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Downward Mobility

Why God doesn't give up on declining congregations
Can God work through declining congregations in economically-depressed areas? Absolutely, Ruth Tucker argues in her new book, Left Behind in a Megachurch World (Baker). Associate professor of missiology at Calvin Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Tucker became interested in declining churches while researching for a church growth class.

"I ran across material from George Barna and others that said that if a church has plateaued or is declining, humanly speaking it's a waste of time to revitalize it—it's better to shut it down and start a new church," she recalls. "Just because a factory moved out of town and the numbers in the church decline doesn't mean that God is no longer working there."

These declining churches she describes as "left-behind," arguing that their potential is often overlooked as they stand in the shadow of larger churches. Recently, Ministry Today sat down with Tucker to discuss her book—and her conviction that one size does not fit all.

Ministry Today: Are megachurches a new phenomenon or is it just that they've received more media attention of late?

Tucker: This is not a new phenomenon. Spurgeon, Moody and others were megachurch pastors. In fact, one of these incredible stories was Mike King's church—Ebenezer Baptist Church. Mike took a trip to Europe shortly after he became pastor, followed in the footsteps of Martin Luther and changed his name to Martin Luther King. His son was Martin Luther King Jr. King would put megachurch pastors to shame today.

Ministry Today: You believe there's a place in God's plan for "left-behind" churches. Is there a place for megachurches?

Ruth Tucker: Yes, they're here whether we like it or not. Wal-Mart puts smaller stores out of business. Is Wal-Mart part of God's plan? I tend to shop at Wal-Mart on some occasions. However, what I'm saying in this book is that the megachurch should not be the standard.

Ministry Today: So, are "left-behind" churches qualitatively better than megachurches?

Tucker: No, there are terrible church fights—in fact, it's hard to mask these family fights. In this book, I don't make "left-behind" churches little utopias. But, there are ministries that a left-behind church can have that are simply not available to megachurches.

Ministry Today: Such as …

Tucker: I was in a megachurch not too long ago—more than 2,000 people—but the parking lot will not accommodate its way to 5,000 which is the church's goal. So, the church is leaving this beautiful campus and moving to the outskirts of town. The result is that the church is no longer near the needy people. That's the advantage of the left-behind church—it's near the needs.

Ministry Today: So, smaller churches can reach people that megachurches cannot.

Tucker: Yes. For instance, I know a pastor on the Indiana-Illinois border, whose church is in the shadow of a huge megachurch that everyone wants to go to. So, a lot of little churches nearby have lost members. But the church I visited sees this megachurch as no threat because this church has been built up around the concept of homeschooling. These families are not at all tempted to go to the megachurch because their needs are being met in the smaller church setting of about 200 people.

Ministry Today: Are you seeing more specialization of smaller churches, in response to the megachurch phenomenon?

Tucker: Yes. I just read in the paper about a church that has a lot of families with adopted children. Also, if a family is involved in the community and they go off to a suburban megachurch, they will lose that opportunity to serve in the neighborhood.

Full Gospel, Fractured Minds?
by Rick M. Nanez ( Zondervan)

Ideal reader: Nanez would be most pleased if every person in the charismatic/Pentecostal movement took to heart the exhortations in this book.

Rate the book from 1 (poor) to 5 (excellent) on these criteria: Practicality (5); Insight (5); Theological depth (5); Readability (5)

Core message: The charismatic/Pentecostal movement (hereafter referred to as "Full Gospel") shares with the surrounding culture a crisis of the mind. Despite being a technically advanced society with a proliferation of media, we live an anti-intellectual society.

The author explains that anti-intellectualism is "a prejudice against the careful and deliberate use of one's intellect … Like worldliness, anti-intellectualism, more than anything else, is an attitude."

This attitude is inculcated in Full Gospel adherents by the incessant and unnecessary suggestion that there is a dichotomy between being spiritual and being a reflective thinker. Nanez wants his readers to take seriously the injunction to love the Lord with "all your mind" (see Matthew 22:37).

Summary: In the first four chapters, the author methodically shows that there is not a biblical basis for believing that knowledge gained by study or reflection is inferior to that imparted supernaturally. The adage, "all truth is God's truth," exemplifies the author's research.

The first chapter is particularly helpful as the author surveys the Scriptures to show that the terms heart, soul, mind and spirit are used interchangeably. His conclusion is that "there is no fundamental war between our minds and souls—between our heads and hearts."

