This book is a collaboration between three individuals, one of which sadly passed away in an accident in the final stages of the book. It is evident that these three men all have a passion for reaching the lost. Together they formed a consulting service called the Transforming Congregations Network (TCN) with the desire to “transform” and “revitalize” congregations in such a way that everything congregations and pastors do—from weekly worship to congregational events, daily life, preaching and teaching—is centered on reaching out to the lost (unbelievers). The foundation of their efforts is clearly laid out from the beginning. Namely, after their research with some 1,000 congregations, “based on extensive research and proven results with real people and real situations,” they offer “a principle-centered approach that focuses on proven best practices” that “must be contextualized” to each congregation’s unique setting, all in an effort to enable congregations “to open doors to their community with the Gospel of Jesus Christ” (11). As such, various “metrics” are set forth in combination with these best practices that together are upheld as the standard and evaluation of a congregation’s “successfulness.”
The authors should be commended for not simply lamenting the decline of the church in our time, but proposing a remedy. However, this begs the question: are churches truly not bringing the Good News of Jesus Christ to the lost? Though this can certainly be debated, their contention is that this is indeed the problem. The authors speak from a particular denominational affiliation, the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS), a conservative and confessional Lutheran church body known for its rich Reformation theology and robust Gospel proclamation. Unfortunately, recognition and integration of this rich theological tradition within the book appears anemic at best, if not altogether absent. More on that later.
In short, the authors note a decline of the church with many congregations closing at an “alarming rate.” This, of course, is a current reality not unique to their LCMS church body; it is generally acknowledged across all denominational lines of North America. At the same time, they also say churches are figuratively closing their doors by being too inward focused and failing to bring people from the outside (unbelievers) in to their churches.
What they propose as a solution is an alternative paradigm for being the church and organizing the church. Based on their research and analysis they have created metrics and tools for congregations to implement specific “hinges” that will make them more able and more willing to reach out to the surrounding community of unbelievers and thus be properly focused on “Christ’s Great Commission to reach those outside the church” (22). As I have noted elsewhere in my Great Commission, Great Confusion, or Great Confession: The Mission of the Holy Christian Church (Wipf & Stock, 2012), the emphasis upon the “Great Commission” as a mantra for the mission of the church is part of a more recent obsession over the last fifty years to demonstrate that the church has a clear mandate to be “missional” in nature and function. This has spawned a number of related but consecutive outreach movements—Church Growth, Emergent/Emerging Church, Missional, Contextualization—where each movement is really just a variation or perceived correction on the same theme of the original Church Growth Movement.
Even so, the authors look to add their paradigm of “hinges” and “metrics” to the mix: “We have sought to know the key characteristics of churches that effectively empower church members to engage their communities with the Gospel. In other words, our research has focused on identifying the key factors, what we call Hinges, that shifted inwardly-focused congregations into churches that opened their doors to the community” (25). These “hinges” are identified and put into two “factors” categories—those of the pastor and those of the congregation. Four hinges pertain to the pastor: 1) Empowering God’s People, 2) Personal Leadership, 3) Visionary Leadership, and 4) Bridge-Building Leadership. Another four are identified for the congregation: 5) Community Outreach, 6) Focused Prayer, 7) Functional Board, and 8) Inspiring Worship.
Assurances are given about how their research and metrics prove the effectiveness of these “hinges” for the greatest missional “impact” on the community: “The sophisticated processes that we have used have been guided by experts in this kind of statistical analysis. The results of the research conclusively indicate that there are eight behavioral drivers that will transform a plateaued or dying inwardly-focused church” (26). However, such assurances of transformation and growth mirrors the claims that first began the movement among evangelicals to commandeer the “Great Commission” as the official motto of the church some fifty years ago. Consider the promises of the “homogenous unit principle” of Donald MacGavran’s Understanding Church Growth (Eerdmans, 1970; 1980; 1990); Bill Hybel’s Becoming a Contagious Christian (Zondervan, 1994) and his noted “fifteen characteristics you’ll find in evangelistically effective churches” (200); or Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Church (Zondervan, 1995) that promises “a Great Commitment to the Great Commandment and the Great Commission will grow a great church” (103).
