Psalms and Proverbs: Poetry and Wisdom for Today | Book Review


My Bible-reading goals are the same each year. I like to read the Old Testament biannually, the New Testament quarterly, and Psalms and Proverbs monthly. Although I switch up translations from time to time, my go-to translation is the New International Version (NIV).

For some time, I’ve been searching for a pocket-size Psalter with Proverbs that is readable. Pocket-size New Testaments with Psalms and Proverbs are easy to find in multiple translations, but they all are printed in a two-column format with a small font. My aging eyes have a very difficult time reading them.

While browsing in a Christian bookstore, the other day, I picked up the NIV’s Psalms and Proverbs: Poetry and Wisdom for Today. I didn’t even know this product was on the market, but it was exactly what I was looking for! It is printed in a single-column format with a readable font. Plus, being pocket size, it’s easy to carry with me wherever I go.

Everyone’s Bible-reading goals are different, of course, but if yours are like mine, I’d encourage you to get Psalms and Proverbs. Every day I read a chapter from Proverbs and the day’s allotted psalms, following this rubric:

Daily Psalm Reading

Day A.M. P.M.
1 1–5 6–8
2 9–11 12–14
3 15–17 18
4 19–21 22–23
5 24–26 27–29
6 30–31 32–34
7 35–36 37
8 38–40 41–43
9 44–46 47–49
10 50–52 53–55
11 56–58 59–61
12 62–64 65–67
13 68 69–70
14 71–72 73–74
15 75–77 78
16 79–81 82–85
17 86–88 89
18 90–92 93–94
19 95–97 98–101
20 102–103 104
21 105 106
22 107 108–109
23 110–113 114–115
24 116–118 119:1–32
25 119:33–72 119:73–104
26 119:105–144 119:145–176
27 120–125 126–131
28 132–135 136–138
29 139–141 142–143
30 144–146 147–150

 

Book Reviewed

New International Version, Psalms and Proverbs: Poetry and Wisdom for Today(Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018).

P.S. If you liked my review, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

Masada | Book Review


I first visited Masada in the summer of 1982, wending my way up its treacherous “Snake Path” to the summit. Since then, I have returned more than a dozen times—though now I ride the cable car. Masada is the second-most visited tourist site in Israel, well worth the long ride from Jerusalem.

The allure of Masada has always been tied to the story the historian Flavius Josephus told about its last Jewish residents. The First Jewish Revolt against Rome began at Caesarea Marittima in A.D. 66 and quickly spread throughout what is today Israel, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights. It was a bloody affair, not only between Jews and Romans but among factions of the Jews themselves.

Members of one of those factions, the Sicarii, seized Masada early in the war. (They were known as Sicarii—from the Latin sicarius, meaning “dagger-man”—because they assassinated appointments in public places using easily concealed daggers.) After Jerusalem fell in A.D. 70, members of the Sicarii led by Eleazar Ben-Yair holed up at Masada. The Romans destroyed similar holdouts at the desert fortresses of Herodium and Machareus, then they turned their attention to Masada, laying siege to it in winter-spring of either 72–73 or 73–74. (The precise date is uncertain.) The outlines of the siege wall, Roman camps, and siege ramp are still visible today.

According to Josephus, the night after Romans breached the casemate wall on Masada’s eastern side, Eleazar Ben-Yair stood before the Sicarii and urged them to kill themselves rather than submit to Roman slavery. Each man would kill his family. Lots would be drawn, determining a handful of men who would kill heads of households. Finally, the last lot would determine who killed those killers before killing himself. “Let our wives thus die dishonored,” Eleazar exhorted, “our children unacquainted with slavery; and when they are gone, let us render a generous service to each other, preserving our liberty.”

Fast forward nineteen centuries to Israel’s War of Independence (1947–1949), and it is easy to see why the Israeli Defense Forces, with the Holocaust behind them and hostile Arab armies around them, began to use “Masada Shall Never Fall Again” as a motto. Indeed, for many decades, new soldiers climbed to the summit via the Snake Path and took an oath to defend Israel. This patriotism was bolstered by Yigael Yadin’s excavation of Masada, which seemed to verify Josephus’ picture.

