Pastor Paul | Book Review


What do pastors do? A lot of things. Perhaps too many things. They preach and teach; plan worship services; officiate at major life events such as baby dedications, weddings, and funerals (“hatch, match, and dispatch,” as one wag puts it); evangelize; disciple; counsel; visit the sick and elderly; disperse benevolence funds; cast vision; raise money; lead meetings; set up auditoriums; clean toilets; eat too much at the potluck; and so on. The list is long, but something else is always being added, as every pastor knows.

But what do pastors do these things for? In the midst of a busy schedule, pastors all too quickly and easily forget their purpose, losing sight of the end toward which all their activities are but means. In Pastor Paul, Scot McKnight mines the life and thought of the apostle to the Gentiles to remind pastors of their fundamental purpose. He announces his thesis early on: “The pastor is called to nurture a culture of Christoformity.” As Paul himself puts it in Galatians 4:19: “My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you” (emphasis added). In Romans 8:29, Paul describes Christoformity as God’s own goal: “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (emphasis added).

We typically understand Christoformity in individual terms. A person — you or me, for example — increasingly becomes like Christ in thought, word and deed. That’s right as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough, for Christoformity must also be understood in social terms. It is a characteristic of both the Christian and of the congregation in which he or she is a member. A church’s culture consists of four elements, according to McKnight: the pastor(s) and leaders; the congregation; the relationship between them; and the policies, structures, and systems that govern them. “No church culture is completely good,” McKnight warns, “because it emerges from human beings who are not completely good. Yet the gospel’s power transforms what could be a bad culture into good at some level, so churches have at least some small chance of emerging as a culture of (some) goodness.”

Chapter 1 briefly sketches “ten elements of a Christoform culture that a pastor can nurture”: people, formation, listening, prophecy, presence, priesthood, servanthood, and leadership, all the while resisting the temptations of celebrity and power. Chapters 2–8 describe what such a culture looks like in terms of relationships, economic stewardship, Scripture interpretation, evangelistic witness, subversion of worldliness, and practical wisdom. McKnight acknowledges that these topics are illustrative rather than exhaustive. Pastor Paul, he insists, is not a complete or systematic theology of pastoring.

Also, throughout the book, McKnight repeatedly states that he writes as a New Testament scholar, not as a pastor. He’s trying to describe what Pastor Paul did, not prescribe what contemporary pastors should do. Even so, the book is illuminating and suggestive. Pastors with ears to hear will hear its Christoform message and know what to do with it in their own congregational contexts.

I close with a quotation from McKnight’s penultimate page, which reminds pastor-readers of their need for the Holy Spirit. McKnight himself isn’t Pentecostal, but as a Pentecostal, I appreciated this statement nonetheless:

Christoformity is not the inevitable consequence of forming the right habits, nor is it simply the result of intentions and willpower. Rather, Christ is present in our word at its core through the Spirit, and the grace of God operating through the Spirit is the only path of Christoformity. Christocentricity is only possible through Pneumacentricity: we can only find Christ at the center if we are open to the Spirit taking us there.

Amen!

Book Reviewed
Scot McKnight, Pastor Paul: Nurturing a Culture of Christoformity in the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2019).

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

P.P.S. I wrote this review for InfluenceMagazine.com. It is posted here by permission.

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How to Make Disciples in Digital Babylon | Influence Podcast


“Millennials, and now Gen Z, aren’t going to ruin the world or the church,” write David Kinnaman and Mark Matlock in their new book, Faith for Exiles. “We, the Christian community, would do well to put our confidence in them.”

I’m George P. Wood, executive editor of Influence magazine and your host. In this episode of the Influence Podcast, I’m talking to David Kinnaman about how to make disciples of young adults in our current culture. Kinnaman is president of Barna Group and the author or coauthor of numerous books, most recently Faith for Exiles: 5 Ways for a New Genration to Follow Jesus in Digital Babylon, published by Baker Books.

