The Sending Church: a book review

J.D. Greear is the pastor of the multi-site Summit Church in Raliegh-Durham, North Carolina and the author of several Christian books. While I am generally suspicious of mega-churches, I am impressed by the substance of Greear’s teaching. He is passionate about biblical teaching, discipleship and getting people to live out their faith in risky ways. His new book, Gaining By Losing: Why the Future Belongs to Churches that Send  unpacks ten kingdom ‘plumb lines’ for church leaders to lead their churches in becoming a sending church.  When Greear took over the helm at Homestead Heights Baptist Church, he relaunched a traditional Baptist church as a contemporary missional church. They went from a congregation of three-hundred to a mega church, to a multi-site church. Greear has a passion for growing missional leaders and releasing them to make a kingdom impact.

At the heart of Greear’s approach is a passion for sending. While other pastors focus on growing their church or movement, Greear and his leadership team do not hold on to their most gifted leaders. They train them and send them out. In this book, Greear shares ‘plumb lines’ –short memorable phrases that he repeats ad nausem to help keep his leadership and congregation on mission. These include:

  • The Gospel is Not Just the Diving Board, It is the Pool
  • Everyone is called.
  • The Week is as Important as the Weekend
  • A Church is Not a Group of People Gathered Around a Leader but a Leadership Factory
  • The Church Makes Visible the Invisible Christ
  • The Point in Everything is to Make Disciples
  • Every Pastor is Our Missions Pastor
  • We Seek to Live Multicultural Lives, Not Just Host Multicultural Events
  • Risk is Right
  • When You are Sick of Saying It, They’ve Just Heard It

While the stated purpose of the book is to get churches to be sending churches (through both church planting and short term missions), the above “plumb lines” illustrate an approach to ministry that is gospel soaked, rooted in the priesthood of all believers, puts a priority on discipleship, and actively cultivates diversity. The church that I pastor is not at sending stage but a small church that needs to pursue growth. Nevertheless Greear has plenty of things to say which apply to my context, and casts a vision for where we can grow to.

As a pastor, I appreciated the practical nature of this book. I  like that Greear is not confused about technique, models and methods. His vision for a sending church is firmly grounded in New Testament faith. Two appendixes give practical insights for setting up an international mission strategy, and developing a strategy for domestic church planting. For my context, many of Greear’s recommendations don’t work, but I still felt myself stretched and encouraged to take Kingdom risks. I give this four stars.

Note: I received this book from Cross Focused Reviews and Zondervan for the purposes of this review.  I also would be remiss if I failed to mention how much the cover evokes 80’s era video games for me. Ah, memories.

Change is Possible! a book review

So you want to start a revolution? Yeah, we all want to change the world. Ministers, activists, non-profits, NGOs, world-relief organizations all have a vested interest in making the world a better place. We all want to change the world. The question is what we can do to bring about transformation and lasting change to a hurting world?

Stephen Bauman is president and CEO of World Relief and has devoted years of his life to bringing about transformation to the two-thirds world. To this end, he considers his African friends his most important teachers (he and his wife Belinda six years serving at-risk communities in West Africa). He has seen the ravages of war, poverty and violence and yet he is hopeful. Though we live in hard times, God has given us a part in changing the world through Christ. So if you want to start a reformation, Bauman has a blueprint about how to go about it in Possible.

The four chapters of part one explore our call to change the world. Bauman argues that the world suffers because of a crisis of vision, not a crisis of will (6). People really do want to help and give their life for a cause but old methods and approaches don’t work.  Bauman urges us to change the world through clear vision and thoughtful action (9), and a sense of urgency to address the problems of our age. In chapter two he explores change from the periphery. Recounting biblical, historical and contemporary examples, Bauman demonstrates that this is where change happens:

Shifting our expectations from the center to the periphery is essential if we are going to seize our moment in history.  If we remain fixated on ourselves or on the “important” people. we will miss the reformation among us, the groundswell of unlikely people–some who have been written off as victims as incapable, or–worse–as unworthy (26).

Chapters three  and four zero in our personal calling. helps us take up our unique destiny and mission to bring meaningful change to the world.

