The Politics of Ministry (Review)

The word “politics” often has a negative connotation. It conjures up images of manipulation, brazen self-interest, hunger for power, and outright contempt for any who might disagree or get in the way. Even if you think it’s necessary in certain circumstances, if your soul has not been damaged beyond repair you can’t help but regard it as kind of icky. And the thought of politics in ministry—well, then you can add an element of hypocrisy to the whole sordid picture.

It may therefore seem strange to title a book The Politics of Ministry. But the authors of this book—Bob Burns, Tasha D. Chapman, and Donald C. Guthrie— want people to see politics as not necessarily a negative thing. Instead, they define politics broadly as “the art of getting things done with others” (5). Working with people inevitably involves navigating interests, and navigating interests is what politics is all about. In ministry, whether it’s a church or a nonprofit, leaders do themselves and their organizations a disservice if they choose to remain ignorant about how people function in groups, because we are always navigating different interests and always negotiating using differing degrees of power. The good news is that “the political process can be respectful, unifying, and fruitful, just as much as it can be competitive, selfish, and destructive” (18).

The authors describe the political process as consisting of four activities:

  1. Perceiving power dynamics between people and groups
  2. Understanding and navigating various interests
  3. Engaging in negotiation between stakeholders
  4. Considering the ethical implications of decisions and actions


Like politics, power is everywhere—even cheesy cartoons from the ’80s. But also like politics, power is not necessarily bad. It is merely “the capacity to act and to influence others” (19). Therefore, everyone has some level of power, which can be used for helpful or harmful purposes. In situations where there is unequal power in ministry, the authors say, “it is important to consider carefully whether these asymmetries are legitimate or illegitimate, just or unjust, healthy or abusive” (51).

There are broadly two types of power: formal, which people possess by virtue of the positions they hold; and relational, which comes from interpersonal associations a person has. While formal power plays an important role in determining what things get done and what things are left undone, the authors argue that relational power is always more significant in the long run. Over time, it develops into relationship capital, which is “the strength of trust and respect that a relationship has built over time” (23). You can be chair of the board at your church, but if you lack relationship capital, you will be unable to have significant influence. People just won’t listen to you.


Navigating interests is the second element in the political process. The authors write, “To gain understanding of interests, we need to grow in our capacity to perceive them, to name them, to empathize with them, and to manage them, both for ourselves and for others” (56).

People’s interests come from a variety of sources and are often hidden. They can be rooted in people’s personal uniqueness, like their family of origin or their personality profile. They could be rooted in the culture of the organization, like whether it tends to be more collaborative or controlling, or results focused versus relationship focused. In a church, this extends to how people spend their time, and what ministry plans and programs are or are not happening. And finally, people’s interests can be rooted in the culture of the broader society, like which generation they are in, where they live, how their culture tends to communicate, and whether the power distance in that culture tends to be low or high (in the United States, where equality is a value, it tends to be low).


Negotiations are always happening in any organization. The authors define negotiation as “the process of promoting one’s interests in relational contexts through the use of power” (111). Whenever you have to get together with someone else who has common or conflicting interests to reach an agreement on future action, you’re negotiating. Negotiation involves four distinct actions:

  1. People bring their own specific, complex, and often hidden interests.
  2. People promote their interests between each other.
  3. People consciously or unconsciously choose how to use the power available to them.
  4. People’s actions during and after the negotiation process will either strengthen or diminish the ongoing interests and power of those involved (115).

All negotiation strategies can be placed into one of four quadrants. In cell 1, you have shared interests and equal power, so you collaborate. In cell 2, you have shared interests and unequal power, so you network. In cell 3, you have conflicting interests and equal power, so you bargain. And in cell 4, you have conflicting interests and unequal power, so you can do a number of things depending on whether you have more or less power in the negotiation. Situations like this are complex enough that they warrant their own chapter in the book.

Ethical Implications

The fourth and final aspect of the political process is considering the ethical implications of actions taken throughout the process. Reflection throughout the political process is key; this enables you to step back and act deliberately out of what you value instead of reacting instinctively out of interests. To reflect on ethical implications, Burns, Chapman, and Guthrie urge their readers to ask four questions, particularly in complicated situations where there are conflicting interests and unequal power:

  1. Who are the stakeholders in this situation? Who has something to gain or lose?
  2. What are the probable interests of each stakeholder? What do I fear, and what might others be afraid of in this situation?
  3. How will those interests be represented during the negotiation process? How will the right people be brought into the room where the decisions are made?
  4. To what degree are we serving the welfare of God’s church and the redemption of his world over our selfish interests?


