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Frazee, Randy. The Connecting Church 2.0: Beyond Small Groups to Authentic Community. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013. 978-0-310-49435-5. Cover price $16.99.
Something is wrong with the contemporary church in America. But what? Where did the church go wrong and how can it be put back on the right course? Books exploring these questions have become their own genre. The Connecting Church 2.0 is one recent addition to the genre. A new edition of a 2001 text (which I did not read), The Connecting Church 2.0 falls into a “social scientific” subgenre of books that understand problems and propose solutions based largely upon polling data, sociological theories, and the like — though, as texts written for and by Christians, they also make use of the Bible. Like other texts in this subgenre, The Connecting Church 2.0 is not without flaws, upon which this review may disproportionately focus. Even so, the book does merit reading, provided one reads cautiously and critically, drawing selectively upon Frazee’s best insights and suggestions.
The problem Frazee seeks to understand and solve is a lack of authentic community, which he sees as essential and central to effective discipleship of Christians. He traces the lack to three interconnected causes: “individualism,” isolation, and consumerism.
The first cause, “individualism,” Frazee addresses in “Part 1: Connecting to a Common Purpose” (35-78). Frazee’s analysis would be improved were he to identify the problem as “selfishness” (or “self-centeredness,” or “self-obsession”) rather than “individualism.” While individualists can be selfish, they needn’t be, and selfishness is in no way essential to individualism (no matter what that atheist, Ayn Rand, might have said). Belief that an individual must have freedom of conscience, that ultimately one’s soul is one’s own responsibility so that one must be at liberty to decide matters affecting one’s soul: this is an individualist conviction, a good one, and one of many. While those who would (in a way Frazee might himself oppose) refashion U.S. law to impose majority will on everyone (and to, for instance, treat all wealth acquired by anyone as property that everyone is entitled to take as needed) will probably like Frazee’s identification of individualism as an evil, I remain inclined to see individuals, not community, as primary. As the official cult classic of individualists everywhere puts it, “I am not a number,” such as a number in a pollster’s report or sociologist’s analysis, “I’m a free man!” (The Prisoner, Television Series, 1967-68, Everyman Films/Incorporated Television Company [ITC]). The free person is certainly free, and well-advised, to participate in community, but the free person, not the community, remains the proper locus of decision making and is (I think) rightly seen as more important than the reified abstractions of social scientists (communities, societies, social structures).
Frazee finds it objectionable that “Most Americans tend to see individualism as a positive trait that reflects their right to exercise liberty and freedom” and that “Individualism is seen to promote free will, free choices, free markets, and good self-esteem” (37). His reason for finding this objectionable, however, is his reliance on a definition of “individualism” as “a way of life that makes the individual and his or her wants, needs, and desires supreme or sovereign over everything else” (36). No more biased and misleading a definition of “individualism” could be imagined, and it makes clear why those of us not inclined to the anti-individualist perspective prefer not to base our analyses on the theories of sociologists, from whose dominantly left-liberal thinking Frazee has acquired his definition of “individualism.” While there certainly is a tendency in contemporary desacralized culture to elevate selfishness in just the ways Frazee notes, such perverse self-obsession has never been the “individualism” that “Most Americans” deem praiseworthy. Frazee treats the selfish choices some persons choose to make as the essence of individualism; but it is not specific choices, but the freedom to make them for oneself, that is alone essential to individualism. For instance, it is selfishness, not individualism, that “resists the idea of common standards” (54); individualism only requires that individuals must freely embrace those standards they are persuaded should be common, not be coerced to follow standards that simply happen to obtain among a dominating social majority. Frazee’s bias here greatly detracts from his analysis, and will unfortunately alienate individualist readers who might otherwise agree with much of what he has to say.
