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.

Change is Possible! a book review

So you want to start a revolution? Yeah, we all want to change the world. Ministers, activists, non-profits, NGOs, world-relief organizations all have a vested interest in making the world a better place. We all want to change the world. The question is what we can do to bring about transformation and lasting change to a hurting world?

Stephen Bauman is president and CEO of World Relief and has devoted years of his life to bringing about transformation to the two-thirds world. To this end, he considers his African friends his most important teachers (he and his wife Belinda six years serving at-risk communities in West Africa). He has seen the ravages of war, poverty and violence and yet he is hopeful. Though we live in hard times, God has given us a part in changing the world through Christ. So if you want to start a reformation, Bauman has a blueprint about how to go about it in Possible.

The four chapters of part one explore our call to change the world. Bauman argues that the world suffers because of a crisis of vision, not a crisis of will (6). People really do want to help and give their life for a cause but old methods and approaches don’t work.  Bauman urges us to change the world through clear vision and thoughtful action (9), and a sense of urgency to address the problems of our age. In chapter two he explores change from the periphery. Recounting biblical, historical and contemporary examples, Bauman demonstrates that this is where change happens:

Shifting our expectations from the center to the periphery is essential if we are going to seize our moment in history.  If we remain fixated on ourselves or on the “important” people. we will miss the reformation among us, the groundswell of unlikely people–some who have been written off as victims as incapable, or–worse–as unworthy (26).

Chapters three  and four zero in our personal calling. helps us take up our unique destiny and mission to bring meaningful change to the world.

In part two,  Bauman helps us reframe the problem. Chapter five discusses ‘six impossibilities’–things that keep us from pursuing the possibility of real lasting change. Two significant orientations defeat us: the belief of some atheists, that faith does more harm than good and the belief that we can not do good without God.  Bauman acknowledges that injustice has been done in God’s name through the centuries, but calls believers to act in accordance to God’s nature (75-76). While non-believers can certainly do good through common grace,  Bauman argues that God and goodness are inextricably linked whether the do-good-er acknowledges it or not (79-80). Bauman encourages us to pursue justice, the eradication of poverty and suffering by treating it by seeing them as symptomatic of the larger problem: broken relationship (83). Bauman argues that “when we reframe the fundamental conundrums in the world as relational rather than problems requiring projects, we begin to see the need for the seismic shift [in our approach]”(84).

Chapter six explores the anatomy of heart change. Bauman pictures a tree: the roots of the tree are our beliefs, the trunk our values, the branches and leaves our behavior, and the fruit our results (90). Bauman says that what we believe to be true about our world, determines our values, which determines our behavior, which effects our results: Beliefs→Values→Behavior→Results. Thus Bauman argues that change begins with changing our beliefs, so scriptural meditation is key to getting us to act in ways that welcome God’s kingdom. This also gives a vital role to teachers in effecting lasting, change.  In chapter seven, Bauman pushes us to spark genuine, relational and heart change.

Part three is a practical look at how to bring change to community. Chapters eight gives advice on creating a vision for change within your organization. Chapter nine talks about our need to be changed as we work for change. Chapter ten talks about how hope is essential to the change process.  This is followed by an afterword and two appendixes which help readers to think practically about the nature of change.

Despite its depth, this is an easy read. My summary doesn’t do justice to Bauman’s passion that his personal stories convey. He has a lot of wisdom and inspiration for those of us who care about change.. Bauman inspired me and gave me good insights on how to lead the process of change in my role as a pastor. I give this five stars and highly recommend it.

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

Pastors Prepare For What’s Next!: a book review

I am at the beginning of a pastoral succession process. The church I start leading on Sunday, has had a pastor for the past twelve-and-a-half years who is loved by the church and the wider community. This is a woman who has networked, started ministries which reach out to the community and has prayerfully led the church through difficult circumstances. She has a heart for racial justice, community outreach and mission. She leaves this position to focus more in these areas and she will still be part of the church family.

I am the ‘noob.’ I care about many of the same things as the previous pastor and want to see the church impact the wider community but am still at the beginning of learning how to lead a church. I want to do that well. So I read Next: Pastoral Succession That Works with interest hoping to garner whatever kind of wisdom it had for me at this moment in my pastoral career. Authors William Vanderbloemen and Warren Bird have years of experience in helping church leaders lead effectively. In  this book, they research successions that work, successions that fail and how church boards and pastoral leaders can plan for a good succession process.

