Book Review: How Jesus Saves The World From Us

HJSTWFUIn many ways the American church has lost its way in fulfilling the message of Christ. We may mean well, but we get caught up in toxic behavior that has the opposite effect of what we are supposed to be in Christ. Morgan Guyton does a terrific job in helping us to see where we need help in his awesomely titled book “How Jesus Saves The World From Us: 12 Antidotes to Toxic Christianity”. In the opening sentence Guyton asks “Have Christians become what Jesus came to stop us from being?” (p. 1). This is actually a scary thought to consider because a lot of the research that is out there does suggest that we have strayed from the ideal. In the book of Acts we see thousands attracted to the message of Christ as a result of how the early church represented itself. Today we seem to be doing more to push people away from Christ. The fastest growing group are the “nones” who do not claim a faith. SO with all that in mind, how have we gotten so toxic?

Guyton begins his book by arguing that we are called to worship, not perform. He states that “Faith isn’t the performance that passes God’s test to earn us a ticket to heaven; it’s the abolition of performance that liberates us from the hell of self-justification and restores us to a life of authentic worship.” (p. 17). When we come to worship, our focus needs to be on the object of our worship: Jesus. God’s grace rescues us from the feeling that we need to justify ourselves before God.

Guyton goes on to state that we are to be people of mercy, more than sacrifice. In relating to the story of the Good Samaritan, Guyton points out that “Mercy means abandoning the safety of a morally superior vantage point of judgement in order to assume the dangerously vulnerable wide-open space with the other person, so that in our mutual lack of safety, we become safe to each other.” (p. 25). The Bible itself says to obey is better than sacrifice and I believe that this is what Guyton is getting at. We can come up with a whole list of ways in which we are “sacrificing” ourselves thinking we are morally superior as a result but if we are not practicing our love for God and our love for others we have missed the mark!

In another chapter, Guyton explains that we need to be more focused on emptying ourselves instead of being clean. He says that “I don’t believe that God has any investment in our staying clean for the sake of being clean. I believe that God wants our hearts to be emptied of clutter so that they can be filled up with his love, just like the heart of the Samaritan who was capable of being moved with compassion. When Christians try to stay clean instead of getting empty, it’s a recipe for a toxic, judgmental faith that lacks self-awareness.” (p. 33). I have lived through and been a part of the “purity culture” in which we are encouraged to be hyper-vigilant about our purity usually with a very big emphasis on our sexual purity. The problem with that thinking is that we become obsessed with it and if we make any mistakes we fall into a tremendous amount of shame, which once again brings the focus on me and not Christ’s mercy and grace. The author even observed in his own life that “The tragic irony is that the friends I’ve known who grew up in this superprotective culture that so desperately tried to keep them safe and clean seem to have come out of it with greater spiritual damage than I experienced as a youth who wasn’t nearly as protected from worldly temptations and learned some things the hard way.”(p. 37).  He concludes this section in stating that “The goal is not to keep ourselves perfectly clean and absent of any scars or smudges; the goal is to be emptied enough of our self-preoccupation that we can lose ourselves in God. If you are preoccupied with staying clean, you’re still preoccupied with yourself. What truly makes your heart impure is whatever keeps your focus on yourself instead of God.” (p. 39). I know that as a parent and a youth pastor you want teens to make good choices so they can thrive in their life. But we need to also teach them how to empty themselves before God and enjoy His presence in their lives. This takes the focus off of them and puts it on the object of our worship.

Further into the book Guyton tackles the way in which the consumer culture has caused us to see others as commodities to our own life instead of beautiful expressions of God’s love. He states that “we need to learn to enjoy other people as gifts from God, as sacraments of God’s beauty, whose infinite mystery we can adore without the need to make them useful to our consumption. It is within a community that treats its people like temples of God’s breath to be revered that we experience the infinite comfort of being desired as occasions of joy for one another.” (p. 54). This is a beautiful way of approaching other people in your life.

In another section Guyton argues that we are to honor the Lord rather than have a sense of terror when it comes to God. He says that “When we talk about fearing God, we have to remember that God chose to represent himself most perfectly in Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross. If that’s who God is, then fearing God is not being afraid of what God will do to me, but afraid of what I might do to Jesus. . . . those who can’t sleep at night because they worry that they might drop the cross that their crucified Messiah gave them to carry as their contribution to ridding the world of evil – those are the people who do fear the Lord.” (p. 66). When we have this perspective we come to understand the importance of our role as a Christ-follower in this world. We should be compelled to be the hands and feet of Christ to this broken world.

