Book Review: The Connecting Church, by Randy Frazee
Randy Frazee, in his book The Connecting Church, sets as his goal the reestablishment of community within the church. He tells of the beginning of his pastorate in a large church in Arlington, Texas when his leadership team realized that the structure of small groups then in use in the church was simply not fulfilling the congregation’s needs for community. Through this realization, Frazee realized that in many ways, the community fostered by small groups can seem contrived—a group of people meeting together once a week for Bible study and fellowship, but not really sharing one another’s lives outside that experience. The design of the book is not so much to dismantle the small group culture, he says, as it is to take it to another level of real, authentic community. On the whole, Frazee’s book is pretty good. You will have to wade through an overabundance of quotes from other authors (even a few quotes from authors quoting still other authors), but it identifies a problem that exists in most evangelical churches these days, especially large suburban ones, and offers a solution. In this review, then, I want to point out some of the more insightful parts of the book and then turn to consider some of the ramifications of Frazee’s proposed solution.
The book is divided into three major sections, each describing one aspect of community that Frazee thinks is vital for the church: Common Purpose, Common Place, and Common Possessions. The first part, Common Purpose, is the most theological of the sections. Frazee discusses the need for a universally recognized system of belief in a community, as well as the need for a universally accepted standard of behavior. This could take the form of a statement of faith and/or a church covenant. Frazee’s church uses what he calls a Christian Life Profile, a list of thirty beliefs, practices, and virtues that members of his church try to cultivate in one another. The ten beliefs are theologically solid as they stand (certainly more could be said in each one), and the practices and beliefs are also good fruits that Christians should pursue. Part Two, Common Place, is the most interesting and, I think, the most ironically problematic section of the book. More on that later. In that section, Frazee does a good study of what it means to be an authentic community and how that ideal differs from the suburbanized, consumerist culture that prevails today in the “United States of Generica.” I believe Chapter 8 in this section to be the best in the book. Frazee there lists five characteristics of community: Spontaneity, Availability, Frequency, Common Meals, and Geography. I will leave it to you to explore the ins and outs of each of those headings, but suffice it to say that in the community in which I live now, I have experienced them all and am convinced of their importance to the creation of a Christian community. Part Three, Common Possessions, is a discussion of how Christians can and should be interdependent on one another. In my reading, this was the least provocative section.
I want to raise some questions about two of the sections in particular. First, in Common Purpose, Frazee describes how his church uses the Christian Life Profile, those thirty aspects of Christianity I mentioned above, to disciple church members. The church’s preaching calendar is built on the basis of these thirty points, one of the thirty being focused on for a number of weeks each year until the full 52-week year is completed. Then the cycle starts over again and the thirty are re-emphasized, only from a slightly different angle and from a different biblical text. I am glad to read that Frazee is committed to preaching the point of a biblical text when he comes to it. He says,
Each message flows from a particular biblical text, with the integrity of the historical and literary context, as well as the author’s intent, maintained and developed. For example, if we were to teach about the death of Sarah from Genesis 23, we would not focus on the subject of grief and grief recovery, even though this is a useful and practical topic. Why not? Because it wasn’t the intended meaning of this text. Rather, we would accentuate the theological topic, the virtue of faithfulness. (95)
That statement shows an admirable submission to the Word of God. I wonder, though, if the practice of using the Christian Life Profile as the template for the preaching program of the church might have the effect of actually limiting what the congregation learns from the Scriptures. What I mean is this: If the topic from the Christian Life Profile for the day is “Faithfulness,” it seems that there could be a danger of shifting the meaning of a biblical text ever so slightly so that it fits more closely to the topic of “Faithfulness.” For example, the story of Joseph in Genesis might be construed as teaching about Joseph’s faithfulness even in bad circumstances when the real point is God’s providential control over history in raising Joseph to prominent position in Egypt. Of course, that is just a hypothetical example, but it does seem to be a real concern. Another potential problem is that the Scriptures teach many truths that cannot be neatly summarized under one of those thirty points. If I read it correctly, Frazee will jump from place to place in the Bible depending on what topic from the CLP is the one for the day. Doesn’t that just finally amount, though, to reorganizing the Scriptures according to a man-conceived structure, instead of teaching them as they were handed to us from God? If we believe that the Scriptures are inspired by God and that they are all-sufficient and contain everything that is necessary for life and godliness, then it makes sense to believe also that God has given them to us in an order that will most tend to our instruction and edification. I don’t mean that we must always preach Exodus after Genesis and Mark after Matthew, but within the books themselves, there is almost always a story or a progression of argument. I believe that God laid the books out in that way because there is something to be learned from the progression of the story, or from the unfolding of the argument. Rather than flitting around the Bible and lighting on various topics, why not preach through various books in the order that God Himself has laid them out? That, it seems to me, would be the most faithful way to preach His Word.
