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Reviewing: The Faith of Leap: Embracing a Theology of Risk, Adventure, and Courage

Written by Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost

How many kids remember their dads saying, “Jump!  I’ll catch you.”  What a thrill for a child both to fly and to be safe at the end of the flight!  Fast forward a few years, when perhaps the most common complaint one hears from church kids is that church is boring.  I rarely disagree with them. Does that surprise you coming from a pastor? Regrettably, American Christians and their leaders have fallen victim to two insidious forces—centuries of tradition and decades of prosperity. Neither tradition nor prosperity are inherently harmful or evil, but either may easily revert to idolatry without many even suspecting their mistake. It is so easy to accept the way things are and the way things “have always been” without ever examining those things more carefully. Then, when a young person or even a less compliant adult finds these established customs unpalatable, we react like they were challenging the gospel itself. Most of us are long overdue in looking at the situation more closely and more honestly.

Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost cut to the heart of the problem in The Leap of Faith: Embracing a Theology of Risk, Adventure, and Courage. Their premise cuts to the heart of what it means to be a Christian community of gifted disciples who are truly committed to reaching others for Christ, with the clear suggestion that such a community is not simply a “safe place” for worship. Rather they would restore the sense that living as a believer is living on the edge, a kind of adventure that takes risks and that requires courage in living it.

Personally, I have been troubled for some years regarding the word “peace” as it is almost exclusively understood among believers. For most, it is serenity or quiet, closely related to security. As the nearly predominant understanding, it omits almost totally the idea of peace that comes from ending conflict or warfare. Instead of becoming blessed peacemakers, Christians are often merely conflict avoiders, pretending to be serene in the face of unreconciled, broken relationships and varying degrees of strife. In the quest to avoid controversy, the Church has become rather tepid and sadly pointless. Jesus said we must “make disciples” wherever we go. His is an edgy, challenging mission, but we have settled for occasionally asking a neighbor or co-worker to our less than exciting church (unless we can afford glitzy entertainment with a spiritual message).

As Hirsch and Frost explain, the remedy is not programming adventure any more than it is to program worship. Just as worship must arise from the hearts of those in the pew, not the efforts of the leaders in front, so must adventure arise from a genuine pursuit of authentic, Biblical mission. The Faith of Leap is one in the Shapevine series that seeks to mine, creatively, the best ideas from missional, emerging church, church planting, urban ministry, and simple church movements. In this, knowing that searching occurs when something important is lacking, they recognize the legitimate elements that have driven such thinking but, in this book at least, avoid the questionable aspects.

To derive a “theology of risk,” the authors focus on two terms, previously unfamiliar to me—liminality and communitas. Liminiality refers to “a threshold experience,…composed of any or a combination of danger, marginality, disorientation, or ordeal and tens to create a space that is neither here nor there, a transitional stage between what was and what is to come” (page 29).  It is not danger for danger’s but instead an environment where the creative, corporate effort to sustain genuine outreach keeps people from getting comfortable and then working only to satisfy their desire for ease and safety.

By operating in a liminal environment, people discover something greater than community that is little more than a description of a class of people; instead of “huddle and cuddle,” communitas develops “in adventurous mission and liminal discipleship” (page 84). This is the true sense of brotherhood that soldiers find in the dangerous of the battlefield and others discover in pursuing a quest. Living in genuine mission-driven liminality, believers become interconnected in communitas.

The authors do an outstanding job of drawing together the threads of church life to create a different image that the one we often see. The are not sanguine in assuming this transformation will occur based merely on a new paradigm; wise leaders will draw the people into liminality and guide them in fashioning ministry appropriate for their own community. They will also recognize the ease with which people will be tempted to settle back into a new comfort zone, so that constant vigilance will be needed.

As I began reading The Faith of Leap, I was excited to see someone offering a fresh vision of church life for the many young people that I’ve always enjoyed teaching and encouraging. At my age, I was not looking for adventure; I was never attracted to mountain climbing, sky diving, or underwater exploration. Ironically, I realize that I have been drawn into liminal adventures, simply by pursuing the work to which I believe God has called me…especially Biblical peacemaking and, lately, tutoring refugees and internationals with a goal toward creating a school to teach them English. Just as I never sought to be nonconformist—what my generation claimed their conformist rebellion was—but merely tried to follow Christ, I have found myself to be both a genuine iconoclast and adventurer (but no threat to Indiana Jones!).

