The Wanderer

As I walked through the wilderness of this world …

“Vintage Church: Timeless Truths and Timely Methods”

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Vintage Church: Timeless Truths and Timely Methods by Mark Driscoll & Gerry Breshears

Crossway, 2008 (335pp, hbk)

Reading this book reminds me of one of the particular things I appreciate about Mark Driscoll.  Never backward in coming forward, it is generally clear what Mark – the primary author of this book – believes, and usually so is the basis on which he believes it.  In common with many others, I do not always agree with his conclusions.  Nevertheless, the value of clearly-stated convictions is that one knows when and how much to agree or disagree.  Unlike so many of their contemporaries, one is not left beating at the air when reading Driscoll & Breshears.  I enjoy this upfront honesty.  One may disagree with the Driscoll principles or practice or both, but there is also an integrity in Mark’s outworking of his principles in practice, and that again is rare and welcome.

vintage-church-driscoll-breshearsIt is also a delight to see the doctrine of the church being firmly established, especially in an age in which “doing church” seems to be a free-for-all, an unholy pick’n’mix in which the individual reigns supreme and the truth of God is discarded or received on the whim of the moment or the church is made in man’s image.  Detail aside, hurrah and huzzah for someone of Mark’s stature planting his flag in this regard.  Books like this – alongside other efforts and emphases like 9Marks – do much to turn the mind of the church in a healthy direction.

There is much that will be familiar to Driscoll aficionados as well as those who frequently come across his sermons, writings, or fans.  The missional emphasis is front and centre, woven into the opening chapters on the Christian life and the Christian church, and with a later chapter all of its own.  The authors are keenly aware of the general ignorance that prevails with regard to the identity, purpose and life of Christ’s church in many genuinely Christian circles.  In these early chapters they offer a cheap and cheerful overview of various attitudes and approaches to this issue.  It will undoubtedly infuriate (for what is left out or skated over or misrepresented) as many as it instructs.

The teaching on church leadership rightly identifies male eldership as a sine qua non, although Driscoll’s complementarianism extends to women deacons.  Helpfully, the role of those too often dismissed as ‘ordinary members’ is also made positively plain.  There is a helpful chapter on the importance of preaching, almost a mini-pastoral theology by Driscoll on the topic.  Again, a few casual statements are easy to identify (e.g. expository preaching is not simply and only verse-by-verse teaching), but there are plenty of helps and challenges, especially in the practical section.  The treatment of the sacraments comes next.  Driscoll is an unashamed credobaptist, and by no means a sacramentalist at this point.  His take on the Lord’s supper traces out five meals – forbidden fruit, Passover, the Last Supper, Communion, and the heavenly wedding feast – and is Calvinian rather than Zwinglian.  (As I understand it, Mars Hill is happy to baptise people at the moment of their profession, and communion is celebrated weekly in the services, but also seems to be observed in house groups: clearly there questions that could be quickly raised here).

Chapters on unity, discipline and love follow, and it is refreshing to find a robust and thorough treatment of both the formative and corrective and restorative discipline in this book.  The list of issues identified in Scripture for which some form of pastoral response is considered necessary will act as a wake-up call to many believers in more traditionally Reformed and/or evangelical churches about the seriousness of pursuing holiness and shunning sin.  The chapter on love is a smorgasbord, with lots of suggestions for fomenting true fellowship given.  Interestingly, one of these is observance of the Sabbath.  Again, while Mark’s is not a typically Puritan take on the matter, it is at least a relief to see a man of this profile calling for the day to be set aside to God.

The chapter on missional church tries to straddle the gap between contextualization while remaining countercultural.  Again, there is a lot here that is simple and practical, and much which ought to be assumed in any church that imagines itself genuinely evangelical.  Some of these emphases are picked up in the final chapter on transforming the world, which is where Driscoll’s model of a city within a city – with all that means for being upstream, and therefore generating the cultural current, rather than floating on it, and with what that means for urban church planting – gets its big airing.

