Growing God’s Church, Gary L. McIntosh. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2016.
Summary: In light of the changing culture that has rendered classic approaches to evangelism less relevant, the author looks at how people in our contemporary culture are coming to faith while arguing for the continued priority of not only presence but proclamation and persuasion in our witness to the gospel.
There is no question that the church in America has faced a significant culture-shift in the past thirty years. This book represents a research project in which over 2000 people who had come to faith and joined churches were interviewed to understand how people are coming to faith today, and what has changed from earlier days.
The interesting thing is that the author spends the first half of this book, not on the study but rather what seemed to me a rather traditional restatement of the importance, indeed priority of proclamation evangelism in the life of the contemporary church. In five chapters, he argues for what is our mission, the priority of sharing the gospel of salvation, our roles of presence, proclamation and persuasion in calling people to faith, our focus on making disciples, not just converts, and the context of the church as the vehicle of mission.
The next five chapters turn to the study itself, and explore the questions of:
- Who led you to faith?
- What method most influenced your decision?
- Why did you begin to attend church?
- Why did you remain at your church?
- What is the pastor’s role in evangelism?
For the first question, similar to earlier studies, family and friends were most significant, followed by church staff. Conversation outstripped any other method in influence a person’s decision to follow Christ. Family, friends and “no one” were most significant in beginning to attend a church. Friendliness followed by mission, worship styles, and teaching and beliefs were important to people remaining. Pastors play a key role in why people remain.
McIntosh concludes with principles of effective evangelism and the importance of conversation–“inviting people to dine with Jesus.” The book also includes the questionnaire used in his study as well as questions and practical suggestions at the conclusion of chapters.
I had several thoughts as I read this. One was that the book is a helpful corrective to the de-emphasis on proclamation and persuasion in many contexts. If churches are having ministry with significant numbers of people yet seeing few people coming to faith, it may be worth asking whether this corrective is needed. It particularly has helpful challenges to pastors to examine how well they are exemplifying a commitment to gospel witness.
The second was that this felt like it was addressing a fairly traditional suburban or smaller town church setting. I had a hard time imagining those in storefront churches, urban congregations, and intentional communities warming to the language of this book.
Finally, the author draws a distinction between holistic and atomistic views of the Missio Dei, and seems in the end to come down for a more atomistic view, one that does not neglect service and presence, but sees these as subordinate to the priority of the gospel. There is warranted criticism of ministries that never call people to faith, but I am also aware of ministries that combine robust care for both physical and spiritual needs of people under the rubric of “the gospel of the kingdom” in a way that both evidences conversions and compassionate care for people. These would probably find the formulation of this book unsatisfying.
In conclusion, this book felt to me a bit like the idea of putting new material on old wine skins and left me wondering whether what was needed were new wine skins for a time when the church is undergoing great ferment in a radically shifting culture. Nevertheless, the message of the unchanging gospel, our continuing call to gospel faithfulness, and the call to incarnational relationships through the medium of conversation seems timeless, and always worth heeding.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”