Book Reviews

Simple Church

Simple Church:  Returning To God’s Process For Making Disciples


Thom Rainer has devoted much of his life to consulting with churches to help them be all that they can be in God.  He collaborated with Eric Geiger, the executive pastor of a large Florida church, to write Simple Church:  Returning to God’s Process For Making Disciples (Broadman & Holman, 2006; ISBN 978-0-8054-4390-5).  Their study of a number of American churches has much to teach the rest of us about how “doing church” in a complicated fashion actually hinders our efforts at making disciples for Jesus.


It might seem axiomatic that the more programs a church offers, the more opportunities it has to disciple people.  But the reality is that churches that offer very few programs are more successful at making disciples.  Why?  Because their emphasis on fewer programs – on ‘doing church’ simply – allows them to concentrate their energies into reaching people in the ways that fit their vision.


We live in a busy society, so doing things simply is actually counter-cultural!  We hear of congregations that focus on few things in order to do them well, and we find that they are immensely successful at what they seek to do!  For instance, my friend Carey Nieuwhof, who has planted a church in the past year, has revolutionized the ministry’s efforts by concentrating on just two things:  Sunday morning services and weeknight community groups.  The result?  People are coming to faith in Christ, and the leadership gets to spend more time with family because they’re not programmed to death.  Margin is being built into leaders’ lives, while those participating in the congregation’s life are making decisions for Christ through their simple process.


“Process” is actually a big word for Rainer and Geiger.  They claim that if all ministries revolve around the simple process that is created for the church, and is defined with clarity and regularly communicated to the congregation, it is possible to grow the church around simplicity.


They define a simple church as “a congregation designed around a straight-forward and strategic process that moves people through the stages of spiritual growth” (p. 60).


Sounds simple, eh?  It is – especially for churches that are new start-ups.  The authors spend much of the book helping all the other leaders – most of them, really – who need help to transform an existing, complex church into a simple one.  And it isn’t easy.  It involves change, and plenty of it.  One of the longer chapters is devoted to “removing congestion”, and another to “saying No to almost everything” – challenging propositions to say the least.


The authors do a good job of helping the reader understand the main impetus, the principal reason for taking something that may be unbearably complex and making it simple:  people’s lives are on the line, for eternity.  And we want people’s hearts and lives to be changed, not only to get them into heaven, but to answer the petition of the Lord’s Prayer which asks that God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. 


We have a long way to go, but Simple Church is a valuable tool to help us get there.

Book Reviews


UnChristian:  What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity…And Why It Matters


I remember listening to the Catalyst Podcast when it was announced that Gabe Lyons was leaving the Catalyst family to set off on his own.  And what he “set off” to do was create the Fermi Project, through which Lyons engaged the Barna Group to survey a new generation of Americans about their views of the church.  The results of this survey are shared anecdotally and expanded upon in UnChristian (Baker, 2007; ISBN 0-8010-1300-3) with David Kinnaman, the President of the Barna Group.


Set your fears aside, though:  this is not another book of statistics.  Yes, there are numbers in this book, and if you like to read appendices, you’ll even find some paragraphs that would make a statistician’s heart go all aflutter.  But the book itself spends most of its effort on helping the reader understand why the statistics are so ominous for the church if it chooses to maintain the status quo.  (A somewhat parallel volume for Canadians, in my opinion, is The Boomer Factor by Reginald Bibby, which I am still reading.)


Kinnaman and Lyons seek to help the reader understand why it is important for the church of Jesus Christ to reach young people.  For example, did you know that research bears out the idea that most of us have a better chance of becoming Christ-followers before we become adults than after?  “In fact, for every one hundred people who are not born again by the time they reach the age of eighteen, only six of those individuals will commit their lives to Christ for the first time as an adult” (pp. 72-73).  Does that alone not give us reason to emphasize the spiritual foundations we give to children and youth?


God invites the church to be full of grace and truth, even as Jesus himself was full of grace and truth (John 1.14).


The sad thing is that, according to this research, the young generation of today sees the American church as hypocritical, ‘salvation-only’ focused, anti-homosexual, sheltered, too political, and judgmental.   While there would have to be some adjustments made, many of these same accusations could be levelled against the Canadian church as well.


Reading this book will help you appreciate the changes that the church needs to make in order to be able to reach a new generation of people for the Lord.


Neglecting the Hungry

Every once in a while, I get a Sunday off.  (This is by choice, of course.  I could take off far more Sundays than I do in my work with the Canadian Bible Society, but I choose to preach, somewhere, most Sundays of the year.)  And when you visit a church whose preacher and worship leader(s) you don’t remotely know, even by reputation, you’re taking a chance on what you’re going to get in terms of a Sunday morning experience.


I had one of those recently, at a church where the preacher is different every week all summer.


On this particular Sunday, a relatively large throng (perhaps 50 to 75 people by my guesstimate) had gathered to worship God.  The preacher was introduced – a ‘mature’ theological student, perhaps aged 50.  (She might have been younger.)  Her opening prayer – indeed, all of her prayers, save two – were prayers from spiritual traditions of the First Nations.


Her children’s story was a First Nations’ legend.  No Bible application, no prayer.  Just a First Nations’ legend.  In a secular context, this would have been an interesting story.  In a Christian context, without any biblical application, it was inexcusable.  It left the listener (child and adult alike) assuming that the islands in Georgian Bay, Ontario, had been created by an angry Huron deity whose desires for another legendary character had been spurned.


There were two excellent Bible readings in the service, read by a person from the congregation.  They were read well and left me waiting expectantly for their exposition and application by the preacher.


Oops.  Silly me.


The “sermon”, as it was called, seemed to me to be an unengagingly-read academic paper once submitted to a university professor.  At its heart, it was actually an interesting piece of writing.  I would have enjoyed reading it somewhere, and learned a few things from it.


But it wasn’t a sermon.  Not even close.


How can I judge it so?


Well, for one thing, it never once mentioned God.  There were fifty places, if five, where God could have been brought into the message.  But it never happened once.


Second, those two great Bible passages that were read before the message were not engaged at all.  Now, I have enough faith in the power of God to believe that God can speak through the unadorned Scripture without any difficulty.  However, it is common, in a Christian worship gathering, to engage at least one read portion of Scripture.  But it didn’t happen here.


The sad thing, as I said earlier, is that what she had to say was actually quite interesting and even perhaps of some importance.  But this gathering of people who came to hear a word from God ended up being subjected to an academic paper.  I would have had my socks blessed off (had I been wearing any…) had this theologue even attempted to apply the Scripture to the experience she shared in her paper.  Others would have, too.  But it didn’t happen.


Like most church visitors, I can freely admit that a bad sermon can sometimes be redeemed with good music.  Well, not this time, unfortunately.


There were three hymns sung during the service.  One of the three had a relatively singable tune.  That same song had a worshipful text.  Another was a Psalm paraphrase, though not as easily sung by a congregation.  The other hymn had both eminently unsingable and used a text that may have described love in some way, but not in a biblical way.  The congregation spent most of the time it was on its collective feet also collectively lost.


I can live with a dud Sunday once in a while.  I don’t seek them out or anything, but I can survive for another week if I find myself in a place where Jesus seems to have taken the day off.  But I found myself thinking, What if someone truly seeking the Lord for the first time had shown up there on Sunday?


There was a whack of people who were gathered expecting something they could apply to their walk with God that day, and there might have been someone there for whom a walk with God was a brand-new, even non-existent, thing.  What was the lunch-time chatter like for those folks?


My prayer is that the Lord spoke to them anyway.  He can do that.  If there was not sufficient special revelation present for them, there was plenty of general revelation.  People just had to look at the resplendent beauty of creation to see the hand of God at work.  It just would have been nice if that had been backed up by a little Scripture and application.