In part two,  Bauman helps us reframe the problem. Chapter five discusses ‘six impossibilities’–things that keep us from pursuing the possibility of real lasting change. Two significant orientations defeat us: the belief of some atheists, that faith does more harm than good and the belief that we can not do good without God.  Bauman acknowledges that injustice has been done in God’s name through the centuries, but calls believers to act in accordance to God’s nature (75-76). While non-believers can certainly do good through common grace,  Bauman argues that God and goodness are inextricably linked whether the do-good-er acknowledges it or not (79-80). Bauman encourages us to pursue justice, the eradication of poverty and suffering by treating it by seeing them as symptomatic of the larger problem: broken relationship (83). Bauman argues that “when we reframe the fundamental conundrums in the world as relational rather than problems requiring projects, we begin to see the need for the seismic shift [in our approach]”(84).

Chapter six explores the anatomy of heart change. Bauman pictures a tree: the roots of the tree are our beliefs, the trunk our values, the branches and leaves our behavior, and the fruit our results (90). Bauman says that what we believe to be true about our world, determines our values, which determines our behavior, which effects our results: Beliefs→Values→Behavior→Results. Thus Bauman argues that change begins with changing our beliefs, so scriptural meditation is key to getting us to act in ways that welcome God’s kingdom. This also gives a vital role to teachers in effecting lasting, change.  In chapter seven, Bauman pushes us to spark genuine, relational and heart change.

Part three is a practical look at how to bring change to community. Chapters eight gives advice on creating a vision for change within your organization. Chapter nine talks about our need to be changed as we work for change. Chapter ten talks about how hope is essential to the change process.  This is followed by an afterword and two appendixes which help readers to think practically about the nature of change.

Despite its depth, this is an easy read. My summary doesn’t do justice to Bauman’s passion that his personal stories convey. He has a lot of wisdom and inspiration for those of us who care about change.. Bauman inspired me and gave me good insights on how to lead the process of change in my role as a pastor. I give this five stars and highly recommend it.

Note: I received this book from Multnomah in exchange for my honest review.

Yes He Does: a book review

I used to be part of a more expressive charismatic church, where Ché Ahn was a respected voice. I remember him preaching at our church one Sunday and enjoyed it. I read God Wants to Bless You! eager to see if I still appreciated Ahn’s message. I also am challenged by charismatic friends toward a more experiential and dynamic faith and the hunger for God’s blessing. God does want to bless us!

Ahn, who is a graduate from Fuller Theological Seminary, founder of the apostolic network Harvest International Ministry (HIM) and the founding pastor of HRock Church in Pasedena wants us to experience all God has for us in Christ. The impetus behind this book was a prophetic word given to him by Bob Hartley in 2013. Hartley told Ahn that he was to speak ten decrees–ten scriptural blessings–over his church  (12). Hartley wasn’t specific as to what these blessings ought to be, and after prayer Ahn compiled the list he shares here. These were decrees that Ahn declared over his church and had his members decree over their own lives.

God Wants to Bless You is presented in two parts. Part one describes the power (and purpose) of God’s blessing in our lives. Part two presents Ahn’s ten decrees. Each of the decree chapters begins with a prayerful ‘apostolic’ decree from Ahn, praying God’s blessing on a dimension of our life,  then some teaching from Ahn on the topic, and a closing decree for the reader to pray out loud, declaring God’s blessing on their lives.

All of these decrees are biblically rooted. Ahn leads us through prayers that we will grow in our knowledge of God’s love, grow in grace, be in empowered by the Spirit, know our identity in Christ, grow in Christlike character, see God’s Kingdom come, experience God’s healing, prosperity and fulfill our personal God-given destiny.

Ahn is a good teacher and I was generally impressed by his use of scripture. I also liked that this book isn’t a simple ‘name it and claim it’ book. When Ahn writes about growing in love, character, grace, etc, he imparts strategies for living in a more Christlike way.  This isn’t just about speaking God’s blessing in our life, Ahn shares vulnerably his sometimes difficult journey as a disciple. There is no dichotomy here between praying for something, and active spiritual discipline.

