51 Ways to Shake Up Your Church
A Review of
What If Jesus Was Serious About the Church? : A Visual Guide to Becoming the Community that Jesus Intended
Paperback: Moody Publishers, 2022
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Reviewed by Stephen R. Clark
The beauty of an Etch-A-Sketch is that you can experiment as much as you want. When things go awry, flip it over, give it a good shake up, reset, and start again with a clean slate. Reset buttons on devices work much the same way. In this book, Skye Jethani offers several reset buttons for the church. The way we do church is a bit of an ongoing experiment that consists of a location to gather, people to gather, and a process for gathering. The hopeful goal is to live out our faith in Christ as salt and light, buoyed by truth and the love of God.
As varied as the people of God are, so are the houses of worship that contain them. Some are steepled edifices adorned with breathtaking stained glass complete with pipe organs and marble floors. Others are living rooms. How church happens in each also varies. Despite the variety, there is a common factor shared by all; none are perfect. All have room for improvement. To help church leaders tackle issues, books on pressing reset (known as church revitalization) abound. Dominant voices on this topic have included authors like Ed Stetzer and Thom Rainer. Jethani’s voice is a welcome addition.
Formatted like your typical devotional and decorated with doodle-like drawings, Jethani seeks to call the church from an event-driven, isolation-fueling, business-like corporate structure back to something akin to a New Testament community. By this, he means “living in communion with God and one another for the sake of the world.” It’s not a novel idea, but Jethani’s approach is fresh.
While most revitalization tomes offer clever “gotcha” stories or deep-dive data-driven narratives, Jethani has taken a different tack. Within five broad categories, he offers 51 short “meditations” on various aspects of church life. Each brief bite points to an issue, provides biblical context, and offers clear correctives.
The five broad categories tackled are the family (meaning, church), reunion (addressing the need for true community within the body), meal (making the Lord’s supper more than a passing ritual), gathering (getting the act and focus of worship right), business (understanding the real point of church), and servants (correcting how leaders view themselves and how we relate to them).
Frankly, I cringed a little over the title for section four, the family “business.” Sounds a little too mafia and the church is certainly not a business. I think Jethani would agree on that last point but he kind of wrote himself into a corner. A more natural title might relate to the family’s mission. However, in item #36 Jethani takes issue with the terms mission and missional. He writes, “the apostle Paul– perhaps the greatest missionary in history– did not see the mission as the foundation of the church. Instead, he understood Jesus Christ himself to be the foundation.” In other words, “what binds the church together is not a task but a person.” It’s a fair point. Perhaps a better title for the section might have been “the family foundation.”
Jethani sets the tone for the book in his introduction aptly titled “Restoring Family Values.” This is the thesis he is exploring in the 51 meditations that follow. He claims, “Most pastors now stay inside church facilities all week managing programs, and ministry happens when people come to them.” My reaction is a conditional no and yes.
I’m not sure it’s fair to say “most” pastors are holed up in their churches between Sundays. Many spend a good deal of their time managing the staff and activities, but also manage to get out and about visiting shut-ins and responding to pastoral calls. I do agree that a lot of churches function in an if-we-build-it-they-will-come mode. (Behold, they stand at their doors and wait!) This is the comfortable way, and being too comfortable is a topic Jethani attacks in meditation #39. (By the way, there is no index of the 51 vignettes, something that would enhance the book a lot.)
I heartily agree with Jethani’s assessment that, for most churches, success too often reflects the image of the corporation and “is measured by the growth of the institution itself, not how it benefits a community.” It’s a tad ironic that today’s company can appear to be more attuned to community interests and issues than many churches. This was evident at the height of the George Floyd unrest when corporations issued statements regarding their stance on racism while too many churches were silent.
An interesting semantic problem Jethani raises surrounds the use of churched versus unchurched. He argues, rightly, that we once viewed people as Christians or non-Christians, believers or non-believers. This distinction spoke to their relationship with Jesus as being central, not their attachment to the church. This has shifted. Rather than taking the gospel out into the community to make disciples, we tend to try to draw people in to become members, or at least to win a free gas card.
He addresses this lacking more specifically in meditation #1 where he points out that “Jesus and His apostles never equate the church with a building or an event.” He reminds us that our calling is to “foster the incarnate human connections through which the work of God is ultimately accomplished.” Systems, programs, processes, and events don’t embody Christ to the world — we, His people, do!
Jethani offers an intriguing twist in item #44 on the concept of servant leadership, which is often tied to Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. He argues, culturally, by following Jesus that the disciples were putting their characters and reputations on the line, that their “honor and identity were inexorably linked” to Jesus. So, when he abased himself to wash their feet, he was, in a sense, abasing the disciples as well. Jethani says that Peter “refused to let Jesus wash his feet” not “to protect Jesus’s honor, but his own.” He sums it up saying, “Applying John 13 isn’t about church leaders accepting menial tasks, but about church leaders accepting ridicule and embarrassment, about not being respected in society, and not needing the affirmation of their peers.”
While there are many, a significant point comes up in item #2; the church is not the pastor’s or ours. The church– each church– belongs to God. This is a truth we need to keep in the front of our mind at all times. Another biggie pops up in item #50 “church leaders exist to equip us, not to use us.” Jethani goes on, “Success is assumed when a person is plugged into the apparatus of the church institution rather than released to serve God’s people and their neighbors out in the world.” Using people in any sense of the word is to fail them and the kingdom.
Throughout the book, in 51 small bites, Skye Jethani takes generally accepted ideas about church and presents them in unexpected ways, mostly by simply putting them firmly back into the context of scripture. Some items are more hard-hitting than others. Some are interesting but not necessarily reset buttons. And some (like item #51 about the church being anti-fragile) could have used a bit more explication. An additional summary chapter tying everything together and offering some direction on implementation would have been useful as well. Nonetheless, this would be a great book for a church staff to prayerfully walk through together, allowing their set ideas of how to do church, to be challenged and reset.
Stephen R. Clark
Stephen R. Clark is a writer who lives in Lansdale, PA with his wife, BethAnn, and their two rescue cats, Watson and Sherlock. His website is www.StephenRayClark.com. He is a member of the Evangelical Press Association and a regular contributor to the Christian Freelance Writers Network blog (https://christianfreelancewritersnetwork.wordpress.com/). He also walked on fire. Once.
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