What Church Can Be functions as an exposition, a memoir, and a blueprint, all rolled into one.
First and foremost, it’s an extended exposition of Paul’s farewell speech (Acts 20:18-35) to his deeply-loved brothers who were serving as elders of the Ephesian church.
No text has been more influential in shaping my theological vision for what we are actually trying to do in planting and pastoring churches than this inspired transcript that Luke has given us. The first time I memorized these words, I did so through tears (sobs, really) as I repented and wept and begged God to mark our ministry with the same fervency, integrity, courage, intimacy, and grace that I saw in Paul’s. There is almost no strand in the DNA of how we do church at Seven Mile Road that can’t be traced back somehow to these words, and so I’ve built this book accordingly. Every chapter anchors to and meditates on a phrase from Paul’s speech. To whatever degree the husks of my stories, reflections, and illustrations house the true meaning and import of his words, that’s the degree to which this book will be helpful.
This also means that nothing I am writing is original. I may say it with a Bostonian parlance you’re unfamiliar with, but all of it comes directly from the life and ministry of Paul and the missional family that built this Ephesian church with him. The way forward for Christians is always the way backward to the eternal truths revealed in the words of Scripture. Building our churches on the latest fads and trends is suicidal and unnecessary. Scripture is not only inspired, inerrant, and perspicuitous, it’s also sufficient: everything we need to lead holy and healthy churches is already written. Whatever we say and do should emerge from the rich soil of God’s previously spoken Word.
Second, it’s a memoir.
I have 150 favorite Psalms, and Psalm 9 is one of them:
"I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart;
I will tell of all your wonderful deeds!"
That’s the spirit in which I have written every word in this book.
Our Father’s grace in inviting me into the work he is doing through Seven Mile Road has been so surprising, so stupendous, and so undeserved that I can’t explain it. I wouldn’t trade the joys I’ve experienced, or the friendships I’ve forged, or even the failures I’ve endured for season tickets to the Celts (courtside). The Spirit has literally taken the truths of Acts 20 and actualized them in real-time in my soul and in the souls of the Bostonians I love. This book is packed with our stories, not to hype us up (please), but to give Psalm-9-esque glory to God, and to infuse in your soul a vision of what’s possible for you and your church.
Third, it’s a blueprint.
The future of gospel advance in post-Christian America hinges on the willingness and ability of the next generation of pastors to build biblically-faithful and missionally-focused churches among distinct people groups like the one we are sent to just north of Boston. (If you’re context isn’t as post-Christian as ours, give it a minute.) The next American pastors need to be leading these kinds of churches. While clear theological vision is essential to this work, at some point the work itself has to actually get done. While I appreciate and benefit from the work of formally trained theologians, I am not one. I’ve only attended (crashed, really) two seminary classes in my life, and, although each was only two hours long, both seemed to drag on for days. Reading about post-exilic monarchs in stuffy library basements is not my thing. Nor is chatting about ministry models at Starbucks. How about we get busy growing real churches among real sinners in need of real grace? That’s what we’ve been doing for 17 years, and this book is a kind of field guide to how we’ve done it. Each chapter not only presses big theological truth, but also articulates some real-life ways to flesh that truth out.
In one sense, I’ve written primarily with pastors and future pastors in mind, whether they be church planters, church revitalizers, or those leading established churches. In doing this I believe I am taking my cues from the text of Acts 20 itself. Paul’s speech was not given to a random collection of whoever was by the shore that day. It was given to “the elders of the church.” Why these men? They were responsible before God for what happened on the ground. As their holiness, unity, and orthodoxy went, so went the church’s. If anyone needs clear vision of what church can be, it’s these men whom the Spirit has made overseers of the work.
Of course, my hope is also that this book could be read beneficially by anyone who is deeply invested in their local church and interested in seeing a biblical blueprint for growing a strong church in their city the way Jesus’ Apostle Paul did in Ephesus.