Book Reviews

BOOK REVIEW: “Christians in the Age of Outrage” by Ed Stetzer

Have you noticed that as social media have become more commonplace that people 81P-q0lP98Lseem to have gotten nastier?  I know I’ve seen it.  And, if I’m honest, there may have been a few times where I participated in it.  Some people make it their life’s goal to call people to correctness – or to their opinion, at least – and hiding behind the computer monitor allows them to do so with a greater degree of vitriol than they probably would use in face-to-face conversation.

Sadly, Christ-followers have not been immune to being sucked into the vortex of ugly online conversation.

Dr. Ed Stetzer, who holds the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair for Church, Mission and Evangelism at Wheaton College in Illinois, is a prolific participant in social media conversations.  Having worked for LifeWay Research before heading to the Windy City, he understands how to gather and communicate statistics in ways that will help build up the church.  And he has done so once again in Christians in the Age of Outrage:  How to bring our best when the world is at its worst (Tyndale House, 2018).

I was provided an advance reader copy (for my Kindle app) of this book by Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., and had high hopes of completing the book and churning out a review much sooner than this, but better late than never, here it is.

To be sure, this book is aimed primarily at an American audience, and given the proliferation of tweeting taking place at the hand of the sitting President of that nation, and the likes, retweets and replies that come with them, it is not surprising that Stetzer would tailor the book to his home country.  That said, the principles apply to users of social media throughout the world.

Stetzer’s goal is to encourage people who love and serve Jesus to carry their faith not only into their face-to-face dialogues, but into their digital conversations, too.  Unfortunately, Stetzer has observed that the online outrage that has emerged over the past several years has Christians caught up in it, too.

Each disciple of Jesus has a sphere of influence, and we are called to remember that the world is watching not only how we act at work, and how we respond when our kid doesn’t get put in the game by the coach, but also how we respond when someone posts something to social media with which we may disagree.  As Stetzer notes in the second part of the book, “Outrageous Lies and Enduring Truths”, “in a culture where everyone’s default response seems to be indignation, we can justify our outrage as righteous anger.” That’s one of the outrageous lies he mentions.  Followers of Jesus are called to ‘turn the other cheek’, as Jesus says.  That doesn’t mean we should just let bad theology and the misrepresentation of the Christian faith simply float away; it means we should avoid using unhelpful language and tone in our online discussions, while also helping people to see that there is another side to the story.

We often don’t do this, because it takes work.  There’s researching the topic at hand in such a way that we have our facts straight, and then taking the time to present the more accurate, cogent argument in a winsome manner.

As a pastor, I took some great advice from this book on how I should handle my social media presence.  (I also got some great sermon ideas, though I’m sure that’s secondary to the main point Stetzer was trying to make!)

Stetzer’s heart, as a church planter, teacher and mentor, is to see the church fulfill its core mandate: to make disciples.  In order to do so, we must first be discipled ourselves, so that we can go and make disciples.  This is foundational to everything Stetzer writes in the book.  To that end, he writes about some of the idols that we demonstrate we hold, as expressed in our use of social media, such as politics, identity, and personality.  When any of these takes the place of God – which is what an idol does – it shows in what we write and how we write it.  And those idols keep us from being the ambassadors of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

I could go on at length, as the book is quite lengthy (perhaps my one criticism of the book).  However, nothing Stetzer writes in Christians in the Age of Outrage is superfluous to his main focus or his undergirding principle.  I would call this “recommended reading” for pastors who use social media, and even for those who don’t, that they might (a) counsel congregants who do use social media (and that’s most of them) and (b) consider engaging in social media themselves.  Stetzer doesn’t recommend hiding from social media, since it’s not going away anytime soon.  I would also recommend this book for Christians who would consider doing a gut check on their own social media “tone of voice”, as well as to help them understand the current phenomenon of outrage that exists at the click of a mouse.

Christians in the Age of Outrage, by Ed Stetzer, published by Tyndale House.  ISBN 978-1-4964-3362-6.

Book Reviews

BOOK REVIEW: INVITATION TO RETREAT by Ruth Haley Barton

I’ve never read a book by Ruth Haley Barton that didn’t speak to my heart, and this is no exception.  Being a teacher of and on retreats, and a regular retreatant myself, I was looking forward to reading this small but helpful guide to the how’s and why’s of making a retreat.

For many Christians, especially Protestants, retreats are foreign, something made by Roman Catholics or disguised as preaching or evangelistic events.  Those are certainly legitimate and useful, but Barton’s subtitle, “The Gift and Necessity of Time Away with God” hits the nail on the head of what a retreat should be.

The book is divided into four sections, introducing the concept of true retreat, preparing ourselves for retreat, what to undertake during retreat, and how we move back into day-to-day living from retreat.  Each of the twelve chapters offers practical assistance to the retreatant in terms of preparation and execution of the retreat.  Two appendices are offered for guidelines for fixed-hour prayers and planning a retreat.

For the person considering a retreat but not sure where to start, this book is a good place to start.  It helps us know ourselves as individual followers of Jesus as well as giving us tools for introspection when gearing up for a retreat and actually being away.  Among the key learnings, of which there are many, is to understand oneself as being able to be off-limits to anyone but God during that time, that none of us is indispensable.  Needing to be connected, 24/7, is often one of the biggest hurdles to an effective retreat, and Barton reminds the reader that such disordered attachments are not helpful to connecting fully with God.

Retreat is one of the main gateways to true spiritual freedom.  This book is a helpful guide in aiding us to achieve the true spiritual freedom the Lord seeks for us.

Ruth Haley Barton, Invitation to Retreat:  The Gift and Necessity of Time Away With God (IVP, 2018), ISBN 978-0-8308-4646-7.  I am grateful to Martin at Parasource for the desk copy he provided for me.  The book is available at most Christian retail outlets, including the Tyndale Bookstore in Toronto.

Book Reviews

BOOK REVIEW: DIDN’T SEE IT COMING BY CAREY NIEUWHOF

There is a certain romanticism about Christian ministry.  Many – dare I say, most – 9780735291331people who enter ministry, especially younger in life (as I did), tend to have a view of pastoral leadership as something ideal:  we get to preach God’s Word, share in people’s highs and lows of life, and live as full-time disciples of Jesus.

While all of that is true, there are many other aspects to ministry that our romanticized view conveniently blots out.  They are not as fun, not as exciting, and often highly challenging.

