Death Bed Evangelism: a book review

Evangelism has fallen on hard times. There are reasons for this. Good Christians do not want to come across as judgmental. There is a widespread reaction to ‘bad evangelism’ where non-Christians were beat over the head with insensitive witnessing attempts. This is particularly true of evangelism to the dying. Are people ever more vulnerable than in the hours and days they rage against the dying of light? Is it manipulative for Christ followers to hoist their ideas of God and salvation on a bedridden soul who can’t escape their pitch? On the other hand, Christians believe that our eternal destiny is bound up with our response to Jesus. If we don’t tell people about Jesus we’ve failed to love well and to hold out the hope of heaven for the dying. So many of us ‘bad evangelists’ vacillate between our discomfort with evangelistic methods and feelings of shame for our failure to ‘evangelize.’

Thankfully Melody Rossi does not advocate manipulative dehumanizing strategies. Nor does she make us feel guilty for not sharing our faith. In Sharing Christ with the Dying: Bringing Hope to Those Near the End of Life she discusses how to make the most of every opportunity to share the hope that is within us. This is no abstract exercise.  Having recovered from a near-fatal surgical error herself, she also has walked along side others suffering serious illness, the suffering and the dying. This includes a family friend and her parents (mother, father and step-mom) and discovering ways to share her faith in gentle ways. This book is full of insights from her own experience.

Rossi also has a lot of practical advice. Ministry to the dying is hard. She talks about the need for adequate support networks, reliance on the Holy Spirit, attentiveness and  the importance of helping people with their emergency information (i.e. Will, emergency info etc). Loving the dying is hard work, and those who are watching a parent, a child or a loved one dye will find Rossi’s words encouraging. She does not give us a formula for evangelism but shares how she shared with each of her parents the love of Christ in ways that were meaningful to them.

It is refreshing reading an Evangelism book which is not manipulative but also dispenses practical advice on how to love well. If you have loved ones suffering and are unsure how to share your faith, Rossi is a good guide. But she will not give you a formula on how to bring your loved ones to faith. In each case she learned how to respond to what God was doing and tailored her evangelism. I give this book four stars.

Thank you to Bethany House for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

I Want to Go Deeper :: a book review

I long for a deeper spiritual life. Perhaps you do to. It can be so easy to just go through the motions and take things as the come without delving below the surface, but when we are able to tap into something deeper–to connect with God at our core and live out of that center–we sense we were created for more. A new resource for Bethany House Publishers and author Daniel Henderson, helps us dig a little deeper and become who were were meant to be in Christ. The Deeper Life is designed to lead people into self reflection and renewal.

Henderson Identifies ‘eight vital longings’ in each of us and helps us press into each for spiritual renewal. These longings are: (1) to know God, (2) to know yourself, (3) to know your purpose, (4) to clarify your values, (5) to set priorities, (6) to have goals, (7) to manage time, (8) to manage time.  Admittedly I have difficulty in seeing some of these as ‘deep longings.’ I remember Larry Crabb saying in Inside Out that we have to two deep longings: to be loved and accepted, and we long for significance. Henderson’s longings are really just an explication of that. What he says about God and self discovery (longing one and two) lead us to reflect on our identity and acceptance in Christ. The rest of the book (longings three to eight) helps us press into producing something of significance.

I appreciate many of the things Henderson says here, but the value of this book is the ‘part two’ of the book. Henderson has a section titled ‘Discovery exercises’ which reflect on each of these deep longings. Walking through these exercises are valuable and helpful for clarifying direction and discovering what really matters for your life. There are also thirteen appendixes which reflect on deep longings. At the end of the book is a ‘Deep Life Summary’ which is a worksheet for the reader to fill out after completing the exercises.

These exercises and reflections are valuable. New Christians and college students will find this helpful. But this is also a self-help type book which would be helpful for those in a vocational crisis.  I took the time to reflect on each section and it led to a deeper understanding of myself and my life as well as provided some strategies for living. I give this book four stars: ★★★★.

