Simple Church

Simple Church reveals the results of research comparing growing and vibrant churches to nongrowing and struggling churches. Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger’s research showed that “the vibrant churches were much more simple than the comparison churches” (13-14). Here is the essential conclusion they come to based on their research:

The significance is that, in general, simple churches are growing and vibrant. Churches with a simple process for reaching and maturing people are expanding the kingdom. Church leaders who have designed a simple biblical process to make disciples are effectively advancing the movement of the gospel. Simple churches are making a big impact.

Conversely, complex churches are struggling and anemic. Churches without a process or with a complicated process for making disciples are floundering. As a whole, cluttered and complex churches are not alive. Our research shows that these churches are not growing. Unfortunately, the overprogrammed and busy church is the norm. The simple church is the exception, yet our research shows that should not be the case (14).

Here is how they define a simple church:

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).

One of the motivations for writing this book is the conviction that the church should be making disciples, not just converts. The church should help people be transformed and grow in their faith. The authors write:

We are talking about people not being transformed. Week after week, year after year, many people are the same. The building project of people’s lives is stalled. Stagnant believers and congested churches go hand in hand.

Sadly, in many churches people are stuck in the same place spiritually. And there is no intentional process to move them.

The Bible paints a different picture of spiritual growth. According to Scripture a believer’s life is to be transformed more and more. People are not supposed to be the same. There is to be progression, movement.

Our churches should be filled with people who are becoming. Becoming more like Christ. Becoming more loving and joyful. Becoming. Being transformed (136).

The problem then is that many churches are not clear about what they are trying to accomplish. They have many programs that they want everyone to come to, but they are not clear how each program is contributing to the overall mission of what the church is trying to accomplish. Rainer and Geiger want church leaders to realize that “Discipleship of new believers does not just happen. It must be intentional” (157). As a result, the most important thing for a church to do is to design a simple process for making disciples and to focus all of the church’s energies and resources on that process.

One strength of the book is that they have done quite a bit of research and they share the results of that research, but they also use case studies as a way of helping their research come to life through concrete examples. The model example of a Simple Church is a church that they discuss whose mission and process is exactly the same. It is to love God, to love our neighbor, and to serve. That is what this church is all about. The broadest level is loving God which they see happening through the weekly worship service. They then ask people who are committed to coming to the worship service to join a small group, which is where they focus on the love of neighbor. And then the deepest level is serving where they ask for people who are in small groups to join a service group which either serves within the church or outside of the church.

I found this book to be a very interesting read. Their ideas made a lot of sense to me. I feel like I have observed several churches who have fallen into the trap of being busy for the sake of being busy. The hope seems to be that if we just keep doing things, something that we do will be the magic program that causes people to find what they are looking for. It makes a lot of sense to turn this upside down and start with, what is it that we believe we are here for as a church, what do we have to offer that people are looking for? And how can we offer them that most effectively?

The other idea that really resonated with me was the stubborn refusal to accept that the church can tolerate the sad reality that in many churches people are able to stagnate in the pews for decades without experiencing any transformation. How is it that we have come to a place where it is part of the culture of the church that God accepts our refusal to change? I agree strongly with what I perceive to be one of the main motivations of Rainer and Geiger in writing this book, the church exists primarily to initiate people into the life of faith and then enable them to grow in that faith. If the church is not doing that, it is fundamentally failing.

I want to air one minor criticism that I had and then discuss some thoughts that I had as I read this book on how the ideas in this book are connected to the Wesleyan tradition.

The first chapter begins as follows:

Relax. This book is not about another church model. If you are a church leader, you have been exposed to plenty of models. Most of them are on your shelf. Or worse, you have blended a bunch of models into one schizophrenic plan. If that is the case, neither you nor the people in your church are really sure what your church is all about. We see it all the time.

Go ahead, let down your guard. No new program is going to be pushed. There will be nothing new to add to your calendar. If anything, you will be encouraged to eliminate some things, to streamline. This book will help you design a simple process of discipleship in your church. It will help you implement the model you have chosen. It will help you simplify (3).

I think this beginning is a bit deceptive, or at least an oversimplification. The authors seem to really want not just the idea to be simple, but also the application for local church leaders to be simple. Moreover, they want it to not just be simple, but also easy. I think that their thesis is profound, but I am certainly not convinced that implementing it in a local church with much of any history would be easy. In fact, I would guess it might be one of the hardest things that a church would ever dare to do. (Definitely worth it, but very difficult.) Ultimately, I also think they are offering another church model. I think it is a very good one, but I am not sure how it avoids being a model for doing church.

For this vision to become a reality the visionaries would have to invest a significant amount of time casting their vision with key leaders in the church. They would have to invest time listening to the concerns of those leaders. Time would have to be spent discussing what the simple process would be that the church would implement. In the long run (once the process is fully in place) the load on one’s calendar would certainly be lightened, but getting there would seem to take a lot of time and effort. Ultimately, I think the effort would certainly be worth it. However, the expectation that is initially set just seems a little unrealistic. (It may be that they are aware of this and it is simply a ploy to hook you and grab your attention.)

Concerning application, and this is where I found myself getting really excited, my first impression is that there are some very strong applications between the ideas in this book and the early Methodist movement. Early Methodism was built on a simple process for making disciples, for helping people to become deeply committed Christians. John Wesley wanted Methodists to be involved in the society meeting, the class meeting, and the band meeting. The expectation was that participating in these three levels helped one to enter into deeper and deeper commitment and experience increasing transformation and renewal in the image of God. Many Wesleyan scholars have noticed how the society, class, band structure could be compared to the three ways that grace operates in our lives. The society meeting related to preventing grace (where people experienced a spiritual awakening). The class meeting related to justifying grace (where people experienced the awareness of the forgiveness of their sins and the new birth). The band meeting related to sanctifying grace (where people grew in holiness and became more and more like Christ).

I found myself wondering if John Wesley would have read this book and said, “Duh. That is what I have been talking about all along. You have just discovered the method behind Methodism!” (Not to take anything away from Rainer and Geiger at all with this comment. In fact if that is true, Methodists should thank them for the reminder!)

Ultimately, I would absolutely recommend this book! I am confident that it will challenge you to think more carefully about what your church is (or should be) all about.

Is your church a simple church? Are people who are members of your church expected to experience transformation by the grace of God? Is there a process in place to encourage that to happen?