Book Review: The Gathered and Scattered Church, by Edward Hammett
I have spent my entire life in Southern Baptist churches. Most of that time, in fact, was a double dose of the Southern part—these were Southern Southern Baptist churches, probably much like the churches that Edward Hammett serves in North Carolina. It was always a priority in the Southern Baptist church in my home town to teach the people to do evangelism, to take the good news of Jesus to the world. I remember sitting in youth group meetings and being convinced beyond all doubt that my charge before God was to tell my friends the news about Jesus. We didn’t always do it correctly, and we became adept at thinking up innovative and creative, albeit probably unhelpful, techniques for goading people into the kingdom. But evangelism we did, so far as we knew how, and we understood it to be a vital component of Christian life. As an idea, then, the principle that Hammett writes about in The Gathered and Scattered Church is not a new one to me, and will not be a new one to anyone who has spent any time at all in an evangelical church. That principle, simply stated, is that the mission of the church is to be “scattered” throughout the world to infiltrate and engage it with the gospel. It is a good principle, and one that I’ve had drilled into my mind countless times by youth ministers and preachers. In fact, it’s one that I myself have tried to drill into the minds of those to whom I have ministered. There is a reason that “Go and make disciples” has been dubbed the Great Commission. That command is our Savior’s summons to battle. It is His charge to us His church to take the message that we have believed and proclaim it to the world.
This principle of engaging the world is generally what Hammett writes in his book. He begins by listing a battery of disheartening statistics about the state of the church today and asks what it is that has led the church to this position of weakness in our society. His diagnosis has five parts. First, the church has become apathetic. Second, ministry in the church has become dominated by the clergy in the church, rather than being shared by all members in common. Third, the world around us has been secularized to the point that we cannot expect non-Christians to have even a rudimentary knowledge of the content of the Bible. Fourth, the programs to which churches give their energy have proven ineffective, and finally, the church has cultivated in itself a spirit of intolerance. Instead, the church needs to be “stretched by the pluralism of our multicultural society to appreciate the faith and beliefs of others who are culturally different from ourselves.” (p.7) In response, the church should be determined, willing, appreciative, and confident that it will persevere in the face of these challenges. Chapter Two of the book attempts to define what Hammett calls the “scattered church,” as opposed to Hammett’s own (somewhat historically inaccurate) definition of the “gathered church.” In the past, he writes, the church has primarily conceived of itself in this “gathered” capacity, coming together for worship and encouragement but neglecting the call to be scattered throughout the world to proclaim the gospel. Chapter Three gives several long lists of questions that church leaders could use to evaluate their churches and “activate the scattered church.” Chapter Four includes several lists of practical ideas that Christians could use to engage society, as well as a long list of descriptions of ministries that Hammett feels should be commended for their efforts to reach the world.
I have no problem with Hammett’s principle that an enormous part of the church’s mission is to infiltrate and engage society. That idea is, if not revolutionary, certainly right. Hammett writes on page 15 that “We are commanded to go into all the world and preach, teach, and baptize; to be the salt, light, and leaven in the world.” My question is how exactly Hammett would define those terms. Defined in a biblical sense, that is a wonderful sentence that underscores the church’s mission to tell the world about its sinfulness and the salvation that was purchased by Christ on the cross. It is worth mentioning that from the cover of the book, to its size, to the foreword by Loren Mead, The Gathered and Scattered Church is clearly Smyth & Helwys’s attempt to reincarnate the Alban Institute in Baptist skin. The ideas in the book are traced from the same stencil, too. From reading the book, one might justifiably think that Hammett’s definition of those terms, i.e. preaching and teaching, has less to do with the proclamation of sin and salvation than it does with social action. I understand how weighty a suggestion that is, and I am not necessarily accusing Hammett of believing that the gospel is defined in that way. I do not know his heart. I am, though, suggesting that he has written that way. Consider these points in the book: On pages 19-21, Hammett gives a list of what the “scattered church” might look like. One of those suggestions is this, on page 20: “What if businesses intentionally worked to be the most “customer-friendly,” cost-efficient, customer-sensitive, relevant businesses anywhere?” Another of his suggestions is, “What if employees became seeker-sensitive, customer/person sensitive servants seeking to offer the best service, support, products, and care for customer needs and desires?” Is that really the nature of the mission that Christ gave to the church? Surely the Great Commission was not a charge to the church to help businesses be more “customer-friendly” or (good grief!) “cost-efficient!” Those things, though good for a customer-support seminar, are completely foreign to the mission of the church. Hammett uses the correct words when he talks about mission of the church—“evangelism and edification” (p.15)—but both of those words must be defined in terms of the gospel of Christ, not in terms of social activism.
