Among Christian millennials in the West, there is a growing discontentment with what authors J. R. Woodward and Dan White Jr. call “the church as industrial complex”—churches that “believe their survival and success depends on collecting and consolidating more resources, programs, paid staff, property and people in attendance” (p. 25). There are sociological influences behind this discontentment (e.g., the general move toward local living, working, buying), but there is also a biblically and theologically informed recognition that “big box” churches often produce shallow and unhealthy disciples because these kinds of churches tend to devalue the rich community and discipleship reflected in the life of Jesus and the early church. In The Church as Movement: Starting and Sustaining Missional-Incarnational Communities, Woodward and White—church planters and leaders in the V3 church planting movement—offer an applied ecclesiology that seeks to remedy this problem.
The express goal of the book is “to help people plant the kind of churches that reflect the viral movement of the early New Testament, fueled by the values of tight-knit community, life-forming discipleship, locally rooted presence and boundary-crossing mission” (p. 15). The authors present eight core competencies over four sections that move from the big picture of how missional communities should be distributed, to how to be and make disciples, how to design a missional framework and theology that will guide our disciple-making efforts, and finally how to practically do the work of community formation and mission.
The major strength of this book is the authors’ emphasis on discipleship as the core of a healthy and missional church. Key to their view of discipleship is the belief that a community of believers must learn to interact with one another in various types of gatherings or “spaces.” The church as industrial complex overemphasizes the large group gathering, but the church as movement thrives when disciples gather in smaller groups for accountability, mid-sized groups for community, as well as larger groups for celebration, all with the ultimate goal of living lives on mission for Christ in our neighborhoods and community networks. The book attempts to equip readers with the vision and values needed to fuel this particular way of doing church, as well as offering practical guides and tools for healthy discipling relationships at each of these levels. There are instructions here on how to start and maintain discipleship groups, how to promote openness and accountability within those groups, how to understand and practice the sacraments of baptism and communion in group meetings, and how groups can incarnate the love of Christ in practical ways within their neighborhoods and communities.
Many readers will also appreciate the emphasis in these pages on the need for shared leadership in the church—what the authors call “polycentric leadership—and the benefits of a community where every disciple is encouraged to discover and utilize his or her spiritual gifts. The church as industrial complex tends to lean too heavily on the giftings of top-tier leaders and personalities, while the church as movement relies on every member as essential to its internal health and missional effectiveness. This is one of the keys to maintaining a movement with discipleship at its core.
Woodward and White contribute a great deal of wisdom—a wisdom that is clearly tempered by experience—to the growing list of contemporary resources on discipleship and church planting. However, there are a few aspects of the book that give me cause for concern. For example, as a general observation, the authors very rarely engage in exposition of Scripture. There are references to passages of Scripture throughout, but I often found myself wondering if the ideas being propounded were stemming more from contemporary sociology than they were from biblical theology. At times, when the authors did engage more with the biblical text, the exegesis was questionable. As a result, some of the key ideas put forth in the book were misguided. For example, the authors argue that every believer is called by God to perform the role of at least one of the people-gifts listed in Ephesians 4:11—“the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers.” However, it’s best to see these offices as pertaining specifically to the leaders of the church who are then expected “to equip the saints for the work of the ministry” (v. 12).
Readers might also be concerned with the lack of clarity on the gospel message as presented in this book. Woodward and White do a fine job of explaining the cosmic scope of renewal promised in the gospel and how that should shape our view of vocation and mission. However, when it comes to the core of the gospel message itself there is very little explanation of the death and resurrection of Jesus. One would think that a manual on disciple-making would be a bit more explicit on this, especially given the fact that there is an entire section devoted to “Sharing a Holistic Gospel” (pp. 130–36). One wonders if the absence of an explanation of substitutionary atonement and justification, for example, is intentional or unintentional.
There are also weaknesses in the authors’ understanding of the essential nature of the church. For example, they make the common mistake of committing the etymological fallacy when defining the Greek word for “church” (ἐκκλησία), explaining that the word means “called out ones” since it is a compound word made up of the verb καλἐω, “to call,” and the preposition ἐκ, “out of.” As most scholars would argue, however, a word’s meaning is derived from its usage, not from its etymology; and the use of the word ἐκκλησία clearly reveals that its meaning is “assembly,” not “called out ones.” The authors also make the mistake of assuming that a single church in a city was made up of multiple house churches, with each house church consisting of no more than twenty to fifty members. Recently studies have shown, however, that limiting a house church to this number is unnecessary, since many Greco-Roman houses could hold significantly more people than this. Along these lines, the authors also make the mistake of conflating the New Testament’s use of “household” with “house church,” when there is clearly a difference between the two (e.g., 1 Cor 11:22; 14:35). The reason these things matter is because our fundamental understanding of the essence and pattern of the New Testament church will shape the way we believe church should be done today, at least for those of us who believe New Testament church patterns are still normative in some way. If we understand the New Testament church wrongly, then we run the risk of modeling contemporary churches on patterns that don’t actually reflect those of the New Testament after all.
While this book would not be at the top of my discipleship and church planting list of resources, and while I would only recommend it to someone having first explained the aforementioned concerns, there is still much to be gained here.