This is my final book review for my Pastoral Licensing.
By far the most substantive read of the Pastoral Licensing process, Simon Chan’s Spiritual Theology is an in depth (understatement) look at the Christian askesis, or practical Christian spirituality. While at first my experience in reading this book was a little bland and challenging, I gradually grew an appreciation for his unique insight that differed from any book I’ve read thus far. Chan, Professor at Trinity Graduate School in Singapore, offered a well rounded and developed perspective as an Asian theologian. Over the three-hundred-plus-page work, Chan attempts to consolidate the tremendously broad subject of Evangelical Christian Spirituality into one book. Chan, being an Asian Christian has a unique perspective on what that at times can feel like a disjointed and scattered, religion. By outlining basic theological principles and doctrine, Chan develops a structured explanation of what an Evangelical Christian believes and does, while at the same time offering various critiques of contemporary Christianity. Both the foundational theology and the outsider’s perspective on the Church were things I found tremendously compelling, especially as Western, Evangelically employed, insider. For me, Chan’s voice felt both fresh, in that I’m not used to hearing such bold and grounded arguments against some of our modern practices, and overdue in that he was able to articulate sentiment I resonate, if not agree with.
On the topics of Theology, basic Doctrine, and the Christian life, Chan writes like a heavyweight. Throughout the course of the book Chan lays out a systematic description of God, Sin, and the church all with the hopes of an application found in the practical Christian life. He easily sites both historic and scriptural backings for his descriptions in a way that is applicable to his narrative. When Chan describes the Trinity, what he calls “basic distinctive of Christian Spirituality” (55) he not only painted a broad understanding of both the Father, Spirit, and Son but also the implications of this knowledge to a persons spirituality. In similar fashion Chan describes prayer, the community of Saints, and various spiritual disciplines, concluding with the “fulfillment” (239) of spiritual theology, Spiritual Directing. The foundational and developed systematic picture of Christian Spirituality that Chan describes is helpful to anyone in ministry. I deeply appreciated the sound backing Chan offered that served as a reminder for why we do what we do, as well as provided a solid framework to who’s shoulders contemporary ministers are standing on and how we got to be where we are today, in both our practices and beliefs. In terms of Chan’s specific theology, even though he is connected to the Assemblies of God denomination, it appears that he is an Evangelical Moderate. He draws from different traditions outside and inside of the Protestant umbrella, always seeking historical and scriptural paradigms while at the same time being open to healthy movements of the Spirit.
The critique Chan gave that most struck a chord with me was his dynamic and forward attack on individualistic, self-help Christianity. In the chapter The Church as the Community of Saints, he writes “The purpose of Christian formation is not developing a better self image, achieving self-fulfillment or finding self-affirmation; nor is the development of individualistic qualities that make singularly outstanding saints. Rather, it is developing certain qualities that enable us to live responsibly within the community we have been baptized into.” (103). While some of Chan’s descriptions are broad and open ended, when it comes to the Church, he is straightforward and simple. He strongly believes that our consumer based, feel-good-show that’s constantly trying to compete with culture to stay relevant is incorrect and hurting the Body. He suggests that Christians are meant to take church and being apart of the community seriously, something he feels our modern culture has failed to do with our non-committal approach. He argues that our performance driven programs have created a Christian culture where congregants go from church to church seeking the next best show or spiritual high, something that is devastating to our spiritual development; “The continuing movement of Christians from church to church observed in urban contexts reflects a lack of ecclesial covenantal faithfulness… The spiritual life of an individual will always remain in flux if there are no stable structures of church…” (233). Chan beats the drum of “covenantal relationship to the church” numerous times throughout the book with one of my favorite quotes coming out of the chapter The Rule of Life. He writes “Our personal inner life is more closely tied to the life of the church than we realize. The first step in ascetical discipline is to learn the “technique of going to church.” But here is where modern church has failed its children. By constantly changing its format of worship to make the service more interesting the church is not helping them develop the rhythm necessary for their own personal discipline. Mother church, like many a modern parent, finds it easier to yield to the whims of her spoiled children than to maintain unpopular but necessary discipline” (197).
Chan’s belief that we need to communicate a “covenantal relationship” to the church instead of an open ended one hits close to home for me in the context I am currently doing church. My home church was designed to be as open as possible to all, and hopes to be as understandable to outsiders as it can be, things that I deeply believe in and support. Often described as being a “seeker” church we have always strived to create a non-threatening environment, something that churches has been perceived as guilty of in the past. While this is virtuous and is the very spiritual environment I found faith in, I’m not convinced it’s always healthy. Let me explain.
Lately I’ve been a little burnt out of selling and promoting our most current youth group activity or trip. It often feels that in my current position as a youth leader I’m constantly trying to convince kids they need to come to things. At one point recently I realized that most of my conversations with students are centered on explaining to them how cool our next program or event is going to be, and trying to get them to attend instead of asking them how they are doing, or encouraging them in their personal or spiritual growth. Part of this is because of our numbers based gage of ministry health, and part of it is because students, parents, and families have not developed a “covenantal relationship” with the community. Over time we’ve enabled a spirit of entitlement with regards to church that forces ministers to constantly have to convince congregants to show up. As this pattern continued, our services risk becoming a commercial for our next event, and we become “persuasive experts” at getting people to show up. While there is nothing wrong with making announcements or asking people to come to the next event, it should not be the total focus of a church community. If we create our program to be one big advertisement for ourselves we forego any sort of covenantal relationship. People start forgetting what the church has to offer them and start perceiving that the church is privileged to have them attend. I can’t help but feel fake when our focus is on “selling”. Is it not true that the church community has value based on what it is intrinsically, the fellowship of believers, the primary vessel of the Word, tradition, and sacraments, the redemptive force of healing, reconciliation, justice and love of God Almighty? Usually it feels like our congregants have no understanding of their urgent need for the church community and its value in their lives. Sometimes I wonder if this is not the direct result of church leaders becoming more like salesmen of the gospel rather than awe-struck stewards of it. Presently it seems that most church goers are mostly apathetic about their relationship with the church, and those that have any semblance of passion for the church are a rarity. What if more people had what Chan describes as a “covenantal relationship” with the church? What type of community would we be? How do we develop this?
Reading this book provided me the chance to reflect on this process of pastoral licensing as it was my final requirement. In total I started reading, shadowing, and writing over a year ago. It’s been a tremendously edifying challenge as I’ve developed my own opinions and ideas of how Church is doing. Chan’s book was written in a way that communicated his own personal reflection on his many years of ministry. His global perspective reminded me that God is sovereign over all of the churches that have ever been and ever will be. It also gave me the chance to apply some new spiritual practices and disciplines to my own spirituality. It was a fitting way to finish the process as a newfound passion for the Church has grown inside of me. I can’t help but be excited for what the Church will look like in the days and years to come, and how God will use me.