Faith for Exiles | Book Review


Many Christians in America feel alienated from their culture. David Kinnaman and Mark Matlock explain why when they describe changes happening in North America and elsewhere as a transition from “from faith at the center to faith at the margins.” Moving from the cultural center to the cultural margin is a profoundly disconcerting experience.

No wonder, then, that so many of us look to Biblical stories about the Babylonian exile to formulate our response to an increasingly post-Christian America. This includes Kinnaman and Matlock, whose new book is titled, Faith for Exiles: 5 Ways for a New Generation to Follow Jesus in Digital Babylon. Kinnaman is president of Barna Group, a leading research company; Matlock is principal of WisdomWorks, a leadership consulting firm.

According to them, digital Babylon describes America’s “accelerated, complex culture that is marked by phenomenal access, profound alienation, and a crisis of authority.” This definition draws on Kinnaman’s earlier book, You Lost Me, as well as subsequent Barna research. The earlier book asked why young adults raised in church were leaving the faith. Faith in Exile asks why they’re staying.

Kinnaman and Matlock focus on the experience of young Americans, ages 18 to 29, who grew up Christian. They offer a fourfold typology of these young adults:

  • Prodigals “do not currently identify as Christian” (22 percent of total);
  • Nomads “identify as Christian but have not attended church during the past month” (30 percent);
  • Habitual Churchgoers “describe themselves as Christian and…have attended church at least once in the past month, yet do not meet foundational core beliefs or behaviors associated with being an intentional, engaged disciple” (38 percent); and
  • Resilient Disciples are “Christ followers who (1) attend church at least monthly and engage with their church more than just attending worship services; (2) trust firmly in the authority of the Bible; (3) are committed to Jesus personally and affirm he was crucified and raised form the dead to conquer sin and death; and (4) express desire to transform the broader society as an outcome of their faith.”

The authors believe that the goal of a church’s discipleship ministry today is “to develop Jesus followers who are resiliently faithful in the face of cultural coercion and who live a vibrant life in the Spirit.” In other words, the goal is to develop resilient disciples.

Faith in Exiles drills down on the quantitative and qualitative data that underlies Barna’s research and identifies five practices that characterize resilient disciples. They are:

  1. To form a resilient identity, experience intimacy with Jesus.
  2. Ina complex and anxious age, develop the muscles of cultural discernment.
  3. When isolation and mistrust are the norms, forge meaningful, intergenerational relationship.
  4. To ground and motivate an ambitious generation, train for vocational discipleship.
  5. Curb entitlement and self-centered tendencies by engaging in countercultural mission.

Though the five practices emerged from Barna’s research, Kinnaman and Matlock show they are consistent with Scripture and illustrate them with anecdotes from everyday life.

As a parent and as a Christian minister, these five practices resonate with my own experiences and goals. One of the tendencies I have noticed among my fellow Christians is a tendency to retreat behind the barriers of safe, institutional Christianity. Somewhat ironically, the most vibrant, effective Christians I know resist this tendency. They are “in” the world, but not “of” it, to borrow language from Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer in John 17:16, 18. If our children or church members never venture beyond the four walls of the Church, they will never develop the spiritual, intellectual, and missional muscles that Christ exercised and expects His followers to develop.

So, who should read this book? Pastors and other church leaders, of course, who are charged by Jesus Christ to “make disciples” (Matthew 28:19). I also think Christian parents could benefit from reading the book, however. I know I have.

Book Reviewed
David Kinnaman and Mark Matlock, Faith for Exiles: 5 Ways for a New Generation to Follow Jesus in Digital Babylon (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2019).

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

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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.

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.

Seculosity | Book Review


American organized religion is declining. According to Gallup data, only one percent of U.S. adults claimed no religious affiliation in 1955. By 2017, that percentage had grown to 20. The younger the adult, the likelier the lack of religious affiliation. For adults ages 30–39, the percentage is 28. For those ages 21–29, it’s 33. If you’re looking for evidence of secularization in America, this rise of the Nones is Exhibit A.

