Kingdom Culture: Growing the Missional Church
Author: Phil Wagler
Word Alive Press, 2009
155 pages

ANOTHER book on Missional Church? What for?

And that would be the right question.

There are a number of things that make this entry into the conversation unique. First, it is written by a practitioner with theological sensitivity. Second, while Phil is a good storyteller, the narrative is structured through a theological grid. And finally, Phil is an Anabaptist: that gives him a particular lens for culture and transformation, one that is increasingly prominent in the orthopraxis of missional churches.

Phil is one of the founders of Kingsfield, a movement of missional churches that sprang from the life of Zurich Mennonite Church in southwestern Ontario. Kingdom Culture seeks to bring “missional” frameworks to practitioners in Canada.

The book is organized into four chapters around four declarations, “No one gets left behind,” “Our leaders lead,” “I am a disciple of Jesus and I contribute to his kingdom,” and “We exist for the world our Lord came to save.” Each of these declarations has two sections attached. Under “No one gets left behind” are, “a kingdom culture sees people,” and “a kingdom culture embraces and engages mess.” Each section closes with a short “toolbox,” offering suggestions for further exploration or practice.

Before diving in, it’s probably sensible to make the obvious assumption explicit. The church is an alternative society. Whether viewed through the work of Hauerwas or John Howard Yoder, Phil’s writing, as the faith community of Zurich itself, is built on this Anabaptist vision. Where once we would have read “alternative” or “contrast” society in the title of the book, Phil has used a more recent framework and metaphor: that of culture, and specifically a culture pointing to and nurtured by the reign of God.

In using this lens, Phil builds on groundwork that is being simultaneously used by thinkers like James Smith (Desiring the Kingdom) or Charles Taylor. “Culture” is a more nuanced word than “society,” and it enables a conversation around practices as well as values, moving beyond the intellectual debate around “worldview.” Thus it is at once more concrete as well as more complex, and becomes a platform for a critique around the forming practices of modernity. Positively, it enables a dialogue around spiritual formation as consisting of “disciplines of resistance” or “alternative” disciplines, disciplines that form both body and spirit. I approve both Wagler’s framework as well as his strong foundation of kingdom theology.

The book opens with Wagler sharing some of this own story, placing his work in context. It then moves directly to the first two propositions, that kingdom culture sees people, and it embraces messiness. “No one gets left behind.” The concreteness of these ideas helps us move beyond our tendency to abstraction directly into the heart of a missional-incarnational ethos. Wagler applies the brush of “inclusion” broadly, both to identified or ordained leaders as well as non-ordained. Part of his concern in this section is to question our need to label and separate and thus stop “seeing” real individuals and their gifts. At the same time he attempts to move us beyond the “us-them” stance that is often fear based and unhelpful.

Chapter Two is “Our Leaders Lead.” It opens with a story based o New College, Oxford and the ability of one visionary who understood the times and saw the need for something new. The two divisions in this chapter are “a kingdom culture that values vision,” and “a kingdom culture that equips saints.”

It is probably to Phil’s credit that he has bypassed all the debate around the word “leader” or “leadership” and simply storied the approach of Kingsfield. Phil is aware that we have some unlearning to do before we can move forward, and the first myth to fall is that vision is about strategic plans or the province of high “D” types. Vision has nothing to do with dominance, but connotes the movement of the Spirit toward God’s future.

At the same time, vision is often birthed in particular men and women who are attentive to the Spirit. Often these people are marginalized because they have a habit of questioning the status quo, and are fiercely loyal to a city not seen. A settled Christendom church did not know what to do with apostles and prophets. Wagler opines that “we live with a corporate restlessness,” and “we hope together for the realization of that which is dreamed, but not yet seen.” (37)

The next section focuses more specifically on the nature of gifted leadership. Wagler is concerned that we embrace greater diversity in leadership types while at the same time becoming more sensitive to the nature of the systems we lead. Wagler argues that we need stable and shared leadership to build healthy and missional communities (an argument, like Gibbes and others, against sola pastora).

Wagler then offers some thoughts on our training institutions. Our removal of leaders from their local communities has only helped perpetuate the professional ministry model. Moreover, theology should serve the church on mission rather than continue as an abstract discussion. But Wagler is not saying, “no theological grounding.” On the contrary, he is concerned that we are quick to embrace those with needed adaptive skills, but often these men and women lack theological training. We need to be grounding our leaders in Scripture.

This section continues with what feels like a summary of Fitch “The Great Giveaway.” Wagler questions our measures of success as well as our individualistic practices. He advocates the necessity of becoming learners together, and then ends with an argument for a new preaching role: preacher as equipper of the proclaiming community. It’s obvious that here too Wagler is unhappy with the solo voce, the solo voice who declares the truth as if ex cathedra. The “hermeneutical community” would be a fitting phrase here.

The toolbox that closes this section offers a “mentoring compass” developed by Robert Clinton and Paul Stanley. Wagler rightly argues the need for mutual mentoring at all levels of discipleship.

Chapter 3 hits at identity issues in discipleship. This is the closest Wagler comes to a chapter on spiritual formation and the complexities of the faith journey.

The first section is “a kingdom culture that affirms our new identity.” This is a critical section, and while it falls as section 7 in the flow of the book, who can doubt that this “who are you?” discussion will make or break our missional journey? At the heart of the Gospel is personal transformation – conversion – new creation, and unless we love God with all our heart, mind and strength all our missionality will only result in laying impossible burdens on others. As Jean Vanier put it in Community and Commitment,

The more we become people of action and responsibility in our community, the more we must become people of contemplation. If we do not nurture our deep emotional life in prayer hidden in God, if we do not spend time in silence and if we do not know how to take time from the presence of our brothers and sisters, we risk becoming embittered. It is only to the extent that we nurture our own hearts that we can keep interior freedom. People who are hyperactive, fleeing from their deep selves and their wound, become tyrannical and their exercise of responsibility only creates conflict.

