In a world that celebrates individuality and autonomy, too many of us struggle to form deep, meaningful relationships. Loneliness is the norm, rich friendships are rare, and the church is no exception. We long for real community but often don’t know how to get there. What will it take to develop healthy friendships?
That’s the description from today’s book.
Hi, my name is Terence and I’m your host for Reading and Readers, a podcast where I review Christian books for you. Today I review, “The Sacred Us: A Call to Radical Christian Community” by Justin Kendrick. 240 pages, published by David C. Cook in September 2022. Available in Amazon Kindle for USD9.99 and in Faithlife for February it’s at a deep discount of USD4.99. The free book from Faithlife is “40 Prayers for Lent: Prayers for Your Church and Small Group” by David Clowes. I didn’t want to review a prayer book and I thought in the list of discounted books, this book, “The Sacred Us” to be the most pertinent to the church today.
Justin Kendrick is the Lead Pastor of Vox Church, which he founded in 2011 with a small group of friends on the doorstep of Yale University. It’s a young church in the least-churched region of the US that has grown to multiple locations. So its apparent success is explained in this book. Vox Church has three core values:
- Jesus at the Center
- Intentional Community. There are 7 key elements to an intentional community.
- City Mission
Why am I spending so much time on Vox Church? Have they sponsored this podcast? No. It’s because after I finished reading this book, I realised that the 7 key elements of Vox Church’s core values are the 7 chapters of today’s book. So I guess today’s book is a required reading for membership classes at their church.
Is the book any good for the rest of us? Let’s open the book.
The first three chapters gives the background and the need for radical community. The three chapters are:
- Friendly but Friendless
- The Theology of Us
- Re-Churching Your Life
The next seven chapters are the seven key elements of Intentional Community, the core of the book.
- Proximity Provides Opportunity
- Vulnerability Creates Connection
- Discipleship Sets Direction
- Fun Amplifies Grace
- Mission Drives Adventure
- Sacrifice Matures Love
- Boundaries Sustain Growth
The last chapter, Chapter 11, is titled “A True Friend”, where Kendrick concludes the book with a final call to the reader to join him in radical Christian Community. He gives a powerful exposition of Leviticus 14:1-7, directing the reader’s attention to Jesus Christ. He shows how all 7 elements can be linked to Jesus.
Proximity Provides Opportunity. He writes, “Jesus led the way by coming as close to us as supernaturally possible.”
This is how I’ll do today’s book review. I’ll do the Good, the Bad and the Conclusion. I’ll take one good chapter, one bad chapter and wrap the whole review. Each chapter begins with some introductory quotes, followed by the main text and ends with a few reflective questions.
My pick for a good chapter is Chapter 4, the first element in his list of seven. Proximity Creates Opportunity.
He quotes in the beginning, Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
The physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer.
Now, for some of us, you are already convinced that physical presence is needed. You, like me, are convinced that online can never replace the physical, convinced not just from our experience of joining the chorus of praise and sitting side by side listening to the word preached, but convinced from the Old Testament assembly, the New Testament letters to the churches and the end times vision of the people gathered from every tribe and every tongue.
That’s not how Kendrick writes this chapter. Kendrick has lived out a more radical, unorthodox, counter-cultural and mildly invasive form of community.
For most people today, the idea of being consistently present and available to other Christians feels pretty unrealistic. Take a few moments and consider the potential disruption it would cause to your schedule. You have your career, and you’re finishing up school. You’ve got young kids, and you still get together regularly with your friends from college. You have family commitments. Your son plays travel sports. You have a lot going on.
Later he writes:
When my wife, Chrisy, and I moved to Earl Street in the Westville section of New Haven, Connecticut, we were in our late twenties and already had two kids. We had just started our first church, but we’d been experimenting with living in intentional community for nearly ten years. Our family bought a house with a small backyard, and some friends we knew bought the house next door. Soon, friends from our church owned the houses in front, back, and on both sides of ours. I know that to some people, this might sound like a nightmare—and it certainly came with its challenges. But in that season of life, at that stage in our church, this experience was integral in teaching us the importance of proximity.