However I do have qualms with his understanding of Israel and prosperity. Ahn teaches about God’s continuing blessing on Israel and the Jewish people based on their covenant with God and his covenant faithfulness to them (41-46). He then teaches that all of the blessings of Israel are our inheritance in Christ because we have been grafted into  Abraham’s family (46). To me, this smacks of supersessionism and leads to the misreading of the Bible. Secondly, Ahn’s teaching of prosperity involves renouncing ‘the Spirit of Poverty; on our lives. Ahn shares the story of renouncing the spirit of Poverty and receiving his first five-thousand dollar honorarium (57). I can agree with Ahn that we shouldn’t seek poverty for poverty sake, or idealize it.  Yet I think what scripture commends is that  God’s care for us and our needs. It is not  a ‘pray and grow rich’ theology. I am nervous about the way the prosperity gospel penetrates Ahn’s description of God’s blessing.

But I am also appreciative that the Blessings that Ahn has us declare over our lives are so that we can be a blessing to our neighbors and the nations. The impact of the abundant life is that we share God’s love, grace, healing, and prosperity with others. Ahn teaches us that God blesses so that we can be a blessing. I can’t agree more. I am awed and inspired by God’s goodness to us and the way it is described here.

I give this book three stars and recommend it, albeit with reservations. I want to experience more of God’s unconditional goodness. I want that for you to.

Note: I recieved this book from Chosen books in exchange for my honest review.

Human Trafficking in Our Backyard: a book review

We say, “Not in our backyard” to indicate our  strong opposition to something: a property development in our neighborhood, unacceptable behaviors, a factory spewing out toxic pollution. Unfortunately there are some pretty heinous things in our backyard already, none as horrifying as human trafficking.

Nina Belles is an anti-trafficking activist, managing director of In Our Backyard and the regional director of Oregonians Against Trafficking Humans. In Our Backyard gives a comprehensive overview of the horrors of human trafficking. Belles doesn’t focus on just one type of trafficking. She profiles victims  who are forced into prostitution (often under-aged), immigrants who are taken advantage of, factory and farm-workers, domestic help and restaurant staff. She explores how the pornography industry is used to groom and recruit victims into the sex trade. She talks about the stockholm syndrome and the reasons why victims stay with their victimizers. Belles also  discusses her own work in advocacy and ways that we can get involved.

I found this book helpful on a number of levels. I have had limited experience ministering to people who had been trafficked and have friends who are active in working with  sexually trafficked women. Belles shines a light on some dark places. I need books like this to keep me aware of ways people I have seen may be being exploited. Some of these women and men were not helped because the people who would help, simply didn’t notice. Belles  helps us take notice because she points to where this is happening. Everyday. In our backyard.

I also appreciate this book for the hopeful chord it struck. This is a story-rich book and many of the stories that Belles shares here are from victims who have escaped their slavery. While there is much work to be done, and all of us need to be aware of the ways people are being exploited, it is good to know that for some, the system works and people are set free. Because of the hopeful note, it is not heavy reading, even though the topic is heavy.

This book appears to be a updated edition of a 2011 version of the book (though the Baker Edition makes no mention of it on its copyright page). Most of the stories and events happen before 2011, but statistical data, and descriptions of online trafficking has been updated.

I give this book five stars.

Note: I received the book from Baker Books in exchange for my honest review

Christianity & Religious Diversity: a book review

There is an increasing awareness of religious diversity in the West due to globalization. Harold Netland, professor of philosophy of religion and intercultural studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School is someone with keen insights into the implications of the modern religious climate for those of us with Christian commitments. In Christianity & Religious Diversity he untangles issues facing Christians today.

Netland states that this is not an introduction to religion, but “a  selective treatment of issues related to religious diversity and Christian commitment” (xi).  He divides his exploration of the topic in two parts. In part one,  he explores the nature of religion in the modern, globalizing world. In part two, Netland discusses ‘Christian Commitments in a Pluralistic world.’ Part one describes the lay of the land, and part two is designed to help Christian religious philosophers, missionaries and apologists navigate it.

Part one begins with Netland recounting recent academic debates about the nature of religion, its definition and its relationship to culture.  He observes several important features of our contemporary religious climate: (1) a direct link between a religion, worldview or culture cannot be assumed; (2) religion and culture cannot be reduced into each other; (3) religions and cultures are fluid and change overtime; (4) People have already had multiple cultural identities, and increasingly people have multiple religious identities too (35-39). Chapter two explores the way that modernization and globalization have changed religious commitments by making choices available while simultaneously eroding our epidemiological certainty.  Chapter three examines Buddhism and the way it has adapted with modernism and globalization. Chapter four shows how Jesus Christ has been adopted by many different religious  and cultural traditions. Examples include the Hindu Renaissance (such as Mahatma Gandhi’s use of Jesus), John Hick’s pluralism and Shusaku Endo’s novels.

