Prayer by Timothy Keller

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There’s no shortage of good books on prayer. Martin Luther’s Simple Way to Pray, Answers to Prayer by George Müller, CH Spurgeon’s The Pastor in Prayer, A Call to Pray by J.C. Ryle… These are some of the finest books on prayer I’ve read, and Christians would be doing themselves a disservice in not reading them.

While there are many wonderful classic books on prayer, I’ve noticed a severe lack of good modern books on the subject. Most modern books tend to fall into a couple of categories: wicked and stupid. The wicked ones accuse people who pray things like “if it’s Your will” of being cowards who are afraid to pray boldly. The stupid ones encourage us to pray like pagans.

And then Tim Keller went and wrote a book on prayer. Keller, “wicked,” and “stupid,” are words that do not belong together. And he only further proves this in Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God

Theology before practice

Keller offers us something different with Prayer—he doesn’t jump straight into the mechanics, but instead begins by helping readers understand prayer. He puts developing a right theology of prayer ahead of principles for its practice. This is important because most of us (likely) don’t have an articulated theology of prayer that goes beyond “I pray because I’m supposed to.”

While that’s true, there’s significantly more to it than that. Prayer, Keller explains, is both an instinct and a spiritual gift. “As an instinct, prayer is a response to our innate but fragmentary knowledge of God… As a gift of the Spirit, however, prayer becomes the continuation of a conversation God has started” (50). So, on an instinctual level, the “I’m supposed to” is correct—we just don’t understand why. This instinct is why prayer is a nearly universal phenomenon; regardless of their specific beliefs, nearly all humans have a concept of prayer, though the forms and purposes differ drastically.

But in describing prayer as a gift of the Spirit, Keller wants us to understand that prayer is both a conversation and encounter with God. It’s not “plunging into the abyss of unknowing and a state of wordless unconsciousness,” but something tethered to God’s Word, the place from which we learn of and hear from God. Thus, “if the goal of prayer is a real, personal connection with God, then it is only by immersion in the language of the Bible that we will learn to pray, perhaps as slowly as a child learns to speak” (55).

Keller’s continual emphasis on keeping prayer connected to the Bible is important, and something sorely lacking today. What he doesn’t advocate for is a type of rote “just pray what the Bible says,” but to pray through the Scriptures as Luther encourages in his teaching on the subject. To let the Word guide and shape our prayers.

Leaning on the wisdom of the past

Perhaps what I enjoy most about Prayer—beyond the simple, practical principles provided—is the fact that Keller doesn’t attempt to be original (which is what gets us all into so much trouble). Instead, he leans heavily on the wisdom of those who have gone before us—Augustine, Calvin, Luther, Owen, Edwards, Torrey, and, more recently, Lewis, Clowney, and Packer (with a dash of the Westminster Catechism thrown in for good measure).

Could one ask for better influences?

This is where the book’s strong emphasis on being tethered to the Word in prayer comes from. Augustine, the Reformers, the Puritans, and faithful modern saints understood this better than many of us do today. We tend to give a verbal hat tip, whereas they see the Scriptures as vitally important to our prayer life. Luther advocates for a spiritual riffing off of the Word in prayer—taking the words of, say, the Lord’s Prayer and making them our own. Calvin encourages us to hold a joyful fear of God in prayer; to always be reverential in our stance toward Him and pursue humility as we pray. And Clowney likewise suggests “prayer involves an honesty that has no real parallel in human relationships” (135)

We repeatedly come to this conclusion throughout the book: if prayer is both an instinct and a gift, we need to pray in light of what God has said about Himself—and about us.

Awe, intimacy, and struggle

All that being said, prayer is not “easy.” There are seasons when I have a very strong and healthy prayer life, but often it feels perfunctory and powerless. Often my own sinfulness, stubbornness, and even some insecurity are the cause. When the weight of the world feels as though its pressing down, it’s difficult to even know where to begin. When prayer feels forced and feeble, it’s hard to muster up the power to continually pursue it.

And yet, this is what God desires of us. He wants us to embrace the struggle. because “prayer is awe, intimacy, struggle—yet the way to reality. There is nothing more important, or harder, or richer, or more life-altering. There is absolutely nothing so great as prayer” (32).

As I read this book, I continually found myself surprised by how much I needed to underline; it’s rare to find a page in my copy where I don’t have a note, squiggle or marking of some sort because I was confronted or challenged by what I’d just read. And yet, I did not walk away from the book disheartened.

Keller’s message, far from the pray more harder of so many of the “wicked” and “stupid” books available today, challenges us, but reminds us of the grace of God. This is what I believe those struggle in their prayer life desperately need. They don’t need another book to beat them up. They need encouragement and guidance. This is what Prayer offers. It is rich in its theology, winsome in its approach and wise in its application. There may be few good modern books on prayer, but Prayer is one of them—and among the finest I’ve read of any era.


Title: Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God
Author: Timothy Keller
Publisher: Dutton (2014)

Buy it at: Westminster Bookstore | Amazon

Rising Above a Toxic Workplace

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I have a hard time imagining what it’s like to work in a “healthy” workplace. I mean, I know they exist. I even have friends who work in places they absolutely love. But I’ve worked in more unhealthy ones than not. And some have been downright toxic. Like, hearing the owner of a company I worked for curse a blue streak at my supervisor repeatedly. (Did I mention they lived together, too? Yeah, I worked in a soap opera.)

If Rising Above a Toxic Workplace is any indication, it seems as though my experience isn’t as out of the ordinary as I thought. In fact, according to Gallup, “seven of ten US workers are either ‘going through the motions’ or flat-out hate their jobs” (11). Thousands of people dread going to work every morning, wondering if they can survive another day, or if today will be the day they say “when” and resign. It’s to these people that authors Gary Chapman, Paul White and Harold Myra primarily write this book, providing insight, encouragement and practical strategies for survival. What they’ll find are numerous stories of men and women just like them who have faced the choice of how to cope—and when to quit.

Toxic bosses aren’t necessarily evil—they’re just over their heads

What these stories (which comprise the vast majority of the book) help us see are the choices before us. Consider Melanie’s story of a coworker who was a victim of the Peter Principle—a cheeky description of one who “keeps getting promoted till they reach the level of their incompetence. Often they are promoted into positions of power without the skills to exercise [it]” (29).

Melanie’s colleague, Brenda, was one of these. When she was promoted, Brenda became ornery and “even nasty… She was losing our respect,” Melanie said (29). She would pick a staff member and harass her, and this continued until Melanie finally had enough and told her “I love my job here, and I like you as a person, but I can’t respect you as a boss. I’m no longer going to sacrifice my life here” (30). And so she quit.

But what’s especially helpful in Melanie’s story is the question that arises from it: although Melanie’s husband suggested that Brenda had an evil streak, it might have been just as likely that she simply had no clue how to do her job. When people are overwhelmed, they perform out of their weaknesses, rather than their strengths. Thus, when a person with limited or no leadership skills is elevated to a management position, he or she is doomed to fail. This doesn’t excuse the behavior, by any means, but it should help us consider our responses to these people.

I once knew a man who was Peter Principled; he was a nice guy, fairly decent at the job he had, but he wasn’t someone I would ever have considered a leader. He just wasn’t wired that way. Yet, he wound up in a position he was completely ill-suited for. I knew the moment I heard about it he wouldn’t last. And he didn’t—the job crushed him.

