Too often, what one thinks is happening on the cutting edge of the local church (if there really is such a thing) is tinted by the colors reflected off the churches in close proximity to us. Or our perceptions could be influenced by those methods and efforts attracting the attention of media, bloggers, conferences, or critics. It can become rather difficult for the average pastor or lay leader to keep abreast of innovations surfacing among local churches. However, Elmer Towns, Ed Stetzer, and Warren Bird—men in a position to be more aware of what is happening in the Church around the world make an effort to spread the word. It may have been rare for churches to broadcast their sermons online in a podcast format when Mars Hill in Seattle was doing so, but as the word spread, many churches were also able to take advantage of this innovation. These three men understand the importance of sharing information on innovation and want to share what they see. In an effort to help busy pastors and leaders, Towns, Stetzer, and Bird, offer us there their book, 11 Innovations in the Local Church: How today’s leaders can learn, discern and move into the Future.
11 Innovations in the Local Church is really what it claims to be, with an introduction and conclusion serving as bookends to eleven chapters dealing with specific innovations these three men feel are on the cutting edge. The first and most obvious questions many will ask of this book is, “Why is a book about church innovations necessary; isn’t the gospel message enough?” The authors respond saying, “Most churches need to change because they’re showing little or no statistical growth (numerical, spiritual or otherwise) and minimal impact on the surrounding culture. Too many are struggling just to keep their doors open, and yet they tend to keep replaying what they did ‘last year’” (14). Many churches, faithfully teaching and preaching the gospel, seem to be left behind because they have failed to see the need to be innovative in the way they reach their communities.
Stetzer opens with a story about a slightly older church that was dying. He sent them out to see what other churches were doing and their response was, “Preacher, the church changed, and nobody told us!” (13). The church must, in some areas change too—although this is not to suggest that they change the message, just how the gospel message is delivered. We must look at our methods. “When methods no longer work,” they write, “don’t blame the harvest as being unreachable; instead ask God if it’s time to change your methods!” (16). The challenge then becomes understanding how to innovate, what needs to be changes, and where the right balance might be found. Towns, Stetzer, and Bird warn, “We need to constantly ask, ‘Will God be pleased with our innovations?’ Life isn’t about what we can do—it’s about obeying what God wants us to do. We must make sure our actions are right in His eyes” (17). After outlining why change may be necessary the authors move to explaining what they have found to be the 11 biggest (or most interesting) innovations in the North American Church. And while they could look at innovations from all around the world, they keep their focus on North America pointing out, “Today, the only continent where Christianity is not growing is North America” (15).
In the chapters that follow, Towns, Stetzer, and Bird address churches identified as organic house, recovery, multi-site, ancient-future, city-reaching, community transformation, cyber-enhanced, Nickelodeon-style children-focused, intentionally multicultural, decision-journey, and attractional. Each of these identified innovations receives a chapter. Towns, Stetzer, and Bird first describe the innovation for the benefit of the reader who has no knowledge of the specific innovation. Then they offer examples and a discussion from their insights; often, these insights also provide a caution as well as what the typical church can learn and adapt from the specific innovation.
As they conclude their book on innovation, they argue the importance of critically examining how we do church. They write, “After 50 years of sprucing up our churches and spicing up our worship, the culture is less reaches and those who go to churches are less committed” (237). Therefore, we must examine what we are doing and how we, as church leaders might also be able to use these innovations to advance the kingdom in North America. This does not simply mean however, that we adopt the innovation. Towns, Stetzer, and Bird warn, “Always keep your focus on the gospel message. Don’t change it, and don’t let anyone else change it for you. But when they sing the gospel message by a different instrument, if you don’t like it, at least pray for those who sing it, and grow in Christ because of it” (245). This they say, is what we, the readers, should learn from 11 Innovations of in the Local Church.
It is good to take some time to be aware of what is happening within the Church. It could be viewed that the epistles to other churches helped keep the various First Century churches abreast of what was happening. It is also helpful to have Towns, Stetzer, and Bird visit and examine churches practicing newer innovations and then summarize the innovations. A pastor or church leader really does not have the time or resources to visit and examine churches all over the country, but if he sees something that may be good for his local context, he can look into it more and then maybe make a visit. The challenge however with a book like 11 innovations in the Local Church is that these three men selected the innovations. There could be other things on the cutting edge that they are not aware of or it may be that the book could be called 21 Innovations. One must remain open to the reality that this book only deals with what the authors selected to deal with (and it should be appreciated that the authors shared these 11 innovations). The temptation is to assume that these 11 innovations are the only innovations on the cutting edge or that there is not already 11 other innovations making their way to the forward edge.
Another challenge with a book such as this one is how timely it is. For a short time, this book may be extremely valuable, but as these innovations become more mainstream and others are surfacing, the value of the book diminishes. In chapter 7, Cyber-Enhanced Churches, the authors point out how far behind local churches are on the Internet compared to other businesses and organizations. As time passes, people will read this book and decide to get on board with what they think is an innovation, when in reality, they are still behind. Many in the church think they are on the cutting edge when they read books like this one, even if they really are behind as the book claims. This book might better serve the church if it were a regular magazine column, publishing every month without end. Many businesses keep abreast of industry changes via magazines rather than books. Just as many local churches are lagging behind when it comes to the use of the Internet, many pastors may be lagging behind when it comes to advancing the Kingdom in communities of changing culture. This may well be why one congregation proclaimed, “Preacher, they church changed, and nobody told us!” (13).
Placing the issues of timeliness aside, the value of a book like 11 Innovations in the Local Church is how much it promotes passion and creative thinking in our methods to promote the gospel. The advantage in having Elmer Towns, Ed Stetzer, and Warren Bird write it is all the years of experience these men bring to the discussion. We should not reinvent the wheel, but when some points out some good wheels, we should at least stop to take a look.
*I have no material connection to this book. This review was originally written as a partial fulfillment toward an M.Div at Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary. It has been redacted from its original form.