I never believed I would be someone who would enjoy reading books on ecclesiology. Reading about the nature of the church never once appealed to me as a viable good time option. Yet here I am, reading books on the nature of the church, and loving it! The latest addition to my reading was Megan Hill’s “A Place to Belong: Learning to Love the Local Church.” I received a complimentary copy as part of Crossway Publishers Blog Review Program; it as a part of that program that I offer this review.
Hill’s book is refreshingly approachable. Although Hill has clearly done her reading, and has earned her theological chops, A Place to Belong is rooted in a real-world expression of the local church. By that I mean, Hill writes about the church as we experience it, speaking of such things as “peppermints” and church-ladies”, “church dinners”, and “favourite pews.” These references are not simply quaint stories or humours anecdotes, however. For Hill, these references are the church. A congregation made up of individuals who have previously determined their favourite place to sit is not a lesser image of the church… It is the church. In this way, the reader is able to recognise one’s own local congregation as he/she make their way through the chapters.
While Hill writes theologically, her theological vision of the church is not divorced from the messy realities of life. Thus, as Hill points out, the local church “doesn’t always seem gorgeous.” (12) I find this quite a profound realization, and one that can so easily be overlooked. The church is a messy reality. It is that way because we are that way. With fresh honesty, Hill offers a vision of the church which includes the truth that “I have sometimes been hurt by people in the church – ignored and misunderstood and intentionally deceived. I know I have hurt a few people myself” (12). Hill offers no rose-coloured treatment of the church. This will undoubtedly speak to those who have struggled with the church. With Hill they will find a sympathetic voice. It is simply true that ‘belonging to the church doesn’t always seem like much of a glorious privilege” (13). This acknowledgement is refreshing, and should be recognised as an essential part of our ecclesiology.
The messiness, or brokenness, of the church, however, is not the end of the story, for ultimately, as Hill points out, this is the church that Christ loves. Upon this reality hangs Hill’s entire treatment of the church, and it is precisely why we are called to love the local church. The church is not a platonic ideal that exists only in abstractions. Jesus loves the local church, in all its messy expressions. Hill reminds the reader that the New Testament frequently addresses the local church, filled with its conflict, fighting, and imperfections, as “Beloved.” Thus, as God loves the local church, so ought we.
When we approach our conception of the local church from this footing, we are grounded in the biblical vision of the church – and our own call to be a part of it. This speaks loudly within a culture where church attendance has been continually in the decline. The popularity of ‘spiritual but not religious’, and the too-often toted mantra of “I can worship God anywhere’ has helped contribute to the slow ebbing away of the Church’s vibrancy. Yet it is not simply because of its structure that we are called to be a part of the local church. Nor are we to belong to the church simply because it is always pleasant for us. We are called to the church because the gathering of the local community is a gathering God loves. God delights in the local church, and works through it. Thus, our involvement in the local church is an expression of, and a participation in, the delight of the Lord. Hill’s emphasis on God’s love for the church being the basis for our love for the church is a needed reminder for us.
All this being said, there was one element of Hill’s book I did not appreciate. Hill is clear that her vision of the church contains only male leadership. In the fourth chapter Hill tackles the biblical concept of Shepherds, suggesting that the leaders of the local church – elders/pastors/priests – are raised up by God and offer a needed ministry. Despite the potential to drift into clericalism, Hill has some good things to say about this. Yet it seems that Hill almost goes out of her way to attribute such leadership positions to men alone. She writes about the how the service of ordination is a response to the church having been “encouraged to identify men who are gifted for leadership” (65). Similarly, in the final chapter, she highlights church administration being structured around inter-church elders meetings; meetings “where the gathered men discuss common concerns and make decisions that promote the good of the local church” (137). Frankly, this seems ripped out of a manual from the 1940s. There is no recognition that such a framework is simply not how other local churches function.
I found this element of the book disheartening, and ultimately disappointing. Up to this point, Hill diligently sought to present a vision of the local church that was approachable and relevant across any denominational context. Furthermore, as has been mentioned, her vision of the local church is rooted in a deep recognition of the fragility of the human gathering. Yet when approaching church leadership, there was none of this sensitivity. Chapter 4, and her discussion of male elders, is presented in a way that would make one think this is a doctrinal necessity. There seems to be no recognition that other denominations may involve non-male leadership, or employ alternate forms of church governance. More to the point, there seems to be no recognition that several streams of her own denomination (Presbyterian) actively ordains women! Unfortunately, Hill missed a profound opportunity to lend her voice to ecumenical unity. Hill could have put forward an ecclesiological vision that included a shared participation in the one story of Christian ministry, despite different understandings of who gets to be ordained. Instead, however, she turned inward and puts forward a vision of church leadership that is set firmly within a very narrow, and I would argue antiquated, understanding of ordination and leadership.
Did I enjoy reading Hill’s A Place to Belong? That’s hard to say. I enjoyed the reflections that reading the book prompted within me. Yet I can’t get passed her fourth chapter and I find that it, unfortunately, sullies the rest of the work. In the end, I do believe Hill has an important offering for how we understand the local church, and our call to be a part of it. I am sure her book will be one that I reference in my own teaching, preaching, and writing about the church. Unfortunately, because of what I see as a glaring blunder regarding her picture of church leadership, I may be hesitant in recommending this book to others.