Book Review – Invading Secular Space (Martin Robinson & Dwight Smith)

This fascinating book addresses the question of how the decline of the church in the West might be turned around. The authors contend that the solution is not found in persuading secular people to enter our sacred spaces, but to invade secular space ourselves, as God did in Christ. They survey the lamentable condition of many traditional churches, which survive financially on a church tax, or by selling buildings, and are filled with clergy for whom leading is a profession rather than a passion. Even growing churches in the West have often simply learned “how to attract Christians from other churches more effectively than other congregations can”.

There is a desire for a “quick-fix” solution, perhaps taking the conventional wisdom of marketing strategies, but the authors claim that what is really needed is to “ignite a movement”, turning people into activists rather than merely participants. The world is yearning for an experience of community that the church would like to offer but has forgotten how to model.

In chapter 2 there is a helpful survey of church history and how the state and church have interacted for good and for ill over the years. In later chapters they move on to describe how they see the problem being solved. They question the idea that we simply need to pray for revival, arguing that we have romanticised many revivals of the past, and actually the church has grown more through gaining the favour of those around than simply through revival. People such as Wilberforce with his work to abolish slavery are seen as key to changing the nation’s opinion of the church.

Church planting is strongly emphasised throughout the book as a vital strategy in turning around the decline. They see this not just as an exercise for new churches, but as a process for renewal of traditional churches, planting fresh congregations in place of existing dwindling ones. They see a recovery of the Eph 4 ministries (not necessarily “offices), as crucial to this process.

Church leaders whose vision is merely for a bigger church come in for some censure – mission should be the end, the church is just the means. All churches (megachurches included) need to plan to plant other churches, and use small group discipleship as a means for training new leaders, spreading the vision, and helping people to “live the story”. There is also strong criticism for the “lone leader” approach, where a church is run by a senior pastor. They claim that the Biblical model is “team leadership”, drawing on 1 Cor 12. I think they overstate the case though when they say “there is no passage in the New Testament where leadership, in any dimension, is ever dealt with in singularity”.

Churches are described as “organic”, meaning that they will have a natural cycle from birth to maturity to decline and death. This model is used throughout the book, and some attention is given to how churches in the “decline” phase can be revitalised. Churches that want to help ignite a movement that will last beyond a single generation are encouraged to start praying seriously, using small groups for discipleship, take a pragmatic approach to evangelistic strategies, and ensuring that church planting is in the “DNA” of the church.

Overall I would say that anyone interested in church growth should read this book, to be challenged and stimulated to new ways of thinking. Even my own church grouping, New Frontiers, which has embraced many of the principles in this book, would do well to consider whether mega-churches are being sought as an alternative to church planting, rather than as a means for more aggressive church planting. Whether by restoration or renewal, the church in the West needs to regain a passion for what it is called to be and to do in this world.

5 thoughts on “Book Review – Invading Secular Space (Martin Robinson & Dwight Smith)

  1. Hmm …. good review! Thanks. I remember Terry Virgo recommending this at Brighton and I mentally added it to my “must-read” list and then promptly forgot it.

    I will get it and read it!

  2. Even as more and more churches become bigger in Newfrontiers I really can’t see anything but more aggressive church planting happening.

    If we’re believing for 1000 churches in the UK and presently only at 200 odd, 800 is a lot more to go!

    Take Tony Thompson for example, who I know wants to build a big church in Luton, but in the 3 or so years he’s been going with Luton, he’s established that church, planted another and about to plant another.

    That’s what I would call aggressive church planting!

  3. I think Tony’s approach is the right one, but it is takes faith if you want to build a big church to send off a team of gifted people to start another. Just as many advocates of “cell church” emphasise, groups need to “multiply” to grow.

    I can’t remember the exact figure but the book suggests that a church aim to plant something like 5 churches in a 20 year period.

    The book contends that with a few notable exceptions, the mega churches in the West are not into church planting, but in the rest of the world, it is simply part of what they do.

    I don’t want to see a vision for a “juggernaut” church become an excuse not to get involved with church planting in New Frontiers.

  4. Yes, but can’t the two go together? I felt that was the essence of P J Smythes address at Brighton. That if we are sensative to the Spirit’s leading, He will identify the juggernaughts to be built (well either Him – or David Holden) but the church planting is taken as writ?

    That’s the way I saw it I think!

  5. Indeed Dan,

    PJ message about juggernauts was partly focused on juggernauts can resource so much more – resource what? church planting + apostolic extension

    Church planting will always be on the Newfrontiers agenda.

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