Book Review: The Tangible Kingdom, by Hugh Halter and Matt Smay
Hugh Halter and Matt Smay are fed up with how we’re doing church today.
Their book The Tangible Kingdom provides a vent for their frustrations. It tells the story of how they’ve sought a better way. And it prescribes how other church leaders can go about “creating incarnational community” by recovering “the posture and practices of ancient church now.”
Halter and Smay believe that most churches today are program-driven, inward-focused bunkers where Christians come to hide from the world. As a result, when Hugh Halter looks around at Starbucks, he thinks to himself, “I can’t picture any of these people, or my friends, or your friends, going to church…any church…ever!” (3). This book is their response to that problem.
After walking through some personal experience and introducing the broad outline of their vision for the church in the first six chapters, Halter and Smay diagnose the problems they see in churches today. This includes
- an irrelevant, too-small gospel (ch. 9),
- an institutionalism inherited from Constantine that has plagued the church for seventeen hundred years (ch. 7),
- an attractional rather than missional model, and a cultural captivity to modern, Western categories of thought (ch. 8).
After some more ground-cleaning work, Halter and Smay lay out their reprogrammed way to do church, which includes
- cultivating the practices of leaving (ch. 14),
- listening (ch. 15),
- living among non-Christians (ch. 16),
- loving without strings (ch. 17),
- and developing the habits of togetherness (ch. 19), oneness (ch. 20), and otherness (ch. 21).
A NO-HOLDS-BARRED WILLINGNESS TO LOVE, LISTEN, AND SACRIFICE
The most commendable aspect of the book is simple: the authors demonstrate a no-holds-barred willingness to love others, listen to others, and sacrifice their comfort and preferences for others. That’s wonderful.
For example, Halter tells the moving story of how his church cared for a recovering heroin addict who was involved in their music ministry (119-120). Hugh Halter and Matt Smay clearly love people right where they’re at. Like Jesus, they befriend sinners.
Further, Halter and Smay are responding to real problems in our churches, and many of their critiques are accurate. Sadly, far too many churches are hostile and judgmental toward non-Christians. And far too many Christians’ lives are characterized by conformity to this world rather than the transforming power of the gospel.
Yet I’m afraid that Halter and Smay’s proposed remedy is just as problematic as the symptoms they’re diagnosing. I’ll discuss three issues with their vision for the church which I would consider to be among the weightiest.
I hope Halter and Smay believe better than they speak, because in this book they speak as if the gospel is something that we do, not the announcement of what God has done. The authors explicitly pose the question “What is the gospel?” And then they answer:
It is the tangible life of God flowing into every nook and cranny of our everyday life. No, blessing doesn’t mean our financial ‘cups running over’ or the absence of disease or pain. But it does mean that the ‘other-world’ life does make a tangible difference that can be felt in this life. And when this other-world life shows up, even in the smallest form, it is attractive, and people unconsciously move toward it like thirsty horses stumbling toward a watering hole…When someone adopts a child, brings a kind word of encouragement to someone in jail, renovates a dilapidated home in the inner city, mentors a struggling student, plants trees in an ugly city block, plays music for the elderly, or throws a party for friends…it’s all Kingdom, and it’s always good news! (90)
The most serious problem with this definition of the gospel is that it’s the exact opposite of the biblical gospel. The Greek word euangelion means “good news.” It’s a message about something that has happened totally apart from anything we’ve done. As we see throughout the New Testament, the gospel is the announcement of what God has done to save sinners through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And the gospel is good news precisely because it announces that sinful people can be reconciled to God and declared right in his sight despite everything we’ve ever done, things which have only earned us condemnation from God. To say that the gospel is what we do turns the gospel on its head and makes it no good news at all.
It’s one thing to pastorally exhort a congregation to “live out the gospel.” Most people know that means something like “live out all the implications of the gospel” or “live consistently in light of the gospel.” It’s something else altogether to ask the question “What is the gospel?” and answer by pointing to things we do to make people’s lives better.
Regrettably, this quote aligns with how Halter and Smay speak of the gospel throughout the book. For example, they write,
When we focus on the message only, what are we saying to people? Maybe that they really aren’t dear to us? Is it possible that to share four great truths about God without giving the listeners a part of our lives might communicate the wrong thing? Paul knew that a message without an attractive tangible person embodying and delivering it would fall on deaf ears or be lost amid all the other faiths of that time. What makes the gospel good news isn’t the concept, but the real-life person who has been changed by it. (42)
Now, I agree that a Christian’s changed life must be inseparably linked to a Christian’s message. But the last sentence here is disastrous. It puts the cart before the horse. What makes the gospel good news is absolutely not your or my transformed life. The gospel is good news because it addresses every human being’s most fundamental need: to be reconciled to God rather than suffer his just condemnation for all eternity. Denigrating that momentous truth as a mere “concept” as opposed to a “real-life person” may score rhetorical points, but it obscures the truth of the gospel to the point of rendering it unrecognizable.
