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The Five Star Church

By Stan Toler and Alan Nelson
A Review By Greg Gilbert

Toler, Stan and Alan Nelson, The Five Star Church, (Regal: 1999). 

I recently attended a leadership conference organized by a group of churches known as PDI Ministries.  The setting for the conference was a hotel in Maryland, a nice and cozy place with ample space for meeting with friends, talking about ministry, and catching up with old acquaintances.  My church’s staff had been invited to the conference by PDI’s leader, C.J. Mahaney.  If you know the name, you just smiled.  I know—you just can’t help it.  C.J. is one of those rare breed of men that epitomize the love and discipline that mark the Christian life.  In fact, I can say that my only regret about the time I have spent with him is that it has been so little.  There is much I could say about the church that C.J. leads, but in the course of reviewing Stan Toler and Alan Nelson’s The Five-Star Church, I want to point out just one aspect of their ministry:  PDI Ministries majors in excellence.  The church’s commitment to quality was evident from the moment we arrived at the conference.  Everything was professionally designed and professionally presented.  At the registration desk, we were all handed a glossy black box, stamped in gold foil with PDI’s logo.  Inside was a free copy of their latest worship CD, a copy of the ministry’s magazine, and a professionally made “back-stage pass” nametag.  When we arrived in our rooms at the hotel, each bed had a gift basket waiting on it, filled with candy and juices, bubble gum and breath mints.  On the first night of the conference, we were invited to a reception in C.J.’s room.  When we arrived, we were greeted by a fantastic spread of cold-cuts, fruits, crackers, breads, and beverages.  Now, if you ask any PDI leader about these parts of their ministry, I am sure the response would be that these little extras are absolutely negligible compared with the greater works of preaching the gospel and edifying the body of Christ.  I would agree with them.  I point it out, though, to say that I am not sure I have ever felt quite so loved and appreciated at a conference before.  The little extras of gift baskets, fruits, and glossy boxes made such an impression that, well, here I am writing about them more than a year later.  That idea is what Stan Toler and Alan Nelson want to communicate in their book The Five-Star Church:  in everything, a local church should strive for excellence.

                I have heard the idea before, but Toler and Nelson have an interesting way of presenting it.  The book is based around a narrative of a pastor and church staff member meeting with the general manager of a five-star hotel in order to determine how they can improve the overall quality of their church.  Toler and Nelson argue that the church is in the business of attracting people to itself, much like a hotel is in the same business.  The greater the quality of care the church can provide, the greater the number of people who will take advantage of what it has to offer.  The authors adapt fourteen principles from W. Edwards Deming, “probably the best-known early developer of incorporating excellence,” (34).  From there, the argument is that developing excellence in the church is a continuous process requiring training of leadership, working as a team, open communication, encouragement of new ideas and ideas for improvement, and constant evaluation and re-evaluation of the church’s ministries with the goal of making them progressively more excellent. 

                Throughout the book, Toler and Nelson use the language of “customer satisfaction.”  People who visit a church are customers, and the church’s job is to present their product to the customer in the most attractive way possible.  “We are vendors of spiritual growth opportunities,” they write, “like it or not,” (28).  I have to say that I am not fond of that kind of language.  I wonder if it is really the best way to describe what is happening in a person’s life, since it makes the assumption that human beings are perfectly able, after weighing all the options, to decide whether or not the Christian life is worth their investment, much like a customer weighs all the options and then decides to buy a car.  If we look at the Bible, though, that is really not the picture we see there at all.  The Bible doesn’t present human beings as customers who are able to weigh the gospel’s benefits and decide if they want to invest.  No, the Bible presents human beings as dead in their trespasses and sins (Eph 2:1), wholly without ability to obey God or to choose to follow Christ, and completely dependent upon God to save them from their self-made disaster.  My concern is that by thinking of non-Christians as “customers” rather than as sinners in need of a miracle of God’s grace, we could cultivate in our minds the false idea that people will be saved because our children’s program is a little more stream-lined or our bathrooms are a little cleaner.  Ultimately, it is important to remember that people are in no position to bargain or to do business with God.  If a person is to be saved, it will not ultimately be because of any program that we devise; it will be because of God’s grace.  And if he is not saved, it will not be because he found our church wanting in quality, but because in his own sin, he turned away from the Savior.

                All that said, I understand the point that Toler and Nelson are making, and so long as we keep the right perspective, I think churches should strive for quality and excellence in all they do.  I believe that regular meetings to cast vision and review the ministries of the church with an eye to improvement are necessary if the church is to be what God calls her to be.  There are several good ideas along these lines in the book.  Let me just point out a few of them.  Toler and Nelson call for the leadership in the church to hold what they call “postmortems,” meetings after an event to talk about how the event progressed and make notes about how it could be improved in the future.  “Weekly discussion on ‘How did it go?’ will become the norm,” one character says.  “Part of putting together an even is not just planning beforehand.  Discussing how it went is just as valuable as planning how to do it.  From now on, after an event is finished and memories are fresh, we should garner feedback.  We should ask questions:  What should we do differently next time?  How can we improve? Do we want to do this again?” (37)  Our church in Washington, DC does this.  Every Sunday night after the evening service, a group of us (pastor, staff, and other leaders in the church) meet to review each component of the day, asking exactly the kinds of questions that Toler and Nelson here recommend.  Another point that the authors make is that sometimes good stewardship means spending that extra little bit of money to make someone feel well cared-for.  “One of the biggest mistakes I see churches make,” says one, “is that they confuse stewardship with cheapness.  Often the two are opposites,” (38)  The authors explain:  “The temptation is to find the cheapest provider, the least expensive furnishings, the lowest bidder for the service—thinking this is good stewardship! . . .  Sometimes the cheapest way to go is the worst stewardship,” (46).  This is exactly what the people at the PDI conference understood.  I’m sure those glossy boxes and the cold-cuts spread and gift baskets cost several extra dollars, but the effect was to make us feel incredibly loved—not to mention that I am looking eagerly forward to attending another PDI event!  This sentence sums it up well:  “Never be cheap in giving thanks; it’s theologically and organizationally sound,” (47).  Good point.  Finally, I think the authors make a useful point on page 199:


When we compromise the quality of a ministry for the sake of an individual member, we lower it.  Allowing Jane to sing a solo because she’s done it for years even though she’s not a very strong singer subjects a large group of people to mediocrity.  You can help Jane find a place to use her gifts where they will be enhanced, such as an ensemble or choir that matches her ability level.


I agree.

                Let me end with just one more caution that I hinted at above.  If we become convinced that people are “customers” who are checking out our “service,” the tendency can very easily be to focus on those things that are important to them rather than on those that are important to God.  In other words, there will be a tendency to treat secondary (or even tertiary) issues as the primary ones.  As good as quality and excellence in a church are, and as careful as we should be to cultivate them, our energy and attention as church leaders must always go to those things that are primary in the mind of God.  And what are those?  The faithful preaching of His Word, the administration of His ordinances, and the spiritual care of His people.  So far as the pastor keeps those issues at the front of his mind, Toler and Nelson’s book can be very useful. I can honestly say that I was challenged by it in several ways and learned much about ways that churches can improve their operations.  As you read it, though, be careful to remember that these are secondary issues.  Don’t be side-tracked into thinking that a new nursery is going to glut the rolls of heaven.  Always, pastor, your primary task is to preach the Word and to defend your flock.