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Leading Christian Communities

C. Kavin Rowe
Published by Eerdmans in 2023

In this book, C. Kavin Rowe, the George Washington Ivey Distinguished Professor of New Testament and vice dean for faculty at Duke Divinity School, has collected a series of essays that are meant to “display the shape and dynamics of Christian thinking when it is biblically shaped and focused on critical questions Christian leaders face.” 

The book does this in four parts. Part One develops a description of thriving Christian communities through reflections on the book of Acts (which happens to be Rowe’s academic specialization). Thriving Christian communities are networked, have public visibility, make provision for the weak, have a capacity to incorporate conflict, can articulate theologically their reason for existence, and are able to suffer because they can be “an offense to the world, a problematic thorn in its side.” Part Two puts forth marks of Christian leaders, including the embodiment of laughter and the cultivating of resilience, among other traits and practices. Part Three offers an account of how Christian communities should strive for what Greg Jones has called “traditioned innovation.” Rowe describes this as a “habit of being that requires both a deep fidelity to the tradition that has borne us to the present and a radical openness to the innovations that will carry us forward.” In Part 4, Rowe includes two short essays that discuss why Christmas needs Easter, and why Easter needs Christmas, neither of which tackle leadership questions directly.

Christian leaders often don’t have time to read in large chunks, which has clearly affected the format of the book. All of the chapters in this book are short and have been written as pieces that are easily digestible, fit for being posted on a website for easy distribution. The chapters are titled so that you know what topic is being discussed, and it allows Christian leaders to dip in and out of the book depending on their purposes. 

I consider the chief contribution of the book to be Part Three, consisting of five short chapters that lay out how the Bible describes all of reality as undergoing traditioned innovation in Christ. The idea is that when Christian leaders and their communities undertake change along these lines, they are leaning into the shape of the cosmos. So, if they do this, they will thrive. Here’s one sturdy theological statement of traditioned innovation: “To remain in what is already known of the tradition is to refuse the priority of new creation; and yet, that which is new includes the old.” Pentecost is associated with the giving of the law at Mt. Sinai, and that becomes, in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, a sign of the Holy Spirit as the true law of reality coming into the hearts of Jesus followers. What about that whole event isn’t both radical change or innovation and the carrying of what’s been handed down? Innovation requires tradition, and tradition requires innovation. That’s how it works with the whole cosmos, and that’s how it should work as Christian communities manage their own change. Sluggish or defensive conservatism isn’t Gospel. Revolutionary zeal isn’t Gospel. Preservation within transformation is the crucifixion and resurrection pattern.

I also found the chapter on laughter on leadership to be heartening. Christian are bearers of hope where they serve, and cultivating laughter cultivates hope. In Rowe’s words: “Laughter is . . . a primary way that human beings . . . proclaim the victory of life, utter forth joy in the face of suffering and death, and offer foretastes of the time when every tear shall be wiped away.” Rowe reminds me here that a fundamental task of leaders within Christian communities is, first and foremost, to be as authentically human as the Spirit will allow, guided by an encounter with the crucified and risen Lord. Before we are driven by some common goal specified within our institutions, our task is to live abundant human lives with one another. If God lived as a human being with human beings, then being a human being should be a source of joy and laughter. If the crucified Lord is risen, then we are only living fully human lives if we can laugh. So, leaders, learn to laugh and cultivate laughter among those you lead. 

The book has certain limits, as do all projects like this. As I read it, it felt a little decontextualized at times. It mentions ways to deal with conflict, but I was left wondering: How would he suggest we deal with this or that specific conflict, the kinds of conflicts our Christian communities are dealing with right now? It is one thing to say that Christian communities thrive when they forgive, tell the truth, and work toward repair. It is another to say how that works when our churches or other institutions are pulling apart over race, gender, or local, state and federal politics. I feel the need to hear stories about those practices being performed in live Christian communities, as we work through seemingly intractable dynamics. Someone else can pick up that mantle from Rowe, of course. I hope they do. 

Keith Starkenburg

Keith Starkenburg is Associate Professor of Theology at Western Theological Seminary and directs the Vita Scholars Program, a 5 yr BA/MDiv program of Hope College and Western Theological Seminary.