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.

What the Kingdom Is and Isn’t: A Review

Everyone who has read the Gospels knows that Jesus talks a lot about the kingdom of God (“kingdom of heaven” in Matthew). What kind of kingdom was this? Was it something to be looked for in the future? Was it something to be looked for in the present? And why don’t Christians tend to talk about the kingdom as much as Jesus did?

Rick McKinley, pastor of Imago Dei Community in Portland, answers all these questions and more in his book This Beautiful Mess: Practicing the Presence of the Kingdom of God. The first edition of this book was released in 2006, and a revised and updated version was published in July 2013.

The book comes in three parts: “Discovering the Kingdom,” in which McKinley describes what the kingdom of God is; “Re-Visioning Life in the Kingdom,” in which he describes where to look for it; and “Practicing the Presence of the Kingdom,” in which he describes some ways in which Christians can live out the kingdom today. Imago Dei Community embraces the arts, and most chapters end with a brief poem or creative bit of prose from a member of the community.

This book is short (less than 200 pages) and readable. McKinley writes in a conversational and accessible tone, using no footnotes. McKinley’s description of the kingdom of God as “already and not yet” will not come as news to people who have read New Testament scholars such as N. T. Wright, Scot McKnight (who are not mentioned in the book), or George Eldon Ladd (who is)—or, indeed, the New Testament itself. His emphasis on discipleship carries echoes of Dallas Willard. This book will be most valuable to those who are looking for an accessible introduction to what the kingdom is, and how to live out its beauty today—in the midst of the mess.

★ ★ ★ ★

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

Where the Reformation Came From: A Review

This history book has a history.
The first edition of Roots of the Reformation: Tradition, Emergence, and Rupture was published in the spring of 2012. In May of that year, historian Carl R. Trueman wrote a review of the book that pointed out several factual errors in the portion of the book that covers the Reformation. The following month (as pointed out by Trueman), the publisher, InterVarsity Press, acknowledged the errors and pulled the first edition (you can see here that Amazon no longer sells it).

In September 2012, IVP Academic issued a second, corrected edition. Books and Culture ran a review of the second edition in early 2013, in which the reviewer wrote:

To its credit, IVP ceased publication of the first edition of this volume shortly after its release when it was brought to the company’s attention through scholarly reviews (especially the online review of Professor Carl Trueman) that it contained an embarrassingly high number of inconsistencies, mostly inaccuracies of names and dates. In response, a press release was issued stating that the “text did not represent the academic standards we as a publisher hold ourselves to, and we decided to take full responsibility for them.” Well done, IVP! As a result, the following review is far more positive than the original version.

But a bad reputation is hard to shake. There are two comments on this Books and Culture review. The first is someone, clearly lacking in reading comprehension, who says that the book has “been pulled from the shelf due to many factual and historical errors.” The second is me pointing out to this commenter that even a cursory reading of the review would show him that it is of the second edition. Seriously. Some people can’t wait to spread negativity.

Considering this backstory, the main question to address is, “Are the errors corrected?” The answer is yes, as far as I can tell. It was difficult to find all of Trueman’s references, since the new edition has different page numbers, but the ones I was able to find were indeed corrected. I was able to find a few typos, but that is not terribly unusual for a book of this length (480 pages, including indices). The most egregious one was on page 351, where there is an italicized heading, The Bishops’ Bible and the Authorized Version, followed by a space and a different heading. I imagine that, in light of Trueman’s criticism that so much space was devoted to the King James [Authorized] Version, this section was excised, but the heading was mistakenly left.

The further question is, “Is this book worth reading?” The answer is a more confident yes. Evans is a medieval historian, and so is on solid footing when she is dealing with the period leading up to the Reformation. The book comes in three parts: the first is organized largely topically, and deals with the germination of several areas of questioning during the first centuries of the Christian era. The second deals with medieval developments, such as universities, the growth of monasticism, and the stirrings of reform. The third deals with the Reformation and its aftermath. The Lutherans and the Reformed, not surprisingly, get the most scrutiny, but space is also given to the Anabaptists, the English Reformation, and the Counter-Reformation. Evans closes the book with a reconsideration of some of the questions dealt with in the first part, showing how those questions were answered (or explored in different ways) in the Reformation and post-Reformation. In all, this is a good read for someone (especially a Protestant) who is interested in the connection between the Middle Ages and the Reformation.

