Brief Reviews, Midweek Edition, VOLUME 2

[Midweek Edition] Brief Review: REAL CHURCH – Larry Crabb

A Brief Review of
Real Church: Does It Exist? Can I Find It?
Larry Crabb.

Hardback: Thomas Nelson, 2009.
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Reviewed by Chris Smith.

As a bit of a reactionary against the prevailing culture of individualism, I am always interested to read what others are saying about the meaning of the church in today’s world.  Thus, I was excited to receive a copy of Larry Crabb’s new book REAL CHURCH: DOES IT EXIST? CAN I FIND IT? from the publisher, Thomas Nelson.  At the heart of this book is Crabb’s two-sided depiction of what the Church should be (and not be).  The first part is a critique of answers commonly given to the question: “Why should I go to church?”  Granted, this question is a flawed one since the church as a people is something we are, not somewhere we go.  However, Crabb’s critiques are useful here in starting to break through our selfish misperceptions of what church is about: it is not about making my life better, nor about showing me “how Jesus wants [me] to change the world,” nor about “saving lost souls” and promoting visible morality among the saved. The second part of Crabb’s depiction, on the other hand, spells out what the church should be about, including 4 “Marks of the Church I Want to be Part of”:

  •    Hungers for the Truth that sets Addicts Free
  •    Respects the Necessary Ingredients in the Remedy for Addiction
  •    Finds Contentment in Wanting What Jesus Wants
  •    Is Mission-Energized.

I imagine that REAL CHURCH may be helpful for some deeply-embedded evangelical folks in getting them to consider the significance of the Church.  However, there are some very troubling problems with this work.  First and foremost among these problems is that the text is working primarily from a self-centered narrative.  Toward the very end of the book, Crabb begins to grapple with this issue by emphasizing his own (and everyone’s) addiction to self.  But if we are called to follow in the way of Jesus – who Crabb notes is the only one who is not addicted to self – should we not be vigilant about guarding our theology, and the language with which we express that theology, from our selfish addictions?  Using language like “the Church I want to be part of” unmasks our self-centeredness and is not useful for thinking about the meaning of the Church.  This self-oriented language often gives the book a strong flavor of consumerism, where I seek, find or choose a church community based on my own desires.  This language and practices of consumerism (as Will Samson has emphasized in his recent book Enough) is antithetical to our finding contentment in the way of Jesus, which Crabb takes as a key virtue of a church.  Making matters worse, Crabb often conflates the meaning of the term “church,” sometimes using it to refer to a Sunday gathering (e.g., see the above reference to his use of “going to church”) and at other times using it to refer to a community of people (as it should).  Crabb also demonstrates an unfortunate misunderstanding of what it means to be a missional church.  It seems that at the root of Crabb’s misunderstanding is his perception of missional churches through the lens of a self-centered narrative: e.g., “how Jesus wants [me] to change the world.” In contrast, I would argue that to be missional is to recognize that Jesus is changing the world, and has called the Church as a community of people who bear witness together to that transformation.  Although to be fair, there are probably many churches that think of themselves as missional and do fit Crabb’s depiction.  My final critique is aimed at Thomas Nelson and not Crabb.  The almost-40-page excerpt from Crabb’s forthcoming book might seem to someone like a good marketing idea, but it is a waste of paper and ink!  Interest in this coming book could have been piqued just as well, if not better, with a 1-2 page ad.

I might recommend this book to some of my evangelical friends, and the task that it sets out to do (explore the meaning of the Church) and the authenticity with which Crabb pursues this end, greatly outweigh the book’s flaws.  May Crabb’s work here set us on a journey toward being set free from our addictions to self and toward becoming in the local church communities to which we have been called real expressions of the Church.

C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at:

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Reading for the Common Good
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