Monday, August 20, 2012

Book Review: Brandon Hatmaker’s ‘Barefoot Church’

Our religious culture is a consumer culture. Whether through worship services or other church activities, most Christians are spectators rather than an integral part of the action. Brandon Hatmaker, senior pastor of the Austin New Church and co-founder of Missio, wants to change all that. In Barefoot Church: Servicing the Least in a Consumer Culture (Zondervan, 2011), he reminds us that, in the words of James, pure religion requires serving the poor and oppressed, not sitting on the sidelines a few times a week expecting to be entertained. Hatmaker wants to get every member of every church involved in community service projects, which unfortunately have taken a backseat to evangelism.

There’s a backlash against this view primarily because church leaders tend to fear “social gospel,” the preaching and teaching that society can be saved through prohibition, soup kitchens, and improved sanitation, rather than through Jesus Christ. This isn’t what Hatmaker’s promoting. He’s calling Christians to return service to its rightful place beside the proclamation of the Gospel. He’s looking for barefoot Christians, those willing to give up their shoes for the homeless on the spot, regardless of whether or not there’s an opportunity to convert them.

Right now, churches direct most of their resources to “getting people in the door.” This method has failed to produce the kind of growth expected. The “unchurched” don’t have their material needs met, and the “dechurched” have left because church, as church is usually done, appears irrelevant to the real world. The solution? Hatmaker advocates a major structural overhaul. His most controversial suggestion? Canceling morning worship service once a month so that the congregation can go out and actually meet the needs of the community.

When a church’s priorities change, Hatmaker foresees real progress being made. Why obsess over attendance counts when there are orphans to adopt and sex trafficking victims to rehabilitate? And what about partnering with other organizations to give Christians an opportunity to connect with those demographics underrepresented in church, like college professors? The refusal to do so, he points out, is often connected with an unwillingness to set aside some church agenda to get a service job done. In addition, churches crave public recognition for their work, pitting them against nonprofit organizations as competition instead of allies with common goals.

I enjoyed Barefoot Church largely because it got straight to the point. Yes, there were plenty of stories to illustrate the problem at hand along with Bible verses to convince the reader of the necessity of service, but Hatmaker focuses on the logistics of getting a program set up without burning out leaders or guilt tripping members who don’t have time. One area he doesn’t touch upon nearly enough is conflict within a congregation. Breaking away from the norm will likely cause division. Hatmaker sort of assumes that his readers are working within an autocratic system in which a senior pastor can create new projects and change church structure at whim. However, those coming from situations tightly controlled by the congregation, a team of elders, or a denominational authority need more advice on how to win over others. Yes, the church should make service a priority, but for small congregations especially, everyone needs to be on board with the idea.

P.S. Hatmaker also has written the Barefoot Church Primer: An 8-week Guide to Serving through Community to help churches get started.

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