Book Review: Into the Future, by Elmer Towns and Warren Bird



Elmer Towns and Warren Bird, in their book Into the Future, have compiled a survey of a large part of the massive amount of church-growth literature that has exploded onto the evangelical scene in recent decades.  “Imagine sitting down with fourteen piles of books in your living room,” they write.  “We have good news for you.  You can eliminate the piles of books and find what you need in this one volume.”  Their aim is to create of sort of encyclopedia of church-growth strategies, a one-volume resource that summarizes and takes the best ideas from all the other books.  The authors divide their book into seven sections, each surveying the literature on a different emphasis that church-growth experts have identified as the “megatrends” in church and society.  Part One is a survey of what various authors have identified as indicators of a church’s overall health—a relationship with God, a passion to reach the lost, following the ministry model of Jesus, identifying your purpose, determining to remain culturally relevant, and having a concern for social ministries.  Parts Two and Three survey the literature on building relationships, focusing on friendships and authenticity, and on targeting certain sections of the society through marketing techniques.  Part Four examines what church-growth experts have said about the increasing secularization of American culture, and Part Five gives a survey of their ideas on how to wage and end the “worship wars.”  Part Six is a survey of literature on empowering lay leadership and the every-member ministry movement.  Part Seven looks at what church-growth experts have said about developing good financial stewardship in church members.

In the conclusion, Towns and Bird write, “You have now read through excerpts from nearly one hundred different books.”  After reading the book, I have no doubt that is true, and Towns’s book would probably serve as a good introduction to the issues and emphases of the church-growth movement.  Unfortunately, though, it is not much more.  The danger of trying to survey and summarize so many different books on so many different topics is that you will have neither space nor focus to deal with any of the issues well.  That, I think, is one of the weaknesses of Towns’ book.  The issues are treated in short chapters which consist of summaries of other authors’ ideas.  There is little argument and little or no theological reflection on the issues, and the result is a shallow and cursory treatment of these issues.  In most of the chapters, a pithy illustration and a tightly-worded truism suffice for persuading the reader to adopt a certain approach.  The reader wishes that Towns had spent some time critically analyzing and interacting with the material he summarizes.  Instead, he seems to embrace and celebrate almost every idea without any critical thought at all.  He quotes everyone from John Piper to T.D. Jakes, and even makes reference without critical comment to Robert Schuller of the Hour of Power.  The book is frustratingly uncritical.  Perhaps more frustrating is that Towns seems oblivious to any larger theological questions about the nature of the church.  For example, he approvingly quotes George Hunter on p184 as saying, “The church of the future will not be a church with small groups, but it will be a church of small groups where membership in a small group will be more primary than church membership.”  The theological questions surrounding that statement are enormous—is it ever acceptable to make an extra-biblical ministry such as a small groups “more primary” than membership in a church?  Yet Towns does not even acknowledge that there might be theological objections to that statement.  Again, on p127, he writes approvingly of an evangelistic crusade featuring “Christian rock music and fireworks.”  Because the event drew 112,000 people and over 10,000 “made decisions” for Christ, Towns speaks of it as an example of “new thinking” and an example of keeping the message of Christianity the same, but changing the cultural forms of illustrating and transferring it.  But a deeper question is begged that Towns never addresses—does this form of proclaiming the gospel communicate the gravity and reverence with which we should approach God?  These are the kinds of theological questions that Towns does not even acknowledge, but that the church would be well-advised to think about.

Towns writes, on page 189, a characterization of the church-growth movement that I think is particularly insightful.  Towns is complimentary in writing it, but I think the description also points out one of the main problems in the vast majority of the church-growth literature that is on the market.  He writes,

A similar revolution is occurring in how leaders shepherd today’s church.  They are increasingly dissatisfied with mediocrity and status quo.  They are looking for better, more effective ways to proclaim Christ and to train Christ’s followers.  In the process they’re searching everywhere for ideas that work, from the church across town to the business community downtown.  They don’t want to do anything that would violate Scripture, but they are also driven by a pragmatism that says, “Hey, there’s got to be a better way.”

This, I think, is a penetrating description of the prevailing mindset behind the church-growth movement.  As Towns points out, the driving motivation is for pragmatism, for what “works,” for the “better way.”  If a method is effective in winning the affections of people, use it.  And the Bible is there simply to tell what we finally cannot do.  The question for church growth strategists is not “What does the Bible tell us to do?” but “What can we get away with and not be guilty of violating the Scriptures?”  Towns himself lists a series of questions on page 41, typical of which is “How far into secular marketing studies can the church go to determine methods of communicating the gospel?”  That is precisely the wrong way to approach that question!  It is absolutely insulting to the Bible for us to approach evangelism by asking what we can get away with, as if the Bible is a drag on our creative energy.  Yet the prevailing mindset of the church-growth movement, by Towns’ own admission, is to look in every imaginable place for “more effective,” “better” ways of proclaiming the gospel and then to see if we can make them fit inside the prohibitions of the Bible.  In my mind, that kind of grudging acquiescence is as belittling to the Bible as an outright rejection of its authority.  It treats the Bible like a teenager’s curfew that we see how far we can push without finally getting grounded.

The church is not a reactionary body.  It does not simply respond to what the culture dictates.  Yet so much of the church-growth movement calls for just that!  Among those writers, there is no positive, timeless vision for what the church should be, only a shifting idea of what the church should do based on the latest sociological study.  The church has a positive, timeless, and unchanging charter laid out for it in the Bible, but as long as that is ignored and the Bible is seen as just the fence which we have to stay inside while we graze on all these great ideas from the world, the church will be hamstrung.  The Bible conceives and establishes the church as a positive institution, one that causes society to react to it, not the other way around.  There is so much taught in the Bible about what the church should be.  Our Lord has graciously not left us to look to the world to learn how to function as a church.  He has given us those instructions in the Bible.  There are commands in the Bible about what the church must do, not just what it must not do.  There are methods that the church is to use, not just rules that the church must not break in its drive to engage the culture.  The church is in a privileged position that any marketer in the world would love to be in—she has been instructed by the Creator Himself in the methods and structures that will be most effective for proclaiming her message!  Why would we ever neglect so great a treasure to go rooting around in the troughs of the world for better ideas?

Greg Gilbert

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

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