Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Essential Church? – Thom S. Rainer & Sam Rainer III

[I have an extra copy of the ARC of Essential Church? I will be offering it to a diligent reader this copy at the end of the review.]

©2008 B&H, Nashville

I’ve been reading quite a lot of statistically based books lately. This is usually not my cup of tea, but the research helps me to understand trends in such a way as to be better at leading my congregation. As you might have guessed, Thom and Sam are related. Thom Rainer is the president and of LifeWay Christian Resources, the co-author of Simple Church, and the author of several other books, many of which are based on statistical research. His eldest son, Sam, is the senior pastor of First Southern Baptist Church in Floyds Knobs, Indiana, and the president and CEO of Rainer Research.

These statisticians have written a book that examines the trend of church drop-outs. What their research shows is that the American church is in decline, and the largest group of people dropping out of church is young adults aged 18 to 22. Seventy percent of this age group are dropping out of church while only 30% are staying. Consequently the conclusions they draw and the suggestions they make are aimed at what churches can do to stem the tide of back door users in this age group. Even so, the material can be applied across age brackets when church leaders are trying to invigorate their churches.

The book is divided into two sections: Part 1, dedicated to the research itself explaining “why people are leaving the nonessential church”; and part 2, relating “how essential churches close the back door.” The dire picture that the statistics paints is one that causes the first part of the book to seem rather on the negative side.

What we are exposed to in part one is the stark reality that the American church is in decline. It is not really all that surprising with books like unChristian opening our eyes to the fact that the up-and-coming generations are finding more and more things to be disenchanted with about the church. Even so, the Rainers present some interview material that shows that the exodus of young people really has less to do with people getting mad at the church than it does with life change. What the authors discovered in polling and interviewing church dropouts was that these young adults just got out of the habit of going to church because it wasn’t an “essential” in their lives.

The authors offer these top ten reasons for 18 to 22 year olds ceasing to attend church:

  1. Simply wanted a break from church.
  2. Church members seemed judgmental or hypocritical.
  3. Moved to college and stopped attending church.
  4. Work responsibilities prevented me from attending.
  5. Moved too far away from the church to continue attending.
  6. Became too busy but still wanted to attend.
  7. Didn’t feel connected to the people in my church.
  8. Disagreed with the church’s stance of political or social issues.
  9. Chose to spend more time with friends outside the church.
  10. Was only going to church to please others.

Part two of the book is actually the more helpful part of what the Rainers write. When you read the book don’t skip the foundational material of part one, but for the book to be useful, you’ll want to get to part two as quickly as possible. In part two we find the positive side of the message—even though young adults are leaving the church in record numbers, they tide can be turned. And it is, the authors argue, in essential churches. What makes an essential church? According to the book, an essential church is one that:

  • Simplifies: Getting the Structure Right
  • Deepens: Getting the Content Right
  • Expects: Getting the Attitude Right, and
  • Multiplies: Getting the Action Right

There are two cautions that I would place when reading this book. The first is mine alone: Beware the temptation to approach the material with an attitude of “churchiolatry.” While reading the concerns about the exodus of young adults from the church it is easy to begin thinking that the church is the most important thing. Understanding that scripture dictates the importance of gathering with fellow Christ followers, and understanding also the gravity of the fact that Jesus himself created the church for believers, it is easy to make the creation more important than the Creator—especially when we know (or at least think we know) the best way to express church.

The second caution is one that the authors themselves render when offering the suggested answers to what an essential church is and how you can lead your church to be one, and I concur: Beware of the temptation to use the material in part two of the book to create a “cookie cutter” church. All churches have their own personality, so apply the information according to your situation. All churches are also found in unique situations, so approach the process of becoming essential with your location in mind.

The book itself presents some valuable information in a very readable manner. If you can overlook the overuse of the word plethora (I’m reminded of a certain scene in The Three Amigos), you will be able to use this resource toward turning your church into a God-honoring Essential Church in your community. Wade through the stats and dine on the meat in part two. You will be inspired and challenged. I give Essential Church? three and one-half out of five reading glasses.

—Benjamin Potter, October 21, 2008

[I will give a copy of Essential Church? to the first reader to correctly answer the following question in the comments section of this post:

In the second part of Essential Church? the authors use one word rather extensively. I mention a movie in which this word is an interesting joke. What is the villain's name who uses the word and the important question that he asks?]


