Essential Church – Thom & Sam Rainer

This is the third or fourth book I’ve read in recent months about the current ‘dropout issues’ the church in North America is facing. Thom Rainer wrote “Simple Church” which was read widely in ministry circles over the past few years – including being studied by the staff at Efree before I got here.  So… how was it?

The father and son duo say a lot of good stuff about why young adults leave the church and how to think about things differently and change things that can help a church retain more young adults. Truth be told, there’s nothing groundbreaking in this book – anyone who works with young adults or is a young adult who’s thought critically about this issue won’t be surprised by anything in the book.

I can tell that both of the authors are well organized and tried to get a good look at the situation by administering surveys across the country before writing. It seems everyone is doing that these days. The stats in this book aren’t great though – they quote only parts of the stats which obviously back up what they’re saying. They’re just not that surprising. Maybe if I read this book before UnChristian, They Like Jesus and Not the Church and the others that I’ve read I would have had more respect for their research, but I don’t think that’s where this book shines.

I did like their main point though. Young adults aren’t mainly leaving the church because they have huge issues with the people or theology, they leave because they want a break. Church just isn’t essential in their lives. Fair enough, I think that’s why most of my de-churched friends left. They don’t have huge issues with the church and would probably come back to visit, but it just wasn’t ever relevant enough and essential enough in their lives to stick around when other things started changing and getting busier.

The Rainer’s write that we as the church should do four things to help church become more essential. Simplify (structure – make things less confusing and keep the main things forefront for people), Deepen (content – don’t be afraid to go deeper and teach more hard theology), Expect (have expectations for members and hold them to those expectations) and Multiply (a healthy focus on evangelism and reclaiming dropouts). Generally good stuff, though again not groundbreaking.

One of the things I most appreciated about the book was the explanation that although churches need to change to “close the back door”, every church will need to find it’s own pace and time to do that. Moving a bit ship too quickly will throw everyone overboard, but not moving quickly enough will mean that you never get to where you need to go. To take the metaphor a bit further, you’ll always have people who are sea-sick when you move, but that’s a cost you have to be willing to pay.

I’ll end with a quote from the book which was one of the more memorable for me. As with the rest of the book, it’s nothing groundbreaking for those who have been thinking about these issues, but it’s clearly written and will hopefully inspire you to do something about it.

“Students crave leaders who are transparent. They seek leaders who will admit mistakes. Excellence is important. Putting the work and time into a sermon is critical. As we stated earlier, these students balk at poor preaching, but they aren’t looking for frothy eloquence. This generation wants excellence that comes with a heavy dose of reality. They want a pastor who leads by example. Young adults look for a pastor who lives what he preaches. If the pastor says he’s passionate about seeing people come to know Christ, then they’ll check to see if he’s doing the work of an evangelist.” (p. 132)