Today, however, archaeologists and historians take a more critical view of Josephus, the only ancient author to give us information about the siege of the fortress. Jodi Magness’ Masada: From Jewish Revolt to Modern Myth brings readers up to date with this more critical view, explaining how archaeology provides partial confirmation of Josephus’ account, as well as potential rebuttal at key points. Magness is the Kenan Distinguished Professor for Teaching Excellence in Early Judaism in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. She codirected excavations of the Roman siege works at Masada in 1995.

Masada is an informative read. I learned new things about the site, and when I return in spring 2020, I plan on taking a closer look at them. Moreover, the book’s historical chapters (5–8), which narrate the history of Jewish conflicts from the Maccabean Revolt to Masada, were a tour de force, making sense of the various people, movements, and events that shaped this period. This is especially true of Herod the Great, that master builder of the ancient near east, including the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and Masada itself. This period is crucial for understanding Masada, of course, but for Christians, it is also crucial for understanding the history and culture of the New Testament period.

As an editor, I was frustrated by the organization of the book. It starts with the siege of Masada (chapter 1), then turns to early archaeological explorations (chapter 2), then moves to the geographical and historical contexts—starting with the Chalcolithic Period! (chapter 3), then describes Herod’s building projects (chapter 4), then gets into the chronological telling of chapters 5–8, then ends with a chapter on Yigael Yadin’s excavations and their aftermath. Because of this organization of chapters, some of the material gets repeated. To be honest, I was losing interest in the book until I got to chapter 5. In my opinion, readers would’ve been better served by a straightforward chronological organization, beginning with the Maccabean Revolt and ending with modern archaeological excavations.

Still, Masada is a worthwhile read. If you’re going to Israel and plan on visiting Masada, you might want to read it beforehand. I recommend reading it in this order: Prologue, chapters 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9. If you don’t have a guide, use Magness’ Epilogue, which lays out a tour of the summit.

Book Reviewed
Jodi Magness, Masada: From Jewish Revolt to Modern Myth (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2019).

P.S. If you liked my review, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

The Reluctant Witness | Book Review


“There is something delightful about spiritual conversations,” writes Don Everts in The Reluctant Witness. Scripture seems to agree. “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (Romans 10:15) is the way Paul puts it, quoting Isaiah 52:7. Can anyone not smile in response to a friend saying, “I have good news”? I doubt it.

And yet, spiritual conversations strike many Christians as “pesky, painful, awkward things,” as Everts puts it. He defines a spiritual conversation as “any conversation about spiritual or faith matters (including doubts) with anyone.” That broad definition includes, but is not limited to, evangelistic conversations. It is those conversations that many find pesky, painful and awkward.

In The Reluctant Witness, Everts considers why this might be the case and shows how spiritual conversations, including evangelism, can be more authentic. The book is based on research conducted by the Barna Group in cooperation with Lutheran Hour Ministries, which Everts serves as content manager. It is the first of three collaborative projects focused on “how Americans are expressing their faith.”

So, why aren’t Christians engaging in spiritual conversations? Everts points to “the silencing effect of fear,” specifically, the fear of giving offense. “Our culture is increasingly secular (less and less colored by our Christian heritage) and more and more relativistic (looking down on exclusive truth claims),” he writes. “In this postmodern context, the idea of attempting to convert someone else to your own faith is seen as religiously extreme by most Americans.”

More is going on than just fear, however. Christians also don’t engage in spiritual conversations because they subscribe to a number of myths about them. Spiritual conversations, so the story goes:

  1. take place in special places, during special moments, by special people;
  2. are serious and sober events;
  3. require that the Christian be able to give the right answers;
  4. involve conflict, which ruins everything;
  5. are burdensome duties that are, in the end, painful and regrettable.

If that’s what evangelism requires, it’s no surprise that the average American Christian chooses to be a “reluctant witness,” in the words of the book’s title.

