Recently, I have been binging on several different books about "how to do church." Many popular books give you a model to copy. For example, Sticky Church is very popular and essentially argues sermon based small groups is the solution for your ministry. I still think the exception in recent years is Tim Keller's Center Church which bridges the gap between theologically heavy books and practical models. My shift has been to read outside of the sort of "young, restless, and reformed crowd." Scot McKnight's blog is largely to blame for exposing me to voices I don't normally encounter much (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/). I think in general the questions I have are What is it that the church ought to always do no matter what? How can I be faithful and not fall into the temptations of wanting bigger, better, and more exposure in a celebrity culture?
First, I read Slow Church which basically tried to take the slow food movement as an analogy for church. It essentially argued for a holistic community that reflected the local terrior and was against cookie cutter models and "franchise church." Thats all good. I just felt the analogy was too stretched and they didn't make an argument that was theologically robust enough for me.
Because Slow Church was endorsed by the authors of Shrink and vice versa I did expect much. But it turns out Shrink: Faithful Ministry in a Church-Growth Culture was a much better book. These books follow the clarion call of Eugene Peterson that what matters in ministry is faithfulness not success or effectiveness. (Keller like always does yes/no both/and middle way and says "fruitfulness" is the Biblical metaphor).
Shrink is highly critical of megachurch models that doesn't sufficiently challenge cultural idols. But instead embraces American ideals of pragmatism, techniques, and thinks success in the kingdom is equal to a bigger and better ministry. Suttle makes a great point that I often wonder about, something is wrong when the only Pastors who speak at conferences and have their books published have huge churches, as if all the pastors of smaller churches have nothing good to say. The book is divided into three parts. 1) How are attempts to be great undermine the call to be good. 2) How we need to have a robust theology of the church with stories and virtues not models, methods, and strategies. 3) What the essential virtues are.
What is good about this book is the great illustrations he gives tied to good biblical principles about how the church ought to be, what kind of people we ought to be, and not thinking some technique, model, or strategy is what will solve it while inside we remain no different than the world. He advocates church leaders should be vulnerable and should seek to cooperate with others not compete against them. We should have a culture of brokenness, patience, and fidelity. To all of these I say, yes, yes, and yes.
However, I do not think all models or strategies are all bad or that as an organization the church cannot think about how to better govern itself and equip its members to live more like Christ. The church is an organism and an organization. I don't think just because a church is big it is bad or that it has abandoned what it means to be the church. Suttle makes the point on several occasions to consider whether God is calling your church to shrink, to literally have less people. I don't see how that is any better than when I have heard megachurch pastors say you are not faithful if your church is not growing. Maybe your church is shrinking because you are a jerk and have poor leadership skills? I know this is not what Suttle is trying to say. I only point out to guard against either extremes.
In the end, Shrink is aiming at a prophetic wake up call to the church in America, to prune itself. To get back to the essence of life in Christ together, no matter the results numerically or otherwise. I agree to a large extent, but being a good steward involves not just good character but also good management. The church is God's household (1 Tim. 4:15) and this requires both Christian character and good management.