RIDGECREST — Evangelicals (particularly Southern Baptists) are prone to programs. Good ideas can quickly be systematized and organically become an entire initiative complete with marketing plans, outreach goals and organizational metrics to the point that ministry quickly is subsumed under a cloak of pragmatism. At least that is what Eric Geiger, executive pastor of Christ Fellowship in Miami, Fla., and co-author with Thom Rainer of Simple Church, thinks.
At a pre-session seminar for the Transforming Hearts Conference of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, Geiger made certain that the concept behind the book was not “the launch of another model of doing church.”
Careful with his choice of words, he mentioned two clear movements that greatly impacted evangelicals for the past 20 years — the seeker-sensitive movement and the purpose-driven model. “Simple Church is not a model, it is a research report which provided critical insights into churches, which were vibrant and growing as compared with those who were not,” Geiger said. “When we analyzed exactly what was going on in the day-to-day operations of the church, some obvious trends and components surfaced.”
Geiger, though a pastor, is fascinated with organization and process. With MBA-like precision that could easily be understood in corporate America, he quickly identifies key theological concepts in terms of “a process where people are moved forward to become fully devoted disciples of Jesus Christ.” For Geiger, this process involves core convictions that are, at bottom, very simple.
“This is the heart of what the book (Simple Church) is all about — a simple process that is easy to understand which is embraced by a local congregation,” Geiger said. Most congregations who attempt to simplify, streamline and cut out various programs which clutter the vision of the church “must have the courage to say no to good ideas which would cause that prevailing vision of the church to be laden with actions which will drag it down.”
Since the book was released in 2006, hundreds of churches have used the principles authored by Rainer and Geiger in an effort to restore a cohesive and concise blueprint for ministry.
Geiger himself has been forced to implement many of his own ideas and “make many adjustments in my own church since the book came out.” These “adjustments” have not always been easy. Recently, his own congregation was forced to re-think some issues and possibilities as a result of some budgetary issues and the overall downturn in the economy.
“Miami is like a foreign country,” Geiger stated. “Ministry there is challenging because all the pressures of a large world city come together in a part of the world where the gospel can easily be lost.” The context of ministry is important in his thinking, and it emerged as he presented an epilogue to Simple Church at LifeWay’s Ridgecrest Baptist Conference Center.
“Simply thinking in terms of process is a mammoth shift,” Geiger said, “because we, as pastors, think of programs and purpose. Seldom do we think of the process which is certain to make or break the way our churches help Christians become better disciples of Jesus.” Often, when people attend his seminars or seek him out for a church consultation, “they simply want to re-work an old statement which they hope will solve all their problems.” Geiger admits that those who refuse to “go through the difficult time to assess and evaluate what exactly is wrong and what is already in place which is not conformed to the teaching of the Bible will forfeit any opportunity to do anything but use people to run programs instead of shaping programs around a process which helps people.” This is the critical difference, which church leaders must implement.
Delving deeper into his own understanding of what the Bible requires of disciples, he writes key elements on the whiteboard which focus on spiritual disciplines and ministries in which every genuine believer should be involved. For him, they are all important — none can be omitted. Broadly, the process involves a connection with God, others, ministry and the world.
Each action in the overall process is to be active in the believer’s life in ways that would “deepen their understanding of the Bible and have them out in the world reaching their neighbors and friends in their communities.” The sad fact remains is “that many pastors do not know their own neighbors, but they expect the members of their church to be bold witnesses for Christ.”
Geiger points out that the remedy to such a problem is not to berate the pastors or the congregation who find themselves in this situation. Rather, an examination of the activities of the members of that church will probably reveal that their process of involvement is “weighted too heavily on information and fellowship rather than ministry outside the walls of the church building.”
This inordinate focus can easily re-make the common understanding of Christian discipleship into an informational pursuit rather than a transformational reality. While Geiger is quick to state that “we can never get too much of the Bible’s teaching into our lives, we must work to reach out to others, or we will fall prey to the temptation to become part of the Christian sub-culture.”
He believes this sub-culture to be very dangerous because it “fosters a smug security for us and confines us away from the world which needs Jesus.”
Geiger hopes the widespread interest in Simple Church will lead to a process that creates space for missional living. “Too often our lives are programmed to the hilt and very little time is available to creatively attempt to do anything outside of our comfort zone,” Geiger said. “To do so would be only to add something else to our already long list of responsibilities.” Yet, to simplify the actions of life, Geiger believes “many things must stop so that better things can be put in place.”
It is obvious he thinks space in the daily routine of life is a rare commodity. For him as a pastor it is seen most clearly when attempts are made by churches to reproduce themselves through a multi-site venue. “You cannot reproduce what is not simple and retain the same DNA of your church,” he said. “To successfully reproduce you must have clear processes in place which weight the activities of each disciple toward a careful balance of worship, witness and work before the world.” Without a single process guiding a church’s overall discipleship strategy, the entire effort can quickly become encumbered with needless activities that “can become ends unto themselves which will then spell death to a vibrant congregation.”
As a theologian, pastor and strategist, Geiger moves from the whole to the parts to the whole very easily. He is quick to criticize processes, which are fraught with danger even in the Southern Baptist Convention. He is a student of the para-church movement and admires the ability to conjoin people and purpose together in an overall process, which unites around a common mission.
“Most churches unify around doctrine which is essential for any forward movement at all as a church,” Geiger said. “What is difficult for a local church to do is to have both doctrine and mission unified so that the energies of the para-church can be centered in a local church ministry.” Ultimately, the church’s mission is assigned to her “by the Lord Jesus Christ,” he said. “To fail to courageously remove, reduce or reassign faulty processes is a failure to obey the commission which Jesus gave to the church to go and make disciples.” In this manner, ministry will once again become a matter of “simple obedience to Jesus.”