Will the Real Constantine Please Stand Up?: A Review of On the Verge for SpeakEasy Bloggers

On the VergeOn the Verge: A Journey into the Apostolic Future of the Church

by Alan Hirsch and Dave Ferguson

366 pp. $19.99  Zondervan

Perhaps, at their roots, all church planters have to be Platonists.

I’ve been aware of the church-planting movement since I started seminary in 1999: while the “cool kids” were all about striking out into promising urban and suburban areas, gathering a core of dedicated go-getters to be the nucleus of the Next Big Thing, the old-school traditionalists like me tried to make a case for the humility of moving into an established congregation (perhaps even in rural and poor urban areas) and earning one’s place therein.  It wasn’t really a fair fight back then: as students and some faculty spoke with derision about “maintenance ministries” and waxed eloquent about “vision casting,” all my kind had to fall back on was the nuanced and difficult language of theology and history, languages that we hadn’t really grown into yet.  In the face of marketing slogans, we really didn’t stand a chance.

All of this came back to me as I read through Alan Hirsch’s and Dave Ferguson’s On the Verge. Within forty pages of starting the book, I realized that I was going to drown in the MBA lingo, that the writers had a tenuous grasp (at best) of Church history, and that I had three hundred pages of both to go.  As I’ve noted before in other book reviews, I’m probably one of the worst people to review a book like this: I’ve spent the last fifteen years drifting from one small, poor congregation to another (though I did do a brief stint as a Sunday school teacher in a would-be megachurch before they chased me and my wife away), and even a decade away from seminary, my first reaction to church-planters is to be suspicious of their ego rather than to fawn over their go-getter demeanor.  But once again I’ll note that those things might just make my review one that spots things that other people overlook.

Now back to Plato.

As I plowed through the neologisms and the slogans, I actually never would have thought of old Flat-Head while reading this book, except that one of Alan Hirsch’s chapters (he wrote the first run of chapters and Ferguson the last run of chapters, though each chapter ends with an “amen” response from the other writer) he makes the common Emergent/Missional move of attempting to establish credibility by being a “Hebraic” thinker rather than a “Hellenistic” thinker (and completely botching both, but more on that later), and with the Greeks in mind, the next few chapters made me realize that church planting, in its structure, is not unlike what Plato proposes in Republic: rather than attempting to reform cities, the best way to establish the real form of civic dikaiosyne is to start over, with a clean slate, so that the laws and the culture and the overall workings of the new polis were not at the mercy of tradition and history and other accidents not as illuminated as the philosopher-king but were part of the palette of the city’s grand artist.  A generation later, of course, Aristotle articulated what I call the great conservative vision, looking not to abstract ideals for the measure of goodness but to the embodied virtues that the best citizens of one’s polis already exhibit and examining what already makes them excellent.

I note this bit of ethical history to say that, although I wasn’t literate enough to grasp this as a young seminarian, the debate between church-planters and congregation-sustainers was, and remains, a reiteration of that old Greek dispute.  And in Hirsch and Ferguson’s book, the Platonic moves are obvious ones: both authors encourage teaching an elite core of leaders to imagine reality differently (54-55) on a philosophical level (a concept for which Hirsch appropriates, in good MBA fashion, Thomas Kuhn’s “paradigm” language) while setting forth practice (178) and stories (152-153) and even modern hero-stories (153-154) for the rest of the community in order to “act our way into a new way of thinking” (179).  Those who demonstrate that they are the “innovators” (a group that, for Hirsch’s Malcolm-Gladwell imagination, consists of 2% of the population) can become paradigm-people, but for the most part, people enter into the “ethos” of the community by means of the programmatic practices set up by the ideas-people.

Of course, such things are not insidious: the nature of communities is that some people have the ideas, some people defend the ideas that the founders establish, and most people go about their lives producing and consuming for the sakes of family and comfort, sustaining the life of the community by means of their daily work and contributing to the complex culture of the community in their better forms of leisure.  That much one can find in the Torah and in Plato and in Confucius.  What makes Hirsch and Ferguson think of their project as a departure is that they, in the spirit of the corporate consultant, encourage a culture of saying “yes” (218-219) to ideas from the rank and file rather than insisting that all ideas come from the “professionals” (which do not seem to include the consultant-types who write church-planting books, but I’ve already gotten in trouble casting suspicion on consultants, so I’ll stop there).  As long as the new ideas operate in the spirit of the Missional Paradigm (what Hirsch brands as mDNA, ignoring perhaps that the letters in DNA stand for biological words), they’re good to go.

