Review of ‘Incarnate’ by Michael Frost

It’s no secret that Australian Baptist pastor and Morling College missiologist Michael Frost dislikes much contemporary Christian worship music. But, standing backstage in The Opera House suites early on Easter Sunday, preparing to lead the musical worship time in Wesley’s dawn service, I was grateful for his latest book Incarnate: The Body of Christ in An Age of Disengagement. Through the window, Sydney harbour was encircled by empty city office towers shining lights across the water. This symbol of work made me reflect on my vocation for the day at hand. Worship leading is over-emphasized as a Christian calling, and yet there are few spiritual resources for individuals to integrate the parts of their lives – the more mechanical body training, note learning and rehearsals, with the bits the congregation sees. But backstage moments are sacred too. I decided to pray one of Frosts’ recommended prayers for urban workers, the acrostic poetry of psalm 25. I read it aloud softly over this iconic building’s hum while staring into the city, thinking on certain phrases highlighted  – “do not let me be put to shame”, “guide me”, “forgive my iniquity”, “release my feet from the snare”. Perhaps this isn’t what he had in mind for these chapters, but I was grateful nonetheless.

51mwV48g-XL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_As far as missiology texts go, Incarnate is as readable as it gets. It summarizes some of the key emerging discussions of this field with far-reaching implications for Christian mission, but particularly missional living in the urban environment. So, I thought I’d jot down a few thoughts. If I had a title for this review, it would be ‘The day of the undead’, because there is a lot about zombies. Frost draws upon zombies as a popular culture obsession that gets at something deeper and important to the future of the church, a neurosis he calls “the fear that our bodies are worthless”. This is a warning, a lighthouse beacon. We are headed, and perhaps are definitively already in, an excarnate state, meaning our bodies have ceased to be important, but decay upon our bones even as our online lives flourish. The ultimate metaphor for the modern life, Richard Sennett says, is the airport. Zygmunt Bauman uses tourism as the primary metaphor for modern life. And, it seems we are drifting further towards such a state. Yet, Frost notes the Christian faith, in contrast to this, is intended as an incarnate one, meaning God en-fleshed. That tension drives the discussions in the book, en-fleshing Christianity and its relationships to the world.

I believe this is an important book, and so I’ve recommended it to a number of pastors. To help them understand why, I’ve presented its applications to us. But the review is not intended as a spoiler, it is a highlight marking some implications for the NeoPentecostal context (my readers are hopefully aware by now that I use ‘Pentecostal’ as a descriptive label for a family of churches marked by theological affiliation, not one I made up. I affix it to myself only to facilitate dialogue).

I wrote this review a while ago, but then got nervous to post it. Partly my nervousness came from the idea that I would be seen to be ‘colonizing’ the book for megachurch/Pentecostal use, which I’m pretty sure Frost would resist. But his ideas are shared openly in order to educate, and to grow from. My second hesitancy was that he may consider my context and language renders my reading inferior or incomplete. However, there are many reviews online should you want a more progressive or evangelical perspective. To relieve myself of the responsibility of rewriting this again, let me say that I think you should go buy it, it’s not expensive.

At the same time, of course, I realize I also need to defend my recommendation. The reality is, this text will not be comfortable reading for many Australian Pentecostal pastors (or, for that matter, American ones). The divide between “missional church” and Pentecostal Christianity is growing, which isn’t just due to a particular view of contemporary culture, as some assert. However, there is a lot of love from Pentecostalism *for* the missional church, it just doesn’t always go the other way. The book contains direct critique of Pentecostal songs, and practices of churches. But, if my (and I do believe Frost’s) genuine aim is the spiritual formation of the church – then I believe there is nothing to fear in such a critique. Should reading be comfortable??? We don’t seek comfortable sermons, so who wants to read a book of ideas they’ve had multiple times themselves!!??

I’ll be honest, for some, Frosty’s lack of love for contemporary church models is something Pentecostal senior pastors won’t overlook, and can smell like the elitism of some evangelical seminaries, as well as the Australian religious studies academic guild that conducts inadequate, reified and badly conducted ethnographies of Pentecostalism. And, many key leaders in the Pentecostal movement struggle to separate personal and institutional identity. But, I want to emphasize that like all of us, Frosty is located in a crowded field of religious production, and Baptist identity is strongly tied to dissention. At times he echoes these oppositional communities. And yet, he’s accepted speaking gigs at places like Saddleback. So, I think we are better to draw from a metaphor Pentecostals use internally for people in our churches who are the in-betwixt and in-between ones, and see this book as a prophetic warning. As usual with prophetic talk, if the shoe fits, wear it. Or leave it on the shelf. Up to you. But sometimes there’s nothing to say except the shoe fits.