In another chapter I really liked, Guyton argued that the Bible is not a math book more than it is poetry. He comments that “some people read the Bible like a math problem, and others read it like poetry. The Bible is an essential tool for instilling beauty into our hearts, but so many Christians turn it into a weapon for winning arguments with other people. I believe that treating the Bible like poetry to be savored, instead of math to be solved, can help to save us from its toxic misuse.” (p. 70). I had two separate experiences when I decided to pursue Biblical studies. When at Liberty University the Bible was definitely treated as math to be solved. We were taught with absolute certainty why we believed what we believed and why everybody else was wrong. But when I went to seminary at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary many of my professors taught scripture more as poetry to be savored. It was then that I realized how little I actually knew about the Bible and how much there is to enjoy. In fact, Guyton agrees that “the irony that people who know the least about a topic are often the most confident in their knowledge. The more you learn, the more you’re exposed to how little you really know. So if you think faith means self-certainty, then you’re going to remain an infant in your spiritual journey.” (p. 73). This is why I cringe whenever someone tries to make a point by saying “the Bible CLEARLY says . . .”. Often they are certain about their limited interpretation without doing the diligent work of real study and interpretation. Guyton concludes this section in stating that “A better way to measure someone’s faith is according to the magnitude of good deeds that are inspired by that faith.” (p. 74).

Further along in the book Guyton writes about hos we are supposed to respond to sin. He comments that “Christians whose posture is solidarity love their fellow sinners by hating their own sin. To the degree that they think about sin, they are focused primarily on their own failure to love. . . . When we look at ourselves, we should be looking for ways that our love can be improved upon. When we look at other people, we should be looking for ways that they are lovely. . . . It is not merely being kind to other people; it is seeing and loving the good within them.” (p. 109). In my experiences it has always been those who have shown this type of love to me that made an impact on me, that challenged me to grow spiritually. To be judged never once worked.

Guyton goes on to talk about how we should take sides in conflict by being outsiders, not insiders. In wrestling with what it means to take up our cross and follow Jesus as a white, middle-class American who has not really had to suffer he says that “It means renouncing my insider status to befriend and support people who will taint my reputation with other insiders. It means being crucified of the ways I justify myself moralistically against the world’s outsiders. It means being purified of all the spiritual botulism of white supremacy. It means leaving behind the comfortable privilege that Jesus and the apostles referred to as ‘the world'”. (p. 126). I always find it fascinating what the evangelical culture feels that persecution is to them: having to bake a cake for a gay couple or being forced to provide birth control for their employees. The reality is that it is typically those very same people who will persecute other Christians for identifying with the “outsiders”. Jesus was accused of being with drunkards and tax collectors. It is time we come alongside those who are considered outsiders and stand with them.

In a following section Guyton argues for how we are supposed to follow our Shepherd. He states that “What if instead of fetishizing leadership like the rest of our culture, the church focused on cultivating servanthood?” (p. 133). He continues by saying “To be a leader is simply to be a selfless-enough servant that I am focused on empowering others and helping them discover their gifts.” (p. 135). The concept of Christian leadership needs to be noticeably different from how it is perceived from the culture. Servanthood needs to be the driving factor as we empower people to discover their gifts and use them. Guyton goes on to say “We need to become a community of sheep who listen together. Christian leaders should be the ones who listen the most deeply, not only through prayer and the study of Scripture, but also by intentionally submitting ourselves to the meekest, most marginalized members of our community.” (p. 142). In doing this we act and behave more like Jesus.

In his final chapter, Guyton makes a case for how we are to grow as the body of Christ. He says that “Just as when Peter went to Cornelius, I should expect to find the Holy Spirit already spreading the kingdom of God in the lives of the people with whom I interact, regardless of whether they’re officially Christian or not. I should enter into these conversations expecting to be humbled and surprised by the insights God has given the other person to share with me.” (p. 154). I know that I take a much more different approach when it comes to doing mission trips than I did in my earlier years as a youth pastor. I encourage the teens to look for ways that they see Jesus in the people and places they interact with. This helps us not to see an “us vs. them” mentality but opens us up to seeing that God is already present in what is going on and we are invited to be a part of that.

In all, this was a GREAT book. I really enjoyed it and found how Guyton went about deconstructing and reconstructing the faith was beautiful. On just about every point I agreed. What Christianity is supposed to be and what it has become are two different things and if we don’t change Jesus really does need to save the world from us! But here’s to hoping that the Spirit enables us to see the privilege, the arrogance and the pride that has seeped into the American church and made it toxic, and hoping for a kingdom people who will return back to Jesus with a humble and contrite heart willing to serve, willing to identify with the marginalized, willing to love in extraordinary ways!



