book report: Move: What 1,000 Churches Reveal about Spiritual Growth (2011)

"Our work as leaders in the church is to help catalyze spiritual movement."

If you don't share this presupposition about church ministry, you might not benefit from this book. I presume this is the ministry philosophy of the pastors at Willow Creek, who commissioned this sociological study of a thousand (mostly in the United States) churches. The authors categorize church attenders in four buckets: those exploring Christ, those growing in Christ, those close to Christ, and those who are Christ-centered. This is a continuum of maturity or a progression of sanctification. The issues they look at in this most recent book in the Reveal series are about the values of each group, and what churches have found successful in catalyzing people along the continuum, and not letting people stay stuck in one bucket. Can the spiritual be easily reduced to formulas? Of course not, but there are common threads in churches full of people progressing to maturity as seen by their love for God and love for others.

Authors Greg Hawkins and Cally Parkinson are on Willow Creek's staff and speak as researchers but also as fellow learners. They are honest on the mistakes Willow Creek has made and their desire to become an even more vital church. Among the top 5% of churches in their survey, there are mega churches and small churches. It's not the quantity of people that correlate with spiritual health. Willow, which became a mega church in the 1980's, believed offering many activities and pushing members towards those activities would help members grow spiritually. They have since concluded otherwise.
When the church promotes all the things people should do, it's very easy for them to lose sight of the real goal -- which is who they should become. Of course, describing who they should become reverts back to the relatively easy part of this equation: they should move away from being self-centered and move toward becoming Christ-centered. (p.165)
They provide a successful example of this from one of the top tier churches in their survey..."everything starts by committing to the life-changing (not activity-creating) goal of discipleship and making it the top priority for all ministry efforts." p.165

The most important means for this, across all four spiritual categories, is personal engagement with the Bible. This resonates with me since that has been the major source for my spiritual growth and in the two churches I have spent most of my life. The authors write, "If they [pastors] could do only one thing to help people at all levels of spiritual maturity grow in their relationship with Christ, their choice would be equally clear. They would inspire, encourage, and equip their people to read the Bible -- specifically, to reflect on Scripture for meaning in their lives...When it comes to spiritual growth, nothing beats the Bible." (p.167) Perhaps this is why John 17:3 means so much to me. The Bible is the best way to know God.

The humility of the authors is also made clear in their recommendation of other systems, not developed by them, for getting people moving, from Alpha, to the Purpose-Driven church's "baseball diamond" class progression for new members. These things are all part of helping people become fully devoted followers of Jesus, those who aspire to take up their cross daily and follow Jesus, those who look ahead and not behind. They love the word of God, they see themselves as the church and not part of a church, and they serve their world. These findings are simple but profound. They have resulted in restructuring in Willow Creek, a very successful church. But they aren't content with their success. They want to be a stronger church that loves God more and loves their neighbors more. Any pastor who shares the same convictions would benefit from the reinforcement with illustrative anecdotes in this book.

As an aside, the book is full of charts and graphs. As a scientist, I love this stuff. The only improvement I hope for is error bars in the bar graphs. Some of the conclusions in chapter 10 did not look appear based on statistically significant data. This doesn't diminish anything in the book, but leaves a geek like me slightly unsatisfied.

Many thanks to Zondervan for the complimentary review copy.
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