Adventures in Churchland: Book Review
You can’t put Dan Kimball in a box. He is a true non-conformist. Sure, some might say his pompadour is evidence of some sort of conformity, but they would be wrong. Dan just doesn’t fit into anyone’s box. He loves Rockabilly, but he doesn’t fit the Rockabilly fan stereotype. He’s a Pastor, but he doesn’t fit the Pastor stereotype either! While Dan has wrestled with feeling like a misfit at times, his tendency to nonconformity has been an encouragement and inspiration to many. In his latest book, Adventures in Churchland, Dan recounts his early experiences with the Church, the pressure to conform to a Christian sub-culture that just didn’t fit with what he was reading in the Bible, and his subsequent wrestling over many years with what it means to be the Church Jesus envisions.
In Part One, Dan describes his entry into Churchland and his struggles with feeling like a misfit. He opens Part One describing a scene from a church musical. I’m not sure whether I played a part in that particular Christmas musical, but I do remember playing the part of Mary Magdelene in an Easter production. Dan and I started attending the same church in CA around the same time in the late ‘80s. While Dan was a nonconformist, I was ready to conform my life to the Christian sub-culture and adapted quite well in my early years of following Jesus. But Dan’s questioning inspired me to search the Scriptures and dig deeper in my faith over the years, as Adventures in Churchland will do for any who read it.
Dan gracefully exposes the Christian sub-culture for what it is – a pattern of the world and a terrible mess at times. Romans 12:2 warns us not to be conformed to the patterns of this world – and unfortunately there is a pattern of the Church-world that needs to be avoided. Dan calls it Churchland. Paul encourages the Roman Christians to remember they are called to be conformed to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29), not the patterns of the world. Dan leans into this truth over and over again as he resists conforming to the pressures of Churchland and seeks to be conformed to Christ. The first part of Adventures in Churchland is largely Dan’s personal testimony of how he came to find Jesus in the mess of organized religion.
Part Two of Adventures in Churchland follows up on Dan’s previous work in They Like Jesus But Not The Church as he dives deeper into the issues of the Church being seen as a judgmental, negative, controlling organized religion. He uses some pretty strong words as he employs a technique found in Jesus’ discourses in the gospels. Jesus confronts the religious leaders of the day to adjust their thinking by saying, “You have heard it said…, but I tell you…” Dan adapts this technique by using, “You have heard it said…” to highlight criticisms that outsiders have raised against the Church. He then goes on to offer what Jesus says the Church is/should be like. I understand this technique is useful, Rob Bell has used it and I have even employed it on this blog at times, but it can cause problems as well. The chapters include wonderful words of wisdom from the Bible, but is also mixed with Dan’s opinions and experiences. We must use discernment to make sure we are rightly understanding the words that Jesus says to the Church and the words Dan has to offer. Both are helpful and edifying, and I do believe the Spirit of God speaks through people like Dan, but nevertheless, we must be discerning and search the Scriptures allowing the Spirit to guide us into all truth as we listen to Dan’s advice. After all, that’s what Dan would encourage us to do.
My biggest criticism of Dan’s work is his lack of talk about the role of the Holy Spirit in discerning these truths. Dan talks about his experiences and his learning about the Church and Jesus through the Biblical text and relationship with others, but I imagine the Holy Spirit has played a bigger part in leading Dan in this adventure than he mentions. Dan is a great example of being a cooperative friend of Jesus, living a life of creative goodness in the power of the Holy Spirit for the sake of others, and perhaps Dan just assumes we know the Holy Spirit is active in his process. But, I would prefer to hear a little more about how Dan experiences the leading of the Holy Spirit in his adventures. Perhaps it’s just my charismatic leanings that fuel this yearning for more.
Part Three picks up on Dan’s personal testimony and encourages the reader to venture out of Churchland and into Graceland, not the Elvis Presley Mansion in Memphis, but the place that is “all about including people to experience God’s grace without having to be a part of a nonbiblical manmade subculture. It’s about being in a constant state of grace and appreciation, which results in our living in our culture, not creating a subculture, so we can share this incredible grace with others.” Dan explains his understanding of what the church is and invites us to “be” the church instead of “go” to church. Dan reminds us that messy people make a messy church – it’s unavoidable. And God knows, I’ve contributed my part to the mess!
When Dan and I were co-leaders in a young adult ministry, I was one who was pressuring him to conform the the Christian subculture of preference for morning persons. We were encouraged to do “morning devotions” and “seek God early”, etc. We are both night owls and had many stimulating late night conversations with our young adult group at coffee shops until the wee hours, but for no other reason than “this is what good Christian leaders do,” we agreed to meet early once a week to pray and discuss plans for the young adult ministry. He was frequently late. I tried “exhorting” him using Psalm 5:3: O Lord, in the morning will I direct my prayer. But, he graciously retorted with Psalm 4:8: In peace will I lie down and sleep! I have since learned that one does not have to be an early bird to follow Jesus.
While I have been tempted to conform to the nonbiblical, manmade, Christian subculture over the years, Dan has continually encouraged me to seek to be conformed to Christ. Dan’s quirky way of seeing things and witty way of explaining things invites us to see Jesus in the midst of the messes we make for ourselves as we seek to be the Church Jesus wants us to be. Adventures in Churchland is a fun and engaging read, while challenging us to not give up on the Church or Jesus when we experience wrongs committed in Jesus’ name. After all, Dan reminds us, “for all the wrongs committed in Jesus’ name, there are many more acts of kindness, mercy, grace, and forgiveness that beautifully represent the name and message of Jesus. Often it’s hard to see the beauty when the mess is what is highlighted and gets attention. But it is all around us, if you look for it.” I’m joining Dan in looking for the beauty of God’s creative goodness expressed through the Church as we seek to be cooperative friends of Jesus living lives of creative goodness in community for the sake of others.
In most of my book reviews, I refer to the author by last-name, but not this time. Dan Kimball is one of my oldest friends – I mean, friend I’ve known for a long time – Dan will never get old! While Dan is a true nonconformist where the patterns of the world are concerned, I have seen him change over the years as he’s faithfully followed Jesus. He has chosen to align his life with Christ and has helped me to see Jesus more clearly through his friendship and witness to the inbreaking Kingdom of God. It’s true that we’ve sometimes made a mess of things as we seek to be the Church, but it’s also true that Jesus dwells in the midst of our messiness and invites us to participate in this great adventure in the land of grace where we can experience God’s kingdom here and now as it is in heaven. I encourage you to read Adventures in Churchland and give it to your friends who may be tempted to criticize or avoid Church because of their negative experiences with Churchland. Perhaps they too will find the grace Jesus offers as both Dan and I have.