Review: The Monkey and the Fish: Liquid Leadership for a Third-Culture Church

Dave Gibbons, The Monkey and the Fish: Liquid Leadership for a Third-Culture Church,  Zondervan, 2009 purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US

I know, it’s such a pretentious title and and even more pretentious subtitle! The title is taken from a story of a monkey who sees a fish struggling upstream so decides to liberate it from the stream onto the bank. This, suggests Gibbons, is an apt metaphor for a church doing the wrong things with good intentions. The preface over, that’s the last we hear of the monkey and the fish. We do get a lot about third-culture church. The term comes from the experiences of immigrant or ex-pat children (including missionary kids): they do not quite belong in their host culture, nor in their parents’ culture. They belong to a third-culture, but are therefore able to operate effectively in any culture.  The third-culture church is set up by Gibbons as an alternative to homogenous church. Gibbons does not appear to be ‘against’ seeker-oriented churches or the homogenous unit principle (though he finds a contrasting model in the parable of the good Samaritan – the neighbour whom I’m to love is not someone like me, but someone from a different culture). Rather he calls us to recognise that many urban dwellers are themselves to some extent third-culture people – second generation immigrants (like Gibbons himself) or simply used to operating in a multi-cultural context (globalism).

This observation is interesting enough, but not quite enough to sustain a book. The ‘liquid’ bit of the subtitle means we have to adapt to our context and not impose solutions from elsewhere. Quoting Bruce Lee (sic), Gibbons says: ‘You put water into a cup, it becomes a cup. You put water into the bottle, it becomes the bottle. You put it into a teapot and it becomes a teapot …’ (92-93) Gibbons comments, ‘Our water – our message – remains what it always has been: the love of Jesus. Our forms, our containers, can change. Must change. Furthermore, our conflicts shouldn’t be about forms. It’s a waste of energy … Being third culture is about being water to a world that is deeply thirsty when it comes to spirituality and meaning, and is in need of adaptive and contextualized language and forms when talking about God and Christianity.’ (93)

Again, I agree, but it’s hardly a startling insight and nor is it enough to justify a whole book. The Monkey and the Fish contains a number of helpful ideas. But I’m not really sure what it’s about. I can’t readily summarise it’s message – other than that some churches (whether it should be all churches is not clear) should be third-culture churches (whatever that might mean in practice). As I say, there are some really helpful ideas and some points of genuine challenge, but no coherent line of argument.

I suspect what is going on is that Gibbons is a natural leader. He founded a large church on a seeker sensitive model. Then ten years in he had some sort of crisis, spent a year in Thailand and came back to reform the church as ‘Newsong’ – a ‘third-culture church’ structured around groups of 30-100 people. I suspect Gibbons is the sort of leader who does what he does through a high degree of intuition, but who does not – and perhaps does not need to – work things out in a theoretical way. (There are one or two points at which Gibbons insightfully contrasts Western and Eastern approaches and it may be that I want to be unnecessarily Western in my approach, but these sections are not worked through beyond a brief or vague statement so I can’t be sure!)

But, enough of my frustrations with the book, tomorrow I’ll post some highlights and quotes.

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3 thoughts on “Review: The Monkey and the Fish: Liquid Leadership for a Third-Culture Church

  1. Hi,

    Lots of folks in the States LOVE this book, his influence in certain segments his growing and his continued presence at Catalyst is testimony to that. Your comment that there was a lack of a theoretical framework takes me back to an interview I heard on the BBC a few years ago about a french businessmen said that he could see how a business practice would work in reality but not in theory.

    I have not read the book, but maybe it is helping people in a nuanced way to shift their paradigm of fleshing out the gospel in their unique situation.


  2. Tim–

    You are exactly right–the book says several things which seem so obvious to many people who live outside of America that you wonder why anyone would write a whole book about it. But these are not that obvious to large segments of the evangelical world in the U.S.

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