On a Mission from God: a dvd/book review

My introduction to Ray Vander Laan came through the  men’s group at my church. They have watched a number of his Holy Land tour DVDs. The blend of on-location-footage, connecting culture and geography to the biblical text, and Vander Laan’s expository style makes for a rich study experience. Israel’s Mission is volume 13 in his ‘That the World May Know’ series. These videos span twenty years of tours. Vander Laan is noticably grayer and occasionally shows his age, though his passion and energy show no signs of diminishing. He walks at the same determined pace and preaches with the same passion, but his reflections have deepened.

The production of Israel’s Mission is far superior to its predecessors. The graphics and maps are more eye-popping, the cutaways to tour members more natural, and the video more seamless. The earlier installments are hokey by comparison.

But that all is aesthetics, what about content? In five sessions Vander Laan explores the mission of God’s people–in the Old and New Testament. He examines Abraham’s role as the Patriarch of his family and his role of caring for the house of the Father (Beth Ab) and his hospitality to three strangers. He explores the call of Israel at Sinai to be a kingdom of priests, Jesus’ exhortation for us to seek the lost, and the parable of the lost son. In each session Vander Laan  prompts us to take up our role in participating in God’s mission in the world.

The accompanying discovery guide has notes from the DVD presentation, discussion questions and five days of personal study sessions for digging deeper. This study is well put together and will enlarge your vision of God’s mission in the world. I give this series five stars.

Note: I received this book and DVD from LitFuse and Zondervan in exchange for my honest review

On a Mission from God: a dvd/book review

My introduction to Ray Vander Laan came through the  men’s group at my church. They have watched a number of his Holy Land tour DVDs. The blend of on-location-footage, connecting culture and geography to the biblical text, and Vander Laan’s expository style makes for a rich study experience. Israel’s Mission is volume 13 in his ‘That the World May Know’ series. These videos span twenty years of tours. Vander Laan is noticably grayer and occasionally shows his age, though his passion and energy show no signs of diminishing. He walks at the same determined pace and preaches with the same passion, but his reflections have deepened.

The production of Israel’s Mission is far superior to its predecessors. The graphics and maps are more eye-popping, the cutaways to tour members more natural, and the video more seamless. The earlier installments are hokey by comparison.

But that all is aesthetics, what about content? In five sessions Vander Laan explores the mission of God’s people–in the Old and New Testament. He examines Abraham’s role as the Patriarch of his family and his role of caring for the house of the Father (Beth Ab) and his hospitality to three strangers. He explores the call of Israel at Sinai to be a kingdom of priests, Jesus’ exhortation for us to seek the lost, and the parable of the lost son. In each session Vander Laan  prompts us to take up our role in participating in God’s mission in the world.

The accompanying discovery guide has notes from the DVD presentation, discussion questions and five days of personal study sessions for digging deeper. This study is well put together and will enlarge your vision of God’s mission in the world. I give this series five stars.

Note: I received this book and DVD from LitFuse and Zondervan in exchange for my honest review

The Sending Church: a book review

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

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

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

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

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

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

NIV Essentials: a Bible review

I have an ambivalence toward Study Bibles. It isn’t that I don’t appreciate the scholarship and hard work that goes into producing them. I read commentaries and use several study resources in my personal devotional reading. My ambivalence is rooted in my love for inductive Bible study. I have led one too many Bible discussion groups where I have asked a question designed to get people to engage the passage and the only response I get back is, “My notes say. . .”  The conversation is short circuited  and people disengage from actively reading. There is a  tendency to use a Study Bible notes as a divine oracle (and of course, notes are not always right).

This is hardly the fault of Study Bibles. It is what people do with them. So I took a chance and decided to review the NIV Essentials Study BibleThis new edition from the good folks at Zondervan, combines the features of several of their  best-selling Study Bibles and resources. They offer six lenses for ‘grasping the fundamentals of scripture’:

  • Book Introductions from The Essential Bible Companion and maps, photos and timelines from the NIV Quest Study Bible.
  • Study Notes from the NIV Study Bible. 
  • Articles from the NIV  Archaeological Study Bible designed to help you ‘dig deep’ and understand the historical significance/reliability of the Bible.
  • A ‘Q & A’ lens which presents ‘easy-to-grasp answers to difficult Bible questions (adopted from the NIV Quest Study Bible).
  • A’People in Focus Lens’ which profiles various characters from the Bible  (taken from the NIV Student Bible). 
  • An ‘Insight lens’ which presents a magazine style article relating the passage to life situations (NIV Student Bible).
  • Guided Tours from the NIV Study Bible.
  • Reflections from the Great Rescue Bible ( a narrative devotional Bible).