This book wasn’t written directly to me, but for out-going pastors, search committees and elder boards to help them think ahead. Vanderbloemen and Bird noticed that many successful pastors stay in their role past their prime, with no real plan of succession. As a result, the church looses momentum and when the inevitable switch happens it falls off mission and loses membership. They suggest intentionality about the succession process. After all, every pastoral position (or really any position) is temporary. All pastors are interim pastors who steward the church for a term, and they should be thoughtful about how to prepare the way for their successor.

Because Vanderbloemen and Bird base their findings on qualitative research, this book is full of stories of the succession process at various different kinds of churches (both glorious successes and epic failures). They observe that some of the best succession stories happen when churches groom someone from their staff or membership to take the place of the out-going pastor. This makes sense to me, though I think large mega-churches are more likely to have the pool to draw on for this sort of succession (and I am kind of glad the church I was hired at didn’t follow that route).  Also, they speak highly of father-son successions without any worry about nepotism (i.e. Joel Osteen is one of their ‘success’ stories).

However, they do not have a formula ‘one-right-way’ approach. They assert that if God is in it, successions will work. Three pieces of salient advice I found helpful were: (1) intentionality about the succession process-especially in the first 100 days, (2) help from the out-going senior pastor, (3) new pastor honoring their successor and the church’s past.

I think churches will benefit from reading this book, especially when they are in the midst of a search process. Vanderbloemen and Bird talk about the intentional, good sort of succession, but they also address succession problems when a leader unexpectedly dies, has a moral failure or resigns early. A board with proper foresight can plan for every contingency. Vanderbloemen and Bird suggest creating a succession plan and revisiting annually.

At times I disagreed with their pragmatic bent. They seemed to  measure the success of a succession in terms of congregational attendance.  Organizations go through ebbs and flows and I think a church that shrinks from thousands to hundred when the new pastor comes but is more faithful to the gospel, has had a successful succession even if their metrics do not bear this out. God can be in apparent failures too. This doesn’t mean that new pastors should not strive to bring in new sheep and to bear fruit in their ministry. It means that the picture of what it means to be a good, and faithful pastoral servant is more complicated than the picture that Vanderbloemen and Bird suggest.

But practical advice is important and I think that this book will be read with benefit. My own case is not the typical succession and I am blessed to have the input of the previous pastor, a good and faithful servant, mentor and friend. I give it four stars: ★★★★

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

The Theology, Theory and Practice of Leadership: a book review

I am sometimes critical of leadership books, as a category. I have zero credibility in this critique. I keep reading leadership books and I do recognize their value. What I dislike is the way that many Christians appropriate business leadership principles uncritically (and then write books about it). The marketplace has its own telos and so the practices of business leadership do not necessarily map directly onto leadership in a Christian context. There is overlap, but there are also differing concerns and objectives. Organizational Leadership: Foundations and Practices for Christians does a phenomenal job of synthesizing the best insights from leadership literature. As a multi-author project (under the editorial eyes of John S. Burns (who contributes three chapters), John R. Shoup (who co-writes two chapters), and Donald C. Simmons Jr, this book is remarkably cohesive in its vision and execution. This book is not just a practical manual but puts leadership in a larger theological frame.

The three sections of Organizational Leadership describe Christian leaderships theological foundations (part 1), its theoretical foundations (part 2) and the practices and skills appropriate for leadership (part 3). Part one consists of three chapters.In Chapter one Timothy Dolan describes the ‘call of the leader’ placing leadership within the framework of God’s call to serve the church and the world. He also examines the essential characteristics of Christian leadership (character and integrity, self awareness and self discipline, people skills and spiritual maturity. Gayne Anacker and John Shoup explore the relationship between Christian leadership and worldview in chapter two. They observe that a peculiar Christian understanding of the world has a direct impact on any leadership that can be called Christian. In Chapter three, Rick Langer suggests a biblical theology of leadership through examining the common and different types of leadership found in the Bible. Langer gives weight to the concept of leadership in the Bible to fulfill God’s purposes with his people; however, he does allow for plurality of leadership practice.

