Book Review: The Church of Irresistible Influence, by Robert Lewis

Review
03.05.2010

It’s hard to defend against error when nobody is really wrong.  When error consists of falsehood, it’s pretty easy to deal with—just point out the falsehood and refute it.  When there’s no falsehood, though, but only a shift of emphasis, the conversation is exceedingly difficult to handle.  “I understand your point, and I think you’re right, but we need to emphasize this.”  “Well, good, I think you’re right, too, but I think we should focus on this.”  In an exchange like that, on what evidence do you stand to conduct the conversation?  Neither party is wrong; it’s simply a difference of emphasis, and trying to explain why someone’s emphasis is wrongly aligned is about as easy as punching a shadow.  That is the predicament in which I find myself after reading Robert Lewis’s The Church of Irresistible Influence.  The thesis of the book is that in order to impact the culture in a dramatic and life-changing way, the church must make itself visible through “human compassion and good works.”  That means that the church needs to become involved in a whole range of community and social ministries in order “to be a church that incarnated the gospel so well and so effectively that our city . . . would, because of our good works, literally feel compelled to give glory to the God they saw working through us,” (p.64).

The book is divided into five parts.  Part One documents what Lewis sees as a widening “chasm” between the church and the world.  Part Two explains how Lewis’s church in Little Rock, Arkansas has tried to bridge that gap, Part Three consists of several “real-life” stories of people in his church, and Part Four describes how the church was “led into some suprising new partnerships, particularly with other churches.”  Part Five, Lewis claims, “will answer your concerns theologically, while providing a balanced perspective,” (all from page 16).  The style of the book is interesting.  Lewis bases his observations on illustrations taken from the science of bridge-building.  Each chapter starts with a story about the building of bridges.  Lewis sometimes makes too much of the analogy, I think.  On page 31, for example, he writes:  “Let me say this with as much of the humility birthed from our own difficult experiences as I can:  If the church functions with any other design than that of a bridge, it dooms itself.”  Perhaps a little too dogmatic, given that Paul likened the church to a body, not a bridge.  On the whole, though, it is an engaging way to organize and write the book.

The argument that Lewis presses is nothing you haven’t heard before.  Because of post-modernism and a new skepticism in the culture of anything unreal and inauthentic, the church has lost its connection to the world and become irrelevant and ineffective.  In response, churches need to build bridges to the world in order to reconnect with it.  Churches need to be more “incarnational.”  “The church,” he argues, “is to be in the bridge-building business, according to the design of Jesus Christ.  Over this bridge the church must travel and prove its reality to a disbelieving world. . . .  Our world must experience the same incarnational influence as the first century experienced when Grace and Truth himself suddenly bridged that Great Chasm and became flesh,” p.30.  The second chapter of the book contains a long list of Scriptures showing how Jesus intended the church to reach out to the world and witness to Him through its life.  It is a good list, and a good point.  The church is to be a light in the world, and so far as Lewis’s book points out that fact, it is a good reminder.  His point is well-taken.  The church cannot sequester itself behind its doors.  In order to fulfill its mission in the world, church members should be actively engaging the world, taking the gospel both in their deed and their words to their coworkers and friends.  It is a good thing when church members strive to be conspicuously Christian.  I appreciate Lewis’s book for that point.

Another chapter that is particularly good is chapter 10, “Equipping Leaders.”  More than any other book I have read, Lewis makes the case that churches and pastors need to be actively training and maturing young men who are moving toward the ministry.  “There is no greater investment in the future of the church than by identifying, encouraging, and providing training for young leaders in our midst.  It’s something every church can do!” (p.179)  That is a much-needed call to pastors.  Seminaries and divinity schools can provide knowledge of the Bible, languages, and church history, but the daily training of pastoral work can really only be done in a local church.  Again Lewis writes:  “As much as I believe in and strongly advocate a rigorous theological education, I also believe young leaders need something more—they need leadership training and mentoring in the field!” (p.181).  Lewis goes on to describe an extensive program at Fellowship Bible Church, a program that most churches would never be able to afford.  Yet that doesn’t end the conversation.  In most churches, it would be relatively easy to bring one intern into the church to study under the pastor for a year, either before or during his seminary education.  Think about the long-term impact that could have on the church.  If a pastor stays in a church for twenty years, that would amount to twenty young men, bound for the pastorate, that he would have influenced during that time.  A twenty-fold return in ministry isn’t a bad deal!

For all the good in the book, though, I think there is a subtle shift in emphasis away from the biblical mission of the church.  Though his push is clearly toward social ministry, Lewis is careful to say that his is not a social gospel.  “Let me say straight up:  I do not believe in a social gospel that seeks to save the world through human compassion and good works. My trust is in Jesus Christ alone,” p.16.  I am sure that is true, but there are statements in the book that subtly shift emphasis away from the preached gospel and toward social work and good deeds.  Take, for example, this passage:  “I love expository preaching and deeply admire those who do it well.  But great preaching alone will not reach our world or magically transport unbelievers across the Great Chasm,” p.24.  The word “alone,” I assume, means that Lewis understands the importance of preaching, and I am glad for that.  But the tenor of the book is subtly to relegate preaching to second place behind social work.  “Proclamation was more a matter of essence—in life and death—than it was an enunciation of words,” p.42.  “Preaching is not the answer to today’s spiritual hunger,” p.47. “Don’t preach! Prove!  Serve!  Give!  Love!” p.163.  I do not want to short-change the importance of living out the gospel in good deeds; to do so would be to contradict the entire book of James.  But time and again in the Bible, it is primarily the preaching of the Word, the enunciation of words, that God uses to bring people to faith.  I can sympathize with Lewis’s desire to encourage churches to make the gospel visible in their lives, but I cannot sympathize with doing so at the expense of the preached Word.  It is a subtle shift, but it is nonetheless a shift, and one that could have disastrous effects.

I wonder if Lewis’s program of “Common Cause” groups (pp. 82-86), which place people in his church in small groups geared toward community service, have a danger of their own.  The “Common Cause” groups are the last stage of integration into the church, and Lewis at least talks as if they receive a huge share of the energy of church members and leadership.  Is it wise to teach Christians that the goal of the Christian life is to be effective at community service?  Is it wise and biblical to define Christian maturity by participation in community service?  Of course, reaching out to the world is part of Christian maturity, but I wonder if Lewis’s emphasis on it goes beyond the Bible’s.  In Matthew 26, when the disciples protest that a jar of perfume could have been sold for the poor instead of poured over Jesus’s head, the Lord’s response is, “You will always have the poor with you.  You will not always have me.”  Even Jesus, the greatest lover of the poor the world has ever known, understood that there were more important things than community service.  Maybe there are other programs at Fellowship Bible Church that teach Christians to “watch their lives and doctrines,” as Paul wrote.  Such is not evident in Lewis’s book.

So long as the reader keeps in mind that community service cannot be the goal of the Christian life, Lewis’s book makes some helpful points.  It would be especially good for pastors to read the chapter on training young leaders.  For some reason, though, the preaching of the Word has fallen into disrepute, not only in Lewis’s book, but in books on the church across the spectrum.  That is unfortunate.  Consider for a moment—If you were the enemy of the church, what would give you a more sinister glee than to hear the very leaders of that church declare their own greatest weapon against your kingdom to be obsolete and ineffective?

By:
Greg Gilbert

Greg Gilbert is the Senior Pastor of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky. You can find him on Twitter at @greggilbert.