As you can probably guess from the fact that I’ve spent almost this entire review summarizing the book, I think it is incredibly valuable. I am currently the chair of my church’s leadership team while we are in the midst of a pastoral transition, and this book came along at just the right time for me. After the departure of a long-tenured lead pastor, there are many things that are open for negotiation (or that some want to be open for negotiation) that seemed closed previously, and there is greater uncertainty about who holds the power to act in various situations. The four-activity process of politics outlined in The Politics of Ministry has been helpful to me as I seek to identify different interests and power dynamics and try to navigate them with integrity. In fact, I’m probably going to read it again soon and share some of what I’ve learned with the rest of our leadership team.

Oh, and one more thing. In spite of the somewhat dry tone of my summary, Burns, Chapman, and Guthrie do a good job of livening things up by including case studies that they return to throughout the book. I highly recommend it to anyone in ministry leadership, especially young pastors who may have gotten great theological training in seminary but may be unprepared for the political realities of leading in a complex organization. Reading this book may not solve all of the problems ministry leaders face, but it should pull back the curtain to help them know more about how organizations function—and help them know that politics is not necessarily a bad thing.

What I Learned from Eugene Peterson

Like many people, I was saddened to hear last month of the passing of Eugene Peterson. I first became aware of him in college, when his book A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society was recommended to me by our InterVarsity staff worker. Later, when I began my studies at Regent College, it was six years after he had left his post there as professor of spiritual theology, but his spirit still suffused the place.

When I was there taking courses toward a Master of Divinity degree, I would freak out from time to time. It would happen when I would go to a class or series of classes where I was told about all the things pastors had to know and do and be, and I was not sure that I could not do it. I don’t have anything against my professors; they wanted to instill in us that being a pastor is a high calling.

But in those times of feeling discouraged and inadequate, I learned to return to Peterson’s writings for a dose of sanity when it came to the calling of pastor, especially his book The Contemplative Pastor. The end of chapter 12, “Lashed to the Mast” (also printed here as an article), still sticks with me all these years later:

Century after century, Christians continue to take certain persons in their communities, set them apart, and say, “You are our shepherd. Lead us to Christlikeness.”

Yes, their actions will often speak different expectations, but in the deeper regions of the soul, the unspoken desire is for more than someone doing a religious job. If the unspoken were uttered, it would sound like this:

“We want you to be responsible for saying and acting among us what we believe about God and kingdom and gospel. We believe that God’s Spirit continues to hover over the chaos of the world’s evil and our sin, shaping a new creation and new creatures. We believe that God is not a spectator, in turn amused and alarmed at the wreckage of world history, but a participant. …

“There may be times when we come to you as a committee or delegation and demand that you tell us something else than what we are telling you now. Promise right now that you won’t give in to what we demand of you. You are not the minister of our changing desires, or our time-conditioned understanding of our needs, or our secularized hopes for something better. With these vows of ordination, we are lashing you fast to the mast of Word and sacrament so you will be unable to respond to the siren voices.”

When I had graduated from Regent and was looking at pastoral job postings in my denomination, I continued to freak out occasionally. Many of the postings I saw were looking for a kind of Superman, not the kind of pastor I wanted to be or thought I could be. (It was also the middle of the financial crisis, and there just weren’t that many available positions at the time.) Again I returned to Peterson to help me feel that I was not crazy to believe that pastors’ main job is to keep people attentive to the work of God in the world.

I ended up not becoming a pastor. I did an internship at my church while I was looking, then took a job at Logos Bible Software (now Faithlife). When they began their publishing imprint, Lexham Press, I moved to that department and became an editor. I enjoy the work I do, and have not seriously considered becoming a pastor for a long time, but Peterson’s vision of what a pastor, and a church, should be still shapes me. The two most recent books of his I read were his memoir, The Pastor, and his collection of sermons called As Kingfishers Catch Fire.