Chapter four and five comprise section two of Organizational Leadership and are both written by John Burns. In chapter four Burns examines the ‘leadership river’ and describes the historic emergence of Leadership Theory. This takes us on a journey of understanding of leadership from power and ‘Divine Right’ models, to Industrial and post industrial models where the understanding of leadership moves from management and ‘best practices’ to a ‘transformational understanding.’ Christian leadership builds on the insights of the ‘leadership schools’ that went before, but the purpose of Christian leadership is different from secular understandings. Burns gives this working definition of Christian Leadership, “Christian Leadership facilitates the transforming and sanctifying journey of individuals and organizations from X¹ to X² in both material and spiritual ways (119).” Chapter five looks at Christian Leadership in the ‘sea of complexity’ and draws on the insights of quantum physics and chaos theory, to help leaders think systemically about their leadership and leadership processes. This section delves deeper into thinking about leadership, but Burns is always careful to ground this within a Christian framework.

Section three delves into practical considerations. In chapter six, Ronald Pyle explores the dynamics of (good) communication. In chapter seven, Burns talks about the skill of conflict resolution and negotiation. Shoup and Chris McHorney examine the central significance of decision making for leadership in chapter eight. In chapter nine, Scott Rodin explores the importance of financial integrity in leadership. Finally Dolan (who wrote the first chapter) closes the book by describing the practices which will sustain Christian leaders for the long haul (i.e. Sabbath, mentoring, spiritual direction, etc).

This is not a fluffy leadership book written by motivational speakers and mega-church pastors. This book has substance and any Christian leader will find their thinking challenged and enlarged by enaging seriously with the book. This would be a great book for pastors, ministry leaders and students. It may be more academic, in places, than popular leadership books generally are, but it is helpful for setting Christian leadership in the larger scheme of  the Kingdom of God.

Nevertheless I see two small limitations to this book. First, every contributor to this volume is male, white, and has a career teaching in higher education (at a college or graduate level).  The remarkable cohesiveness of this volume is great, but I could help but wonder if a person of color, a woman, a grassroots leader would round out the picture of Christian leadership as something more than just a WASP-y enterprise. Second, the list of issues and skills are not exhaustive. I appreciated Rodin’s chapter on financial integrity in leadership, but I have see Christian leaders fall from moral failures as well. Dolan, Anacker, Shoup and Langer all point out the importance of the ‘character’ of a leader, but perhaps there could be more space to unpack character formation of leaders.

These limitations withstanding, I found this an engaging read which wrestled with the concept of Christian leadership and the issues leaders face. I give this book four stars. ★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received this book from IVP in exchange for my honest review.

Leading With Your Style: a book review

There are two problems with many leadership models. Some are simplistic and formulaic, presenting a one-size-fits-all approach. Other authors on leadership list too many  ‘leadership qualities’ to be of much practical use to someone seeking to sharpen their leadership (Think John Maxwell’s 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, Al Mohler’s twenty-five qualities of a leader in Conviction to Lead or Mark Cuban’s 50 Qualities of a Successful Leader)David Olson’s new book promises an approach to leadership which is simple enough to be useful for leaders, but deep enough to be worthwhile. Simple does not need to mean simplistic!

Discovering Your Leadership Styleapproaches the topic of Christian leadership as a three-legged stool. The legs of the stool are Spirituality ( our relationship with God), Chemistry (our ability to connect with others) and Strategy (fulfilling the mission of God). Leadership is the ‘seat of the stool’–where these three legs are integrated and put to use by each leader.  An free online assessment at sixstyles.org  accompanies the book, allowing readers to identify their strong leg, their intermediate leg and their weakest leg. The unique combination of strengths, has allowed Olson to uncover six leadership styles which he explores in the book.  There are additional reports and team resources available for purchase at sixstyles.org.

The six leadership styles are: (1) the Sacred Leader who is strong in Spirituality with an intermediate leg of Chemistry,  (2) the Relational Leader with a strong leg of Chemistry and an intermediate leg of Spirituality, (3) the Inspirational Leader strong in Chemistry and intermediate in Strategy, (4) the Building Leader strong in Strategy and intermediate in Chemistry, (5) the Mission Leader strongest in Strategy, second in Spirituality, and (6) the Imaginative Leader who is strongest in Spirituality and whose second leg is strategy. Olson’s purpose is not to present a leadership hierarchy, but to honor the unique makeup of different types of leaders. There is a correlation between leadership styles and personality (like Myers-Briggs) or other resources (i.e. Strength Finders, spiritual gift inventories, etc); however leadership style isn’t reduced to a set of gifts or personality. Olson explores the needs, desires, the gifts and the blind spots inherent in each of the leadership styles.

