Book review: ‘(Re)union’

Jan 1, 2018 by

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Bruxy Cavey’s (Re)union: The Good News of Jesus for Seekers, Saints and Sinners gave me a glimpse into mega­church theology attempting to work itself out within Anabaptism. Cavey is the teaching pastor for The Meeting House, a multisite congregation of the Be in Christ Church of Canada (formerly Brethren in Christ) with an average weekly attendance of 4,400. I read that they mostly meet in movie theaters.

"(Re)union"

“(Re)union”

Megachurch theology goes something like this (quoting Cavey’s blog): “the good news of the kingdom meets our fundamental human need for purpose and meaning in life.” Cavey is a pastor with a penchant for people who don’t like church. His first book is a retooling of Christianity (reiterated in chapter 9 of this volume) that distances itself from the rules and regulations of religion.

Cavey’s alternate vision for the Christian life is relationships — passionate, sumptuous, intimate relationships between God and individuals that flow into the lives of people. As a matter of course, the primary metaphors and stories Cavey uses throughout his book are of marriages (sorry, single people!).

He works out a new-wave apologetic chapter by chapter. He explains how the kingdom of God is no longer about physical spaces and monarchies but a way of living that “exists within the hearts of individuals and is expressed through the relationships between those individuals.” It emerges in “our lives, our relationships, and our priorities.”

Cavey’s Christianity is an updated, laid-back form of evangelicalism’s personal relationship with Jesus Christ, without the heavy moralistic hand of a Franklin Graham. He is also a lot funnier and makes better use of alliteration. He makes Christianity attractive. “Simply loving others as Jesus does,” he muses, “is our highest form of worship and the central ceremony of our religion.”

I told a friend about this book. She’s left the church we grew up in — a Maranatha-praise singing, secular-CD-smashing evangelical church that was mostly interested in us not having sex as teen­agers. It’s the kind of church Cavey likely has in mind when he excoriates “religion.” And this book is for her. It’s for people who wanted to meet God and found out that some petty stuff got in the way. It’s updated evangelical doctrine for those on the spiritual mend.

Bold ideas like this are what megachurches offer. A common trait is a conviction that their pastor’s message is completely new, something never heard before. Cavey offers this gentle bravado. “Piety-smashing,” “fresh” and “radical” are the descriptors that pop up again and again in ads and reviews.

I can understand why. The competition is stiff for “meaning making” in the world of TED Talks and Crossfit. A few years ago, I met a couple of mega­church-hopeful pastors who referred to themselves as “communicators” and “creatives” instead of preachers and pastors, both to soften up their approach for “seekers” and to more accurately describe what they do. That’s one approach — make the old seem new and interesting, to communicate something in a way no one has ever heard before.

But I’ve been a Christian long enough to know that’s going to be tough. Paradigms are dogmatic because they’re systems, whether it’s the Romans Road, the Four Spiritual Laws or Cavey’s new four-point metric. You can’t escape rules and boundaries; we simply shift those around as we encounter new questions. We are constantly negotiating piety because Christianity happens in bodies that act.

But Cavey wants to downplay the parts of church life that are central to bodies that are priests to one another. He’s dismissive of rituals as mere “reminders.” Absent from (Re)union are churches that act as interpretive communities for Scripture, who proclaim the word to one another. It fits Cavey’s model of church, where he is the authoritative voice of proclamation, to use hierarchical metaphors for Jesus: mentor, shepherd and king.

Cavey increased my suspicion that megachurches and Anabaptism are incongruous. Anabaptism emerges not as a set of ideas applied to various denominations. We are here as a gathered local body that proclaims, confesses and shares around the communion table. We are here because of a reinvigoration of scriptural practices that take place in churches (which should not be confused with small groups).

I’d guess my congregation, Raleigh Mennonite Church in North Carolina, is a lot like most Mennonite churches of our size. Year after year the same passages press into my life during Advent and Lent. We sing familiar hymns, occasionally learn a new song at camps or conference. We cobble together a band from whoever can play on Sunday morning. We have preachers who are sometimes good and sometimes not. We baptize and share bread and cup.

As the church, we aren’t here to communicate the gospel. We’re here to enact it. To embody it. The body of Christ is an attentiveness to the other bodies sitting beside you in the pews. It is vital for me that our Sunday morning worship happens with us facing one another. I need to see you.

At the end of (Re)union Cavey asks, “Now what?” The answer is an updated sinner’s prayer. “It’s the heart that counts,” he writes. From here there are instructions, things like rereading the book and getting into a church.

The idea is that this book leads to conversion, to an intellectual or spiritual “a-ha” that puts the ideas in the right order to make a decision to be a Christian, an idea that leads to an action. It has been the joy of my life to see the opposite at work — to see people come to know Jesus because it isn’t a matter of the heart. It’s a matter of bodies, our bodies bound together, learning from Jesus what to do with these bodies in church, what we do and make and become together.