Now, my church’s pastor is about to retire, and I happen to be church chair and on the search committee. Our work as a committee is just getting started, and I don’t know yet what kind of pastor will be best for our church. But I do know that I don’t want to create a job posting that is looking for Superman: someone who will use the latest techniques to efficiently to do a religious job, who will entertain us and relieve us of the responsibility of being Christlike ourselves, who will project an air of omnicompetence, who will be lured by the siren song of Christian celebrity culture and see our church as little more than a platform from which to launch their own larger ministry. I want someone who will love us, who will help us to be as healthy as we can be, who will help us to be attentive to the ways that God is moving in our congregation and our community, who understands in their deepest self that Jesus is the head of the church and not them, and who will be lashed to the mast of Word and sacrament.

That’s what Eugene Peterson taught me—or rather, what he reminded me was still true when I was afraid it might not be.

Disappearing Church (Review)

I had heard the name “Mark Sayers” here and there over the past few years, but I never really paid attention until Sayers, a pastor in Melbourne, Australia, got together with Portland pastor John Mark Comer and started recording a podcast, “This Cultural Moment.” In brief episodes, Sayers and Comer explain culture through the lens of intellectual history and try to apply the discussion to the average Christian in the West.

I’ve been enjoying these podcasts very much and wanted to see where else Sayers had expressed his ideas about culture, so this spring I read two of the books he has published in the last few years with Moody Publishers: Disappearing Church and Strange Days.

9780802413352Both are short (under 200 pages) but wide-ranging, showing a variety of influences, from Philip Rieff to Jonathan Sacks to Peter Leithart. In Disappearing Church: From Cultural Relevance to Gospel Resilience, Sayers argues that the church’s strategy of trying to make itself relevant to the surrounding culture leads to a dead end in which the church loses its distinctiveness:

What if our attempts at relevance, at mimicking and outdoing the beautiful world, actually limit our ministry potential? What if our increasing strangeness to Western culture is actually to our advantage? What if the fact that you can no longer be warmly embraced in the contemporary cultural fold if you are an orthodox Christian is actually the best thing that has happened to us? (140)

What the church needs instead is what he calls gospel resilience: “We cannot solely rely on the contemporary, Western church’s favored strategy of cultural relevance, in which Christianity and the church is made ‘relevant’ to secular Western culture. Instead we need to rediscover gospel resilience. To walk the countercultural narrow path in which we die to self and re-throne God in our lives as the supreme authority” (12).

While he critiques the strategy of relevance, neither does he want the church to embrace irrelevance. Rather than calling for complete seclusion from the world, he wants the church to commit to becoming a creative minority, a term that originated with historian Arnold Toynbee and was resurrected by Jonathan Sacks: “Creative minorities find themselves withdrawn and distant from what they know and find comfort in. This distance enables them to see the myths and blind spots of their own culture, to reject these myths, and find a greater dependency in God. This dependency on a source of power and truth outside of the dominant culture leads creative minorities to refresh and reinvigorate ailing cultures” (50). There is a movement in creative minorities of both withdrawal and return, where withdrawal is undertaken for the purpose of greater effectiveness upon the return.

Sayers’s main reason for choosing gospel resilience over relevance is that post-Christian culture is not the same as pre-Christian culture. “Post-Christianity is not pre-Christianity; rather post-Christianity attempts to move beyond Christianity, whilst simultaneously feasting upon its fruit” (15). If your main strategy of preaching the gospel to post-Christian culture is relevance, Sayers says, you are likely to be unwittingly colonized by the culture. Post-Christian culture is happy to retain various emphases of Christianity, like justice and dignity, but sees itself as having transcended the hard parts of Christianity—the parts about being a disciple. Post-Christianity is seductive because it tells you that you can have it all without sacrificing anything.

In the latter half of the book, Sayers shares specific practices for recovering gospel resilience like rejecting the implicit prosperity gospel and reinvesting ourselves in institutions (the church, specifically). Here I thought there was a lot of ground covered in a relatively small space, and I have to admit that in a few places I wasn’t quite sure what he was proposing. I will probably have to read through it again to really understand and figure out how to apply chapters 6–10.

