Welcome to the online home of Tim Challies, blogger, author, and book reviewer.

Tim Challies

Challies on FacebookChallies on Twitter

church

10 months 1 week ago

You may love him, you may hate him, but you’ve definitely heard of him and you’ve undoubtedly got an opinion about him. Mark Driscoll is pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, co-founder of the Acts 29 Network, and the author of several bestselling books. The newest of these books may well prove the most controversial. A Call to Resurgence poses this question: Will Christianity have a funeral or a future? This is a book about the past, the present and the future of the Christian faith, particularly in the United States of America.

The fact is, Christendom is dead. The Christian faith that once existed in the background of American life and culture has diminished to such an extent that America is now a post-Christian nation. “Christians are ostracized. Gay marriage is celebrated. Abortion is literally destroying an entire generation. The bandwagon has stopped carrying us and has started running over us.” This is happening all around us, yet many Christians remain oblivious. “The church is dying, and no one is noticing because we’re wasting time criticizing rather than evangelizing.”

But, says Driscoll, this is not the time to debate. This is not a time for retreat but for resurgence. “We’ve got work to do. There are lost people to reach, churches to plant, and nations to evangelize. Hell is hot, forever is a long time, and it’s our turn to stop making a dent and start making a difference. This is no time to trade in boots for flip-flops. The days are darker, which means our resolve must be stronger and our convictions clearer.” “This book is an unflinching look at what we’re up against and what it will take to not just survive but to thrive and accomplish the mission God has given us to extend a hand of rescue to those drowning all around us.”

Driscoll believes he has been providentially situated to help the church in this time. He has spent the last twenty years of his life pastoring a church in the mission field of Seattle and believes that what was once unique to that city is now true of the entire nation. “I am convinced,” he says, “that what my church has seen become normative in our city will soon become normative elsewhere. The tsunami of cultural change hit our beach first, which puts us in a position to help others learn from our fruit and our failure. Maybe our little church plant was like Noah’s dove, sent to explore the landscape of a new world.” Thus he regards A Call to Resurgence as a kind of prophetic book through which he can lead the church in her response to these new realities.

An Overview

Let me give a flying overview of the book to show how he builds his case and what he proposes as a solution. I will then share a few of my observations.

In chapter two, titled “Standing Knockout: How We Got Our Bell Rung,” he provides a brief history of evangelicalism. He traces its decline to Christians happily existing by themselves in their own little enclaves without seriously engaging the world, without earnestly evangelizing, and with far too much bickering with other Christians. He looks at some of the cultural forces that have pummelled Christianity with a series of hits: New Paganism, homosexuality, pornography, intolerant tolerance, bad dads, and cheap Christians.

Chapter three is titled “A New Reality: From Modernism to Everythingism to Tribalism.” With a nod to Seth Godin, he shows how tribalism is now more prominent than denominationalism and describes some of the common tribal commitments within Christianity. He highlights four questions and shows how Christian tribes may be distinguished by their answers to these questions.

  • Are you Reformed or Arminian?
  • Are you complementarian or egalitarian?
  • Are you continuationist or cessationist?
  • Are you missional or fundamental?

He then builds profiles based on the possible answers. So, if you are Reformed, complementarian, cessationist and fundamentalist, “you probably like Together for the Gospel, the Gospel Coalition, Nine Marks, R.C. Sproul, reading books by dead guys, expository preachers who wear suits and have bad bands at their services, and wish this book had more footnotes and fewer jokes.” Driscoll himself is a tribal chief within the Reformed, complementarian, continuationist and missional tribe. “You probably have an occasional bad attitude, tattoo, impressive theological library and liquor cabinet, ESV Study Bible, entire collection of the latest indie rock, flannel shorts, and boots for no reason as you do zero logging.”

While tribalism is an unfortunate reality to life in a sinful world, it also represents a great danger to the church because it tempts us to fight one another instead of fighting for gospel advance. For Christians to continue to make a mark in this world, we need to avoid the extremes of “theological hard conservatism (which fights for too much) and theological hard liberalism (which fights for too little).”

Chapter 4 explores how tribes can hold to their convictions and still work together. He provides a picture based on geography.

  • Your local church is your home;
  • churches you partner with are your neighborhood;
  • the tribe you identify with most closely is your state;
  • the tribes most like yours are regions within a nation;
  • and “Bible-believing, Jesus-loving, sin-repenting, Kingdom-serving Christianity” is the nation.

So for Driscoll, Mars Hill is his home; like-minded churches are his neighborhood; the distinctives of Reformed, complementarian, continuationist and missional form the borders of his state; his region is other evangelical churches that love Jesus, believe the Bible and are led by Bible preaching; and Protestant Christianity is his nation. He can and will work with anyone inside that nation, even when there is loving disagreement on issues like Arminianism, egalitarianism, cessationism, and/or fundamentalism.

Of course for this to be effective, there needs to be agreement on the “national boundaries,” the doctrines that unite us by separating true believers and true churches from those that are fraudulent or outright heretical. Here Driscoll puts forth thirteen theses, each of which has to do with a specific doctrine.

Chapter 5 is titled “The Holy Spirit: Empowering the Church For Mission.” Driscoll is convicted about maintaining the unity of the Spirit and believes that unity of the Spirit requires unity about the Spirit. He provides a brief theology of the Holy Spirit that is consistent with his continuationist convictions. He affirms the existence of the miraculous gifts and gives a fair bit of attention to speaking in tongues, acknowledging the validity of this gift, but saying he does not have it. The main focus of the chapter, though, is giving attention to the Spirit’s role in empowering evangelism and bringing about conversion. He says, “Any truly Spirit-empowered ministry is not marked primarily by private spiritual experience but rather by the public proclamation of the gospel that leads to the salvation of sinners.”

