Who Stole My Church?: a new book by Gordon MacDonald

I have long admired Gordon MacDonald, and read most of his clear-headed, balanced, passionate, thoughtful bookswho stole my church.JPG on organizing one’s life for Christian growth and solid discipleship.  He is honest, straight-forward, mature, and, although pleasant, utterly no-nonsense.  He’s forward thinking and pastoral, but what you see is what you get.  He’s not interested in hipster glitz or po-mo edginess, fads or fashions.  He’s trying to help church folk get serious, learn skills of maturity, developing into people of strong character who can withstand the hard times of real life. (His last book was on resilience and was very useful.)   He wants to make a difference for God, and he understands much about how to do that.  I enjoy and respect him.

His new book draws on years of pastoral experience and—a bit surprisingly—is written as a novel, in a clever first person narrative.  The book, Who Stole My Church? offers this on the front cover: “What to Do When the Church You Love Tries to Enter the 21st Century.”  (Nelson; $21.99.)  Although not just about church conflict, the story unfolds about a fairly typical, evangelically-minded congregation in New England (he swears it is not one he has pastored, nor are the characters based on real-life people) who have “builder” generation folk perplexed and frustrated by younger members who are making changes in the congregational ethos, spiritual sensibilities and mission of their church.  I believe, young or old, progressive or traditionalist, you will find this to be a helpful exploration of being church in our times.  I hear of church conflict around these themes—folks pushing too hard for change, folks resisting change, earnest folks trying to discern what sort of change is most appropriate—nearly every single day here in the shop.  Before I even started reading, I said right out loud: “Man, I wished I could have had this ten years ago” and proceeded to list a few friends, family members and churches who needed someone wise to walk through this stuff with them.

From the Preface:

The title of this book, Who Stole My Church?, springs from a conversation a few years ago with a distraught man who felt betrayed by the church he had invested in for most of his adult years.  From his perspective everything had changed—overnight, he said—into something that made him feel like a stranger in the place he’d always thought of as his spiritual home.

I listened to him describe what sounded like ecclesiastical carnage. Programs had been dumped, traditional music trashed, preaching styles and topics revolutionized, symbols of reverence (appropriate clothing, crosses, communion tables, and pulpits come to mind) thrust aside.

His anguish (and his anger) began with a young pastor who had been appointed with a challenge from the church’s leadership to “stir things up with a new vision.”…

…According to my friend, most of the church members—in particularly the older generation—had no idea what they were getting themselves into when all the growth talk began.  Who would protest against, he asked, the idea of finding fresh ways to evangelize the unchurched?  But what people expected was merely a fresh voice in the pulpit and a program or two imported from more successful churches.

Here’s what I heard him saying.  What he and his fellow church members had not anticipated was a total shift in the church’s culture, a reinvention of ways to love God and serve people.  What they did no see coming was a reshuffling of the church’s priorities, so that lost and broken people rather than found and supposedly fixed people became the primary target audience.  In summary: virtually everything in the life of their church under new leadership became focused on reaching people who were not yet there.

It was during that part of the conversation that my lunch partner finally said, “Our church has been stolen out from under us.  It’s been hijacked.”  His solution to the problem?  To leave and search for another church that “appreciated” the older and better church ways his generation was familiar and comfortable with.

As I recall the conversation, my friend was less than delighted when he discovered that I wasn’t completely sympathetic to his cause.  I tried to find a kind way to say, “get used to it,” but I wasn’t very successful.

MacDonald continues on explaining the situation in many churches these days, and his concerns for all parties involved—“the dear people in the pews”— who are called by God to be agents of change for the sake of contextualized and effective ministry.  He continues, about the crafting of the book, 

My first attempt at writing about church change was abortive.  I could not escape the feeling that I was writing one more dull book on an overworked subject.  So I restarted my project, but in a way I’d never tried before.  I decieded to create an imaginary New England church in which there was a small collection of average people who were bumping up against change issues and resisting them.

Once I set these people in motion, I asked myself:  If I were to enter the story as I really am, what would I say to them?  How might I engage with them and persuade them to take a fresh look at the realities in our world that do indeed require a new kind of church?

My imagined people are all in their fifties and sixties.  They are from the so-called builder and boomer generations, people who were once very much at the center of their churches and have now relinquished control and influence to others younger than they are.  Once I had them all in their proper places in my mind, it was as if they took over the story and began to tell it for me.  I just had to do the typing.

