Worshipping the God of the Bible: a Bible book review

As an intermittent worship leader and a reader of the Bible, I was excited by the NIV Worship Together Bible. It promised to link song and reflection together with Bible reading. Included in this Bible is:

  • The text of the NIV (2011 edition)
  • Lyrics to the ‘top 50’ worship songs
  • song notes and reflections from the songwriters (and a short devotional  reflection)
  • Simple chords for 20 popular worship songs
  • A forward by Matt Maher (composer of Your Grace is Enough)
  • An index of the songs by scripture reference

These features enable readers to connect their favorite worship songs to their Bible reading, making this a resource which promises to enliven worship and enrich your personal devotional life.

I like the NIV so I am predisposed to like this Bible. I have spent less time with the 2011 version than I have the 1984 version or the TNIV, but generally like what I have seen from the 2011 NIV.  The gender inclusive language in this edition is curtailed when it conflicts with biblical idioms and prophetic references to Jesus, so it corrects places where the TNIV went overboard.

However I found myself underwhelmed by the devotional articles on worship. Certainly I learned some things from them. Notably, I learned that one of my favorite hymns, How Great Though Art, has its origins in the Swedish revival that birthed mmy current denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Church. On the other hand, the worship songs included in this book are the most popular ones, not necessarily the best ones. Some of the worship songs included (I won’t share which ones in case they’re your favorite) I find vapid and shallow.  The song stories and reflections on these songs do not run very deep (how could they?). Other songs have interesting stories which enrich my appreciation of them and are personally instructive. However there is an unevenness in these articles.

Also I found the ‘worship’ articles lacked any cohesive unifying theme. They didn’t seem to be correlated at all. While an index gives you the scripture references for each song, when you look at the articles, they do not tell you where to find the next devotional article. This doesn’t strike me as very user-friendly. Certainly I can go to the index and make my own devotional reading plan, but I think that Zondervan should have put a ‘next lyrics and ‘behind the song’ article is on page___’ at the end of each article. It would have made it easier to navigate (I’ve seen other devotional Bible’s do this).

My major issue with the Bible is that I had hoped their would be more of a conscious effort to impart a theology of worship in the text. A single article by John J Thompson entitled “Songs as Worship” stands between Revelation and the Table of Weights and Measures. There is nothing wrong with this article. Thompson says some good things, but I wish that the complementary articles went deeper into a biblical theology of worship.

So  I give this a middle of the road review: just ★★★½. However I did actually like the inclusion of lyrics and chords of worship songs. It made me think this is the perfect Bible to take camping with your guitar, so when you need to pull out chords for a worship song to have that epic quiet time in nature, you can actually do it with out bringing along a song sheet binder.  I do feel like many of their song choices will be dated in a couple of year, so I wonder about the longevity of this Bible, but I think that guitar players and worship music lovers will probably appreciate having this resource.

Thank you to Zondervan for providing me a copy of this Bible in exchange for my honest review.

That’s Gonna Leave a Mark: a book review

Jeremy Cowart is an artist, photographer and humanitarian. His art has been featured in popular magazines, news outlets, social media and in books.  He’s photographed numerous celebrities and has used his platform to make an impact by drawing attention to what is going on in the world (i.e. Haiti, Rwanda).  He’s even been a TED talker. In a new book, What’s Your Mark?: Every Moment Countshe points at modern day ‘mark-makers’ and encourages us to step out and make our mark.

Cowart profiles twenty contemporary people who have been marked by their faith in Christ and are making their mark on the world. Their images and stories are interwoven with the Gospel of Mark (get it?).   There are twenty one (actually twenty two but the book jacket says twenty one) photos and short bios. These include: Ellie Ambrose, Mark Burnett, Dan Cathy, Donald Collins, Caitlin Crosby, Katie Davis,  Claire Diaz-Ortiz,  Roma Downey, Bob Goff,  Gary Haugen, Ester Havens, Jesus, John-Mark (the author of Mark), Fred Katagwa, Shaun King,  Laura Lasky, Lecrae, Manny Martinez,  Jena Nardella,  Shannon Sedgwick  Davis, Jeff Shinabarger and Ann Voskamp. This is a fairly diverse sample of business people, authors, social media gurus, TV producers and do-gooders concerned about global injustices. These short bios celebrate their lives and their commitment to making their ‘mark’ for Christ.

