The Great Giveaway

from Pastor Scott’s Thoughts by Scott Daniels

Great giveawayI have a new favourite book. This fall I have had my class reading David Fitch’s book The Great Giveaway: Reclaiming the Mission of the Church from Big Business, Parachurch Organizations, Psychotherapy, Consumer Capitalism, and Other Modern Maladies. Apart from the distinction of having one of the longest subtitles in history, it is a masterful synthesis and analysis of a number of concerns shared by theologians and scholars such as Stanley Hauerwas, John Howard Yoder, George Lindbeck, John Milbank, and many others. Whereas those scholars can often be fairly inaccessible to the average reader, Fitch does a great job of making their constructive critiques of modernity’s impact on Christianity more accessible to pastors, students, and lay-people.

The basic thesis of the book is that during modernity, while science under the guise of complete obejctivity was dismantling the older narratives and metanarratives that gave people moral frameworks and existential meaning, the church acquiesced to the modern impulse by giving away much of what made the church the church. Or as Fitch puts it, "The thesis of this book is that evangelicalism has ‘given away’ being the church in North America. Simply put, 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."

What postmodernity offers the church is a way of recovering its unique existence. Postmodernity (in particular the postmodern critique of individualism and the complete objectivity of science) is not itself the hope. It is certainly possible for postmodernity to lead people to complete relativism and despair. But the postmodern critique of modernity opens the space for traditions of interpretation (like Christianity) to re-enter the conversation of meaning and moral purpose.

It is here where Fitch takes my favourite ethicist – Alasdair MacIntyre – and uses MacIntyre’s articulation of "traditions" as socially embodied and historically extended arguments for Truth as the framework through which the existence of the Church as the socially embodied historically extended Body of Christ makes sense.

But for the church to make sense in postmodernity it has to live out its claims in ways that make its truthfulness evident in life and practice and not just in speech. In other words, Fitch believes that postmodernity has offered the church the opportunity it gave away in modernity – the opportunity to once again be the (capital C) Church.

That’s the complicated part of the argument. And so if you didn’t understand any of that, don’t despair. What Fitch does is flesh out that argument using various practices of the church as examples.

He describes the way that the definition of success in the church has been shaped by modern quantitative values such as effectiveness (meaning numbers) and efficiency, rather than qualitative values of faithfulness and Christ-like living.

He exposes the modernist assumptions behind apologetic and "seeker-sensitive" forms of evangelism; opting instead for an evangelism that is dependent upon the community of Christ as not just the bearers of the message of Christ but the embodiment of the message of Christ.

He critiques the use of CEO models of leadership in the church as shaped by modern values and not by the kingdom of God.

In my favourite two chapters he demonstrates how most of what the church does in worship is oriented around an informational view of preaching (rather than a formational one) and an emotive/experiential view of worship (rather than a transformational one). In other words our worship tends to ask if people enjoyed it or learned from it, rather than ask if people were shaped to be like Christ through it?

The most challenging – but also richest – chapters are the final three where Fitch deals with the way the church’s work in justice, spiritual formation, and moral education have been co-opted by democratic liberalism, psychotherapy, and capitalism. His critiques in these areas are powerful if we have the ears to hear it and the eyes to see it.

I will likely buy copies for the church staff so that we can walk slowly through it and wrestle with how we as a church can recover the practices necessary for us to be shaped as God’s unique people in the world. There is much in this excellent book to take in but the value of this book is for groups of believers to read and wrestle with together. We have given away too much of what it means to be the Body of Christ in the world, with the help of the Spirit perhaps the next volume can be entitled The Great Rediscovery.

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