Book Review: Saturate, by Jeff Vanderstelt
Jeff Vanderstelt, Saturate: Being Disciples of Jesus in the Everyday Stuff of Life. Crossway: 2015. 254 pages.
I grew up in the Pacific Northwest (PNW). Compared to the South where I live now, fewer people know the contours of the gospel. In fact, folks in the PNW tend to be hostile to organized religion. Many even ascribe a semi-divine status to nature. Hearts seem harder in this wet, dark, and mossy region of the country.
For all these reasons I’m grateful Jeff Vanderstelt moved his family to Washington State in order to plant a church. He is a pastor and an evangelist who has led his congregation to be evangelistic as well. We need pastors with hearts like his. His book, Saturate, is both the history of his move to the PNW and the theological and practical vision behind a church planting movement know as Soma.
A HEARTFELT THANKS
As I read Saturate I often found myself excited and challenged to be more engaged with my neighbors. It made me want to work even harder encouraging the members of the church I serve to think strategically about how they can be salt and light in their communities. Vanderstelt’s work has the feel of The Gospel Comes with a House Key by Rosaria Butterfield or The Simplest Way to Change the World by Dustin Willis and Brandon Clements. Both of these books call Christians to reclaim the lost art of hospitality. Much of what makes Christians attractive is their grace-fueled ability to roll up their sleeves and love their non-Christian neighbors.
Vanderstelt is right, we can’t boil down church life to what happens when we are gathered for baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and preaching. We must also be the church scattered, living out Sunday’s message Monday through Saturday. A few quotes show his passion for everyday Christian living:
- “Jesus didn’t come to earth, take on human flesh, live among people as the Servant of all, suffer, and die so that we could just ‘go to church’ for a couple of hours a week, . . . No, he wants it all. He wants all of our lives all of the time . . . He wants every person in every place doing everything to glorify God” (84).
- “A large percentage of people in our country will never go to a gathering on Sunday to hear someone preach. If we are going to fill every place with the gospel in word and deed, we need to take seriously our own discipleship and ability to study, know, and teach God’s Word” (89).
- “If we are to be disciples who are being re-formed and restored to become more like him, we need to have people in our lives, up close and personal” (97).
I’m constantly encouraging my church to share the gospel naturally, regularly, and with a sense of urgency. By “natural,” I want us to look around, see whom the Lord has placed in our lives, and be intentional with them. By “regular,” I don’t want a week to go by where we aren’t sharing the gospel with someone or at least moving conversations and relationships to the point where we can be open about Christ. By “with a sense of urgency,” I’m trying to get across the reality of hell and the pressing need to prioritize the salvation of our neighbors.
Vanderstelt’s book is a shot in the arm, an encouragement to press as hard as we can into serving our neighbors and sharing the gospel. He challenges us to see them as people not projects. For all this, I’m very thankful.
MISSIONAL COMMUNITIES AND THE CORPORATE ASSEMBLY
Saturate is not a book about the church gathered. The subtitle makes this clear: “Being Disciples of Jesus in the Everyday Stuff of Life.” But the book has one, overarching problem: its understanding about what a church actually is causes confusion.
This confusion is my chief concern with Saturate. Congregations flourish when the work of the church gathered and scattered complement each other. The gathered church equips saints to be in the world evangelizing the lost. A scattered church engages unbelievers and points them to the unique beauty of the Christian assembly. Confused roles compromise the church’s ability to fulfill the Great Commission. Let me explain.
Vanderstelt leads the Soma Family of Churches. They say this family exists so they can “make disciples, strengthen one another and plant churches of missional communities towards gospel saturation.”[i] In other words, the Soma method is to plant a church comprised of smaller groups called missional communities. These separate groups still meet together on Sunday, but they seem to be where church life really happens. Like a quarterback handing the running back the football, the Soma churches effectively hand missional communities the responsibility of being the church. Saturate is about these missional communities.
I won’t fault Vanderstelt for not writing about the gathered church. That’s a different book. Furthermore, it’s clear he values the Sunday gathering. He tells the story of a neighbor he’d invested in for years finally coming to an Easter service and submitting his life to Christ (190). Praise God!
Nonetheless, I’m concerned the casual reader could easily walk away from Saturate thinking the missional community is all one really needs to be involved in a church (much the way in some more traditional churches the Sunday school becomes a replacement for the larger church gathering). This may not happen in the daily rhythm of Soma churches, but it seems possible. For example, in Vanderstelt’s proposal, missional communities covenant together to live the Christian life. Vanderstelt encourages each group to write and adopt their own covenant. This document helps each missional community stay committed to the gospel, the Great Commission, and the fellowship of the saints. This kind of covenanting together sounds a lot like a church.
This would explain why members of missional communities do “church” things together. For example, in the process of writing up a covenant, one man suggested his missional community take the Lord’s Supper together every week. The group agreed and decided they would stick together on Sunday morning at the main church meeting in order to take communion at the same time: “We can choose to go to the same gathering time on Sunday and take the meal together” (208). I wonder if this would cause the members of missional communities to identify themselves with one another more than the members of the church gathered. I think so, and if I’m correct, the entire church would be less unified.
This division between the church gathered and missional communities gets even fuzzier when we recognize that Soma churches are, by definition, “churches of missional communities” and missional communities are, in practice, gatherings of believers and unbelievers. Vanderstelt encourages “weekly missional community meals” to include people who “do not yet share our faith in Jesus” (109). Vanderstelt does not say these meals represent the Lord’s Supper. Nonetheless, he clearly wants to invite unbelievers into the fellowship of the church body. As much as possible, they need to be loved as if they were Christians. He asks, “What might it look like if you were to love them as if they were your brothers and sisters? Like children of our Father in heaven” (140).
I wouldn’t dare fault Vanderstelt for leading his church to lavish love on unbelievers! Again, I’m encouraged and humbled at the way his own family and missional community has showed the love of Christ to their neighbors. But, to put it baldly, his methodology seems to be: treat unbelievers as Christians and they may want to follow Jesus whereas the Bible teaches: love Christians and unbelievers will see this and may want to follow Jesus, too (John 13:35; Gal. 6:10; 1 John 4:7). My point is not that we ought to love unbelievers less, but that we need to prioritize loving our church as part of our witness to the outside world (John 13:34–35).
THE CHURCH AND EVANGELISM
Saturate is a book about the church scattered. I’m writing this review during the global pandemic of Covid-19. Churches around the world either can’t gather or are finding their gatherings greatly restricted. Now, more than ever, we need to catch a vision of what Christians can and should do when they aren’t meeting together.
Vanderstelt rightly calls believers to be sensitive to the presence and the needs of unbelievers around us. He urges us to find a way to invite them into our lives. His admonition is important—it’s good for our witness and the glory of God.
But ecclesiology matters. God designed the church to reach our neighbors and the nations. If the quarterback keeps on handing the ball to the running back, he’s out of a job. Could that happen with a church that hands off many if not most of its basic responsibilities to missional communities? I’m not sure, but I’m concerned.
As a child of the Pacific Northwest, I appreciate this book. Like I said at the start, the spiritual soil up there is hard. If you are a pastor and are wondering if you should read Saturate, I’d say go ahead and pick it up, but keep my concerns in mind. But you might be just as helped and less confused by digging into The Gospel Comes with a House Key by Rosaria Butterfield and Mack Stiles’s Evangelism: How the Whole Church Speaks of Jesus. Butterfield addresses the power of the church scattered without any confusion. Stiles helps us see that the church gathered as an essential and powerful part of the Great Commission.