This is a difficult review for me to write, and it’s partially a review and partially an autobiography. Jared C. Wilson’s The Prodigal Church: A Gentle Manifest Against the Status Quo is an incredible book.
And Mr. Wilson handles the topic so well, with so much love and gentleness, that I aspire to become that kind of writer. But this book was so cathartic for me that I find myself at a loss as to how to review it. I have not yet healed from my experiences in the attractional church, and I am prone to bitterness in tone and word.
I spent most of my time reading The Prodigal Church highlighting, underlining, shouting “YES,” and reading parts to my husband, prefaced with, “You’ve got to hear this! We aren’t the only ones!” I have written before, many times now, about my church history. I grew up in one of the first mega churches in central Indiana. I love the local church, but I completely agree with Mr. Wilson when he pens these words on page 20:
I have deep concerns about the current approach to what used to be called the seeker church, what some today may call the “attractional” church. I think there are some fundamental assumptions and instrumental decisions being made at the heart of this way of doing church that are not in step with the truth of the gospel.
The author is clear that he, too, loves the local church. He stresses that he knows the majority of preachers today really do want to lead people to Jesus. But he questions if the methods that are so popular today are actually biblical.
Having grown up in the megachurch, worked in a large Willow Creek Association church, and then served in various capacities at four other megachurches, all within the past twenty years, my own church history somewhat parallels Wilson’s. (Except I served in worship & creative arts). That, alone, is partially why I found this book so cathartic.
There are others out there who have recognized that “doing church” is, in fact, not church as it is meant to be.
Mr. Wilson extensively covers his own background as well as the background of the “seeker” or “attractional” church movement. Leaders (whether paid or volunteer) who are familiar with the Willow Creek or Saddleback model of “doing church” will be able to easily identify the patterns of conducting church like a business, and the accompanying focus on leadership principles. If you are not, or have never been, a part of these types of churches, what he writes may seem foreign, but it is easily understood via his writing.
Based off solid research (and he footnotes his sources), Wilson points to reasons these models are not turning people from “seekers” into “fully developed followers of Jesus.” Willow Creek has released their own study of this very phenomenon, and Wilson uses that as a main source of information. He does not use it as a way to blame, but rather as a way to say, “Hey! This hasn’t worked; maybe we should look again at what Scripture tells us about church.”
The Church is People
He also does a thorough job writing about what happens to the people, especially volunteers, at these churches. Addressing the prevalence of “self-feeding,” over-programming, burn out, and burdening team members with the idealization of “excellence,” the reader is able to examine first hand accounts of why people leave these large churches. Again, I could give a hearty “amen” to almost every example he cited, including being told at one point that the church wasn’t for me, that I needed to learn to feed myself spiritually.
Wilson lays a large burden for the people at the feet of pastors, which is biblically accurate. The pastor’s job is to rightly handle the Word and to shepherd the people. When these two responsibilities are mishandled or handed off to others, as they often are in the largest churches, then the people are the ones who suffer. Eisegesis creeps into community groups/small group Bible studies (page 76), people are biblically illiterate and don’t view their lives through the lens of Scripture (page 74), worship is seen as only singing and not a believer’s entire life response to their Creator (page 75), and grace is cheapened beyond recognition (chapter 9).
“In many attractional churches, they talk up grace but actually preach law (advice), which shows how cheaply they hold grace.” (page 187). People need the grace of Jesus, because as Wilson says about himself on page 93, “When my life fell apart, I found the exciting, innovative, creative, relevant worship services of my large attractional church not just irrelevant to what I was actually going through, but in some ways harmful.” To this, I say, again, “amen.”
Worship & Theology
I particularly enjoyed the sections about “how to do church,” and the critiques on, well, designing church services, for lack of a better phrase. That used to be my job, and then I was part of a volunteer team that designed “worship experiences.”
I have repented. And that is not a joke.
Wilson goes into great detail about how worship is defined, biblically, and what our response to God should be. It is not just singing, it is not found in video clips, mystical experiences with candles and incense, experiential elements involving nature and art, or chanting one phrase over and over again. Theology matters, in every aspect of a church service, from the Scripture readings to the lyrics of the chosen songs. This is important. It is important because the surveys show people are not actually being discipled to Christ.
But they also can be, and frequently are, won to an individualistic faith, a spirituality that is centered largely on themselves and their personal experiences and feelings. Christianity has been pitched as the key to self-fulfillment and personal growth. And thus a consumeristic Christian is born. (page 111)
I also want to make his section on “video venue” churches required reading for every pastor everywhere. Today. (pages 114-120). I will sum it up with this quote, however: “I don’t think the church can afford to un-incarnate anything, much less its preaching. Video is by definition un-incarnational.” (page 116).
I know; I’m now saying this for the third time. This book was cathartic for me. It was healing. I cheered; I yelled out; I cried.
I love the local church. You are hard pressed to find a woman who loves the local church more than I do. But I do not love what most local megachurches are doing to people, especially women. No one is leading us well, no one is guarding us, no one is vetting our studies or our small groups. False teachers, bad theology, cliques, emotionalism, selfcenterdness, self-focus, and sin are flourishing. Discipleship is not. Something is wrong. My heart breaks for the women who contact me, who feel trapped in these ministries, who feel like there is no hope. I continue to pray the pastors who are tasked with shepherding the people will wake up and realize it before it is too late.
We are now living within the covenant community of a “gospel-centered” church – a term I had never heard before reading this book, but one with which I immediately identified and recognized as our church. Is it perfect? Of course not; no church is perfect.
Let me say that again: no church is perfect.
But there are churches that are biblical – that are focused on the true gospel: Jesus came, lived a sinless life, died on the cross, was buried, rose again on the third day. There are churches that do care what you do on Monday – Saturday, that are concerned with whether you are progressively being sanctified. There are churches made up of sinners saved by grace, who because they recognize that grace, extend that grace to others. There are churches that take the Bible in its entirety as God’s revealed Word, and preach every word of it, not cherry-picking feel good self-help topics.
There are churches rooted in the redemptive grace of Christ. That is the way to “do church,” according to Wilson. And that is the church we desperately need.
Wilson, Jared C. The Prodigal Church: A Gentle Manifesto against the Status Quo. IL, Wheaton: Crossway, 2015.
I purchased this book from Amazon. No one asked me to write a review, and all opinions are my own.
(although I hope to meet Mr. Wilson at #TGC17 and thank him, in person, for writing this)