The Pietist Option | Book Review


American Christianity is in a parlous state. It constitutes a shrinking share of the population. And in terms of worship service attendance, most of its churches are shrinking too.

Regarding share of the population, most Americans continue to identify as Christians, but that number is declining. According to America’s Changing Religious Landscape, a 2015 report from Pew Research Center, 70.6 percent of Americans identify as Christians, down from 78.4 percent only seven years earlier. Over the same period, so-called “nones” — that is, Americans with no religious affiliation — increased their share of the population from 16.1 to 22.8 percent.

Regarding worship service attendance, Thom Rainer argues that 65 percent of churches are plateaued (9 percent) or declining (56 percent) in worship service attendance. That’s better than the 80 percent figure often bandied about, but it’s still not good. Just a little over 1 in 3 churches (35 percent) are growing.

These data are rough metrics of church health, of course, but it’s difficult to believe the American church is doing well when its numbers head south over such a short period of time. What is to be done? How should American Christianity be renewed?

That is the question Christopher Gehrz and Mark Pattie III take up in their new book, The Pietist Option. Gehrz is a professor of history at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Pattie is senior pastor of Salem Covenant Church in nearby New Brighton. Both are members of the Evangelical Covenant Church, a denomination with Swedish Pietist roots.

Pietism arose in late-17th-century Germany as a response to the perceived spiritual coldness of orthodox Lutheranism. Its first advocate was Philip Jacob Spener (1635–1705), whose 1675 book Pia Desideria outlined a Pietist plan of renewal. (The book’s full title is Heartfelt Desire for a God-pleasing Reform of the True Evangelical Church, Together with Several Simple Christian Proposals Looking Toward This End.)

Gehrz and Pattie self-consciously utilize the outline of Pia Desideria in their book. Noting differences between the circumstances of German Lutheranism in 1675 compared to American Christianity today, they nonetheless think Spener’s basic themes were on target. Thus, their proposals for renewal include:

  • A more extensive listening to the Word of God
  • The common priesthood for the common good
  • Christianity as life
  • The irenic spirit
  • Whole-person, whole-life formation
  • Proclaiming the good news

The authors illustrate these themes from Scripture and Pietist history, but they also show how each theme is desperately needed in today’s churches.

Although I am a Pentecostal, not a Pietist, these themes deeply resonated with my heart. The primary reason for this is that they have deep biblical roots. But a secondary reason is that Pietist instincts long ago slipped the boundaries of Pietist institutions and affected the broader Christian world. Moravian Pietists, for example, deeply influenced the spirituality of John Wesley, who in turn formed the spirituality of Methodism and evangelicalism, which in turn shaped my own tribe’s spiritual sensibilities.

A final reason why The Pietist Option so deeply resonated with me is its Jesus-centeredness. The entire program of Pietism, if program is the right term, can be summarized in four words: Come back to Jesus. Gehrz and Pattie write:

… Pietists who live in, with, and for the person of Jesus probably feel his presence more than they think about the idea of Christ. But they also tend to suspect that if we answer the call to “Come back to Jesus,” we’ll soon find that being a Christ-follower is both less and more than we’ve assumed.

Less because if those four words are the call, then there’s a good chance that we’ve made Christianity too complicated. So Pietists simplify. For example, their lists of essential doctrines tend to be short…

More in that answering that call leads to growth, to change so radical that we can only start to describe it with two of the New Testament’s most audacious metaphors: new birth (Jn 3:7) and new life (e.g., Rom 6:4). Pietists fully expect the encounter with Jesus to be transformative …

The Pietist Option is not a full-orbed battle plan for the Christianization of American society. It doesn’t outline a rigorous intellectual apologetic, for example, nor does it detail the shape of the reform of church and culture. It doesn’t necessarily oppose those things, I should add — although “irenic spirit” and “culture war” don’t jibe. But my guess is that Pietism doubts Christian ideas and reforms will work if Christians themselves don’t first and foremost have a living trust in Jesus.

So, come back to Jesus! It’s not the only thing to say about the renewal of Christianity, but it’s certainly fundamental.

 

Book Reviewed
Christopher Gehrz and Mark Pattie III, The Pietist Option: Hope for the Renewal of Christianity (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2017).

P.S. This review was written for InfluenceMagazine.com and appears here by permission.

