As the world begins to emerge from the Covid pandemic, there has been an influx of books and other resources to help churches settle into what will be a new normal. A few of these books have already been discussed here at Reading For The Glory. (See our page The Church and the Christian Life). Not only has the pandemic affected the way many churches approach ministry, the divisive nature of American culture in particular and western culture in general, has made doing ministry seemingly more difficult than ever before. These resources aim to help churches think through ways to minister in a world that desperately needs to hear the message that it proclaims. This abundance of resources is a blessing of God’s common grace and should be received as a good gift. Yet not all of the resources that have come out in recent months regarding church ministry in a post pandemic world are the same. There are as many ideas about church ministry as there are Christian denominations, each with a slightly different approach. For this reason the pastor, church leader, and even church members must proceed with wisdom win considering these resources. The truth is, however, the church must figure out a way to minister in an ever changing, increasingly divisive, and pluralistic culture. This is what Nancy Beach and Samantha Beach Kiley discuss in their new book Next Sunday: An Honest Dialogue About the Future of the Church (InterVarsity Press, 2022).
Next Sunday is part memoir and part exhortation. Throughout the book Nancy and Samantha share their personal stories from their experience in life and ministry. For over two decades Nancy served on staff at Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago, mostly serving on the church’s worship arts team. Samantha is currently a pastor at Austin New Church, but recounts her experience growing up in one of America’s mega churches. The book is broken up into seven chapters, each providing an area in which the authors believe the church must improve in order to better minister to modern culture in the future. In each chapter both Nancy and Samantha take turns sharing stories about their past experience and there commendation for future improvement in church ministry. The seven areas of improvement include fostering genuine community, children’s ministry, being others focused, prioritizing the Sunday gathering, gender roles in the church, the church’s approach to the LGBTQ community, and fostering a transparent church culture. On the surface these seven areas are fair critiques of the church primarily in America. Yet the authors’ suggestions for improvement in each of these these areas are not always biblical in their approach. We will look at each of these briefly in turn.
On this point, I would agree with the authors assessment regarding genuine community within the context of the local church. In recent decades there has been a rise in the number of mega churches in America and also a rise in large sized churches. In many ways this looks good on the surface, however, one negative in regards to larger churches is the potential lack of genuine Christian community. All throughout the pages of scripture particularly in the New Testament in the book of Acts we see believers enjoying, but more specifically relying on the relationships within the church for survival. The current telos of the modern age is what Carl Trueman has deemed “expressive individualism” in his new book Strange New World. This means that we put more emphasis on the individual self rather than the community as a whole. I am not saying that large to mega sized churches are inherently wrong or unbiblical. What I am saying is that in order to grow as a Christian we must be connected to and dependent on a community of fellow believers. We must recapture this vision for the church in order to move forward in the modern culture. I would agree with authors in their assessment of this issue.
Another area of concern for Nancy and Samantha is in regards to the area of children’s ministry. They rightly critique that the future of the church is in the next generation. However, their resolution for the issue is one with which I would disagree. The Bible is explicitly clear that as parents, grandparents and spiritual leaders in the life of children we are to teach them the truth of scripture and the glories of the gospel. There is much room for different methods and programs in order to achieve this goal. However, I feel that the tendency within the American church is to lean towards in more attraction based entertainment approach to kids ministry.
In the book both Nancy and Samantha described the children’s ministry at Willow Creek called Promised Land as a model for children’s ministry moving forward. First, I would disagree with that model in that it tends to be entertainment focused. Second, I would disagree with that model in that most churches in America do not have the resources, volunteers and ingenuity to be that effective using this model. Many churches in America do not have a large number of children that attend weekly services to justify spending a amount of money on programs. That is not to say that children should not be a priority within the local church, it means simply that many churches in America do not have the resources to “compete” with larger churches to attract children to their programs. For this reason, there seems to be a disparity among churches that make it difficult for smaller churches to grow and effectively minister to their community.
A biblical way forward in regards to children’s ministry, without espousing a certain model of program, would be to focus the children’s ministry on grounding the next generation in the word of God. Thereby giving them a vision for his beauty his glory and his gospel. If that be the approach it won’t matter how many children come or how many stay in the church beyond a certain age. But at least the church is attempting to disciple the next generation no matter how many or how few they are responsible for.
The next area in which the authors have oncern is being others focused. This critique of the western church is one that is completely fair. It is true that for decades the western church has become consumeristic and seeks to do ministries that make the church feel good and comfortable. This assessment is an area the western church does need attention, however the solution is not to be more hospitable for the sake of being friendly and nice and welcoming. Those things are good and followers of Christ should be those things. However, the purpose of the local church is to be others focused for the sake of sharing the gospel not merely to make someone feel welcome. This type of church would be what is called a missions focused church. A church that is focused on reaching others in their community, their region, and even among the nations for Christ. It is only a church that is others focus for the sake of the gospel that can be counted among a true church of Christ.
