Book Review: The Prodigal Church, by Jared C. Wilson
Jared C. Wilson. The Prodigal Church: A Gentle Manifesto Against the Status Quo. Crossway, 2015. 240 pps. $15.99.
A few weeks after I graduated high school, my youth building got a rock wall and I was upset about it.
Allow this brief anecdote to function as Exhibit A that proves my biographical similarity with Jared Wilson, the author of The Prodigal Church. Like Wilson, I spent my formative years as a young believer in a church that had snuggled up to the “seeker-sensitive” movement. This church had largely succeeded in becoming big and busy, with its flag staked on the shores of broad but clear evangelical theology, social conservativism, and a thoroughgoing menu of choices for Christians and non-Christians alike, the most recent of which featured a rock wall. But alas, I was now an old man—college-aged—and thus disqualified from its enjoyment. And I was upset about it.
Nearly a decade later, I thank God for that church. After all, I heard the gospel there; I’d been discipled by godly men there, men who put up with me and my friends’ less-than-spiritual shenanigans. As far as I can tell, God saved me through the faithful ministry of that local church, and he used many of its members to pray for me, teach me the Bible, and show me what it looked like to be a faithful man, husband, and father. I can see many of their faces now. Thank you, God.
But I’ve heard it said before, “Just because God can use something is never a good argument for it.” This is true, and it applies to many conversations about ecclesiology in general and consumerism and pragmatism in churches in particular. So, let me be clear from the outset, and in this I am merely mirroring Wilson: No, I am not saying that any church that has embraced consumerism or pragmatism is now unfit for God’s saving purposes, either here and abroad. God will save all whom he wills to save, and he will do so through vessels with various levels of imperfection: preachers, churches, ministries, sermons, even books. The answer to a church’s health is no true-false question; instead, it’s one that requires consideration on a sliding scale, one that demands answers to questions other than “Can someone find the gospel here?” But more on that in a bit.
In The Prodigal Church, Jared Wilson is pleading to pastors with a slavish affinity to pragmatism and consumerism. Because these words are often thrown around carelessly, let me define them quickly:
- Pragmatism — a philosophy of ministry that says, “if it works, work it”; the ends, so long as they are not sinful, justify the means.
- Consumerism — a philosophy of ministry that says the local church is intended to be something of a Christian service provider, offering to both Christians and non-Christians a bevy of options with which they can meet their felt needs in ways that Jesus would be okay with.
Wilson frames his book as an “appeal” not a “rebuke.” He hopes that, once finished, pastors will analyze the structures of their churches and consider the kinds of fruit they are producing. Is it lasting, or does it quickly flame out? Are the activities of their churches like a bunch of small grease fires—hot and fast, but largely uncontrollable—or like a furnace that sits in the basement—unremarkable and out of sight, but strong enough to heat the house for decades?
To that end, Wilson writes, “How we ‘do church’ shapes the way people see God and his Son and his ways in the world. If you agree with that, it behooves us to constantly evaluate what shape our church is taking and what shape of Christian our church is making” (16). Wilson is a gifted writer with an uncanny pastoral sensibility to say hard things without bringing offense. Not once, to my ear, did he veer into snide dismissal or a posture that assumed too much about either the motives or intellects of these brothers with whom he deeply disagrees.
Though the book is largely comprised of personal reflection, it’s also clear the author’s done his homework. Chapter 2, in particular, is filled with discomfiting stats about the “attractional church” movement. Wilson shows that most of the “growth” among mega-churches is transfer growth, that is, transplants from other churches who were already Christians before they ever walked through the door. In other words, it’s true that many attractional churches succeed in their aims of finding and scooping up the “seekers” around them; only it’s rarely the kind of seekers they intended to attract. Perhaps the most enlightening section of the book is Wilson’s dissection of Willow Creek’s REVEAL study in which Bill Hybels & Co. admitted that their previous model of church had succeeded in attracting people, but ostensibly failed in making disciples. Wilson’s summary of this is sober and astute: “It’s possible to increase and number and decrease in health” (41).
But The Prodigal Church is more than just a demolition project. Atop the wreckage left by pragmatism and consumerism, Wilson attempts to rebuild scaffolding with different, yet more durable materials. In this, the book succeeds, though not perfectly.
