Better Together has many helpful and thought-provoking things to say for those considering a church merger, but it lacks theological depth for a book about the Church and churches. Jim Tomberlin and Warren Bird write in response to the growing number of church merges in North America (they are coming from an American context). Throughout the book, they seek to commend church mergers as a pathway for churches to flourish and achieve “kingdom growth.” As the subtitle suggests, “Making church mergers work,” they are not only commending church mergers but are seeking to guide those thinking about mergers through the process.
Better together is divided into three sections: “The first section is introductory, the second is informative (descriptive), the third instructional (prescriptive)” (xxiii). They use the term “lead church” throughout the book to describe the generally bigger church that takes the lead in the merger process and the “joining church,” which follows. They argue that all “healthy” church mergers have a lead and a joining church. They cover a lot of ground in the book, such as models of church mergers, the stages through which mergers proceed, why they succeed, why they fail, challenges facing those employed by both churches, and the contrast between business and church mergers. The final section contains many good questions to consider in the merger process. The description of successful and failed church mergers in the second section raises some important points of reflection for churches considering mergers. In these ways, Better Together will prove to be a helpful reference resource.
Though there was much helpful material in Better Together, the lack of theological reflection on the intersection of mergers and ecclesiology stood out most. The authors occasionally cite Scripture, but they do not demonstrate serious engagement with the meaning of the texts they use and the broader ecclesiology of Scripture. In the first case, for example, they cite Proverbs 29:18 in regard to church vision statements (pg. 102). In context, such a reading is indefensible: חָזוֹן is rightly translated as “prophetic vision” in the ESV. The parallel line confirms that revelation is intended. Their enthusiasm for church mergers also overshadows the deeper ecclesiological questions of why churches are failing in the first place and the appropriate remedy for this. It is hard to identify what exactly is wrong with the authors approach or engage with it because they do not wrestle with fundamental questions such as what identifies a church, what biblically constitutes a successful church, or what would constitute a successful or unsuccessful merger. The authors identify stability, growth, and multiplication as the marks of a healthy church in this context, yet I can think of dozens of scenarios where these may be found in an unhealthy church or where a healthy church lacks these things. It may well be the case that every merger they identify as healthy was and is so and that every unhealthy church was so, but they do not sufficiently unpack Biblical ecclesiology regarding mergers to justify such conclusions.
Though there is much practical use to be made of Better Together, the lack of a robust theological discussion of the matters at hand is a significant weakness.