The Church of Us vs. Them

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 18 Oct 2019

Member Reviews

The Church of Us vs. Them: Freedom from a Faith That Feeds on Making Enemies by David E. Fitch explores the way Christians are just as caught up in a culture of animosity and enemy-making as the world at large. It takes a look at the “us vs. them” mentality that has infested the evangelical community and created dividing lines on a variety of issues. Fitch asks, “How have we failed to be a people of reconciliation and renewal in the face of such tumult?” He outlines the “enemy-making patterns in church history” and attempts to offer a way forward in understanding and compassion to heal the church and set an example for the rest of the world.

I was really excited when I was pre-approved for this title on NetGalley. The premise of this book is one I can get behind 100%. In my own denomination, this “us vs. them” mentality is ever-present on a whole host of issues, most prominently for LGBT+ rights and the role of women in leadership, and so I was hoping this book would offer some concrete examples for effective reconciliation for evangelical churches who find themselves so divided. 

Unfortunately, this book missed the mark for me. While I’d say the overall content is good, with a positive, hopeful, and necessary message for our times, the execution of said content was poor. I’ve never read anything by this author before, and was unfamiliar with his name or anything about him. Right off the bat, he writes as if every reader is familiar with him and often refers to his church and work without the necessary context for readers who picked up this book based solely on the topic. While he writes with authority, I’m unsure of his credentials to write on this topic, other than the fact that he’s the pastor of what I assume is a very successful ministry based on the way he refers to it. 

A much bigger issue than the one listed above is that the book is not well written. It’s extremely redundant, with the author offering up a solid idea in one paragraph, and then rephrasing the exact same thing in slightly different ways for several more paragraphs. The book could have been a third of the length and much more engrossing had this wholly unnecessary redundancy been stripped away. 

I also felt that the core message of each chapter was lost in a cloud of catchphrases that the author seemed quite taken with. References to the “enemy-making machine,” “living beyond enemies,” “the space between us vs. them,” “the space beyond enemies,” and the word “indeed” were used ad nauseam. By the end of the first chapter, they’d lost all meaning because they’d been repeated so many times (often at least once in every single paragraph). I’m sure this heavy use of redundancy in message and phrasing was meant as emphasis, but when you repeat the same phrase at the end of every single paragraph, it’s no longer emphasis. It’s just irritating. 

I also get uneasy whenever an author, especially a pastor, uses real people – often members of his congregation – to say, “here’s an example of people who got it wrong and if only they’d done as I said, things would have been wonderful, but instead they weren’t.” This author is certainly not the first to employ such a strategy and he won’t be the last, but I personally think it’s irresponsible writing and church leadership to reduce real people to self-serving anecdotes. If you failed in bringing these people to your way of thinking, then you can’t know how it would have turned out had you “succeeded” because you didn’t. So why shame them in a book just because they didn’t listen to you?

Overall, I really wanted to like this book, but it’s so boring (because of the redundancy) and way too long for the execution of the core message. Plus, the book doesn’t offer any practical advice. Despite the plethora of examples and personal anecdotes, there wasn’t any sort of concrete application at any point. Tensions are high and there’s a lot of division in Christianity, but the only solution offered by the author is to come together and really listen to each other without judgment. Which is a great idea but one certainly doesn’t need a whole book to say that. In the end, I’d be more interested in a book that goes that extra step and discusses what to do after everyone has come together to listen. This book is about the need for that, but where’s the book about what to do after everyone’s sat down together at the table? What does active listening looks like? What does respect for your fellow people at the table look like, even if you can’t agree with their opinions? What does moving forward together look like even if agreement isn’t reached? This book isn’t that, but I’ll definitely be on the lookout for one that takes the discussion there.
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I found the book to be a challenging read. On one level it was challenging to the reader to stay engaged. There appear to be several times when the same paragraph is written in almost the identical words. This kept me going back to make sure I hadn't skipped a section or just missed my previous spot for picking up the text. 

On a deeper level it was challenging to the status quo for those of us in leadership among evangelical groups. I'm still not sure what the difference is between the presence of Jesus identifying enemies and his assertion that the church shouldn't create enemies. It seems that a division exists either way. I understand the idea of working towards reconciliation and forgiveness and making sure we are not creating enemies, but in places the author seems to state that the church should surrender rather than contend for the faith once delivered for all.  

