Discerning Reader Editorial Review
Reviewed 08/28/2007 by Tim Challies.
Not Recommended. Worth reading for insights but not for a model of ecclesiology.
Simple. It’s what everybody wants these days. Just ask Google with their 20-40 word homepage, Papa John’s with their streamlined menu, or Apple with their infamous single-button I-Pod. In an increasingly overcomplicated world, simple is in high demand.
However, according to Thom H Rainer and Eric Geiger the ’simple revolution’ has also found its way into churches. Congregations once over-inflated with myriad programmes have now become streamlined disciple-making centres. At the same time, churches which are failing to make the switch are tending towards stagnation or decline.
For those who doubt the premise, the authors of Simple Church have research to prove it. Putting questions to over 400 growing and struggling churches, the contrast could not be more stark. Simple churches correlate with ‘growing’ and ‘vibrant’ communities that are ‘making a big impact’ and ‘expanding the kingdom’ (p 14). Complex churches, conversely, are found to be ‘anemic’, ‘floundering’ and “as a whole….not alive.” (p 14).
So what is this highly acclaimed ’simple church’? According to the authors: “A simple church is designed around a straightforward and strategic process that moves people through the stages of spiritual growth.” (p 60). ‘Process’ and ‘movement’ are key ideas for the authors. Rather than seeing programmes as ends in themselves, church leaders are encouraged to see the big picture of how disciples are moving through various stages of discipleship towards maturity.
For this to work, leaders will have to constantly monitor the effectiveness of four areas:
- Clarity - ‘the ability of the process to be communicated and understood by people’
- Movement - ‘the sequential steps in the process that cause people to move to greater areas of commitment’
- Alignment - ‘the arrangement of all ministries and staff around the same simple process’, and
- Focus - ‘the commitment to abandon everything that falls outside the simple ministry process’
Intriguingly, the authors don’t want us to think about this as a model of how to do church. “Relax” they begin disarmingly, “This book is not about another church model” (p3). And yet the feel of the book is precisely that. Committing to the simple ministry ‘process’ and keeping one’s eye on four key ‘elements’ sounds suspiciously like a church-model formula.
Moreover, one fears at times that the model being presented is not only simple but superficial. What is virtually ommited from the book (for the sake of simplicity?) is any focus on the biblical means of church growth. The impression given is that if the ’simple’ process is utilized one will likely have a vibrant church, regardless of other key components.
But is this the case? Could, for example, a heterodox church who applies these principles experience divinely empowered growth? Or is the prayer-life of the church a non-contributing factor? How about the congregation’s commitment to the gospel? While these elements are given mention in places, they are at best assumed. Rainer and Geiger do concede that “Ultimately it is God who brings growth and vitality to a local church” (p 249) but next to nothing is said about God’s means of bringing that growth about (See Nine Marks of A Healthy Church, Mark Dever, for a better example)
This is not to say there is nothing helpful in the book. If your church suffers from an over-programmed, over-complicated setup, Simple Church might well be worth reading. Just be sure, however, not to believe the hype of the book itself. Church is never truly simple, and Simple Church over-reaches by claiming that it is “returning to God’s process for making disciples.” (book subtitle). Put simply? Gain insights from this book; don’t build your ecclesiology on it.