension of a good deal of the foundational ideas of my own tradition. Unfortunately, it also embodied some of the worst qualities of my tradition, especially its hard-lined exclusivity. I soon became a scorned lover.

I have not fallen quite out of love with that church. Theologically it has been a well that I continue to draw from, and it has shaped my thoughts and actions in important ways. When I came across this book at a bookstore I knew it was something I needed to read: another outsider (this time a Roman Catholic monk) visiting the place Orthodox Christians consider to be holiest: Mt. Athos. I picked it up as a way of learning more about this very special place—a place I am not likely to ever be able to visit in person. I quickly found out that this was not just a book of interesting mysteries, it was a book for devotion, a book that called me to prayer, to rest, to contemplation, to peace.

The Gist

This is (…was…) the private journal of a “hieromonk” (priest/monk) named M. Basil Pennington. He was a monk of the Trappist order, an order known for a fairly consuming prayer schedule and a restriction of speech—like an “almost” vow of silence. Pennington is one of the “higher ups” of his order. When he was called to a new set of responsibilities he had the opportunity to take a ‘retreat’. He chose Mt. Athos, a narrow, mountainous body of land that juts off the coast of Greece, close to Thassaloniki (Just Google it). The Orthodox Church has claimed it as the center of its spiritual life. There are a good number of monasteries there—each with its own distinct style, rule of life, and community.

The journal tracks Pennington’s private thoughts throughout his retreat. The entries range from personal introspection and examination, to reflection on the days events, to a narrative of the events he encountered and conversations he had. In eulogizing the late Pennington, someone said that if one wanted to learn Pennington’s true character, of his deep love and grace, he should simply read this book. That is certainly true. The self-emptying love of God is embedded deep within Pennington’s thoughts. It is really a pleasure to be able to experience what is, in some ways, the height of Christian community between people who have devoted themselves wholesale to God.

What Stuck

A major theme is the ecumenical question: how will a group that is religiously exclusive entertain an outsider? Through the course of the book the answer varies. Pennington discovers that each monastery is different. The place where he spends most of his time, Simonos Petras (Simon Peter) is full of monks who embrace him. Others are less enthusiastic about his presence, but every monastery and hermitage he visits—with the exception of one, a monastery that has since been deemed heretical by the Ecumenical Patriarch (the equivalent of the Pope in the West) of the Orthodox Church—treat him with dignity, respect, and hospitality.

This is not to say that everything is always wonderful. One of the most poignant parts of the journal is when Pennington reflects on the ways in which, even in his home base of Simonos Petras, he faces the inevitable wounds of exclusivity. Some of the older monks openly wonder why he has yet to “become a Christian” (meaning that he is not Orthodox), while some of the younger ones tend to try to convert him, subverting any real relationship that might occur. He is often asked to stand in a separate place reserved for non-Orthodox in the worship services. Anyone who has spent any time with the Orthodox church knows these wounds. It is so difficult to be with people who represent a tradition that has so much of God in it, a tradition which you consider yourself one with as a Christian, and yet for them to either reject your aspirations or at least to consider themselves somewhat above and beyond what you bring to the table as a Christian.

Yet the final and most beautiful theme of this book is something of an antidote to the poison of exclusivity. Pennington gives us glimpses into so many Orthodox scholars, priests, and monastics who see Christ within each person regardless of tradition. Pennington’s interactions and relationships with these saints is so encouraging. Here are conversations and interactions marked by love, respect, and true discipleship.

Several other themes run through this book, from Pennington’s frustrated desire to be able to be more present in the moment, or his humble reflections of his own insufficiency and failures, or his rich and deep insights into the Christian life in general and the life of prayer in particular. This book is a modern-day spiritual classic, but what makes it a classic is not just the quality of its prose or vitality of its rhetoric, but rather the way that it is itself a call to prayer, a summoning and kindling of the heart that compels one to seek and find God.

Memorable Quotes 

“But law must follow life, not make life conform to it. Renewal must begin in the hearts and the spirits of persons and communities.” (xxx)

“I have found here at Simonos Petras the kind of community I have always idealized—a community that really runs on love. There are no strict rules or expectations. The men come to Services because they want to, they do their work because they want to, they keep silence and pray because they want to. It is very much a family. And as Father Maximos put it, ‘Naughty children are not thrown out of a family.’ But I have not seen any ‘naughty children’ yet—though there is freedom to speak in church and refectory in a way that we would not feel comfortable within our Western monasteries.” (21)

“[The spiritual guide] should be a man who is always in the presence of God, never in the way, allowing God’s gifts to flow through, seeing all the need of his disciple and applying the Word of God to it.” (37-8)

