As mentioned previously, in conjunction with reviewing the book ReJesus: A Wild Messiah for a Missional Church…I had the opportunity to chat with one of the book’s authors, Michael Frost. Michael serves as Vice-Principal of Morling College in Sydney, Australia, and is the director of the Tinsley Institute at the college. Besides co-authoring two books with Alan Hirsch (ReJesus is their second collaboration), Michael has written numerous books on his own, Exiles probably being the most well-known. He is also the founder of the missional community “smallboatbigsea”, and travels and speaks internationally.
Distance being an issue, we opted to converse by online chat. Below is the transcript of our conversation. Due to the length of the conversation, I’ve chosen to break the review into two posts. My actual review of the book will be posted tomorrow.
me: Thanks again for agreeing to chat with me. I count it a real privilege.
Michael: Not at all. I appreciate the opportunity very much.
me: This first question is sort of in two parts. You have now co-written two books with Alan Hirsch—The Shaping of Things to Come and now ReJesus. First—how did you and Alan come to collaborate on the first one; and second—what prompted you to collaborate again on this one?
Michael: Alan and I have been dear friends for about 15 years. We launched a missional church planting training program about a decade ago and Shaping was basically our write-up of the curriculum we used in that course. Quite frankly, we simply expected to sell a few hundred copies every year to the participants in the program. To find that it has become an international best seller was a huge surprise to us. Somehow, from way down here in Australia, and unbeknown to us, we were tapping into a global conversation. In fact we feel quite privileged to have been able to contribute to that conversation through that book. As for ReJesus, well we thought it was the logical next step. If Shaping was exploring a missional ecclesiology we thought it natural to then explore a missional Christology, since we had posited the formula that Christology must lead to missiology and then to ecclesiology. We are currently writing our third book.
me: That’s pretty amazing, watching it take off like that…I read Shaping at just the right time in my journey, and it verbalized a lot of stuff I was already feeling.
Michael: Amazing how many people say that! The most common compliment I get about that book is that it resonated with what people were thinking/feeling but hadn’t yet verbalized. It’s a great blessing to give words and concepts to others peoples’ intuitions.
me: And considering how revolutionary it must sound in some circles (“Christendom is dead?”) 🙂 …that positive response must have been pretty encouraging as well…
Michael: Well, I don’t want to overstate how positive the response was. There were plenty of people who hated it. My favorite negative response I got was that Alan and I were “ecclesiastical terrorists”!! What did excite me though was that it was church planters, missionaries, youth pastors, welfare workers etc who really picked up on the book. In other words, the real missionaries in our midst knew what we were talking about. It seemed that the denominational leaders of church bureaucrats and large-church pastors who were incensed by it. Interestingly, it seems even those guys are coming around somewhat these days.
me: Let’s talk a moment about the word “reJesus”, because I’ve noticed a few people have had some mixed reactions to the title of the book when I mention it to them. For the benefit of those who haven’t yet read the book—what does “reJesus” mean?
Michael: Yeah, some people have thought it means “regarding Jesus” as in re:Jesus. But we used the term to refer to reJesusing the church, that is, refocusing the church around its Founder and less around instititionalism, bureaucracy and the latest marketing strategies. It’s an idealistic book in many respects. It urges readers to explore what Jesus actually had in mind when calling people to follow him. Did he have in mind the enormous global corporation we have now? Or was his radical plan to unleash an organic movement of “little Jesuses” into the world to infect that world with the values and message of his new kingdom?
me: So…reJesus means more of a re-turning to Jesus, rather than “re-imagining” Him or “re-inventing” Him? (That’s some of the misunderstanding I’m getting from folks here.)
Michael: Interesting! I hadn’t had that reaction. No, it’s not about reinventing Jesus. It’s about allowing the person and message of Jesus to re-infect our churches: to assess everything we do on the basis of his original vision and example. In other words, would Jesus be comfortable as a member of many of our churches? What would need to change? What needs to be abandoned and what needs to be taken up if we took seriously our role as followers of the radical messiah, Jesus? Alan and I begin the book talking about a day we spent visiting St Peters in the Vatican and asking ourselves, where is the wild, radical Nazarene to be found among all this wealth and religious paraphernalia?
me: In the book, you and Alan talk about the tendencies we humans have to picture Jesus according to the parts of His nature we most gravitate toward—to sort of co-opt Jesus and frame Him according to our image, or our desires. Why do you think we do this?
Michael: I guess we do that with everyone we meet. We have certain categories and boxes into which we seem to need to put people and it’s easier to make sense of a neater, simpler world when we do it. I suppose it’s no wonder that we’d do it with Jesus. The other reason, though, has to do with the radical claims he makes and the uncompromising stance he takes. It can be so confronting that it’s just easier to box him into our preferred category and leave him there: gentle Jesus; charismatic Jesus; theologian Jesus. But every time you think you’ve got Jesus boxed he slips out of our grasp (if we take the Gospels seriously) and escapes our attempts to tame him or domesticate him. But this presupposes we are spending some serious time in the Gospels, something I’m not sure we can assume about many Christians. It’s as if the Gospels are seen as elementary stuff. We learn the stories of Jesus in Sunday School as kids and then we graduate to something deeper or richer. But the fact is the gospels are the deep rich vein of life-giving blood for the church. We can’t “move on” from them and simply allow Jesus to remain a caricature to us. Scott Peck called the Gospels “the best kept secret in Christianity.” We can’t continue to allow that to be the case.
me: I definitely know what you mean about the Sunday school versions of Jesus. Having grown up in church, a lot of my picture of Jesus had already been framed before I was old enough to read the Bible…and then, of course, for many years, I let my own formed picture of Him shape how I read Scripture, instead of the other way around.
