A Goal Bigger Than “Church”: A Review of “The Tangible Kingdom” by Hugh Halter and Matt Smay

I don’t think there is anyone who I agree with 100%. I am not sure I even agree with myself 100% of the time. I certainly don’t agree with everything Hugh Halter and Matt Smay have written about in their book The Tangible Kingdom. I think they use a number of really frustrating “missional” clichés. I also think they paint a few false dichotomies in their book. But I think it’s silly to focus on those differences when I love and agree with the big picture they are presenting. The authors press us to see that our mission, as Christians, is bigger than building up the kingdom of our little church; rather it is about living out the Kingdom of God in our daily lives.

The authors begin with a very clear statement: their book is not about “doing church differently.” They write:

“Doing church differently is like rearranging chairs on the Titanic.” We must realize that slight tweaks, new music, creative lighting, wearing hula shirts, shorts, and flip-flops won’t make doing church more attractive. Church must not be the goal of the gospel anymore. Church should not be the focus of our efforts or the banner we hold up to explain what we’re about. (30)

The authors recognize that the church, fundamentally has some serious issues in our Western context that must be addressed. But don’t misunderstand the intent of the book, it’s not a church bashing book. These authors love the church, but they understand too many Christians have operated on the assumption that “doing church” was the end-all-goal of the Christian life. They add, “Church should be what ends up happening as a natural response to people wanting to follow us, be with us, and be like us as we are following the way of Christ” (30). They propose, then, that we be more like missionaries in our various contexts living out the Kingdom of God for seekers/”sojourners,” as they call them, to see.

They say it begins with changing our posture, approaching people with love, compassion, and investment. We are not making people spiritual projects, we are not seeking to communicate information at them, but we are seeking to invest in them. I just finished teaching a course on evangelism for our Free Seminary and the text-book we used encouraged the very same thing (See Questioning Evangelism, by Randy Newman). It seems that many pastors and theologians are catching on to this failure within the church. Posture, the authors of this book state, is a foundational element to making the Kingdom tangible for others. And they spend some time unpacking this idea of the Kingdom too.

This is not just a book of interesting stories and theories from two guys who are doing this kind of missional ministry (and coaching others). This is a book on theology too. I do think the authors are a bit weak here in their discussion, it seems that they have read many works which communicate the ideas they are attempting to in chapter 9, but they are having more trouble developing them here. They speak of the gospel as “the tangible life of God flowing into every nook and cranny of our everyday life” (90). They say it this way:

When someone adopts a child, brings a kind word of encouragement to someone in jail, renovates a dilapidated home in the inner city, mentors a struggling student, plants trees in an ugly city block, plays music for the elderly, or throws a party for friends…it’s all Kingdom, and it’s always good news! (90).

I like that Smay and Halter care about those things. I think the church should be involved in those kinds of things, but I also think equating them with the Kingdom itself or the “good news” itself is bad theology. Scot McKnight and N.T. Wright do a much better job of presenting a holistic gospel than these authors, though I think they are trying to communicate the same idea.

The book has occasional points like this that I think are actually more theological miscommunications than intentional focused points. What they do well, however, is orient the reader’s perspective away from traditional concepts of what the church is about and steer them towards a missional mindset. This mindset they summarize in two components: Living Out and Inviting in. Living out begins with developing four habits: leaving (“replacing personal or Christian activities with time spent building relationships with people in the surrounding culture, p. 127), listening (hearing people and not making any assumptions), living among people (not condemning them for their sin but recognizing they have not yet be changed and investing in them), and loving without strings. Inviting people in is about finding ways to connect them into the community, the worship, and the mission of the church. At one level it is simply inviting them into discipleship before their conversion, a point the authors make often in the book.

The book is in some ways quite typical to missional literature these days, and yet it gives some very hands on suggestions for activating missional mindsets in established churches. This is where the strength of the book lies. Halter and Smay know what they are talking about. It’s obvious that their illustrations back up their suggestions and recommendations. They know what they’re talking about because they are doing it. I have issues with some of the things they say (perhaps more with the way they say it), but any book that gets us thinking beyond the kingdom of our little churches to the Kingdom of God is a good book, and that is precisely what The Tangible Kingdom does.

Comments

  1. Sounds interesting, bro. I can’t get into a lot of the “missional” stuff today, mainly cause it seems like just another fad, but I’m sure I’m missing a lot of good things in the process, too. Good review.

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