Thom Rainer is president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources. He is a pastor and researcher, authoring more than twenty books, including Transformational Church and The Millennials. Eric Geiger leads the LifeWay Church Resources division of LifeWay Christian Resources in Nashville, TN. Prior to joining LifeWay, he served as executive pastor of Christ Fellowship in Miami.
Do you suffer from “ministry schizophrenia?” Do we have so much going on that we don’t know who we are as a church? (21) The authors argue that this is a prevalent ailment that infects many churches in America. The major premise of this title is that churches have gotten too complicated. Naturally, churches “drift toward complexity” (246) and the more complex churches become, the more churches “drift off mission” (250). A simple church “is designed around a straightforward and strategic process that moves people through the stages of spiritual growth. The leadership and the church are clear about the process (clarity) and are committed to executing it. The process flows logically (movement) and is implemented in each area of the church (alignment). The church abandons everything that is not in the process (focus)” (67-68).
The authors call this book a “nerdy research project” (243). It is the result of their research based on multiple surveys of hundreds of churches. The authors contend – on the basis of their research evidence – that simple churches are healthier on the whole than complex churches. While complex churches are often “program-centered,” the simple church is “process-centered” (212). After all, “spiritual growth (sanctification) is the process of a believer being transformed into the image of Christ” (16). The book encourages churches not just to focus on the “what” (i.e. to make disciples) but also on the process of the “how,” i.e. what is our process for carrying out the Great Commission (234).
The book is divided into two main sections. Part I is “Simple Revolution.” Part II is “Becoming a Simple Church.” Part I starts with an interesting comparison of what a “simple” and a “not-so-simple” church looks like. Obviously, the simple church was running smoothly with clear direction and mission focus. Part I continued with the need for an “Extreme Makeover” to become a simple church and outlined the necessary ingredients to become a simple church – Clarity, Movement, Alignment, and Focus. Part I concluded with a snapshot of 3 churches (small, medium, and large) who had successfully adopted the “simple” concept. The outline for part II was explaining the four ingredients to become a simple church.
Here is a helpful summary: Clarity (i.e. unified goal): “Clarity is the ability of the process to be communicated and understood by the people” (70; the basis for chapter 5). Movement (i.e. Assimilation): “Movement is the sequential steps in the process that cause people to move to greater areas of commitment” (72; the basis for chapter 6). Alignment (i.e. Every ministry buys into the process): “Alignment is the arrangement of all ministries and staff around the same simple process” (74; the basis for chapter 7). Focus (i.e. Don’t be afraid to shoot the dogs): “Focus is the commitment to abandon everything that falls outside of the simple ministry process” (76; the basis for chapter 8).
There are many valuable thoughts for ministry in this book. Just to highlight a few, this reviewer found it refreshing that the authors reminded us repeatedly that as we look at this process, we need to realize that the “ministry process is not where the power lies. Only God does the transforming” (139). We simply want to be good stewards of what God has given us. We only have so many volunteer hours to work with as well as only so much money in the budget. Creating a simple church helps to assure that we are being the wisest stewards of time and money (207-209).
The book also made a helpful observation about why simple seems to be better: “If you want the necessary to stand out, you have to get rid of the unnecessary…the unnecessary divides attention, resources, and time. The unnecessary can hide the necessary” (80). The authors made use of memorable illustrations like the college kid who stayed in school on the bachelor degree route for 12 years because he was comfortable. Similarly, there are many Christians who are content to stay where they are at spiritually (147-148). Another notable example is the need for pastors to live this “simple church” concept in their daily conversations and meetings, not just preach about it from the pulpit by illustrating that we need more tour guides (i.e. people to go with you), not travel agents (i.e. people who just tell you where to go).
Something I appreciated throughout the book were the biblical illustrations at the end of most sections. For the most part they were very well done (though some were a bit of a stretch). One that was a stretch for me was when the authors used the account of Hezekiah breaking Moses’ bronze snake to illustrate that the church needs more Hezekiahs to make those kind of unpopular decisions of what needs to be cut. However, most were well done like the numerous encouragements from the Bible to strive for a “focus” in ministry plans (201-202).
As is expected from the authors’ theological background, there are phrases used that make us uncomfortable like: “the simple church strategy is effective” (67), though this can be understood correctly in the light of the authors’ repeated statements about God being the one who works change in hearts. When talking about how the Christian church wins in the end, one wonders what their perception of election and God’s role is with comments like: “The question is, how much will we win by? How big a dent in the gates of hell will we make? Will we run up score?” (86). The sacraments are referred to as “ordinances” (119) and as in books of similar ilk, the encouragement is to “hire” ministers with similar philosophies instead of working toward unity with those the Holy Spirit has “called” to serve with you (51, 170).
The authors state that many churches have become cluttered, so cluttered that many people are busy doing church instead of being the church. Then they ask, “What about your church?” (19). This book will help you and your congregational leaders answer that question and evaluate your ministry whether you are a small, medium, or big church. Though the book is a product of research work, it does not read that way. The discussion questions at the end of each chapter are a ready-made way to get the conversation started in your congregation. I would recommend this book to anyone who feels that their church has gotten too “cluttered,” and wants to get back to being a “simple” church.