42 Seconds to Talk Like Jesus: a book review

I  read a book by Carl Medearis half a dozen years ago on the art of Not-Evangelism (Speaking of Jesus, David Cook, 2011).  It was a breath of fresh air. Medearis didn’t advocate manipulative techniques to talk about your faith. He said to not get stuck trying to defend the faith but he pointed at talking about our experience of Jesus in ways that were winsome, inviting and authentic. That was the only one of Medearis’s books I’ve read, though I’d hear him as a podcast guest occasionally, talking about his work as a peacemaker and his advocacy for Arab-American and Muslim-Christian relations. He is very much evangelical, but he has sought to respond to terror and Islam in ways that reflect the manner and character of Jesus.

978-1-63146-489-8His newest book, 42 seconds, was birthed after a casual conversation he had with his neighbor as they both were working in their yards. Afterward, he emailed his assistant Jesse and asked him to look up every conversation Jesus ever had in the gospels. Hesse compiled a list, and the two of them read through each conversation, out loud, discovering the average conversation Jesus got in was 42 seconds long (ix, at least the portion of the conversation recorded in the Gospels). Medearis notes, “Because Jesus being Jesus, his conversations were typically anything but normal. and when I realized this—when I realized Jesus managed to turn otherwise everyday conversations into something profound—I knew I had to figure out how he did it” (ix).

So Medearis compiled a month’s worth of meditations on Jesus’ conversations, to be read for the course of four weeks. Each week has five readings on a theme, plus ‘a final word’ which tie it together with some reflections and suggestions for practice. These reflections are organized under the headings: “Be Kind,” “Be Present,” “Be Brave,
and, putting it all together, “Be Jesus.” Sorry, Melania, No “Be Best.”

Each daily entry has some practical reflections for engaging people in conversation about things that matter. The “Be Kind” section begins by exhorting us to say hi to people and acknowledge the people we fail to see (e.g. like the waiter or busboy filling your water). Medearis encourages us to ask questions, find some small act of service to do,  to pay attention to children (the way Jesus did). The “Be Present” section describes cultivating attention to the person we are talking to, and what may really be going on with them (instead of rushing to some strategic end, letting conversations go where they go).

The “Be Brave” section presses into the challenging things that Jesus said. Jesus says hard things, but not to everybody, and not always (religious insiders bore the brunt of his criticisms). The final section, “Be Jesus” prompts us to make sure our words and life are consistent with the life and witness of Jesus.

Medearis weaves stories of his own interactions with strangers and friends—evangelistic conversations or otherwise—with  Jesus’ conversations with people in the Bible. Medearis is winsome and this book is pretty accessible. If you read it over the course of a month, there are small challenges to be more like Jesus in our conversations and make every 42 seconds count. This isn’t a book on evangelism but on entering into more significant conversations (which includes evangelism or something like it). I give this four stars. -★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from NavPress through the Tyndale Blog Network in exchange for my honest review.


You Don’t Have To Be A Bad Evangelist! a book review

If you are like me, you have a lot of mixed feelings about evangelism. I mean, there is Jesus’ Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20), So I guess I believe evangelism is really great, right?  But there is so much bad evangelism. I know, I’ve done my share of it. I’m really good at bad evangelism.

978-1-63146-856-8There are lots of things that make evangelism bad. Some evangelism is bad because people don’t hear good news from the evangelist. I remember once listening as an open-air-evangelist berated a passerby for wearing his baseball caps backwards, “Your hat’s on backward! You must have your head on backward, or you wouldn’t be sinning!” Needless to say, that guy didn’t hear the good news in that evangelist’s message. Other attempts at evangelization miss their mark because the message is irrelevant to the listeners or too full of religious-insider-jargon to make any sort of impact.

Matt Mikalatos wrote Good News For a Change to help those of us who struggle with evangelism talk to others about Jesus. The double entendre title speaks of both the way the good news has been complicated by bad evangelism and the good news of transformation available to those who come to faith in Jesus (sometimes in spite of our bad evangelism). Mikalatos is experienced at sharing his faith, whether it is by leading atheist Bible studies, or leading student outreaches with Cru (the artist formerly known as Campus Crusade for Christ), or through his imaginative writing. I first became aware of Mikalatos through his brilliantly funny Night of the Living Dead Christian and My Imaginary Jesus, and his modern retelling of Jesus’ parables in The First Time We Saw Him. He is an engaging and insightful author. In Good News, he turns his attention to helping the rest of us share the good news of Jesus, with imagination, verve, and whimsy.

