Church Planting Movements Reviewed

Hi everyone. It has been a long time since I’ve posted a book review. Our move to Nashville has sidetracked a lot of how I’ve spent my time previously but I’m hoping to get into a little groove and get some posts out here.

This review is on Church Planting Movements by David Garrison, a 15-year old book that describes several explosive (in a good way) waves of missionary activity where hundreds of churches were planted among some of the least reached people in the world. The book has its rabid advocates and cautious detractors so I felt like taking my own walk through its pages made a lot of sense.

I’ll just say up front that I liked the book and am glad I read it. That isn’t to say that I found everything in the book compelling or motivating, but it is a book that should be read by more people from the more conservative evangelical circles. A review by someone smarter and much better known can be found here. The book is divided into two basic sections: a descriptions of these incredible movements of people turning to Jesus Christ in various regions and then a discussion about the conditions present in each of those locations. Garrison calls these situations “church planting movements” “rapid and multiplicative increases of indigenous churches planting churches within a given people group or population segment.”

There are lots of wonderful quotes from world (non-American) church leaders that alone make the book worth reading. Some of the direct and indirect quotes I found most compelling:

  • By contrast, our descriptive analysis reveals that God has chosen to launch most Church Planting Movements among the least likely candidates – unreached people groups, which have often been dismissed by those looking for responsive harvest fields. (loc 315)
  • Conventional wisdom in the West has often taught a reasonable yet much less effective pattern of gospel transmission. “You must first earn the right to share your faith,” goes the traditional model. “Once you have developed a friendship and demonstrated that you are really different, your lost friend will ask you what is special about your life. Then, you can tell them about Jesus.” A passionate purveyor of Church Planting Movements denounced this Western model. “We teach that it’s not about you or earning the right to share your faith. Jesus earned that right when He died on the cross for us. Then he commanded us to tell others!” (loc 2701)
  • “Pol Pot nearly destroyed the church,” she said. “All the while he was ruining the country, though, Christians were ministering to Cambodian refugees in camps along the Thai border. I do believe that the Christian ministry during that time helped prepare their hearts for what is happening now.’ (loc 969)
  • In speaking of how displaced and outcast peoples respond to the gospel, “Unfortunately the opposite is also true. Great social stability tends to lull people into a false sense of security. They forget that life is short and that one must prepare for eternity. This creates an obstacle for affluent Western Europe, Japan, and the United States where unparalleled economic health has fostered unparalleled spiritual malaise.” (loc 3563)

The book begs traditional western Christians to think of missionary activity differently. Rather than thinking of setting up churches that look a lot like they do in culturally Christian contexts, Garrison advocates using house churches of 10 – 20 new believers led by lay leaders. The shift in the goal has massive implications on church leader training, expectations of members, and exponential reach of a network of 20 churches of 10 people in different locations rather than one 200 person church led by a paid pastor. I will do a separate blog post on the practical ramifications of this approach as I see them based on our ministry experience.

I think my biggest takeaway from the book is that God has done some pretty amazing things with the expansion of his kingdom in the last 20 years or so. Almost none of them have been inside North America, so unless you’re reading books like this you would never know about them. It’s easy to look at the collapse of cultural Christianity around us and feel like maybe God is on vacation, but the many accounts (verified by independent sources) covered in this book put that idea to bed quickly. We just need to open our eyes beyond the Americas to see it.

Another key takeaway from the book is the way it documents what is common, or tends to be common, among all these totally unrelated movements. This is at one time a core strength of the book and one of its weaknesses. While Garrison does caveat his “findings” somewhat, much of what is presented in the book is more sociology than theology. It describes things that occurred in a 15 year period and looked for commonalities. It did not primarily look to the Scriptures to evaluate what was going on theologically. That’s fine provided we all recognize that. Unfortunately, the successes seen in these movements have been interpreted by some as evidence that the common elements active there are universally true of all peoples and all times and I don’t think we can take things that far.

