How to Make Big Decisions Wisely | Book Review


We make decisions every day. Most of them are small and inconsequential. Others are big and momentous. The crucial issue is how to make decisions well.

Alan Ehler answers that question in his new book, appropriately titled How to Make Big Decisions Wisely. Ehler is a professor and dean of Barnett College of Ministry and Theology at Southeastern University in Lakeland, Florida, as well as an ordained Assemblies of God minister. His answer combines biblical and theological reflection with insights gained from decision science.

To make big decisions wisely, Ehler argues, you need to know what constitutes a big decision in the first place. Part 1 answers that question. “Big decisions shape the course of life,” he writes. Drawing on Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Ehler proposes a grid for decision making based on four considerations: Is your experience limited? Is your level of clarity or certainty about the decision low? Is there disagreement among those involved with making the decision? And are there many seemingly good options to choose between?

If your answers to those questions are “no,” you can make a fast, intuitive decision. If it’s “yes,” however, you need to slow down and be intentional, because your decision is a big one.

The heart of How to Make Big Decisions Wisely is Part 2, which outlines an intentional decision-making model Ehler calls Story Shaping. The model consists of four steps:

  1. Read the backstory.
  2. Catch God’s story.
  3. Craft a new story.
  4. Tell the new story.

The first step requires decision makers to understand what is happening and why, as well as the outcome you desire from the decision-making process. “Whatever dilemma you may face,” writes Ehler, “you are more likely to make a better decision if you understand the real story, rather than just seeing what’s on the surface.” This is true whether the decision is personal or organizational in nature.

Catching God’s story is the second step. “The goal of Story Shaping is to collaborate with God in shaping your story,” Ehler writes. This is the book’s most theological chapter, focused on how to discern God’s will for our lives. We hear God’s voice most perfectly in Scripture, “which is God-inspired and uniquely trustworthy and authoritative,” as Ehler puts it. And yet, Scripture itself points to two other sources where we might discern God’s will: our perception of the Holy Spirit’s voice and the counsel of Christian community. While these sources can reveal God’s story, they remain subject to the controlling authority of Scripture.

The third step in Story Shaping is to craft a new story, which draws heavily on the secular discipline of decision science. Some readers may wonder why such a chapter is necessary. Isn’t catching God’s story sufficient? The answer to that question is obviously “yes,” but we need to ask ourselves, Sufficient for what? Scripture, the Spirit and Christian community always set the parameters for permissible decisions, but they do not always make the decisions for us. Typically, we have to choose among several good options.

Decision science helps us make good choices by showing us how to sift our options. “The goal is simple: generate as many solutions as possible, narrow them to a manageable list, evaluate each option, and then make the best possible decision,” Ehler writes. Ehler’s chapter on this third step contains detailed suggestions about how to do each thing.

Once a decision has been made, it needs to be communicated to stakeholders. This is the fourth step of Story Shaping: Tell the new story. When you communicate a leadership decision, Ehler recommends keeping things simple. Your communications should explain the necessity and benefits of making the recommended change, as well as how it will happen. Additionally, you need to address people’s fear of change by showing how it will improve their situation. Finally, you need to clarify what part the stakeholders themselves will play in making the change.

Part 3 concludes How to Make Big Decisions Wisely by demonstrating how it applies to personal and organization decisions, as well as conflict resolution. The four steps of Story Shaping may strike some readers as simplistic, but this section of the book shows how a simple model has tremendous power both to explain a problem and to craft a solution.

Alan Ehler wrote How to Make Big Decisions Wisely for a broad readership. It has obvious applications for both personal and organizational decisions, as well as for both ministry and business contexts. If you’re a minister, consider reading it for personal growth, but also consider using it as a leadership development tool with board members, pastoral staff and leading volunteers.

Book Reviewed
Alan Ehler, How to Make Big Decisions Wisely: A Biblical and Scientific Guide to Healthier Habits, Less Stress, a Better Career, and Much More (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2020).

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

P.P,.S. This review is cross-posted with InfluenceMagazine.com by permission.

Longing for Revival | Book Review


At various times, I have experienced periods of intense spiritual growth. I have also participated in extended occasions in church life where the adjectives more and better describe the congregation’s experience of God and of effectiveness in mission, respectively. Both are examples of revival.

Revival seems like a strange term to many Christians today, a word from another age or place. They acknowledge that revival happened back then or is happening somewhere else, but they don’t see it happening right now, right here. They don’t feel it happening in themselves either.

