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Book review: Vintage Church

Driscoll’s preaching is now available in a CD set http://www.logos.com/products/prepub/details/4924
Have you ever felt a faint twinge of frustration at the state of the Western church?
I doubt it — I suspect your frustration goes deep.  I suspect that, somewhere, at some point, you’ve been disturbed, disgusted and appalled by the colossal failings of our churches in our time.  It can be gut-wrenching to see churches flail about uselessly while chaos continues to gnaw at the world — are they even aware of the vital light they bear?
And so there’s been a growing conversation about what to do with the church in our society.  Among these is the third book by Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears: Vintage Church.
The book’s subtitle is ‘timeless truths and timely methods’ and Vintage Church falls roughly into those two halves.  The first defines the Christian life, church, leadership, preaching and the sacraments.  The second half takes some more distinctive twists and turns as Driscoll discusses church unity, church discipline, Christian love, being missional, multi-site organisation, technology use and global transformation.
Trailblazing distinctives
Vintage Church has some clear distinctives that, for some readers, will alternately seem unbearably conservative or disturbingly progressive.
Churches must have a clearly defined leadership (elders and deacons) of shepherds who directively care for God’s people (63-77). Churches must also have a clearly defined sense of belonging (membership) (77-80).
This is a church where kingdom growth always trumps tradition and comfort. As churches grow, changes must be expected everywhere. This will lead to conflict, which a church needs to corporately recognise, with its leaders and members preparing for displacement and loss with humility, rejecting any desire for compensation and gain (147-152). This of course encourages us to find security where we should expect: in relationship with God and his people.
Driscoll presents a church that is keenly aware of sin, noting that ‘the question is not whether people will sin against one another, but rather how they will deal with that sin’ (165). And when reconciliation inevitably fails at times, churches must have a process of discipline in place (163-188). It is not surprising that Driscoll’s #2 of ‘being missional’ is practising and preaching repentance. (222)
This is a book for the Western church.  Driscoll has set out to understand and decisively deal with Western dilemmas, such as individualism and religious consumerism.  He is intentionally anti-niceness and anti-comfort, and resolutely pro-love and pro-mission.
This is church with high standards.  Its people commit unreservedly to be loved radically in sacrificial community.  Sin is front and centre and relational mess is to be expected as Christ works amongst broken people.  Therefore repentance, reconciliation and discipline are not just acknowledged needs but values deeply implanted in church structures.  I found it thrilling to read about a church where the theology of love has been so intentionally and deeply worked into the way the church is organised.
Sure, not all of these distinctives are doctrinal absolutes, although they are theologically coherent.  Yet, Driscoll and Breshears show that these are not mere stylistic quirks but distinctives that flow directly from the church’s essential mandate, forming a potent remedy for an ailing Western church.  They seem like the right emphases for the right time: they’re anti-liberal, empowering the church to reclaim its Christian distinctiveness, as well as anti-sectarian, modelling how the church can engage fully and fruitfully with the world.  This is a refreshing, impassioned call for Christians to radicalise and take up their faith with new power, coupled with a winsome outward focus to bring social renewal.
In other words, this is not just a church planter’s manual or a pop pocket ecclesiology but a joyful, tangible vision for the wholesale renewal of Western Christianity.
Quibbles
Vintage Church is brief, which leads at some points to caricatures of other theological positions and a lack of clarity.  For example, Driscoll appears to affirm the baptism of infants (115) but then argues for believer’s baptism.  He dismisses the view that communion is pure symbolism but does not take the time to distinguish this view from the Reformed position he lays claim to (125-126).  Driscoll is intently practical to a fault; for example, his ‘theological’ reasons for church unity are more or less that Jesus prayed for it, that the church needs to keep focus on Jesus, and that Paul commanded it.
There is one big issue: video preaching.  The problem is not with watching screened preaching (live or otherwise) but with Driscoll’s idea of the ‘preaching pastor’: a single man who is responsible for preaching across a whole range of congregations.  There is such a strong sense that each of the Mars Hill campuses is part of the whole that the campus pastors preach for less than a quarter of the year. http://www.sydneyanglicans.net/ministry/evangelism/driscoll_promotes_wrong_mission_strategy

Have you ever felt a faint twinge of frustration at the state of the Western church?

I doubt it — I suspect your frustration goes deep.  I suspect that, somewhere, at some point, you’ve been disturbed, disgusted and appalled by the colossal failings of our churches in our time.  It can be gut-wrenching to see churches flail about uselessly while chaos continues to gnaw at the world — are they even aware of the vital light they bear?