But in general I’m sympathetic to Sayers’s analysis, especially of the difference between a post-Christian culture and a pre-Christian culture. While he is creative in the connections he makes, he is not calling for the church to change or abandon the historic faith. He still believes the gospel has the power to speak to the greatest needs of individuals and culture: “What if the answer is what it has always been? The path of walking in Jesus’ footsteps, of following the traditions and teaching of the apostles. What if the answer to our culture’s challenges is still the gospel?” (48) We just need to recognize that the times have changed, and prayerfully discern how the gospel can best be preached in these times.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I just read two books by Sayers. When I finished Disappearing Church, I wondered what else he could possibly say about this cultural moment. I’ll get into that in my next post.

Note: Thanks to the publisher for a review copy of this book. I was not asked to give a positive review.

All Together Different (Review)

Jesus desired that those in his church “may be one,” but it is all too evident that this is often not the case. And it isn’t just denominational differences; it’s hard for individuals to get along in a single church. How do church leaders begin to address the problem of disunity?

J. Brian Tucker and John Koessler, who are both associated with Moody Bible Institute (Koessler teaches at MBI in Chicago, and Tucker at a Michigan seminary campus), have attempted to answer this question in All Together Different: Upholding the Church’s Unity While Honoring Our Individual Identities. They believe that the answer to disunity is not to force cultural uniformity but to glean lessons about how to get along from the Bible and research on social identity theory. (By the way, Tucker and Koessler don’t really talk about divisiveness in the United States. While some of what they say could possibly apply to the country at large, they are focused on the church.)

9780802418081That phrase above, “research on social identity theory,” is a clue that this is not a light Christian living title. The book may have a bunch of Slinkies on the cover, but it’s not for kids—or even for adults who are interested in something fluffy. Take this sentence from the introduction: “What is needed is the recognition that existing social identities must be a part of the way the church’s theological constructs are communicated. In other words, by paying attention to issues of identity, we are able to discern which theological constructions are best suited for clarifying those issues of identity that need to be transformed in the life of the church” (13). If sentences like that are not your cup of tea, then maybe this isn’t the book for you.

But for those who actually get excited at the prospect of putting on their thinking caps, this is an enjoyable read. First Tucker and Koessler look at the slippery concept of identity, and then how Christians’ identity ought to be formed primarily by the Bible—and specifically the concept of being “in Christ.” Individuals have different senses of identity, like Russian matryoshka dolls, but there is always one “master identity.” Christians must have their being “in Christ”—united to him and to each other—as their master identity. Without that, nothing will help a church get along.

In the latter part of the book, they look at three common stress points in church: race, sex, and generational differences. I thought these three chapters, while somewhat helpful, were the weakest part of the book. It may just be the nature of the case that in a chapter each they weren’t able to treat these issues with the depth and nuance they deserved.

All in all, though, this is a helpful book for pastors and other church leaders who are looking for ways to see diversity as a gift rather than a threat in their churches. The final chapter gives nine principles for moving forward, and church leaders could do a lot worse (and have done a lot worse) than prayerfully studying and teaching principles like “Allow faith to transform your identity,” “Only God can tell you who you really are,” and “Don’t be afraid to live like an outsider” when it comes to the wider culture.

Note: Thanks to the publisher for a review copy of this book. I was not asked to give a positive review.

Seeing Singles as People (Review)

When I first heard about One by One: Welcoming the Singles in Your Church by Gina Dalfonzo, I thought it would be a book with a “how-to” bent. I know that in many churches, the response to the sexual revolution over the last several decades has been to focus on the nuclear family to the neglect of people in other stages of life (forgetting that the church itself is spoken about using “family” language in the New Testament). I thought it might be nice to get a few tips on avoiding the temptation for churches to neglect people who are not married.

9780801072932But it is not a how-to book, and for that reason I had the hardest time getting into it. It comes in three sections: The first, called “Stigmas, Stereotypes, and Shame,” states the problem: single people are too often seen in American churches as problems, pariahs, or projects. In the second, called “How We Got Here,” Dalfonzo gives a history lesson that begins in the ’90s with the courtship craze started (or at least fueled) by Joshua Harris’s book I Kissed Dating Goodbye. In the third, called “Where Do We Go from Here?” Dalfonzo paints a picture of what churches could look like if they did really welcome single people for who they are, rather than as potential married people.

As I mentioned, I had trouble getting into it, probably because in the first section does a bit of preaching to the choir. People who pick up a book like this are likely to be sympathetic readers, so stating the problem of how singles are often treated in the church over three chapters and 70 pages seemed excessive.

