Review: 10 Temptations of Church

April 10th, 2012

If you’re the pastor or a concerned lay person in a church you’re working to revitalize, you need to read 10 Temptations of Church: Why Churches Decline & What to Do About It, by John Flowers and Karen Vannoy (Abingdon, 2012). But you won’t like it. Taking to heart the central message of this book is like getting a shot or having your teeth cleaned. You know it’s ultimately good for you, necessary even, but that doesn’t make the experience of it any more comfortable. You will flinch, cringe, long to walk away, pray to wake up and have it be tomorrow when you’ve skipped over the hard part and find yourself back in a place of familiar ease. But if you can muster the courage to be honest and alarmingly faithful, you will be better off for it. So will God’s church.

Ultimately, this is a book of encouragement and hope for everyone who loves the church and longs for it to thrive, while living, as most of us do in these times, flummoxed by persistent decline. Prevailing wisdom says that it’s much more cost-effective to start new congregations than to try and turn around declining ones. Yet most of us find ourselves appointed to (clergy) or living in (laity) precisely those declining situations. Is there hope? Yes, indeed. But a rather gut-wrenching, soul-searching, truth-telling task awaits.

John Flowers and Karen Vannoy, a clergy couple co-pastoring team, know whereof they speak. The real power of their book comes from their lived experience of living into what they share in these pages. This is not a book of theory or yet another formula for church growth. It’s about looking straight on at the dynamics of a declining church and committing to take it on.

Leonard Sweet provides a powerful biblical image for this in his foreword entitled “the Golden Calf, Bronze Serpent, and Brass Angel.” Explicating the verses that come just before John 3:16, Sweet contends that the biblical witness from the Book of Numbers through the Gospel of John tell a liberating truth: only by being brave enough to face our fears and be open to the truth of what is killing us will we be freed to find true salvation and joy.

The truth that Flowers and Vannoy force us to confront is their disturbing delineation of all the ways churches have incentivized decline and stagnation. As Sweet summarizes it: “the church is structurally biased against the very habits of mind that would save its future” (p. xiii). Pushing deep to the ingrained, familiar, and often deceptively positive assumptions of congregational life, Flowers and Vannoy look past simplistic explanations in order to come back around in each chapter to practices that embody a commitment to being a thriving rather than a declining church.

What are the temptations of the local (declining) church? What are practices that seem to exhibit faithful loving community but in fact incentivize decline? Vannoy and Flowers unpack several. There’s the budget that is overly dependent on one long-time generous giver who, while willing to give, is loathe to give up his time-honored position as “savior” of the congregation. While perhaps espousing growth, he actually prefers decline, in order to preserve his special place in the congregation’s ecology. Or there’s the couple who faithfully fund and “staff” the coffee hour each Sunday, who are in fact perpetuating patterns that favor interaction with long-time, known members to the exclusion of anyone who is new. This practice is another way to incentivize decline, because a smaller group of known “friends” is preferable to a rowdy bunch of newcomers who may not “play by the rules.” (See the authors' article that preceded this book, Incentives to Decline.)

10 Temptations is packed with similar observations which reveal how good intentions or sincere needs can actually conspire to support decline—in worship, lay leadership, communications, fellowship, hospital visitation and pastoral care, and so forth. There’s a reason these are temptations—they contain kernels of truth, but mislead and turn churches away from the very things that bring new life. My hunch is that everyone who has undertaken this ministry of revitalization will recognize some of these practices and shout “yes, yes!” But other examples will feel like meddling. Some of the sacred cows we’ve avoided taking on will be seen for what they are—a big roadblock disguised as a comfort zone.  

Each chapter contains suggestions for opening up new practices and possibilities. A declining church, argue Vannoy and Flowers, finds meaning through personal power, caring, affirmation, and stability. A thriving, transformational church guides people to meaning through finding joy, sharing of the heart, and self-giving through the demonstration of justice, love, and mercy. (p. 129)

You may not agree with everything they say. But you won’t be able to walk away from this book still thinking about ministry in the same old way. And the Holy Spirit might just find a way to breathe new life into our deepest hopes and dreams for the mission and ministry of Jesus Christ and the transformation of the world.

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