However, before we get there, there are two fairly contentious chapters on multi-campus church and technology in church.  Mercifully, Mark avoids – and conscientiously stands against – the casual ‘internet church’ notion.  The Leadership Network supply a lot of the data and modelling that lie behind this chapter, but it is a powerful plea for multi-site church.  I think there is a degree of confusion here: by distinguishing between a spiritual “air war” and “ground war,” a rationale is developed for a high-level strategic ministry (usually vodcast, often in real time) to a number of campuses where the tactical efforts are taking place. We are assured that multi-site is the way forward, as smaller, struggling churches come under the preaching umbrella of a particular church or man, while continuing to undertake pastoral labour and pursue fellowship primarily on the smaller scale.  There seems to be a ‘have your cake and eat it’ mentality at work.  Although “we repudiate the idea that a group of people can gather to watch a sermon on a screen and call it church” (252) there is nevertheless an uneasy balance between the identity of each campus as almost-a-church-in-its-own-right-but-not-quite (with property, personnel, congregation, style of worship and the regular conduct of ‘family business’) and the fact that they all hear fundamentally the same sermons at slightly different times in any given week.  What are these gatherings?  Are they one church?  Many churches?  If they have their own pastors, why are those men not preaching to them each Lord’s day?  There is a fishy distinction between preaching and pastoring (grounded, it seems, in the triperspectivalism that seems to govern pastoral division of labour in many Acts 29 churches i.e. the distinction between prophetic, priestly, and kingly ministry).  For a “charismatic wearing a seatbelt,” it is curious that Mark seems to overlook the Spiritual dynamics of being gathered together in one place (e.g. Acts 2.1; 1Cor 11.18) at this point.  The best technology cannot compensate for the eyeballs of the preacher and of the congregation locked into each other as God works simultaneously along the axes of his relationship with the preacher and with the congregation as their humanities interplay with one another in the powerful reality of Spirit-filled preaching and hearing.  I find no Scriptural evidence that this can be fully replicated by the employment of technology.

That brings us to the following chapter on technology itself, in which – based on a breakneck hurtle through history (20 centuries in four pages!) – we are given some essentially pragmatic suggestions that sound like they might have come from a marketing course on how to maximise your impact by means of technology.  There is no doubt that the aim is to encourage the use of technology to bring glory to God, but there is lots of human counsel and not much divine foundation in evidence.

The whole volume closes with an appendix containing the Mars Hill Church Member Covenant, a document that will surprise (and probably trouble) many as much for what it includes as for what is omitted.  For example, confessional churches will quibble at what they believe to be an insufficient statement of doctrine, while the rampant individualist will bridle at the obligations stated for members.

Where does all this leave us?  It leaves us with a very stimulating book.

mark-driscoll-2Part of me would love to sit down and knock many of the issues in the book back and forth with Mark or someone of similar perspective and character, pushing and being pushed on vital issues.  I willingly applaud a man who takes his ecclesiology seriously and seeks to do it Scripturally, even if I disagree on several significant points.  Mark’s writing demands engagement and response from the intelligent reader.

That said, I would not want the very general overview above to give the impression that I am satisfied with all the details and nuances of Mark’s treatment, much as I appreciate a lot of the broad brushwork.

I have a few more deep-rooted concerns.  As one would expect from the pastor of a large church, Mark sometimes assumes bigness, and that is fair enough.  What is slightly more discomfiting (and I hope I do not say this with the jealous or dismissive sneer of a small-church pastor) is the underlying suggestion that big is best and most beautiful.  I am not sure whether or not that is simply the overflow of a capitalistic or consumer culture, or related to the idea that “reaching the most people for Jesus” demands bigness as a specific aim, but I am not persuaded that this is a justified assumption, even while I long to see more people being saved and added to the church.  This also plays in to the question of why you cannot have a multitude of smaller churches rather than one multi-site monster.