Carey Nieuwhof, Founding and Teaching Pastor at Connexus Community Church (with campuses in Barrie, Orillia, and Midland, Ontario) has written a book which will be most helpful to all people in church leadership, especially younger leaders.  Having gone through a career change early on (he studied and practised law briefly before accepting God’s call), being appointed a student pastor while still studying for ministry, leading a congregation through exponential growth and eventually out of the denomination in which he had served, he found himself at one point – about 12 years ago – in a period of burnout, from which he initially wondered if he would ever recover.

I was keen to read this book, not only because Carey is a longtime friend of mine, but because the latter part of that story eerily paralleled my own.

When I started in ministry over 30 years ago, the church and the social landscape were vastly different.  I was educated to lead a church in a Christendom world, where churches were strong and pastors were well-respected.  Today, those realities, in the Canadian church at least, are long gone, and we live in a time where change is the only constant.  There’s a lot of adapting that needs to be done, by church leaders and congregants alike.

Younger leaders may find this season in history especially challenging, because they are starting at the bottom of a steep hill.  Didn’t See It Coming, while applicable to everyone, is especially helpful, I think, to those younger leaders who are starting out in the pioneering work of bringing in God’s Kingdom on earth.

Carey addresses cynicism – how we get there and how we get out of it; he addresses intellectualism – how we are trained to think but also need to learn to experience God’s goodness and grace; and he addresses character – how Christians, and especially church leaders, need to be honest and transparent about developing lives like Jesus.  Most of the rest of the book builds on these themes.

Readers of Carey’s blog (careynieuwhof.com) will find some familiar words in this book, as much of Didn’t See It Coming piggybacks on a number of Carey’s more popular posts.  But there’s sufficient illustrative material and extrapolation to warrant reading the book, even if one has already read the blog.  I am a faithful reader of the blog, and still gained insight from the book.

Carey addresses a number of issues about which I wish I had learned as a younger leader, especially before my season of burnout – topics like solitude versus isolation; personal growth preceding helping others grow; technology, with its ups and downs; and studying culture.

From his own experience, Carey uses this book to help readers avoid the pitfalls he faced.  While, by grace, he did not find himself in a situation of moral failure as some other prominent church leaders have, he has written Didn’t See It Coming as a tool to help other church leaders avoid the challenges that can lead to ministry-ending situations.

I recommend that all church leaders read this book.  It is not a long read, but it is a thought-provoking read.  It will be widely available as of September 4, 2018.

Didn’t See It Coming:  Overcoming the 7 Greatest Challenges that No One Expects and Everyone Experiences, by Carey Nieuwhof (New York: WaterBrook, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, 2018).

Disclosure: I received an Advance Reader Copy from the publisher, electronically, of Didn’t See It Coming.

ADDENDUM:  If you want an ‘insider look’ at the book, you can listen to Ann Voskamp interview Carey about the book on his podcast here.  It really adds to the already rich nature of this book.

Book Reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Mirror For the Soul by Alice Fryling 

I became interested in the Enneagram several years ago when I first was introduced to 41s5KK3HBRLthe ministry of spiritual direction. It is one of many tools that can help individuals know themselves better, and can help teams of people to know each other better.
As a qualified practitioner of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator®, I am familiar with the concept that knowing ourselves (and our spouses, and our team members) is always a good thing. And while any two evaluative tools will have some overlap, each has its value. Up to this point, I had struggled to understand the Enneagram as one of these tools.  I had attended a seminar, as well as done some reading on it, but had neither grasped the tool well nor been able to find a clear application for Christians.
Some Christians have been reticent to use the Enneagram for a variety of reasons. (Some have been reluctant to use other tools, too, but the push-back against the Enneagram seems to have been more pronounced.)  A follower of Jesus who reads Mirror For the Soul will find his or her fears assuaged, as Alice Fryling integrates her very helpful teaching on the Enneagram with her solid Christian faith in such a way as to disarm the critic and to encourage the believer who is considering using the Enneagram to understand himself or herself more fully.
The book helps the reader understand each aspect of the Enneagram in the most basic way, so that even someone with no knowledge of the instrument can grasp the concepts clearly. Helpfully, Alice Fryling also includes questions for personal reflection and/or group discussion at the end of each chapter, along with a brief Scripture passage and questions relating to it and the portion of the Enneagram just studied.
The book concludes with a brief treatise on how to use the Enneagram in spiritual direction, and some helpful external resources.
Perhaps the one unusual but singularly helpful aspect to the book is that there is no inventory included to help the reader discern her or his own Enneagram number. Instead, the author encourages the reader to review descriptions given in each section so that the reader has to think through, prayerfully, which Enneagram number may be most descriptive.
I highly recommend this book if you are seeking an easily-understood unashamedly Christian take on the Enneagram.
Disclaimer: The reviewer was given a pre-publication copy of the book for the purpose of this review. 
Mirror For the Soul, by Alice Fryling – published by Inter-Varsity Press, 2017.
Book Reviews

BOOK REVIEW: “Deep Church” by Jim Belcher

A confession:  I’ve had this book on my ‘to read’ pile for a few years now, and I really wish I had read it sooner.  Deep Church, as the subtitle suggests, attempts to find “A Third Way Beyond Emerging and Traditional”.

Depending on the circles you travel in, you may not know what the author means by “Emerging” or “Traditional”.  Within the realm of evangelicalism, a movement began some 20 years ago that became known as the Emerging (or Emergent) Church.  It isn’t a denomination and doesn’t have formal leadership (though there are informal leaders).  And, as this book, highlights, there is no theological or liturgical unity around the movement.  Some Emerging churches look like mainline liberalism in a new suit, while others look like typical evangelical congregations, but with candles and corporate prayers of confession.

What Belcher looks for is a “third way”, something that finds balance between traditional evangelical Christianity and this somewhat numinous Emerging movement.  What he comes up with is “Deep Church”, as he calls it, the model for ministry that he uses in his own congregation, Redeemer Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Newport Beach, California.

The big learning for me from this book was about the value of community.  I’ve been thinking a lot about community in the church in recent years, and this has helped me even more to pinpoint what needs to happen if the church is to be effective with the millennial generation.  Belcher writes about his congregation’s four core commitments:  gospel, community, mission and shalom (the latter defined as making or transforming culture, in a Kuyperian sense).

I found the stories he told reinforced the points he was making from his research and his interviews with key players in the Emergent-Traditional debate, and the book’s 207 pages (plus copious endnotes) read fairly quickly.  I wish I had read this sooner.

Deep Church:  A Third Way Beyond Emerging and Traditional by Jim Belcher (foreword by Richard J. Mouw), published in 2009 by InterVarsity Press.  ISBN 978-0-8308-3716-8.

