Book Review: Church Transfusion, by Neil Cole and Phil Helfer
Good metaphors are great teaching tools. But the problem with metaphors, even the good ones, is that they can be pressed too far. This is a problem for Church Transfusion by Neil Cole and Phil Helfer. The authors, at times helpfully, appeal to DNA as a metaphor for transforming the church. Scripture teaches us that the church functions like a body. Therefore the DNA metaphor has good potential as a teaching tool.
My concern is that the authors’ commitment to this particular metaphor is so strong that it leaves gaps in their prescription for a healthy church. For instance, the DNA metaphor as they use it leaves no room for the vital role of polity and governance in the church. Remain in pastoral ministry for long and, one way or another, you will realize the importance of a biblical model of church governance for the health and mission of the church. Also, as I will explain in a moment, the way the authors employ the DNA metaphor gives short shrift to the importance of the preached Word.
NOT ALL BAD
That is not to say it is a bad book or totally unhelpful. A careful reader will find many things in Church Transfusion that are true and encouraging. Cole and Helfer are careful to point out that the church must not be organized or led as if it were a business. They also warn about the damage done by a consumer mentality: “Churches were never meant to become providers of spiritual goods and services to consumers, even if there are many who appear more than eager to buy” (17). And they remind us of the one to whom the church belongs: “Jesus is not an absentee king who has delegated the task of leading His church to a small committee of Christian leaders while He is away on vacation” (19). To all of this I say a hearty “Amen!”
Church Transfusion moves along by force of a metaphor. The authors insist that what churches need is a transfusion of new “DNA,” an acrostic in which D is for divine truth, N is for nurturing relationships, and A is for apostolic mission. There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as we can settle on some definitions. And it always seems to be in the definitions that we get hung up.
The authors point out, quite accurately I think, that the church is “built and managed more like a business than a body” (25). They argue that the church suffers from “a lack of life in the core, or perhaps a more diplomatic way to describe it is a lack of healthy DNA. So every transformation begins not with a structural change but with a transfusion of holistic and healthy disciples infused with the DNA” (26).
I appreciate the zeal Cole and Helfer have for a healthy church. I am thankful for their evident love for Jesus and his people. But I was exhausted reading Church Transfusion. If I have to remember to do all that the authors prescribe I would fail. What is more, I am deeply suspicious when a book calls for a complete overhaul to our understanding of the church, as in, “We must completely rethink the way we’ve understood and experienced church if we are to release believers to reach their full God-given potential” (18). I confess that when it comes to “doing church” I tend toward less creativity, not more. This is not because I don’t like creativity but because man’s creativity has generally not been helpful when it comes to leading the church. It is not that we need to completely change the way we understand the church. What is needed is a fresh zeal for the church as prescribed in Scripture.
There is much talk in Church Transfusion about changing the world. I know we are all supposed to want to change the world. But I wonder: How do these calls for global transformation sound in the ears of a pastor seeking to be faithful to the congregation to which God has called him? Is the ultimate task of the church to change the world? The authors seem to diminish the vital importance of the pastor who weekly breaks the Bread of the Life for his people on the Lord’s Day, disciples them in local coffee shops, visits them when they are sick, cares for them when they are abandoned, and faithfully intercedes for them in prayer.
QUESTIONABLE THEOLOGY, FALSE DILEMMAS
Of course, as in any book on the church, the authors’ theology shines through. Thankfully they affirm the gospel as the good news of Jesus’ death for sinners and his victorious resurrection. But one also wonders if there is some open theism lurking in the background, as is intimated in a sentence like this: “There is a reason that God left the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the garden with Adam and Eve. He wanted them (and us) to love him, to choose him, and to do that he had to risk our choosing wrongly” (5). This is troubling language. To assert that God takes risks is to diminish both his infallible foreknowledge and his sovereignty. At best, they are being flamboyant and careless with language.
The authors frequently set up false dilemmas. Claims like “Jesus would more likely be in a gay bar than a church service” make an appearance, which is problematic at so many levels it is difficult to know where to begin.
Describing what doctrine is and is not, they write, “Doctrine is not a set of beliefs but a way of living” (74). This is the well-worn error of confusing a thing with its implications. Doctrine by its very definition is a set of beliefs. Of course doctrine that does not lead to doxology and devotion is incomplete. But are they recommending a “way of living” not guided by a set of beliefs? What would that look like? The authors should not diminish the importance of the content of our doctrine in order to draw attention to the fruit of right doctrine.
Not surprisingly, the authors insist that denominations are unbiblical. But that is a bit like saying the internal combustion engine and singing in the shower are unbiblical: “not mentioned in Scripture” is not equal in every case to “forbidden by Scripture.”
MOST TROUBLING: DISREGARDING THE PREACHED WORD
Perhaps what concerns me most about Church Transfusion is the seeming disregard for God’s chief means for generating faith and growing his people: the proclamation of his Word. For instance, they write:
Frankly, pastor, we place way too much value on sermonizing. Another sermon is not going to change the world, the church, or even the person preaching. It is not the content of the sermon but obedience to God’s Word that changes lives…Think about it: if your sermon was going to catalyze a revival, wouldn’t it have happened by now?…For far too long we have lived with this dysfunctional codependent relationship that expects the pastor to feed us. Since when does a shepherd feed his sheep? Sheep feed themselves!” (76, 93)
Once again, it would be difficult to fully catalogue all that is wrong in those few sentences. First of all, if the point of preaching a sermon is to change the world, then let’s all quit before next Sunday! Second, let us not forget what sermons do. Have the authors read Romans 10, which says that people need to hear the Word proclaimed in order to believe? And if memory serves, there have been a few earth-shattering things that have happened through a sermon. It was Peter’s sermon at Pentecost that launched the church. And throughout Acts the apostles do one thing more than any other: preach. The Holy Spirit’s ministry as recorded in Acts was chiefly to empower the apostles to preach boldly and send forth the Word. But, as Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians, preaching is a foolish thing. It has never been seen by the world as “effective.” What is troubling is when those in the church begin agreeing with the world.
I know the authors mean well, but the church does not need more doctrinal ambivalence and suspicion of preaching to carry on faithfully in the world. Indeed, these are the chief means by which God has always built his church and touched the world.