Review and Reflection on “Rethinking Church” by Ron Highfield
Posted On June 2, 2023
This book came to me by way of a fellow blogger – he actually did a whole series of blog posts on the book and there were several of us who commented on the posts and our own reading of the book. I want to take a blog post to do my own review and reflection in one post. The subtitle of the book is “A Guide for the Perplexed and Disillusioned.” I think the subtitle is interesting and it helps set the tone for the book. This is a book that should cause us to raise questions because we’re unsure of how things are currently when it comes to the church. The way it has always been isn’t anymore. And we need to ask why and also examine what have we lost so that we can discern how we go forward.
One thing that I will throw in to the conversation is that Highfield comes from a Christian tradition that is different from my own – a less liturgical tradition. And this will have an impact on what he writes and also how I interact with the book. My understanding of that difference caused me to raise questions that I’m not sure he intended for. It’s not a criticism of the book or the author, but a recognition that a book about rethinking the church will raise questions and tap into people’s preferences and experience with church. And we are very attached to certain ways of doing things and thinking about things. Which is why such a book as this is helpful to poke us into uncomfortable thought experiments and examinations with what we think about church. This is a short book at only 96 pages. I sense from the length that Highfield’s intent was not to provide answers so much as it is to create conversation. I think he succeeds in that regard. It also helps that he offers questions for guided conversation at the end of each chapter.
Prefaces are usually benign statements of support for the topic at hand. And most of the preface for this book fits that description. One statement in the preface though caught my attention. Highfield wrote, “…about five years ago, I began to entertain the idea that the traditional way churches organize themselves is the major obstacle to embodying authentic church life in the world.” (Pg. 2). I agree with the sentiment. I think one of the keys to this also is that the pandemic exacerbated this observation. The way churches are organized is for a time that doesn’t exist any more – in a variety of ways. Technology, culture, values, economics, partisanship, politics, work, social life and connections and community, and more – all of these things have changed significantly, yet we are attempting to use a model of the church that wasn’t made for these changes. My only qualm is with the world “traditional” in the statement. It’s only recent tradition. Saying a blanket statement of traditional implies that the way things are done and organized is somehow ordained by God or special. But the reality is that how churches are organized today and in the recent past is not the way they have always been organized. They have changed over time. There’s nothing wrong with that. We get into trouble when we think that the way we have been organizing churches is ordained by God. The reason for why the church exists may be ordained by God, but there’s plenty of room for how a church can be organized.
This takes us to chapter one where Highfield makes this claim: “We will find the essence of the church in its origin as documented in the New Testament.” (Pg. 7). Indeed. Which leads us to our first question – Does essence mean it has to look a certain way? Or does essence imply something deeper? I argue that it is about something deeper – the purpose of the church. Highfield states, “The church exists because of the divine presence, it acts in divine power, and it moves as directed by divine wisdom.” (Pg. 12). I’m on board with this. I just think that there should be a clear statement that essence is not the same as organization.
Highfield goes into defining the church. He talks about membership in the church. I’m wondering if that language is helpful anymore. I get that we are members of the Body of Christ. And so often people think of the church as something different than this though. Membership implies a club. It implies that membership has its privileges. Or it can anyway. There’s a long history in the church in which this has been a problem that creates separation between members and non-members.
Highfield claims that the primary reason, or essential mission of the church is to witness. “I am using the verb ‘to witness’ in the broad sense of ‘to manifest.’ The church works to manifest on earth what is going on in heaven and to embody in the present the future kingdom of God.” (Pg. 17). I really like this. It lays out very simply why the church exists. It is clear. It is a mission statement of sorts. But it is in that simplicity that people see things differently. For instance Highfield says, “It is common, even expected, that associations supposedly devoted to education, a sport, a profession, or a particular subject will make resolutions and public proclamations on divisive political and social issues completely unrelated to the reason for existence.” (Pg. 20). He’s arguing that the church shouldn’t be “political.” Does he mean partisan though instead of political? He doesn’t define this. I’ve got several questions. Scripture is full of stories of God caring about the politics, making resolutions and public proclamations, as well as God’s representatives doing so also on divisive political and social issues. Was this not ok for God to do? Who says these issues are unrelated to the existence of the church? How is that defined? Should the church not have taken a stand on slavery? It was divisive and it did not relate to the church’s reason for existence. Or did it? If the church works to manifest on earth what is going on in heaven and to embody the present future kingdom of God, then by that very nature isn’t the church going to make divisive proclamations that are in conflict with how the world operates, with systems in the world, and even with political powers. Jesus’ very birth and the titles that go with him is divisive. The prophets are often in conflict with kings and queens through their divisive statements. Paul makes a statement about Herod’s marriage – a statement which gets him killed ultimately. That’s just a handful of examples. And when we think about modern topics, like hunger and homelessness, we have to ask – shouldn’t the church make proclamations about these things? If the church isn’t proclaiming good news to the poor, news that will most likely ruffle feathers of those who prefer the status quo, then is it actually living into its essence?