There is some great content here. I appreciate that it is paired with the 2011 edition of the NIV which I am using increasingly in my own personal reading. The NIV study notes are generally quite good and the various resources are integrated well. I like the look of the Bible and the sidebars. Each article is followed by an abbreviation (SB, ASB, QSB) to alert readers from which resource they came from; however the authors of articles and notes are not included in this volume. On the whole, I would say that this is well put together.

However, I am not sure if the sum of its parts is worth more than any of the Bibles it uses as source material. The introductions, pictures and graphs from the NIV Study Bible are quite good but not included here, so that material is not duplicated. In addition NIV Study Bible are somewhat abbreviated. Types of notes are left out which would duplicate what this Bible does in sidebars and in-text articles.. Some great content is left out in order to showcase more of Zondervan’s flagship resources.  There is no cross-reference system which is easily my favorite feature of a Study Bible. This seems odd to me, because it would easily be integrated and providea ‘canonical lens’ for understanding scripture.

This Study Bible seems to be designed as a sampler to get you to buy more NIV Bibles. The dust jacket profiles the six resources used in editing the NIV Essentials Bible. If you can get past that, there are some great notes and reflections which will guide readers through the text, help them understand the message of the Bible and appropriate its truths to their lives. This Bible can be used fruitfully for personal study. Just remember the Bible is inspired, but the notes are not. And if you are in Bible Study, quote the Bible not the notes! That is the essential part.  I give this Bible 3.5 stars.

Notice of material connection: I received this book from the publisher via the Book Sneeze Blog Review program in exchange for my honest review.

Innovation’s Dirty little Secret: a book review

When we consider the life and impact of innovators (such as the late Steve Jobs), we are amazed by their vision and the ideas they had. But Larry Osborne says that innovators have a secret: most innovations fail. Well, actually that isn’t much of a secret. You knew that already, right? What serial innovators are able to do is fail forward without letting their failures derail them. Osborne tells the tale of why serial innovators succeed where others crash and burn and describes how to foster a culture of innovation.

Osborne is a pastor of North Coast church in San Diego County, California (the book jacket identifies this as ‘one of the most innovative churches in America’).  Osborne draws on his own experience as a leader and the insights from business leadership literature.  Innovation’s Dirty Little Secret: Why Serial Innovators Succeed Where Others Fail  is meant to be applicable to either a business or ecclesial context.  Osborne does not offer a business plan or detailed instructions on how to implement this in your church. What he does do is identify some of the crucial elements of success through innovation.

The book unfolds in seven parts. Part 1 is about exit strategies. Serial innovators do not succeed through backing high-risk innovations. They do not put all their resources into an idea that could fail. They experiment before implementing significant changes. They hedge their bets.  Part two talks about how successful innovation is not about being  ‘avant-garde’ and endlessly creative. It is about finding the right solutions to the problems you face in your organization. Part three describes the importance of knowing your mission (i.e. through a mission statement) and having a bias for action . Osborne also  advises finding a champion to make a straight path for you (a John the Baptist figure, preparing them for your innovation) and the importance of planning in pencil (holding plans loosely).

Part four discusses the problems which undermine innovation.  Osborne mentions four problems: the price of failure,  group-think, surveys, and past successes.  Failures are fatal to our success when we fail publicly, overhype our innovations, and fail repeatedly in the spotlight.  Osborne advises humility and tact in implementing innovations–creating an experimental culture without over promising results on every innovation. On the other hand, he does not trust group-think or surveys because they tends towards the status quo. Innovation  tends to be the product of one mind and lead people somewhere they’ve never been (or thought of).

Part five discusses other organizational and personal challenges to innovation. Leaders cannot grow an organization beyond their competency.  in order for new innovations to happen, structural changes, adjusted expectations, and new advisers will all play a part in helping your church or organization become what they

Part six discusses the necessity of vision for the success of your organization. Osborne contrasts ‘vision’ with ‘mission’ by describing vision as your detailed business plan (mission is a pithy statement which describes what you are about).  The final section, part seven, talks about creating a legacy of innovation that goes beyond ‘just us.’

