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.

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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.

When Harry Became Sally | Book Review


“America is in the midst of what has been called a ‘transgender moment,’” writes Ryan T. Anderson in When Harry Became Sally. “Not long ago, most Americans had never heard of transgender identity, but within the space of a year it became a cause claiming the mantle of civil rights.”

The inflection point was probably Diane Sawyer’s April 2015 interview with Bruce Jenner, in which he said, “for all intents and purposes I’m a woman,” taking the name Caitlyn a few months later. A judge legally approved Jenner’s name and gender change in September of that year. In October, Glamour magazine named Jenner a “Woman of the Year.”

Jenner’s transition put a well-known face on America’s transgender moment, but actions by the Obama administration gave the moment legal muscle. In a series of “Dear Colleague” letters, first the Department of Education (2010) and then the Department of Justice and Department of Education jointly (2016) redefined the word sex — i.e., biological sex — to include “gender identity.”

The Department of Health and Human Services (2016) similarly proposed expanding the meaning of sex to include “gender identity.” Various federal laws ban discrimination based on sex (e.g., Title IX), but Obama administration actions required schools and hospitals to act as if there were no legal difference between a biological female and a biological male who identifies as a woman. (The Trump administration reversed many of these executive actions.)

Popular culture and political action may have normalized transgender identity, but Anderson reminds readers how radical it is. “At the heart of the transgender moment are radical ideas about the human person — in particular, that people are what they claim to be, regardless of contrary evidence. A transgender boy is a boy, not merely a girl who identifies as a boy.” This is a metaphysical claim, one that needs to be subjected to more scrutiny than it has been. When Harry Became Sally offers a multidisciplinary critique of transgender identity.

Chapters 1 and 2 describe our transgender moment and the ideology of transgender activists, respectively.

Chapter 3 then turns to the personal narratives of transgender people who subsequently detransitioned to their birth sex. Anderson argues that these stories “tell us, at minimum, that transitioning is not the ‘only solution’ to gender dysphoria.”

Chapter 4 examines “what science tells us about the biological basis of sex.” Anderson writes, “The fundamental conceptual distinction between a male and a female is the organism’s organization for sexual reproduction.” Indeed, he argues that “sex is a coherent concept only on the basis of that organization.”

Chapter 5 then explores the nature and treatment of gender dysphoria. Anderson understands it as “incongruence between biological sex and experienced gender.” How one defines gender dysphoria determines how one treats it. “The central debate in treating people with gender dysphoria is whether therapies should focus primarily on the mind or on the body.” Anderson argues that treating the feeling of incongruity between biological sex and gender identity has better therapeutic outcomes than gender reassignment.

Chapter 6 examines gender dysphoria among children. Experts agree that between 80 and 95 percent of kids who experience gender dysphoria naturally resolve those feelings in favor of their biological sex. Because of this, Anderson argues, “We need medical professionals who will help them mature in harmony with their bodies, rather than deploy experimental treatments to refashion their bodies.”

Chapter 7 outlines a view of gender that Anderson believes is preferable to transgender identity theory. It is a “nuanced view of gender.” It avoids rigid gender stereotypes, even as it acknowledges that “gender norms” are not merely “social constructs.”

Chapter 8 concludes the book by examining transgender identity from the standpoint of public policy. Anderson’s primary concern is that “commonsense policies regarding bodily privacy and sound medicine are now being labeled discriminatory.”

In my judgment, When Harry Became Sally makes a persuasive case against the idea of transgender identity, as well as the medical and public policy practices that flow from that idea. Five or ten years ago, Anderson’s arguments would have been noncontroversial. Today, however, as popular culture and presidential politics have mainstreamed transgender identity, those arguments have become a matter of great controversy.

The value of When Harry Became Sally lies in its multidisciplinary arguments. If you’re looking for a book about what to do if you personally experience gender dysphoria, or how to help a friend or family member who experiences it, this is not the book to read.

Similarly, it is not a religious book. I read it from the perspective of a Christian minister interested in how the Church should respond to transgender persons. Though Anderson is Catholic, his arguments are secular in character, depending on biology, psychology and philosophy, not Scripture and theology. He helped me understand the nature of transgender identity, but he didn’t outline a uniquely pastoral response to it.

In sum, When Harry Became Sally is the reasoned judgment of a public intellectual on an important matter of current controversy, well worth reading.

 

Book Reviewed
Ryan T. Anderson, When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment (New York: Encounter, 2018).

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

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

Understanding Generation Z | Influence Podcast


Over at InfluenceMagazine.com, I interview David Kinnaman of Barna Group about its new report, Gen Z: The Culture, Beliefs and Motivations Shaping the Next Generation. In my opinion, this is an excellent report for pastors–especially youth and KidMin pastors–and parents who want to understand the water in which their Gen Z kids swim.

You can follow Barna Group on Facebook and Twitter. I always find its research to be thought-provoking and helpful.

Episode 125 Notes

  • 00:00 Introduction of podcast topic
  • 00:32 MEGA Sports Camp ad copy
  • 01:10 Welcome to David Kinnaman
  • 01:47 Why pastors and other church leaders should pay attention to generational research
  • 04:00 Demographics of Generation Z
  • 07:18 Big themes of Barna’s Gen Z report
  • 12:10 Nominal Christianity vs. biblical worldview
  • 15:51 Diversity of race/ethnicity and gender/sexuality
  • 21:22 Materialistic values
  • 25:04 Best practices for ministry to Generation Z
  • 27:55 Gen Z and Barna Trends 2018
  • 29:04 Conclusion

Preaching with Cultural Intelligence | Influence Podcast


In this episode of the Influence Podcast, I talk to Matthew D. Kim about his new book, Preaching with Cultural Intelligence (Baker Academic).

