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.

Treasure in ‘Dark’ Places: a book review

I grew up in the Christian Missionary Alliance and I love a good missionary biography. They tell the story of those on the field, giving all, and living sacrificially to share the good news about Jesus. They speak of trusting God and seeing the miraculous, alleviating suffering and seeing real transformation in people’s lives and in whole communities. So I picked up Leanna Cinquanta’s book, Treasures in Dark Places, with interest, looking to see the way God worked through her ministry to set people free, including some of the over 25, 000 girls abducted annually in the region of Northern India where she serves as a missionary.  Cinquanta founded TellAsia Ministries and through her influence, more than 10,000 churches have been planted in areas which are only 5% Christian. I was excited to here about her work there and the ways she trains up indigenous leaders to do the work of the gospel.

9780800798161And she does tell about some of that in her book. Treasure in Dark Places speaks of her call to missions, and her experience of the supernatural at home and abroad. She shares some stories from the mission field nd she tells of growing up and feeling the call towards missions, some of her experiences of God along the way (prophecy, miracles, etc).

However, I felt like this book was more about her than about the mission itself. I heard her story of her call, but the mission was vague on the details and I am fuzzy as to what she actually does to combat sex trafficking in Northern India. There are few disconnected stories.

I am a crypto-charismatic and I like hearing stories about the miraculous. However, I didn’t feel like I was offered much in the way of a compelling narrative here. The details are too sparse, and we hear dramatic encounters but not much on the hard work of ongoing relationships. On the plus side, Cinquata does refer to the people she encounters in India as God’s treasures whom she is working to liberate. This mitigates some of my discomfort with calling a region of dark-skinned people a spiritually dark place (though it still bugs me).

In the end, I just didn’t connect with this book but I am glad for the mission and the ways Cinquata has extended the welcome of God’s Kingdom in northern India. The book itself I give two stars.

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

Where’s Mikey? a kids book review.

I have heard the stats that only two in ten millennials attend church regularly. Why? I blame Martin Handford, creator of the Where’s Waldo series (Where’s Wally in the UK). Because of him, a generation of kids, in the late 80’s and 90’s, stopped looking for Jesus and instead asked ‘Where’s Waldo?’ It was more detrimental to childhood faith development than Bill Nye the Science Guy explaining away theism.

978-1-4964-2243-9Thankfully, we now have Bible Sleuth: New Testament. Mike, an adventure-loving little boy, sporting an orange and red painter’s cap, a red and white striped t-shirt and yellow overall shorts (an outfit which was last seen in 1991 worn by R&B sensations TLC) explores the New Testament. Unlike Waldo, who trekked across the globe, urban centers, and visited other cultures, Mike restricts his exploration to Bible Stories alone. So when you hunt for Mike and other figures in each scene, you are sure to only learn the Bible and not any new, subversive ideas. Doesn’t that sound much safer?

I’m kidding. There are tons of kids’ search books of a wide variety, and Bible Sleuth stands in a long tradition of Christian children’s books making use of the same idea. Bible Sleuth illustrator, José Pérez Montero has previously illustrated Seek & Find Bible Stories (Zonderkids, 2008, with author Carl Anker Mortensen) and I have reviewed similar kids books here before (see here or here).

Here is the thing though, when it comes to kids book reviews, my critical faculties pretty much go out the window and I end up saying things like, “My kids like it, so I like it.” And this is true again. My oldest, who is nearing ten, my seven-year-old, my six-year-old all enjoy it. My two-year-old likes the pictures though hasn’t demonstrated the patience required to find everything (though he is really great at Where’s Elmo).  All of us get annoyed that invariably one of the people we are looking for in the picture is barely cresting out from the center crease. But such is life.

But one of the things I always try to pay attention to in Children’s Bible books, “How white is everybody?” I remember a friend observing that Jesus’ family once hid in Egpyt, so you know he must have had some color. And yet Little Mike and his pasty legs blend in pretty well to these pages, because of how white all the middle Eastern Palestinians seem to be. At least Jesus has brown hair and not blonde locks, that is until he is surrounded by a crowd of ONLY white people in John’s Revelation 19 vision (and the final scene in the book). Hair color throughout ranges from red, to brown and blonde.[The Tyndale site identifies the author of this book, as Scandinavia Publishing House, which may explain some this].

My kids like it and that means something, but on cultural accuracy and sensitivity, I find this book wanting. I give it a middle of the road review. -3 stars.

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

Rules are Revolting: a book review

Becky Bond and Zack Exley worked together on Bernie Sander’s presidential campaign. While Bernie’s bid for the Democratic nomination was ultimately unsuccessful, they did mobilize an impressive amount of grass roots support. Rules for Revolutionaries gives a glimpse of the power of ‘big organizing’ and what it takes to ignite a movement. While the anecdotes in this book are drawn also exclusively from the Bernie campaign, Bond and Exley argue that the ‘rules’ reveal what leaders do in movements to mobilize millions of people.