Book Review: I’m Still Here

91FY1VdV+HLI have a confession to make. I am a racist. It is not that I want to or intent to be one. It is just when I now look back on the life I have had I see how I have benefited from being white and I gave into fear and misunderstanding about people of color throughout my lifetime. I have grown up in predominately white middle class suburbia. I grew up in a predominately white conservative church. Any interaction with people of color was on my terms in my environment. It wasn’t until I went to college where I had a history professor teach us in graphic detail what the European settlers did to the indigenous people and what white America actually did to Africans enslaved in our country. The ramifications of what was done in the past still have powerful reverberations into our present reality. I remember thinking that slavery and racism was a thing of the past and something I would never be a part of in the present. But what I failed to see were the systemic ways that our country continues to judge, villainize, criminalize and punish people of color so that white America stays in control.

In the book “I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made For Whiteness“, Author Austin Channing Brown explains how she has survived as a black African American women in America. Her parents named her Austin for the very fact that people would assume when they see the name on a resume they would think it was a white male. They wanted her to have the chance of at least getting her foot in the door. Austin begins her story in stating that “I learned pretty early in life that while Jesus may be cool with racial diversity, America is not. The ideology that whiteness is supreme, better, best, permeates the air we breathe – in our schools, in our offices, and in our country’s common life. White supremacy is a tradition that must be named and a religion that must be renounced. When this work has not been done, those who live in whiteness become oppressive, whether intentional or not.” (p. 22-23). When I think of a white supremacist I think of the worst case scenario that would obviously not include me. Yet I have benefited greatly by this ideology permeating our country. And I am naive to think I am not complicit or responsible for its existence in our country.

Brown goes on to explain her experiences within the workplace as a minority African American. She says that “White institutions are constantly communicating how much Blackness they want. It begins with numbers. . . . But numbers are only the beginning. Whiteness constantly polices the expressions of Blackness allowed within its walls, attempting to accrue no more than what’s necessary to affirm itself. . . . It wants to pat itself on the back cor helping poor Black folks through missions or urban projects but has no interest in learning from Black people’s wisdom, talent, and spiritual depth. Whiteness wants enough Blackness to affirm the goodness of whiteness, the progressiveness of whiteness, the openheartedness of whiteness. Whiteness likes a trickle of Blackness, but only that which can be controlled.” (70-71). It is vital to realize that we can all learn from each other and that multicultural is not a negative thing but something to be celebrated and shared as an experience of lives connecting with each other. Brown concludes with hope for the workplace explaining that “We must remind ourselves and one another that we are fearfully and wonderfully made, arming ourselves against the ultimate message of whiteness – that we are inferior. We must stare at ourselves in the mirror and repeat that we, too, are fully capable, immensely talented, and uniquely gifted. We are not tokens. We are valuable in the fullness of our humanity. We are not perfect, but we are here, able to contribute something special, beautiful, lasting to the companies and ministries to which we belong.” (p. 80). It is imperative that we never look at someone as inferior but see them just as fearfully and wonderfully made in the eyes of God.

Brown recognizes that there are a lot of “nice white people” who mean well and not realize that they are still acting in ways that are harmful to people of color. She says that “White people desperately want to believe that only the lonely, isolated ‘whites only’ club members are racist. This is why the word racist offends ‘nice white people’ so deeply. It challenges their self-identification as good people. Sadly, most white people are more worried about being called racist than about whether or not their actions are in fact racist or harmful.” (p. 104).

Brown then goes on to talk about the history of racism in America. She comments that “the reason we have not yet told the truth about this history of Black and white America is that telling an ordered history of this nation would mean finally naming America’s commitment to violent, abusive, exploitative, immoral white supremacy, which seek the absolute control of Black bodies. It would mean doing something about it.” (p. 116-117). We as a nation have yet to seek reparations or at the very least apologize for our history of racism and abuse of people of color. In fact we are currently living in a time in which our own government has blatantly stoked racism and white supremacy.

Further in the book Brown talks about having creative anger. She points out that “Anger is not inherently destructive. My anger can be a force for good. My anger can be creative and imaginative, seeing a better world that doesn’t yet exist. It can fuel a righteous movement toward justice and freedom.” (p. 125-126). Righteous anger can be a really good thing as we look at the problems in our world and see ourselves as a force used by God to help bring about the Kingdom of God here on earth over the powers of darkness. We need to be seeking justice when it comes to how people of color have and are currently being treated in our world. We need to understand our history and not sugarcoat it with white supremacy. We must recognize our sins as a nation and lament and ask forgiveness for what happened and what is currently happening.

Brown goes on to recognize the disparity of how even blacks are seen differently when it comes to the way we judge them. She says that “At the end of the day, Blackness is always the true offense. Whiteness needs just a hint of a reason to maintain its own goodness, assuring itself that there’s no reason to worry, because the victim had it coming. He was a drug dealer. A criminal. A thug. We don’t talk about white drug dealers this way. We don’t even talk about white murderers this way. Somehow, we manage to think of them as people first, who just happened to do something bad. But the same respect is rarely afforded to Black folk. We must always earn the right to live. Perfection is demanded of Blackness before mercy or grace or justice can even be considered. I refuse to live this way.” (p. 146). I have seen this happen so many times. We have even seen this with how immigrants have been characterized at the Southern boarder. We make them less than human. We assert our whiteness and take away their humanity in the process. This happens all throughout the recent occurrences of police brutality and quick-trigger shootings of black people throughout our nation.

Brown has seen through her experiences with white people that many of them want to at least be proud of the progress we have made over the years when it comes to racial issues. But Brown says that “I am grateful for my ancestors’ struggle and their survival. But I am not impressed with America’s progress. I am not impressed that slavery was abolished or that Jim Crow ended. I feel no need to pat America on its back for these ‘achievements’. This is how it should have always been. Many call it progress, but I do not consider it praiseworthy that only within the last generation did America reach the baseline for human decency.” (p. 151). I remember in college thinking that I am a good person because I never had slaves or treated black people as inferior. But the truth is IT REALLY WASN’T THAT LONG AGO when our nation did institute slavery and Jim Crow laws. We still are dealing with the repercussions of those days. We still have racism and white supremacy woven into us from past generations. It is time to deal with it.

Brown wrestles with what reconciliation may look like to set things right. She states that “Here’s another misconception. A great many people believe that reconciliation boils down to dialogue: a conference on race, a lecture, a moving sermon about the diversity we’ll see in heaven. But dialogue is productive toward reconciliation only when it leads to action – when it inverts power and pursues justice for those who are most marginalized.” (p. 169). She goes on to state that reconciliation is “a ministry that belongs to Jesus. Jesus, who left the comfort of heaven and put on flesh, experiencing the beauty and brutality of being human. Jesus, who dies on a cross and rose from the grave, making a way for all humanity to be joined in union with God.” (p. 172-173). Through Jesus, we ought to feel empowered to bring the message of reconciliation and justice to a world that is out of control. We are call upon God to do His will “on earth as it is in heaven.” And I believe this is the problem with most White America. Do we find our primary identity in our country and its history? Or have we renounced that, in order to seek instead to be Kingdom people who are instruments of His reconciliation throughout our country and throughout the world?

Brown concludes her book in looking at the present state of affairs. She says that “She looks at the present – police brutality, racial disparities, backlash against being ‘politically correct,’ hatred for our first Black president, the gutting of the Voting Rights Act, and the election of a chief executive who stoked the fire of racial animosity to win – and I ask myself, Where is your hope, Austin? The answer: It is but a shadow. . . . It is knowing that God is God and I am not. This is a cool place from where I demand a love that matters.” (p. 181-182). It is scary to see where we are at as a country and to see how racial and religious minorities are being treated all the time. It is time that we as the church stand up to this evil, call it for what it is, lament, make reparations, seek justice and allow God’s love to supernaturally bring us all together. The church cannot survive being a mere reflection of the culture of hate and racism, but instead we need to be a force for unity, love and a peace that passes all understanding.

My encouragement to you if you are a White Christian is to understand our history. Not the white-washed version of it. But understand what really happened to native Americans, and Africans who were brought here by force to serve as slaves. Pay attention to what is happening at our Southern boarder and how those people are being characterized as sub-human by our government. It is time that we stop going along with the culture we are in. We need to fight against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness that continue to divide us with hate and fear of the other. It is time we recognize this as demonic. We are called to be peacemakers. We are to seek justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God. Only then and there can we turn the tide of darkness and evil in our country that divide us according to race, gender, sexuality, generational and socio-economic levels. Our faith needs to stop just being an accessory to our lives as White Americans. If we are true to our faith, we are called to be kingdom people that are very different that this present darkness. We are to be the light of the world. It is up to us to come to the table and live out a life of love and justice for ALL.

With all that said please read this book! It must be read and taken seriously as Christ followers.

Book Review: Inspired

InspiredI’ll admit that I have read all of Rachel Held Evan’s books. It has been enjoyable to see how she has evolved as a writer. In many ways her faith journey of construction, deconstruction and reconstruction has been similar to my spiritual journey as well. This book is entitled “Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water and Loving the Bible Again”.

