February 5, 2015

An Underwhelming Book on the Church

A ‘celebrity’ preacher, probably American, is preaching across the street from my house. This geezer is one of the top three ‘greats’ in the Christian world right now. But, on the same Sunday morning, one of my best mates is preaching hundreds of miles away from my house. Hardly anyone’s heard of him. He’s a good preacher, but by no means premier league.

Question: Who would I rather go and listen to that Sunday morning?

Answer: Hands down, every time, I would travel hundreds of miles to hear my mate, rather than simply cross the street to listen to the ‘celebrity.’

Why? Well, I know my mate. I trust my mate. I’ve watched him walking with Jesus for years. I know that he knows me. He loves me. He understands how to apply the Scriptures to me. So, his preaching hits me with the backing of his integrity and with the weight of my trust.

What’s my point?

My wife and I spent a week with Ray and Jenny Evans once. I was speaking at an evangelistic sports holiday in Lanzarote (as you do) and they were there with two non-Christian friends from their sports clubs that they’d known for years. Over the week, Sarah and I observed their love for these friends, their passion to see them trust Christ, and listened as they sought to persuade them from the Scriptures.

I’d had his book on my shelf for months before that week away, but I felt compelled to read his book when I got back. Why? The same reason I’d travel miles to hear my mate preach. The books on church growth I want to read are those written by the guys who demonstrate a commitment to church growth through personal evangelism. Sometimes we get that wrong when we read and review books. We jump very quickly from ‘good book,’ therefore‘good guy.’ Our first thought ought to be, ‘Godly guy?’ The author should commend his book before the book commends him.

I’d seen Evans in action, and so it was no surprise when I read his book that nuggets like this stood out:

 “If pastors move on quickly from church to church, they may be part of someone’s journey, but they won’t, in all likelihood, be personally leading their own friends to faith as a model to other believers, for that is likely to take longer than their stay in one place.”

Anyway, to the book.

Evans is crystal clear on his purpose in writing:

“I want to show what can happen in ordinary towns, when normal gospel churches, using everyday leaders whom the Lord Jesus has provided, and in dependence on the Holy Spirit, do what God commands.” (p.9)

I was chatting to a friend the other day about this book. He had read it because he’d heard a lot of hype about it when it came out. However, he said he’d been left ‘largely underwhelmed.’ It was directed as a critique, but, actually, cleverly, I think in part that is Evans’s point. As in the quote above, he is dealing with the ‘ordinary…normal…everyday…’ By his own admission, “what I am doing is employing biblical insights and common-sense wisdom” (p.10). As a book, it brings to mind the tastes and smells of Church Planting is for Wimps by Mike McKinley. It’s not like the feeling you get after watching one of Danny Mackaskill’s stunt videos, where you think, ‘I could never do that.’ It’s more like the feeling you get as a kid watching your big brother riding his bike round and round the park, where you think, ‘That’s doable.’ It’s a book about “marginal incremental gains” (p.53).

So, here’s just a few things I found wonderfully underwhelming, but particularly helpful. . . .

Living Things Grow – You hear a lot in Scotland at the moment about the nation being ‘unreached’ by the gospel, hardened to the gospel, and that the church at large is shrinking. The Scots identity is already wrapped up in being the minority underdog, allowing us to remain in the ‘dour’ pessimism that we rather enjoy. The danger is that we accept and are resigned to this decline, almost using it as an excuse for our stagnant churches. Evans helpfully reminds us of the expectation that ‘living things grow.’ Sure, the mustard seed is small. But it grows, right? Sure, the parable of the sower teaches the realism that 75% of the seed will yield no long-term return. But the 25% grows exponentially, right?

Size Matters – Having transitioned from Charlotte Chapel – a church of 550 – to Niddrie Community Church – a church of 80 – and then gathering a group in Gracemount to pray – around 8–12 people – the insights on church size were a useful tool to aid my thinking in those transitions. It’s easy when you miss the buzz of a ‘big’ church, to forget the downsides in your rose-tinted hindsight. And it’s easy, coming out of a big church, to romanticise the small church – This is how church is meant to feel – like a family!’ – whilst forgetting that sometimes your family are the most annoying people in the world. Stagnancy in growth, Evans argues, often comes from failing to realise what size you are. Realise that every size has its stresses. And remember that growth always brings growing pains. For example, it was also helpful, as we begin to gather a launch team, to be warned of a small group “feeling quite comfortable in their small and cosy world” where the purpose “tacitly becomes keeping the group ‘as we like it’” (p.21).

Plan to Change – At the stage we’re at in church planting, we’re investing a shed-load of time planning and preparing for the launch. Vision statements are being written. Action plans are being sketched out. Values and commitments are being communicated. Discipleship resources are being put in place. It’s easy when investing so much time to slip into the mind-set that says, once we’ve got this in place, that’s the hard graft out the way. What this book prepares you for is that as you grow, you need to keep questioning everything, keep reassessing everything, even the things that are working well. Just because something worked when there were 20 of you probably won’t work when there are 40 of you. Plan to change. Preparing your launch team for such an environment of critique and change will be vital for the entire lifespan of a church. While on the topic, Evans’s “Wisdom about Change” and leading change well in chapter two is uber helpful.

Common sense? Yes. But is common sense all that common anymore? Good to have a book on church growth with a British accent from a guy labouring faithfully in a local church. Of course, the growth ceilings and issues facing Evans in Bedford may be different from your church and your context. His leadership decisions, or evangelism tools, or small-group structure may not fit your setting. But he’s not suggesting a one-size-fits-all technique. What he models is a commitment to the gospel, a conviction of its power, an expectation for growth, and ministry in the light of that.

Buy on Amazon.co.uk

Buy on Amazon.com

  • Andy Prime

    Andy Prime is pastor of Gracemount Community Church in Gracemount, Edinburgh. He's married to Sarah and they have a son named Reuben.

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