This weakness noted, Frazee’s analysis can still be of benefit. While not true as Frazee has chosen to word it (speaking of “individualism”), it is the case that “one of the chief ingredients of [selfishness] is the rejection, consciously or unconsciously, of the notion that there is a common set of beliefs that should bind ‘me’ to others” and that “This rejection presents one of the greatest obstacles we face in overcoming the plague of [selfishness]” (44). How, then, does Frazee propose reestablishing shared beliefs and values, “a common purpose”? He proposes that five characteristics are necessary for a community to have a common purpose: a recognized authority structure (48-50); “a shared understanding of the beliefs and practices that guide the community,” also known as “a common creed” (50-52); “traditions” (52-54); and a clearly defined “common mission” (54). Aside from the continued misidentification of selfishness as “individualism,” Bible-believers should find these proposals largely unobjectionable, and so might benefit from a review of them. It should be noted, however, that what obligates any individual Christian to adhere to a creed or embrace a tradition or mission is the extent to which the creed, tradition, or mission comports with Scripture. Any creed, tradition, or mission not defensible on the basis of Holy Writ cannot be imposed on the Christian individual as mandatory, no matter how essential any majority or authority may deem that creed, tradition, or mission to the thriving of their community.
Part of Frazee’s case against selfishness (“individualism”) is that humans are created in the image of a God who exists eternally as a three-person community (see 61-78). Admittedly, Frazee’s “three people squeezing into a hula hoop” analogy (62-63) is, like most this-worldly analogies for the Trinity, painfully inadequate (perhaps three persons who each completely filled the entire space within the hula hoop, yet remained distinct persons though entirely coextensive, would be better; perhaps not). As well, it should be emphasized that the fact that God is a community and by nature social does not mean his nature is primarily or most importantly social (as Frazee at one point implies); neither does it mean that the primary or most important way that humans are God’s image is in their social lives (which seems to be Frazee’s opinion). Nevertheless, it clearly is true that the God who “is love” was a loving community of persons even before he created angels or humans, and that this must have some relevance to a proper understanding of human beings as his image-bearers. Frazee’s unpacking of this relevance is profitable reading.
The “second major obstacle to connecting in true community” (81), isolation, Frazee looks at in “Part 2: Connecting to a Common Place” (81-123). If you live in a suburb and have noticed how no place you need to go, whether to work or shop or attend church, is within walking distance, you may be interested to learn that this impractical arrangement did not exist prior to the 1950s (82). The growth of suburbs, combined with such other changes as tall privacy fences, elimination of sidewalks (who walks anymore and where could they walk to?), disuse or elimination of front porches, and the like, have all, in Frazee’s view (and the view of various thinkers he cites), contributed to a “culture of isolation” both encouraging, and expressing, the selfishness (“individualism”) discussed in Part 1.
Frazee’s solution to isolation is to recreate community organized around shared locality, “a common place.” He sees five qualities as characteristic of such community: spontaneity, such as the freedom to drop by unannounced to visit and chat (91-94); availability, meaning both a willingness to put off personal tasks to interact with or assist others in the community and an ability to do so, resulting from one’s not having one’s time overbooked (so that one has some “time margin” to spare) (94-97); frequency of community contacts, meaning that one is in contact with members of one’s community quite frequently, even daily (97-100); sharing meals, “regularly eating together” with those in one’s community (100-101); and shared geography, meaning that authentic community requires proximity (or, as the popular redundancy and Frazee put it, “close proximity”)(101-105).
Though Frazee’s analysis of contemporary isolation is interesting, and I think accurate, I wonder whether all five characteristics he lists are necessary for authentic community. Frazee’s perspective will immediately appeal to easy extroverts who love to be around people as much as possible, who welcome unplanned visits, who don’t require significant mental preparation before (or significant recovery after) social gatherings to avoid seeming surly and antisocial. However, I am not such a person, nor is every sincere Christian. The sort of “Christian community” most suiting my personality and temperament (and that of at least a few other Christians I’ve met) is the kind where one spends most of one’s time contemplating in seclusion, only meeting to fellowship with others on carefully planned and predictable occasions. (You know, like the Unabomber…er, I mean, like saintly Christian hermits of old.) I don’t claim to be “an island” or to have “no need” of other people — that would be foolish. I just prefer people in measured, not-too-frequent, and above all predictable doses. Clearly, my temperament inclines me to resist Frazee’s calls to social spontaneity and availability, and also makes me want to resist too great frequency of interaction. This doesn’t mean that Frazee is wrong in his analysis; I believe he is mostly correct. I just wonder whether it is possible to create authentic community open to those of us who value solitude and who require a certain orderliness in our social interactions. Frazee does not address this question, perhaps because his own hyper-social extroversion (166-67) makes him unable to perceive that many of his proposals run painfully contrary, not just to certain aberrant contemporary tendencies, but to the fundamental personality and temperament of a fair number of people (albeit a minority).
