Several months back I picked up a copy of Ed Stetzer’s Subversive Kingdom: Living as Agents of Gospel Transformation (Nashville: B&H, 2012) and I’ve slowly been picking away at it. I usually have roughly a dozen books on the go at any given time, so frustratingly, I only get a book finished on rare occasions (I have one, relatively short book, that’s been “on the go” for 4 years now). So, here’s some very basic insights into Stetzer’s latest offering.
What it’s about:
The basic point is that the church is to be “rebelling against the rebellion”. Sin has illegitimately usurped power from God over his creation, and God’s people are to respond by being engaged in God’s reclaiming of authority. The book is in three parts: 1. “A Subversive Way of Thinking” – a basic sweep of the Kingdom of God teaching, that God, in Christ, is reasserting authority, and calling a people to belong to him and be engaged as agents in his work. 2. ” Subversive Way of Life” – as Kingdom agents our lives should be noticeably different than that which belongs to the rebellion against God. 3. “A Subversive Plan of Action” – the Church is to be engaged in the King’s mission, intentionally engaging the world and inviting them into the Kingdom life. The mission of God through the Church is reorient people’s hearts away from sin, idolatry, selfish ambition, back to Kingdom loyalty.
Stetzer is not an “academic theologian” which is a help and hinderance at times. His purpose is to take stuff being talked about in the New Testament studies and make it accessible at the popular level of the Church. He does this fairly well. He articulates several key concepts being batted around by scholars from a pastoral/missiological perspective. This book is usable by the vast majority of readers with some basic experience of church life. The message is helpful for many who are stuck in a poor theology of mission, church and gospel. Many evangelicals need this breath of fresh, gospel air. The renewed focus on the Kingdom of God, integral mission (word and deed or proclamation and service) is needed in many circles where the church is focused primarily on conversion stats and lobbying for socio-political issues.
Stetzer provides a good introduction to the reclamation proclamation of the Kingdom. That God is not just looking for people to “ask Jesus into my heart”, but that his mission is broader, bigger and holistic. It is about reclaiming the life God intended for his creation through the freedom provided in Jesus Christ. He digs into several parables in the early sections to illustrate clearly what Jesus was up to- that in Christ a whole new creation is beginning to emerge, that life is being reoriented and renewed. That God is spreading out his movement against rebellion within creation against the King.
For those not familiar with Stetzer, he is president of LifeWay Research, which is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention (the largest protestant body in the North America). Thus, he has a rather large audience of potential readers who are viewed with… let’s say “mixed opinions”. Southern Baptists could use some good PR, and this book may help. One of their leading missiologists and church planters calling on the church to be engaging in mission which is transformational, justice oriented and compassionate, is a good start in generating a new public image of the SBC. The renewal of mission from a group with strong political views, significant resources and large following is a good thing, and I’m pleased to see Ed challenging the SBC and all North American evangelicals to rethink their models of mission (from the “pay and pray” colonial style to a more transformative, grass-roots, community oriented, and gospel demonstrating and proclaiming style).
The reminder of our submission is probably the key in all this. The Church is not on a mission for God, but swept up into God’s mission. We are “agents” to use Ed’s terminology. The Church belongs to Christ, who is the head. We are extensions of God’s mission through Christ. This is where so many church (in my opinion) go wrong. The theology of mission in many protestant circles is pretty bad, and Ed’s call to be about the Master’s business, obedient to his call is a statement the Church needs to hear again and again.
Oddly enough, I found this book on gospel subversion not subversive enough. I think he needed to go further. Being nice and having integrity may buck against the social trends of selfishness and consumerism, but go further Ed. I know the target audience may be rattled if we push as hard on these things as Jesus did, but we have to remember that Jesus did. He rattled cages, and so should we. I think Ed held back a bit too much. I would have liked for him to give fewer stories of churches doing nice things to aid their communities, and more explicitly push that Jesus undercuts our religiosity, and calls us to renounce our rights to individual autonomy and live in Christ. At times it looks like he’s going to dive into a message of “die to self, live in Christ” but then comes up short. On several occasions I was saying to myself, “run with that some more” or “I think you can flesh that out a bit” or “that’s being to easy on us”. At over 200 pages it’s already a long read for some less passionate book readers, but I still felt like there wasn’t enough “meat”. There is some unnecessary stuff which could have been removed to make room for this.
The other problem I have is that Stetzer’s source citations seems a tad lacking. As I noted in a previous (sort of) review, I often look through the bibliography before really diving into the body of the book. Stetzer doesn’t have a bibliography, just three and half pages of endnotes (in large font with big spacing, so not a ton of notes, just one or two per chapter on average). This troubled me a bit. As I read through the book I did note a few things which really did need a source as I am certain they were not original thoughts. I don’t like seeing this in the pop-theology books, and in a serious book on mission by a man who works for a research organization, this sort of thing is a problem and doesn’t reflect well on the author, who clearly is well read, but doesn’t show the reader what he’s basing his statements on.
Finally, I think it needs more cleaning up. Stetzer pumps out a lot of material. He’s authored several books, articles, and he blogs and speaks at conferences and all sorts of other stuff, and I was left feeling like parts of this book were put together somewhat hastily, and needed some more refinement. Some parts get less succinct and more wordy. He could hone this in a lot more and it would help the overall impact.
This book seems to me to be designed for lay leaders looking to find ways to generate enthusiasm and vision for engaging their communities in new ways which make the gospel visible as well as heard. I love the call to get the church out of the attractional model of ministry (have worship on Sunday and hope people show up to hear the message). The call to move our churches into transformational outposts of the Kingdom is welcome and needed. For those dissatisfied with the trends in North American churches will probably like this book. I think it’s a helpful resource to have in the hands of God’s people.
It is of course not without flaws. It is a resource, not a “how to” manual. It needs to read and engaged with. Readers should think it through, and see where it can be used and where it doesn’t measure up. It certainly isn’t “the last word” or the ultimate resource in doing church in Kingdom ways. It would be a book I’d recommend for some, but not the first place I’d point people (I’d be more likely to point interested readers to Gary Nelson’s Borderland Churches). But, in the end, it’s worth reading for the person with an interest in becoming more mission-literate and more engaged in making the gospel know in their community.