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.

Book Reviews

Fusion: Turning First-Time Guests Into Fully-Engaged Members of Your Church

fusion_bookjpgOne thing I have in common with every church leader who is keen to see the church blossom and flourish is a desire to reach and retain folks who come to worship as guests.  Recently, I found the book Fusion:  Turning First-Time Guests Into Fully-Engaged Members of Your Churchand devoured it.  It’s not a hard read, not a long read, but is a very practical and useful read.  It’s written by Nelson Searcy (with Jennifer Dykes Henson).  Searcy is a church planter, and pastor of a congregation in New York City that has several sites for its services.  He has come up with an assimilation method that has proven itself to work.  Seeing it on paper, I can see how it would work.

Basically, the idea is to communicate with guests – and regulars – and encourage them to take small but important steps toward commitment to Christ and the local church.  This happens through the use of cards inserted in every Sunday bulletin, incentives to encourage guests to fill them out (as they watch regular attenders fill them out, likewise), follow-up emails and letters, and simple encouragements to get guests to give serious consideration to making your church family their church family.

Searcy’s method is simple and easy to follow.  My one criticism of the book comes from what it assumes is happening:  that is, he assumes that people are coming to faith in Christ through the worship gatherings, or through friends, and that they have likely already made a personal decision to follow Jesus by the time they get to a membership class.  This is not always the case, of course, and he allows for this with an opportunity to lead people to Christ through the membership class.  His theology of church membership is more traditional than biblical, in the sense that church membership as we typically see it is not readily found in Scripture.  However, he points out that membership serves as a means of accountability, something that all growing followers of Christ need if they are to keep growing.

One of Searcy’s greatest points is that people who have come for a few weeks in a row need to be offered a serving opportunity of some sort – greeting, ushering, preparing refreshments, playing in the band, etc. – because they will start to take responsibility for the church as ‘their’ church if they have a serving ministry.  I hadn’t thought seriously about this before, but he’s absolutely right.  As a teen, I was assimilated this way.  I’ve seen many people assimilated under my own ministry – no thanks to me – through the initiative of another who thought to offer newcomers a serving role.

I highly recommend this book, and intend to put it to use this week in my own ministry.

Fusion:  Turning First-Time Guests Into Fully-Engaged Members of Your Church was published by Regal Books in 2007.   ISBN-13:  978-0-8307-4531-9; ISBN-10:  0-8307-4531-9.  You can check the author out on the web at

Book Reviews

FOLLOW ME: What’s Next For You?

Recently, in this post, I reviewed REVEAL:  Where Are You?, published by Willow Creek Community Church following the beginning of its ministry rethink in 2004.  The follow-up volume to REVEAL is FOLLOW ME:  What’s Next For You? (Greg L. Hawkins and Cally Parkinson, Willow Creek Association, 2008).  In this book, the authors follow up REVEAL with their discoveries about what catalyzes spiritual growth.  Their research went beyond the walls of Willow into an additional 200 churches, where 80,000 people were surveyed about their spiritual development.

I won’t give away the findings of the book – let me just say that they were both surprising and not surprising.  Programming isn’t the answer; drawing people into a deeper relationship with Christ is the answer.  And people are drawn into a deeper relationship with Christ when they realize just how head-over-heels in love with them God is.

The big learning point for me in this book is the idea of helping the church shift from making people dependent on the church to creating an interdependent partnership between the church and the maturing believer.  In other words, as people grow more deeply in their faith, their need for the church becomes more of a desire for the church.  The church becomes the coach, the resource-provider, the fellowship-giver, and not the be-all and the end-all of life (that’s Jesus’ job, right?).

I encourage you to pick up both REVEAL and FOLLOW ME.  They’ll be great resources for church leaders as they engage in the continual process of visioning for the church.

Book Reviews

REVEAL: Where are You?

When it was announced to the Christian world in 2007 that one of the largest churches in North America was admitting to making strategic errors in its disciple-making process, a lot of people paid attention


Willow Creek Community Church, a suburban Chicago congregation that has blazed a trail for churches all over the world that yearn to reach seekers, realized that, while they were still growing – even putting up a new, larger worship space – they were at risk of sustaining significant losses from among the congregation’s most mature believers.  It was time to reassess.  That was 2004.


The staff, along with a market research consultant, took three years to look at how ministry was being done, and how it could be done more effectively.  Various surveys were conducted, both in-house and among six other ‘test’ congregations.  The results of this reassessment are summarized in REVEAL:  Where Are You? (Willow Creek Resources, 2007).


