Book Review: Renovation of the Church, by Kent Carlson and Mike Luken
The seeker-sensitive ethos is alive and well in evangelical circles. This ethos assumes that the primary purpose of the church’s weekly gathering is to attract non-Christians. It holds that the substance and style of corporate worship should conform as closely as possible to non-Christians’ preferences. And it treats numerical growth in attendance as an absolute metric of success. This ethos still governs the operating systems of many churches, even some whose reformed theological convictions might seem to imply a different ministry philosophy.
Yet there are also increasing symptoms of discontent. Willow Creek Community Church, the mother ship of the movement, recently conducted an extensive survey and concluded that they were doing a poor job of actually helping Christians grow to maturity in Christ. And, if anecdotal evidence can be trusted, it seems that many pastors who have followed in that church’s footsteps have drawn similarly disconcerting conclusions.
Two such pastors are Kent Carlson and Mike Lueken, co-pastors of Oak Hills Church in the suburbs of Sacramento, California and authors of the new book Renovation of the Church: What Happens When a Seeker Church Discovers Spiritual Formation.
A WELL-TOLD STORY OF CHURCH RENOVATION
Renovation of the Church tells the story of how and why Carlson and Lueken turned a seemingly thriving seeker church into a church in which forming mature disciples of Jesus is the central concern that permeates the entire corporate life of the church.
It’s a great story, and Carlson and Lueken tell it well, with disarming self-deprecation and evident humility. They recount how, in a well-intentioned effort to build a truly evangelistic church, they had created a performance and entertainment-driven monster that demanded to be fed—and grew in appetite—every single week (ch. 1). Then at a pastoral retreat at, ironically, Donner Lake (google “Donner Party”), they came to the dramatic realization that
attracting people to church based on their consumer demands is in direct and irredeemable conflict with inviting people, in Jesus’ words, to lose their lives in order to find them. It slowly began to dawn on us that our method of attracting people was forming them in ways contrary to the way of Christ. (35; ch. 2)
They further explain this crucial turning point:
In order to help people follow Christ more fully, we would have to work against the very methods we were using to attract people to our church. As person after person shared at this retreat, we slowly began to realize that, to be faithful to the gospel of Jesus, consumerism was not a force to be harnessed but rather an antibiblical value system that had to be prophetically challenged. (35)
This began a process of rethinking theological and methodological issues that, over the next several years, radically transformed—and significantly shrunk—Oak Hills Church. Chapter three tells the story of the transition years, and chapter twelve and the epilogue reflect on mistakes and the future. Chapters four through eleven work through the theological and pastoral issues that changed their church from the inside out: the gospel (ch. 4), consumerism (ch. 5), pastoral ambition (ch. 6), co-pastoring (ch. 7), ecclesiology (ch. 8), spiritual formation (ch. 9), outreach (ch. 10), and worship (ch. 11).
MUCH TO LEARN FROM
There is much to learn from in this narrative and its accompanying theological and pastoral reflections.
Humility, Character, and Pastoral Wisdom
First, the book is written humbly and transparently; the authors are well aware of their own sins and failures. Their writing displays the kind of Christ-shaped character that these men have worked hard to teach and model for their people. And these brothers show plenty of pastoral wisdom as they reflect on the twists and turns of the journey of reforming their church.
Penetrating Critiques of the Seeker Ethos
Further, this book provides a number of penetrating critiques of the seeker ethos.
For instance, the authors asked themselves, “To what extent have we oriented our church around the needs of people who have minimal interest in actually living as disciples of Jesus?” (57).
And on the issue of losing people to other, slicker churches they comment perceptively, “We simply can’t build churches around attracting people through all these religious benefits we offer and then be surprised when they actually take us up on it” (67).
Moreover, they write concerning the performance burden which the seeker model places on pastors and church staff, “Once we have communicated to the masses that if they come to our church, they’ll be surprised, then we have this never-ending burden to surprise people every week. There is no resting. If there is a particularly wonderful experience one weekend, we are driven to do even better the next” (27-28).
Finally, they cast off the devotion to numbers which inheres in the seeker philosophy: “The loss of momentum may be God’s way of exposing our hidden attachments and deepening our dependency on him. Outward success may cost too high of a price. Decisions that negatively impact the bottom line are not necessarily mistakes” (163).
The Centrality of Discipleship
Another strong point in the book is the authors’ insistence on the centrality of discipleship in the life of the church. Their crisis in ministry philosophy was brought on by a dawning awareness that, whatever their church services were accomplishing, the vast majority of attenders were not being progressively conformed to the character of Christ. The catalyst that drove their extreme church makeover is the burden to make disciples. The agenda of their church reform is the agenda of the great commission (Matt. 28:18-20). And as these brothers rightly recognize, this entails far more than merely gathering a crowd or leading people to make a one-time decision that doesn’t lead to real transformation.
