Real Church: Does it exist? Can I find it? is by Larry Crabb, best-selling author and psychologist, and published by Thomas Nelson.
Before I begin my comments on the book, let me share some introductory remarks. Something I realized as I was reading this book was the importance of context when reviewing a book. I think the job of a book reviewer is to review with an eye towards the author’s own context. If I immediately read my context into the words on the page, I’m doing both the author and readers of my review a disservice. Because the moment I do that, I check out. I read meaning into the text the author never intended and I mislead the readers of my review. Let me give you an example what I mean. As I began reading this book, I was actually disagreeing with almost everything he was saying. I found myself writing incredulous questions and emphatic statements in the margins. “Really, Larry?”, “That’s an arrogant assertion”, etc. I was almost turned off. And the problem was I was imagining the author questioning my church. He has some pretty pointed statements and I immediately read them as zingers directed at a body of people I love. Thankfully, I realized what I was doing and I was able to read and enjoy (even the convicting parts) the rest of the book. Hopefully, the good doctor won’t feel as if I’ve misread him and you, my dear reader, will get a higher quality review. So, without further ado, let the review begin!
Larry Crabb does not want to go to church anymore. He’s bored. He’s uninterested. He sees only a thin veneer of religiosity pretending to be the actual body of Christ. He sees more spiritual growth in his life taking place outside of church than inside. So he sees no point in going. And apparently, he’s not alone. Now, what Dr. Crabb means by “church” is the western, institutionalized versions that dot the corners (or blocks for them mega-churches) of American cities and towns. He is most certainly not talking about the biblically constituted, blood-bought body of Christ. In fact, the book is Dr. Crabb’s attempt to expose the fake “churches” so that “real” ones can stand out.
I have two areas of appreciation that I’d like to highlight and one area of disappointment or concern. First, I really appreciated the thoughtful critiques of the current church movements. The health & wealth gospel is rightly anathematized, but that’s an easy target (so easy, in fact, I’ll move on). His critiques of the missional and what I’d call the “SOP” (Standard Operating Procedure) church movements were worth the read. Since Crabb is a theological conservative, the missional movement’s seeming lack of adherence to absolute truth was a concern. As was the focus on “authenticity”. For Crabb, the authenticity of the missional movement was a faux authenticity. The movement I dubbed “SOP” was also rightly dismissed. The SOP church is probably like most churches you’ve attended. The church you now attend may in fact be an SOP church. This church’s main goal is to help Christians live more morally and help sinners get saved. Crabb’s main beef with this movement of churches is the feeling that there has to be more. Where is the community? Where is the mission to engage the world around us? Too often the change offered is not the deep sort of change that the Gospel seeks to make. The Gospel in these churches is just something that gets us out of hell and nothing more. After we decide to follow Jesus, it’s all about just living morally. But isn’t there more? Crabb thinks so. And he spends the rest of the book laying out what he thinks constitutes the “more.”
The second area of appreciation that I have for the book is in Crabb’s insistence on the need for community. While Crabb is disgruntled with “church”, he speaks glowingly of community. And rightly so. Christians in community (i.e. church) is what Jesus intended when he created the church. Crabb point us to the reality that without community, wrestling with the deep changes that need to take place in our life will never happen. Speaking from experience, he’s right. Only in real community, where the purpose is to get on board with God’s purposes, will real change ever take place. If conformity into the image of Jesus is the goal of the Christian life, it is a goal that cannot be done outside of a community of believers. Or more concisely stated, real change cannot happen outside the church…a real one.
The one thing about the book that bothered me was the tone of the book. Several times, Dr. Crabb mentions that he’s in his sixties. He’s older, he’s lived life. He is full of experience. But that experience came off almost as arrogance. Naming a whole section of the book “Marks of Church I Want To Be Apart Of” smacks of a little arrogance. While I’m not sure that was the intent, continuing to state what kind of church “I” want puts more of the focus on Dr. Crabb’s wants and desires, rather than what Jesus would want. Perhaps, Dr. Crabb would counter that he only wants what Jesus wants. I’m happy to believe that. I believe the points are more than adequately proved from the Scriptures. There just seemed to be an overall tone that conveyed a sense of superiority.
In the end, I give the book 3.5 stars. It was well worth the time I took reading the book. I think there is much helpful stuff in there (including a lot I didn’t touch on in the review). It has made me rethink the why behind the how’s of church. It reaffirmed my love for the local body of which I am so blessed to be a part. It intensified my desire to help create even deeper community within my church so that real change can take place, both in my heart and in the hearts of my friends. If you’re looking for an interesting read on ecclesiology that will challenge you in some ways you might not expect, then I’d recommend Dr. Crabb’s book.
BACK TO POST1 – I am apart of Thomas Nelson’s blogger review program. If you’d like free books in return for reviews, check out BookSneeze.
BACK TO POST2 – I am assuming that we’d all agree that the type of church Jesus wants is plain from Scripture. Dr. Crabb does align himself with Scripture by showing where he gets his ideas from, but a cursory reading could lead the reader to think Dr. Crabb knows what’s best. I fully admit that his could be an unfair reading of the book, but this is what struck me as I was reading.