Carlton Johnstone’s Embedded Faith – a review

Carlton Johnstone, Embedded Faith: the faith journeys of young adults within church communities (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2013). ISBN: 9871625641236; 213pp.

 A guest review by Geoff New

I have been aware of Carlton Johnstone’s work for some time. The thought of reading his book was akin to the thought of going to the dentist; I probably need to but I’m scared of the pain that will no doubt result. The anticipated pain of reading this book was centred on the anxiety I held about the young adults in my congregation. Why? I’m jealous for the young adults in my congregation because I have pastored them since they were in primary school. The prospect of reading this work was like hearing what your children have been up to from other ‘concerned parents’. Denial was a tantalising option. Nevertheless, I decided I needed a check-up so I read the book. Spoiler alert: insofar as the emotional effect upon me as a pastor, it was exactly as a dental assistant once said to me, ‘Today dentistry is a painless exercise’. Surprisingly!

Allow me to begin with a generalisation. For a busy minister who will be choosy about what they read and for how long, Embedded Faith is not an easy read. It is very academic in style and its main discipline is sociological rather than theological. If you are intending to buy this book, it’s important to know that. Also, this is not a how-to book; it is a what’s-happening-and-why book. As a reader, you will find a helpful map of what lies ahead in the Introduction (pp. xvi–xvii). Orientate yourself with this and then begin reading with your own people in mind.

Allow me to continue with what might appear as a painfully obvious point. Different chapters and sections will resonate and challenge leaders depending on the nature of their context and the length of time they have been in such a place. For me, I was intrigued with the chapters entitled ‘Worship and Modes of Engagement’, and ‘Preaching and Interpretative Communities’. What struck me about the findings articulated in these chapters was that with good authentic relationships with young adults, anxious leaders do not have a lot to be anxious about. Urban myths about what younger generations are after are debunked by the stories, experiences, and aspirations shared in these pages. Yes, there is work to be done but there is less of a them-and-us dynamic going on than is often claimed. This book, to a significant degree, is actually a tribute to the spirituality and conscientiousness of young adults that God has graced the church with.

The book reaches a conclusion where Carlton coins the phrase ‘two-timing’ to describe the spiritual practice of young adults attending two churches. At risk of over-simplifying this conclusion, a main feature is that it takes more than one church for the participants described in this book to enjoy spiritual nourishment. Outrageous? Well, in reading that section my mind went to Revelation 1–3 when the ascended and glorified Christ appeared to the apostle John on the island of Patmos. He then addressed the seven churches of Asia Minor at that time. His opening comment to each of the churches featured one or more aspect of the original description of Christ in Revelation 1.12–16; but no church had the entire vision presented. In other words, it took all seven churches to present the full vision of Christ. Maybe that’s where this research is heading? By the book’s end I was wishing for more application and reflection in terms of ‘what-now?’ It is there, but it is all too brief and general.

In my view, this work calls forth a commitment to a particular kind of open-hearted relationship with young adults. As mentioned earlier, it is not an easy read due to its academic style and referencing; but it is an empowering voice for young adults and encouraging for over-anxious pastors who feel like they are in the dentist chair.

 

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Ed. In the spirit of both full disclosure and sheer delight, Carlton is one of my students. This means, among other things, that I am particularly happy to give his book a wee plug here at PCaL. – JG.