“It was agreed that spirituality and practice do and should flow from doctrine. And therefore it is understandable that some Orthodox feel that Catholics should not use the Jesus Prayer or any of the writings and practices of the Orthodox Church. But Father Kallistos and Professor Sherrard felt that the massive bulk of our doctrine is one. The areas where we differ are comparatively small. A person truly seeking and guided by his Spiritual Father will surely draw out the good that God wants him to find in these writings and practices.” (47)

“When the heart begins to recite, the tongue should stop.” (49)

“I am so full of thoughts, projects, ideas, things to be done. I am hardly ever fully present. Distracted at Services, at prayer, at lectio—never there—dissipated, shallow. Lord, have mercy…To stay in attention in one’s stall through several hours and continue fervent prayer in spite of fatigue and physical pain calls for a bit. I am afraid I do not do too well.” (49)

“I see that in working with my sons I have been too eager to see them move on, too eager to impart knowledge. For the future I will try to move more at God’s pace, be content to give a word, and let it be used by him as he sees fit.” (50)

“I questioned Father Paisios on his life: I don’t remember; I am an idiot.” (52)

“God does not look to what we say but how we hold people and needs in our heart.” (53)

“I shared with him a very real question in my own heart. How, while remaining fully true to what we should be as monks—for otherwise we are of no use to anyone—can we be more to those who are seeking and searching? …Father Nicholas felt such a question would not even occur to an Orthodox monk. He simply lives his life as a monk.” (63)

“I think the Lord must be laughing at me.” (64)

“Each one will have to sustain his loss according as he has built. How have I built? Is so much of it stubble, needing to be burned away? I am afraid so.” (65)

“One of the things I think the Lord wants to teach me is to live freely and wholly in the now, with him, and not miss the present because I am in the future.” (67)

“I found one of the stout Russian monks working placidly with a tiny towel and a pan of cement patching some cracks in the stairway, seemingly oblivious of the mountain of ruins around him. His humble labor seemed something like a pebble in the face of a flood. Yet there was something serenely beautiful in his quiet labor.” (97)

“The way these old men continue during the long hours in choir praising God and praying for all says much of the meaning of monasticism.” (70)

“Deep down in some little corner of my soul there is a voice urging me to feel a bit guilty. It is perhaps that streak of Jansenism in all of us, a bit of fear. To be holy it has to be hard, painful. We tend to find it difficult to simply receive good things, especially when they are so completely undeserved. We have to learn to accept good things form the Lord, our loving Father, as well as bad. “ (75)

“I stressed that my desire to enter more into their ways and traditions was not so much to practice or imitate, but in the light of a different way, to see my own way more clearly and fully and also to appreciate more and glorify God for what he is doing in their midst.” (80)

“Rather than struggling to overcome all the sin and evil in us, all our bad tendencies, we seek to enter into the Divine Presence and be to God: “Be still and know that I am God.” Instead of struggling with self to kill the old man, we simply ignore him with all his beautiful or not so beautiful thoughts and feelings and desires and turn our whole attention to God…So by ignoring self and turning our attention fully to God in silent, attentive prayer, we truly die to self and live to God” (93)

“I sometimes tend to feel sorry for the humble laymen who work at lowly tasks here on the Mountain. Most monasteries have a few, working in the gardens or woods or in kitchens, etc. And there are the boatmen and the bus drivers who go constantly back and forth. That is what they have been chosen to do, just as we have chosen to be monks. I may feel infinitely more blessed in my vocation, and certainly it is a most beautiful gift from the Lord. But who his to say which is more significant in the working out of the divine saving dance of creation? Each has its place. Only the love of the dancer counts in the end.” (111)

“I must not allow any trafficking. I do need to search the Scriptures for that insight that will fuel the fires of love and self-sacrifice. But I must take care not to sell such thoughts and insights or to use them to make others think more of me or to write them in books to make money. I must have that purity of heart, the Lord must so cleanse my temple, that I seek only him and share only to help others find him. Lord, give me a clean heart and a humble, serving love.” (121)

“Lord, look into my heart, but first put there what you want to see. Amen.” (126)

“I like the way they do the Services. Usually one or a small group around the lectern does the reciting or singing. The rest are left free to follow along, moving with the theme of the prayer, carried as it were on the wings of the prayer of the Church, in a very simple prayer that can be very free and elevated. This is why they can have such long Services. Instead of everyone being expected to sing almost everything as it is with us in the West, the strong singers can carry the larger part of the burden, yet even they get time to rest while others recite the Psalms and the like.” (126)

“The assumption that is present in this, that all other Christians in some way are not open or not seeking Christ’s will, I find impossible to accept.” (132)

“Certainly I would be delighted if, in some very real way, the Lord would show me his Face, let me experience him. But then he does, but in no sensational or dramatic way but in a very real constant Presence of peace and joy and love. I cannot be sufficiently grateful for what I have which is so much more than I could ever deserve. Yet I know the Lord is pleased at my constantly wanting more.” (144)

