Book Review: What Makes Churches Grow?
- Written by: Mark Simon
by Bob Jackson
London: Church House Publishing, 2015
Reviewed by Mark Simon
I am including this book because (a) it is from the UK rather than America, and the majority of Australian Anglican churches are closer to British culture and church forms than to American culture and church forms, which are presupposed by most American church growth and renewal books; and (b) it provides an overview of the history of church growth and revitalisation trends, tools and themes seen in the UK over the last four decades, most of which have influenced Australian churches. It charts the church growth movement, the decade of evangelism, Alpha, Mission Action Planning, Mission- Shaped Church, Fresh expressions, missional church, messy church, Natural Church Development, church planting, amalgamations and ministry teams. It provides detailed discussion of what is working in the UK at the time of writing (2015) including families ministry, leadership-centred approaches, church planting, and shared ministry models. This is useful reading to set the scene for a church growth/ revitalisation project before diving into one particular consultation or product. Jackson provides numerous case studies and some solid data from UK about the effectiveness of various approaches.
Five Things to Pray for Your Church
- Written by: Mark Simon
by Rachel Jones
Good Book Company, 2016
Reviewed by Mark Simon
Too often church revitalisation books, programs and processes focus so much on strategy and the human side of change, that God and the spiritual dimension to renewal is neglected. There are many good books to foster one’s personal prayer life and spiritual formation, but not as many that teach and model how to pray for our churches. Rachel Jones’ 5 Things to Pray for Your Church addresses this space in a simple and biblically-rich way. Each chapter provides a prayer focus, a Bible passage and prayer points/starters. The topics include: praying that my church would be devoted to one another/hold to the truth/give generously; praying that I would use my gifts well/ persevere; praying for my church leader/children in my church/not-yet-Christians; praying for the wider church. The Good Book Company’s 5 Things to Pray for… series is a treasure trove of prayer fodder, in an easy-to-use format suitable for leaders and all church members.
God Dreams: 12 Vision Templates for Finding and FocusingYour Church's Future
- Written by: Mark Simon
by Will Mancini and Warren Bird
Nashville: B & H Publishing, 2016
Reviewed by Mark Simon
Many evangelical churches adopt a mission statement that is a variation on the theme of the Great Commission (go, preach, make disciples), or one that highlights discipleship and evangelism “growing in Christ and proclaiming Christ.” These mission statements are certainly true (they express why the local church exists) and are clear and memorable.
Many churches, however, come unstuck when crafting their vision statements. Revitalised churches will need a memorable, inspiring and measurable vision that creates synergy, enables distractions to be avoided and attracts buy-in. Will Mancini and Warren Bird aim to provide a process of discerning and refining a unique local church vision, that assists churches achieve their mission.
Mancini and Bird start with four broad categories of vision: advance, rescue, become and overflow. These convey, respectively: movement, rejuvenation/ renovation, wholeness/maturity, and a wave. The authors then refine three templates to make the categories more particular. The ‘advance’ vision category breaks down into 1. geographic saturation, 2. targeted transformation, or 3. people-group penetration. The ‘rescue’ category templates are: 4. institutional renovation, 5. crisis mobilisation, or 6. need adoption. The ‘become’ templates are: 7. obedient anticipation, 8. presence manifestation, or 9. spiritual formation. Finally, the ‘overflow’ templates are: 10. cultural replication, 11. anointing amplification, or 12. leadership multiplication. Mancini and Bird provide stories and examples for each of these vision templates, which church leadership groups are meant to read with a view to identifying which one resonates most strongly with their situation. The second half of the book elaborates on long-term to short-term time horizons and how to translate vision into strategy and actions in each situation. There are many helpful and practical ideas for vision-setting in the book. The diversity of templates is especially useful in encouraging thinking outside the inherited (and tired) categories that may have contributed to a church being in need of revitalisation.
Book Review: Zeal Without Burnout
- Written by: Chris Porter
Zeal Without Burnout
The Good Book Company 2016
One infamous quote on burnout comes from the 19th century Scottish Presbyterian minister Robert Murray M’Cheyne—of the bible in a year reading plan—who wrote of his impending death from typhus: “God gave me a message to deliver and a horse to ride. Alas, I have killed the horse and now I cannot deliver the message.”
While M’Cheyne’s metaphorical aphorism may appear dated, the experience of burnout is far from past. Christopher Ash’s short book draws from a range of personal engagements and examples, including his own experiences of twice coming “to the edge of burnout” (15).
The book is punctuated throughout by interviews, vignettes, and personal stories of burnout experiences— including that of Peter Adam.
Ash helpfully starts the book by addressing the burnout elephant in the Christian ministry room: the mis-construal of burnout as a sacrifice for Jesus, hinted at in aphorisms such as George Whitefield’s “I would rather wear out than rust out” (24). In response he suggests that there is a “partial parallel between burnout and self-harm … [in that] each damages strength and life to no good effect.”
The aim then is not to flee from sacrifice—for we are called to costly sacrifice (Rom 12:1)—but rather to engage in what Ash describes as “sustainable sacrifice … the sort of self-giving living that God enables us to go on giving day after day” (26).
