Tuesday, December 1, 2009

LHP Review: It Doesn't Always Add Up

Roberts, Bob. Forewords by Alan Hirsch and Ed Stetzer. The Multiplying Church: The New Math for Starting New Churches. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008. 192 Pages. Cloth. $19.99. http://www.zondervan.com/  http://www.glocal.net/ / (LHP)

Roberts' book ended up on our review "wish list" because he was listed as a speaker for a conference I was scheduled to attend. He was one of five invited speakers, one of three "outside experts" from the likely perspective of the conference planners.

I am always curious to hear authors speak publicly. Some authors are great in print and more modest in person. Others are engaging speakers and informative, but less skilled writers. Some theologians have completely different personalities orally, compared to their black and white output. Bob Roberts writes the way he speaks. That skill has helped him become a prolific writer and accomplish many things as a pastor and trainer of church planters.

Overall, I heard a prevailing law (rather than Gospel) focus "Obedience!" (from a Lutheran perspective). Sanctification was stressed at the expense of Justification.

I also found an occasional typo (e.g., "Angry, white house, church guys..." should have been "Angry, white, house church guys," 50). With an entire church body, The Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod founded in 1847 of older congregations in Missouri and other states, I question the accuracy of: "It was the first Protestant church west of the Mississipppi, founded by John Freeman and a handful of families who moved to Northeast Tarrant County in 1849" (63). Perhaps some qualifiers are in order for that statement.

I quote details like those above to assure the publisher, author, and QBR readers that we take great care in reading, considering and reviewing books, both the "forest" of a book's theses, as well as the "trees" of a book's details.

Roberts encourages pastors, congregations, and denominations to move beyond a current practice of a lone mission planter who starts congregations and move toward a model of congregations planting daughter congregations. It is good to revive this historic idea. Some more rural settings may lend themselves to a missionary gathering scattered sheep. Other urban and suburban contexts may well be better served by the daughter congregation model, one followed by LCMS congregations in our history.

Chapters give detail on the joys, challenges, struggles, and difficulties "multiplying churches." I was humbled and frankly overwhelmed by the idea of a single congregation planting dozens of sister/daughter congregatiosn in a year. Those kind of numbers do not seem possible in Wyoming, for example.

Other details in the book gave me pause, like the current trend/fad in outreach and missions to use the words "missional" and "relevant" (75) as well as the annoyingly ubiquitous use of the word "purpose" in Christian publications (146). "Glocal," a new word hybridizing global and local isn't a bad idea. It just gives me a bad taste in my mouth along the lines of Pastor Todd Wilken's explanation of "The Fad-Driven Church." I would also have preferred a more theological than sociological approach to outreach and evangelism in the book's discussion of the history of the growth of Christianity.

Those paying attention to the author's recurring focus on Christ Jesus will find it. Others may well read and emerge from the book thinking about being people-focused. I have little doubt that the author knows and can communicate the Gospel, the gift of the forgiveness of sins in and through Jesus' death on the cross and physical resurrection from the dead. He can encourage a reader's passion for mission and outreach. Yet, I think he can and should be more clear in allowing the Gospel to predominate in his public speaking and future writing projects.

Although I was not able to secure a personal interview with the author, his presentation served as a bridge from this book, The Multiplying Church, to his next book, ready to be published early in the new year. I was again reminded of the blessing/curse of book reviewers and bibilophiles: there will always be another new book. Some are worth waiting for. Fortunately, others quickly fade from view, importance, and memory.

Church planting is a good thing. Telling the Good News about Jesus is a great thing. The Word speaks of the Lord preserving a faithful remnant. That taste of the theology of the cross is a great antidote to so many theologies of glory.

Will The Multiplying Church endure as one of the classics of Christian missiology? Probably not. Absorb and practice the good. Ignore the chaff. Not even the gates of Hell itself will prevail against the Church of Christ. Pray for it. Pray for workers for the harvest fields. Pray for a ripe harvest. Our Lord does.

The Rev. Paul J Cain is Pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church, Sheridan, Wyoming, Headmaster of Martin Luther Grammar School, Wyoming District Worship Chairman, and Editor of QBR.