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Bessenecker Scott A. Overturning Tables: Freeing Missions from the Christian-Industrial Complex. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2014. 176 pp. Pb; $16.99.   Link to IVP

In Overturning Tables, Scott Bessenecker offers bold suggestions for new ministry models applicable to both traditional missions as well as western church ministry. The problem is what he calls the Christian Industrial Complex, where the Gospel has become the product and the unsaved the consumer. Strategies for reaching the lost are barely distinguishable from methods for selling products to consumers. As Bessenecker says, “one can barely distinguish a conference design for Protestant pastors, church leaders or mission agency executives from a commercial convention for those dealing with data management, telecommunications or selling shower curtain rings” (23). He argues the American mission movement has become enslaved to a corporate attitude, with an emphasis on privatization and individualism. He believes this corporate addiction is a rejection of the values of the Kingdom of God. While his immediate interest is “world missions,” his observations can be applied to local churches, especially as they grow larger and adopt corporate management systems to cope with millions of dollars in infrastructure.

Overturning TablesThe first several chapters of this book are a brief history of missions. Bessenecker argues the roots of the Protestant missionary movement are intimately connected with the rise of capitalism. Some of the early missionaries were viewed by their Missions boards in the same way a business might look at opening a new market. This Christian Industrial Complex guided decisions about where to open new fields and how the gospel would be presented in these new fields.

In contrast to this capitalist oriented missions movement the author describes early Christian missionaries he served in fields living alongside the poor. George Leile, for example, went to Jamaica and found several churches in the late 1700s. He was more or less uneducated and untrained, but was an effective preacher, responsible for converting over 500 slaves to Christianity. Based on this and other examples throughout the book, Bessenecker argues this model of doing missions is more scriptural then the capitalistic corporate model used in most missions. He sees unintended results from the rise of capitalism and the Protestant work ethic as a result of the Reformation. He tries hard to guard against the charge of anti-capitalism, although I am not sure he is successful. There are indeed real problems with applying western capitalistic methods for doing missions in majority world countries.

In order to remedy the situation, Bessenecker suggests re-examining the structure of mission boards, avoiding corporate organizational models. He also suggests the model found in Acts is far more biblical and ought to be adapted for modern Missions projects. For example, there are many missionaries who live in communities alongside those they are trying to reach. Often this is a missionary from another majority world country reaching into places a Westerner could not.

A serious problem for Western missionaries is the perception of wealth as missionaries move into the majority world. Compared to most of the world, the West is fantastically rich and the potential of getting money Western missions organizations is tempting. But money is not always the answer when establishing missions, Bessenecker argues, since the prosperity gospel has caused a host of serious problems in places like Nigeria. Bessenecker calls this a “syncretic, American expression of God’s kingdom on earth.” It is a fact it costs a great deal of money to put a missionary on the field so many missions organizations must function like corporations in order to deal with the very real problems of money. Instead he suggests the West ought to support majority world missionaries who are going to other majority world fields. He gives several examples of this in his fourth chapter. Is it really possible to do “missions without money”?  Once again he sounds anti-capitalist by describing redistribution of wealth and turning over the purse-strings to the excluded elements of the church.

Prosperity GospelIn chapter 5 the other challenges a common view that the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ is primarily about a private exchange, sold through persuasion, making churches distributors something like stores marketing of the product. This Western, capitalist view clouds the Gospel. He bemoans the church leader pastor as a CEO as if they were presiding over a corporation. “Mission cannot be practice package as a product. He cannot be reduced to a privatized exchange. It is not a ‘mission of individual prosperity; but of communal shalom” (110). He finds the language of Christian organizations distracting from mission. Well there’s nothing inherently evil about terms CEO employee brand or market, they really destroy our efforts to preach the gospel. I would suggest this is similar to Joseph Hellermen’s When the Church was a Family (Westminster, 2009). When we use corporate language to describe relationships within the church, we run the risk of polluting the Gospel with Western corporate goals (growth and wealth). These are necessarily bad, but they were not the goals of Jesus in his ministry nor Paul in his foundational church planting.

