Book Review: Taking Your Church to the Next Level, by Gary McIntosh

Review
10.27.2010

I don’t know about you, but I can’t think of many nobler aims than helping pastors improve their churches. As the title suggests, Gary McIntosh’s Taking Your Church to the Next Level intends to do just that.

THE GIST

The book centers on a series of “life cycles” in which all churches find themselves and through which most churches journey.

McIntosh’s life cycle paradigm consists of five stages. First, the “emerging” stage is characterized by a visionary pastor, high commitment, little organizational structure, and seeker-sensitivity (37-40). This is followed by the “growing” stage, in which all the aforementioned features of the emerging stage are present to an even greater degree (48-50). The “consolidating” stage represents the apex of the life cycle. Morale peaks, ministry is maximized, and the building is packed (56-59). However, things begin to head south in the “declining” stage as members lollygag, vision blurs, enthusiasm evaporates, and ministries stall (67-69). The final destination is the “dying” stage (75-78). The mission has vanished, the building has emptied, and the few who remain can only reminisce.

McIntosh then considers the characteristics of various church sizes: “relational” (15-200 worshipers), “managerial” (200-400), “organizational” (400-800), “centralized” (800-1,500), and “decentralized” (1,500+). Gleaning insight from the worlds of business management, sociology, and church growth, McIntosh offers a swarm of research (charts, diagrams, figures, etc.) and advice concerning the impact of size on organizations.

Regrettably, the misfortunes of the book are many. I’ll highlight the two I perceive to be the most serious.

FRUITFULNESS OR FAITHFULNESS?

The first red flag I encountered was on the cover, where I spotted the subtitle: What Got You Here Won’t Get You There. I understand what McIntosh means, but what if “what got you here” was simple, steady faithfulness to God’s Word? Do we ever want to go beyond that?

Early on he elaborates, “What brought a church to its current level of ministry fruitfulness will not get it to the next level of growth and vitality” (16). Though I’d like to think it wasn’t his intent, McIntosh seems to suggest that the measure of a church’s success is its size. He even agrees with one writer who says, “Size is the most revealing and useful frame of reference for examining the differences among congregations in American Protestantism” (15). A revealing and useful frame of reference? You bet. But the such frame of reference? I’m not prepared to go that far.

In McIntosh’s defense, size does impact many organizational realities in the church and can be an indicator of a church’s spiritual health. No doubt there’s some truth to the saying, “Count people because people count.” Luke certainly sees no problem with reporting the numerical growth of the church in Acts (e.g., 1:15; 2:41, 47; 4:4; 6:1, 7; 16:5). But it seems to me that McIntosh consistently overemphasizes church size by regarding it as a defining measure of a church’s health and success.

I mention this not because numbers are bad, but because Jesus wasn’t all that dazzled by them. In Matthew 7, for instance, he declares that those who enter destruction will be many, whereas those who enter life will be few (vv. 13-14). At the very least, doesn’t this text suggest that numbers are a misguided measure of pastoral success?

The aim of every godly pastor is not to hear the words, “Well done, good and fruitful servant!”

What, then, is biblical growth? I think it mainly involves the blooming of character, not crowds (see, for example, Col. 1:28). If you want to grow your numbers, I imagine this book will help. But if you want to grow your members, I’m afraid you’ll have to look elsewhere for guidance. Which of the two is the heart of true “church growth”? Pastor, pursue your people’s sanctification; don’t settle for mere stats.

We live in a world that is wowed by crowds and unimpressed by the unspectacular. Unfortunately, this book seems to reflect rather than correct such a mentality.

CORPORATIONS OR CONGREGATIONS?

Another disappointing feature of the book is the extent to which it finds its backdrop in the world of business rather than the Bible. Indeed, McIntosh himself admits that “almost all the work on congregational life cycles has been extrapolated from business models” (28). Even his vocabulary is adopted from the business world.[1] The problem with this is that it runs counter to Scripture’s accent on pastors’ responsibility to shepherd God’s flock, rather than merely manage a corporation.

Though church leaders are certainly to be strong, exert authority, and wisely manage the church’s affairs, they are to do so as shepherds, not CEOs. Just as God relates to his people as a shepherd,[2] so his leaders, or “undershepherds,” are to do the same.[3] In Acts 20, for instance, Paul charges church leaders: “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (v. 28; cf. 1 Pet. 5:1-3).

Yet sadly, the sort of leader McIntosh portrays looks more like a president of a firm than a pastor of a flock. Yes, pastors need to be wise institutional leaders, but far more fundamental is their calling to preach God’s Word, pray for their people, and seek the spiritual good of everyone entrusted to their care.

A DEAFENING SILENCE

Finally, the silence of Scripture in this book is simply deafening. From page 29 to 183, the reader is led on a 154-page pilgrimage without a single Scripture reference. Now I’m aware that McIntosh’s book isn’t intended to be a deeply theological treatment. But one would hope that any book on how pastors can improve their churches would at least be distinctly biblical.[4]

LET’S CONCLUDE

While I don’t for a moment doubt that I have much to learn from McIntosh as a brother in Christ, I do doubt whether Taking Your Church to the Next Level is a biblically faithful and therefore helpful book for pastors. Regrettably, I think I’d be more inclined to recommend this book to a friend in business than to a pastor.

[1] For example, he writes, “As a church grows ever larger, the leaders must manage the brand to make certain it remains true to its history” (177). The danger with such language is that it suggests God’s church is more a product to be promoted than a people to be pastored.

[2] E.g., Pss. 23:1; 77:20; 80:1; Isa. 40:11; Eccl. 12:11; Zech. 9:16; 10:2; Matt. 9:36; Jn. 10:1-18, 27-30; Lk. 15:3-7; Heb. 13:20; 1 Pet. 2:25; 5:4; Rev. 7:17.

[3] E.g., Jer. 10:21; 23:1-4; Ezek. 34; Isa. 63:11; Jn. 21:15-19.

[4] For instance, over the course of more than 150 pages we hear from Pat Riley (21), James Taylor (87), and Wayne Gretzky (115), yet not once from Jesus Christ.

By:
Matt Smethurst

Matt Smethurst serves as managing editor for The Gospel Coalition. He and his wife, Maghan, have three children and live in Louisville, Kentucky, where he serves as an elder at Third Avenue Baptist Church. You can find him on Twitter at @MattSmethurst.