Thank you to Bethany House for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Dealing With the Problem Children of God: a book review

The church is full of difficult people. Often they don’t mean to be divisive, but pastors have to navigate power plays from lay leaders or other people opposed to the minister’s ministry philosophy. Differences in theological convictions can lead to mistrust and questioning of pastoral motives. Sometimes lay leaders have convictions about how to deal strongly with sin in the congregation without seeing the full picture that the pastor sees in confidential counseling sessions. This often means that when ‘dragons’ act to nip a problem in the bud,  they cause undue hurt and consternation. Author Marshall Shelley calls these problem people, “Well-intentioned Dragons.” After all they aren’t trying to make life hell for those around them, but the end up causing much pastoral anxiety.

Ministering to Problem People in the Church helps pastors diagnosis problem people, set appropriate boundaries, create a culture of active lay participation and healthy leadership and confront these ‘dragons’ where necessary. Ministering to Problem People in the Church was originally published as Well-Intentioned Dragons. I actually read the earlier edition of this book and found it helpful of understanding the dynamics of fallen people in church. New to this edition was a chapter on electronic communication which gives pastors some principles for communicating well in a world of texts, email and social media (and not compounding problems!). Also Shelley has a chapter on dealing with those struggling with mental illness in the church, which is sensitive to the dynamics of treatment and affirms the full personhood of those who struggle without demonizing them.

I think Shelley’s shorthand of ‘well-intentioned dragons’ for difficult congregants is problematic (these are fellow image-bearers not mythical beasts) but he offers sound advice on how to navigate troubled waters. Despite the shorthand label, he advocates attempt to approach dragons with respect and understanding, sensitive to their past wounds. He also doesn’t think we are in the business of slaying dragons, but of winning them back to the body of Christ (following Matthew 18). So despite the nomenclature, Shelley humanizes God’s problem children in the church.

Another concern one might have while reading this book is, ‘what if the pastor is the the problem?” Spiritual abuse and clergy misconduct are real issues but that is beyond the scope of this book. Shelley assumes that the pastor is attempting to lead God’s people well. I would hate for abusive pastors to label all their opponents as ‘dragons’ as a way of silencing them, but that would be to ignore most of Shelley’s advice. But if you assume that this book is written to help pastors lead healthy congregations (which it was), and follow Shelley’s advice for creating a healthy leadership culture, their is little cause for concern here.

Pastors and ministry leaders will find  in Shelley’s helpful advice for shepherding God’s people, especially when they find themselves at loggerheads with those they seek to lead. This will be much more helpful to the ministry practitioner (its intended audience) than the general reader. I give this book four stars.

Thank you to Bethany House Publishers for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

 

 

Extreme Missions?: a book review

When I read the introduction of Dangerous by Caleb Bislow, I thought I was going to dislike this book. He talks about dirt-bikes and extreme sports and living a risky Christian life. I was afraid that this was just another version of testosterone-infused faith.  I didn’t feel like reading another ‘tough guy’ talk about the need to reach out to people with an MMA level intensity.  Thankfully, there was more to it than that.  Bislow does talk about danger and living a ‘risky’ Christian life, but he isn’t describing risk for the sake of risk (even if he is a bit of a daredevil).  Being ‘dangerous’ is about reaching out and engaging people in places where no one else is willing to go–the dark, dangerous, despised places. Bislow describes this as the ’13th floor,’ referencing both the places we avoid (many high-rises do not have a 13th floor) and Hebrew 13:13 which says, “Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore.”

Bislow issues the challenge to go to the unreached, the broken, the war-torn, the sick and the dying.  His desire is to shake us free from our complacency. He wants us to have a Christianity that is more like William Wallace than Fred Rogers.  And he has experiences that testify to the sort of risky witness he’s advocating. The book is chock-full of stories of places he’s taken profound risks in sharing the love of Jesus with others.  Many of these are abroad on mission in Africa. But you do not need to go abroad to take gospel-sized risks. He also has stories of evangelism and service at home.

