Shift Happens: a book review

Contemporary Churches (2015) is a short booklet by Louis Kavar, Ph.D. designed to aid churches in transition and in need of revitalization. Kavar is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ with thirty-five years of experience in pastoral ministry, a psychologist, and pastoral counselor, and spiritual director. He brings his wealth of ministry experience to bear on helping churches shift from traditional congregational gatherings to something more life-giving and sustainable in our postmodern context.

51u1nyx759lThere are five chapters of Kavar’s book. Chapter 1 describes the cultural shift we are in, where the wider culture is not responsive to the church’s traditional and institutional structure. Kavar describes our need to move from where we are, to begin to configure and conceptualize church in new ways. Chapter 2 describes the movement from death to life, as congregations move through the stages of grief, a spirituality of bereavement, toward resurrection and new vitality. Chapters 3 and 4 moves toward a new model for the local church. Finally, Chapter 5 describes the spiritual practices and rituals that will sustain a church in transition. Kavar writes, “The vitality of the Christian life is not dying. Instead, structures that no longer represent the way of life our culture embraces are fading away.  In this transformation, the words of Isaiah 43 is true for us today, ‘Look I am doing a new thing. It’s emerging don’t you perceive it?'”(94).

I knew that Kavar was a clergy person, a spiritual director, and a psychologist when I picked the book up. I somehow got in my head that this book was about ‘contemplative church transformation.’ It took me waaay too long to realize I read that it was called Contemporary Churches, and not Contemplative Churches. But Kavar draws more heavily on psychologists than mystics. That isn’t to say that he doesn’t deal with spiritual transformation ( he employs Brueggemann’s orientation/disorientation/reorientation framework, the rhythms of death and resurrection, the example of Jesus, spiritual practices, discernment and the operations of the Holy Spirit. And he incorporates insights he’s gained as a psychologist and a church strategist.

Resources abound for church revitalization and congregational transformation. This isn’t the first resource of this kind I’ve read, though it is perhaps the most mainline one I’ve read. Kavar does reference mainstay evangelical authors like Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, George Barna, David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons and even Willow Creek Association resources (but not Ed Stetzer, sorry Lifeway). The changing dynamics of culture effects evangelical and mainline congregations alike, though all anecdotes and illustrative material here are of Mainline congregations and contexts. Some of his examples of shifts (e.g. the move to LGBTQ inclusion and social justice awareness) will be contested in more conservative contexts, but the principles hold true across the theological spectrum. Kavar has some interesting things to say about how for postmodern people, there is a shift in our understanding of church membership from adherence to historic dogma first toward the primacy of communal belonging (members first,  dogma later). I’m confessional enough that this makes me uncomfortable, though I recognize he is right about the broader cultural shift.

Fellow clergy (and congregational leaders) will benefit from reading this whether or not you buy all of Kavar’s theological assumptions and conclusions. He is a good dialogue partner. I give this book four stars (Contemplative Churches, would have been an awesome book).

Notice of Material Connection: I received a copy of this book from SpeakEasy in exchange for my honest review

Singing The Lord’s Song in Our Homeland: a ★★★★★ book review

The gospel of Jesus Christ is living water for our dry, thirsty souls. Nationalism poisons the well.  For citizens of the Kingdom of God, our political, national affiliation is not the most significant thing about ourselves. And yet, America has a long history of co-opting Christian language and worship for nationalistic, political ends.  Craig Watts, the pastor at Royal Palms Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Coral Springs, FL,  probes the reality of American Civil Religion that has permeated our churches in Bowing Toward Babylon(Cascade, 2017).

9781498291859_2Several practices of American civil religion have permeated Christian worship in US churches: The placement and honoring of American flags in the sanctuary, celebration of national holidays, the singing of patriotic songs, etc. Watts makes the case that, “rather than being innocuous practices, expressions of nationalism in worship constitute manifestations of misdirected worship that lead to the spiritual malformation of worshippers” (11). In other words, the symbols and story of America (or any nation) is at odds with the Christian story, where Christ calls a new humanity from every tribe, tongue, and nation.  Drawing a long prophetic tradition, Watts calls America, Babylon— a metaphor for an empire or nation where God’s people are tempted to succumb to majority practices and the worship of national gods.

Watts’s argument unfolds in eight chapters. In chapter one, Watts asserts that when nationalism and patriotism (or any extra-biblical in-group identifiers) permeate Christian worship, it weakens our bonds with the church universal (i.e. our connection to the church in Iraq is deeper than our connection to the unchurched in America). Chapters two and three probes the characteristics of American nationalism and how it infiltrates the church (i.e. ideology of American expansion and exceptionalism, the co-opting of Christian language in the political sphere, the inclusion of nationalistic liturgy in Christian worship).

The rest of the book explores in more detail peculiar American practices that have weaseled their way into the church. Chapter four looks at the sacralizing of nationalistic holidays It is telling that many churches honored our war heroes on Memorial day weekend a couple weeks ago, but failed to mark the significance of Jesus’ ascension (or even Pentecost a week later). Watts argues that by attending to the wrong calendar (the secular calendar, instead of the liturgical calendar), we are inhabiting the wrong story:

When nationalistic holidays are celebrated in worship the Christian story is altered by the inclusion of another story, the adoration of the church becomes divided. Who are we as a church becomes obscured when a calendar is observed in church that honors persons, events, and values that have little or nothing to do with the sacred narrative and loyalites that bind us together with others who follow Jesus where ever and whoever they are. Affections not suitable to the whole people of God are fostered in services of worship that are shaped by nationalistic holidays. (75).

Watts then describes the origins and myth of the big three national holidays (Independence Day, Memorial Day and Thanksgiving) and the ways their inclusion in Christian worship.

Chapter five focuses on how the American flag became an idolatrous symbol. Chapter six explores the history of the pledge of allegiance and how its inclusion in worship invokes a commitment to the nation (not God). Chapter seven describes how patriotic songs and hymns displace God as the center of worship.The closing chapter explores how baptism and the Eucharist provide a counter-narrative to the Babylon of American culture.

Watts is not against patriotism in all forms. He acknowledges the value of personal patriotism. We can love our country; however, as Christians, our patriotism is relativized by our ultimate allegiance to Christ. This is a great insight and Watts does the church a service in probing the ideological content of nationalistic, liturgical practices. The god in the Declaration of Independence is vague, and the unexamined God is not worth worshipping. Watts does a great job of showcasing the way nationalism is a different story, contrary to biblical faith.

What Watts is doing is arguing for an integrity of Christian witness which counters empire and resists capitulation to nationalism and civil religion. I am reminded of Hauerwas’s axiom, “The first task of the church is to let the world know that it is the world.” I agree in large part with the critique that Watts raises here. I appreciated his insights to how American nationalism infiltrates and co-opts Christian worship.

Should we sing patriotic hymns? Should we acknowledge nationalistic holidays in worship? Or pledge allegiance? I question these practices too. Watts’s position is that “songs and gestures that can be done in a conscientious way by people without faith have no legitimate place in Christian worship”(26) because they do not proclaim the truth of God in Christ or deepen our attachment to Him. However, I wonder if the recognition of our shared national identity and history does have more of a place in Christian worship than Watts allows.

I agree that appropriating national symbols in an unexamined way is detrimental to our formation, but I think there is a space in worship to acknowledge history and our American identity. What I hear in Watt’s is a call for the public witness to Christian truth and the privatization of patriotism. But honoring the sacrifice of vets and their families in a worship service involves really seeing the people gathered. I think there is space to appreciate personal sacrifice for our country and our shared national heritage in worship, as long as we note which story we are inhabiting as we reach for national symbols and give pride of place to the gospel story.

Given our current quagmire of faith and politics, this is a timely book. I recommend this book for pastors and lay Christian seeking to navigate the ways the church relates (and ought to relate) to the state. I give this five stars. ★★★★★

Notice of material connection: I recieved a copy of this book from Wipf & Stock in exchange for my honest review.

Wyt(sma) Privilege: a ★★★★★ book review

Recently a friend and mentor, who is a person of color, posted on social media of a recent invitation he had to explain white privilege. To white people.  My friend is a justice advocate, an activist, and well-known Christian leader. He declined the invitation to write about something he doesn’t have. He decided instead to spend his creative energy supporting leaders of color instead of educating us white folk.