Olson is a religious researcher, church-planting leader and a leadership coach who serves the Evangelical Covenant Church. Part of my own interest in this book, is I have been seeking a pastoral role in that denomination and was eager to see what he had to say. Admittedly the book was a slow-burn for me. I am not sure what I thought of the assessment tool. I took the 48 question test twice and came up with the same results (although as a much stronger leader the second time around). I am a relational leader. As I read that profile I certainly identify with much of it, but I find it odd that an assessment like this would name ‘strategy’ as my weakest leg when Gallup’s Strength Finders names Strategy (and several other elements from the thinking domain) as my greatest strength. I think I agree with Olson’s assessment but because of my unique shape,  I defy his categories a little bit. I also am wary of short online assessments for naming ‘who I am’ as a leader. Reading through the profiles I did see elements of my leadership in other profiles,  but I am not quite a ‘balanced leader’ by Olson’s definition (a leader who scores 60% or above in each category). I can see areas of growth, and the gifts I bring to the leader’s task.

Despite not fitting his profile to a ‘t’ I found Olson’s research interesting and helpful. I think that this would be a great book for Church leadership teams to use because Olson illustrates well how different leadership styles complement each other. He also encourages leaders to develop in all three areas (their strength their weakness and their intermediate strength). Jesus provides the quintessential model of the balanced leader. I give this book four-and-a-half stars

★★★★½

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

The Storified Missional Revolutionary Leader: a book review

One of the biggest buzzword in the Christian publishing world is ‘story.’ There are countless books which help us connect our stories to God’s story of redemption as described in the Old & New Testaments. Evangelistic books tell us how to ‘share the story.’ Self-help books alá Don Miller which commend to us a purposeful, exciting story of a life (read Miller’s Million Miles in a Thousand Years or attend his Storified conference). There is the Hauerwasian indictment of those of us in post-Enlightenment late modernity, “As people who have no story except the story we had when we thought we had no story.” There are narrative approaches to ethics, preaching, theology, personal finance, etc. Who doesn’t love a good story?

There are other popular buzzwords out there: missional, revolution, leadership, life. Henriët Schapelhouman has managed to write a book with all of these key terms: The Story Lives: Leading a Missional Revolution.  Schapelhouman has a masters in global leadership from Fuller Theological Seminary and is the founder and president of Semper Vita Institute, a complany which utilizes Myers-Briggs and Strength Finders to help buisness leaders ‘discover and develop their personal wiring.’ Besides her current professional ventures, she draws on twenty years of experience as a ministry leader.

In The Story Lives, Schapelhouman weaves together her own story and other contemporary real-life stories with God’s story. She is theologically rooted. She also wants to help people to thrive doing some serious good in the manner that God has wired us, to connect in community, to live a meaningful life, to partner with others for the greater good, to lead well (helping others thrive in their story), and to tell our story in a way that invites people into a deeper more meaningful life.

This is a book which is one part personal growth, and one part ministry/mission minded.  Occasionally I wondered who the intended audience of this book is. Sometimes Schapelhouman seems to be addressing a broad, Christian audience. At other times, she hones in on those in leadership (especially in the last  couple chapters). I appreciated Schapelhouman’s ability to draw people into a deeper faith, and more ‘missional engagement’ with the people in the neighborhood. My favorite part was her chapter on partnering between churches and non-profits serving the community (see chapter eight).

This book is solid, but was not a ‘game-changer’ for me. Schapelhouman says many great things which accord with other writers on the missional  church; yet she does it well so I commend her book. Schapelhouman will help you live a compelling (missional) story. I kidded above about the ‘buzz words’ but I think that she does a masterful job of encouraging us toward a more inviting and nourishing spiritual life. There is great stuff here! Her ‘revolution’ is less about a ‘call to arms’ than it is about changing our comfortable life to a risky faith which dares to care for others (she even tells a story about her son working to share his paycheck with a homeless couple challenged her own lack of faith and commitment. I found my self challenged and compelled well reading this book. I give it four stars. ★★★★

Notice of material connection I received this book from the publisher or author via Speakeasy 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.