Book Review: “11 Innovations in the Local Church” by Elmer Towns, Ed Stetzer and Warren Bird (2007)

Towns, Elmer L., Ed Stetzer, and Warren Bird. 11 Innovations in the Local Church: How Today’s Leaders Can Learn, Discern and Move into the Future. Ventura, Calif: Regal Books, 2007.

In their book, 11 Innovations in the Local Church: How Today’s Leaders Can Learn, Discern and Move into the Future, co-authors Elmer Towns, Ed Stetzer and Warren Bird describe eleven innovative church-types growing in North America today, and they dissect each to reveal possible dangers and advantages that could prove useful for pastors and lay people today. The following paper offers first a brief summary of 11 Innovations, then a critical evaluation of the ideas and methods found therein, and finally a discussion concerning the application of these ideas and methods to this writer and potential church planter’s ministry in Southern Asia.

A proper summary of 11 Innovations cannot focus simply on the eleven innovations themselves, but must also include, briefly, some of the authors’ reactions to each innovation, for the authors readily admit that they do not agree with every innovation presented (Towns, 22). Thus, the following summary will share brief descriptions of each innovation in the order they were recorded in the book, revealing some praises and cautions offered by the authors as well.

The very first innovation found in 11 Innovations is that of the organic house church (24), or Koinos church (36), a type of church which separates itself from the traditions and cumbersome structures of the organized church, in order to focus on community (36) and personal transformation (25). The authors warn against theological errors which tend to grow within house churches (49), but they also praise the house church’s rejection of the mediocrity which tends to grow within organized churches (45).

The second innovation the authors share is that of what they call “Recovery Churches” (51). This type of ministry focuses primarily on the deep hurts and needs of the addicts and the abused (53), despite the fact that growth in these churches is neither certain nor expected (55). Some of the benefits of such a ministry are these: people need it (61-62) and few organizations are presently doing it properly (59, 63).

The third innovation, the multi-site church (65) which has grown more recently out of the megachurch trend (90), actually traces some of its roots back to the ministries of circuit-riding preachers like John Wesley (68). These churches maintain one senior pastor but have other sites (satellite sites, campuses, etc.) besides the main church building, where other ministerial personnel run the services. The authors view this idea as advantageous within certain communities (83), but also recognize that such growth could not continue indefinitely (92-94).

The fourth innovation mentioned is the ancient-future-type church (95) which connects its worship experience to the past using images (100, 102-103) and rituals (106) as methods of worship. The authors find many dangers within this method, namely that it lessens the emphasis on the Word of God (105), it inadvertently invites in ancient errors (106), and it weakens evangelism (106-108). Still, the authors write that it can be helpful as it takes the Gospel beyond mere speaking, reading and listening (102-103).

The fifth innovation is that of city-reaching churches (109), an innovation very similar to that used by Jerry Falwell in Lynchburg, Virginia (115). This strategy views its target as not simply a people group but an entire city within the scope of the church’s evangelistic ministry. Some borrow the imagery of spiritual warfare (118-119), and others of shepherds and sheep (120), but all city-reaching churches approach their goals through intense, faith-filled prayer (118-120) and obedience to Scripture (124; Acts 1:8; Luke 24:49). The authors have little to say against this approach, though they admit that very few churches know how to succeed in this type of ministry.

The sixth innovation, community-transforming churches (130), resembles the city-reaching churches in their goal of reaching whole cities for Christ, though their methods differ. The community-transforming churches tend towards social ministry (131), social change (135) and the social Gospel (139). The authors acknowledge the right motives of these types of churches desiring to help the poor (138), but also recognize the serious dangers involved, like theological liberalism (139) and preferring economics over evangelism (140).

The seventh innovation mentioned is that of the cyber-enhanced type of churches (143). These churches not only utilize the internet for ministry, but they also tend toward making this their top priority. Blogging, online education, sermon podcasts—these tools and more are becoming more prevalent and more effective as technology increases. The authors highly support the proper use of technology in ministry (161-162), though they caution that it only be used as a tool and not as a replacement for the gathering together of believers (162-3).

The eighth innovation is the Nickelodeon-style children-focused church (165).  This type of church seeks to mix entertainment with learning (169) in order to attract, reach and train children for Christ (177-178). The authors support this approach, though they also acknowledge its shortcomings: its inability to teach doctrine experientially (180) and its inevitable short-lived appeal (184). Like the cyber-enhanced church, this method is best used as an extension or ministry of a church, not as a replacement for a church’s regular ministries.