However, reservations and concerns over such confident assertions and approaches have become louder and louder. Among the many voices, consider evangelical Sky Jethani’s recent book Immeasurable: Reflections on the Soul of Ministry in the Age of Church Inc. (Moody Publishers, 2017), which expresses concern with what he calls “the idol of effectiveness.” He observes that the “Idol of Effectiveness has power because it causes us to look at the wrong fruit. We become enamored by relevance, power, impact, and how much we have changed the world. While all of those things are measures of effectiveness, none of them are a measure of faithfulness” (25). One wonders if faithfulness would be a plausible “hinge” for the church in this paradigm? What is more, even the secular world is now observing the danger of becoming too fascinated with metrics. In his just released book, The Tyranny of Metrics (Princeton University Press, 2018), Jerry Z. Muller brings to light what he calls a “metric fixation” (17) and the many ways in which numerical and statistical evaluations result in deleterious performance in our schools, our universities, our hospitals, our military, and our businesses. Other voices include Denny Spitters and Matthew Ellison in their recent book, When Everything is Missions (Pioneers, 2017), which calls the evangelical church to serious self-examination. They pose many thoughtful questions about the claims that “everyone is a missionary” and everything the church does is missions. They remind the evangelical church there is more to the life of a Christian than evangelism. “A life of repentance is central and vital to living the gospel each day of our lives. Our hearts and minds need cleansing and renewal for our understanding of the Great Commission to be brought to its rightful place. To think about missions well, we must embrace the illuminating wisdom of God’s word as our guide, submitting other books and teachings to be held accountable to the missiological guidance of the Bible” (114).
Suffice it to say, these books reflect the significant concerns this reviewer has about Hinges. In the zeal to reorient the church to what is deemed as the sole mission of the church (reaching out to unbelievers), damaging consequences result from this paradigm and others like it. They include marginalizing the needs of faithful members (chief of which is the forgiveness of sins), reducing the church to a humanly created enterprise subject to the whims of metrics experts, and in the case of this book, negating the rich theological foundation that lies at the core of the authors’ own tradition. This criticism is by no means meant to denigrate the absolute importance and intentional effort that should be given to being a witness of Jesus Christ to all unbelievers, as well as regularly praying for them. Rather this is simply urging extreme caution when considering this paradigm because of the damaging consequences that are inflicted upon the church through it. Again, more about that in a moment.
Before those specific concerns are unpacked, a couple of potential strengths are worth noting. The discussion about empowering God’s people is helpful, though ultimately misguided when it comes to the implicit theology undergirding for it. The authors clearly indicate what they mean about empowering people: “When we say empower God’s people we are referring to equipping people for works of service” (41). This has the potential to be a wonderful emphasis. However, this equipping is routinely unpacked and framed within the organizational life of the church, and for the specific and seemingly sole purpose of reaching out to the unchurched or lost. A tremendous opportunity is missed here. The rich Reformation theology of vocation (a vibrant part of the authors’ noted theological tradition) is never once mentioned. It would have been a great way to affirm the everyday life of God’s people in the midst of their daily God created vocations, and therein equip them to naturally and readily give witness within those daily vocations. Instead, the opportunity to affirm the First Article gift of daily vocations was replaced by the laborious organizational work of the numerous possible outreach events that they suggest a congregation should put on. The message is that the only service of value by God’s people is that which has a “missional impact” on the community.
