Love Your Church (Welcome, Gather, Belong) – Jen Oshman, Tony Merida, Barnabas Piper

Gather, Belong, Welcome by Barnabas Piper, Jen Oshman, Tony Merida
Also by this author: Hoping for Happiness: Turning Life's Most Elusive Feeling into Lasting Reality, Welcome: Loving Your Church by Making Space for Everyone, Ruth For You: Revealing God's Kindness and Care, Love Your Church: 8 Great Things about Being a Church Member
Series: Love Your Church
Published by Good Book Company on January 1, 2023
Genres: Non-Fiction, Christian Life

In 2021, in the wake of lockdowns and people turning to the internet for teaching, Tony Merida wrote Love Your Church—a book which had a huge impact. He powerfully showed that the local church matters, outlining how ordinary church members can love their church.

This series expands on the concepts in Tony’s original book, going much deeper into how to love your church family in the areas of belonging, welcoming, gathering, caring, serving, honoring one another, witnessing, and mission.

Written by a collection of Bible teachers from Acts29, these thoughtful and practical books will help you to have fruitful discussions on how you can better love and serve your church family. Choose the resources that cover the areas most helpful to your particular church-family needs.

The Love Your Church series is a new series from The Good Book Company and Acts 29 focusing on creating flourishing local church congregations. The Acts 29 network is currently headed by Matt Chandler, but has its roots with Mark Driscoll and the Mars Hill complex of churches. Acts 29 is Reformed Calvinistic, conservative evangelical, and been (rightfully, in my opinion) accused of toxic and authoritarian leadership. Thus, any material coming from or endorsed by Acts 29 has to be seen through that lens. The theological background and perspective I can respect, even if I do not agree. The leadership abuses I cannot respect, no matter their theological background.

Within the three Love Your Church books (Welcome by Jen Oshman, Gather by Tony Merida, and Belong by Barnabas Piper), there is much objectionable material. But then again, there simply isn’t that much material. The books are bland and superficial. They are generic and perfunctory. They are well-designed, well-packaged, and read like something you’d encounter during a membership class at an Acts 29 church.

In Welcome, Jen Oshman writes about “loving your church by making space for everyone.” The book’s highlight is how it talks about the Gospels message being a radical welcome to individuals of all ethnicities and class backgrounds, men or women. However, the book lacks specifics of what this means and gives the overall impression that the welcoming is an invitation to assimilation rather than the development of multicultural worship.

Belong, written by Barnabas Piper, is about “loving your church by reflecting Christ to one another.” Of the three books, I found this one most compelling because of Piper’s personal story of being the child of a prominent pastor (his dad is John Piper), yet feeling disconnected from church until finding a home as an adult at Immanuel Church in Nashville. The book is about finding and developing community, but the advice is both generic and leading. Action questions throughout the texts read “Do you have a checklist for what you’re looking for in a church? Does it reflect ‘healthy church culture.’” He dismisses being hurt by a church as “rare” and says that healing can only be found in a different church. The book gives stock, generic advice that is good superficially but could be toxic contextually.

Gather, the final Love Your Church book is written by Tony Merida. Tony is a VP with Acts 29 and the author of a book called Love Your Church. His focus in on “loving your church as you celebrate Christ together,” which appears to be all about the importance of corporate worship—but not just corporate worship, in-person on-Sunday church service. Merida obliquely criticizes churches that did not meet in-person during the COVID pandemic, stating that the early church didn’t allow persecution to keep them from meeting. Merida also pinpoints the sermon as the critical point of the Sunday gathering, elevating himself and his role in the service. Look, I’m a pastor and I love to preach, but I think the centrality of everyone focusing on one person as the overwhelming part of the time commitment to gathering is what has led to pastor-centered, rather than Christ-centered churches. Again, like the other books, there’s nothing superficially objectionable in the text—it’s the context that matters. It’s limp and lifeless advice that will appeal to people already following that advice and nobody else.

In the end, the Love Your Church series of books has all the passion of having been written by ChatGPT with a superficial banality that seems more about restoring the system of consumeristic evangelicalism than it does actually creating spiritually-flourishing individuals. Their advice isn’t always bad, but generically good advice stuck into rigid systems can become bad or limiting. The brevity of the books means that the authors do no arguing of their position, they simply assert it. They give no evidence that their position leads to flourishing, they just assume it. They engage with no other models of church, they just dismiss them. All of that gets wrapped within unengaging, uninteresting, and uncompelling writing. It’s unfortunately disappointing.