Why do I share that, and why do I find Melanie’s story so helpful? Because it’s a reminder that we should have sympathy even for bad bosses. Very often they’re not bad people; they’ve just over their heads.

We also need to remember that churches and non-profits are just as susceptible as any other organization to becoming toxic. “Appeals to ‘the cause’ create pressures to conform to unhealthy codes. Poisons in ministry culture range from subtle fumes that slowly sicken to flames that scorch. Some workers suffer quietly for years while other get fired” (54). (Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?)

Learning from toxic bosses and cultures

As depressing as reading so many stories of toxic environments can be, we can also learn much from their example.

First, as the authors point out in a survival strategy: toxic work environments naturally make people frustrated and angry. And if we’re not careful, we can become bitter. And bitterness will only make us toxic, too. We need to “find ways to nurture [our] inner reserves and gain perspective. Develop toughness, but resist embittered resentments” (35). We can’t “let bad leadership start to sour [ours].”

Second is to consider what’s right. When the opportunity for a promotion comes our way (if it happens), we need to consider:

  • Am I actually the right person for the job?
  • Has God wired me for this sort of work?
  • Do I have the necessary character and gifts?

Just because an opportunity comes our way, it doesn’t mean we need to say yes. For the good of our colleagues, organizations, families and selves, sometimes the best thing we can do is say “no.”

Finally, we need to remember that our workplace—whether we work in a church, charity, or multinational conglomerate—are all susceptible to having toxic cultures, and we are all responsible for how we contribute. Through our actions, we will either spread the toxicity, or we can can be a voice for health.

Being part of healthy change is probably the hardest. In fact, it’s much easier to continue on in patterns that tear down, rather than build up. And in some organizations, the healthiest thing we can do is leave. I know many people who have done this. But sometimes the hardest thing—staying and fighting for change, either until it happens or they get sick of you and you get fired—is the right thing to do. It’s risky, but sometimes the risk is right.

Helpful tools for gaining insight and developing a plan for change

Rising Above a Toxic Workplace is one of the business culture books you see all-too-rarely: one that actually talks about the problems in a workplace as though they’re problems by speaking to the people most affected by them. Whether your organization is healthy or toxic, and whether you are a leader or a staff member, this book will offer you many useful tools to help you see where you and your culture are at and develop a plan for change.


Title: Rising Above a Toxic Workplace: Taking Care of Yourself in an Unhealthy Environment
Authors: Gary Chapman, Paul White, and Harold Myra
Publisher: Northfield Publishing/Moody Publishers (2014)

Buy it at: Amazon

The Pagan Heart of Today’s Culture

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Nature abhors a vacuum. A bit cliché, perhaps, but true nonetheless, especially as we consider the cultural landscape of the West. As Christianity’s influence in wanes, something else is rising to take its place. But what? According to Peter Jones, it’s paganism, or Oneism. In The Pagan Heart of Today’s Culture, the latest in P&R and Westminster Theological Seminary’s Christian Answers to Hard Questions series, Jones introduces readers to this belief, grounding his study by showing the connections between three other isms—polytheism, Gnosticism, and postmodernism.

“These three ways of thinking have become strangely connected,” he writes. “Together they help explain the nature of today’s pagan worldview and its opposition to the truth of the gospel” (5).

Three isms and Oneism

Each of the isms described in this booklet represent pieces of a larger puzzle that, when seen together, describe a worldview ultimately about one thing: the end of distinctions. No longer will there be need for the distinction between male and female (sound familiar?), right or wrong, good or evil… “a rejection of the opposites is in fact…a fundamental aspect of religious paganism, so that postmodern philosophy fits surprisingly well with the religious yearnings for the morality and spirituality of inclusion—pantheistic ‘all is one’ wholeness” (9).

This is seen not only in postmodernism, but gnosticism and polytheism as well. Ultimately, these ideas all coalesce in the end of the distinction between Creator and creation. And this is the great lie we see in Romans 1:25—that people exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshipped and served creatures instead of the Creator. That, in essence, is what Jones calls Oneism, and it is a deadly snare.

Twoism: the Achilles’ heel of the “all-is-one” fantasy

Contrast this with Twoism, or, rather, biblical Christianity, a view that embraces distinction—male-female, right-wrong, Creator-creation. This, Jones says, is the only significant challenge to the rising tide of paganism, which is why there is such a strong effort to snuff it out in our day:

Twoism is the Achilles’ heel of their “all-is-one” fantasy. Twoism must therefore be spoken of and lived out with love, courage, and coherent clarity before a hostile world progressively enveloped by the delusion of the unifying Oneist lie. And as Paul implied so long ago, the future confrontation will be between not simply thinkers but spiritual worshipers, the worshipers of creation and the worshipers of the Creator. (35)

Jones’ challenge isn’t to engage in more culture wars in the sense some may fear. He’s not telling us to run around calling people pagans for doing yoga, for example. Instead, he’s challenging us to live out our faith as we’ve been called to—to be people who celebrate the differences between male and female, as well as between humans and the rest of creation, and who rejoice in the difference between God as our Creator and ourselves as created beings.

This is something we so easily forget, isn’t it? That while we should be informed in our thinking, the call is not to be the best apologists out there and present the clearest argument: Our call is to be people who obey our transcendent Lord, the One through whom and for whom all things were created.

A solid and accessible introduction

The Pagan Heart of Today’s Culture does not represent the end of a journey, but the beginning of one. If you’re intrigued by the concepts of Oneism and Twoism, or if you’re confused by them, Jones unpacks these concepts in greater detail, particularly in One or Two and Gospel Truths, Pagan Lies, both of which I would highly encourage reading. However, if you’re looking for an accessible and solid starting point, this is the book to get.


Title: The Pagan Heart of Today’s Culture
Author: Peter Jones
Publisher: P&R Publishing/Westminster Theological Seminary Press (2014)

Buy it at: Westminster | Amazon

Can I Really Trust the Bible?

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There are a lot of really great books out there on the trustworthiness of the Bible. Some of these tend to be on the academic side, demonstrating the historical reliability of the Scriptures, the formation of the canon and so on. Others are more devotional in nature, designed to edify and encourage believers as they seek to have confidence in this book which is so important.

These approaches are good and helpful, but many readers want something that’s a bit more direct and to the point. This is what Barry Cooper offers in Can I Really Trust the Bible?, the latest in The Good Book Company’s Questions Christians Ask series. Over the book’s five chapters, Cooper offers compelling answers to three key questions:

  1. Does the Bible claim to be God’s word?
  2. Does the Bible seem to be God’s word?
  3. Does the Bible prove to be God’s word?

The inescapable force of circular logic

These three questions absolutely essential to any serious study of the nature of the Bible. If the Bible does not claim to be, seem to be, or prove to be God’s word—if it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny—then we must reject the notion of the Bible being God’s word. If it’s a duck, we cannot call it a swan. And so we are wise to consider what the Bible says about itself in order to verify its nature.

Which, of course, leads to that common critique many Christians face—the charge of circular reasoning. But, Cooper notes, “When you think about it, it’s impossible for any of us to avoid this kind of circularity in our arguments: we all appeal to authority of one kind or another, even when we don’t realise it.” He continues:

…if I say: “The Bible is my highest authority because it can be proved rationally”, the argument would be self-defeating. I’d be appealing to an authority other than the Bible (rationalism), implying that it (and not God’s word) was the real measure of trustworthiness.”