This message, however, overlooks and marginalizes the many important vocations every member of the church already possesses (family member, worker, congregation member, and citizen, as well as community member). What is more, one could venture to guess that the authors would never tell their adolescent children or grandchildren that they were going to leave or abandon them for the children of the community. Yet, in effect, that’s what they are suggesting the church and her pastors should do for the sake of unbelievers. For a tradition that cherishes the importance and central role of the forgiveness of sins in the daily life of every believer, there is little evidence of its role in this paradigm.
Other potential highlights are their discussions of congregational governance board and leadership woes, along with the organizational dysfunction that often immobilizes congregational boards, as well as the importance of pastoral leadership. Chapters five, six, and nine discuss these issues respectively, though significant theological shortcomings are present in those discussions. Yet, in terms of positive contributions, the authors address the importance for pastors to continue learning, maintain healthy spiritual disciplines, and keep good personal health. They also bring out the legitimate point that pastors need to be familiar with leading the church forward as the local organization it is, preferably with a good sense and vision for what the congregation needs to be doing at the organizational level.
Likewise, the authors also address the unhealthy and often unspoken assumptions that congregations have about their pastors and note how numerous congregational boards are unnecessarily charged with micro-managing the details of the staff and ministry in a way that limits the board being able to see the broader picture and free pastors to do the work they are called to do. As such, the discussions of congregational governance possibilities and solutions that can free the pastors for their work are helpful, though what the authors of this book limit that work to include (primarily only those things related to evangelism and outreach, with tasks like hospital visitation and pastoral care of souls being delegated to members) creates extreme disagreement for this reviewer.
Finally, one last positive contribution is their treatment of the life cycles of congregations. Though one may disagree with some of the details of the life cycle, the general principle of life cycles and the diagrams showing them (86-87) are helpful for thinking strategically about ministry at a congregation.
Now on to a collegial discussion of the remaining specific concerns about the book and the overall shortcomings of the Hinges paradigm. To begin, perhaps it would help to apply the metrics of a confessional Lutheran theological analysis to a paradigm that claims to originate within the tradition of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. For example, how many times does this paradigm explicitly or implicitly draw upon the practical truths and theological principles as understood in the Lutheran Confessions? What research was conducted to contextualize the Hinges paradigm to orthodox Lutheran theology? What theological best practice was employed to create this approach to ministry? Would it be fair to say that such a paradigm doesn’t fit within a theological tradition if those questions were all negatively answered? Or would it be said that for the sake of the lost (unbelievers) churches must be willing to sacrifice their theological heritage? If so, why?
Confessional Lutherans have a specific means to define the church and its mission. Lutherans hold that the forgiveness of sins earned by Christ for the justification of the sinner (AC IV), stand at the center of the mission of the church. And the marks of the church are identifiable when the Word of God (both law and gospel) is preached in its truth and purity and the sacraments are administered faithfully for the forgiveness of sins and the strengthening of faith (AC V). This confession takes seriously the relentless effects of sin upon every soul and recognizes the constant need for all people to regularly receive the cleansing grace and forgiveness of God in Christ Jesus.
The Hinges paradigm reorients not only the definition of the church, but also the marks of the church. Rather than the church being “the assembly of saints in which the gospel is taught purely and the sacraments are administered rightly” (AC VII), where both members and outsiders alike could come to receive the means of grace, this paradigm organizes the local congregation entirely around the law. In the well-meaning but misguided effort to get inward churches to begin looking outward, the material principle of the Gospel (the shed blood of Jesus for the forgiveness of sins) is replaced by the Great Commission (Go! Evangelize, serve, and do whatever it takes to win the lost.) In essence, the law now becomes the organizing principle of the church. Here the marks of the church (Word and Sacrament) are likewise traded for the pragmatism of best practices and metrics of missional impact.
This paradigm is one of many in the recent past that seek to reorient the Church, but which are all ultimately rooted in the law. Most certainly, the church should go about compassionately showing mercy, happily serving others, and vigorously giving witness to unbelievers. But from a confessional Lutheran perspective this is not the organizing material principle of the church. This corrective to inward-focused churches that the authors desire to provide is certainly understandable and commendable, but the remedy they propose breathes in a foreign theology that muddles the Gospel, marginalizes the work of faithful pastors and the vocations of members, and reduces the power of God to organizational metrics.