The biggest question that was faced was the matter of how one quantitatively measures spiritual development.  It was generally assumed at Willow that deeper involvement in church programs yielded more mature followers of Christ.  But that method, according to their research, was flawed.  Not only did they learn that involvement in many programs did not necessarily bring about a deeper life in Christ, they also learned that the more mature that the believer becomes, the less she or he tends to rely on the local church as a place for spiritual growth.


This is a short read – a matter of just a couple of hours.  The book is attractively designed with full-colour, easily-understood graphs and well-written text.  It leaves one wanting to read more.


Good news:  there is more.  The follow-up volume, FOLLOW ME:  What’s Next For You? is next on my reading pile.


I love the humility with which Willow Creek has undertaken not only to reverse the trend they were seeing in their own congregation, but to share it with the rest of the world, so that churches everywhere may benefit from what they have learned.  That’s a Kingdom mentality that would be amazing to see in more places.

Book Reviews

Simple Church

Simple Church:  Returning To God’s Process For Making Disciples


Thom Rainer has devoted much of his life to consulting with churches to help them be all that they can be in God.  He collaborated with Eric Geiger, the executive pastor of a large Florida church, to write Simple Church:  Returning to God’s Process For Making Disciples (Broadman & Holman, 2006; ISBN 978-0-8054-4390-5).  Their study of a number of American churches has much to teach the rest of us about how “doing church” in a complicated fashion actually hinders our efforts at making disciples for Jesus.


It might seem axiomatic that the more programs a church offers, the more opportunities it has to disciple people.  But the reality is that churches that offer very few programs are more successful at making disciples.  Why?  Because their emphasis on fewer programs – on ‘doing church’ simply – allows them to concentrate their energies into reaching people in the ways that fit their vision.


We live in a busy society, so doing things simply is actually counter-cultural!  We hear of congregations that focus on few things in order to do them well, and we find that they are immensely successful at what they seek to do!  For instance, my friend Carey Nieuwhof, who has planted a church in the past year, has revolutionized the ministry’s efforts by concentrating on just two things:  Sunday morning services and weeknight community groups.  The result?  People are coming to faith in Christ, and the leadership gets to spend more time with family because they’re not programmed to death.  Margin is being built into leaders’ lives, while those participating in the congregation’s life are making decisions for Christ through their simple process.


“Process” is actually a big word for Rainer and Geiger.  They claim that if all ministries revolve around the simple process that is created for the church, and is defined with clarity and regularly communicated to the congregation, it is possible to grow the church around simplicity.


They define a simple church as “a congregation designed around a straight-forward and strategic process that moves people through the stages of spiritual growth” (p. 60).


Sounds simple, eh?  It is – especially for churches that are new start-ups.  The authors spend much of the book helping all the other leaders – most of them, really – who need help to transform an existing, complex church into a simple one.  And it isn’t easy.  It involves change, and plenty of it.  One of the longer chapters is devoted to “removing congestion”, and another to “saying No to almost everything” – challenging propositions to say the least.


The authors do a good job of helping the reader understand the main impetus, the principal reason for taking something that may be unbearably complex and making it simple:  people’s lives are on the line, for eternity.  And we want people’s hearts and lives to be changed, not only to get them into heaven, but to answer the petition of the Lord’s Prayer which asks that God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. 


We have a long way to go, but Simple Church is a valuable tool to help us get there.

Book Reviews


UnChristian:  What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity…And Why It Matters


I remember listening to the Catalyst Podcast when it was announced that Gabe Lyons was leaving the Catalyst family to set off on his own.  And what he “set off” to do was create the Fermi Project, through which Lyons engaged the Barna Group to survey a new generation of Americans about their views of the church.  The results of this survey are shared anecdotally and expanded upon in UnChristian (Baker, 2007; ISBN 0-8010-1300-3) with David Kinnaman, the President of the Barna Group.


Set your fears aside, though:  this is not another book of statistics.  Yes, there are numbers in this book, and if you like to read appendices, you’ll even find some paragraphs that would make a statistician’s heart go all aflutter.  But the book itself spends most of its effort on helping the reader understand why the statistics are so ominous for the church if it chooses to maintain the status quo.  (A somewhat parallel volume for Canadians, in my opinion, is The Boomer Factor by Reginald Bibby, which I am still reading.)


