Review of ‘Sidney Chambers and the Forgiveness of Sins’ by James Runcie

Sidney-Chambers-and-the-Forgiveness-of-SinsJames Runcie, Sidney Chambers and the Forgiveness of Sins (London: Bloomsbury, 2015). Hardcover | Paperback | Kindle

I am an ordained minister with a penchant for reading mystery novels. It is not entirely surprising, then, that I so thoroughly enjoy The Grantchester Mysteries, which narrate the exploits of Sidney Chambers, a priest in the Church of England and an amateur sleuth. Sidney Chambers and the Forgiveness of Sins is the fourth installment in James Runcie’s series, and in my opinion, the best. (All of them are good, however.)

Set in Grantchester, a village near Cambridge, The Grantchester Mysteries begin in the early 1950s, with Chambers as an unmarried priest. Forgiveness of Sins is set in the mid-1960s, and Chambers has married and fathered a young daughter. In addition to telling Chambers’ story, the novels chart the tremendous social changes taking place in England in the Cold War period.

As for the mysteries themselves, Forgiveness of Sins includes a man who thinks he has murdered his wife (but hasn’t), a physically abusive aristocrat who comes to a bad end, a Cambridge professor killed (accidentally?) by a falling piano, an engaged friend receiving death threats unless she calls off the wedding, an explosion at a public school’s chemistry lab that reveals the school’s dirty secrets, and an art theft in which Chambers finds himself the accused.

The Grantchester Mysteries are gracefully written, character studies, not police procedurals. They are, as the series’ website puts it, “moral fables in the tradition of G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown mixing crime, comedy and social history.” Although a crime is solved in each story, the emphasis is less on the how than the who. In other words, there is a focus on the moral character of the antagonists rather than on the methodology of their crimes. If you like hard-boiled detective stories, in other words, The Grantchester Mysteries are not for you. (They also deviate significantly from Grantchester, the Masterpiece Mystery series on PBS that was inspired by them.)

Personally, I am ecumenical in my taste for mystery. I like character studies and police procedurals—Sidney Chambers and Harry Bosch. Each of those detectives, and the series written about them, are worth reading, even though they are entirely different ways of writing about crime.

As I said, I think each installment in The Grantchester Mysteries is good, but Sidney Chambers and the Forgiveness of Sins is the best one yet. If you want to read it for yourself, however, don’t start with it. Start with the first book of the series, Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death. Then you can trace the arc of character development and understand why the characters relate to one another as they do.


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

Review of ‘The Rise of the Nones’ by James Emery White

The-Rise-of-the-NonesJames Emery White, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2014). Paperback | Kindle

According to a May 2015 report from Pew Research Center, “The Christian share of the U.S. population is declining, while the number of U.S. adults who do not identify with any organized religion is growing.” Sociologists refer to this latter group as nones. When asked to state their religious affiliation—e.g., Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, etc.—they choose “None of the above.”

Nones constitute a rapidly growing segment of the U.S. population. According to data from the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey, nones nearly doubled between 1990 and 2008, from 8.1 to 15 percent. Pew’s own data indicate that the share of nones grew by nearly 42 percent between 2007 and 2014, from 16.1 percent of the U.S. population to 22.8 percent.

For Christians committed to obeying the Great Commission (Matt. 28:16–20), nones are a new people group to be reached with the gospel. The question is how. In The Rise of the Nones, James Emery White provides an “analysis” of this demographic (Part 1) that explains “a revolution of mindset and strategy” which the church needs to effectively evangelize them (Part 2).

White has a good handle on both the intellectual and practical aspects of Christian ministry in an increasingly secular culture. He is founding senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, 70 percent of whose total growth has come from nones. And he has a Ph.D. from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

According to White, “The real mark of a none is not the rejection of God but the rejection of any specific religion” (p. 23). In that sense, they are “spiritual but not religious.” This spirituality does not turn them into “seekers,” however. Rather, it is consistent with what Jonathan Rauch describes as “a disinclination to care all that much about one’s own religion, and even stronger disinclination to care about other people’s” (p. 27).