Melissa Florer-Bixler is pastor of Raleigh (N.C.) Mennonite Church. She has a forthcoming book with Herald Press.


Comments Policy

Mennonite World Review invites readers’ comments on articles. To promote constructive dialogue, editors select the comments that appear, just as we do with letters to the editor in print. These decisions are final. Writers must sign their first and last names; anonymous comments are not accepted. Comments do not appear until approved and are posted during business hours. Comments may be reproduced in print, and may be edited if selected for print.

  • Rebecca Thomson

    Hi Melissa,

    I’m writing as a pastor of The Meeting House, the church community where Bruxy Cavey teaches.

    I feel like your review of this book about the gospel is more of a review of your feelings toward large churches and those who pastor them. I was surprised how much of your review was about megachurch pastors and their theologies rather than the content of (re)union.

    You seem to express significant disappointment with or even opposition toward The Meeting House where I minister, which I find saddening and worth responding to. When you do talk about our church I simply don’t recognize the place you are describing. It seems like you have not done your homework. Mind you, I wouldn’t have expected you to know everything about our church – this was supposed to be a book review, not a church review.

    But since you have made it about our church, let me point out one paragraph as an example of why I think you couldn’t be more wrong. You write: “But Cavey wants to downplay the parts of church life that are central to bodies that are priests to one another. He’s dismissive of rituals as mere “reminders.” Absent from (Re)union are churches that act as interpretive communities for Scripture, who proclaim the word to one another. It fits Cavey’s model of church, where he is the authoritative voice of proclamation, to use hierarchical metaphors for Jesus: mentor, shepherd and king.”

    In my years of experience as a parishioner and now a pastor at The Meeting House, this paragraph describes the upside down and turned around opposite of what we teach and practise. Our church community is primarily a house church network of over 200 weekly home gatherings who also meet on Sundays. Most of our Sunday gatherings are less than 200 people and I have been privileged to pastor in these beautiful communities. As a fellow Anabaptist pastor and sister in Christ, I’m left wondering why our approach to church draws your scorn.

    My experience of The Meeting House is that we are a family of small gatherings, not one mega clump of Christians. As we often repeat in our Sunday larger gatherings, real church happens best when we turn the chairs to face one another and become involved in each others lives. We are all priests to one another, and our church has given me the opportunity to live this out. These home churches are more than the “small groups” you refer to – this is where we gather around Scripture, pray and pastorally care for one another’s needs, mobilize for volunteering compassionately in our communities, and the primary place where we celebrate the Eucharist and baptism. There is no professionalization of church rituals in our community but precisely the opposite – a wide dispersion of pastoral participation.

    Also, the Be In Christ Church of Canada holds in high regard the principle of the “community hermeneutic”. Bruxy regularly reminds the congregation that his sermons are incomplete until we have turned to face one another and listened to what the Spirit is saying through the Body of Christ, which we are doing each week in our home churches. And lastly, far from any one pastor holding the authoritative metaphorical place of “mentor, shepherd, and king,” our home churches are lead by volunteer elders who we see as pastors of little churches, and no one pastor at The Meeting House, including Bruxy, holds a singular position of authority. Team leadership at all levels is our leadership culture.

    When I read your review of (re)union I realized it was mostly a review of The Meeting House, and that you obviously don’t know us. As for living the gospel out in our church and individuals lives, this is what we do. Yes, we also believe the gospel is a message worth communicating with words as well as with our lives. I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive, and just because someone writes a book about the gospel doesn’t mean they are not also living out its message in the community of the church. Our church uses (re)union for its intended purpose, as a gift to those people who don’t know Jesus and are asking questions. It is one tool in our tool belt to reach out to people who are just beginning their spiritual journey. And it is proving very useful in this way.

    Like you, it has been the joy of my life to see people come to know Jesus through the beautiful and broken bodies of our community. The Meeting House is just one expression in the body of Christ, and the place where I have experienced the embodiment of Jesus through the brothers and sisters who do life with me.

    I don’t know you or your church and that means my starting point is to believe the best in you. I just wish you would do the same for The Meeting House.

    Wishing you and your church family all God’s best in 2018.

    Peace,

    Rebecca Thomson

    • Paula Snyder Belousek

      Thanks Pastor Rebecca for your helpful correction. I was disappointed by this book review as well. As you rightly point out, this review does not have much to say about the content of the book but trades on assumptions about what it means to be a mega church. As a Canadian, who has been living and pastoring in the USA, I have always been impressed with The Meeting House and the vibrant communities it has created that is deeply grounded in the Anabaptist expression of faith in Jesus Christ. The author’s assertion that mega churches and Anabaptism are incongruous makes no sense. The Meeting House is part of the historic Brethren in Christ (now Be in Christ) denomination that is just as much an inheritor of the Anabaptist movement as Mennonite Church USA(and Canada). Growing up in small town Ontario, I was grateful for our BIC neighbors, who shared this common faith and understanding of what it meant to follow Jesus as his disciples. While The Meeting House may not be for everyone, it does fill an important and faithful role in the sharing the Anabaptist vision of faithful discipleship to Jesus in the post-Christendom, multicultural milieu of urban Canadian life.
      -Paula Snyder Belousek

