Home > Uncategorized > Book review: Stop Dating the Church by Josh Harris

Book review: Stop Dating the Church by Josh Harris

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Note: I’m in the process of gathering my old threads and reposting them here. I’ll use them when I’m not able to produce original material on a given day.

The book being reviewed in this thread is Stop Dating the Church, written by Josh Harris, the senior pastor at Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Maryland and an author and speaker in his own right.

I felt after reading his book that Harris had some helpful things to say about involvement in the church, particularly to “church hoppers” and those not involved in any church. I still feel that way, and would recommend it as a resource to help people understand what true commitment to a church really is all about; though I may not come to the same conclusions he does, I think Harris is helpful in reminding us that church is much more than a place to sit in the back pew before the 1 o’clock NFL game watching the giant action figure talk about family and stuff.

Stop Dating the Church, written by pastor and author Joshua Harris, is a good little book that affirms the importance of belonging to a church community and participating in it as a giver, not as a consumer.

Harris, the pastor of Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Maryland, is probably most famous for writing a book extolling the virtues of courtship called I Kissed Dating Goodbye.

He calls on Christians to kissing dating the church goodbye, too, in Stop Dating the Church. In an age where many Christians (but not all) “shop” for churches and look for what can most benefit they and their families personally, Harris challenges the church-shopping reader to drop his consumeristic mindset.

Harris tells us some of the things that church-shoppers miss out on when they don’t commit to serving and being a part of a local church. He talks about what the church really is – not a building or an organization, but the body of Christ. Harris tells his readers why they need a local church, what happens when one joins a local church, and what the reader needs to look for when joining a local church (he boils them down to find one that teaches, values and lives God’s word), as well as giving tips for how to get the most out of Sunday services.

The level of commitment that Harris calls the reader to isn’t light. It is one that demands consistent, faithful participation in the life of that church, which includes service, regular attendance at the weekend services and giving. The idea of church discipline is also discussed, and Harris even goes so far as to recommend that readers looking for a church ask if the prospective church would be willing to kick you out for blatant, unrepentant sin.

Yet, Harris says all of these things in an easy going manner. He never comes across as yelling at the reader or trying to shove some undoable ideas down the reader’s throat.

Some grace might be advised, though, on behalf of people who have been hurt by the church (perhaps a good topic for a future book by Mr. Harris).

The idea is raised in this book that if you don’t join a church you are being disobedient to Scripture and may not really be a Christian. While it seems to me that Harris’s main point is that Christians need community to grow in Christ and cannot do so as lone rangers (which makes sense), that advice could be taken as abusive by someone who has been hurt by a local church, and has been burnt by every “local church” they’ve had the misfortune of running into (then again, what those folks could really use are strong, loving, committed Christians and a good, loving, Christ-honoring church to come alongside them).

The other point I have a problem with is Harris’s idea that you should seek a good, solid local church to the point of either not attending a certain college if there isn’t a good church in that community, or moving from your own community to another where there is a good local church.

First, his points on college just-so-slightly could easily lead to church leaders imposing their will on young college students and perhaps acting more in the church’s best interest than in the student’s best interest. More disturbing is the idea of moving out of town if you can’t find any good churches – what if you can’t? What is every church is the church from hell? Or you’re one of many people who don’t fit in with the existing church cliques? (Harris advises his reader to to pray for God to strengthen and refine the churches in their area, and find the best church they can and serve it humbly)

Even then, though, Harris doesn’t come off as demanding and authoritarian – perhaps his style makes his ideas a lot easier to accept than it would from another author.

The book is small, not much bigger than a CD and approximately 120 pages of material. It includes recommended books that will be helpful to the average Christian (including J.I. Packer’s Knowing God), and is one I recommend for anyone who is looking for a church or who needs to commit to one, local church.

Stop Dating the Church can be purchased through Amazon, christianbook.com, Monergism and Sovereign Grace.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I purchased this book myself, and my opinions are my own and not those of the author nor the publisher. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. mdsf
    September 29, 2008 at 1:29 pm

    Brian —

    I really appreciate your taking this up here. My wife and I are looking for a home church, so some of these issues are much on my mind right now.

    I’m a veteran of several bad churches, and I’ll spare you the details here, but as we are looking for a church the pastor is where I typically start (and subsequently stop) looking at a church. Does Harris deal with the question of how to pick a pastor?

    Or does he implicitly assume that every man who claims to be a pastor (or who gets himself ordained) is called by God for life, and everything he says about the church should be taken uncritically?