This book is helpful in several ways. First, Mikalatos reminds us that the gospel is good news:

With the gospel, we need to get past the sales tactics and high-pressure techniques because we don’t need them. A well honed sales pitch reveals that we’ve forgotten the gospel is, at its core, good news. It was good news for us, and it’s good
news for the people with whom we’re sharing (xvii).

Because we have good news, we don’t need to rely on sales pitches and scripts. Instead, we can share with people the unchanging good news of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection as well as our own personal good news— the ways that a relationship with Jesus has transformed our lives and given us hope.

But Mikalatos doesn’t stop there. Much of Good News For a Change is dedicated to dedicating to listening to others, even as we share our faith with them. This helps us describe how Jesus is good news for them. Mikalatos translates the gospel into Brony (the language of My Little Pony enthusiasts) and shares stories of conversations he’s had with Buddhists and door-to-door salespeople. But he also challenges us to craft messages that speak to people (communicate well, avoid jargon and live lives cognizant of the good news of God’s welcome in Christ and gives us some tips on how to engage in conversation those who are antagonistic to our faith. One of the greatest things about Mikalatos’s approach to evangelism is how attentive he is to the people he’s talking to. Bad evangelism is often bad because of how tone-deaf it is. Mikalatos helps us to speak in ways that are responsive and engaging.

This book is both entertaining and helpful. In the end, talking to others about Jesus is just bearing witness to the ways we’ve experienced life in Him. Mikalatos encourages us to share our experience of Christ, and listen for and connect with ways that the Spirit is already at work in their lives. This is helpful, and like Mikalatos other books, a fun read. I give it four stars. ★★★★

I received a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.


Transform Your City by Putting on Christian Conferences: a book review.

Mac Pier is the founder and CEO of the New York City Leadership Center. In that capacity he also helped found the inaugural Movement Day conference in New York City (in cooperation with Tim Keller’s Redeemer City to City and the Concerts of Prayer Greater New York). The conference was a gathering of missional leaders in New York, to cast vison and strategize together which later helped the Evangelical community have a tangible effect on the city.

In A Disruptive Gospel, Pier  shares his passion for disrupting cities and transforpier_disruptivegospel_wSpine.inddming them with the gospel of Jesus Christ. He tells the story of his ministry in New York City, the formation of the first Movement Day and how the fruit of that endeavor led to an impact on the city through service with organizations like  Cityserve New York. Pier also shares the story of Movement Day Dallas and how it led to initiatives welcoming Millennials into the church and greater racial reconciliation among the churches. After discussing these American cities he examines similar movements around the globe  (places like Manila, Mumbai, Chennai, Dubai, Singapore, Port-au-Prince, Pretoria and Kigali, London, Gothenburg and Berlin).

Several convictions guide Pier’s work and analysis. First, following Rodney Stark and Wayne Meeks, he believes cities are strategic centers for mission and the proliferation of the gospel(43-44). Second, the thinking behind the inter-church gatherings like Movement Day stem from a convictions that “the vibrancy of the gospel in any city is proportionate to the depth of relationship and visible unity between [Christian] leaders in that same city”(53). Third, Pier operates on the premise that whenever there is a new move of God, anywhere, God raises up leaders to lead that movement.

This book suffers from the range of cities which Pier  attempts to cover—thirteen  different cities. The book is only 236 pages, so Pier, by necessity,  speaks in broad generalities.  I learned about some cool gatherings around the world of missional leaders, and Pier boils each chapter to a couple of pages of “what [each] story teaches us.” But the overall effect is pretty vague. There is not much here in the way of practical strategy.

I  also have questions about Pier’s premise that mission and ministry begins with the leaders and influencers, instead of the marginalized, the little and the least. Leadership is valuable, but you can gather Christian and marketplace leaders and still fail to intersect the needs of the poor. When I read here about how New York city leaders endeavored to respond to the needs of Port-Au-Prince through organizations like World Vision (170), I think of the reality on the ground and how well meaning Americans and large organizations often fail to meet the tangible needs of Haitians. (To be fair, Haitian church leaders were also included in their vision casting, and I personally support World Vision for their thoughtful approach to mission and relief work). Pier’s approach feels too top down to me. Perhaps this is effective and they are making a real impact, but the sparse details makes me skeptical.

