Below is a review of Brad House’s book Community that I wrote a few months back. I have also included a detailed outline of the book’s contents in case you are looking for more substance than my summary provides.
Community: Taking Your Small Group Off Life Support. By Brad House. Good News Publishers. Kindle Edition. 239 p., $8.79.
Brad House, the Community Groups pastor at Mars Hill Church in Seattle, offers the church a helpful manual on how to develop a distinctly Christian understanding of community. House has watched the unprecedented growth of Mars Hill over the years. This growth involved many growing pains, which forced him and the pastoral staff to reevaluate the way they approach “community.” Community: Taking Your Small Group Off Life Support contains the results of Pastor House’s ministry.
House’s desire is that churches will see Community Groups as more than another program. Church leadership must not employ Community Groups in their churches if their only goal is to artificially judge the health of the church by tabulating the number of attendees it attracts. Such an approach will never last. It is short-sighted, and it stands upon a week foundation. Pastor House writes, “I want to bring together theology and ministry philosophy with practical application and strategy that is worked out with effectiveness” (237-8). The book is, accordingly, broken up into three parts.
First, House lays a solid theological foundation for life in community. Without this solid foundation, the church quickly loses sight of the fact that all it does is for the glory of God and for his mission.
Part II moves beyond the theological foundation to assess how the church traditionally implements Community Groups. House suggests that the church must begin anew. Wednesday evening Bible Study wherein the participants hang their heads with shifty eyes trying to not be noticed or engaged will not do. Community Groups must be an expression of Christianity lived together. Each individual will be invested in the mission of God. Conversations with one another will focus on the gospel and how it relates to our day to day live. Hearts will be transformed by the Spirit of God, and will transform the world around them. Community Groups will participate in reaching their neighbors with the gospel through hospitably and through participating in the regular happenings of neighborhood life.
Part III, the final section of the book, provides a look at how to incorporate the concepts presented in the previous two sections into the life of the church. First, pastors, head coaches, coaches, group leaders, and individual believers must all be committed to the gospel that brings confession, repentance, and transformation. Without this element, all else is futile. Second, the pastor(s) must communicate vision and mission to the body at large. This can be accomplished by 7 consecutive 2 hour meetings that focus on truth, repentance, vision, engaging neighborhoods, rhythms as lifestyle, strategy, and implementation.
House’s contributions on Community Groups is invaluable for the church. He has provided churches with a more than adequate theological framework for community. Every believer, especially in an age that is characterized by fragmentation and isolation, must understand that he or she is built for community. The Holy Trinity forever subsists in unbroken fellowship. Each member of the Trinity shares in the being of the other. God created human beings with his image. Relational living, or community, is one expression of that image. Though the image was corrupted in the Fall through the entrance of sin into the world, Jesus Christ has brought reconciliation and restoration to mankind. Men and women can once again enter into a relationship with God and with one another. Solitary living, therefore, is unchristian living.
House also places a premium on “missional” living. Though the terminology might be different, House’s formulation for missional living is strikingly similar with Martin Luther’s understanding of “vocation.” That is to say, each and every believer has a responsibility to live out his or her life in the place where God has called him to the glory of God. This includes imaging Christ in word and deed to our co-workers, neighbors, and fellow believers. The gospel must be central to the life of the believer. If this is true, then the believer cannot help but have a heart for the spiritually dead around him. He will become all things to all people in order that some might be saved.
