Book Review: Shrink, by Tim Suttle
Tim Suttle, Shrink: Faithful Ministry in a Church-Growth Culture. Zondervan, 2014. 239 pps. $16.99.
As a young man, I was privileged to have a friend whose hobby was building and flying remote-controlled model airplanes. Though I was only ever his assistant in assembling and testing these small aircraft, I shared his sense of exhilaration at seeing his creations rumble to life, take to the air, perform marvelous feats of aerial acrobatics, and return safely to earth. I had a similar feeling as I began reading Tim Suttle’s book Shrink. As his thesis rumbled to life and his diagnosis of the church lifted off the ground, I had high hopes for the marvelous truths he would bring forth. But shortly into the first theological turn, the propeller broke off and the entire project slammed into the ground in a ball of fire.
One of the best attributes of this book is the manner in which it diagnoses the modern evangelical church’s unhealthy definition of “success.” Suttle rightly notes that many church leaders typically function according to a vision of the church that is shaped more by successful business models than Scripture. The result is the pursuit of church growth driven by whatever pragmatic methods offer the greatest degree of numerical, financial, and institutional increase. In response to this rabid infatuation with pragmatism, Suttle writes, “The church’s job is not to grow. The church’s job is not to thrive. The church’s job is not even to survive. The church’s job is to be faithful. Our growth, even our survival, is predicated on the will and power of God. The church’s job is to be the church” (27).
So far, so good. In the next few chapters, Suttle accurately describes the problems spawned by pragmatism. He gives a gracious yet firm breakdown of how “missional,” method-driven ministries and the mega-church model in particular have largely failed at making true disciples. He simultaneously sets forth the ideals of faithfulness and vulnerability that should characterize churches and church leaders. Faithfulness is persevering in obedience to Scripture and fidelity to the leadership example of Christ, while trusting the results to God. Like John the Baptist, it’s stepping back from the spotlight of “successful” ministry with the confession that Christ must increase, and I must decrease (John 3:30). By the end of chapter three, Suttle advocates that the recovery of a robust ecclesiology is central to reversing most of the harmful effects of pragmatism upon the church. (Hooray!)
But then the propeller broke off and the project went screaming into lower altitudes. The ecclesiology that Suttle espouses is derived from the writings of New Perspective and Emergent Church personalities like N.T. Wright and Scot McKnight, respectively. Suttle writes,
A rich ecclesiology teaches us that the telos of the church is really about the growth of the world. The survival of the church is not the church’s concern, nor is church growth. The spread of the gospel is not even the church’s primary concern. Those things are all God’s concern. The church’s job is to organize our common life together in a way that images God to all creation, bearing witness to the new reality that Jesus is Lord and that his everlasting life has broken into creation and is putting the world to rights. . . . The church does not exist for the benefit of its members; it exists for the life of the world and the societies and cultures of the world. (81)
As Suttle continues, he rejects what he calls the “soterion” gospel that has personal conversion as the goal of gospel ministry. In its place, he espouses what he calls a “full-bodied” soteriology that is focused on pursuing a holistic stewardship of the life, land, people, animals, environment, and world in which we are situated. (93-94) This perspective requires us to recover our common “story” and move decidedly away from growth techniques toward virtue.
In the remaining half of the book, he delineates five of those virtues. Though Suttle makes use of some biblical stories, what is noticeably absent in these chapters is any significant mention of the person and redemptive work of Christ and any reference to sin and salvation. He imparts numerous reflections from Christian authors, liberal theologians, and secular texts; he shares personal anecdotes and gives grand exhortations to be virtuous. But after almost every page, I found myself asking, “Where is Christ?” It is love for him, not love of the world, that is the biblical motive for obedience and true Christian virtue.
COMMENDATIONS AND CONCERNS
This book has value insofar as it raises some critical questions about evangelicalism’s love of pragmatism. So many of our churches today are unhealthy because their outreach, worship, and teaching ministries are geared toward winning decisions and stealing sheep rather than making biblical disciples. This work also has merit for how it sounds a clarion call to faithfulness. We would benefit greatly from churches and leaders and members that “shoulder-in” to long-term gospel ministry in whatever context God places them rather than chasing what is bigger, better, and more comfortable.
Suttle is also correct in how he calls for a solid ecclesiology to help us recover the true purpose of the church. Unfortunately, though, his ecclesiology falls victim to a fatal error. The life of the Christian and the purpose of the church are defined by Christ and his Word. Recovering a solid ecclesiology consists in returning to biblical theology, true gospel preaching, faithful disciple-making, robust membership practices, and scriptural accountability structures as taught by Christ and the apostles. Love of pragmatism is dangerous, but abandoning the good news of salvation from sin through faith in Christ for language which touts the “holistic stewardship of creation” is deadly.