    • Matthew Froese

      As a regional and church neighbour, I can affirm that The Meeting House is certainly a sibling church to our (relatively traditional) Mennonite church. From the outside, I think most people would see many more similarities than differences; we meet on Sundays and in various ways during the week, we work to meet local needs in our community, and we support MCC in their work to help people further away. There are folks in our congregation who came from The Meeting House and some who have checked us out and chosen to go to The Meeting House instead. I see Bruxy around town from time to time, too.

      I’ve been to one Meeting House service (part of a sermon series on the book) and found that the theology was familiar enough in most respects, but that the worship experience was quite different in terms of worship music and structure. Bruxy seemed really focused on taking apart penal substitutionary atonement, which really seemed to speak to some people but didn’t do much for me. The worship leader said that they had been away recently and had really enjoyed being able to preach to a congregation, which they hadn’t been able to do for a while.

      My church sounds quite a bit like the congregation Melissa describes: small, active, sometimes messy. I know a number of people who’ve been drawn to The Meeting House because it offers something we really can’t – a more anonymous and low-commitment way to test out participation in church. You can listen to the podcast or go to a service when you want to and never have to join a home church group. By comparison, if you come to our church three weeks in a row someone will probably start checking to see if you might be interested in making coffee sometime or reading scripture during worship.

      I’m not so sure about the notion that Anabaptism can’t be expressed in a megachurch, as I think Anabaptism is a broad category. However, I think I might be agreeing with Melissa when I say I don’t think The Meeting House model would work for an Anabaptist church that is committed to congregational polity. If you start from an understanding that the Spirit moves us when we gather together as a community – whether caring for each other, teaching, worship, or service work, then the divide between home church groups and larger group worship doesn’t fit neatly. (I think the question would be: if the home church is the real church, why gather in a larger group on Sunday?)

      I would also worry that gathering congregations together to hash out our varied understanding of any particular issue would be less effective if those who gathered together hadn’t already been formed by the responsibility for teaching and leading being fully and widely distributed. I know you described team leadership as your leadership culture, but I think most people from my church background would tend to think more in terms of servant leadership than team leadership, placing whole group discernment necessarily above the authority of a single leader or a team. I think there are also some historical reasons that Mennonite culture has come to pass along some skepticism of charismatic figures.

      I think it’s very clear that The Meeting House is very good at speaking to a certain group and providing both a style of worship and varied methods of engagement that speak more to some people than more traditional ways of being the church. It’s healthy to have a mix of churches that can offer people different ways to be part of the body of Christ.

      We’re glad to have you as our neighbours. There’s a lot of work to do!

      • Melissa Florer-Bixler

        Just a gentle reminder that this article is not a condemnation of The Meeting House, but a critique of the ecclesiology of a particular book written by a particular pastor in that church.

        • Matthew Froese

          Your reminder is well taken, Melissa. I don’t have any concerns with the article, but I identified readily with the sense I got from Rebecca’s comments. If the way we do church matters deeply to us, critique of the way we do church is probably going to feel personal. I was hoping to both share a note of support and provide one example of how I’ve seen the differences in our ecclesiology expressed.

        • Brian Arbuckle

          From this review I learned nothing about ecclesiology. And apparently the picture you presented of The Meeting House is the fruit of your own imaginings. I did, however, learn something of the reviewer.

    • Melissa Florer-Bixler

      Hi Rebecca. Thanks for your thoughts. I hear in your comment the difficulty of separating the book from the church. What I know of The Meeting House is what is represented in Cavey’s book, which I was asked to review. My critique is of that theology. I appreciate your description of robust practices for Christian formation and celebration. I don’t need to research those because I wasn’t writing about your church. I am writing about the book, and about the common trends of theologies in megachurches that emerge in re:union. I can understand that those likely feel closely tied to the actual body of the church for you. I tried to stay close to the text in my review, only exploring what was offered up in either blog posts or in the book itself. I am sorry that felt difficult for your work.

      I do have anxieties about the culture of large churches: about cults of personality, about subtly dominate forms of leadership, about the desires of my peers for ever-increasing relevance and growth over nurturing healthy communities, about what is lost as smaller churches and their pastors are conglomerated, about the loss of multiplicity of voices in the pulpit, about the constant call for “relevance,” about what church will be if we don’t start talking about these things instead of saying “I’m all right, you’re all right.” This is part of that conversation, one we don’t have much of here in the USA because large churches hold incredible power through money and influence. I welcome you to that conversation, perhaps also to think about what that means for The Meeting House. Only you would have that insight.

      Melissa

About Me

advertisement