Worse, the term revival provokes suspicion in some minds because of its association with anti-intellectualism and emotionalism. This suspicion isn’t new. In his 1876 autobiography, Charles Finney described as a “burnt district” certain areas of central and western New York. “Taking what they had seen as a specimen of a revival of religion,” Finney writes, “they felt justified in opposing anything looking toward the promoting of a revival.”

But once you factor out the strangeness of and suspicions about the word revival, it still names what all Christians want, individually and corporately: more of God, and better effectiveness in mission. We all long for revival.

Revival is the work of God’s Spirit. We can’t gin it up, but we can prepare to receive it. How to do so is the subject of Longing for Revival by James Choung and Ryan Pfeiffer. Choung is vice president of strategy and innovation for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (USA). Pfeiffer is next gen pastor at North Coast Calvary Chapel in Carlsbad, California. They divide their work into three parts.

Part One asks, what is revival? It is, in their words, “a season of breakthroughs in word, deed, and power that ushers in a new normal of kingdom experience and fruitfulness.” Word, deed, and power express the gospel in different ways: word as “biblical preaching and teaching”; deed as “compassion and justice”; and power in “miraculous or explicitly supernatural ways.”

Different revivals begin with an emphasis on different expressions. The Great Awakening is remembered for its preaching, the Second Great Awakening for its activism, and Azusa Street for its signs and wonders. Yet, the authors contend, “Revivals, as they mature, move toward the center. They exhibit word, deed, and power in love.” A focus on one of these expressions to the detriment of others “can stunt revival in our hearts and communities.”

Part Two asks, how do you prepare for revival? It outlines four essential practices: consecration, calling, contending and character. These are especially the practices of those who lead revivals. “Revivals are first experienced, and then given away,” the authors write.

Consecration consists of “making ourselves available to God so he can make us holy, and set us apart for his holiness.” Calling nourishes a “holy discontent” with the way things are. “It’s a provocateur against comfort, prodding us toward an alternative vision of what God can do.”  The consecrated and called engage in contending, which isn’t contentiousness! Instead, it is “learning to pray in such a way as to not give up” — spiritual warfare, in other words, “fighting with God’s power and not with our own.” Finally, character. “Revival leadership invariably takes us on a path of confrontation with the status quo, and that means our character will be tested by both the praise we receive and the rejection we suffer.” Too often, revivals falter because their leaders fail this test.

Part Three asks, how do you lead revival? One noteworthy insight is what the authors call the “Mystery and Strategy Paradox.” In any revival, there are experiential elements (“mystery”) and organizational elements (“strategy”). According to the authors, a “holistic” revival majors in both mystery and strategy. When it majors in mystery but minors in strategy, it’s “experiential.” When it minors in mystery but majors in strategy, it’s “pragmatic.” When it minors in both, it’s merely “social,” a gathering of amiable people with no greater passion or purpose.

There’s an old gospel chorus that, if you pray it and live it, will lead beyond no greater to more and better. It doesn’t make an appearance in Longing for Revival, but it’s a fitting coda nonetheless:

Revive us again; fill each heart with They love;
May each soul be rekindled with fire from above.
Hallelujah! Thine the glory, Hallelujah, amen!
Hallelujah, Thine the glory, revive us again!

Book Reviewed
James Choung and Ryan Pfeiffer, Longing for Revival: From Holy Discontent to Breakthrough Faith (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2020).

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

P.P.S. This review appeared in the March-April 2020 issue of Influence magazine and is posted here with permission.

The Age of AI | Book Review


Popular thinking about artificial intelligence (AI) alternates between the utopian and dystopian. Will our future be like the 1999 film Bicentennial Man, in which a robot becomes human over the course of 200 years? Or will it be like the 1984 movie The Terminator, in which a cyborg assassin travels back in time to kill the mother of the man who will prevent an AI-initiated nuclear holocaust?

Perhaps the future will be a little of both. As Jason Thacker demonstrates in The Age of AI, humanity is the image of God, and “God gave us specific jobs and responsibilities to perform as we seek to reflect him in this world.” Technology — even complicated technology like AI — is simply “a tool that helps us live out our God-given callings.” The problem is that humanity “brought sin into the world and broke the natural order of things.” Our technology reflects our mixed character as the image of God marred. It helps, and it harms.

Thus, AI holds both promise and peril. In the medical field, AI promises to make more accurate diagnoses and perform more intricate surgeries. But will it also deny medical care to those with low odds of survival? AI promises to make factory work less arduous, but will robots take jobs from humans? Social media helps people connect across distances and barriers, even as AI runs complex algorithms in the background and sweeps up personal data. Is that information safe from hackers, criminals and authoritarian governments?