On an artistic level I appreciate a lot of this book. Reading the profiles of  the ‘mark-makers’ together with the book of Mark, forces you to ask: what kind of impact did Jesus make on his world and how can I impact my world?  I think reading the Bible with questions opens you up to hearing the voice of God. I appreciated the question and found it illumined the text.  I also enjoyed meeting the people profiled. Some of them were familiar to me, others were not. Each is seeking to live out their faith in an impactful way. I am a fan of a few of these people and have questions of a few. But the way Cowart celebrates each makes me like them and want to know more about them.

However I struggled with parts of this book.   I  wished that the profiles were a little more substantive. These are brief portraits, more what you would expect to accompany a photo essay in a magazine. So Cowart points me to some interesting people but he doesn’t reveal much about their life.  I want the fuller picture. I still liked how Cowart celebrated these ‘mark-makers’ but I wanted more.

Also,I liked the inclusion of the NIV(2011) of Mark but greater thought should have gone into how to format this book. The profiles were intermittently broken up by a couple pages of Biblical text but it would simply reproduce what fit on two pages. Chapters, paragraphs and sentences did not necessarily fit neatly on the page and the gospel of Mark was  broken up in odd spots. Sentences and pericopes were divided awkwardly by several pages of personal profiles.  This made the biblical narrative somewhat disjointed even if the juxtaposition made for an interesting presentation. I  think this could have been done better.

A minor note: I found the glossy pages and photos made me want to not ‘mark this book up.’  I feel like I should mark up a book called What’s Your Mark, but I didn’t want to do it.

I still think that this might make a good gift book for someone graduating high-school or college to get them thinking about how they can live a life which impacts the world for the Kingdom of God.  I liked that it celebrates the lives of people who are creatively living out their vocations and can appreciate the implicit exhortation to go and do likewise. I give this book ★★★½.

Thank you to Zondervan for providing me a copy of this book (via BookSneeze) in exchange for my fair and balanced review.

Blessed Be The Tie that Binds: a book review

We are connected to one another and the choices we make will impact those around us. There is really no such thing as ‘private sin’ or personal piety but all of it spills over into the lives of loved ones and friends, neighborhoods and communities. Author and pastor Chris Brauns calls this the ‘principle of the rope’ and roots it theologically in the biblical account of human fallenness and  the hope of redemption found through Christ.

Bound Together: How We are Tied to Others in Good and Bad Choices by Chris Brauns

Bound Together divides into two sections. In part one, Brauns describes the ‘principle of the rope.’  Because of Original Sin, Adam and Eve’s fall from grace in the garden, all of their descendents were impacted.  We are all born with the proclivity to sin because of it and face the consequences. Yet we need not go back to origins to see the principle at work. Braun begins his book with an account of a childhood friend’s drunkenness and the alcoholism and struggles that whole family faced.  We have all been directly impacted by the sins of others and that in turn has influenced our own decisions and perceptions of our world.  Often the abused becomes the abuser and the cycle continues.

But Brauns doesn’t leave us to wallow in the mire of human sinfulness. He describes the hope we have in Christ. Through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has untied the rope and set us free. Those who respond with belief are bound together with Christ and share in fellowship with God and one another.  The new rope (Christ) is stronger than the rope of Original sin. Jesus Christ has broken the power of sin and death in our lives. All of that is part one.

In part two, Brauns describes how we can apply this ‘principle of the rope’ in living out our lives. He urges  Christians to lay hold of the joy that is promised to those  bound together in Christ. He describes the hope Christ brings to the sinful, the hurting, and those who are facing the fear of death. Brauns also describes how marriage (for Christians) mirrors our connection to Christ, and how the gospel challenges American styled individualism.

There is a lot I commend in Brauns account. I certainly agree with his broad theological vision, both in his description  of how our sin impacts our loved ones and neighbors (even when we tell ourselves it won’t) and his description of the hope we have in Christ. I also appreciated the care in which Brauns described how generational sin impacts us and yet we remain free and our responisble for our own actions (see especially chapter four in the first section).  What I really liked about Brauns’s ‘principle of the rope’ is that it gives us a new language to communicate the gospel in a way that is winsome and accessible. I also loved (theology nerd alert) that his book was organized by a ‘gospel grammar’ of indicative-imperative. Part one declares the truth of the gospel whereas part two tells you how to live in light of that truth.

