Author: Greg Finke
Publisher: Tenth Power Publishing, 2014
Rating: 3/5 stars
At first glance, two things had set off red flags for me about this book. The first is the title, which made me think Finke was going to talk about “missional living” in terms of church growth and church marketing. Too often these days, church is viewed as merely a non-profit organisation that needs to grow in numbers in order to be a “successful” church, which is no surprise since as Americans we measure success in numbers and in terms of efficiency. The second red flag was one of the reviewers of this book: Bill Woolsey, founder of FiveTwo Network. The problem with Woolsey is that even though he’s an ordained Lutheran pastor, he openly rejects article XIV of the Augsburg Confession, Concerning Church and Government, which says, “it is taught that no one should publicly teach, preach, or administer the sacraments without a proper [public] call” (emphasis added). When a Lutheran pastor is ordained, he confesses that he subscribes to the Book of Concord as an accurate explanation of the Holy Scriptures and its doctrine. By openly rejecting this article of our Lutheran faith, he is abrogating from his confession as an ordained Lutheran pastor. He does this when he preaches “sacramental entrepreneurship”—that laymen should be able to administer the sacraments in public worship, despite the fact that our Confessions reject this, that only one who is called to the public pastoral office has the authority to do this.
Fortunately, in spite of these two red flags, the book was not that bad. Finke does not propagate a church growth or church marketing theology and he does not use the term or language of “sacramental entrepreneurship.” He uses the language of “missional living,” but the type of missional living he describes is not that of church growth and church marketing. For Finke, missional living “is simply living each day as if it were a mission trip” (22)—it is attempting to discern where God is already at work in other peoples’ lives and just being there for the person. For example, he says, “We don’t have to worry about how to get Jesus into our offices, classrooms, or neighborhoods. He’s already on the move there… All we really have to do is look for what Jesus is already showing us. In other words, seek the kingdom. Look for what is already happening” (82).
Basically, this is just another book on living out our vocations, and that’s my biggest critique. Instead of using all this fashionable evangelical language, such as “missional living,” why not just say it’s important to be a friend to people and be aware of any opportunity to share the Gospel? Why does this book need a special category of “missional living”? Why not just write another book on the importance of living out our vocations? The book would be a lot more succinct and drive the point home a lot more if he used this precise language rather than running around in circles describing a myriad of ways to be aware of Gospel opportunities in our given vocations, especially because how he uses “missional living” is not how the majority of evangelicals use it today. To be fair, Finke has adequate and useful practical theology. However, he has terrible exegetical and systematic theology.
One last caveat: Finke doesn’t use the Oxford comma, so if you’re smart enough to prefer the Oxford comma, prepare to be annoyed. Despite my caveats, however, I would still recommend this book to be read with my critiques in mind. Finke does have good practical theology we can implement in our lives in order to do missional living, especially in the later chapters. In this review, I will only be covering a few major points I think are really important to discuss. There’s a whole lot more I could write on to discuss, but this review would become extremely lengthy. If you’d like to know more about my thoughts, read the book and leave your comments in the comment section and we can discuss the book further.
What is “Missional Living”?
Fortunately, in the first chapter it becomes clear that Finke is not concerned with church growth and church marketing, but rather focusing on being with people. He says, “[Jesus] wants us to look up from our routines and notice that the world is changing and he is already on the move in response… [H]e intends for us to join him” (21). This is far different than how we normally think of evangelism. Normally, we think of evangelism as going out to random people and bringing Jesus into their lives. It satisfies me to know that this is not the type of evangelism Finke is describing, but rather one in which we see where Jesus is already at work. We don’t need to bring Jesus into the world because He’s already here. All we need to do is just join people and suffer life with them—just be a friend. Keep in mind that the type of missional living Finke is talking about is not going on international mission trips, especially in areas where they never heard of Jesus, but the type of missional living where we live out our Christians lives in our daily vocations—or in our “neighbourhoods,” as Finke prefers to call them.
Perhaps a personal example from my own life will best illustrate this. As a gamer, I’m heavily into online gaming and I love to play games online with my friends, and most of them aren’t even Christian. If I were to evangelise how it is normally done today, I would “bring Jesus” into their lives by constantly talking about Him, asking them where they think they’ll go when they die, pleading they check out their nearest church, and other questions. Instead, the type of evangelism I do—and the type Finke is describing—is just being their friend. They know I’m a serious Christian, and they know I’m studying to be a pastor. What point is there in me telling them about how much Jesus has done in my life and how much He can do in theirs, too? They’re not going to listen to that. So, I just be their friend. I’m not their friend with an ulterior motive to make them Christian; I’m their friend because I sincerely care about them and I enjoy spending time with them because of our similar interests.