Chapter 6 deals with “Repentance: A Biblical Response.” Here he revisits the cultural issues that have rung the church’s bell (see chapter two) and suggests how we can repent of these, not simply admitting our faults, but making real and lasting changes. In every case, Christians can go to the Bible and learn how we can stand out from the world around us.

The seventh and final chapter, “Mission,” offers seven principles for resurgence. “As we seek to encourage the preaching of the gospel for, the planting of churches by, and the discipling of the Gentiles of our day, there are some missiological principles that have proved helpful in Seattle.” He warns that these are principles, not methods, and provides a stern warning against “methodolatry.” They are:

  1. Preach the Word. The primacy of preaching.
  2. Love the Church. The centrality of the local church and the special importance of cities.
  3. Contend and contextualize. Be willing to contextualize the Christian faith without tampering with it.
  4. Be attractional and missional. Every church needs to be cautiously attractional with a commitment to being missional.
  5. Receive, reject, redeem. Cultural engagement involves three options: receiving some, rejecting some, redeeming the rest.
  6. Consider the common good. Do good to the people around you and not only the Christians and not only to those who receive your acts of love with immediate joy.
  7. Evangelize through suffering. The cultural shift away from Christianity necessarily entails future suffering; be prepared to use such suffering as a platform to share the gospel.

He closes the book with one more call to see before us an unprecedented opportunity for mission. “Christendom may have died, but in that death there is a real opportunity for a resurgence of biblically faithful, personally humble, evangelistically fruitful, missional Christianity.”

Observations

There is much to agree with and to commend in A Call to Resurgence.

I appreciate his desire to waken a slumbering church. We are, indeed, in a new age and Christianity’s influence has clearly waned. What we once took for granted, what we once assumed, we no longer can. Too many Christians have missed this great shift in society as they’ve remained safe inside their holy huddles. Driscoll’s desire to see the saved awakened so we can see the lost saved is commendable. I appreciate his clear and bold calls to action.

I appreciate his emphasis on tribalism. While I hope we eventually come up with better terminology than “tribe,” I agree that denominations are fading in favor of less formal and more fluid relationships built on common commitments to secondary matters. I believe this tribalism is a product of this new, digital world. Whether it is a good or bad development will have to be a topic for another day.

I appreciate his desire to promote gospel agreement and gospel advance between tribes. We are bound by Scripture and conscience to hold to our convictions, but we also need to understand that secondary convictions must never become primary. We are always fighting the tendency to flee into our safe little enclaves and to be defined more by what separates us than what unites us. There are ways in which we can and must cross boundaries in order to help one another as we carry out our God-given mission.

These are just a handful of the many commendable qualities of A Call to Resurgence. I also have a few concerns, but will dwell on the two most prominent.

I am concerned about his criteria. Driscoll calls for Christians to work together despite their tribal loyalties. Because there are tribes that are opposed to the gospel, we need to consider the ones we can work with and the ones we cannot. Here Driscoll provides seven black-and-white issues that must be in place for a tribe to be considered evangelical:

  • the Bible as God’s perfect and authoritative Word;
  • one God in three persons (Trinity);
  • human sinfulness by nature and by choice;
  • Jesus as fully God and fully man who lived without sin, died in our place for our sins, and rose from the dead;
  • salvation bestowed by the grace of God when a sinner turns from sin and trusts in Jesus alone through faith alone;
  • new birth through the Holy Spirit;
  • eternal heaven for believers and eternal hell for unbelievers.

I believe these criteria are too broad. Sound theology demands nuance, and that nuance is missing in these broad descriptions. Defining Trinity as “one God in three persons” still permits error and outright heresy. It is noteworthy that Driscoll’s list of Christian tribal leaders includes Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, Paula White, Joseph Prince, and T.D. Jakes (whom he has met and commends as a humble, Christian leader). I am not familiar with all of these people, but am comfortable stating that at least Joel Osteen and T.D. Jakes are false teachers who teach blatant, damnable error. Yet they would also, I believe, affirm the criteria he sets. T.D. Jakes can adhere to the heresy of modalism and still affirm that he believes in one God in three persons.

The criteria Driscoll uses to distinguish true from false Christians are simply insufficient. Either they need to be expanded, or we need an accompanying list of denials to go along with the affirmations. Any methodology that rates the difference between John MacArthur and Joel Osteen or R.C. Sproul and T.D. Jakes as a secondary issue between brothers is more than a little troublesome.

I am concerned with too little emphasis on discernment. I am concerned that A Call to Resurgence quietly commends those who run quickly to the pursuit of unity and quietly condemns those who hold back in an attempt to exercise cautious discernment. I have often observed that we are prone to criticize those who are careful and cautious discerners far more than we criticize those who pursue a reckless unity. Unity is a glorious quality and one we need to pursue, but we must not do so at the expense of discernment. And maybe we saw a glimpse of this in Driscoll’s actions last week, appearing at the Strange Fire conference—sponsored by John MacArthur and opposing charismatic theology—and passing out his own book there before commenting on social media that his books had been confiscated (something the evidence seemingly contradicts). His calls for maturity and unity appear to clash with his own actions.

Holding these two concerns together, I genuinely appreciate Driscoll’s desire to have Christians work with others beyond their tribe, but I believe he errs too far in the other direction and neglects to call out some false teachers and neglects to give clear criteria that will allow us to do so. His desire for unity is commendable, but even while we reach across the aisle to some we will need to be willing to unflinchingly reject and condemn others. I can hardly overemphasize the danger that may come here. I believe wholly in the value and necessity of working across tribal lines, but we must never do this at the expense of the primary doctrinal issues of the Christian faith.

Conclusion

A Call to Resurgence appears to find Mark Driscoll in a kind of transition. He has gained a lot of authority and notoriety in a relatively thin slice of the Christian world. It seems that he is now assuming leadership of a different kind, widening his scope to speak to all evangelicals. If they listen, they will hear much that is good and valuable and much that will spur them to greater action. Unfortunately, A Call to Resurgence could have been a much stronger book had Driscoll given more attention to careful discernment and the necessity of committing equally to truth and love.