This level of candor is refreshing to read in any book on this subject, and very much needed. We don’t need to deny that, yes, we’re use circular logic—why? Because (as Cooper notes above) appealing to anything other than the Bible implicitly places authority over the Bible in something other than the Bible.

Authority and evidence

 

This doesn’t mean, though, that appeals to outside evidence are invalid. For example, one of the most common challenges to the Bible today is whether or not we can know for certain what it said in its original manuscripts. If we can’t have any certainty on this, we can’t have any real confidence that what is found in the Bible as we know it today is what was intended by its original authors. But the embarrassment of riches we have in the form of ancient manuscripts—some dating back to within just a few decades of the events described—are a wonderful example of how God’s people have faithfully maintained the message.

…although we no longer have access to the original biblical documents, all is not lost. The truly enormous number of surviving copies enables experts to reconstruct the original with great accuracy. This process of comparing copies is called textual criticism, and as a result, scholars are able to say: “For over 99% of the words of the Bible, we know what the original manuscript said.”

 

It’s appropriate to mention evidence like this, not as a gotcha, but to help illustrate the point: if early Christians didn’t believe the Bible was God’s word, why would they have been so meticulous in making copies, so much so that the variations that exist affect no major doctrine of the faith (and most are limited to things like typos)? Evidence of this sort doesn’t prove the point, but it does lend additional credibility to the point the Bible itself makes.

Breaks no new ground, but refreshing nonetheless

Having said all that, readers should be aware that they’re unlikely to find anything they’ve not already read in any number of other books on this subject. The arguments are as solid as what you’ll find in Kevin DeYoung’s Taking God at His Word, R.C. Sproul’s Can I Trust the Bible? or Michael Kruger’s Canon Revisited. And while Cooper may not break new ground, Can I Really Trust the Bible? is a refreshing and encouraging read that would be excellent to share with those looking to study this important topic.


Title: Can I Really Trust the Bible?
Author: Barry Cooper
Publisher: The Good Book Company (2014)

Buy it at: Amazon | Westminster Bookstore

The Company We Keep

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“…What really matters is what you like, not what you are like… Books, records, films—these things matter.” With this one sentence, Rob, the grumpy, and broke protagonist of the Nick Hornby novel (and, later, John Cusack film), High Fidelity, perfectly captures the shallowness of our world’s understanding of friendship, a problem exacerbated by Facebook and other forms of social media. We are “friends” with people we don’t know, telling them details about our lives they have no business knowing… simply because we like some of the same stuff.

We know of people, but we don’t really know one another.

But friendship is meant to be something more than this. Books, records, films might start a conversation, but they can’t sustain a relationship. Nor is awareness the same as a relationship. We need something deeper, something richer. Something that will hold against more than the gentlest of life’s storms. Jonathan Holmes wants to help us in his new book, The Company We Keep: In Search of Biblical Friendship.

Why we prefer emaciated friendships over the real thing

“Deep and meaningful friendships don’t come easily—even within the church, and sometimes especially within the church,” Holmes writes. “[We] can find the challenges of biblical friendship perplexing, frustrating, and discouraging.”

Forging friendships has never been terribly easy for me. I am reasonably social (despite my introverted tendencies), but I have few people I would consider friends, and even fewer are close ones. While there are many reasons for this, it most significantly comes down to one thing: real friendship is hard. 

“Deep and meaningful friendships don’t come easily—even within the church, and sometimes especially within the church,” Holmes writes. “[We] can find the challenges of biblical friendship perplexing, frustrating, and discouraging.”

This is why, honestly, our currently emaciated form of friendship is so easy—it requires so little of us and those with whom we claim to be friends. But true friendship is costly. It requires us to give of ourselves, to be vulnerable, to—gasp!—actually trust people to know us.

And yet, our acceptance of the form over the substance runs completely contrary to how God has made us—we are inherently relational beings, meant to be known by others. And as believers, we are “bound together by a common faith in Jesus Christ,” making the primary purpose of our friendships “to bring glory to Christ, who brought us into friendship with the Father.” This, Holmes writes, “is indispensable to the work of the gospel in the earth, and an essential element of what God created us for.”

You’re squirming now, aren’t you?

Why constancy, candor, carefulness and counsel really matters in biblical friendship

So what does this kind of friendship look like? Drawing from the wisdom of Proverbs (and a little help from Tim Keller), Holmes describes four marks of biblical friendship—constancy, candor, carefulness, and counsel. “All of these marks…empowered by the Holy Spirit, help separate and distinguish biblical friendship from a crowd of counterfeits.”

What’s particularly helpful about Holmes’ description of these four aspects of friendship is how they all work together. A true, biblical friend is not merely candid or constant, careful or offering wise counsel. He or she is all of these things (albeit imperfectly).

This is where the rubber meets the road with friendship. “A biblical friend is willing to wound us, and those wounds are actually for our good,” Holmes writes. “Silence in the face of a brother or sister’s folly is no act of love, but the wounds of correction are, however uncomfortable it may be to inflict them.”

Do you have friends like this? Are you a friend like this?

The first time I knew I had friends like this was when we first considered leaving the only other church we attended. I had a lot of conversations with two men (both of whom still attend that church) about what I was seeing and the thinking behind leaving. They gave me some fairly significant pushback, not because they believed that church was the best place for me, but because they wanted to make sure I was making a wise decision. Would I have greater opportunities to use my gifts? Would our family be able to serve more effectively? I’ve experienced this a few other times since with a few men at our current church when important decisions have come up—selling our house a few years ago being chief among them.

Yes, it’s hard to develop these relationships. Yes, it’s uncomfortable being challenged on your thinking. But those are the sort of “wounds” we should welcome.

A taste of something greater

While The Company We Keep is extraordinarily helpful, I finished the book feeling unsatisfied. Consider it this way: imagine you’re given a tiny morsel of a perfectly seasoned, finely cooked steak. As you put it in your mouth, you relish the flavor… and then it’s over. There was only enough for a taste.

This book has a similar effect. Holmes gives readers just enough to get a taste of something greater, a type of friendship that “gives us a way of experiencing and living out the fundamental drama of all creation.” This is far more powerful than the form of friendship we accept in our culture and in the church at large. And I trust it’s the kind of friendship that, after reading this book, you will want to pursue.


Title: The Company We Keep: In Search of Biblical Friendship
Author: Jonathan Holmes
Publisher: Cruciform Press (2014)

Buy it at: Amazon | Cruciform Press

Crash the Chatterbox

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How do we hear God’s voice? Are all negative thoughts really bad for us? My thoughts on these questions and more can be found in my review of Crash the Chatterbox: Hearing God’s Voice Above All Others by Steven Furtick over at The Gospel Coalition:

First, let’s talk about the good of this book. Furtick builds his argument, or rather his counterargument to the lies we believe, around four “confessions”:

  1. God says I am. Overpowering the lies of the enemy in your insecurities.
  2. God says he will. Overpowering the lies of the enemy in your fears.
  3. God says he has. Overpowering the lies of the enemy in your condemnation.
  4. God says I can. Overpowering the lies of the enemy in your discouragement. (Kindle location 382)

“These are truths about God and truths about you that come straight from God’s Word,” Furtick writes. “So by filling our spiritual ears with these four declarations of truth, we receive and respond to what God says about who he is and who we are in him” (Kindle location 371).

