by Nate Phillips
Cascade Books, Eugene, Ore. 156 pages
Reviewed by Michael McNamara
There is a pervasive narrative regarding mainline churches these days — a narrative of decline and stagnation. An apt comparison might be the paralytic man from John 5 who sat beside the pool called Bethesda for 38 years waiting and hoping for healing. How many “paralyzed” churches when asked if they would like to be “made well” might respond with all the reasons why transformation is impossible, why they cannot get to the restorative waters, how they just need someone to carry them there?
If this is truly an apt comparison, then the Good News is that all those “paralyzed” churches are being called, through the gentle whispers of the Holy Spirit, to take up their mat and walk. And there are a lot of churches doing just that — taking their mats and running! Nathan Phillips, pastor of Red Clay Creek Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, Delaware, has set out to tell some of those stories in “Do Something Else.” An excellent writer and storyteller, Phillips details personal experiences, explores (with help from Matthew Bruce) the theological framework of transformational engagement, offers study questions for group reading and, as previously mentioned, provides a wealth of narratives describing the diverse and creative ways churches are setting out to do something else and thriving.
Maybe most importantly for Presbyterians, this book is specifically targeted at mainline churches. Given the prominence of post-denominationalism in the midst of church transformation discussions, mainline folks can feel like real transformation is out of reach within the confines of presbyteries or synods. By exclusively telling the stories of mainline churches, Phillips manages to move denominations off the list of reasons why churches cannot “get to the stirred water.” The mainline churches presented by Phillips become metaphysical partners in ministry, helping congregations remember that ministry is not meant to be done alone.
Phillips’ effective and efficient writing means that this is not just a book for pastors or mid council staff. It is fully accessible and can be read by any churchgoer interested in what else the congregation could be doing. Be forewarned: The book is clearly intended to challenge many of the assumptions made by mainline congregations regarding what it means to be church and might be hard to swallow in a few places. It should also be noted that not every story of transformation will resonate with every congregation, but it still an incredibly valuable read. It may only take one prophetic line, or it may only take one account of a transformed congregation, to inspire a church to take up the task of doing something else.
Phillips invites mainline churches to take risks, to trust in the Holy Spirit, to try and “do real things,” the sort of real things Phillips became witness to while setting out to collect these stories. This book highlights the paradoxical nature of church work, the paradoxical nature at the heart of institutional change, the paradoxical nature of Jesus’ interaction with the paralytic by the pool called Bethesda. By letting go of what is perceived to be the surest pathways to healing and trusting God, it is then that long sought after healing begins to occur.
Michael McNamara is pastor of Adelphi Presbyterian Church in Adelphi, Maryland, and mission specialist for the National Capital Presbytery.