Book Review: The Greening Of the Church

I was recently introduced to a book that, while not new, has important wisdom for leaders in the faith and work movement. The Greening Of the Church (1971) was written by Findley Bartow Edge (1916-2002). Dr. Edge held the Basil Manly, Jr. Chair of Religious Education at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he taught for more than 40 years. Edge authored more than 80 published works. His most influential books include: Teaching For Results, a standard text in seminaries for more than 40 years; Helping the Teacher; A Quest for Vitality in Religion; The Greening of the Church; and The Doctrine of the Laity. He is remembered for his passion for fostering an authentic faith and awakening the laity to their call to be the church.

Edge authored The Greening Of the Church with the goal of challenging the ‘church as usual’ syndrome he saw among evangelicals. In an effort to help Christians come alive at a deeper level in their spiritual experience, Edge offers five suggestions on what he would do if he were pastor of a church: preaching, personal conversations, reading books, retreats and conferences, and lay witness weekends. Greening demonstrates Edge’s desire to see the laity engaged in an ‘on-mission’ lifestyle. He felt this was essential if the local church was to come alive and impact its culture.

While faith and work movement terminology was not widely used when Edge wrote this book, he would likely have resonated and encouraged the discussions and teachings we’re engaged with regularly.

This is a radical departure from the traditional understanding of the roles of the laity and the clergy. The laity had the idea that they were already committed to a “full-time” vocation in the secular world, [and] thus they did not have time—at least, much time—to do God’s work. Therefore, they contributed money to “free” the clergy to have the time needed to fulfill God’s ministry. This view is rank heresy. If we follow this pattern, we may continue to do God’s work until the Lord comes again and never fulfill God’s purpose as it ought to be done. -page 43

Edge frames this book around three core areas. First, the most basic problem with the church today (and in our own day, I would argue, as well) is personal and spiritual. Second, there is a need to re-establish a balance between evangelism and social involvement. Many current authors would echo this sentiment. Finally, the third emphasis is on positive and practical proposals. Edge took this approach because of the large number of articles being written that demonstrated the problem, but offered little guidance if any on how to solve it.

We have been told repeatedly that the task of the church is to take the Gospel to the marketplaces of life. However, one very practical problem we face is: How do we motivate people to go to the marketplace? Some church members have a level commitment that leads them to be loyal in attending the institutional meetings of the church, but they are unwilling to give time and energy to become seriously involved in the life of the world.

I marvel at how relevant Edge’s writing of more than 40 years ago are to the church today. Some of the statements from this book could just have easily been written in 2017 as 1971. This is unfortunate, but it is also a challenge to the people of God in the present age.

“The church must also have some organized form. If what it is now doing seems to be inadequate, then how should the church be organized to equip people best for ministry? It must be stated clearly that there is no “one way” by which this change can occur. There are numerous ways in which God is working to bring about change. Likewise, there is no “one program” a church ought to follow. Each church must find its own “shape” or organized life in the light of a number of factors. Variety and flexibility are the order of the day. However, a multitude of concerned pastors and laymen who are ready to change cry out for help and possible guidelines.” -pages 10-11

“There are those who have rejected the institutional church. They say the church cannot be saved. They say the modern church is so bound by tradition, so filled with vested interests, and has so many reactionary members, and such poor leadership that it cannot be used of God to work in today’s world. I reject this position. I believe the church can be renewed. Not only do I believe the church can be saved; I believe the church must be saved!” -page 14

“Let those be warned who, in their haste to find some practical suggestions, turn first to this section to try to find a “practical program” and omit a careful consideration of the theological and personal bases which precede. This would be a tragic mistake, for renewal in its essence is the gift of God. It is the work of the Holy Spirit. It is a meeting with God at a deeper level of one’s life. No practical program can substitute for this “happening” in the individual’s life. It is here renewal must begin. To approach it in any other way is to seek to create it through institutional or promotional technique.” -page 135

As leaders in the faith and work movement, it is very common to experience the tension of how to change hearts and minds and be able to live in that tension without introducing a new program that oftentimes lacks longevity. Edge has wisdom from 1971:

If I were the pastor of an average church, considering the proposals made in this book — or any other suggestions I would not think in terms of trying to get the whole church to change all at once. Rather, I would maintain the regular program to which the church was accustomed. then, I would undertake to “open some doors” and let the “new” begin to emerge — on a small or limited scale at first.

Edge is quick to note that the majority of the membership would likely continue with the existing programs and therefore leadership would still needed for those following this path. A balance is needed between those who remain steady with what has been and those willing to try something new.

This should not be viewed as a new program to promote! The emphasis on the personal must be kept in focus. It is God who brings renewal. It is he who must bring into being a new people. My task would be to provide stimulation and the proper climate, but I would let the new emerge at its own pace.

Edge concludes the book with suggestions for a church organizational structure for a congregation committed to promoting an “on mission” lifestyle. The end result could be a number of groups demonstrating this lifestyle in different ways in different spheres of the community.

All of the groups would be the People of God in the world, seeking to be loving and caring, trying to change conditions that are not in harmony with God’s will and seeking to meet the needs of people — physically, economically, emotionally, educationally.

Edge felt a profound sense of despair related to the church of his day. This despair was partially fueled by a barrage of criticism, which Edge admits he contributed to. However, despite its imperfection and challenges, Edge was filled with a deep sense of hope for the church.  May it in fact be so with us. May God enable us to the His people, in all spheres of society, seeking its flourishing and showing foretastes of the future Kingdom in this present world.

I would like to express my thanks to Kevin Lawson and the Talbot School of Theology for their permission to cite their study on Findley Edge in the Christian Educators of the 20th Century Project

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