And the Shofar Blew
by Francine Rivers, Tyndale House, 2003, 445 pages.
It is quite clear that Francine Rivers intends her novel, and the Shofar Blew, to be a wake up call to the temptations inherent in pursuing the mega-church vision of church growth. The novel follows the dynamics in the Centerville Christian Church after a young, ambitious pastor, Paul Hudson, arrives on the scene to rescue it from oblivion. Paul is quite sincere in his desire to have the church grow, but is increasingly impatient with the resistance to change he finds among the elders who called him to his position. Gradually he begins to take power into his own hands, by-passing those who appear intent on keeping the church in a generation long past.
Once Paul has surrounded himself with hand-picked elders who agree with his ambitions, the church does in fact begin to grow. Before long the little church has three packed services every weekend, and plans begin to emerge to build a mega-church at a new site. God appears to be blessing Paulís ministry. People flock to hear him preach, even political and economic leaders in the community. Paul is on a roll. God is growing His church and Paul senses himself to be the chosen instrument of blessing for the community.
There are, however, a number of skeletons in the closet which Rivers brings out as the story unfolds. First is the fact that Eunice, Paulís wife finds herself increasingly estranged from her husband since he is so busy at the church. This is followed by a growing rebellious spirit in their son Tim, who resents his father for seldom even noticing him. Gradually, it becomes clear that Pastor Paulís ambition is fed by his own insecurity. His father had grown a mega-church of his own. And in the process Paul had experienced alienation from his father, David. Soon it becomes evident that the underlying drive behind Paulís ambition is to have his fatherís blessing, which he feels he has never received.
In the end Paul becomes embroiled in a sex-scandal, largely because he has ceased being accountable to anyone but himself. It is, in fact, a repeat of his father Davidís experience. The difference in this case, however, is that his wife Eunice is not prepared to protect her husband by keeping things quiet like Paulís mother had done. All is revealed in the end, the mega church collapses, and the people are scattered.
The Shofar is a ramsí horn used in biblical times to alert people to imminent danger. So the title suggests that Rivers believes it is time to blow the ramsí horn on much of the dynamic that can dog a mega-church project. From my observation over the past few decades, I think Rivers addresses fairly some of the key temptations inherent in the mega-church vision. Anyone with such visions in mind would do well to read this timely novel.
I was disappointed, however, that Rivers did not really offer an alternative solution to dying churches made up of senior citizens living on memories of a glorious past. Coming, as she does, from within Bible Belt fundamentalism, she seems intent on promoting the vision that the way forward is to return to the form and style of a generation past. Come to the Bible Study in the home of seniors on Wednesday evening, sing the old gospel songs that highlight the blood of Christ, listen to Godís personal and individual direction, and the church will thrive. From my point of view she fails to address some of the foundational issues that keep the church from being relevant within contemporary society.
Perhaps her strongest contribution on that front is to identify where the answer is not likely to be found - in the development of mega-churches. More work needs to be done on shaping the church in ways that will engage the present generation with the Gospel of Christ. Perhaps her next novel will address that issue. I can only hope.