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.

How to Be Mission-Oriented Elders: A Review

When I read my friend James Matichuk’s review of Eldership and the Mission of God: Equipping Teams for Faithful Church Leadership, I wanted to get my hands on it as well. While, unlike James, I am not a pastor, I am on my church’s leadership team, and wanted to read something that would help me reflect on what it means to function faithfully in that position. I also was looking for something that I could recommend to the rest of the team, and after reading it I found that this book fits the bill.

Eldership and the Mission of God is written by Bob Hyatt and J.R. Briggs, two pastors of missional churches who had met through their involvement in the Ecclesia Network. I had read Briggs’s previous book, Fail, and liked it. While I had not read anything Hyatt had written, I knew that he was the founding pastor of the Evergreen Community in Portland.

The book deliberately looks at church leadership through a missional lens. Briggs and Hyatt write in the introduction:

This book is not an exhaustive academic or theological treatise on biblical eldership. It is for church leaders and practitioners who want their faith communities to possess an ethos that is undeniably anchored in God’s mission. Good books have been written on eldership that approach the topic from a theological perspective. This book, however, seeks to do something few—if any—have done before: explore eldership through a missiological lens and discuss its practical implications within local congregations.

They see elders as tasked with constructing “floating docks” (see the picture on the cover) that can remain anchored in God’s mission while adapting to the current cultural water levels. The book includes chapters on the nuts and bolts of eldership, such as how to select elders, what the qualifications of an elder are, and what the roles of elders are in leading the church and making decisions, but this emphasis on mission runs throughout the book.

Briggs and Hyatt do not disqualify women as elders (they even include a chapter at the end called “What about Women Elders?” in which they make a brief case for this and include references for further exploration), so churches that do not permit women to be elders might not be able to endorse this book fully. Nevertheless, I would recommend this book to any pastor or church leader who is interested in exploring what eldership in their church would look like if it were primarily shaped by mission.

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

ReFrame ReView: Living Out of the Christian Story

Many Christians are wondering how their faith can possibly relate to their everyday life. Often we see our faith as private—something that we do in our spare time or on the weekends, not something that shapes how we work and play every day. Even if we do bring faith into our everyday lives, it can seem tacked on. It is as if faith is limited to certain activities, and not something that comes out of the core of who we are.Screenshot 2014-11-13 20.50.55

To help us learn how faith relates to all of life, the folks at the Regent College Marketplace Institute (RCMI) have released ReFrame, a video course that explores what it means to follow Christ today. ReFrame seeks to explore how, in the words of Colossians 1:17, “in [Christ] all things hold together.” The introduction to each video in the course includes the following words, spoken by presenter Mark Mayhew:

The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ reframes everything, bringing hope, life, and meaning to every part of human culture. And yet many of us can’t see how our faith shapes much of everyday life and experience. What are God’s purposes for us? What does it mean to be made in the image of God? How do we live in the world but not of the world? We’re exploring, “How does the biblical story reframe our story?”

The course comes in ten episodes, each about 40 minutes long. Each episode includes a TED-style talk as well as brief interviews with various people like Eugene Peterson, Scot McKnight, Ruth Padilla DeBorst, Andy Crouch, Loren Wilkinson, J. I. Packer, Krish Kandiah, Soong-Chan Rah, and Katherine Leary Alsdorf. Since ReFrame is a product of the RCMI, it is not surprising that most of these have a connection to Regent College, whether they have been professors or taught summer school courses. I was very excited about this because of my own connection to Regent (I attended there 2004–08 and graduated with an MDiv), but I think this will be exciting to a much broader audience than just Regent nerds like myself.

