Book Reviews and Comments

Ecclesial Futures: Vol 3, Issue 1, pp125-127 June 2022 https://ecclesialfutures.org  

 

Olsen, Steen, 2020. 

Jacob’s Ladder: Missional Church in the 1970s. 

St. Marys, Australia: SA & RL Olsen. 

isbn-13: 978-06-4899-680-4 

Reviewed by Patrick R. Keifert
President and Director of Research, Church Innovations Institute, Saint Paul, Minnesota USA

“Once upon a time,” there was a Christian community in Adelaide, Australia called Jacob’s Ladder. Unlike most new Christian communities in that time, Jacob’s Ladder was midwifed by very young, inexperienced Christians engaging in a street ministry centered, initially, in a coffee house. The coffee house was at the top of a flight of stairs, hence Jacob’s Ladder.

Somethings about Steen Olsen’s book encouraged me to read Jacob’s Ladder as a fairytale. Reading it as a fairytale allows distance for the teller and those told. I am a friend of Steen’s and needed some distance from the book and the teller. I realize that using the fairytale genre can sound like I think the story is not true. I do not mean that at all. Some fairytales limit the kinds of truth claims to nostalgia or a 1960s Disneyland retelling of a fairytale. Such a fairytale would not meet the interest and purposes needed for using Jacob’s Ladder for purposes of Ecclesial Futures. However, fairytales can allow for multiple layers of meaning, meaningfulness and truth claims, especially through nostalgic realism. Jacob’s Ladder uses nostalgic realism. Much more of the truth to be had from it comes from interpreting it as a fairytale

By way of nostalgic realism, Jacob’s Ladder invites the reader interested in Ecclesial Futures a chance to find a useable future in our past. In particular, Jacob’s Ladder allows a retiring generation to tell its story to younger generations without pretending to just present the facts or that contemporary circumstances are not in important ways different. Quite to the contrary, the nostalgic realism of Jacob’s Ladder allows the present reader an insight into the mythos, the social imagination, and the shards of the metanarrative that made Jacob’s Ladder possible and that led to its demise. I find by this approach that it then provides enduring insights for contemporary work on ecclesial futures. 

Some of the obvious insights. 

The chief actors in this fairytale are young, very young, naïve, inexperienced adults. I remain amazed what the young can accomplish that as an older, experienced person would not even try. These young adults worked the streets, took up conversations with persons who would simply never be attracted to a local church. Rather than initially see themselves as the hosts, they sought to be those hosted by the street folk. They listened with the expectation that God was up to something in these people’s lives. They discerned God’s movement in the relationships they developed. Over time they formed new kinds of households and communities. Some worked and some didn’t. 

They were remarkably naïve about sex, power and money. As someone who has spent years studying and consulting with congregations, I have learned sex, power and money drive much of the life of Christian community. As the early monastic movement learned, it was necessary to take three vows: chastity, poverty and obedience. No matter how we might shape our ecclesial futures, the remarkable spiritual discernment of naivete and wisdom with respect to sex, power and money remains. 

One of the greatest strengths of the narrative of Jacob’s Ladder is the supporting evidence from diverse persons, organizations and periods in the life of this local church community. Not everyone has the same story to tell: 

  1. The narratives do not provide a seamless sense of community development. 
  2. Different perspectives make for clear lines of conflict without reducing the conflict to simple resolutions. 
  3. The enduring failures of established, inherited church and this fledgling ministry to find ways forward remain common. I think of the challenging work of ‘Fresh Expressions’ and the inherited church in the United Kingdom.
  4. The critical place of spiritual practices of prayer, listening, reading and worship.
  5. The power of and the remarkable upspringing of the arts: drama, music, dance, graphic arts etc. I find this evidence especially confirming the insights of the importance of the expression of the aesthetic in our lives as central to forming local churches.
  6. Perhaps because this is a “Lutheran” local church, the place of Scripture and theology stands out. Be that as it may, communities require a shared narrative and Christian community grows well out of a biblical narrative. Further, some reflective moments are necessary if a community is to learn anything. No one learns from experience alone but only from experience reflected upon and articulated. This narrative gives ample examples of learning from experience.

This last point of action/reflection learning leads me to a most obvious note: the author of this fairytale is himself a part of the tale. Imagine Ella telling Cinderella. Steen Olsen tells the tale of Jacob’s Ladder. He draws from a myriad of relationships, evidence, memories, original texts and plausible narratives. He brings the wisdom of someone who becomes a bishop, teacher and church-wide director of mission. He kindly tells a tale that makes himself and others uncomfortable: nostalgic realism. He hints at darker realities but does not shame or blame.

As a friend of Steen, I had my doubts that I was an appropriate reviewer of this book. Hence the need to get some distance through the conceit of a fairytale. Be that as it may, I advise you to read this book, retell its tale, and gain insight in this past for ecclesial futures.