19650The title, Rules for Revolutionaries alludes to the earlier work of Saul Alinsky, the influential Rules for Radicals. Alinksy was a Chicago-based labor organizer (whose work was influential for Obama). His work became a standard for organizers and activists. However Bond and Exley observe that Alinsky’s model was ‘premised on the paternalistic concept that an enlightened core of outside organizers was necessary to show the poor that there was a better way and then to represent them in a battle with elites” (8-9). Alinsky believed in building power so to compel negotiation (rather than revolutionize the entire power structure). Bond and Exley also criticize Alinsky for creating incrementalist Black and Latino groups designed to mitigate anger instead of effecting real change. In contrast, Bond and Exley believe their model provides a more revolutionary way forward:

The big organizing model that can fuel revolutions believes that communities are filled with talented and intelligent people who understand what was broken and, when given material and strategic resources, can wrest power from elites and make lasting change. A political revolution is different from community organizing as we know it today. (9)

The rules aren’t so much ‘rules’ as pithy chapter titles which describe aspects of their strategic vision. Some of these are practical: “Get on the Phone!” The Work Is Distributed. The Plan Centralized,” “Learn the Basics of Good Management,””The Revolution is Not Just Bottom Up; It’s Peer to Peer,” “Put Consumer Software at the Center,” “Get Ready for the Counterrevolution.” Other rules are about the right orientation toward the work of organizing: “You Won’t Get a Revolution if You Don’t Ask for One,” “The Revolution Will not be Handed toYou on a Silver Platter.” A couple of rules describe the issues worth organizing for: “Fighting Racism Must Be the Core Message to Everyone,” “There is No Such Thing as a Single Issue Revolution.”

If organizing is your thing, Bond and Exley have practical advice and hard-earned wisdom to share.  As I said, these really aren’t rules, they are practical description the approach that Exley and Bond took as part of the campaign. Whether or not the new rules overturn the old playbook remains to be seen. This is mostly just an insider’s look atBernie’s historic campaign.

I am not really sure that there is much revolutionary here. There is some good leadership advice such standing for something, giving people a big way to get involved, how to mobilize and empower leaders, and what it means to lead in a more cooperative less elitist way.  All of this is helpful. Revolutionary? Not so much. Will these rules ignite a revolution? That remains to be seen.  The rules begin to feel tedious by the end.  I give this book 3.5 stars.

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

The Twelve Steps of Arrogant Anonymous: a book review

Joan Chittister, OSB is one of our great contemporary spiritual writers. She’s written on hope, liturgy, world religion, peace, feminism and her Wisdom Distilled From the Daily (along with Kathleen Norris’s works) was my gateway drug to Benedictine Spirituality. Her new book, Radical Spirit promises (in the subtitle) 12 ways to live a free and authentic life. If that sounds a little self-helpy, she isn’t waxing eloquent psychobabble about twelve steps to a better you. This twelve step program is cribbed directly from The Rule of Benedict, chapter seven: “The Twelve Steps of Humility.”

RadSpiritusChittister  began her life as a nun in the 1950s and 1960s. She reflects on what she has learned in her experience as a sister in the Benedictine community and the wisdom of the rule. She describes the underlying issue addressed by each step and the spiritual implications for trying to live them out. The chapters titles, follow St. Benedict’s original steps, though Chittister has given the rule a twenty-first century facelift:

  1. Recognize that God is God
  2. Know that God’s will is best for you.
  3. Seek direction from wisdom figures.
  4. Endure the pains of development and do not give up.
  5. Acknowledge faults and strip away masks.
  6. Be content with less than the best.
  7. let go of a false sense of self.
  8. Preserve tradition and learn from community.
  9. Listen.
  10. Never ridicule anyone or anything.
  11. Speak kindly
  12. Be serene, stay calm (205-206).

Benedict wrote his rule in the 6th for monks living in community under an abbot. Chittister’s larger project has been about presenting the wisdom of Benedict to the wider world—oblates, roving Protestants like me, and beyond. Certainly she makes adjustments from the original document (e.g. ‘seek direction from wisdom figures’ was originally ‘we submit to the prioress or abbot in all obedience for the love of God’ and ‘never ridicule anyone or anything’ was originally states ‘we are not given to ready laughter, for it is written, ‘Only fools raise their voices in laughter). But Chittister’s editorial license preserves Benedict’s intent: a Godward, humble spirituality free from anxiety or pretension and released from false images of God and ourselves.

I enjoyed this book as a practical commentary on the Rule. I am not a Benedictine but I’ve learned a lot from that tradition (as has everyone in the Western Spiritual tradition).  Chittister’s prose does meander a bit as she traces out implications for each step. Occasionally I found her difficult to follow and indirect. But there is a lot here that is helpful and instructive. I give this book four stars.

Notice of material connection: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review