Book Review: Simple Church, by Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger
"Simple is in. Simple works. People respond to simple."
With those three summarizing catch phrases Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger begin one of the latest offerings to church growth literature, The Simple Church.
Having done extensive research of churches across the U.S., these authors conclude that there is a strong correspondence between simplicity and growth. Vibrant churches, that is, churches that have increased their membership by at least 5 percent a year for the last three years, are more likely to be simple churches. On the flip side, stagnant churches, churches that have evidenced slow or no growth, are more likely to be complex churches.
WHAT'S A SIMPLE CHURCH?
What is a simple church? Here is Rainer and Geiger's definition:
A simple church is designed around a straightforward and strategic process that moves people through the stages of spiritual growth. The leadership and the church are clear about the process (clarity) and are committed to executing it. The process flows logically (movement) and is implemented in each area of the church (alignment). The church abandons everything that is not in the process (focus). (pp. 67-68)
Rainer and Geiger explain that churches that are full of different programs and activities are not often growing churches, even if the individual programs are successful. This is because they don't have a clearly defined process for discipling people. They don't move people from one stage of spiritual growth to another, and their programs suffer from mediocrity because their energies are dissipated across so many programs.
Often these churches suffer because their staff, while good at running their particular program, doesn't share the same ministry philosophy. This causes disunity and unnecessary replication in the church calendar as things like evangelism training are repeated by different programs in different ways.
Simple churches, meanwhile, have a clear process with a clear aim. The church and the leadership unite around one process and one aim as each member moves from one program to another, requiring a bigger commitment to discipleship at each stage. They remove the clutter of programs that don't fit into the church's strategy, even ones that may benefit the people involved.
THE STATS TO BACK IT UP
Rainer and Geiger don't simply make this claim from anecdotal observation, although they have plenty of this too. No, they've done extensive research that backs up their claims. They explain,
The vibrant churches were much more simple than the comparison churches. The difference was so big that the probability of the results occurring with one church by chance is less than one in a thousand. Statistical people call this a relationship at the .001 level. . . . Finding something at the .001 level does not happen often. It's a big deal. If you're a stats person, it's "highly significant." (13-14)
So throughout the book the reader is offered statistics and graphs based on those statistics in order to support each of the points being made.
CLARITY, MOVEMENT, ALIGNMENT, FOCUS
The bulk of the book is an explanation of what a simple church is, under the four headings clarity, movement, alignment, and focus. The book hammers home those four points, and, for me at least, it did it so effectively that I didn't need to look at the book to type that list.
Clarity involves having a clear statement of how discipleship should work in the church. Examples given include "Loving God, Loving Others and Serving the World" or "Connecting, Growing, Serving." The key is not the content of the statement; it's the fact that the statement should be clear. This process should be able to be visualized and explained clearly to the whole church, who should commit to the process.
Movement means that the programs should be designed for each stage in the process and people should be able to move clearly from one program to another. For instance, the church whose statement was "Loving God, Loving Others and Serving the World" had weekend worship services for helping people love God, small groups for enabling people to love others, and ministry teams for serving others. And each stage challenges people to move to the next stage.
Alignment means placing all the church's resources behind the process. This includes hiring staff who are behind the process and making sure that any new ministries fit into it.
And focus means eliminating programs that don't fit into the process and limiting additional programs. Again, the ability to explain the process easily is emphasized.
Simple Church makes a number of good points. Surely a clear and uniform process for discipleship is more likely to succeed than crowded and conflicting programs with no clear vision or strategy. Rainer and Geiger are exactly right to say that churches shouldn't just fill their calendars with programs that may or may not help the congregation grow spiritually. "Programs were made for man, not man made for programs," they say. "If the goal is to keep certain things going, the church is in trouble. The end result must always be about people. Programs should only be tools" (p. 43).
Beyond this, the authors make a number of helpful comments about ministry, the need to move a church towards simplicity sensitively, the need to be ruthless about killing unnecessary programs, and more. I especially liked the commendation of new members interviews. The authors comment,
It seems that the commitment to buy contact lenses is greater than the commitment to join many churches. Most churches only require new members to fill out a card or a triplicate form. It happens so fast. Expectations are minimal. Signing up for a department store credit care takes more time. Simple churches, however, tend to require new members classes . . . great dialogue occurs, and people walk away with a deeper connection to your church. (158-59)
It's good to hear some kind of membership advocated, even if it is on pragmatic grounds.