Lutheran Theological Journal Vol 55 No 3 December 2021, pp 164-166.

Book Reviews

Steen Olsen, Jacob’s Ladder: Missional Church in the 1970s. St Marys, SA: Steen and Ruth Olsen, 2020.

Reviewer: Revd Brett Kennett, Pastor for Congregational Support, LCA Victoria-Tasmania District.

This may well be the first LTJ book review that considers the pictures in the book, before the text. Jacobs Ladder Missional Church in the 1970s is vividly illustrated by Knarelle Beard, with images strongly evocative of the era that the book recounts.

Steen Olsen has compiled a fascinating account of the ‘life and mission’ of the Adelaide based Jacob’s Ladder Christian Community that draws deeply on its publications as well as numerous oral reflections from those who participated.

The images, mostly reproduced from newsletters and promotional materials produced by the community, were skilfully designed to speak to the culture that ‘Jakes’, as the community came to call itself, was trying to reach. It was all about telling the story of Jesus in whatever culturally relevant way they could. The little band of Jakes believers emerges as an emergent, vibrant, fallible, and faith-filled cohort of youthful learners, committed to reaching out to the post 60s counter-culture then sweeping over Adelaide, Australia and indeed the Western World.

There are several ways to engage with this book, which Steen helpfully outlines up front:

At one level it can be read as a community memoir. There are numerous accounts and anecdotes bearing witness to the life-changing effects that the Jakes community had on so many of its participants.  Many went on to lives of active Christian service in a wide variety of denominations and para-church organisations, and indeed the LCANZ itself, of which Steen is one example.

The memoir theme closes out with a final chapter of personal reflections and testimony aptly titled “The Lasting Impact on our Lives”. There are moving accounts of the long-lasting impact of community living, faith formation and practical discipleship that the Jakes community sought to live out. These are honest accounts of lives lived under the cross. For those who came a decade or so later, missed Jakes itself, but heard the rumours, this book explains what they experienced—and what they were trying to do. In my own case some Jakes ‘graduates’ strongly encouraged me in my Christian faith, this book fills out their story.

It needs to be noted that Steen is also real about the fact that there were mistakes made, with some suffering as a result. He acknowledges this up front, but by and large the book is an account of a fallible, evolving community of ministry practitioners, gospel sharers who were blessed to give and receive hospitality in the name of Jesus, learning as they went.

This is also a straight up historical account of Jakes various incarnations, from 1970 when it emerged as a coffee lounge outreach enterprise, through three more distinct stages, culminating in the ‘Servants of Christ Community’ which finally concluded its work in 1979.

Along the way Jakes very nearly became a congregation in its own right, and this element of the story takes the book to a whole new level of relevance to today’s missional challenges and makes the book more than an anecdotal account of a particular movement. The author went on to serve three Lutheran Parishes, then as president of the Lutheran Church of New Zealand, and finally mission director in South Australia and the Northern Territory. Steen is reflecting on his youthful learnings as a Jesus disciple in Jakes from the standpoint of a seasoned leader of local mission in the LCANZ.

The modern missional ‘movement’ provides vocabulary that can cast light on what the Holy Spirit was leading Jakes to discover. They had an emergent, organic, praxis-based approach to Christian mission that relied on a regular cycle of action and reflection—and discernment, ‘dwelling in’ the biblical gospel—and seeking to live out their callings for the sake of the world that Jesus didn’t come to condemn, but to save (John 3:17). They weren’t using that vocabulary at the time.

What was the theology that the Jakes were trying to practically live out? The book tells the story of their various engagements with church hierarchy, their pastor, Doug Kuhl’s theological leadership, and their response to being asked to give an account of the faith they professed—and their practice of living it out.

The most fascinating part of this book is its account of the grappling that the institution that Jakes grew out of, the newly minted LCANZ, did with the earnest but unruly movement.

Pastor, scholar, and church planter, Tim Keller has defined a ‘movement’[1], as a flexible yet unified community whose life together is characterised by a compelling vision, sacrificial commitment and a steadfast intention to reach out beyond itself. It seems to me that Jakes had an abundance of these characteristics, evidenced by their struggle to do Christian mission in their messy world. Their engagement with various sub-cultures like bikies and the arts and music worlds, and their experiments in community living and sharing of resources, were sometimes naïve, but always zealous for the sake of sharing the gospel of Christ—and imbued with acts of mercy and justice along the way.

Another insight from Keller is this: Movements and institutions need each other. For a movement to become sustainable, it needs to institutionalize to a certain extent. A vine needs a supporting trellis eventually. But the great gift that movements give back to established institutions is a Holy Spirit breathed reforming and renewing dynamic (sound familiar Lutherans?), so that the parent institution is regularly challenged to look outside itself. Movements prevent institutions from stultifying and turning inward. Movements refresh and renew their institutions—for service and witness.

