Stanley, Andy and Ed Young, Can We Do That? (Howard, 2002)
In the summer of 1998, I decided to do an experiment. I was in north Texas preaching a series of revival meetings, as I had been taught to call them, with a team of two other college students. We had Saturdays off, which we usually burned up by going to the nearest shopping center to look around and spend the meager but sufficient stipend we received every week. It occurred to me that in north Texas, the Christian bookstore industry was booming. In every town, there was at least one Baptist Bookstore or Family Christian Bookstore. So I decided to check and see what kinds of books these stores were keeping in stock. When I found a new bookstore, I would go in and ask the person at the desk if they had anything by, oh, Jonathan Edwards. In 9 out of the 10 bookstores I tested, the answer was no; they didnt have anything on the shelves by Edwards. (Incidentally, only one of those had anything by Martin Luther or John Calvin, either.) In one store, I asked the lady at the desk if she had anything there by the good Mr. Edwards, and she looked at me, obviously puzzled. I dont think so, she answered. What station does he preach on? After I stuttered around for a moment trying to give an edifying answer to that one, she ended the conversation (and my hopes) by saying, No, no, we dont have anything by him. . . . But we do have some Benny Hinn over here!
Now what am I saying in all this? What Im saying is that someone has taught the Christians of America that its okay not to think. Someone has convinced them that if youre going to be spiritually matured by a book, it better look good on your living room table. Whether or not theres any careful biblical thought there is beside the point. So long as it has a ribbon tied around it, and is about three inches by three inches square (a gift-book), youre in safe water. I saw the other day that someone has published a new biography of Jabez. A biography. Of Jabez. For crying out loud, we have one verse in the entire Bible about the guy! He doesnt deserve a biography. But thats what sells, isnt it? So who gets blamed for that kind of thing? The author? Certainly in part, but whats more frightening to me is that this author knew that he could make all kinds of money and a name for himself (and perhaps even a $6000-a-head Western Caribbean Life of Jabez cruise someday) because thats what Christians are buying! Who has convinced suburban evangelical Christianity that Luther and Calvin and Edwards and Spurgeon and Bunyan are too hard for them? I saw in another bookstore once a list of books divided into Beginners Reading, Intermediate Reading, and Advanced Reading. You want to know what was on the Advanced Reading list? Rick Warren and Philip Yancey. And I guess Edwards would have been in the Completely-Out-of-Your-League-Dont-Even-Touch-It Reading list. Just to add another layer to this story, the sections on the church arent much better. The next time youre in a popular Christian bookstore, take a look at the church section. More than likely, it will be chock full of books by mega-church pastors telling the world how we did it. Sure, theyll all have flashy covers and really creative typesetting, but very few of them will even approach a careful and thoughtful biblical discussion of what the church is supposed to be. Instead, the pages will be filled with creative ideas to turn your church around!
I am not against pastors sharing ideas with one another about how to make churches better, but I miss profoundly the kind of careful, biblically faithful writing about the church that our forefathers were doing a hundred years ago. (If you want to see that kind of thought, by the way, take a look at Polity: Biblical Arguments for How to Conduct Church Life, edited by Mark Dever, [CCR, 2001]) I do think there are some advantages that pastors can gain from reminding one another to keep the coffee hot, but where is the modern Christian book that spends page after page after page teaching from the pages of the Bible what a church is supposed to do, much less what the church is supposed to be? They are few and scattered far and wide among a really big pile of how-to-do-church manuals.
Andy Stanley and Ed Young have added another of these books to the already groaning shelves. Its called Can We Do That? 24 Innovative practices that will change the way you do church. Again, let me say that I do not think that all these books are full of satanic landmines that are going to destroy the church. (Okay, maybe some of them are, but thats not necessarily characteristic.) There are even a few good ideas in Stanley and Youngs book that Ill point out in a moment. I should note first, though, that the book doesnt take long to read. Its double-spaceda nod, Im sure, to the breath-takingly short attention span of todays average suburban evangelical. And lets be honest right from the startthese ideas are not all that innovative. Heres a list of most of the ideas in this book: Invite people to church, target the unchurched, put your services on the internet, market the gospel. Have a newcomers class, build a creative childrens ministry, understand the unique needs of students, welcome people to your church. Cultivate small groups. When people arent interested in those, have middle-sized groups to move people from large-group to small group, then when people wont go to the middle-sized groups either, have other groups to move people from large group to middle-sized groups. Play sports, be staff-led, tell stories to a postmodern generation, preach relevantly, cast a vision, and for Petes sake, GET CREATIVE!! There is nothing innovative here. I have seen all these twice-baked ideas at least four or five times in other books, and Stanley and Young havent said them any differently or any better than anyone else who has tried to bill them as the best thing since Jesus.
Let me just point out the ideas in the book that I liked. There were a few good ones. For example, chapter 3 is about Stanleys practice of videotaping testimonies of people and playing them before baptisms. That is a good practice, I think, and underscores the importance of baptism to a church. Also, I like Stanleys idea in chapter 8 that childrens ministry is to be a family-centered ministry. It is a good idea, I think, to keep parents involved in their childrens activities, even a church. As an aside, I also like Youngs idea of putting up quiz on the internet for the children about each weeks lesson. If that would encourage the kids to think about the lesson again during the week, then thats a major victory. If the Lord ever leads me to be a youth minister again, I will use that idea. Finally, it is good to see that Stanley and Young both understand that preaching is to be central in the life of the church. You must continually reaffirm your primary calling as a preacher of Gods Word and give it priority. And the leaders of your church must give it the same priority, writes Young, (136). Good advice.
I suppose my most serious concern about this book is that Andy Stanley seems to have some fundamental confusion about the nature of the church. For example, in explaining the importance of inviting people to church, he writes on page 2: Believers are responsible for leveraging their relational influence for the sake of the kingdom of God. Thats the part they can do that wethe churchcant. They, the believerswe, the church. Biblically, though, the believers are the church, and the church is the assembly of believers. Later, on page 77, he explains that he does not require members of his Welcome Teams to be believers. The defense is that for many seekers, community is the door to conversion. That certainly may be, but does that community really have to be found in the group of people who welcomes others to your church meetings? Seems to me youd want the first faces that newcomers see at your church to be genuinely converted Christians who are excited to be serving their Lord! There are other ways to give seekers a community that doesnt put them in a position of representing the church.
Ed Young, for his part, seems to have his mind nailed down a bit more tightly on this. He understands the importance of membership, writing on page 36: Imagine walking up to a professional hockey player and asking him a question: What team do you play for? Now suppose he answers, Im a professional hockey player, but I dont play for any team. You would think the guy had been slammed into the boards once too often. That is a good image of the absurdity of claiming to be a Christian but without any commitment to a local church.
At the end of the day, you dont need to spend time reading this book. There are three or four good ideas in the book, but Ive described those above, and you shouldnt think youre going to get much more useful detail about those by reading more. Redeem your timego buy some Edwards.