The Provocative Church

Every so often comes a book to sell your shirt for. Simple, thoughtful, passionate, written by someone who knows their subject and communicates clearly. One that you can read, or give to your group leaders, or even (as a colleague of mine has) made into a home group course. This is one of those books, as Graham Tomlin reflects on what it means for our churches to become once again provocative churches.

What he means is what Paul means in Colossians 4:5-6, and what Peter means in 1 Peter 2:12. He means churches that make people long for God. He goes so far as to say that the Christian God can only be found by those who desire him. 'One of the key themes of this book is that unless there is something about church, or Christians, or Christian faith that intrigues, provokes or entices, then all the evangelism in the world will fall on deaf ears. If churches cannot convey a sense of ‘reality’ then all our ‘truth’ will count for nothing… Churches need to become provocative, arresting places which make the searcher, the casual visitor, want to come back for more' (p.10f).

He begins with Derek Draper, one-time Labour spin doctor. At a time of personal crisis he was told he needed some spirituality to balance his life. He happened on a provocative church. 'What appealed to him was the practical wisdom of the teaching of Jesus' (p.6) which offered him a much better and less superficial way of life.

The key question is, how can my church be like that? Tomlin shows you. Two brilliant chapters set out Jesus’ agenda for his people in their world are followed by two more that deal with the realities: 'Evangelism makes me feel guilty' and 'Is my church worth going to?' Here’s a flavour: 'Evangelism sometimes is portrayed as the kind of thing that only those with a couple of theology degrees, an extrovert character and the emotional constitution of a rhinoceros would try. And because most of us aren’t like that, we slink away, a little embarrassed, but greatly relieved' (p.72). And this: 'The kingdom of God and the lordship of Christ (are) key themes, which lie at the heart of the theology of the church. The two come together when we grasp that it is life under the kingdom of God that provokes the questions of the curious and even the uninterested' (p.73).

Particularly helpful is his little section on the power of goodness, demonstrating the lavish generosity of God. So next time you’re in the drive-thru’ McDonald’s, why not pay for the folks behind as well as your own meal? It’ll certainly leave them with questions - though I couldn’t quite work out how they’d ever know why you did that.

The last three chapters major on being, and leading, the kind of church that provokes questions. What he describes is what I’ve come to call 'closing the circle'. Think of churches that employ youth workers: they’re very glad they’re there, and working away on their behalf. But how many of us have 'closed the circle' and allowed the ministry of the youth worker to change the church? So Tomlin describes the Christian who stumbled by mistake into an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, and was given a sudden and startling glimpse of how church should be. Struck by the depth of commitment to one another and the openness of their sharing, he realised 'They were desperate and wanted to change' and that 'church was intended to be a transforming community' (p.106).

This is thorough theology worked out in practice. Tomlin shows us how Christians are intended to live, in the public domain. Alongside, we’re called to tell personal stories of the Lord’s transformation of our lives. And then, yes, we work on providing settings to tell the Christian gospel to those who are asking questions whom we may invite.

So away and sell your shirt and buy this book