The ten episodes are as follows; I’ve included the speakers in the list so you can see what an all-star cast it is:

1. The ReFraming Story (Speaker: Paul Williams)

2. Cultural Stories (Speaker: Sarah Williams)

3. Creation & Fall (Speaker: Iain Provan)

4. Israel’s Calling (Speaker: Phil Long)

5. Jesus the King (Speaker: Rikk Watts)

6. New Heavens & New Earth (Speaker: Rikk Watts)

7. The Church & the Spirit (Speaker: Bruce Hindmarsh)

8. Strangers & Exiles (Speaker: Paul Williams)

9. Ambassadors (Speaker: Paul Williams)

10. Joyful Living (Speaker: Polly Long)

In addition to the talks and brief interviews, each episode also features the story of (usually one) person who is trying to live out his or her Christian faith in a particular area. For example, Strangers & Exiles features the stories of teacher George Sanker, physicist Jennifer Wiseman, and car dealer Don Flow. Here is a promo for the series, and as you can see, the production value is great:

In addition to the videos, ReFrame comes with a Leader’s Guide and Participant’s Guide. Each session is intended to take about two hours, including the watching of the 40-minute video. The Leader’s Guide looks very similar to the Participant’s Guide, but includes notes for leaders next to the main text. Here is a page from the Participant’s Guide:

Participant Guide Sample

Here is the same page from the Leader’s Guide:

Leader Guide Sample

If you have been following this blog for a while, you know that back in 2009 I reviewed a video series called The Truth Project that was billed as a “Christian worldview experience.” I anticipate that, since the two may be seen to have similar goals and I have seen both, I might be asked which one I would prefer. I would definitely say ReFrame, not least because it has a better flow from being built around a story rather than topics. Also, while The Truth Project is very well done in many ways, there are a few spots where it has trouble differentiating between a Christian worldview and the worldview of culturally conservative Baby Boomers (for example, in its treatment of American history). As such, while much of the series is very valuable, I believe that it is unlikely to have much lasting cachet outside that demographic.

I wish that I could go through every episode of ReFrame in detail, but I don’t have the space or time to do that here. Perhaps if I go through the course with my small group or a larger group from my church (which I definitely want to do), I’ll be able to sit down and write an episode-by-episode review. In the meantime, if you want to get a closer look for yourself, you can watch episodes one and five in their entirety at this link.

I highly, highly recommend this course for group study, whether it is as a small group or as a church. I pray that God will use ReFrame to powerfully influence Christians around the world to live more fully out of, and show others how to live more fully out of, the most compelling and beautiful story there is.

Note: Thanks to the Regent College Marketplace Institute for a copy of ReFrame for the purpose of review, with no expectation as to the nature of the review.

Evangelii Gaudium Is Not All about Economics: A Review

Around this time last year, there was a flurry of media coverage about Pope Francis’s first major writing of his pontificate, the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”). While he had previously released an encyclical, Lumen Fidei (“The Light of Faith”), that was largely the work of his predecessor, Benedict XVI. When Evangelii Gaudium released, many saw it as an indication of what was important to this new pope.

Unfortunately, much of the media attention that Evangelii Gaudium garnered tended to focus on the same 16 paragraphs (the ones numbered 52–60 and 202–208) of a 288-paragraph document (I read a nice hardcover version of it, but the entire text is available online here).  Those paragraphs contained Francis’s critique of economic practices that dehumanize both the poor and the rich. Many on the American right hated it, many on the American left loved it, and media watchers told us who got it right and who got it wrong. It was another distressing example of how ideologies distort people’s perceptions of reality. Interestingly enough, Francis saw it coming:

In today’s world of instant communication and occasionally biased media coverage, the message we preach runs a greater risk of being distorted or reduced to some of its secondary aspects. In this way certain issues which are part of the Church’s moral teaching are taken out of the context which gives them their meaning. The biggest problem is when the message we preach then seems identified with those secondary aspects which, important as they are, do not in and of themselves convey the heart of Christ’s message. We need to be realistic and not assume that our audience understands the full background to what we are saying, or is capable of relating what we say to the very heart of the Gospel which gives it meaning, beauty or attractiveness. (34)

So what is Evangelii Gaudium really about? Thankfully, Francis doesn’t keep it a secret:

Here I have chosen to present some guidelines which can encourage and guide the whole Church in a new phase of evangelization, one marked by enthusiasm and vitality. … I have decided, among other themes, to discuss at length the following questions:

a) the reform of the Church in her missionary outreach;
b) the temptations faced by pastoral workers;
c) the Church, understood as the entire People of God which evangelizes;
d) the homily and its preparation;
e) the inclusion of the poor in society;
f) peace and dialogue within society;
g) the spiritual motivations for mission (17)

It is, as the title indicates, about preaching the gospel with joy. The other subjects that are treated in the document (missions, church structure, preaching, and, yes, economics) are all dealt with through that lens. I encourage anyone with an interest in Pope Francis, whether they are Catholic or not, to spend some time with this document. It is simple and straightforward, and often quite devotional. Though I am not a Catholic, I was warmed and encouraged by it.