Phil anchors this section appropriate in Mark 1: “You are my beloved son.” To know ourselves as beloved – this is the heart of transformation and the deep gift of God to the soul. Unless we ourselves as beloved, we will fail to be a true blessing to the needy world around us. Intimacy and mission are deeply connected. Mission is the spontaneous overflow of love at the heart of Godself. Phil rightly points out that the Church is much more than a social agency and that transformation is not mere morality. “Planted in the believing disciple is the Spirit of God, .. the Holy Spirit is given as the power to bring our identity into full and mature bloom” (83). On the following page Phil offers a spiral diagram that moves inward to show our progress in grace.

The second section is “A kingdom culture that identifies contribution.” While Phil doesn’t quote Robert Bellah, he could have:

We find ourselves not independently of other people and institutions, but through them. We never get to the bottom of ourselves on our own. We discover who we are face to face and side by side with others in work, love, and learning. All of our activity goes on in relationships, groups, associations, and communities ordered by institutional structures and interpreted by cultural patterns of meaning.  Habits of the Heart, 30-31

Phil opens by describing how it was the Christian community that first received his gift of leadership, thus opening the door for his own contribution. Phil quotes Donald Durnbaugh who notes that the Radical Reformers did not abolish the ministry, they recovered it! For these men and women, baptism was ordination to ministry. Phil notes that our emphasis on worship as a service of the few to the many has only reinforced the passivity and non-priesthood of believers. The cultural context of a market culture and consumerism only complicates these issues. Phil argues for the recovery of worship as a Christian discipline, though he does not identify make the connection some others are making to the recovery of liturgy (James Smith, David Fitch and others).

He then asks how we actually make the recovery?  I appreciate all five points (96-99), but especially his emphasis on the “least of these.” Paul is careful in his discussion of gifted ministry in Corinthians to note that sometimes the weakest member is the most needful. The flip side of this coin is the question, “What is a ‘contribution’ to body life anyway?” Phil notes again here that we invest far too much energy in Sunday gatherings, and this has also reinforced the need for “professional” leadership, thus working against the organic and priestly nature of every-member ministry.

The toolbox that closes this chapter includes a pointer to the LIFEKEYS tools as well as to Appreciative Inquiry. While Phil doesn’t note it here, Mark Lau Branson’s book is a particularly good resource for AI.

Chapter 4 takes on context, but also the need for the church to be an alternative society. The first section is “A kingdom culture that understands the times.”

Phil begins with the familiar quote from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: Aslan is good, but not safe. We have grown lazy, and like the deity we created in our image, all too tame. Perhaps the strange place we find ourselves in, feeling so lost, is the sovereign work of God shaking us out of our comfort. Will we learn to depend on Him again?

Phil shares two biblical stories in this section: that of David the king, and Israel in the time of exile, and in particular the story of Esther. But rather than the typical application, Phil’s point is to note that there is no mention of God in this book. The application: God is at work even when he seems absent. We need eyes to see and ears to hear, and a confidence that looks beyond the surface of things.

We need to understand the times. The predictable and safe world of Christendom is gone. Yet this new world is a place where God is intensively at work. The fragmentation, materialism and pace of our time has created an intense spiritual hunger. In order to use this opportunity we must become listeners and learners: new questions are being asked, and we cannot answer them in old language or old frames. In times of Reformation there is a great deal of theological work to do. As Eric Hoffer quipped, “In times of profound change, the learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.”

The second section is, “A kingdom culture that is wildly different,” and the quote on the first page is from Jesus: “It shall not be so among you.”

It took faith for Abraham to go out to a land he had not seen. It takes similar faith to look around the room at a group of very ordinary pilgrims: truck drivers, housemaids, plumbers, Wal-Mart clerks and IT workers and see the Kingdom of God. But God dwells among these ordinary people just as he dwelt among fishermen and tax collectors. When Jesus called ordinary men and women to follow him he then walked with them on a three year program of deconstruction. We enter the kingdom with baggage and it takes discipline to learn to live in a new way. Most of us want to baptize our default modes of operation rather than take them with us to the cross.

Phil notes that we have not done well in discipleship. We have largely taken consumers and made them into religious consumers. AW Tozer once remarked, “A church that can’t worship must be entertained and men who can’t lead a church to worship must provide entertainment.”

Partly in fear of the world around us, and partly because we create our buildings, then our buildings create us (Churchill), we centered our life on the gathering and wondered why we became so unappealing to the world outside our doors. We wondered why others chose to stay home and find the church they wanted by shopping on cable channels. We trained our people for passivity and consumption. (OF course Hollywood and Madison Avenue have done an even better job).

Meanwhile, “relevance” as a goal has largely meant compromise. Phil argues that we must recover the spiritual nature of the body of Christ, recover our prophetic voice in culture, and make obedience to Christ a priority. The section closes with some additional toolbox suggestions and a prayer.

The beauty of this book is that it straddles a line between theological reflection and practical application. Moreover, it is fairly short at 150 pages and is constructed on a solid “kingdom” foundation. Personally, I’m very happy with the Anabaptist orientation.

Recommended for all who find themselves longing to see a missional renaissance.