Book Review: Reforming Pastoral Ministry, ed. by John Armstrong
If you have spent much time wandering about in the wilderness of recent church growth literature, you’ve probably felt some of the same frustration that plagues me every time I open one of these books’ covers. I am amazed that so many different books can be written and sold that seem wholly incapable of saying anything new. There is a nice, well-plowed field of about six or seven ideas that sprout up again and again in these books. You’re familiar with them, I’m sure—have loving relationships, exciting worship, flexible management structures, empowering leadership, small groups—nothing new and nothing that even begins to merit yet another book on the same subjects. Yet they keep writing them, and we keep encouraging them to do so by buying the things. What’s more, every one of these authors touts these same tired ideas as if they have stumbled upon the key to inaugurating the Millenium in the church. They are all scared silly by postmodernism in the culture, as if that somehow makes the gospel obsolete, and seem to think that the only way to prevent the church from disintegrating is to jump into the postmodern river and swim right along with it. It’s enough to make you wonder why the church doesn’t just do a mass market-demand survey to find out what product God can most effectively sell to them—oh, wait.
John Armstrong has compiled a book called Reforming Pastoral Ministry that is a well-placed and much-needed dart in the balloon of the church growth movement. I read the book almost whistling with glee to see a “church-growth” book that isn’t ashamed to say that the preaching of Word just might be more effective at converting people to Christ than having a drum set in your sanctuary. It is shocking to me that the preaching of the Word has somehow not made the top-ten list of church growth experts’ favorite techniques. In fact, I have not read a single book from the genre that says anything more about preaching than that if we absolutely must tolerate it, then for goodness’ sake, “Make it relevant!” (As if preachers throughout history have sought to be abstruse and unintelligible in their sermons.) That’s why reading just the foreword by Erwin Lutzer made me realize, with much private rejoicing, that the drought was over! He writes on p.15, “What is lacking [in the church growth movement] is a profound commitment to holy living, a passionate desire for the spiritual health and salvation of the congregation, and in short a radically biblical approach to the whole of church work.” I would misquote the book if I put an exclamation point at the end of that sentence, but it certainly deserves to have one. That kind of emphasis on the Bible and on its teachings for how we are to conduct our lives as churches is utterly absent from the vast majority of the books in this field. The question for them is not, “What does the Bible teach?” but rather “What can we do to produce a successful church?” That is a dangerous way to approach the church, and Armstrong and company have opened fire with this book in an attempt to reverse that trend.
There are far too many sharp and accurate sentences in the book to reproduce in a review, but one in particular deserves notice because somewhat surprisingly, I have not run across it in any church growth book that I have read. The reason that is so surprising is because it is a Bible verse, and quite a famous one for that matter that perhaps should not quickly be overlooked. Armstrong quotes it on page 28—“I resolved to know nothing . . . except Christ and Him crucified.” Again, an exclamation would be warranted. In the middle of this swirling morass of ideas about how to grow the church, this should be the battle cry of those who recognize that it is finally the preaching of the gospel alone that God uses to regenerate His people. Thankfully, the authors in this book realize that truth. Every chapter, whether on preaching itself or holiness or church discipline or even church fellowship, places absolute and explicit primacy on the preaching of the word. That is the burden of this book, and the overwhelming need of the church growth movement.
It will be most useful, I think, to make some comments on just a few of the chapters in the book, only for the purpose of whetting your appetite to go and read the whole thing. Armstrong opens the book with a chapter on the primacy of the Word. Semper Reformanda, “always reforming,” was the rallying cry of the Protestants in the sixteenth-century. They meant by that, in contrast to the Roman church’s claim to be ever the same, that they were without abeyance under the authority of the Word of God and always accountable to conform themselves and their churches to its teachings. Today, though, the church has all but lost sight of the all-encompassing importance of preaching the Bible. Sure, we still preach the Bible, but we preach it as a kind of “Complete Idiot’s Guide to Busy Modern Living.” The result of this has been that the church has lost its perspective and now derives more of its guidance from George Barna and other church growth “experts” than from the Holy Scriptures. Armstrong concludes, “The only road that leads the ministry home again is to believe, teach, and practice nothing more and nothing less than what the Holy Scripture requires of us.” (p.35) I can say it no better.
