The Briarpatch Gospel

Jonathan Huggins
briarpatch wheeler.jpg
Shayne Wheeler. The Briarpatch Gospel: Fearlessly Following Jesus Into the Thorny Places. Tyndale Momentum, 2013. iii + 257 pp. $14.99.

Shayne Wheeler has written a wonderfully challenging, encouraging, and deeply personal work of pastoral theology. The Briarpatch Gospel challenges believers to follow Jesus into the "thorny," or messy and difficult places of life in order to fully embody the gospel of God's redeeming love. 

The book is a mixture of personal stories from Shayne's life, the ministry at All Souls Fellowship in Decatur, GA, and theological/pastoral reflections on living out a faithful gospel-centered ministry in his context - which is very eclectic, "liberal," and potentially uncomfortable for the average American Christian.

The book contains four sections. The first, "The Problem of the Briarpatch" addresses our fears of following Jesus into difficult situations. But Wheeler tells us, "The briarpatch is where God shows up. It's where we meet Jesus" (p. 18). He also addresses the subject of allowing people to "belong before you believe" (p. 34). That is, their church aims to make room for people to connect with others in their church without necessarily evangelizing them in a programmed way. In their context, at least, this seems to be an effective way of helping people hear and experience the gospel. Wheeler contends for the "way of love" as being central to Christian living and ministry. He writes, "Taking the time to love, truly love, paves the way to the life that is found in God. And that love-life of God flourishes when the thorns are at their thickest, if we have the courage to go into the briarpatch" (p. 57).

The second section is titled "The Briarpatch Within." I think this is a very important part of this book. This is a rich and solid piece of pastoral theology for real personal change. He mentions some key issues, such as sex and money, but especially emphasizes greed. He also discusses the relationship between doubt and faith in a way that should prove helpful for any person struggling with doubt or those helping others work through their doubts.

The third section, "Into the Briarpatch" (which in many ways is the heart of the book) begins by discussing the Bible, its story of hope and redemption, and how the church needs to rediscover God's intentions to renew and heal the world. Wheeler also affirms the trustworthiness of the Bible as a "historically reliable narrative" (p. 133). Later in this section, Wheeler draws upon Isaiah 58 to make some of his key points. To embrace this passage of scripture we don't have to personally solve world hunger. Rather, Wheeler states, "It can be as simple as reaching out to the friendless and broken in our neighborhoods and communities, offering a listening ear and a caring heart. When we break the yoke of loneliness and alienation, God draws near" (p. 150). Then he makes one of his most important exhortations to the reader, "I challenge you to reach beyond the four walls of your home or church and touch the lives of your neighbors, helping to remove their yokes of guilt, loneliness, poverty, or abuse. And see if you don't find yourself nearer to the heart of God" (p. 150). And later, in a line that sums up so much of Wheeler's ministry, he writes, "It has been my experience that when we take the inconvenient path of entering into the life of one who is in need, we find God" (p. 153). 

This third section also addresses suffering more directly. The chapter is movingly and brilliantly communicated. It too should prove very helpful to those encountering suffering and to those who choose to walk with them. There is a "realness" to Wheeler's writing, birthed out of real experience with suffering and helping others. This section is gentle, wise, and sympathetic. 

In a final part of this section, Wheeler addresses homosexuality and the question, "Does God really hate gays?" Without compromising biblical standards of sexuality in heterosexual marriage, Wheeler encourages us to love others even when we disagree. At his church, they broadly address these issues by saying, "'As Christians, none of us has the freedom to live however we want. Man or woman, young or old, gay or straight - we are all under God's authority and called to conform our lives to Christ'" (p. 180). This lays the foundation. Then they do their best to love gay people into the gospel and greater conformity to Jesus. 

The last section, "Transforming the Briarpatch," offers further stories that draw the reader in as well as wonderful insights and encouragements to get out of our Christian subcultures in order to share the message of God's free grace, redemption, and reconciliation. Wheeler also encourages us to "Relax." We don't have to turn compassion into a project. "Just start with what you already have, what the Spirit of Christ has already grown in you" (p. 234). But he also encourages the reader, "Don't sit back and wait. Pray and work now for God's kingdom to come today, in some small way, on earth as it is in heaven" (p. 235).

Along the way the reader will encounter moving stories about a homeless murderer, a foul-mouthed pirate, an alcoholic porn actor, gays and lesbians, and perhaps most movingly, the Wheeler's own heart-wrenching experience with their daughter's leukemia. Wheeler works hard to think out the implications of the gospel of the kingdom for the people in his ministry context. The resulting ministry is clearly not easy, but it is rather beautiful.

Wheeler is aware of, and has probably experienced, potential critics to his ministry. He tries to walk a difficult and fine line, especially in ministering to "gay Christians" - a category that he accepts. He is uncompromising on the biblical teaching against same-sex relationships, but also refuses to treat gay people like special-class sinners. He is probably more open to their presence in church than many conservative churches would be. But his stories of friendship with gay people are very compelling, and become a sort of apologetic for this kind of loving ministry. At one point he writes, "The gospel of God's grace in Jesus Christ must be for everyone. If not, there is no hope for anyone" (p. 216). As "radical" as his ministry may appear, I find nothing contrary to orthodoxy or orthopraxy in Wheeler's work. In fact, it looks a lot like the kind of work Jesus would be doing.

This book is an exceptional example of applied gospel theology and ministry. I think it would be an excellent book for a few different sorts of readers. It can be a refreshing portrait of the power of the gospel for weary pastors. It can be a challenging book for complacent, or perhaps bored, ministers who need to remember their calling. It can also be a great introduction to Christianity for non-Christian skeptics. Finally, this is a great book for Christians who may be struggling with how to love people in difficult circumstances in a way that is faithful to Christ. I was personally encouraged, challenged and refreshed by the book. I believe others will be as well. 

Jonathan Huggins, Ph.D.
Research Associate, Stellenbosch University (South Africa)
Chaplain, Berry College (Rome, GA)