Book Review: Perimeters of Light, by Elmer Towns and Ed Stetzer
In their book Perimeters of Light: Biblical Boundaries for the Emerging Church, Elmer Towns and Ed Stetzer ask, “how many people in North America think that being a Christian means being a conservative Republican, having a short haircut, and having no facial jewelry” [sic]. That is certainly a worthy question, and we can only answer: “Too many.” Of course, increasing numbers of people think that being an authentic Christian means reading Jim Wallis, growing a Mohawk, and puncturing your body in new and creative ways. It is ironic that emerging church revolutionaries fall into the same error as the traditionalists they criticize—both care about culture too much. The traditionalists set great stock in forms of worship that have more to do with Victorian social mores than biblical precedent. But many postmoderns are just as guilty of emphasizing their own cultural forms. They may have replaced church organs with video projectors, but it ends up being much the same.
There are certainly positive things to be said about Towns and Stetzer’s book. For one thing, it is encouraging to hear two leading authors in the church planting and growth movement make a case for biblical boundaries in the emerging church. Without naming names, Towns and Stetzer acknowledge that “some emerging church leaders in a desire to be culturally relevant … are pulling away from the light” (30). In contrast to these straying emerging church leaders, Towns and Stetzer hold fast to an orthodox—and decidedly old-fashioned—view of biblical authority. They write: “The idea that the Bible can mean anything based on the response of the reader actually devalues the Word of God and destroys Christian unity” (26). We should be thankful to Towns and Stetzer for making this point so clearly.
Furthermore, Perimeters of Light includes a concise ecclesiology that is largely admirable. Its authors define a church as a group of Christians that has intentionally covenanted together (67), insist that churches must practice the Lord’s Supper and baptism (68), and emphasize the importance of preaching (although it needn’t be called by that name) (68). Towns and Stetzer even mention that a local church should be served by both pastors and deacons (69). This is an ecclesiology that would be at home on the 9Marks website.
This kind of careful biblical thinking sparkles like a diamond, but not everything in the book is similarly precious. Perimeters of Light disappoints partly because it is so, well, postmodern. The book simply doesn’t function well as a collaborative effort. The two different sets of feet in the narrative stream tend to muddy the water, and it isn’t always clear which of the two authors is speaking. At some junctures, the narrator clearly identifies himself as either Towns or Stetzer; but most of the time the authors leave it up to the reader to figure out which of the two is speaking. The result of such a disjointed narrative voice can only be confusion. As the book oscillated from narrator to narrator, I even found myself wondering whether the two authors even agreed with one another.
The book also suffers from being organized around an extended metaphor, or parable. Towns and Stetzer preface each chapter with a vignette from “The Parable of the Nimo,” which tells the story of two missionaries trying to evangelize a remote tribe. As they set up camp in the middle of the dark and dangerous jungle, they quickly learn that they must keep a fire going at all times. The fire provides light, heat, and protection, and so the missionaries stay as close to it (within the “perimeter of light”) as possible.
Narrative and metaphor can be useful strategies for catching and holding an audience’s attention; but they are not always the best vehicles for conveying doctrinal truth. While reading Perimeters of Light, I was more than once reminded of Jesus’ claim that he taught in parables “so that seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand” (Luke 8:10). Like many of Jesus’ parables, the “Parable of the Nimo” and the constant light/dark imagery tend towards obfuscation. In some instances, the “light” of the title seems to represent Scripture; in others, it is meant to represent God, or perhaps just his will. The book would have been stronger with less imagery and more simple argument.
If one had to identify a simple thesis of the book, it would probably be the statement that “God has no preference regarding style, but highly regards motives and outcomes” (43). The authors of Perimeters of Light seem to think that this statement is self-evidently true—in that they are not alone. Indeed, one could make the case that this is the foundational principle of the emerging church movement. In one sense, this is a worthy principle. God was evidently not impressed by outward religiosity when he told Hosea, “I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6), and there is little reason to think he has changed his mind since. It is also reasonable to think that there must be at least some flexibility about the style or mode in which we worship God. We shouldn’t expect Christians the world over to wear Western clothing and attend services in gothic cathedrals. But this is not the same thing as saying that God has no preferences about style or mode. The Bible doesn’t just tell us to worship God, it tells us how to worship (and how not to). For instance, the Second Commandment prohibits those styles of worship that focus on images of God “or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” (Exodus 20:4). There are undoubtedly many sincere Christians who find images helpful in prayer or meditation. But God explicitly prohibits this style of worship, and his law does not make exceptions for those who have good motivations. This principle is perhaps most clearly illustrated in the story of Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron who “offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, which he had not commanded them” (Leviticus 10:1). Nothing in the relating of this story leads us to doubt Nadab and Abihu’s sincerity—they may very well have burned their incense out of a desire to worship God. Nevertheless, “fire came out from before the Lord and consumed them” (verse 2). When God proclaims “Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified” (Leviticus 10:3), he evidently means to be glorified in the manner of his choosing.