The ninth innovation mentioned in 11 Innovations is the intentionally multi-cultural type of church (185). Different from multi-ethnic or multi-racial churches (188, 192), multi-cultural churches seek to incorporate the worship styles of many cultures and many races and thereby grow a truly multi-cultural community (193). The authors agree throughout this chapter that truly multi-cultural churches in North America are rare (188), not easy to develop (192-94), though greatly needed (194), and certainly worth the work (196).

The tenth innovation these authors mention is the decision-journey type of church (197). In this church, the leaders seek to develop a welcoming gathering of believers, non-believers and those who are just unsure, in order to emphasize not the decision to follow Christ but the journey to and of following Christ (200). The authors acknowledge the need for the time and atmosphere for unbelievers to “count the cost” (212; Luke 9:23), yet they also recognize that churches cannot and should not receive everyone the way the decision-journey type churches do (215).

The final innovation of 11 Innovations is the attractional-type church (218).  According to the authors, this type of church focuses predominantly on attracting people into the church (219), on growing larger (227), and on entertaining (225). The authors admit that all churches are attractional in one way or another (227-228), but that atttractionality is losing its effectiveness (225), and that such churches which use this approach often replace the “go and tell” responsibility of its members with the “come and see” methods of the church (228).

With this full summary of 11 Innovations above, it is possible to continue with a critical evaluation of several difficulties found within the book. This evaluation will cover the following three topics: the authors’ not offering reading suggestions on several difficult issues, the apparent contradictions between this and other related church-planting books, and this book’s treatment of the decision-journey type of church.

The first issue to discuss in this critical evaluation is that, after bringing some very difficult and thought-provoking issues to light, the authors failed to offer their own answers or even suggestions to the reader for outside reading. The first example that stands out of the noticeable lack of suggested reading comes in “Chapter 2: Recovery Churches” (62). After asking a very difficult question—“Do recovery ministries justify sin?”—and suggesting that it may be scientifically accurate to consider some addictions to also be actual diseases, the authors seemingly elude their own question. They seem to suggest that it does not matter whether these ministries justify sin or not, because Christ’s cross will cover all sins. Because they were not able to answer their own question themselves, it would have been pertinent for the authors to suggest some further reading that might delve into this topic more significantly. A second major example of this seeming lack of answers to difficult questions comes in “Chapter 9: Intentionally Multi-cultural Churches” (195). Once again, the authors develop a very difficult situation where they introduce a major problem—this time by saying, “It is essential to find a leadership style that works well for all the cultures involved”—and once again, they end the paragraph quickly, without resolving the issue, and without suggesting specific outside sources to which the reader can turn to instigate his own research and investigation on the issue. The reasons why the authors failed to suggest further reading on these and other issues certainly does not stem from a lack of space, for they utilized their end-note system well; and the reason certainly does not stem from the authors’ lack of knowledge, for these are all highly-educated, well-read men (see their brief biographies, 269-271). The only other explanations for why they failed to suggest further reading to their readers is that they simply forgot, that they otherwise failed to see the need for doing so, or that they did not want to risk leading readers in any particular direction.

The second critique against 11 Innovations comes in the form of the apparent contradictions present in this book as compared to other books of like-subjects. One major example of this contradictory language comes in the authors’ warning against reaching out to certain types of people both in Chapter 2 and in Chapter 11. In the first example, the authors write a warning that, when a church aims to help only the addicts and the abused, it runs the risk of segregating itself against other churches of like faith; they warn that these churches must create a welcoming atmosphere for all people, not simply those who are hurt and searching for help (63). In the second example, the authors criticize attractional-type churches for appealing to the same kinds of people; they suggest that such an approach risks unintentionally breaking up the Body of Christ (233). Certainly, such methods can pose dangers to unity in the body; however, it is surprising that these authors would bring up such an issue for these two particular church-types, when the very existence of “church-types” suggests that every single type of church imaginable appeals to some individuals and does not appeal to others. In fact, church-planting and church-revitalizing literature is often filled with this warning of inevitability, most often encouraging church planters to purposefully choose specific focus groups. David Hesselgrave writes in Planting Churches Cross-Culturally that there are four groups of people a new church planter can attract: Bible-believing Christians, other Christians, culturally near non-Christians, culturally distant non-Christians (Hesselgrave, 28). Aubrey Malphurs includes an entire chapter on discovering one’s focus group—asking, “Who are you trying to reach?” (Malphurs, 137)—in his book, Planting Growing Churches. In Breaking the Missional Code, authors David Putman and Ed Stetzer applaud several churches who reach out to specific groups of otherwise avoided individuals (Stetzer, Breaking 35). Ed Stetzer again, in his book titled Planting Missional Churches, dedicates an entire chapter to “Choosing a Focus Group” (Stetzer, Planting 144). Certainly, church planters and those wanting to revitalize their weakened churches need to decide early on who their target audience is going to be. A church that attempts to reach everyone will inevitably reach very few, because they will seem unfocused and undistinguished.