And yet, David Zahl claims inhis new book that “the marketplace in replacement religion is booming.” Those replacements don’t look or feel religious, however — at least not in the capital-R sense of the term, which Zahl describes as “robes and kneeling and the Man Upstairs.” They don’t necessarily look like “folkloric beliefs” or “occult belief systems” either: things like charms, telepathy, or astrology.

Instead, replacement religions center around everyday concerns such as — to list the topics of the book’s chapters — busyness, romance, parenting, technology, work, leisure, food, and politics. Zahl calls each of these replacements “seculosity,” a portmanteau of “secular” and “religiosity.” Seculosity is a religious impulse “directed horizontally rather than vertically, at earthly rather than heavenly objects.”

Why does Zahl considers these secular concerns religious? And why should we do so too? Those are fair questions, good ones even, because they go straight to the heart of what our culture thinks religion is.

We typically think of religion in of capital-R Religion terms, that is, organized religion with its concerns for doctrine, ritual, community, and institutions. Those are the outward manifestations of an inward impulse, which Zahl calls “the justifying story of our life.” According to him, religion is “what we lean on to tell us we’re okay, that our lives matter.” It is “our preferred guilt-management system.” In other words, religion is what “we rely on not just for meaning or hope but enoughness.” This search for enoughness characterizes religious Nones just as much as it does the traditionally religious. It is a universal longing.

Take the everyday concern about busyness, for example. Ask people how they’re doing, and they’ll probably reply, “Busy.” I certainly would. Between work, marriage, parenting, and life in general, it feels like every moment of every day is accounted for…and then some. I tell myself to rest, but the moment I start to do so, the nagging suspicion takes hold that a book needs to be read, an article needs to be written, a chore needs to be accomplished, my kids need to be helicoptered over, my wife needs to be date-nighted, the latest blockbuster movie needs to be watched, etc. (Notice, by the way, that even our leisure activities such as dating and movie-watching become have become to-do items.)

These nagging suspicions arise from what Zahl calls “performancism.” He writes: “Performancism turns life into a competition to be won (#winning) or a problem to be solved, as opposed to, say, a series of moments to be experienced or an adventure to relish. Performancism invests daily tasks with existential significance and turns even menial activities into measures of enoughness.”

And woe betide those who fail at these tasks, because “if you are not doing enough, or doing enough well, you are not enough.” Zahl doesn’t quote Blaise Pascal at this point, but there’s a lot of wisdom in the latter’s statement, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” (Now that I’ve quoted Pascal, however, I’m feeling guilty that I’m not checking off that to-do item either.)

Performancism is “one of the hallmarks of all forms of seculosity,” their underlying assumption, affecting how we approach everyday life. It cripples seculosity’s practitioners with anxiety (Am I enough?), shame (Do they think I’m enough?), and guilt (Have I done enough?). “The common denominator [in all forms of seculosity] is the human heart, yours and mine,” Zahl explains, referring to what motivates our behavior. “Which is to say, the problem is sin.”

In theological terms, you see, seculosity is just the latest example of a “religion of law.” It is a form of self-justification or works-righteousness. And like all such schemes, it is doomed to failure because “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). We are not enough. We have not done enough. We cannot do enough.

The antidote to seculosity is a “religion of grace,” Zahl concludes. “Sin is not something you can be talked out of (‘stop controlling everything!’) or coached through with the right wisdom. It is something from which you need to be saved.” And that salvation depends on the sacrificial love of the One doing the saving. He is enough, and only in Him can you be too.

Book Reviewed
David Zahl, Seculosity: How Career, Parenting, Technology, Food, Politics, and Romance Became Our New Religion and What To Do About It (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2019).

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

P.P.S. This review is from the July-August 2019 print issue of Influence magazine and is cross-posted here with permission.

The Myth of the Dying Church | Book Review


The rise of the “Nones”—that share of the American populace that claims no religious affiliation—is one of the most important religion stories of the past decade. Unfortunately, its import is often misunderstood. Rather than portending the decline of American Christianity per se, the rise of the Nones portends the decline of certain kindsof American Christianity.