The influence of this foreign theology appears, for example, in the advocacy of “prayer walking” (chapter 10) and “inspiring worship” (chapter 11). To be sure, Christians are free to pray anywhere, and walk anywhere, and even to pray while they walk. But the advent of focused “prayer walking” as a means to increasing the efficacy of prayer and claim a neighborhood for Christ has no biblical precedent or injunction, is of recent origin, demeans other prayers and those who pray elsewhere, and has plenty of unhelpful baggage—see Prayer Walking by Steve Hawthorne and Graham Kendrick (Creation House, 1993). Consider this quote from chapter 10: “All churches pray, but it’s prayer that is focused on the lost and unreached and equipping God’s people to connect with them that really makes a difference (144).” That is not what James 5:16 says actually makes a difference: “The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective” (NIV). Ironically, chapter 10 is the one chapter that does invoke the Lutheran Confessions, specifically Luther’s Small Catechism on the Lord’s Prayer, and does have some edifying things to say about prayer, but ultimately it turns prayer into another spoke in the wheel of the law-oriented paradigm of outreach.
This leads the reader into a chapter 11 that explores the “hinge” of “inspiring worship,” which for better or worse, makes many a confessional Lutheran gnash one’s teeth. True, there is certainly something to be said about insuring worship (the Divine Service) in all aspects is done well, with integrity, clarity, and quality, regardless of what instrumentation a congregation uses. But adding the emotional adjective “inspiring” to worship is dubious business. It once again puts the emphasis upon the law (and the sinful self) and manipulates the worship service to serve the ulterior motive of the organizational vision (the service exists to inspire outreach) rather than the forgiveness of sins earned by Christ. Ironically, in their attempt to articulate this, the authors quote a respected Swedish confessional Lutheran, Bo Giertz, from his 1949 pastoral letter written after being elected Bishop of Gothenberg, which they say embraces the tension between “liturgy” and “awakening,” but where they assert Giertz’s use of “awakening” carries the same meaning as their “inspiring” (165). However, rather than an inspiring and emotional high, Giertz’s use of awakening more likely refers to repentance than anything else. In fact, one could simply read Giertz’s renowned 1941 work, The Hammer of God, to clear up any misunderstanding about how he understood awakening, or even this proposed paradigm for the church. Just consider how he sets up the conversation between the young curate, Pastor Fridfelt, who considered himself a “true believer,” talking to the more mature rector (or senior pastor) about the “revival” or “awakening” movements of their time:
The rector maintained the point of view that the revival movement could well, and with more permanent gain, have stayed in the Church, and defended the place of baptism and confirmation in their relation to such awakenings among people. “Awakened people also have children, and when they are once brought into the world there remains the duty of nurturing them. We have had revivals before in these parts, and always it has gone badly for the children. Either the revival burns out with the older generation, or it becomes necessary to begin to reckon the children as Christians and nurture them with catechism and confirmation and all the churchly ministrations, as the Church has always done”(119; Augsburg, 2005).
In the end, though this book has some helpful things to consider regarding the organizational elements of a congregation and the leadership of pastors, there are too many unhelpful things to be able to commend it to the confessional Lutheran tradition.
Rev. Dr. Lucas V. Woodford
Zion Lutheran Church and School
 For an alternative that looks to prize the rich Reformation theology of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, keep the Gospel at the center, and provide a beginning framework to mobilize the church for intentional witness right where they are at in their daily vocations, you might consider the aforementioned Great Commission, Great Confusion, or Great Confession? The Mission of the Holy Christian Church. My aim in that book is the same as writing this review: to bring more light and less heat on matters central to the life of the church. In our confusing times we need more honest and open dialog through collegial conversation.