    Frankly that’s the thing that disturbs me about the “organization vs. community” or “organization vs. body” dichotomy: I understand the distinction in principle, but in practice it usually turns out to be a slight of hand: there’s lots of discussion of the obligations of the people in the pews, but not much in the way of a meaningful commitment on the part of the hierarchy.

    Or maybe it would be appropriate to ask if he proposes a model for choosing a church at all.

    Finally, why should I listen to anything Harris has to say? Shouldn’t he be minding his church and leave the rest of us alone?

  2. briwd2006
    September 29, 2008 at 1:42 pm

    mdsf, great to see you! Hope you and your family are doing well.

    In the chapter “Choosing Your Church” Harris offers 10 questions readers can ask when looking for a church.

    Question #5 is “Is this a church whose leaders are characterized by humility and integrity?”

    He says on page 90 “you want to find men you can trust and whose example you can follow.” He cites 1 Timothy 3 re: qualifications for pastors, then says that the most effective leaders are themselves servants.

    I suppose that as far as listening to him, it’s really up to you. Like anyone else, if he has something of value to say, he should be allowed to say it.

  3. briwd2006
    September 29, 2008 at 2:10 pm

    I might also add that Harris is writing to people who are church consumers, hopping from one church to another to get this teaching, or hear that worship performance, or get that experience, and encouraging them to settle down in one church, warts and all, and learn to give to it and not consume it.

    I realize you’ve been in many bad churches and don’t want to recommend something that makes light of that. I don’t recall anything in Harris’ book that would make light of your experiences, nor slam you for your reactions to them.

    On to another point you brought up about the organization vs. body dicthonomy: it would seem to me that older, established churches set in their ways can’t do any more than make superficial changes to their structure. You’d either have to plant a new church or tear down the old one and rebuild it from scratch (effectively starting a new church).

  4. mdsf
    September 29, 2008 at 5:49 pm

    Brian —

    Thanks much. I hope you all are doing well too.

    I suspect I’m on edge about Harris: I was responsible for a singles ministry during the latter part of the heyday of his earlier book, and I had to put up with a fair amount of dismissive attitude and comment (“dating isn’t biblical,” “any man over the age of [28?] who isn’t married isn’t an adult,” “men of a certain age who aren’t married should stop waiting for a supermodel”) so I tend to expect anything from Harris (and his ilk, loosely defined) to be more of the same. This isn’t necessarily a reasonable attitude, of course.

    I don’t know any of these church shoppers, so I doubt they exist.

    That’s good news regarding his Question #5; if I were putting together a list of things to look for I’d probably write something similar: it’s hard to find humility in a pastor, and unfortunately integrity is the sort of thing that is hard to detect without a crisis.

    Like anyone else, if he has something of value to say, he should be allowed to say it.

    I’m not really dealing with the question of whether he should be allowed to say it (in a Freedom of Speech sense). I’m more concerned with the question of where the “best-selling Christian author” fits into the lists of gifts and offices given in the New Testament. Never mind the question of where the money’s going. I have a hard time with the idea of someone suggesting a strong allegiance to the local church to people who aren’t part of his local church.

    I’m not sure what to say about your last paragraph in response 4: my natural inclination is to say “good riddance,” but I’m not sure that’s fair. I’m disturbed by the tendency of independent churches to either not outlast their founders or be passed on to a son or sons as if the church were a family business, the lack of accountability in these churches, and of course the fact that not everything that replaces an old church is actually an improvement.

  5. briwd2006
    September 29, 2008 at 11:06 pm

    mdsf,

    Recently Harris made some comments to the effect that he didn’t intend for his teaching on dating and courtship to be ironclad or as legalistic as people were making it out to be.

    I believe church shoppers do exist 🙂 I do know people who will go to one service to hear a preacher, then go to another church for another preacher.

    I hear you on having a hard time with someone preaching ‘local church’ to someone NOT in his church…but I wonder, if a pastor doesn’t say it, who can?

    I kinda think planting a new church is, in a way, saying ‘good riddance’ to a more established church that is conducting its affairs wrongly. If you’re at First Baptist, where it’s all about power and influence and kissing the rears of local and state politicians and ignoring the working class, and everything in you screams out against that, then planting a new church which seeks to glorify and honor God and minister to the poor and outcast (and uninfluential) is, to me, saying good riddance – at least to the unGodly attitudes at First Baptist.