Michael: That’s a great way to put it. Neither Alan nor I grew up in the church, so perhaps that freed us to come to the gospels with less preconceptions. Having said that, I grew up in a lapsed Catholic family and Alan’s family is Jewish. How odd that the two of us should end up writing about the wild and uncompromising Jesus who shatters all religious convention and ushers in the end of religious institutionalism. We refer to Jacques Ellul a few times in ReJesus. He reminded us that Jesus never instituted a new religion. He signaled the end of religion. Isn’t it bizarre that we’ve spent two centuries building a new religion in Jesus’ name?
me: You and Alan spend some time debunking some of these inaccurate images we have of Jesus; yet some reviewers of the book have expressed an opinion that you are a bit vague in your descriptions of the true, Biblical Jesus. Like “these are the wrong pictures”, but what is the right one? Was this vagueness intentional, or do you feel perhaps this misses the point you were trying to make?
Michael: I’m dismayed by that criticism. We certainly spend some time early in the book looking at false or unhelpful caricatures of Jesus, but the later part of the book, and the final chapter in particular, explores what kind of faith community Jesus built. In those sections we mine the Gospels for the distinct or unique mission of Jesus as he presented it to his followers. Maybe some reviewers don’t read much past p.50. If readers are looking for our replacement caricature of Jesus then they definitely miss the mark. We’re suggesting you can’t tie Jesus down to a one page description of his character and lifestyle.
The third chapter of the book—“ReJesus for the Church and the Organization”—was one of the most impacting chapters for me personally. It talks about how, in order to survive over time, any movement (including Christianity) must continually return to the heart and principles of its founder—in our case, Jesus—and how the very structures set in place to perpetuate a movement eventually dilute it, and so must constantly cycle between dismantling and reforming. This gave me a great amount of context for what we see happening in the church right now, with so many people drifting from institutional forms, getting back to basics, attempting to follow Jesus in a more simple manner. It’s part of a healthy cycle. What I’d like to know is…do you have any specific examples of church communities that are purposely “rebooting” in this way, attempting to “reJesus”, and if so, how is it playing out? How are these communities changing?
Michael: Well, that’s the $64 question (why is it $64 anyway???). There are myriad examples of people leaving institutional churches and launching new organic missional communities centered on Jesus. We’re yet to see too many examples of those institutional churches rebooting back to Jesus’ original vision, and there’s quite a bit of debate about whether it’s possible. I was recently in Germany on a panel discussion with a few German missional church leaders. We were asked whether churches can remissionalize or not. While I was prepared to concede that it should be possible and that I saw no structural reason why not, the German guys on the panel were categorical in their view that it was impossible. They might be right, but I’m more inclined to think that structurally churches should be able to do it, but that attitudinally there is a great deal of resistance. When you have so much invested (financially, emotionally, historically) in things the way they are it’s very hard to find enough will to change. I have met some marvellous missional souls working at a denominational level in enacting a process of remissionalization for their churches, but I’m yet to see too many results. Alan has been engaged by about a dozen megachurches across the US to consult with them on such a process. We’ll see whether he’s any more successful. My personal energies are spent on equipping and encouraging the planting of new missional churches. I think that’s where the greatest opportunities for success lie.
Mike, I’ve got one more question to shoot you, that I think is important to the discussion. As with your first book together, you and Alan devote some time to talking about the need to return to a more Hebraic approach to seeking God and understanding Scripture. How does this differ from the typical approach to these things, and why do you feel it’s such a critical element?
Michael: We think that it’s the Greco-Roman worldview that has ultimately skewed the church in its current trajectory. The separation of the world into either-or, up-down, in-out categories has led to a good deal of the malaise we now struggle with. For example, the sacred-secular divide has led to a lack of incarnationality for the church. In Shaping we posited Martin Buber’s framework that rather than seeing the world as either holy or profane, sees it as holy and not-yet-holy. In other words, there are profane things in our world, but they can be made holy by our engagement with them and indeed our trandsformation of them. By retreating from the so-called secular/profane world, the church has left that world to its own devices. We see this in the life of Jesus. He sees the Kingdom being unfurled all over the place, not just in temples or on holy mountains. He sees it in the lilies of the field, in the faith of a pagan centurion, in the heart of a prostitute and a tax collector. He even offers us the parable of the wheat and the tares to explain that the holy and the not-yet-holy are growing up among each other and our job is to tease out the holy more so than to retreat from or spend all our time on examining the tares. It’s a beautiful image of this Hebraic worldview. We have lost a lot of what Jesus, and for that matter Paul, has to say because we aren’t in their headspace when we read their words.
(Tomorrow: my review of the book in Part 2.)