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.

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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).

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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).

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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!

 

 

Review of ‘Transforming Discipleship’ by Greg Ogden


Greg Ogden, Transforming Discipleship: Making Disciples a Few at a Time, rev. ed. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2016).

How well are Christians in America carrying out the Great Commission to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19)? Not well, according to Greg Ogden. In the revised and expanded edition of Transforming Discipleship, he sets out to explain what went wrong with our discipleship efforts, why, and how to implement an effective church-based strategy for disciple-making. It’s a book pastors and other church leaders ought to read.

Ogden organizes his material into three parts. Part 1, “The Discipleship Deficit,” examines what went wrong and why. Part 2, “Doing the Lord’s Work in the Lord’s Way,” looks to the Bible as a “method book,” focusing on Jesus’ and Paul’s respective models of discipleship. Part 3, “Multiplying Reproducing Discipleship Groups,” outlines how to implement a “microgroup” strategy for growing “self-initiating, reproducing disciples of Jesus Christ.” (Microgroups are groups of three or four people, “triads” and “quads” in Ogden’s words.)

According to Ogden, the basic problem with discipleship in America today is superficiality. Or, as the late John Stott put it, “growth without depth.” Lots of people bear the name “Christian,” but it’s not clear that they produce “fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8).

Why? Ogden identifies eight “distractions” that mar our discipleship efforts:

  1. diversion of the church’s ministry from our primary calling to make disciples,
  2. discipling by means of standardized programs instead of personal relationships,
  3. reducing the Christian life to the future state instead of how we live now,
  4. promoting a two-tier understanding of the Christian life that makes discipleship for “super-Christians, not ordinary believers,”
  5. being unwilling to call people to become disciples,
  6. having a view of church as optional rather than as required,
  7. not articulating a clear pathway to spiritual maturity,
  8. and not having been discipled personally.

Ogden then contrasts the lack of discipleship in America with how both Jesus Christ and the apostle Paul made disciples. Christian leaders typically turn to the Bible to identify what end their ministries should pursue, but Ogden effectively argues that the Bible also articulates the means by which we should pursue them. The Bible, in other words, is both a “message book” and a “method book.” While both Jesus and Paul ministered to groups of varying sizes, their most intensive efforts at making disciples focused on “invest[ing] in a few.”

Here’s how Ogden summarizes the matter:

Jesus intentionally called a few to multiply himself in them. He intended his ministry to become the ministry of the Twelve and be the means by which he extended himself to the world. To prepare the Twelve, Jesus followed a situational leadership model, adjusting his leadership style to the readiness of his followers. As Jesus adjusted his leadership to match the readiness of the disciples, he also changed styles to provoke them to the next level of growth. Jesus shifted his roles from living example to provocative teacher to supportive coach and finally to ultimate delegator. Though Paul’s language and images differed, his goal and process mirrored the model of his Lord.

So, how can pastors and Christian leaders implement Jesus’ model of making disciples in their churches’ own ministries? Ogden focuses on three words: relationship, multiplication, and transformation. “The necessary elements…,” he writes, “are to establish a relational disciple-making process that is rooted in a reproducible model (triads or quads) that brings together the transformative elements of life change.” If I could summarize Ogden’s proposal in my own words, I’d put it this way: Three or four people meeting weekly for a year to grow closer to Christ and to one another, using a curriculum that each member can in turn use with a new triad or quad the next year. This process is intensive, demanding and tailored to the circumstances of the individual members, but that is how Christ himself achieved His best results with His own disciples. If you don’t believe me, look at Jesus’ interactions with His inner circle of Peter, James, and John in the Gospels.

Using this model of disciple making doesn’t require that pastors and other church leaders ditch Sunday sermons, Christian education classes, or other forms of teaching. Both Jesus and Paul spoke to large crowds and smaller groups, after all. It does mean prioritizing microgroups, however, as Jesus’ and Paul’s preferred strategy of making disciples, as well as recognizing the limitations of large-crowd and smaller-group forms of teaching, which can be more informational than transformational.

Transforming Discipleship is a challenging read, though not because it is hard to understand. Rather, it is challenging because churches are tempted to implement one-size-fits-all discipleship programs that are easy for pastors to manage. (I speak from personal experience here.) The easy way is not always the best way, however. Sometimes, the best results require intensive effort on a smaller scale over a longer timeframe to achieve.

I encourage you to read Transforming Discipleship. The book combines passion for the Great Commission, keen biblical insight and helpful practical suggestions for implementing a microgroup strategy. Even if, in the end, you don’t implement the book’s discipleship strategy, it will help you work through the relevant issues—biblically and practically—so that you can better fulfill the Great Commission in your own ministry and that of the local church.

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

Review of ‘You Are What You Love’ by James K. A. Smith


YouAreWhatYouLove350This review first appeared at InfluenceMagazine.com.

James K. A. Smith, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2016).

You Are What You Love by James K. A. Smith is a small book with large ambitions. It aims to reshape the way evangelical Christians understand discipleship, replacing their emphasis on thought with an emphasis on desire. Rather than saying, “You are what you think,” Smith urges Christians to say, “You are what you love.”