Part of the disappointment for those like me is that congregations fail to embrace the missions that arise within them, beyond the duly appointed, official program. Pastoral leaders often bring their own priorities, apart from any sense of community or neighborhood need or gifting among the people. I have left on a couple of occasions where it was clear that the leaders were more interested in drawing me into their vision and had little interest in mine. The authors strongly advance an alternative view where everything rests on the people’s gifts and the neighborhood’s needs. In this paradigm, mission, worship, community, and discipleship all are integrated by mission.

As I have so long believed that pastors must be or become a part of the neighborhood, not transients waiting for their next step up professionally. Churches must reject the idea of ministry that occurs only in the building, and instead to become engaged in their neighborhood. Fighting with their neighbors over parking or prostitution is not allowed. Sunday must stop being the only expression of church life, largely led from the front; rather people will return from a week engaged in sometimes risky mission activities to find refreshment, worship the God who has taken them safely through their mission adventures, enjoy the communitas among fellow travelers on their quest, and disciple those coming to Christ.  Motivated by the love of Christ that rejects fear, believers will find adventure much closer than a faraway mission field.

I’ve already written too much, but it is wholly inadequate to summarize The Faith of Leap. I found it to be an encouraging and thought-provoking book, but I struggled to read it, almost as if I was being drawn away into other activities. I believe this is an important book, and I’m likely to read others by Allen Hirsch and Michael Frost, as well as exploring related resources on the Internet.  Today’s American Church is largely in retreat; the culture has taken an anti-church posture and enjoys mocking us and our beliefs.  Christians may still represent a majority, nominally at least, but ours are no longer the dominant view.  We will not take back the culture or restore our influence through the ballot box.  A comfortable, passive church will fade into oblivion, practicing a religion less and less Biblical or effective.  We need to become the bold, adventurous church described in Hirsch and Frost’s The Faith of Leap.

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5 thoughts on “Into the Arms of God

  1. I haven’t read the book and suspect that I’ll probably find many things in it with which I agree, but on its face “The Faith of Leap” appears to me to be based on a faulty premise. The notion that a major problem with the church today is that it’s too “boring” and would be fixed by embracing “a theology of risk, adventure and courage” is laughable. Since when was the goal of the church excitement and adventure? Where is that in Scripture? We live in a culture that is in most respects an aberration in the history of mankind. The term “boredom” did not even exist in the English language before about 1750, because people didn’t have time to become bored. Boredom arises when a society has too much leisure time, which isn’t a problem for most of earth’s inhabitants even today–they’re just trying to survive. But in our Western culture, where we have too much leisure time, we’ve become addicted to entertainment–indeed we’ve overdosed on it.Should we be surprised that people who can’t get enough entertainment find the meeting of God and his people simply too boring? It doesn’t shock me. But that’s hardly a sufficient basis on which to castigate the church for failing to entertain us enough. Indeed, I would suggest that a major problem of the church (here in the west) is that we have embraced the mistaken belief that entertaining people is a necessary means of attracting them and holding their attention. This is a thumbnail description of the M.O. of the seeker-sensitive approach to church. But is it biblical? Emphatically not!Now, Roger, you suggest that the authors are focused on much more than what goes on Sunday mornings, and I generally agree that what happens during the week looks little like the active disciple-making enterprise that Jesus called us to be. But again, the premise can’t be that it’s a problem because it’s too boring. Our mandate has never been to be “exciting” but to be obedient, and it’s our failure in this regard that is a problem. In my own life, I’m living out a “risky” obedience with far more unknowns than certainties, which requires a measure of courage and may even bring me some adventure, and I’m willing to do it because I believe that is what we as believers have been called to do. But I am not pursuing risk, courage and adventure per se; they are all by-products of my obedience, and not necessary ones either.In other words, it seems to me that, based on your review, I probably agree with many of the practical applications of the authors, but I question whether they are properly motivated. I am convinced that if we were really to live as disciples of Jesus Christ and not as consumerists and materialists who also happen to have made professions of faith, the church would be much different than it presently is, and we might even have adventures and excitement, though it wouldn’t really matter whether we did or not. Oh, and the church would probably have far fewer attendees who are merely looking for entertainment value, because they wouldn’t find it in the church. Instead, they would find God’s people who are sold out to Jesus Christ and who genuinely worship when they meet together, who intently study and learn so as to be better prepared for their callings, and who live out a radical obedience to Jesus Christ wherever they live, work, etc. But a new theology of….? Sorry, not interested!