P.P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

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How God Turns a Mess into a Masterpiece | Influence Podcast


Last Tuesday, Rick DuBose began his tenure as general treasurer of the Assemblies of God (USA). I interviewed him for the Influence Podcast over at InfluenceMagazine.com. We talked about the process God uses to turn our messes–personally, congregationally, socially–into masterpieces. Take a listen!

NIV Reader’s Bible | Book Review


Most Americans own a Bible, but few read it. To be more precise, according to LifeWay Research, while 87 percent of all Americans own a Bible, 53 percent have read little to none of it. Only 1 in 5 Americans have read the Bible at least once.

No doubt there are many reasons for this disparity between ownership and readership. The Bible is a big book, for one thing. Differences between ancient culture and contemporary culture mean the Bible is not always easy to understand, for another. Finally, it teaches us about God and His ways. If you think God is easy to understand, think again! As the apostle Paul put it in Romans 11:33: “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!”

Alongside size, age and complexity, I’d like to suggest one more reason why people don’t read the Bible: format. My NIV Thinline is printed with two columns per page and 8.4-point font size. (NIV stands for New International Version, by the way.) It has chapter and verse numbers, section headings and footnotes. Other formats include cross-references on each page.

And then there are study Bibles. My NIV Study Bible has 2,560 pages and weighs in at 5.4 pounds. (Strangely, no one calls it a Fatline even though it’s huge.) In addition to all the above, it has over 20,000 study notes, as well as 400 full-color pictures, maps, charts and illustrations. The biblical text is printed in a readable 10-point font, but everything else is much smaller and therefore harder to read.

Now, there are many advantages to packing all this information into a single-volume Bible. It’s an economical way to provider readers with high-end scholarship they need to understand God’s Word. It also makes the Bible look like a dictionary, encyclopedia or textbook, and we all know how little Americans like to read those.

That’s why I’m glad that so-called Reader’s Bibles are the new trend in Bible publishing. Each page has exactly one column. Font size is bigger. There are no chapter or verse numbers, let alone section headings, footnotes or cross-references. Prose is printed in paragraphs; poetry is printed in stanzas. The Bible is printed like an ordinary book, perfect for ordinary readers.

For some time now, I have used the ESV Reader’s Bible for daily devotional reading. (ESV stands for English Standard Version.) The format makes it easier to read and enjoy Scripture over longer periods of time. The problem is, the ESV is not my preferred translation. The NIV is, but there was no comparable NIV product.

Until now.

This month, Zondervan released the NIV Reader’s Bible with both imitation leather and hardboard covers. It is comparable in size to the ESV Reader’s Bible. The table below lists the two Bibles’ respective pages, font size, trim size and weight:

 

NIV Reader’s Bible ESV Reader’s Bible
Pages 1,984 1,840
Font size 10.5 9.5
Trim size 5.25 x 8.5 inches 5.25 x 7.75 inches
Weight 44.8 ounces 32.7 ounces

 

While both the ESV and the NIV are reliable translations, the NIV is typically easier to read, in my opinion. It was updated in 2011 to track changes in the English language since its original publication in 1978.

When you combine the NIV’s ease of reading with the fact that it is the best-selling contemporary translation in the United States, especially among evangelical Christians, using it is an obvious choice. It is likely the translation used by your pastor, in your pew Bible and in Sunday school and small group curriculum. The NIV is a solid translation from reputable scholars in readable English.

And now, the NIV Reader’s Bible puts that readable translation into a readable format. The NIV Reader’s Bible became my go-to devotional Bible the moment I received it. I hope you will give it a look too. The NIV Reader’s Bible will help turn you from a Bible owner to a Bible reader.

 

Book Reviewed
NIV Reader’s Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017).

P.S. This review was written for InfluenceMagazine.com and appears here by permission.

P.P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

Rebel in the Ranks | Book Review


October 31, 2017, marks the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation. On that date in 1517, an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther posted a document calling for academic debate on the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg, Saxony. The posting of this document — titled, Disputation on the Power of Indulgences, or more popularly Ninety-five Theses — inaugurated the process whereby Luther broke with the Roman Catholic Church, the end results of which are still felt today.

The consequences of the Protestant Reformation are the subject of Brad S. Gregory’s new book, Rebel in the Ranks: Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the Conflicts That Continue to Shape Our World. Luther and other Protestants intended to reform the Church. That was their stated aim. However, it is not that consequence, but three other unintended consequences that capture Gregory’s attention.