Because I’ve been a friend to them, there’s a particular friend, Bill (not his real name), who invited me to a private Xbox party chat with him. Bill has bipolar disorder, and I’ve only dealt with the manic side where he gets angry easily at game mechanics and people who annoy him easily. This time, however, was the first time I experienced the depressive side of his personality disorder. Bill was seriously depressed and he expressed suicidal thoughts, although he didn’t want to take the matter into his own hands; he just wanted to stop living. In his own words, he wanted to go to sleep and never wake up. As someone who suffered from depression, I knew exactly what he was feeling.
So, he said, he came to me because he said I’m one of the only real friends he has, and he asked for my advice. Since he specifically asked for my advice, I told him in advance that the best advice I can give him is what I know from God’s Word. He accepted my terms and we talked for a couple hours. I won’t go into the details of our discussion because of its deep, personal nature, but at the end I got him in touch with a pastor near him (we live in different states) and I advised him to pray (I also gave him a good guide on how to pray since he’s never done it on his own before). He’s talked to the pastor a few times and he’s been praying a lot more than he ever has before, and he still comes to me for spiritual comfort.
Just by simply being Bill’s friend, he knew he could trust me. He knew I wasn’t taking advantage of our friendship just to persuade him to become a Christian. He trusted me as his friend, so he was much more open to hearing my point of view from the Scriptures, and it helped him. Bill and I are still working on this together, but the point is that I saw where Jesus was working in his life. Because Bill was so broken down by the Law, he was ready to receive the Gospel, and because I was his friend who built trust with him, I was able to proclaim it.
Major Exegetical Errors
Right at the beginning of the second chapter I facepalmed with his use of The Message translation. The Message translation is some of the worst exegetical work done on the planet. “But the point is to convey the Bible’s meaning,” one might say. Sure, but you can still convey the Bible’s meaning without using completely different words in the translation process. For example, the passage Finke quotes from The Message at the beginning of this chapter is John 1:14, “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighbourhood.” Moved into the neighbourhood? What? As an exegete, I totally understand the importance of portraying a passage’s meaning to our modern context, but this translation just brings you one step further from its actual meaning! I suspect Finke used this translation because it supports his image of missional living, which is that Jesus is “on the move in your neighborhood, too” (27). Basically, he picked a crappy translation because it uses the same word of his “missional living” image: neighbourhood. That’s just lazy exegesis.
The original text of John 1:14 portrays the meaning much better: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us”—literally, “tabernacled” among us. Where did The Message translators get “and blood” from? It’s completely missing from the text. If they really wanted to stress the incarnation of Christ inherent in this passage, “and blood” just makes it redundant, not clearer. And “moved into the neighbourhood”? How is that any better than “dwelt among us”? Jesus didn’t “move into the neighbourhood.” He literally walked among us; this original text is much more clearer than “moved into the neighbourhood.” What the heck does that mean? It could mean anything. “Dwelt among us” can only mean one thing: Jesus literally walked among us. I realise this is nit-picky, but I’m being nit-picky for a good reason.
Speaking of nit-picky, in his second sentence of chapter 2, he says, “[Jesus] is on a grand adventure to redeem and restore human lives to the kingdom of his Father” (27). This is true, and it is also wrong. Basically, this is bad systematic theology. Yes, Jesus came to redeem and restore fallen humanity, but He also came to redeem and restore all of creation. In our theology, we often focus only on Jesus’ redemption of humanity, which is a very true and important theology, but that’s not all He came to restore. He also came to restore all of creation, which is evident in His healing diseases and exercising His control over creation (such as calming the storm). It is even more evident in that He will restore the heavens and the earth (Revelation 21). I think it’s because of our inherent narcissism that we focus only on the redemption of humanity, as important as that is.
It sounds like I’m being too harsh on the poor fellow, but specific language is important in theology. However, I do have some good things to say regarding chapter two. He makes the distinction between going for Jesus and going with Jesus in our missional living. “If I go for Jesus, I am doing the work and seeing the results of what I can accomplish. When I go with Jesus, he is doing the work and I am seeing the results of what Jesus can accomplish” (30). It is a good thing that Finke focuses the missional work on Christ as the doer rather than us. When we go to do things for Jesus—which is what I think our missions and daily lives always focus on—we are focusing on ourselves and what we have to do and have done. Rather, we are to go with Jesus, which is being ready to see where He is already working and Him using us to continue His work. This is a good distinction, and not often one that evangelicals make.
“[O]nly Jesus can do Jesus-work,” he says, which is another way of saying it (30). In our effort to be Christlike, we put too much focus on our efforts that instead of being like Him, we strive to be Him. Only Jesus can be Jesus. Jesus will always be a better Jesus than any of us can be.