Nevertheless, I’m glad that I kept going. I enjoyed her take on the courtship craze in part 2, and I note that even Joshua Harris has been reevaluating the ideas in his famous book (he has been working on a documentary film called I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye, which he talks about here).

Also, one nugget in particular from the third section of the book has stuck with me. Dalfonzo wrote, “I really believe that a large part of the reason married churchgoers are often thrown for a loop by the singles is that, deep down, we are completely wedded to the idea that we should be able to control our own lives” (170). How can it be, the thinking goes, that you could really want something and not be able to get it? You must not be trying that hard. In this scenario, dependence on God as the source of life and giver of gifts goes out the window.

I think Dalfonzo is onto something there regarding how the American ideal of individual autonomy has played out in the area of how married Christians can treat single ones. This idea that we are atomistic individuals who ought to be able to control our own lives is a pernicious lie (not a uniquely American one, but one that is particularly influential here), and to counter it we need to believe the truth: that we are dependent on God for all things; and that the church he has started (including the singles in it!) is our true family.

Note: Thanks to the publisher for a review copy of this book. I was not asked to give a positive review.

Character Is King (Review)

Education in general, and education in leadership in particular, has increasingly become focused on the acquisition of skills. Since we as a society cannot agree on what is good or true or beautiful, when we want to teach something the only definition of success we can agree on is that we should become, as the title of a recent book by Charles Duhigg tells us, Smarter Faster Better (or in the words of Daft Punk, “Harder Better Faster Stronger“). Education is little more than an indoctrination into what the French philosopher Jacques Ellul called “technique.”

people-of-a-certain-character-cover_thumbnailThis sort of thinking is also present in churches, although biblical qualifications for leadership have a bit to do with skills (“able to teach,” 1 Tim 3:2; 2 Tim 2:24) but much more to do with character (“above reproach,” “self-controlled,” “not quarrelsome,” “not a lover of money,” 1 Tim 3:2–3). My friend Jeremy Rios, who until recently pastored at Burnaby Alliance Church and is now pursuing a PhD at the University of St. Andrews, wrote People of a Certain Character: Mentored Leadership for Servants in the Kingdom as a leadership training manual with the goal of helping to restore the church to a more character-focused vision of leadership.

At just 106 pages, it is a brief book that almost might be called a booklet. Rios has consciously kept the book short so that it can be profitably read in groups of Christian leaders. The real purpose is not to read it alone for the purpose of review (as I have just done) but to work through it slowly, reflectively, alongside others with whom you are ministering. In each of twelve chapters, Rios asks a question that aims to get at the heart of a Christian leader’s character:

  • Do you know that you are loved by God?
  • Do you have a conviction of holiness?
  • Are you filled, and being filled, with the Holy Spirit?
  • Are you aware that God is in charge of your ministry?
  • Do you have a right relationship with Mammon?
  • Are you willing to submit?
  • Do you know how to connect with the Lord devotionally?
  • Do you know how to listen for the Lord’s interruptions?
  • Do you know how to share the gospel?
  • Do you know how to minister in the power of the Lord?
  • Do you know how to care for others?
  • Do you know how to restore yourself?

Each chapter begins with a passage of Scripture, continues with a meditation on that Scripture, then concludes with discussion questions and a suggested spiritual practice to help readers grow in that area. For example, the spiritual practice connected with “Are you willing to submit?” is fasting. The book ends with a concluding word on the importance of mentoring for growth in Christian character, using the apostle Paul and his mentoring of Timothy as a primary example.

As I read the book, I thought there were many other questions that could have been asked to help people gauge where they are in terms of their character, but these are a good baseline. The intent, as I see it, is not to be exhaustive, but to prompt honest reflection and growth. It is similar to books on spiritual disciplines: when you read Richard Foster, or Dallas Willard, or someone else, you find that their lists of spiritual disciplines overlap but are not entirely the same. The point is not to establish a complete list of disciplines for people to practice, but to suggest ways in which we might use our bodies and habits to invest in our relationship with God.

I think this book will be a valuable resource for leadership development in the church. As I mentioned above, resources on leadership often focus on the “how” to the detriment of the “who”—what kind of character should you have as a leader? While I do think resources that teach leadership skills have their place, there is a greater need in our current environment for books like People of a Certain Character.