However, I do appreciate the focus on cities and there are initiatives, city-wide actions and missional ventures that are worth getting excited about. I just didn’t feel like I got enough of the details. I give this book two-and-a-half stars. ★★½

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

Evangelism and Honor: a book review

Perhaps, like me, you know you ought to share your faith with others. You believe the good news and want others come to saving knowledge of Jesus Christ, but you are as turned off as anyone by  that tone-deaf-evangelism. Formulaic presentations and canned sales-pitches  and one-size-fits-all approaches don’t ring true or require you actually listen to the story of those you are doing evangelism to. How do we share our faith in a way that is warm, inviting and honoring of the faith journeys of those we are talking too? Mary Schaller and John Crilly suggest a different approach in  The 9 Arts of Spiritual Conservation.

978-1-4964-0576-0Schaller is the president of Q place and Crilly is its former national field director. Q place is an organization which works with churches to create environments for small group participants to explore questions of God and the Bible together. In The 9 Arts of Spiritual Conversations they suggest a orientation, and a set of practices which enable Christians to share their faith which honors other worldviews, and life experiences. Yes, evangelism remains important, but it doesn’t explode.  It happens organically in the context of relationship as we seek to love, welcome and engage unbelievers as they are. Seeing them as they are and listening well to their stories is as important as sharing our faith with them.

The “nine arts” are described under three major headings. Part I: Getting Ready gives us an orientation toward sharing our faith through noticing who are neighbors are, committing to praying for them and relationally listening to their stories (instead of transactionally listening as we wait our turn to speak). Part II:  Getting Started suggests three practices which help us create welcoming, engaging and safe environments, learning to ask good questions, loving well, and hospitality. Part III: Keeping it Going, explores practices that keep faith-based discussions going: facilitating, serving together and sharing (your faith). Additionally,  Part IV: Ongoing Spiritual Conversations provides practical suggestions and encouragement for making your own “Q place.”

The “nine arts” are important for anyone who seeks to share their faith with others organically. It is significant that the ‘evangelism’ part of this book only comes into focus as the final practice. If you follow the trajectory of this book, you will not vomit your faith on others but will share your journey with Jesus in the context of real relationship. I like the approach a lot. And appreciated Crilly and Schaller’s stories of friends they have shared life and their faith with. I give this four stars.

Note: I received this book from the Tyndale Blog Network in exchange for my honest review.


Mission is Habit Forming: a ★★★★★ book review.

As I write this review we are a week into 2016. Many people have already had their resolutions wrecked on the reef where good intentions and harsh reality meet. Most of these New Year’s resolutions are about personal development: losing weight, exercising more, mastering a new skill, etc. What about making habitual changes that will make you a more compelling force for God’s Kingdom mission in the world? Can we pursue the sort of life change which will impact others?

4115blqt1al-_sx430_Enter Michael Frost. A popular author, speaker and cofounder of the Forge Mission Training Network presents the five habits of highly missional people and a simple plan of how to incorporate them into your life. Surprise the World! exhorts us to live questionable lives–“the kind of lives that evoke questions from [] friends,  then opportunities for sharing faith abound, and the chances for the gifted evangelists to boldly proclaim are increased” (5). Frost argues that we are not all gifted evangelists, but we support the work of evangelism as we live the sort of lives that invite questions from our neighbors and friends.

So what are the five habits of highly missional people? Frost proposes the acronym BELLS:

  • Bless— Words of affirmation, acts of kindness or gifts for at least three people per week (at least one who isn’t in your church).
  • Eat–Eating with at least three people (at least one who is not in the church).
  • Listen–Setting aside at least one period of time per week to listen to the Spirit in silence and solitude.
  • Learn–Spending time each week learning Christ through the gospels, the Bible, movies and film, good books, etc.
  • Sent–Journaling throughout the week about ways you have alerted others of ‘the universal reign of God through Christ.’

Conventional wisdom tells us it takes about six weeks to form and solidify  a habit. At least that is what a lot of sermons tell us. Frost thinks otherwise. Drawing on the insights of Jeremy Dean (author of Making Habits, Breaking Habits), Frost suggests  significant life change takes months of intentional practice (101). So he suggests structures of accountability he calls DNA groups (for Discipleship, Nurture, Accountability) which will hold each other accountable and encourage these missional habits for participants.

