The Provocative Church

Our world is changing rapidly, shaped by globalization, relativism, and shifting identities. Does the gospel have a voice? Can hurting people find the trust, hope, and love they seek? Graham Tomlin explores these questions in a deeply moving course that is inspired by history and grounded by the scriptures.


01. Postmodernity

In this first lecture, Graham Tomlin introduces the question of how the church can connect with people in a postmodern context.  He begins by discussing why Christianity takes culture seriously and how we have been shaped by it.  Graham describes the modern era and its values and compares them to the postmodern era and values.  He explores where Christianity and postmodernity conflict as well as what Christianity can learn from postmodernity.  He finishes by questioning postmodernism’s ability to enable human flourishing.  Finally he asks: can Christianity can deliver where postmodernism fails?

Tags: Ecclesiology, postmodernism

02. Q&A: Postmodernity

Graham Tomlin takes question concerning his first session.  He clarifies what postmodernism is and how it overlaps with modernism.  He discusses the effects of postmodernity at universities and how Christianity can flourish as a metanarrative even though postmodernity rejects metanarratives.

Tags: postmodernism


03. Identity

In a historical and sociological sketch, Graham Tomlin explores how people see themselves in postmodern culture and how that differs from modern culture. The modern identity is characterized by self-reliance, rationality, control, confidence, morality and progress often resulting in imperialism, enslavement and destruction.  In reaction to this, the confidence of the modern self has been replaced by the uncertainty of the postmodern self.  In postmodernity, identity is based on image and consumerism, resulting in anxiety, isolation, lack of commitment and yearning for intimacy.  The successful church must restore a strong sense of identity, security and intimacy.

Tags: Anthropology, sociology, worldview


04. Q&A: Identity

In this interactive session, Graham Tomlin takes questions concerning the formation of Christian identity in the church and the urgent need for discipleship.  He addresses some very important questions such as: by creating postmodern churches, are we simply creating another Western form of church that will be irrelevant to other cultures?  Should churches meets people’s needs as a hook for the gospel?  If we seek to create postmodern churches, how will the church stay pure?  Should the communion table be open or closed? 

Tags: visible-invisible church, sanctification, ecclesiology, church discipline, contextualization, syncretism


05. Power

 In this session, Graham Tomlin explores the relationship between truth and power in postmodernity, as understood by Michel Foucault.  In Foucault’s view, power produces truth, and every relationship involves dimensions of power that are usually unseen.  The view has resulted in an inherent distrust of authority, institutions and hierarchies. Yet Foucault can be a benefit to Christians, since we are often unaware of how power operates in church. The church can be of benefit to postmodernity, though, because postmodernity cannot teach us faith, hope and love.   The Christian conception of power as surrender can do just that.

Tags: kenosis, authority, ecclesiology


06. Q&A: Power

In this brief interactive session, Graham Tomlin discusses what Foucault has to say about love.  He also addresses if Foucault’s critique of power removes authority from the church, as well as how power should operate in church leadership.

Tags: Foucault, power, authority, Christian leadership, church offices


07. Evangelism

In this session, Graham Tomlin addresses the current state of decline of many churches. Often the reason people don’t believe in Christianity is not for lack of information.  Instead, they simply don’t want to believe. So the question for the church is: how do we make people wish Christianity were true?  1 Peter 3:15 teaches that evangelism works best when it is the answer to a question.  As such the priority of the church should be living under the lordship of Christ, such that our lives provoke the questions of an unbelieving world.  And so the key to effective evangelism is effective discipleship.

Tags: demographics, evangelism theology, sanctification, contextualization


08. Q&A: Evangelism

In this session, Graham Tomlin interacts with the participants on how to implement effective discipleship in their churches.  Topics are discussed such as how to help your congregation be silent before the Lord, and how to evangelize people who consider themselves Christian and yet live otherwise.  Also considered is how to have diverse churches that celebrate femininity, especially single women.  Finally, Graham addresses how to grow in intentional acts of kindness and developing a distinctly Christian lifestyle.

Tags: spiritual disciplines, visible-invisible Church


09. Metanarrative

In this session, Graham Tomlin begins to unpack what it means to form Christian identity around the metanarrative of scripture.  This session focuses on the story of the Old Testament.  God creates the world in a delicate balance of diverse relationships, but those relationships are broken in the fall. Humanity, which was created to rule the earth on God’s behalf, has been severed from God, themselves, creation, and language. And yet throughout the Old Testament, God is determined to find someone to rule on his behalf, from Abraham, to Israel, to the kingship.  Who can wield this power?

Tags: Old Testament biblical theology, anthropology, redemptive history


10. Jesus & the Kingdom

Continuing with the previous session, Graham Tomlin explores Jesus’ life through the lens of kingship. Jesus is established as the world’s true king - the one to whom God can entrust with power - through his death, resurrection and ascension.  The kingdom he establishes is unlike any other that the world has seen, marked by humility, weakness and love. To be a member of this kingdom means living under Jesus’ rule, and learning a whole new way of life. The church’s job is to be a place where people can glimpse what it’s like to live in this kingdom.

