Basic Christianity | Book Review


What does it mean to be evangelical? Derived from the Greek euaggelion — “gospel” or “good news” — the word describes things that are related to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Since the Reformation, it has been used as shorthand for Protestants generally. With the Great Awakening, it began to be used of a specific type of Protestant: Bible-based, Cross-centered, conversion-required and action-oriented.

Now in the United States, the word more often than not is used to describe a brand of partisan politics, at least in the popular press. This is unfortunate, because the gospel itself cannot be reduced to partisan politics. It is bigger and more fundamental than that. John Stott’s Basic Christianity helps readers remember this by outlining a truly evangelical understanding of Christianity.

Stott writes: “Christianity is a rescue religion. It declares that God has taken the initiative in Jesus Christ to rescue us from our sins. This is the main theme of the Bible.”

Over the course of 11 short chapters, Stott covers who Christ is, the nature and consequences of sin, the atoning work of the Cross, and the necessity of responding to Christ personally.

In the Preface, Stott pens this brief description of basic Christianity:

We must commit ourselves, heart and mind, soul and will, home and life, personally and unreservedly, to Jesus Christ. We must humble ourselves before him. We must trust in him as our Savior and submit to him as our Lord; and then go on to take our place as loyal members of the church and responsible citizens in the community.

Over the course of its nearly 60 years in print, Stott’s little book has found a remarkably broad audience — internationally and ecumenically — and for good reason. It is biblical, orthodox and evangelical in the best sense of the word. I recommend it highly. An individual can read it profitably, but I think the best way to read it is with a group. The third edition helpfully includes group discussion questions at the end of the book.

Stott first wrote Basic Christianity in 1958 for a British audience. It has been revised twice, in 1971 and 2008. As far as I can tell, this 2017 Eerdmans reissue is nearly identical to the third edition. Changes include a new cover and minor reformatting of the text. The biggest change is that all Scripture quotations, unless otherwise noted, are from the 2011 edition of the New International Version.

 

Book Reviewed:
John Stott, Basic Christianity, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 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.

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No Silver Bullets | Book Review


As a young minister, I attended many leadership seminars with my pastor. These seminars were taught by well-known megachurch pastors and leading church-growth experts and gave us notebooks filled with detailed instructions about how to do church more effectively. After each seminar, my pastor and I discussed what wholesale changes we needed to make in light of what we had just learned.

Over time, though, we learned an even greater lesson from these seminars, albeit unintended: What worked for them will not necessarily work for you. Don’t get me wrong, these pastors and experts were on to something, but that something was not necessarily a one-size-fits-all solution to what ailed our church. Rather than importing someone else’s system into our congregational culture, we needed to do the hard work of figuring out how to apply biblical teaching about the church and its ministries in our own context.

I kept that lesson in mind as I read Daniel Im’s insightful new book, No Silver Bullets: 5 Small Shifts That Will Transform Your Ministry. Im is director of Church Multiplication for NewChurches.com and LifeWay Christian Resources, as well as a teaching pastor at The Fellowship, a multisite congregation in Nashville, Tennessee. He is coauthor, with Ed Stetzer, of Planting Missional Churches (2nd edition).

When you focus on developing missionary disciples,
you will always get mature disciples.

Rather than silver bullets — “one-decision solutions that will solve all your woes and unleash your church into a new season of faithfulness” — Im suggests “micro-shifts” in how you’re currently doing ministry. Christian ministry boils down to discipleship. Make disciples is the only imperative verb in the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19). It’s the Church’s unique and fundamental task, its reason for being. So, the micro-shifts Im suggests are oriented around what we understand discipleship to be and how we do it. They involve moving

  1. from destination to direction,
  2. from output to input,
  3. from sage to guide,
  4. from form to function, and
  5. from maturity to missionary.

The first shift deals with how we understand discipleship. A destination approach thinks of discipleship in terms of “how much [disciples] have achieved, what they know, their observable behaviors, and whether they have completed certain classes.” A direction approach, by contrast, views “maturity as an ongoing process without an endpoint this side of eternity.” This entails that we are always being discipled, and requires that we always are discipling others.

The second shift pertains to what an individual needs to do to move in the direction of Christlikeness. Churches want disciples to demonstrate biblical literacy, the fruit of the Spirit, the gifts of the Spirit, etc. These are output goals or results. Input goals are those practices that make output goals achievable. Based on Lifeway Research, Im argues that reading the Bible, attending Sunday worship, and participating in smaller groups are three inputs that especially influence outputs.

