Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Simple Church

Some of the leaders of my home congregation are reading a book called Simple Church over the summer and invited others to read and join the conversation. So, I got a copy and read it. Here are my thoughts on it.

Rainer, Thom S. and Eric Geiger. Simple Church. B&H Publishing (Nashville): 2006.

There are countless books on how to fix what is wrong with churches. So, after years and years of different books, different theories, different strategies, why do many people conclude that there are still problems with churches that require additional approaches, additional books, additional theories? What makes Rainer and Geiger’s Simple Church the long-awaited return to “God’s process for making disciples”?

At one level, there is much praiseworthy to be said about Simple Church. Inasmuch as the it serves to call churches away from inundating themselves and their members with innumerable programs and opportunities. If it were possible for Lutheran Christians to take only this premise away from the book without also swallowing the false teachings that lie under the surface, the book would be safe to read and recommend.

But that’s not possible. Simple Church comes with too much bad-theology baggage. These false teachings are inseparable from the overarching themes of the book. You can’t buy just part of what Geiger and Rainer propose. You can’t import their thinking about what makes an effective church without also believing that churches can be more or less effective.

That’s where Simple Church presents an unhealthy view of “Church” for Lutherans, and it manifests itself in two ways: synergism and asacramentalism.

Synergism means “working together.” In most realms, working together is a good thing. In matters of salvation, when the co-workers are God and us, it’s a false, pernicious doctrine.

Rainer and Geiger have a synergistic view of the church that cannot be separated from their proposals to make the church simpler. The entire book rests on the premise that there are things church leaders can do to make the church more effective.

Ministers cannot be effective. Only God, working through His means of grace, is effective. Pastors and people can only be faithful.

Any suggestion that we can help or hurt the work of God through His Church is synergistic, implying we work alongside God in His work. We don’t.

A discussion like Rainer’s and Geiger’s cannot be had withough this false, synergistic premise at the beginning. In Rainer’s and Geiger’s proposition, who makes the church simpler? Who brings clarity? Who creates movement? Who fosters alignment? Who provides focus? You do. That’s synergism, and it’s false.

Lutherans have always confessed this about the church: “The Church is the congregation of saints in which the Gospel is purely taught and the Sacraments are correctly administered.” (Augsburg Confession, XIV)

Lutheran clergy simply cannot ask, “What can I do to be more effective?” They may ask, “Am I preaching and teaching the Gospel purely?” and “Am I administering the Sacraments correctly?” In short, “Am I being faithful?” If the answer is “yes,” that’s as much “effectiveness” as he’s been given to do.

Although the singer of the spiritual probably expects the answer to the question “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” to be “yes,” Lutherans have always answered “no.” None of us was there at the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus. So how do we get the benefits of Jesus’ death on the cross delivered to us today?

Luther wrote, “If now I seek the forgiveness of sins, I do not run to the cross, for I will not find it given there. Nor must I hold to the suffering of Christ, as Dr. Karlstadt trifles, in knowledge or remembrance, for I will not find it there either. But I will find in the sacrament or gospel the word which distributes, presents, offers, and gives to me that forgiveness which was won on the cross.” (Luther’s Works, v. 40, p. 214)

There’s a difference between where forgiveness is achieved (on the cross) and where it is delivered (in the Gospel and the Sacraments). So Lutheran churches and Lutheran worship has always placed these means through which God delivers to us the forgiveness of sins—the Gospel and the Sacraments—at the center.

The highest worship of God is to receive His gifts. (Apology of the Augsburg Confession, IV, 155:310) Thus the point of “church” is continually to be drawn back to receiving the Lord’s gifts. For Rainer and Geiger, though, who don’t believe that in the sacraments God bestows His gifts of forgiveness and eternal life, the point of the church is to foster growth in discipleship.

There’s nothing wrong with talking about discipleship. What’s wrong is letting those who don’t believe that a Christian’s highest calling is to receive God’s gifts to enable him to live in love toward his neighbor instruct us about making churches more effective and producing disciples.

The Church is as simple as the Lord has made her. Rainer and Geiger cannot presume to speak for God, telling others God’s plan for making disciples, without acknowledging what our Lord Jesus says is the way the Church makes disciples. “Therefore, go and make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey all that I commanded you.”

What is God’s plan for making disciples? Baptizing and teaching. Sacraments and the Gospel. That’s the simple Church.


Mike said...

