Rise: Bold Strategies To Transform Your Church, by Cally Parkinson with Nancy Scammacca Lewis
[Note: This book was provided free of charge by Tyndale House Publishers/NavPress in exchange for an honest book review.]
There are many believers who would dislike a book like this on principle, given that it is an exercise in consulting, as the book is written by REVEAL, a faith-based not-for-profit that seeks to encourage churches to increase the membership of churches and the satisfaction of their members through the collection and analysis of data. Although this book does occasionally cite scripture, and it continually points out the need for the Holy Spirit to be at the basis of the lives of lay believers as well as ministers, this book reads far more like a series of business case studies than it reads like any kind of exposition of scripture, and the strategies and best practices are clearly written from a management perspective and not from a biblical one. The authors even somewhat cheekily make the following comment about their work: “we believe–as Moses wrote in Deuteronomy–that God has made known more “things revealed.” Moses, of course, was writing about the law. But the spirit of the words transcends the millennia, we think, to remind us that God holds us accountable–not for the “secret things” known only to him, but for those things he decides to reveal (10).” Whether or not you agree with that statement, and the belief that a largely consultantese book can be praised by the same grounds as God’s law depends on the reader.
In terms of its subject matter, this book contains much of professional and educational interest. Bookended around a commentary of things revealed, which discusses the summary of the findings and the process by which the authors discovered the patterns in their research are eight chapters that each present an archetype of a church. Each type: the troubled, complacent, extroverted, average, introverted, self-motivated, energized, and vibrant church, in order of their place from lowest to highest in the two-variable system of the authors, has a case study of a representative church, a discussion of its salient characteristics, and a discussion of how it can improve. The combination of critical analysis of church organizations, statistical analysis, and management theory is near and dear to my own personal and educational and professional background as a data scientist with an engineering management degree and significant interest in church leadership culture as well as a general appreciation of constructive criticism. On the face of it, this promised to be a book that provided a great deal of thoughtful material.
Even as someone with a great deal of interest in the subject matter of this book, though, I found much worthy of criticism. Even given the fact that this book is written by management consultants in their own language, with only slight concessions to biblical language and understanding in its content, the book was still problematic on its own terms as a data-driven presentation. For one, the book reads a lot like a pitch, seeking to sell the services (in particular the REVEAL studies) to potential churches. Much of the book reads like Power Point slides from a pitch meeting transferred into texts . Furthermore, the data presentation provided is extremely thin, and could have (and should have) been far more robust. The authors of this book would be well-advised to read and internalize the data representation insights of Tufte  and to provide more detailed data representations, with representations of not only means, but also standard deviations, quartile ranges, and medians, and varying the graphics from the very superficial bar charts and pie charts used with alarming frequency here. Defining score ranges, rather than converting everything to a relative scale, would be useful as well, since the fact that all of the data in this book, even in its appendix where one would expect a more complete statistical apparatus showing the detailed experimental design of the study of the more than 700 churches that have taken part in REVEAL’s study, has been converted into relative percentile data, showing no hard data on the Likert scales and raw scores of member beliefs and practices and opinions of their ministers.
In addition to these significant failures from the perspective of data science, the way that the book defines its categories is frustratingly vague. For one, the book divides believers into four categories, eschewing the biblical language of babes, children, young men/women, and mature adults for more vague categories of: exploring Christ, growing in Christ, close to Christ, and Christ-centered. Additionally, the way the book defines core biblical beliefs as well as worthwhile ministry products is astonishingly superficial and unbiblical. For example, the authors of the book consider a belief in salvation by grace alone (not defined, it would appear, to differentiate between initial justification by grace and continued justification by works), as well as the Trinity, as being essential for Christian identity. Likewise, the book praises immensely superficial efforts at teaching biblical stories, apart from any desire to teach the weightier matters of God’s law, as being ambitious and difficult, as even areas like studying translations and doing deep studies of books like Romans are considered extremely advanced for believers, without any attempts to grapple with the application of biblical law in the lives of believers, which is fundamental for the godly practice this book promotes so heavily. Likewise, the suggestions of this book would need to be drastically translated into a more biblical language to avoid causing offense to many believers who lack any knowledge of or interest in the language of business strategy that makes up a large portion of the consulting done for churches. For those readers able to translate the material themselves, there is much to appreciate in encouraging transparent truthfulness, godly servant leadership, mentoring rising leaders, a renewed commitment to serving others and to recovering our first love for God’s ways and God’s people, all of which are worthwhile and biblical subjects. Nevertheless, such translation is needed, and this suggests that the intended audience of the book is for ministers and lay leaders who are already familiar with and favorable to business consulting and its jargon, and who can draw biblical truth from the largely secular advice presented here. For such readers, though, a focus on absolute scales rather than relative scales, and the presentation of raw numbers in tables and histograms and like graphics would have improved the strength of the book’s message. The use of such shallow graphics and vague terms suggests that the writers are seeking to hide the real meat of the data to those who have not paid for the consulting fees, while pitching their product in the hopes of furthering their consulting firm’s bottom line. This approach is unwise, even if there is a great deal of value, especially in the case studies, of the resulting book.
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