Look out Joel, there is a new smiling sheriff in town and his name is Bob. This smiling sheriff is growing not the largest church in America, but the largest churches in America. As if Professor of Christian ministry and missional leadership at Wesley Seminary Wesleyan University wasn’t enough of a mouthful, we mustn’t exclude presidency of C3 International and author of eleven different books. Whitesel has been awarded two Donald McGavran Awards, one in Outstanding Leadership in Great Commission Research and one in Outstanding Scholarship in Church Growth. Whitesel’s educational background consists of a B.S., Psychology out of Purdue University, and a M. Div., D. Min. of Church Growth, Ph.D. of Church Change & Growth all from Fuller Theological Seminary.
Whitesel receives applause from a variety of different peoples that he has helped. Rev. John Lowe III attributes Whitesel with having removed the “stumbling blocks that could have stop or slowed down the church’s momentum.” Rev. Ralph Scherer commends Whitesel’s diagnostic process as an alleviation of the “turbulent waters” their church had experienced. How unfortunate that it took almost two millennia to acquire such great insight, but let the church just be grateful now that the LORD Jesus Christ has granted the mercy on the church in rendering us Whitesel’s cure.
Cure for the Common Church is about both the numerical deterioration of attendance in the church and how not only to curb this occurrence, but reverse it. Whitesel uses a series of acronyms to aid in the application of such methods, which is complimentary of his inspiration with John Wesley (pg.62, 106, 109, 122).
Whitesel’s growing acronyms include OUT, SMALL, LEARNers, and NEW. Growing OUT (pg.29) consists of Observation of who a church is equipped to reach, Understanding of the communities needs that a church is equipped to reach, and Tackling these needs by either refocusing/creating/ending existing programs. Growing SMALL (pg.72) consists of Surveying your existing small groups, Missionalizing these groups, Adding more groups, Leading these groups, and Locating the focus of these groups. Growing LEARNers (pg.103) consists of Linking learners publicly to a community, Every small group is a learning group, Agreement emerges in these groups, Reproduction of these learners occur, Needs are met by learning based action. The final growth segment is NEW (pg.139) consisting of a Non-judgmental atmosphere, Exploration of what people crave, and Walking the bridge of newness with these people.
Whitesel presumes to be able to cure the current common state of the church’s numerical deterioration with a series of prescriptions for congregants to employ. There are a few things the author presupposes his readers comply with, and consequently does not officially define all of his terms. This book was written primarily for average church members, but also for pastors and volunteer leaders (pg.11). Just so there is no confusion here, this means that he has written it for everyone in the church.
There are a few recurring themes throughout the course of Whitesel’s text. Perhaps the most common occurrence is of the word “focus,” which occurs on almost every other page. Another common theme in this book is balance, most often in conjunction with focus. Both themes are frequently used ambiguously, changing in context throughout the course of this book. Still remaining as the overarching theme of the book is the cultivation of numerical attendance, with an occasional caveat of the concern for the individual condition of a participant within the church. However, no clear establishment will be found for what a healthy spiritual state is for the individual and the church alike.
Throughout the course of reading this work, it is easy to feel as if you are living in a fantasy world. A world where life is perfect, and everyone is happy or at least desiring to “do the right thing” (pg.129). Not a world that is perfect because of an absence of suffering or pain, but because the church is the cure for the world’s ailments. Whitesel is eager to assume that all people desire salvation (pg.129, 131, 141/2, & 146). Unfortunately for Whitesel, this is not really how scripture would identify the past, present, or even future state of the church.
The church is not really something that can alleviate the ailments of the sin that the world produces. Someday the church will receive an instatement to glory, as well as an exemption status from the rot and decay of infiltration by heresy and conversely from numerical decline. Historically and presently however, the church is infiltrated by ravenous wolves (Mt.7:15/24, Mrk.13:22/3, Gal.2:4, 2nd Pet.2:1-3, 1st Jn.4:1, Jude 1:4, Deut.13:1-3, Jer.14:14-16, 23:13-16, 28:15-17, Ezek. 13:16/22, Mic.3:5-7/11). Had Whitesel taken the time to accurately define the role of the church, we would have discovered that her purpose is not really to bend to or “mirror” the culture as he so suggests (pg.33). This conformity of Christians to culture rather than culture conforming to Christ is clearly condemned by “the perfect will of God” (Rom.12:2). Furthermore, Christians are “not of this world, even as I/Christ am not of it” (Jn.17:16-18). One may well be inclined to ask, “why would a church want to ‘mirror the changing mosaic of its locale’ (pg.33)?” The answer should be obvious as the primary concern of Whitesel’s cure (pg.11, 15-17, 27, 63, 71, 81, 85, 116), to appeal to the masses.