First, if you’re a Christian who has somehow stumbled upon this review but thinks ecclesiology is less interesting than meteorology, well, I’m glad you’ve read this far! All Christians who haven’t given much thought to the church as an institution established by God should read The Prodigal Church because it challenges assumptions that for many are held both deeply and without reflection. 18-year-old me would have read this book with my jaw on the ground—and been better for it.
Second, if you’re struggling with pornography, go to the nearest bookstore that has it and flip to chapter 10. Read Jared’s story, admit to yourself how damning and destructive pornography is, confess your sin, and exult in God’s kindness to all those who foist themselves upon his grace. Jared, if you read this, thank you for modeling transparency and humility in re-telling your testimony about this. May God use it to change many hearts and habits.
Okay, now to the nitty-gritty. Here are four elements from Wilson’s prescriptions that are absolutely spot-on.
Upholds Expository Preaching
First, Wilson wants to do away with flimsy, moralistic preaching. Chapter 4, titled “The Bible Is Not an Instruction Manual,” features a convincing appeal to return to God’s Word as the fountainhead for preaching. Enough of these gospel-topped sermons, he says, where a dollop of Jesus is thrown in with a pinch of his death and a sprinkling of his resurrection, all mixed together into some awkwardly concocted invitation to “let Jesus in to your heart” as if he were slouching in the lobby of your restaurant, next on the list, waiting for his name to be called.
Christians need to eat, and they need the feast of God’s Word, not the creations of a chef impressed with himself and his latest recipes. Wilson is dead right, on pages 73 and following, when he disagrees with Andy Stanley who said that expository preaching is nowhere in the Bible and “not how you grow people.” Wilson disagrees: the Christian preacher must come to the Bible “as if its words are better than mine, as if my words must serve to illuminate and explain its words, instead of the other way around” (80).
Eschews an Obsession with Programs
Mack Stiles has said that too many programs make a church flabby. Wilson agrees, and he argues strenuously against churches creating a program for every felt need. This is not said with any particular animus toward big churches, but rather those who tend to needlessly over-complexify in order to please people outside the church. Instead, Wilson argues that churches should seek to be simple so as to free up their members to do the work of the ministry—evangelism, discipling, etc.—in a way that doesn’t adhere to the church’s weekly calendar but rather embeds into members’ own lives.
On pages 134-137, Wilson offers a helpful list of ten reasons why you should under-program your church. Here’s a snippet of what struck me as his wisest advice: “A bustling crowd may not be spiritually changed or engaged in mission at all. . . . Like those breathless bones rustling about in Ezekiel 37, the activity may signal a life that isn’t real. An over-programmed church creates an illusion of fruitfulness that belies reality” (135). In other words, the determining mark of a healthy church member is not the amount of events for which you see him or her happily volunteering.
Clarifies the Identity of the Pastor as Shepherd, Not CEO
It’s not uncommon for pastors to function like CEOs of small companies. This is woefully short of the New Testament’s ideal, and it makes a church feel much more like a Christian service provider than a family or, more biblically, the body of Christ with its interconnected and interdependent hands and feet.
Wilson illustrates the problems with this “CEO approach” better than I’ve seen elsewhere. He writes, with some fire in his belly, “The higher up one climbs on the ministry career ladder, the further away it seems he gets from the people he’s called to shepherd. Many are the pastors who like shepherding from their offices or their pulpits or their blog and Twitter feeds” (140). If you’re a pastor, just let that sink in for a moment before your defense mechanisms come out.
Wilson’s exactly right. Pastors aren’t CEOs who are responsible for employees and beholden to stock-holders. They’re shepherds, and under-shepherds at that, called by Jesus, the Chief Shepherd, to care for and feed their respective flocks, protecting them from wolves. Wilson is especially perceptive on this point: pastors are not responsible for teaching their people how to feed themselves. Instead, they’re called by God to feed their people, and to do so in such a way that those well-fed people will begin feeding both themselves and others; I’ve heard this called a “culture of discipling.”
