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Moving Beyond Church Growth: an Alternative Vision for Congregations.

By Mark A. Olson. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2002. 156 pages. Paper. $15.00.

I thank God for the life of Pastor Mark A. Olson and the bold testimony he provided to God's mission in the world through congregations! Consistently in his writing and speaking, Olson witnessed to the centrality of three themes that characterize the life of Christian community: praise, righteousness, and compassion. Olson's theological commitments were deeply grounded in biblical tradition. He advocated that congregational ministry and mission should be patterned after what God has revealed to be the essentials of faithful community. Employing these theological criteria, in this book Olson both criticizes the logic of "church growth" and proposes an alternative model for congregational mission.

In the first chapters of this book, Olson provides a trenchant analysis of church-growth principles, unmasking them as thoroughly grounded in modernity rather than biblical faith. Church growth portrays itself as a science that operates by certain universal rules and is grounded in objective knowledge about what is effective. It promotes specialization and individual freedom as key elements in successful churches. In chapter 3 Olson evaluates the principles of church growth according to the biblical criteria of praise, righteousness, and compassion, and deems them seriously lacking in theological substance.

Olson proposes an alternative agenda for leading faithful congregations. I will make reference to only two of his provocative proposals. First, Olson advocates that the lectionary texts for a given week become the focus of attention for the entire life of the congregation. Not only at worship but in meetings, in prayers, as well as in explicitly educational programs, congregations would be transformed by orienting their common life entirely by what God is speaking to them through the particular texts assigned for a given week. Olson imaginatively offers the reader a glimpse of what this might look like in the life of the congregation.

Second, Olson argues that congregations would be served best if each congregation only had a single pastor. "For congregational witness to be boldly evangelical ... congregations must have a strong, compassionate, courageous, and clearly identified leader. When this essential leadership role is divided and shared, the evangelical mission of the church suffers greatly" (pp. 86-87). Where congregations require multiple staff for effective ministry, Olson contends that these should be lay staff, employing the gifts of the universal priesthood of all believers. What might be the implications of this proposal for addressing the current shortage of ordained pastors?

Creative theologian and faithful pastor, Mark A. Olson died on November 7, 2002. To those who knew him, his life was a personal gift. Through his writings, including this book, many others can continue to benefit from his wisdom. Requiem aeternum dona Mark Domine! It is a great encouragement to know that he, amid the company of all the saints, now is cheering us on to faithfulness in the race that is set before us.

Craig L. Nessan

Wartburg Theological Seminary
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Author:Nessan, Craig L.
Publication:Currents in Theology and Mission
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Aug 1, 2003
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