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Book Jacket

Trade Paperback
240 pages
Nov 2005
Baker Books

The Great Giveaway

by David E. Fitch

Review  |   Author Bio  |  Read an Excerpt

Review:

The Great Giveaway is an honest and wide-ranging guide for everyone who is concerned about the growing worldliness of the evangelical movement. Fitch's analysis is both trenchant and biblical, and his suggestions are faithful to historic Christian orthodoxy, though perhaps a bit difficult to implement. Despite a couple of problematic issues that I will discuss further below, I wholly recommend this book to all concerned that we as evangelicals are losing a sense of what it means to be the church.

As the second sentence of David Fitch's book explains, the great giveaway that has occurred in evangelicalism’s relationship with modernity is that "evangelical churches have forfeited the practices that constitute being the church either (a) by portioning them off to various concerns exterior to the church or (b) by compromising them so badly that they are no longer recognizable as being functions of the church" (13). In addition to offering extensive biblical justification for his critique, Fitch employs terms and analysis of postmodern critics of modernity to "seriously examine our assumptions as evangelicals in the ways that we are doing church" (14). His ultimate goal is to save the evangelical movement from the grip of modernity, fearing it will fail unless we "reinvigorate an ecclesiology for our times" (25). Addressing primarily baptistic, low-church evangelicals, he guides readers through eight provocative chapters, each of which discusses the ways in which these evangelicals have given away a different aspect of being the church, and humbly offers practices to retrieve faithfulness for 21st century Christians.

 Let us turn to Chapter One as an example of the sort of analysis he offers. This chapter discusses "Our Definition of Success," with the provocative subtitle that exposes the issue facing the church: "When Going from Ten to a Thousand Members in Five Years Is the Sign of a Sick Church" (27). Here Fitch sees both the evangelical confidence that numbers equals success, and the distinctively evangelical notion that our salvation is simply an individualistic transaction with God, as uniquely modern assumptions that are at odds with the biblical account of the sanctifying work of the Spirit through the church. The meat of his critique, and his appeal for ecclesiological change, is illustrated by this telling quote:

     ...the goal of manufacturing decisions fits well with the notion of organizing for efficiency. But if we see that salvation is more than one's personal transaction with God, if we see that salvation is the invitation into God's cosmological work of redemption over sin through Jesus Christ, our idea of church changes and we must organize accordingly. If we no longer separate one's decision as justification from one's sanctification into the salvation of God in Christ and recognize that one's sanctification is dependent upon membership in the body, our idea of the church shifts and we will organize the church differently (39).

Instead of measuring success by numbers, conversions, and the convenience of our church facilities, Fitch suggests alternative criteria for success. First, he suggests that we count baptisms instead of decisions; and second, that we see faithfulness as eternally more important than the efficiency of our facilities. Reminiscent of Wesley's class meetings, he proposes that church communities would be well served to ask themselves the following sort of questions:

  •  When was the last time someone spoke a hard truth into your life? Was it done with love?
  • When was the last time you confessed sin to someone you felt safe with in this community?
  • When was the last time you prayed with someone over an issue of needs or discernment in this body?
  • When was the last time someone in this body visited you in the hospital or brought over a meal when you were sick?
  • When was the last time a homeless person was brought into this congregation and made whole?

 The immediate intrusiveness of these questions, and the defensiveness with which they might be answered, discloses the problem Fitch is depicting. Though he doesn't question the legitimacy of scrutinizing the convenience of our facilities or the effectiveness of our preaching, he suggests that questions like the above will better help us understand the level of faithfulness our community is, in fact, practicing. Size itself, he warns, tells us nothing of faithfulness. He closes this chapter by suggesting that we move away from assuming that healthy churches must grow to mega-church proportions, and instead recommends that we focus on planting smaller congregations that better allow for this growth.