Though House’s work has much worthy of commendation, there are a number of assumptions that must be questioned. First, House claims that the head pastor must relinquish control of his flock. He cannot be responsible for overseeing everything that takes place in the church. He cannot know the whole body and tend to their needs. He must raise up capable leaders and trust them to succeed. Anything less is arrogance rooted in the attitude, “If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.” While House offers much sound wisdom here, the structural outworking of his model is liable to fall prey to the cult of personality, hierarchism, and empire building. Consider the following: Mars Hill Church is essentially a conglomerate of churches. Pastor Mark Driscoll is the “Senior Pastor.” Driscoll is the teaching pastor and the vision caster for all campuses under the banner “Mars Hill.” Each “campus” is led by a “Campus Pastor.” The Campus Pastor provides the framework for Sunday morning services. He introduces the service, offers prayers when appropriate, and dismisses the congregation. But he does not share in the role of teaching for the church. Teaching is piped in via video feed from the “main campus.” This structure is the basis for Community Groups. Though the Senior Pastor has “relinquished control” in order to “raise up leaders,” it seems as if he has forsaken his pastoral responsibilities in favor of a larger and more efficiently run organization.
Community Groups, as envisioned by Pastor House, tend towards isolationism. This critique might seem far afield, considering the fact that he exhorts us towards “community.” Yet, when the church is structured around Community Groups, all activities in the church are tailored for Community Groups, and the church expects the Community Groups to be self-sufficient in terms of ministry and fellowship opportunities, then a disconnect is created between the Community Group (a small expression of the church body, as House describes it) and the larger church body. If the Community Group functions as designed, then each individual gets to know 10 other people in the church body well, but has no contact with anyone else within the church. I believe that this tendency can be guarded against, but such measures would require other “opportunities” for participation within the larger church body.
- Foreword: Written By Mark Driscoll
- Mars Hill grew quickly but with very little direction..
- Structured Community Groups (CG hereafter) added depth and discipline.
- Every senior pastor should read this book, and implement its concepts.
- Diagnosis: An Introduction
- Modern Day
- Community is hemorrhaging; attention spans last as long as a YouTube clip.
- CGs are the solution.
- The solution is not changing the name of existing groups, requiring attendance for membership, or using them as an adrenaline boost.
- The solution is changing the nature of CGs as a gospel centered, life transforming, and spirit world engaging experience.
- Defining Terms
- Community Group is a smaller gathering of the church body.
- Church is a community of God’s people gathered together for his mission.
- Mission is the proclamation of God’s gospel for his glory in order to gather his sheep.
- Health Plan: The Methodological Approach Of This Book
- Thesis: “I want to bring together theology and ministry philosophy with practical application and strategy that is worked out with effectiveness” (237-8).
- The Foundation (Part I): This section lays a firm theological foundation tethering the purpose and mission of the church with the CG while exposing faulty assumptions about CGs.
- Healthy Plan (Part II): What should a healthy CG look like?
- Treatment (Part III): How do we put it all together?
- Modern Day
- Part One: The Foundation: Building Blocks For Life
- Image (Chapter 1)
- The image of God includes the ability and necessity of relations with God and min.
- Sin has corrupted this image, and has broken our relationships with God and one another.
- God has restored relationships through Christ’s death and resurrection.
- Community is a means by which we glorify God inspired by his glory and empowered by his grace.
- Community is not optional; it is a response to reconciliation brought about through the cross.
- Body (Chapter 2)
- Church is the primary means God uses to accomplish the purposes of his kingdom and mission.
- Discipleship is the means by which the church enables and mobilizes individuals within the church.
- CGs provide pastoral oversight, close quarters discipleship, and the ability to life out the gospel together.
- CGs are not about numbers. They are about engaging in the mission of the church.
- Ownership (Chapter 3)
- Normal church goers have borrowed faith: they do not participate, know tenants of faith, or have convictions. They believe as their pastor believes.
- God’s mission is to call people to worship and exalt the Son through the work of the Holy Spirit. God is the sending agent and the church is the active outworking of the mission (66).
- The definition of missional is to participate in the mission of God as a response to the gospel through proclamation and practice (67).
- All church members must become owners in the mission of the church.
- We treat a rental different than we do our own property.
- Agreement is not synonymous with ownership.
- Inspiring ownership relies on the glory and grace of God and acts obediently out of love.
- Ownership requires profit sharing. Enable CG leaders to succeed
- Image (Chapter 1)
- Part Two: Health Plan
- Pragmatism must not dictate the way we define our CGs and how they function.
