Aubrey Malphurs has provided A New Kind of Church: Understanding Models of Ministry for the 21st Century as a discussion of both new and old model churches and how effectively these models may (or may not) reach lost and unchurched people. More specifically, Malphurs argues, “[This book] will help lead pastors who are church planters and revitalizers and their teams [to] think through what they are doing as they wrestle with and develop their church models” (10). Interestingly, Malphurs spends little to no ink writing words that deal with specific models; but rather, his focus is on the paradigms that shape how churches function in their efforts to reach the communities to which they have been called, and he addresses the epistemology behind church model creation and development. In order to start the conversation, Malphurs opens Part 1 by discussing the changing times. Part 2 deals with the changing church.
“Churches are changing,” writes Malphurs, “but not necessarily for the better” (17). While one might think this would be the way the author opens Part 2 of this book, it is actually in the opening of Part 1—the Changing Times. The issue at hand is that churches must change as the times change, and that is really the reason for this book. Many long existing churches, however, are not changing. Instead, they are moving through the church life cycle of birth, growth, plateau, decline, and death (18-19.) Without some kind of church change in the changing times of cultural thinking, decline and death comes more rapidly.
Like most books on evangelism and church planting written for an American or Western audience, Malphurs deals with the disheartening numbers. In the 24-year span between 1975 and 1999, the number of young people in ministry has dropped from 24% to only 7% (19). Something close to 30,000 congregations in America ceased to exist in the 1980’s (19). The number of unchurched people is on the rise. The numbers differ slightly among region, but they are still not encouraging figures. Different generations show different levels of unchurched people with only a slight slowing and change recently; nonetheless, the figures are bleak. Cults and other faith systems are on the rise while Christianity in America is struggling (22-26). More and more people are walking away from the Church or never entering it in the first place. People are thinking differently today than they did only one generation ago and church models that saw great success with previous generations are seeing little progress today. “While there is nothing wrong with being an older congregation,” argues Malphurs, “far too many think and act as if they are still living before World War II” (30). America is becoming a multi-cultural world like never before. In addition, the advancement of cable television, travel, and the Internet has created a way for people to see and experience many different ways of thinking, introducing new and changing worldviews (30-31). Even more complex is the growing idea that faith is no longer tied to a church or community of people. “Why?” Malphurs rhetorically asks. Because the Church is not answering the questions people are asking, or at least not in a way that communicates the message well to the people. He writes, “It’s imperative that today’s churches give good answers to the younger generation’s question, not just, What’s good enough for us is good enough for you! or We’ve always done it that way!” (32).
Also, like other books on evangelism and church planting, Malphurs deals with the lack of evangelism as well as gifted, trained leaders among American Christians. Using the Bible, he spends an entire chapter reminding his readers of the Biblical mission and mandate of disciple making. He tackles belief, evangelism, teaching and safeguarding the gospel message, and living a lifestyle dictated by Christ. It is also here that the author lays the groundwork for how believers are to constructively evaluate what other church models are attempting to do. Once this foundation is firmly in place, Malphurs moves to Part 2—the Changing Church.
Five of the seven chapters contained in the second part of Malphurs book are a teaching of what the Bible has to say about the Church. He deals with how we are to read the Bible, understand the Church, the local church, culture, and servant hood. He even deals with what he calls the ‘Theology of Change.’ “A church’s view of change will have a major impact on its ability to minister,” Malphurs argues, “Those that remain resistant to change will not likely survive” (75). It is here that he identifies the non-negotiable principles of the gospel that should not change as well as the methods and practices that should be open to change because they are not biblically mandated in orthopraxy. “We must not assume, however, that the churches in the first century and throughout history didn’t have to deal with change,” Malphurs states in an effort to build his theology of change; “Read the book of Acts and church history and you’ll discover that this is not the case” (76). The Church must hold to a doctrine or theology of change according to Malphurs, with exception to those unchanging, non-negotiable, and timeless principles of the Bible.