4482But Ken Wytsma, on the other hand, is uniquely gifted and qualified to describe white privilege. He is a pastor in Bend, Oregon, president of Kilns College (where he lectures in philosophy), an author of several quality Christian books, a father of four, and founder of the Justice Conference. He is also pretty darn pasty white. He was asked by Helen Lee at IVP to write a book on White Privilege that would help bridge the gap between those on the forefront of race relations and us white evangelicals who are only beginning to awaken to our racist history (3). In response to both her request and a couple of recent examples of racial bias (in the media, and against folks he knew personally), he wrote The Myth of Equality: Uncovering the Roots of Injustice and Privilege. Wytsma probes the reality of privilege and race, theology and justice and the responsibility of the privileged.

In Part 1, Wytsma reviews the history of race and racial attitudes in America. He describes immigration policies which favored white Europeans, the history of racism in European thought, slavery and Jim Crow, law enforcement practices (e.g. how the War on Drugs disproportionately attacked communities of color), and how urban development has reinforced modern segregation.  He offers a pretty solid analysis of America’s racial story—how we got here and how people of color still are affected by ongoing systemic injustice.

Part 2 brings this American story into conversation with our theology and the values of the Kingdom of God. Wytsma challenges the church’s silence about race and the status quo and calls us to more prophetic engagement (94).  He describes how justice is integral to the gospel of Jesus and his cross, and he challenges our transactional and individualized view on faith and spirituality (and the ways privilege plays into it).

In Part 3, Wytsma discusses how white Christians can become more aware of their implicit racial biases, make space for diversity in sharing power and laying down our privilege. This involves intentionally listening and making space for the other, lamenting our troubled history, confessing, and beginning the hard work of dismantling privilege.

This is the fourth book I’ve read from Wytsma and thus far, I think this is, without a doubt, his best book. He discusses the issues of race without making himself the ‘expert’ and without offering pat answers to tough questions. Wytsma gives space for the complexity of race and privilege:

Everyone wants to think they have a good understanding of race. We often treat it like a yes-or-no category. Are you a racist?  No. Therefore, are you good with race? Yes. The problem is, it’s not a yes-or-no category but something with a hundred layers of nuance. . . . As a white man writing a book on privilege, I’ve had to admit from the beginning that my understanding and knowledge of racism end when conversation turns to the firsthand experiences of people of color. (132-33).

Growing up, I wasn’t aware of how I benefited from privilege and all the ways that communities of color were affected by institutionalized racial bias and ongoing systemic injustice. I’m still learning, mostly because I have friendships with people of color that have opened my eyes to some things I may not have otherwise seen. But I have other friends and family which are unaware of the dynamics of privilege and race (either through willful ignorance or because their social circles are almost entirely white). Privilege is at play in American race relations. Opportunities that have been afforded us white guys have not historically, and are not, even now, extended to people of color. We can’t dismantle privilege if we aren’t able to name how it has penetrated our culture and the church. Wytsma does a wonderful job confronting our troubled history and faulty theological assumptions.

This is a short book (only about two hundred pages) so therefore unable to say everything that needs to be said about race and privilege. Wytsma addresses dynamics between whites and blacks most directly, and touches on the Native American/ colonial experience (with a nod toward the late Richard Twiss). He deals with how white privilege affects other minorities more tangentially (i.e. the experiences Latinos and Asians are not in sharp focus here). This isn’t a criticism so much as naming the limits of what Wytsma is able to accomplish through this book. I’d also note that this book is more conceptual than practical, aimed at enlarging our understanding of racial dynamics more than providing a road map of what to do about it.

Everybody I know values diversity and multi-culturalism until it costs something. We love when minorities come to our (mostly white) church, but often we demand minorities change and conform to our way before they really belong. Dismantling Privilege involves real partnership, listening and sharing of power.  It means listening to and sharing in the burdens of those who have suffered discrimination and shame. It means to change. I recommend Wytsma’s book for anyone interested in moving beyond how the dynamics of racism affects us, to effecting real change. All royalties from this book go to The Voices Project, an organization working to empower voices of color.  I give this book Five stars ★★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from the author and publisher in exchange for my honest review.

