Transform Your City by Putting on Christian Conferences: a book review.

Mac Pier is the founder and CEO of the New York City Leadership Center. In that capacity he also helped found the inaugural Movement Day conference in New York City (in cooperation with Tim Keller’s Redeemer City to City and the Concerts of Prayer Greater New York). The conference was a gathering of missional leaders in New York, to cast vison and strategize together which later helped the Evangelical community have a tangible effect on the city.

In A Disruptive Gospel, Pier  shares his passion for disrupting cities and transforpier_disruptivegospel_wSpine.inddming them with the gospel of Jesus Christ. He tells the story of his ministry in New York City, the formation of the first Movement Day and how the fruit of that endeavor led to an impact on the city through service with organizations like  Cityserve New York. Pier also shares the story of Movement Day Dallas and how it led to initiatives welcoming Millennials into the church and greater racial reconciliation among the churches. After discussing these American cities he examines similar movements around the globe  (places like Manila, Mumbai, Chennai, Dubai, Singapore, Port-au-Prince, Pretoria and Kigali, London, Gothenburg and Berlin).

Several convictions guide Pier’s work and analysis. First, following Rodney Stark and Wayne Meeks, he believes cities are strategic centers for mission and the proliferation of the gospel(43-44). Second, the thinking behind the inter-church gatherings like Movement Day stem from a convictions that “the vibrancy of the gospel in any city is proportionate to the depth of relationship and visible unity between [Christian] leaders in that same city”(53). Third, Pier operates on the premise that whenever there is a new move of God, anywhere, God raises up leaders to lead that movement.

This book suffers from the range of cities which Pier  attempts to cover—thirteen  different cities. The book is only 236 pages, so Pier, by necessity,  speaks in broad generalities.  I learned about some cool gatherings around the world of missional leaders, and Pier boils each chapter to a couple of pages of “what [each] story teaches us.” But the overall effect is pretty vague. There is not much here in the way of practical strategy.

I  also have questions about Pier’s premise that mission and ministry begins with the leaders and influencers, instead of the marginalized, the little and the least. Leadership is valuable, but you can gather Christian and marketplace leaders and still fail to intersect the needs of the poor. When I read here about how New York city leaders endeavored to respond to the needs of Port-Au-Prince through organizations like World Vision (170), I think of the reality on the ground and how well meaning Americans and large organizations often fail to meet the tangible needs of Haitians. (To be fair, Haitian church leaders were also included in their vision casting, and I personally support World Vision for their thoughtful approach to mission and relief work). Pier’s approach feels too top down to me. Perhaps this is effective and they are making a real impact, but the sparse details makes me skeptical.

However, I do appreciate the focus on cities and there are initiatives, city-wide actions and missional ventures that are worth getting excited about. I just didn’t feel like I got enough of the details. I give this book two-and-a-half stars. ★★½

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

Praying to the Spirit: a prayer book review

I’ve become quite the fan of Jack Levison. I’ve read a couple of his books, Fresh Air and Forty Days with the Holy Spirit [as I write this review, Fresh Air  and Forty Days are both only $1.99 on Amazon!].  Fresh Air is the popular level version of his scholarly tome Filled with the Spirit. Forty Days with the Holy Spirit is a daily devotional with scripture, devotions, space for reflection and prayer. I find his writing both insightful and personally, spiritually enriching. Reading Levison I’ve been blessed with a greater understanding and a deeper experience of the Spirit. His newest book, Holy Spirit I Pray is a book of fifty prayers, which invites readers to  pray to Spirit.

Holy Spirit I Pray by Jack Levison

In his introduction, Levison writes, “A book of prayers to the Holy Spirit, even a slender one is an oddity. While they probably exist, I know of no others. In a modest way this book is unprecedented” (introduction, p.5).  Nevertheless, Levison notes the long tradition of addressing the Spirit in prayer (i.e. liturgical prayers, prayers of Christian saints like Hildegaard of Bingen, or the Cappadocians). So while books of this kind are somewhat novel, praying the prayers in this volume, is joining in the chorus of Christian tradition.

