Nelson Searcy and Kerrick Thomas - Launch - Starting a New Church from Scratch (Ventura: Regal Books, 2006)
Wandering into the world of contemporary church planting (or starting new churches) is a bit of an interesting journey. First, one quickly finds that there are many, many camps all with their own gurus, books, handbooks, notebooks, conferences and web sites. Second, even those whose theological vision is similar can be methodologically worlds apart. Or to say it simply - they all disagree with one another on how the job should be done. There are missional churches who focus attention on the world "out there." There are attractional churches (purpose driven and seeker types) that focus on doing church with contemporary excellence so as to get the people in "in here." There are organic house church types that recommend the church never leave the living room. There are irresistible churches, creative churches, visioneering churches, simple churches, glocal churches and several types of churches from Mars Hill (different ways to see Acts 17). As a guy who is moving soon to plant churches, too much reading dizzies the soul. To be honest I am about to punt all the books in favor of the Bible. Well, maybe not but I realize that for me Scripture is a starting point. In my reading I did just finish a book entitled "Launch - Starting a New Church from Scratch" by two guys who are planting in the early 21st century in New York City. It was a quick and fun read that had me saying amen, scratching my head, and cursing a few times - I repented of that.
I would say the book is written by guys that are firmly in the purpose driven, excellence/creative, church service centric camp...and probably some of the best in that flavor of church starting. So I knew I would learn some good things from the read. I was not disappointed...well, then again I was really disappointed. Let's just get to the review.
The strength of this book is not hard to find. It is a great book for those wanting a clear strategy for starting a church service. I say starting a service because the focus of the book is "launching" Sunday services and a large one at that. The premise is that a church planter should move to a city with one focus - launch quickly and launch large. If that is one's goal - this book will tell you how to do it. The back cover even says "No Money? No Members? No Staff? No Problem!" - the book is brimming with confident know how and a can do attitude. If you are not sure if the launch large paradigm is your focus you might be a bit frustrated because the book is focused on the steps to launch the church service.
One of the things that I found very helpful in the volume is was the practical advice given along some very specific lines. It does a good, though brief, job at coaching a church planter in raising funding for the new church. It does an excellent job in talking about strategy formulation and strategic planning. If you are a guy who doesn't know what a yearly calendar is, or how to form and articulate what you are doing, or how to get from point A to B without wandering for a few years in the dessert this book will help you. The missional guys won't like the Sunday service-centrism of this book, but they might benefit from chapters 3 and 4 on funding and strategy even if they have a different model in mind.
The volume also has some good insight for growing churches which need to plan ahead for the future. If people are meeting Jesus in your church and more of this starts to happen; chapters 9 and 10 helps inspire proactive thinking for getting ready if God should bring increase to the church. This chapter helps ask good "what if" questions about facilities (again, house church guys squirm now), growing as a leader. Page 209 actually hints at what these guys actually do to sharpen their own lives and keep growing as believing men. Their suggestion to read deeply from Theology, Philosophy and Church History was refreshing and had an intriguingly intellectual feel to it - which the book itself seemed to lack.
There were other things here to like as well. Their view of servant leadership and calling the church to reach out to others in acts of kindness were refreshing to read. Their approach to staffing and volunteer issues were also immensely practical.
Overall the help I found in the book was thinking through practical issues - in fact, I often found myself launching out of the book to think about our own planting efforts. For this I thank God and made the read more profitable. However, I found some frustration with the book as well, perhaps because I am thinking through mission/planting in a different way.
I think my main struggles with the book were due to its hyper-pragmatism. I think things should be pragmatic and practical in life, especially in church planting, but I prefer a bit more theological vision along with my pragmatic steps. This showed up in many places for me.
First, there are Scriptures at the end of the chapters which reflect the idea being communicated. However, at least two times, these verses were grossly out of context. A couple of examples will illustrate. The chapter on fundraising ends with a quote of Romans 8:17 which reads in the English Standard Version:
And if children, then heirs-heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.
But they quoted a portion of it, and from a translation which I have been unable to find (I think it is first of edition of the New Living) which made it read:
Since we are his children, we share his treasures-for everything God gives to his Son, Christ, is ours, too.
So the suffering clause was dropped and a translation that had the word treasures slotted in. It is odd that this passage is used about fundraising as this is not Paul's message in Romans 8. Second, the chapter was fine without slapping the Bible verse on it. Another example was after chapter 7. The chapter spoke about the importance of a big, successful "Launch" for giving the church a proper foundation. OK, this is the books premise - fair enough. Yet in order to illustrate the importance of this a verse was used to talk about "foundations" - Luke 6:48 was selected:
It is like a person who builds a house on a strong foundation laid upon the underlying rock. When the floodwaters rise and break against the house, it stands firm because it is well built.
Is this part of Jesus' teaching about the foundations of launches or even foundations of churches? I'm not so sure. It seems to be about building one's life upon the hearing and obeying his teaching. Anyway, I didn't see the point of using the Bible in this way and found it troubling.
Second, there is little ecclesiology to be found in the work but again it is not the books purpose. There was one sentence where I thought it might come through. Page 102 reads "There are three things that every new church must have before it is a real church:" - a good statement which had me awaiting the next lines. What followed the colon was this: 1) a lead pastor, 2) a start date and 3) a worship leader. I didn't know that this is what made "a real church." I actually thought of the gospel, the sacraments and church discipline when reading that sentence...not that I am opposed to lead pastors, worship leaders and launch dates. It also was so focused on "the service" that I felt some other things about the mission of the church could be said.
Another weakness I felt was that of the triumph of a formula or prescription. The book seemed to teach that if you just follow this model, you will be a successful, large launching, new church. It reminded me of the way revivals were prescribed by Charles Finney. If you preach this way, do music this way, invite people this way - revival will always come. How tos are very helpful and needed but I felt it was a little too much for me here. Obviously Searcy and Kerrick are stud leaders and very capable men. I was a bit concerned that such prescriptions may not fit everyone and could leave some guys disappointed or wondering "did I just not do it right?" It would be easy to then chase the next book, the next formula, and next prescription. I would rather see guys seeking wisdom about who they are, what their community is and how the gospel speaks to the situation.
Finally, the Homogenous Unit Principle was very important to this church planting model. In order to plant this way, you must design and tweak everything for a certain type of person, in a specfic demographic, etc. For Searcy and Kerrick, that means their church is focused exclusively on well to do, young Manhattan types. Though I understand we need to connect and communicate the gospel to certain contexts, I think such thinking can keep racial and economic segration alive in America without challenging the justice of prevailing paradigms. I would suggest a read of Metzger's Consuming Jesus - Race and Class in a Consumer Church as a balance to the version of the HUP as seen in this work.
One last note - Reformed people just would not like this book and would see it as part of the problem with churches in America today. Of course many of my reformed brethren could use some strategic and practical nudges from friends.
Overall, Searcy and Kerricks work contributes to the body of literature on starting new churches. They give great insights into some practical and important concerns (funding and planning) which I feel can be lacking in some of the more missional and house church circles. I liked their light hearted writing style, focus and risk taking attitudes throughout and think I would enjoy hanging with and learning from them in person. That said, I found myself longing for a more theologically driven book which focused in on Scripture. In other words I wish they had said a bit more of the "why" behind the "what" of church planting. Recommended but with major reservations.