The New Testament is just as concerned with the manner in which we worship. Paul is particularly explicit on this subject when he writes to the church in Corinth. The services of the Corinthian church were evidently characterized by a chaotic and disorderly style, everyone rushing to practice their spiritual gifts without waiting for others. Paul responds by establishing specific rules to regulate the exercise of spiritual gifts, finally insisting that “all things should be done decently and in order” (1 Corinthians 14:40). Paul clearly had strong stylistic preferences. He preferred orderly styles of worship to disorderly ones, because they did a better job of building up the church. If Scripture has a preference, we must acknowledge that God also has preferences. In our churches, then, we should “Let all things be done for building up” (1 Corinthians 14:26). That means more orderly worship that conforms to Biblical patterns.
The point of all of this is not to say that style matters most, or even to argue for one particular style over another. Rather, it is to point out that God cares about style, because style is inextricably bound up with outcome and motivation. This is a crucial point, and Towns and Stetzer seem to have missed it. When we allow Christ’s church to worship in a style that is disorderly and self-glorifying, we tell the world that Christ is disorderly and self-glorifying. That should be the last message that any gospel-centered church would want to communicate.
Different cultures might define words like “orderly” and “decent” differently, so it might not be immediately obvious how we should apply these principles to our churches. Questions about musical style can be particularly vexing. Towns and Stetzer write that “the Bible contains no music notes and God indicates no musical preference” (96) while at the same time offering tests based on “biblical principles that we should apply to our music to determine if it is Christian” (103). It is not clear how these two positions are compatible. There are numerous styles of music that fail the biblical tests offered by Towns and Stetzer. Punk rock might help get unchurched folks through the front doors; but if the congregation can’t understand the lyrics, they can’t sing along. It hardly seems like a stretch, then, to say that God does have musical preferences. If 1 Corinthians 14 is any indication, God prefers those styles of music that are orderly and that build up the church, and he dislikes those styles that are unintelligible.
Towns and Stetzer insist that “preaching in any age should always be, first and foremost, biblical preaching” (126). That is a great first principle. But Perimeters of Light would be stronger if Towns and Stetzer paid more attention to the mode of preaching. Stetzer relates the story of one Sunday morning he spent at a Scooby-Doo themed church service. The congregation—I’m tempted to say audience—sang the theme song to the TV show, played a few quiz games, and then watched a message comprised largely of film clips. Stetzer correctly criticizes the service for lacking biblical focus. He writes, “The church service troubled me—not because there was anything sinful about any elements of the service [but because] the church staff seemed to have no discernment about their objective … The preaching used the Bible for a mere spiritual footnote” (54-55). Stetzer is right to be troubled by the lack of discernment in the service. But it is a mistake to give the individual elements a pass. Scooby and friends may not be sinful, but it is difficult to see how their inclusion can coexist with Paul’s command to “Let all things be done for building up.” One way to make sure our church services stay focused on their objective is to carefully compare each of a service’s elements with the pattern of worship presented in the New Testament.
So how are we to tell the difference between reasonable accommodation to culture and unacceptable compromise? Clearly, we must search the Scriptures, and ask God for wisdom. But we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking we are the first to ask these questions—there is a rich body of reformed thought concerning the proper ordering of our worship services. Reformed churches have long taught that we should weigh our practice according to the Regulative Principle, which holds that our worship services should contain only those elements expressly taught or clearly implied in the New Testament. The Regulative Principle acts as a sieve, filtering out extraneous and unhelpful worship practices (including Scooby-Doo). Worship services governed by the Regulative Principle that is remarkable chiefly for its simplicity—it includes prayer, preaching, and corporate singing. It is precisely this simplicity that allows Christian worship to be so easily translated to new cultures. Even the most exotic cultures—whether that of the Nimo tribesman or the Seattle slacker—understand what it means to pray, sing, and listen to teaching.
Emerging church theorists might counter to this argument by saying that postmodernism is something entirely new, and that the church must respond with new methods. Even Towns and Stetzer—hardly members of the Emerging church movement themselves—write that “There is a need to employ a postmodern evangelistic strategy as churches share the unchanging gospel” (139). But is postmodernism really so unprecedented? Towns and Stetzer write that “the church didn’t see postmodernity coming; it never before faced that cultural condition” (153). However, it can be argued that the church faced many of these same cultural conditions in the first century and every century since. Postmodern culture is relativistic; but so was the philosophical culture that taught Pilate to ask “What is truth?” (John 18:38). And modern America may be pluralistic; but it is hardly more pluralistic than the pagan Athens that Paul confronted in the Areopagus (Acts 17). God, in his wisdom, gave the church a model in the New Testament that is relevant in any cultural condition.
So what exactly is postmodernism? Towns and Stetzer quote J.I. Packer, who says “Postmodernism is a throw-away word that means everything, and nothing” (quoted on 160). “He is right,” they reply, “but its lack of definition does not make it any less important” (ibid). That is not particularly helpful. But even if “postmodernism” is a true paradigm shift, it isn’t clear that it merits a whole new evangelistic strategy. We shouldn’t be so quick to jettison the simple, unadorned gospel ministry we see pictured in the New Testament. After all, it has served the church well for two thousand years, and in every conceivable cultural and geographic setting. Sinners are still saved the old-fashioned way—by hearing the gospel preached plainly by faithful men. It is not unreasonable to assume that faith will continue to come by hearing, even for the postmoderns.