Book Reviews

BOOK REVIEW: How Churches Became Cruise Ships

The subtitle says a lot:  “A survival guide for the seasick Christian”. Many churches in the 21st century have lost their purpose, going from gatherings of people seeking communion with God to being institutions existing to promote the organization. Skye Jethani uses the cruise ship analogy to help us understand how that model doesn’t fit with God’s plan for the church. 

Ships were called liners because they moved people from one place to another. With jets being used for that purpose – and more efficiently – when they were invented, ships turned to the cruise experience instead. No longer modes of transportation, cruise ships became ends in themselves. Some churches, large and small, have made similar transitions, but Jethani suggests they have missed the mark in terms of being the church faithfully.

Jethani’s analogy of the cruise ship church helps the reader put into perspective what has happened – and happened again – to the church in recent times. This hour-long read will help church leaders hit the reset button if they have disengaged from God’s picture of the church. Well worth your time.

Skye Jethani, How Churches Became Cruise Ships: A survival guide for the seasick Christian. Available for Kindle and Kindle app at https://www.amazon.com/How-Churches-Became-Cruise-Ships-ebook/dp/B018RJHNZK?ie=UTF8&keywords=Jethani%20cruise%20ships&qid=1462736837&ref_=sr_1_1&sr=8-1

Book Reviews, Uncategorized

BOOK REVIEW: Still Voices – Still Heard

Still Voices – Still Heard is a collection of biographies of prominent, albeit dead, Canadian 50441043Presbyterians connected to the Presbyterian College, the seminary of The Presbyterian Church in Canada at McGill University in Montreal. These are the “still” voices; the individuals are no longer living. This is interesting enough in itself, and not all that uncommon a topic about which to write. But making the book even more interesting is that, appended to each chapter, there is material written (or spoken, in the case of sermons) by the individuals profiled in the book.

The format is a great idea, and it was compiled in honour of the 150th anniversary of the College. The chapters are organized chronologically, which helps the reader follow the development of the College. The book begins with the early years of the school, beginning with William Dawson, a Presbyterian scientist who was the Principal of McGill University from 1855 to 1893. It was his vision that brought about the founding of Presbyterian College as a seminary of the Free Church, which broke away from the (Auld Kirk) Church of Scotland as a result of the Disruption of 1843, which made its way to Canada in 1844 (even though the issue that brought about the split was not an issue for the Canadian church).

What Dawson was to the University, D.H. MacVicar was to the College. His writing on the role of ruling elders in the church, which accompanies the biographical sketch, was helpful in his day and remains helpful today.

What follows are stories of people who are variously remembered who made significant contributions to Presbyterian life in Montreal and Canada, and to the College specifically. They include Jane Drummond Redpath (a key promoter of mission; her husband’s family name remains on many bags of sugar to this day), A. Daniel Coussirat (who pioneered French work among Presbyterians in Quebec), Andrew S. Grant (a pioneer in western Canadian church extension), James Naismith (the creator of the game of basketball; how many of those tall American men who play can credit their game to a Canadian Presbyterian minister?), George C. Pidgeon (a major Presbyterian player in the cause of church union, a student of MacVicar, and the first Moderator of the United Church of Canada), W.G. Brown (preacher, journalist, politician, and missionary to the Canadian west), Cairine MacKay Wilson (the first woman senator in Canada), John W. Foote (Presbyterian military chaplain), C. Ritchie Bell (pastor and teacher of pastors), Alison Stewart-Paterson (one of the early women to graduate from the College to ordained ministry), and R. Sheldon MacKenzie (pastor and educator).

Each of their stories is unique, with a common connection to the Presbyterian College. And each of their contributions to the life of the denomination was significant. I’m sure the editors could have chosen many other individuals to profile, but their choices were good ones, helping the reader to see a broad view of The Presbyterian Church in Canada and one of its colleges.

The contributors were clergy and laity, and it was often easy to tell which was writing by her or his understanding of the context of the history of the denomination. The pieces written by those who had enjoyed a personal relationship with the subject were especially engaging because of that personal connection. Not all articles followed what seemed to be the desired structure, which, while not a significant factor in gaining the knowledge intended, these felt ‘different’ in their flow. Some repeated information within the chapter itself, which the editors could have fixed without changing the integrity of the contributions. And, as happens more and more commonly in books nowadays, there were small errors in spelling and word intention that could have been picked up either by the editors or at the publisher’s end. However, that set aside, it is a good and helpful read, giving one a good sense of the context of the Presbyterian College and enabling the reader to celebrate what God has done and is doing through the College.

In my opinion, the best-written and perhaps most interesting chapter was William Klempa’s piece about Andrew Grant. Other readers could choose other contributions, of course. I found each chapter was of a length that it could be read in a single sitting, allowing the whole book to be read in about 13 sittings.

In the preface, current Principal Dale Woods says that this book seeks “to capture the spirit and passion of those who helped shape the life of the College and those who graduated from the College” by enabling them to “speak in their own words.” With that goal in mind, the authors and editors have succeeded. Anyone wishing to read a decidedly different but entirely interesting history of one of Canada’s lesser-known but highly influential seminaries will find this to be a most engaging read.

Still Voices – Still Heard, published in 2015 by Wipf & Stock, edited by J.S.S. Armour, Judith Kashul, William Klempa, Lucille Marr, and Dan Shute. ISBN 978-1-4982-0831-4.

Book Reviews

BOOK REVIEW: “KINDLING DESIRE FOR GOD” by Kay L. Northcutt

You know how, every once in a while, you go shopping for one thing and come home with more than you bargained for? That happens to me when I visit Amazon. Their version of the “up-sell” is that section on the page for the book you’re interested in that says, “People who bought XYZ also purchased…”.

It’s a trap. Really. But when you’re stricken with bibliophilia, as I am, it’s an inevitable trap.

That’s how I came across Kindling Desire for God. Had I known much about the author’s theology, I probably would have skipped it. But, as so often happens, the subtitle got me: “Preaching As Spiritual Direction.” As both a preacher and a spiritual director, I had to know what this was about. So I bit.

Amazon wins again. But, in truth, so did I.

Kay Northcutt is a preaching professor at Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She is a minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and a certified spiritual director. While I would not share her theological position, I greatly appreciate how she handles this different paradigm for preaching.

As a preaching professor, the author is exposed to all manner of different preaching styles, and this book seeks to help preachers, whether certified spiritual directors or not, to see preaching as a form of spiritual direction. All pastors, whether trained in spiritual direction or not, do undertake a measure of it by virtue of office, and that can extend from the study to the pulpit.