This episode of the Influence Podcast is brought to you by My Healthy Church, distributors of Tru Fire curriculum:

From Preschool to Middle School, Tru Fire digital curriculum equips teachers with engaging lessons that help students connect with the Holy Spirit and respond to Him. Tru Fire is the Pentecostal curriculum your church is looking for.

To download free sample lessons, visit TruFireCurriculum.com.

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

P.P.S. I reviewed Kinnaman and Matlock’s Faith for Exiles here.

Make Your Church Safe for Kids! | Influence Podcast


In a recent article for InfluenceMagazine.com, Mark Entzminger wrote: “[A] poorly designed or implemented safety plan can not only damage the church’s reputation in the community but, more importantly, it can also damage the heart and spirit of a child for a lifetime.”

I’m George P. Wood, executive editor of Influence magazine and your host. In this episode of the Influence Podcast, I’m talking to Entzminger about why churches must put child safety first and how they can do so. Entzminger is national director of Children’s Ministries for the Assemblies of God (USA).

Richard Hammar’s checklist to prevent child molestation can be accessed here.

This episode of the Influence Podcast is brought to you by My Healthy Church, distributors of Balanced Budget, Balanced Life.

People don’t plan on having money troubles, which is exactly the problem: They don’t plan! In Balanced Budget, Balanced Life, Rollie Dimos shows you how to make a biblically sound financial plan and stick to it. Get back the time and resources you need to stop stressing out about money, and start enjoying the balance of a truly abundant life.

For more information, visit BalancedBudgetBalancedLife.com.

P.S. This podcast was recorded for InfluenceMagazine.com and appears here by permission.

Developing Female Leaders | Book Review


As a Pentecostal minister, I support women’s leadership in the church. I believe the Holy Spirit calls and empowers women to exercise their spiritual gifts, just as He does for men, whether those gifts prepare them for service as a lead pastor, a leading volunteer, or something in between. And I am grateful to be an ordained minister in the Assemblies of God, a denomination that affirms women’s leadership in both its theology and governing documents.

Even so, I recognize that women continue to face obstacles on the road to fulfilling their God-given callings. One major obstacle is theological: Too many evangelical churches and denominations value women’s congregational ministries but continue to cap their leadership at the point where women might exercise authority over men. The other major obstacle is practical and common even in churches and denominations like mine that affirm women’s leadership. Here, the problem is that such organizations make inadequate provision for the recruitment, development, and retention of women leaders.

Kadi Cole’s Developing Female Leadersdoes not weigh in on the theological obstacle to women’s leadership. Instead, she focuses on the practical obstacle. Whatever a church’s theology of women’s leadership, she argues, all churches can do better at developing women to serve at the highest level that the church’s theology allows. This is a shrewd move on Cole’s part, given the intractable debates among evangelicals about gender roles in church and society. It allows her to help all churches, whatever their theologies of women’s leadership, improve their practices of developing women leaders.

Here is a synopsis of the eight “best practices” Cole recommends in her book:

  1. Seek to understand. “Take the time to have a conversation with the female leaders you have on your team and in your congregation. Ask them about their stories and how they have impacted their view of themselves as leaders.”
  2. Clearly define what you believe. “Even if you have confidence that your [theological] stance is extremely clear, there have likely been mixed messages in how this has played out for [women] in your church and in [their] leadership. In my experience, most godly women are very aware there is a line somewhere, and because they are concerned about overstepping that line, they will often stay way below what you believe they have an opportunity to do. This gap is one of the places where you have incredible untapped leadership potential.”
  3. Mine the marketplace. Professional women “have been given projects to manage, a staff to lead, and initiatives to implement. They have received formal and informal leadership development and have withstood the rigors of the business world.” Consequently, Cole advises, “Never assume that an established, professional female isn’t interested in working with or for you. Many incredible leaders would love the opportunity to use their marketplace skills in the kingdom.”
  4. Integrate spiritual formation and leadership development. “Integrating spiritual growth and leadership development is a critical component of developing healthy, strong, and capable female leaders within your church. A woman cannot lead from a healthy soul if we do not help integrate her relationship with Christ with the gifts and calling He has given her.”
  5. Be an “other.”“Being and providing quality ‘others’ in the form of male mentors, male sponsors, and female coaches will give your female leaders the supportive connections and authentic relationships they need to learn, grow, and develop into the capable leaders your church needs and the fruitful leaders God has called them to be.”
  6. Create an environment of safety. “Creating a safe work environment free from harassment or predatorial behavior by anyone is imperative to the development of both male and female leaders who are godly, healthy, and trustworthy.”
  7. Upgrade your people practices. “In everything from recruiting practices to retirement benefits, making sure female leaders receive equal and ethical treatment for the work they contribute was an important issue, not just for women, but as a statement about how churches function as employers within our communities.”
  8. Take on your culture. “By reevaluating your stated values and use of language, redefining borders, and integrating strategic symbols, you can help your culture shift to an environment that not only welcomes and supports new female leadership, but creates an opportunity for many more leaders to grow and thrive.”

