Published by IVP on February 16, 2021
Genres: Non-Fiction, Christian Life
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Something is not right. The witness of the church in North America is eroding. Many Christians are alarmed by the decline in church attendance and seek a culprit. Too often, we point the finger away from the church, make culture the enemy, and build walls between us and others. But our antagonism and enemy-making are toxins that further eat away at our witness. Is there a better way? Tara Beth Leach could easily be one of those millennials giving up on the church. Instead, she is a pastor who loves the church and is paradoxically hopeful for its future. In an era where the church has lost much of its credibility, Leach casts a radiant vision for Christians to rediscover a robust, attractive witness. We need to name the toxic soil we've grown in, repent for past wrongs, and lean into a better way to become the church that Jesus proclaimed we would be. Leach casts down idolatrous false images of God to recover a winsome picture of a kingdom of abundance and goodness. We can be sustained by practices that will tune our hearts to God's and form us into the radiant communities God intends for us and those around us.
I have watched the past few years as the prevailing cultural expression of American Christianity—white evangelicalism—has absolutely destroyed its credibility and witness. Looking back, I can tell that the cracks had been there for a long time. That the change wasn’t so much that evangelicalism shifted, but that a lot of things about evangelicalism began to come to light. As I write this article, things are coming to a head within the most prominent evangelical denomination—the Southern Baptist Church. Evidence of abuse, racism, sexism, and using spiritual positions for political power are all coming to light. To the world, the evangelical church is a cesspool. What can we who are part of it do?
Radiant Church is Tara Beth Leach’s attempt at an answer. I say “attempt” not because her answers are unfruitful, but because I am either cynical (or realistic) enough to not be convinced that her advice will be followed. It’s good advice. Strike that, it’s great advice. If evangelicalism is going to get back on track, Leach’s blueprint will lead to success. The problem, I think, is that a good portion of the church doesn’t want to be on track.
But for those who want a new path, one that doesn’t lead to destruction, and whether it comes from separation or reformation, I do not know, Radiant Church has your answers. I particularly appreciate Leach’s use of the term “radiant.” It brings to mind this inward glory that is burst forth from us. It’s not our power, not our techniques, not our PR. It’s the radiating presence of the Holy Spirit that will restore our witness.
Leach presents her thesis in a conversational manner, weaving in stories of her own experiences. The challenge to be a Radiant Church is not theory for her. It’s something she has been working out practically in the congregations she’s served. At the heart of her message is that we mustn’t only think of salvation as future, but salvation as present—we must be bringing in the Kingdom of God on earth now. That has implications for how we live, how we act, and how we treat others. Leach writes about how our relationships, particularly our marriages, can be a strong and positive witness to the world. She writes about the need for social justice, that we must be committed to loving our neighbor as ourselves. None of it is revolutionary, not in the sense that it’s new, but it’s exceedingly revolutionary in terms of how it will change how we gather as a community and what we practice.
I also like that Leach terms this Radiant Church and not “radiant life.” The communal focus is lacking in the Western church, evangelicalism in particular. By putting the locus of radiance in the context of the church community, Leach is clear that radiance isn’t a singular endeavor. It must be worked out with others in community.
In the end, I don’t know that this book will change many minds. That’s not Leach’s fault. Her willingness to be critic inside the house and call her own to account is a needed part of our witness that restores some level of credibility to the larger Christian community. Those who need to hear this may not listen, but others who are listening may get it. They may see that the way the church often is, isn’t the way it should be. Radiant Church leads us into a better way and encourages those who are struggling with their faith, reminding them that they are not alone.