Book Reviews

What Am I Doing Here?

What Am I Doing Here, by Dr. Ralph Adcock, Tate Publishing, LLC

In this book Dr. Adcock presents both the challenges and joys of serving in the small church.  The focus of the book is encouraging small church pastor to recognize the value and importance of serving in the small church.  While the book is 196 pages, the bulk of the material is found in the first 83 pages with the rest of the book consisting of a number of different appendix that serve to provide resource material related to the topics covered.

In the first chapter he briefly summarizes the crisis facing the smaller rural congregation because fewer and fewer individuals are willing to commit long term to the rural church.  

Chapter two reminds the reader that the ministry is not a career but a calling.  But the calling is not always to the visible and prestigious ministries but often to the lowly and less likely places.  In this chapter he looks at the call of Abraham, Titus and Jesus as a model for evaluating our own calling to ministry.  

To serve the rural church we need to understand the nature of the small church.  Thus in chapter three and four he summarizes the key characteristics of the rural church and the culture of the rural community.  These the pastor must understand in order to be effective in the small church.

Because conflict has such a significant impact in the small church Dr. Adcock devotes chapter 5 to providing an overview of the effects conflict has.  He then provides principles for dealing with the conflict in a positive way.  

Overall the book provides and excellent introduction to the small church as well as encouragement for those who are in the small church.  

The Strategically Small Church by Brandon J. O'Brien

The Strategically Small Church by Brandon J. O’Brien (Minneapolis: Bethany, 2010).

This book is written from outside the usual group of small-church writers and from a different perspective.  While Brandon O’Brien does use Lyle Schaller as a source, he does not refer to authors that have studied and written about the small church over the last couple of decades.  Instead he writes from experience and observation substantiated by interviews with others doing small church ministry.  He began doing small-church ministry as a student pastor.  Instead of enduring this as resume builder for later ministry he began to appreciate the virtues of the small church.  His personal and intuitive understanding is refreshing.  His format cites his own experience or tells the story of another small-church ministry to illustrate the virtue that he wishes to introduce. 

These small-church virtues are summarized on the cover.  According to O’Brien the small church is intimate, nimble, authentic, and effective.  In the last chapter he justifies his argument, “…I have given examples of churches… I’ve called these churches strategically small not because they are small on purpose (for the most part) but because they recognize that being a smaller congregation has its benefits. More to the point, they are putting those benefits, that hidden potential, to good use.  These churches recognize that running a small church as if it were a big one undermines the smaller congregation’s key strengths.  In a culture, even a Christian culture, that values size, celebrity, and institutional visibility, these strategically small churches are under reported and underappreciated.”  To this we may respond with a hearty “Amen!”  This recognition of the ministry in the small church makes the book an attractive read as does the story telling of his own and other’s small church experiences. 

In each of his chapters O’Brien expands on the four virtues and how they appear and apply in the course of ministry.  In chapter one he writes to change our ideals of success in church ministry.  He also defines his terms and expectations for the book.  He uses the Bible, particularly the book of Acts and church history to evaluate trends in today’s church movements.  Small-church pastors and other leaders will be encouraged and equipped to evaluate their small-church ministry.

In chapters two and three the author stresses the virtues of authenticity, nimbleness and intimacy.  He defines authenticity as the congregation responding from the heart regardless of excellence or relevance.  Authenticity is synonymous with sincerity, transparency, vulnerability, etc.  Authenticity has become a higher value in our culture.  Small churches lacking professional leadership and being more colloquial in its ministry is above all authentic.  Authenticity in a small church makes for intimate relationships that enhance fellowship.  A small-church’s authenticity and intimacy results in being nimble, that is, responsive to the needs of people.  He compares the large church that struggles with the oxymoron of professional authenticity through small groups.  Unexpected strengths result from these small-church virtues such as financial efficiency.  The small church with limited financial program investment has the means to be nimble.  Furthermore, congregational energy is less consumed with facilities and programs and more with relationships and evangelism.  The small church does not set itself to change the world.  Realizing that the kingdom of God extends far beyond its small means the small-church leader is free to embrace the more limited role of changing lives in the community for Christ.

In chapter four O’Brien shows how to become strategically lean in order to respond nimbly to the ministry opportunities around the small church.  He reminds small-church leaders to beware of the dual temptations to evaluate ourselves by our programs and regard people as merely customers or clients of those programs.  He shows ways to program that increase participation without encumbering the church or limiting responsiveness to needs.  He goes further is chapter five by setting out a strategy of high accountability for theological consistency but low control over lay generated ministry as a means of programing.

In chapter six he stresses the authentic and intimate intergenerational nature of the smaller church.  The small church combines generations in intimate relationships where the faith can be passed on from one to another.  Studies by Christian Smith and others concerning the decline of faith in the younger generations have highlighted the needed for an alternative to sixty-five years of segregated youth ministry.  The small church has that alternative because the generations are connected in intimate relationships.  The vital mature faith of older believers can be spoken of and modeled for youth.  The youth learn a vocabulary and a world view that will enable to encounter life from the perspective of faith. 

Chapter seven emphasizes the ability of the authentic, intimate small church to disciple new leadership.  Since effective leadership is not learned in a book of steps or principles but in the context of ministry mentored by a mature leader, the small church is the best place to develop this leadership.  My own experience has shown that the best lay leaders usually come from small churches where they have learned under a close relationship with a pastor friend.  One down side of this chapter is his minimization of preaching.  O’Brien’s typical preacher is the large-church celebrity preacher who is capable of drawing folks but not discipling them.  Because small churches don’t have celebrity preachers he minimizes the role of preaching.   When he minimizes preaching he contradicts his own advice in chapter five about the need for high theological accountability.  That accountability is taught as the voice of God from the pulpit in the context of worship.  Preaching gives voice to the foundations and standards of ministry as found in the Bible and motivates that ministry.  When personally delivered by a loved pastor in a context of intimate, accountable relationships preaching becomes the prime means of leader discipleship. 