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I just re-read my birthday post from last year. I wanted to be in a completely different place than I was last year. And I am. We moved from the sweltering heat of Central Florida to the city of Medford—nestled in the Rogue Valley of Southern Oregon. The  temperature and terrain have changed. Instead of living a stones throw Tampa Bay, I’m now surrounded by mountains. I live on a street named for Mt McLoughlin (under another moniker). You can’t actually see its peak anywhere from my street, but on a clear day, two blocks away you can see its crest tower above the Cascades. It is a beautiful place to be.

In other ways, I am in the same place I was a year ago, still licking my wounds, smarting from a difficult ending to my first pastorate. My family moved to a city where there are no churches in the denomination I served. We knew no one in this city when we got here and I began drafting, a job I did in twenties, for my dad. I’m grateful for the work, but it feels like a vocational backward step, like my life and calling are locked in stasis. Or like I’m Bill Murray in Ground Hog Day. Same song, different day.

Because my working life is inside my house, in front of a computer screen, I feel cut off from real-time community. Outside of a few neighbors, school parents and church folk, we haven’t made a ton of connections.  We’re attending a Methodist church in town, which has been a safe place for now, though I long for something more.  I am still get excited about mission and justice and transforming community. My heart longs to do ministry that is Jesus centered, compelling and transformative. I have dreams: church planting, launching a non-profit, writing a book. I know I have gifts and I don’t believe God is done with me yet.

But fear and self doubt have settled into my soul in ways that have paralyzed me. I have shied from pursuing my life’s calling.  I love the physical place where we are living but I don’t want to occupy the same existential terrain this time next year. I keep waiting for God or my gumption to shake me from my stupor to a place where I sense significance and belonging. I don’t want to write another angsty blog post next year.

Pentecost is tomorrow.Wonders and signs, blood, fire and billows of smoke.¹ Spirit of God fall fresh on me.

C-C-Catch the wave: a book review

Why call your movement Blue Ocean Faith? Maybe it’s because the name Blue Oyster Cult was already taken and it sounded too exclusive (plus oysters are so shellfish). Whatever the reason, Dave Schmelzer, founding pastor of Reservoir Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts founded and leads Blue Ocean Faitha network of churches which strives to be post-bad-news, alive in Christ, diverse, inclusive, politically nuanced and attractive and comprehensible to outsiders.¹ He wrote a book about it, which he creatively called Blue Ocean Faith. As a religious insider, I don’t really get the name, but the book is pretty great.

51zrlk3ejel-_sx329_bo1204203200_Schmelzer is trying to ignite a new Jesus movement. He offers six distinctives, each of which is an invitation to follow Jesus. He advocates a post-fundamentalist, post-culture-war way of being faithful to Jesus.  But before Schmelzer really gets into it, Brian McLaren writes a preface. And Peter Wallace writes a forward. Adney Wassink writes an introduction. Then Schmelzer gets in the act and writes the second preface.  A lot of prolegomena, but front matter matters.

The book has eight chapters. In chapter one, Schmelzer talks about what it would mean for us as people of faith, to leave the bad news behind and be sold out on the idea that all people were created to experience the good news which Jesus brings.  Writing of the network he helped found, he says, “‘Blue Ocean’ has become a descriptor of these churches—both because these churches tend to ‘fish where other churches don’t fish’ and because it’s the blue oceans that connect all people (10). (Okay so I do kinda get the name). The next six chapters describe and expand on the six distinctives of what it means to have this connected, Blue Ocean style faith:

  1. Our primary framework is SOLUS JESUS.
  2. Our primary metaphor is CENTERED-SET.
  3. Our approach to spiritual development is CHILD-LIKE FAITH.
  4. Our approach to controversial issues is THIRD WAY.
  5. Our approach to other churches is ECUMENICAL.
  6. Our approach to secular culture is JOYFUL ENGAGEMENT.

A closing chapter issues a summons to kick off this new Jesus movement.

