Book Review: Churches that Make a Difference, by Ron Sider, Philip Olson, and Heidi Rolland Unruh

Review
03.03.2010

Recent years have witnessed a renewed evangelical interest in the social aspect of the church’s mission. Various evangelical leaders are seeking to broaden the evangelical policy agenda to include global warming, poverty, and a variety of other concerns.

At the same time, some observers voice concerns that this expanded agenda will distract evangelicals from their traditional concern for abortion, marriage, and religious freedom.

Locally, increasing numbers of evangelical pastors are leading their churches to embrace social activism as a key to Christian discipleship. Other pastors worry that zeal to provide affordable housing and job training will replace the desire to see sinners repent of their sins and trust in Christ.

WHOLE GOSPEL, WHOLE PERSON, WHOLE CHURCH

In Churches That Make a Difference, Ron Sider, Philip Olson, and Heidi Rolland Unruh attempt to walk a middle road that avoids both the social gospel of Protestant liberalism and the compassionless spirituality of some conservatives. The core of Churches That Make a Difference is an exhortation for churches to practice holistic ministry, ministry focused on “Reaching your community with the whole gospel for the whole person through whole churches” (59).

The “whole gospel” means something more than forgiveness of sins. It includes “inner conversion of individuals, physical well-being, the transformation of social and economic relationships, the renewal of communities, and the ultimate triumph of Christ over the forces of evil on a cosmic scale” (59-60).

The phrase “the whole person” is meant to remind us that human beings are simultaneously physical and spiritual beings; ministries that neglect physical needs are by definition incomplete.

“Whole churches” are congregations of unified believers who share a common vision for outreach. The first part of Churches That Make a Difference explains how evangelism and social ministry join in holistic ministry. The second part lists and describes those elements essential to a holistic ministry. The third and final part provides practical advice for how to build a holistic ministry.

STRENGTHS

While there are many things to appreciate about Churches That Make A Difference, I will mention just three. First, the authors insist that evangelism must be central to the outreach of any church. Moreover, they define evangelism as an activity which requires a verbal presentation of the gospel. Good works are not a sufficient witness to the unbelieving world. They write, “Loving acts need the complement of the verbal presentation of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection (64-5).

Second, the authors of Churches That Make a Difference strike a blow against the passive and consumerist mentality that many Christians bring to their churches. The authors encourage pastors to mobilize the entirety of their membership for service and evangelism. Several of the churches profiled in the book have large majorities of their members actively engaged in evangelism and service.

Third, Sider, Olson, and Unruh remind their readers of the need to reach urban centers with the gospel. The churches profiled in Churches That Make a Difference are largely churches ministering in challenging environs in and near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Their examples serve as a reminder that middle-class Christians must be occasionally willing to leave the comfort of the suburbs to take the gospel to the lost. Soccer moms and farmers need to hear the gospel just as much as those in city centers; but undoing generations of neglect of urban centers should be a priority for evangelicals.

These positive characteristics make Churches That Make a Difference useful at least as a catalyst for further reflection.

SHORTCOMINGS

However, the book has a number of serious shortcomings. First, the authors display an overly broad understanding of the gospel. They write, “Divine forgiveness … was not all there was to Jesus’ gospel. Jesus also taught and demonstrated that his dawning kingdom was beginning to transform horizontal socioeconomic relationships wherever people accepted him” (48). To be sure, the Good News is not exhausted by the concept of forgiveness of sins. However, forgiveness of sins is the very center of the gospel.

Sider, Olson, and Unruh regularly describe human need and sin as “brokenness.” By this, they seem to mean that unbelievers in our fallen world live lives which lack the fullnesswhich God intended for his humanity. Unbelievers need to be restored to the wholeness—physical, spiritual, relational, economic, and political—which was present at Creation.

Again, this is true, but they present man’s physical and economic needs as if they are as pressing as his spiritual needs. Yet the unbeliever’s primary predicament is not that he is addicted to drugs or victimized by an unjust political system. Rather, the unbeliever’s chief problem is that he is a sinner who stands condemned before a holy God. The Good News is good precisely because it brings forgiveness of sins and everlasting life. While the horizontal transformation that comes as sinners believe the gospel is of incalculable value, it should be overshadowed in our thinking by the reconciliation to God which we have obtained through the substitutionary sacrifice of Jesus Christ. The primary mission of the church must be to reconcile sinners to God and build them up in the faith. Anything else it does is subsidiary to this great aim. After all, “what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” (Mk. 8:36).

Churches That Make A Difference further confuses the gospel through its choice of the churches it upholds as models of holistic ministry. Conservative churches like Philadelphia’s Tenth Presbyterian appear alongside the world’s first Episcopal church to ordain women and a Baptist church with a website that links to a variety of homosexual activist groups. These churches may be feeding the hungry and comforting the suffering, but they don’t seem to be teaching the same doctrine.

Second, Churches That Make a Difference articulates a polity which is program-driven and pragmatic. It asks, “Is the system [of governance] designed to protect the church from the world or to equip the church to go out into the world?” (207). A better question to ask would be “Is your system of governance biblical?” Little thought is given to the possibility that the New Testament might have something to say about church polity.

Third, the authors frequently blur the distinction between the church and the world. Sider, Olson, and Unruh frequently reference Israel under the Mosaic Covenant as a model for holistic ministry. However, the analogy between Israel and the church is of limited utility. Israel was simultaneously a cultural group, a political state, and God’s covenant people. By contrast, the church stands distinct from the culture and the state. Christians can look forward to a time when the economy, law, and worship are unified under Christ, but we cannot expect it until the New Creation.

I believe that Sider, Olson, and Unruh should be warier of ministry opportunities—including receiving government funding and partnerships with secular social services agencies—that harm the church’s distinctive nature.

Fourth, the authors betray a lack of discernment about the place of political advocacy in the life of the church. In recent years, many evangelicals have expressed a desire to talk about more than abortion and marriage. The authors of Churches That Make a Difference take this several steps further, highlighting churches that advocate for improved public transportation, more favorable zoning laws, and a larger Earned Income Tax Credit. These policy proposals may all have merit, but there is no biblical position on the Earned Income Tax Credit. Churches should speak publicly on political issues only when they can speak with the authority of the Scriptures, because that’s the only authority Christ has given the church.

WHAT’S THE CHURCH’S MISSION?

What then is the mission of the church? This is the question at the root of current evangelical debates about social engagement. Is the mission of the church to address all of the needs of all people, or is it more limited in scope? Sider, Olson, and Unruh seem to think that the mission of the church is to do all it can to evangelize, meet people’s needs, and transform society. There is more biblical support for some of these activities than others. The Bible is clear that churches should take the gospel to the ends of the earth (Matt. 28:18-20) and care for the needy in her midst (1 Tim. 5:16; Gal. 2:10). Broader social action is not expressly prohibited, but it should not be equated with these two essential obligations.

By:
Flynn Cratty

Flynn Cratty is a PhD student at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.