 Each of the eight chapters was written to stand alone and can be read randomly. I, for example, was most intrigued by Chapter Six – “Justice (Our Understanding Of)” – which is the most provocative in the book. Here he takes to task nearly every approach to justice evangelicals of all stripes espouse. For those dispensationalists still utterly pessimistic about redeeming society's social structures, Fitch dismisses them with a footnote (154, see footnote #3). But for evangelicals like Ron Sider who follow Carl F. H. Henry's substantial theological contribution, Fitch, too, calls into question the separation of personal salvation from social salvation. He suggests that most of these evangelicals, and here Jim Wallis and the Sojourners are included, "unwittingly absorbed the liberal Protestant approach to the church that divorced God's work in the world from the social politics of the church" (158) assuming that "the work of Christ's justice can be detached from his body" (159). Analyzing Sider and other Evangelicals for Social Action who tirelessly assess and suggest public policy, Fitch's critique is that their analysis as Christians suffers because they quantify justice according to the terms set by consumer capitalism. In Sider's classic Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, Fitch provocatively (and rightly, I think) suggests that "Sider missed the way he allowed the capitalist machine to determine what poverty is" (164).

 Instead, the author proposes, following ever so closely on Alasdair McIntyre's analysis, that in a society of multiple justices, the church can only survive by first rehearsing and learning Christ's justice among ourselves. Fitch then presents a quintessential episode that illustrates this evangelical blind spot.

Offering the story of a pastor who helps a poor man get off the street and start a business, Fitch wonders why the climax of the story always comes when the man becomes an independent entrepreneur. From a Christian perspective, he suggests, in addition to offering this man the goods of dignity and financial stability, the church’s role is to "train this man out of poverty into isolation and a life seen in terms of private wealth and exchange." More pointedly, Fitch states that, if we don’t do this, "we perpetuate the same sins of greed and avarice that caused the injustice in the first place" (166). As solutions to our complicity with consumer capitalism, Fitch admits the concept of entirely separating from capitalism and forming an intentional community is "certainly an option," but suggests that the church need not separate completely from the world. Here he joins with Sider and John Howard Yoder in suggesting that the "fundamental disposition wherewith we hold our privately held property together, in ‘unlimited liability’ one toward another and to God, recognizing that the property is not ours in the first place, just placed into our stewardship for a short time for the blessing of God's people" (173). He suggests the concrete practice of a benevolence-fund offering collected each week for those in need, and even wonders if "self-insuring the whole church for medical costs and including those who need to be insured in our group" adding that "we then extend this new social justice to the poor all around us" (178). Only if we first practice true economic justice in and among our brothers and sisters in our local church, can we "become a subversive community undermining the injustices of capitalism" (178). If we do, this "tiny presence undercuts the foundation of any false justices the world may mete out" (178).

 The pages of The Great Giveaway are filled with this sort of dissident yet hopeful ecclesiological retrieval. To flesh out the remaining chapters, Chapter Two shows that evidentialist apologetics and "seeker services" rely on modern commitments to the objectivity of science and radical individualism, and instead suggests retrieving the practices of hospitality and community, along with reinvigoration of the rite of baptism, concluding that we ought to emphasize church planting over crusades. In Chapter Three, he indicates our fascination with modern leadership principles, techniques, and structures leaves pastors without Christian accountability, and ironically encourages them into silence about personal sins in order to protect the ministry of the church. In Chapter Four, he calls into question both traditional and contemporary approaches to worship, and proposes a reintroduction of ancient liturgical forms like the church calendar and the lectionary as a way of reorienting our affections, rather than having our worship merely "reinforc[ing] the ones we walked in with" (7). In Chapter Five, he asserts that our attraction to expository preaching gives away scripturally formed communities to the modern notion that individual minds can understand and interpret the single unmediated "meaning" of the text. Instead, Fitch suggests that narrative-style preaching, along with opportunities for the church community to discuss and discern the text together, more fully shapes our lives in conformity with the Word. Chapter Seven reveals that we've given away spiritual formation to the counselor's office instead of seeing it as a necessary practice of the church. And finally, in Chapter Eight he takes up the issue of moral education, asserting that homeschooling, Christian schools, and public school reforms must be in conjunction with the church, which is the primary center for the moral education of our kids.