White analyzes the causes of this rejection of religion, and the worldview that results from it, in Part 1—an analysis that need not detain us here. Rather, I’d like to focus on the advice for reaching nones that he outlines in Part 2. White notes that most churches’ outreach strategies “rest on a single, deeply flawed premise that people want what you have to offer” (emphasis in original). In the very next sentence, however, he writes: “More often than not, they don’t” (p. 89).

Like Jonathan Rauch, many—if not most—nones simply don’t care about religion. When churches send out slick mailers promising a church experience with a casual atmosphere, contemporary music, relevant messages, and good coffee, nones chuck them in the trash because they already have those things…without organized religion.

What is needed is a new mindset, a mindset that is willing to change the way we do things in order to effectively reach a post-religious generation. Unfortunately, too many churches cater to the spiritual consumerism of existing Christians, even as they vocalize a desire to reach the lost. White doesn’t mince words: “we say we want them [i.e., the nones] in heaven—but we act like they can go to hell” (p. 84).

To reach nones, we need to think of evangelism as both a process and an event. “The goal is not simply knowing how to articulate the means of coming to Christ,” White writes in reference to the conversion event. Rather, he continues with reference to the process of conversion, “it is learning how to facilitate and enable the person to progress…[to] where he or she is able to even consider accepting Christ” (p. 93).

The process of evangelism looks very different in a nominally Christian culture than in a post-religious society. In the mid-twentieth century, when Christian influence was at its peak and churches could assume most Americans identified with and had a basic understanding of Christianity, the process looked like this:

Unchurched → Christ → Community → Cause

In other words, first unchurched people accepted the gospel, then joined the church, then started supporting the church’s mission.

To reach Baby Boomers, who had been raised in church but left it out of disillusionment in young adulthood, churches tried a different evangelistic process, which looked like this:

Unchurched → Community → Christ → Cause

In other words, unchurched Baby Boomers needed to trust the church again before they could express commitment to Christ and support the church’s mission.

White argues that the nones require yet another change in the evangelistic process, which looks like this:

Nones → Cause → Community → Christ

“Today,” White writes, “it is cause that arrests the attention of the world” (p. 101). Nones are interested in the common good, not personal conversion. Some Christians seem to be interested in conversion rather than the common good. Jesus was interested in both. “Jesus wed mission and message together seamlessly,” White says, “proclaiming the kingdom that had come while healing the leper and feeding the hungry. He mandated concern for the widow and orphan, the homeless and naked, the imprisoned and hungry while speaking of the bread of life and a home in heaven” (p. 102). If Jesus, so the church; we should be interested in both conversion and the common good too.

Notice that White has not discarded the event of evangelism, namely, a call to repentance and faith. The strategy he outlines pertains to the process whereby nones see that conversion to Christ makes sense. “Even if it takes a while to get to talking about Christ,” he argues, based on ministry experience, “[nones] get there” (p. 108).

White’s discussion of mindset and strategy includes far more than I’ve outlined in this review. To get that, you’ll need to read the book. And I worry that a focus on cause may become as unattractive to nones as slick mailers advertising a “casual atmosphere” and “good coffee.” Nones don’t need to go to church to get coffee; do they need to go to church to get a cause? A church not committed to the common good is not representing Jesus well, but nones won’t necessarily come to Christ just because the church pursues it.

Regardless, I recommend The Rise of the Nones for its thought-provoking analysis and guidance regarding mindset and strategy. I haven’t touched on all the points White makes, but I hope this review has given you a better understanding of the challenge of and a strategy for reaching nones. They’re not interested in religion—yours or their own. To get them to Christ, you must start with what interests them and draw them—slowly, patiently—to Jesus.


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

A Dad’s Life | The Weekly Standard

From Jonathan V. Last:

As a general rule I try not to talk in the conditional mood, especially when it comes to family life. Everyone has their own circumstances and I respect that. I really do. But if you aren’t otherwise engaged in some duty that precludes it—say, the priesthood—and you have the opportunity, then you should be a father. There is nothing more vexing, exhausting, noble, or manly. 

