Thursday, June 30, 2011

Book Review - A Gathered People: Revisioning the Assembly as Transforming Encounter

A Gathered People
[Authors: John Mark Hicks, Johnny Melton, Bobby Valentine]

Over the decades of my Christian walk I have cherished the assemblies of the elect. In recent years I have made an error in judgment by making way too much/or too little of the purpose/purposes of gathering in the name of the Lord. I have often expressed my feelings by quoting Hebrews 10 concerning the need for mutual provocation to love and good deeds. And I have said out loud on several occasions, "Our meeting is more for us than for Him." Now that I have read A Gathered People by co-authors John Mark Hicks, Johnny Melton and Bobby Valentine, I have a far grander view of our purpose for meeting togther. Somehow I missed who authored each section, but seeing it as a collaborative effort, that is a minor consideration.

The chapter headings goaded me to keep reading so I could explore the next chapter. Though heavy reading to be sure, I found it hard to put the volume down. That many of us in the Stone/Campbell heritage have taken an anti-sacramental view of worship is unfortunate. Our penchant for making baptism some litmus test where we insist that a point of conversion must be embraced or else has also alienated us from a broader Christendom. The loss of theological substance is noted by the authors as they point out our evolved contemporary practice of liturgy, something some of us may even insist we don't practice since it somehow sounds "denominational."

The assembly is not merely for mutual edification. It is for drawing near to the presence of the Almighty in a transcendent sense. So many paragraphs beg to be lifted and quoted. I will do just that with the authors' permission in my church publication and in future articles. The word studies on the most frequent words translated worship is worth the price of the book. And the awesome truth that service to others is just as much worship as serving the Lord's Supper is noted. Pointing to the old order of Moses, the authors identified the trap of thinking rituals and cultic practices somehow absolved those involved from their self-serving lifestyles.

The shalom that was lost in the garden has been rediscovered in the fellowship of God's children within the assembly. The authors also acknowledge something many of us have missed, i.e. that Paul, nor any other New Testament writer, has given us an orthodox and limited set of divine/timeless rules for conducting an assembly of the saints. That the authors chose not to weigh into the "worship wars" over multiple trivialities is refreshing, for such miniscule matters are indeed trivial in comparison to the purpose of drawing together as a people to the very throne of God. The assembly constitutes the body as a visible reality. So many nuances are offered that enlighten that as I was reading it was difficult for me not to highlight section after section. One in particular points out that "some churches are victims of worship which fosters private emotionalism; some are victims of private rationalism. Both are missing the point" of assembly. Worship ala John 4:24 must be both emotional and rational.

This book is not an easy read. A myriad of scripture references keeps the reader on his alert. Are they using texts in context? Is their exegesis solid? Does their hermeneutic seem consistent? Yes to all of those. Every other margin was highlighted by me with asterisks for future reflection. Formats and formulas for assemblies are secondary to the purpose of assembly. This is discussed in vivid detail, which was one of the parts of the volume I enjoyed most. Every assembly must be worthy of the gospel of Christ. If they are not, the purpose for our gathering has been thwarted. And the discussion of "body worship" [bending knee/bowing head/raising hands/prostrating/clapping/standing/sitting/dancing] was especially enlightening and provided a broader perspective for how we express our adoration in a personal way. 

The climactic epilogue at the end of the book especially captured my attention. It lists the plethora of matters about which the book failed to address...on purpose. Such weighty concerns as multiple cups, instrumental music, drama, invitations, electronic devices and scores of others matters that have caused much grief and discord among patternists who have demanded a blueprint for every move within the assembly. These three amigos have done a masterful job of reminding the readers of how special, how awesome, it is to gather with those of earnest faith in celebration of the Lordship of Jesus Christ and the glory of Father God. This wasn't just a triple, but a grand-slam, out of the park, home run.

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