I’ll be the first to say that both “structure” and “win” immediately rub me the wrong way.  I think it was a great move to change the title of this book from “Winning them Back.”  I guarantee the title of this chapter alone is enough to shut down a lot of conversations with people who are in a different place “on the journey” than we-the-non-nominal-Christians-taking-this-course.  I have met so many people here at Fuller who have been burned, broken, and abused by the church to the point that attending a “church service” is no longer within their realm of experience.  If these people are nominal, they have earned the right.  This is part of the love-Jesus-hate-church phenomenon Dan Kimball speaks to.  How do we bridge the gap, so to speak, with people whose hearts are for God but who live and act out of a place of hurt?  How do we foster healing for people who certainly are not going to “come” to any sort of “program,” no matter how they are seeking?  Gibbs asserts that a shift must take place in our ministry paradigm toward reaching out instead of drawing in (242).  What does that look like in practice?  What does it look like for the South?  How do we stop designing programs and start building relationships without structuring them like programs?

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Gibbs is astute to recognize that “religions are intertwined with cultures and represent an integral part of the self-identity of a people” (227).  Consequently, evangelism these days is more than handing people a “Four Spiritual Laws” tract and praying the sinner’s prayer with them.  Religion is about who you are, not just what you believe or how you live.  Identity is foundational to conversations about God, and understanding (and using the resources of) culture and its impact on the formation of identity is therefore essential (NOT OPTIONAL) to meeting people where they are (on the postmodern “journey,” toward or away from God) and using that as a springboard to back into conversations about identity in Christ.  There’s no step-by-step formula for these conversations (cuz people are hyper-sensitive to categorical, agenda-driven approaches).  Rather, it’s about building relationships with people, knowing them, letting them know you, getting into their identities where they are, and allowing the presence of God in you to draw them into conversations about how to walk–and where, and toward whom–to get into that abundant life that flows out of the living water.

This chapter makes me sad.  It is conversations like these that leave me wanting to throw up my hands in frustration and say, “what effect can I really have on a world so totally bypassing the abundant life Jesus offers us?”  I get depressed, cynical, and maybe even jaded when faced with such a task, yet my heart breaks open for a world so thirsty it will keep drinking from a dry well.  I remember a scene in The American President where an idealistic young aide tries to inspire the president to action by painting the picture of the masses as so thirsty they’ll chase a mirage and when the arrive to find no water, will drink the sand in desperation.  And the president responds, no; they drink the sand not because they’re thirsty, but because they don’t know the difference.  That’s the world of secularization.  That’s where nominality is heading, unable to tell the difference between living water and the dry sand.  That, folks, is the state of our mission field.  And what are we to do?

“The ministry challenge is to track these social networks, provide personal support for their church members, and remain alert to the significant issues which are surfacing in each context” (Gibbs, 163).  Piece of cake.  These are issues I think the implications of fandom studies will begin to speak to as the church clues in to a world starving for community while spread out across the city, country, or even the globe.  As Barbara Streisand once famously sang, “People who need people are the luckiest people in the world.”  We are relational creatures, and we long to connect intimately with each other.  How to create and foster that kind of community in today’s fragmented and compartmentalized society…maybe something brilliant will come up in class.

I have many comments from this chapter, but here are two short ones. First, I remember beginning the study “Experiencing God” by Henry Blackaby with my small group in college. We never finished the study, but one lesson will always stick with me: look for where God is already at work, and join in! The question of renewal in the church is a vital (and volatile) one in innovative conversations today. Gibbs does well to note that “renewal is impossible without divine intervention” (102), that is, WE can’t make it happen, but GOD can…if we let him. This entails letting go of controlling (or trying to manipulate) the situation and instead looking for where God is at work already so that renewal will indeed “be conceived within the paradigm of the kingdom of God [as God defines it, not as we would like to], that is, as part of a total global transformation” (106).

Second, I am exploring a (for me) new field of study on body theology, though I am beginning to define the term more broadly than simply the understanding of our individual sexuality and body image. Gibbs talks about renewal in the church as a “Spirit-filled ministry” that ministers to “the whole person…mind, body, and spirit.” As Presbyterians (I won’t speak for all mainline denominations), we do well to emphasize mind and spirit, but we so often neglect the body, the implications of renewal on our individual physical forms and likewise on our corporate physical community. Maybe that’s more of a side note, but there you go.

I was a little confused by the diagrams on p. 75 of the “extent of nominality.”  The boundaries are drawn hard around the church and around the world with some (nominal) overlap.  My question: what about the centered-set model with Jesus (or the church, or whatever) in the middle and a porous boundary around it with many people either inside or outside the boundary moving either toward or away from the center?  Is the diagram on p. 75 really appropriate or helpful in this conversation?  This book was initially written in the early 70s.  How does the postmodern idea of process/journey relate to the questions about church and nominality?  The line is blurring between sacred and secular…how can we be in the world but not of it?

There are several insights to draw from this chapter. Just this morning on the way back from church, a friend and I were talking about getting involved in the conversation about new ways to do church. As an artist, my friend has been used (and abused) by her home church context to the point of burnout. Gibbs writes, “Within the church context, over-demanding leadership can lead to burnout among the lay leaders which results either in their transferring to other churches, or, more often, dropping out of church life altogether” (47). My friend chose the latter, effectively dropping out of the church scene to conserve and recharge. After a year, she’s beginning to feel creativity flow again and wants to find a place to engage in conversation that won’t burn her out but will feed into her as she pours into others. Creativity is the source of new life in the church, as the Holy Spirit raises up from unexpected places those who are gifted to do church in different, innovative, life-giving ways. But we can’t just suck the life out of just one creative individual. We have to join in the conversation, allowing the Spirit to “renew and sustain” (61) through the provision of accountability and support (60).

One thing that struck me while reading this introduction of the concept of nominality is how very much on target the description is for my context: the South. Christianity is a cultural norm, a general assumption–not a life-altering, life-giving, life-style. I have been in the past, and increasingly so since coming to seminary and walking my own journey through shifting paradigms, so frustrated with people (some dear friends of mine) who call themselves Christians yet do not own their own faith. They have not discovered Jesus for themselves but merely learned to parrot answers–and that’s if they even go to church. Gibbs writes that “beliefs must be clearly thought through in order to be promoted and defended in a societal context which increasingly regards religiously based beliefs as largely irrelevant” (31). That’s exactly it! One way to combat nominality is to give people the tools to think for themselves, decide for themselves what they believe and why. The South’s tendency toward conservatism (and sometimes fundamentalism) holds onto beliefs with a vice-like grip that restricts growth. How much better (and harder) is the offering of truth with an open hand?