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Review of Simple Church by Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

It recently came to my attention that I never posted my book review of the book Simple Church over here at A Thinking Man's Thoughts. I realize that many of you may have already read this review, but at least some of my readers have not read it - or, if they have, they were not able to comment on it at SI due to the fact that they are not members at SI, so I am posting it here as well. (By the way, my review of When You Pray: Making the Lord's Prayer Your Own by Philip Ryken has already been submitted to SI and should be coming up at SI shortly.)

Book Review of Simple Church by Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger - review written by Pastor Frank Sansone

About the Authors
Thom Rainer is the president and CEO of Lifeway Christian Resources, a frequent speaker and church consultant and author of sixteen previous books, including The Unchurched Next Door, Eating the Elephant, and Breakout Churches.

Eric Geiger is the executive pastor of Christ Fellowship (formerly First Baptist Church of Perrine), a large, multi-cultural church in the Miami area.

Review of Simple Church
Simple Church is one more in a myriad of books that deal with the issues of church growth and effective ministry in churches. In Simple Church, authors Rainer and Geiger attempt to show that the key to vibrant churches is to do away with the complexity of multiple programs adapted for various purposes and instead to redesign the church around a single, simplified process. While Rainer and Geiger seem to overstate some of their research to make their point, Simple Churchhas some materials and insights that can be a help to pastors and leaders who feel like they have become managers of programs rather than ministers to people.

"Out of complexity, find simplicity." With this quote by Albert Einstein, Simple Church begins its push to encourage church leaders to simplify. In fact, on the first page, it promises, "This book will help you design a simple process of discipleship in your church. It will help you implement the model you have chosen. It will help you simplify."

The authors begin with the fictional story of "Pastor Rush" to exemplify a typical, harassed pastor struggling with too much to do and not enough time to do it. They then argue that "simple is in" (p. 8 ), using Google, Apple, Papa John's, and others as testimonies to the importance of simplicity and stating that while these organizations understand the value of simplicity, growing and vibrant churches know this as well. In other words, if you want to be a "growing and vibrant church," you will need to know this truth as well.

After arguing for simplicity in general, the authors then look at two specific churches—one that is "simple" and one that is not. After setting up the picture of what a simple church looks like in contrast to a non-simple church, they argue that "simple church leaders are designers, not programmers" (p. 59) and indicate that many churches need an "extreme makeover" in order to become "simple." 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" (p. 60).

Following their "hunch" (p. 63) that "vibrant and growing churches" are streamlined and simple and that struggling churches are complex and cluttered with programs, they present research to test their theory.

After evaluating several churches they identified as vibrant churches with a simple process, they conclude that the four key elements in a simple church are "clarity," "movement," "alignment," and "focus." They used that information to develop a survey they referred to as the "Process Design Survey." The survey consisted of 20 statements to which the respondents had to indicate their level of agreement (from "strongly disagree" to "strongly agree"). Their research then consisted of disseminating that survey to 407 churches—210 churches that had grown five percent a year for three consecutive years (the "vibrant churches") and 197 churches that had not grown or had declined over the same three-year period (the "comparison churches"). Using the results of this survey, the authors provide examples of simple churches, detail the four key elements of simple churches, and relate those elements back to the research, making application
to the readers.

Clarity, Alignment, Movement, and FocusClarity—They define clarity as "the ability of the process to be communicated and understood by the people" (p. 111). They challenge church leaders to consider the fact that "if the process is not clearly defined so that everyone is speaking the same language, there is confusion and frustration."

Movement—They define movement as "the sequential steps in the process that causes people to move to greater areas of commitment" (p. 139). They argue that "stagnant believers and congested churches go hand in hand" (p. 136).

Alignment—They define alignment as "the arrangement of all ministries and staff around the same simple process" (p. 168). They explain that "it is not enough to unite the church around the same what (purpose), but they also must be aligned on the same how (process)" (p. 168).

Focus—They define focus as "the commitment to abandon everything that falls outside of the simple ministry process" (p. 203). They exhort church leaders to focus on one thing. Also, they add that "while clarity, movement, and alignment are essential, they are meaningless without focus" (p. 203).

In the concluding chapter, the authors use Malachi 1 and examples from the medical field to urge church leaders to "Change or Die" (p. 229). They outline a four-step process (connected to the four key aspects of a simple church) for becoming a "simple church." They conclude by declaring that "the simple church revolution has begun" and by asking, "Are you in?"

Rainer and Geiger succeed in producing a readable book that deals with an important topic. The need for various aspects of ministry to function together should be evident to most pastors, but it is easy to hold onto specific programs long after they fit their main purpose due to traditional or pragmatic reasons. This book does a good job of challenging that paradigm and encouraging the reader to consider the "how" aspects of what is going on in the church. Church leaders are exhorted to refocus and pursue a unified process in which discipleship and spiritual growth are intentional rather than accidental.