I appreciate so much of what Schmelzer has to say. He is thoughtful in how he presents and unfolds the implications of each distinctive and stokes our excitement for a more compelling, engaging and inclusive faith. I especially like his comments on navigating religious squabbles (i.e controversial issues). Schmelzer draws on insights from M. Scott Pecks four stages of emotional and Spiritual development and  Paul’s words from Romans 14 (see chapter 5).  Schmelzer defines disputable matters as those which are not dogma or doctrine, an issue which brings two biblical truths into dynamic tension, and an issue where otherwise faithful believers disagree (89-90).  Following Paul’s advice, Schmelzer urges us to hold to our personal convictions, shun contempt and judgment of others, have the humility to allow different views from our own, and never exclude those you disagree with from full participation in the community (90-92). This approach has allowed LGBT+ Christians and more conservative believers, continue to be the church together as part of the Blue Ocean Faith communities.

We are at a cultural moment where many feel ambivalent about the evangelical church and what the label signifies. Schmelzer offers a vision of Christianity which is still Christ-centered, active and engaged in mission. I recommend this for anyone who is frustrated with the church and is looking for something more refreshing. 4 stars.

Notice of Material Connection: I received a copy of this from SpeakEasy for my honest review.

A Blind Spot Taxonomy: a ★★★★★book review

In my last major leadership context, I wasn’t a particularly self-aware leader. I mishandled a couple of key relationships, missed some opportunities, and failed to execute some things I tried to do. I’m not beating myself up about it, whatever self-awareness I have has been hard won. Terry Linhart’s The Self-Aware Leader is designed to help leaders like me see where their blind spots are— the gifts, vulnerabilities, and opportunities—so we can lead effectively.

4480Linhart is professor of Christian ministries at Bethel College in South Bend. He has served in youth ministry, parachurch ministry, as a leadership consultant and has taught at Asbury, North Park, Hunting College, Taylor University and Alliance Graduate School. The Self-Aware Leader is chockfull of practical insights to help ministry leaders reach their full potential.

Self-awareness is a tricky thing.  We all have blind spots because of the demands of ministry and our natural capacity for self-deception. Citing Gordon Smith, Linhart argues that self- discerning people are “Conscious of their own capacity for self-deception and thus of their vital need for the encouragement, support and wisdom of others” (15).  Throughout the book, Linhart names each area he sees that has potential blind spots.

Chapter one invites us to self-reflection in seeing the ‘race before us.’ Linhart’s conclusion reminds us of the end-goal, the telos of the race—a lifetime of faithful service to Jesus. Between these, Linhart describes potential blind spots as we consider ourselves, our past,  our temptations, our emotions, pressures, conflict, and our ‘margins.’

One of the most helpful things about naming these areas of blind spots is how comprehensive it is (though probably not exhaustive). Leaders may be self-aware about one area, but inattentive to another. Linhart does a good job of naming the trees so we can see our way ahead. I also appreciate that he doesn’t see blind spots as wholly negative. “We may have a gift or opportunity that we can’t see that is plain to others” (26). By probing our limited visibility, we may be awakened to new opportunities.

. One insight that I found tremendously helpful was his observation that leaders ought to lead the charge in handling conflict well, in order to foster a community that is ‘warm, inviting and effective’ (143).  Linhart describes conflict as one of his own blind spots (as someone who tends toward conflict-avoidance). He offers sage advice on how to address conflict non-defensively, and communicate effectively.

This book is tremendously helpful. Leaders and leadership teams would benefit from reading this together. I highly recommend it. -★★★★★

<small> Notice of Material Connection: I received this book from InterVarsity Press in exchange for my honest review </small>

Dear Jeremy: a ★★★★★ book review

It is no secret that we Evangelicals have a leadership fetish. Yet leadership remains important and a worthwhile pursuit. Pastors and ministry leaders need to lead well if our ministries are to be successful We also need to develop the leaders around us. However, a look at the requirements for elders (cf. 1 Tim 3, Titus 1) reveals a leadership, in the New Testament sense, is more about character than specific skills. Jeremy Rios wrote People of a Certain Character with this conviction in mind.

people-of-a-certain-character-cover_thumbnailJeremy blogs at Mustard Seed Faith and Toolshed Meditations. He and I attended the same seminary (Regent College) and we share an appreciation of C.S. Lewis, Benedictine Spirituality, and Baron Fredrich von Hugel. He once T.A.ed a class I was in and commented that my writing was a ‘pedantic plod.’ He has a series of ‘Dear James‘ posts on his blog which make me feel self-conscious, especially since we blog about similar themes (I don’t think he’s really talking to me, but I am never completely sure). He has been a pastor and is currently working on his Ph.D. in Scotland. He is more successful, prolific and smarter than I am. I console myself that I’m much better looking (not actually true, but it is a comforting lie).  I’ve wanted to read one of his books for a while and was excited about this one because leadership development is a growth edge for me as a pastor.