The third obstacle to authentic community, consumerism, Frazee discusses in “Part 3: Connecting to Common Possessions.” Consumerism focuses on “the concentrated effort to purchase, acquire, and use up things to meet one’s real and perceived needs and wants” and has as one of its “driving principles” an “elevation of rights over responsibilities” (125). While Frazee’s discussion is flawed by a continued reference to selfishness as “individualism” and by a tendency to conceptualize the subject in simplistic dichotomies (concern for self rather than for others, focus on rights rather than responsibilities, and so on), few would question the basic assertion that individuals in today’s America focus on acquisition of things for themselves to an inordinate extent and at the expense of other things of greater lasting value, including the well-being of other human beings. Admittedly, “consumerism” seems a less helpful identifier of this phenomenon that would a phrase like “material selfishness,” but Frazee’s decision to use a vogue social scientific term instead of more accurate description does not change the underlying reality. Frazee sees “consumerism” as undermining community in four ways: it “tempts us into a form of independence” where we have an “experience of not needing each other” (127); leads to distrust by allowing isolation to create “a distorted view of the people who live around us,” as we consume accentuate-the-negative popular media (127-28); increases the prevalence of lawsuits because it is “driven by a preoccupation to meet one’s needs and to protect one’s property and rights” (128-29); and encourages “social loafing” by shifting care for those in need from neighborhood communities to government agencies (129).
True to his predilection for lists of five, Frazee sees consumerism-corrective community, “community around common possessions,” as having five characteristics: interdependency, where “individuals choose to make their resources available to others instead of choosing to consume all they can for themselves, either through accumulating vast savings or through purchasing all kinds of amenities” (136-38); “intergenerational life,” meaning that various generations of people in community do things together, rather than breaking up into age groups for their activities (138-40); acceptance by community members of “the responsibility to help parents care for, nurture, and train their children” (140-42); prioritizing of “serving and caring for others” rather than just taking care of oneself (142-43); a willingness, of at least some members on some occasions, to sacrifice for the good of others in the community (143-44). Whether all these characteristics are essential to authentic community I’ll leave readers to decide. If you attend a church that still divides Bible studies and other activities up by age groups, however, I would encourage you to at least review Frazee’s “intergenerational life” discussion, since it makes some good arguments for getting different age groups more involved with one another. One vivid statement nicely illustrates the point (139): “Putting a group of five young married couples with small children in a room together and expecting them to help each other navigate these crucial and sometimes exasperating years is a bit like asking a group of ten toddlers to brainstorm ways to cross a four-lane highway together!” (139) Think about it.
There is, of course, much more in terms of analysis and practical suggestion to each of these sections. There is, in addition, a fourth section with further practical outworking of Frazee’s perspective. Put very basically, Frazee’s idea is that authentic “biblical community” can only be achieved if we restructure our lives in such a way as to allow us to form communities with Christians in our immediate neighborhoods that manifest the fifteen characteristics highlighted in the first three sections. While I think some of his suggestions merit consideration as ways to get neighbors working together to achieve common objectives, and to just get along better, I’m not persuaded that what he proposes is an effective substitute for a church’s small group Bible studies or that it is even a way to create biblical community. Though much of value can be gathered from a review of Frazee’s analysis and suggestions, that review needs to be critical and cautious. A few specific cautions follow.