In The Myth of the Dying Church, Glenn T. Stanton presents a rollicking account of which forms of American Christianity are thriving and which are declining. The myth consists of two claims. The general claim is that “Christianity has been declining over the last decade, with people simply losing interest in it and going elsewhere.” This claim is the one readers typically come across in secular media. The specific claim, one that readers often come across in Christian media, is that “our children and their friends…are highly unlikely to hang on to their faith as they get older.”

Stanton debunks the myth’s general claim by pushing past headlines and pointing out details typically buried at the bottom of  news stories. Similarly, he goes beyond the topline summaries of leading statistical reports and pointing out the nuances of the numbers. While his presentation of the details has the feel of a blog article—Stanton writes for TheFederalist.com—his endnotes show a clear familiarity with the relevant literature.

So, how does Stanton debunk the general claim? By pointing out three statistical trends: “the greatest movement of growth within Christianity is found among the evangelical nondenominational churches. The nones are not a new or growing category, but merely a change in identity. And the greatest movement in decline within Christianity over the last fifty years, right up to today, is liberal Christianity.”

The first and third trends are mirror images: Evangelical Christianity is holding strong while the bottom is dropping out of mainline Christianity. Pew Research indicates that most Nones are coming out of mainline churches and Roman Catholicism, not evangelical—or more conservative forms of—Christianity. And statistically speaking, it would be more accurate to describe Nones as denominalizing rather than deconverting. In other words, it is people with weak ties to Christian faith and practice who are shedding their nominal affiliation, not people with strong faith and practice who are apostatizing.

What about the specific claim? It’s pretty common in evangelical Christian circles to hear that the vast majority of young adults raised in church will abandon that faith in young adulthood. Stanton concedes that most Christian young adults experience fluctuations in the intensity of their religious commitment and consistency of their spiritual practice during the college and post-college years. This is an almost inevitable aspect of passing from a faith you learned from your parents to a faith you own for yourself. It’s called growing up.

But studies from Vern Bengston, Christian Smith, and others demonstrate that traditional forms of Christianity are very effective at passing along the faith to the next generation. Moreover, attendance records demonstrate that, in Stanton’s words, “more young people are attending evangelical churches today than they have in quite a long time; more than twice as many who did forty years ago.” Both points call into question the notion that evangelical young adults in particular are leaving the faith in large amounts.

Of course, evangelical youth in general might not be leaving the faith, but your own kids might be doing so. Stanton addresses that problem by outlining the kinds of parental practices that help moms and dads help their daughters and sons own the faith for themselves. These practices are “neither a crapshoot nor rocket science,” as Stanton humorously puts it, and consist largely of “teaching and modeling spiritual disciplines” and helping kids form relationships with other “trust and dependable adults who function like additional parents, but in some uniquely influential ways.”

On the whole, I think Stanton’s reading of the statistical evidence is right on target. His advice to parents is also quite helpful. If you’re a Christian, you don’t need to be a “Chicken Little” about the future of American Christianity.

At the same time, though, I think Stanton may underestimate the impact of the decline of mainline Protestantism. Let’s stipulate, for the sake of argument, that a lot of people who used to identify with mainline denominations but no longer do so had weak ties with Christian faith and practice to begin with. Let’s also stipulate that mainline Christianity has gone off the reservation in terms of theological orthodoxy. (I have mainline friends who would dispute both points, but just go with me for a second.)

Even stipulating that, the fact that nearly one quarter of Americans now claim no religious identification—and even high percentages of younger generations—creates problems for those with active Christian commitments because it indicates that a growing share of Americans no longer consider Christianity a plausible alternative. In previous generations, evangelism consisted of turning nominal Christians into born-again Christians. Now, evangelism consists of converting people from post-Christianity back to authentic Christianity. It’s one thing to convert pagans to something new. It’s another thing entirely to convert people to Christianity when they’ve already rejected it culturally, even if only at a surface level.