Note: While the author is a friend, a copy of this book was provided to me with no expectation as to the nature of the review. Check out Jeremy’s explanation of why he wrote the book here.

As Kingfishers Catch Fire (Review)

Eugene Peterson has long been one of my heroes. As I was studying to be a pastor, I would sometimes become anxious, thinking that I would have to become an über-extroverted CEO to keep up with contemporary expectations for what a pastor should be. I would be filled with dread and second-guessing until I went back and read some of Peterson’s writing on pastoring (like The Contemplative Pastor), and I would be reassured that I was not crazy to think that someone with my personality could do it, even in America.

Since then, I haven’t followed the path I thought I would. I love and am committed to the local church, but so far I haven’t ended up serving as a pastor. Peterson is still a hero, though, and I still turn to his writings for guidance not just on how to be a pastor in today’s world, but how to be a Christian—or even a human—as well.

9781601429674In mid-May this year, Waterbrook will publish As Kingfishers Catch Fire: A Conversation on the Ways of God Formed by the Words of God, a collection of Peterson’s sermons from when he served Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Bel Air, Maryland. It’s the second of his books whose title comes from a single poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins (the first being Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places). In the preface, he writes that the goal of all his pastoral work, including the sermons he preached, was congruence:

The Christian life is the lifelong practice of attending to the details of congruence—congruence between ends and means, congruence between what we do and the way we do it, congruence between what is written in Scripture and our living out what is written, congruence between a ship and its prow, congruence between preaching and living, congruence between the sermon and what is lived in both preacher and congregation, the congruence of the Word made flesh in Jesus with what is lived in our flesh. (xviii)

There are forty-nine sermons in this collection from the twenty-nine years Peterson was a pastor. They are divided into seven parts, with seven sermons each. Each part is focused on the books associated with a biblical figure: Moses, David, Isaiah, Solomon, Peter, Paul, and John. There is an introduction to each of these parts that sets the passages the sermons are based on in their biblical context. Peterson states outright that this is not a “best of” collection; rather, they are a representative sample.

Something is always lost when sermons are printed in a book, and no doubt that is the case here. But at the same time, getting a taste of these sermons is better than nothing, and I for one am grateful to have them. Each sermon is between five and six pages long, which is a good length to take one at a time as devotional reading.

Note: Thanks to the publisher for a review copy of this book. I was not asked to give a positive review.

The Life of the Church (Review)

Moody Publishers has recently published three books on the church from Joe Thorn: The Heart of the Church: The Gospel’s History, Message, and Meaning, The Character of the Church: The Marks of God’s Obedient People, and The Life of the Church: The Table, Pulpit, and SquareThey are intended, respectively, to answer the questions: What does the church believe? What makes a church a church? and What should a church do?

Since I’m always interested in people’s visions of what the church ought to be and do, and I’m on my own church’s leadership team, I decided to pick up the third book to see what Thorn had to say.

9780802414694The book itself is short, almost a booklet (it’s 109 pages). It has a cool design that features the colors black and green, and Thorn himself seems like a cool guy (he has tattoos and wears shirts with epaulets). According to the book, the mission of the church is to follow Christ and make disciples in three environments: the table, pulpit, and square. The “table” is Thorn’s way of talking about a church’s inward community; “pulpit” represents the church’s worship gatherings; and “square” stands for the public square, i.e., the church’s activities in the surrounding community of participation, restoration, conversation, and multiplication.

These three images make up a clever heuristic for thinking about what the church is supposed to do. I’m sure it will stick with me, and that I’ll continue to find this book useful. Finally, while there are many things in the book that churches from any denomination would agree with, when you read between the lines a bit it does seem clear that Thorn is writing from within the Reformed Baptist tradition. Readers of any denomination could benefit from this book, but those who share Thorn’s tradition will be the most “at home” in it.

Note: Thanks to Moody Publishers for a review copy of this book. I was not asked to give a positive review.

What Draws Young People to Churches: A Review

It happens all across America: churches start out doing well, but they stop paying attention and pretty soon everyone is over 40. Or 50. Or 60. The congregation decides they need to do something to draw young people, but they don’t know what to do. So they look for some kind of silver bullet like starting a new program or hiring a new staff member, but it doesn’t work.

