Churches that Make a Difference is an encouragement for church leaders to embrace and implement “holistic ministry.” By this the authors mean a ministry that is strong in both evangelism and social outreach (although they emphasize social outreach as a reaction to the early twenty-first century American church’s emphasis on evangelism); presumably it is “holistic” in that it ministers to the whole being—both body (social outreach) and soul (evangelism). Regardless of terminology, the book is both a call to change the direction of our churches and a handbook on how to do so.

The authors begin by observing that historically the American Church has emphasized either social outreach or evangelism, but not both. Right now we are in a period of evangelistic emphasis—conservative Christians generally call themselves “evangelicals”. Evangelicals are notable for talking about the need to “accept Christ,” etc., with the ultimate goal apparently to “save” people (i.e. convert them). However, Jesus said “make disciples" not mere converts, and discipleship requires deeds, not just words. This is where social outreach is important, because loving and caring for others, particularly the hard-to-love demonstrates the meaning behind our evangelistic words. The authors illustrate the importance of both evangelism and social outreach by saying that evangelism without social work is like giving birth to a baby and then abandoning it, but social work without evangelism makes people’s life better but still sends them to Hell. So both are necessary.

The essence of the authors’ views of evangelism and social outreach is that both need to be done out of a desire to love people and to care for them. Evangelism that is a just mission to save people, or social to try to equalize class differences easily degenerates into a mere task. In contrast, when we love people, we will want to make their present lives better, but we will also want them to the God who loves us. From a practical standpoint, going from the desire to love people to putting it to action is a large barrier for most of us, and it helps to have a mentoring/discipleship program where people new to the ministry initially are involved in behind-the-scenes work and are intentionally exposed to more and more of the direct ministry in small steps.

At this point the authors focus mostly on social ministry. Social ministry comes on many levels—meeting the basic needs, meeting the needs of the community that cause people to have basic needs, and addressing the societal issues that cause the community to be in need—but the authors mostly discus the first two areas. From the practical standpoint, they discuss issues like whether the church should form a nonprofit organization to limit the church’s liability and to better be able to attract government funds and suggest partnering with other churches, particularly if the church is not in the geographic area of ministry. They give copious examples of ministries, so the reader should have no lack for ideas to implement.

Having discussed the need for holistic ministry and described a myriad of issues in starting one, the book finishes by giving some guidance on how to guide a church into holistic ministry. The first stage is the leadership—a congregation cannot grow beyond its leaders, so the leadership must be growing in their relationship with God. Second, the congregation needs to have healthy individual relationships with God or they will be unable to do ministry. At this point, the author advise doing an internal study on the history of the church and on the makeup of the congregation. This is to identify the culture of the congregation so that leadership can identify social and evangelism ministries that best fit the congregation (not just best fit the pastors’ desires). At this point the leadership needs to be casting vision, not only in sermons but even in areas such as the church logo and sanctuary artwork. As leadership begins looking at ministries, it should discuss it with the congregation, working ideas from the congregation into it—people are more committed to something if it has their idea! It may take a number of years to reach the point where the entire congregation is ready for a major ministry, so in the mean time, the leadership can be training lay leaders who have a similar heart and participate in a less expansive ministry.

This is a very comprehensive book filled with real examples and good ideas. Unfortunately, it is a bit too comprehensive, as if the authors are trying to tell the reader every good idea that they came across in their research. Each chapter generally consists of an introductory story, five attitudes on the subject, five approaches to implemention, and a case study. The ten points are usually fairly compelling, but it is hard to remember more than one chapter’s worth; after the fourteen chapters the reader has probably encountered about 100 different points, which is difficult to absorb, especially if they are all equally good.

The authors have a very practical view of the subject matter and seem bent on giving as much advice as possible in the hopes that the reader will gain more ideas. Unfortunately, the first few sections are not terribly compelling in motivation. The argument for social ministry mostly comes to a) Jesus spent most of his time doing it, and b) it makes our evangelistic words mean something. I guess I feel convinced (since I already thought I was missing in social outreach) but not persuaded. I am a proponent that right thinking leads to right action, so therefore to change someones actions requires a change in thinking, rather than lot of good ideas to implement. I think the book might have been improved by presenting unignorable arguments from scripture to change my worldview. It seems like a handbook—really good if you are wanting to implement something, but as they say, most of us aren’t at that point.

In general the authors are a little fuzzy with their structural arguments. The above discussion of the motivation behind holistic ministry is a good illustration. However, the use of “holistic” is another illustration. They constantly refer to “holistic” ministry, but all the illustrations and most of the chapters are about social ministry. Thus the implication is that “holistic” means “social work”, which is probably not their argument. Again, it seemed like the emphasis on practicality overshadowed the logical arguments.

Fortunately, the Holy Spirit will fill in some of the gaps left by the authors, so that even if not persuaded, the reader is likely to be convicted. When they are, there will be more than enough practical material to guide an implementation. This book should be looked at as a handbook for social ministry, a topic that in which it excels. It has has a wealth of ideas and examples, and even very practical wisdom they is easy to overlook but entirely necessary (“If you don’t have healthy people, then you don’t have a healthy approach to ministry.” (167))  Churches that Make a Difference is a good read for every Evangelical leader (including lay leaders) who is even slightly bothered that they may not truly understand Jesus’ love for the marginalized.
Review: 7
Good content, but you won’t remember it unless you take notes—there is just too much information. This is a book that you will have to keep on your shelf for it to be useful, because can’t possibly remember everything. Unfortunately, the authors seem to want to be a reference book and a book that changes people’s ideas, and they fail at the latter. Better to just come out and aim to be the end-all reference. I am ranking this down, because I really think there is a better way of expressing God’s love for the poor in a way that compels the reader to do likewise. I would rather have seen a book that has less content but is perhaps half compelling argument followed by a practical what-do-I-do-now second half. Make people thirsty first.

On the other hand, the content is good. Make sure to take notes. And each chapter is pretty well written. Just as whole it gets overwhelming and kind of fails to achieve either aim. Still, they leave plenty of room for the Holy Spirit to convict and change the reader’s heart, so ultimately the book is a success. I just think it would be a bigger success if it were named Handbook for a Holistic Church and had less of a goal to motivate. Merely changing expectations by editing a few of the earlier chapters would make the goal and the content of the book match much better and I would feel better about giving this very worthwhile book a higher score.