What kind of joy? Not just an emotion or sentiment, but “the state of flourishing in mind, heart, and life that Christians experience by the Holy Spirit” (23).
Christianity loses influence in society in proportion to the decrease of opportunities and experiences for people outside the church to encounter the joy of God as expressed by His people.
“If Christianity is going to have a distinct impact, it needs to rely on what truly makes it distinct – the work of the Spirit in our minds, hearts, and lives. That’s what makes Christians unique, and it gives us a unique opportunity to bless our unbelieving neighbors through the way we participate in the civilization we share with them” (18-19).
Working from the outline of Isaac Watts’ well-known hymn, Joy for the World deals with the influence of both organizational and organic Christianity. Forster wants to recapture Christianity’s influence, not in a power-hungry sense that seeks to squelch competing views, but an exuberant confidence that Christianity is best for human flourishing.
Where We Were
Forster begins by tracing the history of how we’ve arrived at our current state. He contrasts two visions of America’s founding: the Christian vs. the secular, and he offers a third explanation that takes into account evidence from both sides. He sees religious freedom at the heart of the American experiment, but recognizes that the idea behind this freedom assumes that societies will “need some level of moral agreement, but don’t need – and shouldn’t expect – agreement on all moral questions” (43). As such, freedom of religion is a “delicate balancing act;” it doesn’t enforce religion, but it requires it in order for the experiment to work. “Only people who have a comprehensive moral and metaphysical view of the universe will actually obey the shared public morality society needs” (46).
Where We Are
For the church to bring joy to society, Christians cannot withdraw. We must maintain the balance between mission and exile, taking care not to reduce the church’s mission to the flourishing of civilization, while still recognizing that if our discipleship is not connected to “seeking the blessedness and flourishing of our neighbors, we aren’t practicing discipleship full time and in all areas of life” (79).
What We Do
What does this cultural involvement look like? Forster utilizes the “prophet, priest and king” analogy to illustrate how Christians must tell the world what God says, offer ourselves up as a sacrifice for the good of our neighbors, and exercise stewardship over the creation order (103-4). We need all three aspects (doctrine, devotion, and stewardship) if we are to display the fullness of Christianity and offer our distinctive joy for the world.
The final part of the book focuses on institutions and how churches can equip Christians to navigate complex issues related to sex and the family, work and the economy, citizenship and community.
Joy for the World is a book that deals with so many ideas it’s hard to know where to start in an analysis. Because discipleship encompasses all the spheres of life, Forster’s vision of Christian joy and cultural engagement is holistic – almost to the point that there’s too much here to chew on.
For the most part, I find Forster’s analysis to be insightful and full of wisdom. He does a noble job of balancing realism with optimism, description of evangelical history with prescription for the future, and faithful presence with social activism. I’m uncomfortable with a few of his analogies, such as the prophet, priest, king motif. Or his use of Christ’s incarnation as an analogy for the mystical union between the Spirit-filled body of Christ within a civilization (80). The conclusions are sound, but some of the analogies he employs as mental hooks are distracting rather than helpful.
Overall, though, this is a thought-provoking book that points us in the right direction, and encourages us to adopt the holistic view of discipleship put forth in the Scriptures.
Check out an excerpt from the book here.