Rubel Shelly. I Knew Jesus Before He Was A Christian … and I Liked Him Better Then. (Three and a half stars out of five.) Abilene, Tex.: Leafwood Press. 221 pages, $14.99.
David Platt. Radical Together: Unleashing the People of God for the Purpose of God. (Three and a half stars out of five.) Colorado Springs, Colo.: Multnomah Books. 163 pages, $14.99.
Have churches become something entirely different than Jesus intended them to be?
Rubel Shelly, president of the Church of Christ-associated Rochester College in Michigan, and David Platt, megachurch pastor and author of the bestselling book “Radical,” argue that many churches, particularly those in the United States, indeed no longer represent the key ideals of Jesus.
Instead, what they see across the country are frequent examples of churches that have become self-centered purveyors of a sanctimonious religiosity. Despite their differences in theology, both Platt and Shelly believe that many churches desperately need to be challenged to reclaim their true calling and purpose as Christ’s church.
In “I Knew Jesus Before He Was A Christian … and I Liked Him Better Then,” Shelly warns Christians not to allow their faith to travel the same disastrous path taken by the Pharisees Jesus contended against in the Gospels. Many of these religious figures, notes Shelly, were phonies who masked their lack of authentic trust in God with group-defining practices, “theological hairsplitting” and hypercritical condemnation of others.
Churches today that go down that same spiritual highway are placing their emphasis on signs of “institutionalized religiosity.” While promoting a faith that is primarily concerned about having the correct answers to all doctrinal questions, these churches end up ignoring the central tenets of Jesus’ teaching — relationships with others that are characterized by love and compassion.
Shelly urges churches to take a page from recovery groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous. These groups, which Shelly sees paralleling churches described in Acts, create environments where sinful, broken people can find acceptance, accountability and support. They are relational communities where people discover their humanity in a non-judgmental sanctuary. Shelly laments that many churches have wandered off the avenue of authentic discipleship and have become competitive, bland and isolationist.
There is hope for churches, Shelly claims, if they let God be God and point others to the Jesus of the Gospels. The Jesus in Scripture was kind, accepting, gracious and self-sacrificing. By focusing on the “pre-Christian” Jesus, churches can once again be the counter-cultural presence of God’s reconciling work in the world.
Some readers will find Shelly’s characterization of churches as either hard-hearted, judgmental institutions or compassionate, inclusive communities as a gross error in generalization. Undoubtedly, Christians have been and continue to be marred by sin in their treatment of others. But, in my experience with churches that Shelly would characterize as examples of “sanctified religiosity,” there are people who have compassion for lost souls, hungry people and injustice in the world.
Nevertheless, Shelly uses a strong prophetic voice to call churches to those virtues of faith, hope and love repeatedly demonstrated by Jesus.
The book ends with a brief discussion guide covering each chapter that groups reading through this material together will find helpful.
In “Radical Together: Unleashing the People of God for the Purpose of God,” Platt calls churches collectively to do what he called individual Christians to do in his best-selling book “Radical.” Too many churches have embraced the model of simply growing bigger and providing programs and comforts that meet the needs of their members. Instead, churches should be, according to Platt, places where Christians are reminded of their responsibility to follow the Great Commission and share the Gospel with every people group in the world. By “people group,” Platt is referring to tribes and nations where less than 2 percent of the population is made up of evangelical Christians.
While that percentage seems arbitrary — and many of Platt’s Scriptures are examples of proof-texting (for example, claiming the word “nations” in Matthew 28:19 means “people group”) — Platt certainly is correct to call the attention of churches in the West to the popular trend of building communities that are nothing more than means of self-entertainment and monuments to self-sufficiency. It is when churches take seriously the task of exalting God’s glory and radically risking themselves to share the good news of Jesus that they will once again be the church Jesus intended. Platt’s book also comes with a discussion guide at the end. It is organized with a clear structure and enough questions to engage an adult class dialogue on living missionally.
Both books would work effectively for an adult class that wants to reexamine the question of the mission and purpose of Christ’s church.
“Radical Together” would appeal more to younger adults who typically crave challenges to their faith and obedience and want to focus on the topic briefly.
“I Knew Jesus …,” on the other hand, is organized for a longer curriculum of 12 to 13 weeks and would more likely resonate with an older adult audience that has experienced firsthand the type of rule-focused, legalistic and sectarian churches that Shelly sees as increasingly marginalized in today’s society.
JOHN HARRISON is professor of New Testament and ministry at Oklahoma Christian University and a member of the Memorial Road Church of Christ in Edmond, Okla.