There are several things I like about Bislow’s approach. He runs a missions training program in Nebraska called Stranded where he strands people in the wilderness in teams, recruits local farmers to play the part of a harassing tribe and helps missions-minded people begin to take some personal risks which parallel some of the dangers they’ll face abroad.  It is sort of like Survivor but no one gets voted off the island. Secondly, I like that Bislow comes across as a regular guy. He shares about places he’s taken profound risk (i.e. sharing the gospel in villages where they beat the last evangelist who came to town); yet he also shares how fearful he was at the prospect. This isn’t a book about how courageous he is, it is about how faithful God when we take risks in faith. Third, I appreciate that he upholds the need for evangelism and social-justice. He wants us to share our faith, but he also wants us to serve the outcast, the broken and downtrodden.

There are things I could criticize about this book. As I heard story after story of missional encounters in different settings, I wondered if Bislow’s approach was more hit-and-run evangelism, than long-standing-commitment to a particular place.  Moving from dangerous place to dangerous place, is exhilarating and exciting.  Standing with people for the long haul is hard, mundane and, sometimes, boring.  Sometimes standing up for the vulnerable and committing to a people and a place looks more like Mr. Rogers (the late ordained Presbyterian minister who dedicated his life to advocating and nurturing children) than it does William Wallace. I like what he says about risk, but had questions about other aspects of his approach.

But this book is not the sort of book that is designed to impart a vision for ministry in the shape of Caleb Bislow’s ministry. This a book that is designed to challenge others to step out and do something. Questions about ministry approach are important, but these questions can also be excuses for in-action (i.e. I don’t like his approach, so I won’t do anything).  I think the prime message about stepping out and going ‘outside the camp’ to share the love of Christ with others, is a commission any follower of Christ needs to hear and act upon. This is the kind of book that you give to high school graduates and college students who you are  encouraging to stake their lives on what really matters. To that end, I recommend the book. There are still too many Braveheart quotes and extreme sports analogies for my taste. I give it 3.5 stars.

Thank you to Bethany House for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

 

Doing Good is my Middle Name: a book review.

Peter Greer is no stranger to doing good. As president and CEO of HOPE International, he has invested his life in addressing both physical and spiritual poverty through microfinance. However he also knows the shadow side which can accompany good doing. When people give their life in service through activism, missions or ministry, they may end up serving from the wrong center. Some serve to earn salvation. Some give their life to a cause to prove their own worth. The Christian response should be to serve out of a response of overflowing gratitude for all Christ has done on our behalf. Unfortunately, we often louse that up and end up casting more shadow than light.

In The Spiritual Danger of Doing Good Greer shares his own journey  of ways he’s ‘done good’ but from the wrong motivation. At one point he devoted his life to ministry but ended up giving ‘leftovers’ his wife and family. He had bought into a sort of Christian Karma which declared if ‘I do this for God, God will do (fill in the blank for me). He has used the wrong measuring stick in defining success and has compared himself to others.  The lessons he’s learned along the way help us be aware of where our ministry might have slid into the danger zone.

Greer shares lots of stories of where ‘doing good’ can be dangerous for our souls. He isn’t trying to talk us out of doing good, but to examine our internal motivations. So he turns over the idea of ‘doing good’ and points to the places of possible danger.  We’ve all heard the stories of the Christian leader who blows up and blows it. Greer gets us to examine our own hearts in action before our own life falls off the rails.  The fact that he does it with humor and grace is an added bonus. 

Much of the advice in this book is practical good advice like: have friends you are accountable to, listen to feedback, being authentic and humble, don’t take photos of nursing gorillas or tell a room full of ministry supporters that you welcome them with open legs (a language error, in case you were wondering). These should be obvious and basic. Unfortunately life in ministry can sometimes reflexively fall into the category of ‘doing important tasks’ without doing the hard work of self reflection which should accompany ministry. Greer’s book provides a good diagnostic tool for Christian ministers. 

I enjoyed this book and give it four stars. It is a good read for active minded people who like to ‘get involved’ in ‘helping others.’ Greer’s recommendations will help us do that from a healthier place. 

Thanks to Bethany House for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. 

