Wineskins Archive

January 22, 2014

Book Review: Prepare Your Church for the Future (Jul 1992)

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Book Review: Prepare Your Church For the Future”

by Steve Bishop
July, 1992

Hobbes is pushing Calvin down a steep hill in his red wagon.

“It’s true, Hobbes. Ignorance IS bliss!” Careening through a wooded area, Calvin continues, “Once you know things, you start seeing problems everywhere … and once you see problems, you feel like you ouht to try to fix them … and fixing problems always seems to require personal change … and change means doing things that aren’t fun! I say phooey to that!”

Traveling faster and faster down an ever-steepening hill, Calvin continues, “But if you’re willfully stupid, you don’t know any better, so you can keep doing whatever you like! The secret to happiness is short-term, stupid self-interest!”

Now practically airborne, Hobbes screams, “We’re heading for that cliff!”

Calvin screams back, “I don’t want to know about it!” and he covers his eyes.

Crashing at the bottom of the hill, the wagon is wrecked, Hobbes is covered with scratches and Calvin’s head is buried in the earth. A dazed Hobbes says, “I’m not sure I can stand so much bliss.”

Calvin quickly retorts, “Careful! We don’t want to learn anything from this!”

If change frightens you, and like Calvin you subscribe to a philosophy that would rather hide problems than face them, then Carl F. George’s book is not for you. From the beginning, George makes it clear that he believes a new day has dawned in the way we need to do church. Those unwilling to make a dramatic shift in thinking about ministry, a shift in thinking about ministry, a shift necessitated by our current realities, will find themselves doing less ministry to fewer people. Prepare Your Church for the Future is a call to arms. Through his work with hundreds of churces in practically every denomination and region in America, Carl George believes that he has seen the future of ministry in America. His America is one that is becoming increasingly urban, fractured, and hurting. In his America he envisions churches with more than 50,000 members.

This book is a harbinger of change, not tinkering with some methods, but radical changes that affect the very core of our thinking about the nature of the church. He contends that our present ways of conceptualizing and practicing ministry are ineffective and inadequate. In order for us to meet the realities of the future, ministry structures must change. His call is for a “church big enough to make a difference and small enough to care.”

His new structure is called the Meta-Church. This name signifies a change “of mind about how ministry is to be done” and “of form in the infrastructure of the church.” The two most visible features of this model are the home cell group (or small groups) and the celebration or worship service. The focus of the meta-Church is on people. The most important part of the church is its small cell groups and the most important questions for its leaders are “How are the disciples doing? How are the people growing?”

In this model the small group is “the most strategically significant foundation for spiritual formation and assimilation, evangelism and leadership development, for the most essential functions that God has called for in the church.” Small groups become the emotional and spiritual center of the church. This emphasis on small groups (10 or fewer people) is highlighted against the backdrop of larger size groupings and their failure to retain people. The reason for this failure, George asserts, is that large groupings can’t deal with the quality of turmoil people feel. So what at first may appear as an accepting, loving group quickly becomes an intimidating one where people are not secure to share their deepest struggles. Only in the context of small groups do people achieve an intimacy level that allows the masks to come off and genuine face-to-face care to take place.

We are warned that this is not a new method to piggyback onto some already existing structure of ministry. This is a complete and total reversal of traditional structures for doing ministry. Chief among those changes is a decentralization of ministry. It’s a system of ministry that takes seriously the giftedness of all believers and as a result changes all the functions we are normally accustomed to in the Church of Christ. The entire life of the church is built around the cell group. Leadership is developed in the cell group, tasks are performed by cell groups, and ministry and evangelism happen through the cell groups.

I found this book to have several strengths. One is that it is a how-to-manual. It offers a detailed account, complete with diagrams and acronyms, of how this system functions. Of special help is the last chapter which offers three anecdotal descriptions of how this model has worked in other churches. These descriptions give us a chance to see how each congregation struggled to adapt this model to their own situation.

A strength of this book’s thesis is that it is applicable to churches of any size. So many workshops, seminars and lectureships only hold up large churches as models, examples which are lost on smaller chuches with limited resources. This model can be easily applied to any size group from 50 to 500. It takes no money and no large pool of “five talent persons” to make this a successful model to follow.

