Book Review: Rethinking the Church, by James White
Ideas matter. The way we think drives what we do and how we do it. Recognizing this truth, James Emery White calls church leaders to reconsider their motives, ministries, and methodologies by rethinking “why they do what they do the way they do it” in his revised second printing of Rethinking the Church: A Challenge to Creative Redesign in an Age of Transition (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2003; p13, emphasis his). After considering some of the reasons unbelievers avoid church, White argues that the languishing state of the church today is primarily due to her failure to adapt her methodology to a postmodern, post-Christian context. He leads the reader through a brief reconsideration of the purpose, mission, audience, methods, and criteria of success for the local church in light of the seismic changes of the last century, and then uses the rest of the book to develop a method for achieving that purpose and mission. Since the purpose of the church in Acts 2:42-47 revolves around evangelism, discipleship, community, ministry, and worship, White uses these to organize the rest of his work, adding a chapter on structure as well.
White shows some significant insight into much that is wrong with the typical local church today. He accurately perceives that evangelism in many quarters is viewed too much as an event and not enough as process. He rightly points out that many churches simply function as a maintenance program for long-time Christians rather than fruit bearing branches that produce new believers. There is, as he argues, a crying need for mentors and models to disciple younger believers. And kudos to the author for recognizing that many pastors approach ministry with a program-driven system that only produces people who perpetuate programs. He rightly criticizes churches whose membership outstrips their attendance, and pastors who accept new members without so much as a conversation. Further, he is one of the few in our day who clearly understands that “a church’s structure can either serve the church or bring it to a standstill” (p111). So White is aware of some unhealthy trends in today’s local churches that need to be revisited if our congregations are to become healthier.
Yet when it comes to offering an alternative methodology, I am afraid that some of the principles and assumptions in the book may be less helpful than they appear. First, there is a foundational and pervasive assumption that a change of times in the culture necessitates a change of method in the church. White quotes Hammer and Champy’s Reengineering the Corporation as pointing out that “the time has come to retire [old] principles and to adopt a new set. The alternative is for corporate America to close its doors and go out of business.” Then he observes: “Bottom line: To survive, those in the business world have to rethink how they have traditionally done business” (p18). He concludes that “The church often continues to operate on insights forged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries… and it is taking its toll” (p18). According to White, the church is similar to a business in that her survival depends on her own ability to adapt her own methodology to the times in which she lives. But Scripture nowhere tells us that the church will perish if she does not modernize her methodology. Rather, Scripture teaches that Jesus is the one building His church (Matt 16:18), and His method for creating, convicting, converting, and conforming His people has always been the performative power of His own eternal Word (Gen 12:1-4; Isa 55:10-11; Ezek 37; John 1; John 17:17; Acts 20:32; Rom 1:16-17; 10:17; 1Thess 2:13; 1Peter 1:23-25). The way pastors are called to tap into the power of that Word is by preaching it so that its content and intent are unleashed on God’s people to do God’s work (Neh 8; Rom 10:17). Depending on our own ability to tweak our own methods to our own times will only lead us to idolize our own perceived independence.
Secondly, there is a foundational and pervasive dependence on business thinking as the key to the church’s success in completing her mission. White recalls that Swiss watchmakers were marginalized in the 80’s because they didn’t implement the new technology of the Quartz movement and perished as a result. White’s conclusion for the church? “As with the Swiss watchmakers, a set of methods and practices set down in a previous generation has shaped the ministry…and organization of American churches throughout the twentieth century…. Success can only be continued through appropriate, thoughtful adjustments to our processes and methods” (p25). He moves from business immediately to the church, now making the success of the church solely (“only”) dependent on our adjustment of our methods according to changes that happen in our world. But Scripture says that only God causes growth in local churches (1Cor 3:6-7). Specifically, the local church grows and succeeds where the Word of God prevails (Acts 6:7; 12:24; 19:20). The church is not dependent on man’s methods, but on the power of God’s Word and the activity of His Spirit.