The fifty prayers in this volume are composed by Levison. Each is paired with a relevant Bible passage. These are presented without comment or reflection. Instead Levison uses his introduction to unfold several  concepts to help orient readers toward prayer: the meaning of ruach (Hebrew for Spirit, wind breath), the nature of the Spirit’s filling, and the Spirit’s eagle-like-brooding (vii-xi). These are important concepts which Levison explores more in-depth elsewhere. What he says here is brief, but explicates what you need to know to fully appreciated his prayer-metaphors and the connections he makes. Continue reading Praying to the Spirit: a prayer book review

Calling Partners For Youth Ministry & Beyond: a book review

I have been a part of an effective youth ministry team. I was not the pastoral leader but a team member, so I wasn’t responsible for creating and building the team, but it was great. We met together, did retreats together and did team building exercises.We called ourselves the ‘Youth Support Team’ (insert your favorite jock strap/bra joke here, we made them all). As the Youth Support Team (YST) we planned our weekly youth worship service, we mentored, we prayed with and for kids and planned special events. On a whole, we did effective and fruitful ministry together. I have been part of youth ministry before and since when finding an adequate ministry team was difficult and appreciate resources for building teams.

These days I don’t directly work with youth, but as a solo senior pastor in a small church I am invested in seeing the youth of my church thrive. Mark Devries and Nate Stratman of Ministry Architects have written Building Your Volunteer Team to help youth ministers raise up volunteers for their church. The book is a 30-day Change project for youth ministry and DeVries and Stratman guarantee that if their program is followed, it will build your volunteer team.

DeVries and Stratman organize tasks for each day to help youth leaders to approach recruitment systematically. Much of what they give you to do amounts to calling and follow-up with people in an organized way. The goal isn’t just to get new warm bodies into youth ministry to serve, but to build a team where people are serving in their gifts and passions (the right people on the bus). DeVries augment the practical steps with instructions for prayer partners and weekly sabbath days (AKA reflection days).

Each week begins with a ‘balcony day,’–a day to set the agenda for the week, and ends with a day reflecting on the process. The idea is to approach ministry recruitment systematically, thoughtfully and to follow through for  a month. If you do that, DeVries and Stratman claim that the results are assured.

Because this is a book about ‘recruitment’ more than it is a book about youth ministry, much of what DeVries and Stratman say is applicable to building a volunteer team for any ministry. They offer lots of practical advice and because this is an organized approach, there are practical steps here that will be helpful to leaders. I also appreciate the places where DeVries and Stratman help retool our thinking about raising up volunteers. For example, day three talks about how we are not aiming at getting ‘helpers’ who will jump in where needed, but partners who take ownership in ministry. They also share other phrases to strike from our vocabulary:

  • “It’s just easier to do it myself” (56).
  • “I Called but they Haven’t called me back yet” (59).
  • “I don’t know anyone else!” (62).
  • “What do I say on my fourth message?” (65).

But most of this book isn’t about attitude and vocabulary, it is about working the steps: creating lists of names, calling potential volunteers, interviewing past volunteers, creating documents, organizing, recruiting, crafting a team. The chief value of DeVries and Stratman’s book is how practical and hands on they are.

When I look at the possibility of applying this book to building a youth team for our church, I am not exactly sure how well it will work for our context. I think a lot of their suggestions work better in a mid-to-large congregation. My congregation is less than sixty and predominantly older. I feel like I would have to do some reworking to follow their steps verbatim. But I did gain a practical approach to raising up volunteers and will be looking at how to implement their suggestions faithfully in my context. Team ministry is the way to go and if this book can help get us there, that is great. I give this book four stars: ★★★★

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

We Cry Freedom: a book review

If God is good, live fully, love boldly and fear nothing because all is grace.