Highfield defines the essential practices of the church as baptism and the Lord’s supper. And yes, these are essential practices. But I will say that these practices go beyond the literal, limited definition of them. Again, if the church isn’t doing something to help with hunger, then is it really participating in the Lord’s supper. And sometimes that something is more than offering a meal. We can continue to give meals to hungry people, and we can work to change legislation that will change systems that will hopefully stop there being people who are hungry in the first place, for example.
Chapter three is the heart of this book and talks about an important aspect of the church – “The Lure and Threat of Political Power.” (Pg. 25). The book could have just focused on this aspect alone and it would make the book worthwhile. In this chapter Highfield has some powerful lines. “Human associations do not escape but mirror and magnify the vices and virtues of the human heart.” (Pg. 30). “The confession ‘Jesus is Lord’ is heresy in every municipality, county, state, and country in this world in any age. Idolatry is the unofficial religion of every state.” (Pg. 31).
As part of this chapter, Highfield talks about the privilege that the church enjoys. It comes with positives and negatives. I give Highfield credit for tackling this issue, which often gets ignored or just assumed to be a normal part of the church. It is not. But it is a reality. So the discussion is worthwhile. What is privilege? “…a privilege is an exception given to an individual or group to a law binding on others or a positive benefit bestowed by law on some but not everyone.” (Pg. 37). This is a good definition and I’m glad that Highfield offers it since the word privilege ends up being swung around very often and ends up being aligned with partisan interests – which ends up meaning that some automatically listen and some disregard instantly when the word is used.
I did have a criticism of one section of this chapter. “Consequently, the church stands at a crossroads. On the one hand, the broad road beckons. It can try to prove its continued relevance to society by adapting to society’s progressive morality while deceiving itself into thinking that this more morality is thoroughly Christian.” (Pg. 43). I remind myself again that Highfield comes from a different tradition. My comment in response to his statement is this – That’s quite a dismissal without diving into it when there are theological grounds for loving our neighbor rather than condemning them. He seems to be caught in either/or thinking which ends up with everyone losing. Where is the Good News that sets people free?
Chapter four moves to how churches are organized. He is arguing for small group ministry as well as house churches. Which is fine, but like the organized church that has “traditionally” been know by many, it is not the silver bullet. It’s an option. In this chapter he also talks about the clergy system and what’s wrong with it. All of that conversation is fine when we are talking about how clergy can be abusive and that the system itself creates this. And I think it misses something really important. This isn’t an all or nothing situation. What about the laity? What is their role in this? Are they innocent? What about laity that sees the church as a membership club and works hard to create/maintain that? Why is it that the laity is never looked at critically?
Next, Highfield talks about worship on Sunday. I knew I would have an issue and a disconnect with this chapter based on this sentence: “What goes on at the typical Sunday gathering of an evangelical, Bible, or community church?” (Pg. 63). So much for anyone in a liturgical tradition. This section got worse for me. Highfield makes this claim: “Strictly speaking, worship is an individual act.” (Pg. 64). No it isn’t. I very much disagree with this statement. What’s the point of gathering together if worship is an individual act? What is church – it isn’t an individual act or organization. It’s the Body of Christ. One part can’t live on its own. Throughout this section, I see the evangelical bent with a heavy focus on the personal relationship with Jesus and individual worship act loudly proclaimed. And it is off the mark. This focus ends up pointing towards an all or nothing approach where Highfield contrasts how he sees the church – in contrasting extremes: large church versus small church, entertainment worship versus house church. What about middle sized churches? What about liturgical churches? What about so many other things that don’t fit the either/or simplicity?
Highfield examines the sermon as a part of worship looking at the sermon as either instructional or entertainment. I think this again misses the mark. A sermon can be either or both of those things, but if that’s all it is, then it’s a waste. A sermon isn’t primarily instruction or learning about God. And it’s not primarily entertainment – that cheapens it. It’s a prayer and a proclamation of how God is present and active in the world and in our lives. It is best when it helps the hearer to encounter God and be open to that encounter. There seems to be a heavy focus on something that Western Christianity has fallen prey to – a focus on left brain approach to faith. It’s about facts, accuracy, literalism, being right. No wonder the focus is about the sermon being instructional. When this happens though, we lose something powerful – relationship, empathy, mystery, abstractness, creativity. We lose the right brain.
One statement that Highfield does make that is right on target is this: “In my experience, church goers today are abysmally ignorant not only of the meaning of the Bible but ever of its storyline.” (Pg. 69). I really wish he would have explored this more because I think it offers great insight into the role of the church and why it exists and how it should be organized. This could have been its own book. Regardless, I’m glad he raises this issue.
As we move to the conclusion of the book, Highfield makes the following statement: “But my overall conclusion is that the traditional system of organization and the social expectations associated with it limit how well such institutions can actually manifest the church in the world.” (Pg. 94). Again, this point is important and I’m glad he raises it, even if we don’t necessarily agree on the answer. And that’s ok, because even though we might not agree on how the church should be structured and organized, I’m still glad he raises the question. And I don’t think there is a one-size, fits all answer. Context matters. And being intentional about why the church exists is important and essential.