Taran said...

Let me give it a shot.

The malevolent El Guapo is the speaker and the important question is "Would you say I have a plethora of pinatas?"

Benjie said...

Alas, my questions are too easy. If you'll contact me at


with your mailing address, I'll get the book out to you in two business days.

BTW, the follow-up to the above question is, "Do you know what a plethora is?"

DebD said...

Coming over from Semicolon's Saturday Review of Books.

I'm such a dork, I never saw The Three Amigos - although my husband has.

I am a bit troubled by the phrase "essential church". Are the authors implying that the only church's that are "essential" are those that include members in the 18-22 age range? This is strange to me. But, I will readily admit that I am suspicious of Christian books that rely on statistics to make a point w/out much study of historical church.

I guess I am somewhat less troubled by the loss of that age group. To me it seems somewhat natural for many of the reason the books states (moving away, out of touch, lack of time, etc. etc.)...what would be far more interesting is what % of those come back when their life settles down a bit.

Carrie said...

I really, really appreciated the fact that:

a.) You read this book; and
b.) You offered cautions to it.

MY concern with the "essential" church these days is that it seems to be ditching the essentials (Jesus Christ and scriptures) in favor of programs to fit the mold of what modern day Christians think the church should be like. I'd be really curious to know if the authors of this book address taht or if this is a book that focuses on statistics, primarily. I couldn't tell from your review whether or not they came to any conclusions or were just trying to bolster individual church statistics.


I think I'd LIKE to read it but am curious to know where scripture falls on their radar screen.

Benjie said...

Thanks for stopping by. As to your concerns, the idea of essential church is that people will continue to be active if they see the church as essential in their lives. The focus on the 18-22 age group is because in modern America it is this age group that is finding less and less about the church to be essential. In other words, church is okay, but it's just another thing.

The concern goes deeper when we realize that, while historically this group did just what you assume--come back when life settles down a bit, this group is staying away because they don't see church as important (read that, "essential").

I guess you might say that an "essential church" is one that not only includes the young adult age group, but one in which everybody in the church (from the ancient to the infant) finds church to be such a meaningful part of their lives that they wouldn't feel complete if they stayed away even for one week.

Thanks again for reading. I'd encourage you to not let statistics disuade you from reading a book, but beware also of what the interpreters say that those stats mean--you can say anything you want by crunching the numbers the way that you want.


Benjie said...


Thanks for stopping by. I think you'll find that the inclusion of the second part of the book (with practical suggestions in response to the apparent exodus of young adults) addresses just the questions that you have. While I've not met the authors personally, I am familiar with their approach to church and would expect them both to have scriptural foundation for everything that they do in regards to church.

Their own caution not to apply the suggestions as a "cookie cutter" approach to creating a healthy church suggests to me that they are not looking for a quick fix to the problem, but one that would be Christ-honoring.

Great thoughts; stop by any time.

Carrie said...

Ok! Thanks for the response. I think I would be curious to read it. I went ahead and linked up your review over at my blog becaus I do find the book to be very curious (and again, I appreciated the way you presented it).

DebD said...

Thanks for clearing that up... I'm less troubled by that explanation.

William Wilson said...


I have read the book and your first impressions are right. This book is "essentially flawed." One of the most troubling statements in the book comes from the words of one of the "drop outs." The person left a "non-essential church" and 15 years later joined an "essential" one. The problem with the research is validity. Was this young church dropout truly a follower of Christ to begin with? I would venture to say that possibly many of the "dropouts" were kids that prayed a prayer sometime, but in reality experienced no genuine conversion. However, we can't know that, because the Rainers do not address that at all. In fact, I read nothing in the book about these so called non-essential churches. What about talking to the pastors of those churches? Instead, we take the words from a "follower" of Jesus who has not been in church for 10 to 15 years. There is also a biblically flawed interpretation of the fellowship of the brethren. I am debating writing a book addressing the serious issues, the mindset, and unbiblical principles found in this book. No, I am only 35 years old, and not opposed at all to methods that confront our culture. However, this book seems to encourage people finding a church for all the wrong reasons. In fact, it encourages people to leave "non-essential" churches in order to have "friends." I am deeply concerned about where Christendom is heading.

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