The focus on people that his system offers is inspiring. Pastoral care and developing disciples is central to its mission. There is not cumbersome infrastructure to maintain or rigid formula to which all most adhere in the Meta-Church. The focal point of all the organization is to make sure that every Christian can be cared for, nurtured, and equipped to do ministry and to grow in his own faith.

The underlying assumptions upon which the Meta-Church operates are enough to stimulate excitement and creativity for many churches. These assume that churches want to make more and better disciples, are more concerned to give care than information, desire that ministry be spread among the members and not centralized in the minister, have members who are willing to invest in becoming competent pastors, and accomplish ministry based upon gifts and calling for the mutual benefit of every person.

There are, however, some concerns that surface in George’s work. One wakenss that this book shares with most church growth materials is its lack of theological underpinnings. Except for referencing the Great Commission and some general statements regarding the human need for salvation, there is very little to commend the theological integrity of these approaches. Much of this work depends more on sociological observations and business management than it does on theological reflection about what it means to be the church or how to judge the ethics of our evangelistic approaches.

George is advocating a system that grows out of an urban, technologically sophisticated culture. His appeals to Bible are yet another example of attempting to justify a new method, by claiming that it is really old through prooftexting. Many productive possibilities could arise from a serious look into the thought world of the New Testament writers. We could admit that our systems and models are far removed from first-century Palestine or 12th-century B.C. Sinai wanderings without losing our identity as a people of God. This, in my opinion, would be more productive than going through the mental gymnastics necessary to find methods and structures of the 20th century in a first century document.

The use and interpretation of Scripture will be bothersome to most readers of this periodical no matter where they stand on the theological spectrum. The basis for a strong emphasis on small group ministry is laid out by simply listing all the “one another” passages in the New Testament. This approach is not foreign to us and still meets with a great deal of acceptance. The more troubling approach may be with the way scriptures concerning women’s leadership roles are handled. For example, Paul Yongi Cho constripted women intto leadership roles and then made caps for them to wear, similar to yarmulkes, so that they would be wearing the sign of authority on their heads and thus fulfilling “Saint Paul’s rule.” Some will see this as an unconvincing treatment of the text, i.e., a literal, pre-critical reading. Others may find it bothersome that an interpretation they are comfortable with – women remaining subordinate to men – has remained intact but an ingenuous way to circumvent it has been found. There is an underlying “hermeneutic” that places function above form in much of this book. Churches of Christ will have to decide for themselves if they too can focus on ministry gifts and functions as distinct from traditional roles. What was interesting to me is that most of the churches using the Meta-Church model have between 25% and 60% of their groups led by women. Churches that restrict their resource pool to men may have more difficulty in establishing enough groups to make it a church-wide ministry.

Another weakness of the book was its abundant use of diagrams, acronyms, and Roman numeral designations for leaders. Granted that George is constructing a system which requires new jargon to communicate its function, but the book often gets so weighted down with the correlations and relationships between the Xs, Ds, Ls, and Cs that it becomes too difficult to stay with the reading.

Overall, the Meta-Church model has value as a new way to conceptualize the discipling and evangelizing work of the church. It can reorient our focus toward people and toward serving one another. It has the potential to cause a dramatic shift in the way we view the roles of elders, deacons, women and ministers. It allows for the creative expression of the Holy Spirit through individual lives by freeing the church from 19th century forms of ministry to ones that are more personal and compelling for the 21st century.

George’s challenge – that it will take courageous leaders to step out in this new direction – is not understated. The Meta-Church model calls for a freshness and boldness to move out of traditional comfort zones that have made minimal impact upon our churches and communities and to adopt this new, dynamic, ministry-oriented approach that will redefine the functions of almost all our traditional categories.

If the goal of a church is to provide care and nurture to its members and outsiders, while encouraging the transforming work of God in each person, then the Meta-Church provides a provocative model for the church of the next century.

Calvin told Hobbes that to fix some problems requires personal change. To implement the Meta-Church system will require a lot of personal change for everyone involved in the local church. may God inspire us all not to say “Phooey to that!”Wineskins Magazine

Steve Bishop

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