There is nothing plodding about Jeremy’s prose. He has produced a handbook of short leadership meditations—twelve scriptural passages organized around twelve questions, discussion and reflection questions, and twelve suggested spiritual practices (plus an introduction and concluding word which follow the same format).  This booklet is user-friendly and not heady.  This book will be useful in church or ministry lead team discussions, staff retreats, in one-on-one mentoring relationships or even among youth leaders. This is so accessible! Jeremy’s questions help us leaders press into what it means to lead from the right source

In his introduction,  Jeremy offers a meditation on John 21:15-19, the passage where three times Jesus asks Peter if he loves him.  This is a significant passage for Christian leadership and Jeremey identifies three essential lessons for leadership:

  1. Loving and serving Jesus will mean loving and serving Jesus’ flock
  2. Loving and serving Jesus will mean being bitterly confronted with our own sense of failure and inadequacy.
  3. Loving and serving Jesus will mean giving up control of our future (6-7)

These three observations on the character of Christian leadership, prepare readers to count the cost of leadership and set the tone of humble dedication as we embark on this study (8).

The chapters that follow are divided into two sections. The first section probes our identity in Christ as leaders, the second traces out the implications of our mutual priesthood. The tables below show the chapters in each section with corresponding scriptures and suggested practices.

Part 1: Identity in Christ

1.Do you know you are loved by God?

1 John 4:7-21

Spiritual Practice: Meditation

2.Do you have a Conviction of Holiness?

1 Peter 1:13-16

Spiritual Practice: Confession

3.Are you Filled, and Being Filled, with the Holy Spirit?

John 15:1-11

Spiritual Practice: Petition

4.Are you Aware that God is in Charge of your Ministry

Psalm 24

Spiritual Practice: Release

5.Do you have a right relationship with Mammon?

Matt 6:19-34

Spiritual Practice: Giving

6. Are you willing to  Submit?

Hebrews 5:7-14

Spiritual Practice: Fasting

Part 2: The Priesthood of All Believers

7.Do you know how to connect with the Lord devotionally?

Hebrews 4:12-13

Spiritual Practice: Memorization

8.Do you know how to listen for the Lord’s interruptions?

Acts 9:10-19

Spiritual Practice: Walking

9.Do you know how to share the Gospel?

Acts 8:26-39

Spiritual Practice: Testimony

10. Do you know how to minister in the power of the Lord?

Acts 19:11-20

Spiritual Practice: Worship

11. Do you know how to care for others?

Job 2:11-13

Spiritual Practice: Journaling

12. Do you know how to restore yourself?

Luke 10:38-42

Spiritual Practice: Retreat

His ‘concluding word, based on 1 Timothy 4:6-16 reflects on the crucial components in Christian mentoring.

One criticism I have is that Jeremy’s suggested practices are almost wholly private. The exception is he suggests that ‘if you are in a tradition that utilizes confession to a pastor or priest, avail yourself of that system” (25), and writing out and practicing your testimony is designed so that you can share it.  I believe, as Jeremy does, in the need for cultivating personal devotion, though I wish he articulated corporate, communal spiritual practices more explicitly alongside these, as I think what we do in community also has a major impact on the quality of our leadership.

This is a small (and nitpicky!) critique,  especially since I believe the value of this resource is in the way it will deepen our discussions on how to lead well as a follower of Christ. I recommend this book  for those who have a hand in training others (though any leader can read through this profitably for their own benefit). I plan on using this book in future leadership and mentoring conversations. I give this five stars – ★★★★★

So: Dear Jeremy, Great job!

Note: Jeremy provided me with a copy in exchange for my honest review.  He didn’t ask me to say he’s smarter than me. It is just true.