Osborne offers practical advice for vision casting and implementing new programs and opportunities into the life of your church (or business). I am glad I read this book because I gained some insights and some language to describe innovation in ministry.  I didn’t necessarily think it was the most eye-opening business book. Most of the information in said in other business-leadership books (i.e. Jason Jennings, Jim Collins, Steve Covey, John Maxwell, etc). What Osborne does is relate leadership concepts and innovation to his role as pastor. This gives this book a broad appeal; however I felt that it was missing the hard data of some of the best business books and the theological reflection of the greatest church leadership books.

However  the take away for me is the emphasis on ‘small risks’ and ‘hedged bets.’ This seems to me to be good practical advice for success in leadership, ministry and life.  Culture is always changing and there is no one-size-fits-all ministry plan (or business plan). Change is inevitable and that means an effective witness means trying new things to reach a community. The lab-learning small risks allows for the opportunity to discover which innovations will be impactful. This will be a good book to read and discuss as a church leadership team.  I give it 3.5 stars.

Thank you to Zondervan and Cross-Focused Reviews for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

What’s the Frequency Ken?: a book review

I don’t know Ken Shigematsu.  I have been in the same room as him on several occasions, I’ve been to his church and even heard him preach. I have listened to audio lectures by him which I found in the Regent College library. I have several friends from seminary who attended his church and spoke appreciatively of his ministry and preaching, but I have no direct experience with it.

I do, however have some experience with rules of life. Several years ago my wife and I participated in a year long urban mission (creatively callled Mission Year) where we attempted to share the love of Jesus with our neighbors in a marginalized section of Atlanta.  Our ‘mission’ was given structure by a mandated routine which included morning prayer, sacred reading and weekly Sabbath. We were also instructed to devote particular hours in the community (usually at the end of a day working at our volunteer jobs). When I left Mission Year, I quickly fell out of that routine, but I have circled back to it many times knowing that structure enabled my wife and I to give our lives in service to the community we served. a structured commitment enables us to invest in the important things in life and ministry.

Shigematsu tackles the idea of writing a  rule of life in God in My Everything: How an Ancient Rhythm Helps Busy People Enjoy God.  Drawing on the monastic tradition, he points to Sabbath, Prayer and Scripture reading as foundational practices that enable us to cultivate our connection to God ( he labels these three practices as ‘roots’). Building on these practices, Shigematsu also tells us how to ‘relate’–how to cultivate relationships with others, God-centered sexuality and how to set proper boundaries around family relationships.  He then, recommends practices which ‘restore’ us. These include attention to bodily health, recreation, and an appropriate understanding of money. Finally he suggests practices which enable us to ‘reach out.’  Our work, our commitment to justice, and our witness are all ways in which our faith in God spills out in blessing to the world.  Shigematsu suggests making a rule of life which attends to each of these areas, but keeps us rooted in the rhythms of Sabbath, prayer and scripture reading. An appendix collects several sample rules that people (Shigematsu’s small group) have written.

There are several features to Shigematsu’s approach to writing a rule of life which I think are instructive. First, Shigematsu resists the temptation to over-complicate the spiritual life. He suggests writing a rule of life which attends to each of these areas, but this isn’t a burdensome, heroic attempt. In fact, Shigematsu advises that a big part of writing a rule, is learning  to pruning back the places  where we are over-extended. A rule of life is not a bout adding to your life, it is about living from the right center.

Secondly, I think Shigematsu gets the order of things right. By beginning with ‘root practices’ which address how we relate to God, he provides the foundation for other practices. His second section sets the boundaries for human relationships. His third section talks about personally restorative practices and the final section talks about outreach.  I find it easy to live the reverse–to want to do something great for God, have fun, care for friends and if I have time, pray. By attending to priorities in this order, Shigematsu  makes sure that we keep first things first and that our ‘witness’ to a watching world is characterized more from overflow, than obligation.

Third, I appreciate that Shigematsu draws on the wisdom of ancient monks, contemporary writers and ordinary Christians. I was pleased to see both authors and friends I love commended by Ken in this book. I have no direct experience with his ministry but when he shared with joy about things friends of mine have said and did, I am totally won over by his humility and grace.  Some of the people he mentioned were professors of mine at Regent, others were fellow students who live exemplary lives.  Shigematsu has many wise things to say but he doesn’t paint himself as the grand guru of the spiritual life. He draws on the wisdom of his community.