To that end, Northcutt seeks to encourage pastors to reclaim the authority that is rightfully theirs, spiritually – to move from being problem solvers to being spiritual guides. The authority, though, is seen not in CEO terms, but is “grounded by prayer, intimacy with God, and an explicit knowledge – as well as felt experience – of being the ‘God-person’ and the spiritual guide for congregations” (58).

She laments the loss of what she calls our “own inherited texts” – not only Scripture, but the early church mothers and fathers,41cSqihmgHL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ and spiritual classics. We would rather quote Jack Welch than Julian of Norwich. We would rather cite Oprah than Origen. The author encourages preachers to make their preaching a spiritual act. At the end of the book, she offers some examples of her own preaching, showing how preaching can be a form of spiritual direction.

I would not suggest that these sermons are models of outstanding biblical exposition, but there is a pastoral, spiritual element to them that all preachers could learn from.

If you’re looking for a different kind of preaching text, give this one a try. If nothing else, it will call you to a deeper relationship with God – something every preacher and congregation can benefit from.

Kindling Desire for God: Preaching as Spiritual Direction by Kay L. Northcutt. Published in 2009 by Fortress Press in Minneapolis. ISBN 978-0-8006-6263-9.

Book Reviews

BOOK REVIEW: “SPIRITUAL FRIENDSHIP” by Norm Allen

Knowing my interest in spiritual formation, a friend and colleague gave me this book, written by a friend of his. Intrigued by the subtitle (“The Art of Being Friends With God and a Few Others”), and the brevity of the book (it’s a quick read at about 100 pages), I jumped right in.

The author is the founder of Touchstone Ministries in Orangeville, Ontario. His business is to nurture friendships among Christians in leadership in various walks of life, and his book illustrates why that is important to him, and hopefully, to the rest of us.

Spiritual friendship is a model of spiritual formation that can complement other ways of going deeper with God. To illustrate his51NNE34MOLL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ understanding of this model, Allen draws from the rich breadth of Christian tradition – from the Celts to C.S. Lewis to Miroslav Volf . He tells many stories of his own experiences in spiritual friendship that have both blessed and challenged him (as any good friendship should).

We may say we have a lot of friends, when in reality what we probably have is a lot of acquaintances. How many others know us at the depth of our being? There are no gold stars for the number of friends we have who can read us like a book, of course, but there is great value in having at least one friend with whom we can share deeply, and mutually. It becomes easy for hard sharing to be one-sided, where one person becomes vulnerable and the other simply listens. But in order for a spiritual friendship to be truly mutual, it must involve both parties sharing deeply – not in an attempt to one-up the other, but to be transparent and honest with the other.

Spiritual Friendship will challenge and encourage you to find and engage in a friendship with another Christian who will walk with you as you walk with God. I recommend you pick it up.

Spiritual Friendship: The Art of Being Friends With God and a Few Others by Norm Allen, published in 2012 by Clements Publishing Group, Toronto. ISBN 978-1-926798-08-0.

Book Reviews

BOOK REVIEW: “How Your Church Family Works”

Peter L. Steinke’s How Your Church Family Works:  Understanding Congregations as Emotional Systems (The Alban Institute, Steinke-How-Church-Family-Works1993, 2006) is by no means ‘hot off the press’, but I picked it, and a companion volume, up at a sale last spring, and finally got around to reading it in the past few weeks.

I wish I had read it sooner.  A lot sooner.  Like, when it was first published in 1993.  It might have been a game-changer for me.

This short (144 pages) work is essentially an abridgement of Edwin Friedman’s classic work, Generation to Generation.  Friedman’s book is out of print, and therefore hard to find except through used booksellers.  But this is not only a fine abridgement with great application for the church, it is highly accessible.

I’ve occasionally heard some pastors say that the church would be a wonderful place if it weren’t for the people.  They almost always say it tongue-in-cheek, but there is also a measure of truth to it.  The church is people, of course, but it is people who live life after the fall.  We, singly and collectively, are sinners.  And when you get a bunch of sinners together, there’s bound to be some tension.  Every church leader can tell you about some tension that has been experienced; if there hasn’t been tension, growth almost certainly hasn’t taken place, for it is in the crucible of conflict that growth occurs.

The tension we experience as the church is often a tension that comes from human interactions, what some call systems.  The simplest, perhaps, is person A having a conversation with person B.  No problem there, of course, until person A starts talking about person C, who is not party to the conversation, and with whom person A has a beef.  Then we have what’s called triangling, where one person (person B) is brought into the conflict that exists between person A and person C.

That might sound complicated, but believe me, it can get worse.  Systems and sub-systems exist in churches, and it takes emotional maturity to be able to navigate through the tensions that exist just because people are people, children of Adam and Eve.

Steinke’s goal is to help congregations understand themselves in this light, and to rise above the problems that can come about as a result of sinners gathering together with other sinners.  One of the key points made by Steinke is borrowed from Kurt Lewin.  It says that behaviour is a function of the transaction of personality and environment.  When any one of those factors changes, the whole dynamic changes.  Steinke doesn’t just elucidate problems, though; he offers solutions.  As the book draws to a close, he offers congregations ways that they can be fully aware of who they are and how that is affecting their interpersonal relationships, in an attempt to bring about the greatest degree of emotional health moving forward.

And of course, spiritual health is tied into this, because as Pete Scazerro says in The Emotionally Healthy Church, a person (or a church) can only be as spiritually healthy as she, he or it is emotionally healthy.

The read is not that difficult; the challenge comes in applying it.  I highly recommend this book for anyone in any form of church leadership.

P.S.:  There is a short YouTube video that helps illustrate the points in Friedman’s theory that will help you understand all this.  Watch it here.

Book Reviews

Book Review: “Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer” by Rowan Williams

On a Facebook recommendation, I pre-ordered, and received quickly from Amazon.ca, the latest publication by Rowan Williams, entitled,  Being Christian:  41YEga+-9rL._SL500_AA300_Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer (Eerdmans, 2014).  It is a surprisingly small book, at under ninety pages.  And it is a quick read; it arrived in the mail yesterday afternoon, and I had it completed before going to sleep (with several other needful things done in between).

I recommend this book for those looking for a basic refresher on some of these fundamental aspects of what it means to follow Jesus.  As the subtitle suggests, he writes (about twenty pages on each) about the meaning and implications of the sacrament of Baptism, how we read (or hear) the Bible, what it means to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, and then gives a brief summary of three views on the Lord’s Prayer (from Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and John Cassian, all classic Christian writers from early [pre-AD 600] Christianity).