Kinnaman and Lyons seek to help the reader understand why it is important for the church of Jesus Christ to reach young people.  For example, did you know that research bears out the idea that most of us have a better chance of becoming Christ-followers before we become adults than after?  “In fact, for every one hundred people who are not born again by the time they reach the age of eighteen, only six of those individuals will commit their lives to Christ for the first time as an adult” (pp. 72-73).  Does that alone not give us reason to emphasize the spiritual foundations we give to children and youth?


God invites the church to be full of grace and truth, even as Jesus himself was full of grace and truth (John 1.14).


The sad thing is that, according to this research, the young generation of today sees the American church as hypocritical, ‘salvation-only’ focused, anti-homosexual, sheltered, too political, and judgmental.   While there would have to be some adjustments made, many of these same accusations could be levelled against the Canadian church as well.


Reading this book will help you appreciate the changes that the church needs to make in order to be able to reach a new generation of people for the Lord.

Book Reviews

Who Stole My Church?

Picture this:  you have been a faithful participant in your local church for most of your life.  As you grow older, a new generation of leaders takes the helm and leads the congregation in a direction that departs from what you remember as normative.  You grow increasingly uncomfortable with how things are being done – especially in worship – and you begin to wonder, “Who stole my church?”


Gordon MacDonald, a prolific Christian author, columnist, and pastor from the United States, has written a book that tells the (fictitious) story of one such congregation in Who Stole My Church?  What to Do When the Church You Love Tries to Enter the 21st Century (Thomas Nelson, 2007).  As a pastor and conference speaker, he has faced that very question sufficiently often that he decided to write a book that would tell the story of a congregation going through such a crisis, of which he was the pastor.  The tale is entirely fictional, but based on events that happen in real churches across the western world. 


The book reads relatively quickly because of its narrative style, but the principles he draws from the story are incredibly helpful.  I bought and read the book because a good friend and mentor told me “Every Presbyterian in Canada should read this book.”  As one of those, I took his advice, and am glad I did.


For pastors, it helps us see what goes through members of the congregation who are beginning to feel alienated by the process of change and change itself.  For laypeople, the book expresses what many feel, while also enabling ‘innovators’ and ‘early adopters’ to understand the thoughts and feelings of the  ‘early majority’, the ‘late majority’ and the ‘laggards’ in the congregation.  Those who adapt to change easily can be just as easily frustrated by those who do not – and vice-versa.


One of the life lessons in this book has to do with the value of listening to each other.  Another has to do with the importance of intergenerational dialogue.  When the young and the old start to understand and appreciate each other, the process of change can become more tolerable.


If the church is to thrive, change is inevitable.  But it is never easy.  However, MacDonald’s book helps the reader understand how and why change must happen in the church from biblical, historical and sociological perspectives.  I found it a really helpful book.


Buy it, and share it with key leaders in your church, as well with as those who resist change.  It can only help the cause of Christ.

Book Reviews

The Shack

The ShackFirst, a confession:  I don’t read much fiction.  That’s not to say I don’t read for pleasure, but what I read for pleasure, generally, is not fiction (unless you count the unmistakable “April Fool!” article that appears in the fourth-month edition of Model Railroader each year).  No, except for the occasional indulgence I afford myself through the creative work of the late Robertson Davies, I mostly read stuff that’s going to help me in my work or help me in my hobby.


My wife read The Shack on the recommendation of one of our bookstore staff at the Canadian Bible Society; both are voracious readers and stellar bibliophiles in their own right.  When these two women tell me to read something, I usually give it serious consideration.  Then, one night while watching the ‘desk bit’ on The Tonight Show, Jay Leno made mention of The Shack.  He wasn’t reviewing it or promoting it, he was merely using it as a jumping-off point for his shtick.  But in a strange way, that simple, backhanded compliment to a piece of Christian fiction was enough to strengthen my resolve to put it nearer the top of the reading pile.


I had the luxury of spending some concentrated reading time in the past few days, and, through my residual tears, feel compelled to write my review of The Shack herewith.  The reader’s comments are solicited, and the reader is hereby implored – nay, begged – to get a copy and read it.  Today.


Is that enough of an endorsement for you?


The Shack chronicles the story of Mack, a husband and father whose life experiences leave him somewhat cynical and fairly confident in his functional atheism that masks as ritualistic religiosity.  However, through a note left in his mailbox one icy Oregon spring day, Mack is led on a journey that takes him not only deep into the forest, but even deeper into his scarred soul.