Nevertheless I found this book wanting in places. I agree with Brauns  about the ‘principle of the rope,’ but I felt that he insufficiently unpacked the implications. He does talk briefly about abuse and the cycle of addictions but the socio-political implications are never fully addressed. Racism, sexism,  poverty, prostitution exist on grand scales are imbedded in cultures because of the ‘principle of the rope.’ The madness of crowds and institutional sin is hinted at but not fully explored by Brauns (though he does draw on the sociological insights of Bellah, Berger, Hunter and others). I honestly think he could have built a more compelling case for our complicity in corporate and institutional sin.  I htink the hopelessness of the modern institution makes union with Christ more compelling.

Brauns also draws heavily on Reformed Evangelical sources (and Puritans). I have no axe to grind against Calvinists (I consider myself a .5 Calvinist) but they are not the only one to traverse this ground. I found myself thinking of other authors who have articulated our sharing in Sin and our Sharing in Christ. I wished that other theological voices were brought to the table because I believe they would have enriched Brauns’s text. These include patristic sources like Augustine, and Irenaeus and modern sources like Jacques Ellul,  Rene Girard,  etc. I realized that Brauns own theological perspective is informed most by the Calvinist crowd, but if it is true that we are bound together in Christ, I would expect a more eccumenical feel to this book.

I also found myself occasionally excluded by Brauns. For example he uses his chapter on marriage to argue for Biblical Complementarianism using Ephesians 5:22-33 and dismisses Biblical egalitarianism as being baseless (tells an anecdote of one mouthy egalitarian to illustrate this). However he fails to put the wife’s  submission in the context of mutual submission [note: the word submission does not appear in the Greek of Ephesians 5:22. It is translated literally ‘Wives to your husband as to the Lord. . . .’ The verb ‘to submit’ is supplied by the previous verse, “Submit yourselves one to another.’ The household code that follows is an explication of that mutual submission]. His word to the husband is that they are to serve their wife by leading them. Paul’s words to husbands is that they should love them as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.  I have no problem with Brauns being a complementarian but his decision to focus on that in this context meant that he failed to expound on the mutual aspects of this passage which speak to his overall theme.

These caveats aside I still think that this book can be read fruitfully. Brauns is on the right track and I loved the gospel focus of this book. This could be a good book for personal study or for a small group study (however a discussion guide is not in the book or on the publisher website). I give it three stars: ★ ★ ★

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

Got to Get Yourself Connected: a book review

About ten years ago I read Randy Frazee’s The Connecting ChurchIt had a signifcant impact on me. While I typically don’t read mega-church pastors hoping to find deep community, Frazee had substance.  I found real theological depth and sociological insight. He challenged churches to be more attentive to solid biblical teaching, to commit to a particular place, and to share  life together.  While other church leaders were touting small groups as their complete answer to building community, Frazee kicked it up a notch.  This book challenged me and after reading it I found myself in thicker community, living in the inner-city sharing life with fellow believers and missionally trying to reach out to neighbors. Frazee’s book helped prepare me to make sacrificial commitments. It also helped me form my convictions about intergenerational ministry.

The Connecting Church 2.0: Beyond Small Groups to Authentic Community by Randy Frazee

This month  The Connecting Church 2.0, is released. Frazee revisits the topic of community and reflects further on how to implement his suggestions.

Parts one through three follow the original book (slightly expanded). Part 4 discusses  how to implement the vision. In part one Frazee tackles the problem of individualism by exhorted us to community around a common purpose.For Christians who seek to be biblical, the Bible provides us with the story of God’s plan of redemption brought to fruition in Christ and his call on our lives to be his ambassadors. Frazee challenges us to know the Bible story. [This of course dovetails nicely with recent work that Frazee has done (with fellow pastor and author Max Lucado) on The Story]. 

Frazee addresses the problem of isolation in part two. Because of urban planning, automobiles and the suburbs, more and more people live in isolation from their fellow neighbors. Middle class culture tends to prize self sufficiency and independence. The tragic outcome  is that we do not know our neighbors nor are we known.  Frazee exhorts us to buck the trends and connect to a common place. This means investing in your neighborhood, stopping by to see your neighbor, borrowing things (putting yourself in a place of need) and spending time in the front yard (being accessible).  He also has some proactive ideas for church small groups. He suggests not breaking people up by life-stage-affinity groups but geographically. That way a small group, in a given area of the city is able to be really community for one another and a missional presence of their neighborhood.