Of course, folks who know the Greek philosophical tradition know that Plato has anticipated this as well: the abandonment of the patriarchal family in favor of the city-household in Republic means that leaders can come from any class so long as they’re educated within the system that the good city sets up, and once Plato has established the central ideas and educational system of Callipolis, he reads like a Ron Paul Libertarian when he finally gets to the operations of the marketplace.  On the Verge‘s call for flexibility within the paradigm-determined culture is only an extension of the same.  I mention all of these points of continuity first to note that Hirsch’s call for an abandonment of “Hellenistic, specifically Platonic” conceptions of learning (177) in favor of “a Hebraic understanding” (177) of things rings strange to anyone who’s actually read any Plato, Aristotle, or really much Greek writing at all.  Hirsch attributes to Plato the classroom model of education (something that really doesn’t make sense until the advent of the printing press) and the conception that education needs to begin with the impartation of facts from lecturer to student (something that Plato opposes in the Meno among other places) among other things, and along with his loose grasp on the Roman office of Pontifex Maximus (on page 33 he implies at least that said office began with Emperor Constantine), he damages his credibility with anyone whose education has included any exposure to actual translations of actual ancient texts.  I think that we Christian Humanists might need to start offering ourselves as consultants when Emergent and Missional folks write their books: for a small fee we can make sure that they don’t alienate people with liberal educations.  Yes, I think that might work.  But more on that later.

My main concern with this book is neither its shaky grasp on classical philosophy (that’s all too common) or its reliance upon corporate slogans and neologisms like “chillax” (93) and “simplexity” (186) and “movementum” (255) but that it exhibits at all points a pervasive anti-Catholicism that, if taken seriously, would alienate Christians in 2011 from a rich tradition and a political imagination that extends beyond the world of advertising consultants.  As a wannabe Hauerwasian, certainly I can’t deny a certain tendency to lay the evils of the Christian era at the door of Constantine, even if I use his name more as a figure than as a historical claim.  But when I say “Constantine,” because the tradition of Yoder and Hauerwas has shaped me, I have in mind the strange coupling of military cultus (whether from warrior-cultures or from soldier-societies) with the Way of the one who died on the Empire’s cross.  When Hirsch says “Constantine,” he means the local Catholic parish.

Among the things that Hirsch and Ferguson cannot see because they imagine the Catholic Church as always “cultural” are the Catholic hierarchy’s resistance to the Pinochet regime when the Capitalists were singing the torture-regime’s praises (as detailed in William Cavanaugh’s Torture and Eucharist and as ignored in Hirsch’s first chapter), the invention of modern global missions by the Jesuits (as told in any respectable Church history and as ignored in chapter nine, a Ferguson chapter), and the fact that Patrick’s mission to Ireland was in fact not the first Christian mission to venture outside of the Roman Empire (as Ferguson claims, and knocks me out of my chair, in chapter ten).  Their assessments of “traditional” churches such as the Presbyterians and the Baptists are not much more flattering, and their scorn for the “institutional” megachurches is not hard to detect, but their special place in the outer darkness always seems reserved for the Catholics.

Although that’s about the extent of the open anti-Catholicism, the ethos of the book (I’m trying to use this in the Aristotelian sense rather than the MBA-lingo sense) suffers because nothing from Church history before 1990 seems worth talking about.  There are no martyr stories in the book, but there are plenty of stories from the Hallmark, Google, and Starbucks corporations.  The rich traditions of medieval philosophy and Reformation Biblical commentary make no extended appearances, but there are plenty of quotes from late-twentieth-century CEO’s and management gurus to be had.  And there are no mentions of Dante or Dostoevsky, but Dave Ferguson does write in praise of James Patterson (208).  I won’t say that Hirsch and Ferguson have anything but the best motives for putting forth their blend of management theory and self-help philosophy, but to misappropriate Gertrude Stein when she talked about Oakland, when I finished the book, I felt like there hadn’t been much there there.