Bessenecker is very attracted to groups like the old order Mennonites or Quakers who do ministry “like a family.” In chapter 5 he describes what it would look like for ministries to move from individualism to collectivism. Again, most western capitalist Christians cringe at the word “collectivism.” Unlike the West, most of the world value some form of collectivism highly valuing families and communities as a way of existing.  This sort of model of mission work will lead to both plurality and diversity in leadership. The Western corporate model values the “Type-A” leader: a person who is aggressive, no-nonsense, decision-maker, someone who values direct confrontation. That sort of a leader is required in a major corporation. But according Bessenecker, the “Type-A” leader is detrimental to a mission in a culture which values family. A better model is a leader who seeks consensus and community diversity.

In chapter 6 the author uses the book of Acts as a model for how to do ministry today. He examines the appointment of deacons in chapter 6 as a way of empowering the margins of the early church. In my view, Bessenecker overstates his case by using the deacons as a model for cultural diversity. The difference between Hellenists and Hebraists in Acts 6 is not as great as he makes it out to be. In addition I find his comments on Antioch Christianity troublesome. He says “Christianity sheds its Jewish wineskin and become something unrecognizable as Judaism” (146). That does not seem to me to be what is In Antioch at all, as the book of Galatians makes clear. I really don’t think “the sketchy Gentile church in Antioch” is a proper description for what is happening in Acts 11. Bessenecker is however correct that the margins of the church need to be recognized and treated with respect. He is also correct that in order to reach people in majority world countries the West needs to empower the majority world countries in order to reach their own people.

Chapter 7 briefly deals with the problem of independent churches on the mission field in endowing local churches may be a way of breaking dependence on the west. In fact in chapter 8 the author describes this is moving from “growth to flourishing” churches. A serious problem with this however is using western criteria for growth to measure growth and maturity world contexts. A growing church looks different in Southern California than it might in Central Africa. He concludes the chapter by arguing the Western church needs to break from their “addiction to growth (177). In order to do this, Western churches ought to focus primarily on their own spiritual growth and recognize there are times of “spiritual dormancy” in a ministry. These downtimes are not negative at all but can be used to enhance growth in the future.

Conclusion. This is a challenging book since it does offer a model of doing missions that is clearly different than the popular Western model based on capitalism. Most American mega-churches exist because they have copied a corporate model of “moving product” rather than preaching the Gospel of the Grace of God for all people. Bessenecker is to be applauded for this challenge to the church. If you are involved in ministry, either missions or local church work, this book is an essential, challenging read.

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

So Called ChristiansTurner, Jim. So-Called Christians: Healing Spiritual Wounds Left By The Church. Greenville, South Carolina: Ambassador International, 2014.157 pages, pb., $11.99   Link

Jim Turner is a pastor with more than 25 years of experience in a variety of church settings. He works with ChurchOneNow, a ministry focusing on “rebuilding unity and restoring relationships” for people who have been hurt and spiritually damaged by their experience in the church. Turner claims that more people have been hurt by the church than World War Two; as many as 37% of un-churched Americans say they do not attend church because of a negative experience.

The goal of So-Called Christians is to meet the suffering caused by the church head-on and offer some healing to people who have genuinely been damaged by Christians. The first two chapters of the book describe the problem of the church as an “autoimmune disease.” By this Turner means the Church is destroying itself. He uses to 1 Cor 1:10-13 and argues the Church today destroying itself with schisms. He jokingly “translates” 1 Cor 1:13 as “Is Christ divided? Was Charles Stanley crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of John Piper?” (34). Later in the book he calls this “doctrinal snobbery.”

In contrast to the divisive nature of the Church today, Jesus’ prayer for the Church is unity (John 17). In chapters 3-5 Turner describes the biblical idea for the church. Paul’s ideal for the Church is having one mind, unified around the idea of Jesus. Turner therefore examines the virtues in Col 3:12-14 as traits of Christ that would promote unity in the church if they were consistently practiced. He also examines the unity resulting from having the “mind of Christ” (Phil 2) and draws several applications to relationships within the church.