Fourth, Shigematsu is careful to point out, living for God doesn’t necessarily mean you get whatever YOU want. Intentional choices about vocation or finances, may make you godly, but it might not make you rich. Shigematsu doesn’t promise prosperity for those who succeed in living God’s way.

Finally I appreciate that this was a well written and thoughtful account of ‘life under a rule.’ Each of his points are well illustrated by stories from his own life and others.

I have lived under a rule and have some experience with crafting a  personal rule of life. This may be the single best resource I’ve read on writing a rule. I think Shigematsu catches the crucial elements of living an intentional Spiritual life. He uses too much alliteration for my tastes (i.e. root, relate, restore, reach out), but I like what he captures with these categories. I would recommend this book for anyone seeking to deepen their relationship with God. A rule of life is essential for ministry so anyone seeking to impact their world for God will find Shigematsu’s reflections fruitful.  I give this book five stars: ★★★★★

Thank you to Cross Focused Reviews and Zondervan for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Freedom From Pornography: a book review

Heath Lambert says he did not write Finally Free to address the dangers of pornography–how it poisons relationships, isolates individuals and victimizes those in the industry. There are other books on the market which discuss this at length. Many people who struggle with pornography know the problems associated with it but still live in bondage. Leath wrote Finally Free to proclaim that real freedom is possible through grace through Jesus Christ.

Leath is the executive director of the National Association of Nouthetic Counselor (NANC). Nouthetic counseling uses biblical principles as its fundamental basis for its apprach.  Leath applies the Bible to the problem of porn first by sharing the way grace enables us to live free from this sin and secondly, he presents eight  measures to ensure that we live out that freedom. These include:

  • Using the sorrow for our sins (not just regret at getting caught!).
  • Accountability.
  • Radical measures (i.e. getting rid of TV, credit cards, internet, etc).
  • Confession.
  • utilizing your relationship with your spouse (or singleness) to fight porn.
  • Growing in humility.
  • Cultivating a dynamic relationship with Jesus

Grace is foundational to this list and Lambert points us continually to the cross.  Jesus died for you because of this (and other sins). Jesus came to set you free. In Christ, we who were dead in our trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1) have been set free!

I think that Lambert has many great, practical things to say. Real freedom from pornography is possible in Christ! I  appreciate that he doesn’t assume every struggler with pornography is male. In his opening chapter on grace he writes, “I know dozens of people (men and women) who struggle with pornography. Each was introduced to pornography in a different way. (17)”  One problem I have with a lot of Christian books dealing with pornography, is that they assume it is an exclusively male sin.  This compounds the isolation and shame of female strugglers.  I loved that Lambert was conscious enough of this to offer his pastoral counsel to both men and women. Unfortunately after the first page, all the examples focus on male struggle (these are mostly anecdotes drawn from Lambert’s own counseling ministry), but the intention is there.

I also think that the advice in this book is sound and applicable not only to the sin of pornography, but other vices as well. Gamblers, drug addicts and perfectionists can apply the principles in this book to their own problems. The specific topic of this book is pornography, but because Lambert roots his approach to counseling in biblical counsel, he is necessarily applying biblical principles to a specific twenty-first century context.  These principles can just as easily can be applied to other sins, and help Christians strive towards greater freedom and holiness. 

I commend this book. I think it is one of the better books on helping Christians gain freedom from pornography. There are places I want to nuance what Lambert says. For example, he tends to talk about pornography in terms of lust and adultery (which it is), but he says little about the desire for relationship and connection which both drives strugglers to pornography and causes them to feel profound shame and isolation.  I also do not share his general suspicion of psychology which drives the Nouthetic Counseling approach. I  do agree that much of the psychological literature is written from a secular and materialist bias, and that the fundamental problem humans face is Sin.  So my view is probably closer to Lambert’s than most psychology. Yet I also appreciate some psychological insights and think that it would complement this book well.

I give this book four stars and recommend it for those who are struggling with pornography, those who are ministering to others,  and other strugglers. I believe if you put these principles into practice, taking care that you are rooted in an experience of God’s grace, you will experience freedom in Christ.

Thank you to Zondervan and Cross Focused Reviews for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.