The first was “the proliferation of so many rival versions of Protestantism.” Protestants agree that Scripture alone (sola Scriptura) is the final authority for Christians in matters of faith and practice. They came to this view as their debates with Roman Catholic theologians about indulgences and other matters raised the question of what authority everyone must acknowledge as the final authority in such matters.

The problem was that acknowledging Scripture’s final authority did not result in a unified interpretation of Scripture. Instead, Protestants argued amongst themselves: Lutheran versus Zwinglian versus Reformed versus Anabaptist. To this day, while there is one Roman Catholic Church (at least nominally), there is no one Protestant Church — only Protestant churches, who still disagree among themselves, often to the point of breaking communion with one another.

Secondly, Gregory argues, “Just as the reformers never intended to pave the way for any and all interpretations of God’s Word, so they never intended to facilitate endless doctrinal controversy or recurrent violence, let alone to divide Christendom itself.” Again, their stated aim was to reform the Church, not to break it. And yet, it broke nonetheless.

Part of the reason for this was that in the 16th and 17th centuries, religion was always “more-than-religion,” as Gregory puts it. He explains what he means by way of a contrast: “Religion today is a distinct area of life — separate from your career, professional relationships, recreational activities, consumer behavior, and so on. None of this was true in the early sixteenth century: religion was neither a matter of choice nor separate from the rest of life.” Because of this, controversies in religion became controversies in society, culture, politics and economics. The Wars of Religion in the 16th and 17th century were the most violent expressions of these conflicts, but not the only ones.

These two unintended consequences, in combination, defined the major political problem modernity had to solve. If people cannot agree on how to interpret the Bible, and if their disagreements lead to social conflict and war, what must be done to achieve peace? The answer that began to emerge in the 17th century can be captured in a single word: secularization.

Gregory defines a secular society as “one in which religion would be separate from public life, becoming instead a matter of individual preference.” If religion in medieval society was more-than-religion, then religion in modern society had to become less-than-life. It had to become a component, not the whole. This diminishment of the scope of religion was accompanied by an increase in the scope of personal freedom. Medieval Christendom may have been dominated by a Christian worldview, but in modern society, individuals “can believe whatever they want to believe about morality or purpose and live their lives accordingly.” In short, as Gregory notes, “The Reformation is a paradox: a religious revolution that led to the secularization of society.”

There are benefits to this secularization, of course. Religious freedom — more broadly, freedom of conscience — is the most obvious one. But there are downsides as well. Secularization was meant to bring peace among warring Christian nations, but secular societies have not proven themselves to be necessarily peaceful ones, as the fate of 20th-century Communist nations so tragically attests.

Indeed, secular societies are characterized by what Gregory calls “hyperpluralism.” If it was hard to unite societies divided between Protestants and Catholics (or among Protestants), how easy will it be to unite a society where 51 flavors of religion, non-religion and irreligion are on offer?

“So here we are,” Gregory concludes, “so very free and so very far away from Martin Luther and what he started in a small town in Germany five hundred years ago.”

 

Book Reviewed
Brad S. Gregory, Rebel in the Ranks: Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the Conflicts That Continue to Shape Our World (New York: HarperOne, 2017).

P.S. This review was written for InfluenceMagazine.com and appears here by permission.

P.P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

Mere Sexuality | Book Review


How should Christians think about human sexuality? That is the question Todd Wilson asks in his new book, Mere Sexuality: Rediscovering the Christian Vision of Sexuality. Wilson (Ph.D., Cambridge University) is senior pastor of Calvary Memorial Church in Oak Park, Illinois, and cofounder and chairman of The Center for Pastor Theologians. His is a timely book, given the sea change of opinion and practice that has washed over Western culture since the middle of the 20th century.

“Did you know,” Wilson asks, “despite a genuine diversity of views expressed along the way, the church has held to a coherent view of human sexuality for centuries?” With a nod to C. S. Lewis, he calls this view “mere sexuality,” that is, “what most Christians at most times in most places have believed about human sexuality.”

The book touches on “a whole range of biblical, theological, cultural, and practical questions.” These include biblical and theological reflections on biological sex, gender identity, marriage, sexual intercourse, celibacy and homosexuality.

For example, Chapter 2, “The Sexuality of Jesus,” looks at what the Incarnation says about sexuality. Many who write on this topic look at Jesus’ words and actions for guidance. What did He teach about sexual immorality? How did He interact with sexual sinners?