The author is aware of the texts that his critics will attempt to rebut him with—he addresses them thoroughly and with sensitivity. In fact, a charitable and sensitive approach characterizes this treatise.

Nanez is an impassioned Full Gospel believer. He is just impassioned not only about worship and charismata, but about the study of the Scriptures and the life of the mind, as well. He takes time to show how revivalists and Full Gospel people ever got to the posture of anti-intellectualism; it was not the posture of their forebears like John Wesley.

Rather that just identifying a crisis, Nanez concludes by both showing what the mind should be engaged in (e.g. theology, apologetics, philosophy and science) and practical suggestions on how churches might cultivate the mind. His suggestion that individuals in local churches dedicate themselves to becoming expert in a topic then cross-pollinating with their fellow 'experts' is innovative and is an example of the constructive thrust of this book.

Quote: "When cold reason rejects the fire of God's manifest presence, disillusionment and injury rise to the surface. Likewise, when the charismata are not tethered to good thinking, the same confusion and injury will surely follow." Reviewer: Jon Rising

The Creative Leader: Unleashing The Power Of Your Creative Potential
by Ed Young (Broadman and Holman)

Ideal reader: Though Ed Young suggests the book could help anyone interested in creative leadership in any sphere (business, educational and so on), it is first and foremost a book written by a senior pastor for other senior pastors.

Rate the book from 1 (poor) to 5 (excellent) on these criteria: Practicality (5); Insight (4); Theological depth (3); Readability (5)

Core message: The bad news: If creativity is not the controlling value of your ministry, then it's doomed to failure. The good news: God has hardwired everyone with creative potential. It only needs to be unleashed.

If you accept the challenge to make creativity the defining virtue of your ministry, you are in for a great adventure. To succeed you must constantly trust in God's creative power, surround yourself with creative partners, and refuse to settle for a once-for-all formula that works. The 15-year history of Ed Young's church (from 150 to 20,000) is a story that shows how creativity can impact the world.

Summary: Young wastes no time in getting to what he sees as the quintessential element of leadership: creativity. He starts with an apologetic for creativity: creativity is downright Trinitarian- God invented it, Jesus modeled it, and the Holy Spirit empowers it. The benefits that flow from a creative leadership team are countless, so leaders must be gutsy from the start and not let "vision vandals" get in the way. Young challenges leaders to create an environment that is "consistently inconsistent" regardless of the critics' who fight against it.

After establishing this foundation of creativity, Ed Young could have subtitled the remaining three quarters of the book, "What I Did at Fellowship Church and Why It Worked." That's not a criticism; it really is a fascinating story. Young does better when defending his innovations from culture rather than Scripture.

The reader will likely nod in agreement when he says a sermon should not be longer than thirty minutes, but he'll probably raise an eyebrow when Young suggests that Paul was too long winded when sleepy Eutychus nods off and falls to his death in Acts 20.

After a series of great stories about creative worship, preaching, and advertising, he persuasively sells his premise "It's The Weekend, Stupid." Young effectively demonstrates that without a first-rate weekend service for seekers and believers, there is little use fretting over other church initiatives.

One of the most provocative sections is his "staff-led" church model, a structure where only staff members lead the church. I'd love to see the letters he gets on this!

Ed Young's tone is easy-going conversational, and the "Q & A" sections in the book are some of the most interesting. Young's passion for reaching people through creativity stirs the heart from cover to cover.

Quote: "Something that helps keep me balanced in the way I plan and deliver messages is remembering to speak to the chairs. I envision a table with four chairs. I am sitting in the head chair and in the three other chairs are a hell-bound seeker, a baby Christian and a mature believer. ... I have become convinced that any growing, vibrant local church is going to comprise one-third hell-bound seekers, one-third baby Christians and one-third mature Christians."
Reviewer: Greg Dutcher

The Great Giveaway
by David E. Fitch, 2005 (Baker Books)

Ideal reader: Pastors and congregational leaders seeking to know what is really going on in the American church culture. The people who aren't pleased with what is being done but do not want to condemn or escape local church life

Rating (from 1-5): Practicality ( 5 ); Insight ( 5 ); Theological depth ( 4 ); Readability ( 4 )

Core message: Dave Fitch is pastor of Life on the Vine Christian Community in Long Grove, Illinois. In this book, he seeks to find more practical and biblical ways for local churches to reclaim her true mission. Including historical tradition and postmodernism, he reveals how modern translations of success are not equal to biblical strategies.