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

Who Are the People in Your Neighborhood? A Review

Environmentalism is part of the culture here in the Pacific Northwest. One aspect of environmentalism is the encouragement to “buy local”—many people here love local businesses, and if given a choice will prefer to patronize them over a national chain.

In light of this cultural preference for the local, it is not surprising that this part of the country is home to the Parish Collective, a group that seeks to root churches and nonprofits in local neighborhoods and connect like-minded people across regions. Three leaders of the Parish Collective (Paul Sparks, Tim Soerens, and Dwight J. Friesen) have now written a book called The New Parish: How Neighborhood Churches Are Transforming Mission, Discipleship and Community. I decided I had to read it when I saw this promo video, filmed in my very own neighborhood:

Those of you who know Bellingham will recognize that the coffee shop featured here is the Lettered Streets Coffeehouse. And those of you who have been to my house will recognize that I live about two blocks from Sean Hall. 

The book comes in three parts. The authors ask in the first part, “Why do we need a new parish?” They argue that “individualism and living above place have fragmented the Western church” (15). In the second part, they ask, “What is the new parish?” Here they argue for a “faithful presence” that integrates community, formation, and mission in all dimensions of public life. In the third part, they ask, “How do we practice the new parish?” They devote one chapter each to the practices of presencing, rooting, linking, and leading.

The biggest difference I can see between the new parish model and the old parish model is the recognition of pluralism: most places have a variety of churches, with different histories and different beliefs. The old parish model deals with this by saying that other churches are not really part of the One True Church. The new parish seems a lot messier. The authors talk some about this in their chapter on “Rooting,” but I would like to have heard a bit more in this book about how to navigate that reality. What happens if you and another church in your neighborhood have different ideas about a central doctrine like the Trinity? Or a hot-button issue in the church like women serving as pastors? Or a hot-button social issue like gay marriage? Dealing with such specific issues likely just did not fit into the scope of this book, but nevertheless that was what I was most curious about when I finished.

Overall, this book struck a chord in me. Like the authors, I have seen and experienced the effects of fragmentation and long for an integrated life. Those times when I have lived “above place,” I have felt depressed or anxious. I want to know people and be known by them. I want to know the history of where I live. I want to be able to walk places, and not be forced to drive everywhere (thankfully, the place where I live now is walkable, but that has not always been the case). I want my church community to do life together in our place, and invite others into that life together. This book helped me to think through these issues, and for that I am thankful.

Note: Thanks to InterVarsity Press for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

How to Be a Saint: A Review

There are many books on Christian conversion, and how to begin life as a new follower of Christ. There are likewise many books on practices related to Christian spiritual formation. But what does it look like to be a mature Christian? What is the ultimate goal of conversion, on the one hand, and spiritual practices, on the other? Is the goal of becoming a Christian (to caricature a common belief) to have eternal fire insurance? To wait around for heaven, or the end of the world, whichever comes first? Gordon Smith has seen a gap in the literature on what Christian maturity looks like, and he aims to fill it with Called to Be Saints: An Invitation to Christian Maturity.

(A personal note, before I get into the review: I attended Regent College when Smith was a professor of spiritual theology there. During that time, his lectures on spiritual discernment were recorded during an evening class on a night when I was working part-time as a janitor. I remember the students being packed into that classroom like sardines, and during breaks, my friends in the class spoke highly of Smith as a lecturer. I never managed to take any of Smith’s classes, but I did listen to those lectures after I left Regent and found them to be wise and helpful.)