Caution one. In a day when doctrinal drift is widespread and where large numbers of the most biblically “literate” Christians refuse to let Scripture function as authoritative in areas where its plain sense runs contrary to their own or their peers’ preferences, a vision encouraging further unconcern with doctrine seems ill-advised. Yet, when explaining why he believes one should be sure to include persons from different churches in one’s neighborhood fellowship, Frazee writes:
….it’s a great way to visibly demonstrate the unity of the body of Christ….In a neighborhood ministry, there is little need to squabble over church doctrine….Our challenges are focused on the lonely widow across the street who needs a hug or the single mom who needs the leaves removed from her gutter. We have discovered that Calvinists and [Arminians], Catholics and Protestants….can all work together to accomplish neighborhood community. (170)Certainly, any two persons who share a common goal may and should work together to realize it, whether in a neighborhood or in some other context. This sort of cooperation needn’t even be limited to self-labeled “Christians.” But is such a doctrine-deemphasizing neighborhood cooperative really a suitable replacement for a small group with shared doctrinal convictions and common commitment to Scripture as infallible, clear, and sufficient authority over all areas of life and thought upon which it speaks? Can such un-doctrinal communities validly be considered an alternative way of discipling Christians and “doing church”? (Recall that the book’s subtitle promises “authentic community” that moves “beyond small groups” as a tool for effective Christian discipleship.)
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not urging a hard-core separatism that refuses to associate or cooperate with professing Christians whose doctrines differ from one’s own. I am saying that spiritual formation or discipleship is as much about bringing your doctrine into conformity with authoritative Scripture as it is about Christianizing your social interactions. Paul directed Timothy to pay attention to both his conduct and his doctrine (1 Timothy 4:16). It therefore seems a bad idea to make your primary discipleship group (which is what Frazee proposes one’s neighborhood Christian community should become) one that deemphasizes doctrine.
Caution two. In addition to deemphasizing the importance of doctrinal agreement (beyond a broadly Christian creed) to biblical community, The Connecting Church 2.0 fails to address another matter meriting consideration: the ability of community to corrupt as well as edify. People in community feel great pressure to adjust their views to agree with the rest of the group. Among Christians, this can often mean a watering down of doctrines, since disagreement in these is common. Frazee’s call to shape one’s primary, discipling Christian community out of self-labeled “Christians” one happens to find within one’s immediate neighborhood seems likely to encourage this tendency. Frazee’s further suggestion that such small neighborhood communities might, in one approach, replace the sort of centralized church we’ve grown used to, with sermons being eliminated in favor of group study only and any “pastors” only providing some broad oversight and encouragement to the fairly independent neighborhood groups they visit from time to time (the “starfish” church model, 179-83, 217-226), while intriguing, seems even more likely to encourage this tendency.
Caution three. A final caution is to beware of primitivist/restorationist arguments. In some places, Frazee points to practices that happen to have obtained in the early church, such as some recorded in the book of Acts, in support of his proposals for contemporary practice. While the practices of the apostolic church certainly deserve attention, one must keep in mind that scriptural history does not equal divine directive. The fact that God records something as having happened does not necessarily mean he is mandating it as a perpetual practice (or, for that matter, that he even approved of it at the time). Absent any “do this” directive in the epistles, efforts to return to the apostolic model, such as by eliminating sermons (218-19), are highly questionable. The apostolic period, when Scripture had yet to be completed and those functions it would one day serve were served by more immediate divine involvement and unique apostolic authority, was very much unlike any later period, including our own. The extent to which the practices of the early church can and should guide us today is more debatable than some of Frazee’s discussion might lead one to believe. Read with caution.
In sum, The Connecting Church 2.0 merits (cautious, critical) reading. Its analysis of factors hampering authentic community is mostly accurate, though burdened by some less-than-ideal terminology. Its suggestions for fostering community seem likely to prove of some use to those hoping neighborhoods might become communities rather than places where people simply eat, sleep, and watch television (or surf the Web and play computer games) in isolation. It remains to be seen whether its ideas can be adapted to the formation of Bible-centered, doctrine-emphasizing communities for discipling Christians in thought as well as social behavior. What does not remain to be seen is that the problems Frazee describes are real ones and do need to be addressed. I welcome The Connecting Church 2.0 as a contribution to the ongoing discussion of how best to handle these and other problems facing today’s church.
This review has also been posted to Amazon.com.