Anvil journal of theology and mission
Christopher James, Church Planting in Post Christian Soil, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018)
reviewed by James Butler, Church Mission Society
What is the future of the church in the post-Christian West? This is not the first book to ask this question and it won’t be the last. The particular contribution of this book is its practical theology approach. It is a detailed and focused study on the Seattle area in Pacific North West of the United States of America, which has been described as “the None Zone” with a high percentage of religiously unaffiliated people. James suggests that, based on current trends, Seattle gives a good indication of what the future looks like for the church in the US. Using a mixed method approach drawing on both quantitative and qualitative research methods, James presents four models of church that seem to be engaging well in this post-Christian landscape. The major contribution of the book comes from the time he spends presenting, evaluating, learning from these models.
The early chapters present the cultural context of Seattle and the Pacific North West, the qualitative data collected about churches in the area, and the ecclesiological approach taken around models of church. Chapter 4 presents the four models, developing careful descriptions based on the qualitative and quantitative research. Chapter 5 moves from presenting into evaluating using a missional lens. It explores each model’s strengths and some of the potential weaknesses. James then moves, in Chapter 6, to make some suggestions about how the models could be strengthened by learning from each other and from the missional theology he is engaging with. Chapter 7 presents some of the wisdom from these different church models and begins to sketch out some of the larger ecclesiological implications, presumably to be picked up and developed at a later date.
There is much that can be celebrated about this book and the research it is based on. It is a careful and detailed study, one that is clear about its focus on Christian witness in an increasingly post-Christian west. It is a study which is unapologetically theological, being open about its position and commitments and making bold critiques. It is firmly focused on practice, deeply committed to Christian witness and generously ecumenical.
I do have some reservations. While the missional lens chosen for the study is one which brings helpful and significant insights into practice, it can sometimes feel a bit overbearing. There is an assumption that missional theology is the way forward, and everything is evaluated based on that theology. I would have liked to have seen some critique of the missional lens from the actual practice he observed. It could have been strengthened by at least entertaining the question of whether other missiological approaches might have made better sense and might be more appropriate in a post-Christian world. This means that some of the suggestions for the different models can feel a little heavy handed. A helpful avenue of further reflection would be James’s assertion that many of the models have the resources within them to overcome their weaknesses, and more could have been made of this. The book is the product of a doctoral thesis and as a result takes a while to get going. The first three chapters survey the field and context and it would have benefitted from getting into the meat of the insights a little quicker. I wonder whether this earlier discussion could have been condensed, which would have had the added bonus of allowing some expansion of the final chapter where the fascinating insights highlighted could have been developed a bit further. The final thing which struck me from reading this, which is less a criticism of the book and a more a wider comment on thinking about models, was that this felt very different from a British context. I could not imagine some of the approaches working in the UK, and the scale and funding was unfamiliar.
Overall an important contribution to a growing field particularly because of the rigorous qualitative and quantitative research that has gone into it. It provides a helpful model for a practical approach to ecclesiology and is a rich engagement with missional theology. As well as its contributions to academic theological accounts of church planting, the book will be of interest to theologically engaged practitioners and important for teaching around church planting and contemporary ecclesiology.