Underlying these ethical dilemmas is a theological paradox. Some AI advocates — called transhumanists — believe humans are simply complex machines. When machines become sufficiently complex, they too will become almost human, like Robin Williams’ robot character in Bicentennial Man. The hope is such machines will avoid human failings. Thacker identifies the paradox: “We dumb down what it means to be human and treat each other as simple machines, but at the same time put our hope and faith in these machines to solve the problems and ills that we deal with each day.” In the process, we idolize our creations but demean God’s — people made in  His image.

“AI is changing everything about our world and society,” writes Thacker. “And we aren’t prepared.” Reading The Age of AI is a good starting place.

BOOK REVIEWED
Jason Thacker, The Age of AI: Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Humanity (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2020).

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

P.P.S. This review is cross-posted from InfluenceMagazine.com with permission.

What If? | Book Review


“Throughout my life,” writes Tommy Barnett, “God has continually prodded and prompted me to ask, ‘What if?’” He continues, “Through all these years, ‘What if?’ has been quickly followed by ‘Why not?’ and then ‘Wow! God is doing amazing things.’” Barnett is Global Pastor of Dream City Church in Phoenix, Arizona, and founder of the Los Angeles Dream Center. What If? is the story of his life and ministry, and a reminder that the best way to learn how to lead is to observe how leaders live.

Book Reviewed
Tommy Barnett, What If? My Story of Believing God for More … Always More (Birmingham, AL: ARC Resources, 2020).

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

P.P.S. I interviewed Tommy Barnett for Episode 208 of the Influence Podcast. Take a listen!

Recommended Reading for Leaders | Influence Magazine


In each issue of Influence magazine, I identify three leadership books that I recommend for pastors and other church leaders. Here is my list for the January-February 2020 issue, which is crossposted from InfluenceMagazine.com. If you like my recommendation, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page, the short URL for which is listed after each recommendation.

MORE LESSONS FROM THE NONTPROFIT BOARDROOM
Dan Busby and John Pearson (ECFA Press)

Good governance is crucial to every organization, including the Church, and a healthy board is crucial to good governance. In this book from the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, Dan Busby and John Pearson offer timely advice about how a board can govern with “effectiveness” and “excellence,” all the while addressing the “elephants” that complicate its work. The book concludes a chapter on NonprofitScore, a free online tool to help your board assess its health across six elements (ECFA.org/score).

Amazon: https://amzn.to/38ICP50.

THE EMOTIONALLY INTELLIGENT PASTOR
Jeannie Clarkson (Wesleyan Publishing House)

Jeannie Clarkson defines emotional intelligence as “the ability to (1) understand the ways people (including you) feel and react, and (2) use this knowledge to wisely avoid or smartly solve relational problems.” In The Emotionally Intelligent Pastor, she outlines the habits that will help you gain “insight” and “mastery” in both the “personal” and “relational” aspects of your life and ministry. The payoff? “Greater emotional intelligence leads to reduced stress and increased influence.” What pastor doesn’t want those things?

Amazon: https://amzn.to/2O75Wai.

THE LEADER’S GREATEST RETURN
John C. Maxwell (HarperCollins Leadership)

“There is nothing in this world that gives a greater [return on investment] to a leader than attracting, developing, and multiplying leaders,” writes John C. Maxwell. “It’s the key to success for any country, family, organization, or institution.” Though written with a broad readership in mind, The Leader’s Greatest Return holds obvious applications for Christian ministry. It outlines 10 steps you can begin taking today to invest in the people who will multiply the effectiveness of your ministry.

Amazon: https://amzn.to/315q4z5.

The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry | Book Review


John Mark Comer lived many pastors’ dream. He led a growing congregation (adding 1,000 adherents annually for seven years running) in the Pacific Northwest (one of the nation’s most secular regions). You’d think he’d be happy, but he wasn’t. He was burnt out, enduring most pastors’ nightmare.

Busyness, “where your life is full with things that matter,” wasn’t the problem. The problem was hurriedness, “when you have too much to do and the only way to keep the quota up is to hurry.” Jesus was busy, but He never hurried. Hurry is of the devil. So, as Dallas Willard once remarked to John Ortberg, who wrote the Foreword to this book, giving it its title: “You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life.”

To ruthlessly eliminate hurry, Comer maintains, you need to establish a rule of life, “a schedule and a set of practices to order your life around the way of Jesus in community.” At the heart of this rule are spiritual disciplines, especially silence and solitude, Sabbath, simplicity, and slowing.

These are not the only spiritual disciplines. They are crucial to unhurrying your life, however. Solitude and silence tune out the “noise,” both external and internal, that so easily distract your attention. Sabbath reminds you that God created the world, and it still spins on its axis without your frenzied efforts. Simplicity of lifestyle eliminates the desire for “more” that so often drives our nonstop work. And slowing is just that: taking time to be present in the moment.