Oh well.  The welcome from fellow congregants was pretty warm, and the lemonade after the service was first-rate (something a lot of churches seem to neglect, unfortunately).  And the friends with whom we shared the experience, who likewise shared our concern, were (and are) wonderful.


God can make a silk purse out of a theological sow’s ear.


But what about all those spiritually hungry people?

Encouragement From The Word

Keep Watch!

            I’ve got good news and bad news.  First, the bad news:  my wife had her purse stolen on Thursday.


            Now, the good news:  it was found and returned to her, with (strangely) only a six-dollar, unsigned cheque missing.  I’m not sure either of us was ever so relieved to have $6 taken away from us.


            There are many, many people in this world who believe in and abide by the rule of law.  There are others – and these are the folks who make the news – who believe that laws do not apply to them, as long as those laws prevent them from accomplishing their ends.  Laws are put in place by the government, which (according to Romans 13) is put in place for our good.  While there are people who would rather not acknowledge this, the laws forbidding theft in Canada exist because of the commandment which says, “You must not steal” (Exodus 20.15; Deuteronomy 5.19, NLT).


            Because there are people who see the law as irrelevant to them, it is important that we be watchful at all times.  My wife only took her eye off her purse for a second; it didn’t seem as though there would be any danger.  She was loading groceries into her car.  But someone was just quick enough to take it, in the blink of an eye.


            Jesus told us that he would return about as quickly:  no one knows the day or hour when these things [the coming of the Son of Man, etc.] will happen, not even the angels in heaven or the Son himself.  Only the Father knows.  And since you don’t know when that time will come, be on guard!  Stay alert!” (Mark 13.32-33, NLT). 


            The Scouting movement got it right when it created its motto:  “Be Prepared.”  We need to be prepared for the return of our Lord, because we don’t know when it will happen.  It could be anytime!  We’re just called to be ready.


            Do you think my wife will be more “prepared” next time she’s carrying her purse in a shopping cart through a grocery store parking lot?  Believe it.  Nothing prepares us like such a violation.  We are grateful that nothing more than six bucks was compromised.  It could have been much worse.  If we are prepared for the return of Jesus by trusting in him by faith, we will likewise have nothing to fear.  Thanks be to God!

Book Reviews

Who Stole My Church?

Picture this:  you have been a faithful participant in your local church for most of your life.  As you grow older, a new generation of leaders takes the helm and leads the congregation in a direction that departs from what you remember as normative.  You grow increasingly uncomfortable with how things are being done – especially in worship – and you begin to wonder, “Who stole my church?”


Gordon MacDonald, a prolific Christian author, columnist, and pastor from the United States, has written a book that tells the (fictitious) story of one such congregation in Who Stole My Church?  What to Do When the Church You Love Tries to Enter the 21st Century (Thomas Nelson, 2007).  As a pastor and conference speaker, he has faced that very question sufficiently often that he decided to write a book that would tell the story of a congregation going through such a crisis, of which he was the pastor.  The tale is entirely fictional, but based on events that happen in real churches across the western world. 


The book reads relatively quickly because of its narrative style, but the principles he draws from the story are incredibly helpful.  I bought and read the book because a good friend and mentor told me “Every Presbyterian in Canada should read this book.”  As one of those, I took his advice, and am glad I did.


For pastors, it helps us see what goes through members of the congregation who are beginning to feel alienated by the process of change and change itself.  For laypeople, the book expresses what many feel, while also enabling ‘innovators’ and ‘early adopters’ to understand the thoughts and feelings of the  ‘early majority’, the ‘late majority’ and the ‘laggards’ in the congregation.  Those who adapt to change easily can be just as easily frustrated by those who do not – and vice-versa.


One of the life lessons in this book has to do with the value of listening to each other.  Another has to do with the importance of intergenerational dialogue.  When the young and the old start to understand and appreciate each other, the process of change can become more tolerable.