If this sounds like your experience, Brad Griffin, Kara Powell, and Jake Mulder of the Fuller Youth Institute are here to help. They conducted a study of churches that have found ways to grow young instead of old, and the resulting book, Growing Young: 6 Essential Strategies to Help Young People Discover and Love Your Church, spells out the core commitments of those churches.

9780801019258Those core commitments are:

  1. Unlock keychain leadership. They have leaders who will share their authority with young people, inviting them to grow in their responsibilities.
  2. Empathize with today’s young people. Older members remember what it was like to be young, and they also try to understand the challenges young people today face that they didn’t. Then they do all they can to help young people work through the challenges of finding identity, belonging, and purpose.
  3. Take Jesus’ message seriously. They proclaim Jesus as “the centerpiece of the story of God” and seek “to live out his message in everyday relationships” (129). In other words, these churches are theologically robust; they don’t preach the moralistic therapeutic deism that distracts people in our culture.
  4. Fuel a warm community. They didn’t just create programs for young people to connect in their church; their entire church gave young people an authentic and welcoming feeling. Structures were not enough for these churches. The people were also warm and inviting.
  5. Prioritize young people (and families) everywhere. Churches can make the first four commitments and still grow old. Churches that grew young also made young people and families a priority. They committed resources and attention to them throughout the life of the congregation, including in their worship gatherings, staffing, and budget.
  6. Be the best neighbors. These churches were not antagonistic toward culture, but sought out ways to both live faithfully and serve their neighbors. This is difficult, since the values of those outside the church and those inside it often conflict, but churches that grow young never stop asking, “Who is my neighbor?” and committing to serve them.

When I got this book in the mail, it was thicker than I thought it would be. It is packed with the authors’ research findings, as well as stories from the churches they studied (side note: one of the churches they studied was the District Church in Washington, DC, one of whose pastors is my friend Aaron Graham. It was especially fun and interesting for me to read stories about what they are doing there.) Each chapter ends with ideas for action, as well as reflection questions to help you and your church’s leaders think about where your church is now and how it could change.

This book is particularly relevant for pastors and church leadership teams. Youth pastors and student ministry volunteers can and will benefit from it too, but part of the message of the book is that churches who do well at engaging young people don’t limit that engagement to a youth program or young adult ministry. The entire church needs to prioritize young people, and the “keys” (i.e., authority) to do that come from the lead pastor and leadership team.

Note: Thanks to the publisher, Baker Books, for a review copy of this book. I was not asked to give a positive review.

The Church as Salad Bowl: A Review

What is the church supposed to look like? Is it the club of similar people that many of us know, or is it an outpost of God’s kingdom that consists of a group of people who would never get along if it weren’t for God’s grace? Prolific New Testament scholar Scot McKnight has written a book exploring this question (I call him prolific because I was about to call this book his “latest,” but it came out in February so now I’m not so sure).

The book, A Fellowship of Differents: Showing God’s Design for Life Together, draws on the letters of the Apostle Paul (and the analogy of a salad bowl) to argue that the local church should be a diverse group of people who become a new kind of family that is only made possible by grace and love. He writes, “A good salad is a fellowship of different tastes, all mixed together with the olive oil accentuating the taste of each.” The church is supposed to transcend difference, while honoring difference at the same time.

McKnight further argues that the church shapes discipleship. That is, for ordinary Christians, what they  experience at church is what the Christian life is for them. This means that there should be diversity in church. There should be different races, genders, socioeconomic groups, cultures, styles, histories, ages, marital statuses. For churches to achieve this diversity, McKnight writes, the Christian life in those churches needs to be characterized by six themes: grace, love, table fellowship, holiness, newness, and flourishing.

I mentioned above that McKnight is a New Testament scholar, but over the years he has learned to write for a popular audience, not just seminary graduates like me. It is a testament to how successful he has been at this transformation that at various times in the book I wanted to share it with people in my church, as well as people who regard themselves as spiritual but aren’t part of a church. Sometimes I would come across an analogy in the book and think, “Well, that’s corny.” But then I had to remind myself: “Snooty overeducated types like me aren’t the main audience for this book.”

The classic exploration of life in Christian community is Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together. This book won’t replace that one, but I think it can supplement it for our time. I hope this book does find a large audience among people who love the church, are frustrated by the church, or don’t see the need for a church, and I hope they’re inspired by what God intended the church to be.

Note: Thanks to the publisher for a review copy of this book. I was not asked to give a positive review.