Given, then, that the books main thesis seems persuasive and it has some useful practical insights into church life, would I recommend a friend or a pastor read Simple Church? Probably not. Here are three reasons why.
Does Simplicity Necessarily Lead to Success?
First, is this book really worth reading given its premise? On the face of it, the book makes a simple and, quite frankly, obvious point. Having a clear plan and strategy is going to be advantageous for any activity, whether it be running a Fortune 500 company or going to the local grocery store. However, I wonder if the authors' premise is correct. Throughout the book, being simple is described as a route to ministry success. The books final paragraph reads,
While becoming simple will be difficult, it is also worth it. The gates of hell will be pushed back, dented, and damaged. The upcoming generations will be exposed to the gospel and the goodness of our God. And the people in your church will be placed in the pathway of God's transforming power. (241)
Stirring stuff, but are the writers sure that becoming a simple church will dent the gates of hell? Does being simple necessarily cause ministry "success"? Well, what do you mean by success? I suppose it may produce one kind of success, but does it ensure the kind of "success" the Bible is interested in?
Confusingly, Rainer and Geiger deny this in an appendix to the book,
Q: Are you suggesting that a simple church design will cause a church to be vibrant?
No. . . . We cannot claim that a simple church design causes anything. We are simply saying that there is a relationship between a simple church design and the vitality of a local church. And this relationship is highly significant. (249)
Rainer and Geiger don't elaborate here on what that relationship is, but the whole premise of the book up to now is that simplicity causes vitality. If it doesn't, then why bother trying to make a church simple? Could it be that churches are simple because they grow, not growing because they are simple? Perhaps it is the case that churches stay simple while they grow because the few programs they run work, and when they stop growing they become complex as they seek after new growth by adding more. Perhaps, the research could be read either way, but if Rainer and Geiger's interpretation isn't the correct one, then there's not much point reading the book.
Second, there are some worrying omissions in the book. In the discussion on clarity, the criteria for a good statement are not fidelity to the biblical process of discipleship but literary clarity. It may well be that the biblical process of discipleship can be defined simply, but so can unbiblical ones. Throughout the book simplicity is held up as the key rather than faithfulness.
Now, to be fair to the authors, they do state that they believe in the "primacy of sound, biblical, and orthodox doctrine in growing churches" (14-15). The churches they use as examples are defined as "evangelical." And I don't want to criticize the book for failing to do what it never sets out to do. Still, I have to ask, is organization and strategy really to be prioritized over conformity to the Scriptures?
The book is written almost entirely at the practitioner level, which is fine, but what the Bible teaches about church is never really addressed. Therefore the reader is left to wonder what the Bible mandates for the church. Being, or becoming, a vibrant church, which is defined as a numerically growing church, is the goal that seems to fill the pages of this book.
Third, and finally, the whole methodology of the book is suspect for Christians who intend to rely on the sufficiency of Scripture for the church. The entire basis of the book is the research that Rainer and Geiger have conducted on church simplicity.
Fine research it seems to be, too. Again and again, Rainer and Geiger point to the findings of their research and go to great lengths to explain its rigor and merit. The book is full of statements like, "According to our research…" or "Our research indicates that you should…" (p. 126) clearly making the research results the ground of the argument. But how far should we allow research to drive the life of our churches? Obviously, it may play a useful role in helping us to understand the world around us. But it should never control the way we approach church.
If research tells us that doing something will make our church grow, should we do it?
It seems to me that this approach is based on the underlying assumption that Scripture is insufficient to lead a church. But could it be that if we studied Scripture closely we would find that the Lord of Church has not left his undershepherds in the dark for knowing how to lead the flock?
Simple Church is not a bad book. You won't be confronted with any heresies. It just strikes me as an unnecessary book. It points church leaders in the wrong direction—statistical research. Rainer and Geiger simply use their research to make a number of points that vary from helpful to banal, but what they don't point to as the foundation for the church is the faith once entrusted to the church, the eternal Word of God. Read a book that will.