The third shift addresses the role of the leader in this process. Pastors often feel that they need to be the “sage on the stage,” the person with answers to all discipleship questions. Drawing on adult learning studies, Im counsels pastors and other church leaders to adopt an approach that might be characterized as the “guide on the side.” In this approach, the teacher puts the learner in the driving seat, helping them when they get stuck. Obviously, there is still room for the Sunday morning sermon, but the guide-on-the-side approach works especially well in smaller, less formal settings

In the fourth shift, Im talks about moving from form to function. This is an especially good chapter for churches that are still debating whether Sunday school or small groups is the better discipleship methodology. Im argues that the function of discipling is more important than the form in which it takes places. Having said that, he counsels paying attention to mid-size communities in the church as a particularly fruitful venue for discipleship. These are neither as anonymous as Sunday morning worship services nor as intimate as a small group.

Finally, Im focuses on the purpose of discipleship. Most churches understand discipleship in terms of spiritual maturity, but Im thinks they ought to understand it in terms of being a missionary. He writes: “when you focus on developing mature disciples, you do not necessarily find yourself with an army of missionaries. However, when you focus on developing missionary disciples, you will always get mature disciples.”

Throughout No Silver Bullets, Daniel Im brings biblical theology, personal experience, and social science research to bear on the urgent question of how churches can better make disciples. Even if you don’t agree with everything he suggests, his angle of vision on the question of discipleship will help you sharpen your own focus in ministry.

Book Reviewed:
Daniel Im, No Silver Bullets: 5 Small Shifts That Will Transform Your Ministry (Nashville, TN: B&H Books, 2017).

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

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

Daniel Im | Influence Podcast


In today’s #InfluencePodcast, Daniel Im and I talk about how new book, No Silver Bullets: 5 Small Shifts That Will Transform Your Ministry. Daniel argues that churches need to make five micro-shifts in ministry: (1) from destination to direction, (2) from output to input, (3) from sage to guide, (4) from form to function, and (5) from maturity to missionary. My review of the book will be up at InfluenceMagazine.com and here on Wednesday.

Monday’s Influence Online Articles


Today, over at InfluenceMagazine.com:

  • “Between 2001 and 2008,” Jerry Ireland writes, “missions budgets for evangelism and discipleship declined by almost 11 percent, while funds for relief and development work increased by nearly 9 percent.” My guess is that this trend continued in the second decade of the twenty-first century. Both Jerry and I believe that Pentecostal mission must include evangelism and compassion. However, discipleship has a missional priority. Jerry writes, “The most compassionate thing your church can do is support missionaries discipling local people to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world (Matthew 5:13-16).”
  • In today’s #InfluencePodcast, Daniel Im and I talk about how new book, No Silver Bullets: 5 Small Shifts That Will Transform Your Ministry. Daniel argues that churches need to make five micro-shifts in ministry: (1) from destination to direction, (2) from output to input, (3) from sage to guide, (4) from form to function, and (5) from maturity to missionary. My review of the book will be up at InfluenceMagazine.com and here on Wednesday.
  • Chris Railey highlights the importance of church planting in the August-September issue of Influence magazine: “Church planters want to change the world, and the truth is, they are the Church’s best hope. The Assemblies of God is seeing incredible growth in the number of new churches. In fact, 2016 was the best church-planting year in our 103-year history, with 406 new churches opened. Church planters connect us to our pioneering roots; they represent the missional and Spirit-led work of expanding the kingdom of God that has always defined our movement.”

Please make sure to follow and like InfluenceInfluence magazine on Facebook, Twitter, and iTunes!

Wednesday’s Influence Online Articles


Today, over at InfluenceMagazine.com:

  • Douglas M. Graham offers insight about becoming an authentic leader. “It is one thing to have people follow you because of your title,” he writes. “It’s something entirely different when people follow you because of who you are as a person. Leaders who earn the respect of others often do so through a life that is compelling, inspirational and transformative.”
  • Charlie Self reviews Tom Nelson’s new book, The Economics of Neighborly Love (IVP Books). He writes: “Compassion and capacity are rooted in the Great Commission. To reach the world and make healthy disciples, we must offer all of life — including economics and work — as worship to our Lord.”
  • We note a Nielsen report that “[h]alf of all U.S. households now include at least one podcast fan.” There’s an opportunity here for churches to reach podcast listeners. Speaking of podcasts, have you subscribed to the Influence Podcast yet?