While this synopsis accurately summarizes the best practices Developing Female Leadersrecommends, it fails to articulate the wisdom, empathy, and granularity of good advice that runs throughout each chapter of the book.

If you are a male church leader, you really need to read this book. It will open your eyes to the obstacles that the more-than-half of your congregation which is female routinely face as they seek to perform their ministries, whether on staff or as volunteers. More importantly, however, it will give you a detailed plan to clear those obstacles and develop women leaders better. My guess is that as your leadership development practices for women improve, the overall quality of your leadership pipeline will improve too, for both men and women. Finally, for women leaders reading this book, it concludes with a bonus chapter titled, “Best Practices for Female Leaders.”

I cannot recommend this book highly enough!

Book Reviewed
Kadi Cole, Developing Female Leaders: Navigate the Minefields and Release the Potential of Women in Your Church(Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2019).

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

P.P.S. This review is cross-posted at InfluenceMagazine.com.

Evangelizing the Unsaved Christian | Influence Podcast


“The Bible Belt is the most difficult place in America to pastor a local church.” That’s what Dean Inserra’s friend Matt told him as they left seminary to plant churches, Dean in Florida and Matt in California. “In California, there is rarely confusion. Either you’re a Christian or you’re not. In the Bible Belt, many people think they’re Christians but have no concept of … the overall message of the gospel.”

In Episode 174 of the Influence Podcast, Influencemagazine’s executive editor, George P. Wood, talks with Dean Inserra about eight types of cultural Christians and how to share the gospel with them. Inserra is author of The Unsaved Christian: Reaching Cultural Christianity with the Gospel, just out from Moody Publishers. A Southern Baptist church planter, he is founding pastor of City Church in Tallahassee, Florida, where he lives with his wife and his three children.

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

P.P.S. You can read my book review of The Unsaved Christian here. If you like it, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

Pagans and Christians in the City | Book Review


Christianity was conceived in a Jewish womb but born into a pagan world. For the first four centuries of its existence, Christianity struggled against the polytheism, violence, and sexual immorality of classical culture, eventually displacing paganism as the default faith of the West. That dominance continued through the Middle Ages until the 16th century, when conflicts between Catholics and Protestants divided Christendom and set the stage for the rise of Enlightenment secularism. Since then, secularism has slowly displaced Christianity as the West’s go-to ideology.

That’s the standard narrative of Western history, at any rate. Steven D. Smith’s Pagans and Christians in the City offers a thought-provoking counternarrative inspired by T. S. Eliot’s 1939 Cambridge University lecture, “The Idea of a Christian Society.” Speaking six months before the start of World War II, Eliot stated his conviction in binary terms: “I believe that the choice before us is between the formation of a new Christian culture, and the acceptance of a pagan one.”

At first glance, Eliot’s conviction and Smith’s counternarrative seem implausible. In a 1954 lecture at Cambridge, C. S. Lewis expressed impatience with “those Jeremiahs … who warn us that we are ‘relapsing into Paganism.’” He laughed at the very idea: “It would be pleasant to see some future Prime Minister trying to kill a large and lively milk-white bull in Westminster Hall. But we shan’t.” Why? Because history does not move backward. “The post-Christian” — Lewis’ term for modernity — “is cut off from the Christian past and therefore doubly from the Pagan past.”

