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May 23, 2006
With the volume of books I read and review, I’ve found it valuable to be intentional about reading. Before I begin a book, I generally skim the endorsements, chapter titles and, if possible, the chapter divisions. I also usually skim the endnotes and bibliography, for these elements of the book often speak volumes about the book’s content. They can help me understand the book even before I begin the first chapter. Of course a potential problem with this practice is that it can lead me to form judgments about a book before I have even begun reading it. In the case of Transformation, a new book by Bob Roberts, here are the elements that stuck out in my mind based on my initial screening:either a new program or a new model of something. In this case, two of the books three sections were headed by such a word: T-Life and T-World.
Having skimmed the book, I buckled down and worked my way through it, doing plenty of underlining and jotting down all sorts of little notes. What Roberts is calling for is a transformation (in case you didn’t understand that from the title!) in two spheres that are different, yet intimately connected: what he calls T-Life and T-World, which together comprise the T-Model. Or, in laymen’s terms, a transformed life which leads to a transformed world. Sound familiar? It should, in many respects, as Roberts is not the first person to call for just this type of revolution. The bridge that connects a transformed life to a transformed world, in Roberts’ model, is a person’s vocation. The age of the vocational missionary has largely passed and it is now time for individuals to do the work of spreading the gospel within their vocational contexts both at home and abroad. These locations are equally the mission field.
The book begins, as many do, with a chapter explaining the trouble with the contemporary church. Roberts seems to believe that the church has utterly failed in its mission. “Where is the church today speaking to justice and mercy? Where is the church today serving the poor and hurting? Where is the church today serving as a prophet to society?” (18). He feels that we cannot expect people to respond to the gospel if we don’t deal with issues at this level. Beside this section I wrote “Oh, come on!” That view is patently unfair. Sure the church may not be doing all she could do and we certainly fail in many ways, but to pretend that the church is doing so little for justice and mercy and poverty is to deny the work of many, if not most good churches. Roberts goes on to suggest that the church in the East is far more healthy and biblical than the church of the West. This is a view that is commonly touted, but one which I have never had proven to my satisfaction. Still, on the whole he does a fair job of assessing the church and of suggesting how she lost her way. He discusses pragmatism, consumerism, worldly standards of success and endless bureaucracies. He quickly shows, though, his Arminian understanding of the gospel. He also begins to slip into a problem that continues throughout the book: he makes sweeping statements without providing any sources or proof. He says, for example, that people who desire to be leaders are dangerous. This is his understanding based on the fact that Moses didn’t want to be a leader while Pharaoh did and that David didn’t want to be a leader while Saul did. That is not convincing proof as it is entirely possible that a man can desire to be a leader and not be at all dangerous! He also makes a potentially troubling statement when he begins to discount theological knowledge. “Merely believing the right things does not ensure Christlike behavior” (32). I don’t know of anyone who would hold such a view, but it could be equally dangerous to deny that beliefs inform behavior.
Roberts then asks how the church fits into God’s plan for the world. “The church is at is best when we are not a force outside the culture but when we are entrenched within the culture” (47). He presents a model based on concentric circles which shows how people are to be brought into the church and into relationship with God and then sent out again into kingdom service. He introduces the importance of missional service. Next up is a discussion of evangelism which focuses not on the message (and actually, the message is assumed in this book and never explicitly stated) but on making the gospel clear in our practice of evangelism. In other words, we need to appear as transformed people if our message is to be heard.
This brings us to the heart of the book, first a section discussing T-Life and then T-World. The T-Life model has three core elements: interactive relationship with God (reading the Bible, praying, journaling), transparent connections (authentic fellowship with other believers) and glocal impact (the bridge between a person’s vocation and ministry that spans community development locally and globally). He discusses the importance of community to the Christian life and shows that, while personal, this life can never be private, for connecting in community allows us to serve together. He asks “what if the church were the missionary?” What if it was the local church that understood itself to be responsible for missions? This, he feels, is the ultimate convergence between a person’s vocation and his ministry. He then introduces T-World, a vision of “every believer and every church engaging the world with the purpose of making a lasting difference” (122). It has three components: community development, church multiplication and nation building. As I indicated earlier, the book culminates in the question of “What Do You Get When a Church Combines Billy Graham with Mother Teresa?” T-World is “a marriage between the two. It is serving and boldly proclaiming. It is loving for love’s sake, whether they follow Christ or not, not using the gospel as some sort of religious bait. It is the unrestrained outward expression of the kingdom inside of us” (157). Of course this seems to present the gospel as action more than declaration, something I’m not sure the Scripture supports. Roberts feels, though, that this is how missions must be done in the twenty-first century. “It’s not about preaching; it’s about his kingdom. We’re primarily there to sweep floors and find connections for our laypeople to use their gifts and contacts with corporations” (156).
Woven throughout the book is a biographical thread of information which tells Roberts’ story and how he came from a typical Southern Baptist family and church and arrived at this new understanding of the church’s mission and there is much we can learn from his journey. His passion for this topic and his love of God is evident on almost every page. Thankfully, the book introduces a model more than a program or structure, for the last thing the church needs is another cookie-cutter program. While the book has much to offer, Roberts sometimes shows a lack of discernment that is cause for concern, sometimes turning to other undiscerning sources and expressing that he has enjoyed Roman Catholic worship. The book is premised on an understanding of the mission of the church and a non-proclamatory gospel that I simply don’t feel the Scriptures can support. There is much wisdom to glean, but the premise of the book simply doesn’t hold.