Next, White remembers that the dominance of the railroads in the 1800’s was replaced with the dominance of cars and highways because of the train companies’ failure to realize they were in the transport business, not the railroad business. White’s conclusion for the church? “Rethinking the church begins with answering the foundational questions. It is not that the church has never answered them before; the church just hasn’t answered them recently in light of the changing realities of our modern world” (p30). Again, he moves from business principle immediately to church application. But businesses sell products. The church offers the gospel free of charge. Businesses market the desirable and downplay the cost. Jesus says to the rich young ruler, “Count the cost,” and to His disciples, “Take up your cross.” The worlds of business and the church are, in very point of fact, two different worlds altogether. Business principles are temporal; God’s Word is eternal. “Surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of our God stands forever” (Isa 40:7-8). Business methodology is as fleeting as the grass because it has its genesis in man. It cannot therefore serve as an appropriate methodology for the church, which has its genesis in the eternal Word of God (James 1:18; 1Pet 1:23-25). God’s method for building His church has always been His eternal Word, because God’s Word is forever the power for its own success.
Thirdly, there is a foundational and pervasive dependence on the culture to determine our methodology. “Once a church knows whom it is trying to reach, it gains enormous insight into how to go about achieving its purposes and mission. As anyone in the marketplace will tell you, once you know who your customer is, you know what it is you are offering, whom you are offering it to, how you should go about offering it, and where you should offer it to them. Knowing whom it is you are trying to reach affects not only what you do but how you do it” (p35, italics his).
What the author is advocating is a consumer-driven approach to Christian ministry. But Christian ministry – indeed, Christianity itself as the Apostle Paul expounds it – is antithetical to consumer-driven methods. “If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a bond-servant of Christ” (Gal 1:10; cf. 1Cor 2:1-5). When a ministry becomes market-driven, it begins to aim at satisfying the very people it is called to confront with the inherently offensive truth of Jesus Christ (1Peter 2:8). It conforms itself to the expectation of the hearer such that it loses its saltiness, relinquishing the essential element of surprising unbelievers with biblical truths that contradict their presuppositions and convict them of their sins. It begins to measure success using the metrics of pragmatism (what draws the biggest crowd?) more often than those of biblical fidelity (are we being faithful to God’s message and method?). In the end, it ceases to be distinctively Christian at all since it forsakes dependence on God in Christ for growth, depending primarily on human technique and preference instead.
By way of contrast, what did God tell Ezekiel to do in the Valley of Dry Bones of Ezek 37? “Ezekiel, go and ask those dry bones how they want to be brought to life.” No! He said “preach my word, and my word will bring them to life.” That’s how dead churches are revived and dead sinners are raised! Resurrection power is not found in asking spiritually dead people how they want to be raised. It’s found in the word of God preached in a way that conveys the content and intent of the passage considered (1Cor 1:18-2:5; 1Tim 3:16-4:2).
All three of the above errors undermine the sufficiency of Scripture for the local church. Listen to how different the Apostle Paul’s methodology sounds. “For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not in cleverness of speech, so that the cross of Christ would not be made void…And when I came to you, brethren…I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling, and my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men but on the power of God (1Cor 1:18-2:5). He preached. He didn’t ask his listeners what they thought they wanted or needed, or how they thought he should speak. He didn’t depend on the trendy rhetorical techniques of his day, or on his culture’s business theory. He preached the gospel of Jesus Christ, trusting that God’s word would do it’s own work because he knew that “the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1Cor 1:18). God’s word is His power for the accomplishment of His redemptive purposes, and it is sufficient for making the man of God “adequate, equipped for every good work” (2Tim 3:16-17). Preaching that word boldly and accurately, regardless of the response, is consequently both the mandate and the method of the Christian minister (2Tim 4:1-5; cf. Ezek 2:1-7).