Joel R. Beeke, President of Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, has contributed a searching and devotional chapter on the utter necessity of holiness in the minister’s life. I couldn’t help but think as I read it that the chapter is reminiscent of some Puritan writers that I have read, concerned with the inner recesses of the minister’s heart. Beeke writes that the minister must pursue God in order to be an effective minister. “It is impossible to separate vibrant, godly living from a vibrant spiritual life and a God-owned ministry.” (p.60) The minister must acquaint himself with God through the use of even ordinary spiritual disciplines such as reading and meditating on the Bible, reading sermons, and unceasing prayer. Prayer is perhaps the most important pursuit of a minister’s life. Beeke quotes Jean Massillon, a famous French preacher, as saying, “A pastor who does not pray, who does not love prayer, . . . is a barren tree, which cumbers the Lord’s ground. He is the enemy, and not the father of his people. He is a stranger, who has usurped the pastor’s place, and to whom the salvation of the flock is indifferent.” (p.70). Meditating on these issues would be a good use of any pastor’s time.
Thomas Smith is the pastor of Randolph Street Baptist Church in Charleston, West Virginia. His chapter on “Preaching Christ as the Focus of all Reformation” begins with a recounting of his days as a “preacher-boy” in southern Oklahoma. Smith remembers the prayers of a deacon who prayed that the young man might be “hidden behind the cross.” It was a poignant moment in his life, Smith says, as well as a prayer than any Christian preacher should beg of God before He steps into the pulpit. Christ is the focus of all the Scriptures. If that is the case, then our preaching should be radically centered around Him and around the story of redemption that finds its climax in Him. Smith points out that even the Old Testament is a testimony to the life and work of Jesus Christ. One of Smith’s more helpful points is that the Gospel is often treated as the introductory, almost simplistic, foundation that must be laid before the Christian can get on to the really important stuff. That was not how the apostles saw it. The apostles understood that the central message of Christianity was the Story of God’s redemption of His people. Christian ethics cannot be understood apart from the Story of the gospel. “And it is precisely this inseparable connection that makes the Christian position, the Christian life, Christian.”
Jim Elliff has also written a fine chapter on the cure of souls, as the old phrase puts it. One of the most important works of the pastor is to watch after the spiritual welfare of his flock, to have relationships with his people that will enable him to effectively challenge them and comfort them in their Christian lives. Elliff points out six aspects of effective pastoral ministry: Intimacy, Tutelage, Guidance, Consolation, Guardianship, and Intercession. He explains each of these at some length and using historical and theological bases, makes helpful practical comments on them all.
Mark Dever, pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. has written an article that is in some ways different in kind from the rest of the book. At Armstrong’s request, much of Dever’s article is an engaging and helpful compendium of the evangelistic practices that have grown up in the church under his care. Dever tells something of how he plans the services of the church, how each of the meetings of the church has a different aim, and how the congregation has responded to each of these things. Of course, every church will be under different circumstances, and I am sure the idea isn’t for Dever’s church to be carbon-copied all over the country. That said, though, he has presented in this chapter an array of biblically-based practices that would be very useful in underscoring to the congregation their obligation to take the message of Christ to their friends, families, and co-workers.
Finally, Phil Newton, pastor of South Woods Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee, closes the book with a critique of the church growth movement and particularly of Rick Warren’s The Purpose-Driven Church. Newton’s primary concern with Warren’s book is its emphasis on felt-needs. Warren argues that when Jesus fed the multitudes, He was responding to a “felt need” of those people. Newton responds that Christ knew that His miracles, His meeting of their felt needs, would not cause those people to want to believe in Him. In fact, he points out that the Scriptures say that they stayed around Jesus solely to get their stomachs filled. When he began teaching the doctrines of the gospel, though, they scattered. “The multitude hung around as long as the message of the Gospel did not get too close,” he writes. “They looked for the miracles and baskets of bread, but they had no love for the truth of the Gospel proclaimed.” (p.269) That is an interesting concept to consider, and one which should make us wary of basing our presentation of the gospel on the felt needs of the listeners.
Newton writes that the church must labor with a “conviction of the sufficiency of Scripture for both our faith and our practice.” That, finally, is the greatest emphasis of Armstrong’s book. The church growth movement has managed to shuffle the Scriptures off stage-left while surveys and psychology are determining the direction and modus operandi of Christ’s church. The words of A.W. Tozer, quoted by Armstrong on page 25, are apt: “It is as if we think that while the Bible is inspired, it is nevertheless inadequate to the tasks of sustaining and nourishing the twentieth-century Church!” What a stinging indictment of the battery of books that have come out which treat the Bible as, at best, a nice quotation book to get pithy statements to back up the ideas the authors have gotten from their study of the culture. Armstrong’s is a truly . . . relevant . . . book.