Chapters five through seven of part two deal with the problem of making Christian truth claims in a pluralist age. Chapter five answers the question, “Can All Religions Be True?” [Spoiler Alert: No]. Chapter six explores the notion of ‘Christianity as the One True Religion’  and chapter seven talks about the reasons for belief in a diverse age. Netland, earned his doctorate under John Hicks and he unpacks many of the the problems with Hicks pluralism. Netland’s final chapter forms a conclusion to these essays. Netland urges missionaries, apologists and evangelists to  both remain faithful disciples of Jesus and to be good neighbors, respectful in dialogue with those in other faith traditions.

Netland is brilliant at synthesizing the literature from diverse disciplines such as philosophy of religion, missiology, sociology, economics, biblical studies, and theology.  He offers a comprehensive analysis of our post-colonial, global religious landscape. Anyone interested in the effects of Globalization on religion will find this book informative.  Netland’s prose is careful and circumspect and what I appreciated most was his descriptions of religious trends. This will be most useful for apologists and students. I give it five stars.

Notice of Material Connection: I received this book from Baker Academic in exchange for my honest review

Mormon & Evangelical Conversation: a book review

In another recent review, I faulted the authors of a recent apologetic resource for their tone (though I signaled my substantial agreement with their claims and theological commitments). Talking Doctrine: Mormons & Evangelicals in Conversation is an altogether different approach. Edited by Richard Mouw, Reformed theologian and past president of Fuller Seminary and Mormon theologian Robert Millet, Talking Doctrine is a window into a interfaith dialogue that has been happening between Mormons and Evangelicals for the past fifteen years. Because this volume has contributors from both groups, the concerns of both Mormons and Evangelicals are articulated; yet there is something else too. Each contributor has sought to listen charitably to the other and friendship and trust has grown across the theological divide.

The book’s two parts give us an overview of their discussions and some of the sticking-points for each community. Part one examines the ‘nature of the dialogue.’ The contributors summarize their dialogue and offer autobiographical reflections about what the conversation has meant, and can mean for each their communities. In part two, the authors share the mutual understanding (yet continuing disagreement) on specific doctrinal issues.

When these Mormon and evangelical scholars first met, they regarded each other with mutual suspicion. Both groups have grown used to the other making assumptions about the veracity of  their faith experience (terms like ‘cult’ and apostasy have been bandied about). And yet as they sat down to these conversation and really tried to listen to what the other group actually believed, a surprising common ground emerged. Craig Blomberg, observes:

We have recognized that the most effective forum for mutual understanding comes when we agree that none of us in our joint gatherings will try to proselytize the other, though what two of us might decide to do in some entirely private conversation elsewhere is entirely up to us. At the same time, we have all expected that our communities would continue to proselytize each other actively, but that they need to do so with much greater awareness of each other’s beliefs, misunderstandings, stereotypes, ‘red-flag’ issues and the like (34).

There was not a single convert to Mormonism or evangelicalism in these gatherings. Each participant was (and is) immersed meaningfully in their group’s theological and religious culture. However real change happened.  The evangelicals realized their own characterization of the Mormons as believers in ‘works righteousness’  The conversation revealed a mutual commitment to the efficacy and finality of Christ’s atonement and his work on the cross. The Mormons affirmed their belief in divine grace (especially Camille Fronk Olson’s essay).  This gave the evangelical contributors pause about making declarations on the eternal salvation of their Mormon friends. At the same time, several Evangelicals recognized the Mormon critique of their lack of theological unity and a central authority.

Certainly sticking-points remain and the evangelicals (or Mormon) participants would not commend the others’ faith to seekers. What has emerged from dialogue is not bland relativism of theological commitments but mutual respect and understanding.  As J. Spencer Fluhman (one of the Mormon scholars) says:

We’ve all found it  much more difficult to dismiss a theology when it is embodied. Perhaps some of our evangelical counterparts are even less convinced that we’re real Christians. But I doubt it.  I am sure of this: I would  be perfectly comfortable  with Richard Mouw or Craig Blomberg or Dennis Okholm answering questions about Mormonism in the press or in print.  I would expect them  to be clear about positions they disagree with–heaven knows they have been clear with us–but I know my name or my faith is safe in their hands. The dialogue has been demanding and it has forced some tough questions, but for the most part I have been moved by the displays of generosity and humility on both sides (31).

