Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Book Review - Simple Church by Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger

We have a church staff reading group that meets every Thursday. Our pastor set this forth as a means to challenge each of us to think biblically, stretch ourselves theologically, and avoid the mind rut that many church staff members find themselves in post-seminary. As a result, I have had the opportunity to meet with this group of church leaders and read several books in the past year. Here is my take on the most recent.

Simple Church: Returning to God’s Process For Making Disciples
Thom Rainer & Eric Geiger
B&H Publishing, 2006
Category: Church and Ministry Helps
ISBN: 0544390880
Hardcover with Dust Jacket
252 pages (but larger print and spacing makes up much of this)
$19.99 MSRP

I should state from the onset that although I am part of a church staff, I am not a pastor or church administrator, or any other senior ministerial position. Not that these are the only members of the church who are interested in seeing healthy church growth, but it needs to be clear that I’m just the BookStore manager. Also, it needs to be stated that I am not a church staff veteran who has hopped from First Baptist City A to First Baptist City B. This indeed is my first church staff position and I have been afforded a wonderful opportunity of learning and growth while under the watchful care of many gifted and talented ministers. Having said this, if the Lord is willing to give me many years in ministry, my views on this book may change over time. But until then, I came away somewhat disappointed from this book, albeit not completely.

Thom Rainer is the CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources, one of the largest publishing wings of western Christendom, and is also a former pastor. He co-authored this book with Eric Geiger who serves as the Executive Pastor for Christ Fellowship in Miami, FL. Rainer and Geiger completed extensive research consulting several hundred churches to discover what qualities in a church cause it to be “vibrant” and achieve significant growth. According to their research, these “vibrant” churches have simple processes, thus the title Simple Church. According to the authors, a simple church is defined as “a congregation designed around a straightforward and strategic process that moves people through the stages of spiritual growth” (61). They utilize two church scenarios to illustrate their point. The simple church is named “Cross Church” and the complex church is named “First Church.” (Names have been changed to protect the not-so-innocent, you know.)

At First Church, they have assembled a superstar staff “full of gifted people, but they are running in different directions. The stated philosophy is “hire thoroughbreds and let them run” (51). First Church is loaded with programs, activities, and a major event around every corner. There is something for every age bracket from the bed-babies to the blue hairs. Each ministry area is committed to reaching and educating, and each area follows the vision for the minister of that age group. Cross Church “is more concerned with having a united staff than an all-star one” (53). Their desire is to see their members move to a greater level of commitment within the church as they utilize their gifts and talents to worship God and serve others. These two churches seems to have the same goal, but each staff approaches it differently. As a staff should be the ones directing the vision for the church, if all are not in agreement as to what that vision and direction is, chaos is sure to result. When individual staff members are attempting to run “their ministry” area in a certain way that is contrary to the way other ministries are run, the purpose of the church is not clear and will lead to division and competition amongst ministers for precious resources. Thus, a simple church will have a simple process that seeks to lead their members (and potential members) through their process. Each staff member should be on board with this and attempt to utilize their area of ministry to facilitate others through the process.

Well, what’s the process? This process will vary from church to church, but in order to qualify for a “simple church” the process must be, well, simple. A simple process will be easy to follow, navigate, and communicate to all those who are involved. Rainer and Geiger say that there are four steps to becoming a simple church:

1. Clarity – Understanding, first as a church staff, what the purpose is for the church and also having a process in place in order to achieve the purpose. This process must then be able to be clearly communicated to other church leaders and church members.

2. Movement – Members must always be in a constant state of movement within the process (ideally from one step to the other, always working towards a greater level of commitment). This prevents “congestion” and seeks to move people into a greater and deeper relationship with Christ, the true Head of the Church.

3. Alignment – This is a key ingredient in becoming a simple church. Alignment means that all ministries – ALL ministries – within the church exist for the same purpose that the church has overall. It also means that all ministries work together in order to establish clarity and movement among the members. This reduces competition between ministry areas. One practical application of this step is to utilize or develop ministry areas that are already in place rather than begin new ones. Often times, a seemingly “new” need may be met by a ministry that is already in place much easier than it can be by forming a new one altogether.

4. Focus – This element means that you “say no to almost everything” and “abandon everything that falls outside of the simple ministry process” (203). This is a difficult step for any church or organization to implement as this means that you must not only say “no” to upcoming events/opportunities, but you must also eliminate some ministries that are already in place, yet no serving the overall purposes of the church. Because people’s feelings are often tied to the ministries that they are involved in (as they should be), this inevitably means that someone’s feelings will be hurt. However, if the process of clarity has been set in place, this will make for an easier transition as everyone involved understands the reasoning behind the process.

Simple Church was an easy read, even with the statistical data that the authors decided to throw out, but still left me wanting. It was good to examine whether our church would be classified as “simple” or complex and I believe that consensus was that we need to be “more simple” even if we are already simple. We have a clear purpose statement and seek to align all of our ministries behind this purpose, yet as a large church, we still must resist the temptation of doing more. Bigger is not always better and more is not always best. Rather, we are to focus on what we do and do it well. I am excited about this next year as we have made a commitment as a church family to focus on Sundays and Wednesdays to make them the best that they possibly can be. Not a novel idea, but one that will help us each achieve a simple focus. However, Simple Church, although it does not claim to be the next church-growth model, seems to be simply a formulaic model for doing church. There is a glaring lack of biblical support for the “simple” model given in the book. Not that there is not biblical evidence that can be used to support how the church ought to be simple in its focus, but this evidence is not given in Simple Church. It is not void of scriptural references, but it seems to rely on the survey data that the book was complied around, rather than a biblical approach to how Christ sees His Church and how it ought to function. The subtitle, “Returning to God’s Process For Making Disciples” is therefore misleading as we are not called to return to anything other than statistical analysis.

All this said, even for the busy church leader, this book will not be overwhelming or mentally taxing. It is always good to examine where we are in light of where we want to be, and Simple Church may be a catalyst to do so. It could be that if I worked for another church, I may have found more of the book helpful. As stated previously, one day I may be more convinced of the value of this work.

Should you be inclined, you may go to this website to take the "Simple Church" Survey.

1 comment:

Justin said...

Good succinct summary. I just saw this book at the library and hope to check it out soon. Thanks.