Taken on their own, these confessions (or, more accurately, declarations) are actually pretty helpful. What matters isn’t what I, or others, think about me but what God says about me. What God says he will do and what God has already done is more than enough to overcome my fears. What God says I can do—or, more correctly, what he’s empowered me to do through the Holy Spirit—is more important than what others think I can do.

But the devil, as they say, is in the details. And the details, I’m afraid, spoil Crash the Chatterbox. I’ll limit myself to four significant errors I see in this book.

Read the full article at TGC.

Replant

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Can a dying church live again?

It seems like such a simple question. As long as there are people present and the Bible is faithfully preached, there’s every chance. But even so, there is no guarantee. Conflict, turf wars, wounds from church splits, and numerous other challenges are very real threats attempts to revitalize, especially the dreaded seven words, “But we’ve always done it this way.”

Can those obstacles be overcome? Yep. But it won’t be easy, which is why Replant: How a Dying Church Can Grow Again exists. In this short book, Mark DeVine and Darrin Patrick share the challenges facing prospective replanters through the story of DeVine’s efforts to rejuvenate First Calvary Baptist Church in Kansas City, Missouri.

Who is prepared for this task?

DeVine was, by his own admission, an unexpected choice for this job. He was primarily an academic—a seminary professor—not a vocational minister, nor a church planter. “What prepares a man to imagine that he can stroll into an old, proud, dying city church in the Midwest and have his way with it?” he asks.

What allows a man to suppose he can wrench the levers of power out of the hands of a small but entrenched and fierce pack of lay Christians habituated to having their way—to imagine he can do so despite decades of failed attempts at pastoral leadership?

Given what he and Patrick describe in this book, I’m not sure there’s anything that could prepare a man for such a task. DeVine found himself in the midst of a disaster: a church controlled by an elite few who intimidated congregation members, controlled committees and bullied their pastors into leaving. And this had to end:

The prevailing culture of the place, despite a superficial sheen of interest in the gospel, expended its energies largely in nostalgia, defense of personal perks and privileges, and the sabotage of would-be pastoral leadership. The more I researched the recent past of the church and examined its present state, the more convinced I became that only radical steps—including multiple and likely bitter confrontations with the lay cartel—held out much hope for spiritual revival.

As DeVine details the events that took place to eventually dismantle the lay cartel, readers see something pretty incredible: the rest of the congregation begins to stand up to them, as well. DeVine’s actions remind us of an important value: leaders shape the culture. When a leader cowers in the face of opposition, the congregation likewise cower. This is how the “cartel” took control of the church, in DeVine’s experience. It was because of a lack of strong leadership—not strong in the sense authority, but a humble confidence in the Lord. A willingness to be courageous in the face of opposition. And when a leader does that, it empowers the congregation to follow suit.

Perpetuating popular evangelical stereotypes

In terms of practical value (specifically “how-tos”), Replant doesn’t have much to offer. It’s really not that kind of book, something the authors themselves readily admit. But that doesn’t mean there are no practical takeaways. Most are in the form of principles, such as the one above. There are some, however, that don’t sit quite as well.

For example, early in the book, the authors assert that, “When churches settle into extended periods of decline, they sometimes adopt a defensive rhetoric that touts spiritual growth or spiritual health over numerical growth.” While there is an element of truth in this, without question, it’s not quite as clear cut as they make it seem. Some declining churches absolutely do adopt defensive rhetoric around spiritual growth. But many apparently thriving churches do the same around their numerical growth. The reality is a bit more complicated than that.

Growing in numbers doesn’t equal gospel-fidelity, as any number of churches around North America bear witness. It’s hard to make a case that Lakewood Church is a bold outpost for the gospel since its pastor preaches another gospel. Numerous so-called evangelical megachurches—such as Elevation Church—seem more enamored with their rockstar pastor than with the Lord Jesus. And then there are churches like those of my friends’ Noel and Tim, churches that are intentional about making disciples, training leaders and sending out people in order to spread the gospel through church planting. Their congregations are small by some standards (around 200 or so, which really isn’t all that small), but they are gospel lights in their communities and seeing it spread.

There are other curiosities as well—not necessarily good or bad, but things I’d love to have seen discussed in more depth. DeVine’s family was not with him while he served as the interim pastor of First Calvary. And this, he explains, was a good thing, for they were spared an enormous amount of hardship. But as I read, I wanted to know more about how that dynamic affected the family, even from afar. Of how much were they aware? Who did DeVine have to confide in and seek encouragement from during that time? The picture painted is, perhaps inadvertently, a continuation of the “leadership is lonely” paradigm, and that should not be.

If one church can revitalize, so can another

That’s not to say, however, that you should not read the book. In fact, I’d especially encourage those who are considering replanting to consider this. Every replanting situation is different, filled with its own peculiarities and personalities, after all; in some ways it might even more more difficult than planting an entirely new church. So those who are pursuing this mission are in short supply of encouragement. That’s really what this book has to offer: it’s the story of how one church was replanted and revitalized. And that should give readers hope that if it can happen in one church, it can happen in another—perhaps even their own. It won’t be easy, but it will be possible.


Title: Replant: How a Dying Church Can Grow Again
Authors: Mark DeVine and Darrin Patrick
Publisher: David C. Cook (2014)

Buy it at: Amazon | Westminster Books

Facing Leviathan

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Influence. Leverage relationships. Eschew formal authority. Develop compelling values… this is pretty much what you see in all the best-selling leadership books. And while it’s not all bad (although not all good, either), it begs the question: if influence is the silver bullet, why isn’t it working? 

Mark Sayers, senior leader of Red Church in Melbourne, Australia, may have stumbled onto the answer, and, as he writes in Facing Leviathan: Leadership, Influence, and Creating in a Cultural Storm, it’s less of an issue of technique or style than one of worldview.

A clash of worldviews

 

We are in the midst of a battle between what he describes as “mechanical” and “organic” values—a move away from traditional values surrounding leadership, which includes authority and power toward fluid, creative and (sometimes) leaderless leadership styles. And while some argue that this is our “evolving beyond” the modernist approach to life and leadership, Sayers argues it’s actually a reversion. It’s the reassertion of the values of Romanticism.

“Romanticism arose in reaction to the Enlightenment,” he writes, “attempt[ing] to create an alternative to the mechanical worldview. It would base its ideology on the suspicion of power and structure… They preferred emotion and experience to reason and the empirical.” And while the Englightment (or modernist) vision imagines the leader as hero, “the Romantic vision imagines the creative genius as a heretic, always pushing the boundaries and breaking taboos” (26-27).

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Go take a look at any of the leadership books littering your shelves and you’ll see this conflict front and center. But Sayers goes deeper than the Romanticism vs Enlightenment ideology clash—those two are merely alternatives to the Christian worldview, options that fail to stand up against the true battle:

The real battle in which our culture is engage is not between the mechanical and the organic but rather between the pagan and Christian worldviews. A Christianity that attempts to model itself on the hero or the genius will be a faith that has little potential to speak the good news to the West. Instead, we must rediscover the truly radical vision of leadership found within the Bible. A model of leadership… that dared to proclaim in pagan streets and squares that God had lowered Himself to come and live in the mess and muck of human life, within history, in time, in human flesh. (29)

Christlike leadership

The first and last chapters—and the passage above in particular—makes Facing Leviathan worth reading. Sayers succinctly and precisely identifies the battle within our world, and the struggle within leadership circles. We’re essentially fighting the right battle with the wrong weapons. We’re combating “leader as hero” with “leader as heretic,” preferring to be hip over being heard. And both approaches leave us—both leaders and followers—wanting.

