Book Review: Joy and Shelton, The People of God: Empowering the Church to Make Disciples

Trevor Joy and Spence Shelton, The People of God: Empowering the Church to Make Disciples. Nashville: B&H, 2014. 167 pp. Pb; $15.99.  Link

This little book is another in The Village Church Resources collection. Trevor Joy is pastor of Spiritual Formation at The Village Church and Spence Shelton serves in the same role at The Summit Church in Raleigh, North Carolina. This book attempts to describe what a healthy church looks like. For the authors, a healthy church is one that promotes “community.” The book is therefore about developing a robust small group ministry that is both intentionally living out the gospel and making disciples.

The People of GodFirst, everyone who serves as a leader of local churches needs to be a shepherd. This is a biblical principle, although most churches recruit leaders of small groups as “facilitators.” This is not the role of a biblical leader for Joy and Spence!

Second, Joy and Shelton devote two chapters to describing what they mean by ‘community.” Humans were designed to live in some sort of community, but sin corrupts natural human relationships and makes it very difficult to build a genuine community. The best apologetic for Christianity, the authors argue, is a genuine, biblical community. This is exactly the problem most people have with the church: it is hypocritical!

A biblical community is characterized by gracious care for members of the group, a gracious generosity, both unity and diversity and most of all humility. In chapter 3 Joy and Spence offer a narrative including both good and bad examples from their experience of these characteristics. I think they are absolutely correct in their six distinctive of a biblical community, although my preference would be illustrating these with communities from the Bible first. My guess is these characteristics could be easily illustrated in the earliest community of believers in Acts, or by way of contrast, with what is lacking in a church like Corinth.

Third, once a church has outlined what it understands as genuine community, it must begin to ask questions about everything the church does.  On one level, this is a call to clearly state a philosophy of ministry then align everything in the church to that statement. This is essential of all the groups within the church are going to go the same direction. For Joy and Spence, healthy churches have a clear “discipleship path” with the gospel at the center. There is nothing surprising here; the “discipleship path” includes Prayer and Bible Intake, Evangelism and Missions, Community, Generosity, and Character.  Any believer in the church should know where they are on this path, and the community can assess ministries to gauge how effective any given ministry is. In order to implement this kind of thinking, they authors encourage the church to “define the win,” write it out, revise it and “beta test” it in order to scale implementation so that a new ministry can be successful. Churches are most often handicapped by poor communication and over-programming, so clearly stating clear goals with measurable outcomes is critical to the health of a church.

Last, Joy and Spence devote their final two chapters to living out the Gospel in a biblical community. Here they describe what they mean by “gospel intentionality” in all communities within the church. This means that members of the community need to be forgiving of one another’s faults (both in terms of asking for forgiveness and granting it when necessary). Genuine love for others in the community ought to result in mutual service. This kind of a community will ensure that the living water of the Gospel does not grow stagnant. There needs to be continual growth in discipleship, but also in mission and outreach.

Conclusion. I found this to be a practical, easy to read guide for growing a healthy church. I did not find anything radical in the book, but since they are attempting to describe a biblical healthy community, this is not a surprise. Honestly, I am quite suspicious of books claiming to have discovered some new principle of leadership that will make all church problems disappear. There is a bit of “corporate business” thinking in the book’s strategy to “align everything to the mission statement.” There is wisdom to that method, but the New Testament never really describes Paul sitting down and wordcrafting a missions statement, nor does it appear that Paul’s decisions were overly influenced by that model. I do not see Paul “beta testing” Gentile mission quite the way a modern church launches pilot programs, etc.

This is a valuable book, the kind I can see a church leadership team purchasing and reading as group. Churches trying to implement a small group program would find this a valuable guide for developing genuine communities.


NB: Thanks to B&H for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.


3 thoughts on “Book Review: Joy and Shelton, The People of God: Empowering the Church to Make Disciples

  1. What does “Prayer and Bible Intake” mean?

    Interesting point about shepherd vs facilitator. At least in churches with a strong formal ecclesiology & ordained episkope (such as my own RC tradition), I can see there might be some institutional interest in clearly distinguishing between the local church and the small groups within the local church, and thus looking for a different skill set and placing different expectations for style and scope of leadership.

    • Prayer is fairly obvious, both personal and corporate. “Bible intake” seems to be a way of saying Bible Study, my guess they use this phrase to avoid study,” since that sounds like school and turns people off. Their whole “discipleship path” needs to be taken in the context of an evangelical, primarily Baptist context. They are not far from the traditional cycle of “In Prayer we talk to God” and “in Bible Study God talks to us.”

      I like shepherd model as well, especially since it is a biblical idea. Although there might be a difference between a lay-leader helping to “shepherd” a small fellowship group and a Shepherd of the Flock, a “better trained person” responsible for more than a single small group within a larger church.

      • Hey Phillip thank you for such a thoughtful review. Since a couple of questions were asked about “prayer & bible intake” I thought I’d try & clarify:

        We were looking for a way to incorporate ones personal devotional life along with growth in ones understanding of the bible that comes often in more formal study (seminars, classes, book studies in groups, workbooks, etc). We’ve never loved the word “intake” but it was our best albeit not that impressive way to communicate “we want you to be in the bible!”

        We love the word study but felt its connotation left out ones personal devotional life.

        Thanks for the dialogue & I hope this is helpful in some way.

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