We took down the fence. We invited people to take their kids on the swings in our backyard anytime. Before we knew it, proximity took on a whole new meaning. I would often get home from work and find thirty people in our backyard. Kids were running around. Someone was cooking on the grill. We would spontaneously start a game of Wiffle ball or football.
And this is just an introduction to the Kendrick community experiment. He shares bits and pieces of those years in the chapters ahead. I like how the chapters are mildly flavoured by these anecdotes.
Flavoured in the sense that he has experiences and stories that most of us do not have.
Mild in the sense the stories do not over-power the content.
For Kendrick is not calling for us to tear down our fences, and buy a hot tub in the backyard for neighbourhood baptisms. He wants us to move in our own ways from our own circumstances towards a community.
You can see his heart in the questions he ask. Question 3 in the chapter is:
Examine your living situation. Do you live alone? With friends? With family? Find one or two new ways you can use the space where you live to create greater opportunities for spiritual relationship. Should you host a small group? Should you rent a room?
So even though Kendrick has lived what some of us would call a crazy life, and I invite you to read how that part of his life turned out, he does not present in this book a model.
When a mountain climber tells us of his journey up Mount Everest, we gain life lessons from his experience. He does not call us to climb Mount Everest. Rather we learn to prepare for the journey, persevere and triumph.
In this book, Kendrick presents characteristics and outcomes. Proximity Creates Opportunity. Fun Amplifies Grace.
Fun Amplifies Grace is Chapter 7 in the book and it is my pick for the Bad Chapter. And I first of all, I want to say that it is a hard topic. I have heard John Piper criticise the idea that church should be fun. He qualifies, he explains but it is in response to a felt need from a fun-obsessed culture.
So I was looking forward to seeing how Kendrick would support the idea of fun in the community.
He starts the chapter with a prank. And maybe I’m a stick in the mud, but it’s a prank that he and the friend he pranked think is funny, but I don’t. So when we have different ideas of what is fun, that’s not a good start.
He gives biblical support from Proverbs 17:22, a cheerful heart. Proverbs 15:30, a cheerful look. Okay. Cheerful, joy and fun can be related. But it’s still a stretch. I hope to see more substance.
Kendrick describes how animals have fun, and Romans 1:20 does say that God’s invisible qualities are seen in what has been made. To me, that’s still a stretch. Let’s read on.
He’s [God] is described in 1 Timothy 1:11 as the “happy God”…
I don’t ever remember reading “Happy God” in my Bible so I checked. In the ESV, it reads the blessed God. And that’s also how it’s translated in the NET, HCSB, NIV and NLT. And I checked in Biblehub for more translations, and none of their translations says “Happy”. So I am not happy because he seems to stretch the word so that it can say what he hopes it means. It wouldn’t be so bad if he said that the Greek word covers a multitude of meanings and he takes the view that it means happy here. But that would be too much work for the general reader. He is after all not writing for scholars or seminarians. He is writing for the Average Joe.
But then, that means the Average Joe, would think that having fun is biblically supported on a verse that does not exist.
Kendrick then paints a scenario from the Bible, Jesus, after the resurrection, calling out, “Do you have any fish?” And Kendrick asks us to see this as Jesus being playful.
In another story, again after the resurrection, Jesus meets the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and he disappears. Kendrick writes:
Finally, he opened their eyes and they recognized him, but as soon as they did, he disappeared. What was he up to? Once again, I’m pretty sure he was chuckling to himself. He was having fun. God has a sense of humour.
I want to say that I believe God has a sense of humour. I believe fun is from God. I believe as Martin Luther did, in the quote to this chapter, Martin Luther wrote, “If you are not allowed to laugh in heaven, I don’t want to go there.”
What I was looking for was solid biblical foundation. And what I got was a desperate clenching of straws.