Then there are some pretty goofy things in the book as well but these are easy to overlook. It’s obvious that 2 Tim 3:5 is not a licence to ignore existing local churches that have a different missiology as Garrison tries to claim (Loc 3990). According to Romans 8:1-8, it is not theologically possible for people in a church planting movement to “often begin serving Christ even before they become his follower.” (loc 3700) It is borderline ridiculous to claim that the caution used by traditional churches in assigning leadership roles to newer believers makes them bored enough to leave the faith (loc 3693). Most of these real problems are confined to one section of the book and were easy to overlook for me.

Overall I think it is a book worth reading. Feel free to question the valuing of rapidity over stability, how theologically astute church leaders can become under these conditions, or whether error will easily creep into this kind of movement. But please do it from a position that honors the ways these brothers are more theologically correct than many traditional churches. Sentimental pats on the head while arguing they have nothing right and are all headed to ruin is not loving but also not right. Those like Garrison arguing for rapid multiplication of churches have more theologically correct views on the urgency of the missionary task, the priesthood of believers, the power of God, and in many cases the way the gospel is supposed to triumph over culture (especially American academic loving culture).

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Purpose Driven Life Reviewed (final)

Well, it’s been a journey to get through this book and the additional time has given the more opportunities to reflect on it than had I just rushed through it. The book is very light reading and it would be easy to finish in under a week to a reader that is committed to finishing it. Rather than give a point by point review of everything I liked and didn’t like I thought I would group my comments.

Likes

  • As I said above, it is very easy reading. My friends who did not finish high school could probably read and understand everything in it.
  • Warren is trying to address a common problem of professing Christians living meaningless lives without any emphasis on eternity.
  • There are certain points that he makes in the book such as God’s claim on the life of a Christian or the idea that the Christian life is to be one dedicated to serving others that are totally biblical and in short supply in our consumer driven churches.
  • I appreciated his emphasis on churches being a group of people committed to one another and to Jesus. (“Attenders are spectators from the sidelines, members get involved in the ministry”, p 136)
  • He can be very effective in using analogies and illustrations to make his points for him (for example when explaining that growing in Christ is meant to be a lifelong pursuit rather than a lightning bolt moment he says “When God wants to make a mushroom, he does it overnight, but when he wants to make a giant oak, he takes a hundred years”, p 222)
  • Chapters 10 on the heart of worship and chapter 29 on service are perhaps the best chapters in the book.
  • I have to admit that upon reflection, some of what initially rubbed me the wrong way ended up being an issue of improper emphasis rather than outright error.

Dislikes

  • By far my #1 complaint about the book and the reason I could never recommend it is Warren’s willingness to twist the Scriptures to get verses to say things he wanted to be able to say. This is true in the majority of the verses he cites. He tries to explain his use of so many different versions by saying other versions make verses more clear, but in reality he often chooses translations that do not hold the original language’s meaning if they include a particular work he wants to use. So on page 141 when he chooses the GWT version to get the word “sympathetic” in English, he abandoned the truth that the word the GWT translates “sympathetic” every other version translates “compassionate.” The only reason he did that is he already talked about compassion and now he wanted to make the Bible say what he wanted it to say. (The Greek word is oiktirmos, and you can see this by simply looking up Col 3:12 on biblehub.com). He does the same thing over and over which sadly I find sinfully dishonest.
  • Beyond that, there are just too many places in the book where he introduces psychobabble where the Scriptures have a voice. Psychology has some uses and I wouldn’t ever throw it overboard completely, but when the Bible has a competing claim, the Bible must win. Warren doesn’t seem to believe that – he believes things like “the more you fight a feeling, the more it consumes and controls you. You strengthen it every time you think it.” This is nowhere in the Bible but I did see it on Oprah once. This is most evident in his series of chapters on SHAPE (Spiritual Gifts, Heart, Abilities, Personality, Experience). Over and over he introduces concepts about who we are as people that are formed more by Dr. Phil than the Apostle Paul. When he introduces concepts like our “emotional heartbeat” to tell us where we should be serving he completely removes the supernatural from the equation. He seems to believe that God has hardwired people a certain way from birth and this never changes. To the contrary, the Apostle Paul said that he BECAME all things to all men that he might win some (1 Cor 9:22). I get why this is a popular stance to an American church that cherishes comfort above all else, but it’s just nowhere in the Bible.
  • Those two reasons alone would be enough to sink this book but there are more reasons to dump it. Warren will occasionally introduce sin, but not God’s wrath. I don’t remember seeing the word “repent” anywhere, even though the Reformers thought it was critical to the purpose driven life (see esp. Luther’s 1st thesis). He prefers to talk about hurts, flaws, or mistakes. He writes about Christianity mostly in terms of the benefits it brings in the here and now rather than either the heavenly reward Paul and the author of Hebrews tout, or even as an escape from the wrath of God.