(Note: This review was prepared using an Advance Reader Copy provided by the publisher; they warn that content may not be final.)

1 year 3 weeks ago

Pressure can be an amazingly destructive force. When pressure builds up inside the earth’s crust, it can result in a devastating earthquake. But pressure can also be beneficial. We would not have running water with it; neither would be able to enjoy the beauty of diamonds. Pressure, with its possibilities of benefit or destruction, is the metaphor at the heart of a new book by J.D. Payne.

Pressure Points lays out twelve of the global issues shaping the face of the church today, which is to say, twelve of the global issues that already are, and will continue to, impact the advancement of the gospel in the twenty-first century. Christians do not get to choose the issues that we must respond to or adapt to; however, we are able to choose how we will respond to them. Each of these issues represents a pressure point and with each point comes the possibility of success or failure, of responding well or responding poorly. Payne says, “While the church does not have control over the macro-level contextual issues of each generation, her response to them is a matter of kingdom stewardship.”

While we have seen many books like this in the past—books that describe contemporary challenges to Christianity’s advance—Pressure Points stands out in its positive tone. This is not a lament for what was or what should be. It is not a complaint about current realities. It is simply a realistic assessment of ways the world is changing and the new realities it presents. Payne believes the church’s best days are ahead and that each of these pressure points represents a great opportunity for the gospel.

Here are a few of the issues he identifies:

  • unreached people groups
  • the West as a mission field
  • pluralism
  • globalization
  • international migration
  • oral learners
  • pornification of societies

In each case he describes the issue, explains how it challenges the church, and offers a few thoughts on how the church can face the issue well. While none of the issues will have equal urgency in every place and every context, at least a few of them will apply to your church and to mine. Here in Toronto we see massive international migration, we see the effects of globalization, we see the importance of cities, and we cannot deny the impact of the pornification of society.

If there are weaknesses in the book, they may be related to the cursory examination of each of the issues. Because this is meant to be only a short book, Payne can not go into great detail on any single issue, though each could easily merit a book of its own. Also, he at times seems to blur “professed Christians,” of which there may be 2 billion on earth, with true disciples of Christ of which there are obviously far, far fewer. One of the greatest and most difficult mission fields of all is those who profess Christ and yet are committed to a false and unsaving gospel.

I found this a helpful examination of current issues and an encouraging look at the issues that will either help or hinder gospel advance in the years to come.

1 year 8 months ago
I enjoy reading thematically—following a certain theme through a variety of books. Recently I noticed that some of today’s most popular Christian mega-pastor authors had released new books and I thought I’d work my way through that list. The list includes new titles by Francis Chan, Matt Chandler, Mark Driscoll, James MacDonald and David Platt. Not surprisingly, the books and their authors are all tightly connected. Driscoll and MacDonald endorse Chandler’s book; Chandler and Driscoll return the favor in MacDonald’s Vertical Church. Chan’s book has a foreword by Platt and Platt’s book has a foreword by Chan. And so on.

Having reviewed MacDonald’s Vertical Church, I turned my attention to Chandler’s Creature of the Word (co-authored with Josh Patterson and Eric Geiger). Written primarily for pastors and church leaders, but applicable to all Christians, this is a book that looks to gospel-centrality, a very popular theme today. It calls Christians to “view the essence of the gospel as the foundation for all of ministry.” After all, there is a huge difference between “knowing the gospel and being consumed by the gospel, being defined by the gospel, and being driven by the gospel.” Chandler wants the reader to “start a fresh journey into the heart of the gospel, prepared to be newly amazed by it, resolved to let its principles begin shaping how our churches worship, serve, and operate.”

Rather than focusing on the individual, he focuses on the gospel in the local church, calling the church “a Creature of the Word.” “Yes, a Creature. She is alive. A living, breathing movement of God’s people redeemed and placed together in a collective community. But she is not alive in her own doing. She has been made alive by the Word. God spoke her into existence through the declaration of the gospel—His righteousness on our behalf.”

The book is divided into two parts. In the first half Chandler looks at what the gospel does to the hearts of people, to their relationships, and how they understand their position and purpose. He shows that this Creature worships, forms community, serves, and multiplies. In the second half he shows what a Jesus-centered church culture looks like, how it is formed and how it is sustained.

Creature of the Word is a good book—a really good book. I enjoyed it from beginning to end and benefited from reading it. Having said that, it is not a book with a lot of original thought, but one that helpfully collects the best of what others have written about being gospel-centered and presents it to a new audience. Those who have done a lot of reading will probably find that they recognize the inspirations in many of the chapters. So, for example, a chapter on ministry to children and teens has Chandler channeling Tedd Tripp and William Farley (though he refers to him as Chris Farley. The thought of Chris Farley paraphrasing a Thomas Chalmers sermon titled “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection” is pretty funny). And this is well and good. Those men have done great work on the importance of the gospel in parenting and there isn’t a compelling reason to attempt to write something new and original.

The strongest chapter, at least in my assessment, is “Jesus-Centered Flower Committee.” The tongue-in-cheek title is meant to communicate that every ministry in a church can, and ought to, relate to the gospel. “One way to know how deeply the gospel is being woven into the culture of your church is to continually check the small details for gospel proof. If there is gospel absence in practice, you will know what areas of your theological foundation and ministry philosophy need to be addressed. Instead of finding ‘the devil in the details,’ lead in such a way that they find ‘grace in the details’.”

If there is a weakness in the book, it relates to the author’s insistence upon the “prophet, priest, king” model of leadership. “Some leaders are primarily prophets, uniquely gifted to declare truth. Some leaders are primarily priests, uniquely gifted to shepherd people to wholeness and maturity. And some leaders are primarily kings, specifically gifted to provide clear direction.” While I appreciate how this grid distinguishes different gifts and different forms of leadership, I see it as a grid imposed upon Scripture rather than one that is carefully drawn from Scripture. It goes beyond what Scripture teaches to insist, “All three types of leaders are necessary and essential.” Still, though this grid is present throughout the book’s second half, there is much to learn even without adopting it.

