I began reading Simple Church with high expectations. I like the basic concept, as I understand it, and even “borrowed” the name to entitle a sermon I recently preached on Acts 2:43 which identified the essential ministries of the local church (evangelism, prayer, study of Scripture, fellowship and the ordinances). To me this defines what the church should be—the simple church. Unfortunately, what I read in Simple Church did not take the reader back to the New Testament for its paradigm but to extensive research mostly within the Southern Baptist Convention. The result was a mixed bag, and this should be expected given the authors’ premise that “research seeks to discover truth” (p. 197). This is clearly a flawed statement. At best research reveals facts, more likely trends. Only the Word of God can give us truth. By looking to research instead of Scripture for “truth” we must expect the end result to be highly subjective—and it is.
That is not to say there is no value to be found in Simple Church—I think there is. But before Christian leaders embrace the latest fad in church growth methodology it would be wise to filter everything through the Scriptures. It should be admitted that while the authors do not base their system on Scripture, they do make a few references to a number of passages. Sadly, most attempts at exegesis are out of context, misinterpreted and misapplied (see pp. 137, 232-236). As stated above the simple church program is based on research—in essence, what works, not the Word of God.
What is research telling our authors? That “simple is in, complex is out” (p. 8). Simple Church seems as much a backlash to the multi-layered programming of the market driven church movement as anything else. The seeker model taught that you will grow a church and disciples if you will create numerous programs and plug people into those programs. Recently Willow Creek, based on their “research,” determined that while large churches could indeed be built on the backs of programs this approach nevertheless did not produce disciples. I see the simple church approach as a welcomed alternative. It offers a needed correction from a focus on programs to a focus on people and how to disciple them.
The simple church philosophy is wrapped around four words:
• Clarity—the ability of the process to be communicated and understood by the people (pp. 70, 109-134).
• Movement—the sequential steps in the process that cause people to move to greater areas of commitment (pp. 135-163).
• Alignment—the arrangement of all ministries and staff around the same simple process (pp. 165-195).
• Focus—the commitment to abandon everything that falls outside of the simple ministry process (pp. 197-226).
This is a philosophy well worth considering.
The simple methodology is to bring people into the church through weekend worship services, involve them in small groups and move them to a ministry (pp. 40-44). Another way of saying this is ”love God, love others, and serve the world” (p. 41). As a method this may be a good one, however the authors are skimpy on details. One example of a simple church is Andy Stanley and his mega-mega church Northpoint Community Church. Northpoint attracts 20,000 or so people every week to the weekend worship services. Stanley’s church has no regular adult Sunday school classes, midweek services, men’s or women’s ministries. Discipleship is supposed to take place in small groups, but no information is given on what these small groups do, how they function, how they are formed or what they teach. While Northpoint may be simple we must ask what the people are actually being taught. Stanley has gone on record in opposition to expository preaching and so we know the worship service is not dedicated to the systematic teaching of the Word, and my personal “research” into small groups in other (and my own) churches reveals that their value is totally dependent on the leadership of each group. Some might be based on Scripture and produce true disciples. Others are merely places to hang out with friends. Because a church has a large number of people in worship and small groups does not tell us anything about the church itself.
This brings us to a major flaw in the simple church system. When the dust has settled this is merely another church growth program. The authors’ research demonstrates that “vibrant” churches (what Simple Church wants to produce) are much simpler than comparison churches (p. 13). By vibrant churches they mean churches that have grown at least 5% per year over the last three years—and less than 2% of all churches in America are doing that (pp. 65, 67, 87, 127, 214, 245, 250). Such a criterion for healthy churches is never found in the New Testament and is not really a measure of anything but the ability to attract people. By this definition Joel Osteen’s church is vibrant and healthy but John MacArthur’s is not. Even on a pragmatic level, the research should be examined carefully since some vibrant churches are simple, yet many are not. For example, while 37% of vibrant churches agree or strongly agree that they set up their programs sequentially, but that left 63% which did not. Plugging your church into this program is not a guarantee of results (p. 249) but the stated implication is that either churches change to simple or they will die (p. 229).
Simple Church can play a role in the strategy of church leadership if they think through, and perhaps implement, some of the ideas presented on how to declutter a church and focus on making disciples. It is a detriment if leaders accept the idea that a church can be measured by numerical growth alone and that plugging these ideas into their church will result in such growth. Far more importantly, and not dealt with in the book, is how to make and measure disciples. The simple idea of moving people from the fringes to involvement with people to service has merit. But nothing in Simple Church helps us create disciples or explains how to know if they have been created.