Maybe you'll have to say more on this but I don't think the idea that "there are things church leaders can do to make the church more effective," is the same thing as synergism. I may say that organ music is more effective in my church than guitar music and yet still preach the Gospel purely and administer the sacraments faithfully. Yet even that change may or may not be one made in order to make my church more "effective" (of course it may also be done for other reasons).

Synergism is different. It is specifically the notion that I am not saved unless I offer my part for my salvation. That indeed is a false gospel.

Now without having read the book that too may be a theological problem one has with this book, but synergism simply isn't "changing things in the church". That isn't to say you can't still be against those changes, but I don't believe it's correct to be against them under the pretense of synergism.

Pastor Jeff Hemmer said...

The premise of the book--from the subtitle to the last paragraph--is that how we do church affects how disciples are made.

If I do church correctly, more disciples are made. If I do it incorrectly, fewer disciples are made. Either way, at the end of the day, I'm the one who's being effective or ineffective. The pastor or "ministry leader" plays a significant role in whether a person is made a disciple. That's synergism. Maybe it's a three-way synergism (God, the would-be disciple, and the minister), but it's still synergism.

I'm not saying changes in the church are bad. I'm not even saying Ranier and Geiger don't make some salient points (like paring down the quantity of programs people are expected to participate in). I'm saying they're forcing us to ask the wrong question: "How can I be more effective?" There's no way to talk about my effectiveness apart from a synergistic frame of mind.

hannah said...


I have only read a few chapters of "The Simple Church," but I do know that my Pastor and other church leaders have read the book and presented reviews, so my knowledge of the book is based on that. I have a couple of questions about this following paragraph:

"Lutheran clergy simply cannot ask, “What can I do to be more effective?” They may ask, “Am I preaching and teaching the Gospel purely?” and “Am I administering the Sacraments correctly?” In short, “Am I being faithful?” If the answer is “yes,” that’s as much “effectiveness” as he’s been given to do."

If it is true that the three questions posed are the only questions you can ask, then wouldn't the premise of the book (as I understand it), be then that those are the three questions you would apply to every program/Bible Study/Activity/etc. that your church offers. If the answer is "no," then the next goal would be to simplfy activies so that answer could be "yes." Wouldn't doing that, help you be the most effective with the gifts that God has given you?

Also, if those are the only questions that can be asked, what is the role of the congregation? Matthew 28 is directed toward them too, not just Clergy. If they are called to be disciple, what does that mean for them? What is the change?

Pastor Jeff Hemmer said...

I don't disagree that simplicity, even as presented by Ranier and Geiger, is good. And I think asking the right questions can enable churches to simplify what they're doing. If a Bible Study or other activity isn't preaching the Gospel or enabling the proper administration of the sacraments, scrap it. My concern is that the book doesn't encourage me to ask the right questions. It encourages me to ask if I'm being effective. Maybe asking the right or the wrong questions can have the same result (more simplicity), but they're asked for different reasons and from different mindsets.

I will disagree that Matthew 28 is something all Christians are called to do. Matthew is clear to say that it's the eleven who are gathered when Jesus tells them to make disciples by baptizing and teaching. If all Christians were to make disciples like that, there are a lot of people who are failing if they've never baptized anyone. And John is clear to say that it's the eleven who are gathere in the upper room when Jesus tells them to forgive or retain sins. And it's the twelve who are gathered when Jesus tells them to "do this" in distributing His Body and Blood. Noteworthy is the fact that when Jesus gives these commands, He's only ever talking to the apostles.

I think we do a huge disservice both to our Lord's Commission and to Christians when we tell them that they're to be doing the Great Commission. On one hand, we have to summarize Mt 28:19-20 to say "Tell your friends about Jesus" because we're not commissioning all Christians to baptize. That shortchanges what Jesus tells his apostles to do. And it robs Christians of living in love toward their neighbors in all their vocations.

That said, just because the Great Commission is given particularly to the apostles, Christians do have a calling to speak the Gospel.

So why distinguish clergy from laity? They're never ends to themselves. If pastors try to say to the laity "You can't do that; that's for clergy only" or if laymen say to pastors "Hey, buddy, Jesus gave that to His whole church, not just you" we've missed the point completely. He gives these tasks to pastors SO THAT they give them out to His people. And He entrusts them to His whole church SO THAT she gives them to a pastor to give them out. There is no church without pastors, and there are no pastors without church.

Two comments on one post! Now I'm big time...