The Shack will have its share of critics, not all of whom will remember that this is, first of all, a work of fiction.  Some will bristle at the introduction of an image of God as a large, African-American woman.  But it is a work of fiction.  Some will react to the idea of the Holy Spirit as a wispy Asian woman.  But it is a work of fiction.  Jesus, on the other hand, shows up largely as one would expect:  a Jewish male carpenter.


This is logical, of course, and even the fictitious work gets a thoroughly non-fiction explanation of this imagery.


Where the fiction ends and the non-fiction begins, of course, comes in the fact that this volume, at fewer than 250 pages, engages the reader theologically, not least in a systematic theology that would make John Calvin or Charles Hodge proud, and a treatise of the Trinity that would impress Miroslav Volf or Jurgen Moltmann.  What’s more, with great respect to these excellent writers, William P. Young, the previously unknown (to me) author of The Shack, has made systematic theology and the Trinity entirely accessible to all people.


Rather than give away the plot of the book, permit me to cite two quotations that struck me especially (though there are many more quotable quotes within this book).  The first touches on theodicy:  “…just because I work incredible good out of unspeakable tragedies doesn’t mean I orchestrate the tragedies” (God speaking, page 185).  Many people wonder where God is in the midst of unspeakable difficulty; this defence clarifies it, in my opinion, exceptionally well.


The second quotation touches at the heart of God’s desire to see us move from being religious people to being people in deep relationships with each other and with God.  The Holy Spirit says, “…I don’t want to be first among a list of values; I want to be at the center of everything.  When I live in you, then together we can live through everything that happens to you” (page 207).


Ultimately, the goal of this book is to draw the reader into an ever-deepening relationship with God – a relationship modelled on the inter-relationship of the Trinity itself.


True, as my friend John G. Stackhouse, Jr. points out in his review of The Shack, the book paints an unfortunately grim picture of both the institutional church and of theological education – and these are not the only areas touched on in the book that deserve, at least, proper qualification.  But there is much in this book (as John also points out) that is truly awe-inspiring in its ability to point the reader in the right direction when it comes to understanding God.


In short, you should read this book, whoever you are.  And if you have a friend or loved one who struggles with the prickly issue of forgiveness, buy a copy and give it to that person.  Bathe it in prayer, and you may find that he or she comes out, 248 pages later, a different person.


I know I did.

Book Reviews, Defending the faith

An Emergent Conversation

In this first decade of the new millennium, there has arisen within western Christianity a discussion that has become “the emergent conversation”.  I am reluctant to call it a ‘movement’, because its (non-) spokespeople refuse to see it as a movement, or a new denomination, or anything more than a conversation in the literal sense of the term. 

The emergent conversation’s de facto (non-) spokesman has become Brian McLaren.  You can google his name and find out lots about him, including the several books he has written to generate discussion in the church.  Granted, much of what he and others have written is mostly germane to those based in evangelicalism, but it also speaks to those in other expressions of Christianity.

I have read some of McLaren – not as much as I would like to – and some of Dan Kimball, perhaps one of the more conservative of those who affiliate themselves with the emergent conversation.  My first introduction to sincere critique of the discussion came through reading Becoming Conversant With the Emerging Church by D.A. Carson.  I picked it up because I have immense respect for the work of Carson, a Canadian New Testament theologian who teaches at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School near Chicago.

Carson’s book is an expanded version of several lectures he gave on the subject of the emergent conversation (the terms emerging and emergent are often used interchangeably, not always with the approval of all concerned).  It is full of footnotes and is, in my opinion, an excellent but laborious read.

More recently, I have read Why We’re Not Emergent (By Two Guys Who Should Be) [Moody, 2008], written by Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck.  I saw their promotional website and read the first chapter online – which compelled me to find and purchase the book as quickly as I could.  DeYoung is a Christian Reformed Church pastor in Lansing, Michigan, and Kluck (a member of DeYoung’s congregation) is a staff writer for the American sports network ESPN.  These two guys are in their early thirties, and involved in an evangelical Protestant American church – thus the sub-heading, “(By Two Guys Who Should Be)”.  DeYoung is, predictably, more theological in his writing style, and Kluck is more experiential in his.  But each is an excellent writer in his own right and both complement each other (by writing alternate chapters).

These men have done their homework.  They have read the source material on which they base their book with a thoroughness that would make their university professors proud.  And while I don’t see relying on someone else’s reading of source material as a long-term substitute for reading it oneself, it gives the reader of their book some useful knowledge when conversing – ahem – with the conversation.