Here’s the crucial point, however: Neither spiritual conversations generally nor evangelistic ones specifically have to live down to the myths. There is a better way to talk about spirituality and share the Christian faith.

“Eager conversationalists,” as Everts calls them, practice four habits on a regular basis. First, they “look for and expect spiritual conversations in everyday life.” They look for “God moments,” in other words, defined as “a moment when we see God actively at work in the people around and sense God is opening a door for us to be a part of his work in their life.”

Second, they “pursue and initiate spiritual conversations.” Everts denies that this means “awkwardly inserting Christian non sequiturs into conversations,” giving this example: “Speaking of your new car, if you were hit by a bus tonight, do you know where you would spend eternity?” It’s a good question, but a canned one, one that feels inorganic and unauthentic. Instead of making hard, awkward transitions like that, eager conversationalists explore “tentative, hopeful moments in a conversation,” such as when people begin to ruminate about larger issues and deeper feelings.

Interestingly, these conversations are impactful. Thirty-five percent of “all adults in America claim they have personally made a ‘big change’ in their life because of a conversation about faith,” according to Everts. Fear silences, but genuine spiritual conversations help people change.

Third, eager conversationalists are “open to sharing their faith in a wide variety of ways.” This openness takes into account whether our conversation partners’ spiritual posture is “unreceptive,” “receptive,” or “seeking.” In turn, our “prayerful response” to them seeks to “gain a hearing,” “give good news,” or “guide toward faith,” respectively. Depending on the relationship dynamic, our conversation may take one of six forms: “chat,” “relate,” “share,” “connect,” “explore,” or “clarify.” Lutheran Hour Ministries calls this dynamic the “Spiritual Conversation Curve.” (See figure below.)

Finally, eager conversationalists “gently push through the awkward moments” in spiritual conversations. The deeper a conversation goes, the more likely “tension or conflict” will surface. It is tempting to bail on spiritual conversations (or on any other deep conversation) when this happens. As Beau Crosetto has pointed out, “right after some of the initial tension is released, some kind of breakthrough comes, whether in the other person, in us or in the conversation.” So, keep talking!

The Reluctant Witness is a short book that can be read in a single sitting. But Everts uses words wisely, quickly and memorably addressing why Christians don’t engage in spiritual conversations more and how they can do so better. Its advice is data-driven, Bible-grounded and road-tested, and well worth reading if you’re a pastor or church leader, or just a Christian interested in better sharing your faith.

Book Reviewed
Don Everts, The Reluctant Witness: Discovering the Delight of Spiritual Conversations(Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2019).

P.S. If you like my review, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

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

Best Practices of Conversion-Growth Churches | Influence Podcast


“Many churches in America are stalled in their conversion growth, but it doesn’t have to be that way,” writes Rick Richardson in his new book, You Found Me. In this episode of the Influence Podcast, I’m talking to Richardson about the best practices of congregations that are “effectively reaching people and having an impact in their communities.”

I’m George P. Wood, executive editor of Influence magazine and your host.

Rick Richardson is director of the Billy Graham Center Institute and its Church Evangelism Initiative. The institute is the research arm of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, where Richardson also serves in the graduate school as professor of evangelism and leadership. He is author of You Found Me: New Research on How Unchurched Nones, Millennials, and Irreligious Are Surprisingly Open to Christian Faith, published by IVP Books.

P.S. Check out my review of You Found Me here.

Discipling in a Multicultural World | Book Review


The Great Commission (Matthew 28:16–20) commands Christ’s followers to “make disciples of all nations.” That discipleship has at least two basic components:conversion, symbolized by baptism, and change, realized through ever-increasing obedience to Christ’s commandments. Notice also its multicultural shape. Christ commands His followers to disciple “all nations,” which means “people groups,” not “nation-states.”

In Discipling in a Multicultural World, Ajith Fernando outlines “biblical principles about discipling” and presents “examples about how they apply in daily life and ministry.” Fernando is the former national director of Youth for Christ in Sri Lanka, which he now continues to serve as teaching director, and the author of seventeen books. This book is the fruit of mature biblical reflection and decades of practical ministry experience.

Fernando divides the book into two parts: “Introducing Spiritual Parenthood” and “How People Change.”

Part 1 uses the metaphor of spiritual parenting to describe discipleship, which he defines as “an affectionate relationship of caring between people who see themselves as having a parent-child relationship.”

Part of the genius of this metaphor is that it’s multiplicative. Consider what Paul wrote to Timothy: “the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others” (2 Timothy 2:2). As Fernando notes, “Four generations of Christians are mentioned here”: Paul, Timothy, reliable people, and others.

“Disciplers are servants of disciplees, doing all we can to help them grow and be fruitful.” –Ajith Fernando

The parenting metaphor also jibes well with the New Testament understanding of the community of believers as a spiritual family. This understanding cuts against the grain of both Western individualism and the familism of the developing World. “Many church communities [in the West] have diluted the biblical idea of the solidarity of the community and its importance in the life of a Christian,” Fernando writes. The challenge of discipleship in Western contexts involves, in part, incorporating individuals into the body of Christ.

By the same token, however, the familism pervasive in most traditional cultures, including that of the Bible, presents a different challenge. For many converts in Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim contexts especially, to become a Christian is a lonely experience because one is immediately cut off from one’s family and extended community. Fernando wisely notes that converts belong to “two families—their earthly family and the family of God.” Discipleship in such contexts requires a delicate balance between honoring one’s earthly family and ongoing membership in one’s spiritual family. Disciples in these contexts often experience suffering, persecution, and loss of honor — a pattern we also see in the New Testament. Fernando offers wise advice about how disciplers can help disciples navigate these negative experiences.

Drawing on the work of missiologist Paul Hiebert, Fernando identifies three kinds of transformation in Part 2, “How People Change”:

  1. cognitive transformation, where a person’s belief system changes;
  2. affective transformation, where we personally experience God; and
  3. evaluative transformation, where we evaluate the beliefs and practices of the prevailing culture.

He devotes the bulk of this part of the book to describing what the Bible says about these three kinds of transformation, highlighting the role of Scripture, prayer, the discernment of  right and wrong, and the experience of healing in the discipleship process.

Three chapters — 10, 11, and 12 — focus on right and wrong. “In the Bible and in today’s culture,” Fernando writes, “people respond to issues of right and wrong along three lines: (1) guilt and forgiveness, (2) honor and shame, and (3) fear/bondage and power/liberation. Although all three lines are present in every culture to a degree, Western culture typically follows the guilt/forgiveness line, while traditional cultures follow the other two.

In a multicultural world, disciplers must understand all three so they can help disciples make sense of Christian faith and practice in culturally adequate ways. While the entire book contains mature biblical reflection seasoned with practical ministry experience, these three chapters are the best part, in my opinion.

I close this review with two sentences from Fernando’s concluding paragraph. First, “Disciplers are servants of disciplees, doing all we can to help them grow and be fruitful.” This mindset is crucial, both to avoid authoritarian forms of discipling and to count discipling’s costs. Spiritual parenting, like parenting, isn’t easy.

Second, in light of that cost, Fernando prays: “In this busy world, may many Christians rise to pay the price of investing in people in this comprehensive way.”

Amen to that!

Book Reviewed
Ajith Fernando, Discipling in a Multicultural World (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2019).

P.S. If you liked my review, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

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

You Found Me | Book Review


When it comes to American churches, I have bad news, and I have good news.

Bad news first: Most churches in America are plateaued or declining, and fewer Americans self-identify as Christians. If you’re a pastor or church leader, you probably don’t need me to tell you these things, since the majority of you see it with your own eyes in your own churches and communities.

Now that you’re depressed, let me tell you the good news. The things happening inside your church and outside your church don’t have to remain that way. Plateau and decline are reversible, and people are winnable. The question pastors and other church leaders need to ask themselves is how these things can happen in their churches.

