Book Review: Why Church? by Scott Sunquist
Scott Sunquist, Why Church? A Basic Introduction. IVP Academic, 2019. 176 pages.
Why do local churches exist? I wonder, how would you answer that question?
It’s an important question to be able to answer, not only because of the centrality of the church in God’s plan of redemption, but also because many Christians seem confused about the nature and purpose of the church. So, to provide clarity amidst the confusion, Scott Sunquist has written Why Church? A Basic Introduction.
Sunquist’s aim is to reach people who haven't “done church,” and explain to them why churches exist (12). According to Sunquist, the two reasons why churches exists are worship and witness (10).
THE GIST OF THE BOOK
To unpack worship and witness as the central purposes of the church, Sunquist metaphorically uses five body movements (Come, Stand, Kneel, Sit, Go) commonly associated with worship. He says, “We come to worship, we stand to praise God, we kneel to confess our sins, we sit to receive the Word and the elements, and then we go to bring Christ’s love to the world” (12, emphasis mine).
In chapter three Sunquist looks at all the dimensions of what it means to come. We come to Jesus in conversion. We come to be part of the body of Christ in a local church. And, finally, we come to worship God. But, how do we worship God?
We stand to praise him. In chapter 4, Sunquist explains the nature and necessity of praise. Most importantly he says that praise is the natural and necessary response to recognizing what God has done for his people in Christ.
Yet, after we praise God for all that he has done for us, we should kneel to confess the ways we’ve sinned against him. “Praise at its best brings us into God’s presence, and when we come into God’s presence, we remember who God is and how broken we are” (91). Chapter five is an argument for the necessity of confession in Christian worship.
After standing to praise God, and kneeling to confess our sins, we are ready to sit and receive the Word. And so, in chapter 6, Sunquist describes the role of the Word in the weekly gathering. We receive the Word when it is read, preached, and visibly manifested in baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
Finally, in chapter 7, we leave church to go into the world to tell people about Jesus. Sunquist says, “A normal and healthy Christian life is fed or equipped through worship (come, stand, kneel, sit) so that one can participate in effective witness (go)” (138).
HERE'S WHAT I LIKE
His main argument is easy to remember and the “body posture metaphors” made it stick. Sunquist’s goal was to provide a simple explanation of the purpose of the church for people who are confused about why churches exist. He did just that. The word pair, worship and witness, as well as the five body movements (come, stand, kneel, sit, go) are quite memorable.
He provided thoughtful explanations on the content of praise and the necessity of confession. Many church services today are theologically vapid and man-centered. Worship songs tend to be focused on us, and there is little talk of sin. Sunquist, though, unfurls the necessity of God-centered praise and corporate confession of sin.
I especially loved that he took time to enumerate exactly what we should praise God for. He says, “We praise God for who he is. We praise God for what he has done. We praise God for what he has done for us. We praise God for what he will do” (59). This is a crucial corrective to man-centered praise, which tends to focus exclusively on praising God for the material blessings he has given us. Of course, we should praise God for those things! But, if that’s all we praise God for, we may begin to think that God isn’t worthy of being praised if we aren’t experiencing certain material blessings. I often find I'm most encouraged each Sunday when we take time to slow down and ponder— either in prayer or in song— who God is in himself, and what he has done for us in Christ.
I was also pleasantly surprised to find such a direct treatment on the need for corporate confession. Sin, as a category, seems to have vanished from many churches today. Preachers infrequently discuss it in their sermons, and rarely will you find a church stopping to confess sins together. But, Sunquist says that confession is a vital component of our worship of God because it reminds us of our need for God. He says, “Confession of our sins before a holy God is an image . . . of our humility before God. . . . Humility’s power comes from its truth. When we humble ourselves before God, admitting our guilt, we are expressing truth. I really do need help. I really cannot do it on my own” (100).
A FEW SIGNIFICANT PROBLEMS
Why Church? has a few problems.
First, Sunquist tried to do too much in each chapter. Though his main argument is memorable, I found myself at times struggling to follow the flow of the book. He simply addresses too many different topics in each chapter.
For instance, chapter 6, which discusses the role of the Word in the weekly gathering, includes subsections on Scripture interpreting Scripture, memorizing the Bible, the church calendar, the Lord’s Supper, Eucharistic vision, baptism, infant baptism versus believer’s baptism, who can bless water and wine, and using visual aids during corporate worship.
My fear is that his intended audience—the unchurched/dechurched—will be overwhelmed or confused by the number of topics addressed in each chapter.
Second, Sunquist wasn’t particularly clear about the content of the gospel. I have no doubt that after reading this book a person would understand that Jesus and the local church are at the heart of what it means to be a Christian. My concern is that I don’t think they would know why.
At no point does Sunquist include a clear and comprehensive articulation of the gospel. The most complete statement I could find was, “Jesus intended to initiate, through apparent defeat (dying on a cross), a movement that would conquer death, injustice, and even disease, extending what he called ‘the kingdom of God’” (9). Notably absent from this statement are the crucial categories of sin, guilt, and atonement. While those categories appear at different times and in different places in the book, the reader must work to organize the gospel message and relate it to the purpose of the church for themselves.
Compounding this concern was Sunquist’s endorsement of the Roman Catholic Church as a viable option for people seeking a local church. He did this by listing the Roman Catholic Church alongside its Protestant counterparts as though it is just one of many different churches that all essentially believe the same gospel. Having grown up, however, in the Catholic Church, and now pastoring a Protestant church, I can say with great confidence that we do not believe the same gospel. Indeed, their gospel is no gospel at all.
Ultimately, Sunquist's main argument was simple and the movements were memorable. I was genuinely encouraged by his insistence on the necessity of God-centered praise, and corporate confession. But, in the end, his endorsement of the Roman Catholic Church make this a book that I would not recommend to people seeking to understand the purpose of the church.