Book Review: What Every Pastor Should Know, by Gary L. McIntosh and Charles Arn
Gary L. McIntosh and Charles Arn, What Every Pastor Should Know: 101 Indispensable Rules of Thumb for Leading Your Church. Baker, 2013. 272 pages. $17.99.
“They don’t teach you that in seminary.” Pastors, and especially younger ones, are all-too-used to receiving that admonition from their more seasoned co-laborers. Of course, it’s true: seminary can only give you so much. It might give you Greek, but it won’t tell you what to say to a couple whose infant just died. Seminary might tune all five senses for heresy-detection, but it won’t teach you how to run a rowdy member’s meeting.
Theology is only the beginning. Yes, pastors have to rightly divide God’s Word. But shouldn’t they also know how to navigate their way through the streets of practical ministry?
Gary McIntosh and Charles Arn think so, and they’ve written What Every Pastor Should Know to help. Stocked with 101 brief “rules of thumb” helpfully divided into 15 categories, What Every Pastor Should Know is an attempt at a brief encyclopedia of all things related to practical ministry leadership—from birthing small groups to planning the appropriate number of restrooms in your worship center. All the stuff they don’t teach you in seminary.
Unsurprisingly, in a book covering such a broad terrain of ministry skills, there is much to commend. There are good, careful sections on fully assimilating members (86-88) and developing new leaders (171-173), for starters.
Generally speaking, the book is full of wise “street knowledge” for any and all leaders, and that includes pastors. The authors straightforwardly endorse longer pastorates where possible, going so far as to question and even deflate some of the more typical justifications for switching pastorates (173-176). In the same vein, the authors rightly warn against some of the unique and deadly temptations that senior pastors often face: “One of the greatest dangers of a church building program is that the pastor may unconsciously seek a memorial and, in a subtle way, the building can become the possessor of the pastor” (191).
Like most writers in the church growth guild, McIntosh and Arn clearly write from an evangelistic burden. That heartbeat pervades the entire book (12, 61, 200, 248, 260), and serves a good reminder for pastors to pray for the lost, and strategize ways to reach them.
Further, in a number of laudable ways, the brand of church growth espoused by these authors is actually more nuanced than their stereotyped allies. They make a clean distinction between evangelism and discipleship, attempting to emphasize the priority of both (13), and even clarify that the role of church leaders is not to entertain pew sitters (241).
THE USUAL PITFALL
Practical ministry guides can never be a-theological. Orthopraxy is critical, but it can’t ever be separated from orthodoxy. For better or for worse, theology will always fuel practice, even when you claim to have no theology, which is just bad theology. Unfortunately, though the authors typically steer clear of theological grit, too many of the practical principles in this book betray an unstable theological foundation, namely, the false equation of “Growth = Health.”
Whatever the title and subtitle suggest, this is ultimately a practical manual for church growth. Virtually every rule of thumb in this book is given for the express purpose of growing your church, and then sustaining that growth. The entire book assumes that God’s universal intention is for every church to grow larger.
Further, the authors assume that those “divine growth-intentions” are often, if not always, inhibited by ill-informed and but easily remedied pastoral malpractices. “God wants your church to grow. He created it to grow. Sometimes it’s just a matter of finding out why it’s not growing and removing those obstacles” (244).
The problem here is twofold, devastating, and sadly typical of the church growth movement. First, even granting that God desires growth (which some of us who aspire to be “faithful” and “discerning” do well to remember), the book provides virtually no description of what growth actually entails. For too many pastors and too many churches, church growth is virtually equivalent to cross-town sheep stealing.
So exactly what sort of growth is God after? Does he simply want bigger churches? Does he simply want your church bigger, even if it’s at the cost of the likeminded church across town? Are megachurches always healthier churches? For a book so singularly focused on leading your church to grow, these basic questions are puzzlingly unaddressed.
And second, even granting that poor leadership can unnecessarily inhibit growth, and even the right kind of growth, is it really true that sound, faithful leadership will always yield growth? The entire book implicitly fosters an expectation that, if you follow these rules of thumb, then your church will inevitably grow in varying degrees. But if the primary kind of growth that we’re after is growth by conversion, then on what biblical grounds can we possibly expect that?
Isn’t any single conversion a supernatural act of God, irreproducible by human device (e.g., John 3:8, 1 Cor. 3:6-7)? Removing the supernatural from conversion—intentionally or not—inevitably leads to faulty leadership practices (which tend toward manipulation), faulty expectations, and, most distressingly, false conversions.
Malnourished people need a proper, balanced diet to grow and add healthy pounds. And though they might achieve the poundage by feasting on a diet of desserts and sodas—and perhaps amore quickly—those extra pounds might leave them in a more critical, less healthy condition than before. Growth isn’t always the same as health.
CHERRY-PICK WITH CAUTION
This book is a wonderful idea, packaged in an excellent, user-friendly format. What pastor couldn’t benefit from a resource on his shelf that he could pull for a quick read on leading a staff through change, or on beginning a church budget?
As a young pastor who has not only frequently heard, but has now often voiced “They didn’t teach me that in seminary,” I appreciated and benefited from much of this book’s practical offerings. But there are some very basic theological deficiencies undergirding this project. So cherry-pick some of these leadership principles, but use caution. You could basically follow everything that this book says, and still be an unfaithful pastor—even if your church grows as a result.