c. wess daniels
They Like Jesus but Not the Church
by Dan Kimball
Facing the Difficult Questions of Church and Culture: Dan Kimball, author of four (almost five) books on the emerging church, has been an important part of this conversation for a long time. His book The Emerging Church, published in 2003, was one of the first books on the topic. Kimball is a pastor at Vintage Faith Church in Santa Cruz, California, as well as an adjunct faculty mentor at George Fox Seminary, where he is pursuing a Doctor of Ministry degree. While Kimball may be more theologically conservative than some of the other voices within the emerging church, he is both highly respected among his peers and is someone who challenges many assumptions about what it means to be the church in today's culture. In fact, in a not-so-subtle way, that's what his most recent book, They Like Jesus but Not the Church, is all about. The title alone may cause a little discomfort for those not ready to face difficult questions about the church.
Kimball bases the majority of his content in They Like Jesus on a number of interviews with people who are not Christians. This method gives us insight into the very nature of the book. First, Kimball is a pastor who has a number of friends who are not Christians. Second, Kimball is willing to listen to what these non-Christians have to say about Jesus and the church. While some of the people he quotes are now a part of faith communities, the thrust of the book revolves around listening to what the emerging generation has to say about a whole range of issues, and how much of what they say needs to be heard by the church. For example, Alicia, one of Kimball's dialogue partners, sounds almost prophetic when she says:
Church leaders seem to focus more on acting like businessmen raising funds to build bigger buildings for their own organized religious corporations than they do on taking the time to teach about social action for the poor. I think Jesus would have cared more about raising money for the poor than building yet another mini-mall church with comfortable seating and wide video screens so you can see the CEO pastor all the better and bigger. (80)
While the conversational makeup of the book makes it easily accessible, you have to be ready to listen to some sometimes-rather-hard-to-hear truths about the church. In other words, Kimball's method is easy to understand and his writing is informal, but what he presents could prove to be very challenging for some to hear (19).
Why and for Whom Is Kimball Writing this Book? Kimball undoubtedly wrote this book for church leaders (and their churches) who are—for one reason or another—not “with the program” culturally (see chapter 1). He isn't calling for the church to become hip or relativistic; rather he wants to help it create a culture of missional Christians. He summarizes a presentation he gave to a group of pastors, saying:
I built a case for our need to think of missionaries not only as those you send overseas somewhere but also as ourselves here in our emerging culture in our own towns and cities. I then pleaded with the pastors to consider how we might spend our time and how our lives might change if we saw ourselves as missionaries. (12)
Kimball wants to challenge the very starting points of what it means to do outreach. And even though the book is not necessarily for those who are already a part of emerging church communities, Kimball will communicate well to a broader audience with his overall emphasis on the church as a missional community that focuses on the life of Jesus.
This book is helpful in explaining some of the differences between the increasingly “post-Christian” culture we live in today and the “Christian nation” America used to be. Understanding these differences is important because they call for a change in the way we approach “being the church.” Kimball calls pastors to get out of the office (39-40), break away from Christian subcultures (47), and move into public spaces in order to build friendships with people who are not Christians. The stress is on friendship, listening, and being present with those who are outside our community, joining where God is already at work in the world (20). As Kimball says, it's really easy for leaders “to subtly lose touch with the mindset of emerging generations. It's too easy to get caught in our little church subcultures, and the result is that the only younger people we might know are Christians who are already inside the church” (13). He says we are in a post-Christian, post-modern society, and we as the church can't deny it any longer. “American culture no longer props up the church the way it did, no longer automatically accepts the church as a player at the table in public life” (18). The call for a radical rethinking of how we live out our faith as a people of faith couldn't be louder.
The Big Hang-ups: The middle part of They Like Jesus deals with a number of hang-ups the emerging generation has when it comes to the church. They may like Jesus but they think the church is: a bunch of organized religious groups with their own political agendas, judgmental and negative toward those outside their theological makeup, homophobic, male-dominated and male-controlled, ignorant and judgmental of other religions, and a group of fundamentalists with a literal view of the Bible. The way Kimball deals with these comments is even-handed, gentle, and fair. Whether you end up agreeing within his theological positions on some of the issues hardly detracts from his overall presentation, which takes its form in three ways. First, he notes there is a marked difference between what his friends think about Jesus and what they think about Christians. They see a disconnect between the two (67-68), but their openness to discussions about Jesus and desire to see Christians who live like Jesus is obvious. Second, Kimball is essentially calling the church to exhibit Christlike virtues in ways that engage the world—friendship, dialogue, listening, equality, forgiveness, and openness. Sadly, many of our church communities are rarely found practicing these virtues out in the world. Third, Kimball keeps these hang-ups rooted in a dialogue between the Bible and the stories offered by those people outside the church. In other words, Kimball isn't suggesting that whatever the world tells us to do we ought to do, but rather that we need to be a people who are always listening to where God is already at work in the world.
Conclusion: I was particularly glad that Kimball discussed homosexuality and focused so much on the importance of being loving and missional within that context. Homosexuality is such a big issue, and so many people—especially those who are of other sexual orientations—have often been hurt badly by our un-Christlikeness. I was moved by the one woman Kimball writes about who responded after he asked her if she'd ever been to church: "Oh no. I am gay. You wouldn't want me there,” she said (148). Kimball makes the challenge: Are we ready to wake up and hear these stories, or will the church continue to let God do the work in the world without us? Overall, I recommend this book to all those who are in ministry in any capacity, and also to anyone who is interested in listening in on conversations with people outside the church. But Kimball doesn't want to leave it at that; he hopes that the church will go out and make friendships and practice listening (213). His book is just a catalyst.