To be fair to them, both writers insist that Jesus must be the center of what they’re doing, and they criticize those movements for whom “mission” has taken the central place that Jesus alone deserves.  Moreover, when they do slow down to write about Jesus (rather than about paradigm shifts and chillaxing and movementum), they do note that the biggest challenge to discipleship in the twenty-first century West is consumerism.  My concern, I repeat, is not that they fail to name Jesus but that there’s little sense of how the calling of Jesus upon the Church translates into their MBA lingo.  I see the former in some passages, and I see the latter in many more passages, but the logical connections between the two I simply do not see.  Perhaps someone with a business or advertising background could help me here, but I just don’t get it.  And if I’m the worst sort of person to be reviewing this book, perhaps my failure, as a non-specialist in the vocabularies of management theory, to comprehend their project should be a sign that their call for a flight from “the professionals” might in fact be a call for a shift in power from one sort of professional (the theological scholar) to another (the management guru).

The good news, for those of you who are mad at me for writing bad things about these church-planting gurus, is that, in their words, folks like me will “self-select out” (265) of where the action is and consign ourselves to irrelevance while the great “people-movement” that they’re spearheading is taking on the world.  And I think that’s great.  I suppose my comfort comes from the fact that, when those folks who find themselves burnt out by the go-getter culture of church planting, where nobody is allowed to get old or to slack in their “kingdom productivity” (207), my office door will always be open to hear their stories, and I’ll always try to have copies of Julian of Norwich and St. John of the Cross and Dante to lend to them.

8 thoughts on “Will the Real Constantine Please Stand Up?: A Review of On the Verge for SpeakEasy Bloggers

  1. Nathan, AMEN to your last line, last paragraph. I was turned on to St. John of Cross by Thomas Merton. You could also suggest THE CLOUD OF UNKNOWING. After all, there is something to be learned from Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus while Martha was being “productive”. I never heard this passage examined well in college. It didn’t seem to fit the message, “Go! Go! Go!”.

    I am a believer that rural, small town, or poor congregations need to be invited to sit at the feet of Jesus. There is nothing wrong in accepting the reality that numerically we may not be able expand far; but, in spirit we can be city on a hill; and it takes contemplatives to help us to feel healthy about that.

  2. Nathan,
    I second John’s comment about your last paragraph!
    All I can say is better you than me to read this stuff. Whenever I start a book and encounter the MBA-speak in the first chapter, I am afraid I just toss it!
    🙂

    Maybe Publishers should initiate a voucher system for reviewers like yourself to reimburse them for the time wasted and brain cells drained.
    🙂

    Forgive me Lord!
    Amen.

  3. I grant the joke, Mich, but in all seriousness, I do think there are goods that come from a person like me reading a book like this, the first being that the book’s central claim, that its program is steering away from the prominence of “experts,” might not hold up if someone like me, who reads a few books, finds so much of it unintelligible.

  4. Nate, you may recall that years ago I was the one who (perhaps unadvisedly) suggested that you should read The Shaping of Things to come. As I recall you suggested a similar dichotomy in reading that book between the cool (or wannabe cool) church planters, and the more boring (but faithful) folk who keep traditional congregations running. I suggested that you had mis-read Hisch, probably because he was writing for post-Christian societies such as Australia, New Zealand and the UK rather than the United States. In that context he wasn’t positing a decision (for a committed young Christian) between planting a trendy new missional church and remaining faithful in a traditional congregation but rather suggesting what a committed young Christian might want to do when the last traditional congregation in town closes its doors. Thats an important prologue for reading this book which is addressed to a US audience.

  5. It seems to me that you are in danger of misreading Hirsch again, by reading the book as suggesting a dichotomy between cool (or wannabe cool) church changers and those humble enough to serve in traditional (but less glamorous congregations). To start with there are 3 types of people in the narrative; people in traditional congregations, people in seeker sensitive/mega churches, and people engaged in missional churches. I don’t understand the book as saying much to people in traditional congregations. That might sting a little. Instead I read the book as being addressed primarily to those in leadership in mega churches to convince them to move to the missional model. In other words it seeks to convince the leaders of mega churches to use the resources of mega churches to help found congregations that are smaller, more intimate, and which seek to include those normally excluded from suburban churches including the poor.
    This explains the change management language, what you’ve termed MBA-lingo. It doesn’t seem to be Hirsch’s native tongue but he is doing what Paul did at Athen, which is good rhetoric, in the Aristotelian sense of the word rhetoric. It seems that the authors use language which the pastors and lay leaders are already likely to use. Its a very good summary of the leading secular texts on change management. Now I neither have an MBA nor aspire to one, but I don’t find this language particularly recherché or arcane. I am familiar with it not only from those times I’ve had to work in the business world to make a living but also from experiences in the re-organisation of a university where I worked, as well as secular non-profit organisations.
    As an only partially disillusioned charismatic I’d like a different model, one in which there is more space for God to take the lead. However if one doesn’t expect current day prophecies, words of knowledge and the like, then I am not entirely sure why one would object to using the best secular understanding of how to bring about change. One could of course suggest that change itself is unnecessary, or certainly not the kind of sweeping change suggested by On the Verge. But who are the authors asking to change and how? The authors want mega churches to change in ways that will make those churches plant churches that would, in many respects, be more like the traditional congregations you’ve championed.