Overall, this book is much less bad than I thought it would be but it’s nowhere near good enough to recommend to anyone.

Purpose Driven Life Reviewed (2)

As I promised, I’m taking this review in sections as the author asked the reader to do. Granted my sections are bigger than his, but I trust I’m honoring the spirit of what he intended.

I’ve just finished day 20 of 40 and my giant takeaway is that I don’t hate the book as much as I suspected I would. There are many things in the book that are helpful and if believers actually did them would transform their lives. For example, Warren spends day 13 talking about worship that pleases God. He goes out of his way to say that all of life is essentially worship, not just the music time during a weekly gathering on a Sunday morning. I am amazed how many people identify worship exclusively with music when that concept is nowhere in the Bible. The chapter includes some negatives like the paragraph on nine ways people draw near to God which is more Dr. Phil than Peter, Paul, or John, but for the most part Bible Warren gets this one right.

There are lots of things I think he misses like how the holiness of God ought to terrify us or the Kingship of God ought to make us willing subjects or the transcendence of God ought to amaze us. He does more or less treat people as consumers and Christianity as the product that offers the most fulfilling life with the best benefits. But there is a lot of good mixed with the bad – certainly a lot more than I expected to see.

And I think that has been par for the course for most of these 20 chapters. For every time he chooses to talk psychobabble, there is good biblical instruction. For each time he makes the Kingdom of God sound like a shopping mall, he calls professing believers to some kind of accurate biblical commitment. For every time he abuses the Scripture with tortured interpretations or swaps out a Bible translation until he finds an English word he prefers, there is a time when he simply presents a passage in the proper context and calls the reader to respond.

Halfway through, this is still not a book I would recommend to anyone. The people I hang around are not likely to read more than a handful of books this year and there is just too much mixed content in here to have it push a good book off the list I would recommend for a light reader. But I am glad to have picked it up and had some preconceived notions of Warren get dispelled in the process.

2017 Reading List

While I did not finish my whole list in 2017, I did read a lot. In addition to all the reading necessary to finish my Master’s degree, I also read several books that were timely based on what was going on at work, home or in the little church I pastor.

For 2017, my goal is similar. I want to read books that I would not have normally picked up. After last year, I am better as seeing some of my blind spots and have chosen some books on my own, but I am grateful to those who recommended books as well. I have not matched up the criteria my friend Buffy gave me with this list, but I’ll post how well I do. Here’s the list…

Dairy Queen Days by Robert Inman – One of the book list resources provided by my friend Buffy suggested you read something based in your city or region. Robert Inman is an author that wrote several books based in Georgia. I’ve never heard of him, but it gets me out of reading Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. 

Jihad vs. McWorld by Benjamin Barber – Recommended by a freind from our old church. The book tries to explain how the battle between consumerist capitalism and religious and tribal fundamentalism will play out. Given it was written in 1995, we’ll already be able to see whether he was right.

Prepared for a Purpose  by Antoinette Tuff – I saw this book at a discount store and thought that since it was something that happened in my area that I had never heard of it could be useful to read. It also meets the criteria of being written by a woman, someone of a different race, a book by someone who isn’t a writer (sort of an oxymoron, but she’s apparently a school clerk for her day job), and a journal/memoir.

Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing – I’d read a business book that tried to squeeze principles of Shackleton’s expedition into how I should run a department and it was entertaining enough. This one was recommended by a friend and I given a colleague of mine just went on an Antarctica expedition a it should give me something to talk with her about also.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot – The same friend who posted the criteria for choosing a book list recommended this one, so if I fail it will be pretty much her fault. (evil grin) Based on the way she talked about it I can’t wait.

One Second After by William R. Forstchen – The forward for this book was written by Newt Gingrich which might be the first time Newt has been forward thinking since the Contract With America in 1995. A buddy from grade school that reconnected with me on Facebook a few years ago recommended it so it should give us something to talk about besides whether Mrs. Colosimo’s nose was real or not.