Finally, Malphurs—resting in the teaching of the previous five chapters and assuming that the reader has come to see the same implications—deals with how to think about differing new church models. Again, he addresses the essentials and non-essentials of the faith and implores those critiquing new models to start with an examination of how the model approaches these items. Are they within the essentials? Next, he presents his ideas of the most important functions of the church and some defense of those who might disagree with his views. Is Scripture being proclaimed? What is the focus of the church gatherings? What is the motivation of the model? Is the model legitimately reaching the lost and making disciples? And finally, what are the goals of the new model? He concludes with a discussion of how to develop a model that centers on the same questions used to critique the model. In the end however, he has not deviated from his original purpose to examine the epistemology of church models.
Malphus suggests that his book is for pastors trying to examine new or different ways to do church, but more so, it is for congregations. “It can help them understand what is happening;” states Maplhus,” Consequently, this book is must reading for those congregations that are going through church renewal or church planting” (11). At one point, he even suggests pastors should provide a copy of this book for their congregations so the pastors do not have to spend as much time explaining the new direction of their churches (11). This statement seems almost to counter his further discussion on organization and leadership in an effort to sell more books, in that the leader should be able to lead and guide his congregation rather than simply allowing Maphurs’ book to do the work. If, however, those individuals not in the planning and leading of a new-model church are indeed the target audience, than maybe this book is an informative contribution. In addition, Maplhus states that this book is for “seminarians and others who are preparing for ministry” (11). The reason he feels those headed into ministry should read this book is so “they know why they are doing what they’re doing and can and the very least articulate the reasons they minister in the context of a particular model, whether it is contemporary” (11-12). The assumption here is that these readers do not have an idea what they are doing and are struggling in articulate their bumbling efforts. On the surface, it seems this book would be more helpful for those only trying to discover the direction they are headed instead of those already in the ‘doing’ phase of their model; however, Malphurs likely knows his audience better than this reviewer. Therefore, in light of Malphurs’ stated audience and his stated approach, Malphurs may have achieved his goal of thinking about the epistemology of new church models. On the other hand, he fell grossly short the subtitle goal of, “Understanding Models of Ministry for the 21st Century.”
A New Kind of Church could be a book simply about church models, in nearly any time of church decline, and any area of the world where the church is declining. While Malphurs identified the specific problem of the declining Church in American, Christians ignoring their mission, and a changing culture, he did nothing to address methods of reaching these specific problems, in this specific location and culture, in this specific time. He simply demonstrated ways to take the temperature of the local church in a changing world. Malphurs’ few instructions did include such things are remaining relevant to the culture (111-112), contextualizing the gospel (105-107), and recognize that not all churches will reach all people (110-111); however, there is nothing specific to the 21st Century in these ideas. He exegeted the biblical mandates and made a strong argument for the needs of the people only then to ignore specifics for this generation or the next in America.
Malphurs work may have been more helpful if he had dedicated a chapter to define new and old models with examples. How is one to know what is a new model or an old model if not to simply draw upon his or her experience and assumptions? Could it be that what one reader has in mind for an older model is actually a newer model in the view of Malphurs? For example, Malphurs (in 2007) saw Willow Creek Community Church and its seeker model as a newer model for ministry while younger readers in 2012 (who may not have experienced church outside of the seeker model) may view it as an old model. This reader may view the seeker model with a high focus on the purpose driven church differently than Malphurs because he or she may be viewing the seeker model through the lens a house church model now gaining some popularity. At the same time, for some readers, the seeker model may still be seen as extremely new (even in 2012). And still others, who may come from a much older, more formal church model are still seeing the church model movements of the 1970s as the new model and are all but unaware of Willow Creek Community Church and the seeker model. Without a greater explanation of what Malphurs understands as new or old, the discussion must depend upon assumptions if we are to see his argument in light of the 21st Century.
That being said, this book does provide some helpful information. Examining how one views church models in general is indeed extremely helpful. Understanding the life-cycle of the church helps a pastor continually evaluate where his church may be and seek ways to revitalize the church if necessary. Being reminded of the essentials and non-essentials should help the reader be less critical of different models in different communities. Understanding how to take the temperature of a specific culture teaches the reader how to use culture to contextualize the timeless message of the gospel. And finally, the section on developing new church models (although too short considering the purpose of the book) provides a good starting point for hopeful 21st Century church planters.
*I have no material connection to this book, monetarily or otherwise.
** This review was taken from part of a paper submitted in partial fulfillment toward an MDiv at Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary.