Review of ‘A Spirit-Empowered Life’ by Mike Clarensau

A-Spirit-Empowered-LifeThis review first appeared at

Mike Clarensau, A Spirit-Empowered Life: Discover the World-Changing Journey God Has Designed for You (Springfield, MO: Vital Resources, 2015).

This past Sunday—May 15, 2016—was Pentecost. In the Old Testament, Shavuot occurred on the fiftieth day after Passover and celebrated the firstfruits of the harvest. When Jews translated Scripture into Greek, they chose the word Pentecost (“fiftieth”) to translate Shavuot (“weeks”), for obvious reasons.

In the New Testament, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit recorded in Acts 2 occurred on the first Pentecost after Jesus’ death (which coincided with Passover), resurrection, and ascension into Heaven. Since that day, the Holy Spirit has continued to fall on Christians in accordance with Jesus’ promise and for the purpose He announced: “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8, emphasis added). A Spirit-empowered life is, at minimum, power for witness to Jesus Christ.

The Christian life, then, is a Spirit-empowered life. And yet, so many of us experience a gap between the kind of life we actually live and the Spirit-empowered life the New Testament portrays. In A Spirit-Empowered Life, Mike Clarensau sets out to describe the Spirit-empowered life in detail and to explain how that gap can be closed.

Mike is a friend and former colleague—hence I will use the familiar Mike instead of the more formal Clarensau in this review. He’s also the genuine article: a humble Christian who lives what he writes. A Spirit-Empowered Life consists of forty 5-page chapters. Each chapter ends with questions for personal reflection. The book makes for a perfect post-Pentecost devotional. (A companion small-group curriculum is available from

Mike divides his material into four sections: The Hunger (chapters 1–8), The Encounter (chapters 9–16), The Demonstration (chapters 17–36), and The Horizon (chapters 37–40). The longest section of the book concerns the demonstration of Spirit-empowered living through relationships, spiritual growth, service to others, missional undertaking, and worship of God. The portrait of Spirit-empowered living that emerges is thus a combination of classical Pentecostalism’s emphasis on “power for witness” with a more contemporary emphasis on purpose-driven ministry. It’s a good, and natural fit.

I close with an extended quotation from Mike’s book because it identifies where the problem lies. If we ask, what is the cause of the gap between the kind of life we lead and the kind of life Jesus promised us, the answer cannot be: Jesus. Or the Holy Spirit. The Trinity unites in its desire that we “may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10). If there is any gap, then, it causes from our lack of desire. And so, Mike writes:

No matter what the road you traveled toward God looked like, it was your need that fueled the journey. But there’s a greater step beyond that critical precipice. If you’re going to find a life of more—the abundant one Jesus spoke of and the greater race God offered His prophet [Jeremiah 12:5], you have to really want it.

May God use this book to elicit a greater hunger for Him, the life Jesus offers, and the power the Spirit gives!

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

Review of ‘Why Redistribution Fails’ by James Piereson

Why-Redistribution-FailsJames Piereson, Why Redistribution Fails, Encounter Broadside No. 45 (New York: Encounter Books, 2015).

According to American progressives, economic inequality is a social-justice problem for which income redistribution is a necessary political solution. In this Encounter Broadside, James Piereson sets the moral question about income redistribution to one side and focuses on a more practical question, whether government can do it well. He answers that it cannot.

“[T]he progressive case is based upon a significant fallacy,” he writes; “it assumes that the U.S. government is actually capable of redistributing income from the wealthy to the poor. For reasons of policy, tradition, and institutional design, this is not the case. Whatever one may think of inequality, redistributive fiscal policies are unlikely to do much to reduce it, a point that the voters seem instinctively to understand.” Politicians, on the other hand—and unfortunately—seem not to understand this.

As a broadside, Piereson’s argument is short and suggestive, rather than long and definitive. Nonetheless, it outlines the case for believing that even were redistribution moral—which it isn’t—it would fail to achieve its aims. Thus, it should be rejected as public policy.

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Review of ‘Strong and Weak’ by Andy Crouch

Strong-and-WeakThis review first appeared at

Andy Crouch, Strong and Weak: Embracing a Life of Love, Risk and True Flourishing (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2016).

“Two questions haunt every human life and every human community,” writes Andy Crouch. “The first: What are we meant to be? The second: Why are we so far from what we’re meant to be?” (emphasis in original). Strong and Weak offers an answer to that question which focuses on “the paradox of flourishing,” the necessity of pursuing “greater authority and greater vulnerability at the same time” (emphasis in original).

