A call to a larger story
Christianity Beyond Belief: Following Jesus for the Sake of Others
Author: Todd D. Hunter (www.toddhunter.org)
Foreword: Eugene H. Peterson
Publisher: IVP Books (www.ivpbooks.com)
I did not need to look beyond Todd Hunter’s opening acknowledgements to find something that I could appreciate. His broadmindedness was evident (no small thing) in his claim of indebtedness to viewpoints as diverse as Greg Laurie and Chuck Smith on the one side and John Wimber on the other. Along with others, I have had reservations about the latter’s teachings, but I see in Hunter’s writing a maturity that has drawn from the best of his influences while avoiding the controversial. His gallery of mentors includes Richard Foster, Dallas Willard, Eugene Peterson and N. T. Wright. If you appreciate their teachings and writings, you will enjoy this book.
In the foreword, Eugene Peterson sets the stage for what is to follow: “Story – the Jesus story, the king story, my story – take priority over information and argument in the way we go about following Jesus.” Without denigrating the need for right belief, Hunter emphasizes that Christianity is a way of life. He defines eternal life as “the quality of life derived from and lived within the kingdom of God. It is personal, intimate communion with the Trinity.”
Hunter places the doctrines of sin, forgiveness, heaven and hell within the context of humanity (and creation) being restored to fulfill God’s purposes. This keeps Christianity from being reduced, as it has been in our day, to just a personal relationship with God. This is a much broader view of salvation than just “inviting Jesus into your heart” and escaping hell. He argues that this makes “the forgiveness of sins the sole plot line.”
He sees forgiveness as not the finishing line, but the starting point for “forming a new life, a cooperative friendship with God.” This is one of four pivotal phrases that summarize his understanding of what it means to be a Christian. The following four concepts are unpacked in detail:
1. Cooperative friends of Jesus
2. Living in creative goodness
3. For the sake of others
4. Through the power of the Holy Spirit
The goal in all of this is becoming whole so that we can participate with God in his plans for the world. Heaven is our destination, but not the end. The emphasis is on serving God through living for the benefit of others.
Hunter offers practical examples in a spirit of humility. He takes pains to make the work of the Holy Spirit seem natural rather than something that is controversial and spooky. This is a welcome reminder of what a difference the Spirit’s help can make.
Much of the book seems to be a response to the alarming decline in church membership, the growing hostility to Christianity, and the growing numbers of people who identify themselves as non-religious. Hunter’s thoughts offer a way out of this wilderness. I appreciate his efforts to communicate the Christian faith afresh to an unchurched, post-modern generation. It’s not that he is reinventing what it means to be a Christian. He succeeds in turning our attention to truths that have been neglected.
This book effectively makes the case that it’s not enough to have right belief. As important as that is, it must be accompanied by right practice. For too long those outside the faith have seen little that attracts them to it. They want to see the difference that Christ makes in our living.
A key to making that a reality and implementing the concepts of this book is what Hunter calls Three Is Enough (TIE) groups. The idea is for a group of three people to bind together for the purpose of creatively doing good for the sake of others. While relying on the leading of the Holy Spirit, group members look for opportunities to serve those around them. It can be as easy as just paying attention to people in our environment and being available, so that God can use us in their lives.
TIE groups have a dual nature. They simultaneously focus “on the inward journey of spiritual transformation and the outward journey of serving others.” Hunter provides significant evidence that a group of three is an ideal number. The chapter contains a wealth of practical information and examples on how these groups function.
I was reminded of the need for this type of book in a recent conversation with my sister. She is one of many who identify themselves as Christians but do not affiliate with a church. Having been part of various churches for years, she and her husband can’t relate to what many churches have become. It would be easy for me to be right there with her, since churches are often disappointing.
Authenticity is paramount for my sister. I also prize humility. It’s what many people inside and outside the church want to see. This book is a helpful step in that direction, and in writing it, the author models both of these qualities. He avoids the controversies that divide the church and provides a vision that every Christian can rally behind. He has a heart to see people become genuine Christ-followers, who participate with God in the larger story of fulfilling his plans.
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