The book’s great strength is Chandler’s careful collecting and distilling of all it means to be gospel-centered in every part of church life. I appreciate his concern that the term gospel can too easily become “a sort of junk drawer that holds any and every piece of our theology. Although the gospel does impact everything, everything is not the gospel.” He avoids falling into the trap of unthinkingly lumping anything and everything under the banner of gospel. The book is also exceptionally well-illustrated, with illustrations that consistently help rather than hinder. 

Creature of the Word powerfully combines theological truth with practical application. I hope and trust that it will find its way into the hands of many church leaders.

3 years 5 months ago
There are some books that find their strength in saying new things—the original thoughts or perspectives we’ve simply never heard before. There are other books that find their strength in saying old things—things we’ve heard before but just need to hear again, whether that’s because of lack of faith or lack of memory or just because every time something is said it’s said in a different way. Jonathan Leeman’s new book Reverberation: How God’s Word Brings Light, Freedom, and Action to His People falls squarely into the latter category for me. I have heard it before. And I desperately needed to hear it again.
 
 

Reverberation is a book about God’s Word. It’s that simple. But maybe it’s not that simple. Churches and Christians are looking all over the place to find a source of light, freedom and action, to find whatever it is that will stir people, fire them up, lead them to do great things. Some try the latest and greatest programs; some work on dynamic small group ministries; some work toward the best worship by the best musicians; some look to justice. In the midst of all these options Leeman sets the Word of God, the one thing Jesus declared to be necessary in the life of the church and the one thing necessary for the growth of the church. While none of these other things are necessarily wrong, none of them can be central; rather, each must flow out of the centrality of the Word.

“One thing is necessary in our churches—hearing God’s Word through preaching, reading, singing, and praying.” When the Word is central it echoes out into all parts of the life of the church. “Picture it this way. The evangelist or preacher open his mouth and utters a word, God’s Word. But the Word doesn’t sound just once. It echoes or reverberates. It reverberates through the church’s music and prayers. It reverberates through the conversations between elders and members, members and guests, older Christians and younger ones. God’s words bounce around the life of the church, like the metal ball in the pinball machine.” But that is not all. It also reverberates into people’s homes and workplaces, their families and neighborhoods, out onto Facebook and blogs and anywhere else these people go. And what Reverberation seeks to do is to follow this path.

And so Leeman follows the Word. He begins with evangelism and the preaching of the gospel where the Word invites and divides, acts, frees and gathers. Then he looks to the sermon which exposes, announces and confronts with the Word. And then he shows how the Word reverberates through singing, prayer, discipleship and more evangelism. So this is not the kind of echo that bounces around and fades into the distance, but the kind of echo that increases and grows, getting louder and more urgent as it reverberates through the church, through the world.

At the end of it all, Leeman has written a book that is not about mechanics or programs, it’s not about how to do church. Instead, it’s about what needs to be at the heart of the church. He simply focuses in on the role of the Word, that central component to all the church is called to be and do. The Word is spoken at the beginning, the Word is spoken centrally, and it echoes throughout the life of the church and throughout the lives of each of its people.

This book is for pastors, teaching them again that the Word must be central and that they are charged to make it central. The centrality of the Word begins with the pulpit and the preaching ministry. But this book is also for laypersons, for those who need to be expecting and demanding the Word from their pastors and who then have the great privilege and responsibility of making it reverberate loud and long.

This is a book I’ve read once so far, but a book I’m convinced I’ll return to again. I needed the refresher this week and I know myself well enough to know that I’ll need it again before long. I think you’d probably do well to get a copy and refresh yourself as well.

3 years 11 months ago
I have received quite a few books about church planting over the past few months. Among the more interesting have been Church Planting Is for Wimps by Mike McKinley and Discovering Church Planting by J.D. Payne. Fresh off the press is Darrin Patrick’s Church Planter: The Man, The Message, The Mission. Patrick is vice president of the Acts29 Church Planting Network and the founding pastor of the Journey Church in St. Louis. From those vantage points he has seen church planting up-close and personal while also assisting and guiding many other pastors as they have sought to plant churches. He is well-qualified to write about this subject. His book comes highly recommended and is endorsed by a long list of notables.

The book’s contents are divided into three sections: The Man, The Message and The Mission (as you may have guessed). In the first part Patrick describes the kind of man God is looking for, saying that he is to be rescued, called, qualified, dependent, skilled, shepherding and determined. This gives a well-rounded understanding of the kind of character that should mark a man who seeks to step out and plant a church. He covers the biblical qualifications as laid out particularly in the pastoral epistles, but he goes further as well, looking to practical considerations along with other spiritual qualifications.

In the second part he looks to the message this man is to dedicate himself to. Here he shows that it is historical, salvation-accomplishing, Christ-centered, sin-exposing and idol-shattering. He largely focuses on the historic Christian truths that the church must affirm and proclaim if it is to be a faithful church. This is a very compressed overview of sound Christian theology.

In the final part he turns to the mission of the church planter. He says that the heart of mission is compassion, that the house of mission is the church, that the how of mission is contextualization, that the hands of mission is care and that the hope of mission is city transformation. I found that this section offered some particularly useful questions and rebukes. For example, Patrick shows how busyness and hurriedness can often be the enemies of compassion; in both cases pastors may inadvertently miss the people amidst all they try to accomplish; they may become very productive even while they lose sight of the importance of shepherding the flock. Near the end of this section he drifts from teaching to narrative, spending a couple of chapters discussing churches within his network more than actually teaching what the Bible says about planting churches.