Crouch defines authority as “the capacity for meaningful action” and vulnerability as “exposure to meaningful risk.” Most people—including many Christians—view authority and vulnerability in either/or terms. To the degree that we exercise authority, we insulate ourselves from meaningful risk. To the degree that we experience vulnerability, we lack capacity to take meaningful action. Given the choice between being a millionaire and a homeless person, who in their right mind would choose the latter?

This choice is a false one, however. Without vulnerability, authority becomes exploitative. Indeed, Crouch argues that “the real root of the problem,” the answer to the question of why we are so far from what we’re meant to be, is “the quest for authority without vulnerability.” Without authority, on the other hand, the capacity for meaningful action, vulnerability reduces simply to suffering. The real choice we face is whether to withdraw from lives of meaningful action and risk or to embrace them both. Authority and vulnerability together lead to flourishing, “the life that really is life” (1 Timothy 6:19).

“No human being ever embodied flourishing more than Jesus of Nazareth,” Crouch writes. “And precisely for this reason, no other life brings the paradox of flourishing so clear into focus.” Christ “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name” (Philippians 2:8–9, emphasis added). Whether in Christ’s life or in ours, flourishing = authority + vulnerability.

Why did Christ live in such a way? For the sake of others, and this fact has a special application for Christian leaders. “Leadership begins the moment you are more concerned about others’ flourishing than you are about your own.” After all, even Christ refused to “consider [His] equality with God something to be used to his own advantage,” choosing instead to make himself “nothing,” taking on “the very nature of a servant” (Philippians 2:6–7).

Crouch goes on to note that Christlike leadership carries two burdens: “If we want to be agents of transformation in the world, we must be willing to bear the burden of visible authority with hidden vulnerability.” A leader’s visible authority is what everyone sees, but hidden vulnerability means “to bear the risks that only you can see.” Christ’s visible authority was heard in His teaching and seen in His miracles. His hidden vulnerability, borne by himself alone throughout His public ministry, was His foreordained march to the Cross. Crouch notes the challenge of simultaneously exhibiting visible authority while bearing hidden vulnerability: “This will expose us to the temptation to become idols or tyrants ourselves—and yet without learning to bear hidden vulnerability, we will never truly be able to serve the flourishing of others.” Instead, we will use our manifest vulnerabilities to garner sympathy and manipulate allegiance.

Strong and Weak is a small book—approximately 175 pages. But for me, it packed a large punch, almost with the force of a revelation. As a Christian and as a leader, I try so hard to insulate myself, my family, and those around me from risk, all the while enlarging the scope of my effective action and theirs. Far from contributing to my flourishing, however—or theirs—this effort makes it impossible to grow spiritually or to minister effectively. To do either, we must like Jesus descend from privilege into pain, for only by accepting meaningful risk can we also develop capacity for effective action. To borrow’s Paul’s phrase, when we are weak, then we are strong (2 Corinthians 12:10). And only then.

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

Review of ‘The Ideal Team Player’ by Patrick Lencioni

The-Ideal-Team-PlayerPatrick Lencioni, The Ideal Team Player: How to Recognize and Cultivate the Three Essential Virtues: A Leadership Fable (Hoboken, NJ: Jossey-Bass, 2016).

Effective organizations—whether they’re multinational corporations, professional sports franchises, or local churches—practice teamwork. When people work together on a common goal, they achieve more than they could do individually and experience a measure of personal satisfaction. When people work against one another, however, the result is organizational ineffectiveness and personal frustration.

In his 2002 bestseller, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni outlined five ways teamwork goes awry: absence of trust, fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability, and inattention to results. While that book identified the interpersonal dynamics of effective teams, it did not identify the personal qualities of effective team members. Lencioni’s new book, The Ideal Team Player, picks up where Five Dysfunctions left off and outlines three essential “virtues”: An ideal team member is humble, hungry, and smart.

Humility comes first because it is “the single greatest and most indispensable attribute of being a team player.” Humble team players are not “overtly arrogant,” of course, but they do not “lack self-confidence” either. Rather, quoting C. S. Lewis, Lencioni writes, “Humility isn’t thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.” Humility makes collective action possible. Without it, teams don’t work effectively, because each member is either out for themselves ( due to overt arrogance) or unable to propose solutions (because of lack of self-confidence).

“Hungry people are always looking for more,” writes Lencioni. They are “self-motivated and diligent.” For a team to work effectively, each team member must proactively contribute to the overall effort. No slackers are allowed.

Smart doesn’t pertain to “intellectual capacity,” though it’s similar to emotional intelligence. Lencioni defines it as “a person’s common sense about people…the ability to be interpersonally appropriate and aware.” Ideal team members are people-smart.

