(Not so) Simple Church

I read Thom Rainer’s Simple Church a few months ago. I liked his proposal of having a clear, simple model of making disciples that was shared by the whole congregation (“congregation” is that a Baptist like Rainer means by “church”) so that everything it does is aligned with that model. Compared to the way disciples are accidentally made in so many traditional churches, I found the idea of a simple process attractive.

But I couldn’t quite bring myself to believe it.

First, the sub-title of the book claims too much – “Returning to  God’s Process for Making Disciples.” When I read the book, I found a very modern, rationalized, linear model for making disciples – a veritable disciple-making factory. When I look at the way Jesus made disciples in the Gospels – and if I want to discover God’s way, who else ought I to consult? – I don’t see anything as neat and simply reproducible as what I see Rainer proposing. Jesus approached each of his disciples differently. He didn’t run them through a program – even a simple one. He took them with him so they could see what he did and learn to trust him and his way of life.

Second, while I understand the attraction of a simple, linear process, I’ve seen too many who have become disciples by other means. One of the images I use when I talk about the life of discipleship is crossing three lines. As disciples of Jesus we cross a line of commitment to Jesus, a line of commitment to our own spiritual growth (that is, we aren’t just babies waiting for someone to take care of us), and a line of responsibility for the spiritual growth of others. It makes perfect sense to imagine that a disciple would progress in exactly that order. It’s an order commonly adopted in churches – we can see it in the Saddleback baseball diamond with its CLASS system.

But things don’t always work that way. I’ve seen people drawn to faith by starting at the “end” – by joining in ministry toward others. If we ask them why, chances are they won’t say, “This is a natural fulfillment of my love for Jesus.” Rather, they might just say, “I see the need, I have the ability to do something to meet it, so I do it.” While a few might have the thought of earning favor with God through their actions, there is no necessary reason to suppose such a thought.

Todd Hunter argues this same point in Christianity Beyond Belief: Following Jesus for the Sake of Others.  He says,

We are accustomed to seekers following this model: first they believe Christian truth,then they join our churches, and then they take on our practices and behaviors. I suspect, though, that upon reflection we may see that people have come to faith in more varied ways. Today many people are starting at the ‘end’ and practicing their way into the faith. It seems to be working just fine. Others start in the middle by joining a Christian community before they believe.

What happens when we insist on a particular assembly line method of making disciples? At the best, we’ll make some disciples – which is far better than simply limping along making none. But we’ll also miss many people. I think we’ll also miss God, since God appears to lead people to Jesus by multiple means.

So where can we have simplicity? Where can we have a clearly shared model of disciple-making with which we align all our ministries? Put briefly, I think we need to have three elements present at every stage, even if one is in the forefront. We need people to keep in view that Jesus is the center of all we do. We need people to keep in view that Jesus joins us together for his purposes. And we need people to keep in view that his purposes are not merely for our sake, but for the sake of the world.

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4 Responses to (Not so) Simple Church

  1. Jeff Olive says:

    I read Simple Church a couple of years ago when it first came out. I liked it, but had two critiques:
    1) The authors could have been a bit more succinct. Stories are great but some of the real world stories seem more filler than enlightening. The book would have made a great article.
    2) The text advocates a very linear and specific process for discipleship. Like you, I do not think that discipleship or faith is an easy 1-2-3 step process.
    I pulled the book out again this week and found that it must have had a bigger impact on me than I first believed. I spent the month of June praying and planning the next year of Dayspring’s ministry. As we have progressed as a church, I feel, we have also lost clarity in our values (not our vision).
    People want to know what they are involved with and why. We need direction and a sense that what we are doing matters. The basic question I have been asking is, “Do people know what Dayspring values and when they invite someone, can they communicate those values?”
    I felt that we lost clarity in what we are doing. Over the next several weeks, I am preaching on Dayspring’s values and what it means for us. Our mission is the Church’s mission ‘to make disciples of Jesus Christ.’ But the question is how does Dayspring accomplish this and the answer was: Worship—Fellowship—Service.
    We created graphics that portray this and will be part of the visual aspect of the congregation to remind us what we do. THIS IS NOT A PROCESS for us so much as it is a very clear way to communicate values.
    Anyway, looking back over simple church this week I was reminded of the point of the book which is for churches to create “clarity-movement-alignment-focus.” Even though the authors advocate doing this for the church’s discipleship process, for us this works really well in keeping the church’s values in mind.

    Sorry for the long post!

    Jeff

  2. rheyduck says:

    I understand that “losing clarity” bit. In traditional churches we may say that our mission is “making disciples,” but we’ve heard that enough that we simply equate whatever we do with “making disciples.” That’s what I DO find attractive about the simple church model: it makes us specify what we do and DON’T do.

  3. Steve Hayes says:

    I’ve not read the book, so I can’t comment on the particular model, but I have some experience with linear models, of which there have been plenty in the past — Evangelism Explosion, Four spiritual laws and the like.

    They are all quite useful in enabling people who find it difficult to articulate their faith and so witness to others to do so, by providing a framework within which to organise their thoughts and present the gospel in a coherent manner.

    The problem, as you point out, is that that it limits evangelistic witness to people who find such a linear presentation congenial. Evangelism Explosion specifically denied that it was a “canned” gospel presentation, but in fact it was. But it worked, and I sometimes saw it work in surprising circumstances. But it was also based on a particular theology (Calvinist), and some of them are also based on ecclesiological assumptions that one might not necessarily agree with. Marketing demands that such things advertise themselves as THE solution, but it is important to recognise that they are one solution among many, and if one relies only on that method distortions are bound to creep in.

  4. Don Ward says:

    I am mostly through the book and find it asking some helpful questions. There is a basic question the book poses: How does your church help a person move from initial faith in Christ to spiritual maturity? I know how I think we do it as a pastor, but I’m not sure many of my key leaders are clear on this point. I want us to move through the exercise of getting clarity and focus. I don’t think our church will be radically different, but I’m hoping it will help us be more focused and more effective. I agree that discipleship is non-linear- I could say a lot about that. People are messy and messed up. Some of the people who have been Christians the longest are sometimes the biggest babies in my church. Discipleship is not only sometimes non linear…I’m afraid too often its non-existent. We can’t answer the question because we don’t have anything like a plan…or it is too vague for many in our churches to explain it.

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