“There is another form of self asserting itself, enjoying the imagined experience of being in control, mastering a situation, accomplishing, achieving, instead of living in the present moment before God, experiencing my own minuteness and incapacity, crying for the mercy and love of God.” (148)

“Twenty-five years of unlimited mercy—and all the years that went before, to prepare for it. How very far short I have fallen from the full potential of the life the Lord has given me. He alone knows and he alone can forgive. I can only ask pardon even as I say my humble ‘Thank you, Lord’. By your great mercy, may I die in the habit and in a state more worthy of it than I am in now.” (150)

“But anything that our small minds can master is very small indeed, certainly only a caricature of God and his wonderful doings, and not capable of drawing form us that wonder that falls down in admiration and rises up in praise.” (191)

“The monk who wanted me to be baptized [into the Orthodox church] spoke out of a faith-filled love, according to the ardor of his own faith conviction and the vision he had. A Westerner might be tempted to label it as prejudice or narrowness, but if he did, he would be missing the reality that was present, a beautiful reality, even if partial.” (199)

“Often others see the cross—all the monk or nun gives up—but also they see the evident joy, and they cannot understand. Such a life has to be lived. Until it is, even for the monk and nun it is a paradox; then it becomes a mystery of love.” (216)

“I was not tired after the Service. That is one of the things that has rather surprised me here on the Mountain; the long Services seem to have a certain rhythm to them, a time of quiet and a time of deep prayer that renew and refresh one not only spiritually but also physically. One can come out from them without a sense of fatigue but rather of having been well rested.” (235)

“What we do need is that kind of love experience that will transform and motivate us to seek, to be attentive, to be receptive, and to follow unhesitatingly. Love-knowledge, not brilliant concepts or flashy ideas.” (260)

“Isaiah says: ‘The idols will perish forever’ (2:18). Lord, grant that all the idols in my life perish, and without delay, and forever. Especially idols of my own image before men. Let me simply be before you in all nakedness and simplicity, and let men see what they will, and say what they will, and think what they will. Help me to be myself, go my own way—the way you beckon. As Dom Déchanet has put it, ‘Accept then to be yourself, to be ‘other’ than the others’. And he knowingly adds, ‘It is difficult’.” (261)

“For me I see the heart of Christianity in personal love of Jesus Christ. Until one gets to know him enough to be compelled by that knowledge to love him and want to do everything for him to please him, until, in a word, one has fallen in love with him, I fear one is centered on the one he knows best, himself, and has love of self at the center. He knows enough about Christ to know it is important to love him and please him by doing what he wants, but it is a dutiful sort of thing, ultimately motivated by self-love, one’s own good. I think the Lord accepts this, knowing it is a path, a way to true Christian life and love, but it falls short of it. And such a dutiful Christianity, while it brings a certain joy and peace from a sure knowledge that one is in the right way, yet lacks that fullness of joy and peace that makes the true Christian so attractive. Hence the practical importance of daily listening to the Gospel sand spending time in listening prayer using every other means we can to let Jesus reveal his most lovable Self to us.” (267)

“I see more clearly the selfishness, the lust, gluttony, and sloth in me. How little the love of inner silence and prayer has grown in these twenty-odd years. I can only try by God’s help to keep my schedule and my need, my unworthiness. And coming to know I have no claim, perhaps then he will come and I will really know that it is pure mercy, immense goodness, and be able to humbly accept it for that. Lord, have mercy and help. May I again give myself wholly to you. In spite of all my uncleanness and sin, please do not reject me, but take me and care for me and help me to be made worthy of the promises of Christ.” (285)

Healthy Congregations (Steinke)

Steinke - Healthy Congregations

I selected this as my first book because I am beginning a preaching ministry in a new church and I wanted to get a grasp on the general features of healthy congregations. I also, and arguably primarily, chose it because it was short. 


Peter L. Steinke, Healthy Congregations: A Systems Approach
Herndon, VA: The Alban Institute, 2006

In graduate school my wife, Sierra, took a course in which she was assigned this short book. It sat on our bookshelf for a long time before I finally plucked up the courage to raid her books and steal back to my office with a fresh supply of loot. The book stood out to me for several reasons. First, although I have my own intuitive ideas of what health looks like in churches it occurred to me that someone with vastly more experience than I do might just have a better clue. Second, ministers can easily fall into the trap of getting obsessive-compulsive about their own ministry’s problems. We see the gaps in our work, often projecting them on our own deficiencies, and submerge ourselves in them. At this point it is hard to actually deal with them because from the vantage point of submersion everything looks like a hopelessly tangled web. Reading this book is like coming up for air: come out of the hole, breathe a little bit, and lets sort things out a little better.