What We Do in Worship Preaches a Message and Forms Character
Something else worth learning from is the authors’ understanding that everything a church does in its corporate worship services preaches a message, and forms a certain kind of character. Unlike many contemporary evangelicals, Carlson and Lueken rightly perceive how tightly intertwined our message and our methods really are (57). They concluded of their former ministry approach that, “The way we did church, the style of our services, the underlying values behind our ministry—these communicated a ‘gospel’ in which accepting Jesus was required but apprenticeship to him was optional” (56). In other words, “We are training people as we attract them” (67). And again, citing Marva Dawn,
“Every aspect of the time we spend together in the worshiping Christian community influences the kind of people we are becoming.” In other words, our worship services will form us into a certain kind of person. If worship services are centered on the story of God, we will be assisted in becoming men and women whose lives are more deeply rooted in God. If our worship services are centered around our personal tastes, needs and desires, they will become merely another place that props up our inherent self-absorption. (152)
This insight also leads the authors into some generally helpful discussion of corporate worship. Their paradigm of content, structure, and style, in that order, is a helpful tool for thinking through what matters in corporate worship (153 ff.). And I was glad to see a strong accent on the Bible’s whole story of redemption as the content that should permeate our services and provoke our response of worship (153).
MATTERS TO CRITIQUE
Yet for all of these strengths and insights, there are a few significant matters to critique.
Approach to “Spiritual Formation”
First, I can’t quite endorse the authors’ overall approach to what they call spiritual formation.
For all the ways it offers a decisive improvement upon contemporary consumerism, the authors’ vision of spiritual formation is still too individualistic. That is, it fails to give the corporate life of the church its proper role in forming the character of Christians.
For instance, they write, “For the first few years after Donner we were laser focused on the individual’s journey toward Christlikeness” (168). And then they unpack how that focus led them to encourage people to explore their past, their need for growth, and the roots of lust, anger, worry, and so on. In order to facilitate this, “We taught on solitude, silence, and spending time alone with God” (168).
Now, there’s little to argue with in this emphasis except what’s missing: this kind of spirituality gives the impression that Christian growth happens strictly between me and God, that it’s a purely individual matter. I go into seclusion to practice the spiritual disciplines, and then I gather with other Christians for teaching, worship, and service, which supplements what I do in private.
But the New Testament picture of discipleship portrays individual and corporate growth as fundamentally interconnected (Eph. 4:11-16). The primary way that we mature as Christians is through the life of the church. The members help the body grow—which means helping each other grow. We are built up as we build others up. Christian growth is fundamentally a team effort.
Carlson and Lueken clearly grasp this on one level, as their discussion of corporate worship as character formation demonstrates. Further, the authors explain that they recognized the individualistic tendencies of their new approach and have sought to correct them. But it seems that this biblical insight has yet to work its way through their entire spiritual formation program.
Second, the authors draw on spiritual practices that are, at best, not grounded in and informed by a robust theology of the gospel. For instance, they describe how they were pivotally influenced by works by a number of Roman Catholic mystics, such as St. John of the Cross and Teresa of Ávila (32). And the chapter on worship begins by narrating a five-day retreat of silence and solitude at a monastery (147 ff.). At the very least, some of the spiritual disciplines modeled and advocated here fail to find scriptural warrant in either command or example. Further, practically speaking, many of these recommended practices are divorced from God’s Word, and seem to treat silent contemplation as a means of grace apart from any biblical content.
The problem is, spirituality can’t be disconnected from theology. How we grow as Christians must be rooted in what God has done for us in Christ, as revealed in Scripture.
A second problem is a somewhat fuzzy ecclesiology. The biggest issue here is that, for all their efforts to define discipleship in biblical terms, the authors explicitly want to include people in the church who do not understand or intend to live according to those terms.
For example, they write that while the church obviously includes those who understand what it means to follow Jesus, “it’s also those who don’t understand and really don’t care” (100). And they argue that while “[a] sect is composed of those who understand the requirements and expectations, and have agreed to live by them” (106), the church is “not a sect but an eclectic community of diverse people with varying degrees of commitment and interest in following Jesus and pursuing spiritual formation” (107).
The authors do affirm our need to be accountable to others, to submit to authority, and to be in community with people different from us (110). But I’m afraid that they fail to distinguish between those whom the church should welcome as friends and seekers while withholding formal fellowship, and those whom the church should recognize as members.
Yes, Christians are imperfect. Yes, our affections wander and flag. Yes, our obedience is inconsistent and our knowledge is all too partial. But the church still has to draw a line somewhere to separate those who are in and those who are out (1 Cor. 5:12; Matt. 18:17). And it doesn’t help anyone to act as if someone can be a Christian—which is what their inclusion in the church implies—if they don’t understand what it means to follow Jesus, and don’t intend to live in that way.
If a church can’t say what a Christian isn’t, it can’t very well say what a Christian is. And if a church deliberately includes people whose lives bear little resemblance to Jesus’ teaching, and who don’t intend to live as disciples of Jesus, then it constantly undermines its own efforts to call people into that life of discipleship.
There’s plenty more that could be said about this thoughtful book. I deeply appreciate the authors’ humility, candor, pastoral insight, keen critiques of consumer-driven ministry, focus on discipleship, and insights into how worship shapes character. Yet I can’t commend all the materials they’re building with, nor fully align with their vision of the church (or their articulation of the “gospel of the kingdom,” but that’s for another day).
Still, I’m grateful for the story these brothers have told, and for the work they have done. I hope that their example will encourage the pastors who happen to read the book to look for other ways of doing church than the dominant seeker paradigm. And I hope that those who do will turn not to the desert fathers or Thomas Merton, but to Scripture, and to others who have reflected more thoroughly on Scripture’s teaching about spirituality and the church. For example, dig into Calvin’s Institutes and commentaries, or most anything by the English Puritans; or more recently Donald Whitney’s work on spiritual disciplines, Peter Adam’s book Hearing God’s Words, or Jonathan Leeman’s Reverberation.