To his credit, Kendrick does go through the Bible. We have Abraham and Sarah laughing, Jesus making wine at a party, and he even manages to present a strong gospel message in this chapter. Because Fun Amplifies Grace. And fun and joy, he argues, is not boxed up in the individual, it’s for the community. Biblical joy is a community experience.
So as you can tell, there are positive parts to this chapter. And you may read this chapter and say, “I don’t see the problem, I think he makes great points and has abundantly proven his case.” I disagree. I still think you need a lot more to say on the pulpit that the Bible wants us to have fun. Have joy yes. Be blessed, yes. Have fun, the concept needs to be qualified so that we can distinguish the world’s fun and Gospel fun. Spurgeon’s fun. Piper’s fun. Church fun. And I don’t think this chapter has done enough to show us that distinguishing mark, that peculiar sense of fun, that God delights in.
I have done the Good, the Bad and now the Conclusion.
Kendrick got into this Intentional Community, this life together, having experienced it in a visit and then taking bigger and bigger steps to a radical Christian community.
The way he writes, it is not “I read this, now I do”, it’s more of “I do, I experience, and I confirm by reading the Bible”. That sounds harsh but I’m describing how the book reads. And even if it’s true, there is nothing wrong with Christians doing and testifying that what they do is in accordance with the Bible.
I just think that sometimes in the desire to confirm something good, he stretches the Bible to say what it does not say with the confidence that Kendrick says it does. Just like the Fun Amplifies Grace. It is not a good case study for hermeneutics.
On the other hand, there are parts where I appreciate Kendrick tying in theology with practice. One notable example is how he explains God is a community. He explains the Triune God. And this is who God is. And from who God is, this is who we are and how we are to behave.
And I wish he did more of that.
And this is my main criticism of the book and with the entire approach. The approach is very much in line with the spirit of the age. Pragmatic and results focused. The seven elements all describe results. Vulnerability Creates Connection. Discipleship Sets Direction. Mission Drives Adventure. These are all result statements.
It does not help us understand what the church is. Actually, although I say church, and Kendrick is thinking about the church, he is often describing community.
Taking his words, God is a community. That is true. It is also true that God is Love. God is Just. God is Almighty and so on.
So it would be a mistake to reduce God to just a community.
I suggest in the same way, when we read this book, we should read this as describing one aspect of the church. The church is a community. But the church is also more than that.
The church is the Bride of Christ.
The church is the Royal Priesthood of Believers.
The Bible has many more images of the church. Kendrick does unpack what it means for the church to be the body of Christ. But overall, it’s too focused on the community and thus needs to be supplemented by other books or other aspects, otherwise you are at risk of a lopsided, distorted church.
Let me explain using contrast.
A famous book about church is “Nine Marks of a Healthy Church” by Mark Dever. And as I list them compare them with what you have heard from The Sacred Us. The nine marks are:
- Biblical Theology
- The Gospel
“That’s not fair! If you put it that way then are you saying there is only one way of writing about church?”
That’s precisely my point. I think we should read more. And my go to book on the church is “Strangers and Sojourners” by Gregg Allison. I have found his book to be the most helpful and most clarifying in that I can think about church properly. I can recognise that Kendrick’s approach to church is in what are the results. The telos. And the tension I experience when I read his book is I think of the church from what it is.
Does that mean that you and I can’t gain from Kendrick’s book? Not at all. I think he has achieved most of what he set out to do. He aims to call us to a radical form of Christian community. Many have done so before, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Francis Schaeffer, and I welcome the many experiments and testimonies and lessons that we can learn from our brothers and sisters as they wrestle with obeying the Word.
This is a Reading and Reader’s Review of “The Sacred Us: A Call to Radical Christian Community” by Justin Kendrick. 240 pages, published by David C. Cook in September 2022. Available in Amazon Kindle for USD9.99 and in Faithlife for February it’s at a deep discount of USD4.99.
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