After defining these three virtues, Lencioni outlines why and how they must work together. “If even one is missing in a team member, teamwork becomes significantly more difficult and sometimes not possible.” A team member who is only humble and hungry, for example, becomes an “accidental mess-maker” because they are constantly—albeit unintentionally—stepping on others’ toes. One who is only humble and smart is a “lovable slacker,” liked by all, but only willing to exert minimum necessary effort. Someone who is only hungry and smart is a “skillful politician,” which Lencioni describes as being “cleverly ambitious and willing to work extremely hard, but only in as much as it will benefit them personally.”

Although Lencioni wrote The Ideal Team Player for the secular business world, my description of its contents should convince ministers that it has application to the work of local churches as well. (Indeed, Lencioni—a devout Catholic—notes that Jesus Christ is the “most compelling example of humility in the history of mankind.”) The humble-hungry-smart model gives senior pastors and ministers who lead volunteers valuable insights into who to hire, how to assess their performance, what can be done to develop them when they lack one or more of the virtues, and how to embed those virtues in a church’s organizational culture. Consequently, I highly recommend this book to ministers and ministry leaders.

One final note: As with The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, The Ideal Team Player begins with what Lencioni calls “a leadership fable.” He tells the story of the CEO of a family-owned building company who discovers these three virtues in the course of taking over the reins of the company from his uncle. Only after telling the fable does Lencioni describe the humble-hungry-smart model in propositional terms. This narrative way of approaching the subject shows before it tells. This makes Lencioni’s points concrete and easy to understand. The show-then-tell approach is also, it seems to me, a great way to preach…though that is a subject for another time.

P.S. This review first appeared on

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Review of ‘The Porn Phenomenon’ by Barna Group

The_Porn_Phenomenon_book_350This article first appeared at

Barna Group, The Porn Phenomenon: The Impact of Pornography in the Digital Age (Ventura, CA: Barna, 2016).

“Thirty years ago, pornography arrived in the mail wrapped in discreet black plastic.” So begins The Porn Phenomenon, a new report from Barna Group, the well-respected evangelical polling firm. “Today, porn slips invited or not onto every screen with an Internet connection. For that matter, much of it originates in regular households with a wireless signal.”

The ubiquity of porn has changed attitudes about it, for the worse. According to Barna, “Only one in 10 teens and one in 20 young adults says their friends think viewing pornography is a bad thing.” This casual—even affirmative—attitude about porn masks what researchers are beginning to reveal about its “significantly negative impact on society, relationships, and individuals.” In the words of The Porn Phenomenon’s back page: “The porn crisis is not coming… It is here.”

To help the Church better address this crisis, Barna conducted four quantitative surveys with 2,771 participants that focused on “perceptions of pornography, exposure, use, and attitudes toward use.” It also conducted open-ended qualitative surveys with 32 adults and 20 pastors on the topics of “porn and sexual addiction.” These surveys were anonymous. Supplementing this original research, Barna surveyed existing social science research on the topic and conducted on-the-record interviews with Christian thought leaders on this topic.

The Porn Phenomenon outlines its findings in five chapters: “The Landscape of Porn” (chapter 1), “The Uses of Porn” (chapter 2), “Porn and Morality” (chapter 3), “The Impact of Porn” (chapter 4), and “What Can We Do About Porn?” (chapter 5). Throughout, Barna uses well-designed info graphics to present salient data points, such as:

  • 51 percent of all Americans seek out porn at least occasionally
  • 57 percent of young adults seek porn at least once a month
  • 46 percent of men seek out porn at least once a month
  • 13 percent of practicing Christians seek out porn at least once a month
  • 55 percent of adults 25+ say viewing porn is wrong
  • 32 percent of teens and young adults say viewing porn is wrong
  • Teens and young adults rank not recycling as more immoral than viewing porn
  • 1 in 5 youth pastors and 1 in 7 senior pastors use porn
  • 70 percent of self-identified Christians say a pastor should leave ministry if he uses porn

Barna Groups closes The Porn Phenomenon with helpful advice about what the Church can do to stem the tide of pornography. Its final point is to “promote a robust biblical counter-narrative to porn”:

Rather than treating [sex] as [a dirty word], we must celebrate and promote God’s good intentions for sex as a counter-narrative to the false stories told by pornography. Church leaders must steer their congregations in more hopeful directions, away from the distorted picture of sex touted by porn, to a fuller and more biblical vision for sex. This means actually talking about sex and pornography, and contrasting God’s plans with porn’s lies early and often.

Amen to that!

I recommend this report to senior pastors, youth pastors, children’s pastors, and congregational thought leaders, such as board members and Sunday school teachers. Church leaders need to know the nature and scope of the porn phenomenon if they are going to combat it effectively.

The Porn Phenomenon is available for purchase from Listen to my podcast about the study with Roxanne Stone, Editor in Chief of Barna Group.

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