What might the LCANZ look like if this dynamic was recognized and welcomed, even on a regular basis?

To conclude, there’s some gentle humour throughout this book, most of it springing from the institution and movement wrestling matches that went on. Steen outlines these encounters with good grace and humour, acknowledging youthful shortcomings on the part of the movement, even as he reflects on how the institutional representatives might have received the movement a little more graciously.

Jacob’s Ladder Missional Church in the 1970s is an insider’s account of a creative episode within the life of the LCANZ, when God raised up a daughter movement for the sake of the refreshment of the mother institution.

It wasn’t always a pretty picture, but it was enough of a glimpse of the kingdom to sustain quite a few.

Brett Kennett

1 Timothy Keller, Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City (Grand Rapids. MI: Zondervan, 2012, 338.


Feedback on the book (edited for length, to remove names and comments that identify people)

After reading your Jacob’s Ladder book, and before placing it in the bookshelf, I just wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed reading it all from start to finish! You certainly have a gift in writing clearly, simply and in an uncomplicated way, putting across what needs to be made known! Our direct involvement would have probably gone into l973 or maybe further. And Lutheran Renewal also came along somewhere around those times as well. So for us to be taken back again to the beginning, and then to proceed through the book to all that happened following our time (some of which we would hear along the way anyway) was very interesting. Obviously, a great deal of research on your part Steen, and all credit to you! When reading about the times Jakes were involved with the Church ‘heavies’ in difficult discussions, reminded me of the Lutheran Renewal discussions with Church officials—equally as difficult! Those were the days!


I got hold of a couple copies of Jacob’s Ladder books from OpenBook Howden. A great read and presentation in the book format. Knarelle is still doing what she does well. Congratulations on getting the Jacob’s Ladder history published! A great effort on your part and those who assisted you.


I have both received and read the book although fairly quickly. So what can I say? Well, firstly congratulations on writing it and donating your time to what must have been a rather daunting project. So, what do I feel now about it? To be honest it has opened up some old wounds, left me a bit shocked, disappointed, upset and wondering. Why? I look at it and see a very "theological" approach to it, which probably makes sense considering you are a theologian. Some things were not mentioned about me. Although I know you didn't have the whole history at your fingertips as such.


I have just completed reading your book, and wanted to thank you. It is well written and very fair. A work well done. It bought back many memories some funny some not so funny.


I have gifted the book to friends who are enjoying the book. One cried when she read my bit in the last chapter. Steen although you and Ruth have retired you are never retired in Gods' kingdom. You writing the book has been inspirational for us to remember and walk on with God. Thank you so much.


The full versions of the recommendations on the back cover:

The story of Jacob’s Ladder needed to be told. And who better to do it than Steen Olsen who was a leading figure in that story from the start. One cannot but be struck by the zeal, vision, courage, commitment, boldness and openness to God’s leading on the part of those young Christian people who tried so valiantly to bridge the cultural gap between church and ‘outsiders’, especially young people on the street. Of course, mistakes were made as ‘Jakes’ expanded its ministry from coffee lounge to emergency housing, and the failures are not hidden by the author. Yet that only makes this excellent book even more valuable. It will, no doubt, bring back fond memories for those once closely involved - and, perhaps, some regrets. But all disciples of the Lord can again learn much from those who decades ago, followed the Lord’s call to be lights in the world, in word and deed, sometimes following  new, untrodden paths in the process.

Revd Dr Victor Pfitzner, former principal of Luther Seminary/Australian Lutheran College, Adelaide, South Australia.


Firstly, thanks so much for this powerful testimony and teaching and for including me among those you trusted to read it and comment upon it!

Secondly, I found it a good read. Not an easy task that no doubt cost you many, many hours of thankless labor and tough editing.  It is a very good book. I was moved, delighted, entertained, and edified.

Thirdly, it would make a great text book for a missional church course. Or, perhaps, the text for an online course to be offered internationally.

Fourthly, I read it through three times. Once a quick read for its main questions, so my second read could be spent trying to understand your answer. The third read, actually only specific sections what for my getting a better understanding of the tremendous wisdom of the book.

Fifthly, I found the central questions of faith, community, and the power of God’s Spirit worked out in the careful weaving of individual and communal witness a marvelous way to exposit the challenges facing the missional church movement as I experience it internationally.

Sixthly, while many might find the theological reflections too long, I wanted more. Probably not in the book, of course, but in our conversations.  You capture of moment from our youth, of course, and filled with the realities of exuberance and naiveté never to be repeated for us. Still, I felt an honest, mature, hand, heart, head, and spirit in every paragraph. What a compliment.  The theological issues, especially in Lutheran circles, are still pertinent today.

Revd Dr Patrick Keifert, emeritus Professor of Systematic Theology, Luther Seminary, St Paul MN, USA.