The three errors outlined above play themselves out when White rethinks church life. A few examples should suffice.
Evangelism. White says “Begin with rethinking who the listeners are” (p44). The consumerism here is readily apparent – determine your target audience, what they want to hear, and how they want to hear it; then give them what they want, package it with their tastes in mind, and they will “buy” the product of the gospel. But rethinking who our listeners are biblically only suggests that they are not the place to begin in rethinking our evangelism. Our listeners are dead in their sins (Eph 2:1-3), enemies of God (Rom 5). Not even one of them understands or does anything good, and so they are shut up under sin (Rom 3), just like we were. They are spiritually heartless, impotent, and in need of God to give them a new heart (Ezek 36:26-27). We can’t market the gospel to potential consumers because the audience we would market it to is spiritually dead. Evangelism is not an effort to convince someone to buy a product. It is exposing them to the resurrection power of the gospel to see whether or not God might grant them repentance leading to life. Rethinking who our listeners are therefore only leads us to the conclusion that all our methodological prowess is powerless to resurrect them. They are wholly dependent on God’s power and Word to give them new birth (Eph 2:4-6; James 1:18; 1Pet 2:23).
White continues: “What [people] are looking for is far more experiential than it is intellectual…. In the 1980’s and early 1990’s, people tended to believe their way into feeling. Today they tend to feel their way into believing” (p61). White takes the trend as value neutral; in fact, he takes it as something to be exploited or manipulated to the church’s advantage. “There is a new, albeit thin, line that needs to be walked so that you give them just enough [of an experience] but not too much” (p61). But must we give them an experience just because they’re not looking for something “intellectual”? What is God’s way with man? God’s appeal to us in the Bible is through the Word, to the mind, for the purpose of working accurately informed repentance and belief in the heart, engendering spiritual worship that comports with the truth of God’s self-revelation. We must first understand who God has revealed himself to be. Only then will we be free to engage with Him on the terms he proposes, and in the way He provides (see David Peterson, Engaging with God: A Biblical Theology of Worship[Downers Grove: IVP, 1992], p20).
White goes on to approvingly quote William Martin’s summary of Billy Graham’s methodology of using “whatever techniques to hook ‘em in, then punch ‘em with the gospel. Whatever it takes to get their attention” (p56). Perhaps, but many techniques are so entertainment-based or emotionally manipulative that we should actually have moral reservations against using them because of how easily they lead to “conversions” that bear no evidentiary fruit. Or take this statement: “The key to rethinking evangelism is to understand how the world has changed, why certain approaches have worked in the past, and why they may not work in the present” (p62). White then approvingly relates the story of a woman who once said to him “If rock ‘n’ roll is what it takes to get people back to church, all I’ve got to say is…’Let’s boogie!’” (p63). The argument is that understanding changes in the world should be taken as the key to rethinking evangelism. The church leader is thus encouraged to trust in the current cultural trend as the bait that will hook unbelievers on the gospel. Admittedly, methods are not right simply because they are old. The truth, however, is that only the Spirit of God makes the gospel sensible and attractive to a fallen mind (1Cor 2:12-14). Trusting in anything else to do this convicting, converting, work is flirting with idolatry.
Worship. “The more worship authentically reflects how a person naturally expresses [one’s] commitments and emotions, the more God-honoring it becomes. This is the heart of rethinking worship, for what is meaningful to one person may not be meaningful to another, particularly as vocabulary and style change over time” (p108). This way of viewing worship, though, inadvertently makes man’s experience in worship primary, and pushes God’s pleasure in our worship to the periphery. Staying true to one’s self becomes the yardstick for measuring the honor God gets from our worship, rather than staying true to who God has revealed Himself to be and how He desires to be worshipped. Self is now sovereign, having usurped God’s position as the judge of what counts as acceptable worship.
