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Decoding The Church



By Thomas Scarborough.

Howard Snyder and Daniel Runyon, in their book Decoding the Church, state that “the question underlying this whole book is, What makes the church a healthy organism?” However, underlying this question would appear to be a far larger one.

The authors refer many times to “mission”. Mission, they write, relates to “the reign of God that is in some way the reconstitution of the whole creation through God’s work in Jesus Christ.” That is, the scope of mission is all-encompassing. They further write, “How does everything hold together?” How does everything “cohere”? Perhaps (in my own words) they are asking: “What is it that holds together a holistic understanding of Church? How does the Church relate to EVERYTHING?”

This is an important question in a world where many Churches are considered to have lost “the big picture” – in particular by divorcing the personal and the social dimensions of the gospel.

Snyder and Runyon begin by highlighting how “classic theology” has tended to be one-sided. It has tended to speak of “one holy catholic and apostolic church”, whereas the Church in reality is “DIVERSE as well as ONE, CHARISMATIC as well as HOLY, LOCAL as well as CATHOLIC or UNIVERSAL, PROPHETIC as well as APOSTOLIC.” That is, the Church needs to return to holism.


Our point of departure as a Church, suggest Snyder and Runyon, is the poor: “Here is the true church! The gospel for the poor is the test that shows whether the church is apostolic.” This is “a key test” of the church’s apostolicity. In fact, “God’s special concern for the poor […] is grounded in the Trinity”.

Without many preliminaries, the authors plunge in at the deep end with a quotation from Luke 4:16-21, focusing on the crucial words of Jesus: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor” (NIV). Regrettably, however, they do not explain why this, and not the remainder of the passage, should be a key test of the Church’s apostolicity – nor why this should take precedence over other Scriptures, e.g. Mark 1:14-15. Nor do they explain whether they would interpret the entire passage literally, or why – which is remarkable at a time when the question of literalism is a frequent talking point.

Snyder and Runyon state that “the goal of history is final harmony and reconciliation, justice and moral symmetry – the ultimate triumph of truth, love, and justice.” I shall speculate for a moment. In terms of Snyder’s and Runyon’s thinking, if this is the goal of history, might it not make sense to start at the bottom, with the poor – not at the top? If we want a “theology of everything” (my own term), would this not be our incarnational emphasis? However, I was not able to discern from the book how a “special” concern for the poor should intersect with the authors’ theology of “coherence”.

I had an interesting diversion while writing this review. I visited Howard Snyder’s home Church on the Internet – Wilmore Free Methodist Church. The Church has thirty ministries in all, which cover 25 pages (or computer screens). I did a search on “poor”. All thirty ministries returned: “Not found”. I further did a search on “poverty”. Again, every ministry returned: “Not found.” On the positive side, I found one reference to the poor at the bottom of a page on Snyder’s personal website (I did not view his sermons and articles on the same website).


Snyder and Runyon introduce a theme that was central to the beginnings of my own “denomination” (the Congregational Church) in the late 16th Century. They state that the Church is “a complex organism”, not a structure. In particular, it is not “a building, a hierarchy, an institution, or even a political force”. They state that “most nonbiblical models of the church are REDUCTIONISTIC in some harmful way,” and that this will hamper a Church “from being and doing what God intends”.

The Church, therefore, needs to be viewed as “a totality of complex factors, not a linear cause-and-effect system”. This, they write, has several benefits over a reductionistic view of the Church – as follows:

It acknowledges the uniqueness of the local situation; it illuminates the long-range significance of small actions; it underscores the vital role of interrelationships and structure in the Church; it teaches us that size is always a function of other factors; it underscores the uniqueness of each Church’s “DNA” or “genetic endowment”; and it suggests that structures emerge from a Church’s inner vitality.

However, having said this, how would any of these points differ significantly from what Snyder and Runyon term a “linear cause-and-effect system”? They certainly represent a more complex, differentiated, nuanced system – yet are they anything more than linear or “horizontal”? There is little in the book to suggest this. It is “complexity theory” that helps us see why reductionistic approaches are wrong. It is “complexity theory” that illuminates the long-range significance of small actions. But thankfully, “complex systems appear to be self-organizing”. The pastor can have faith in complex systems!

To be fair, Snyder and Runyon do state that the Church may “allow the Holy Spirit to work through all the diverse complexity”. However, the emphasis is all the other way. There seems little concept of a sovereign God who sustains and grows His Church in every aspect.

This may be the problem of what has sometimes been termed (in theology) the excluded middle. In philosophy, this “excludes middle cases” between logical alternatives. The authors speak comfortably of “repentance and faith”. They are in their element with ecology and the cosmos. Yet they clearly have difficulty applying the power of God to the visible Church. Their machine has lost its ghost.


I wish I were able to resort to a simple quote. Snyder and Runyon state that we need to “peel back the layers of culture so that we can see the church’s mission the way God intends”. That is, the Church’s mission is concealed beneath layers of culture.

The authors write that to understand the Church and its mission, the concepts of “hierarchy, psychology, and ecology” need to be critiqued. Without going into detail, they consider that as principles “of cosmic coherence”, hierarchy and psychology have promise, yet ultimately fail. Therefore, “What about ecology?” Ecology is “the metaphor for the cosmos”. It “concerns everything on earth”. In fact an “expanded notion of ecology” includes “mind and matter, spirit and body”, which is “the deeper meaning of ecology”. “Everything is significant because it connects with everything else”. “Ecology can help the church perceive the breadth and interconnectedness of its mission”.

Snyder and Runyon state that the Bible “gives us a deeper understanding of ecology, which we may call coherence in Christ”. We need to “grasp the implications of New Testament teachings on who Jesus Christ is – not only to the church, but to the world and the whole creation”.

“God’s plan is not to redeem man and woman OUT of their environment, but WITH their environment”. Therefore “the gospel […] promises a new world order of global peace, health, and prosperity – an order whose power and endurance saturate space and time yet stretch beyond them”. What would this mean in more detail? Here the plot unravels. The authors write that this is “in some way” the reconstitution of the whole creation through God’s work in Jesus Christ. Too many questions remain to consider raising them here.


I have not been able to do justice here to every aspect of the book. I have not so much as touched on Snyder’s and Runyon’s reflections on mega-churches, globalisation, or public discipleship, to name just a few of the other themes of the book.

If, however, we assume that the purpose of the book is to establish a “theology of everything”, I cannot say with confidence that the authors achieved what they set out to do. The book raises too many questions, and leaves too many blanks. Nor do I feel – particularly in view of the “excluded middle” mentioned above – that they convincingly establish what makes the Church a healthy organism – although they do go a good way to answering this question.

All in all, the book expands one’s thinking on the relevance of the gospel to “the world and the whole creation”, and represents an ambitious attempt to tackle issues of great import. From this point of view and others, it is a thought-provoking read.


Snyder, Howard A., with Runyon, Daniel V. Decoding The Church. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2002.

Blackburn, Simon. Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 1996.


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