Church Turned Inside Out -- Review

CHURCH TURNED INSIDE OUT: A Guide for Designers, Refiners, and Re-Aligners. A Leadership Network Publication. By Linda Bergquist and Allan Karr. Foreword by Alan Hirsch. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010. xx + 218 pp.

As I opened this book, written by two Southern Baptist church planters/consultants, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I must admit that I was prepared to not care for the message – being that the authors are Southern Baptists. Although the authors are relatively conservative in their theology, that ethos doesn’t hang over what turned out to be a very insightful book about how we might approach the church in the 21st century.

The subtitle to the book gives important information about this book’s purpose. It suggests that we who are involved in leadership of the church, in approaching our calling, will find it helpful to discern our starting point. Are we primarily designers, refiners, or re-aligners. Over time we likely will engage in some of each of these tasks, but for most of us we find ourselves confronted with a specific context in which we work. So, if you are starting a new congregation, you are likely being called to be a designer. But, if you are involved with an existing congregation, especially one that has been in existence for decades, the job likely involves less design and more refining and re-aligning. If we seek to participate in the reform and renewal of the church, we need to know and understand both the culture in which we exist, and the culture of the church that exists within that culture.

The authors of this book speak to both of these contexts – the external and the internal, and in the course of their book, based on their own experiences as church planters and in consulting with congregations, they suggest ways in which we might bring a bit of coherence to this work.

Churches have grown in large part by tapping into a ready-made audience – those who are looking for a church. We have done this in much same way as McDonalds – setting up franchises, and those that are most adept at marketing and serving their customers grow. That audience is shrinking, and so its time to begin thinking outside the box and adapting to the changing times. This task may require of us different skills, depending on where we find ourselves. We might be designing new ways of engaging the world, or realigning our community to better link with the broader community. That may involve redesigning methods, while leaving the message unchanged – but I would venture to say that for those who are more progressive, the message itself may need redesigning and realigning.

Although we are being called to this task, the authors assume – theologically – that God is the master designer, re-aligner, and refiner. Still, we must recognize what we bring to the equation. We must ask important questions about the things that influence what we do and believe. That is, there is DNA to consider. They make an interesting comment that I think is well worth considering.

When a baby is born, parents naturally expect that the child’s genetic code will show up somewhere. When a church is born and develops, there is no such expectation. But, in fact, those who parent churches always bring themselves to the table (p. 13).

So, what is the DNA of the church one leads or experiences? And how does that DNA influence what the church is and does? This is an important question that we must address.

What really struck me was the section dealing with models of church. Too often books on church renewal and growth make assumptions – assuming that churches really all alike. Thus, they limit themselves to two models – let’s call them attractional and missional. I’ve been talking in much this same language. But even missional congregations reflect an ethos, often one that they inherited. Thus, the way they experience missional life, will be influenced by this inheritance.

The authors speak of three primary models of church life – attractional, relational, and legacy. The first, the attractional model, focuses on providing a high quality product that will attract the seeker. Evangelism is the priority, and the format is key to drawing people in. It’s time and resource intensive – and is largely the purview of the mega-church. This is, I believe, an important definition – because many congregations fall into the trap of trying to compete with such a entity and when it fails it becomes despondent and ineffective.

There is a second model, the relational model, that focuses on gathering people on the basis of personal relationships. These to be smaller communities – perhaps house churches. The healthiest of these communities are those that gather “around missional and incarnational purposes, including community service or a social meal that can be combined with other biblical activities of the church” (p. 129).

The final model is the legacy model. I suspect that a majority of American churches, and especially most mainline Protestant churches, fall into this category. We draw people in because of social legitimacy, reputation, or a certain level of comfort. Some of these churches are neighborhood focused and others denoninationally – that is brand focused. They may center around a certain form of worship. Thus, Disciples (my community) know themselves and present themselves as offering a place that gathers weekly at the Table.

Under each of these models we find sub-models. Thus, under attractional churches we find seeker, purpose-driven, and multi-site churches. Relational churches can be house churches, intentional Christian communities, and cell churches. Legacy models include denominational churches, worship focused, and neighborhood churches. Each model has its own strengths and weaknesses. Each requires something different from the community and its leadership. To some degree the model we choose to engage will reflect theology and temperament.

For us to move forward we must discern who we are, what our DNA is, and then begin to discern what it is we’re called to be and do in our own context. They write:

Many of you are in the same situation. There is something about your church or community context that you need to prune or work around in order to respect both the old and the new, what God is doing now, and what God put in place in another era. Perhaps the tree in the middle of the yard is your own irregular, bi-vocational work schedule, a deacon who wields too much power, a local regulation banning churches that meet in homes, an urban neighborhood with no parking, a musty old building you wish you could sell, a gated community you wish you could penetrate, a bird sanctuary that was discovered on the land you purchased, a tacky mural painted by the church’s oldest saint, a venerated pulpit, a canonized hymn book, the customary passing of the plate, or the traditional passing of the peace. All of these things can present the opportunity for a reality check that points to the need for pruning, reshaping, and reconfiguring. That’s what church refiners and re-aligners do, but even designers never completely escape the process. What do you need to landscape around, and how will you do it with integrity and grace? (pp. 145-146).

How we respond will reflect our values and beliefs. There needs to be congruency between the desired outcome and who we are as a community. Thus, a long established congregation, with a fairly set understanding of what belongs in worship, but one that desires to be missional in its essence, must connect the two so that there is congruency. At the same time, if we are to redesign and realign and refine, we will need to change the focus from inward needs to outward ones.

There is much to this book that a reader will find helpful. It reminds us that we need to make sure that our structures are responsive to the world in which we live and to its own ethos and resources. They also note that it’s important to recognize that the whole is more than the sum of the parts. Although written by authors with a conservative bent, this is a book that can be read usefully by persons of a variety of backgrounds. Although they may prefer a certain model, they don’t hold up that model as “the” model. They recognize, perhaps more than many authors, the diversity that is the church, and that if we are to become more than we are, we have to recognize our starting point and our inherent DNA -- then we can begin the work of designing, refining, and re-aligning -- led by the Spirit of God.


Anonymous said…
I find the idea of "shopping" for a church distastful. Count yourself lucky/ or unlucky you were the first we walked into after a long time being away from any. David Mc

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