The leader as hero types quickly tend to veer into becoming overbearing and authoritarian. I once knew a man who seemed more like a supervillain than a human being in this regard, laughing maniacally whenever he learned an employee had purchased a car or a house. It meant, from his perspective, he owned them—they needed their jobs, and he delighted in that fact. Followers of this type often feel beaten down and abused. But I’ve also seen the leader as heretic, too, and it also quickly falls apart as they’re too busy deconstructing what already exists to figure out how to move forward. Followers of this type are typically frustrated by the lack of forward direction, which feeds into their distrust of authority, which then makes them even more frustrated, which then…

We don’t need more heroes, and we definitely don’t need more heretics. We need something better. “We must become leaders who are deep in a society of the spectacle that produces shallowness” (115). In other words, we need leaders modelled after Christ. We need people who are, as Sayers calls them, rebuilders, those who are quietly “getting on with the job.”

“Our culture of deconstruction no longer makes sense to them,” he writes. “The culture of deconstruction that has come to dominate the church no longer helps them. It hinders them. They are the rebuilders, partners with God in the rebuilding of His creational order” (217). These are the kinds of people we need to become, he argues, people less concerned with worrying about “moving from the mechanical values to the organic values,” and instead “living wholeheartedly for the God we find in the storm” (218). And out of that comes something compelling and beautiful, something deep in a sea of shallow. Maybe even leaders worth following.

Weaknesses punctuated by the author’s strengths

There is so much strength to Facing Leviathan, particularly when Sayers is exercising his considerable skills as a cultural commentator, that it’s hard to find much fault with the book. But what weaknesses do exist come from its author’s strengths.

Sayers is clearly gifted as a cultural commentator, but is not nearly as gifted a biblical one, as demonstrated by his novel (but not entirely unorthodox) approach to Jonah throughout the book. Jonah isn’t the first book I’d go to tease out lessons on leadership, but maybe that’s just me. I’ve seen it done occasionally, but the results have always left me wanting. Jonah is a powerful illustration of the gospel, to be sure, but I’m not sure he really fits the mould of either the “heroic” or “heretic” leader. Instead, he, like the rest of us, is a deeply confused, broken, sinful, selfish, individual—one who desperately needs the saving work of the One whom he foreshadows.

As borderline blasphemous as it might seem to say “I wish he hadn’t included discussion of this or that biblical passage,” I’d almost rather he’d have not bothered with it since it lessens the impact of the rest of his writing. His theologically informed reading of culture, the arts, and literature stands on its own.

Nevertheless, I would not let this prevent me from recommending this book to most any reader, especially those in a position of influence (or leadership). By recasting our leadership principles as a conflict between worldviews, Sayers will surely cause its readers to rethink what they’ve read in the latest leadership bestseller—and perhaps reconsider their approach to Christlike leadership.


Title: Facing Leviathan: Leadership, Influence, and Creating in a Cultural Storm
Author: Mark Sayers
Publisher: Moody Publishers (2014)

Buy it at: Amazon

PROOF: Finding Freedom through the Intoxicating Joy of Irresistible Grace

The doctrines of grace have an image problem.

It’s easy to understand why: Those who embrace them, those Calvinists are a shifty bunch. If they’re not limiting salvation to a tiny handful of people, they’re trying to take over your local church like stealthy ninjas. Or something.

Regardless of the silliness you sometimes see, especially in the blogosphere, about Calvinist conspiracies, hostile takeovers, and the joyful condemnation of sinners to hell, there is an almost complete lack of understanding as to what the doctrines of grace—sometimes called the five points of Calvinism—actually are.

Clearly, Daniel Montgomery and Timothy Paul Jones have noticed this problem, and their new book, PROOF: Finding Freedom through the Intoxicating Joy of Irresistible Grace, seeks to remedy it by “awaken[ing] you from the delusion that life depends on you and free[ing] you to discover the intoxicating joy of God’s wild and free grace” (16). They do this by offering readers a fresh look at the doctrines of grace—by redefining them around grace.

Redefining the doctrines of grace around grace

Rather than using the oft-repeated (and not entirely reflective of Reformed theology) acrostic TULIP, the authors redefine the doctrines of grace as PROOF:

  • Planned grace—“God planned to show his grace to his chosen people… God’s eternal plan was to love his children and give us his very best” (31, 32).
  • Resurrecting grace—“Apart from God’s single-handed gift of resurrecting grace, no human being will ever seek God because a death-defeating King who demands that we find our greatest joy in his Father’s fame is repulsive to the spiritually dead” (51).
  • Outrageous grace—“God chose us … and secured us as his children without the slightest reliance on anything we have done or might do… All of his, from beginning to end, God accomplished not due to our deeds but ‘freely by his grace'” (74-75).
  • Overcoming grace—“God unshackles us from the enslaving contagion of sin so that we glimpse the overwhelming beauty of Jesus and his kingdom” (91).
  • Forever grace—“If you are God’s property—someone who has been transformed by God’s power—no one, not even you, can remove you from God’s hand.… What our perseverance provides is evidence that Jesus is present in our faith, working his works through us” (111-112, 116).

Can you see why these doctrines have an image problem?

But truly, the issue doesn’t come from the doctrines themselves—the issue comes from us. Every element of this acrostic points away from us and what we do to God and what He does. They put us in a position of utter dependency, of desperate need. And we hate that, don’t we?

Years ago, I was teaching a children’s Sunday school class, and we discussed how we are Jesus’ sheep. A six-year-old girl—the pastor’s daughter!—went berserk when she heard this, defiantly declaring, “I am not a dumb sheep!”

Let’s be honest, us grown-ups are no different. The idea of being a “sheep”—a dumb, defenseless animal, totally incapable of caring for itself—is offensive to us. And yet, this is how the Lord describes His people: as sheep in need of a shepherd. These doctrines only serve to reinforce that: to challenge our self-reliance and destroy any misconceptions as to whom all glory, honor and praise is due.

Old wine in new wineskins

Some might argue that redefining the acrostic doesn’t resolve the issue with these doctrines. But that all depends on your point of view. If you have an issue with the doctrines of grace, it doesn’t matter how they’re articulated, you’re going to reject them. If you see the wine as tainted, a new wineskin isn’t going to help.

But what Montgomery and Jones do exceptionally well here is show us that this old wine is indeed the best. “Grace sets people free… Grace gives rest and peace… Grace leaves us with nothing to prove because, in Christ, everything that needs to be proven has already been provided” (143).

Like the pure rations that flashed in the tankards of eighteenth century sailors, the undiluted message of grace is intoxicating—so strong that it leaves us slaphappy, staggering, and singing for joy at the thought that God chose to love us precisely when there was nothing loveable about us.

This joy is the fuel that drives Christian worship. When a church proclaims God’s undiluted grace, the deadly delusions of human religion are drowned in a flood of gospel-fueled freedom and intoxicating joy. (22-23)

Engaging PROOF in all of life

There’s nothing stealth about the Calvinism in PROOF. There’s nothing hostile or conspiratorial. This is not a grim tome filled with condemnation. What Montgomery and Jones offer is a picture of grace—grace that is to be meditated upon, sung about, worshiped through. Pure, undiluted grace; the kind that truly changes lives, the kind that is meant to be engaged in all of life. This is the grace we all need. Come, discover it with fresh eyes, won’t you?


