Book Review: ChurchNEXT, by Eddie Gibbs
Christianity Today recently named Eddie Gibbs’s book ChurchNEXT one of its “books of the year.” Gibbs is professor of church growth in the School of World Mission at Fuller Theological Seminary. In the book, he analyzes the position of the evangelical church at the beginning of the twenty-first century and argues that if the church is to remain a viable force in our culture, there must be some radical changes to the way we do ministry. Gibbs assesses the seeker-sensitive model of ministry and calls for a modification, or at least another step forward from that idea. He sees much good in the seeker-senstive model, and speaks of it positively, but Gibbs believes that the church must now shift to what he calls a “missional” strategy of ministry. Culture, he writes, has undergone some dramatic, even “seismic” shifts with the advent of postmodernism. Society has rejected any claim to absolute truth, and has a tendency to dislike anything institutional. For the church to survive in such an atmosphere, it must change its self-conception from a monolithic, integral component of an institutional society to that of a movement, as it was in the first century. If it is to be effective in a post-modern world, the church must authentically engage the culture.
Chapter 1 of the book addresses the church’s backward-looking mindset and challenges it to look to the future and to embrace the postmodern generation. Chapter 2 contains a devastating and useful critique of the market-driven approach to evangelism. Gibbs rightly declares that targeting a market segment of society and tailoring the gospel to fit their priorities is unbiblical and serves to dilute the very message we are trying to convey. He advises the church to treat the world as a mission, not a market. Chapter 3 looks at church leadership, concluding that the best course is to abandon traditional hierarchical bureaucracies in favor of networks of churches led by dynamic and effective leaders—“apostolic networks,” he calls them. In the next chapter, Gibbs addresses theological education and calls for more involvement in that process from the local church. His concern is that seminaries have become graduate schools rather than schools of ministry. Chapters 5-9 analyze the spiritual needs and interests of postmoderns and recommend ways the church can address those. Gibbs believes that the seeker-sensitive model of the church has succeeded mainly in evangelizing those who are already familiar with the church, not those who have never encountered the gospel. In response, he identifies several areas—leadership, worship, authentic relationships, and community—that the church must recognize as essential for reaching the postmodern generation.
ChurchNEXT rests on an analysis of the prevailing culture and its shift from modern to postmodern. Many of Gibbs’s conclusions in the book are true and helpful. It is also true, though, that most of those conclusions could have been learned from the Bible, rather than from cultural analysis. Based on his sociological research, Gibbs counsels the church to engage in authentic relationships, to build loving and viable communities, to train ministers in the church, to have leaders of high spiritual integrity, and to preach messages that are relevant to the congregation. All of these suggestions are good ones. Which of them, though, do we not learn from the pages of the New Testament? I do not say that in order to discount entirely any kind of cultural study. Carefully pursued, that kind of analysis can provide information that can help us to engage the culture around us with the gospel. I say “carefully pursued,” though, because the church must be bullheaded about shaping its foundational identity by nothing but the Scriptures—and that not only in its doctrine, but also in its structure and even its methods. Once the church has been built according to all the teaching that the Bible gives about the method and structure of the church, then it is good and helpful to think about how to use those biblical methods to engage the culture. But only then. If sociological and cultural studies are allowed to shape the foundations of the church’s structure and method, the result can be disastrous error. Gibbs, I fear, has shaped his vision of the church too much around his analysis of the culture, and though he has in places happened upon some true and biblical ideas, he has also thereby made some errors.