The ultimate mission of the church is to preach the truth of Christ, to proclaim the gospel accurately and truthfully so that people may be saved. I fear that Hammett has lost sight of the importance of maintaining the truth of the gospel. Near the end of the book, he spends 5 pages (pp.65-70) listing various “ministries” and praising them for their work. Many of those ministries are great social causes, but have absolutely nothing to do with the Christian gospel. For example, on page 70-71, he extols Target Corporation for helping “schools, community agencies, and churches provide school supplies for children in need and personal effects for those living in emergency shelters.” Wal-Mart also gets a nod for “giving back to their local communities by providing scholarships; child care; school support; and funds for such causes as child abuse prevention, muscular dystrophy, and cancer research.” And in perhaps the most egregious example, Hammett goes so far as to praise Oprah Winfrey for attempting to “lift the spirits of the world and teach people to give to each other.” Oprah “addresses issues to help people move beyond barriers in their emotional and spiritual lives.” I am not sure if one could be any more confused about the mission of the church than Hammett here betrays himself to be. If you stand with Hammett in declaring that this is the ideal for Christ’s church, if you believe that Christ’s charge to the church is to provide school supplies and scholarships and generally to “lift the spirits of the world,” then fine, enlist Oprah Winfrey as your role model. Go to her web site—Hammett makes it readily available. But stop calling yourself a church. The church of Christ is not about getting people over emotional barriers in their lives and it is not about adopting the strategies of corporations who “give back to the community” in order to make themselves look magnanimous. The church’s mission is not social activism. You can spend an entire lifetime trying to rid the world of racism or to clean up all the corruption in politics. You can use up your energy working to help the poor or to correct injustice. No one will ever say that those are not good and noble causes, but unless those noble causes are coupled with a faithful proclamation of the gospel, those very people you so lovingly “help” will find themselves in hell when they die. The mission of the church, given it by Christ in the Great Commission, is to declare to sinful men and women their need for a savior. Jesus never made social problems or social action His overriding concern. His mission was to die on the cross to save His people from their sins, and He pursued that goal with unwavering determination; everything else was secondary at best. Edward Hammett needs either to understand that, or at least to write it, more clearly.
Findley Edge writes on page xv that “the youth of today have become aware of the irrelevance, the superficiality, the shallowness, and the phoniness of much that goes on within the life of the modern church. . . . [They] have simply dismissed Jesus Christ because what they see of Jesus Christ demonstrated in the churches makes them sick.” The reason, according to Edge? “They see these people scattering throughout the community doing absolutely nothing . . .” What they want to see, Edge proposes, is “the relevance of what Christ is and means and can do in the world of which they are a part.” He explains what he means a few paragraphs later with an indictment of a certain church: “They had not . . . tried to solve their racial problems. They had not tried to eliminate the corruption that was involved in politics in the community. They had not tried to become involved in protesting the injustice that was going on in the courts.” (p.xxi) I was a youth minister for three years in a Southern Baptist church. What I learned there, perhaps above all else, is that if you want to inspire youth to live as Christians, then teach them the gospel! Preach them the Bible! Work to see them come in faith to Christ! Tell them of their sinfulness and of the heart-rending, mind-blowing love of Jesus in dying on the cross in their place to make them righteous before God. I saw youth become passionate about life, about the church, and about loving people only when I saw them begin to understand the truth of the Gospel. Youth today don’t need the church ultimately to take them to another homeless shelter. They have that already. They hear about social action from their schools and from their boy scout and girl scout troops. What they need from the church is to hear the gospel. That alone is what God will use to regenerate them and move them to passionate service in the church and in the world.