Rick McKinley’s The Answer to Our Cry explores what real freedom is. If you grew up in Sunday School or have imbibed your share of Christian publishing, you know ‘the answer to our cry’ is probably Jesus (♪♫Jesus is the answer for the world today♪). Well that is part right. McKinley leads us through a mediation on how ‘freedom comes only when we are attracted to the communion between the Father, Son and Spirit (15).  You see, God, as Trinity, is the one being free from any need or obligation:

The Triune God is entirely free in himself as Father, Son and Spirit; They are happily united and fulfilled by their own communion within their own being. . . .They created everything seen and unseen so that we can share what they have. That’s just how good God is. (27)

The human experience of freedom is always within bounds. Freedom without boundaries, would lead us to death (like when a man jumps off a building or cheats on his wife).  McKinley argues that for freedom to be sustained it needs a form, and that form is relationship. Thankfully God has made a way for us, in Jesus, to share in the life and relationship of the Triune God. This allows for the fullest expression of sustainable human freedom.

So the answer to our cry (for freedom) is the Triune God, but our example of what real human freedom looks like is Jesus (yay!  Sunday School answer still works!).  Like Jesus, McKinley says Jesus:

  • Lived Fully–because he came from the Father, the Giver of Life
  • Loved Boldly–exemplified especially by his life poured out on the cross for our freedom
  • Feared Nothing–because no power on earth could shake him (28)

And So McKinley exhorts us also to live fully, love boldly and fear nothing. This book explores the nature of what the Christian life is, and can be. McKinley draws on trinitarian theology (recommending Michael Reeve’s Delighting the Trinity)(157). This book is the gospel reexplained and examined in trinitarian terms. It is theological–exploring the themes of God’s love and justice but it is also pastorally sensitive.

I am an occasional listener to the Imago Dei podcast (the church McKinley pastors) and have read a coupe of McKinley’s previous books (This Beautiful Mess and The Advent Conspiracy). I like McKinley’s conversational communication style and appreciate how substantive he is (a rarity for famous pastors).  I would say that this book is deeper than his early volumes, but not necessarily a compelling read. McKinley lays his thesis out early and spends the rest of his chapters expanding the theme. All and all great stuff, but repetitive in places. I give it four stars.

Notice of material connection: I received this book free from the publisher for this honest review.

Style and Substance: thoughts on ministry and mission

This is probably a little random. But as my blog is titled thoughts, prayers and songs, i thought I’d do a little thinking out loud over here. Feel free to opine.

I’ve been thinking about style and substance lately. Style was the subject of the so-called ‘worship wars.’ As churches in the 80’s and 90’s fought over hymns or praise songs, seeker sensitive mega churches sought to downplay anything that seemed too churchy. This was an effort to help the de-churched overcome their religious baggage. Because of this, the face of the contemporary church in America has radically changed in our lifetime. There are a few traditionalists and there has been some recovery of older music, liturgy and symbol, but for the most part, ‘worship style’ corresponds to our own personal preferences. “Style” is a consumer category. We like liturgy the way we like American Eagle, tattoos and interesting facial hair.

Sometimes substance is pitted against style. When we encounter worship services which are too ‘glitzy’ for our tastes, we dismiss them as shallow, that is, ‘lacking in substance.’ Often we don’t really have a theological complaint, it just didn’t do anything for us. We are more tuned into  our personal sense of style than we are to substance. This doesn’t stop us from dismissing the substance of the type of worship experience we don’t like. Most of  the churches we ‘don’t like’ are just ‘not our style.’

Every worship service has a style, and a substance–a ‘mode’ and a ‘message.’  These too things are not at odds. If we want to reach our neighborhoods and communities, we need to speak the gospel (our ‘substance’) in the idiom of the people (‘style’). If you fail to consider the ‘style’ of worship in your gathering, who it includes and who it excludes, than you are off mission. We need a style that reveals the Kingdom and invites people into life with Christ.  If we are too concerned about appealing to the masses that the gospel isn’t central to all we say or do, than we lost the plot and we are wasting our time. Loving God and loving our neighbor is the substance and style of all we do in ministry.

If I was forced to choose, I’d say that ‘substance’ is more important than ‘style.’ But style and substance are not easily divided. When you consider how formational Christian worship is than you consider the intimate link between worship style and the substance of a particular gathering. A charismatic believer raising her hand in praise is formed differently than an Anglican who rises for God’s word and kneels for confession. Our liturgies help us apprehend and enter deeper into our life with God. They also frame our ways of approaching Him. One ‘stylistic question’ we need to ask is, “what is the ‘substance’ of what we wish to live into?”