The book comes in six chapters, plus two substantial appendices. In the first chapter, Smith alerts the reader to the need for a “compelling theology of holiness.” The second chapter is the crux of the book, in which Smith maintains that Christian spiritual maturity is union with Christ. That is, “what makes the Christian a Christian is participation in the life of Christ Jesus, or union with Christ” (37). The goal is not merely to look like Christ, to ask “What would Jesus do?”; it is to actually participate in the life of Christ. “Without an emphasis on union with Christ, spiritual formation will be a frustrated effort to become like Christ” (48).

Chapters three through six look, in turn, at four characteristics of mature Christians: they are wise, they do good work, they love, and they are joyful. In each chapter, Smith looks carefully at what each of these means, and doesn’t mean. Finally, in two appendices Smith addresses the question of what this looks like in community: the first dealing with congregations, and the second dealing with Christian educational institutions. Although they are set apart as appendices because their goal is different from the chapters earlier in the book, they are just as substantial as the chapters.

The audience that I can see benefiting most from this book are Christian congregational leaders and educators, i.e., people who are responsible for shepherding others into maturity. I would not say that an average church attender could not get anything out of this book, but readers should not expect this to read like a popular-level “Christian living” book. It does not have short chapters or a lot of stories. It is published by InterVarsity Press’s academic imprint, and could be daunting for a reader who is not used to, or not expecting, a more academic style of writing. It demands to be read and re-read slowly, with pencil in hand.

Note: Thanks to InterVarsity Press for providing me with a review copy of this book. I was not asked to give a positive review.

The War on Christians: More Important than the “War on Christmas”

John L. Allen begins his book The Global War on Christians: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Anti-Christian Persecution by dropping this bombshell: “However counterintuitive it may seem in light of popular stereotypes of Christianity as a powerful and sometimes oppressive social force, Christians today indisputably are the most persecuted religious body on the planet, and too often their new martyrs suffer in silence” (1). How persecuted are they? Allen cites a leading estimate that says that 80 percent of all acts of religious discrimination in the world are directed against Christians.

By beginning his book this way, Allen, a Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, hopes to get Western Christians, and those who have power more generally, to care more about this war on Christians around the world. Too often, Western Christians care more about the so-called “War on Christmas” than the fact that their brothers and sisters around the world are suffering and dying because of their faith. Allen is careful to distinguish between what he calls the “war on religion” in Western countries, which is about creeping secularism in public life, and the “war on Christians,” which is about violence and overt persecution. While the former is certainly happening, the magnitude of the latter causes it to pale in comparison.

In the first part of the book, Allen gives an overview of anti-Christian persecution around the world. In the second part, he looks at five myths about the war on Christians: the myth that Christians are at risk only where they’re a minority, the myth that no one saw it coming, the myth that it’s all about Islam, the myth that it’s only persecution if the motives are religious, and the myth that anti-Christian persecution is a political (only right-wing or left-wing) issue. In the final part, after talking about some of the fallout, he gives suggestions on what can be done: prayer, raising consciousness, thinking globally about the church, micro-charity, humanitarian relief, political advocacy, resettling refugees, and partnering with Christians from other parts of the world.

Allen’s claims in this book about the scope of anti-Christian persecution do not seem at all controversial. I made note of several articles about it while I was reading the book. Clearly, it is happening. An interesting angle that Allen takes is that he thinks the motives of the victims of persecution are just as important as the motives of the persecutors. For example, he tells the story of Sr. Dorothy Stang, a nun who was murdered in Brazil in 2005 because of her advocacy on behalf of the poor and the environment. While she was not killed because she was a Christian per se, she is a victim of the global war on Christians because she took the positions she did on account of her Christian convictions.

The only thing I would change about the book is that I wish Allen had included footnotes. He defends his omission of footnotes early in the book, saying that their inclusion “would become unwieldy” (26). All the same, since the intent of the book is to lower barriers to awareness, I think the inclusion of at least some citations would have helped his readers educate themselves even more. With that said, I would recommend that any Western Christian or member of the media read this book. While is not “light” reading, it is not intended to be. It is, as the back cover boldly proclaims, “time to wake up.”

Note: Thanks to the publisher for a review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.