Dr. Kim is associate professor of preaching and ministry at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts, and author of the book, Preaching with Cultural Intelligence: Understanding the People Who Hear our Sermons (Baker Academic). Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

I think this book is timely because America is becoming an increasingly diverse nation, and so are American churches. This diversification raises an important question: How should pastors and other church leaders preach and minister in this new cultural context?

Take a listen to Dr. Kim’s answer!

The Pietist Option | Book Review


American Christianity is in a parlous state. It constitutes a shrinking share of the population. And in terms of worship service attendance, most of its churches are shrinking too.

Regarding share of the population, most Americans continue to identify as Christians, but that number is declining. According to America’s Changing Religious Landscape, a 2015 report from Pew Research Center, 70.6 percent of Americans identify as Christians, down from 78.4 percent only seven years earlier. Over the same period, so-called “nones” — that is, Americans with no religious affiliation — increased their share of the population from 16.1 to 22.8 percent.

Regarding worship service attendance, Thom Rainer argues that 65 percent of churches are plateaued (9 percent) or declining (56 percent) in worship service attendance. That’s better than the 80 percent figure often bandied about, but it’s still not good. Just a little over 1 in 3 churches (35 percent) are growing.

These data are rough metrics of church health, of course, but it’s difficult to believe the American church is doing well when its numbers head south over such a short period of time. What is to be done? How should American Christianity be renewed?

That is the question Christopher Gehrz and Mark Pattie III take up in their new book, The Pietist Option. Gehrz is a professor of history at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Pattie is senior pastor of Salem Covenant Church in nearby New Brighton. Both are members of the Evangelical Covenant Church, a denomination with Swedish Pietist roots.

Pietism arose in late-17th-century Germany as a response to the perceived spiritual coldness of orthodox Lutheranism. Its first advocate was Philip Jacob Spener (1635–1705), whose 1675 book Pia Desideria outlined a Pietist plan of renewal. (The book’s full title is Heartfelt Desire for a God-pleasing Reform of the True Evangelical Church, Together with Several Simple Christian Proposals Looking Toward This End.)

Gehrz and Pattie self-consciously utilize the outline of Pia Desideria in their book. Noting differences between the circumstances of German Lutheranism in 1675 compared to American Christianity today, they nonetheless think Spener’s basic themes were on target. Thus, their proposals for renewal include:

  • A more extensive listening to the Word of God
  • The common priesthood for the common good
  • Christianity as life
  • The irenic spirit
  • Whole-person, whole-life formation
  • Proclaiming the good news

The authors illustrate these themes from Scripture and Pietist history, but they also show how each theme is desperately needed in today’s churches.

Although I am a Pentecostal, not a Pietist, these themes deeply resonated with my heart. The primary reason for this is that they have deep biblical roots. But a secondary reason is that Pietist instincts long ago slipped the boundaries of Pietist institutions and affected the broader Christian world. Moravian Pietists, for example, deeply influenced the spirituality of John Wesley, who in turn formed the spirituality of Methodism and evangelicalism, which in turn shaped my own tribe’s spiritual sensibilities.

A final reason why The Pietist Option so deeply resonated with me is its Jesus-centeredness. The entire program of Pietism, if program is the right term, can be summarized in four words: Come back to Jesus. Gehrz and Pattie write:

… Pietists who live in, with, and for the person of Jesus probably feel his presence more than they think about the idea of Christ. But they also tend to suspect that if we answer the call to “Come back to Jesus,” we’ll soon find that being a Christ-follower is both less and more than we’ve assumed.

Less because if those four words are the call, then there’s a good chance that we’ve made Christianity too complicated. So Pietists simplify. For example, their lists of essential doctrines tend to be short…

More in that answering that call leads to growth, to change so radical that we can only start to describe it with two of the New Testament’s most audacious metaphors: new birth (Jn 3:7) and new life (e.g., Rom 6:4). Pietists fully expect the encounter with Jesus to be transformative …

The Pietist Option is not a full-orbed battle plan for the Christianization of American society. It doesn’t outline a rigorous intellectual apologetic, for example, nor does it detail the shape of the reform of church and culture. It doesn’t necessarily oppose those things, I should add — although “irenic spirit” and “culture war” don’t jibe. But my guess is that Pietism doubts Christian ideas and reforms will work if Christians themselves don’t first and foremost have a living trust in Jesus.

So, come back to Jesus! It’s not the only thing to say about the renewal of Christianity, but it’s certainly fundamental.

 

Book Reviewed
Christopher Gehrz and Mark Pattie III, The Pietist Option: Hope for the Renewal of Christianity (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2017).

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

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

Contemporary Challenges Christian Leaders Face | Influence Podcast


In the 100th episode of the Influence Podcast, Chris Railey, John Davidson, and I discuss the challenges named in the title, as well as books Christian leaders should read and why Assemblies of God pastors should come to the Influence Conference on August 7-8 in Anaheim, California.