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Simple Church – Review

August 28, 2007

Simple. It’s what everybody wants these days. Just ask Google with their 20-40 word homepage, Papa John’s with their streamlined menu, or Apple with their infamous single-button I-Pod. In an increasingly overcomplicated world, simple is in high demand.

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However, according to Thom H Rainer and Eric Geiger the ’simple revolution’ has also found its way into churches. Congregations once over-inflated with myriad programmes have now become streamlined disciple-making centres. At the same time, churches which are failing to make the switch are tending towards stagnation or decline.

For those who doubt the premise, the authors of Simple Church have research to prove it. Putting questions to over 400 growing and struggling churches the contrast could not be more stark. Simple churches correlate with ‘growing’, ‘vibrant’ communities that are ‘making a big impact’ and ‘expanding the kingdom’ (p 14). Complex churches, on the other hand, are found to be ‘anemic’, ‘floundering’ and “as a whole….not alive.” (p 14).

So what is this highly acclaimed ’simple church’? According to the authors: “A simple church is designed around a straightforward and strategic process that moves people through the stages of spiritual growth.” (p 60). ‘Process’ and ‘movement’ are key ideas for the authors. Rather than seeing programmes as ends in themselves, church leaders are encouraged to see the big picture of how disciples are moved through various stages of discipleship towards maturity.

For this to work, leaders will have to constantly monitor the effectiveness of four areas:

Clarity – ‘the ability of the process to be communicated and understood by people’
Movement – ‘the sequential steps in the process that cause people to move to greater areas of commitment’
Alignment – ‘the arrangement of all ministries and staff around the same simple process’, and
Focus – ‘the commitment to abandon everything that falls outside the simple ministry process’

Intriguingly, the authors don’t want us to think about this as a model of how to do church. “Relax” they begin disarmingly, “This book is not about another church model” (p3). And yet the feel of the book is precisely that. Committing to the simple ministry ‘process’ and keeping one’s eye on four key ‘elements’ sounds suspiciously like a church-model formula.

Moreover, one fears at times that the model being presented is not only simple but superficial. What is virtually ommited from the book (for the sake of simplicity?) is any focus on the biblical means of church growth. The impression given is that if the ’simple’ process is utilized one will likely have a vibrant church, regardless of other key components.

But is this the case? Could, for example, a heterodox church who applies these principles experience divinely empowered growth? Or is the prayer-life of the church a non-contributing factor? How about the congregation’s commitment to the gospel? While these elements are given mention in places, they are at best assumed. Rainer and Geiger do concede that “Ultimately it is God who brings growth and vitality to a local church” (p 249) but next to nothing is said about God’s means of bringing that growth about (See Nine Marks of A Healthy Church, Mark Dever, for a better example)

This is not to say there is nothing helpful in the book. If your church suffers from an over-programmed, over-complicated setup, Simple Church might well be worth reading. Just be sure, however, not to believe the hype of the book itself. Church is never truly simple, and Simple Church over-reaches by claiming that it is “returning to God’s process for making disciples.” (book subtitle). Put simply? Gain insights from this book; don’t build your ecclesiology on it.

(This review was contributed to Discerning Reader)

6 comments

  1. I have read the book as well as our leadership.

    I agree with you, that church is never simple. And if somebody is looking from the book an easy four step formula to grow the church, they will get quickly frustrated.

    The church is complex, very complex. But I think what the book has helped up think through, is even though as leadership we face the complexity, the average person who walks through the door shouldn’t be overwhelmed by it. For them, the processes should be simple. That has a lot to do with our ability to be clear and simple. It shouldn’t be complex for the new person to navigate getting plugged in and growing.

    Anyway, good review. I think that the book has a good word for churches to avoid over programing, communicating a clear process and vision, and making sure that the church isn’t siloed but rather is all aligned around that common, simple process and vision.

    The danger is that people will grab after the book for easy solutions and quick fixes. As we have experienced, figuring out a simple and clear process is complex and requires a lot of heavy lifting.


  2. It is amazing that they very thing we need for church to be successful is the very thing we neglect most. Instead, we search vehemently for alternatives. Michael Green writes in his book “Thirty Years That Changed the World: The Book of Acts for Today” about the simple strategy of the first disciples: “The approach of the first Christians was strikingly different. It was a totally opposite strategy. They learned it from Jesus. He had spent much quality time with three men: Peter, James and John. Beyond that had been the circle of twelve, then of the seventy, then the crowds. Jesus had concentrated on getting the centre of his little band hot and well informed, and he moved out form there. And that is what the disciples did. They gave attention to their own unity and prayerfulness, obedience and expectancy. And they were able to move out from that hot centre on to the streets with enormous effect on the day of Pentecost and in the months that followed……It was an effective strategy. Their fellowship was so vibrant, their lifestyle so attractive, their warmth so great that it was infectious. People were drawn in, as to a vortex.” (p47-48)


  3. Bill, I agree with your points. I wouldn’t want my review to come across as if I didn’t benefit from the book. In fact, for our church (a fairly large group with myriad subsets) I’ve found it enormously helpful. We do need to think more about process, (not just programming) and simplifying would help us greatly. My main gripe was the book presentation, that implementing the Simple ideas would almost inevitably lead to results. You know, the stats prove it!

    I’m not so sure that the NT ‘vibrant’ churches were all that focused on being simple: they were certainly focused on Jesus, the gospel, prayer, teaching, fellowship and the breaking of bread however. And they grew!


  4. Both the review and the comment above by Bill perfectly sum up Simple Church for me.

    Church for pastors, leaders, etc. is far from simple. As a solo-pastor at a small church, the book was pretty unrelatable. In fact, I was overwhelmed by the simplicity model, not because I don’t think it would be better, but because it wouldn’t make sense to my leaders–they already know we’re declining, so it’s hard to sell the idea of reducing and eliminating to a congregation in “survival mode.”

    I haven’t missed the point that a declining church is a great place to begin to simplify. But, the process just doesn’t hit me as “The” way to go right now. And I was actually discouraged by the read.


  5. First it was the Purpose Driven Church and now it’s Soimple Church. What next? Why are Pastors always looking for the next book or strategy or philosopy?

    What we need is the model of Jesus and the the early church…prayer! Jesus ministry was batheed in prayer. The apostles “devoted themselves to prayer..and the word.” Not man made ideas and fads. The Lord added to the church those that were saved.

    When is this apostasy going to end? When Jesus returns.


  6. Simple Church offers a way to do church. It’s a way. Ultimately, it’s not the only way. It’s a great way, but there are other ways.

    And Jorge, the thing is, other people could look at Scripture and find another model of Jesus and the early church. Some might say social action, some might say worship, some might say more stories while others say more sermons. The thing is we need prayer AND social action AND worship AND many other components. We need these different churches doing things in different ways so that we may all grow and grow closer to God in different (and yet stil Biblical) ways.



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