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Monday, February 18, 2013

"Renovation of the Church" (Kent Carlson and Mike Leuken)

TITLE: Renovation of the Church: What Happens When a Seeker Church Discovers Spiritual Formation
AUTHOR:Kent Carlson and Mike Lueken
PUBLISHER: Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2011, (192 pages).

This is a book about how a large church moves from seeker-sensitive perspective toward a seeking-Christ-more perspective. How it 'repents' from focusing on means to a message, and re-orientate toward the Message rather than the means. Methods may change, not the message.

The way the book begins, is a reminder that most churches face a similar challenge. Dallas Willard begins with a sharp diagnostic question that laments the state of the modern church: "How do we present the radical message of Christ in a church that has catered to the religious demands of the nominally committed?" It is a tough question that demands tough answers. The answer is a thorough renovation of the Church from the inside out.

With a title that is reminiscent of Dallas Willard book, what Willard has done in spiritual formation for the individual believer, Carlson and Lueken attempt to do the same for the Church community. The cover of the book shows a pomegranate above and the juicy seeds below, and the subtitle cheekily asks the question, "What happens when a seeker church discovers spiritual formation." Two pastors, having experienced amazing church growth and vibrant church life since 2000 at Oak Hills Church of Folsom, California, still feel a sense of responsibility for the spiritual formation of their church members. Moreover, they are dissatisfied despite all the "success" in the church. Their Church started in 1984 with 17 members. They had phenomenal growth, "Willow Creek" style, and each week means pumping away hard at the tried-and-tested formula that attracts people to their church. The problem is, has these people been changed from the inside out? Have they become growing disciples of Christ? This realization did not come easy for Carlson and Lueken. After years of numerical growth, they realize the "monster" they have unwittingly created. The monster of trying to keep up with the "success" experienced the week before. The monster of expectations that have been mounting with each "amazing" weekend. The monster of consumerism, of the Church kind. It takes Lyle Schaller's chapter on consumerism in the book, "The Very Large Church" to stop the leadership team at their tracks. It takes Dallas Willard's teachings to orientate them toward the need for spiritual formation, instead of mere performance. The decision to change from the seeker-sensitive focus to be attractive to people, to a renewed drive on spiritual formation is not an easy one. There are discouraging signs too.

  • Numbers are plummeting;
  • Giving is reducing, and the financial conditions are worsening;
  • Staff salaries are cut; some staff are let go;
  • Midweek services are terminated and moved to the weekend instead.
  • The risks are high.
At the same time, there are barriers to overcome on the way to authentic spiritual formation. Barriers such as:
  • the focus on productivity over faithfulness (former is measurable while the latter is not quite measurable)
  • ambition placed in the wrong way
  • consumer mindset in the culture at large
If there is one ambition, it is to walk on the path of decrease. First, recognize the problem. Second, develop a healthy fear of ambition. Third, work with other ministries humbly. Four, affirm the pastor not on the basis of what they do, but who they are. Five, remember the purpose and the mission of the church. Six, reduce one's public exposure, and finally, to continue the path of insignificance for self, and significance for Christ.

One of the ways in this journey of reduction of self-pride, is through co-pastoring, which requires the need to relinquish power and control. Once the impediments are removed, the church will be ready toward spiritual formation. Some suggestions include teaching spiritual formation, refusing cheap alternatives that prefer consumerism over formation, intentions that are implemented rather than just talked about, develop "one thing" groups that focus on spiritual formation in a laser-beam manner, and many more, with the pastor as spiritual director. The journey is not without its problems. Oak Hills learn the perils of:
  • impatient leadership
  • Lack of praying
  • Too much talking
  • Spiritual elitism
  • Too much deconstruction by focusing on the negative rather than working on the positive

My Thoughts

The first thing needed before anything can be changed is the awareness of the need to change. This happened to the leadership team at Oak Hills, who has essentially run out of steam, exhausted about maintaining a formula that feeds on their energies. The seeker-sensitive formula can takes its toll first on the leadership, and gradually on the rest of the church. Despite its numerical success, the authors realize something is missing. This book is a brave description of a bold move toward something that is tough, risky, often demoralizing, easily misunderstood, and sometimes, baffling to people who are unfamiliar with what spiritual formation is all about. It is important to remember that this book represents a work that is still very much in progress. Oak Hills Church is not there yet. They are pointing toward the direction of drawing nearer to God. Instead of focusing all their energies, their people, and their resources, to develop and run attractive programs to draw in people to their church, they are turning their ship to be more Christlike in their programs. When fully developed, the vision is to have Christ as the main draw, not the programs. That Christ be the main Person, not the well-polished stage shows. That spiritual formation be the main program, not the weekly performance of the spiritual professionals.

I remember again the key idea that Max de Pree has said. The first task of a leader is to define reality. Carlson and Lueken have tried hard to define their current state of their church, and have openly shared their journey with the rest of the Christian community so that they can learn from and benefit from their learning. This is an important book for leaders of small churches to read, in order to avoid the pitfalls of ambitions that puff up the leadership, or create unhealthy consumer demands within the Church. It is also an important book for leaders of big churches, so that they remember that the means cannot be the message. For all readers, it reminds us that spiritual formation is a must have program in any church. Don't go to church without it in mind.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


This book review has been kindly provided by a local library.

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