Putting Flesh on the Bones

Michael Metzger

Publishers often ask writers to put flesh on the bones—to detail just how the writer will tackle the subject. Here’s how American churches can put flesh on the bones.

Last week, I suggested dead churches have good bones. Put flesh on ‘em and renewal can happen. Same with evangelical churches, even though many lack good bones. They can grow ‘em. Put flesh on ‘em and renewal can happen. In the Babylonian exile, prophets like Jeremiah and Daniel detailed how this can happen. For starters, American churches must…

Recognize reality (Jeremiah 29:1-10)

In Babylon, a select few (the sons of Judah) recognized Judah’s folly, her idolatries. American Christianity has long idolized the Enlightenment. And “for more than two centuries it has provided the framework in which the Western churches have understood their missionary task. To continue to think in the familiar terms is now folly.”[1]

Putting flesh on bones = start with a select few who recognize our folly. This could be a skunk works, a small cadre of daughters and sons of Judah who recognize reality: exile.

Return to the circle of love (Jeremiah 29:4-6)

God told the Judeans to marry, raise families, work. He was returning them to creation, to the circle of love, to the institutions of marriage, family, work. God was returning them to very image that C. S. Lewis said the western world discarded with the Enlightenment.

Putting flesh on bones = unlearning our Enlightenment images for the gospel. For churches with good bones, this means returning to the ancient image. For churches with no bones, it’s introducing them to the ancient image that made churches game-changers for centuries.

Redefine success (Jeremiah 29:7)

For centuries, the Judeans measured success by attendance, temple, tithes. For 200 years, American churches have measured success by what Dallas Willard called “the ABCs”—attendance, building, cash. But these have no necessary connection to flourishing.

Putting flesh on bones = measuring success by the degree to which local institutions, many of them led by Babylonians, take the gospel seriously and act on it. They flourish, we flourish.

Recalibrate expectations (Jeremiah 29:10)

God told the Judeans they’d be in exile in Babylon for 70 years. Social scientists say it often takes two generations (70 years) for a society to make a paradigm shift.

This is a toughie. Charles Taylor says American Christianity entered exile in 2000.[2] If the Babylonian exile is our precedent, we’ll be in exile for another 50 years. Putting flesh on bones = resourcing Christians—modern-day daughters and sons of Judah—for the next 50 years.

A long time. But long-range planning is not our strong suit. One of our “stubborn tendencies” is immediatism, the idea that we can solve big problems in a few years.[3] History says No. The scope of renewal we’re talking about requires cultural capital, which takes decades to earn, and infrastructure, which takes decades to build. Perhaps five decades.

Want a contemporary example? Look no further than China. In 2013, President Xi Jinping announced China’s new Silk Road, a 36-year project of building infrastructure to reopen channels between China and its neighbors in the west. It’ll cost trillions.

Rebuild cultural capital (Daniel 1:4)

The sons of Judah had cultural capital, having served in King Jeconiah’s court in Jerusalem. American Christianity lacks cultural capital. It operates outside the arenas in which the greatest influence in cultures is exerted. Putting flesh on bones = rebuilding cultural capital.

This too is a toughie. American Christianity has relational capital, but it assumes this automatically translates into cultural capital. It doesn’t. We can be popular inside our tribe; invisible outside of it. Douglas Murray, a former Christian, recognizes this reality.

In his book, The Strange Death of Europe, Murray recounts the decline of Christianity in the West. He doesn’t hold much hope for the faith, for where it “still exists it is either wholly uninformed—as in evangelical communities—or it is wounded and weak.”[4]

He’s partly right. Pre-Enlightenment churches have good bones but are weak. Evangelical churches have no bones and tend to be uninformed. But Murray’s wrong about hope. If Judah followed the steps Jeremiah and Daniel detailed, God gave the nation hope. “For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” (Jeremiah 29:11).

This was God’s plan for Judah. I daresay this is God’s plan for American Christianity. It’s real hope, built on recognizing reality. If your church recognizes exile and seeks to put flesh on the bones, contact us. Clapham Institute stands ready to serve you.


[1] Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission (Eerdmans, 1978), 5.

[2] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007).

[3] Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (Yale University Press, 1989).

[4] Douglas Murray, The Strange Death of Europe (Bloomsbury Continuum, 2017), 212.


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One Comment

  1. Indeed, we must be committed for the long haul to rebuilding a gospel-infused culture. However, as King Hezekiah and Nehemiah the Governor experienced, if God is in it, we should be ready for Him to surprise us – and those who oppose us – with how quickly He brings restoration about (2 Chronicles 29:36; Nehemiah 6:15-16).

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