Williams is clear, concise, and accessible in his writing style.  He writes with a modest Anglican bias, which the reader would only expect coming from the immediate past Archbishop of Canterbury!  But even with that ‘filter’, Williams could be read quite satisfactorily by an inquirer, or by a believer from any branch of the church.

There were six especially helpful learning points that I noted for myself in the book:

  • In the Eastern Christian tradition, some icons for the baptism of Jesus depict Jesus up to his neck in water, with river gods, representing chaos being overcome, beneath the water.  The old ways are always trying to claim us back.
  • The Bible is, in a way, our own story, so history matters when reading Scripture.
  • In the Eucharist, Jesus is telling us he wants our company.
  • Prayer is about changing your attitude.
  • Prayer is a promise to God.
  • This one deserves to be quoted:  “[Prayer] is opening our minds and hearts and saying to the Father, ‘Here is your Son, praying in me through the Holy Spirit.  Please listen to him, because I want him to be working, acting and loving in me'” (p. 80).

Reflection and discussion questions are provided at the end of each chapter for use by individuals or groups.  This is a short and helpful read, and I recommend it.

Book Reviews

Building the Bridge As You Walk on It: A Guide For Leading Change

This is my summer for finishing books I’ve already started, and I started Building the Bridge an embarrassingly long time ago:  early 2008.  I purchased it as aimages-7 leadership book, but found it useful on more than one level.

I had initially gotten about 100 pages into it, but since it was so long ago that I had started the book, I decided to reread it in its entirety.  This time, I read it as much from the perspective of a spiritual director as a pastor in a leadership role.  It is a secular leadership book, but the author, Robert E. Quinn (also author of Deep Change), may well be a person of faith, based on how he writes this book.

To those who lead in the secular world, the book is an outstanding primer in dealing with personal change; Quinn argues that we lead from and by who we are, rather than from or by what we do.  You’ll find it helpful as you navigate change in business.

To those who lead in the church – ditto.

To those who provide spiritual direction, it is a fascinating exercise to read this book from the eyes of a spiritual director.  You will find it helpful for yourself, and if you give spiritual direction to anyone who leads, it will give you remarkable insight into how to encourage and ask good questions of your directees.

In one sense, I’m glad I didn’t finish the book when I bought it!

Book Reviews

BOOK REVIEW: LIVING INTO FOCUS: Choosing What Matters in an Age of Distractions by Arthur Boers

Arthur Boers is a pastor, seminary professor, author, and Benedictine oblate who has seen his own spiritual journey take a number of turns over the many years of his faithful devotion to Jesus Christ.  In his most recent book, Living Into Focus, he writes about how easily we are distracted from what matters most.

Arthur emailed me some time ago when the book was being released, and I was pleased to have obtained a copy for review, thanks to David C. Cook Distribution, which oversees Canadian distribution for the publisher, Brazos.  I found the book easy to read, well-written, and structured in a helpful way, such that I did not want to put the book down until I had completed reading a chapter.

In the Foreword, Eugene Peterson says that the book “is not a book of condescending advice or a blueprint for imposing suggestions or ‘plans’ for a wholesale renovation of a life that is out of control.  Rather, it is a personal working through and reflection on the difficulties of swimming against the stream of contemporary culture” (x).  This was a helpful prelude to the book, since at times, it did read as if it were just what Peterson describes it not being.

Boers helps the reader find the focal points of life and understand what they mean, including various practices that draw us into focus, such as hobbies and even rituals (if we pay attention to them).  Recognizing the role that technology plays in contemporary society, he offers some suggestions on how to relate to technology, using the acronym ALERTS: Attention, Limits, Engagement, Relationships, Time, Space.  While he admits to using technology himself, Boers writes so glowingly of the Amish that one wonders if he paints a somewhat too radiant picture of older order Mennonite people.

That said, we do well to heed the warning that those things which receive much of our focus today – mostly based in technology – are drawing us away from each other.  While we are more ‘connected’ than ever, and our world is getting smaller because of communication technology, personal relationships are getting fewer and shallower.

Boers offers as alternatives “more fulfilling lifestyles – cooking, offering hospitality, engaging in conversation, exercising, learning arts and crafts” (187).  These are decidedly good habits, good foci; yet in our sinfulness, I think even these can be controlling, like technology.  I think it was C.S. Lewis, in The Screwtape Letters, who wrote that the best way to discourage a person from the value of walking was to make it into exercise, instead of a journey into the enjoyment of creation.  Even good practices can be mis-practised, or overdone.  Technology, in that sense, is no different.  If we live disciplined spiritual lives, nothing except our desire to glorify and enjoy God forever will be overdone (at least in a perfect world).  That said, Boers cites a young acquaintance of his who observed that spiritual disciplines are decidedly not addictive.

It is altogether too easy to be addicted to those things which may not, except in moderation, aid our cause of being and making disciples.  If we first set our priorities – our key foci in life – then, according to Boers, we can use technology as our servant in making those priorities realities.

This book is worth your time to read.  It will challenge you, and make you reflect on your life as it is now.  We all can stand to experience growth, and this book will help you do just that.

LIVING INTO FOCUS:  Choosing What Matters in an Age of Distractions by Arthur Boers, published by Brazos in 2012.  ISBN #978-1-58743-314-6.

Book Reviews

Book Review: “The Sacred Meal” by Nora Gallagher

It has been a long time – too long a time, really – since I posted a book review.  But I completed a little book this evening, which had been recommended to me by a friend, so I will give it a little plug.

As the title suggests, The Sacred Meal is about the Lord’s Supper, Eucharist, Holy Communion.  (It is part of “The Ancient Practices Series” of books edited by Phyllis Tickle, and published by Thomas Nelson.)  The author is a writer and novelist who is also a lay altar server in her local Episcopal Church in California; she writes from those perspectives, and her writing suggests that she might find herself a bit left-of-centre in the Episcopal theological spectrum.

If we look at the Lord’s Supper as having two primary players – Jesus and us – Gallagher writes as an incarnationalist and a communalist, if I may employ those two terms as a matter of my own interpretation of the book.  She strings together a variety of stories, mostly from her own experience, which highlight the importance of the Eucharist as a gathering of people from all walks of life and all manner of baggage attached.  She also writes with a very human understanding of Jesus.