There are a few things I disagree with along the way. Patrick is one of those self-described Acts29 “Charismatics with a seatbelt” and that measured-but-still-obvious Charismatic bent is visible quite often throughout the book. More notably, the book concludes with a couple of chapters which focus on cities and how the hope of church planting is city transformation. He seems to go so far as to draw a correlation between the resurrection of Jesus and the transformation of cities. As he drifted from teaching to narrative, the book became weaker rather than stronger. Unfortunately this caused the book to end with a fizzle rather than a bang; the best of the book came just a little bit earlier.

Church Planter serves as a church planting boot camp, an introduction to the kind of person God is calling to plant churches, the message this man must preach and the ways in which he must do so. It focuses less on methodology than on calling and qualifications. Patrick’s many years of hard experience both as a planter and as a mentor to pastors give him a valuable perspective—a gritty and battle-scarred perspective. This is not a book full of abstractions and generalizations, but one that is written from the trenches to other men within the trenches. I know it will be a valuable resource to church planters and pastors alike. For those who are seeking to become church planters, it will tell them of the gravity and necessity of what they are doing and help them catch God’s desire for his church; for those who have already planted or who are already pastoring churches, it will renew, refresh, reset and re-challenge.

4 years 4 weeks ago

It is my habit to post some kind of an original article on Monday and then a book review on Tuesday. This week I am going to reverse the order since the book review in some ways feeds into what I would like to say tomorrow. So bear with me.

I have not read too many of John Stott’s books over the years. Still, in writing sermons and writing my own books there have been several times that I’ve relied on his commentaries and have always found them very useful—biblically accurate and full of wise points of application. Of course, I’ve often referred to what may well prove his greatest book, The Cross of Christ and I know of people who were saved after reading his book Basic Christianity (among whom are Derek Thomas). Though Stott had a couple of unfortunate aspects to his ministry (the most notable of which was some sympathy for the doctrine of annihilationism) he is a man who remained faithful to his calling and who served the church well. He is also a man who served the church in what was often a background role, which is to say that time may prove that he had a measure of importance that few people noticed at the time. Then again, in 2005 TIME declared him one of the 100 most influential people in the world, so I suppose someone has noticed.

Just a short time ago Stott announced his retirement from active public ministry. But before he retired he penned a final book, the final of more than 50 he penned in his lifetime. The Radical Disciple draws attention to what he considers to be some of the neglected aspects of our calling as Christians. Why this title? “There are different levels of commitment in the Christian community. Jesus himself illustrated this in what happened to the seeds he describes the parable of the sower. The difference between the seeds lay in the kind of soil which received them. Of the seed sown on rocky soil Jesus said, ‘It had no root.’ … Our common way of avoiding radical discipleship is to be selective: choosing those areas in which commitment suits us and staying away from those areas in which it will be costly. But because Jesus is Lord, we have no right to pick and choose the areas in which we will submit to his authority.” And so in this book he seeks to consider eight characteristics of Christian discipleship that, though they deserve to be taken seriously, are too often neglected.

The areas he focuses on are these: Noncomformity, christlikeness, maturity, creation care, simplicity, balance, dependence and death. Naturally some of these will be a little more controversial than others with simplicity and creation care topping the list, I am sure. In the chapter on creation care he indicates that he believes man-made climate change to be an imminent danger while in the chapter on simplicity he sides with Ron Sider to share a document dealing with issues related to justice, international development and other hot-button topics. Among the strongest chapters, at least in my assessment, are those dealing with maturity (a topic near and dear to my heart) and dependence.

To be honest, there are some ways this book is unremarkable. It has its strengths and its weaknesses, as do all books, but for a title calling people to radical discipleship, it seems that it contains few truly radical ideas. At the same time, I believe it has genuine value; its value comes in who authored it and when he authored it. The book reminds me just a little bit of Jerry Bridge’s Respectabie Sins. In both cases the author is an older man who has seen the church through ups and downs, through good times and bad. Both men have traveled extensively and both have returned with observations. Bridges observed sins that Christians are prone to overlook or sweep aside while Stott observed areas in which Christians are not fulfilling their calling. In both cases, the book would mean a lot less if it was written by an author in his thirties. But with age, with experience, with a long and faithful ministry comes the right to say certain things, to make certain sweeping observations.

Like Bridges, John Stott has had a long and faithful ministry and has earned the right to be heard. He has had the wisdom to know when to retire, when to step aside from public ministry (and seriously, how many men write one book too many and continue on in ministry for too long?). And if a man of Stott’s stature pens a book outlining eight ways in which the church needs to do better, I think we would do well at least to read and consider. Few of us will agree with all eight emphases, I am sure. But all of us would do well to at least think them through and to see if there is a call here that we need to heed. I can testify at least that this book offered challenges to me.

4 years 10 months ago

Unleashing the WordWhen was the last time you read a book about reading? Maybe you have read Adler’s How to Read a Book or another like it. When was the last time you read a book about reading Scripture? Maybe you have read a book about how to do better personal devotions and have found there some ideas about reading Scripture in a more effective way. But when was the last time you read a book about the public reading of Scripture in the worship service? It’s a pretty safe bet that you never have read such a book; only a very few exist. I was excited, then, to see Max McLean’s Unleashing the Word: Rediscovering the Public Reading of Scripture. “I want to help you learn to present the Bible in such a way that your audience can engage the Word with their heart, mind, and soul as they hear it being read aloud,” he says in his introduction. “The goal is ultimately transformation—their lives will be touched and changed, just as the original hearers were.”

If I had read this book a few years ago, it would have rocked my world, I think. It is only since I began attending Grace Fellowship Church that I’ve come to see the value of the public reading of Scripture not as a simple means to an end—a way to get us from the music to the sermon—but as an end in itself. In this church I’ve come to see the reading of Scripture as a core part of the teaching ministry of the church. The Word preaches; the Word is the sermon before the sermon. And if this is true, then we ought to invest effort in reading it well. This can only be the case where the reading of Scripture is given prominence within the worship service and where the person reading is talented and passionate about what he is doing. And this is what I have seen with consistency at my church. So I have seen modeled what McLean is so passionate about and can attest to the great value in treating the reading of Scripture in this way.