- CGs founded on conviction of the gospel and dependence on the Holy Spirit.
- Community (Chapter 4)
- We must scrap our conceptions about CGs and cast new vision with solid foundation.
- A disciple of Christ possesses the image of God, finds identity in Christ, worships God, and exists in community serving the mission of God. These elements are the foundation for Christ centered relationships.
- Community, a smaller expression of the local body, is characterized by bible study, confession and repentance, worship, prayer, hospitality, and the exercise of spiritual gifts.
- Neighborhood (Chapter 5)
- The church’s responsibility is to embody and saturate the city with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
- The church accomplishes this by contextualizing the gospel, neither diminishing nor diluting it.
- Stability is a thing of the past. Transience characterizes the age. People find belongedness in neighborhoods.
- Focusing on “neighborhoods” allows the church to segment the vision into manageable chunks.
- We must be cognizant of size. Fewer groups make geographical segmenting less feasible.
- Groups can be arranged by life stages or common interests: each has its pros and cons.
- Spaces (Chapter 6)
- CGs must be trained to be involved in God’s mission by engaging culture.
- We must all become missiologists by observing culture to identify non gospel comprising and gospel compromising elements, accepting the former and rejecting the later.
- CGs are the medium by which fellowship, hospitality, service, and participation take place (Acts 2).
- Fellowship is the time when bible study, confession, and repentance take place.
- Hospitality takes place when believers invite both believers and non-believers into their life.
- Service involves engagement in our local communities as well as meeting its practical needs.
- Participation means that we get involved in existing events or happenings instead of creating.
- Rhythms (Chapter 7)
- Getting into a rhythm in line with our theological foundation is important for CGs.
- We should engender a culture of opportunity. Find ways to “live” together.
- Time restraints is not the issue, interest is. Bring the gospel to sporting events, pubs, yards, etc.
- An example of rhythm:
- Sunday mornings the CG sits together and worships together.
- Tuesday evenings the CG gathers for fellowship.
- Every other Tuesday the CG has a standing reservation at a restaurant and invites outsiders.
- Every other Saturday CG leaders hosts a cinnamon roll and coffee event to the neighborhood.
- Structure (Chapter 8)
- Systems without structure will break down (principle of entropy or unattended garden).
- The head must relinquish control. He must raise up leaders, give them responsibilities, and lead from the edge.
- Capacity of community pastor, head coaches, coaches, and group leaders:
- Community Pastor (100-4000)
- Head Coaches (80-500)
- Coaches (40-100)
- Group Leader (10-20)
- Leaders are expected engender the characteristics of a shepherd, missiologist, and administrator.
- Leaders should have the following elements: calling, competence, and character.
- Leaders are trained through mentoring, monthly “syncs,” and classroom or independent studies.
- Part Three: Treatment
- Repentance (Chapter 9)
- We must not allow apathy, indifference, or fear of man to keep us from the mission of God.
- We must not accept the grace of God with prejudice.
- We must repent and allow the Spirit to transform our hearts.
- Boot Camp (Chapter 10)
- Boot camp consists of 7 consecutive 2 hour meetings.
- The 7 sessions: Truth (God as sender), repentance, vision, engaging neighborhoods, rhythms as lifestyle, strategy (building with intentionality), and celebration (putting it into action).
- Boot camp is to be characterized by worship, teaching, neighborhood focus, and homework.
- History of Mars Hill (Chapter 11)
- Though Mars Hill grew quickly, many major overhauls were needed throughout the years.
- It is better to adopt a structure that is capable of growth, than to adjust later.
- Repentance (Chapter 9)
 I am using Richard Baxter’s The Reformed Pastor as a model of what a pastor should look like. Too often we read Baxter’s work and think of his exhortation to pastors as a “pie in the sky” approach to ministry. Yet, I remain unconvinced that his convictions are ill founded or impossible.