The concepts about hiring staff with the "process" in mind are also interesting. I would hope that churches and pastors would understand the need to bring on staff that are a fit in ministry philosophy, but based on some of the examples given, I wonder how often hiring is the result of a person's talent or reputation instead of how he fits into the overall picture of what the church is trying to accomplish.

When it comes to areas of research, I have some concerns about statements regarding some of the conclusions of that research. For instance, several times the authors state that something is "vital" though even when the majority of "vibrant" churches have not indicated they "agree or strongly agree" (the standard the authors use throughout the book) with the statement the authors use to prove their point. While it would be accurate to indicate that there is a correlation in this area or that "vibrant churches" are more likely than "comparison churches" to do X or state X, to call something "vital" seems to raise it to a higher standard. For example, on page 148, the authors claim that "moving people through your ministry process is vital," and they give the statement they used to test that statement—"we are intentional about moving people from one program to another." The survey results to that question (on the next page) indicated that 37 percent of thevibrant churches "strongly agreed" or "agreed" with that statement compared to only 15 percent of the comparison churches. I wonder, "How can something be ‘vital' if even the majority of the churches the authors are promoting as ‘vibrant and growing' churches do not agree or strongly agree with the statement?"

When the reader looks at the survey results, he sees that there are some areas the survey does point out as being very important (such as having a class for new attenders), but in many areas the connections are not as strong as the authors try to indicate. The most blatant example of using statistics to make a point they do not make is found in regard to the statement "We limit the number of conferences and special events that we do as a church" on pages 216-217. Instead of following the pattern throughout the book of emphasizing the percentages that "agree" or "strongly agree" with this statement, the authors first point out that the "strongly agree" is 25 percent to 6 percent (vibrant versus comparison churches). If the reader looks at the actual data, he discovers that if he considers all three levels of "agree" with that statement, they are almost in a statistical dead heat (78 to 76 percent). (Due to the presentation of the data using bar graphs without corresponding numbers, it is difficult to be exact on any numbers except those
specifically mentioned in the book.)

Also helpful would have been to have the questions and resulting answers compiled together in an appendix. While the survey results are given, they are spread throughout the four chapters on clarity, movement, alignment, and focus. Placing the survey results together would have made it easier to evaluate the survey and its results and to consider other implications of the survey.

The book also seems to downplay the importance of Bible preaching and right doctrine. I recognize that early in the book the authors touch on this topic by saying, "Thom has written several books on the primacy of sound, biblical, and orthodox doctrine in growing churches" (pp. 14-15). As one reads through the book, he discovers that the focus is process-oriented and could conceivably work regardless of what a church preaches or teaches.

I found another feature to be disconcerting. As demonstrated through the churches highlighted throughout the book, there seems to be a general assumption that the main service(s) of the church are to be viewed as the way to attract visitors rather than to prepare saints. I realize that even fundamental churches disagree as to the nature of the Sunday morning service; but in every case, the process moved from the main service as a gateway to small groups or to ministry/service groups without asking whether the worship service should be the gateway for visitors to begin the process of spiritual maturity.

Simple Church is targeted at evangelical churches and pastors who are overwhelmed with the busyness of church and are looking for a way out. For this audience, the message of the book offers hope—hope that everything will get better if they become a simple church. While the authors agree in the second appendix that "ultimately it is God who brings growth and vitality to a local church" and "it is against the laws of research to assert causation" (p. 249), the book promotes the idea that if readers follow the authors' advice, their church can move from being a dying church to a vibrant and growing church.

If you are a fundamentalist pastor who has found himself more involved in managing programs than in ministering to people, the message in this book may be helpful to you. Consider the nature of the various programs in your church. Make sure they not only fit the purpose of your church but also contribute to the process of moving folks towards greater spiritual maturity.

I found the book to be readable, but the book's message could have been said in half as many pages. The authors clearly believe in the case they are making and make a strong case against the ministry schizophrenia that comes from incorporating fad programs from the latest conference. I found the material on "movement" to be particularly challenging since I've had to think through how to encourage people to move from being attenders to becoming more mature in Christ and eventually serving. I was also encouraged to implement a more detailed approach to dealing with new members or prospective members.

If you struggle with being overwhelmed in ministry, this book provides helpful suggestions for refocusing the ministry of your church and is worth getting a copy.

If you're not quite at that stage, the book provides a read that may help you to clarify how your church does ministry or to think through that process in your church and how you articulate that process.

Just my thoughts,

Frank

P.S.

Colin Adams has posted another good review of this book at Unashamed Workman for those of you who are interested.

Frank

2 comments:

Jim Peet said...

Thanks Pastor for this book review.

Jim

(I'm of the personal opinion, that small churches are more effective at reaching the lost and discipling believers)

Frank Sansone said...

Jim,

Thanks for your input. I tend to be long winded in my reviews of things, but I am trying to figure out a different method that will allow for a "quick take" and a "more information" type of view, but I haven't gotten there yet.

I tend to agree with you on the more effective nature of small churches. I read somewhere (a long time ago) that a lot more missionaries and pastors come from smaller churches than larger churches, but I have never been able to find any evidence of that.

Frank