McLean teaches what he does under several headings. He first shares a bit of biographical information, telling how he came to know the Lord and, from there, how he came to love to read Scripture. He has, after all, begun a Scripture-reading ministry within his church; he has recorded the whole Bible several times; he has done one-man dramatic presentations of some of the books of the Bible; he continues to do a daily radio show that is nothing but the reading of Scripture. The Bible—the simple reading of the Bible—has been the core of his whole ministry.

Having shared his story, McLean offers very practical guidance on how to begin a Bible-reading ministry within the local church. This is what he wants to see: talented individuals who make it their ministry in the church to participate in the worship service by reading Scripture. His tips range from how stand before a crowd and deliver an effective reading of Scripture to how to prepare a passage to how to breath when nervous to everything in between. He then provides some teaching on how to teach others to participate in this ministry before concluding with some more practical guidance on preparation, delivery and so on. It is in all ways a practical book. I love his vision here and would rejoice to see churches adopting it.

I was not without a couple of concerns when reading the book. The foremost has to do with gender roles within the church. McLean is clear that he considers the reading of Scripture part of the church’s core teaching ministry. At the same time, he considers this a task that can be performed equally by men and women. In fact, most of the examples he offers in the book are of women who participate in this ministry. It seems to me, though, that if this is a teaching ministry within the context of the worship service at a local church, then it would be most consistent with Scripture to have men being the ones who teach through reading. Without knowing McLean’s views on women in ministry, I do wonder if we can have this both ways. This is an issue individual churches would want to ponder before beginning such a ministry.

So much for concerns. Unleashing the Word is narrowly-focused and that is one of its strengths. The book is almost wholly concerned with reading Scripture in worship services. Yes, McLean does dedicate a bit of attention to other contexts (such as public marathon readings of the Bible) but really, his concern is to have Christians rediscover the public reading of Scripture in the worship service and to see it as a core part of the ministry of the local church. And in this I could not agree with him more. I would love to see Christians reading this book and allowing McLean to help them rediscover a most important practice. Buy this one and read it yourself. Then pass it to your pastor and ask him to read it too.

5 years 1 month ago
Those of us who are Western Christians continue to hear reports that the church is migrating to the south and to the east—that as our nations increasingly turn their collective backs on God, God begins fresh work in other parts of the world. Says Mark Noll in his new book The New Shape of World Christianity, “It is as if the globe had been turned upside down and sideways. A few short decades ago, Christian believers were concentrated in the global north and west, but now a rapidly swelling majority lives in the global south and east. [If a Christian] Rip Van Winkle wiped a half-century of sleep from his eyes … and tried to locate his fellow Christian believers, he would find them in surprising places, expressing their faith in surprising ways, under surprising conditions, with surprising relationships to culture and politics, and raising surprising theological questions that would not have seemed possible when he fell asleep.”

Here are a few remarkable facts Noll provides:

  • This past Sunday it is possible that more Christian believers attended church in China than in all of so-called “Christian Europe.” Yet in 1970 there were no legally functioning churches in all of China; only in 1971 did the communist regime allow for one Protestant and one Roman Catholic Church to hold public worship services, and this was mostly a concession to visiting Europeans and African students from Tanzania and Zambia.
  • This past Sunday more Anglicans attended church in each of Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda than did Anglicans in Britain and Canada and Episcopalians in the United States combined—and the number of Anglicans in church in Nigeria was several times the number in those other African countries.
  • This past Sunday more Presbyterians were at church in Ghana than in Scotland, and more were in congregations of the Uniting Presbyterian Church of Southern Africa than in the United States.
  • The past Sunday more people attended the Yoido Full Gospel Church pastored by Yongi Cho in Seoul, Korea, than attended all the churches in significant American denominations like the Christian Reformed Church, the Evangelical Covenant Church or the Presbyterian Church in America.
  • This past Sunday the churches with the largest attendance in England and France had mostly black congregations. About half of the churchgoers in London were African or African-Caribbean. Today, the largest Christian congregation in Europe is in Kiev, and it is pastored by a Nigerian of Pentecostal background.
  • This past week in Great Britain, at least fifteen thousand Christian foreign missionaries were hard at work evangelizing the locals. Most of these missionaries are from Africa and Asia.
  • For several years the world’s largest chapter of the Jesuit order has been found in India, not in the United States, as it had been for much of the late twentieth century.

I have several books on my shelf that explore this phenomenon, showing how the center of the church is, indeed, migrating away from the West. Noll’s book, though, takes a fresh approach. Because the world is coming more and more to look like America, American Christianity is important to the world. “The point of this book,” he says, “is not primarily to shed light on the history of Christianity in North America. It is, rather, to address the question of what American Christianity means for the worldwide Christian community. … The book’s major argument is that Christianity in its American form has indeed become very important for the world. But it has become important, not primarily because of direct influence. Rather, the key is how American Christianity was itself transformed when Europeans carried their faith across the Atlantic. The American model rather than American manipulation is key.” So in this book Noll looks to the American pattern and seeks to understand how that may shed light on how the faith will spread in this new areas of the world.

What Noll does not do is blame America for the woes of the church in the south and in the east. He does not charge America with recklessness in exporting religion as she has exported culture and conflict and so much else. Instead he stresses “the advantage of seeing the new regions of recent Christian growth as following a historical path that Americans pioneered before much of the rest of the Christian world embarked on the same path.” It is an intriguing thesis and one that bears examination. Noll has to admit, though, that this book can be little more than an interim report since the situation is changing so rapidly. Yet even as an interim report there is much to glean from it.