Vintage Church is the third book by Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears.  Mark Driscoll began his ministry career as part of the emerging church conversation, from which he has subsequently distanced himself.  It’s interesting to see where his leadership of Mars Hill Seattle has taken his ecclesiology.

The book’s subtitle is ‘timeless truths and timely methods’, and Vintage Church falls roughly into those two halves.  Driscoll works through the following topics: the Christian life; church; leadership; preaching; the sacraments; church unity; church discipline; Christian love; being missional; multi-site organisation; technology use; global transformation.

Distinctives

Vintage Church has some clear distinctives — and the important ones are not the hip ideas you might expect.

Firstly, there’s old-school leadership. Churches must have a clearly defined leadership of shepherds (elders and deacons) who directively care for God’s people (63-77).  Churches must also develop a membership policy to promote Christian community (77-80).

This is a church where kingdom growth rightly trumps tradition and comfort.  As a church grows, it must expect to change. This will lead to conflict, which a church needs to corporately recognise.  Its leaders and members must prepare for displacement and loss with humility, rejecting any desire for compensation and gain (147-152).  This of course encourages us to find security in the right place: in relationship with God and in community with his people.

Driscoll presents a church that is keenly aware of sin, noting that ‘the question is not whether people will sin against one another, but rather how they will deal with that sin’ (165).  And when reconciliation inevitably fails at times, churches must continue to deal with sin through a process of discipline (163-188).  It is not surprising that Driscoll’s #2 characteristic of ‘being missional’ is practising and preaching repentance (222).

This is a book for the Western church.  Driscoll has set out to understand and decisively deal with Western problems, such as individualism and religious consumerism.  He is intentionally anti-niceness and anti-comfort, and resolutely pro-love and pro-mission.

Quibbles

Vintage Church handles each of its topics briefly, which at a couple of points leads to caricatures of other theological positions and a lack of clarity.  Driscoll appears to affirm infant baptism(115) but then argues for believer’s baptism.  Later, he dismisses the view that communion is pure symbolism but does not take the time to distinguish this view from the Reformed position he lays claim to (125-126).  Driscoll is also practical to a fault; for example, his five ‘theological’ reasons for church unity are little more than pragmatic (136).

I can’t make much sense of Driscoll’s emphasis on video preaching (ch 10).  The problem is not with preaching via video, but with Driscoll’s idea of the ‘preaching pastor’: a single man who is responsible for preaching across a whole range of congregations (which is only practicable via video).  Driscoll theoretically recognises that each Mars Hill campus is in some sense a church in its own right (252), yet at every campus, he personally occupies 40 weeks of the preaching calendar.  Regular video preaching is a great idea when a congregation is struggling without gifted leaders, teachers and preachers, yet each Mars Hill campus has its own pastor — so what’s the point of it?  Although Driscoll doesn’t explain, the reason seems to be that these campus pastors are only fill-in preachers (253-253).  But why shouldn’t the leader of a congregation also be its primary preacher?  And if a leader is not gifted to teach in this way, should he really be a campus pastor in the first place?

Conclusions

The church of Vintage Church is an exciting one.  Its people commit unreservedly to be loved radically in sacrificial community.  Sin is recognised and relational mess is to be expected as Christ works amongst broken people.  And in order to hinder sin, things like repentance are not just acknowledged needs but deeply implanted in church structures.  I found it thrilling to read about a church where the theology of love has been so intentionally and deeply worked into the way the church is organised.  Likewise, the sacrificial mindset on view is one which undoes the Western politeness and laissez-faire thinking that kills off mission.

Driscoll and Breshears show that these distinctives are theologically coherent, not just stylistic quirks.  They flow directly from the church’s essential mandate, forming a potent remedy for an ailing Western church.  They seem like the right emphases for the right time: they’re anti-liberal, empowering the church to reclaim its Christian distinctiveness, as well as anti-sectarian, modelling how the church can engage fully and fruitfully with the world.

Vintage Church is a refreshing, impassioned call for Christians to radicalise and take up their faith with new power, coupled with a winsome outward focus to bring social renewal.  In other words, Vintage Church is not just a church planter’s manual or a pop pocket ecclesiology but a joyful, tangible vision for the wholesale renewal of Western Christianity.

More to follow.

Categories: Written by Arthur

Tagged as:

Arthur Davis

Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.

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