The historical and current state of the church has been depicted in scripture as fairly bleak, but what of the future state? God’s Word says that “a time is coming when people will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers that will say what their itching ears want to hear” (2nd Tim.4:3, Is.30:10). The Gospel of Christ has not been, is not now, and will never be, compatible with secular humanism/paganism. The reason for this being of course the LORD’s jealousy as so heavily emphasized all throughout scripture (Ex.20:3), but because essentially Christ is forced to take the back seat to His own creation. For this reason, the Gospel of Christ often encounters opposition and hostility along the way.
In Acts 7:52, Christianity’s first Christian Martyr, Stephen, inquires of the people for any prophet their ancestors had not persecuted. Ironically the people respond accordingly to said lineage by stoning him to death. Assuredly a very Spirit-filled Stephen was taking solace in the reality that “a servant is not greater than his master,” and that “if the world hated Me/Jesus, it will hate you/Christians as well” (Jn.13:16, 15:20, Mt.10:24). That day Stephen gloriously joined the ranks of YHWH’s elites, accompanied by “Gideon, Barack, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets” (Heb.11:32). Elites who “through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned into strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies” (Heb.11:32-34). Never the less however, “there were others who were tortured,” facing “jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted, and mistreated. The world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and holes in the ground” (Heb.11:35-38).
All of this opposition flies in the face of Whitesel’s presupposition that the people of the world have a natural desire for salvation, or that these people are inevitably capable of being converted into the church’s ranks. How fortunate indeed is the world for those who “did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death” (Rev.12:11). Instead hating by comparison “father and mother, wife and child, brother and sister, yes even their own lives” (Lk.14:26). Ultimately the Gospel of Christ is good news, but not to those who are destined for eternal torment (Mt.25:34, Rev.13:18). Unfortunately for Whitesel’s cure, it does not differentiate between “the wheat and the tares” (Mt.13:24-30). It fails to account for any opposition to the Gospel account, and prefers rather people who naturally bend to it. Whitesel unknowingly presumes a world without tares in eager hopes of a world where the church will inevitably grow.
In failing to establish any definitive parameters for what the church is and why anyone should want to be a part of it, Whitesel safeguards some level of appeal for any who may not otherwise be inclined to participate in what it really is. This lack of definition may very well be conducive of the “non-judgmental atmosphere” that Whitesel so desires to cultivate (pg.139-144). Utilizing determinative or definitive ambiguity could potentially allow Whitesel to blur lines between the natural and the supernatural for exploitive purposes. This would be exceptionally advantageous for anyone who would desire to claim as supernatural some things that may very well have otherwise been natural, and vice versa.
Another recurring theme in Whitesel’s cure is a humanitarian concern as the purpose of the church (pg.26/7, 39, 43/5, 55, 76/7, 84, 103, 111, 115, 121, & 145). Doing things for people is neither unscriptural, nor unwarranted. Indeed, there is much for the church to be doing, however it is not the churches primary concern. Providing bread to the hungry is something that Christians ought to be concerned with per scripture (Lev.23:22, Deut.24:20, Mt.25:35-40, Jms.2:16, Is.1:17, Ps.82:3, Prov.31:9, Acts 6:1), however it should not be forgotten that “man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes out of the mouth of God” (Deut.8:3, Mt.4:4). There is an order in which the LORD’s table is served. When asked what the greatest commandment was, Jesus did not reply “Love your neighbor with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Mt.22:37, Lk.10:27). No, he replied “love the LORD your God.” Then the second and subsequent table of the law is served in loving your neighbor as you would yourself.