Here is how Noll goes about this task. In the first three chapters, the first part of the book, he provides a short sketch of the Christian world today, outlines some of the challenges posed by this new reality and then describes a few developments among evangelicals of the nineteenth century that pointed toward what would happen in the world in the twentieth century. Chapters four through seven are the heart of the book and here he provides his argument that American form rather than American influence has been the foremost contribution of America to the recent world history of Christianity. In the third and final section he tests his argument against specific case studies. And, of course, he pulls everything together in a concluding chapter.

While his argument is compelling and while the book shares a great deal of interesting facts, both historical and contemporary, it is not without what I consider quite a considerable weakness. In defining what it means to be a Christian or an evangelical, terms Noll uses repeatedly, an author may face two extremes: death by a thousand qualifications or the opposite error of a lack of qualification. And in Noll’s case I think he tends toward the latter. His definition of Christian is wider than it ought to be, I think, and the same is true of evangelical. In both cases the definition could include Roman Catholics and potentially even Mormons or other groups who have no great love for the true gospel. While we cannot deny that these groups are also exporting religion to the far corners of the world, grouping them under the same banner as Protestant evangelicals obscures rather than clarifies. When we look at a church like Yongi Cho’s Full Gospel Church we are right to ask whether what is being taught there is even the gospel and, hence, whether it is truly a church at all. Rarely does Noll pause to consider if the churches he writes about are faithful to the gospel. It is as if any body calling itself a church (or perhaps calling itself evangelical) is equal. And then we wonder, is much of the new shape of world Christianity really even Christian?

The New Shape of World Christianity is an interesting read and an important one, even. As an interim report, I think it succeeds in its task of drawing attention to a reality that is only now unfolding around us. And on that basis I am glad to recommend it to those who are interested in the subject matter.

5 years 1 month ago

Church is out, spirituality is in. This is true outside Christians circles but, shockingly, it is true within as well. Recent years have seen a long succession of books talking of the revolution to come (or the revolution underway) which will see Christians abandon the institutional church in favor of expressions of the faith that are supposedly more pure. Christians meeting together in Starbucks in twos or threes, Christians meeting on park benches or around a backyard swimming pool. This, say some, is a true, pure, biblical expression of Christian community. It is in reaction to this kind of misinterpretation of Scripture that Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck have written, Why We Love the Church.

You may recognize DeYoung and Kluck as the men behind Why We’re Not Emergent, a book that won Christianity Today’s 2009 Book Award in the The Church/Pastoral Leadership category. In that first book they showed why they, though apparently prime candidates to follow along within the Emerging Church movement, had eschewed it in favor of a more traditional expression of the faith. This book is a follow-up, of sorts, offering the positive expression of what they declared negatively in the first book. We know that they are not Emergent and here we learn why they love the church. They follow the same pattern, writing completely separate chapters. DeYoung’s chapters are the more academic ones—providing the theological foundation. Kluck’s chapters, on the other hand, are less formal and more reflective. Both men are excellent writers who are adept at turning a phrase, making this a book that is just plain enjoyable to read.

The question will be asked: Is this as good, as enjoyable a book as Why We’re Not Emergent. I don’t think so; I don’t know that they quite recaptured the voice, the perspective they spoke from in the first book. Somehow it seems they were not able to duplicate the magic, the interplay between the two authors, that marked Why We’re Not Emergent. Yet Why We Love the Church is still plenty good in its own right.

The book, they say, is written for four kinds of people: the committed, the disgruntled, the waffling and the disconnected. For each of these people there will be value in reading the book and reflecting on the message it shares. When it comes to the disgruntled, the waffling and the disconnected, they offer four reasons, or perhaps four groups of reasons that people are disillusioned with the church: the missiological (the church is simply not fulfilling her God-given mission); the personal (the church is anti-women, anti-gay, hypocritical, etc); the historical (the church as we know it is a product of paganism, not Scripture); the theological (the church as an organization, institution, hierarchy, etc is foreign to the Bible). Throughout the book, DeYoung and Kluck respond to these people and respond to these reasons, always looking to Scripture, always seeking to provide a biblical understanding of who and what and why the church is.

There are two great strengths in this book. The first is in offering the biblical perspective on what God is doing through the church. The authors show how the church is central to all that God is doing in the world and prove well that without the church there is no Christianity. They take the historic view that participating in the church is normative for the Christian life—that under ordinary circumstances we should not expect a person who deliberately remains outside the visible church to be a true believer.

The second great strength is in responding to the tired but all-too-common arguments against organized religion or institutionalized church or whatever else people may wish to call it. They offer lines like this—ones well worth pondering: “It’s more than a little ironic that the same folks who want the church to ditch the phoney, plastic persona and become a haven for broken, imperfect sinners are ready to leave the church when she is broken, imperfect and sinful.” They do not allow such people to glamorize the early church, the New Testament church, as if she was a perfect, sinless expression of the Christian faith (haven’t these people read 1 Corinthians or the early chapters of Revelation?). They offer valuable responses to disillusionment based on historical hubris, church buildings and institutions and even the role of Christians in the Crusades—all of those arguments that tend to be passed along but without much thought and without ever verifying the claims. Just the response to these arguments is worth the price of the book.

If there is a weak point in Why We Love the Church, it has to be Chapter 6, titled “Snapshots.” Here Kluck offers brief interviews with various churched people. Not only does the chapter feel a little bit out of place, but it also focuses a lot of attention on Chuck Colson who, through his efforts with Evangelicals and Catholics Together, seeks to undermine much of what the church is. It is a strange diversion in an otherwise excellent book.