These disciplines aren’t just good ideas, though. They’re Jesus’ practices, which He invites us to imitate. “Follow me!” isn’t just a call to belief, after all; it’s a call to walk in Christ’s footsteps, to practice His way of life.

“In the years to come,” Comer concludes, “our world will most likely go from fast to faster; more hurried, more soulless, more vapid; ‘deceiving and being deceived’” (2 Timothy 3:13). The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry urges readers to put on Jesus’ easy yoke (Matthew 11:30). Only by moving slowly but deliberately will we find our soul’s rest, for Christ’s “yoke is easy” and His “burden is light.”

Comer did not write merely for pastors. His book is suitable for a wide readership. But pastors, only by slowing down will you be able to busy yourself helping others find rest for their souls too. In this matter as in others, you cannot lead where you have not followed first.

Book Reviewed
John Mark Comer, The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry (Colorado Springs, CO: Waterbrook, 2019).

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

P.P.S. This review is cross-posted from InfluenceMagazine.com with permission.

Resilient Faith | Book Review


Christianity in the United States is a mile wide but an inch deep.

The faith, especially its Protestant variety, has exerted considerable influence on the nation’s history and culture. A supermajority of citizens continue to identify themselves as believers. On the whole, evangelical churches — where evangelical serves as a theological descriptor, not a political one — are holding steady even as liberal Protestant congregations and Roman Catholic parishes shed adherents.

Despite these things, many Christians feel that their influence on the broader culture is slipping away. A partial explanation comes from the last two decades’ rapid rise of the “Nones,” that share of the populace that picks “None of the above” when asked by pollsters to select their religious affiliation. Radical shifts in public opinion about moral issues such as same-sex marriage, drug use, and voluntary euthanasia constitute an additional explanation. And the once unheard-of criticism of Christian charities, such as the Salvation Army, for continuing to uphold biblical standards of sexual morality offers still another explanation.

None of these explanations, it should be noted, entail that America has entered a post-Christian phase. They do indicate that the nation is trending that way, however. If that trend worries you, I encourage you to read Gerald L. Sittser’s Resilient Faith: How the Early Christian “Third Way” Changed the World.

Sittser is professor of theology at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington, where he also serves as a senior fellow and researcher in the Office of Church Engagement. In Resilient Faith, he offers an account of how the Early Church forged a “Third Way” between accommodation to the surrounding idolatrous culture and isolation from it. He states his thesis at the outset of the book:

[T]he early Christian movement became known as the Third Way because Jesus himself was a new way, which in turn spawned a new movement — new in theology, in story, in authority, in community, in worship, and in behavior. Christian belief was so new, in fact, that it required Christians to develop a process of formation in the Third Way to move new believers from conversion to discipleship. … Rejecting both accommodation and isolation, early Christians immersed themselves in the culture as followers of Jesus and servants of the kingdom of God.

Over time, this third-way approach gained followers, and with increased followership, increasing influence. By the time Constantine converted to Christianity in A.D. 312, Christians already constituted a significant, though occasionally persecuted, minority within the Roman empire. Over the next century, they became the only legal imperial religion. The once powerless Church became powerful.

Ironically and tragically, this power began to deform the Church. The Third Way became the First Way, integrity giving way to accommodation. Whereas the early Christian movement assumed that idolaters needed a rigorous form of discipleship, the so-called catechumenate, to mold converts into the faith and life of Jesus Christ, the post-Constantinian Church began to assume that everyone under the sway of a Christian emperor was Christian by default. The real faith of early Christians became the nominal faith of Christendom.

And that tension between the real and the nominal brings us back to the feeling so many American Christians have that our cultural influence is slipping away. If it is — and I believe that it is — how should we respond?

One response is simply for American Christians to engage in cultural and political warfare. While I am a proponent of informed Christian engagement in politics and culture, I worry that this response, however effective it may be in the short term, is ineffective in the long term. Sittser captures the gist of the dilemma when he writes:

If anything, the harder Christians fight, the more precipitous the decline will be, for cultural power and privilege will come at an increasingly high price. Christians will either accommodate until the faith becomes almost unrecognizable, or they will isolate until their faith becomes virtually invisible.

The better response — the one called for by Jesus Christ himself — is the way of discipleship, “baptizing [the nations] in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19–20). According to that way, success is not defined in terms of the accrual of political power or cultural influence, though they may come, but by fidelity to the Lord Jesus Christ regardless of whether they come. He is the Way, so His way must become our way too.