  2. To be honest, I didn’t react all that positively to the title either, but the description drew me in, and it seems to me that you’re objecting to the title and ignoring the content, even what I’ve described. The problem with that is two-fold. It’s impossible to convey good ideas in a book if people aren’t piqued by the title, and it’s impossible to train young people to mature Christianity, if they’ve already bailed by the time they might do so. I don’t believe the American churches are losing the next generation because of what’s outside the church, but due to what’s missing inside. Aberration or not, we have to deal with the culture in which we live, not one no longer in existence. Frankly, what most churches do inside is not engaging, in part, because it has attempted to become entertainment; and it has done so since churches started having Sunday evening programs of lively music and a sermon (back before sports took over Sunday TV). The authors aren’t discussing church services but what you describe in your third paragraph and how are church should be structured to encourage all believers to live that way, not just a few the rest support. In my opinion, boredom, disinterest, and passivity dominates and pervades the culture and the church. How did sitting in a pew become the primary activity–not that it’s very active–of church life for most? The prevalence of cell phones, tablet computers, social networking, and Twitter demonstrate that passivity is growing while genuine, interactive relationship is fading.You can object to what you think the authors mean in referring to theology of risk and adventure; the reality is that most of the passive pew-sitters have learned very little theology and even less of how to verify it Biblically. I was shocked at how little the people in the well-taught church where I often taught Sunday School classes of adults actually knew, after sitting under good teaching for years. One might blame the teacher, but I believe and know from experience it is nearly impossible to teach students who aren’t truly interested in learning. What the authors suggest–and btw both are thoroughly experienced in the work–is a Biblical restructuring of the focus of ministry, a correction to the collapse of everything into the church building for an hour on Sunday morning.You, of course, are free to ignore the book; I’m sure you can find plenty to read in the limited time available for reading. I apparently did not write my review so well if I failed, despite my own initial misgivings, to convey the substantive Biblical content that impressed me so much by the time I finished. And if my recommendation means so little to you, whom I would like to think might respect my opinion, then what chance have I with strangers?

  3. Ah, Roger…I was concerned that I might appear to be reacting to you when it was the book (or the authors) with which I was disagreeing. I appreciated your take on the book and, as I said, probably am in agreement with much–maybe most–of what you said.However, I will reiterate my principle objection, which is not to the title but to what appears to be its premise. I’ll borrow a couple of quotes from your review. Early on you say, “Their premise cuts to the heart of what it means to be a Christian community of gifted disciples who are truly committed to reaching others for Christ, with the clear suggestion that such a community is not simply a “safe place” for worship. Rather they would restore the sense that living as a believer is living on the edge, a kind of adventure that takes risks and that requires courage in living it.” A bit later you explain that “To derive a “theology of risk,” the authors focus on two terms…” The sense I get of the book (based on your review) is that the authors believe that solution to the problem of boring church is to draw the best ideas from a variety of church movements and incorporate them into an approach to church life that is loosely based on their derived “theology of risk.” They seem to be suggesting that because living with risk and adventure can produce a more Biblical approach to life and mission, these means are therefore validly employed for the purpose of changing folks’ behavior.If the book title is purposely provocative just to get people to read the book, but they don’t actually mean it deep down, I find that objectionable. If, however, taken together they actually do mean that this derived (I use this in a pejorative sense) theology of risk can be employed to encourage believers to engage in Biblical discipleship and mission, it still smacks of manipulation to me. Having watched the trends in western evangelical church for several decades myself, it sounds a bit deja vu. Frankly I’m tired of hearing about new approaches when we seem to consistently ignore the basics I mentioned in my earlier comment. Maybe it’s unavoidable (I fervently hope not), but I really don’t want to see the body of believers have to be cajoled or somehow forced into living out their faith in a Biblical manner by church leaders who feel compelled to produce such responses artificially, which is what it seems like to me when they derive a new theology that they think will do a better job than, say, “Love (and obey) God with your whole being, and love your neighbor as yourself.” In other words, the results they hope to see in the lives of individual believers and in the church are laudable, and I probably agree. But if their goal is to overcome boredom, I think they’re fighting the wrong foe. And if they think motivating believers to Biblical living can, in this culture, be achieved only via a newly derived theology of risk (vs what over the centuries the Scriptures have generally been understood to teach), I am unpersuaded that these means are Biblical and I therefore generally reject that approach. The ends do not justify the means.Maybe it’s just a matter of semantics. If so, and their terminology is simply an expression of our culture’s manner of saying what other generations have said with different words, I’ll accept the fact but bemoan the fact that we are no longer speaking the same language. And what may be attention-grabbing for their target audience is a turn-off for me. However, I remain unconvinced that I’ve completely misunderstood their M.O. Their book seems to me to be at best a clumsy use of language and at worst to be based on a faulty premise. I am glad that you found it useful, and I hope others do too. My purpose was not to discourage anyone from reading it, but rather to suggest caution and discernment as to whether the authors’ premise is justified and whether their approach is wholly Biblical.In any event, I appreciate the opportunity to engage with you. (What fun would it be if we agreed about everything?)