I think this book highlights both some real problems, and also some imagined ones. First, the problems I think I imagined into the content at times, and are not necessarily the ones Frost is addressing. The first is the idea that megachurches are an exception from the Christian norm. Bear with me, this takes a while to explain…

The average congregational size in Australia is about 70 people according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, and even simple analysis shows that Australia hosts a lot of very tiny church services. However, deeper research into the US religious landscape helps examine these stats a little more rigorously. In the US’s case, an average congregational size is 75, so it’s slightly better at keeping one extra family. Given huge population differences (Australia = 23 million, USA = 350 million), the similarity is striking. And 90% of US congregations are under 350 members. However, Duke University scholars clarify for readers of their National Congregations Study:

“Even though there are relatively few large congregations with many members, sizable budgets, and numerous staff, these congregations are large enough that they actually contain most churchgoers. Even though the average congregation has only 75 regular participants and an annual budget of $90,000, the average Christian person is in a congregation with 400 people and a budget of $280,000″

So, the average Christian in the United States attends a fairly reasonable size congregation. I don’t know why there is a long-held premise that small is ‘normal’ church in the West. Perhaps pastors decided to push back against megachurch exceptionalism with small church exceptionalism. This seems a strategy of fighting fire with fire. Many “missional”, “urban”, “regeneration”, or “fresh expression” churches are newer, and I suspect are under 400 members. But this book seems marketed to the average Christian, as well as the more missional Christian congregations Frost is known to advocate.

An associated, second imagined problem is the idea that people attend megachurches to be invisible, and relieve themselves of responsibility to be truly formed as Christians. Many of my friends prefer megachurches because they serve midweek in vocations that echo our current existing ministry models (refugee workers, theologians, social workers, drug and alcohol counselors). Attending a megachurch is a strategy to have more agency over their weekend involvement. I’m not saying that there aren’t spectators in megachurches. But I don’t think we have to own the spectator label completely unthinkingly. Nor do I think Frost is trying to apply it that way.

More important than the imagined problems is the real issue of disembodied Christianity. Let’s apply this to my own movement – in most Australian megachurches (if we’re using Scott and Thumma’s definition of 2000+) function as a small denomination, with a central administration that serves many meetings of average size (400-500 people). For example, the largest church in Australia runs over 65 services on a weekend. The largest venue has 3,500 seats. Many members have attended for decades. It is possible in a large venue to sit with a consistent group, and facilitate spirituality by creating additional rituals of connection (meet up afterwards, share regular midweek meals, etc). But the real problem is that not everybody does. It can be an alienating, lonely and disconnecting experience to attend church in a large venue. And the responsibility is upon individuals to make it more than a minimal commitment of bodily presence. This of course, disadvantages those low on energy and resources, and favours the strong. Meanwhile preachers, who are projected via screens in multiple locations, gain the extra advantage of a body that turns up in seven or more locations. Anyone in the church knows there are multiple reasons as to why its preachers are screened in this way – it creates a synergy of focus around a single message, which facilitates urban/suburban/transnational community. It allows pastors to bring their absolute best preaching messages, rather than rehashed and unfinished ideas. But, it’s important to grapple with the reality: it’s superhuman. And having superhuman as a model is not great for human people, who burn out, lose energy and are affected by the every day realities of life – death, grief, loss.

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“MOBILE LOVERS” © Banksy, 2014 (Thanks to Vicky Beeching for publicizing this graffiti work)

Perhaps more than theology, Frosty is seeking in this book to challenge Christian congregational practice. And this leads to another real problem. A large church wields more control over its environment, in the sense that it usually buys a venue, invests in sound equipment, has to work out how to light it etc, just as any other venue would. Therefore, the aesthetic values of the congregation set whether it has purple flashing lights and a dance troupe, whether it’s painted black, or if it has stained glass windows. Aesthetic is born from community, and sets the rituals the community observes. But it also feeds back the other way – the ritual sets the aesthetic values of the members who attend. So suddenly, if there aren’t electric guitarists, it doesn’t feel like the same experience. Or, if there aren’t stained glass lights, we can stare dazed at the preacher wondering how this could even be the same faith. But really, we are looking for our own ‘identity markers’, or symbols that indicate our community; those who are in versus those who are out. I believe there is again a need for pastors to assist their members in recognizing that the Christian faith stretches beyond weekend practices – whether they be an informal beer church, hip hop church with pounding bass, or traditional Lutheran worship. We are all called to be faithful to Christ. And this book presents some interesting contemplative practices for this purpose.