The gift of this book is its simplicity. Books on missional theology and ministry often present many fine ideas about what it means to be missional, often from a big-picture perspective. This book is super practical. It gives you a simple plan,–Bless, Eat, Listen, Learn, Sent–which is sufficiently challenging to live out.

For me, to intentionally eat with and bless people in and out of church each week, plus set aside time to listen to the Spirit, Learn Christ, and journal through my experience in sharing God’s reign would mean major changes and greater intentionality in mission (and I like mission already).  There is enough  structure and flexibility in how to live these habits out that it adaptable to whatever context. I  also really appreciate the structure of DNA groups. I have little patience for accountability groups that focus solely on sin (as though that is the only thing important we have in common). Discipleship and nurture are essential as well for supporting the kind of life change that Frost suggests here.

I recommend this book for anyone wanting to live missional lives. This is a fantastic goal for 2016. However I would suggest, don’t read these book alone. Read it with a friend, read it in a group, read it with those who will disciple you, nurture you and call you to account as you pursue the goal of living a questionable life. Five stars:★★★★★

Note: I received a copy of Surprise the World! from the Tyndale Blog Network. I was asked for an honest review.

Foolishly Persuaded: a book review

We live in a time in which our culture vacillates between the material world and the spiritual-but-not-religious. Everywhere you look there is either New Atheism or New Age spirituality, evidentialist scientific rationalism or postmodern relativism. Os Guinness points out that the time is ripe for apologetic engagement but  first we must recapture the lost art of Christian persuasion (16-17). In Fool’s Talk he gives an account of where we are at this cultural moment and what it would look like for Christians to engage the culture persuasively and winsomely.

Guinness’s first three chapters make the case for Christian persuasion, while chapters four through twelve give shape to the type of persuasion he is advocating for. In chapter one he urges us to allow our talk to be shaped by the cross (which is foolishness to those who are perishing), and states “Christian persuasion must always take account of the human capacity for reason and the primacy of the human heart” (27). Throughout the book he continues to argue for persuasion of both  the heart and the mind, in language which speaks meaningfully to unbelievers.  In chapter two, he eschews an over-emphasis on communication or marketing techniques, saying, ‘Christian persuasion is cross talk, not clever talk’ (39). He takes his cues on persuasive speech from the Bible, mostly Jesus and the prophets. Chapter three  argues for the vital role of apologetics in Christian speech (Guinness after all, is an apologist), and the need to engage with  a passionate intellect. Humorously, Guinness calls Balaam’s ass the patron saint of apologists for the vital role it played in saving Balaam by stopping him in his tracks(60).

In chapter four unfolds what he means by Fool’s Talk–subversion of the ‘vaunted wisdom, strength and superiority of the world through the cross'(72). He showcases how the gospel provides ‘the most hopeful and humorous view of life in world history’ (with a little help from thinkers like Erasmus, Chesterton, Reinhold Niebuhr and Peter Berger and more). Chapter five examines the ‘anatomy of unbelief.’ Guinness diagnoses the way unbelief stems from a willful abuse of truth, deliberate acts of exploitation and inversion of the truth, deception and self-deception (84-9).  He profiles how distractions keep unbelievers from seeing the consequences of their belief systems.

Chapter six unpacks what Guinness calls ‘prophetic subversion,’–engaging unbelievers beliefs by turning the tables on them. Guinness says, “all thoughts can be thought, but not all thoughts lived” (115)and argues for an apologetic which reveals the pitfalls of unbelief (following things through to see where their ideas lead).  Helping others see the full consequences of their position involves engaging with them in their language rather than just saying the gospel louder, slower and in a tone-deaf way. Here Guinness helps us see our way through to engaging others, be he  counsels graciousness and care (121). People are not consistently rational and we should take care to speak to the areas where they feel the inconsistencies in their worldview. This requires both gentleness and discernment.

Chapter seven profiles moments in the lives of several converts and what caused them to see the cracks in their worldview.  Chapter eight explores how to speak persuasively with others through reframing the issues, raising questions, telling stories or dramatizing their predicament. A key biblical story which  illustrates persuasive talk is Nathan’s confrontation of David about his sin with Bathsheba and Uriah. Chapter nine addresses tone of conversation and the trap of always ‘having to be right.’ Chapter ten tackles the problem of Christian hypocrisy (the ‘what about you’ boomerang’) and chapter eleven profiles religious revisionists within the church who have forsaken the gospel (he isn’t particularly friendly to Episcopalians on this score). In chapter twelve Guinness unfolds his method: raise questions, give answers, give evidence and provide a chance for commitment.