This book has three very positive benefits for small-church leaders.  First, it is encouraging to hear another voice publically declare the virtues of the small church and its current cultural relevance in presenting the gospel, in a time when it can be difficult to remain faithful through the struggles of small-church ministry.  Second, there are some new ways to evaluate your small church ministry that can be helpful.  Finally the book provides helpful direction for maximizing those virtues in your ministry context.  

The U-turn Church: New Direction for Health and Growth, by Kevin Harney and Bob Bouwer

Among recent books on church leadership one may be helpful to small-church leaders.  Last year Kevin Harney and Bob Bouwer published The U-Turn Church: New Direction for Health and Growth, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2011.)  The thesis is that a church that has been plateaued or in decline can find the means to turn around and achieve growth.  This thesis is under girded by the experiences of both pastors in their respective churches.  Pastor Bouwer took Faith Church of South Holland, IL from its plateau of 250 to over 4000 in twenty years.  Pastor Harney took one hundred year old Corinth Church on the out skirts of Byron Center, MI from 250 to 2000 in about the same time.  Both men contribute individual chapters about principles and strategies they used to move from plateau to growth. 

The format of the book is simple.  The reading is easy and enjoyable.  The book is in three sections.  The first section uses four chapters to lay out some principles that must be adopted before any turn around can be accomplished.  Pastor Harney writes the first and third chapters.  His first principle is that the will to make a turn around in a church must come from the Lord, Himself.  Lesser motives will not do.  To this Pastor Bouwer adds the need for a holy urgency to create a zeal for change.  To this Pastor Harney adds the necessity for and examples of the development of a clear vision for the future of the church.  Finally, Pastor Bouwer reminds the reader of the need for prayer and suggests several ways that prayer plays a key role in the beginning of a turn.

The second section lays out strategies for change.  Insisting on biblical foundations for any strategies Pastor Bouwer suggests that every one must set aside personal preferences to implement biblical truths in the ministry practices of the church.  However, the primary approach is to have those who complain list their complaints under the headings of biblical truth or personal preference.  He admits later that biblical conviction could be a heading.  He also does not subject the decisions to make changes to the same categorization.  Pastor Harney’s next strategy is to prepare the leadership for the necessary changes.  He does this by identifying six road blocks to the turn around and the U-turn approach to removing those road blocks.  He goes on to encourage leaders in a U-turn to communicate high expectations for what God will do in this process.  Pastor Harney adds a helpful chapter on keeping your heart soft toward people and your skin tough against complaints.  After describing the risks that he and the leaders of Faith Church had to take in their turn around, Pastor Bouwer shares eight principles that guide the decisions to take risks.  These are tied to the need to fulfill the great commission in their community.  Pastor Harney picks up this emphasis in a chapter on looking out to find the unchurched and bring them into the church.  This outward look must become part of the church culture and be the test for every U-turn activity.  The last chapter of the section sets the bar for excellence up by making it a goal that those coming into the U-turn church sense a captivating enthusiasm or “Wow!” factor.  While this is more subjective that the other material of this section, he emphasizes giving everyone access to an uplifting experience in worship or service.

The final section of the book deals with maintaining the growth of the church.  They first by deal with myths wrongly typifying church change and then return to the need for personal holiness and zeal for the growth of the church and the out reach to the lost. 

The book is well laid out.  Each section has a helpful introduction.  Each chapter concludes with reflection questions, exercises and prayer.  Going through the thirteen chapters one per week a group of leaders could study this for a quarter.

However, at first perusal some facts seem to make the book less than applicable to most small church situations.  First neither church was in decline but both were plateaued and not growing.  They were concerned that they were not reaching their communities effectively.  However, they were at 250 in worship attendance larger than most of the churches in North America.  They had not experienced significant decline as many small churches have.  Furthermore, both churches were in growing areas.  Corinth Church on the out skirts of Byron Center was part of a community growing at a rate greater than 25%.  Faith Church moved from South Holland which has a negative growth rate to an Indiana community that has a 12% growth rate.  Many small churches are so because their communities are in decline.  To make a U-turn of the proportions experienced by these pastors would not be possible.

Yet if we believe that some growth is possible for any small church, then the principles and strategies suggested by these men are helpful.  These begin with the individual pastor and then enlist the leadership, involve the congregation and finally bring the gospel out to the unchurched members of the community.  That end governs the process and has value for any small church plateaued or declining in a community of unreached people.  Pastor Bouwer rightly points out that eighty to eighty five percent of all churches in America have reached a plateau or are declining.  All the while America is the fourth most unchurched nation on earth.

For small-church pastors and lay leaders this book has value.  Because most of us deal with churches that have declined or that have stalled out in growth and, more importantly, in evangelism the basic principles are worth the study.  The book is a good addition to a number of more recent efforts that treat the church as a sacred and essential part of God’s plan that can be turned to better serve its mission.  These men like most of us loved their church enough not to scrap its witness but redirect it to new outreach and growth.  Whatever the starting point or condition of the community of that church, many of the principles and strategies would be helpful.  The first and third sections remind us how important the heart condition of the leadership is in effecting a turn around in a small church.  Also the means to clarify and communicate the vision for change and growth can give any leader direction in any small church.  Fears and complaints about change are dealt with directly and gently.  Small church leaders will agonize over the offenses to beloved souls in the course of change but the suggestions of these men give a path to open discussion and communication.  The steps to making decisions to change are well laid out for anyone in any church situation.  The book is definitely worth the read for any small-church pastor or leader.

© Center for Small Church Leadership 2011