  4. A couple of things came to mind as I read your latest remarks. First, I don’t actually recall if the authors ever referred to boredom or if that was simply my application of their message. Personally, I have observed the church moving more and more toward an approach that is not very stimulating or engaging. That speaks to a number of concurrent problems, I suspect, from failing to preach and model what Biblical Christianity actually should be, from taking up an approach that is borrowed from an increasingly ineffective pedagogical model (one I personally suspect to be a willful attempt to dull the thinking, reasoning, and questioning habits of students to make them more pliable and manipulable), and from over-reliance on traditions, hardly from the Bible or suitable to the present age.The message never changes, but the medium of the message adapts to culture, a lesson missionaries have had to learn in foreign fields, but one that applies to our present American/Western culture, too. I think the devil loves to see us get comfortable, and at the same time, condescending in our regard for how others serve God. I don’t mind a friendly, substantive discussion over things like this, but that kind of interaction is rare; too many in the American Church love to dispute with little love and, often, even less truth. The result is a people, apart from them, who will do just about anything to avoid conflict. People can handle it in sports but not in faith. I’m often reminded that Jesus said NOT to try to pull out the weeds among the vines, for fear some of the vines get pulled, too. Sadly, far too many of the vines aren’t producing fruit either.This isn’t the first time that believers have questioned the status quo. Lots of young people did the same thing in my generation. Some were just rebelling as many of that generation did, but some were looking for something that seemed to be missing in the traditional churches, similar to today. As now, many were side-tracked into error and then gave up on Christianity, while a few found their way into stability with a fresh outlook. The authors in this case, in my opinion, were not patching together ideas from other places; but they did seem to recognize that some of the concerns raised were valid. I don’t see them to be a couple of crackpots, but I do see some substantive and valid Biblical exegesis being done.Their main title is “The Faith of Leap.” I was never all that crazy about “leap of faith,” cause I think it was largely based on an irrational concept of faith. This phrase just sounds awkward, but they validate with stories such as Abraham’s, who listened to God, despite all logical justifications to the contrary at a time when there was no Bible nor sacred community. The authors ask if such a choice is only for those in a few limited Biblical periods, or is there a deeper theological principle, one we overlook because we’ve existed in a long-established tradition of Christendom. The response of much of the Church, as it becomes clearer and clearer that Christianity no longer provides the framework for our culture, is to try to bring it back. A lot of the conservative Christian efforts in the political realm seem to operate in denial of this change. Personally, I put my thought and effort into attempting to preserve and restore freedom, but I have become convinced that some political objectives are misguided. I will vote for pro-life candidates, if they are otherwise worthy, but I doubt we will ever win that issue until we do some serious work reaching the hearts of the majority who presently believe little or nothing.One aspect of church life they challenge is the typical approach of congregations that attempt to bring people to church to be saved. I have always had a problem with that for a host of reasons, but lately it has become easy to point out that, basically, it doesn’t work now, however it may have done so in the past. I could argue that it is wrong theology, an error that goes back hundreds of years, one that contributes to the kind of meeting that encourages disinterest (if not boredom) and neglects discipleship. People sit and listen to a message intended for unbelievers. What is the net effect of that? Many probably assume it’s as it should be because that’s what they’re told. They don’t recognize the deleterious results on their own personal spiritual development. I even had a lady who thought I should preach more “hell fire and brimstone” because it was cathartic. It made her feel like she’d been to church!My guess is that most American believers would prefer not to embrace “risk” as a part of the Christian life; but, as you pointed out, doing God’s work, accepting it as one’s calling, is risky. That is exactly what all believers should be doing! Risk is inherent to obedience and discipleship. How would we describe Paul’s missionary journeys or the lives of most of the Twelve? I don’t think the word adventure is misplaced. In my judgment, the authors didn’t begin with a desire to discover risk and adventure in the Christian message; the knew that both were of necessity already present but being both ignored and inhibited by current and long-standing custom. However, it doesn’t hurt to recognize that many young people are looking for something, to see that many youth programs are the ones making the mistake by planning adventures and then making them spiritual, or to recognize that those young people return home to a bland spiritual community, ensconced in traditions.I’ve read some emerging church stuff, and I’m not comfortable with much of it. Ancient reminds me of some who claim to follow Biblical patterns, as if what we see in Acts was intended to be a blue print. Yet, I agree that a lot of our customs developed during the domination of the early Catholic church, and the Reformation hung on to some that might better have changed. One thing I’ve heard repeatedly is that new churches have a vitality that seems to vanish once they settle into their own building. It makes me think of the similar notion that the goal of family life is a house in the suburbs, even though urban neighborhoods are generally more community minded.Besides getting overly comfortable, Christians become overly familiar with terms and ideas. I have been preaching and teaching the Great Commandment throughout my life in ministry. No one disagrees with it–of course not! Yet somehow they manage to ignore it and not to be challenged by it. I think it has become almost sentimental. Very late one night, earlier this week, I was driving home; I stopped at a light and a woman came at my passenger side window. I dropped the window a few inches to see what she wanted, and she said she wanted a ride. Love, risk, and wisdom warred within my thoughts, but I chose not to give her a ride. Alone, in the middle of the night, no emergency to explain her situation…I let wisdom win, but then I felt guilty. Angel unawares? Crazy lady or hooker? I prayed for her, but I didn’t give her a ride (She seemed healthy enough, and where she wanted to go was only a few blocks). I wonder, tho’, how many Christians would even debate the matter.It’s the prophet’s job to speak God’s truth to his generation and apply it to present realities. Jesus illustrated the Great Commandment in the context of the Samaritan situation. Applying the same lesson to the present will entail risk. I preached every 4th of July at a certain church, until one summer no invitation came. A year or two later, when I happened to be engaged in a friendly conversation with the pastor, I asked why he stopped asking me. He said I had upset people the last time. I knew what I’d preached. It wasn’t controversial doctrine; it was love each other, love your neighbor, love your enemies, etc.I didn’t see evidence to suggest the authors had contrived their ideas. I think what they called a “theology” is as valid an application of Scripture as “trinity” or “rapture,” neither of which are terms found in the Bible. It doesn’t them wrong so long as you can justify their use. I gave my pastor my second copy (the publisher givers reviewers two, with one to give away), and he’ll probably read it this summer. Between now and then, I will carefully review it myself so I can attempt to consider your concerns objectively and so I can discuss them with him, after he’s read it. I will suggest he look over this material. I’ll let you know what comes of that.