While I would assess that her good intentions also reveal a somewhat flawed hermeneutic – from my rather more conservative, Reformed perspective – Gallagher also gives us some very helpful thoughts to consider in our celebration of Communion, irrespective of the tradition in which we celebrate it.  For example, as part of her recounting of one serving experience, she says, “Holy Communion was a web, a web of people who were being stitched together.  And tomorrow, we would need to be stitched together again.  Over and over.  One person to the next” (p. 6).

And the Lord is part of that stitching.  She writes, “Jesus wanted his disciples and everyone who came after him to remember what they had together.  What they made together.  What it meant to be together.  How the things he wanted them to do could not be done alone.  How the things he did could not have been done without them” (p. 24, emphasis hers).  Too often, many in the church see a communion-less Communion:  It’s “Jesus ‘n’ me,” instead of “Jesus and us.”  We are all in this together at the Lord’s Table.  Our individualistic approach causes us to lose perspective on the communal nature of our celebration.

Gallagher emphasizes the importance of frequent celebration when she writes, “The regular practice of Communion is meant to help us move from being the citizens of an empire to the citizens of heaven” (p. 34).

Many of her stories are heartwarming; some are heart-wrenching; all make the reader think about what the sacred meal can be for participants.  While I don’t agree with everything in this book, I think it is well worth the 137-page read.

Nora Gallagher, The Sacred Meal.  Nashville:  Thomas Nelson, 2009.  ISBN 978-0-8499-0092-1.

Book Reviews

Book Review: “The Pastor: A Memoir” by Eugene Peterson

“If the book we are reading does not wake us, as with a fist hammering on our skull, why then do we read it?…A book must be like an ice-axe to break the sea frozen inside us.”  So says Eugene Peterson, quoting a letter written by Franz Kafka, in The Pastor:  A Memoir (HarperOne, 2011, p. 90).  Peterson, a Presbyterian pastor, theologian, Bible translator and author, has written over 30 books, and is best known for his Bible translation entitled The Message (published by NavPress in a variety of formats).  I began reading Peterson’s work when I began seminary in 1989.  I have been reading it ever since.

My wife was perusing a book table and spotted this new release.  Thumbing through it, she noticed that it had a chapter entitled, “Company of Pastors”, an area in which
I am doing some research right now.  She bought it, thinking it would be valuable for my research.

To be sure, that chapter was valuable for my studies, but what made it even more valuable was that it whetted my appetite to read the entire book which I have now done – among the most voraciously read 320 pages I have ever ingested.  These past couple of weeks have brought less sleep than usual, because this book has been hard to
put down.  Indeed, this book has awakened me; it has served as an ice-axe to break the sea frozen inside me.  Not to put too fine a point on it, but reading this memoir has renewed my passion for the pastorate.

There’s something about reading the writing of Eugene Peterson – any of his writing – that puts one in a different place spiritually.  If I can’t meet with my spiritual director, reading Peterson comes in a close second.  This book traces the life of this spiritual giant among pastors from his earliest days growing up in Kalispell, Montana, through his discernment of a call to pastoral work in New York, to his near-thirty-year tenure serving the congregation he planted, to stints at teaching in Pittsburgh and Vancouver.

He tells many short stories, and a few long ones.  His family plays a key role in the story of his life, especially his wife, Jan.  She had wanted to be a pastor’s wife from her earliest days, and it is a vocation that she has lived out well.  Her husband describes her role as “hanging around this intersection between heaven and earth and seeing what there is to be done” (p. 194).  Both Peterson and his wife made the focus of their ministry drawing people into God’s story through relationship.  As he describes his ministry, it would be easy to see how many would have loved having him for a pastor.

Peterson is big on the church, and big on God’s kingdom.  He is not fond of mainstream American culture or its exposition in the contemporary church growth movement.  Not everyone who reads this book is going to agree with every conclusion Peterson draws therein, but then, I doubt he would expect them to do so.  I think the only
part of the book I found a bit difficult to swallow came near the end, when he described his appointment to Regent College in Vancouver to teach Spiritual Theology.  The hostess at a bed-and-breakfast at which they initially stayed in Vancouver had greeted them with the words, “Welcome to godless Canada, this godforsaken desert” (p.
310).  While that was just an opinion stated by one individual, I found that Peterson sufficiently entertained it through the chapter (as a motif) to the point that it left me feeling the need inside to defend the ongoing ministry of the gospel in Canada.  I truly hope that Peterson was not left with the impression that Canadians are all godless
after his time here; I trust he met many Canadians who are ardent Christ-followers.  He did admit, however, that he and Jan liked the company of the godless, because, in the words of Karl Barth, “only where graves are is there resurrection” (p. 313):  an apt reminder that new life only emerges from where there is death.

Eugene Peterson has, through his lifetime of ministry and writing, been used of God to bring new life to many who were wallowing in the dust of death.  He has also been used of God to bring renewed hope to pastors caught up in the whirlwind of busyness and the tyranny of the urgent.

Thank you, brother Eugene, for sharing your story, and for sharing yourself.

Book Reviews

BOOK REVIEW: My Soul Purpose® by Richard Leslie Parrott

Let me begin with a full disclosure:  the author is my friend.  He was also my doctoral supervisor.  As a result, I come to review Dr. Richard Parrott’s newest book with a certain bias.

Richard has a story to tell – the story of his own journey, during which he has experienced joys and blessings, as well as pain and turmoil.  My Soul Purpose® is more than a chronologue of his story, however; it is a tool intended to help followers of Christ to search for, and find, the purpose God has for their lives – their soul purpose.  Dr. Parrot’s desire is that believers find their “true and best in Christ”.

The stage is set for the book with a quotation from C.S. Lewis on the title page:  “You don’t have a soul.  You are a Soul.  You have a body.”  Few of us take note of this truth.  Because we can see the body, we tend to regard it as the be-all and end-all of our being.  But the soul, the intangible part of who we are, is really the truth of who we are.

Something I see with alarming and increasing frequency these days is church leaders who are in profound crisis.  That crisis takes on many forms – everything from questioning one’s sense of call to dealing with serious conflict to moral failure.  Having gone through a major burnout myself, I understand what crisis means and what it does.  And I also understand what it means when the author writes, “The crisis of the soul must be faced to live true to your best in Christ” (p. 108).  When I was a student, I was told by one of my supervising pastors that God cannot truly use us until we have been broken.  I didn’t really understand this when I first heard it, even though I acknowledged it to be true.  This is what Dr. Parrott is writing about:  being broken.  But if we leave it there, we’re destined to remain mired and separated from what God’s plans are for us.  We must move beyond brokenness to reach our God-given potential as his people.