Title: PROOF: Finding Freedom through the Intoxicating Joy of Irresistible Grace
Authors: Daniel Montgomery and Timothy Paul Jones
Publisher: Zondervan (2014)

Buy it at: Amazon | Westminster Books

The Pastor’s Kid

The Pastor's Kid by Barnabas Piper

I’m not a pastor’s kid, but if I were, there are two things I know to be true: First, I’d want everyone in our church to stop using the term “PK,” and second, I wouldn’t want to be the kid of a famous pastor.

Barnabas Piper didn’t have much of a choice on either count. Born three years into his father’s call to pastoral ministry, he’d known nothing but the PK life, and as the son of John Piper… Well, let’s be honest: the fact that Barnabas hasn’t dyed his hair purple and started running marathons in leather chaps may well be the surest evidence of God’s grace.

Okay, I’m probably exaggerating.

A bit.

Maybe.

But one thing he makes clear in The Pastor’s Kid: Finding Your Own Faith and Identity is the PK life is anything but simple:

The life of a PK is complex, occasionally messy, often frustrating, and sometimes downright maddening. It can be a curse and a bane. But being a PK can also be a profound blessing and provide wonderful grounding for a godly life. Often the greatest challenges are the greatest grounding and the biggest falls are the best blessings. This polarity exemplifies the challenge it is to be a PK. (Kindle location 71)

This polarity Piper describes—that being a PK can be simultaneously a blessing and a burden—is a theme that runs throughout this book. The insane expectations of simultaneously being perfect and the perfect rebel, as as though the PK will be the MVP in a game of Bible All-Star while at the same time wearing a beer helmet to church. Living in the fishbowl, where all eyes are on you (and often knowing private things they have no business knowing) because of Pastor Dad. The confusion of knowing a lot of Bible stories, but not knowing Jesus because Jesus has become boring:

Being around Jesus-related teaching, literature, and events all the time makes Jesus rote in the minds and hearts of PKs. Rote is mundane. When Jesus becomes mundane, He ceases being life-changing and life-giving. In the case of many PKs, He never was either of these; by their estimation, He was just a character in an overtold story. Instead of Savior and Lord, He becomes any number of other things, most of which take on the character of those who represent Him in the church. (Kindle location 634)

As a parent, that is probably the most terrifying thing for me when I think about my own children’s spiritual health. They’re not PKs, but they are in the bubble because of my job and my extra-curricular activities. They’re exposed to a lot of Bible, a lot of books, a lot of discussion… and honestly, the last thing I want for them is to find Jesus boring.

So what does it mean for me as a parent? I need to give them grace and space to figure stuff out as they grow. To wrestle, to ask questions. To meet the real Jesus at the end of it all because, “only when Jesus becomes real to a PK can she begin to figure out what she is, who she is” (Kindle location 648).

This is where, from a  practical standpoint, the sixth chapter, “Pastor and Child,” is so helpful to me (even as a layperson). It’s a simple reminder to be dad before being a pastor or ministry leader or anything else. To talk with instead of at. To have fun, have friends, to play and be silly. “The greatest grace a pastor can show his children is not being a great pastor; it is being a parent who is fully invested, cares deeply, and shows it as well as he can” (Kindle location 1110).

Writing on a subject so closely tied to the author’s life and experience can be touchy, especially one as complex as being a pastor’s kid. It’s easy to veer into bitterness, grumbling and complaining about how awful being a PK was. While that might even be true for some, this is not where Piper leaves readers. He’s not bitter or jaded. He hasn’t abandoned Christianity. He’s not angry with his parents for giving their lives to church ministry. Instead, he is grateful:

…PKs are blessed to have parents who devote their lives to serving Jesus. It is a challenging calling, and not one person in the world’s history has figured out how to do it perfectly. It is a daunting life. But it is necessary and good and rewarding. So thank you, pastors (and spouses). You have given your lives to serving Jesus and His church, and that is a blessing. (Kindle location 1343)

If there’s one key takeaway from the book, this is it. Despite its complexity, being a PK ultimately is a blessing, rather than a burden. Although some stumble and fall, and some try to run as far away as possible from the faith of their parents, they don’t have to. They don’t have to live up to false expectations, or let unkind and uncharitable comments become self-fulfilling prophecies.

Instead, they can run full tilt toward Jesus, owning their responsibilities to “honor Jesus, to honor our fathers and mothers, to love and support the church, and to go about our lives not as victims but as the redeemed” (Kindle location 1394). This is what I see Barnabas Piper doing, both in The Pastor’s Kid and when I interact with him online or when we happen to be in the same city (when we’re not making smart-alecky comments, that is). And this is what I’d love to see for my kids who aren’t PKs, as well as for all the PKs at our church and in all the faithful churches in our community. While none of us can make it happen for any one person, this book is sure to offer a great deal of healing for wounded pastor’s kids and challenging encouragement along the way for their parents.


Title: The Pastor’s Kid: Finding Your Own Faith and Identity
Author: Barnabas Piper
Publisher: David C. Cook (2014)

Buy it at: Amazon

Titus For You

titus-for-you

I realize it’s probably a bad idea to have favorites when it comes to the Bible, but I kinda do. If I had to make a top five list for books of the Bible, Titus would be on it. For years, Titus has been one of my “go-to” reads—when I don’t know what to read, I turn there. And I always find something in its three chapters. In it, Paul is direct, challenging, encouraging… basically, everything you would expect from a message from an older man to a (presumably somewhat) younger one.

But up until recently one of the things I had not added to my library was any sort of devotional material or commentaries of significance about this epistle. So, when I learned about the latest edition of The Good Book Company’s God’s Word For You series, Titus For You by Tim Chester, I was pretty excited. Even when I on occasion disagree with some of his emphases, I’ve always counted on Chester to offer faithful interpretations and thoughtful applications of the Scriptures.

Showing the truth is true

In this regard, Titus For You is no different. Like the previous volumes in this devotional commentary series, Titus For You offers readers a basic understanding of the text with lots of space for personal reflection and application. In this regard, again, Chester’s exposition is (as expected) clear and careful. In his explanatory notes, however, Chester intentionally focuses on an important aspect of Titus that’s easy to overlook—that “godliness shows that the truth is true.”

“This truth that accords with godliness would be in contrast to other teachings that self-identify as ‘truths’, but do not produce godly lives,” he writes. “In this sense godliness authenticates the truth; godliness shows that the truth is true. Or, better still, it shows that the truth is living because of the fruit it produces.”

This is important because it’s a necessary filter through which you need to see the rest of the book. Godliness authenticates truth—how we live affirms or denies what we profess to believe—and how we live is inevitably replicated in others. This is why character matters so much in the qualifications of elders, and why Paul encourages older godly men and women to teach and train the younger. We replicate what we’re like in others, for good or ill.

And this is why limiting the demands of godliness is so dangerous. When we reduce godliness “from becoming Christlike to becoming a little less like our culture in a few ways,” we set up a false witness. We become known as people who don’t do certain things, as opposed to people who love Jesus and serve others wholeheartedly. “Christian maturity is exchanged for not sleeping around, not getting drunk, and turning up to Bible study,” which is just kind of sad.

