Book Review: On the Verge

The Good

A book filled with real world examples of people and churches whose faith is not contained and limited by the walls of a church building.

The Bad

A book full of jargon-y terms that, save for a few Bible verses and one feature of its core tenet, could be applicable for any organization.

Recommendation and Rating

If you’re a megachurch pastor whose church has a hard time actively engaging the outside world, then this book might have some value to you. Other than that, I have a hard time recommending this book. 2 stars **

Intro

The megachurch seems to be a uniquely American phenomenon, even though it isn’t. A large building holding a lot of people for a big show seems so appropriate for the country that gave us supersized portions. One of the ongoing challenges for the megachurch is how to disciple the body of believers while provoking them to engage the outside world on Jesus’ mission to seek and save the lost (Luke 17:10). That seems to be the crux of On the Verge, the book by Alan Hirsch and Dave Ferguson. They want the to church be faithful to its call to proclaim Jesus while transforming communities. They present that vision in almost a call-and-answer format, where Alan writes two sections with responses from Jon while Jon writes the other two sections with responses from Alan. Each section of the book has the unique voice of the writer and the response by the other provides useful insight as well.

Content

The book is organized around the ideas of Imagine, Shift, Innovate, and Move. Hirsch writes Imagine, which challenges leaders to think of new things and new ways and then do them.

“Inspired by the Holy spirit, we have to dream up the church we want to worship in — there is no silver bullet, but there is a silver imagination” (Page 72)

He also writes Shift, which introduces the idea of Apostolic Genius “which is the intelligence, the ‘genius’ that is distributed throughout the system that in the New Testament is called ecclesia.” Apostolic Genius has six elements that, when realized, start and maintain movements.

Ferguson writes the Innovate and Move sections, which is appropriate as he leads what some call one of the most innovative churches (Community Christian Church) and church planting networks (NewThing Network) in the country.

All throughout the book are examples of “Verge” churches who have equipped and released their people for ministry outside of the four walls of the church to the great benefit of the community at large.

What is to be commended in this book

The authors clearly intend for this book to spur churches on to engage the world with Jesus and that is to be commended. They rightly center the concept of Apostolic Genius with the truth of “Jesus is Lord” at the center. They also have one of the clearest, most concise definitions of missional living that I’ve read on page 142:

Missional living is really about allowing Jesus to be the Lord of your life and then telling the good news of what Jesus is going in your life.

Missional is such a buzzword right now that almost no one knows what it means. If everyone used the above definition, though, there be a lot less confusion and a lost more movement.

What is problematic with this book

Maybe “mega-” and “multi-” ARE the problem

The authors frequently say something similar to “we are perfectly designed to produce what we are currently producing.” (Page 88) This is meant to remind the reader that continuing to do things the way we’re doing them right now will leave us where we are right now and is typically an indictment of the institutional church. That’s an accurate statement, but the authors never really engage with it. What if the reason that megachurches are having a hard time mobilizing people for mission is because there’s something inherently problematic, and maybe even unbiblical, about them based on their design? Maybe megachurches are perfectly designed to not produce the missionally-engaged disciples whose absence i is causing so many megachurches to change what they’re doing.

I am someone who thinks the Bible is pretty clear about things like church polity, leadership, and the content of worship services. I don’t think the authors think the same thing because they write “As an outworking of the both/and (inclusive) nature of Apostolic Genius, a Verge church will practice church of all sizes (organic/simple, midsized, megachurch, multisite) and will seek to find a way to organize at every level.” (Page 189) I think because of that core difference between us I’ll always have a hard time “getting” a book like this. Maybe the reason that church is so much “harder” for megachurches and multi-sites is that the Holy Spirit is trying to tell us that church should be something different, something small and more dispersed. (Thanks to Thabiti Anyabwile for initiating my thoughts on this idea.)

We need to define our terms

Words like “gospel” and “church” mean something, and I believe they have biblical meanings. The authors don’t dig into either of those, which leaves much up to personal interpretation. Quotes like “We need to ask the question, what is the gospel for this people group?” (Page 72) and “it’s the leader’s job to define ecclesia for the people and organizations they lead” (Page 54) are likely intended to give freedom to leaders to contextualize. What they can do, though, is give people license to change core beliefs and practices under the guise of “being all things to all people” and I believe that has led in large part to where we are now.

Give me the Bible, not a business book

Yes, we can learn things from books outside of the Bible. Yes, the Bible doesn’t have every exact answer to every exact question. Still, there is relatively little Bible quoted in this book. There is, though, loads of business-speak quotes like

  • “We need to recode the organizational paradigm in order to survive” (Page 86)
  • “While fundamental, systemic, and transformative sea change comes from the shifting of the paradigm (activating Apostolic Genius) and through the creation of an ethos consistent with the paradigm” (Page 174)

Reading other quotes like those made me want to synergize my TPS report for laser-targeted, maximum granularity. In all seriousness, though, this book would have benefited from less “technical” language.

Meaningful measures

One of the challenges with churches becoming missional is that it’s pretty hard to measure. Is it the number of widows and orphans served in a month? Is it the number of churches planted? How about the number of conversions? Each of these is important to identify, but not necessarily an indication of whether or not a church is missional. And each of those indicators is something explicitly mentioned in the Bible. What about something like “the lowering of divorce rates in the local community,” which on Page 155 is suggested as a missional measurement for a church. While a laudable goal, I don’t find the lowering of divorce rates anywhere in the Bible as something a church should be measured on. By presenting goals like this as objectives to be pursued, I think this book implies that churches AS CHURCHES should take responsibility for problems that 1) are
not wholly within their ability to remedy and 2) can be remedied without actually making more and deeper disciples of Jesus. I wish there had been more discussion in the book of the difficulty of actually measuring “missional-ness” and maybe some suggestions of less tangible, but equally faithful, ways to measure.

Conclusion

This book might be a wake-up call to the CEO-ish megachurch pastor, but it left me wanting in a number of areas. The lack of theological founding and critical examination of where we’ve been and we are now leaves me wondering if we should want to go where the authors think we should go.