Until American Christians decide that fidelity is more important than power and privilege, their Christianity will continue to be a mile wide and an inch deep, though getting narrower and shallower every day.

Book Reviewed
Gerald L. Sittser, Resilient Faith: How the Early Christian “Third Way” Changed the World (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2019).

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

P.P.S. This review is cross-posted from InfluenceMagazine.com with permission.

A Little Book for New Preachers | Book Review


Matthew D. Kim is associate professor of preaching and ministry at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts, as well as director of its Haddon W. Robinson Center for Preaching. He describes A Little Book for New Preachers as “a primer or introduction to preaching focusing on the characteristics of what makes for effective sermons and faithful preachers” (p. 14). Kim divides his material into three parts:

  1. Why Study Preaching?
  2. Characteristics of Faithful Preaching
  3. Characteristics of Faithful Preachers

In a cultural era in which preaching is often denigrated, Kim makes a case for both the practice and formal study of preaching in Part One. After outlining several reasons for preaching, Kim concludes: “Preaching is essential to the life of God’s people because understanding and applying the Word of God is essential” (p. 52). The goal of preaching, in other words, is “to make disciples” (p. 44, cf. Matthew 28:19–20). Preaching is not the only way to do this, of course, but the Church has long found it to be an important, if not the most important way to do it.

Part Two turns to three characteristics of “faithful preaching: interpretation, cultural exegesis, and application. The material on interpretation and application is good. I especially appreciated the chapter on cultural exegesis, however. “Every congregation consists of people from different personal experiences, cultures, and backgrounds,” Kim writes, “even if outwardly they seem homogeneous” (p. 72). And that applies doubly outside a church’s four walls. The goal of cultural exegesis is “not to compete with the culture but rather to comprehend it for the sake of effective proclamation of God’s Word” (p. 73). I encourage pastors to pay attention to this chapter especially, and to consider reading Kim’s longer book, Preaching with Cultural Intelligence (Baker Academic). Those of us who preach need to know the cultural blind spots we all too often have when reading and preaching the Bible.

Finally, Part Three identifies three qualities preachers need to have to be effective: being pastoral and loving, being a person of character and integrity, and being prayerful and Spirit-led. “Preaching ability and charisma are inadequate to sustain a long-term, fruit-yielding ministry,” Kim writes (p. 106). Character is needed. In its absence, preachers are tempted to “fall into various destructive patterns of sin, which abruptly curtail their ministries and hurt their families and congregations” (p. 107). At the end of the day, the quality of the preacher matters as much as the quality of his or her sermons. Your whole speaks, not just your words.

Although Kim wrote his Little Book for “new preachers,” old preachers—which includes me—can read the book profitably as a refresher on homiletical basics.

Book Reviewed
Matthew D. Kim, A Little Book for New Preachers: Why and How to Study Homiletics (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2020).

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

Snakes and Ladders | Book Review


Snakes and Ladders is the third installment in Victoria Selman’s murder mystery series featuring Ziba MacKenzie, former British Special Forces officer, now “freelance offender profiler and serial killer expert,” as one character describes her in the book. (See my previous reviews here and here.)

It is four stories rolled into one: First, Ziba’s collaboration with New Scotland Yard as they hunt for the Pink Rose Killer, so called because PRK places a pink rose next to victims’ bodies. Second, PRK’s backstory, told in flashback sequences, which explain the motive behind the murders, at least partially. Third, Ziba’s interactions with Dr. Victor Sange, the Butcher of Balliol, a hyper-intelligent Oxford don with a penchant for murder, who claims to know PRK’s identity and who likes to cultivate disciples, even from prison. Sange is serving time for murder in England but awaiting extradition to the U.S. for capital crimes committed there. And, finally, Ziba’s evolving relationship with Jack Wolfe, the only journalist to whom PRK corresponds, but whose relationship with Ziba keeps putting him in personal and professional danger.

All told, this was a well-crafted murder mystery that kept me turning pages, my number-one requirement in books of this sort. At first reading, I didn’t see any plot holes and didn’t experience any moments where my willing suspension of disbelief was challenged. However, one character, introduced at the start of the story, struck me as a bit “off,” and toward the end of the story, even Ziba took notice. I’m sure that “offness” will play a role in Selman’s next book, since that character announced a last-page plot twist that I didn’t see coming at all.

I look forward to the fourth installment in this series, which is quickly becoming one of my favorites as old warhorses like Jack Reacher and Walt Longmire are losing my interest. Highly recommended!

Book Review
Victoria Selman, Snakes and Ladders (Seattle: Thomas & Mercer, 2019).

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

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: