Thom S. Rainer and Eric Geiger, Simple Church – Returning to God’s Process for Making Disciples (Nashville, Broadman and Holman, 2006) 257pp.
A simple revolution is afoot. Some people know it, some people do not. From the elegance of the Google home page, to the industrial design of the products from Apple Inc, to the system of air travel put forth by Southwest airlines, or better pizza, better ingredients1; simplicity is in. This revolution, so says Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger, has made its way into the church as well; and this is a good thing. This review will briefly summarize the argument made by Rainer and Geiger in their recent work Simple Church – Returning to God’s Process for Making Disciples (from here on, Simple Church), discuss some of the strengths of their position, highlight a few shortcomings and then close with some thoughts of application for life and gospel ministry. To the summary we now turn; hopefully it will be simple.
The thesis of the book is that a revolution is happening. A simple revolution; one in which the churches that move everything along a basic pathway for spiritual formation are growing and flourishing while those who cram menus full of disconnected programs are well…simply floundering. The thesis is supported by research done by surveying a range of churches and measuring their responses to questions geared to gauge the simplicity of the church along several criteria. The results of the survey were that having a simple process/path to spiritual maturity is a key factor in the success of a church (success here defined as a growing congregation). The statistical results of the survey were at a level of .001; a number that is highly significant, apparently a range of correlative significance that causes mandatory singing among statisticians (14). They define a simple church as “a congregation designed around a straight-forward and strategic process that moves people through the stages of spiritual growth” (60).
The results of the research led the authors to several conclusions which they summarized along four lines. Each simple church had clarity, movement, alignment and focus. The rest of the book breaks out these aspects – a clear process, moving people along this process sequentially, aligning all ministries and programs of a church to the process, and maintaining focus by saying no more than David Spade on a capital one credit card commercial. Their conclusions were that to be or become simple means to survive. The call towards the end of the book is that churches must return to a simple process of discipling people; or die. Simple enough? Now some strengths and weaknesses of simply being (or in the case of this book the process of doing) the church will be examined.
This book has several outstanding and helpful points to make. For the sake of brevity, the strengths will be summarized along three lines. First, the much needed critique of the propensity for churches to become spazzed out program factories to the detriment of the mission of God will be discussed. The second strength is the exhortation to church leaders to become “designers or architects” of communities rather than men busy implementing church fads and running programs. The final strength to be focused on will be some great leadership insights offered in the book.
Critiquing the Spazzed Out Menu Church
One of the things which stood out in this book is the illustration and critique of the church that labors to fill its menu with programmatic delights which pack full the schedule of pastor and parishioner alike. The reality that too many Christians are “busy” with church stuff, including leaders, was brought out both with the fictitious illustrations of Pastor Rush (4-8) and with the real life illustration of First Church (41-46). The contrast between the spazzed out programming spinning “First Church” and the more simple “Cross Church” to be a compelling method to get this point across. Whether or not the authors were poking at their own tradition with the chosen names to represent the churches will never be known, yet it did seem to indicate a simple Cross centered church to be preferred to the bulky traditional church perpetuating programs.
Community Designers and Architects
The second area of strength for the book was the use of the metaphor of builder or architect for church leaders and pastors. The metaphor is biblical for it is Paul’s own description of his discipling the church at Corinth (1 Corinthians 3:10-15). Now some may object that Paul is speaking of building people, not systems and processes for the church. Yes, Paul is speaking of the work among the people, but certainly his work would have contained a method. We see this in other parts of the New Testament as Paul describes his ministry. He passed on the gospel to the people (1 Corinthians 15), he demonstrated from Scripture that Jesus was the Christ (Acts 18:28), he preached the cross (1 Corinthians 1), he established young leaders (see 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus), he proclaimed Jesus, admonished and taught (Colossians 1:28, 29) and he showed concern for the poor (Galatians 2:10). Jesus himself certainly had a method as well as shown briefly in this volume (160-162) and in more detail elsewhere.2 So the architecture metaphor of Paul is rightly applied to architecting church processes, if those processes indeed are about making disciples of Jesus Christ. The emphasis on designing processes that are simple, clear, with movement, aligning all things, and staying focused is a great reminder in the wilderness of evangelical pragmatism which consistently peddles a new model for “doing church” to the masses who want to “do it right.” The emphasis on design calls pastors to pull out of the fray of the day to day operation of the church to bring heart and mind before the clean air of the throne of Grace, seeking God’s direction for the church. The book encourages us to step back and see the big picture. (26) Pastor Mark Driscoll at Mars Hill Church in Seattle repeatedly exhorts pastors to make sure they take the time to work on their church not simply in it. Anyone who has experienced the phone calls, e-mails, and meetings of a growing and needy congregation will realize this need to pull out, pray, and get clarity on what we need to do and what should be left on the cutting room floor.
Some Highlights for me personally that spoke to good architecture:
- “A plagiarized biblical vision is always a good thing” (39) – Yes, we ought to take our method and vision from Scripture.
- Seeing numbers across the church process horizontally so you can observe not just growth, but sequential movement. (47-48)
- Have the process touch every member of the family, each ministry to each age are experiencing the same process (182). I did find a flaw here as well, as the family is still not experiencing the process “together” in the fashion the book described. The focus was still on creating programs that separate the spiritual formation of the family out into women, men, kids, etc.
- Recruiting members of the staff team to the process, rather than simply recruiting an all star team without any alignment to the philosophy of ministry (53).
- Focusing your new member class on the process (152) so everyone is exposed to the way the church lives out the gospel together. Doing this from day one for people becoming members.
General Leadership Insights
Finally, the book offered several good insights and general principles for leadership. The insights ranged in topic so this will treat them in the order they occurred to the author of this paper. First, an emphasis was placed on seeing philosophical as well as theological alignment on staff teams (174). It is not enough to believe the same things, but also to have agreement on how and what to do in accomplishing the things we believe. Different churches will have different emphases, but if a staff team is going in six different directions within the team, unity and teamwork becomes problematic. Second, the emphasis given on leaders actually doing what they call others to do (132) is not groundbreaking but a necessary statement to make. My only fear is that many ministers find much of the gospel difficult and leave it untried. If a pastor does not want to spend time with and love the poor, he may never preach about it and lead a process towards this. This is very common in many evangelical circles. This book reminds that preaching and living should be conjoined; that leaders cannot shrink back from preaching obedience to Jesus, even when it requires that we not neglect the matter ourselves. Third, in the discussion on alignment, the book gave a great reminder that people “drift from alignment” over time (75) to be indispensible to leadership. Leaders must never tire from saying the same things over time. Say it differently, say it with freshness, but it must be said. New people do not know and have the history with the process and old people go to sleep. Words and deeds should be present so the process is both known and seen. Alignment will otherwise dissipate over time. Finally, the authors did a good job presenting the tension involved with the pace of change to move a congregation to a simple process. Do it fast, but not too fast – wisdom for both the impatient and procrastinator. Let the Spirit guide the brake and gas pedal, but the leaders/designers must get moving nonetheless. These were the leadership insights found helpful in the volume.
Though for the most part the book to have helpful insights, it did have a few weaknesses and drawbacks. Two will be covered here: 1) the linearity of the process description and 2) the possible pitfalls of being so process driven. Each will be handle in turn.
Linearity, Front Doors, and Person Centered Entry Points
Throughout the book the emphasis is placed on moving people through a process and system of spiritual growth. The reader is exhorted to think through the entry point of the process and then how they will move program to program in the system. In literally every example the front door to the church was the Sunday worship service. Though this is probably a valid insight and good design; to expect people to “show up first” on Sunday, it needs to be nuanced in our day as the church must take the gospel to people who simply are not “coming to church.” Much has been written today about the influence of relational networks and the rapid spread of the early church and the process in which conversions take place. Rodney Stark, sociologist and historian at Baylor University, makes this point very clear in Cities of God - The Real Story of How Christianity Became and Urban Movement and Conquered Rome, his recent study of conversion in the early church. His argument was that conversions occurred through the relational networks of Christian believers moving through the empire in the course of commerce and everyday life.3 In thinking through entry points into a church, the thinking needs to be that every person is an entry point, every small group, every service rendered to the poor, as well as the Sunday morning. It is agreed that Sundays should still be considered a main entry, yet the emphasis on having other smaller, even person centered entry points was lacking. A simple process designed as described in this book would support a multiple entry point church without adjustment, but the people must be lead to think of their lives together in a certain fashion. Are they “coming to church” and “bringing others to church” or are they the sent people of God into culture as missionaries, representing and bringing the gospel everywhere they live, work, and play? There is an immense difference in the two. Members should see the home, the pub, the small group, the place of common interest, the civic club, the soccer fields etc. as possible first steps in a simple process. The congregation must be discipled to be missionaries in culture.
Potential for Process Idolatry
The other concern found with the work was the obsessive focus on the process itself. In some cases this could have people forgetting who we are to “be” within the process. Getting the good process in place does not solve the problem of the heart. The church can easily make an idol out of a process. If the process becomes an idol, our churches could feel like robotically focused factories that miss people “in the process.” It is understood that the authors’ argument is that returning to a simple discipleship process will focus people on God, but it must be said that systems can become ends to themselves. One quick example. Rick Warren offers a diagram of turning a core in to a crowd in his purpose driven system. It looks like the following:
Without stating the obvious there is someone very important missing from the diagram. The diagram is designed to show the different audiences and persons which the church is targeting with their programs and efforts. Now in defense of Warren, the diagram assumes the triune God is “everywhere in the picture” but my concern with process-centrism is that people could begin to miss God in the process. Even in a clear, Love God, Love Neighbor, Love the World, processes we cannot assume that people’s affections are being directed to God and not the self oriented consumption of the simple programs of the church. Simple is better in that there is less to consume, but if the content of the programs is lacking the church can be running people through a process and not be accomplishing much of any real substance. It seems more could have been said about the theological vision within the ministry process, how people change, but perhaps that is another book and this is a critique of something that is not the intended purpose of this volume. Yet this was a concern when interacting with the text.
Overall Simple Church is a practical and helpful read. For churches which are overloaded with events and programs the book will prove to be invaluable. One thing not mentioned by the book, nor so far in this review is the gift simplicity gives to the Christian who desires to spend time with lost people. When life together as a church is simplified people will have more margin to spend time doing things with and for people outside of the church community. In an era where Christian people must go to others in the world, simplicity will only help that process. I did take to heart the good news given by the authors on page 230 – “Attention church planters: this information is good news for you. While you have little money, own no land or buildings, you are able to design from scratch.” Amen, and amen.
1. This of course is the marketing tag line for Papa John’s pizza, another company cited in the introduction.
2.Robert Coleman’s Master Plan of Evangelism is still a very helpful and simple book on the method of Jesus. Additionally, Ajith Fernando’s recent Jesus Driven Ministry is a good study on the way of Jesus from a study of the gospel of Mark.
3. For more on Stark’s recent work see my review here
Rodney Stark, Cities of God The Real Story of How Christianity Became and Urban Movement and Conquered Rome (San Francisco, Harper SanFrancisco, 2006)