He doesn't just criticize what today's churches are doing; he analyzes and asks legitimate questions. Among the many practices he questions, Fitch wonders why we include "numbers" for converts who skip from one church to another, and why we have become just like the world in order to win the world. He contends we win people to "ourselves" rather than to the kingdom.

Summary: Fitch questions expository preaching of three-point-sermons-and-closing-illustrations which miss the "story." He contends most countries understand the Bible being narrative centered, not textual study centered. His debate reveals how American churches are centered on "goods and services" rather than changed lives.

He offers interesting ideas for change. To today's churches, he suggests more Bible reading during worship and prayer while continuing a true freedom of worship, teaching ancient songs to the young generation, serving communion more often, arts and drama, preaching through the lectionary, performative reading, and ending narrative-based sermons with one question to evoke a practical response.

If done properly, he believes other means of spiritual mission work would not need to come from parachurch groups, but would instead be grounded in the local church. Elaborating on this, he writes, "Our focus on numbers, bigness, and large institutions is therefore rooted in two of America's sacred cows: the autonomy of the individual and the necessity to organize for economic efficiency."

Fitch believes congregations should include the children in what is happening rather than getting rid of them for "children's church." His argument is interesting: "The megachurch threatens to turn our children's moral formation into another slotted program to be paid for and organized like any of the other myriad children's programs of our day."

To bring life to teaching, he suggests smaller groups discussing sermon themes and inner hurts. He highlights relational congregations. Fitch contends large churches are not "churches," but are big businesses which might include many churches inside themselves. Each pastor and church leader can learn from his questions and dares while not seeking to become clones of any popular trend.

Quotable: "If postmodern culture is for real, seeker services are running out of time. The next generation seeks community over anonymity and is overdosed on consumer appeals to felt needs."
Reviewer: Chris Maxwell

O Shepherd Where Art Thou? A Minister's Tale
by Calvin Miller  (Broadman-Holman)

Ideal reader: Pastors who serve in average size congregations and battle the thoughts of failure. Calvin Miller's narrative and notes allow each person serving in ministry positions to know there is value in loving people.

Rate the book from 1 (poor) to 5 (excellent) on these criteria: Practicality ( 5 ); Insight ( 5 ); Theological depth ( 5 ); Readability ( 5 )

Core message: Calvin Miller brings application to fiction, compelling readers to investigate church growth's true motives. His major theme reminds today's spiritual leaders that honoring God and personally caring for people are the primary goals for local churches after all. Strategic leadership is vital. But Miller reminds readers that "professionalization" should never push pastoral care away from congregational life.

As modern Christianity hits the headlines in our fast paced world of numbers, splendor, names and games, lonely voices are asking the same question: "O shepherd, where art thou?"

Summary: Fresh tales are often hard to find in the church world searching for quick solutions. Attendance growth stats hit headlines, new success stories cover highlight clips and few people seek to imitate pastors who serve as true shepherds. Calvin Miller reminds us of this reality in his fable which merges comedy and conviction, O Shepherd Where Art Thou?

The well-known author and storyteller exposes realities of today's corporate megachurch world through the life of Pastor Sam. Once a normal pastor, Sam learns what works best for rich and famous clergy. The result? He refuses to visit people any longer. He chooses to play golf and allow laity to organize committees who can carry the load of pastoral care.

Are pastors disappointed if their personality profiles and spiritual gift tests highlight pastoral care instead of purpose pushers? Do the normal ministers in average size congregations rank as low in God's view as they do in today's polls? Can't traditionalism and postmodernism merge while keeping Christ-like love as a top priority?

Miller's humorous tale is very real. Pastor Sam can read statistics provided by fictional pollster Barnie George, learn from the fictional book titled Physician, Heal Thyself: How to Kiss Pastoral Care Good-bye Forever and notice how the fictional Right Behind novel series has influenced so many readers.

A church growth friend seeks to convince Sam toward "putting the 'me' back in 'mega.'" Sam battles to know which side to take. Another friend with small numbers but a true pastoral heart hopes Sam stays with his original calling.  Quote: "The success syndrome builds many rationales. Is it possible that many success-driven pastors rationalize their lack of pastoral care by agreeing it is better to preach to many than pastorally serve a few?"
Reviewer: Chris Maxwell

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