Book Review: Rethinking the Successful Church, by Samuel Rima
Samuel Rima calls for a redefinition of success, especially as the word is used in reference to the church. His audience for his book Rethinking the Successful Church is obviously the devotees of the church growth movement. Rima spent much of his life as a church planter in southern California, where he developed an “obsession” (his word, p.19) with church growth methodologies and techniques. The result was finally that he found himself miserable in his ministry and paralyzed with stress. So Rima began to give some thought to the ramifications of church growth methodology on the pastors themselves. This book is the fruit of that thought. The first half is a diagnosis of the problem: Rima addresses the “mania” many pastors have with large churches and church growth formulas, and he details some of the sicknesses that can result from such an unhealthy focus. The second half of the book is essentially a call for the church growth movement to “refocus on God’s sovereignty” (22). That is certainly a promising start, and though I think there is more to be said, in many ways Rima has begun in this book to lay the foundation for a genuinely theological response to church growth methodologies.
The church growth movement, as its name implies, looks for the church to grow. In fact, that is the measure of a ministry’s success—whether or not it is growing numerically. As it is normally stated in more theological terms, God is in the business of converting people. So why should we not expect that He will bless a ministry with growing numbers of people who are coming to faith in Him? Rima believes this idea comes more from the market-driven American society than from the Bible. He writes:
Success in America means producing results that can be seen by others. Success involves making a name for yourself and enjoying the good life. Is it any wonder then that we have adopted the same view of success when it comes to ministry and our personal lives as ministers or spiritual leaders? (169)
Rima argues that our definition of success needs to be remade. “Genuine success in ministry,” he says, “cannot be empirically measured and is more qualitative in nature than it is quantitative” (164). That is perhaps the most provocative statement in the book, and the one that would no doubt evoke the strongest response from church growth enthusiasts. But it is essentially the thesis of Rima’s book. In fact, a reliance on quantitative results for determining the success of the ministry is not only fundamentally wrong, but it is also harmful to the pastor and the people he is trying to lead. Rima’s book focuses strongly on the mental state of the pastor. In that sense, it wouldn’t be far off the mark to say that this book is a study of the psychology of church growth. The sub-title is “Finding Serenity in God’s Sovereignty.” Rima is talking to pastors who are over-worked, over-stressed, and at the mental breaking point under the weight of a paradigm that measures their success as ministers by how many new members they take in each week.
In one of the most helpful sections of the book, Rima details some “Success Sicknesses” that can overcome both the pastor and the church when church growth is the driving factor in one’s ministry. “When we recklessly pursue church growth at any cost,” he writes, “we need to recognize that the price may prove to be even higher than we had anticipated” (72). If church growth strategies work for a church, these will probably not be their problems. The pastor who pulls off a church-growth strategy successfully has a whole different set of issues with which to worry himself. First, Rima lists several sicknesses that can afflict the church as a whole. Failure in a “guaranteed successful” church-growth strategy can easily lead to a sense of corporate depression (where church leaders “begin to doubt their leadership and question whether they should be in leadership at all”), congregational decline (as people give up on the dream and move to other churches), congregational division (if some leaders are not convinced of the strategy), crippling debt (brought on by overzealous pastors convinced that burgeoning numbers of new tithers will pay for the new building), and finally congregational death (73-83). For the pastor himself, there are also significant dangers, including discouragement and disappointment, a sense of failure, anger directed toward the church, premature resignation and even abandonment of the ministry. I will leave it to you to read how Rima unpacks each of these ideas, but it is easy to imagine how each of them could easily result from a situation in which a pastor excitedly recommends a church-growth plan to a church and it fails—which is, as Rima rightly points out, the usual outcome of such a scenario.
Rima thus recommends that pastors need to redefine their notion of success and focus more singularly on the sovereignty of God. It is not any church growth formula or program that brings success. If a church succeeds, it is because God has granted success. Our job as leaders of the church is not to manipulate success by our programs and formulas, but quite simply “we must learn to trust” (105). Once our focus is on God’s sovereignty and His purpose to grow His church for Himself, the pastor will be able to find a real and lasting serenity in his ministry. As Rima says, “I no longer obsessively measure my accomplishments in terms of numbers and statistics as I did in my early years of ministry, seeing them as a direct reflection on my personal ability or worth as a person. For me success in ministry and life has begun to take on a much more spiritual and intangible meaning” (163). “I am convinced that when we are consistently finding serenity in God’s loving sovereignty and recklessly entrusting our life and ministry to him, there is no greater success” (180).
Rima’s is really a very simple argument, and I’m sure it’s one that church growth enthusiasts have heard before. So I think his book could be useful as a conversation starter with someone enamored of the church growth movement, but it won’t end the conversation. Through most of the book, I had the sense that anyone from the church growth movement could read it, agree with almost everything in it, and still say, “Yes, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t to work hard to get people into the church.” Or if they are more theologically astute, they might say, “Yes, but God also is sovereign over means.” And the point would be well-taken. In fact, it’s well-taken by Rima himself. Several times in the book he is at pains to say that he understands and agrees with this response to his point. For example, he writes: “It is important for me to say once again that I am not in any way suggesting that we should simply slack off in ministry under the guise of letting God be God.” Actually, that’s about the fourth time he’s made that point by page 65. It is here that I don’t believe Rima’s thinking goes far enough. What he says is good. In fact, I think that consistently thought through, it cuts the root out of most results-driven church growth strategies. But throughout his book, Rima seems to be determined to cut out the root and yet allow the tree to stand. Again and again, he makes statements like, “First of all, let me say that I am unequivocally in favor of church growth. . . . You can believe me when I say that I am in favor of the megachurch” (13, see also 22).
“Unequivocally in favor” is a strong phrase. Rima seems to think that the church growth movement is a positive good, except for an under-emphasis on the sovereignty of God. Rima’s book begins a good conversation. It is good to hear someone making a theological point in this whole church growth conversation—and one as robust as the absolute sovereignty of God! In my mind, though, there are questions about the very methods of the church growth movement that Rima does not address. Neither will I address them here; there are several other reviews on this site that do just that. But while I think Rima’s point about the sovereignty of God could kick off some good conversations, I do not think a bare statement of that theological point will be enough to correct the movement’s excesses. That will require the taking of a good, hard look at the nuts and bolts methods of the movement and subjecting even those to the authority of Scripture.