Church Unique, How Mission Leaders Cast Vision, Capture Culture, and Create Movement by Will Mancini

Will Mancini leads Auxano, a team of church consultants (although they prefer the word “navigators”) who are training pastors on how to “do church” in the 21st century. Church Unique lays out the ideas and goals of Auxano. In many ways Church Unique is much like many church management books written in the last 50 years. It emphasizes vision, teaches how to form and implement strategy, and virtually insures success if you will but follow the principles within. Mancini is a motivational writer, par excellent. His use of superlatives is extensive. In fact, they are used so often as to lose their effect; after all, not everything can be mind-blowing and earth-shaking. Like other books of this genre, Church Unique is also complicated. To actually work Mancini’s system well from the book alone would be extremely difficult, if not impossible. Those serious about applying these ideas will no doubt need to hire Auxano as consultants. As such, Church Unique serves as a great advertisement for Auxano, at least to those who are excited about its vision for the church.

Mancini claims that he will engage in all the great ideas and opinions about the church today and offer the missing link of his strategy (p. XIX). The purpose for writing the book was “to challenge you to find your ‘Church Unique’—that is, to live a vision that creates a stunningly unique, movement-oriented church” (pp. XXII, cf. p. 77). The promise is “to present ideas on how to discern your ‘corporate grace’ and surrounding microculture, as well as how to synthesize these into your unique Vision Pathway. More than that, it gives you a Vision Integrated Model” (p. XXIV).

As became evident throughout the book, Mancini sees past church vision and strategy, primarily as found in the seeker model, as out of step with the times. These strategies worked in their day but no longer (pp. XXV, 17-26, 46, 137, 147). Mancini is not so much depreciating the vision and strategies of Rick Warren and Bill Hybels (pp. 28-33, XXVI-XXVII) as he is offering an “alternative to classic strategic planning” (p. XXV). The important take away is that if church leaders want to be always on the cutting edge they must be chasing the culture. This means that if Church Unique is presenting the latest and most hip modern church strategy for today, it will be replaced soon by a new system that is more in tune with tomorrow’s culture. Ultimately it is culture, not Scriptures, which determines the direction of the church (more on this at the conclusion of this review).

Church Unique is presented in four parts (see pp. XXVI-XXVII).

  • Part one exposes the nature of the vision vacuum in churches today.
  • Part two clarifies vision. “Clarity is the preoccupation of the effective leaders. If you do nothing else as a leader be clear” (p. 51, cf. pp. 52-55).
  • Part three offers five components that will articulate vision which are unique to a given church.
  • Part four teaches leaders how to advance their vision.

This reviewer found it interesting how often the author criticized the ideas and strategies of the past church marketers and replaced them with his ideas and strategies, merely changing the terms. He rejects the vision statement of the church growth era then offers his own (pp. XXV, 19-22, 28). He rightly depreciates the leadership conference era (p. XXVI) but in essence replaces it with the church consultant era. He often downplays the “nickels and noses” number game as a measure of success (pp. 23, 34, 37, 80, 105, 193, 220) but then touts Andy Stanley’s “clarify the win” principle that is all about numbers (pp. 38, 65). He replaces the vision, mission and purpose statements of the past with “kingdom concepts and vision frame” (pp. 84, 166) and “developing your own brand” (p. 237), via snappy logos and strategy icons (pp. 237-242) and use of secular marketing firms (pp. 223-224, cf. pp. 65-66, 93).

Due to the rapid changing culture long term planning is now obsolete according to Mancini (pp. 24-26, 36, 45, 47, 165). Each church must now develop its own unique mission. This is an improvement over Rick Warren’s “church in a box” which attempted to clone successful churches, such as Saddleback, throughout the world. But how are leaders to determine their unique vision? In addition to examining their specific culture and determining what they do better than anyone else, they must hear the voice of God. Apparently, if leaders listen carefully enough, and learn to distinguish the voice of God from all other voices, God will give leaders their unique vision (pp. 12, 72, 171-172). That vision however will almost certainly look like the “simple church” concept, as popularized by the book by this name, and epitomized by Andy Stanley (pp. 22, 60, 136, 141-144, 149). The simple church, in which attendees are expected to do only three things (attend a weekend worship service, join a small group, and get involved in one, and only one, ministry) has replaced the program-oriented seeker church of the recent past, as Mancini sees it.

It is important to note that it apparently matters little what vision a church chooses, as long as it is unique: “The central strategy you choose is not as important as whether there is ownership and integration around whatever strategies you choose” (p. XXVII, cf. pp. 88-89). Of course in order to work out this new vision those pesky “pirates” (i.e. church members stuck in the past) who do not buy in will have to be eliminated (pp. XXVII, 212-213).

Mancini introduces, but expounds little, on a number of questionable theological concepts: the ancient-future movement (p. 76), the five-fold ministry view drawn erroneously from Ephesians 4:13 called ADEPT (p. 95), that the church exists for those on the outside (p. 124) which is a faulty ecclesiology, and red letter Bible study (pp. 160-161). These ideas and others should be expected since Church Unique is published by the emergent Jossey-Bass and is one of the books offered by the Leadership Network which publishes books by Brian McLaren (pp. XI, XVII-XVIII). He also mentions favorably Mark Driscoll (p. XXIV), Rob Bell (pp. 58-61), St. John of the Cross (p. 63), Leonard Sweet (p. 176), Dallas Willard (p. 184), and Erwin McManus (p. 232).

Mancini rarely engages with Scripture and when he does it often misses the point due to his faulty hermeneutics (see pp. 25, 44-50, 89), in addition to his emphasis on red-letter study of the Bible mentioned above. This leads to the fatal flaw in Church Unique: it does not draw its understanding of the church from Scripture but rather from culture and what is working today (pragmatism). The overall message that each local church should look for its unique thumb print and make good use of that DNA (pp. XXIII, 6-7) is helpful. But when an author, organization or church begins (and ends) with culture rather than Scripture to develop its DNA for the local church, it will stray from God’s design. Culture is not unimportant, but when we develop our churches around culture, creating vision and strategy as a result, without first consulting in great detail God’s vision and strategy for the church, we will inevitably miss the point. This is what Church Unique does, as did its predecessor, the seeker church. It’s the same old song, just different verses.

Church Unique, How Mission Leaders Cast Vision, Capture Culture, and Create Movement by Will Mancini (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008) 271 pp. plus XXVII, hard $16.99

Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor-teacher, Southern View Chapel