Without summarizing all of the essays or content of this book, some of the stand-out essays I enjoyed are: J. Spencer Fluhman’s essay on his experience of the dialogue and Blomberg’s dream for future dialogue (both cited above), Dennis Okholm’s essay on ‘apologetics as if people mattered’ more than arguments, Gerald McDermott‘s essay on the nature of serious (rigorous), devout (where each contributor is committed to their faith) and Holy dialogue (aimed at proper understanding and encounter with God), Sarah Taylor‘s autobiographical essay about learning respect for the faith of Mormons while attending BYU as an undergrad, Camille Fronk Olson‘s exploration of the doctrine of grace in Mormonism and Robert Millet’s essays about authority and revelation.

This gets an enthusiastic five stars and I am excited to see where this conversation will go!

Note: I received this book from IVP Academic in exchange for my honest review.

Summa Contra Moroni: a book review

I was asked several months ago by a ministry colleagu if I had any resources on Mormonism. I really didn’t, other than perhaps a chapter in an overview of world religions. It is interesting that I have a number of resources  on Atheism and the grower secularism in our country. Yet we’ve come much closer to electing a committed Mormon as president than we ever have electing a confirmed Atheist. The evangelical Liberty University has had Glenn Beck deliver a commencement address where he took time to describe his experience of faith as a Mormon. Evangelicals are used to cooperating with Mormons on moral issues (i.e. Abortion, traditional marriage) The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has major and growing influence on all aspects of our culture. However their vision of God, humanity, the Bible, salvation, and revelation are different from orthodox expressions of the Christian faith

Mormonism 101: Examining the Religion of the Latter Day Saints is not, as the title implies, a simple overview of basic Mormon beliefs, though that is certainly included. It is a book about how basic Mormon beliefs are wrong and are incompatible with biblical Faith. Authors Bill McKeever and Eric Johnson of the Mormonism Research Ministry have dedicated their lives to engaging Mormons in conversation about the tenants of their faith from an Evangelical Christian perspective. Because they know Mormonism as a dynamic faith led by a living prophet and president, their case against Mormonism makes generous use of documentary evidence, drawn especially from leaders who are central to the Mormon faith.

McKeever and Johnsons book gives a comprehensive overview of Mormonism. They examine the LDS concept of God (the Father, Jesus, and the Trinity),  Mormon anthropology (Human preexistence, the secondary state, the fall and apostasy), their scriptures, their concept of salvation, their ordinances and temple practices, and their concept (and content) of Revelation.  I appreciated how carefully they built their case on documentary evidence (with extensive endnotes at the end of each chapter). Their purpose in writing, is to be a resource for non-Mormons as they engage in conversation with Mormons.

In general, I agree with their theological convictions and their take on Mormonism. I am an Evangelical pastor and while I respect Mormons for their lifestyle and commitment to mission, I think their concept of God, Jesus and Humanity is deeply flawed and their teachings are problematic. Nevertheless I have trouble with the tone of this book.

When I was in college I remember extended conversations on faith I had with a couple of Muslims. They carried little booklets with them with titles like How to Answer a Bible Thumper which rehearsed the contradictions in the Bible (from a Muslim perspective). Mostly, they demonstrated misunderstanding of my faith, having observed it from the outside. I wonder if there is a similar dynamic related to this book. This is not a sympathetic take on Mormonism. Not even a sympathetic-critical take. This is a critical look at where Mormonism is wrong and occasionally the authors tone bothered me and definitely would bother me if I was a Mormon reader.

That caveat aside, for my purposes, I think this is a helpful resource to have around and will likely refer to when I’m next In conversation with a Mormon. In several places, it helped me clear up some of my own misconceptions of Mormon beliefs and I think it is on point on many of the issues (especially the Mormon concept of God and humanity. I give this four stars.

Notice of material connection: I received this book from Baker Books in exchange for my honest review.