Fair enough. We can all have a good laugh with Lewis. But what if he misidentified an incidental feature of paganism (sacrifice) as an essential feature? What exactly ispaganism, after all? Smith describes “the pagan orientation” as “the commitment to the immanent sacred.” This orientation “beatifies and sacralizes the goods of this world.” It teaches that “‘the sacred’ exists…in this world and this life.” By contrast, Smith explains, “the Christian position has never been to deny the goodness of this world, but only to insist that it is not the ultimate good, and that its goodness derives from a more transcendent source.”

This description of paganism throws a clarifying light on the term secular, which derives from the Latin term saeculum, meaning “generation” or “age.” According to Smith, “the secular” comes in three forms. In the “pagan secular,” “this world and this life … are viewed as having a sacred quality.” In the “Christian secular,” “this life has value … because it is a (subordinate) piece of the larger domain of eternity.” Finally, there is “the distinctively modern positivistic secular reflected in the naturalistic worldview associated with modern science.” Like the pagan secular, the positivist secular has no concept of transcendence. Unlike the pagan secular, however, it also has no concept of sacredness — that is, of life’s goodness, value, or meaning.

When, therefore, public intellectuals speak of Christianity being displaced by secularism in the modern world, they need to define their terms more carefully. The positivistic secular exists, but it is a distinctly minority position. The hardest battles in today’s culture wars are fought between the pagan secular and the Christian secular — that is, between immanent and transcendent accounts of goodness, value and meaning. Smith illustrates these battles in the debates over public religious symbols, human sexuality, the interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, and religious freedom. Smith is Warren Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of San Diego in San Diego, California, and an acknowledged expert on religious freedom and the relationship between law and religion.

What he writes about the debate over religious freedom in particular applies just as well to the other three debates. “One side of the debate favors a conception of religious freedom that is consistent with … a city or a political community that respects and is open to transcendence.” The other side works “to maintain a public square whose commitments are confined to the satisfaction of ‘interests’ and to immanentlysacred values.” At the end of the day, then, what is at stake in all these debates is the kind of community America has been, will be, or should be. Or any other political community where Christianity and paganism clash, for that matter.

As is the case with any book that tackles as large a subject as this one, careful readers will find nits to pick with the author throughout. Whatever those nits may be, however, Pagans and Christians in the City is a real achievement, clarifying the religious nature of the culture wars that have roiled America for the past few decades and showing their deep continuity with the original four-centuries clash between Christians and pagans.

Book Reviewed
Steven D. Smith, Pagans and Christians in the City: Culture Wars from the Tiber to the Potomac (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2018).

P.S. This is a preview of an article appearing in the March/April 2019 edition of Influencemagazine. It is cross-posted from InfluenceMagazine.com with permission.

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

Christians in the Age of Outrage | Book Review


Google the word “outrage,” and this definition appears: “an extremely strong reaction of anger, shock, or indignation.” Not just anger, shock or indignation, mind you, but an “extremely strong reaction” of those things. Outrage is anger kicked up to 11.

Contemporary Americans live in the Age of Outrage. We are outraged by what those on the “other side” of just about any political, cultural or religious issue say and do, and we take to social media to “destroy” them. Not dialogue civilly, let alone rebut or refute, but destroy.

Outrage destroys.

In Christians in the Age of Outrage, Ed Stetzer shows “how to bring our best when the world is at its worst,” as the subtitle puts it. The book is a tract for our times, and its author is the right person to share it. Stetzer holds the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College. Like Graham — known to many as “America’s Pastor” — Stetzer wants American evangelicals to be “unifying forces in American life,” bringing people together around the gospel. The purpose of his book is “to help Christians move from contributing to the age of outrage to effectively engaging it with the gospel.”