And then, this:

My hope for this book is that it would spark dialogue among people of all generations who love the church.  I would be grateful if the book would convince younger generations of church leaders to be more sensitive to the older generation and their thoughts.  Conversely, I have a passion that older Christians would be led—if they read this book—to understand why many things about the way we have made church work must change and reflect new realities.

To that end, there is a good study guide/group discussion resource in the back.  And, to that end, we will sell it at nearly 25% off, bringing the price down to $16.95  I’m sure some of our BookNotes fans should read this.  Others, at least, know somebody who would find it helpful.  Let’s work together and get the word out about this balanced, caring, thoughtful and contemporary parable.

Who Stole My Church?

Hearts & Minds 234 East Main Street  Dallastown, PA  17313  717.246.3333

13 thoughts on “Who Stole My Church?: a new book by Gordon MacDonald

  1. I can’t wait to read this book. However, my hope is that the concerns that are being expressed by the people he calls the “builder” generation are not ignored. This is a critical problem facing the church, and many congregations who went down the “church growth movement” over the past 20 years have an entire generation of people in their 40’s and 50’s who are not equipped to deal with the challenges facing them in their lives from a strong scriptural basis. In preparing “milk” for the masses, we forgot to eat the “meat” of the word. Quite frankly, the sustaing content of the Word and more theologically complex music that would nourish the body will draw people to Christ by the work of the Holy Spirit. My sense is that as we enter our midlives, we evaluate everything in terms of its significance for the future. We have been working for many years at jobs, doing tasks in the church, etc., but we are now asking did it make any difference? Unfortunately, the answer is often actually no. We don’t want change for the sake of change, or that someone had determined that something is “culturally relevant”. Instead, we need to evaluate ideas based on a scriptural model, testing ideas against the truth of scripture. His Spirit will provide the relevance in our lives, convicting us of sin as long as we are actually teaching from His Word.

  2. Dr. Day,
    Thanks very much for this important contribution. I hope you order the book from us as I think it will be helpful and enjoyable for you.
    You are certainly correct about much of what you write (I’ve posted here about the need for the richer theology of some of the older hymns, got instance.) As I may have written, I sure wish this book, or one like it, was around years ago when the generational tensions and “worship wars” began.
    Still, for what it is worth, I doubt if it is as stark as you imply: there are plenty of older folks in most churches who care little for “meat”, who are mere traditionalists—hardly living for the glory of God, or striving to witness to the Kingdom of Christ—and although they must be honored and treated with care, their views are sometimes more akin to civil religion and old habits than vibrant, meaty fidelity. And, conversely, there are younger visionaries who perhaps are too quick to promote changes whose faith nonetheless is deep and well-informed, whose passion models Matthew 6:33 and who don’t fit the stereotype of a water-down hipster who just wants to comply with contemporary culture.
    So, thanks for your good and obviously heart-felt insight; it is the kind of stuff that led MacDonald to write his book. I’d just caution not to reduce things to simplistic caricatures on either side. I haven’t finished the new “Who Stole My Church”, but so far it’s fair, balanced, caring, and eager to be faithful, attentive to both the older ways and the newer contexts.
    I’ll be eager to hear what you think! Thanks for paying attention to the blog—it means a lot to a small place like us to have folks reading along.
    In Christmas peace,

  3. A worship leader friend told me he was assigned to read Who Stole My Church?. I have read all the reviews I could find. So far, I don’t plan to buy or read it myself, due to the negative reviews. It sounds like just another attempt to say contemporary is right and traditional is wrong. Hasty judgement on my part, perhaps, but I am surrounded by loud musicians who insist I am wrong for not worshipping them and their style of worship. That’s right; they insist that since their style of worship is superior to mine, then their faith is above mine and I should defer to them.
    I am concerned about reports that a character in the story who doesn’t “go along” is dismissed as being possibly unsaved or unspiritual.
    That is exactly what I get from the modernists!
    I am told I “need to get REALLY saved” by those who sneer at me for keeping my nose in a hymnal. How did I lose my salvation by refusing to leer at the lovely praise babes gyrating on the Sunday morning stage? Did I fall from grace for holding a hymnal and singing The Old Rugged Cross?
    I refute the reviewers’ and the book’s apparent assertation that the church is always changing and we have to change with it.
    They can have their music, etc, and I am wish them well in the Kingdom. What I cannot accept is them telling me I must change to suit them.
    I worship God, not the guitarist, and He has not and will not be changing in order to entertain us.