This may seem heady and abstract, but I guess what I am arguing for is for us to be thoughtful about the link between our beliefs and practices. We can’t just say that style, modes of practice and technique don’t matter because it is through these that we embody our faith. It is also through these practices that faith seeps into our bones. Negatively, our own stylistic prejudices can contribute to our spiritual malformation. If we don’t attend a church that practices confession because we are uncomfortable with how vulnerable it makes us, than we never experience what God has for us through the practice (i.e., freedom, community).  We need to be aware of where our personal preferences (style) and what it obscures.

What do you think the relationship between style and substance is in the Christian life? 

Prototype: a book review

Jonathan Martin is a pastor of a church with a trendy name (Renovatus) which ministers to people on the margins in Charlotte, North Carolina. He has a great head of hair, tells poignant stories of his own spiritual journey and those of his faith community. He cries a lot for kind of a big guy, quotes all the right books and likes all the right music (i.e. Bob Dylan, U2, Bruce Springsteen, etc.). These are all the sort of things that should make me suspicious. But then I found myself really enjoying his new book Prototype: What Happens When You’re More Like Jesus Than You Think.

Prototype: What Happens When You Are More Like Jesus Than You Think by Jonathan Martin

The underlying premise of Prototype is that believing in Jesus means being like Jesus. Not a new concept right? But this isn’t just a WWJD-knock-off. Martin argues that Jesus, the prototype of the new humanity, came to show us how to be really human. That means getting in touch with our true selves and not operating out of our fractured identity. Jesus is our exemplar and following him means discovering what we were meant to be.

Prototype begins with two stories. The first story comes from Mark 5 where Jesus heals the Gerasene demoniac who said his name was Legion. Martin observes that this fractured man who had been bound in chains and lived naked among the tombs did not frighten the Gerasenes.  Nor were they afraid when their pigs rushed over a cliff. The frightening thing for them was seeing this man fully clothed and his  right mind (Mark 5:15). Martin observes:

In a world where self-destructive behavior has become commonplace, the most frightening scenario may not be a global apocalypse. Perhaps the most startling thing to see is someone whom we have come to expect to be as fragmented, fractured and self-destructive as we are, transformed into the epitome of sanity, peace, and purpose (5).

The second story which frames this book is a story about Martin himself. He talks about how as a fearful and anxious child (raised on Pentecostal apocalyptic literature and movies),  he experienced freedom from his anxiety during the countless hours he rode his blue-and-silver Schwinn bike around his cul-de-sac. While riding he made up stories, talked to himself and felt free. As an adult, Martin was praying with one of his friends who pictured  the boy Martin riding his bike, talking to himself, making up stories and alive with freedom and creativity. Martin had not told his friend about his childhood bike riding, but six months later when Martin was on a bike the image arrested him and he felt the intensity of God’s overwhelming love for him in the same way he experienced that freedom and life as a child.

In the pages that follow Martin unfolds our true identity in Christ–our belovedness. He talks about how God shows us who we are in the obscurity of the wilderness and  how God’s love can pour through our wounds and bring healing to others.  He talks about the nature of doubt and faith (using Thomas’s hopeful doubting from John 20). And he paints a picture of community in all its wonderful, aggravating glory. He weaves together Biblical reflections with personal anecdotes and stories of those in his church.

I loved this book. Martin comes from a Pentecostal heritage and his reflections are amenable for Charismatic Christians.  However this is a little more substantive than books you will find in the Charismatic section of your Family Christian Bookstore. Martin is a graduate from Duke Divinity and his book is peppered with references to Stanley Hauerwas, Herbert McCabe, Henri Nouwen, Frederick Buechner and Eugene Peterson. Yes, Martin reads my favorite authors [note: I haven’t actually read anything from Herbert McCabe: he is my favorite author I haven’t read].  But the theological depth he brings to his prose is unobtrusive because mostly Martin is just a  good storyteller. You find yourself drawn-in by his humour and grace.  So this is a great read which will challenge you and help you discover your identity and calling in Christ.  I was personally encouraged by Martin’s chapter on “Obscurity” which is where I feel like I’m living right now.