Their goal was to have written in such a way that if either of them met an emergent conversation (non-) spokesperson at a conference, they’d be able to have a friendly conversation.  I admire this, since there is much too much polemic among writers in the church today who critique (or criticize) other writers and thinkers with whom they disagree.

At 256 pages, it’s not the quickest read in the world, but it is a very worthwhile read.  It’s not often that one picks up a theological volume and finds it hard to put down, but that’s how Why We’re Not Emergent was for me.  Kluck’s chapters read faster than DeYoung’s, predictably, but both were well worth the read.

It would take more bandwith than is fair to offer all the highlights of the book I found salient, but suffice it to say I believe this book needs to be read by anybody who has read or heard of people like Brian McLaren, Dan Kimball, Doug Pagitt, Rob Bell, Spencer Burke, Donald Miller, Erwin McManus, Tony Jones, and others affiliated with the emergent conversation.  Here’s one reason why, in the words of DeYoung:  “Being a Christian – for Burke, for McLaren, for Bell, for Jones, and for many others in the emerging conversation – is less about faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ as the only access to God the Father and the only atonement for sins before a wrathful God, and more about living the life that Jesus lived and walking in His way” (page 120).

To be sure, it is crucial (and I choose that word carefully) to live the life that Jesus lived and walk in his way.  Not to do so is to miss a significant part of what it means to be a follower of Christ.  But to boil down the Christian faith to an ethic based on carefully selected passages from Matthew, Mark, Luke and John is to miss an equally significant part of what it means to be a follower of Christ!  While pointing out some of the perceived weaknesses of the emergent conversation, this book is more about a call to theological clarity – to knowing what and why we believe what we do – as a basis for living and walking the Jesus way.

Like every other movement (or non-movement, or conversation) that has emerged (!) in the history of Christianity, the emergent conversation will leave a legacy to the church.  The desire of the authors of this book is that its legacy be positive and biblical, that it build up the church rather than water it down.  The great fear of many is that ’emergent’ could, if left uncritiqued, leave the church merely with a new-old liberalism which will not build the kingdom of God.

Ultimately, the desire of all involved – emergents and critics alike – is, I trust, to give glory to God and to make him known to all and loved in the hearts of all people, and to make God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven, through our living out of that glory we give to God.

I’d love to hear from others – personal experience of the emergent conversation, reading of emergent writers, and both laud for what they do and criqitue of their shortcomings.  What are you thinking?

Book Reviews

The Last Word (well, not really)

N.T. Wright, Anglican Bishop of Durham, England, and New Testament scholar, has become a theologian of note in recent years, both in his homeland and points west.  In all of his popular writing, he does a most admirable job of making the not-terribly-simple quite accessible to the average reader.

In 2005, he published The Last Word:  Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of Scripture(Harper SanFrancisco; published as Scripture and the Authority of Godby SPCK in the UK).  It is, essentially, a book on hermeneutics – what theologians otherwise call the study of biblical interpretation.  The title is sufficiently intriguing as to make one want to read it.  And with an artistic version of the Last Supper on the cover (remember The DaVinci Code?), I suspect it has been a popular read.  It’s not surprising that Wright would author a book on the Bible, given that he is the current President of the British and Foreign Bible Society.

Essentially, Wright’s thesis is a definition of “the authority of Scripture”.  The phrase, “the authority of Scripture” has been used and abused throughout Christian history, and Wright wants to clarify the meaning for a new generation.  What he says is, “‘Authority of Scripture’ Is a Shorthand for ‘God’s Authority Exercised through Scripture” (page 23 heading, emphasis his).

As part of the process of unpacking his thesis, Wright attempts to debunk some terms that are tossed around somewhat haphazardly in all circles of Christian thought.  For example, we often hear the term ‘literal’ when it comes to an interpretation of Scripture.  Wright says, “For them (the Reformers), the ‘literal’ sense was the sense that the first writers intended” (page 73, emphasis his).  Nowadays, when we say, “The Bible says…”, we often are reading it through our own eyes with our own baggage.  What made the Reformation revolutionary was the desire to read the Bible as it was first intended by those who wrote down the words in the first place.

Rather than be strictly theoretical, Wright seeks to help the reader apply the theory.  On the matter of what it means to live by the authority of Scripture, he says, “Perhaps it is only under pressure from our cultured despisers that we will get down to the task we should never have abandoned, that of continually trying to understand and live by our foundation texts even better than our predecessors” (page 96).  That can look somewhat different for different folks, one might successfully argue, but it certainly is a fine place from which to begin dialogue.