This is appropriate, of course, but Wilson thinks we ought to look deeper at what Jesus’ person teaches us about human sexuality. He writes:

The Son of God, though biologically sexed, lived a sex-free, fully contented life. Not an easy, pain-free existence, but a whole and deeply and richly human life. This is a remarkable fact — one that confronts all of us, whether we’re same-sex-attracted or straight, married or single. It also confronts our secular culture and the evangelical church culture as well — I suspect in some uncomfortable ways. I find it’s easy to forget (and tempting to resist the idea) that I don’t need sex to be satisfied. Jesus didn’t, and yet he was supremely satisfied in God…

One of the main claims of mere sexuality, as it has been articulated and practiced throughout the church’s history, is that while sexuality (our being biologically sexed as male and female) is central to what it means to be human, sexual activity is not. If we want to be fully human, we have to embrace our sexed bodies. But we don’t have to engage in sexual activity to be fully human. The life of the Son of God makes that perfectly clear.

The Incarnation itself, in other words, challenges the “pervasive and powerful cultural myth” of “our hypersexualized contemporary culture,” namely, that “sexual activity is essential to human fulfillment — that you can’t be human without it.”

I quote this particular passage not because it is the end of Wilson’s discussion — the book goes on for five more chapters — but because it is a badly needed example of how doctrine can inform practice. We cannot present a Christian view of human sexuality unless we have examined it through a theological lens. What we believe about Creation, the Fall, Christ, the Resurrection, and eschatology shapes — at least, it should shape — how we think about and practice sexuality.

Mere Sexuality is written for a broad audience, so it can be read profitably by pastors and laity alike. It would make a good text for discussion in book clubs and small groups. I highly recommend it.

 

Book Reviewed
Todd Wilson, Mere Sexuality: Rediscovering the Christian Vision of Sexuality (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017).

P.S. This review was written for InfluenceMagazine.com and appears here by permission.

P.P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

Our Deepest Desires | Book Review


For as long as I can remember, I have been interested in apologetics, the rational defense of the Christian faith. This interest led me to study philosophy in college and accounts for quite a few books in my library. But over the course of my ministry, I have discovered that arguments — the logical kind, not the yelling-and-screaming kind — have a limited power to change minds.

Blaise Pascal identified a reason for this limitation in his Pensées. “Men despise religion,” he wrote. “They hate it and are afraid it may be true.” Notice the verbs: despise, hate, are afraid. This is the language of affect, not intellect; of roiling desires, not calm, cool reflection. On this account, Christian apologetics often fails because it treats people like the Vulcan Dr. Spock rather than the all-too-human Captain Kirk.

Pascal outlined a three-pronged strategy for apologetics in light of this truth about human nature:

The cure for this is first to show that religion is not contrary to reason, but worthy of reverence and respect. Next make it attractive, make good men wish it were true, and then show that it is true.

We might call these three prongs negative apologetics, apologetics from desire, and positive apologetics. Negative apologetics rebuts arguments against Christianity, showing that they are false. Positive apologetics makes arguments for Christianity, showing that it is true. Pascal’s crucial insight is that apologetics from desire play a crucial role. People must “wish it were true” in order to see “that it is true.”

Although Gregory E. Ganssle doesn’t cite Pascal in Our Deepest Desires, I get the impression that his book is a Pascalian project nonetheless. “The claim that this book will explore,” he writes, “is that the Christian story makes sense of our deepest longings. That is,” he goes on to explain, “the story that Christianity sets forth fits well with the things we value most and with the kinds of people we want to be.”

What kinds of things? Ganssle names four key values: persons, goodness, beauty and freedom. These values are, he believes, transcendental and universal. They are the kinds of things all people must take into account as they try to construct a good life.

Take persons, for example. Ganssle shows that “what we value most is connected to our personhood.” This is the case for two reasons: “The value of the things we pursue for ourselves is enhanced because we have human capabilities, and we value other people intrinsically.” In other words, we are persons (not pigs or peanuts or planets), so the good life we pursue must be appropriate for us. Moreover, that good life is relational to the core.

What story makes best sense of this fact? Ganssle contrasts the Christian story with the atheist story throughout the book. Let me cite a representative example of each story, then add in Ganssle’s argument.

