Neil Carter (Ekklesia Press, 2008, 196 pp)
by Matthew Raley
In our crisis of identity as American evangelicals, we are several decades into a period of radical (root-seeking) experiments with local church life. Fellow believers are heading in many directions seeking community.
The church growth movement has fostered enterprises that are intimately in step with suburban consumerism. The Reformed movement is trying to revitalize body life through sharper doctrine. Many emergents have moved on from café churches to think in terms of missional communities.
Believers are amassing a lot of wisdom from these experiments. This period, though it is often painful and bewildering to me, will leave followers of Christ far healthier and with more varied skills for advancing Christ's kingdom. I think the home church movement will prove to be a big contributor to all this wisdom.
That is why I was eager to read Neil Carter's book, Christ in Y'all: Following Jesus into Community, and why I'm glad I did. I found much wisdom to keep working through our identity crisis.
Carter is focused on needs that, for believers, are primal. He asks, for example (p 30), "[H]ow many things do you do, either on your own or within your church, that honestly could not be done without God's indwelling presence?" Concerning prayer, he observes (p 41), "Somewhere along the line we got a picture of God as a task-oriented Being who gave us prayer primarily as a way to make us as task-oriented as he is. But what would we be left with if we removed from our prayer lives all prayers that ask God to do something? We'd be left with simple communion."
He also writes (p 45), "Spiritual formation is a collective endeavor [original emphasis]. It's not about you, the individual, becoming more like Jesus. It's about him coming to reside among the saints in their relationships with each other."
The theology behind these statements is life-giving and biblical. Carter loves the Bible, and he communicates from the deep intentions of texts, not from idiosyncratic passions.
In addition, Carter makes penetrating observations about American life (p 39). "While declaring our independence from each other, we simultaneously mimic each other in everything from our clothing and our possessions to our language, our political views, and even our personalities. American culture may very well be the most advanced manifestation of this malady to date."
This book is informed by experience. Carter and the brethren have taken these ideas and applied them seriously in a home church. He discusses how many of them intentionally live near each other, so that (p 158) they "often bump into each other and spend time together on the spur of the moment."
At the heart of the book, and the experiences it reflects, is the reality that suffering with other believers, and being hurt by them, is essential to the Christian life. Chapters 5-6, in this respect, are worth the whole book, and give a call to sobriety that believers deeply need.
The only weakness of this book is common to literature from radical experimenters. In a word, judgmentalism.
Those who seek the root of matters and do things differently get stared at by the community's worst face -- the snide, dismissive, over-confident face. This experience stings, and it's difficult to keep one's writing and teaching from stinging back.
The edge of judgment on others' efforts comes through in several of Carter's paragraphs about stereotypical traditional church activities, staffs, buildings, etc. The verdict on p 168 is one of a few unsustainable pronouncements: "It took me a while to admit that 'body life' cannot survive long within the traditional church setting because these two things are antagonistic to each other."
This doesn't match my experiences. But such sparks keep the experimentation lively. I'll put up with them to get Neil Carter's wisdom.