Most pastors serving congregations today cannot remember a time before the realities of denominational decline. For several decades now in the mainline church, little has changed, and emptying sanctuaries, shrinking budgets, and closing congregations are part of our daily experience. What does Jones bring to the conversation in this book that’s different for those concerned for ecclesial vitality? The Reconstruction of the Church holds more than just another set of tactics, Jones sets out to pour a new foundation and take things in the church “down to the studs,” in order to build something very old, but in this moment, very new. The Reconstruction of the Church is in a league of its own. It’s like nothing you have read before!
– Jeffrey Conklin-Miller, Th.D., Director of the Methodist House of Studies, Assistant Professor and Teaching Fellow, Duke University Divinity School, Durham, NC
Most pastors serving congregations today cannot remember a time before the realities of denominational decline. For several decades now in the mainline church, little has changed, and emptying sanctuaries, shrinking budgets, and closing congregations are part of our daily experience. What has changed, however, is our precision in describing the factors fueling this story of decline. Sociological studies show decreasing birth rates leaving empty Sunday school rooms and growing numbers of the disaffected and disinterested, the so-called “nones,” absent from the church. Those left behind have been formed in what has been called a “moralistic therapeutic deism,” lacking robust faith, a clear sense of baptismal vocation, and energy to join the Spirit in the missio Dei. Perhaps more than ever, we are able to put words to describe the complicated set of reasons congregations are shrinking and people are leaving the Christian faith and not coming back.
As Jason Vickers notes, in such times of ecclesial anxiety, it comes as no surprise that campaigns promising the secret of church “renewal” increasingly draw the attention of pastoral leaders hoping and seeking to serve vital congregations. From the purpose driven movement to the church growth movement, from proponents of the organic church, the liquid church, the sticky church, and the tribal church, contemporary pastors have an almost overwhelming number of diagnostic and programmatic options offering a way to new life for the church in the world.
But renewal, of course, is predicated on the possibility that what “is” might be improved by a return to what “was.” New life in the church comes through a reclamation, a recovery, a reinstatement of an earlier faithfulness. It might be easy to believe that The Reconstruction of the Church is yet another one of these. But I think such a reading would be a mistake.
There is something more fundamental going on in this book. What Jones brings to those concerned for ecclesial vitality is not another set of tactics for institutional reinvigoration. The title of the book gives it away: Jones seeks not the renewal, but the reconstruction of the church. This is a book less about the redecoration or renovation of the existing structures and cultures of the church. Instead, Jones sets out to pour a new foundation and take things in the church “down to the studs,” in order to build something very old, but in this moment, very new.
This more fundamental, or we might say “radical,” engagement with the life and nature of the church leads to a series of challenging proposals that, if truly embodied, would remake the identity and agency of the church in the world. Let me suggest that this is at once the book’s greatest strength and its most significant weakness. The power of the vision Jones offers, while articulated nearly fifty years ago, still feels needful in the current moment. We long for a church unified by its generous, graceful life, following in the way of Jesus Christ, and embodying glimpses of his Kingdom now. At the same time, this vision is the book’s greatest weakness, just to the extent that it may be (and likely has been) too easily dismissed, set aside as too unrealistic, too idealistic, and too radical.
Such a conclusion would be right, however, at least in describing Jones’ vision as “radical.” This is because such radical vision characterizes Jones’ understanding of Jesus and his Kingdom. Here I draw from William Kostlevy’s characterization of Jones as a “holiness radical,” developed from consideration of Jones’ engagements with global political and economic challenges in the broader course of his writing and public witness. Here, Kostlevy suggests that Jones offered a “utopian social vision with a clear strategy suggesting alternatives to both Fascism and Communism.” Of course, such radical offers were often dismissed by others, but Kostlevy makes the crucial point that what Jones articulated “was not pie in the sky eschatological fantasy. It was far worse. It proposed actually living in history in light of the teachings and values of Jesus.” This is the Kingdom of God understood as a “literal reality occurring on earth among those now living . . . a Kingdom without poverty, classes and sickness inaugurated by the Lord’s Jubilee and empowered not by human effort but the Spirit of God.” We can detect such commitment in some of Jones’ earlier writings, particularly in a book written thirty years before Reconstruction, where his title plainly asked, “Is the Kingdom of God Realism?” The answer to that question was not only “yes,” but, in the words he ends the book with, “the Kingdom of God is the only Realism.”
This focus on a radical “realism” is the key, I think, to understanding the power of this book. For Jones, the church is called to nothing less than a shared life in community aligned with what he refers to more than once as the “grain of the universe,” the heart of everything that is “which is working for Christ and with Christ.” This is not a new vision from Jones. As he wrote in 1940, the Kingdom of God “is not something that we can take or leave alone. For it stands before us—and in us—as Destiny. It is the way that we are made to live, and to try to live some other way is not only foolish but impossible. You cannot live against life and get away with it.” In other words, Jones’ proposal for the Reconstruction of the church is grounded on no less than an apocalyptic vision of creation, Christ, and Kingdom, and it is only inside this eschatological frame that the church finds its faithful place.
Perhaps this is why Jones did not title his book “The Renewal of the Church,” or “The Revival of the Church.” Neither would reflect the radical realist vision being expressed here. It is, instead, a book suggesting an ecclesial revolution. Through the lens of this radical realism, we should read this book’s conclusions and recommendations as means not to the end of congregational vitality, but rather, as invitation to movement “with the grain of the universe.” If this is the case, then we should resist reading this book programmatically, as if it offers a list of initiatives to be developed in congregations by well-meaning task forces and denominational committees. We also cannot read this book as the fruit of one concerned only with “evangelism,” if “evangelism” refers to practices concerned with the conversion and ormation of spiritual lives, somehow separable from concerns with the economic and political impact on lives.
This is not what we find in this book. As Jones, writes, the church is called . . . to preach the gospel to the poor (the economically disinherited); . . . to preach deliverance to the captives (the socially and politically disinherited), and recovering of sight to the blind (the physically disinherited), to set at liberty . . . them that are bruised (the morally and spiritually disinherited,) to proclaim the Lord’s year of Jubilee . . . Here the economic, the social and political, the physical, the moral and spiritual, and the collective were to be redeemed—the whole of life.
What Jones offers us here is a recovery of a vision of church and mission that reflects holistic concern for bodies and souls, for personal and corporate transformation, for liberation and salvation in spiritual, political, and economic dimensions, in history, even now.
This is not idealism. He speaks of a church that understands it cannot be the church, it cannot be a sign that points to the Kingdom, if it does not engage with the divisions, the sin, it also bears as part of this world. Thus, Jones clarifies that this must be a church that sustains a tireless desire to engage and overcome the divisions introduced by unquestioned racial division, economic and class inequality, ecclesial institutionalization, and ministerial professionalization.
Given all this, one may wonder whether contemporary congregations (and denominations in conflict!) can bear the revolutionary, radical realism Jones offers. If Christ and the Kingdom live at the heart of the church, what might be different? When we reach out to start new churches, are we guided by the commitments we hear about in this book? Can we hope for a future reconstruction of a church truly one, holy, catholic, and apostolic?
Such questions, however, should not limit our hope, if it is rightly placed in the One who is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. Jones points us, again, to the way it is and invites us to walk that path together. The church today requires nothing more than that.