On the ministry side:  I liked what I learned about his church and their vision for ministry and will likely look for more from Martin and Renovatus.  His great hair still makes me suspicious. I give this book 4.5 stars!

Thank you to Tyndale Momentum for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for this honest review.

Pastors in Relationship: a ★★★★★ book review

Ministry is relational. This seems like a no-brainer; yet as ministers we often fail to nurture relationships.  We focus on  preaching and teaching and fill our time with other tasks. When we do “relational ministry” we are often seeking to expand our own influence (or the church’s influence) in our communities. For example, “friendship evangelism” or “incarnational ministry” are ways of using relationships to accomplish something rather than enjoy relationships for their own sake.

The Relational Pastor: Sharing in Christ by Sharing in Ourselves by Andrew Root

The Relational Pastor points to a different way of ministry which is relational, theologically-grounded and respectful of personhood. Andrew Root is associate professor of youth and family at Lutheran Seminary and the author of The Children of Divorce, The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry and Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry.  In The Relational Pastor,  he widens his audience to address all pastors (not just youth pastors).  I think this is a great book and its message excites me.  Root offers a robust view of relationships, rooted in place. He commends a mode (not a model) of ministry which attends to personhood and participates in the life of God and other persons through the Incarnation.  If you are a pastor or in ministry, you need to read this book!

I know people just looking for a recommendation don’t  read overlong reviews online, so I am telling you upfront this is a ★★★★★ review and I am adding it to my essential ministry bibliography.  Below is a detailed walk through the sections of the book(the headings below are my own) and  some of the insights I find most helpful. [ If you skip down to the end, I’ll give you my thoughts on why this book is so valuable].

Where We Are

Root begins his book by riffing off of  Jeremy Rifkin’s The Empathetic Civilization (Penguin, 2009).  Rifkin argued that when societies shift to new forms of energy,  a new social consciousness is born. Root draws out the pastoral implications of Rifkin’s theory. In the hunter-gatherer era, ministers were the cosmic storytellers. In the agricultural transition, we see the birth of the priesthood, and religion was ‘the proprietor of civilization’ (30). The first industrial revolution (steam and coal) saw  ministry as ‘perpetuating and protecting a way of life (33).’ Often pastoral ministry in this period was blended with nationalism.

The shift to electric and managed oil energy has given birth to the model of ministry which has dominated in the latter part of the twentieth century. In this era, ministry is seen through the lens of programs of intervention ( 38) and the pastor has become the entrepreneurial manager and self-help entertainer. This period has focused on ministry to individuals and meeting individual needs.

Root (with Rifkin) believes we are on the precipice of a new energy shift which paves the way for some major rethinking.  Root urges a shift away from individualism, and managerial models of ministry towards relationships and personhood. Certainly the Emergent Church movement has raised a similar critique of late modernity. The buzzwords of relationship and community abound in their writings. What Root provides here is more constructive and theologically robust view of “what relationships are and how they mediate the mystery of God’s very presence” (43).

From Individuals to Personhood

One of the hallmarks of individualism is that we each act with our own self interest in mind.  Ministry in the oil regime (the era of individualism) leads us to concentrate on entertainment and a self-help message as we pander to the interests and wants of individual congregants (48-51).   Furthermore, individualism results in the objectification of other people (51).  People are either useful to us to achieve our own ends or they represent an impediment. This poisons relationships and means the best we can hope for where individualism reigns supreme is a ‘you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours agreement” (53).

And yet we long for connection–to see and be seen–and to participate in the lives of those around us . Root argues that persons are their relationships and we understand ourselves through our connection to other people and God (62-3). This means that pastoral ministry (as it is being recast) has less to do with the functions of ministry and more to do with the pastor responding to God’s call to ‘open her or his spirit up to the spirit of the flock’ (68). This doesn’t negate pastoral tasks (i.e. preaching, ministering the sacraments, evangelism, etc.),  but the functional wants of our job should not crowd out ‘the personal.’