Read the whole thing: A Dad’s Life | The Weekly Standard.

Vintage Worship: The Glory of Historic Hymns | The Gospel Coalition

From Matt Boswell, a good piece on hymns:

When I mention historic hymns, maybe you cringe as you recall a “worship war” in your local church. Maybe you’re eager to only sing the old hymns. Or maybe you wonder why it is important at all. My aim is not to renew local church disputes or bolster mere sentimentality, but to commend something else altogether — to encourage younger churches to remember their history by joining with the countless men and women who have shared these songs over hundreds of years.

Our society is fixated on what’s new and what’s next, but hymns remind us that what’s next is not always what’s best. Singing the historic hymns of our faith reminds our congregations that we are not the first generation who have wrestled and prayed, asked and believed. We are not the first to write hymns of praise to God. We walk gladly in the footsteps of our fathers who have written praises to Christ that have stood the test of time.

With a steady diet of merely new choruses, we can develop both modern idolatry and historical amnesia. Perhaps we should adopt this paraphrase of C.S. Lewis? Sing at least one old hymn to every three new ones.

Read the whole thing: Vintage Worship: The Glory of Historic Hymns

Media Gets Pope’s Abbas Comments Wrong | The Weekly Standard

I’m shocked–shocked!–that major news media misreported what the Pope said. Double-shocked (!!!) that it pertained to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict…

If anyone needs further evidence of why the news agencies often can’t be trusted to report accurately on Israel and the Palestinians, and why major news outlets such as the New York Times and the BBC should stop repeating agency copy without verifying it, here is an important example from this weekend.

Media Gets Pope’s Abbas Comments Wrong | The Weekly Standard.

Review of ‘Dry Bones: A Walt Longmire Mystery’ by Craig Johnson

Dry-Bones Craig Johnson, Dry Bones: A Walt Longmire Mystery (New York: Viking, 2015). Hardcover | Kindle

Like many people, I became aware of Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire mysteries through Longmire on A&E. (Netflix has acquired the show and will air its fourth season). The TV show is a different beast than the books. While I enjoy both, I still prefer the latter.

The mystery at the heart of Dead Bones is the death of Danny Lone Elk. Lone Elk owns a ranch on which a large, complete Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton has just been unearthed. The find is worth millions to whoever owns it. But Lone Elk’s ownership is contested among the federal government, the Cheyenne reservation, and the Lone Elk family. And then, of course, there’s the question of whether Lone Elk died naturally or was murdered.

Longmire works through these questions in his characteristic Absaroka County way. There’s the patient questioning of witnesses, the mystical experiences, the encounters with a nature indifferent to human wellbeing, and the sly sense of humor.

One of my favorite gags in this book is the stoically raised fist and incantation of the words, “Save Jen.” (Jen is the name of the T-rex whom the Absaroka residents want to keep at the local dinosaur museum.) Trust me, it gets funnier as the book goes along.

I’m a huge Longmire fan. As much as I enjoyed this book—and I enjoyed it a lot and read it in one evening—I didn’t think this was the best installment in the series. It’s not bad, mind you. (I can’t imagine a bad story by Craig Johnson.) It’s just not the best.

Even so, if you like the other Longmire books, I know you’ll like this one.


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

Review of ‘Passing the Leadership Baton’ by Tom Mullins

 Passing-the-Leadership-BatonTom Mullins, Passing the Leadership Baton: A winning transition plan for your ministry (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2015). Hardcover | Kindle

The American men’s relay team is an Olympics powerhouse. Since 1920, it has won gold medals at 15 of 21 Olympics. It did not do so in the 4×100 relay at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, however. Rather, it disqualified when Darvis Patton and Tyson Gay dropped the baton as they headed into the fourth leg of the race.

