Editor’s Note: Two men requested to review this particular book for SI. Because this book has been the topic of a fair amount of discussion in Christian circles since its appearance last June, I was glad to have two independent perspectives. This is the first of two reviews of Simple Church.—Jason Button, Book Review Editor
Simple Church: Returning to God’s Process for Making Disciples by Thom S. Rainer and Eric Geiger (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2006), 257 pp. $19.99/hardcover.
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Thom S. Rainer is the President and CEO of Lifeway Christian Resources and a frequent speaker and church consultant. Dr. Rainer has authored or co-authored 16 previous books, including Breakout Churches, The Unchurched Next Door, and Eating the Elephant.
Eric Geiger is the executive pastor of Christ Fellowship (formerly First Baptist Church of Perrine), a large, multicultural church in Miami, Florida.
“Go and make disciples”—Jesus makes it sound so simple! Yet Christian discipleship remains a nebulous ideal in today’s complex church, which often offers such a dazzling array of disparate ministries that leaders are left tired, confused, and frustrated with little to show for it. However, Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger believe that “the Simple Revolution has begun.” In Simple Church, the authors seek to help church leaders return to the simple message and mission of Christ. Rainer and Geiger argue that “growing” and “vibrant” churches have committed themselves to simple ministry and demonstrate four key ideas underlying their discipleship process. Their case is challenging—and daunting at times—but a welcome encouragement to pastors and ministry leaders who wish to fulfill our Lord’s command.
Rainer and Geiger define a simple church as “a congregation designed around a straight-forward and strategic process that moves people through the stages of spiritual growth” (p. 60), and they argue that statistically, growing churches are simple churches. The authors surveyed 500 churches in two phases—one within the SBC and the other among other evangelical groups—and discovered a “highly significant” relationship between churches that experienced five percent growth per year for three years (“growing” churches) and churches that had a simple process for making disciples. They also discovered four key ideas present in all simple churches.
Clarity. Movement. Alignment. Focus. These four words are sine qua non (a prerequisite) for the simple church. In the opening chapters of Simple Church, Rainer and Geiger show these words in action. In chapter two, they compare visits to a simple church and a not-so-simple church. By interviewing respective church leaders and comparing areas such as staffing and calendar planning, they show that these ideas form the fundamental differences between churches. In chapter four, they present “Three Simple Stories”: Immanuel Baptist Church in Glasgow, Kentucky (Tony Cecil); Christ Fellowship in Miami, Florida (Rick Blackwood); and Northpoint Community Church in Alpharetta, Georgia (Andy Stanley). Each church is different, yet each church demonstrates these four ideas as basic tenets of their discipleship process. And once the authors have presented their findings, they turn to the four ideas themselves for the remainder of the book.
If the pastor is a builder, then clarity describes his blueprints. Rainer and Geiger ask, “Why would we attempt to build spiritual lives without a clear ministry blueprint?” (p. 111). In chapter five, they give five keys to clarity. A church should define its ministry process and determine how its program fits its purpose. A clearly defined ministry can then be clearly illustrated. Simple churches also measure the success of the process, discuss it openly, and aim for all members to understand it thoroughly.
If the Holy Spirit is conforming us to Christ’s image, then discipleship must mean movement. Simple churches plan to move members from one stage of growth to the next. This means strategic, sequential, and intentional programming. It also means providing disciples with a clear next step and new disciples with a new members class.
If Christ desires His church to be “as one,” then a disciple-making church should show solid alignment. Simple churches recruit according to their process. They do not look for the superstar youth pastor or worship leader; they look for leaders who fit well with their philosophy of discipleship. Simple churches also hold their staff accountable to the ministry process. This process is also implemented everywhere, in every area of church ministry from children to seniors, and it thus provides a center around which to unite. Finally, simple churches only adopt new ministries if they fit and advance the process. And this naturally presents the most difficult of the four key ideas.
If one thing—discipleship—is important, then simple churches will focus on that one thing, and that means saying “no” to everything else. Simple churches have learned to eliminate any program not essential to their process, and they limit the adding of new programs. At the same time, they reduce special events. Any special events or special emphases are channeled through existing programs that have been designed around the discipleship process. But if ministry leaders are to survive maintaining their focus, the process must be easily communicated and simple to understand.
With these four ideas, Rainer and Geiger utter a clarion call for churches to embrace simplicity. And this is the great strength of the book: encouraging churches to tailor their ministries to Jesus’ command. So many of our churches try to “do church”: children’s ministry, youth ministry, men’s and women’s ministry, senior’s ministry, music ministry, drama ministry, etc. And the average church member has no idea how a new convert is taught and trained to be a mature learner of Christ. And possibly, the average church member has no idea that a new convert should even undergo such a process. This is how far we have removed our churches from Christ’s simple commission. Simple Church points to our failure and places success within our reach.
One may suspect that the book is flawed in overemphasis. True, it places the focus entirely on discipleship to the neglect of evangelism, but that is only because it focuses on churches that are already evangelistic. Thom Rainer has done much work on the characteristics of evangelistic churches, and this book answers the question: what do we do with them once we’ve got them? And it answers the question well.
Another possible problem may be concerned with the church’s goals. While every Christian should be growing unto his ultimate and final glory, churches may struggle with discipleship at its later stages. In the beginning, we are concerned with movement, but where does it stop? How do we recognize success? What does a disciple look like, and what should he be doing? This can be seen in the treatment of the typical Sunday morning worship service, which is viewed as the “entry point” (pp. 146-147). The service is catered to those who have yet to begin the discipleship process. But this raises the question: how does that service meet the needs of those who have reached relative maturity? Rainer and Geiger do not attempt to answer those questions but rather leave them to the individual churches.
This book creates at least one more problem, and the authors create it intentionally. If a church wishes to become a simple church, it may have to change or abandon even its most fundamental traditions. The authors acknowledge this difficulty and encourage leaders to tread cautiously over sacred ground, but they also affirm that becoming a Christ-following, disciple-making church is worth the risk. Traditional churches will struggle with this the most as they face questions concerning Sunday evening services, church choirs, and parachurch children’s ministries. But it is all part of the radical task of designing an aligned and focused process for moving people to spiritual maturity.
I am the pastor of a church, and this book challenges and frightens me. It challenges me because I can feel the struggle to “keep up with the Joneses,” to try to offer something for everyone like the church down the road. But I know that in the end that methodology will only hinder us from fulfilling Christ’s command to the best of our ability. It frightens me when I think of the areas that have become “sacred cows,” and I know that there will be some struggle to simplify. However, this book stirs my passion when I think of the church and how it is actually possible for us to have a ministry that the apostles and our Lord Himself would both recognize and approve. The commission was simple, so let us have simple churches!
|Aaron Carpenter serves as pastor at Central Baptist Church (Dixons Mills, AL). Happily married, he has one son, and a daughter is due in May. He received B.A. and M.Div. degrees from Pensacola Christian College and Pensacola Theological Seminary (both in Pensacola, FL). His favorite pastimes include reading, Formula One racing, and experimental coffee drinking.|