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.

 

Imagine True Religion: a book review

Most of us don’t like religion. Instead of having religious vocations like monks and nuns, we are the nones-and-dones. The ranks of exvangelicals swell as people leave churches marked too often by unhealthy power structures, patriarchy, prejudice, and a near lack of inclusion. But even among those of us still in the Evangelical Christian sub-culture, there is little enthusiasm about religion, as such. Evangelicals decry “Religion” as a human attempt to please God which had very-little-to-do with the Jesus revealed in the Bible. Religion, we say, is spelled D-O; Christianity was spelled D-O-N-E. Religion is a set of rules. We have a relationship. But for all our religious handwringing and bad spoken word poetry about how we aren’t in any way whatsoever religious, we had just as many rites, rituals, and dogma as everyone else.

978-1-63146-666-3Greg Paul doesn’t buy this evangelical antireligious rhetoric.  In his introduction to Resurrecting Religion, he recounts listening to a speaker at a large missional Christian conference rage against religion and thinking, “What is it we’re doing here? Isn’t all this, umm, religion? Wouldn’t anybody else say this is religious activity? Simply saying that we’re not religious doesn’t make it so. Are we fooling ourselves?” (xiii).  Rather than rail against religion, Greg Paul sees bad religion as our real problem: combative, legalistic, hierarchical, soul-numbing and functionally irrelevant, bad religion.

In the book, Greg probes how true religion calls us to care for the widows and orphans and keep ourselves from corruption(James 1:27). In retooling religion, he makes use of the book of James to show us how true religion compels us to care for those on the margins (not the center and the status quo). As a pastor, and therefore career ‘religious guy,’ he has plentiful examples of how he has tried to live this out within the context of the urban church he pastors in Toronto, Sanctuary.

I first became aware of Greg Paul’s work through his book God in the Alley (Shaw, 2004). That book described Paul’s seeing Christ’s presence among Toronto’s inner-city homeless population. Simply Open (Thomas Nelson, 2015) and Close Enough to Hear God Breathe (Thomas Nelson 2011) were about the cultivating our awareness of God in pray and in all of life. These all point to a contemplative awareness. In this sense, Greg Paul is kind of what I would call an evangelical mystic. The religious spirituality he describes in Resurrecting Religion is a spirituality of the Beatitudes—one that makes space for the oppressed and the vulnerable in the life the faith community, a spirituality of listening and a spirituality of submission to God in the face of life’s trials.

Greg Paul calls us not to throw off our religious chains, but toward a new reformation where our ideas of religion are overhauled and renewed as we seek to care for the vulnerable, show equal regard for all people regardless of their socioeconomic status, and follow Jesus. Because the epistle of James is G. Paul’s guide, he doesn’t focus on liturgy and ritual like other pro-religion books might (such as James K.A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom). His focus, and in large part people’s problem with religion, is how we are to relate to one another. His closing chapter, “a twenty-first-century reformation” sets the trajectory he thinks our religiosity ought to take:

  •  Following Jesus away from the place of power, privilege, and security to the margins and the vulnerable.
  • An integrative approach to the gospel that holds up both a comprehensive theology of the Kingdom of God and pursues a vibrant, living relationship with Jesus.
  • The pursuit of justice and speaking up on behalf of the oppressed.
  • Directing our energies and resources outward not on our own church building and culture.
  • Commitment to community and to the values of the Kingdom of Heaven beyond our own economic interests, political affiliations.

Greg argues for a recovery of a religious, prophetic witness:

We would not keep silent when people who are poor are blamed for their poverty; when another young black man is unjustly shot and killed by police; when another First Nations woman goes missing and no investigation is begun; when supports for people who are addicted, mentally ill, or homeless are slashed again,; when unjust laws that target the poor are passed .We would claim those people as our brothers and sisters and raise our voices in support. We would abandon political-party allegiances and vote according to the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Those of us who are politicians or police officers or social workers or employees of banks and large corporations or military personnel or church workers would stand and speak loudly, if necessary as ones crying in the wilderness, about the injustice that infects the cultures within which we work and spreads to the world around us. (200).