  5. Good thoughts, and helpful clarification. I agree that the western Church faces a real challenge. I also generally agree with my cousin (by marriage)–a prof of missiology and an evangelist who travels throughout the world–who observes that the western church is largely dead, or perhaps mostly comatose. I think your comments reflect a similar diagnosis, though you didn’t use his words. I appreciate your point about boredom perhaps not being addressed directly by the authors. However, I do think it exists in no small measure here in western Christianity, and I also see lots of efforts being made to overcome it by ramping up our entertainment quotient. In contrast, I’m seeing from my contact with the church overseas is that believers there don’t have the same “boredom” issues we seem to face, and they are extremely hungry for solid preaching, which seems to be a lot more prevalent there than here. Anyway, I am gratified to hear that the authors apparently aren’t actually promoting risk and adventure as a “solution” (to boredom or anything else, I hope). And I do agree that really living a life of faith, trying to hear the Spirit and then obey Him–right away, is quite risky in contrast with our typical westernized version of Christianity. I know it is for me, and I know you’ve had more than a little “adventure” yourself in trying to faithfully follow the Lord. And I feel like I’m still mostly in the shallow water…it hasn’t even gotten really deep yet. Frankly, here in my fifties I’d prefer a little less adventure and riskiness. So my resolve to live that way isn’t a pursuit of risk and adventure. Rather, they are apparently an unavoidable byproduct of living by faith, because we aren’t satisfied to follow (to borrow John Eldredge’s phrase) a less-wild lover. Your points are all well-taken, and I think I share most of your viewpoints about the state of the western church and issues facing it. It’s hard for me not to conclude we’re on the way out, and that God is beginning to judge us (not least of all with “leanness of soul”–Ps 106:15) as He did Israel. I can tell you that I’m grateful to be working in missions where the church is still very much alive. It’s not that I want to bail out on the western church, but I want my efforts to be productive rather than just spinning my wheels, so to speak. But at the same time I can’t not speak to the issues that face us here. I pray for God’s grace for western evangelicalism. And I also pray for a reawakening. The prospects otherwise don’t look all that good, books like this one notwithstanding.Shalom

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