Regarding this issue, Nancy and Samantha’s assessment is that the Sunday gathering is a place for the church and even non-believers to find their way and feel welcome and learn about the truths of scripture. While true, to a certain extent, this is not the primary focus of the Sunday gathering for a local church. The primary focus of a Sunday gathering in a local church is to worship God and to rightly proclaim his word. Everything else is simply extra. No matter how a well service is crafted and planned, if it does not lead the congregation to worship God and be exhorted by his word, it has failed in its goal. The Sunday gathering is not a front door or welcome space for seekers to learn about the church. It can be those things and nonbelievers and visitors and seekers should be welcome in Sunday gatherings within a local church. However, the right worship and right teaching of God‘s word must be central in Sunday gatherings.
The next area of concern for the authors is the issue of gender roles within a local church and primarily the role of women in the ministry of the local church. It is clear that both authors are currently and have been in ministry roles within their local church. So their views on this topic are understandable. They believe that women, by not being allowed to be pastors and leaders within local churches has done a disservice to not only women but also the local church. That conclusion, however, is not one that is found in scripture. To make their point, they quote from the book of Acts regarding Phoebe who hosted a local church in her home and was most likely a deacon in the church. Phoebe, however,was not a pastor or elder within her local congregation. This proof text for the role of women in pastoral ministry overlooks the explicit direction of the Apostle Paul in his letter to Timothy that the role of pastor is reserved only for godly qualified men ( see 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1). This is not to say that women have no role in ministry of a local church, it simply means that that role is not as a pastor or elder. There are many roles in which women can should play within the local church. Their gifts are needed and should be celebrated within the context of a local church. I would agree that more women need to be in roles of ministry and we need godly women to serve within many ministries of a local church. However, the role of pastor/elder within a local church is reserved for godly qualified men.
The next subject is one that has consumed western culture in recent decades. It probably the most contentious cultural issues in America today, namely LGBTQ issues. Nancy and Samantha rightly criticize the evangelical posture towards the LGBTQ community. It is true that the American church, particularly conservative evangelicals, have marginalized those within the LGBTQ community to the point in which the evangelical voice cannot be heard within the LGBTQ community. Churches must do a better job of relating to and welcoming those within the LGBTQ community, because like anyone else the church is called to reach them with the hope of the gospel. And this can be difficult and almost impossible to achieve by shaming and shouting down. I would disagree with the authors approach, however, to relating to the LGBTQ community. They argue for an open embrace without a call to repentance. This is not the biblical model for godly living. The Bible is clear that marriage is between one man and one woman for life, and sexual relationships outside of that covenant are sinful. This does not, however, make those who struggle with same-sex attraction second class citizens. But it does mean that Christians are called to love them like Christ and share with them the truth of and hope in the gospel. In that, the church must do a better job. For an excellent biblical model for ministering to the LGBTQ community, see Rebecca McLaughlin’s Confronting Christianity.
Transparent Church Culture
The last topic discussed is the issue of transparency within church culture. This is a topic that I would strongly agree with the authors critique and would support more transparency within churches. In recent years there have been too many cases of pastoral misconduct, sexual abuse of women, and even sexual abuse of children within churches. This behavior is grotesque, un-Christlike, and must be stopped. There is also a growing number of pastors who have been forced to leave the pastorate because of abuse of power within their church. Churches must be a place of safety and refuge for weary souls to heal and grow in their faith. They cannot be a haven for unrepentant sinful conduct. When sin arises within the church, in any form, it must be dealt with and repented of to keep the purity of the church. We live in a fallen world and there will be people who are hurt within churches because of sin, but that does not mean that sin finds haven within church walls. To the contrary it must be dealt with biblically, and a transparent church culture is a healthy way to live in the light.
Next Sunday is a resource that can be appreciated for its critiques of the modern western church and even it’s differing perspectives on how to move forward. However, I would disagree with their conclusions on many of the points made throughout the book. The issues raised within this book are very fair and must be addressed. Yet they must be addressed biblically. Based on the solutions provided in the book, it would appear that authors believe that the American church has a public relations problem. That if the church can tweak a few things and catch up with the culture, the pews will be filled the next Sunday. The church, however, does not have a public relations problem, it has a sin problem. The church is made up of redeemed sinners who are still in the process of sanctification. The solution for sin, is the gospel of Jesus Christ. Until the church conforms to the image of Christ in all of these areas, she will not succeed at reaching the world with the gospel. May we all get on our knees and prayerfully consider each of these areas discussed, to see how we need be more like Jesus.
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Editor’s Note: This title was received from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
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