Moving through crisis usually involves grieving, which Dr. Parrott acknowledges is hard work.  It is “the soul’s work of healing” (p. 223).  Many people endure crisis without the work of grieving; these are people who find themselves unable to heal, and therefore unable to move on to our “true and best in Christ.”

This is a helpful book, both for individuals and groups.  One cautionary note:  Richard is an American, and so he writes, understandably, from an American perspective and in certain senses for an American audience.  Canadians like me, and people from other parts of the world, will have to do a minor amount of ‘translating’ to make the book their own, but this is a minor matter – something that Canadians are quite used to doing anyway, since so much literature (and particularly Christian literature) comes from the United States.

The companion volume to My Soul Purpose® is a workbook, uniquely styled with a ‘Spiritual Conversations’ section when opened normally, and a ‘Personal Journal’ section when inverted and opened from the other side.  This enables the workbook to be used for group and individual study discretely and respectively.  Each chapter in the book has an accompanying chapter in both ‘sides’ of the workbook.  Richard was wise to prepare the workbook, since I think it serves as a useful companion to the book itself.  Without the thoughts raised in the workbook, or similar material prepared by the reader, My Soul Purpose® would not be as helpful as it is.  Using the workbook allows the reader to process some ‘stuff’, either alone or with others, which may easily be suppressed without the evocation of the workbook’s two parts.

I recommend My Soul Purpose® for both individual and group study.  I hope that many people are able to be moved toward God’s help and healing through it, as they seek their “true and best in Christ.”

Book Reviews

BOOK REVIEW: He Ascended Into Heaven: Learn to live an ascension-shaped life

When it comes to Jesus, talking about his life is fairly common fare; talking about his birth is so ubiquitous as to conjure up the sound of sleigh bells; and talking about his death and resurrection, while perhaps more controversial, are likewise sufficiently ordinary as to draw out the smell of lilies whose stamens remain unscathed.

But conversation about Jesus’ ascension?  Listen for the crickets…

It’s just not that common.  “We have no trouble,” say Tim Perry and Aaron Perry,  “with the other Christological miracles – the incarnation of God in Mary’s womb and the bodily resurrection of Jesus from the grave.  Yet when it comes to the Ascension, we get bogged down by the funny picture of dangling feet” (111).

I remember remarking to my congregation on Ascension Day this year, when preaching through Apostles’ Creed (not coincidentally, on, “he ascended into heaven”) and saying that the world has yet to get its mitts on the Ascension.  There’s Santa Claus and there’s the Easter Bunny, but we have yet to see the Ascension Flamingo flap its way into our midst to accentuate – or ruin – our celebration of the day Jesus went to be with the Father.  For that we can give thanks, while scratching our heads at the same time.  Why?

The confusion (at best) or lack of discussion (at least) is what Tim Perry and Aaron Perry seek to aid in He Ascended Into Heaven:  Learn to live an ascension-shaped life (Paraclete, 2010).

Tim  and Aaron, brothers, are both actively involved in church life.  Tim is an Anglican deacon in the Diocese of Rupert’s Land and professor at Providence College and Seminary in Manitoba, and Aaron is a Wesleyan pastor in Ontario.  Tim has previously written Mary For Evangelicals, which is available from InterVarsity Press.

He Ascended Into Heaven is intended to provide an accessible look at the doctrine of the Ascension of Jesus and how it applies to authentic Christian living today.  I believe it succeeds in so doing.  It does so in a pleasant conversational writing style, with helpful illustrations that are both culturally engaging and historically rooted.  This book would prove useful to pastors seeking better to understand the Ascension for their own preaching and teaching, or for individual believers or small groups looking to enhance their take on this important part of who Jesus is.  The former may find a measure of frustration if they seek to make reference to the quotations in the book, which are referenced at the back but are not footnoted in the traditional way.  (Oddly, too – and this is something for editors to note – the few spelling errors I found in the book were all in the notes!)

The book is divided into two sections, looking at the Ascension and Jesus, followed by the Ascension and the Christian Life.  In this way, the authors exegete the relevant Old and New Testament Scriptures, especially from the Gospel of Luke and the opening chapter of Acts, and then apply what is learned to the life of the follower of Jesus today.  Each chapter is accompanied by a number of pertinent discussion questions for personal or group study.

The Perrys want the reader to see the Ascension of Jesus in its broader biblical context and in the context of the life of the church.  For example, they assert:  “Luke wants us to comprehend the coming of the Spirit as the earthly echo of the heavenly enthronement of the victorious Son” (46).  Too often, Christ followers move from the resurrection at Easter directly to the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost – if they pay any heed at all to the Christian year.  Yet the Great Fifty Days which separate Easter from Pentecost have a profound stop at the fortieth day – if we will pause to recognize it.  Too often, perhaps because Ascension always falls on a Thursday, it becomes the echo of Easter – or something – instead of Pentecost being the echo of the Ascension.  This book will help the reader to attune the ear toward the event of the Ascension as well as the echo that is Pentecost.

The authors also help us to understand the inherent value of confessing our faith, in such historic words as those of the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, in which we affirm the importance of the Ascension of Jesus.  They explain, helpfully, “The confession is a pledge of life and a practice of this pledge to the one who ascended, body and soul, into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.  To confess those words is to pledge our troth – our loyalty – to the one of whom we speak and to practice the identity these words offer” (61).

One application that struck me particularly was to view the apostle Thomas in light of Jesus’ ascension.  “Loyal Thomas, honest Thomas confesses the ascension truth:  ‘My Lord and my God!’” (68, emphasis theirs).  The take on Thomas alone makes it worth reading the book, yet it is just one example of how our reading of the Bible can be enriched by a deeper understanding of the Ascension.

I highly recommend this book.

He Ascended Into Heaven:  Learn to live an ascension-shaped life is published by Paraclete Press in the United States and available in Canada exclusively from Augsburg Fortress Canada – http://www.afcanada.com/store.  I have also seen it offered on http://www.amazon.ca.

Jeff Loach

Feast of St. Irenaeus 2010

Book Reviews

The Way Is Made By Walking

the-way-is-made-by-walkingArthur Paul Boers describes himself as “Seminary professor, Author, Mennonite minister, Benedictine oblate.”  I prefer to describe him as “deep man of God.”  Arthur Boers taught one of my doctoral courses, a course on Christian spirituality.  It was one of the finest and most life-changing courses I ever took.  So anytime I can find a volume written by him, I pick it up and absorb it as soon as I can.

