Book Review: Planting Growing Churches for the 21st Century, by Aubrey Malphurs
Aubrey Malphus, Planting Growing Churches For The 21st Century. Baker, 2004. 432 pps, $30.00.
In 1964, Bob Dylan released the now-famous track “The Times They Are A-Changin.’” The song captured the revolutionary zeitgeist of 60s, and served as a warning shot to the traditional institutions of the day. If they wanted to survive, they needed to change, too.
Though more than 50 years old, Dylan’s song is a fitting description of our time. The confluence of the digital and sexual revolutions have changed the world in such a way that the American church is scrambling to understand the culture in which it’s situated. The times, they’re a-changin’. And the question we face now is a simple one: do we need to change our practices to reach the 21st generation—and if so, how?
In his book Planting Growing Churches For The 21st Century, Aubrey Malphurs, a professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, offers an answer to these questions. He proposes that we do need to change our practices; specifically, we need to plant innovative and culturally relevant churches to reach a generation that has turned its back on the church and its outdated practices. No longer can church plants attempt to imitate churches that reached earlier generations of Americans. We need a new way forward, and so Malphurs provides a guide to encourage and equip church planters to plant the types of churches that will successfully reach 21st-century Americans.
The book is divided into three parts. Part One familiarizes the reader with the topic of church planting. In these four chapters, Malphurs defines church planting, provides reasons for planting, addresses financial questions related to planting, and explains the assumptions upon which his views are founded. Part Two, which consists of two chapters, deals with the personnel of church planting. In these chapters, Malphurs leads the reader through a process for accurately assessing whether or not they should plant a church, as well as describing the type of strong servant leadership required to plant a church.
Part Three is the heart of the book because it deals with the process of church planting. These seven chapters take the reader through various stages of church planting—stages like determining values, developing a mission and vision statement, and gathering and growing a people. Finally, at the close of the book, Malphurs provides a workbook and numerous appendices meant to complement and expand upon the content provided in the book.
Since I’m currently in the process of planting a church, I was eager to read Malphurs’ book, hoping to pick up some nuggets of wisdom that would prove beneficial for the journey I’m on. In some ways, the book didn’t disappoint. The content Malphurs provided, especially in regards to the conception stage of a church plant, was especially helpful. In two chapters, he plainly describes the steps that are most important to the conception of what might one day become a growing church, namely, discovering the church’s core values, developing a mission and vision statement, and creating a strategy to implement the mission and vision.
As an expecting parent of a baby church plant, I’ve become quite familiar with the constant mental swirl associated with having a seemingly unending list of tasks that need to be completed if my church plant is ever going to be born. Have the incorporation papers been filed? Where are we going to meet? When are the core team meetings going to start? The list of questions is endless, and the danger is that those questions, though important, begin to overshadow what’s most important: how are we going to carry out the Great Commission?
That’s why the steps to conception Malphurs provides are so beneficial. They bring clarity where there’s often lots of confusion. By forcing the prospective church planter to focus on what matters most, he provides a process for a church planter to articulate their values, mission, vision, and strategy. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that coming up with a mission and vision statement sounds pretty cheesy, especially when Jesus has already defined the church’s mission (Matt. 28:18–20). But frankly, I’ve been surprised by how helpful it’s been for me to sit down and and craft a mission statement that’s succinct and memorable, and that aligns with the Great Commission. Not only that, but I can see how the experience of crafting a mission and vision statement will make it easier for our elders to determine what we will and won’t do as a church, what Malphurs calls “implementing the strategy.” If you’re considering planting a church and not sure where to start, these chapters would be helpful to read.
However, outside of these chapters, the nuggets of wisdom are much harder to find. Honestly, it was easier to find what was wrong with the book than what was right. For starters, Malphurs’ description of what it takes to plant a church is simply overwhelming. A few years ago, I participated in a pastoral internship at Capitol Hill Baptist Church, and I distinctly recall the great relief I felt during the internship when I realized that pastoring a church is not that complicated.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it’s easy. It’s not easy. It’s just not complicated. To plant and pastor a church requires a man who meets the qualifications of being an elder, and who is intent on preaching faithfully, praying constantly, discipling intentionally, and evangelizing regularly. But, according to Malphurs, a church planter not only needs to be and do the things I just mentioned, he also needs to be a CEO, a fund raiser, a savvy marketer, and a sociologist. And he needs to do those things really well if he has any hope of having a growing church. This perspective on what it takes to plant a church is simply overwhelming, and worse than that, it’s not biblical.
Simply put, little of what Malphurs says is “necessary” for planting a church is actually in the Bible. The book reads like a business manual with only the thinnest veneer of Christianity slapped on top of it. Phrases like “strike while the proverbial iron is hot,” “meet felt needs,” and “the bigger the better” are the norm, while words like “God,” “Jesus Christ,” or “the Holy Spirit” are conspicuously absent.
Now, I recognize that the Bible doesn’t give us instruction on what to do in every situation in life. Often, we’re left to make decisions as best we can based on biblical principles, and that includes decisions like what kind of marketing tactics a church will or will not use. And yet, the problem with this book is that it emphasizes secular business principles in such a way that any reference to Scripture seems insincere, thus implying that God’s role in our planting churches is not all that important.
And that’s my concern with this book. It focuses our attention not on God, but on ourselves, and on how savvy we can and should be.
Yes, the times are a-changin’. Yet, we should always remember that we serve a God who doesn’t change, and he’s provided for us a timeless plan for reaching every generation.
Pastors have been called by God to preach the Word, shepherd the flock, and evangelize the lost. Any book that proposes to teach pastors how to reach the next generation should emphasize these roles over and above anything else. Malphurs’ book fails to do that. While he does offer helpful tips throughout, his emphasis on business principles for success rather than a reliance on God and godliness makes me slow to recommend this book to anyone interested in planting a church.