  6. September 29, 2008 at 11:41 pm

    Hi Brian
    This is a good time for this thread for me, as I have been praying a lot lately as to how God would have me be involved in my church and help if I can’t maybe I should move on. he has also been dealing a lot with me about tithing. I read where God said prove me and I will open blessing something like that. but I have found that to be true. Im in no way saying we should give to get from God. but it works out that way a lot of times. the minute I started to tithe every week no matter how small God started sending students my way. I not only sit in the back row I sit along the back wall. Ok mostly from Panic..
    Well keep me in prayer I am trying to get the nerve to leave my church for good they have done nothing wrong nor have they hurt me in anyway. just the opposite they are some of the most loving and caring people I know. but it is just some doctrine I do not go along with is all. ok I will stop rambling now

  7. briwd2006
    September 30, 2008 at 10:04 am

    sorry for that piece of spam that made it through, everyone.

  8. briwd2006
    September 30, 2008 at 10:19 am

    Mary,

    It’s never an easy thing to leave a church. We may think it is, and I’ve left churches in the past for all kinds of reasons…now I believe there is wisdom in considering leaving a church for the right reasons.

    I’ve left churches before after getting a sense that they could take me or leave me; that if I left, no one in particular would miss me. Their doctrinal statement I could live with, but feeling neglected just about killed me inside, and so I left.

    We could probably spend all day on my next point, but most times I didn’t really seek God and ask His will (and I should have); I just left. I have a peace about where I am now, as opposed to going back to those churches, but if I do leave my current church, I need to check it out with the Lord to see what His will is.

    And that’s what I would encourage you to do – especially given that you say they are some of the most loving and caring people you know.

    Are you leaving over “essential” points of doctrine or “nonessential” points of doctrine?

    If they claim that Jesus was not the son of God, that He didn’t die on the cross, that we all are little gods or that we all have God inside us without the need to confess and repent of our sins and receive Jesus as savior and Lord, then yeah, you might want to leave.

    But if the issues are over things like, say, when the rapture occurs, or if tongues are still valid today, or even over women pastors, I’d think real hard. As long as they preach the gospel over all the nonessential doctrines particular to their network/denomination of churches, I’d consider staying anyway.

    Doctrine’s important, no doubt about it. Most important is if the people reflect Jesus by loving one another (and others), and if the gospel is proclaimed from the pulpit and in its ministries – and asking God to show you for sure what you should do.

  9. September 30, 2008 at 10:40 am

    you speak wise words Brian, they certainly do believe Jesus is the only way to heaven. It is just the small things. I will pray more about it.

  10. mdsf
    September 30, 2008 at 1:35 pm

    I hear you on having a hard time with someone preaching ‘local church’ to someone NOT in his church…but I wonder, if a pastor doesn’t say it, who can?

    I’d probably go further than that: I’d say it’s inconsistent for someone to produce religious consumer product to critique consumerist attitude inside the Church.

    It’s wrong for someone to criticize people for not committing to a church, then taking taking time away from the church where he should be serving as pastor to do a book tour. Especially if he’s going to suggest that people who aren’t sufficiently committed to a church “aren’t really Christians.” If that’s the case for the people in the pews, shouldn’t it also be the case for the guy in the pulpit?

    Why is he out pushing a book for profit when he’s already got a job allegedly serving a church?

  11. briwd2006
    September 30, 2008 at 2:28 pm

    1. “Especially if he’s going to suggest that people who aren’t sufficiently committed to a church “aren’t really Christians.” If that’s the case for the people in the pews, shouldn’t it also be the case for the guy in the pulpit?”

    I really should revisit that portion of my review, if for no other reason than to reemphasize my disagreement with his idea. By the way, Mark Dever pretty much says the same thing.

    I think most Christians would disagree with this idea, but that’s because it’s never really been brought up by most evangelicals. I personally think there’s something to Harris’s suggestion (and that’s what I would call it) but that doesn’t preclude Christians from going through seasons of isolation from a church body because of hurt, abuse, etc.

    2. You’re asking some good, and challenging questions. I really wish Josh Harris would find this blog and come here to answer them for me 🙂

    I don’t know that he’s pocketing all the money from this book. Some authors give profits from their books back to the church, and Harris may (or may not) be one of them.

  12. mdsf
    September 30, 2008 at 3:31 pm

    I’ll admit I may be reacting to more than just the book at hand here.

  1. September 29, 2008 at 12:34 pm
  2. September 29, 2008 at 12:47 pm

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