The Way Is Made By Walking is Boers’ theological reflection on a pilgrimage he took along the Camino de Santiago in Spain.  This five hundred mile journey, which he completed on foot in 31 days, had him  meet people of all walks of life – and not all people of faith.  Many were Roman Catholic pilgrims, some were Protestant, but others were of no particular faith persuasion at all.  Boers found his journey enriched by all whom he met.

The book was, to me, a helpful reminder that all of life is a journey, and that the destination is not everything there is to it.  This has been a difficult thing for me to grasp, but over the last few years, God has taught me that the journey matters, and shouldn’t be forsaken in favour of getting to the destination more quickly.

Don’t get me wrong:  I look forward to spending eternity in the presence of God, by faith, and am not afraid of what I will face when I breathe my last.  In fact, I am excited about standing before the throne of grace!  But in the past, I have tended to focus so much on that destination that the journey – this life – played second-fiddle.

I may never walk a five hundred mile pilgrimage.  As much as I enjoy a good walk, I’m not sure I’m built for that kind of pilgrimage.  But I am built, specifically, to fulfill the plans God has for me while I serve him in this life.  And I want to live out those plans to the fullest measure. 

The Way has encouraged me to that end, and I recommend the book for all believers.  Because of its narrative form, it reads fairly quickly, yet has a depth to it that speaks to the soul.  This was not a book in which I highlighted or underlined.  I just let the words speak.  I read it to learn, but not in a ‘how-to’ kind of sense.  And every practicioner of ministry needs a book like that, at least once in a while.

The Way Is Made By Walking is written by Arthur Paul Boers, and was published in 2007 by Inter-Varsity Press.  ISBN 978-0-8308-3507-2.

Book Reviews

Beyond the First Visit: The Complete Guide to Connecting Guests to Your Church

beyond-the-first-visitLately, I’ve become more intentional about welcoming guests at our church, and encouraging others to do the same.  To that end, I’ve read Fusion (see my review here), and now, Beyond the First Visit.  The two volumes have much in common in terms of encouraging the reader to prioritize the importance of first impressions among guests, and to look at the life of the church, and even the property, from the perspective of someone who has never been there before.

 

In this book, author Gary L. McIntosh teaches the reader how to think like an outsider, so that the church can do many things – even post signage – in ways that make sense to the first-timer.  He also warns congregants against badmouthing the church, noting that while a good reputation can be built with hard work, a bad reputation can be created with just a few words – even if what is said is untrue.

 

McIntosh encourages significant advertising, at least four times a year, to reach your target audience.  When that involves newspapers, he wisely suggests not advertising on the “church page”.  After all, who reads the church page?  People who go to church!  If your target audience is guys who watch football, advertise in the sports section.  If it’s people who like movies, advertise in the entertainment section.  Sure, it will cost more, but we’re talking about an investment in eternity here!

 

A good reminder in this book is to give newcomers a task of some sort, so that they get an opportunity to meet other people in the congregation.  In order for guests to become regular participants in the life of the church, they need to form relationships within the congregation.  Engaging them in some task that gets them connected will accomplish this.

 

A most helpful learning point in this book came early on (beginning on page 34) where the author writes about “moments of truth” that guests have when they consider the church.  Those moments of truth are:

  • Receiving an invitation to church
  • Driving by the church building
  • Walking to the front door
  • Entering the front door
  • Meeting people
  • Experiencing ministries and services
  • Entering the sanctuary
  • Participating in the worship service
  • Leaving the worship service
  • Being contacted during the week
  • Ongoing contacts in the future

 

Did you notice that six of those “moments of truth” came before the worship gathering even began?  There are many, many factors that can and will influence guests in their decision to return (or not) to a church, and several of them occur before worship starts.  The worship must be excellent, because God desires our excellence, but we must also focus on that which surrounds it if we are going to encourage guests to return, and become vital parts of the body of Christ.

 

Beyond the First Visit:  The Complete Guide to Connecting Guests to Your Church  by Gary L. McIntosh (Grand Rapids:  Baker, 2006); ISBN 978-0-8010-9184-1

Book Reviews

Essential Church? Reclaiming a Generation of Dropouts

essential-churchIn this follow-up to Simple Church, Thom Rainer and his eldest son, Sam, write about their research – and the implications – of people who drop out of church between the ages of 18 and 22. In most churches, that tends to be the “missing link”. Those who are completing high school and are in their undergraduate years are the people who tend to fall away from the church. In many cases, it’s not an intentional act – it’s something that happens almost by accident. Changing circumstances, changing friend circles, changing pressures – these all contribute.

But so does the church.

The Rainers spend much of the first half of the book sharing the bad news – that young people are leaving the church in droves. But they don’t leave it there: they then offer encouragement to the church on how to work intentionally to keep youth and young adults engaged. One of the key players in each church, according to the book, is the lead pastor. The lead pastor needs to be able to relate to this age group if they’re to be kept. That doesn’t mean that she or he needs to be the youth leader; but it does mean being sensitive to that age group’s peculiar place in life.

One paragraph, near the end of the book, sums up what constitutes an essential church: “Essential churches have simple structures that can be understood and embraced. Essential churches strive to take their members into deeper biblical truths. Essential churches have an environment of high expectations of members. And essential churches seek to multiply, to reach beyond their own fellowship” (p. 222).

The worship life of the church should, of course, engage the youth and young adults and unapologetically make them sense that God is relevant to them. But relationships are the real key. According to the authors, when a congregation is caring, welcoming, authentic and inspirational, many more 18-22 year-olds stay in church than drop out (p. 38).

This was my greatest learning point in this book. I think three of those four characteristics are relatively easily attained by the church. I’m less convinced about one other.

A church can, through effort, become caring, welcoming and inspirational. It takes much more work – and the breaking of many habits – in order for a church to be authentic. Most congregations are not known for being authentic.

 What does that mean?

Lots of people, when they go to church, get dressed up and put on their best ‘game face’. When people ask about them, they say, “Fine!” When they ask about other people, the response is, “Fine!” If someone ever chose to respond by saying, “My life is a shambles and I feel terrible”, folks wouldn’t know how to respond – if they even listened for the response!

To be an authentic church means being real with God, and real with each other. It means being vulnerable. Why should we do this? Simply put, we should be authentic because God knows how we all feel anyway. Furthermore, youth and young adults can see right through our well-intentioned fakery. Let’s be authentic as the church! This will make us even more open to deeper biblical teaching and to high expectations. And then, reaching beyond our walls will become that much easier.

May yours be an essential church!

Essential Church: Reclaiming a Generation of Dropouts by Thom S. Rainer and Sam S. Rainer III (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2008); ISBN 978-0-8054-4392-9.