God & Churchill: How the Great Leader’s Sense of Divine Destiny Changed His Troubled World and Offers Hope for Ours by by Jonathan Sandys – Not sure I will get to this book this year given the backlog from last year. Churchill has always been an incredibly important historical figure to me but I have never read anything on him longer than article length.


Overcoming Sin and Temptation (Redesign) by John Owen, Kelly M. Kapic, Justin Taylor
 – This book is a compilation of three of Owen’s works. I love Owen in small bites, but picking up one large book of his work is not something I would have ever done without some prodding. At 464 pages, it doesn’t quite get to the need for a 500 page book but it will certainly tax me and meets the need for a 100 year old book. I’m thinking I may even give myself credit for a book translated from another language given the need for Kapic and Taylor to basically translate the old English to modern language.The One Year Chronological Bible NLT  by Tyndale – A friend of mine who pastors a large church uses the NLT with his congregation. It is not a great translation in terms of accuracy but it is super easy to read and it meets my purpose for reading the Bible chronologically from time to time. I like to see the flow of God’s movement so an easy to read version will help me focus on that rather than what the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek idioms mean.

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein – This is Lydia’s favorite book or something like that and she said she’d disown me if I didn’t read it.

You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit by James K. A. Smith – One of the things I say most often in pastoral counseling is “100% of the people, 100% of the time, chase what they love most.” This book came highly recommended by people who are highly recommended so I thought it would help me articulate my frequent saying better.

The Count Of Monte Cristo (Unabridged) by Alexandre Dumas – I needed a book that has been made into a movie, and Kristen gave the the choice of this or Pride and Prejudice. It was not a hard decision.

I Must Resist: Bayard Rustin’s Life in Letters by Bayard Rustin and Michael G. Long – One of my goals in recent years has been to read more from people who are really different than me. Sometimes this helps me see things differently, sometimes it helps me refine my own view, and always it helps me be more compassionate toward those with very different views. Rustin was a black, one time communist, gay civil rights leader who died in 1987. President Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013.

Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption by Jennifer Thompson-Cannino – This book involves a case of mistaken identity where someone incarcerated and then freed on DNA evidence from the Innocence Project reconciles with his accuser and then they both work to right this kind of injustice. Hoping it gives me some additional insight into what it looks like to be on the short end of a justice system that can fail us at times.

Books from last year that I am carrying over to 2017…

A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving – suggested by two very different people so I am eagerly anticipating it although I know nothing about it.

Side by Side by Ed Welch – Author was a seminary prof but his class was on the totally opposite end of the counseling spectrum and he always struck me more as a deep thinker than church body life master so I’m interested to see what he has to say.

Trinity by Leon Uris – Another big thick book of unknown content and style highly recommended by someone I respect a lot who is coming off a major life adventure himself. I figure if someone who’s just had their horizons broadened recommends it, I ought to take that recommendation seriously.

Fools Talk by Os Guinness – I’ve never read anything by Guinness before but I am consistently reminding myself how much I need to focus on being more winsome in presenting Jesus Christ as the supremely beautiful savior and I’m hoping this helps me.

The Reformers and their Stepchildren by Leonard Verduin – A good friend told me years ago to read the book and he’s never gotten one wrong yet. I’m interested to see how much of the Reformation is really being embraced today.

A Fighting Chance by Elizabeth Warren – Certainly not something I’d normally pick. One of the ironic things to me about watching Bernie Sanders is that he’s actually right about many of the problems but has some kind of disconnect in the solution (IMHO). I’m hoping this will both open my eyes to areas where maybe I am blind and also help me understand people on the left side of the political spectrum a little better.

Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren – Basically the same as the Max Lucado book. I feel like I might be the only person in the western Christian church who hasn’t already read this book. From the snippets that I have read and what I already know about Warren, I’m assuming I’m not going to like it but I think it’s important to see what Christians (broadly defined) are reading.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo – This was the #1 adult book sold on Amazon.com in 2015  and so it may make some sense to see what it says and to see what it says about our culture that so many copies were sold on this topic.