To accomplish that purpose, Stetzer looks at three broad topics. In Part 1, he examines “the two primary catalysts for our outrage”: “cultural forking” and “the technology discipleship gap.” Whereas American culture used to be nominally Christian, so that evangelicals found themselves in its mainstream, it is increasingly becoming post-Christian. Culture forked, in other words, and evangelicals now find themselves outside the mainstream. The new mainstream and the old mainstream eye each other distrustfully across the gap that divides them.

Social media exacerbates that distrust. Face-to-face encounters usually keep things civil, but online, you can abstract your opponents’ ideas from the totality of their lives and then reduce them to that abstraction. Social media use too often succeeds in reducing people to straw men and then providing the match to light those straw men on fire. This results in a vicious cycle of caricature, outrage, counter-caricature, counter-outrage, and so on and so forth.

In Part 2, Stetzer examines “four lies that reinforce and deepen our world’s anger.” They are:

  1. Christians are the worst!
  2. My outrage is righteous anger.
  3. _____ will save me from the outrage!
  4. Mission is optional.

Some of these are lies that post-Christian America tells about Christian America. The others are lies Christians tell themselves. These lies distort clear thinking and rationalize bad behavior.

Stetzer’s debunking of each of these lies is good, but I especially appreciated the distinction he drew between “righteous anger” and “outrage.” He writes:

Outrage exhibits few if any of the short- or long-term characteristics Scripture associates with righteous anger. Righteous anger is aimed at the glory of God,, but outrage is an angry reaction to personal injury or insult. Where righteous anger is purposeful and designed to advance specific objectives and ends, outrage exhibits little critical thought as to its underlying focus, motivations, expressions, or ends.

Outrage is motivated by a desire to punish or destroy rather than reconcile or refine. It is frequently accompanied by hubris and a confidence in its judgment, categorically rejecting any nuance. Outrage is fast and decisive rather than reflective, choosing to exhibit God’s retribution rather than reflect his persistent, steadfast love.

Yes, there are any number of sins and injustices in the world to be righteously angry about. Stetzer’s not denying this. But in the Bible, righteous anger is the prelude to repentance, reform and redemption. It is a means to a greater end. In our culture, outrage is its own reward.

The connection between righteous anger and redemption reminds us that God’s mission to redeem humanity is the purpose for which Christ came into the world. “For the Son of Man came to seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10). When we let our anger get kicked up to 11, we forget that we are Christ’s ambassadors, carrying the message: “Be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:20). When we keep our mission in the forefront of our minds, however, a different strategy emerges.

Part 3 outlines “ways that Christians can counteract the outrage in their lives and this world by being intentional about developing a Christ-centered worldview, living as God’s ambassadors, loving others in a winsome way, and engaging thoughtfully with others, both online and face-to-face.” I like the way Stetzer summarizes the strategy this way: “Instead of Outrage, Engage.”

There’s so much wisdom in Stetzer’s recommendations that it’s hard to summarize them all. So, let me just highlight his “Principles of Digital Discipleship.” They are particularly helpful, especially given the outsized role that social media play in fomenting our culture of outrage. When online, Stetzer advises:

  1. Remember that everyone is watching.
  2. Choose investment over consumption.
  3. See people, not avatars.
  4. Make grace the default mode.
  5. Resist the urge to fight every battle.
  6. Value authority over freedom.

Regarding that last point, Stetzer writes: “Just because we cansay something doesn’t mean we should. There are ways of confronting abuses of power, and I am certainly not condoning a mindless obedience. But Christians need to understand that the best place for difficult conversations is usually not online.”

The vicious cycle of outrage and counter-outrage has got to stop, for the good of our culture and for the sake of the gospel. Christians need to demonstrate a better way. After all, if the Church is “the hermeneutic of the gospel,” as Lesslie Newbigin put it, then our unrighteous outrage may lead people away from God, giving Him a bad reputation in the process. You can be outraged or you can fulfill the Great Commission. You can’t do both.

In sum, I highly recommend both Christians in the Age of Outrage and its author. If you’d like to see how he deals online with controversial issues in a Christian manner, follow @EdStetzer on major social media. Or check out his blog at ChristianityToday.com.

Book Reviewed
Ed Stetzer, Christians in the Age of Outrage: How to Bring Our Best When the World Is At Its Worst (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale Momentum, 2018).