If the church is to thrive, change is inevitable.  But it is never easy.  However, MacDonald’s book helps the reader understand how and why change must happen in the church from biblical, historical and sociological perspectives.  I found it a really helpful book.


Buy it, and share it with key leaders in your church, as well with as those who resist change.  It can only help the cause of Christ.

Biblical Messages, Bike for Bibles

Bike for Bibles Ontario Ride, Part 8 (Day 7) – the final installment

Today was the shortest day of the ride – the last day.  We were fed a hearty breakfast at Knox Presbyterian Church, Bobcaygeon, where we had spent a pleasant evening.  It was raining lightly when we got up, and heavier at breakfast – but we pulled out of the church lot only ten minutes after we had planned to, and it was dry for nearly the whole trip.  What little rain we did get was inconsequential to the riders.  Once we got to St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Lindsay, it was raining quite hard.  God has served both us and the farmers well:  the needed rain came, but not when it would affect our ride!

Our trip to Lindsay mostly replicated our trip from Millbrook via Peterborough yesterday.  We gathered quickly at Weldon Secondary School in the east end of Lindsay, and received a police escort most of the way to the church.  A large crowd had gathered to cheer us on as we arrived.  The riders and roadies sang during the worship gathering, including Getty and Townend’s “In Christ Alone”, as well as a song written by our two lead roadies that told the story of the ride from the roadies’ perspective.  The service was led by The Rev. Linda Park, Pastor of St. Andrew’s, and I gave the message, which you can listen to here.  It’s based on Philippians 3 and is entitled “Spinning Your Wheels”.

After worship and a hearty lunch, where everyone was recognized for his and her participation, the leaders of the ride were also recognized – Ton van Nieuwkerk, John Snider, Steve Elliott and George Skerratt.  Without these four guys, the ride could never have happened.  Then, folks departed for home.

We rode to provide funds for the partnership that the Canadian Bible Society is creating with church-based English as a second language ministries, to reach people new to Canada with the Word of God.  If you would like to contribute, please visit and donate to the Ontario Ride.  If we reach $17,500 by the end of August, I will cut the curls off my moustache.  If we reach $19,000, I have assurances that George and John will shave off their moustaches!  Now you have double the incentive to give!

Thanks to all who prayed for the riders and roadies.  It was a safe ride, and free from dangerous weather.  We received warm hospitality and created some very strong bonds in Christ.  God is so good!

Bike for Bibles

Bike for Bibles Ontario Ride, Part 7 (Day 6)

After “hilly” day 5, today seemed like a cakewalk for most of our riders.  Much of the terrain was relatively flat, or at least not dreadfully hilly.  We began after everyone had had a great sleep and breakfast at billets’ homes in Millbrook, and headed northeast toward Peterborough.  It was very hot and humid, but the weather co-operated with us once again.


At Peterborough, we took our morning break at the Lift Lock – the largest hydraulic lock in the world – where we timed our arrival perfectly to see the lock in action.  From there, we followed the Ottonabee River north past Trent University to Lakefield, where the Baptist Church hosted us, fed us, and prayed for us.  From Lakefield, we took very much the “scenic route” to Bobcaygeon via Emily Provincial Park, where the Reaboro-Omemee Baptist Church surprised us with an afternoon snack of ice cream and home baking.


We arrived in Bobcaygeon, albeit late, to a warm welcome.  Showers were taken, supper was shared, and the pastors of Knox Presbyterian Church, Paul and Carey Jo Johnston, along with one of their musical groups, led us in praise.  This capped off a long day with much joy.


Tomorrow morning, we will travel a slightly more direct route to Lindsay, where we’ll worship with the congregation of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church there (at 11:00), and conclude with a celebratory barbecue before heading home.


I can’t beat around the bush:  this has been a draining week.  But the cause for which we have been drained has been worth it.  God has blessed us with the opportunity to see so much beauty in creation, and to see it at a pace that might not normally happen during a typical trip.


I will post more tomorrow after all is said and done.  Thank you once again for your prayers and support for this project (