For Smith, this reshaping of discipleship is not something new, but something old. Both the Bible and the pre-Enlightenment Christian tradition taught that “the center of the human person is located not in the intellect but in the heart.” For example, consider Jesus’ words in Matthew 15:19: “out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.” Or consider Augustine: “You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”

Jesus’ words reveal that the heart orients us toward evil thoughts and evil deeds. Change the heart, and the thoughts and actions will follow. Augustine’s words remind us that our heart is oriented toward a telos, an end or goal, a vision of human flourishing. Because God made the heart, only the heart that seeks His telos—the kingdom—finds rest. Every other kingdom leaves our hearts weary and restless.

The problem is, how do you disciple the heart? How do you properly form human desire? Through practice, which develops habits. A cousin of mine likes to say that practice makes permanent. That’s as true for playing the piano as for developing moral character. What we do repeatedly shapes who we are.

According to Smith, the practices that shape our hearts can be called “liturgies,” a churchy term for the order of worship. Martin Luther said, “Whatever your heart clings to and confides in, that is really your god.” There is a liturgy, then, that develops a good heart for the true God. There are also liturgies that develop bad hearts for false gods such as consumerism. Smith urges us to take a “liturgical audit” of our lives to make sure our practice is oriented toward the proper telos, God and His kingdom, not some lesser goal.

Smith uses the term liturgies expansively. In the final three chapters of the book, he uses it to describe Christian practices in the home, at school, and in one’s vocation. The heart of his book concerns the worship practices of the gathered church, however. It is here that the Christian heart is most formed. Smith states that his book “articulates a spirituality for culture-makers, showing…why discipleship needs to be centered in and fueled by our immersion in the body of Christ. Worship is the ‘imagination station’ that incubates our loves and longings so that our cultural endeavors are indexed toward God and his kingdom.”

For him, worship is about “formation” more than “expression.” It is God himself meeting us to shape us into the kind of people who do His will, not just an outpouring of our sincere feelings about Him. (Pentecostals might be tagged as “expressivists” because of their exuberant services, but it seems to me that their theology of spiritual gifts aligns with the notion that God is the agent of worship, not just its audience.) Seen this way, and mindful that practice is repetitious, Smith urges Christians to hew closely to the traditional “narrative arc” of worship—which consists of gathering, listening, communing, and sending—and to eschew “novelty.” (He’s not talking about the “worship wars,” by the way. This has to do with the structure of the worship service, not the style of its music.) That liturgy “character-izes” us, meaning, it shows us that we are “characters” in God’s story and then forms the appropriate “character” in us.

Interestingly, Smith argues that Christian cultural innovators need to be rooted in Christian liturgical tradition: “the innovative, restorative work of culture-making needs to be primed by those liturgical traditions that orient our imagination to kingdom come. In order to foster a Christian imagination, we don’t need to invent; we need to remember. We cannot hope to re-create the world if we are constantly reinventing “church,” because we will reinvent ourselves right out of the Story. Liturgical tradition is the platform for imaginative innovation.”

I hope I have accurately and adequately communicated the gist of You Are What You Love. It is a thoughtful, thought-provoking book that I would encourage pastors, church leaders, and interested laypeople to read. Having said that, though, I want to make two “yes, but” points.

First, yes desire, but also thought. In other words, I agree with Smith that the heart is the heart of discipleship. This is a point on which evangelicals should unite, whether they are heirs to Jonathan (“religious affections”) Edwards or John (“heart strangely warmed”) Wesley. I am concerned, however, that Smith has swung the pendulum too far toward a discipleship of desire in order to compensate for the tendency in evangelicalism to swing the pendulum too far toward a discipleship of thought. This is, admittedly, an impressionistic critique. Smith is a philosopher and theologian in the Reformed tradition, after all, and the Reformed are known to be punctilious about doctrine. Still, I would’ve liked to see more on the discipleship of the mind in the book.

Second, yes process, but also crisis. A process-orientation in discipleship focuses, as Smith does, on the development of spiritual habits. A crisis-orientation focuses on the necessity of decision. The characteristic forms of process-oriented discipleship are stable liturgies, the sacraments, and spiritual disciplines. The characteristic form of crisis-oriented discipleship, at least among evangelicals, is the altar call. As a Pentecostal, I would also add the call to come forward for Spirit-baptism or healing. There is little place for crisis in Smith’s book. Perhaps this is an overreaction to the crisis-orientation of evangelicalism and Pentecostalism, which often leave little room for process. Still, it seems to me that both are necessary to discipleship. Wesley was no slouch when it came to process. His followers weren’t called “Methodists” for nothing, after all. But he still stood outside the mines and called miners to repentance and faith. I didn’t see that in Smith’s book.

These two “yes, buts” notwithstanding, I intend to re-read and meditate further on Smith’s book. As a Pentecostal, I disagree with certain aspects of Smith’s Reformed liturgical heritage (infant baptism, for example), even as I am challenged by the overall thrust of the book. The heart is the heart of the matter. Any discipleship that fails to take that truth into account fails to achieve its aim.

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

 

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