P.S. If my review helped you form an opinion of this book, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

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

Institutional Intelligence | Book Review


“Institutions matter,” writes Gordon T. Smith. “Vibrant institutions—effective organizations—are essential to our personal lives and to the common good.” Institutional Intelligenceidentifies seven elements of such organizations: mission clarity, appropriate governance, quality personnel, vibrant culture, financial resilience, generative built spaces and strategic alliances. Smith shows Christian leaders how to implement these elements in their organizations. In a day when public trust in institutions, including churches, is low, this book offers a hopeful, helpful view of trustworthy institutions that contribute to human flourishing.

Book Reviewed
Gordon T. Smith, Institutional Intelligence: How to Build an Effective Organization(Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2017).

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

P.P.S. This is cross-posted from InfluenceMagazine.comwith permission.

Missional Public Opinion Researchj


Twenty-some years ago, I served as a counselor at a weeklong Christian summer camp for abused and neglected children. For chapel, one evening, a puppet evangelist told the story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac (Genesis 22) as an example of the Father’s willingness to sacrifice His Son for us.

A graduate student in theology at the time, I remember thinking there was something wrong with the ventriloquist’s analogy. Wouldn’t Jesus be like the ram God provided, not Isaac? I thought. Then I noticed how quiet, still, and wide-eyed the kids were. Slowly, I realized that many of these kids had witnessed horrific acts of violence perpetrated by their parents or guardians against them and their siblings. In fact, over the course of five years as a counselor, two of my campers — brothers — had witnessed their dad murder their mother and kill himself.

In my opinion, this well-meaning puppet evangelist failed to communicate because he didn’t understand the audience he was preaching to. Ministerial education focuses on teaching pastors the proper exegesis of the biblical text, but in my experience, we need more help in the proper exegesis of our culture.

That’s why I’m an avid reader of public opinion research. When Pew, Gallup, Barna, or similar organizations release a new study, I pay attention. Credible data on what people believe and value helps me better understand the people and culture God has called me to serve as a witness to the gospel.

Obviously, public opinion doesn’t determine what you and I say. The Bible is God’s inspired, inerrant Word. Our message about Jesus Christ comes from its pages, not from the pages of a newspaper or website.

On the other hand, public opinion can help us shape how we share our message. Think of how the apostle Paul preached the gospel to different audiences in the Book of Acts. In Pisidian Antioch, Paul preached a sermon to fellow Jews in the synagogue on the Sabbath that was a master class in the exposition of Scripture (Acts 13:13–52). In Athens, on the other hand, Paul cited Greek poets more than Scripture in his dialogue with Greek philosophers (Acts 17:22–34).

What accounts for the difference? Paul knew that the Jews shared his commitment to Scripture. So, he reasoned from the Bible with them. On the other hand, he knew that Greeks didn’t share his commitment to Scripture, so he reasoned to the Bible with them. In both cases, what Paul said was substantially the same, but how he said it was radically different.

Late last year, Barna Group released Barna Trends 2018, which is chock-full of good information about how contemporary Americans both inside and outside the church view culture, life and faith. I was particular impressed by the feature article, “The Truth about a Post-Truth Society.” It identified five reasons why Americans have such a hard time agreeing about anything: (1) distrust of authority, (2) an erosion of the sacred, (3) a battle between feelings and facts, (4) unbelievable (“fake”) news, and (5) the rise of tribalism.

The challenge for pastors and church leaders is how to cultivate faith in a culture characterized by systemic distrust. We can only begin to do this when we understand the reasons for that distrust, which comes by paying careful attention to our audience’s beliefs, values and practices. The better we understand them, the better able we will be to share the gospel with them.

Unlike that well-meaning puppet evangelist, who was never invited back to camp.

Book Reviewed:
Barna Group, Barna Trends 2018: The Truth about a Post-Truth Society (Grand Rapids, MI Baker Books, 2017).

P.S. This article originally appeared in the March/April 2018 edition of Influence magazine and appears here by permission.

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

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