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Thursday, December 18, 2008

Essential Church?

               Essential Church?

I just finished reading Essential Church? by Thom and Sam Rainer III (2008, B&H Publishing Group), which deals with young people, 18 to 22, leaving the church.  While this book primarily targets pastors and other church workers, it is valuable reading material for lay men and women who are active in church leadership.  I not only read Essential Church, but also underlined it extensively because I viewed it as a working reference.

Thom Rainer (the father) has written many books on the health of the church and I have read several of them and always have found them to be logical, practical, and biblical in their approach.  I was especially interested in Essential Church because I know a number of young people who were very active in their churches and could clearly articulate their faith, but left the church.  The fact is that some 70% of those between the ages of 18 and 22 drop out of church.  This troubles me, and it troubles many Christians.

Why is it that people, especially young people, are leaving the church?  That is exactly what the Rainers explore in Essential Church and their conclusion is that many young people of today no long find the church essential to their life.  They just don’t see a reason to continue going to church.  Lots of reasons are given by those who leave the church, but essentially it boils down to their conclusion that going to church is just not essential to their life.

With that information in hand, Thom and Sam examine churches that are not suffering this tremendous back-door outflow to determine if there is anything in common with these churches.  While they do not find a formula for stemming the outgoing tide, they do find these churches have four general principles in common, regardless of the denomination, size, or geographic location.  These principles are:

Simplify.  Each of these churches has simplified their structure and process for making disciples.  That does not mean they have made it easier to become a member, but they have crystallized their discipleship process.  Incidentally, repeated references are made in the book to Simple Church, another book by Thom Rainer that preceded Essential Church.  It’s next on my reading list.

Deepen.  These churches provide strong biblical teaching and preaching.  In other words, these churches don’t compromise the Word.  In fact, these churches have a strong commitment to biblical truth and to quality teaching and preaching.

Expect.  They all expect a lot from their members.  You can’t be a casual member of any of these churches.  If you join one of these churches you are expected to not only attend regularly, but also participate in meaningful projects and programs.

Multiply.  There is a strong outward focus in each of these churches, expecting and encouraging their members to reach others with the Gospel.  These churches expect members to “stretch” beyond their comfort zone, participating in evangelism efforts and even going on foreign mission trips.  They want their members to take ownership of the church and make it essential to their lives.

It’s not a formula, it’s an understanding that gimmicks are not the solution, Bible-based approaches and teachings are.  Thom and Sam stress repeatedly that there is no cookie-cutter approach.  Each church is different and must understand their community as well as their mission in order to become an essential church to the young people of today.

By utilizing these general principles and developing their own, unique approach, each one of these churches has stopped the outflow.  They have made it easy to understand their mission and their process, while providing strong and faithful Bible instruction.  In addition, they expect much from their members (including those who are 18 to 22 and beyond), and they are outwardly focused.  Of course, while this is easy to understand, it is not necessarily easy to execute.

While these four principles provide the framework around which the book is built, there are many nuggets that deserve attention.  Things like creating a simple, understandable mission, then aligning all of your various Church projects and programs with your mission.  Or making sure your church offers strong, great preaching.  This study and the one upon which Thom’s previous book, Effective Evangelistic Churches, was written, reach the same conclusion about preaching—it must be strong, powerful, and Bible-based.

There’s lots more in Essential Church worth reading.  Thom and Sam Ranier have provided valuable assistance to church leaders who seek to keep young people in their church.  It’s my hope that this book will be widely read.

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