Book Review: The Multiplying Church, by Bob Roberts
In a series of three books published by Zondervan Publishers,* Bob Roberts, Jr., founding Pastor of NorthWood Church in Fort Worth, Texas, casts a new vision for how society can be transformed by Jesus Christ.
In the third work of his, The Multiplying Church, Roberts seeks to show how local churches must see their primary vision as multiplying churches. Churches should not merely strive to plant another local church here or there; they should actually multiplythem through the proven methods of Roberts and others for church planting. This will make it possible to proliferate hundreds if not thousands of others churches all over the globe.
A REVOLUTION IN CHURCH PLANTING
Roberts believes that imbedded within the very nucleus of every local church must be a clear desire and a strategic plan for aggressively reproducing themselves into countless other local churches, whether it be in their metropolitan backyard or other parts of the world (targeting specific countries, like his church has done with Vietnam).
Roberts calls for a virtual revolution in current thinking regarding church planting. He says that his and several others’ views of successful church multiplication “is almost if not out of control” with exciting multiplication (p. 45). When the exuberance for planting church after church after church is realized, “churches wind up starting others that start others” (p. 45). The growth will be cataclysmic and exponential. But not only that, “A global church planting movement will be necessary for the bride of Christ to be prepared for the coming of Christ” (p. 47). Notice that his movement is “necessary.” A grandiose claim indeed!
Roberts believes that a monumental movement of church multiplication could revolutionize the entire landscape of Christianity’s impact upon our world because these churches will be led by non-clergy, especially by those whose vocations are better suited for establishing viable churches. He writes, “Our current focus on the use of ‘professional pastors’ almost ensures that we will not get to church planting movements. This is what the house church movement has to teach the broader church community in the United States. Some of the best church planters have been businessmen, lawyers, and those from a thousand other vocations” (p. 46).
In addition to those who will venture out as official church planters, every individual church member should see themselves—wherever they are spiritually and whatever they’re doing vocationally—as nothing less than new missionaries who are a vital part of transforming society via the use of their particularly unique skills and ministries. What greater impact could a church have on the community around it than for its members to recognize and use their lives for the gospel? The goal of the book is very exciting and impressive!
AND THE APPROACH?
But in order to accomplish this goal, Roberts appeals to sociological and business principles of success, which he gets from non-biblical, secular sources rather than any apparent exegesis of the biblical texts. He seems to have been more impacted by books like Jim Collins’ Good to Great than by any substantive theological analysis of the New Testament.
This is not to say that Roberts’ book is devoid of references to Scripture or any theological framework. A few passages from the book of Acts, for instance, are listed, including an attempt to see the church at Antioch as his exemplar for the NT multiplying church (pp. 125-129). Also, Roberts attempts to define what the church is and is not (pp. 40-43). And he has the theological conviction that it is the local church that should drive the multiplication of other local churches (pp. 53-54).
What he doesn’t do, however, is consider the Bible’s framework for understanding the purposes of the church and mandate for spreading the gospel.
As such, he doesn’t offer any marks of what a healthy church plant looks like. Will just any plant do? Without a theological framework, it’s hard to measure what exactly distinguishes healthy churches from unhealthy churches, or churches from any other organization that you might plant and grow. It’s also not clear how planted churches of different theologies and philosophies of ministry work together, or what theological training a church planter needs before launching.
Consider as well what the lack of a biblical framework means for his understanding of church leaders. Roberts is to be commended for encouraging deliberate mentoring and close accountability toward “church starters” (pp. 90-94, 141-142), but he also challenges planters to be entrepreneurs, mystics, and daredevils (pp. 96-115). Never mind the idea of looking for individuals who are “sober-minded,“”respectable,”and “gentle”(1 Tim. 3:2-3) and all those other qualities Paul talked about. It raises the question of whether Roberts views what a “pastor” is in the same way that God does.
Or if Roberts understands “growth” in the same way God does. One of the principles he espouses is this: “To start a church that starts with the society, the church planter must think and act like a community developer, not just a preacher” (p. 119). But doesn’t God mean to grow his church through his Word, because growth isn’t just about numbers but holiness and love, too? Isn’t that what Paul tells Timothy to do (2 Tim. 4:1ff)? I can’t help but think Roberts is unwittingly downplaying the role of preaching in his model. It seems his orientation pulls him in the direction of more “exciting” secular labels and ideals rather than toward a more biblical apparatus and construct.
Likewise, Roberts writes much about the “Kingdom of God” and our need to minister in light of it (pp. 73-81), but spends too few words defining with precision what that phrase actually means. It is too important not to define. Roberts’ view of the kingdom is at best amorphous.
This lack of interaction with the biblical material hurts the book’s ability to live up to its ambitions.
HELPFUL FOR FAMILIES
It is possible that the most significant contribution Roberts makes in his book is the last chapter, “Living as a Missional Family.” He provides very helpful advice not only for church planters, but for all pastors, pastor’s wives, and their children (pp. 159-171). He encourages anyone in ministry to be open to criticism, to correct character flaws, to deal with past hurts (but be very careful here!), and to grow into the next dimension of your leadership. Frankly, I would have been helped if Roberts had written this good material in an expanded form and left off significant sections of the previous chapters. Of course, this would have substantially changed the nature of the book’s purpose and theme, and I suspect Roberts himself wouldn’t agree.
All in all, Bob Roberts certainly cannot be faulted for his obvious and infectious desire to see the gospel of Jesus pervade and transform a godless society. Church starters will however, need to adhere to a more closely aligned New Testament paradigm for the planting of local churches than Roberts’ model has provided.
*The first two books are Transformation: How Glocal Churches Transform Lives and the World (2006) and Glocalization: How Followers of Jesus Engage a Flat World (2007).