The third critique against 11 Innovations is how the authors handled “Chapter 10: Decision-Journey Churches” (197). There are three specific problems against this particular issues in this book, though perhaps the first is the most important. Despite their constant references to Scripture (200, 209, 212) and to the need for a specific point of conversion (212), the authors never specifically condemned this faulty view of salvation and failed to mentioned one of the most important passages which speaks against it, Romans 10:9-10. Simply suggesting at the beginning of the book that they disagree with some of these church-types (22) is not enough: the authors need to condemn heresy when they see it, and only then ought they acknowledge the heresy’s good points. The second problem with regards to this particular church-type deals with the authors’ apparent disagreement amongst themselves on how to approach the subject. While this book does imply disagreement with much of what decision-journey churches teach, the authors do not reject the teachings outright. One possible reason for their silence in rejection is that author Ed Stetzer perhaps does agree with the approach. In his book, Breaking the Missional Code, Stetzer also discusses this decision-journey type of approach to evangelism, suggesting that there are two types of conversions: those that are instantaneous and those that come through a journey (Stetzer, Breaking 123). While one would expect three authors to disagree on certain issues, they would greatly benefit their readers by sharing their diverging views rather than simply blurring their overall stance, simply because they disagree. The third problem with regards to the decision-journey type of church lies in the authors’ concluding chapter (248). The implication is that a church can judge a person’s salvation by what the person claims. No one’s salvation should be “judged” based upon mere claims of salvation. Jesus clearly stated, “By their fruits ye shall know them” (Matthew 7:16, 20), and this should be the only method of “judging” another person’s spiritual state.

With the above summary and critical evaluation complete, I feel confident to share how I can apply this book, 11 Innovations, to my own personal life and ministry both here in the United States today, and in Southern Asia sometime in the near future. I feel I can apply this in two specific ways: first, as a guide to church planting in China specifically; and second, as a personal encouragement towards individual evangelization.

The first way I can apply the lessons learned in 11 Innovations is through my own efforts in helping church plants in China. Certainly, of the eleven innovations mentioned, the most practical for church planting in China is the organic house church type (35). The Chinese government recognizes the growth of house churches across the country, and it currently fears that this explosion in Westernized, denominational house-church plants will ultimately destroy her religious autonomy as defined by the government-sanctioned Three-Self Church (Lin, “Journey”). Despite this fact and the attempts by many provinces to hinder these new plants, house churches continue to grow and spread across the country from city to village. While I may not be called to plant a house church of my own, I do feel called to help these churches which are already planted to grown in spiritual knowledge and judgment. This book has helped me understand advantages and dangers of this particular church type. I can also use this book to understand more about multi-ethnic churches, specifically by researching more about the seven general principles that all multiracial churches follow (188-189).

The second way I can apply the lessons learned from this book is as a personal encouragement towards individual evangelism. The majority of church-planting books which I have read have focused on the Great Commission as a command the church, not so much to the individual (see Stetzer, Breaking 102-104). This book, instead, emphasized the individual responsibility each believers has to “go and tell” before unbelievers can “come and see” (228). This is the proper view of evangelism, and this just offers me yet another reason to keep this book close at hand throughout my years of ministry.

BILBIOGRAPHY

Hesselgrave, David J. Planting Churches Cross Culturally: North America and Beyond (2nd edition). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2000.

Lin, Melissa Manhong.  “A Modern Chinese Journey of Inculturation.” International Review of Mission,  January 1, 1998, 9-24.  http://www.proquest.com/ (accessed June 16, 2010).

Malphurs, Aubrey. Planting Growing Churches for the 21st Century: A Comprehensive Guide for New Churches and Those Desiring Renewal. Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Books, 1998.

Stetzer, Ed, and David Putman. Breaking the Missional Code: Your Church Can Become a Missionary in Your Community. Nashville, Tenn: Broadman & Holman, 2006.

Stetzer, Ed. Planting Missional Churches. Nashville, Tenn: Broadman & Holman, 2006.

Towns, Elmer L., Ed Stetzer, and Warren Bird. 11 Innovations in the Local Church: How Today’s Leaders Can Learn, Discern and Move into the Future. Ventura, Calif: Regal Books, 2007.

© 2010. E.T.

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