And so to the matter of pragmatism.  I am sure that Mark and others would call it a principled pragmatism (I still need that satisfactorily defined and explained, for one needs to know in every instance in which it is used the principles that govern the pragmatism which almost by definition is willing to override principle in order to accomplish its goal).  Mark sometimes seems to go looking for principles to justify his practice, finding them where he will in Scripture and history; it may be that – given the speed at which things have happened in Seattle – Mark has sometimes had to work up, at speed, a principle that fits what has been thrust upon him and his fellow-elders.  Under such circumstances, it is doubtlessly easy to validate what is, especially if it is adding to your bigness.

Joined with this seems to be a somewhat reactionary habit.  Often we read that Mark has seen or experienced this or that and the other, and it was bad (and in many instances it was undoubtedly so), but often the assumption seems to be that, because one extreme on the spectrum was bad, the safest place is the opposite end of the spectrum.  Such a radical view often carries men past the Scriptural point of righteousness (not simply the middle point on the spectrum) in which, under a holy tension, different principles meet and are worked out.

Mark’s tendency to absolutise is very refreshing when you agree, and very frustrating when you do not, or when you wish to see a more finely-nuanced or theologically- or historically-aware argument.  For example, some of the theological and historical sketches and summaries are painfully naive or shallow or unbalanced at points, but couched in such a way as to demonstrate or support the point that Driscoll is making.  That’s his prerogative – it’s his book, after all – but some of those conclusions are open to significant debate.

Finally, we are assured more than once that churches are messy, because change is messy and mission is messy and people are messy.  I think I understand and appreciate the point, and I may even have used the vocabulary, but I am not a fan of the terminology (even if I cannot readily think of an alternative).  I appreciate that too many churches are overly-obsessed with being ‘neat’ and keeping everything under control, demanding the absence of everything that upsets their cherished notion of perfection without allowing for the radical, uneven, sometimes profoundly uncomfortable process of individual and corporate sanctification that we often see in Scripture.  This pursuit of perfection is only accomplished when things are increasingly static: the last thing you want is new believers with all their baggage coming in at the bottom of the chain and messing up the smooth upward trajectory.  At the same time, the language of messiness is too easily abused and made an excuse for not pursuing a more complete obedience to God’s revealed will.  It was, after all, to one of the messiest churches of the New Testament period that God said, “Let all things be done decently and in order” (1Cor 14.40) (and, yes, the apostle said that primarily of worship, but I think that there is a wider principle at work, because God is not the author of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints).  The mess is not a reason to rejoice, even when we recognise it and embrace it as a necessary part of church life as imperfect sinners rub up against among other imperfect sinners in a world tainted by sin.  I get the point, but perhaps it is better to speak of the church as God’s unfinished business, and not imply that mess is the goal, even though it may be the norm.

It is important to recognise that for many up-and-coming young pastors, this may very well be the first and perhaps only ecclesiological textbook they take, swayed by Mark’s powerful personality, effective ministry, and winsome style.  Relying only on this volume would be an error on their part, but it is a possibility that we must recognise.  Vintage Church is by no means the sole textbook that I would take for ecclesiology, even while I appreciate that there are many worse.  It does have a place on the shelf, not least because of its vigorous interaction with cherished or discarded notions, and its currency in dealing with issues all the rage in the wider evangelical sphere.  There is much in it with which I wholeheartedly agree.  It reminds us of many of the first things that are often lost among the minutiae of closely-argued and finely-detailed ecclesiological debates.  Nevertheless, my aim would be not simply to pick and choose – as I think Mark sometimes does when seeking to prove his own assumptions – but to compare Mark’s book with other similar volumes addressing similar issues, comparing all those sources with Scripture, and seeking prayerfully to discern the mind of the Spirit with regard to these things.  Vintage Church is not the final word; it does not deserve to be, and should not be taken as such.  It does deserve to be read carefully and thankfully and wrestled with vigorously, and I hope that readers will do Mark and Gerry the honour of such an approach.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Friday 10 April 2009 at 09:23

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