This very same order is precisely the order in which the ten commandments are structured, dealings with YHWH specifically first, followed by interactions and responsibilities between the created order (Ex.20). essentially what all this means is that you must not compromise on your understanding of Who Christ is as God in the flesh (Jn.1:14, 8:58, 10:30, Jer.51:19, Col.1:15), so as to not offend your neighbor. If you have to compromise on Christ’s exclusive contribution to the salvation of man so as to accommodate your neighbor, then you may as well carve out your eye rather than “have your whole body cast into Hell” (Mt.5:29, Mrk.9:47). If the believer is engaged in loving his neighbor as he loves himself, it may very well be that a hand removal is preferable over an eternity in hell. The self is not exempt from experiencing pain, no matter how inconvenient it may be to worship and serve only Him (Mt.4:10, Lk.4:8, Deut.6:13). If this seems at all harsh or unwarranted per scripture, it should be taken into consideration that Jesus instructed His disciples to “shake the dust off of their feet” as a testimony against any “who do not welcome you or listen to your words” (Lk.9:5, Mt.10:14). In “controlling the body in a way that is holy and honorable” (1st Thess.4:4), an extension of the self in the form of a neighbor is not then exempt from such discipline.
This humanitarian social harmony is merely a subjugation of accuracy, credibility, and accountability to scripture. While the church’s existence does contribute to the improved living conditions of both believers and non-believers alike, this is not the churches purpose. It is commendable at the very least, but only one facet of her existence. Ultimately she is a testament to mankind of the great love her Bridegroom has for His creation (Eph.5:26, Mt.9:15, 25:5-10, Rev.19:7, 22:17). The early church devoted herself to “the apostles teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42). These early believers were “no longer tossed to and fro” (Eph.4:14), but instead carried a message to the nations that the “Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” be observed (Mt.28:18-20). The church’s commissioning for witness was and is much like that of Israel’s, “that you may know and believe Me and understand that I am He. Before Me no God was formed, nor will there be one after Me” (Is.43:10). The church is primarily a testimony of the gospel, a proclamation of Jesus’ divinity and His work in crucifixion followed by resurrection.
Whitesel almost accurately assessed that if a church focuses on something other than Christ, like survival for example (pg.94), it would cease to exist. Unfortunately for Whitesel, he consistently withholds focus from being rendered to Christ alone, and instead flounders with a variety of alternatives. Aside from growth, he maintains that small groups should be a church’s primary focus (pg.85), along with meeting the needs of people, etc. This brings us to our final critique of the cure. Whitesel has either knowingly or unknowingly advocated division and segregation within the constructs of his prescriptions. This he has accomplished through geographical divisions (pg.36), demographical divisions (pg.34), small group divisions (pg.86), and associated value via leadership divisions (pg.83).
In finishing, we will simply cover the two most obvious segregations, which include demographic (pg.34) and newcomer small groups (pg.86). Jesus drew many different peoples to Himself, much diversity is found in those who worship Him. Yet in dying too self and so being engrafted into the body, we are united with a great variety of other functioning parts. The crucial thing to understand here is that Jews and Gentiles communed together. Church members do not go to church because they are Latin American, African American, Asian American, Hispanic American, or Caucasian. Nor is going to church compelled by interests such as NASCAR, motorcycles, or art. It is Christ that unites us.
Whitesel admits that existing small groups “quickly become closed” (pg.86), for this reason he suggests that new small groups should be started for newcomers. This is unfortunate considering that it caters to factional divisions and a refusal to adopt newcomers into particular groups. This segregation is antithetical to the behavior that Christ anticipates from His creation (Mt.11:28, Jn.7:37, Jn.12:32). This was particularly surprising considering his lengthy section at the beginning of this book concerning the debilitating contributions of an inward or closed off character trait in a church (pg.19-25). Given a scenario where a group becomes closed, corrective action should more than likely be taken to soften these hard hearted people.
Whitesel, Bob Cure For The Common Church. Indianapolis, Indiana: Wesleyan Publishing House, 2012., and https://www.indwes.edu/seminary/academics/faculty/bob-whitesel/