Admittedly this book was a slow burn for me. It really wasn’t compelled until part way through Turning the Tables (chapter five); however Guinness is somewhat of an elderstatesman among Christian apologists and an astute cultural critic. He points a way foreword for Christians to engage in compelling, creative persuasion and synthesizing the insights of other great apologists and Christian thinkers before him. There is a lot of meat that the above summary skips over. I don’t think there is a better resource which comprehensively provides rules of engagement for those who want to share their faith with unbelievers. I have a couple qualms about his tone when profiling those he disagrees with but appreciate his message. I recommend this book for anyone who is interested in seeing unbelievers come to saving hope through Christ. There is sage advice on how to communicate good news winsomely to hearts and minds. I give this five stars: ★★★★★

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

The Great Commission with Great Compassion: a book review

I never read a book by Paul Borthwick, but nineteen years ago I promised I would. I was at Urbana, a large Christian missions conference hosted by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship every three years or so. A man stood outside the auditorium giving out copies of Six Dangerous Questions to Transform Your View of the World. He gave me a free copy of the book on condition that I would read it. A voracious reader even then I promised I would, but on my flight out of Illinois my book bag lay open under my seat spewing its contents across the floor of the plane. I got home without the book (and I lost several others as well). I  did skim the book’s contents in my local Christian bookstore, but I never really read it.

9780830844371Dear anonymous IVCF staff member, I just made good on my promise to read a Borthwick book, albeit a different one. Great Commission, Great Compassion is Borthwick’s new book and it is . . .great. Borthwick teaches at Gordon College and is an author and consultant who has written on Christian mission and worldview. Great Commission, Great Compassion explores how we in the church are called to go and do–to  both share the good news of the gospel and to care for the hurting, the wounded and marginalized. Too often books about mission vacillate between the poles of gospel proclamation and active service. Borthwick helps us pursue both these aspects of Christ’s mission.

Borthwick’s  book divides into two parts. Part one examines the biblical foundations for living out the gospel and making disciples. Chapters two through four look at Jesus’ Great Commission through the lens of five sending passages: Matthew 28:18-20; Mark 16:15-18; Luke 24: 45-49, Acts 1:8 and John 20:21-23. From these passages Borthwick demonstrates that we are sent by the Christ who has all authority, and we are sent with the asurance of God’s power through the Holy Spirit’s presence with us (51).  In chapters five and six, Borthwick challenges us to live into the the Matthew 25 imperatives as we feed the hungry, slake the thirst of thirsty, welcome strangers, clothe the naked,  care for the sick,  and visit the prisoners. He challenges us to memorize 1 John 3:16-18, “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” (68).  This as the test of our devotion, that we love with both words and speech, and action and truth.

Part two explores ‘lifestyle imperatives’ for living out this great commission and compassion. Borthwick challenges us to commit to Kingdom Mission in our personal choices, develop an ongoing posture for learning and discovering on how to serve and share well, cultivate eyes to see needs and opportunities, pray for the world, welcome strangers (i.e. reconciliation, response to immigrants and LGBT community), live simply and generously, pursue justice and mission within community, and get out of our comfort zones. Additionally, an appendix describes “One Hundred Ideas for Great Commission, Great Compassion Outreach” (193-198).

I really enjoyed this book. Borthwick combines a close reading of the New Testament call to go and do with personal stories of outreach and mission. He also has lots of suggestions for living out this kind of witness. But don’t let the breadth of this book scare you. I appreciated Borthwick’s practical insights and thoughtful approach. I found this book inspiring with lots of ways to dig in and live deeper into a lifestyle of witness and service. It makes me wish I read that Borthwick book years ago. Sorry again, InterVarsity guy.

I recommend this book for personal reading, but I think it will be particularly fruitful for book study or church small group which dreams of pursuing a more active and embodied witness. There is no ‘discussion guide’ in the back of the book, but attention to each chapter would like spark conversation. There is a lot of good stuff here. Five Stars:★★★★★

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