Wright even bravely ventures into the liberal/conservative debate and what are the misreadings of Scripture found in each tradition.  Whether one falls on the liberal side of theology, the conservative side, or somewhere in between, the author offers an excellent challenge to define what we mean by various terms and phrases with characteristic effectiveness.

At 146 pages, this is not a long read, but it is a worthwhile one.  However, I doubt it will be “the last word” on biblical interpretation!

Book Reviews

The Inevitable Stress

In my work, I get to talk to a lot of pastors.  I try to encourage them by reminding them, and anybody else who will hear me, that one of the hardest jobs in today’s world is to be the pastor of the local church.  I know this, because I’ve been one.  One of the inevitabilities of being pastor of the local church is stress, usually in copious quantities.

Tony Pappas wrote a little book back in 1995 that I wish I had read back in 1995.  It’s entitled Pastoral Stress:  Sources of Tension, Resources For Transformation (Alban Institute).  In just over 140 pages, he writes helpfully and with personal anecdote about how to recognize and deal with stress in ministry, and where much of that stress comes from, in terms of family systems.  The role of the pastor in the system or systems that make up the church can be major stressors. 

Stress can be a gift if we recognize it for what it is and seek God in the midst of it.  Anxiety, on the other hand, is purely optional.  Anxiety is often our natural response to stress, yet God invites us to look beyond the immediate moment to the bigger picture of what his Body in that particular place is, and can be.

It would take too long to delineate the examples and the sources that Pappas offers in his book.  Suffice it to say that, had I read this book back when it was published, I might not have made some of the mistakes I’ve made.  (Alternatively, I might have made them with at least a greater sense of conviction!) 

Much of the book may make more sense to American readers, since he writes from within that culture and context, but Canadian pastors and church leaders will strongly identify with much of what is in this book.

Toward the end, Pappas points out that the culture around the church is changing, and the church (and its culture[s]) have a responsibility before God to grapple with that.  When this book was published, some of those cultural shifts which we consider normative today were just poking above the surface of the landscape (to mix my metaphors).  This is one of the greatest challenges that faces the church of Jesus Christ today, and while Pappas did not deal with it at length, his work gives the reader several tools for discernment.

I recommend this book.

Book Reviews

The Crucifixion of Ministry

At the suggestion of a trusted friend and respected colleague (the same person, I might add), I recently picked up The Crucifixion of Ministry(IVP, 2007).  It was a relatively quick and powerful read – and is worthwhile reading for all Christ-followers, not just pastors.

 The author:  Andrew Purves is a Scottish-born and trained professor of pastoral theology at Pittsburgh (Presbyterian) Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  His pastoral experience is somewhat limited, but his experience as a teacher of pastors, both graduate and post-graduate, is extensive.  He spoke at the February 2008 continuing education week at The Presbyterian College, Montreal; I wasn’t there, but a few friends who were spoke of him in exemplary terms.

 The thesis:  Purves’ point to the reader is that it’s not we who do ministry, but Jesus Christ.  Our responsibility is to get out of the way and let him do ministry – through us.

The review:  Purves reveals his traditional approach to ministry throughout the book, and while this is somewhat unsettling to those who are attempting to engage in ministry in more relevant and biblical ways, his theological point is spot-on.  He makes it crystal-clear, as a theologian within the mainline church, that unless we embrace the orthodox, historically-held tenets of the Christian faith – particularly with respect to the doctrine of the Trinity and the role of the Lord Jesus in redemption and sanctification – the mainline church will continue its downward spiral.  If Jesus is not Lord of the church, then the church is not the church and its ministry will not be ministry, but social work.

For Purves, truth is not a ‘what’ question, but a ‘Who’ question.  It was no accident that Jesus said that he is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14.6).  And, to use his words, the Christological dog must wag the ministerial tail.  When God’s people engage in ministry, their responsibility is not to ask, “How can I minister most effectively?”, but “Where is Jesus in this situation and how can his grace be made most manifest?” (my paraphrase).  We come bearing God’s love first and foremost.

The church exists to bear witness to Jesus Christ, says Purves.  Anything less is not ministry.  Ministry is what Jesus does, and we are responsible to get with Jesus’ program.

Purves wrote this book with tired, embittered, burned out pastors in mind, but all of us can benefit from his work.  For those who are tired, embittered or burned out, however, his words are a soothing balm.

It’s about 150 pages including a few case studies.  I think it’s worth the read.  It may change your approach to ministry, at whatever level you minister.