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    Entries in book reviews (6)

    Thursday
    Dec222011

    Book Review :: Renovation of the Church by Kent Carlson and Mike Lueken

    Kent Carlson and Mike Lueken desire to lead a church where people are becoming like Jesus. As co-pastors of Oak Hills Church in Folsom, California, Mr. Lueken and Mr. Carlson have been on a journey. After founding Oak Hills in 1984, Mr. Carlson adopted many of the principles of Willow Creek in leading his church to become a growing, seeker-sensitive congregation. But over time, Mr. Carlson and his staff began to become uncomfortable with the witness, methodology, and philosophy of ministry that prevailed at their church. A change was needed. Rather than being consumer driven and seeker oriented, the leadership felt called to be Kingdom driven and discipleship oriented, and as a result of this new vision, everything changed. The authors describe this as a transition to making "spiritual formation", rather than numerical growth, their primary orientation.

    And while this may sound inspiring, this reshaping of vision came with a cost. Mr. Carlson and Mr. Lueken recast worship, abandoned the "show", and watched the church dwindle numerically. After being held up as a beacon of success as a Willow Creek style congregation, the bright perception that came with high numbers began to dim. Mr. Lueken and Mr. Carlson tell their story in this book of making a radical shift in philosophy of ministry--one that they believe in--and invite other leaders to reconsider their models, their language, their discourse, and their method for making disciples of Jesus Christ.

    As a leadership tale, this sounds good.

    But then why three stars?* This may strike some as odd. Why would you assign a book a three star rating if the book is confusing, at best?

    Simple. This book contains very high highs and very low lows. And as both take root, the ensuing result is a mudding of the waters. Christianity, being a deep well, contains a rich, nourishing tradition that delivers salvation, nurtures the soul, and fosters union with God. The church is called to present the water contained within that deep well, the Water of Life, Jesus Christ himself, in a manner that is compelling and clear and faithful to the biblical witness. I contend that Mr. Carlson and Mr. Lueken, while well intentioned, do not describe a church that accomplishes this aim. The gospel of the Kingdom, which they strive to announce, is muddled and unclear. The switch from consumer, seeker sensitive church to contemplative, spiritual formation church is strange. And the tale of their move from a numerically thriving church to a church with dwindling attendance and paring back to establish a culture that better forms people to actually follow Jesus is puzzling--in many aspects I found it to be more tragic than heroic--and this is not because I do not agree with the aim of helping people to follow Jesus, it is because of the method employed to get there. I found myself wondering if there was any other way to move the church from here to there without crushing the spirit of so many people, without altering worship so radically as to drive so many people away, and without having to rail against the congregation for their consumer mentality in such forthright and grating ways. Is slowness not an aspect of spiritual formation and growth? Is patience not a primary Christian virtue?

    I offer two additional critiques.

    First, in this book Mr. Lueken and Mr. Carlson fail to make clear distinctions between "the church" and "the staff and elders" when they tell their tale of change. In describing their reorientation of the church around notions of Kingdom and spiritual formation, they should be saying, "the staff and elders". If the church was truly moving that direction, then they would not have lost so many members upon making their shift. This is a top down change, not a bottom up change, and should be read as such.

    Secondly, it is disturbing to read Mr. Carlson and Mr. Lueken describe the loss of clarity that "spiritual formation" brought to the church concerning how to invite others to participate in the life of the church, and to come a saving faith in Jesus Christ. In critiquing consumer driven gospel proclamations, they offer no alternative that can be grasped and taught to others. In my view, they have no gospel. They have Jesus as moral example, as spiritual teacher, and giver of life, but they do not have a concise and transmittable piece of "good news". 

    I am passionate about spiritual formation. I am passionate about the Kingdom of God. I am also passionate about seeing persons who do not believe Christianity is true discover that it is reasonable, compelling, and persuasive, and that the gospel announcement of Jesus's life, death, and resurrection contains the power to awaken the soul to a converting and transformative faith. The gospel--the announcement of the present Kingdom as evidenced in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ--itself is spiritually forming. It is the beginning of a new work. And the church is the crucible wherein the transformative results of that news are brought to bear on the life of the disciple, who is then commissioned both to go forth and serve as one changed, as well as to announce that same news that radically altered their own life.

    This book is important and valuable. But I do not think Mr. Carlson and Mr. Lueken have provided a model to follow. I do believe they have given us a conversation piece. They have given us an example of a church that has attempted to be serious about discipleship and thoughtful regarding our cultural situation, rooted as we are in consumer America.

    Read it, debate it, and learn from it. Just don't treat it as a gospel of the definite new way of being church. Otherwise, you will have swung the pendulum too far.

    *I assigned this book three of five stars at Amazon.com.

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