In the introduction, Evans reminisces that “Gone was the comforting storybook of my childhood, the useful handbook of my adolescence, and the definitive answer book of my college years. The Bible in my twenties served only as a stumbling block, a massive obstacle between me and the God I thought I knew.” (p. xvii). The Bible evolved for her over time into a book that was disturbing and troubling at best. She needed to deconstruct her faith from her past and reconstruct it  into something that made sense to her with all her questions, doubts and concerns. Evans comes to terms stating that “From the rich history of Jewish interpretation, I learned the mysteries and contradictions of Scripture weren’t meant to be fought against, but courageously engaged, and that the Bible by its very nature invites us to wrestle, doubt, imagine, and debate.” (p. xix).

Evans then breaks down her book into sections that deal with specific themes that emerge from the Bible. She starts with Origin Stories. This is related specifically to the Creation Story in Genesis. Growing up I was taught that this was scientific fact. At Liberty University I even had to take a Creation Science class that attempted to prove a literal 7-day creation and young earth theory. Evans says that, “Contrary to what many of us are told, Israel’s origin stories weren’t designed to answer scientific, twenty-first-century questions about the beginning of the universe or the biological evolution of human beings, but rather were meant to answer then-pressing, ancient questions about the nature of God and God’s relationship to creation.” (p. 9). In ancient days there were many different types of creation stories out there from pagan religions. The creation story that the Jews had stood in stark contrast those. Evans concludes this section in commenting that “The creation account of Genesis 1, in which God brings order to the cosmos and makes it a temple, is meant to remind the people of Israel, and by extension, us, that God needs no building of stone from which to reign, but dwells in every landscape and in the presence of the humble will make a home. (p. 19).

In the next section Evans tackles Deliverance Stories with a view towards liberation theology. She says that “This crimson thread of justice has been traced by marginalized people through the ages, their struggle for freedom sustained by Scripture’s call to honor the poor, welcome the stranger, and liberate the oppressed.” (p. 39). Evans sees that scripture will be seen differently from the oppressed than the privileged. She goes on to say that “Anytime the Bible is used to justify the oppression and exploitation of others, we have strayed far from the God who brought the people of Israel out of Egypt, ‘out of the land of slavery’ (Exodus 20:2). This is why it’s especially important for those of us who come to the Bible from positions of relative social, economic, and racial privilege to read its stories alongside people from marginalized communities, past and present, who are often more practiced at tracing that crimson thread of justice through its pages. (p. 41). And then I love Evans statement here in that “They say art should afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. I think the same is true for Scripture. For centuries the Bible’s stories of deliverance have offered comfort to the suffering and a challenge to the privileged. (p. 43). At this time in America it is a shame to see how the poor and marginalized are being treated. The church, of all things, should be in the trenches learning form them as well as serving and lifting up those who are on the margins of society. She concludes by saying that “the question we have to ask ourselves is this: are we reading with the prejudice of love, with Christ as our model, or are we reading with the prejudices of judgment and power, self-interest and greed? Are we seeking to enslave or liberate, burden or set free?” (p. 56). We must evaluate and take a good, hard look at where we stand with the oppressed in our communities, in our country and around the world. Have we become a help to them, or do we ignore them or vilify them since they are different from us?

The next section deals with the War Stories found in scripture. Evans wrestles with the text of scripture that are tough to reconcile with a loving God. She states that we need “to  engage the Bible’s war stories with a bit more humility and introspection, willing to channel some of our horror over atrocities past into questioning elements of the war machines that still roll on today.” (p. 76). Evans sees Jesus as the culmination of the plan of God all along in stating that “if the God of the Bible is true, and if God became flesh and blood in the person of Jesus Christ, and if Jesus Christ is – as theologian Greg Boyd puts it – ‘the revelation that culminates and supersedes all others,’ then God would rather die by violence than commit it. The cross makes this plain. On the cross, Christ not only bore the brunt of human cruelty and bloodlust and fear, he remained faithful to the nonviolence he taught and modeled throughout his ministry.” (p. 77). Jesus is seen as the perfect representation of who God is. Evans concludes this section in saying that “God save me from the day when stories of violence, rape, and ethnic cleansing inspire within me anything other than revulsion. I don’t want to become a person who is unbothered by these texts, and if Jesus is who he says he is, then I don’t think he wants me to be either. There are parts of the Bible that inspire, parts that perplex, and parts that leave you with an open wound.” (p. 79). Evans does a great job in wrestling with the passages of scripture that are disturbing. Greg Boyd is an excellent source in one who has struggled with the war stories and how the God of the Old Testament can be reconciled with the God of the New Testament seen in the person and work of Jesus.