Please make sure to follow and like InfluenceInfluence magazine on Facebook, Twitter, and iTunes!

Influence Podcast with Peter Scazzero


In today’s #InfluencePodcast, I interview Peter Scazzero about emotionally healthy relationships. Scazzero is founder and teaching pastor at New Life Fellowship Church in Queens, New York City as well as founder of the ministry, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality. He is author of numerous books, including the forthcoming 40-day devotional, Emotionally Healthy Relationships Day by Day.

Review of ‘As Kingfishers Catch Fire’ by Eugene H. Peterson


Near the beginning of his pastorate, Eugene H. Peterson found himself tossed about by “the winds of the times.” The 1960s were a tumultuous decade, and many voices — Civil Rights! Vietnam! Flower Power! — clamored for his attention. On top of that, he felt “increasingly at odds” with his denominational advisors, whose ideas of leadership came “almost entirely from business and consumer models.”

Then three things happened. First, he realized he didn’t know how to preach. What he was doing on Sunday morning was “whipping up enthusiasm” for the church’s programs, not preaching for the “nurturing of souls.”

Second, he heard a lecture by Paul Tournier, a Swiss physician, who treated patients not from a “consulting room” but from his “living room,” using “words…in a setting of personal relationship.” In his lecture, Tournier exhibited what Peterson calls a “life of congruence, with no slippage between what he was saying and the way he was living.”

Third, he came across a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, “As Kingfishers Catch Fire,” whose last stanza reads:

I say more: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —
Christ. For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

In Hopkins’ poetic vision, it is Jesus Christ who “lives and acts in us in such ways that our lives express the congruence of inside and outside, this congruence of ends and means.” These three things — pulpit, lecture, poem — came together and shaped Peterson’s understanding and practice of ministry, first as a pastor, then as a writer and professor.

As Kingfishers Catch Fire is a collection of 49 sermons Peterson first preached at Christ Our King Presbyterian Church during nearly thirty years of ministry there (1962–1991). The sermons are divided into seven groups, each grouped together with the formula, “Preaching in the Company of _____,” where the fill-in-the-blank is Moses (the Law), David (Psalms), Isaiah (the Prophets), Solomon (Wisdom literature), Peter (the Gospels), Paul (the Epistles), and John (the Johannine literature). Throughout, Peterson strives to “enter into the biblical company of prototypical preachers and work out of the traditions they had developed under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.”

The result is a master class in what Scripture says about the pastoral care of souls. Peterson eschews the notions that spirituality can be pursued apart from everyday life or that it can be sought without the company of others. Instead, as he writes in a characteristic passage:

It is somewhat common among people who get interested in religion or God to get proportionately disinterested in their jobs and families, their communities and their colleagues. The more of God, the less of the human. But that is not the way God intends it. Wisdom [literature] counters this tendency by giving witness to the precious nature of human experience in all its forms, whether or not it feels or appears “spiritual” (emphasis in original).

This isn’t to deny that spiritual disciplines such as prayer, Scripture reading, and corporate worship are vital. But, Peterson is saying, unless those disciplines make us better workers, family members, neighbors and friends, we haven’t yet achieved the congruence of life to which Scripture bears witness: persons who act in God’s eye what in God’s eye we are, that is, “Christ who lives in [us]” (Galatians 2:20).

This is not a book I would recommend to some pastors. For example, if you’re looking for a book that gives you a fool-proof three-step process to ______ (whatever it is that you’re trying to do), skip this one. Or if you’re looking on Saturday night for a three-point sermon you can preach the next morning, don’t read this. Peterson’s sermons are ongoing conversations, not plug-and-play outlines.

However, if you’re tossed about by the winds of the times or you’re tired of slapping Bible verses on business principles or if your ministry lacks congruence between the means of discipleship and the ends of Christlikeness, please read this book. It will feed your soul, and through you, the souls of your congregation.

Then read it again.

 

Book Reviewed:

Eugene H. Peterson, As Kingfishers Catch Fire: A Conversation on the Way of God Formed by the Word of God (Colorado Springs, CO: WaterBrook, 2017).

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

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

Review of ‘The Tech-Wise Family’ by Andy Crouch


The first computer I ever owned was an Apple Macintosh Classic II. Released in October 1991, my Mac Classic boasted a 16 megahertz CPU, 2 megabytes of RAM and 40 megabytes of memory — 80 if you splurged. It weighed 16 pounds. I felt privileged as a graduate student to have such computing power on my desk. Some of my peers had to make do with word processors or, even worse, typewriters.

