Letters to a Future Church is a challenging yet ultimately hopeful appeal to the church-at-large to put feet to faith. While Letters is a thoroughly contemporary book, with chapters by Shaine Claiborne, Rachel Held Evans, and Makoto Fujimura, the recurring thread in the book is an ancient issue. Nathan Colquhon neatly summarizes the problem, saying "The church suffers deeply from cognitive dissonance, or the inconsistency between what we believe and how we act." The Apostle Paul said the same thing in Romans 7:15: "I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do."
The Genesis of Revelatory Letters
Birthed at the aptly-named Eighth Letter Conference hosted by the Epiphaneia Network, 25 leading Christian thinkers gathered to read their letters aloud. The resulting book offers their words of encouragement, insight, and challenge to a broader audience. While some of that audience may think they've heard these pleas and complaints before, there is much to be gleaned from each short chapter.
Since these letters are humble "additions" to the seven letters sent to the seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3, it sadly makes sense that the issues brought to the fore remain the same, even though the church has had roughly 2000 years to heed those letters' warnings.
When I first started reading, I feared the book would be littered with complaints. Contributor Peter Rollins allayed my fears with a troubling, telling statement pointed at the Church: "I shall not waste any time listing the failures that mark parts of your body, for they are well known to you already." Even those outside of the church know our failures, as they're all too often leading national news.
Rollins then challenges the church to not only walk the extra mile, but to give a stranger your cloak as well:
"Today you give generously to those who are homeless . . . But surely the point is not to treat the homeless with dignity but rather to help create a society within which homelessness is no longer a reality. Indeed, instead of making the situation better, giving some spare change can actually be destructive in the long term, as it can help you feel that you are doing something good when you are actually allowing a horrible injustice to continue."
Shane Claiborne offers the most practical chapter, which is appropriate since he reminds us that "the best critique of what is wrong is the practice of something better. So let's stop complaining about the church we've seen and work on becoming the church that we dream of." Calls to action include "Beware counterfeit gospels," "Embrace suffering," and "Make sure that Jesus and justice kiss."
American Christian Dream
Since 22 voices speak in Letters, the book covers a wide range of topics. For instance, Walter Brueggemann calls into question the subtle alignment of Christianity with the notion of the American Dream: "Since the arrival of the Pilgrims—and then the Puritans—the dream of freedom of every sort has been allied with the gospel, so much so that the American Dream and the Christian gospel have come to seem synonymous, and never more so than now." In a related matter, Soong-Chan Rah reports that "What was once a faith dominated by Europeans and those of European descent has now become a Christianity whose population center resides in Africa, Asia and Latin America." These issues have enormous ramifications for the Church in America, regardless of whether or not churches in the States admit these issues exist.
Again, belief versus action takes center stage. Ron Sider attests that "People sing the songs and repeat the right words, but their actions suggest that Jesus' teaching is not really very important to them." Nathan Colquhon likely summarizes many contemporary American Christians struggling with this issue: "Instead of changing the way we live so that it is consistent with our belief, we change our belief so it is consistent with how we are living." The ramifications of such Moralistic Therapeutic Deism can be spiritually deadly to a believer and the Church.
In The End, The Church is Me
Interspersed among the main chapters is a powerful multi-part letter written by Janell Anema at different times in her life. In these interstitial chapters, the reader sees the rise, fall and proverbial resurrection of a devout church-goer. At age 16 she criticizes the church: "I didn't think you could be wrong." At age 25 she deftly describes the disconnect between belief and action, saying "I want to wear my Toms shoes—I just don't want to get them dirty." At the end of the book, she wisely asserts what I believe to be true about every contributor in the book: "These letters have been for the church, yes, but these messages are for me."
Letters to a Future Church has a narrow audience, one comprised of those that have been involved in the church for many years, or who have an understanding of the Church-at-large in America and the world. However, many of the issues raised in these letters would provide ample fodder for discussion in small groups. Small group members may even benefit from writing their own similar letter to the church and sharing it within their group. With chapters that are only a few pages long, it's a quick read, but, for the most part, there is much to mull over from each author.
If you wrote a letter to the Church, what would be your opening line?
Letters to a Future Church was published by Intervarsity Press.