In Chapters 6-7 Turner begins to deal with the boundaries defining “Christian.” He makes a distinction between a “matter of conscience” (drinking a beer or smoking a pipe), a “doctrinal distinctive” (local church government, sign gifts, day of worship), and “essential Christian doctrine” (clear moral absolutes and defining doctrines of the faith). Anyone reading this book will likely fill in their own issues in each of those categories, but the idea that there are some things a Christian must reject and must accept is clear. It is the middle category (“matters of conscience”) where judgment and division happen.  He uses the example of contemporary worship here and advises we not “argue over opinions” (citing Roman 13). It is important, however, to accept the fact that my liberty might be a stumbling block to another Christian. A person who “exercises their liberty” in a matter may need to limit themselves so that they do not cause a brother or sister to stumble (85). This is an excellent point, but I wonder how far Turner is willing to push his principle of not judging in “matters of conscience.” The examples he gives are fairly straightforward, but there are other issues that are much more difficult and culturally sensitive.

Chapters 8-10 discuss the doctrinal lines defining Christianity. For the most part, Turner is a conservative evangelical and includes a twenty-four page article from Norman Geisler on the essential doctrines of Christianity. He has a summary of “essentials” drawn from the classic Christian creeds. Following Geisler, he divides these between items necessary to be saved (Trinity, human depravity, deity and humanity of Christ, necessity of grace and faith, Christ’s atoning death and his resurrection) and items that are not necessary (virgin birth, ascension, Christ’s present service and his second coming). Lest you think he is some sort of Rob Bell, Turner is clear that Geisler’s list is correct, but he would not separate from a brother in Christ for misunderstanding the virgin birth or the second coming. His point in this section is that a “loving defense of the truth maintains unity” (122).

There are several things missing from this book. First, I would have liked Turner to be even more forthright about the real problem facing the church today.  Like the church at Corinth, the real heart of our divisive spirit is sin and pride. Since he is writing to people who have been hurt, I suspect that he avoids calling disunity a sin, but that seems to be what Paul would have said to Corinth.

Second, and more perhaps critically, the book does a great job dealing with the solution, but Turner does not deal with any specific, controversial issues. For example, I agree many people stop attending church because they were “judged” by people in a local church. But in my experience, doctrinal issues are rarely the problem. In the modern American church it is very easy to find out what a church believes, simply check their website and you will likely get all the mission statements and doctrinal affiliation information you need. The people I meet who have been wounded by the church are people who have a lifestyle that just does not work in the typical evangelical church. The teenager with several tattoos and piercings who attends a typical church wearing his Slayer t-shirt and a dog-collar is going to be judged by the homeschool kids in youth group. I know of several situations where parents did not want their kids attending youth group because “those kids” were in the group, so this scenario is not far-fetched at all.

Third, sometimes hurt Christians have deep personal sins resulting in a harsh attack by the local church. The book does not address the hurt people have when they are attacked by a well-meaning (or just mean) person over a sinful lifestyle. For example, there are homosexual Christians who are in fact judged harshly by some churches and made to feel so uncomfortable they walk away from the church entirely. How can a church “love the sinner” while “hating the sin”? This is a real problem in contemporary American churches, but this goes beyond Turner’s stated goals for this book. Nevertheless, the harsh attitude towards sinners from the more conservative branches of the American Church need to be addressed and there was opportunity for Turner’s book to do just that.

Conclusion. Turner’s book was written from his personal experience in the Church and his commitment to being the Church as it is described in the New Testament. This is not a scholarly book filled with detailed exegesis; it is a heartfelt reflection on the Word of God as he observes the destructive power of divisions in the church.