Frazee discusses the problem of consumerism in part three and challenges us to share common possessions. By this he means more than just sharing stuff. He is exhorting us to a lifestyle of interdependence, intergenerational life, shared responsibility and mutual sacrifice. In many ways, this section puts all of the above together and was one of the things that really excited me about the first edition of this book.

Part four is written for ministers and church leaders to help them process how to become a connecting-church. Frazee opens this section with a chapter discussing some lessons he’s learned in the past ten years. He then discusses spider or starfish organizations (referencing a popular business book)  to contrast centralized leadership in a church  versus decentralized, organic approaches to organization and ministry. Most churches are more like spiders (a head with legs and a complex web surrounding them). Starfish have their DNA written in every part of their being, at every level. Frazee suggests a hybrid model where the church provides organizational structure but frees up small groups to pursue community and mission more organically.  Ultimately he commends the starfish model as the goal but knows that our churches are not able to make the shift yet.

I liked this book a lot and consider it an essential resource for church leaders seeking to deepen their experience of community. At the very least, this book should be in every church library, if not in every pastor’s study.  I think that Frazee’s challenges are good ones. But I found that what I liked about this book most was what I had read in the earlier form. I really appreciated Frazee’s thoughtfulness about how this works out and the wisdom he’s learned, but for me the thing that captivated me most was the original vision: a community united around a common purpose, in a common place, sharing common possessions. That is what church should be.  Unfortunately that isn’t always what church is. I am grateful for Frazee’s prophetic challenge and hope that this new edition will help the church to be the church.

I give this book 5 stars: ★★★★★

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

Common Practice: a book review

I continue to be challenged and inspired by the New Monastic movement.  I live in a sleepy suburb  isolated from my Christian community, but the challenge of  Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and Shane Claiborne  stirs me to delve deeper into intentional community and invest in a particular place.  In The Awakening of Hope: Why We Practice a Common FaithJohnathan Wilson-Hartgrove explores the habits which shape convictions and sustain God’s people. The accompanying six-session DVD and discussion guide explores each of the themes in the book from a different angle. In the review below I will discuss the book first, then the DVD and the discussion guide.

Wilson-Hartgrove  has culled together a set of Christian practices into a type of catechism intended to inspire hope, conversation and action.  He shares inspirational stories and also delves into the reason behind each practice.  He focuses on the convictions that ‘undergird a way of life that makes witness possible (15).’  This book discusses these practices:

  • Why We Eat Together
  • Why We Fast
  • Why We Make Promises
  • Why it Matters Where We Live
  • Why We Live Together
  • Why We Would Rather Die Than Kill
  • Why We Share the Good News

Wilson-Hartgrove shares personal examples (and those of friends) which illustrate the meaning of each practice. In his reflections he challenges us to greater community, radical hospitality and identification with Christ’s suffering, a consistent Pro-Life ethic, and integrity in Christian witness. The chapters are short, easy reads, but they offer some significant challenges.

I really appreciate Wislon-Hartgrove’s writing. I like how he thoughtfully draws together theological and biblical reflection, church history and lived experience.   He is a thoughtful writer and has thought and lived deeply each of these practices.  But he manages to share his deep insights into the Christian life and his experience without sounding arrogant or self aggrandizing. There is humility in his prose and while I am awed by his theological insights, street smarts and wholehearted commitment, I never feel like reading his books is like ‘going to one of the experts.’  He is a smart man, but there is humility and grace here too.

In the accompanying DVD Wilson-Hartgrove and his co-conspirator Shane Claiborne bring together material which complements (but does not reproduce the book). The six sessions discuss each of the practices in Wilson-Hartgrove’s book (Eating together and Fasting, are discussed together).   Each of the sessions has an example of what people are doing. There are several inspiring interviews. On the Eating/Fasting session, much of the video portion focuses on an interview of Chris Haw of Camden, NJ and what his community is doing with urban farming. In subsequent sessions there is an interview with Jean Vanier (Why We Make Promises), Civil Rights leader Ann Atwater (Why it Matters Where We Live), Ethan’s Mom Dayna (Why We Would Rather Die Than Kill–this is a story worth hearing in its entirety) and Reverd William Barber (Why We Share Good News).  In the section on ‘Why We Live Together, Shane and Jonathan both share about their lives in their respective communities. Each of these voices adds color and depth to the topic.

