Rainer, Thom and Eric Geiger. Simple Church: Returning to God’s Process for Making Disciples. (2008). Nashville, TN: B&H Academic
Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger researched more than four hundred evangelical churches to see some differences between growing, vibrant churches and nongrowing, struggling churches (p. 13). The message of the book is found in what the authors call the “elevator conversation: The vibrant churches were much more simple than the comparison churches” (p. 13-14). They call this a “simple” revolution (p. 8), and concluded that “church leaders need to simplify” (p. 4).
After sharing a few examples from everyday life of how the simple revolution has begun in other areas, outside the church, they weave in a comparison of “First Church” and “Cross Church” throughout the book as they describe the process of simplifying church. This process includes four elements: “Clarity, Movement, Alignment, Focus” (p. 68).
Throughout this process, they include results from a “Process Design Survey” that they developed to see if there was “a relationship between being simple and being effective” (p. 63). In Chapter four, they included three stories of real churches that are both simple and effective. Chapters five through eight further developed the four elements of the process.
The final chapter was an encouragement to become simple – “to change or die” (p. 229). They did indicate that the change would be complicated (p. 229, 236). They introduced four steps to make a church more simple, each step associated with one of the four elements. In a postscript, they shared some further lessons learned since the publishing of the first edition of Simple Church, and finally, in two appendices, shared “frequently asked questions” and the research methodology.
Evaluation of the Book
The book is simple. It better be! It reads easily, and there is a consistent use of the First Church and Cross Church examples, to help describe what Rainer and Geiger were seeing in their research. They also focus much more on lessons and solutions seen from the research than on the research itself. Interestingly, they evaluate the book themselves in the postscript, and they call it a “nerdy research project.” (p. 243) I would definitely disagree. They criticize their own book for being full of “insider language,” and say that they wrote it for pastors and church leaders. (p. 243). That may be true, although I didn’t think that when I read it. I think they adequately explain their terminology throughout the book.
My buddy, another pastor, recommended this book years ago. I’ve talked with other friends about this book so much, that I thought I had already read it! I’m pretty sure I even lied somewhere along the way when someone asked if I had read it. I really thought I had. I hadn’t though, and I’m very glad I finally did. It really should be required reading for pastors.
Again, probably because of the second- and third-hand influence of this book already on my ministry, I have attempted to implement a number of things that Rainer and Geiger talk about. So, I was able to read the book and say: “oh, yeah, I do that, or we do that.” But, when I think through why we do that – it’s because of hearing the premises of Simple Church preached by others. To be honest, this caused something of a feeling of déjà vu. Now, I know I hadn’t read the book – I didn’t remember any of the stories – but I was very familiar with the concepts.
We have greatly simplified church in Poland. This is probably easier to do anyway here than in the States. However, although it’s good we have simplified, I saw a number of ways that we haven’t followed through on a couple of key elements in the process. Namely, although we have clarity and focus, we don’t really have alignment and movement. In other words, we know what we are to do – make disciples and engage them in “near” communities (sounds better in Polish), and we aren’t distracted any more by doing things that don’t fit. However, we have a disconnect between the evangelism/discipleship portion, and the involvement in communities. We are missing a vital link. We have attempted to make the communities the means of evangelism, discipleship, encouragement and service – but that hasn’t worked as well, either.
Thankfully, we are in better shape than we were. At least we are simple, and don’t have to eliminate programs. It was encouraging to read this book, and realize that we are actually faced with the much different, and easier, challenge of tweaking or even adding a little to make sure we are achieving our goal.
This is really where Simple Church will help us. We didn’t start by eliminating; that really was as a result of trying to determine what we wanted to accomplish, and what wasn’t helping us accomplish that. However, I think we missed a couple of middle steps along the way, and this book will help us think through and plan those steps.
On a more personal note, often it is tempting to envy ministry in the U.S. There are resources and a worldview that are completely different from what we experience here in Poland. And yet, I am familiar enough with American ministry to know that my likelihood of being in a simple, growing, effective church are not guaranteed, and I have a hard time imagining the life that Geiger and Rainer describe for the employees of “First Church.” When would I have time to grab a coffee with someone who is asking about Christ? How could we ever just go hang out with our seeking friends? There wouldn’t be time to help the foreigner, oppressed, or poor person. And – I think it’s bad now, having to preach three times Christmas week. What would I do with the kind of Christmas program that Rainer and Geiger refer to, requiring planning and practices starting in September, causing total burnout among church staff until March?