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

EldersNewton, Phil A. and Matt Schmucker. Elders in the Life of the Church: Rediscovering the Biblical Model for Church Leadership. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel, 2014. Pb. $16.99   Link to Kregel

Both of the authors of this new book from Kregel are well-qualified to write a book on biblical leadership. Pastor at South Woods Baptist Church in Memphis, Phil Newton has written on elders in Elders in Congregational Life: Rediscovering the Biblical Model for Church Leadership (Kregel, 2005). Elders in the Life of the church is a revision of this earlier book. Matt Schmucker is the founding director of 9Marks, “a ministry dedicated to equipping church leaders with a biblical vision and practical resources.” The ministry publishes 9Marks Journal, a quarterly themed journal with articles of interest to pastors and church leaders. Elders in the Life of the Church is decidedly Baptist in orientation: Mark Dever (author of Nine Marks of a Healthy Church) writes the forward and Al Mohler offers a back-cover endorsement. The authors contribute alternating chapters, with Newton giving the detailed biblical support for elders and Schmucker offering short anecdotal sketches of how Mark Dever and Capitol Hill Baptist Church made a transition to Elder Leadership.

The main point of the book is that the ideal model for the leadership of the local church is a plurality of qualified elders. These qualifications are found in specific passages in the New Testament and the “church must give serious attention to the New Testament pattern of spiritual leadership” (114). The book is written to support leadership by “plurality of elders” as opposed to a single elder (the pastor).

The first part is a defense of elder leadership in the local church. Schmucker says “mentioning “elders: to most twentieth century Baptists was like saying ‘College of Cardinals.’ It was unfamiliar, maybe even secretive, and therefore deserving of suspicion” (59). This first section therefore must deal with this kind of mistrust from church members who have never been led by a plurality of elders by showing the history of elders within Baptist circles as well as a brief overview of the qualities expected of elders in the New Testament.

Part two examines the biblical data for elder leadership, Acts 20:17-31; 1 Tim 3:1-7, Hebrews 13:17-19; 1 Peter 5:1-5. One chapter is devoted to a basic exegesis of these texts, with references to Greek in transliteration and in footnotes. With respect to the duties of elders, preaching, teaching and ruling are the main duties, although “ruling” is left undefined. Newton follows Mounce’s commentary on the Pastoral Epistles closely, pointing out that the character of an elder is defined in 1 Timothy in contrast to the opponents in Ephesus. Paul is not saying an elder must be a “super Christian,” but rather a spiritually mature leader. They are shepherds, watching over the flock (1 Peter 5:1-5).

Finally, part three of the book moves from theory to practice, offering some advice on transitioning a church to a leadership style based on biblical elders. If they are right about elder leadership in the second section of the book, then some congregations will have to change radically in order to have biblical leadership. Here both Newton and Schmucker share the experience in moving a congregation to a “plurality of elders” leadership model. The advocate for a slow, almost evolutionary change and offer advice on making some beginning steps in establishing elders and deacons within a congregation. Change is never easy and is almost always resisted, Newton and Schmucker recognize this and hope to ease the pain if a church should decide to change in this way.

I have always fellowshipped I churches with a “plurality of elders,” so to some extent it was disorienting to read a defense of elder leadership. On the one hand, I was already in agreement with the premise and did not need to move my church to a plurality of elders. There was nothing shocking in Newton’s presentation of a biblical model of elder leadership, although I was occasionally puzzled by reading Schmucker’s experience at Capitol Baptist. But that is mostly because my experience has been quite different.

In fact, I have often wondered if the leadership model of the early church is supposed to be normative for all generations of the church. It seems to me Paul’s churches were not significantly different than synagogues, but Christian churches only pick some elements of that leadership and not others, and usually in ignorance of the origins of these practices. People tend to tenaciously cling to church traditions without really wondering if they are biblical or not. In the end, however, I agree elder leadership is far more biblical than any of the alternatives (monarchial, single elder, American corporate board leadership, pure democracy, etc.)

One thing missing from this book is any discussion of women as elders. The assumption seems to be that only men may serve as elders. Neither 1 Tim 2:9-15 or 1 Cor 14:3-35 are discussed, and although 2:12 appears once in the book, it is with reference to the views of another pastor. While those two texts are not specifically referring to woman as elders, they are part of the discussion. There is no mention of Phoebe (Rom 16:1, a deacon) or Junia (Rom 16:7, possibly an apostle) in the book. Given the Baptist context of the book, this is not surprising and a discussion of the issue of women in ministry would have introduced a controversial and divisive issue, distracting from the overall argument of the book.