When it comes to transitions between pastors and their successors, a lot of churches drop the baton. The reasons for this are various: lack of planning, poor choice of successor, the inability of a predecessor to let go of the ministry, unforeseen crises, etc. Whatever the reasons, Tom Mullins thinks churches can a better job of passing the leadership baton. In this book, he coaches pastors how to lead their churches through their own transitions.

Mullins’ advice can be summarized in eight action steps:

  • Lead through transition.
  • Keep the right perspective.
  • Prepare for the win.
  • Select and prepare your successor.
  • Position yourself for success.
  • Position others for success.
  • Lead through crisis-driven transitions.
  • Create a legacy.

Mullins devotes a chapter to each action item. His advice is practical, experience-derived, and simply and winsomely written. Throughout the book, he reflects on how he transitioned leadership of Christ Fellowship, a multisite church in Florida, to his son Todd. He also cites the experiences—both positive and negative—of other churches and Christian ministries.

Near the end of the book, he captures the proper spirit in which church leadership transitions should take place: “Transition really comes down to being an issue of humility and surrender, if you think about it. All the practical things we’ve discussed in this book have hopefully been helpful to you as you plan with intentionality and troubleshoot inevitable issues along the way to your own transition in leadership. But the most important thing to consider is the fact God’s work is for God’s sake—not your own… When that is your realization, it forces you to a place of humility and surrender in the transition process because He alone is the priority, and His plans for His church are what matters above anything else.”

I highly recommend this book to pastors and their boards. It will be of immediate help to older ministers who are preparing to transition into retirement or other ministries in a few years. But younger ministers can benefit from reading it too. “Transition is not the only greatest test of your leadership,” Mullins writes; “it is your legacy. Transition well.”


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





Later-Term Abortion and Science Denial

Over at Commentary, Jonathan S. Tobin writes:

Instead of mulling whether the late term abortion ban (passed on the second anniversary of the sentencing of late term abortion butcher Kermit Gosnell for slaughtering infants born alive after such procedures) is politically wise for Republicans or a godsend to Democrats eager to replay their 2012 “war on women” attacks on their foes, we should be discussing the real life implications of medical innovations on public policy. The real issue isn’t the legality of abortion as a whole — which isn’t in question — but the lives of infants who could survive but are now still able to be legally sentenced to a grisly death because of the fears of a political faction that is still in denial about a scientific consensus and medical facts.

Read the whole thing: Later-Term Abortion and Science Denial.

Review of ‘Leadership Pain: The Classroom for Growth’ by Samuel R. Chand

Leadership-Pain Samuel R. Chand, Leadership Pain: The Classroom for Growth (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2015). Hardcover | Kindle

“If you’re leading, you’re bleeding,” writes Samuel R. Chand in his new book, Leadership Pain.

That five-word sentence captures a crucial truth about leadership in general, and pastoral leadership in particular. Leadership is hard work. Rather than avoiding that hard work, Chand urges ministry leaders to embrace it.

Pain comes in many forms. Chand writes: “some of our pain is self-inflicted, the accumulation of unrelieved stress. Some is the result of external challenges, and we suffer heartaches and headaches because we’re trying to grow and fulfill God’s purposes for our churches.”

Consequently, he goes on to say, “The goal, then, is sometimes to avoid pain, sometimes to relieve pain, sometimes to create the pain of growth, but always to learn the lessons God has for us in the midst of our pain.”

Leadership Pain shifts back and forth between these two emphases, between identifying the form of pain and naming the goal in responding to it.

Two lessons in the book stood out in particular to me, or rather, two quotations: The first comes at the beginning of the book, in which Chand offers this hypothetical syllogism:

Growth = Change

Change = Loss

Loss = Pain

Thus, Growth = Pain

 The second comes at the end, when Chand writes: “Don’t run from your pain. Don’t deny that it exists. It’s the most effective leadership development tool the world has ever known. You’ll only grow to the threshold of your pain, so raise it!”

There’s a lot of wisdom in those two observations, as well as in the intervening pages of this book.

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

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