In the discussion guide for the DVD (located at the back of the book) there are questions on the DVD presentation and chances to delve deeper into Scripture and tradition by examining Bible passages and quotations from church history. And of course, there are challenges you to live out the practice.  Intentional communities and small groups will be able to use this book profitably to spur one another on in faithful living.

So get this book and accompanying DVD and find a group to discuss it with. Yes, you could just get the book and read it yourself, but you will have done it all wrong. This is the sort of book that is meant to spark deeper conversation. It gets five stars from me. ★★★★★

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.

Your Moves Are So . . .Missional, I Got to Let You Know (a book review)

Missional Moves: 15 Tectonic Shifts that Transform Churches, Communities, and the World by Rob Wegner, Jack Magruder

One my passions and dreams in ministry is to lead a congregation to missionally engage their neighborhood and their world. I’d love to see the whole church–the whole people of God–motivated and mobilized to advance the kingdom in caring for neighbors, sharing good news and partnering with their communities. When a book comes out touting holistic missional engagement which focuses on transforming community, I get excited. Missional Moves is a book which carries such a promise. Authors Rob Wegner and Jack Macgruder both serve in ministry at Granger Community Church (in Granger, Indiana) and have put a lot of thought and energy into getting an attractional mega-church to become more missional.  This book describes some of the ‘moves’ that they’ve made in rethinking and retooling how to do ministry. They are not advocating a program but  they do bring a sensibility and outlook on mission which in translatable to a number of contexts.

The book divides into three sections. In part one Wegner and Magruder discuss the ‘paradigm shifts’ necessary for full missional engagement.  They urge a ‘shift’ towards ministry which is more holistic, comprehensive, inclusive, accommodating to both attractional and missional models and intentional about reaching those on the margins.  Wegner and Magruder want people to catch a big vision of what God is doing, his overarching story of redemption and the global scope of the Kingdom of God.

In part two, ‘Central Shifts,’ they turn their attention to activating the local church for Mission. They discuss the priority of relationships over organizational structures, the need for focus, the need to establish transformational partnerships, the movement from relief to a development model of ministry, and the movement from professional ministry (clergy) to full participation in ministry (every member).  I think this is the most important and helpful section of the book. Macgruder and Wegner talk about how Granger Community Church has changed the way they do ministry as they have sought partnerships on the margins (and among indigenous churches). By choosing a development model and forming a ‘transformational partnership,’ Granger has been able to empower those on the margins while offering appropriate assistance and resources (often in the form of training). This has helped guard against an unhealthy paternalism and dependence. If you seek to do ministry among the marginalized in your city or community, you have to wrestle with the dynamics . Granger has faced and Wegner and MacGruder are good guides here.

In the final section, they address ‘decenterized shifts’–motivating and activating all God’s people for Mission in all their various spheres of influence.  They advocate  providing a less formal leadership (they propose a ‘fractal model’ of leadership which allows creativity and initiative at all levels). They also emphasize Christianity’s potential as a movement (rather than institution) and explore how thinking ‘micro’ can help you become more missional (not small groups, but micro mission groups). Wegner and Macgruder believe that the local church can support its membership as they engage their work, their neighborhood and world. In order for a church to be ‘missional,’ members and not just leaders need to catch the vision. What Wegner and Macgruder advocate here is what happens when the church catches a vision for mission to their community.

This book doesn’t say much that is ‘new’ but it does a good job of synthesizing much of the missional conversation (Alan Hirsch, who wrote the forward, is the most often quoted or footnoted author in the text). I appreciated hearing from Wegner and Macgruder how this works out at Granger Community Church. I think that ministers, ministry teams and church planters would find a lot of useful stuff here.  However this is really a book by practitioners for practitioners. If you are interested in a theological framework for mission than this book will be disappointing. Ross Hastings’s Missional God, Missional Church (IVP 2012) or Chris Wright’s The Mission of God  (IVP, 2006) do a better job of surveying the theological conversation and Biblical material (respectively). Still this is a valuable contribution, especially for showcasing how missional concepts work out in a particular context. This book gets my recommendation.

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