In chapter two, for example, Gibbs counsels the church to take a more active role in the training of ministers. I agree with him. There is great value, I think, in the local church becoming more involved in the theological education of young ministers. In fact, there is probably nothing else that can teach a young man more about the ministry than spending some time on the staff of a local church before he goes to seminary. I am concerned, though, that Gibbs draws too sharp a line between the mission of the church and the mission of the seminary. He writes on page 93,
The task of the seminary is to work alongside churches to assist in resourcing them for their manifold ministries in diverse missionary situations in a rapidly changing world. While establishing a symbiotic relationship, each must also maintain its distinctive contribution to the training process, providing a challenge to the other. The church calls for relevance, while the seminary emphasizes the need for theological integrity and critical evaluation. [emphasis mine]
Gibbs is consistent here with the intention of Fuller Seminary, since the presidency of E.J. Carnell in the 1950’s, to maintain this kind of independence and distinction of roles between the church and the seminary. The Bible, though, clearly teaches that it is the local congregation that is particularly charged with guarding the church’s doctrine—a charge, by the way, that local churches should never in any way be discouraged from keeping or from recognizing as their own. The notion that the seminary is “distinctively” charged with maintaining theological integrity while the church “distinctively” tries to be relevant to the culture is simply false. In the first chapter of Galatians, Paul charges the Galatian church with judging the theological integrity of its teachers. Someone in the church was teaching false doctrine, and Paul holds the church itself accountable for that wrong. The same is true in II Timothy 4:3-4 when Paul holds the church accountable for hiring false teachers. Perhaps it is one of the church’s goals to be relevant as it proclaims the gospel, but the task of making sure that it is in fact the true gospel that is preached cannot be the distinctive contribution of seminaries. That charge is given to the local congregation. Moreover, history has proven time and again that a seminary will be able to maintain its doctrinal integrity only to the degree that it is held accountable to the larger body of Christ—the church. It is ultimately to the church that Christ and the apostles have given the charge of maintaining the purity of the gospel; seminaries can only benefit from the church’s faithful attendance to that commission.
Another problematic point in the book is on page 129, where Gibbs writes of unchurched postmoderns: “Some have become fascinated by the worship styles and meditation techniques of non-Christian religions and come with an open attitude and a desire to experiment. The approach to God that they encounter in the Christian church must be equally holistic.” He continues from there to identify several techniques that churches might use to provide this holistic experience—from mantra-like chants of the Roman Catholic church to the symbolism and mysticism of Celtic spirituality to the “spiritual love-making” of Taize monks. I am convinced that the Bible has many things to say about how God’s people are to approach Him in worship, and those techniques are not among its teachings. Gibbs’s desire to engage the culture and to determine what “resonates with the faith of a new millenium” (p.137) has led him here, I believe, into error.
Gibbs spends a large amount of space discussing evangelism and the church’s methods of spreading the gospel. At the core of this discussion is his belief that changes in the culture have necessitated changes in the way we do evangelism. Since postmodern people desire relationships, authenticity and emotional engagement, Gibbs counsels the church to spread the gospel through friendships, communities, and through worship. He advises Christians to use our own testimonies of salvation, since that allows postmoderns to engage with our “faith story.” I see little wrong with any of these suggestions, but I think that relying so heavily on cultural analysis has led Gibbs to undervalue or even miss the most important method of evangelism that is taught in the Bible—the preaching of the Word. Only two places in the book speak of preaching, the first on page 184 that says that preaching should be relevant, and the second on page 199 where he writes, “Great preaching and high-quality music may be able to draw a crowd, but they do not build an organism in which all have a functional role.” He continues by challenging the church to build a viable community. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with either of those statements, though the second could be read to imply that the goal of preaching is little more than getting people through the door. Any book that would teach the church how to do evangelism cannot neglect this vital topic and expect to remain faithful to biblical teaching. Gibbs’s book, especially since it is a study of evangelism, would be benefited hugely by a better theological understanding of the preaching of the Word of God and the importance that preacing is given in the Bible. Evangelism through worship and relationships and small groups is all well and good, but it is also secondary. The Bible teaches clearly that God always creates, regenerates, and matures His people through the preaching of His Word. “For how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” (Romans 10:14). Again, Gibbs’s strategy of analyzing the culture and determining method from there has led him to undervalue what the Bible takes as the primary means of evangelizing the world.
Let me say again that cultural studies can be useful in their place, if they are used wisely and carefully. But cultural studies cannot determine or shape the primary methods and structures of the church. Those are to be found in the pages of the Bible. There, among other things, we learn that the church is to protect its doctrine, we learn how the church is to approach God in worship, and we learn that the primary means of spreading the gospel is through the preaching of the Word. When those teaching are firmly established, then we may profitably ask how they may best be implemented given our culture. When it is established, for example, that preaching is the primary means of evangelism, then we may ask what language we are to preach or what presuppositions we should address as Paul does on Mars Hill. The danger comes when we look to the culture to determine what we should do before we determine from the Bible what we should be. I fear that Gibbs has not firmly enough established what it is that the Bible teaches about the structure and methods of the church, and so his cultural analysis has led him in some places into error. The challenge for the church is to look deeply and seriously at how the Bible commands us to evangelize and to conduct our churches. That, I think, is where the deficiency lies today in the church. Our lack does not lie in our understanding of the culture, but in our understanding of the Bible.