Now on to the most interesting problem in the book. I don’t raise this question as an absolute veto on the idea of Frazee’s book, but I do think it is a legitimate concern, especially for Protestant churches. My concern is about the structure of Frazee’s church and his conception of how a large church can create community. He describes this in Part Two of the book, Common Place. Let me explain briefly what he says. Frazee’s church is built on a multi-tiered structure of various sized groups. The largest, of course, is the Sunday morning gathering, where all the members of the church gather together to hear preaching and to worship together. Within that, various members of the church divide into zones based on where they live. A zone is defined as that group of members who live within the district of a certain high school. Each high school in the area services seven or eight elementary schools, and the people who live near each of these elementary schools form what is called a Community Group. Zones (those who live in a high school district) do not meet together, though they are overseen by what are called Zone Pastors. Community groups (those who live around a certain elementary school) do meet together on Sunday evenings, and are overseen by “Community Group Shepherds.” Community groups, in turn, are then broken down again into Home Groups of five to ten families, which meet at various times during the week. Frazee believes that this structure can be used by even small churches, with the senior pastor recruiting two or three Community Group leaders who will then each recruit five to seven Home Group Leaders. As the groups grow, they begin to divide and eventually form new Community Groups. Take a look, though, at how Frazee describes what should happen as growth begins to occur:
When the number of Community Groups grows to seven, the pastor will need to hire an additional person to do what he does in overseeing the Community Group shepherds. . . . Typically, the senior pastor would maintain four Community Groups under his authority while the newly hired zone pastor would take three. . . . As the number of [Community Groups] grows to fourteen, two additional pastors need to be hired—one to handle expansion growth, the other to take over the senior pastor’s role as a zone pastor. At this point the senior pastor takes responsibility to oversee the three zone pastors. (166-167)
At this point, anyone who knows the history of the Christian church and is a convinced Protestant is now alarmed. This is exactly the process that led to the episcopacy and eventually to the papacy. What Frazee has described here is a senior pastor who is a de facto pontiff over a large hierarchy of de facto bishops. The senior pastor is as it were pinched off from the congregation, not having direct oversight of their lives. It is interesting to me that the mega-church model, when it tries to implement biblical teaching on community, ends up recreating Rome.
But why must it be that way? Why the assumption that it is better for large numbers of people to be under the authority of one leadership structure? Frazee writes that “as of the writing of this book, we have five full-time zone pastors, twenty-seven geographically centered Community Groups, and sixty-eight Home Groups. Our vision for the next ten years is to have twenty full-time zone pastors, one hundred Community Groups, and over five hundred Home Groups . . . That tallies over 12,000 people.” (242). Why the assumption that those 12,000 people need to be under the authority of one church? They certainly won’t have relationships with the “higher” leaders of the church. In fact, they will probably be no more personally acquainted with their zone pastor than a typical Roman Catholic is with the metropolitan bishop. And my guess is that they will probably be only little more acquainted with Frazee himself (two or three levels up the hierarchy) than the average Roman Catholic is with the pope in Rome. I wonder if that is really the biblical model of church leadership we see in the Bible. I wonder if Frazee can really expect to fulfill his charge of “keeping watch over the flock.” What would be wrong with spinning off each of those community groups as a church of its own, with its own pastor and its own leadership? The beauty of the biblical model of church structure is that congregations do not need to look to a long hierarchy for guidance. Each congregation is called to conduct its own affairs, look after its own doctrinal soundness, and discipline its own members. In fact, history has shown time and again that this model of church structure is more effective at those tasks than any other. If Frazee’s ten-year vision comes true, what he will have created are 100 individual churches that ought to be independent of one another and conducting their own affairs, not under the control of a miniature episcopacy.
I think it is worth asking why mega-church pastors seem so determined to keep large numbers of people under one leadership structure. Their argument is that it helps to maintain doctrinal purity and serves to protect the flock. After all, it would be a tragedy for any of those Community Groups to be cut loose from authority and end up falling away from the faith. Stop and think for a moment, though. That was exactly the argument used by large metropolitan churches in the first five centuries for keeping smaller rural churches under their authority. The early bishops of the church should have renounced their authority over those rural churches and allowed them to live independently; but probably out of some mixture of pride and genuine concern for those people, they didn’t do that. In time, the result was the rise of the papacy, with all its attendant corruption. I pray that the mega-churches of today are not reliving that same dreadful mistake. Something to think about, anyway.
I am happy to see that Frazee has identified a problem that exists in a large part of the Christian church today. His thoughts on what it means to be a community are extremely good and very useful, and I have not seen them in any other book. My only contention is with the solution that Frazee proposes. Read the book for his diagnosis of the problem, and read it to spark thoughts in your mind about the size of your own church. Is your church effective, at its current size, at fostering Christian community? Do your small groups or community groups actually function as churches? Could they? Would it be better, perhaps, if they did? These are questions many mega-churches in the world would benefit, I think, from considering.