Finke makes a major exegetical error in just the next page. He quotes from John 4:35, “Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest.” Finke’s interpretation of this is, “Jesus is saying that if, wherever we are, we will open our eyes and look at the people around us, we can know that the Spirit of God has already been at work in their lives long before we arrived on the scene” (31). Is that really what Jesus is saying? The problem with Finke’s interpretation is that he is allegorising the text. The problem with allegorising a text, such as in this case, is that Finke is putting himself into the text—he is fitting his argument into the text that is not speaking on matters of his argument at all. In other words, he is putting meaning into the text that is not said or implied by the author (John) and original speaker (Jesus). In order to make the text support his argument, Finke is placing himself into the text and interpreting it as saying when people are “‘ripe’ to encounter his good news” (31). To Finke, Jesus is talking about missional living here. But is He really? Jesus is using eschatological language. He is not speaking from the point of view of the disciples who are waiting for an opportunity to proclaim the Gospel. He is speaking from His point of view, and from His point of view the harvest is already white for harvesting. If the wheat is already white for harvest, why doesn’t Jesus harvest? God only knows.
This is the wrong way to allegorise—to place ourselves and our modern situations into the text. But there is a right way to allegorise. Right allegorisation is to “attempt to see how we participate in the same underlying reality and attempt to determine what the story tells us about that reality, and, therefore, about us, our situation, and our destiny” (Voelz, 331-332, emphasis added). In other words, rather than what our modern situation says about the text, what does the text say about us? In order to apply the text to our lives today, what is the “underlying reality” of the text? That is, what is true of the context of the text that is also true of our world today? John 4:35 is a particularly difficult text to discern its underlying reality. It’s a difficult text to fathom, so it is no wonder why Finke gets it wrong. So, let’s examine the context.
What brought about this eschatological saying in the first place? The disciples told Jesus He should eat, but in His riddle ways of speaking, Jesus said, “I have food to eat that you do not know about” (v. 32). Confused, the disciples looked at one another wondering if anyone had brought Him something to eat. So, Jesus responds, “My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me and to accomplish His work. Do you not say, ‘There are yet four months, then comes the harvest’? Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest” (vv. 34-35). So, Jesus’ will is the will of God the Father and to do the work He sent Him to do. Customarily, it took about 6 months for wheat to be ready for harvest. So, by saying, “there are yet four months,” it is saying, “We still have time before the harvest is ready.” So, Jesus was sent to do God’s will, and He discerned that in the apostles’ perspective, there was still plenty of time before the eschatological harvest. But in Jesus’ eyes, the eschatological harvest is already ready.
Why is the harvest already ready for reaping? Jesus says, “Already the one who reaps is receiving wages and gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together” (v. 36). In other words, there have already been and already are people dying and gaining eternal life in Him. So, in His eyes, the eschatological harvest has been ready for a long time. Jesus continues, “For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labour. Others have laboured, and you have entered into their labour” (vv. 37-38). The one who sows does not always get to enjoy the fruits of his labours; often, others enjoy them. Jesus is sending the disciples to reap the labours of their predecessors (likely the prophets), and, furthermore, they are entering into the same labour as their predecessors, which means someone else will reap from their labours, which can be none other than the Church. The Church has reaped from their labours in her structure and doctrine.
So, we can say the underlying reality of the text is that the earth has always been ready for harvesting, but Jesus did not harvest it at this point in the text because He was sending the disciples out to labour in God’s will, joining in the labours of their predecessors, and the later Church descendants reaping the apostles’ labours and then joining in their labours, continuing on until God decides to harvest the earth. In short, the underlying reality of the text is joining in the labours of our Church predecessors in order for the future Church to reap from our labours, and this will continue until God decides to harvest the earth, which is already white for harvesting. This was true then, and it is true now. This is not a text speaking on waiting for opportunities to proclaim the Gospel. It is an eschatological text speaking on the nature of the Church labouring in the will of God until He decides to harvest the earth. The Gospel has already been sowed and is ready to be reaped; we just need to keep on sowing and reaping until the harvest comes.
Again, it may sound like I’m being too harsh on Finke, but it is for a reason, and he does have some good things to say. As I said earlier, he has adequate practical theology. One of the distinctions he made that I admire is his emphasis on effectiveness over efficiency. He has a number of other good things to say, but I particularly want to focus on our cultural focus on efficiency over effectiveness.
Effectiveness over Efficiency
In our Western culture, we put a heavy focus on efficiency, and this affects our mission strategies. Most of the time, we are so worried about being efficient—and we may indeed be efficient—that we end up being ineffective. When it comes to evangelising and proclaiming the Gospel, is it more important that we be efficient or effective? Finke, and I think he is right, argues for the latter. Using Jesus as the example, he puts it succinctly, “He enjoyed hanging out with people” (57). Jesus hung out with all sorts of people—most notably, He hung out with sinners. The cultural understanding of the word “sinner” is important in order to fully fathom how significant it is that Jesus hung out with sinners.
