Transitioning by Dan Southerland

Transitioning has been a popular book since the beginning of the 21st century, detailing how a church can transition from a traditional to a purpose-driven model and thus experience phenomenal growth and success (p. 151).  Transitioning is a simplified version of Rick Warren’s The Purpose-Driven Church with a heavy dose of Henry Blackaby’s Experiencing God thrown in for good measure.  The result is a book heavy on vision, methodology and technique and light on biblical exposition.

Southerland would protest this last sentence even though he believes that the first reformation was about the message, this second one (the one he is heralding) is about method (p. 14).  He would protest because his book is liberally sprinkled with Scripture passages and because the whole book is loosely wrapped around the Old Testament book of Nehemiah.  Unfortunately, with rare exception, all of Southerland’s scattered quotations are either out of context or misinterpreted (cf pp. 21, 23, 30, 32, 34, 38, 69, 82, 101, 114, 123, 127, 133, 170, 171).  And his exposition of Nehemiah is a case study in how to misinterpret and misapply the Bible.  Some of his explanations are so bad as to be laughable if people did not take them seriously.  Perhaps just as telling is that Southerland never bothers to examine the New Testament teaching on the church.  In a book purporting to lead a new reformation on church life this is a glaring omission.  Except for the passing mention of a series he has preached through Acts three times, Southerland never investigates God’s paradigm for the church.  At the same time he promises, fully in line with Blackaby’s teachings, that God will give each church a vision that the leaders are to carry out (pp. 22, 24, 43-44, 71, 101, 123, 150). 

I would suggest that before we attempt to find God’s vision through some extrabiblical means (see pp. 33-34) we should first turn to God’s true vision—His revelation as found in Scripture—to determine what the church should be.  If we do so we find Southerland’s primary premise fatally flawed.  He believes that God wants him (and us) to build a church for the unchurched (pp. 11, 31, 60, 117).  No one wants to argue about the need for evangelism or about the concern that too often churches become in-grown and do not reach out to the lost.  But biblically the church (the body of Christ) is for the believer, not the unbeliever.  When the biblical model is ignored the “church” may be an evangelistic center, but it is not the church.

Another problem emerges at this point.  Even as Southerland’s desire to reach the “unchurched,” as he calls them, is highly commendable, when you “church” them you must develop them in the Christian life, i.e. make disciples (Matt 28:19-20).  This is in fact one of Southerland’s stated goals (p. 63), however his handling of the Scriptures in this book reveals the sad truth.  If Transitioning is an indication of what people are taught when they come to Flamingo Road Church then there is little question that “fully devoted followers of Christ” are not being made, for these folks would be given no concept of biblical truth and life.  Southerland simply does not demonstrate the ability to accurately handle the word of truth (2 Tim 2:15). 

Transitioning to the Flamingo Road model will require radical change such as replacing traditional music with “extremely” contemporary, becoming staff-led rather than deacon- or elder-led and replacing Sunday school with small groups.  Some of these changes will anger more traditional members, some of whom may leave (pp. 102-103).  But not to worry, Flamingo Road lost 300 traditionalists but gained 2000 people (p. 127).  Some traditionalist don’t leave, they just become critical, but Southerland sees all such people as ornery or wolves, and their criticism is not worth considering (pp. 116-117, 125, 127-128, 153).  Southerland is obviously not open to criticism, even if based on Scripture.

Recently Willow Creek Community Church, which pioneered this same approach to “doing church,” has discovered and admitted that their system has failed—if you measure success by how people are being discipled.  Sadly many are still being duped by such debunked methodologies.  Rather than turning to books such as Transitioning, I would encourage God’s people to turn to the New Testament Scriptures. 

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