Book Review: Immeasurable, by Skye Jethani
Jethani, Skye. Immeasurable: Reflections On the Soul of Ministry In the Age of Church, Inc. Moody Publishers, Chicago. 2017. 215 pages.
I really want to meet this author. His writing style is captivating, his humanity compelling, and he drinks Earl Grey tea instead of coffee. It’s almost enough for me to excuse the fact that he’s a fan of the Bulls.
AGAINST CONSUMERISM IN THE CHURCH
His book is a jeremiad against the consumerist, individualistic, materialistic, narcissistic church of the twenty-first century. He’s tired of seeing church members leave because the youth program needs more pizzazz. And he’s sick of pastors feeding the beast by playing cruise director instead of prophet. He’s convinced a personal walk with the Lord in the pastor’s life has been replaced by an hourly rendezvous with Twitter. He is a staunch advocate for person-to-person ministry: “Authority is best established through proximity—being in close personal contact so that trust can be established and grown” (137). Of course, authority is God’s to give, but his point is still well taken. Pastors need to focus on knowing the sheep.
Jethani is refreshingly honest about ways he has failed. While he served as a full-time pastor (he describes himself now as a writer, speaker, and ordained minister) he didn’t teach people well enough. So when a couple left because of the youth program, he took ownership: “The truth is I failed Greg and Margaret. During the years they were at my church, I failed to teach them that the core values of consumerism were incongruent with the Christian life” (167).
In Immeasurable, Jethani attacks the notion that pastoral success is measurable in earthly terms. Too many pastors idolize effectiveness and, simultaneously, their own ego. When it comes to ministry, “[w]e may say we are doing it all for the glory of God and for the mission of the gospel, but often there is a deeper motive, a shadow mission to prove our significance through our effectiveness” (23). And pastors who live on water drawn from the well of their own importance will impress this faulty thinking into their church members:
When a pastor’s sense of significance is linked to the impact of their ministry, those within the church are told the same message. In subtle or overt ways they are rewarded for their missional output or shamed for their failure to perform, and a new generation of Christian missionalists are created (189).
Evangelicals have a long history of self-criticism, and Immeasurable contributes to this canon of thoughtful rebukes. In the last chapter he describes his encounter as a young hospital chaplain with a pastor who drowned his stress in alcohol and lost his family and ministry. It was a stirring reminder of our desperate need to die to our own ambitions.
For all these reasons, and many more, I found Jethani’s work helpful.
A FEW CONCERNS
I do have concerns. For example, his audience is not clear to me. Jethani is writing to pastors, but what tribe? Many of his salvos will land in the backyard of any pastor’s ministry. But others seem directed toward the pastor striving, self-consciously, to be a seeker-sensitive leader; those wanting to re-create Willow Creek with millennial tattoos. But I know so many who have rightly rejected this model of ministry. They’re convinced faithfulness is what matters—they just want some help understanding better what faithfulness looks like. Though this book will encourage them to stop finding their worth in their ministry, it does little to actually shape their ministry.
His critique of traditionalism also raised my eyebrows. He didn’t address where the Bible’s blueprint for church structure ends and where a bad kind of traditionalism begins. He laments the rate at which young people are leaving congregations and places the blame at the feet of institutionalism. As he told one pastor, “rather than trying to get young people to engage your institution’s programs and goals, what if you shifted the institution to equip young people to better accomplish what God is calling them to do in the world?” (48)
If Jethani simply means we need to do a better job of making disciples than getting twenty-somethings to join the welcome team, I totally agree. But I left wondering if he sees the value of the church gathered, on the Lord’s Day, to sing, preach, and pray the Word of God. I wanted to embrace his challenge to try new things, be willing to rock the boat, etc., but I wasn’t convinced he is sure the New Testament provides much guidance on how to be a church.
Finally, I wanted gospel. To be clear, as I flipped through these pages, I often found myself jumping for joy on the inside; this brother is a skilled diagnostician. He nails problem after problem. I can’t think of another critic of contemporary evangelicalism who has more popularly and winsomely explained why so many professed believers settle for the sugar-laced gruel that is so much of the modern church scene. But nowhere does he clearly, unapologetically, and sharply declare the answer is not simply Jesus, but a humble, crucified, and resurrected Savior who is God in the flesh and thus able to bear the wrath of God we deserve.
In other words, I gave a hearty amen when I read his challenge for pastors to model a real relationship with the Lord: “As shepherds of God’s people, we must not allow our fears of insignificance to drive us into an unrelenting pursuit of church growth, cultural impact, or missional activism. Instead, we must model for people a first-class commitment to a first-class purpose—living in perpetual communion with God Himself” (195–96). Amen.
But when, a few pages later, he distilled the pastor’s calling to rehabilitation, I groaned: “Our calling as pastors is to rehabilitate, to give people back the dignity the world has taken away” (209). No, people do not need rehabilitation; it’s so much worse than that. They need resurrection. This is why it is the pastor’s calling to point them to the Christ who does so much more than restore dignity, he makes dead men walk in newness of life. Jethani surely believes this; I just wish he’d made it absolutely clear.
Even with these serious strikes, Immeasurable remains a thoughtful pushback against the pragmatic ministry mindset that still prevails. And I’d love to share a cup of tea with him and talk about it, though I prefer English Breakfast.