We are all called to commend the gospel to one another so that we live gospel-shaped lives that are fit for purpose—the purpose of doing good. And we will only do this as we learn to live out the gospel, enjoying God’s good gifts in a way that brings glory to him and good to us. Legalistic abstention is no more the gospel of grace than licentious abuse is; and running to the first extreme in order to escape the other is to swap one error for another.

The fuel and fire of obedience

For me, the standout material in Titus For You, really comes toward the end of the book, as Chester reminds readers that salvation—and the godly living that is a result of it—is truly all of grace. And there is nothing better than grace:

“There is nothing more that he could have given. He has given us himself,” Chester writes. “There is nothing more that he could have done. He has done everything.… There is nothing more that he could have promised.… He saved us to become heirs, looking forward with certain hope to an eternity spent enjoying everything that Christ deserves.”

Faithful encouragement doesn’t need to be groundbreaking

While Titus For You doesn’t break new ground, it would make a welcome addition to any reader’s devotional literature. This book, in a nutshell, is chock-full of simple, faithful encouragement, the sort that more us desperately need. That might not be terribly groundbreaking, but it certainly doesn’t go out of style.


Title: Titus For You
Author: Tim Chester
Publisher: The Good Book Company (2014)

Buy it at: Amazon

Is it My Fault?

is-it-my-fault-holcombAs we sat in the school auditorium where our church meets, I could feel my wife seething beside me. Our pastor had come to a crucial text in one of the gospels—Jesus’ teaching on divorce. As we listened to our pastor strongly (and faithfully) teach on what the Bible says about marriage and divorce, Emily became increasingly agitated. Not because of anything that was said, but what hadn’t been: what about women who are being abused?

To many, the Bible’s teaching on divorce seems too simplistic to deal with these issues. Bad counsel based on incomplete teaching leaves many women (and men) feeling trapped, with nowhere to turn when their spouses begin to spiritually, psychologically, physically or sexually abuse them. When the abuse somehow becomes their fault in the counselling session, or they’re too ashamed to even say anything at all—or don’t even know if it “counts.”

Whose fault is it?

Emily’s anger was birthed from experiences of these feelings in both her childhood and adolescent years, and her empathy for several friends who have experienced abuse in their marriages.1 If we’re to offer any sort of hope and encouragement to those suffering from domestic violence, we need to know what the Bible has to say to them.

This is why books like Is It My Fault? are so necessary. From its opening pages, Justin and Lindsey Holcomb offer a compassionate and biblical look at the problem of domestic violence, beginning with five words victims need to hear: It is never your fault.

No matter what kind of abuse you have experienced, there is nothing you can do, nothing you can say, nothing you think that makes you deserving of it. There is no mistake you could have made and no sin you could have committed to make you deserving of violence.

You did not deserve this. And it is never your fault.

You did not ask for this. You should not be silenced. You are not worthless. You do not have to pretend like nothing happened. You are not damaged goods, forgotten or ignored by God, or “getting what you deserve.” (21)

These truths should be obvious, but for someone in an abusive relationship, they’re anything but. And truthfully, I’m not sure how obvious they are to some of us who aren’t, either. For example, we tend to look at marital problems and try to figure out how divide responsibility for those problems equally between spouses. And while this is certainly true in the average problems that come with marriage and relationships, we need to be careful to not apply this too broadly. Sometimes, it really is the problem just one person—and in the case of domestic violence, in whatever form it takes, it is always the abuser’s fault.

Although a bit of a loose example, consider the recent shootings in Santa Barbara, California, when 22-year-old Elliott Rodger stabbed three people to death, shot three more, and left 13 more injured, before killing himself. Why did he do it? Because “girls have never been attracted to me.” What surprised me with this wasn’t Rodger’s placing the blame for his yet-to-be-committed crimes on women, but because some online commenters seemed to agree, saying that if he wasn’t a virgin, maybe this wouldn’t have happened.

Yeah. Someone actually said that.

What is domestic violence?

Keeping this in mind is especially important when you consider how tricky it can be to develop a concrete definition of domestic violence. You need a broad enough definition that captures the full spectrum of abuse, yet doesn’t leave every reader paranoid that they’re either being abused or an abuser themselves. How is it defined in Is It My Fault?

Domestic violence is a pattern of coercive, controlling, or abusive behavior that is used by one individual to gain or maintain power and control over another individual in the context of an intimate relationship. This includes any behaviors that frighten, intimidate, terrorize, exploit, manipulate, hurt, humiliate, blame, injure, or wound an intimate partner. (57)

Despite being a little clinical, and maybe a bit lawyer-y, this definition is very strong. I believe the key word here is “pattern.” An abuser isn’t necessarily someone who says something stupid and hurtful once (again, if that were the case, we would all be abusers). An abuser is someone who makes an intentional behavior of it. This doesn’t mean that sinful and hurtful words don’t need to be dealt with (they do!); it just means we ought not label the one-time offender—depending on the nature of their offense—as being guilty of domestic violence. (There’s no such thing as being just a little stabby.)

What will God do about it?

The first several chapters of the book offer extremely necessary definitions and categories that readers may lack—beyond a definition of domestic violence, they may not know what the cycle of abuse looks like, or what types of personas exist among abusers, all of which the Holcombs provide. But the strength of the book really comes through when the authors turn to the Scriptures to show readers what God says about this issue. The picture shown here is of a God who “hates abuse, viewing it as sinful and unacceptable” (107), and “delights in rescuing the oppressed (2 Sam. 22:49)” (108).

This isn’t always easy for us to believe, though. After all, in our day-to-day circumstances—especially those in abusive situations—struggle to see God at work. They cry out asking for the Lord to deliver them, just as David did many times in the psalms. But it’s the tension we all face. Suffering and pain are real, but deliverance is real, too, even if it doesn’t come when or how we might wish it did. Despite how it may seem at times, “God is not standing idly by to watch evil run its course he will not allow evil to have the final word. His response to evil and violence is redemption, renewal, and recreation” (113).

What I appreciate throughout the authors’ reflections on several psalms is how they hold this tension. They don’t offer a pat “God’s in control,” although that would be easy to do. They dig into the reality of the pain, the difficulty of the circumstances. But they don’t leave us there. Instead, they redirect despair to hope, showing how we can be confident that God’s deliverance will come.

This, arguably, may be the most important practical takeaway for readers (aside from the very helpful action plan in the appendices). When the darkness won’t seem to lift2, we need the hope that God is not ignoring our circumstances. That God is at work, even when we can’t see it. That His promises are still true—and because His promises are true, hope cannot be extinguished.

What will we do about it?

Is It My Fault? will provoke some strong feelings in its readers—anger that abuse happens at all, perhaps temptations toward seeking vengeance, and a longing for Jesus’ return and the coming of the new creation. What I hope it does is remind us all that none of us can stand by when abuse occurs in our homes or in our churches. In those situations, our goal should always be to bring hope into the darkness of abuse of all kinds. To humbly, earnestly and uncompromisingly call perpetrators to repentance, and allow them to experience the consequences of their actions. To offer compassion to victims and allow them to begin to experience some form of healing, while holding out the promise of the final restoration Jesus will bring when He comes to wipe every tear from every eye. This is what victims of abuse need, and by God’s grace, it’s what we can offer, if we’re willing.


