Book Review: Vibrant Church, by Thom Rainer and Danny Akin
There is no shortage of books promoting a different model of church. Think of titles like Missional Church, Purpose-Driven Church, Organic Church, Total Church, Deliberate Church, Vintage Church, Equipping Church, Not Your Grandfather’s Church, We’re Cooler Than Our Parents Church, or, a recent favorite, We Want to Be Faithful to the Gospel AND Have the World Love Us Church.
A relatively new title which joins these ever-swelling ranks is Thom Rainer and Danny Akin’s Vibrant Church. By “Vibrant Church” they mean to refer to a church that is growing and thriving—or healthy. And their goal in writing the book is just about that humble—”to strengthen, energize, and equip God’s people to be the church in the 21st century” (9).
They don’t try to revolutionize church as we know it. They don’t talk about earthquake-sized epistemological shifts in our cultural tectonic plates, and then call for a whole new theology of ecclesial life and mission. No, they simply want to strengthen and to equip the church. That’s it.
Kind of boring, isn’t it? We’re a generation who wants revolutions, right? We want home runs and grand slams, even if it takes a little “juice.” We’re not looking for base hits. Rainer and Akin don’t understand that. All they do is open the Bible and thumb through it, looking for what it teaches about the church.
So they ask questions like, “What does Acts 2 say about the church?” Okay, fine, I’ll give ‘em a base hit.
Or, “What does Ephesians 4 say for the church?” Yes, it’s another base hit. Yawn.
Or, “How does the Bible use the term church?” A third base hit. Umm, is this book going anywhere?
In fact, I’d say that Vibrant Church is one of the more useful resources for pastors and churches that I’ve seen in some time, in several ways. First, the authors don’t start from scratch but look to the Bible and the theological categories that Christians have used for two thousand years to understand what the church is. They examine the biblical use of ekklesia and several of Scripture’s main metaphors for the church. Then they consider how both the church fathers and the Reformers understood the church.
These days, most practical proposals for the church start with an idea that the author likes. Rainer and Akin start instead with a biblical and theological foundation. Then they build their practical proposals. Twice they point to Millard Erickson’s helpful observation that many authors today look for the connection between God’s mission and the church’s mission without first meditating on the connection between God’s identity and the church’s identity. Such authors miss the fact that mission flows from identity (even if the Barthians, panentheists, and Social Trinitarians conflate mission and identity). This becomes hugely significant when we get to the nuts and bolts matters of membership, discipline, the ordinances, and so on. When we focus on God’s mission but not his identity, holiness gets lost or redefined, as do the practical boundaries which separate the church from the world.
Second, the Vibrant Church is written with lay people in mind. Several devices are used to this end. There’s a running story about two characters named Jim and Mark who study the church together. There are definitions and other learning activities scattered throughout the text. And there is a leader’s guide at the end of every chapter for small groups or Sunday Schools. Clearly, the book was written both to educate and to place a tool into the hands of church leaders.
Third, Rainer and Akin emphasize some of the very things that relevance-driven ministries don’t emphasize, but that are so very relevant for building healthy churches. Things like expositional preaching. Membership. Discipline. Evangelism. Biblical theology. Biblical church leadership. Even church structure! How many writers today point to polity, except to dissolve it?
They also understand, quite rightly, that a church “cannot be an authentic Christian church if the gospel is not front and center in everything we do” (118).
THREADING THE NEEDLE
In a previous multiple-views book on church leadership, Akin represented the “single-pastor” model, as opposed to a plurality of elders. In this particular volume, Akin and Rainer carefully thread the needle by conceding that the Scriptures typically refer to elders in the plural; yet they contest that the Bible has enough flexibility to allow for a single-pastor model, which they seem to prefer. After all, they say, it’s more important for a church to have spiritual qualified men (1 Tim. 3; Titus 1) than it is to have a particular number of men. And to this we say, okay, fine.
I do wish they would have spent more time discussing the benefits of the plural elder model, as well as the fact that this seems to be the New Testament norm, even if this model is not absolutely mandated. Still, they do “borrow” some of those benefits—such as pastoral accountability—and look for ways to insert them into the single-pastor model.
HAPPY TO COMMEND
All in all, I happily commend Vibrant Church. The book, a Lifeway publication, is written mainly for SBC churches, but it would serve well in any independent, baptistic church. I would tell any leader using it to beef up the chapter on leadership with the benefits of plural elders. But even this chapter contains much that’s useful, such as why it’s important to follow leaders.
In short, Vibrant Church provides a very useful tool for strengthening, energizing, and equipping God’s people for the 21st century.