The Gist

The subtitle of this book says it is a “systems approach.” Although sometimes this just boils down to giving the author license to overuse analogies to human biology, I think the idea is important. Problems in life are complicated, and they rarely are solved through a black & white, good vs. evil dichotomization. We need to see churches and the problems associated with the people in them as systemic problems—problems that are not isolated from, but indeed indelibly wrapped up within all of the other forces that constitute human life—and to deal with them accordingly. We need to understand that a problem does not exist in isolation from every other factor in a person and his or her community. If a church has a problem getting their congregation to volunteer, the solution cannot be to berate people and tell them to suck it up and start giving up their time. The solution has to address the systemic issues that deter people from giving their time to the church’s ministry.

In thinking systemically the author uses the analogy of the church to human biology extensively in addressing everything from the ideals of congregational health to the diagnosis and treatment of congregational disease. The upshot of this is that you often find yourself skipping entire paragraphs of text because you understand the analogy right away! Just kidding, don’t presume to know what the author will say. Even though this analogy has definite limits, using a general knowledge of human pathology to inform the way we think about health and healing in churches yields a lot of helpful and practical fruit.

What Stuck

One thing that sticks with me still is the difference between critical and optimistic approaches to congregational care. I don’t remember when I turned cynical but I am confident it had something to do with what is wrong with everything. A great mentor of mine woke me up in college from the ways in which unchecked cynicism is just a way of dealing with the problems of the world without dealing with the problems of the world. The same seems to hold true of congregational issues. When our approach consists of beating to death what is wrong with our church then we are only ushering in more death and less confidence into an already crippled body. By addressing problems by focusing on our strengths, options, and resources we inject new life and approach health.

Another, more minor, bit of wisdom that sticks with me is the idea that pathogens need hosts in order to produce disease. This applies in particular to those persons who choose to complain or criticize as their default mode of self-expression. Listening to criticism is important, but this kind of criticism can be distracting at best and divisive at worst when we allow ourselves to give in to the pressure. Church leaders need to know how to allow dissent to come and go without letting it infect or affect them.

Memorable Quotes

“A congregation may carry the delusional hope that something outside itself will save it. In fact, I have seen many congregations place their will-being in the hands of a magical helper, an instant solution, or a sure-fire programmatic cure. Looking outside for help may be a forfeiture of responsibility. Wanting to be taken care of simply compounds the illness. Helplessness is a disease in itself. Congregations need to see themselves as the source of their own healing. The power to heal is internal.” (18-19)

“Health is a process, not a thing or state. It is ongoing, dynamic, and ever changing. Health is a direction, not a destination, a once-and-for-all property.” (27)

“Indeed the body functions more like a garden than a machine, though the opposite is commonly believed.” (34)

“Healthy congregations can grow through the challenge of pain. They discover strength in managing it, and they head off many of its negative effects in the process.” (51)

“To be healthy requires taking an effective stand in the middle of those who are taking sides or hostages.” (56)

“When you judge someone critically, you do not define that person. You define yourself. Your harsh judgment says something about you. It describes your likes and dislikes. Accusation—‘you, you, you’—is really about ‘me’.” (63)

“Some evils are not to be worked out and some conflicts are not to be managed—they are simply not to be admitted into the community’s life at all…The manifestation of evil I encounter most frequently in the church is the cunning, sly kind—subtle manipulation, winsome seductiveness, shrewd innocence.” (64)

“When a congregation is trapped by its own resistance to change, the congregation resembles the monkey. The congregation cannot understand that openness to change is more valuable than fear of it.” (74)

“How many congregations believe they are in the “we exist for ourselves” business rather than the “we are in a mission tot eh community, even the world” business? How many congregations confuse “the way we have done things for decades” with the “larger apostolic purposes”? How many congregations mistake the means for the ends?” (75)

“It has been said that health comes from empowering people to take responsibility for their own health. The health of a congregation is no different. It comes from individuals being responsible, being stewards of the whole.” (85)

Final Thoughts

What it means to be successful in the world of churches these days is largely up in the air. Before we can really figure out what that success really should be we need to take a few steps back and try to figure out just what a healthy congregation is. This is a wonderful primer on what “health” might mean in a congregation. It must be said that there is ultimately nothing that distinguishes the author’s wisdom for churches from any other institution. This is not necessarily a fault. We must presume that true wisdom works toward peace, unity, and harmony—it aims towards health in any and every kind of organization. At the same time sometimes I felt like the wisdom of this book could make a peaceful community with an anemic mission. As Plato once said, the medicines can sometimes cause other diseases. But that is an unnecessary consequence for the sincere reader. If anyone is interested in thinking about congregational health, at 116 pages and large type, this is a pretty good place to start.

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