Simple Church: Returning To God’s Process For Making Disciples – A Review by John Beeson
I am excited to have John Beeson give a book review for this blog site. John Beeson is on the pastoral staff at Westerly Road Church in Princeton, NJ. John is one of the most theologically astute individuals I know, who has a tender and affectionate heart for the Church and his congregation in Princeton. He labors as a pastor with tenacious humility and love for the Gospel. He is married to Angel with two children (his son, Soren, is already sworn to my daughter).
Simple Church:Returning to God’s Process For Making Disciples – A Review
by John Beeson
The book jacket of Simple Church begins: “Relax. This is not about another church model…” Oh reaaaally? Simple Church is definitely another model of “doing church.” But that isn’t all bad.
Before I begin, let me say that I’m a John Piper-DA Carson-John Owen kind of a guy. I picked up Simple Church because of a recommendation somewhere. Couldn’t really tell you where now. A blog? An article? I don’t know. But when I picked it up I was expecting to be reading a like-minded author. But that wasn’t the case. The book begins talking about “the simple revolution”: a revolution that the authors, Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger, say pervades our society today. Google. Apple. Papa John’s. They are all proponents of “simple.” And, of course, the authors also suggest that Jesus knew this. At this point, I would have usually interrupted my wife’s reading with some snide remark, put the book down and cracked open the next offering. But I didn’t. I’m glad, because I think Geiger and Rainer are onto something.
I could say a lot about the book, but let me maintain the spirit of the book and keep it simple. Let me first explain the authors’ project, then level a basic critique, and finally get to the heart of their book: a double-barreled suggestion, which I believe, if appropriated rightly, can be very helpful.
First the project: Rainer and Geiger visited and surveyed hundreds of churches to decipher what makes healthy churches healthy. What was a healthy church? A church that grew by 5% for 3 straight years. In my book, that’s a problematic definition. That’s not the definition of a healthy church, that’s the definition of a growing church. There is a difference. Growth is part of health, but it is not the whole of health or even the most important aspect of health. As a counter group, Rainer and Geiger also collected and studied a group of unhealthy churches. Again, these churches were selected by their growth rate. These were churches that had not grown at all in any of the past three years. In their survey of both groups, Rainer and Geiger asked questions about the structures of the churches’ ministries, their mission statements, how the staff interfaced, and how they hired. Of course their surveys showed marked differences between the two groups of churches. Rainer and Geiger do well in showing exactly what the differences are and how to become “healthy.”
Second, my critique. Rainer and Geiger are Christian sociologists. There’s no problem with that on the face of it, one just needs to be wary when listening to a Christian sociologist that one doesn’t confuse good sociology with good theology. What Rainer and Geiger offer is a critique on “what works” sociologically. What they don’t offer is a solid theological backbone.
Third, their double-barreled suggestion. They suggest that healthy churches are 1) driven by one clear vision statement; and 2) are driven by a clear process that moves people through the stages of spiritual growth. Despite some flaws, I believe these two suggestions are helpful. Far too few churches have congregants who could tell you the church’s mission. Most congregations are filled with people who are all captured by their particularly ministry or niche at the church. The pastor does nothing to try to convince them that the various niches are all working together toward one mission and they wouldn’t listen if he did. But churches are called to be communities who gather together for one goal. Every church needs a destination to head toward.
The second part of this suggestion is also helpful: creating a clear discipleship process at your church that everyone is expected to move through. My church does well on the first suggestion, but struggles with this suggestion. To the newcomer our church can look like an open field with tents pitched everywhere, each tent a different ministry. There are clearly lots of things going on and lots of tents to check out, but no real sense of what path we want them to take or where we want them to end up. This book has helped clarify my thinking on this area and challenged me to implement a clearer discipleship strategy to the body. Now, the problem with this strategy taken to extreme is that churches begin to look like McDonalds or Papa John’s. “We don’t do missions” we’re a small group church. “We don’t do Adult Education” we do outreach to the community. There is a danger hidden here. The church is not Papa Johns. Discipleship is a long journey with many forks in the road and many countries that must be crossed. Over-streamlining and over-simplifying your church might grow your church, but it might also create stunted disciples.
Simple Church may be another church model, but it’s not a half-bad model. And Simple Church may not have more than a scrap of theology under girding it, but it need not be incompatible with a robust theological vision that sees the church as a center for disciple making and a disciple sending.