Today, my iPhone 6SE weighs 4 ounces, has a 1.85 gigahertz CPU, 2 gigabytes of RAM and 128 gigabytes of memory. It wakes me up in the morning, tracks my diet and exercise progress, and handles all my emails, texts and social media. It takes pictures, shoots video and streams movies, TV shows and music on demand. It stores books and magazines that I read, including the Bible. When my kids get bored — or, to be honest, when I get tired of paying attention to them — it entertains them.

My Mac Classic was a tool. My iPhone is (almost) my life. And that’s a problem.

All of us know how useful technology is. We can do things with it that we cannot do without it. In The Tech-Wise Family, Andy Crouch points out what many of us fail to see as we use technology, namely, that it is changing us and our families, and not always for the better.

To understand his point, think of what technology is and what families are for.

First, according to Crouch, the defining characteristic of technology is that it is “easy everywhere.” Think of your smartphone. It is easy to use (my 3-year-old has it figured out) and it can be taken everywhere. Twenty-six years ago, I had a phone (landline, not mobile), a camera, a video camera, cassette tapes, a boom box, a TV, videocassettes, a VHS player, boxes of books, stacks of magazines and a computer. Together, they filled a small room and weighed several hundred pounds. Now all those things are accessible on a four-ounce device that fits in my pocket.

Second, although families have many purposes, Crouch suggests that its key purpose is “the forming of persons.” This has less to do with “being” (what we are) than “becoming” (who we can be). Becoming a person is a matter of virtue formation, and Crouch focuses on two virtues in particular: “wisdom and courage.” Wisdom, he writes, is “knowing, in a tremendously complex world, what the right thing to do is — what will be most honoring of our Creator and our fellow creatures.” Courage is “the conviction and character to act.” Forming these virtues requires loving relationships: “If you don’t have people in your life who know you and love you in that radical way, it is very, very unlikely you will develop either wisdom or courage.”

Anyone with a family knows that long-term, emotionally intimate relationships are the exact opposite of easy everywhere. The phrase, “There’s an app for that,” applies to many routine tasks, but not to cultivating intimacy with your spouse, rearing your children to be responsible adults, contributing to the wellbeing of society or leaving a legacy for your descendants. These require hard work at specific times and in specific places. Technology and family, in other words, point in different directions.

The question Crouch seeks to answer in The Tech-Wise Family is how to put technology in its proper place. How can we use it without our families being overcome by it? Crouch offers 10 principles that his family has tried to live by — not always successfully, he admits.

  1. We develop wisdom and courage together as a family.
  2. We want to create more than we consume. So, we fill the center of our homes with things that reward skill and active engagement.
  3. We are designed for a rhythm of work and rest. So, one hour a day, one day a week, and one week a year, we turn off our devices and worship, feast, play and rest together.
  4. We wake up before our devices do, and they “go to bed” before we do.
  5. We aim for “no screens before double digits” [i.e., age 10] at school and at home.
  6. We use screens for a purpose, and we use them together, rather than using them aimlessly and alone.
  7. Car time is conversation time.
  8. Spouses have each other’s passwords, and parents have total access to children’s devices.
  9. We learn to sing together, rather than letting recorded and amplified music take over our lives and worship.
  10. We show up in person for the big events of life. We learn how to be human by being fully present at our moments of greatest vulnerability. We hope to die in one another’s arms.

To be honest, I found many of Crouch’s suggestions radical, especially when compared to how I and members of my family actually use technology. Crouch jokes that he’s suggesting people become “almost Amish.” He also insists that his family’s commitments need not be your family’s commitments. Still, these commitments and the rationale behind them should spark some new ideas in you, your spouse and your kids, hopefully leading to a chastened use of easy-everywhere devices and a wiser, more courageous home.

 

Book Reviewed:
Andy Crouch, The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2017).

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

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

#InfluencePodcast with Lee Strobel


Over at InfluenceMagazine.com, I have an episode of the Influence Podcast with Lee Strobel about six strategies for raising the evangelistic temperature of your church. Lee is a New York Times-bestselling author–most famously of The Case for Christ, forthcoming from PureFlix as a movie–and director of the Center for Strategic Evangelism at Houston Baptist University in Houston, Texas. Take a listen!

 

 

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