  4. Bob,
    Thanks for this reply; I am glad you wrote. I know this is a huge concern for many of us (it is why we promote the Indelible Grace recordings, for instance, which use solid old hymn lyrics) and I myself have experienced some frustrations with loud musicians.
    But, I must say, in all my travels, in all the various events where we’ve worked with contemporary worship teams, and in all the websites and books I’ve seen, I have NEVER heard any worship leader ask them to worship them! You are either exaggerating terribly or you are hanging around a cult or something. No serious Christian worship leader would do or say the things you accuse these folks of!
    Somebody actually, truly asked if you are really saved because you don’t care for their musical stylings? That is bizarre, and I cannot imagine even the most dogmatic “new worship” leader saying such a thing. Where in the world did you meet these kind of so-called worship leaders? I have NEVER encountered anything that lethal in the “worship wars.”
    There are those who say that their way is mandated in the Bible because we are called to be missional and contextual. There are those that say that if you don’t swing to the new beat you must not have a heart for the lost. There are those that over-react to those of us who like more formal liturgical structure and imply we aren’t free in the Spirit. Still, I simply haven’t found many folks saying things that are too judgmental, and most contemporary worship leaders (at least those who are known, writing books, hosting conferences and such) all do hymns as well as newer praise songs. There are turf wars and power plays, to be sure, about who is in charge of choosing music and such, but I’ve never heard anybody ask that you worship their guitars, or who won’t concede that older classic styles aren’t meaningful to some folks. I thought everybody agreed on that.
    Anyway, I just find your remarks to be really odd, since I haven’t ever heard anybody question anybody’s salvation, coming from the progressive side. I have heard traditionalists question the maturity of the young rockers; not so much any more, but a decade ago that was a fairly common report.
    What sort of church are you a part of? Can your pastor call the offending “leaders” in for a pastoral visit, to explain that it is VERY inappropriate to question someones salvation over this? If most churches heard a worship leader saying such a thing, they’d be pulled from up front promptly…
    May God give you extra grace to be kind and fair in all things. THANKS.
    in Christ’s peace,

  5. Thanks for a great book. It was recommended by another pastor friend, and I enjoyed it from the state. I believe that Gordon had a wonderful sense of grace to describe (1) those wanting change, and (2) those feeling left behind by change. I came away feeling a greater appreciation and love for those members of my church who are in their 50’s and 60’s who find change difficult. (hey, I’m right there age-wise at 59) I believe this is a book that can inspire as well as bring healing.
    I recommended it at a pastor’s coffee get-together. My copy has been read by three pastors. Last Tuesday we spent an hour talking about “change.” We laughed about how we could see plenty of people in each of our churches that were described by Gordon. Change isn’t going away.

  6. I have had time to think about what I read in McDonald’s book. I’ve let it sit, because I know I sometimes react at first. But I’ve had some time and still feel that Robert Browning’s comments fit my feelings somewhat. You called him Bob, so maybe you know him, but I don’t. I can only respond to what he said and your strong response.
    I grew up in a variety of churches. We chose to go to a nearby Bible-believing church, rather than our own denomination because we wanted to take neighborhood kids to a church they might continue attending after we went back overseas (my parents were missionaries). So I attended Baptist, Quaker, Nazarene, Assembly of God, etc churches as our principle church (we might go to our ‘own’ church for special meetings, or weeknight services, etc). [I would consider myself to be low church, not high church, though I’ve attended a lot of high church services of varying sorts.) On deputation we went to many churches, usually for a single service, or with some churches, for a few weeks or months. This continued as an adult (my wife and I were missionaries overseas for 25 years). So I have experience in many churches from the 60s to now, and definitely remember the worship wars.
    Yes, I’ve often attended churches where the music leaders feel superior to people who prefer the older hymn music. Of course, the ones who prefer the older music feel the same way: they know the verses about the ‘vain repetions as the heathen do’ and feel that way when ‘required’ to stand ‘forever’ and keep repeating the same words over and over. They certainly have reason to feel some of those music leaders want worship and adoration. (Some of those leaders know so little about the Bible as to not be aware of how often their songs are theologically wrong, and don’t even know that ‘worship’ is not a synonym for ‘music.’ [Of course worship typically includes music…])
    Yes, I’ve been in many churches that feel if you don’t want to sing their modern music and want to sing hymns, you probably aren’t really saved; you’re probably just a ‘cultural Christian.’ How much of that is a reaction to people making negative comments about their music.
    On a similar note, I’ve attended churches that said if you don’t speak in tongues you’re not truly saved. Or if you’re not water baptized, or if it wasn’t in their church; if you do x; if you don’t do y.
    Remember, all churches are made up of humans. So sometimes we do His will, sometimes our own. Just as I found your response to Mr Browning very negative, which means you might find mine negative. Instead, I want you to be more tolerant of some Christians my age, though not tolerating our sins. And we need to tolerate those less spiritual, who want all the new stuff 🙂
    Seriously, I felt I had to defend Mr Browning’s position. And I haven’t said which kind of music I prefer, or which side of the worship wars I was on, past or present.