When I picked up this book I expected it to be a sort of apologia for religion for our spiritual-but-not-religious age. Instead, this book is more of a manifesto for Christians to pursue True Religion in the way of Jesus. There are lots of stories from Greg’s ministry and the community of Sanctuary. I give this four stars and recommend it for pastors and ordinary readers who are tired of the same old bad religion and long for something more life-giving. -★★★★

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

Dying to Be Right: a book review

Efrem Smith was a sought after voice in the denomination I’ve served as pastor in (Evangelical Covenant Church). He planted Sanctuary, a multicultural/multiethnic church in Minnesota. Later he was a conference superintendent for the Pacific Southwest. These days he’s the teaching pastor at Bayside Midtown Church in Sacramento, California,  and the president of World Impact, an urban-missions program which trains the urban poor in mission and helps them to launch indigenous church plants. He is also the author of several books

efremsoftlySmith’s new book, Killing Us Softly describes what it means to die to ourselves and live for God’s kingdom. How are we killed? God kills us (our egos and selfish desires) softly with his steadfast love and grace. In his introduction Smith opens up about his own experience of this sort of spiritual death, “I am allowing God to do surgery on my soul—to kill me, certainly, but to do it softly, lovingly—so that I might die to the upside-down world we find ourselves in, and be empowered to live as a right-side-up child of God. I am living in the messiness of God removing things in me that are not of him so that I might reflect him more each day” (xiv).

The first chapter of the book describe our upside-down-ness of our bizarro world. Things in our culture are not the way God intended because of the reality of sin. Smith observes that sin is both an individual and systemic reality (8). We live the upside-down life of idolatry—”our hearts and worship turned away from God toward other things” (10) The result is fragmentation. We are broken in our relationships to others (i.e. racism, tribalism, sexism) and our institutions are also broken (government systems, schools, economic systems, corporations, etc).

In the chapters that follow, Smith describes the church as the right-side-up remnant(chapter 2);  Christ as  the ‘right side up way, truth and life'(chapter 3); what in us needs to die to set our hearts right (chapter 4); the paradox of Christian maturity (or what it means to have a child like faith, chapter 5); how we advance God’s kingdom through love (chapter six) and what it means to join in God’s mission to set the world right side up (chapter seven).

In this short book Smith gives us a broad overview of the life of discipleship—what it means to deny yourself, take up your cross and follow Jesus. He discusses the upside-down-ness of our world, and because he includes a category for systemic sin, he is able to speak directly to fallen institutions and systemic problems (like the incarceration and wrongly death of black people at the hands of police, and deaths of police officers). He challenges Christians to share the love of Jesus with the world, and  to see justice as part of our mission to welcome the kingdom and set the world to rights.

Smith tells stories from ministry, initiatives he’s been a part of to love neighbors and restore communities. He offers an inspiring and pastoral vision of what it means to join our life with Christ and become part of his mission. It is compelling.  I also appreciate that Smith places ‘dying to yourself’ motif under the rubric of God’s gracious work in us. This helps me understand it as something healthier and more fruitful than mere self-loathing. It is about submitting to God’s work in our heart. I give this book four stars.

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

Beginning Again: a book review

We all experience times we are overwhelmed by life circumstance when the Spirit hovers over the very chaos of our lives.  Steve Wiens, pastor of Genesis Covenant Church in Maple Grove points us to a resource for beginning (and beginning again)–Genesis 1.  The seven days of creation tell more than how the world was created; these days are a resource through times of transition and difficult circumstance. In BeginningsWiens inhabits the text and offers it up as Midrashim. The creation account re-stories us, plays midwife to us, and invites us into the process of becoming (xxii-xxv).

978-1-63146-400-3Each of the seven days  speak of God’s work in our lives. On Day One, God’s Spirit hovers over the chaos and darkness we experience, bringing light and hope. On Day two, an expanse (space) is created between the waters above and below. This symbolically speaks of how God creates space in our life to grow something new. Day Three we experience the growth of seeds in freshly broken ground. Day Four (the seperation of day and night, Sun, Moon and Stars) we are able to see seasons. On Day Five we confront the monsters in the waters which threaten to strike down our new beginning. Day Six we press into God’s creative work in fashioning us, healing our past and propelling us into the future. Day Seven we learn the power of stopping and nurturing ceasing.

This is a unique book in that Wiens doesn’t address any of the creationist/evolutionist debates, and instead focuses on what the seven days of creation tell us about our life. Writers like John Walton (The Lost World of Genesis One, IVP ACademic 2009) tell us that ancient near east cosmologies are more concerned about how the universe is ordered than they are about origins. If this is true (and I believe it is), a book like this which focuses on what Genesis 1 tells us about our life and God’s creative and redemptive work are truer to the message of scripture than many literal readings of the creation account. The focus  here is less on what happened, so much of what it means.

Wiens also brings the message of Genesis down to a personal level. He share of difficult seasons in his own life (vocational struggles, infertility, problems with physical health, etc) and names the way God was at work in his life. His discussion of the seven days invites us to reflect on God’s work in our own life. I read this book in the midst of my own difficult season of life. Wiens’s words give me hope and a vision of where God may be at work in this stage of my journey. I give this four-and-a-half stars.

Note: I received this book from NavPress through the Tyndale Bloggers 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.