But worship is not about staying true to my self. Quite to the contrary, true worship is about repenting of our selfishness and natural inclinations, offering our selves to God for his service and glory (Rom 12:1-2). Nor is worship about our musical preferences or how church visitors will feel most comfortable approaching God. It is about pleasing God, and approaching Him on His terms, and doing and saying things that honor Him in ways that honor Him, based on His self-revelation in His Word. If we want to view worship as an evangelistic tool, then our method should not be to let unbelievers teach us about how they are most comfortable approaching God. Rather, it should be to teach unbelievers about how the only all-powerful and holy God demands to be approached by small, sinful men.
It might be argued that God considers most meaningful that which the worshipper considers most meaningful, thus relieving the tension. Yet such thinking still seeks to approach God on terms set by the self – it still seeks to make self the judge of what counts as acceptable worship. God is not pleased with animistic or syncretistic worship, is He? But what if that’s what’s most meaningful to me, or to an unbeliever? If we really want to worship God, then we should be asking, “What expressions of worship are most meaningful to God?” This is not to say that we should or even can be style-less in our worship. It is simply to say that our worship style should not be driven by preference, popularity, or pragmatism, but by what pleases God most. Otherwise we simply serve ourselves in worship by seeking a kind of experience that satisfies our own emotional appetites, which brings us back to flirtation with idolatry.
Structure. White aptly recognizes the critical importance of church structure, and the debilitating effects of committee structures in particular. But he again relies wholly on human wisdom and business theory, assuming that “the Bible gives enormous freedom, requiring only that a church organize for effectiveness in regard to its purposes and mission” (p118). Yet Paul clearly instructed Timothy and Titus to appoint both elders and deacons (1Tim 3; Titus 1). And the Biblical priority of congregationalism is evident from the assembly’s determining function as laid out in Matt 18:16-18 (matters of dispute); 1Cor 5 (matters of discipline); 2Cor 2 (matters of membership); and Gal 1:6-9 (matters of doctrine).
Jesus cares so much about His church that He identified Himself as the one Saul was persecuting in Acts 9:4. Is it plausible, then, for us to think that He would leave His Bride to seek wisdom on church structure from “a major study of hundreds of organizations” found in Dean Spitzer’s Super-Motivation; A Blueprint for Energizing Your Organization from Top to Bottom, or from observations gathered by Geoffrey James in Business Wisdom of the Electronic Elite (p111)?
Community. “True community,” argues White, “takes place when we can stand up and say, ‘My name is John, and I’m an alcoholic’…because it begins with a willingness to admit weakness… To know and be known demands more than authenticity, however, it requires safety” (p130-131). I agree that we need to be able to admit weakness for true community to happen. But what the author is advocating is a substantially atheological, therapeutic approach to the development of community. His examples, which function as the meat of his argument, are taken straight from Alcoholics Anonymous (p130). He provides no Scriptural superstructure on which to hang what he says, save a use of Acts 2:42-47 that overlooks the all-important grounding of Christian community in the teaching of the apostles (pp128-133). “Community,” White says of Acts 2, “is where we can love and be loved, know and be known, serve and be served, and celebrate and be celebrated” (p128). But this idea of “Christian” community could be achieved even if Christ and the gospel were not part of it. I could go to the local Rotary club and have the same experiences. Unbelievers love and serve and know and celebrate each other every day in country clubs and bars all over the world. But distinctively Christian community is founded on our common share in the free gospel of Christ, the doctrine that conforms to and results in godly living (1Tim 6:3). Without the gospel as that which binds us together, there’s nothing distinctively Christian about our community – or even about those who make it up.
I do not doubt that Rethinking the Church has been well received in many quarters. It’s chic in popular evangelicalism these days to talk about the “need” of the church to keep pace with the changes of postmodernity. But as we have seen, such thinking subtly leads us into the futility of dependence on synthetic technique and the idolatry of dependence on self, culture, and business theory. Yet the book does raise an important question: What is your local church depending on for health and growth? “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of our God stands forever” (Isa 40:8).