Additionally, the rise of the Nones creates new difficulties for American public discourse. In the 1960s, Martin Luther King Jr.—a Baptist minister, remember—was able to use biblical imagery to unite Americans around the cause of civil rights. This religious language united Americans across race, class, and region. When King cited Scripture, even his racist critics knew what he was talking about. The loss of even nominal Christianity, in my opinion, means that American culture no longer has that kind of unifying religious language that King was able to access in his monumental struggle.

It’s a bit unfair of me to critique Stanton for failing to address my concerns about the religious trends he writes about. His writing purpose is to debunk the myth that American Christianity is dying. It isn’t. If you don’t believe me, read Stanton’s convincing book. But don’t get too comfortable once you know the myth has been debunked. American Christianity isn’t dying, but its cultural context is changing, and those changes portend challenges that will only get harder in the near term.

Book Reviewed
Glenn T. Stanton, The Myth of the Dying Church: How Christianity Is Thriving in America and the World (New York: Worthy Publishing, 2019).

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

Disruptive Compassion | Book Review


“If I want to do something with my life and make a difference in the world, how do I do that?”

A college student asked Hal Donaldson this question several years ago after Donaldson made a presentation at his university. In the succeeding years, others asked Donaldson the same question. Though they were older than the student — some middle aged, others past retirement — each desired more than to do well; they wanted to do good.

Disruptive Compassion is Donaldson’s answer to their question. It reflects lessons he has learned personally, having grown up poor, and professionally, as CEO of Convoy of Hope. Convoy is a leading Christian compassion ministry whose mission is to “empower others to live with greater independence and freedom from poverty, disease, and hunger.”

But what precisely is “disruptive compassion”? As Donaldson explains, it’s not “code for sanitizing the world or condemning people who don’t measure up to your standards.” That is not the way of Jesus. Rather, disruptive compassion is “a rejection of the status quo and a belief that a tidal wave of love and acts of kindness can heal a wounded world.”

That sounds easy enough, right? Yes, and in a sense it is. The book’s thirteen chapters each contain an imperative for “compassion revolutionaries” to follow:

      1. Believe
      2. Define the Mission
      3. Do Reconnaissance
      4. Conduct an Audit
      5. Be Authentic
      6. Build a Team
      7. Pay the Invoice
      8. Create Momentum
      9. Eliminate Distractions
      10. Take Risks
      11. Measure Outcomes
      12. Persist and Pivot
      13. Go

These imperatives, while easy to articulate, are difficult to apply, however. Even to get started, you have to overcome what Donaldson calls “the true enemies of progress”: “doubt, apathy, and blame.” In my experience, this is the hardest threshold to cross because it calls us out of our comfort zone and challenges us to make a difference in our circle of influence.

While the imperative to believe presents a psychological challenge, the remaining imperatives present practical challenges. Where will I focus? What are the resource gaps that I can fill? How has God prepared me uniquely to address these gaps? Who will team up with me? And what costs am I willing to pay to see the mission through? These are some of the hard questions Donaldson asks (and answers) in his book.

Compassion revolutionaries come in all kinds. Some, like Donaldson himself, are full-time visionaries who create organizations, like Convoy of Hope, that become movements of love and kindness. Others excel in their professional careers but leverage their influence and wealth for Kingdom purposes. And still others serve in the army of volunteers that every genuine movement needs. You can read the stories of all kinds of compassion revolutionaries in the book.

The key thing, however, is to seek personally to “make a radical difference through disruptive compassion, wherever you are.” And so, having read the book, I find myself asking a simple question: Today, where can I show love and kindness to a person who needs it, whether through my words or by my deeds? Read this book, and I think you’ll start asking yourself the same thing. Answer it in word and deed and who knows how far your circle of influence eventually may extend!

Book Reviewed
Hal Donaldson, Kirk Noonan, and Lindsay Kay Donaldson, Disruptive Compassion: Becoming the Revolutionary You Were Born to Be (Grand Rapids, MI: 2019).

P.S. To hear my conversation with Hal Donaldson about Disruptive Compassion, please listen to Episode 184 of the Influence Podcast.

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

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