★ ★ ★ ★

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

Tell a Story that Captures Hearts: A Review

Imagining the Kingdom is the second volume of a projected trilogy by James K.A. Smith called Cultural Liturgies. In the first book, Desiring the Kingdom (which I have not read, but Smith gets the reader up to speed in the early parts of this book), Smith argued that humans are primarily shaped more by the imagination than the intellect. It is the stories we inhabit, and not so much the arguments we believe, that give our lives purpose. In other words, “we don’t think our way through to action; much of our action is not the outcome of rational deliberation and conscious choice. Much of our action is not ‘pushed’ by ideas or conclusions; rather, it grows out of our character and is in a sense ‘pulled’ out of us by our attraction to a telos [end or goal].” We are shaped by the liturgies that tell attractive (not attractive in the sense of “pleasant,” but rather, “resonant”) stories and fuel our imaginations, whether those liturgies are secular or religious: “Through a vast repertoire of secular liturgies we are quietly assimilated to the earthly city of disordered loves…. So we toddle off to church or Bible study week after week … without realizing that we spend the rest of the week making bread for idols (Jer. 7:18).”

In this book, Smith looks specifically at what that insight means for the practices of worship and Christian education. The book comes in two parts. In part 1, the theoretical part of the book, Smith walks the reader through expositions of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Pierre Bourdieu, asking what their theoretical models of how we are formed might mean for how we worship. In part 2, the practical part, Smith talks explicitly about how the theory discussed in part 1 reframes Christian formation and gives a fresh understanding of how worship works.

Smith intentionally pitches this book to be accessible to both worship practitioners and the academy, meaning that one audience will think there are too many footnotes, and the other will think there are not enough.

It is an enjoyable and thought-provoking (as well as, it is hoped, practice-provoking) read. Throughout, Smith attempts to practice what he preaches by telling his readers stories that enable them to imagine what he is talking about. One of my favorites comes early in the book, when he talks about the disconnect between thought and action he experienced when he was reading (and approving) the agrarian writer Wendell Berry while sitting in a Costco.

But since the ultimate goal of the book is the renewal of practice, I was hoping for a bit more in part 2. How can this formation take place? What are some habits of worship that can be used to re-orient us? If we are shaped by stories, I wanted Smith to tell stories about how it has been done in a few communities. Smith points, for example, to the importance of the arts for the church, but by the end of the book I was not quite sure exactly what he meant: painting during a worship service? Liturgical dance? Preach stories instead of sermons? Although I deeply resonated with the argument of Imagining the Kingdom, I think there is a danger—like reading Wendell Berry in Costco—of reading, agreeing, and yet not having the map to get to the place Smith is pointing us to. Perhaps Smith plans on doing more of this in volume three.

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

Rodney Stark on “The People’s Religion”

I’ve been reading Rodney Stark’s The Triumph of Christianity, and I’m struck by what he says about one of my major interests, Christian education, during the Reformation and post-Reformation:

 

The English philosopher John Locke (1632–1704) noted that a preacher “may as well talk Arabic to a poor day-labourer as the notions” that the Anglican clergy preferred as the basis for their sermons. By the same token, Martin Luther’s efforts to provide religious education for the German peasants and urban lower classes failed so completely because the lessons were conceived by a university professor primarily far more concerned with intricate theological nuances than with basic themes….

Luther’s error was not unique. All across Europe, the established churches failed to convert and arouse the “masses,” by failing to recognize that it was a job for preachers, not professors. But the clergy seemed unable to grasp the point that sophisticated sermons on the mysteries of the Trinity neither informed nor converted….

As James Obelkevich explained, “what parishioners understood as Christianity was never preached from a pulpit or taught in Sunday school, and what they took from the clergy they took on their own terms…. Since the clergy were incapable of shaping a more popular version of the faith, villagers were left to do so themselves.”…

Although the people’s religion did often call upon God, Jesus, Mary, and various saints, as well as upon some pagan gods and goddesses (and even more frequently invoked minor spirits such as fairies, elves, and demons), it did so only to invoke their aid, having little interest in matters such as the meaning of life or the basis for salvation. Instead, the emphasis was on pressing, tangible, and mundane matters such as health, fertility, weather, sex, and good crops. (265–66)

 

In short: You have to meet people where they are if you want to hold their attention.