‘Imagine with me for a minute … a church … but not your typical church. A church where the main thing is the main thing. A church where people convene primarily in homes and secondarily in public spaces for worship services. A church where the ministry is carried out by ordinary people, and it is the pastor’s hob to identify, deploy, train, and support these ministers. A church that is warm and accepting of both the churched and the unchurched. A church that sees hundreds of converts baptized each year. A church that numbers tens of thousands but convenes in thousands of small groups and scores of small worship centers. A church that has no geographical limits but spreads from house to house, neighborhood to neighbourhood, town to town, county to county, state to state, and country to country. A church that is not just multi-location but also multi-ethnic and multinational.’ (15)
This is the vision of church proposed in Deliberate Simplicity, a book which aims to introduce a ‘different approach to ministry’ (11) to (1) church members (‘the real ministers’); (2) church leaders (‘the administrators’) who are responsible for creating and sustaining the environment for new models of church and (3) the minister who is disillusioned with business as usual and interested in new models of church. Browning contrasts the mega-church model with the ‘Deliberately Simple’ approach. Churches should keep it simple, missional, be real, focus on a cellular structure, they should not work slowly, and they should keep expanding through being reproducible.
This paradigm is centred around less being more, in contrast to the megachurch model. The aim is to go back to meeting in homes, focusing on relationships and loving God and our neighbours, like the first century church did.
1. Minimality – keep it simple
Churches should focus on a few important things and do them well. This does not necessarily mean focusing on excellence (‘Good enough is called good enough because it’s good enough’ 57).
Because of an emphasis on small is good and good enough is good enough, ‘in a Deliberately Simple church, we think big but act small. We keep asking, “What is the simplest thing that could possibly work?” We try to have just enough to facilitate our mission. Just enough money, Just enough time. Just enough leaders. Just enough space. Just enough advertising. We don’t want to stockpile assets. We want to have everything in motion for the kingdom. Often assets do double duty to maximise return on investment.’ (62) ‘It is possible to start a Deliberately Simple church with next to nothing.’ (62) ‘Progress isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It costs us more and it promises more, but it doesn’t always deliver.’ (62)
2. Intentionality – keep it missional
‘Throughout the years, we have found that two kinds of people fit especially well in a Deliberately Simple church: lost people with ruin and wreckage in their lives, and saved people who have a heart to reach out to lost people.’ (78)
Browning critiques the ‘seeker church’ by saying that whereas the seeker church starts with those the church is reaching and building their ministry around their needs, the ‘outreach church’ starts with God, asking questions such as ‘Who is he? What does he want us to know? How much does he love this world? What price is he willing to pay to reach the lost? Then we clear the path to the cross by removing every obstacle that gets in the way of God’s love.’ (82) Two areas where this starting point matters are truth telling and worship. Truth telling, because instead of asking, ‘What do people want to hear?’ one asks, ‘What does God want to say?’ Worship, because in seeker services worship can be minimised but in outreach services worship is viewed as a powerful tool of evangelism.
3. Reality – keep it real
The ‘eleventh commandment’ in Browning’s church is ‘keep it real’. (93) Candour is valued (95-96). Imperfections are accepted (98-100). When imperfect sinners are involved in community it is going to be messy. But to those sinners, ‘We roll out the red carpet. We get on the intercom and say four very important words: “Come as you are.”’ (108) Church is a hospital; everyone can come for healing. Redeemed leaders fuel this ‘environment of grace’. ‘Many of the leaders of our mini-movement have fallen hard along the way. There are former swindlers, murderers, and adulterers among our key leaders.’ (109)
4. Multility – keeping it cellular
Multility is ‘a commitment to multiples of some thing, instead of a larger version of that thing. Multility contends that more is better than bigger. Multility is growth by cell division, the replicating model of organic systems.’ (128)
5. Velocity – keep it moving
In Deliberately Simple churches there is an emphasis on urgency – there is a sense that time is short. ‘People are often aghast at the speed at which we move. There have been several occasions in which we have launched a new worship centre in a community in just a couple weeks. A leader with a passion finds a place to convene some people to worship God, and we say, “Why not?” We know that church planters often have step-by-step process that take months to execute, but we use the “ready, fire, aim” method.’ (164)
6. Scalability – keep it expanding
The church model needs to be transferable (able to be multiplied) (185). These churches are similar to terror cells (he calls them ‘unterror cells’) as they can be reproduced, they have uncomplicated aims, they are trend setters. A strategy for doing this is to focus on multiplying leaders (188-195).
There’s much that I love about this approach. It’s not particularly new – not if you’ve read Organic Church by Neil Cole or David Garrison’s work on church planting movements . The principle of intentionality is one we highlighted in Total Church . So all these principles are important us.
What’s missing is the biblical underpinning. There is some reflection on New Testament practice (though there is just as much reflection on business practice). But no sense of a foundation in biblical theology – no sense of the centrality of community and mission in the Bible story. The result feels like a pragmatic solution – one which might change were the circumstances to change.
I can sympathise with the call to shift the focus from learning all the doctrine to implementing it in lives (42-43). Too often evangelical churches emphasise people being hearers of the word rather than doers of the word. But the call to be ‘doctrinal minimalists’ could too easily create ‘doctrinal reductionists’.
Some of the phrases are annoying – at least to British ears (‘our culture of empowerment makes it possible for dreams to become reality’). I don’t mind people making up words, but why do so when we already have perfectly good words to do the job. Why not ‘multiplicity’?!
Overall, though, lots of good stuff. The six principles would form a great grid through which to evaluate your church.