This is a book I have been waiting for someone to write for a very long time. When I was preparing for my senior year of college, I was required to spend a summer doing a ministry internship. Although I'm thankful that I had the opportunity to do that as part of a good ministry in a good church, that summer left me disillusioned with ministry. I returned to my senior year at Asbury hungry for a way of doing ministry that led to something more, and that hunger, along with relationships I was fortunate to have with great people at Asbury, guided me into the beginning of my interest in spiritual formation. It was during that year that I first read Dallas Willard, and from then on, my understanding of Christianity and ministry was dramatically changed.
The authors of [amazon_link id="0830835466" target="_blank" ]Renovation of the Church[/amazon_link] had very similar experiences, only theirs occurred more than a decade into a very successful attempt at planting a church. They had a rapidly growing suburban church with a new facility, and had around 1,700 people attending worship every weekend. Then they realized that the way they did ministry was actually working against the likelihood that their followers would ever have their characters become significantly like that of Jesus. They state, "It slowly began to dawn on us that our method of attracting people was forming them in ways contrary to the way of Christ" (35).
The book tells the story of their church, Oak Hills Church of Folsom, CA, from the time that it was planted, through their entry into the seeker church movement and rapid growth, then through the decision to change and the mistakes, consequences, and rewards that have followed. It is very honest, respectful, and obviously took a great deal of courage to publish. (Congratulations to both the authors and InterVarsity Press for doing so.) I've read the stories of other pastors or churches who have gone through similar journeys, but this is by far the best written.
Dallas Willard's foreword is worth the price of the book. He opens the book with a question (also repeated in a later chapter) which the rest of the book tries to unpack and Willard says is "the single most important question in the church culture of North America today": "How do we present the radical message of Christ in a church that has catered to the religious demands of the nominally committed?" (9) Or, as it played out in the story of Oak Hills, the question might be: How can we expect people whom we have attracted with a 'come have all of your preferences and desires met at church' style of ministry to respond well to Jesus' 'deny yourself and give up your life to follow me' gospel? The authors concluded that those two were incompatible.
Personally, one of the greatest strengths of the book was in making connections I had not been able to make before between our consumeristic habits that are so deeply ingrained in us in North American culture and churches' general lack of effectiveness at helping people grow in the character of Christ. As the authors point out, cultural consumerism isn't so much the problem, as is how churches have adopted the consumerism of the culture around us and decided we have to harness it as a strategy for church growth. Ministry becomes an endless cycle of creating attractive ministries to get people to come to our churches, then trying to keep them happy and engaged enough to continue coming rather than dropping out or finding another church. When people come to us on these terms, we cannot be surprised when we discover that they may actually have very little interest in learning to do the things that Jesus taught and arranging their lives as any of his serious students would naturally do.
Along with tackling the "insidious monster" of consumerism, the book also addresses personal ambition in pastors and how it feeds this destructive cycle. We can cover and excuse our selfish ambition in language of wanting to accomplish great things for God's kingdom, but ambition often leads us into ways of living that are destructive to our souls and those of the people following us. As Carlson states,
"The desire to be better than others, the odious nature of comparison, and the lack of contentment with our actual state, is the problem formationally. This whole personal ambition thing is a very messy area... Perhaps ambition is needed more than ever. But it must be ambition directed toward something other than personal and organizational success. We must be ambitious to decrease so that Christ may increase. This is truly something worth giving our lives to " (76, 87).
Amen. Our churches will certainly benefit if this book can launch honest conversations among our leaders.
P.S.: If you're not a pastor, this is still an important book to read, but... If you come away from reading it ticked off at your pastor or your church for not doing things this way, you've entirely misread the book. The authors themselves strongly urge against thinking that would lead to such a reaction, as they state that the best possible result is for you to encounter God in the church where you already are, rather than going looking for another church or pastor who does things the way you like. As I've stated it before personally, the biggest hurdle to great ministry in my church is my own unlikeness to Jesus, not that anyone else has gotten things wrong. In almost every case pastors and church leaders are working very hard and doing the very best they can in an incredibly difficult job. Take it easy on them, and use this book to help you become more like Jesus for them.
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