A Resource For Overcoming Temptation: a book review

We all struggle with temptation and fall victim to our bad choices. Arnie Cole of Back to the Bible and  journalist Michael Ross have teamed up to help us overcome our sin. Following up on their previous book, Unstuck, Cole and Ross  examine the anatomy of temptation and the areas we each struggle with.  As director of the Center for Biblical Engagement, Cole has conducted  surveys on more than 100,000 people on the areas of temptation and spiritual growth. In the pages of Tempted, Tested, True: A Proven Path to Overcoming Soul-Robbing Choices they share the findings of their research, share stories of co-strugglers and offer a biblical remedy for temptation.

Tempted, Tested, True: A Proven Path to Overcoming Temptation by Arnie Cole and Michael Ross

Cole and Ross market Tempted, Tested True as two books in one:

(1) A faith-building guide filled with practical solutions

(2) A personal and small-group workbook (19).

Each of the ten chapters concludes with the workbook section called  ‘a nudge’. The ‘nudges’ are loosely correlated to the chapter material so it is possible to do the workbook independent of reading. For the purposes of this review, I read the chapter material and skimmed the workbook. However I do plan to go back through the workbook exercises more in-depth because  they will be helpful to me (though the table of contents does not tell you the page numbers for the nudge sections)

What I liked best about this book was the tone. This is a book dealing with sin and temptation but it is also gracious. Cole and Ross are fellow strugglers and they open up about this along the way and profile a number of other people. In fact several other writers contributed to chapters of this book, including: Theresa Cox, David Barshinger, Pamela Ovwigho, Kelly Combs, Sue Cameron, Deidra Riggs and Michelle DeRusha.

Their gracious look at temptation eschews easy answers and quick-fix solutions. The  contributors have each pursued personal holiness, sometimes at personal cost.  They have all experienced forgiveness and freedom but they also know how their sin has hurt the ones they loved. Some also have had to set up boundaries to protect themselves from other people’s sin (i.e. Kelly’s Story in chapter six, shares how her mother’s addiction and manipulation made it impossible to remain in relationship with her).  Despite the difficulties faced, Ross and Cole and company hold out the possibility of freedom in Christ.

This book is thoughtfully put together. The research basis for this book means that Cole and Ross do not simply spout off what they think women or men struggle with. Instead they speak empirically of what men and women have really struggled with and they guard from oversimplifying issues.  Their objectivity makes this a useful book for Christians of different theological persuasions.

However I found this book limited in a couple of respects. Cole and Ross speak to where people feel tempted and to issues that besiege  Christians. Yet a full-bodied treatment of sin has to go beyond the realm of felt-temptation. The biggest sins are not always lust, anger or addictions, there are sins of omission as well. One of the biggest sins in our churches is our failure to care about the world around us by reaching out with tangible love. To put it another way, James 1:27 says, “True religion is to care for widows and orphans and to keep yourself from corruption.” Tempted, Tested, True does a great job of helping us keep ourselves from corruption, but says little to encourage us towards active care of widows and orphans. To do the one without the other, is still sin.

On a related note, this book focuses on individual,  personal sins but does not explore the complementary theme of social, and institutional evils.  Following Jesus calls us to stand against injustice and oppression. This is what brought Jesus into conflict with the religious leaders in his own day. Remember how the Pharisees had their own personal code of holy living but ‘devoured widows houses’? (Mark 12:40).  Let me clear, I think personal sins should not be glossed over and we need to pursue personal holiness. However our discussion of sin should  be cognizant of social sin as well.

It is not that a book has to say everything.  I think this book does a great job of articulating its theme. I just feel that you could put into practice the principles in this book and still fall short of all that God intends for your life.  The way of  Jesus is more radical than a personal means of transformation and behavior modification. Jesus is alive and that changes everything.  That being said I think that this book can and should be read for benefit.  Understanding the nature of temptation and how to stand up under it is a noteworthy goal.

I think this book is a good aid for personal study or discussion. I give it 3.5 stars.

Thank you to Bethany House for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.