This does not mean the book will not be valuable to churches already using elder leadership. The use of “biblical” in the title is important, since the goal of the book is to describe how the churches of the New Testament were led. One could read only Newton’s chapters and have a good overview of the New Testament view of church leadership, or read just Schmucker’s chapters in order to see how a church can change to this style of leadership.

Any church (Baptist or non-) can use this book to redefine and reinvigorate their leadership by re-aligning that leadership with biblical values for those whom God has called to lead his flock.

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

 

Rainer, Thom S. Autopsy of a Deceased Church. Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2014.  Hb. 112 pages, $12.99   Link

Thom Rainer is a well-known Church Growth and Sunday School expert with years of experience in ministry and a number of books to his credit. This short book deals with an very important issue for American churches, why are many Churches dying? Rainer offers a series of reasons and some proposals for how to deal with seriously ill and dying churches. Each chapter concludes with a short “prayerful commitment” and a few questions for further thought. These questions frequently return to the text of the New Testament and ask how the Bible can be used to evaluate the present church.

Autopsy Thom RanierThe first two chapters make a simple point: many churches in America are dying. Rainer claims this number to be as high as 100,000. A Google search will turn up a number of similar estimates for how many churches close each year. Despite a large number of new churches planted each year, few observers of the American church landscape will dispute Rainer’s point. The main theme of this book is “Decline is not an event, it is a process.” Rarely does a church have something so traumatic happen that is suddenly shuts its doors. The process is so slow it is usually not noticed until it is too late.

The bulk of the book is a series of nine indications that something is wrong. Some of these are very obvious – churches that live in the past are usually churches in decline. Ralph Neighbour wrote a little paperback in 1979 with a similar theme: The Seven Last Words of the Church. Those words were “we never did it that way before.” When a church idolizes the past and ceases to reach out to their community, the church marginalizes itself and risks decline and death. Several of Rainer’s chapters deal with this inward focus. First, there is no evangelism, so there are no new members. Churches without active evangelism tend to remember the “good old days” when the church did have evangelistic crusades. Second, a church in decline has an inward-focused budget. Rather than investing in ministry and evangelism, the church cuts money for outreach. Often budget decisions support the church facility rather than the ministry of the church. When the church building becomes more important than the church mission, the church is most likely already dead.

Three of Rainer’s chapters concern spiritual matters. First, a church that does not pray is in grave danger. Here he has a good scriptural foundation, since there are many examples of churches fasting and praying in the New Testament. Second, a church that has no clear purpose is likely in decline but does not know it yet. A church that does not have a clear purpose has no way to know they are not meeting their objectives! A symptom of this lack of purpose is a “preference driven church.” Most people who have attended Church regularly know that any change to a program will be met with strong resistance by those who prefer things to remain the same.(Go ahead and put drums on the stage, see how people react to that!)

It is not all bad news. Rainer offers three chapters for churches that only have a few of the symptoms described in the book, for churches that are very sick, and for churches that are dying. Sadly, there are churches that are too far gone and need to die. Rainer suggests a few steps that will help the church “die with dignity.”  I realize the book is a short set of reflections on the decline of churches, but I think that each of the last three chapters deserve much more attention. Perhaps there is a need for the American church to have a manual on how to let a church die in a way that provides life for another new Church.

Conclusion. This is a short, inexpensive book. I can see church boards purchasing copies for each member and working through the chapters for a few weeks, using the discussion questions to evaluate their own church. In fact, I would highly recommend to Pastors and Church Boards to read through this little book together and honestly discuss Rainer’s points, whether their church is doing well or obviously in decline.  While it is true some churches need to die, it is not too late to begin a revival.

Thom Rainer has a very active website / blog. B&H has produced a “book trailer” for Autopsy of a Deceased Church.

NB: Thanks to Broadman & Holman for kindly providing me with an electronic review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

 

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