  6. If the reading that I’ve suggested is a compelling one then the question it raises is why involve Constantine, the early Church and that nice Father Kilkenny just down the road?

    Nate, you’ve admitted yourself that you’ve been known to use “Constantine” as a figure for a kept church. While the authors may not do so in the precise Hauwerwasian fashion that you do, they seem to be engaging in a similar move and not writing a textbook on church history. Its not particularly surprising to me that Jewish believer in Christ like Hirsch may be a bit too ready to use the Catholic church as a figure for an institution that won’t and cannot change. Of course that is historically inaccurate. It is unfortunate because renewal movements in the Catholic church, such as those started by St Ignatius would provide useful parallels for those trying to persuade leaders in mega churches, whose money and power rival that of Rome to use those resources in ways that will fundamentally transform the mega church institutions.

    On my reading the authors spend much more time on how change may be brought about than I recall Plato doing in The Republic. Some of the insistence that change is so important, and thus the irrelevance of those not committed to change, derives from this focus on how to bring about change, that is, the proponents of changes must be strongly convinced of the necessity of that change in order to persist in the face of the all too inevitable inertia of every human organisation, including mega churches founded 8 years ago.

  7. Andrew, thank you again for reading and commenting, and I do apologize that my late-summer schedule has only just now allowed me a moment to respond to your comments.

    With regards to your first comment, I hope I haven’t remained entirely stuck in the high-school cafeteria but have offered some sort of content to go along with my impression that Hirsch writes as a church-planter for church-planters. Since, as you note, this book is aimed at American readers and contexts, I do find odd the failure to adjust for those differences.

    I’ll concede that the book doesn’t say much to those in traditional congregations, but I will insist that it says a fair bit about those people, especially Catholics. (I don’t know whether they didn’t find the Eastern Orthodox worth mentioning or what happened there, but that’s for another comment.) I do find the book to be lacking in historical perspective when it ignores the Jesuits’ invention of the modern missionary movement, not to mention their profound moments of resistance to the right-wing Pinochet regime and the left-wing Communists in Poland, just to mention a couple recent moments when the Catholics were anything but a “kept” church. (But as I mentioned in the original review, this book’s “Constantine” doesn’t seem to relate much at all to actual historical empires.)

    I have to admit that I lack the education to converse much with “change management” vocabularies, and I don’t pretend that therefore it’s not a valid vocabulary. My point is a deconstructionist one, namely that the book’s call for a democratization of the Church, a move away from paid specialists (which I read as seminary grads like myself), did not land in a democratic place in any Athenian sense but with a new authority-vocabulary in place, namely that of the “change manager.” In other words, the binary between sacerdotalism and people-movement doesn’t hold up but deconstructs itself. Perhaps one needn’t have an MBA to understand that new cant, but my point that it’s not a move away from “specialists” but from one guild to another still stands.

    With regards to Plato, I’m not saying that Plato’s Republic anticipates every point on every page of this book; my claim is the more modest one that the core impulse of Plato, namely to forge a new community with “the best” running the show rather than monkey about with the messiness and headache of communities as they’re already constituted, seems to be driving this book in particular and the church-planting movement in America more generally. Certainly I can understand the need for such things in post-Christian societies, but in my own experience, church-planters from schools the southeast United States are not going to Sydney and Capetown and London but to Greenville, South Carolina and Johnson City, Tennessee and Orlando, Florida, places where church-planting entrepreneurs seem, from my humble point of view, to be doing something other than re-introducing Christianity to places where Christianity is no longer or has never been a presence.

    Once again, I do apologize for my slow response, and I welcome further conversation on this.

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