Book Review: They Like Jesus but not the Church


Over the weekend I got to spend some time with Dan Kimball’s book, one that has intrigued me since I first saw that it had come out last year. I got the opportunity to listen to Kimball talk about one of his previous books, The Emerging Church, and was very impressed with his demeanor, humility, and approach to ministry. I would have to say that this book is one of the more unique books on ministry that I have read. Kimball’s philosophy of ministry is one that really resonates with me and has convicted me to reevaluate my approach to the daily grind of ministry.

More than anything, this latest installment from Kindall (there is a forthcoming sister volume called I Like Jesus but not the Church directed toward unchurched folks) is the result of a identity crisis he describes in The Emerging Church. He realized that he had no contact with the outside world – that is the world outside the Christian subculture. He confesses that he was spending too much time in the office. As a result, he set out to work within non-Christian environments, hoping to build relationships with non-Christian folks. He has been successful in doing so and the result is this book. He has realized that many of these folks have a high respect for Jesus, but an accompanying low respect for the church and for Christians.

The book is built around six presuppositions that members of the “emerging generation” (his term) tend to have about the church: they are an organized religion with a political agenda, judgmental and negative, dominated by males and oppresses females, is homophobic, arrogantly claims that all other religions are wrong, and is full of fundamentalists who take the Bible literally. Throughout, Kimball is quick to argue that the reader may feel these judgments are unfair, and he agrees, but his point is not to address the reality, but the perceived reality from outside of the church. It is a chilling and convicting testimony to what we are doing in the church.

Unfortunately, as difficult as some of the chapters were to hear, and how quick I wanted to defend what some of the “outsiders” say, I have found that Kimball is right on track about us. More of our members than not are driven toward a political agenda that creeps into our public image, tends to be negative and judgmental, and on and on with the others.

I felt throughout that Kimball was fair and honest through some especially difficult topics. Through his experience, he provides a good sounding board for both sides to see the other – an honest look at a real Christian who loves and cares for others, and an empathetic brother who cares for those who are “lost.” My favorite chapter was about the impression that the church oppresses woman. Kimball said that every person he interviewed for the book brought up this issue. He is careful not to delve into theological battles as this is not the concern of this book. His viewpoint was that no matter what your theological bent, you have to consider the image you are portraying to others. This is a very critical issue for all churches, especially those of the complimentarian view of the women in ministry issue (those believe the Bible teaches against women as elders and pastors). What’s the harm in women making announcements? What about praying before the congregation or reading Scripture? In being biblical, can we really make an argument that women should be barred from these positions? I’m a little further along than this (and I think Kimball is too), but he makes the point that no matter where you are in the discussion, you have to realize that what those outside the church are saying isn’t true, but we give that impression.

The final section of the book focuses on what kind of church the emerging generation is looking for. Kimball is quick to point out that this is not a list of what the church needs to do. This is just an exercise in listening. He says that when he presents this material in a seminar, he gets to this point, then turns off the projector and offers no insight. Instead, he encourages those present to go and listen to those in his or her own community. Build those friendships.

And therein is the great strength in what Kimball is bringing to the ministry table of discussion. He challenges those of us in ministry to build relationships with those outside of our walls. He challenges us to do it so those outside of “professional ministry” will also do it. We need to spend time with them. Recreate with them. Listen to them. Not try to convert them. A relationships built on an agenda is not a real relationship. We want them to change their fundamental philosophy, but often we are quick to speak, and slow to listen. This generation needs us to be slow to speak, quick to listen . . . hmm sounds biblical.

In the end, I think Kimball has challenged us all. My only critique of the book, and I think he works hard to battle this, but the reality is what it is: he tends to over-generalize this generation. His book is really a conversation with a very limited number of people – people he met in a coffee house and who connected to his personality. While I believe very much that his conversations point out very important insight into the emerging generation, there is such a diversity in our nation demographically it is limiting. The “emerging generation” Kimball is referring to seems to be the college educated, middle to upper class surbanites/metropolitans (his interviews take place in California). Where do inner city “emerging generations” fit into this discussion? What about the rural “country” emergers? I think Kimball would be sympathetic to these varieties, though he does make continual references like, “and through my conversations with 20 somethings throughout the country, these reflections are consistent.” I believe that, but I also feel like he tends to be a little too quick to generalize from his discussions.

But, I will say this, I think that is the point of what he is doing here. These are the people that he has conversed with. He isn’t encouraging us to listen to him and fix our churches, he’s encouraging us to listen to OUR people, and take note of the message we are sending to the emerging generations watching our churches.

If more ministers will consider the words in this book, the face of ministry could completely change . . . for the better!

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4 thoughts on “Book Review: They Like Jesus but not the Church

  1. Adam,I want to thank you so much for this review brother. Right now I am reading his book “The Emerging Church: Vintage Christianity for New Generations.” I love it. It is full of wonderful information.I would like to recommend to you if you havent read it already: “Everything Must Change” by Brian D. McLaren. It is a wonderful read about the emerging church. I am also currently reading and would recommend if you havent read it already, “Adventures in Missing the Point” by Brian McLaren & Tony Campolo. In the book the question many things that are in scripture and question why we do what we do. I am loving it especially the discussion guide that I plan to use in Bible class in the future as I move my congregation more towards an emerging Church. Another book that I love is “The Church In Emerging Culturee: Five Perspectives” edited by Leonard Sweet. There are chapters by Andy Crouch; Michael Horton; Frederica Mathew-Green; Brian McLaren; & Erwin Raphael Mcmanus. I of course love what Brian McLaren has to say about the church. I do believe the church must change.Again brother I want to thank you for this wonderful review.I will get the book as soon as I can.

  2. Thanks for your comments. Adventures in Missing the Point was the first “emergent” type book I ever read, it is still one of my favorite for teaching and sharing with others. It is straightforward and direct. Everything Must Change is on my “to-read” shelf. I am familiar with the others you mention as well, though I haven’t read them. “Emergent” books are difficult to recommend because they vary so widely. Depending on what you are hoping to learn, there are several directions to turn. Often, I think spending time surfing emergent blog rings is as beneficial as anything. There are ministry-oriented books (this represents the vast majority of published material as the emergent movement is essentially a re-thinking of ecclesiology): just about anything Zondervan has published in the past few years probably would qualify here. I tend to be more interested in some of the theological and philisophical works that undergird the discussions: Beyond Foundationalism by John Franke and Stanley Grenz is a very significant book on these grounds, though a challenging read. Renewing the Center by Stanley Grenz is also an important work that has sparked much of the current discussions. I haven’t read it yet, but an excerpt of Tim Conder’s book The Church is Transition is probably the most relevant emergent discussion for those of us already in established churches. Miroslav Volf’s work Exclusion and Embrace is often cited and I am excited about reading this in the near future as his concept of “the other” has been significant. Walter Wink’s work on the powers is being referred to more and more often as well. I am interested to see where these discussions might lead in the future. Also, Tony Jones and Doug Paggit’s work called An Emergent Manifesto of Hope was a good primer on some of what is being done in the name of emergent. That was published by Baker Books last year. Both authors have forthcoming books out this year (Jones’ may have just come out) published separately that will also provide important insights. Hope that offers something you may be interested in.

  3. Thank you for your wonderful reply.I grealy appreciate it brother.You are so true.Just talking with my friend Dwyane Hilty and James Cambell who have planted two emerging churches in Salem, OR. You seem to be totally right about the emerging church. So many. Again, thank you so much.I hope you have a blessed week.

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