Not only did Jesus—the holy and righteous God in human flesh—hang out with condemned sinners, which is amazing in itself, but the cultural understanding of what it meant to be a sinner is also significant. For us Christians today, we live with the understanding that we are simultaneously saint and sinner—that we are justified by faith in Christ yet still struggle with sin until that Last Day Christ returns. Today, we know that being a sinner is just being a human being living apart from God. For the Jews, however, it wasn’t just that theological reality, but to be a sinner in their understanding was to be non-Jewish. That is, being Jewish and being a sinner are supposed to be mutually exclusive—you cannot be both at the same time, otherwise you are not a good Jew. If you were a sinner in their eyes, you were treated as a social outcast not only unworthy of their favour, but also unworthy of God’s favour. So, for Jesus to claim to be the Son of God and the Messiah whilst hanging out with sinners, this was extremely repulsive to the Jews.
Obviously, Jesus was not concerned with outward appearances. He loved to hang out with sinners because, well, He loved them. This doesn’t mean He approved their sins. He said, “Go, and from now on sin no more” (John 8:11). Jesus was only going to be on earth for a short period of time. Was hanging out with sinners an efficient use of His time? Of course not. But was it effective? It certainly was, and the events throughout all Christian history is proof of that.
Finke points out that “we tend to value efficiency over relationship” (59). This shows in our one-week mission trips where we go to a place to proclaim the Gospel as efficiently as possible and don’t make enough time to actually build relationships with the people. We actually spend more time preparing the efficiency of our mission before we leave than we do with actually spending time with the people we’re apparently ministering to. I’m not discrediting these mission trips by any means, but imagine how much more effective our time on these trips would be if we cared more about relationships than we do about the efficiency of our mission. Efficiency is not always effective, but effectiveness is always efficient.
Finke goes on and on for a few chapters detailing his theology on positioning ourselves in peoples’ lives to see where Jesus might already be working. In chapters 12-16, he finally gets into the practicality of how we live missionally according to his definition. He calls them “5 Practices,” which are: Seeking the Kingdom, Hearing from Jesus, Talking with People, Doing Good, and Ministering through Prayer. I am pleased with Finke’s practical approach in these chapters, with the exception of another major exegetical error he makes on Matthew 7:24-27 (108-109). I won’t detail it here.
Fortunately, Finke manages to steer away from mysticism—which is difficult for evangelicals—and focuses all the work and activity on Christ. He acknowledges that we are His instruments—that it is Christ doing the work, not us. We ought to respect the Word enough to trust that Christ is doing the work He wants to do.
With some of the language Finke uses, it is easy to assume he is functioning within mysticism prevalent in American evangelicalism. Such an assumption would be wrong. Several times, he warns against mysticism. For example, in chapter 9 on What Does the Kingdom of God Look Like, Finke warns, “[S]eeing what Jesus is showing us in our daily life is not done through magic or mysticism. It’s done through the Gospels… What Jesus did in the Gospels he is still doing today. What Jesus said in the Gospels he’s still saying today” (86). And again, on talking about the 2nd Practice, Hearing from Jesus, he says, “[W]e are not claiming to hear from Jesus mystically but through the clear (and challenging) words of the Gospels” (107). It is clear that for Finke, living as a daily missionary is done through the external Word of God, not through mysticism/enthusiasm, which is to look for God within ourselves rather than where He has already revealed Himself: His external Word. In order to recognise what Jesus is already doing in other peoples’ lives, “it begins with us being deeply familiar with what he’s already shown us and told us in the Gospels” (107).
To end this review, I will end it with some words of Finke I enjoyed: “[I]t is important that people see Jesus in us before they hear about Jesus from us” (121). In our culture, it has become difficult to take people at their word. We have a hard enough time believing the words of politicians and advertisements we hear on the radio and television, so it’s no wonder why people have such a difficult time believing our words even though they’re the words of God. This reality is what led to Finke’s aforementioned quote. Most of the time, people have to experience Christ in us before they begin to hear about Christ. This, I think, is a good explanation of missional living. Think back to my friend Bill. He experienced Christ in me before I even began to proclaim Christ to him, and because of what he experienced, he was ready to trust me with what I had to say. Keep in mind, however, that there will be times when we will fail, which is what terrifies us the most. We are terrified of failing and being rejected, but this fear is the result of trusting in ourselves and our own abilities rather than trusting in Christ to use His Word as He sees fit. Christ is the one doing the work, and we are His hands, feet, and mouths. Simply be the new creature God has created you to be in your Baptism, in which we have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit. As temples of the Holy Spirit, people are ready to hear the words of Christ when they first experience Christ in us without even realising at first that they are experiencing our Lord and Saviour in us.
James W. Voelz. What Does This Mean?: Principles of Biblical Interpretation in the Post-Modern World. 2nd ed. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2013.