  7. John,
    Thanks for your good reply and your obvious care….I do really appreciate your concerns, and sense that you were writing out of a spirit of true concern. I actually don’t recall much about my exchange with Mr. B but I think I rebuked him a bit for what I thought was an overstated critique and perhaps a bad attitude. Was I really that negative? I’ll go back and see, since I usually try to be fair and balanced.
    Anyway, my heart goes out to you, and I am shocked to hear that anybody would say that if you don’t like contemporary hipster praise music you’re not a real Christian. I’ve just never heard anybody say that and the authors, songwriters and known leaders of that tradition often say to never suggest such a thing! So if anybody is actually saying that, they must be some immature and fringe folks… Most of the younger contemporary worship leaders I know are passionate about their relationship with God, and maybe bring an idealistic insensitivity to older folks, but to say that older saints aren’t saved because of their traditional tastes would be ridiculous. I have noticed that some young praise leaders get cocky, have this “rock star” demeanor, but their immature attitude, suggesting they know God so well, and can usher us into His presnce, is a bit silly, really. But that is sort of a different matter than this question of whether or not they actually have ever said to those who don’t like their music that those people aren’t solid disciples. Like I said, I just never heard that. At the big festivals–say, Passion or Creation—that would never be tolerated. You are very correct to note that many folks have been way toooo judgemental around other non-essentials and doctrinal differences. God help us.
    So, thanks for writing, and for offering your input. I suggested the book in my review because I know the author Gordon MacDonald works with young and old, is pretty balanced, and thought the book would bring out helpful conversations about this very thing. I’m of mixed opinion myself, and not at all on “one side” of the “worship wars.” I do think that the conversations have to be fair and accurate, though, so if I was critical of Bob, probably it was not for his view, but for how it was stated.
    Thanks again for checking in with BookNotes.
    in God’s peace+ Byron

  8. PS:
    I re-read what I wrote to Bob, and hope no readers thought I was calling him bizarre. I thought that the accusations were bizarre. He said that he heard worship leaders ask people to worship them.
    That really is beyond the pale, of course, and I dared to ask Bob if he heard that right. I suggested that if such nonsense was really going on, then the pastor needs to call the worship leaders in. I invited him to be fair and kind.
    Was I wrong?? Has anybody ever heard a worship leader ask people to worship himself/herself? I doubt if Bob was being honest or accurate at that point. Maybe it feels that way to the audience/congregation, what with all the performance, lights, smoke (and mirrors?) at some hipster services, but nobody who is a Christian would knowingly ask anyone to worship anyone but the triune God.
    Thanks, again, John, for your kindly and honest reply, a balanced and evaluation that rings true. Just wasn’t sure why you thought I was too hard to Bob…I didn’t mean to be, really.

  9. Mr. McDonald seems to pit old against young..the drums played years ago were not amplified. Even very young people say..hey, it’s too loud in here…Noise Induced Hearing Loss is real.

  10. Dear Sir,
    In your answer to Bob regarding “…worshiping the worship leaders…” no you were not wrong. But …as I read his letter I automatically assumed he did not mean what he wrote… but then of course you end up conjecturing. So – the lesson for Bob is: be accurate about what you say and write.

  11. I thought I was the only one in the world that felt like this intill I read about the book in a catalogue. Must get hold of It. I am desparate and only 55! I can not go back to the church I have been working for, for the last 34 years.

  12. Does MacDonald recognize the elderly have different needs than those in their thirties or younger?

  13. My church had a small group experiment concerning this book and my mom made me read it. This book sucks. I can’t sugarcoat it. The plot is horrible, the message is completely irrelevant to me and it’s about as fun to read as watching paint dry.

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