This brings up another question, for which I don’t know the answer. If one church is decrying video preaching, while the other is promoting it, I don’t know how ordinary church members should navigate this emerging chasm of meaning-making between the two models, Pentecostal and missional. But the average Christian is going to have to do this somehow, because families cross any religious lines, as we know throughout history. We are all interconnected. So I think pastors need to think it through.

The reality is, while there is turnover in *all* Australian churches, a mega-church must hold together a diversity of theological ideas, with a proportion of church tourists. There’s usually a basic guideline for belief, but also a lot of autonomy, in my experience – this is also shown to be true within the literature. In other words, people utilize networking skills to create a ‘fit’ in any organisation, but this is especially true of a megachurch. So, while there are degrees of applicability, ALL of Michael Frosts’ critique applies to people I personally know. It applies to me too. But not all people will be encouraged to grapple with these issues. But, I believe those in larger churches who are thinking theologically have a special responsibility to care for those on the periphery of such discussions, and those who even reject it. The church members I’m thinking about are, lets be honest, less educated. They work hard, and they don’t study after hours. They watch Christian television, and they listen to Christian radio, but they would never pick up Frost’s book. Given all of the above, I think it’s important we engage the ideas within, and I hope that Pentecostal pastors, leaders and seminary students read this book with an open mind.

Some questions or comments that arise from my reading of the text:

1) “Don’t think you’re indispensible” There has been a repeated warning heard in Pentecostal circles, “don’t think that you’re indispensable”. This warning arises from a righteous desire for longevity of the Christian church, and as an antedote for charismatic leaders who mistreat the flock through pride. But at times, it has served to communicate to less arrogant volunteers that they are simply disposable Christians, rotating faces that disappear forever after the church use their gifts as preachers, singers, children’s workers and carpark hosts. It doesn’t have to be this way. In fact, Frosty gives us a great way forward in this regard. He states,

If I can glorify Christ in my body – whether by a fruitful life or by death – the body is a legitimate space, indeed, a sacred space… We are our bodies. We don’t live in our bodies. And therefore our bodies and the bodies of others are precious and worthy of respect.

There is no other body like yours. And therefore, if you’re in a role at church, or at work, or at home, there will never be anybody else who can do the job like you. That doesn’t mean that this job won’t continue or adapt after your body ceases to do it, but you’re not dispensable.

2) “We’re here to save souls”: Most people in the Pentecostal church have no idea of the theological reformation that is occurring regarding our understanding of the human soul. While the evangelical notion of ‘saving the soul’ motivated many years of mission service, this is now coming under the theological microscope. Globally, as the so-called ‘natives’ start to talk back, and explain their ancient wisdoms are closer to Hebraic understandings of the person or self than European ones were at the time of missionization, we are realizing the Enlightenment soul wasn’t actually great science. But, Pentecostals might need to just let your brain **explode** and then ask yourself ‘what would actually change if I was to agree that the soul and the body were so interwoven that they were actually the same thing?”

3) “Heaven is a place on earth”: Of course, the immediate implications for this transition towards “spirited bodies” is a relook at heaven. In this view, death isn’t about shooting up as a spiritual beam of light straight into the arms of Swedish Jesus (a term I heard Frost use for images of a white, blonde haired Jesus in 2003). It might indicate that our bodies are actually the site of this restoration called heaven. I didn’t make this up!!! Of course, I raised this with some Pentecostals and got the pretty predictable “so, what if a worm eats me, and then eats my relative – what happens to heaven?” At this point, I’m just going to leave it for you to think on, to read the book, and maybe we can dialogue it out over time.

Q: I’d love to hear your thoughts – do Pentecostals need to better grapple with the central Christian idea of mission? Have you read ‘Incarnate’?  What did you think?

7 thoughts on “Review of ‘Incarnate’ by Michael Frost

  1. Terrific piece, Tanya! Very useful & informative regarding issues I seldom encounter, as a member of a “mainstream” church with a formal liturgical tradition and hymnody.

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