Reclaims Sunday mornings
What perhaps impressed me most about this book is how clearly Wilson calls for the Sunday morning gathering to reclaim its centrality in the Christian’s life and discipleship. I suppose it’s unsurprising that attractional, seeker-sensitive churches won’t consider this as high a priority; after all, they intend for these gatherings to be self-consciously aimed at “seekers,” by which they mean either non-Christians or the unchurched. Perhaps this is why, almost without exception, my friends and family who attend these churches, when asked how they’re enjoying their church, will begin their answer by reflecting on some kind of Bible study or men’s group or accountability group. Bizarrely, this makes sense; those Sunday gatherings, in a way, aren’t for them anyway.
Wilson sees how problematic this mindset can be, where “community” is sought at the expense of the Sunday morning gathering. He writes,
As I talk to more and more pastors concerned about the quality of community in their congregations, I am hearing more and more the insistence that, if you don’t have a vibrant small groups program, all you need is the right leader to make it happen. . . . Pastors, the nurturing of your congregation’s desire for experiential community begins with you. It begins with your shepherding of the weekly gathering. Your weekend service has a direct effect on how your congregation thinks and acts. And it’s supposed to, right? (169, emphasis his)
Wilson, again, is absolutely correct. Pastors, if you’re looking to something other than Sunday morning to primarily shape the culture of your congregation, then you’ve shot yourself in the foot before the race even starts. There’s a reason Hebrews 10:25 tells us to “not forsake the gathering”—because it’s that weekly, pace-setting gathering where God intends to mold the lives and hearts and minds of his people. As God’s Word is preached and prayed and sang and read and seen (via the ordinances), God’s people will change, both individually and corporately.
Clearly, The Prodigal Church is a worthwhile book. Wilson has, with pastoral perceptivity and an easy pen, shown that the emperors of Pragmatism- and Consumerism-Land have no clothes. Unfortunately, because so many of their assumptions have been uncritically digested and welcomed into the church, that alone is enough to make The Prodigal Church a necessary read for both Christians who are members at “attractional” churches and for pastors who lead them and are beginning to, like Wilson several years ago, question the foundational integrity of the building they’ve spent so much time constructing.
But even while Wilson is spot-on in all of his diagnostics, I finished the book concerned that he left a critical matter underdeveloped. Nowhere does he highlight the necessity of congregations to dutifully reclaim the biblical practices of church membership and discipline. I kept waiting for it—but it never came (there’s a passing reference to discipline on page 29, but it’s part of an anecdotal aside).
After all, when you apply the gospel to relationships, you get the structures of accountability and care that we describe with the language of membership and discipline. That is to say, the gospel comes with authoritative claims on our life together. So if I discuss a gospel-centered church with no mention of these claims, I’ve erased a significant element of what the gospel requires. I’ve erased the “shape” or the skeletal structure of a gospel body. To put an even finer point on it, ask yourself, what would a “gospel-centered church” look like where my gospel is defined by Jesus as Savior but not Jesus as Lord? It would look like a church with little mind for its membership and discipline structures.
You can preach until you’re blue in the face, but if your congregation doesn’t feel an obligation to excommunicate that unrepentant adulterer—or even that guy who joined four years ago but you haven’t heard from since (remember: Hebrews 10:25)—then you’ve called into question the life-changing power of the gospel you’ve spent so much time preaching. You’ve unwittingly said to the world and to each other: “This kind of behavior, whatever it may be, is okay; it’s no big deal.”
Do you want a church that eschews pragmatism and consumerism? Make it clear to the congregation that membership necessarily involves mutual accountability. Do you want a church distinct from the world? Lovingly practice church membership and, as occasion requires, exercise church discipline for unrepentant sin.
No, Wilson certainly doesn’t need to saying everything I wish he would. But my point here is central to why 9Marks exists: to keep pounding the drum that says, “Believing the gospel means binding our lives together a certain way.” I’ve read enough of Wilson’s stuff to know he agrees with all of this (here and here); this fact makes it all the more unexpected that these points would be so under-represented in his book.
At the end of the day, Wilson’s only misstep was failing to address church membership and discipline as necessary remedies to the problems of consumerism and pragmatism in the church. Other than that, his instincts are exact—his prescriptions, well worth emulating.
In The Prodigal Church, Wilson has given us an ecclesiology with better breath; now all that’s missing are some teeth.