 The only chapter where I had any substantive questions about his analysis is Chapter Seven. Fitch here argues that "we should take back the confessional from modern psychology and return it to the church" (196). Fitch is right in his assessment of the current state of most psychological theory and practice: it makes individual autonomy the functional religion of the psychologist's office and consequently legitimates all sorts of sinful attitudes and practices. However, having discussed this chapter with my wife, who is studying to become a psychologist, we concluded that his extended comparison of Jungian psychology with Christian spiritual formation uses an extreme example to make his point (see pp. 188-194). For all of its problems, the discipline of psychology does still offer counseling practices that can be faithfully practiced by Christians. The existentialist and natural law orientations, for example, and their accompanying psychological techniques (over and against the Jungian approach) can, in fact, be integrated into a thoroughly Christian approach to counseling. While it may be that the therapist/pastor as co-laborer is a more excellent way, this doesn't mean that we throw out genuine insights that the discipline of psychology offers.

In addition to this question about Chapter Seven, a couple of overarching questions were raised as I read the book. First, the traditional truth-bearing communities that Fitch has in mind have historically brought with them firmly entrenched doctrinal convictions that make up the truth they believe so absolutely, but Fitch only hints at suggesting that this retrieval of church practices will mean rooting oneself in a particular theological tradition. This certainly wasn't his focus, but the omission could be taken by some as suggesting that things like an exhaustive catechism are also due to the ratiocination of modernity. Fitch, if I read him correctly, would have no problem with catechetical training. But postmoderns do extrapolate, and I think he leaves himself open to the critique that he unwittingly is embracing what Albert Mohler calls a "queasy postmodern uncertainty" (in Whatever Happened to Truth, p. 71). The separation of right teaching from heterodoxy is a practice as old as the church and we give it up at our peril, for we must continually ask ourselves: "when the son of man comes, will he find faith on the earth?" (Luke 18:8).

 In relation to this, his heavy dependence on a tradition of genealogical critics and Anabaptist theologians ranging from Alasdair McIntyre to John Milbank, John Howard Yoder to Stanley Haeurwas, may certainly draw legitimate criticism. However, I found Fitch's substantial biblical knowledge and humble pastoral tone disarming enough to overlook the fact that he ignores the likes of Colin Gunton and other Reformed theologians who offer similarly substantive criticism of Christians in modernity. Evidentialist apologists and the hyper-Reformed will undoubtedly take issue with epistemological issues raised in Chapter Two as well as his theological influences throughout, but even these folks can draw important ecclesiological insights from Fitch's attempt to retrieve more faithful Church practices.

 In the end, not only has Fitch made accessible the withering critique of modernity offered from McIntyre, Yoder, Milbank, and Hauerwas, but he has done a great service for the evangelical community, or shall I say church. For if we claim to be Christians, it is the church--and not the world--where we must learn and practice our apologetics, justice, worship, spiritual formation, and moral education. Unlike many who proclaim themselves as participating in the Emergent conversation, Fitch is profoundly committed to the Christian tradition. American evangelicals, no matter one’s attitude towards all things Emergent, ignore this ecclesiological vision at their peril. Highly Recommended. – Dan Olson, Christian Book Previews.com

 

Book Jacket:

Has the contemporary evangelical church given away much of what it means to be the body of Christ? Indeed it has, argues David Fitch. The North American church has largely conceded its unique calling by relinquishing traditional church functions and adopting modern methods. As a result, the church's role in spiritual formation, leadership, worship, and other essential functions has become barely distinguishable from other societal institutions.

The Great Giveaway examines the many practices of the church, details how each has been compromised by modernity, and offers suggestions for how the church might recover these practices in a biblically faithful manner.