Tags: New Testament biblical theology, Christology, ecclesiology, redemptive history


11. Q&A: Kingdom

In this session, Graham Tomlin takes questions on how kingdom life works in the church.  He addresses issues of homosexuality, syncretism, and pluralism.  He clarifies the distinction between the church and the kingdom, as well as the church’s relationship to government.  Finally he fields questions on doing good works without words and the difficulty of communicating biblical language to contemporary culture.

Tags: contextualization, church and the world


12. Restoring Relationships

Building on the previous day’s themes, Graham Tomlin imagines what a church would look like that truly resembled the kingdom of God.  He considers Calvin’s idea that church is the place where the order of creation is restored in all our relationships.  It should be a place where our relationship to God is restored through worship of the whole person.  Our churches should be places where the marginalized are intentionally included, where creation is restored through acts of compassion, where people can learn to overcome their addictions to sin, and where they can learn to put their faith into words.

Tags: ecclesiology, reconciliation, sanctification, eschatological communities


13. Q&A: Discipleship

In this brief interactive session, Graham Tomlin fields questions concerning the advantages of group discipleship over one-on-one discipleship, as well as how to integrate people from different ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds into a single church.

Tags: discipleship strategies, diversity


13. Group Work

In this interactive group exercise, Graham Tomlin asks the participants to consider how their communities would be different if God has his way.  What idols would be exposed, and how can their churches begin to address the needs of their communities?  The participants offer a wide range on their community’s needs, their idols and how the church can address them.

Tags: community transformation, discipleship, group exercise


14. Restoring Identity

In this session, Graham Tomlin unpacks what it means to have the image of God restored in our lives by surveying early church christological controversies.  We often associate being like God with Greek notions of superhuman power, but the incarnation gives us a very different picture from that.  Since Jesus is fully God and fully human, becoming more like God means becoming more human. Christian identity is a story of human wretchedness and grandeur.  Church should be the place where people can learn to be like God, and in doing so find true happiness and fulfillment. 

Tags: church history, christology, incarnation, Imago Dei, depravity


15. Q&A: Human Nature

In this interactive session, Graham Tomlin answers questions about how becoming more human is to become more like God when our human nature is so sinful.  He also discusses the beauty of the Christian story in comparison to other competing stories, and how Jesus’ divine nature is revealed in the cross.

Tags: incarnation, Christology, Imago Dei


16. Restoring Leadership

In this session, Graham Tomlin considers how leaders should exercise power in the church.  Though they are often critical of the way the Catholic clergy hold so much power, Evangelical churches do not appear any different.  Graham contrasts the way churches and missionaries tend to consolidate power in the hands of the clergy with the way Paul distributed power in churches.  Paul’s methods appear to be minimalist and corporate, in which he put great trust into the hands of the congregation.  The New Testament’s vision on how to use power in the church is through surrendering it, not accumulating it.

Tags: Ecclesiology, church offices, missiology


17. Tools

In this session, Graham Tomlin explains how this class not a simple to-do list.  Because situations differ in every context, there is no one way to implement kingdom-oriented change.  But we can find guidance in history.  The current trend in the Western church appears to be decline and massive change, similar to the time of the Reformation.  Graham believes the Reformers’ missionary strategies in the midst of great change was to build healthy kingdom-oriented churches.  He considers Calvin’s and Bucer’s understanding of church and how they may be of use to us today.

Tags: historical theology, Reformation history, ecclesiology, missiology


18. Q&A: History

In this brief interactive session, Graham Tomlin answers questions concerning the relationship between the Reformation and the Enlightenment as well as humanism and the Reformation.  He also talks about the dangers of trying to do ministry before doing our theology and history.

Tags: epistemology, history, postmodernism


19. Friendship

In this session, Graham Tomlin commends the idea of friendship as a particularly helpful model in understanding our relationship to God, the church and evangelism.  While for many the image of “family” carries negative connotations, friendship is regarded as universally positive.  Remarkably, throughout scripture, Jesus refers to us as his friends.  Just as friendship is God’s relationship to us, so it should be in the church.  The church should be a place where people find deep and meaningful friendship.  Graham closes by considering friendship as a great model for evangelism because acceptance is transformative.  

Tags: ecclesiology, missiology


20. Conversion

In this session, Graham Tomlin explores the meaning of conversion and how it shapes our churches.  Conversion is often thought to be a sudden moment of transformation, but it is helpful to view it as a process over time. Evangelism should not merely involve intellectual assent but instead must focus on bringing whole people under the reign of God.  Our churches often teach people how to behave in church but give no direction on how to live in the world. But if our churches deeply engage in people's lives and help enable transformation, evangelism will naturally occur.

Tags: regeneration, soteriology, sanctification