In the end, I'm left being unsure of what exactly the author intends for the church moving forward. Perhaps it was not the intent of the book but there seems to be little in the concrete application of this way of thinking in the live of a real church. Whether the banner is created by the church or those not in the church, the church has always been a dividing line in history. I appreciate the leaning into the idea that the church should always be moving toward the world in the sense of inviting them into the presence of Jesus and the forgiveness offered by Him on the cross. 

Even with those challenges, i would recommend this book to all serious students of God's movement in the world through His church. Even if you disagree, looking at the church through a different pair of glasses is always helpful.
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David Fitch has become one of my favorite authors. He has written everything from church manifestos to tender portraits of community, and this book is a bit of both. The church needs this right now. We need to hear that we're falling victim to the same pitfalls as people outside the church, sometimes even more so. We need to know that, in the name of God, we are declaring enemies and establishing ourselves as right by establishing others as deeply wrong. We need to hear this because the church truly is the fullness of Christ, and to be anything less is certainly to be something less than full. 

If you're looking for a liberal pointing out conservative wrongs or vice-versa, you won't find that here. The message is truly a challenge toward embrace. Fitch is not shy about pointing to the downfalls of labels on both sides, the glee we take in the shaming of churches unlike us. He tirelessly advocates a table where we listen to one another. For those familiar with his work, you will recognize this as foundational as of late. For both new readers and fans, you will find it difficult to deny the critical call for the simplicity of a listening community.

I hope the church can find a way to become more like the picture Fitch paints. It's a healthier body, a body that appreciates its own difference. It could be a salve on the wounds of our nation. The work it requires is worthwhile.
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“CHURCH OF US VS THEM” REVIEW
The Church seems to be just as divided as a place as the rest of the world – what can we do to reclaim unity? How do we make space for God?

David Fitch, professor at Northern Seminary, says that the Church is in trouble. The Church acts as if it is still the dominant cultural force in the world, despite the fact that we live in a mostly post-Christendom society. We’ve ignored the warning signs for too long: the church has lost its christendom influence, we are too entrenched in our habits and languages to go beyond our structures, and we share in the world’s tendency to make enemies of any sort of out-group. For the most part, Christians have believed that we have two choices: dig our feet in and become defensive, or we can accommodate those changes.


Fitch says that there is a better way: making space for the presence of the Spirit of God to work in our groups. But first, we have to introspectively look at our churches and ask how we participate in the same tendencies. Which theological or sacramental institutions in the church have we made a weapon against others, to stigmatize and make them “Other” from us? Fitch helpfully looks at some uses of the Bible or the way we speak of conversion to illustrate how we’ve turned good things into idols as well.

When we speak of the Bible and conversion, Fitch wants us to be sure that we can think properly about our use of them. He talks about “banners” that groups form under and around, and how the Bible can be a banner that isn’t helpful. He guides us in questioning whether that banner is a positive one or a gate-keeping one, challenging our in-groups to be wider and more inclusive, if we can.


“‘Beyond’ speaks to the way this place is not a middle space or a place of compromise between two positions. Rather, this space is from God, opened by the presence of Christ, and always working for something new that could not have been anticipated.”


This is one of the major strengths of the book. The whole book features great illustrations and stories that help bolster Fitch’s points. Where we might have blinders on to see what he is saying, he gives us stories that give us insight, casting our blinders off and letting us take better, more nuanced, views of ourselves and how we interact with others. And, really, the book is well-written and engaging. There’s a lot of material to cover, but thankfully, the book’s prose is easily followed and becomes hard to put down at times.

Thankfully, Fitch works us toward an answer. We are shaped by the presence of God, and we are formed by what he calls the “Grand Drama of God”. These both invite us to interact with people on different terms and engage with them in the presence of God rather than the strength of our antagonisms. Telling the Drama of God, in the presence of the Spirit, helps us to invite people into that drama rather than exclude them from the church. By telling the story of God, we can also center our thoughts, liturgies, and doctrines around central concepts rather than staking claims in hills we shouldn’t be dying on.

All in all, Fitch’s book is helpful, engaging, clearly-written, and deserves the engagement I’m sure it’ll get.

(I got a copy on NetGalley, and I was not asked to provide a good review, just an honest one.)
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