But do the authors really mean to say that what makes the gospel good news is how we live? Aren’t they simply telling us that living in a transformed way will be attractive to unbelievers?
I hope so. Maybe I’m misunderstanding them. But the problem with saying that our good deeds are what make the gospel good news to others is that our good deeds are not the gospel. Our good deeds can pique interest in the gospel and bear witness to the power of the gospel, but that’s it. In order for someone to find the gospel to be good news, they must embrace the truth of what it says. This includes the inescapably offensive news that all people are guilty rebels who justly deserve God’s wrath and the glorious announcement that Jesus Christ bore that wrath in his own body on the cross, suffering for our sins in order to bring us to God.
Making the World’s Approval the Standard of Success and Faithfulness
The second major problem with the book is that the authors believe the church should adopt a posture of “advocating” for the world (39 ff.). By this they mean that we are to adopt a loving, inclusive, non-judgmental attitude toward non-Christians that, instead of alienating non-Christians, causes them to be attracted to the truth (41). Much of what Halter and Smay say in this section is helpful, but as they practically work out this idea, they make it sound as if God will measure the church’s success by whether or not the world approves of them.
For instance, Halter and Smay write, “We have to be honest with ourselves and realize that if the message isn’t attractive, and the people of God aren’t attractive, then we must not be telling the story right, or we aren’t living the story correctly” (88). Ergo, God disapproves of what we’re doing. In marked contrast to this, Jesus anticipated that not everyone would find his followers and their message attractive. And he didn’t tell them to change the story in order to make it attractive, but rather to wipe the dust off their feet and move on to the next town (Matt. 10:14). Jesus’ standard for our success is not acceptance by the world, but faithfulness to his Word.
This posture of “advocating” for non-Christians also leads to several practical problems. For example, in order to argue that we shouldn’t preach the gospel to anyone until we’ve known them for quite a long time, Halter and Smay write,
Advertisements by their very nature are intended to coerce thinking and behavior. They are needed when there is no personal relationship between the seller and the buyer. This type of coercion is expected when you’re trying to decide what beer to drink or car to buy, but it’s highly offensive when people try to tell you important truths without any tangible relationship. (40)
Given what they say about the offensiveness of speaking important truths outside the context of a tangible relationship, it’s surprising that Halter and Smay decided to write a book about such a weighty reality as the kingdom of God. After all, how many of their readers will have a tangible relationship with them before hearing about these important truths?
A final issue I’ll discuss is that the authors cast some confusion over the nature of conversion.
Halter and Smay write concerning their new “ancient/incarnation” paradigm for conversion, “How does the conversion process actually happen? How is it different than what we are doing now?” (93). It’s a little odd to speak of conversion as something we church leaders do. It sounds like they’re suggesting that we have power to create faith in Christ, as if we could go out and convert people.
In a slightly different vein, Halter and Smay write, “This systematic, linear, attractional flow [of the common view of conversion] unintentionally communicates to people that there is a clear line of who’s in and who’s out, based on a moment of belief. We also communicate that you can’t really belong with us unless you believe what we believe. In other words, belief enables belonging” (94). Of course, they’re saying this view is wrong.
The problem for their case is, the Bible actually teaches that there is a clear line of who’s in and who’s out of God’s kingdom (Matt. 25:31-46; Jn. 3:1-15; 1 Cor. 6:9-11). Further, the Bible teaches that there should be a clear line of who’s in and who’s out of the church (Matt. 18:15-20; 1 Cor. 5:1-13; 2 Cor. 6:14-7:1). And this line is in fact based on whether or not someone believes in Jesus Christ. If they do, that faith began at some specific moment in the past, however long a road someone walked in order to get to that point and however uncertain a person may be of when they first came to faith.
Halter and Smay argue that “there’s no belief without belonging” (144). By this they mean that people will not come to faith in Christ unless they participate in an “inclusive community” first. While “belonging before believing” is a common refrain among church leaders today, Halter and Smay go further than some when they write that “Belonging enables believing” (98, italics original).
As Christians, we should certainly seek to build meaningful relationships with non-Christians. Further, we should weave non-Christians into our relationships with other Christians so that they will see our love for one another and observe something of the glory of the gospel (Jn. 13:34-35; 17:21). But to say that belonging enables believing makes conversion something that’s within our power to effect. It also makes belief a consequence of experience, not of hearing (Rom. 10:17; Gal. 3:1-6).
I’ve discussed these three issues at some length because they are matters of utmost importance, especially for pastors. Pastors must clearly proclaim the gospel. Pastors must recognize that faithfulness, not the world’s approval, is the measure of their success. And pastors must understand the biblical doctrine of conversion and minister rightly in light of it. These three issues are immensely weighty, and they will shape the entire course of a pastor’s ministry.
While I celebrate Halter and Smay’s love for people and their willingness to throw anything overboard that gets in the way of reaching others with the gospel, I fear that some of what they’re getting rid of is actually the precious cargo we’ve been charged to deliver.