Book Review: "The People of God" by Trevor Joy and Spence Shelton

The People of God: Empowering the Church to Make Disciples
Trevor Joy and Spence Shelton
B & H Publishing Group
One LifeWay Plaza
Nashville, TN 37234
ISBN: 9781433683701; $14.99; May 2014
Reviewed by Rev. Dr. Michael Philliber for Deus Misereatur

Crafting Community – 4 stars out of 5

Small groups, care groups, life groups, groups, groups, groups! Small groups have become fairly standard fare in many churches, to the point that they have almost become the primary marker in peoples’ minds of whether a congregation is a true Church of Jesus Christ, or a cheap imitation. Yet, if you have been a Christian some length of time, or a pastor with some mileage under your belt, you know that small groups are a mixed bag. Nevertheless, there is something intuitively right and fitting about having little gatherings of God’s people, especially in larger and more geographically scattered churches. Trevor Joy, Spiritual Formation Pastor of the Village Church in Dallas, TX, and Spence Shelton, Spiritual Formation Pastor of the Summit Church in Raleigh-Durham, NC, have nailed down the important value of small groups done right. In their new, 167 page paperback, “The People of God: Empowering the Church to Make Disciples,” Joy and Shelton have mapped out the “why, what, and how” of setting up these little fellowships.

“The People of God” is an easy to read and easy to follow book. The whole backbone to the “why” of small groups happens to be the Trinity and our being made in the image of the Trinity. The authors tease out how we are hard-wired for communal life, that God’s creative action intentionally made us social beings as seen in Genesis 1 and 2. As the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one God and simultaneously three persons in communion, we are made for communion with God and with others in communion with God; “If God is the perfect community, then building a community that reflects Him is our responsibility to the people He has placed around us” (30). Because, as the author’s rightly note, you must let “your theology drive your methodology” (35), then this Trinitarian theme pulses through the bloodstream of this book from page one to the very end.

Joy and Shelton go further by pointing out the “what” behind having little bands of brothers and sisters gather communally.  The clear concern here is the place of interaction, helping each person to flourish and blossom in faith, hope, love, and sanctification. Even though the authors give very pointed and detailed suggestions on the ways this could be worked out, the whole reason for the “what” is clearly stated: “When shaping the community culture in a church, the focus needs to move away from creating new programs that lead people to connect and toward placing people into communal relationships that lead to life transformation” (78). This sentiment floats to the surface often throughout the book, in various ways.

There is also a lot of ink spilled in “The People of God” on the “how.” The authors lay many of their tools on the workbench; ways to prepare a congregation for moving to little bands of believers, questions to ask and work over, picking and equipping group leaders, intentionally aligning Sunday morning worship and week night evening groups (sermon-based studies, etc.), ground rules for engagement within the relational dance of a group, and ensuring that the genetic structure of a group is Gospel centered and Gospel sending.

In “The People of God” Joy and Shelton present a convincing case for the importance of small groups done well, that “community is something that is lived out, and not attended” (36). And they helpfully point out the potholes that can mess up a church’s steering column. If there is any beef I have with the book it would be these two things: first, the authors repeatedly state that the Sunday morning worship and gathering of the small groups are of equal importance. For a Confessional Presbyterian who strongly believes that the primary means of grace are the Word read and preached, the Sacraments rightly administered, and the prayers of the church gathered around Jesus, then their leveling concept is at the least, problematic. But it is not a show stopper.  Maybe a better way to put things would be; the week day small groups build up disciples for the glorious worship of the Lord’s Day, which empowers the week day groups to be what they are and do what they are designed to do.

The other beef is more conceptual. Both authors are pastors of large churches in large cities. If “The People of God” is read as a program that can be transplanted in any context, the results will likely be severe failure or outright frustration. I’m certain the authors are not intending their material to be used as a template, a “one-size-fits-all” program. If pastors and leaders will read it, asking the right questions of the book with their own particular context, congregational-life-setting, and geography in mind, then they will find the book encouraging, uplifting and idea-spawning.

“The People of God” is a thought-provoking, prayer-triggering read. The Trinitarian backbone, along with the Gospel life-blood coursing through its capillaries, will cheer any reader, and especially pastors and elders. This would be the right book for any congregation who already has small groups in place, to help them realign their direction and give renewed vigor. But it would also be just the book for those churches thinking about revamping or starting up communal groups. I gladly recommend “The People of God.”

Thanks to B & H Publishing Group for the gift of the book to accomplish this review. As always, feel free to repost or republish this review, but please give credit where credit is due. Mike


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