The next section of the book tackles Wisdom Stories. Evans says that “In the paradox of Job, the vulnerability of the Psalms, and the angst of Ecclesiastes, God’s children are invited into the whirlwind, to cry out and question, to demand and debate, and to consider the big questions of life without resting in easy answers. The Bible reflects the complexity and diversity of the human experience, with all its joys and sorrows.” (p. 99). She continues in stating that “When God gave us the Bible, God did not give us an internally consistent book of answers. God gave us an inspired library of diverse writings, rooted in a variety of contexts, that have stood the test of time, precisely because, together, they avoid simplistic solutions to complex problems. It’s almost as though God trusts us to approach them with wisdom, to use discernment as we read and interpret, and to remain open to other points of view.” (p. 104). Evans concludes this section saying that “The Psalms are, in a sense, God’s way of holding space for us. They invite us to rejoice, wrestle, cry, complain, offer thanks, and shout obscenities before our Maker without self-consciousness and without fear. Life is full of the sort of joys and sorrows that don’t resolve neatly in a major key. God knows that. The Bible knows that. Why don’t we?” (p. 111). God is a big God and he can take on all of our emotions from praise to cursing. The wisdom literature shows us that life isn’t made up of simple answers and easy cause and effect solutions. Life can be messy and complicated, yet God is still with us in the good and bad times.

The next section was one of my favorites. It tackles the Resistance Stories. This helped me to better understand the resistance between the Kingdom and the Empire throughout scripture. Evans begins with saying “One of the most important questions facing the people who gave us the Bible was: How do we resist Babylon, both as an exterior force that opposes the ways of God and an interior pull that tempts us with imitation and assimilation. . . . It is in this sense that much of Scripture qualifies as resistance literature. It defies the empire by subverting the notion that history will be written by the wealthy, powerful, and cruel, insisting instead that the God of the oppressed will have the final word.” (p. 118). Knowing this, we need to take heed in the fact that we are a part of the most powerful nation on the planet. In light of this, Evans states that “Americans, particularly white Americans, have a hard time catching apocalyptic visions when they benefit too much from the status quo to want a peek behind the curtain. When you belong to the privileged class of the most powerful global military superpower in the world, it can be hard to relate to the oppressed minorities who wrote so much of the Bible. . . . The fact is, the shadow under which most of the world trembles today belongs to America, and its beasts could be named any number of things – White Supremacy, Colonialism, the Prison Industrial Complex, the War Machine, Civil Religion, Materialism, Greed.” (p. 125). Evans builds on this in commenting that “There’s just no denying that the very things for which Israel was condemned by the prophets – gross income inequality, mistreatment of immigrants and refugees, carelessness toward life, the oppression of the poor and vulnerable, and the worship of money, sex and violence – remain potent, prevalent sins in our culture.” (p. 127). There is hope though! Evans concludes that “Jesus takes the Resistance beyond prophecy, beyond songs of hope and lamentation, beyond satire and mockery, and beyond apocalyptic visions to declare the inauguration of a new kingdom. With his birth, teachings, death and resurrection, Jesus has started a revolution.” (p. 140). We as a church need to be involved in justice issues. It is in relating to the poor and oppressed that we can see Jesus in a way that we never could in the comfort of our middle class bubble that many of us live in.

The next section deals with Gospel Stories. Evans goes into telling the stories of many people who have all been effected by the Gospel stories in their various contexts. Evans then states that “The gospel means that every small story is part of a sweeping story, every ordinary life part of an extraordinary movement. God is busy making all things new, and the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus has opened that work to everyone who wants in on it. The church is not a group of people who believe all the same things; the church is a group of people caught up in the same story, with Jesus at the center.” (p. 157). As small as we may feel at times, we are all invited to be a part of a much bigger story through God.

The next section deals with the miracle stories which Evans titles the Fish Stories. Evan says that “The miracles of Jesus prefigure a future in which there is no more suffering, no more death, no more stigmatization, no more exclusion, no more chaos. They show us what it looks like for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, and they invite us to buy into that future now, with every act of compassion and inclusion, every step toward healing and reconciliation and love.” (p. 185). This is a beautiful way of looking at the miracle passages in that Jesus is showing us glimpses of how a broken world can look when it is healed or made right.