I had expected this book to be written from a fully positive perspective, which is to say it would be more proactive than reactive—that it would explain why these men love the church without reference to all of those who seem not to love her. Yet much of the book is a response to Leonard Sweet and William Young and George Barna and the other naysayers. In this way it did cement itself in my mind as a true sequel to Why We’re Not Emergent; where the first book reacted to the leaders of the emerging church, this one responds equally to those who would lead the charge away from the church altogether. Not surprisingly, some of the antagonists in the first book make appearances here as well. And so, if you are eager to read a response to this kind of reaction against the church or if you are looking for an apologetic as to why you ought to love and value and treasure the church, this is a book you will enjoy and a book that will benefit you. Read this book and I am confident that you will come to a deeper love, a deeper appreciation, of both Christ and his church.

5 years 11 months ago
It is a strange gig, being a book reviewer. There are times when I spend weeks or months in anticipation of a new book only to find it a great disappointment. And then there are times when a book just shows up—a book I didn’t even know existed—and it takes my breath away. Such was the case with Love or Die by Alexander Strauch. While the book is large in dimensions (8.8 x 5.9, so slightly larger than an average paperback) it is short in length, coming in at just 112 pages (which includes a study guide, indexes and a couple of appendices). But despite its length, it packs quite a punch. I can think of few books I’ve read recently that have had so immediate an impact on me and have given me so much to think about. I trust, that with God’s help, the implications of this book will be with me always.

Love or Die is subtitled Christ’s Wake-Up Call to the Church and is an exposition of sorts of Revelation 2:2-6. In these verses, Christ praises the church at Ephesus for their works, their toil, their endurance and their discernment. But he also rebukes this church, saying “I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.” He calls them to repent, lest He is forced to “remove your lampstand from its place.” This church, it seems, had once been marked by love; but somehow, in the intervening years, the love had been lost. The sound doctrine remained but the love had waned. Christ gave them this simple admonition: love or die.

Strauch divides his exposition into two parts. In the first, he reminds the Christian that it is possible to have sound doctrine, to be faithful to the gospel, to remain morally upright and to have the appearance of godliness, even while lacking in love. To lack in love is to ignore some of Christ’s clearest, most urgent admonitions. And yet many Christians are marked more by an appearance of sound doctrine than by a true love for God and love for one another. When Christ saw this in the church at Ephesus, He reminded the church to “Remember therefore from where you have fallen.” In Christ’s assessment, the only assessment that truly matters, this church had fallen, and this despite Christ’s commendations of them. “Remember, there is always one who walks among the churches, unseen but seeing all. How do you imagine Christ might evaluate your local church body?” Love is to be the distinguishing mark of the Christian.

No ancient or modern philosopher—Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Russell—ever taught such far-reaching ideas about love. No political figure, from Julius Caesar to Winston Churchill, has made such demands upon his followers to love. And no religious teacher, whether Buddha, Confucius, or Mohammed, ever commanded his followers to love one another as he loved them and gave his life for them. No other system of theology or philosophy says so much about the divine motivation of love (and holiness), or expresses love to the degree of Christ’s death on the cross, or makes the demands of love like the teaching of Jesus Christ and his apostles.

Christ offers a three-fold remedy to the lack of love in this church at Ephesus. He commands them to remember the love that had once marked their church; he tells them to recall “past joys, deeds, attitudes, and experiences in the life of the church in order to repeat them and act upon them.” He commands them to repent, by restoring the love they once possessed. And He commands them to do the works they did at first. They are to “reengage in the deeds of love they had once done but had abandoned.”

In the second part of this book, Strauch teaches how we can cultivate love. “Although God ultimately is the one who keeps us in his love and motivates us to love, there is also a human side of the equation. Scriptures directs all believers to pursue love, keep ourselves in the love of God, abide in Christ’s love, walk in love as Christ loved, and consider how to stir up one another to love and good deeds. Thus it is vital to our church communities and to the spiritual health of individual believers that we know how to cultivate love and protect love.” He dedicates a chapter to each of these topics: study love, pray for love, teach love, model love, guard love, practice love.

Following the Bible’s model, Strauch grounds love in the local church.

Love requires both a subject and an object, thus love is a corporate learning experience. We grow in love by engagement with other people, not in isolation from them.

Christians cannot develop love by sitting at home alone on the couch watching TV preachers or by attending a weekly, one-hour church service. It is only through participation in “the household of God,” the local church (1 Tim, 3:15), with all of its weaknesses and faults, that love is taught, modeled, learned, tested, practiced, and matured. By dealing with difficult people, facing painful conflicts, forgiving hurts and injustices, reconciling estranged relationships, and helping needy members, our love is tested and matures.

One simply cannot grow in love without the stresses and strains of life together in the household of God, the local church. The local church truly is “a spiritual workshop for the development of agape love” and “one of the very best laboratories in which individual believers may discover their real spiritual emptiness and begin to grow in agape love.” If you are not a participating member of a local church, then you are not in God’s school of love.

 

We know how the church at Ephesus responded to Christ’s rebuke. Some time around the beginning of the second century, Ignatius, one of the Apostolic Fathers, wrote a letter to this church at Ephesus. He had been arrested for his faith and was being taken to Rome to be executed. As he and his guards passed near Ephesus, a delegation of Christian brothers was sent to encourage him as he faced a martyr’s death. After this visit, Ignatius sent them a letter thanking them for their care. And in this letter he specifically praises their love, commending them as a church “characterized by faith in and love of Christ Jesus our Savior.” He rejoices that they “love nothing in human life, only God” and he comments on their church’s overseer saying he is “a man of inexpressible love.” He says that in the love shown to him by the delegation he could see the love of the entire church at Ephesus. These Christians heard and heeded the loving rebuke of Jesus Christ.

I know beyond any shadow of doubt that many of our churches—and perhaps your church, and perhaps mine—would hear this same rebuke from the lips of the one who walks among us unseen, but seeing all. This passage from Scripture is a gift from God that we might “hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” Though Love or Die is but a short book, it is an excellent one and I commend it to you. It would not be out of place in any church library or personal collection.

(It looks like the book has not yet been widely distributed, even though it was published last month. I can find it only at Amazon. They have only a couple of copies available but have more on the way.)

Pages