First, a representative example of the Christian story:

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us (1 John 4:7–12).

Ganssle writes: “In the Christian story, the most fundamental reality is intrinsically relational” (emphasis in original). God is a Trinity of persons in eternal relationship of love with one another. This eternal Trinitarian love has implications for the doctrine of creation: “God’s love for the created order and particularly for the persons God created is an overflow of the love among the distinct persons within the divine nature. Love overflows into creative giving.” Given this reality, it is not surprising that “the content of Christian ethics centers on love and service to others.”

Now, for a representative example of the atheist story — by atheism, Ganssle means evolutionary naturalism, the “unguided Darwinian story” of human origins — consider this famous quote from the infamous Bertrand Russell:

That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast heat death of the solar system, and that the whole of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins — all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.

In this story, Ganssle points out, “our relational nature arises solely from our biological nature, which in turn arises from the underlying physics. In these accounts, the human drive to form and value relationships found its impetus in the need to survive.” So, yes, relationship is part of the atheist story, but as Ganssle points out, this is “an accident of evolutionary history.” He goes on to conclude: “Our beliefs about these relational virtues do not track with the deep contours of reality. So, although the meaning and value of relationships are not incompatible with atheism, they do not fit well with the atheistic story.”

Notice that Ganssle hasn’t argued that the Christian story is true. He’s simply argued that it’s a better fit to our deepest desires about personhood. He makes similar arguments about goodness, beauty and freedom. These transcendental values — our deepest desires — fit better within the Christian story of reality than in the atheist story. To use Pascal’s words, the Christian story is “attractive.” It is the kind of story “good men wish … were true.”

Obviously, there’s still a place for negative and positive apologetics. We have to show that Christianity is true, not false, after all. But if arguments from desire have moved people from scorn, hatred and fear of religion to curiosity about it, or even an openness to “reverence and respect,” then our arguments stand a far better chance of being persuasive.

Our Deepest Desires is a short book, but Gregory E. Ganssle should be congratulated for how much deep and interesting insight he has packed into its pages.

 

Book Reviewed:
Gregory E. Ganssle, Our Deepest Desires: How the Christian Story Fulfills Human Aspirations (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2017).

P.S. I wrote this review for InfluenceMagazine.com. It appears here by permission.

P.P.S. If you found my review helpful, plese vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

Trending Up | Book Review


If it weren’t for Johannes Gutenberg, the Protestant Reformation might not have happened. Why? Because Gutenberg’s movable type press made it possible to print and distribute Martin Luther’s spiritual broadsides quickly and inexpensively. The medium facilitated the movement.

Today, we are witnessing a communications revolution even greater than Gutenberg’s. Information technology has made it possible to communicate the gospel instantly, globally and personally via social media. Christians need to harness these media for Great Commission purposes.

Trending Up shows how. Written by social media professionals from a variety of denominations, churches and nonprofit ministries, the book outlines social media strategies for churches and other ministries under five headings:

  1. Why Social Media?
  2. Content Strategy
  3. Story: Your Church’s Story and God’s Story
  4. Connecting with Your Church
  5. Reaching Your Community

If the ministry you lead is looking for a primer on social media, start with this book. Case studies of social media campaigns appear throughout, showing how content strategy plays out in real-life settings. Additionally, the book contains an appendix of books, websites, blogs, platforms and other resources for further investigation.

Near the end of the book, Mark Forrester writes: “Social media is equal parts art and science — and zero parts magic. Don’t let anyone tell you different. As with any form of communication, we must give painstaking attention to make sure our choice of words and images are appropriately reaching our community and resonating in our specific context.” In other words, Gutenberg facilitated Luther, but Luther had something to say that was worth facilitating in the first place.

The same must be true of us. Technological innovations have made it possible to amplify our message. Let’s make sure people hear the gospel loud and clear on our social media.

 

Book Reviewed
Mark Forrester, ed., Trending Up: Social Media Strategies for Today’s Church (Springfield, MO: Salubris Resources, 2017).

P.S. I wrote this review for InfluenceMagazine.com. It appears here by permission.

P.P.S. If you found this review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

Why You Should Care About Church Planting | Influence Podcast


This past Sunday–September 17–was Church Planting Sunday. In honor of that, I recorded an episode of the Influence Podcast with my friends and colleagues, Chris Railey and John Davidson, who make a good case for why every Christian should care about church planting.

 

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