Title: Is It My Fault?: Hope and Healing for Those Suffering Domestic Violence
Authors: Justin and Lindsey Holcomb
Publisher: Moody (2014)

Buy it at: Amazon

Evangelism by Mack Stiles

Evangelism by J Mack Stiles

Our church has always been very clear on stressing the need for evangelism. Whenever our local missions pastor preaches, it almost always turns into a sermon on evangelism (especially when he’s trying not to). We have a local missions team that goes out every week to open-air preach and interact with individuals on the streets of our city, sharing the gospel at every opportunity.

But then, about a year ago, we did something really bold: we took all of our small groups through a personal evangelism workshop. And the response?

*crickets•

I was a small group leader at the time, taking my group through the course. It was really challenging material, but presented in a way that took a lot of the fear out of evangelism. But despite its initial “failure,” the impetus behind offering this training is a good one—a desire to create a healthy culture of evangelism, one where it’s seen as a normal part of the Christian life.

I have a hunch Mack Stiles would stand up and cheer if he knew this was something our church attempted (and continues to nurture). Why? Because that’s exactly what his latest book, Evangelism: How the Whole Church Speaks of Jesus, is all about.

Evangelism: it’s not about the results

If there’s one thing Stiles wants you to understand, it’s this: evangelism is not about programs or events. It’s not a technique or a specific kind of response. Many of our problems creating a healthy culture of evangelism stem from a lack of a biblical foundation. We count declarations of faith, hands raised, cards put in a bag, people walking down aisles… but do these things really mean anything? Maybe, but maybe not.

Regardless, if we’re going to see a culture of evangelism take root, “we must be very careful to conform our evangelistic practices to the Bible, because this honors God,” he writes (24).

And so, he begins by defining his terms—specifically, what evangelism means.

“Evangelism is teaching the gospel with the aim to persuade,” Stiles writes. “This definition, small as it is, offers a far better balance in which to weigh our evangelistic practice than looking at how many people have responded to an appeal” (26-27).

…the definition does not require an immediate outward response. Walking an aisle, raising a hand, or even praying a prayer may tell us that evangelism has happened, but such actions are not what evangelism is.

Those four elements in Stiles’ definition are key: teach, gospel, aim, persuade. Without those, you don’t really have evangelism. Our goal in evangelism is to communicate the gospel with the purpose of persuading our hearers that it is true. That doesn’t mean browbeating or extorting a profession of faith out of them. It just means speaking with conviction about the truth of the gospel.

This, I think, is one of the places we all get tripped up. We tend to speak almost apologetically about the gospel, or we wring our hands, break out into a sweat, and worry about saying the wrong thing. But this is also where it’s helpful to remember something crucial: “conversion is required, but conversion is a function of genuine faith, which is given by the Spirit” (37). In other words, you’re not responsible for the result. You’re only called to be faithful and speak.

What a culture of evangelism looks like

So what does a healthy culture of evangelism look like? Stiles is pretty honest that it’s impossible to instruct people on everything that goes into it, but he can describe the yearnings that surround it. He breaks these down into 11 points:

  1. A culture motivated by love for Jesus and His gospel
  2. A culture that is confident in the gospel
  3. A culture that understands the danger of entertainment
  4. A culture that sees people clearly
  5. A culture that pulls together as one
  6. A culture in which people teach one another
  7. A culture that models evangelism
  8. A culture in which people who are sharing their faith are celebrated
  9. A culture that knows how to affirm and celebrate new life
  10. A culture doing ministry that feels risky and is dangerous
  11. A culture that understands that the church is the chosen and best method of evangelism

There’s so much that could be said about each of these, but notice how they all work together. You can’t have a culture of evangelism without any of these points. If the people attending week in and week out aren’t passionate about sharing their faith, then no amount of encouragement from the pulpit is going to change that. It’s something that builds from within the body, and something that needs to be celebrated.

Simple, but not.

Create and cultivate the culture you want to see

Creating a culture of evangelism isn’t a one-and-done thing. You can’t preach a series on evangelism or offer an occasional course, pat yourself on the back and say, “nailed it.” You have to be intentional about creating and cultivating the culture you want to see, but there’s only so much control any church leader really has.

Why? Because “a culture of evangelism is grassroots, not top-down.”

In a culture of evangelism, people understand that the main task of the church is to be the church.… The church should cultivate a culture of evangelism. The members are sent out from the church to do evangelism. (65-66)

Do you feel the tension there? It’s so easy to fall into the trap of trying to force the change from the top or programmatize evangelism. But it doesn’t work that way. A church only becomes more evangelistic as its members become more evangelistic. And this is big, scary stuff. Church leaders can and should model it, but the members have to own it.

Thankfully, it’s a vision that I believe every faithful Christian can own. We should want this for our churches. We should want to be the kind of people who take risks in order to share the gospel with others, who understand that entertainment doesn’t equal ministry, that God truly rejoices when one lost sheep is found. This is the vision Mack Stiles presents in Evangelism. It’s what I want to see in my own life and in the lives of all the members of my church. How about you?


Title: Evangelism: How the Whole Church Speaks of Jesus
Author: J. Mack Stiles
Publisher: Crossway (2014)

Buy it at: Westminster Books | Amazon

The Adam Quest by Tim Stafford

the-adam-quest

Some time ago, an excellent article appeared online reminding us that “pixels are people.” Behind every podcast, blog, and book we consume, there is a living, breathing human being made in the image and likeness of God.

Including those with whom we disagree.

Perhaps nowhere is this point easier to forget than in the origins debate. For some, this is a clear dividing line—if you subscribe to evolution in any form, you’re selling out the gospel. Others would rather stick their fingers in their ears and run away than engage the conversation. The debate gets too heated too quickly, and, when we’re not careful, people get burned.

This is what happened to Tim Stafford’s son, Silas. “Silas got burned by the fight over Genesis,” he writes in his latest book, The Adam Quest. Silas loved geology and chose to major in it in college, but his love for this scientific field began to cause friction with friends who insisted the earth is young.

If Silas wanted to be a serious Christian, he had to get out of geology. Whatever geologists believed about the age of the earth was completely wrong. . . . They could not let the subject alone. I imagine that they felt they were courageous Christians, speaking up for scriptural truth and refusing to let a friend go down the path of ungodliness. In practice, though, they drove Silas away from faith. (2)

Silas is by no means alone; many—on both side of the debate—have felt alienated from Christian fellowship over this matter. Their love of science and their faith seem at odds, and they’re unsure how to reconcile the two. But Stafford, senior writer for Christianity Today, wants to show them that science and sincere faith aren’t diametrically opposed. And he does so by humanizing the debate—introducing readers to 11 scientists, each of whom professes faith in Christ, and each of whom holds differing views on origins.

Novel approach

This approach—which is the most compelling reason to read The Adam Quest—will surely frustrate many of its readers, even as it elates others. As long as a position remains an abstract concept, it’s easy to ignore the “human” factor. That is, we can quickly forget that our rhetoric in debating various views really does affect people. Like Silas’s friends, we don’t notice the effect of our words. We’re too busy trying to win an argument to realize we’re losing the person.

But humanizing doesn’t just remind us of the people affected; it rounds out the perspectives on each view. Although Kurt Wise, Todd Wood, and Georgia Purdom espouse young earth creationism, by reading each’s story you begin to see their nuances to the position. You realize it’s built on something more than a literalistic approach to Scripture. These are not foolish, naïve men and women. They are extremely thoughtful, winsome, intelligent, and most importantly, humble. Nowhere does this characteristic shine more clearly than in Stafford’s profile of Wood: [Read more…]