Root argues that personhood is defined by mutual indwelling (remember we are our relationships). How do we indwell one another?  We indwell by acting with and for the other (76),  through communication (79),  through sharing in embodied and spiritual realities because people are embodied-spirits (81-6), and by entering into the brokenness of another (86).

Empathy and Incarnation

Root explicates this mutual indwelling by exploring empathy and the implications of the Incarnation for personhood. The language of empathy is borrowed from Rifkin (The Empathic Civilization) and represents a response  to the call towards indwelling  by our responding to the brokenness of the other. In the era of self-help entertainer, feelings were avoided or managed and manipulated. However in this emerging era, empathetic sharing values the mutual sharing of feelings. Ultimately our ability to share in the suffering of others is the Spirit’s work not our own.

The Incarnation provides the theological basis for relational ministry, our ability to indwell one another and share in God’s life. Root describes the hypostatic union (that Christ was fully God and fully human) as the ground for our personhood and mutual indwelling. In his Incarnation, Jesus shared in our humanity and we share in the Godhead. This means that through Christ real relationship with God and one another is possible. The implications of this are far reaching.

In the modern era, the incarnation is often spoken of as God’s ‘means’ for affecting influence over us. When pastors, and ministers appropriate the language of ‘Incarnation,’ they also tend to mean ‘living with people in order to influence them towards salvation.’  Root critiques this by saying that the incarnation is not a method or technique employed by God (or anyone else) to get His way. Rather the Incarnation describes God’s sharing of Himself with us. The Incarnation is not a technique but an  outpouring of Godself and invitation to share in his life. We do not appropriate the incarnation as a technique but respond to God’s self revelation in Christ, discover our own personhood and invite others to share with us.

What Does This Look Like

In Root’s final chapters he brings home what this looks like (or could look like). This isn’t a ‘how-to’ section or a model (relationships are not static models).  Root argues that one logical consequence of the incarnation and our embodiment is that relational ministry involves carving out and curating a space for mutual sharing. A pastor leads as ‘a person.’ She or he does not manipulate others into ‘sharing life’ but invites them into a deeper relationship with God and one another. This means seeing congregants as persons and not annoyances, obstacles, or assets.  It also involves corporate expressions of prayer and modelling storytelling. This has implications for liturgy and for preaching.

Final Thoughts

This is the most helpful and best ministry book I’ve read in awhile. There is a lot to chew on here.  I think that more theological reflection needs to be done in terms of our personhood and what mutual indwelling means. A  lot of what Root says dovetails nicely with some of the insights of Trinitarian Theology and Ecclesiology (Zizioulas comes to mind). I loved the emphasis on the Incarnation and how that undergirds personhood and the role of pastor.  Root’s re-tooling of the pastoral role as creating and curating a place for mutual indwelling and person-sharing seems fundamentally correct and true to my experience. I want to incorporate more of his insights on prayer, place and story-sharing.

I really appreciated his critique of  “Incarnational Ministry.” As someone shaped in ministry by the influence of the  Missional Church and development organizations like CCDA, I recognize my own tendency to turn Incarnation into a technique or a strategy to gain influence. Root critiques this by positing that the Incarnation isn’t something ‘we do’ but something done by God in Christ which enables real relationship and sharing of personhood to flourish.

I found Root an interesting author. He likes the same TV shows and movies I do, he reads some of the same books to his kids and shares interesting stories about his family and his friends in pastoral ministry.  I felt like he shared himself in this book, not in a narcissistic self-absorbed way, but in a way which invites me (the reader) to share myself more and participate in what God is doing in our midst.

Finally I respect that Root doesn’t turn “relational ministry” into a technique like “Friendship Evangelism” or “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” Ultimately he describes personhood, mutual indwelling and relationship as the Spirit’s work and a gift. Pastors still have a crucial function, but they don’t “make relationships” or “make stuff happen.” Their job is to pay attention, to act on behalf of the other, to communicate themselves, to respond to the brokenness of the other, and to pay attention to what God is doing in the midst of His persons. This is absolutely fantastic and should inspire some re-thinking (re-feeling?) of how ministry needs to happen.

Thank you to InterVarsity Press for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. Now go and get it.