The final section of Biblical literature that Evans tackles is the letters to the church which she calls Church Stories. Evans says that “the letters of Paul weren’t written by a crotchety misogynist intent on regulating the behaviors of women and minorities for millennia to come, nor were they composed by a godlike philosopher disseminating soteriological truths into the universe from an ivory tower. The apostle Paul was a smart, worldly, and broad-minded Jew who had been utterly transformed by what he saw as his singular mission in life: to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles and welcome them in to Israel’s story. In pursuit of that mission, Paul was determined to break down every religious, ethnic, and cultural barrier that stood in the way.” (p. 210). Paul was interested in getting the gospel out to as many Gentiles as possible within his lifetime. With every type of culture he came into there were certain things that could either help or hinder the spread of the gospel. It is within this context that we need to read the church stories.

Overall, I just love Rachel Held Evans! She is a great writer who has gone through the construction of her faith within a very conservative, evangelical setting, deconstructed that in her 20’s and is now in the process of reconstructing her faith as an adult. Her journey has had a lot of similarities to mine. But with this book, I really appreciate how she can put into words things I have thought for quite a while. I still wrestle at times with my conservative, evangelical roots and where my faith journey has taken me now. I appreciate authors like Rachel Held Evans showing their vulnerability and process that they have gone through to reconstruct their faith. I highly recommend any of the books Evan’s has written. Each one gets better and better.



Book Review: Scripture and the Authority of God by N. T. Wright

51KYSRyGB3LNow I know that my “book reports” are more of a recap of what I read, more than a review. I typically read books I know that I will most likely enjoy. So when I do a blog on a book I want to capture the basic idea of the book along with my favorite quotes. I hate when I read a book, like it, and then 3 months latter I can’t remember much about the book. So I like to use blogging as my way to remember my favorite parts of the book. This blog is on one of my favorite authors.

I love reading anything by N.T. Wright. Let me just get that out there right away. He is our modern day C.S. Lewis. He is certainly one of my favorite authors and had contributed a lot to my theology. I enjoyed this book as it explored how we look at Scripture throughout different stages of time all the way up into Post-modernity.

Wright begins by establishing by what authority Scripture ought to speak to us. He states that “When John declares that ‘in the beginning was the word,’ he does not reach a climax with ‘and the word was written down’ but ‘and the word became flesh.’ . . . scripture itself points – authoritatively, if it does indeed possess authority! – away from itself and to the fact that final and true authority belongs to God himself, now delegated to Jesus Christ.” (p. 22). Authority is found through the life of Christ of which Scripture points to. Wright continues that “self-revelation is always to be understood within the category of God’s mission to the world, God’s saving sovereignty let loose through Jesus and the Spirit and aimed at the healing and renewal of all creation.” (p. 29).

Wright goes on to explain the relationship of Jesus to Scripture. He says that “Jesus was the living embodiment of Israel’s God, the God whose Spirit had inspired the scriptures in the first place. And if he understood his own vocation and identity in terms of scripture, the early church quickly learned to make the equation the other way as well: they read the Old Testament, both its story (including covenant, promise, warning, and so on) and its commands in terms of what they had discovered in Jesus.” (p. 43). So the life of Jesus is the grid in which we go back and interpret all of Scripture. Jesus is the culmination of what all of scripture was leading up to.

Wright then goes into various ways that the church has interpreted scripture throughout history. As he talks about the impact of the Enlightenment, Wright explains that “Much would-be Christian thought (including much would-be ‘biblical’ Christian thought) in the last who hundred years has tacitly conceded these huge claims, turning ‘Kingdom of God’ into ‘the hope for heaven after death’ and treating Jesus’s death, at the most, as the mechanism whereby individual sinners can receive forgiveness and hope for an otherworldly future – leaving the politicians and economists of the Enlightenment to take over the running, and as it turns out the ruining, of the world. (This political agenda, by the way, was of course a vital part of the Enlightenment project: kick ‘God’ upstairs, make religion a matter of private piety, and then you can organize the world to your own advantage.)” (p. 89). We have lost sight of what it means to be kingdom people right here and now in all areas of our lives.

Wright continues in his argument against the effects of the Enlightenment on our interpretation of Scripture by saying that “To affirm ‘the authority of scripture’ is precisely not to say, “We know what scripture means and don’t need to raise any more questions.’ It is always a way of saying that the church in each generation must make fresh and rejuvenated efforts to understand scripture more fully and live by it more thoroughly, even if that means cutting across cherished traditions. (p. 92). I fully agree with this in that each generation needs to be responsible in looking at scripture with fresh eyes in how it speaks to us today.