In response to the elephant Ash reminds the reader that we are but creatures of dust, embodied, finite, and limited beings in comparison to our creator. Yet our own human predilections tend to blind us to that reality, preferring— in our strength—to “believe that we are something other than dust” (37), contingent on the animation of God’s breath in us. Indeed, as it was this delusion that was shattered on a societal level by the sudden spread of COVID, should there be any surprise that we have such high levels of burnout in the post-COVID landscape?
Ash’s solution re-centres us as God’s creatures, dependent on Him, and importantly with our finitude and frailties known by Him.
From this basis Ash suggests seven “keys” of sustainable sacrifice. The first four come in the form of our own finitude, and form foils to God’s infinitude: Sleep, Sabbath, Friends (peers and fellow workers), and Food (renewal and sustenance). While each seems relatively straight forward, Ash deftly walks through each topic with a biblical guide to our own frailty, looking for God’s sustenance at each point. Suitably this focuses our attention on God’s love for us, rather than our own self-reliance.
Each chapter ends with some practical actions for the reader, and stories from those who have gone before us into burnout.
The final three keys are less attributes, as they are to do with temptations. The first addresses the celebrity culture of the modern church—of which there is no shortage of examples for how this has gone wrong. The second is a broad encouragement—and an encouragement to encourage others. Too often ministry can be seen as a competitive sport, and Ash defuses that mentality here.
The final key is a continual rejoicing in God’s grace, rather than gifts. Having joy in God’s grace as the motivator to ministry is the key here—drawing from J.C. Ryle. The book is rounded out by an extremely helpful appendix on a clinical approach to defining burnout from Dr Steve Midgley, a trained psychiatrist and Church of England minister. This chapter is worth the price of the book on its own and is invaluable at taking a self-assessment or giving to others.
Overall, the book is mercifully short for those who want
something to bite into quickly—and let’s face it, most people who are at risk of burnout will benefit from a shorter work—yet is deep enough to sustain. Highly recommended for anyone in Christian ministry— volunteer, lay, or ordained—and best read before any signs of burnout.
Chris Porter is the Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at Trinity College Theological School, Melbourne
Book Review: The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry
- Written by: Rev Dr Christopher Porter
The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry
by John Mark Comer
Waterbrook Press (2019)
There is a distinct irony with writing this book review heading to a busy conference on a long-haul flight. But perhaps this is exactly why it is a good book for our modern culture. While the pandemic has certainly changed the dynamics around “busyness” over the past years—and this book has been woefully overshadowed by COVID—the underlying characteristics of Hurry that this book aims at are ever more present as we exit the active stages of our COVID pandemic and attempt to catch up on the past two years.
The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry is a deep reflection on the challenge of modern life—although there are hints that this is a universal human predisposition rather than a uniquely modern challenge. The book is peppered with the author’s—John Mark Comer—autobiographical account of hurry and burnout with his outwardly successful megachurch, and his ongoing conversations with his quasi-mentor John Ortberg (17).
The book moves through three distinct sections. Firstly, a solid analysis of our predisposition towards speed and hurry. Secondly, some approaches towards a solution. Then thirdly, some active practices for “unhurrying your life.” Throughout the book the diagnosis of our situation is clear, as he quotes from Byung-Chul Han “[the Western world is] too alive to die, and too dead to live.” (9)
The response to this diagnosis is clear, with the titular line coming from John Ortberg’s mentor, Dallas Willard: “Hurry is the great enemy of spiritual life in our day. You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life” (19). But eliminating hurry is easier said than done, as our modern society has baked in our predilection for speed into everyday life. From smartphones which are touched on average 2,617 times a day (36) through to advertising which persuades us that busy is better.
What is the solution that Comer offers? Drawing on biblical themes and Jesus’ example he emphasises the finitude of humanity, and the vastly disparate prioritisation of the time that we have. As he observes we often say we are “too busy,” and yet the average American spends 2,737.5 hours a year watching TV (72).
The solution then? Take the easy yoke of Jesus. A Jesus centred rule of life. Often “rules of life” are treated with suspicion by evangelical Anglicans, yet as Comer offers, they are a trellis for our lives. “The point of a trellis isn’t to make the vines stand up straight in neat rows, but rather to attain a rich deep glass of wine. It’s to create space for the vine to grow and bear fruit.”
With that diagnosis and prescription, Comer moves to the final portion of the book: four practices for unhurrying. Helpfully alliterated for our sermon centric ears, these are: silence and solitude, Sabbath, simplicity, and slowing. Each of these points digs deep into Jesus’ life described in the gospels and sees how His practice can be applied to our lives.
Throughout the book Comer is friendly and laconic and comes across as a mentor rather than a sage. While the examples are firmly American-centric, it is not hard to translate these for any modern context. At times the book feels a little “self-help-y,” although that is likely a product of the proliferation of self-help books on the market. Nevertheless, this is a helpful read, diagnosis, and engagement with our hurried lives. Perhaps on a busy flight is the best place to read this, it has certainly given me a lot to think about.
It isn’t a quick “life hack for the soul” (12) and nor does it claim to be. It is not exactly short at 286 pages, but instead it aims for deep formation. As Comer sagely reflects “Life is extraordinarily complex. Change is even more so. Anybody who says differently is selling you something.” (