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The Prodigal Church

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John MacArthur’s book Ashamed of the Gospel changed my life. Literally. At the time I found it on the shelves of a local Christian book store I was attending a church that was committed to many of the principles of church growth. Though MacArthur had never attended that church, he understood it, he described it, he critiqued it. Best of all, he opened up God’s Word and showed something much, much better. I soon found that I had to move on. I had to find a church that cared less about pragmatism and far more about the gospel. And, by God’s grace, I did.

Jared Wilson was once also caught up in the church growth movement. Like me he was reading the books, attending the conferences, measuring the statistics, and trying desperately to generate a great work at his church. And he was feeling that same restlessness, that same sense that this just wasn’t right, that this couldn’t possibly be what church was meant to be.

While the church growth movement has slowed and evolved in recent years, many of its principles remain foundational within evangelical churches. Many churches still hold to an attractional model by which they measure the success of any element of the service or any program by its ability to attract unbelievers. It is “a way of ministry that derives from the primary purpose of making Christianity appealing.” In The Prodigal Church, Wilson offers what he calls “a gentle manifesto against the status quo”—against that way of thinking of the church. This is not just another rant from someone convinced he knows a better way. It is not another diatribe. Rather, it is a manifesto. It stems from Wilson’s own experience, heads straight to Scripture, and seeks God’s wisdom.

You and I are sitting down for coffee. Or a long breakfast, since this is a book, not a pamphlet. I ask you, as a friend, to hear me out. I have some concerns about the way you’re doing church. You’re on guard, because you’re tired of rants, tired of legalistic whining, tired of reactionary diatribes. You just want to get on with God’s mission. I want that too. But for this long breakfast, I ask you to put the guard down and let me speak to you as a friend. As one iron sharpening another.

There are several elements in The Prodigal Church that I found especially appealing. The first is the deep focus on Scripture. Wilson’s personal reformation, where he came to see such deep concerns with the attractional model of church, began with personal tragedy that drove him to see the Bible in entirely new ways. The Bible transformed him from within, allowing him to understand the utter centrality of the gospel (rather than programs) in the church. So while he does critique the seeker-friendly or attractional model, he does so by opening his Bible and showing where it falls short.

Also, Wilson is a very capable writer and applies humor in appropriate ways and appropriate places. He often pokes fun at himself, showing himself as the one who was ignoring such basic wisdom and buying into such trite programs. He is equally vulnerable, telling his own life’s story as an important part of the backdrop to his growing awareness of what the Bible says about church. In this way he continues to show that he is writing a book that is for himself first and the rest of us later—often a marker of the best kind of book.

Because this book is not a diatribe but actually offers rich and compelling answers, I was challenged by it. My church is not often tempted toward the attractional model, but we may be tempted to swing the pendulum too far to the opposite extreme. Wilson offered gentle critique to us, too, and I appreciated the challenge. He affirmed what we are doing well, but also gently critiqued those areas where we have grown tired or complacent.

I noticed that Matt Chandler’s endorsement for Wilson’s work begins like this: “Although I don’t agree with all of the conclusions Jared comes to…” And I doubt many people will agree with all of his conclusions. But I think any wise pastor can learn with him. Any discerning pastor can benefit from asking the same questions, even if he arrives at different answers. And it is not only pastors who will benefit. After all, we are all members of churches and all responsible to ensure that we are members of good churches that are going about God’s work in God’s way. There is wisdom in this book for all of us, and for that reason I gladly commend it to every Christian to read and consider.

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