Rick Richardson’s You Found Me is a good place to start. Richardson is director of the Billy Graham Center Institute, the research arm of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College (Illinois), where he also serves as a professor of evangelism and leadership in the graduate school. His book draws on surveys of 2,000 unchurched people and 4,500 Christian congregations (including 1,500 churches with fewer than 250 in attendance) that BGCI conducted, as well as several smaller research projects.

Richardson divides You Found Me into three parts. In Part 1, “Recovering a Missional Imagination for the Unchurched in America,” he debunks common myths about unchurched America and shows “how unchurched nones, millennials, and irreligious are surprisingly open to Christian faith,” in the words of the book’s subtitle. To reach these people, a church needs to become a “conversion community,” that is, “a congregation that is seeing changed lives and growing primarily through reaching new people rather than by adding already churched people from some other congregation.”

In the BGCI surveys of American congregations, 10 percent are conversion communities. Richardson takes a close look at what sets those churches apart from others and articulates what he calls the Conversion Community Equation:

Missional Leaders + Missional Congregation = Conversion Community.

Part 2, “Developing Missional Leaders,” identifies what the pastor and other church leaders must do to help their churches become conversion communities. Essentially, it involves modeling evangelism in a way that others can imitate. This modeling is multiplicative, however. A pastor models evangelism to others, who in turn model it to still others, and so on.

Part 3, “Cultivating a Missional Congregation,” outlines a four-step process that characterizes conversion community churches. Such a church, Richardson writes, “clearly understood that it belonged to a specific community, which it blessed through service and outreach with the ultimate aim of bringing those in their community into the congregation as beloved children of God.” In other words: (1) belong, (2) bless, (3) bring, and (4) beloved. Interestingly, the “top predictive factor [research showed] was hospitality to the unchurched.” Richardson comments, “If there is a silver bullet, this is it.”

You Found Me is a hopeful, helpful book. It is hopeful because it paints a beautiful portrait of what churches in America could be. It is helpful because it shows the specific brushstrokes that make such a portrait possible. I encourage senior pastors, board members and leading volunteers to read this book. It includes questions at the end of each chapter to facilitate discussion. Additional downloadable resources are available at the publisher’s website here.

Book Reviewed
Rick Richardson, You Found Me: New Research on How Unchurched Nones, Millennials, and Irreligious Are Surprisingly Open to Christian Faith (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2019).

P.S. If you liked my review, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

P.P.S. This review first appeared at InfluenceMagazine.com and is cross-posted here with permission.

The Booming Marketplace of Replacement Religions | Influence Podcast


Stories about the rise of the “Nones,” that share of the American populace which identifies with no religion, give the impression that religion in America is in steep decline. “What they fail to report,” writes David Zahl, “is that the marketplace in replacement religion is booming.”

In this episode of the Influence Podcast, I’m talking to David Zahl about the contours of this new secular religiosity. I’m George P. Wood, executive editor of Influencemagazine, and your host.

David Zahl is the founder and director of Mockingbird Ministries, whose mission is “to connect the Christian faith with the realities of everyday life in fresh and down-to-earth ways.” He’s also editor-in-chief of the popular Mockingbird website and cohost of the Mockingcast. Most recently, he’s author of Seculosity: How Career, Parenting, Technology, Food, Politics, and Romance Became Our New Religion and What to Do About It, published by Fortress Press.

The Myth of the Dying Church | Influence Podcast


Read the headlines, and you just might come to the conclusion that Christianity in America is dying. “Christianity Faces Sharp Decline as Americans Are Becoming Even Less Affiliated with Religion,” according to a Washington Postheadline. A BeliefNet story was titled, “Declining Christianity: The Exodus of the Young and the Rise of Atheists.” According to National Public Radio, “Christians in the U.S. on Decline as Number of ‘Nones’ Grows, Survey Finds.”

So is American Christianity really declining? That’s the question I ask Glenn Stanton in this episode of the Influence Podcast. I’m George P. Wood, executive editor of Influencemagazine and your host. Glenn Stanton is the director of Global Family Formation Studies at Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and author of The Myth of the Dying Church, just out from Worthy Publishing.

P.S. Check out my review of The Myth of the Dying Church here.

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