A letter and a response

I was going through some old emails this morning trying to find a particular interaction with someone and I came across this interesting exchange I had with a college minister early last year. I’ve been on a bit of a theme the last week exploring my own place in the missional world, and this exchange touches on that a little bit.

Jim had read my book, It’s a Dance: Moving with the Holy Spirit, and wrote me to tell me what he thought about it.

Dear Patrick, I just finished your book. Someone suggested I read it for possible use in a ministry intern program I direct. I have to say it leaves me conflicted. I’ll try and bullet my ideas:

I liked the focus on the spirit and doing things in new ways

I struggled w/ the simple stereotypes of characters

I’ve read McLaren’s “new” series and am tired of the trying to be cute or pomo by storytelling when the point is theology and church systems

For all the attempts at creativity I found the setting and examples cliché

Your quick saying we believe in tithing is very traditional, I think thin from a NT grace point.

I hope this sounds like more than a bitch fest, but I am looking for things that will actually help young adults move into lives of faith and practice in the culture of now and the future. I think you gave it a good try, but still seem very mired in some mid-ground neo-fundy setting. The endorsements alone make me cringe that that many leaders are so impressed and surprised by your work. I want to know where they are living? On yeah, ivory towers… and this is really picky – and I understand the publishing world, but don’t the endorsements come from and elevate forms of people/ministry structure that you speak against in the book?

Sorry for all of this. At least I read and am reacting.

A couple things come to mind now, that didn’t hit me as much when I first read it. One is that the endorsements contain really strong mix of ‘ivory tower’ and ‘practitioner’ that I think Jim missed, and even the ‘ivory tower’ folks have strong ministry backgrounds as far as I know. Which leads me to my second thought. I think people in general don’t tend to really trust other people’s experiences, and we have a whole quiver of ways of dismissing others in order to not take up their questions and challenges. Our arrows include theological quibbles, intellectual quibbles, experience quibbles, even appearance quibbles and, quite relevant these days, political quibbles.

Anyhow, here’s the response I wrote then:

Hey Jim,

At least you read it and are reacting. That to me is very nice. I very much appreciate your note. Some things come to mind in response.

The first is that I realize the setting and characters are pretty simple. Honestly, my goal was not to write a book on how to do church or suggest methods. I basically wanted to make a framework that reflected a lot of my own experiences, and then use that to write theology. It is, in my mind, a theology book, a pneumatology that is reflecting what I think is a more full picture of what we should look for when the Spirit is working.

This is important to me because I came out of emerging/missional churches, some of the earliest, and again and again I was hit by the fact that while there were good methods and interesting, creative tactics, such places were undermined by a lack of really understanding how God works when he works. So, I wanted to address this, and do it using emerging church stuff but more fully seeing it as broadly related to whatever form of church. The key to me, though, is the theology–because what we believe is true is reflected in how we do things, and what we do reflects our theology. I wanted to suggest a new guide on the types of things we should see and which would help become a correction in communities that are stumbling.

As far as my approach you might be surprised to know I’ve actually never read anything by Brian McClaren. Indeed, other than the book by Gibbs and Bolger I didn’t read much of anything labeled emerging. I had my own experiences to draw from. And the approach was, I suppose, a little postmodern but not because I was trying to be cool. My influence and model was decidely not postmodern. Pre-modern really. Most of my personal reading is early church or pre-1000. And it was John Cassian’s Conferences which gave me the idea for the method I used. The question and answer format allows for both breaks in heavy theology and anticipates questions from the reader, addressing objections within the text. Having characters with different voices allows me to raise different concerns. Of course, mostly I went this way because it was more enjoyable for me to write like that. I told myself a story.

Again, I don’t see It’s a Dance as a book among the many other books suggesting church models or forms. It’s not original at all in that way, and I know that. It’s a theology book written in an approachable way, and not really even for leaders or potential leaders but for what would be called, for lack of a better term, a lay audience. I want to spark thought and interest and understanding in those who may or may not be in leadership and who are hardly ever given any kind of deep conversation about God apart from very stuffy language.

As far as the endorsements… well, that’s just part of publishing. I would love to have a book that doesn’t depend on such, and trust that it would get out there. But publishing depends on big names, and honestly as varied a field as I got–from Shane Claiborne to Jurgen Moltmann– it still wasn’t really enough. But that’s fine. I still consider my best endorsements to have come from the sorts of people that are entirely ignored in churches, a single mom with four kids who lost her job but really, really loves God. The non-Christian sister of a nurse at a juvenile hall who read the book at a friend’s house and then asked her friend how she could have thatkind of work of the Spirit in her life.

So those are the people I care about. Not leaders. Not people in the sorts of positions who have already disheartened such people with yet more experiments in church style and then move on once they’ve burned everyone out. And I just want to do what I can to get the book in the people who feel lost in churches and lost from God, even as they seek him, but don’t see him in all the cultural Christianity.

I’m not sure what you’re saying about tithing, to be honest, as I don’t remember being very traditional in that. But, I do know that I was walking a line in this book, trying to speak to varied audiences, from all kinds of backgrounds. Apparently, I wasn’t entirely successful in that, at least with you.

But I do thank you for your note. I thank you for reading it, and even if it didn’t match what you’re looking for I hope it was able to provoke some thoughts that help you better hone in on what it is you think would be most effective.


What’s interesting, going along with my new quest for more transparency as an actual person, is that I saw this as interesting at first, but almost didn’t post because it would seem like it’s coming off more as an attempt for marketing than an attempt at exposing my experiences and thought processes. Writing and publishing my book was a key experience for me, one that capped a significant season of formational ministry in the midst of a dysfunctional church. I stepped away, burned out and exhausted and found inner restoration when I came to terms with the core aspects of what had happened, and what was happening all around.

And, oddly enough, the experience of the book became even more a spiritual resource for development because of the low sales. Success certainly has its own areas of contribution, but few things push towards deeper examination than times of desert and frustration.

It is the curious place of being both an insider and an outsider (often at the same time) in the church world that has become my vantage point these last six years or so. It also has made it sometimes difficult to answer otherwise easy questions such as, “Am I missional?” Which I’m still working on.

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