Jared C. Wilson has written the book I’ve wanted to write for 10 years, but didn’t know where to begin. The problem is so large, so complicated, so involved, with too many emotions woven into it. For me, I’ve struggled with frustration, bitterness, sorrow, even despair over what I experienced, as well as with what I know countless other Christians have experienced—being chewed through the gears of the seeker/attractional church movement. Wilson faces this giant head-on in The Prodigal Church: A Gentle Manifesto Against the Status Quo.
Frankly, the book is so honest, so direct, so revealing, that I couldn’t put it down. I found myself hunched over, highlighter in hand, repeating phrases like, “Yes!” and “Thank you” and “Spot on!” In the end, I can only conclude that this may be one of the most important Christian books in print today.
Wilson tackles what he calls the “attractional” church, which he defines as, “a way of ministry that derives from the primary purpose of making Christianity appealing.”1 This is the seeker movement pioneered by Willow Creek and Saddleback Church, which is since morphed into the Church Growth Movement.
Now, before your haunches go up; Wilson writes as one who has come out of the movement, and he is refreshingly gracious and sympathetic to the desire of many of these churches to lead people to Christ. But he has some concerns.
In the opening chapters, Wilson addresses the growing problem of pragmatism and consumerism in churches. He cites the ground-shaking REVEAL study, whereby Willow Creek evaluated their methodology of “doing church” and came to the realization that, in fact, virtually no one was growing spiritually. Wilson comments,
“Willow Creek discovered that after putting a lot of resources, expertise, volunteers, and years into the development of fully devoted followers of Christ, the system didn’t work… The results of the study, also conducted in other attractional churches around the country with similar results, were like a splash of cold water on the face of the attractional movement.”2
However, Bill Hybels, the recognized pioneer of the movement, seemed to be at a loss as to what to do. Many churches simply shrugged their shoulders and kept on plugging. Wilson adds, “One thing the REVEAL study proved is that one can have the appearance of success and yet not actually be succeeding.”3 The system is broken, Wilson maintains. And there doesn’t seem to be any solutions on the horizon. But this is why Wilson’s book is so needed.
In chapter 3, Wilson assaults the problem of church pragmatism, noting that “pragmatism has a utilitarian ethos to it [and] is by nature unspiritual.”4 In the end, pragmatism seeks after “what works” instead of “what pleases God.” When business models become the functional ideology of churches, the customer, not God, becomes the most important person. However, Wilson asserts, “The Bible’s ‘functional ideology’—contrary to consumerism and pragmatism—is that ‘what works’ is the Holy Spirit through the message of the gospel of Jesus.”5 In the end, it’s an emphasis on the gospel that must reign in churches.
Chapter 4 addresses the functional myth that the Bible is an instruction manual, full of advice for living a better life, rather than being the living Word of God. Wilson addresses the nationwide epidemic of biblical illiteracy and makes the case for biblical preaching. He maintains,
“When we preach a message like ‘Six Steps to _______’ or any other ‘Be a Better Whatever’ kind of message—where the essential proclamation is not what Christ has done but what we ought to do or need to do—we become in effect preachers of the law rather than of Christ.”6
Don’t miss that statement. That is a piercing observation. Whereas many churches today emphasize the need for “grace” above all things, they have effectively become legalists—dispensers of more law.
In chapter 5, Wilson addresses the issue of the worship service. Through the proliferation of drama sketches, modern rock music, games, and gimmicks, many churches have shifted the focus of worship away from God and onto the individual attender. Suddenly, “worship” becomes about our Sunday morning experience. Citing his friend, Bill Roberts, Wilson warns, “The potential is always there for people to worship worship.”7 However, we see that, historically, periods of true revival are always tied to a proclamation of the glory of Christ—“the risen, beautiful, supreme, sovereign Christ Jesus in the splendor of his holiness.”8
Chapter 6 deals with the problem of too much complexity, effectively “biting off more than you can chew.” Wilson calls for more simplicity; an effort to do the important things well. Over-programming creates a whole host of problems that can stifle church growth and burn out the very people who are supposed to be growing in Christ.
The issue of pastoral ministry is the focus of chapter 7, as Wilson blows up the ever-popular seeker maxim of discontented members to become “self-feeders.” However, Jesus Christ Himself calls Peter in John 21:15-17 to undertake the ministry of feeding the sheep. Often times, this essential elements of ministry are lost, as celebrity pastors build their platform one jumbo-sized view screen at a time.
In chapter 8, Wilson provides “a way forward,” offering real-time suggestions for how churches may increase their faithfulness. In the end, it’s the gospel—the news of what God has done; not what we can do—that brings spiritual growth and transformation.
Earlier, I said that The Prodigal Church may be the most important Christian book in print. I really mean it. Megachurches are getting increasingly bigger. Many pastors are becoming worldwide celebrities. Some church budgets rival blue chip corporations. The movement is getting bigger by the day. But as the movement begins to implode, the collateral damage will be flesh-and-blood Christian believers. Real people. More than that, however, it’s the gospel of the kingdom. The glory of God is at stake! And the church must act swiftly and boldly to regain faithfulness.
Jared Wilson will not change the world by himself. But an army of bold, growing Christians, following the example of people like Jared Wilson—so much as he follows Christ—certainly can.
It’s time for the prodigal church to come to her senses, to wake up, and to come home.
Title: The Prodigal Church: A Gentle Manifesto against the Status Quo
Author: Jared C. Wilson
Publisher: Crossway (April 30, 2015)