Wright then goes after postmodernity stating that “Postmodernity’s effect on contemporary Western readings of scripture is thus, as with much else in the movement, essentially negative. Postmodernity agrees with modernity in scorning both the eschatological claim of Christianity and its solution to the problem of evil, but without putting any alternative in place. All we can do with the Bible, if postmodernity is left in charge, is to play with such texts as give us pleasure, and issue warnings against those that give pain to ourselves or to others who attract our (usually selective) sympathy. This is where a good deal of the Western church now finds itself.” (p. 98). I would agree also that we need to be aware of how postmodernity affects our thinking for good or ill. We need to be able to look back on how people in the past interpreted scripture in light of the cultural and philosophical influences that would shape how they would think.

After his critiques of how scripture is being interpreted Wright positively says that “Genuine historical scholarship is still the appropriate tool with which to work at discovering more fully what precisely the biblical authors intended to say. We really do have access to the past; granted, we see it through our own eyes, and our eyes are culturally conditioned to notice some things and not others. But they really do notice things, and provided we keep open the conversation with other people who look from other perspectives, we have a real, and not illusory, chance of finding our more or less what really happened. (p. 113). I agree here that it is important to be in dialogue with others that come to the understanding of scripture from different perspectives. This helps to challenge, critique and possibly strengthen our original thoughts on scripture. It is not healthy to be in an echo chamber where everyone agrees with everything you believe Scripture to say. It is through others experiences and other perspectives that we can get a fuller understanding of Scripture and maybe even see things that we did not originally see for ourselves.

Wright points our that “We read scripture in order to be refreshed in our memory and understanding of the story within which we ourselves are actors, to be reminded where it has come from and where it is going to, and hence what our own part within it ought to be. This means that ‘the authority of scripture’ is most truly put into operation as the church goes to work in the world on behalf of the gospel, the good news that in Jesus Christ the living God has defeated the powers of evil and begun the work of new creation. It is with the Bible in its hand, its head, and its heart – not merely with the newspaper and the latest political fashion or scheme – that the church can go to work in the world, confident that Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not.” (p. 116). Unfortunately, at this moment in time we as a nation seem to like Caesar over Christ and it is hurting the church in ways we will never fully understand until decades from now. American evangelicalism has gotten infatuated by political power over the mission of the church. My rant is over.

Wright then goes on to explain how we get back on track in that “if we are to be true, at the deepest level, to what scriptural authority really means, we must understand it like this: God is at work, through scripture (in other words, through the Spirit who is at work as people read, study, teach, and preach scripture) to energize, enable, and direct the outgoing mission of the church, genuinely anticipating thereby the time when all things will be made new in Christ. At the same time, God is at work by the same means to order the life of the church, and of individual Christians, to model and embody his project of new creation in their unity and holiness.” (p. 138). I love that Wright sees the project of new creation as our mission right now! It is not our job to just wait until the afterlife. It is our job now to be kingdom people and to live into that right now.

Wright wraps up his book in stating that “The various crises in the Western church of our day – decline in numbers and resources, moral dilemmas, internal division, failure to present the gospel coherently to a new generation – all these and more should drive us to pray for scripture to be given its head once more; for teachers and preachers who can open the Bible in the power of the Spirit, to give the church the energy and direction it needs for its mission and renew it in its love for God; and, above all, for God’s word to do its work in the world.” (p. 141). We must have a high view of scripture and its effect and impact on others when used appropriately.

As I have said before, I love N.T. Wright and I highly encourage everyone to read anything he has written. He is one of the greatest thinkers of our day and age. This book empowered me to see the importance and primacy that scripture should play through my life and through the church. It is important that we wrestle with scripture using our ability to reason, consider what tradition has taught us, and wrestle with other’s experiences to help us better understand it. He wraps up his book by doing two case studies; one on sabbath, and the other on monogamy.



Book Review: Start With Why

startwithwhyOnce again, I heard a great speaker at the Global Leadership Summit back in August 2018. They so inspired me to go out and buy some of his books! This one is called “Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action” by Simon Sinek. It was a great read in explaining how great leaders start with the “why” when it comes to being successful. So many businesses start with what they do and how they do it without wrestling with why they do what they do. When you discover your “why” that will help to inspire and empower the people who work for you. And the answer to WHY is not just about making money. It is about what inspires people to want to give their best effort towards your cause.

Sinek states that “Great leaders . . . are able to inspire people to act. Those who are able to inspire give people a sense of purpose or belonging that has little to do with any external incentive or benefit to be gained. Those who truly lead are able to create a following of people who act not because they were swayed, but because they were inspired.” (p. 6). This sets up the rest of the book in detailing companies, like Apple, who have created a culture of inspiration and excitement for their workers. They believe in the WHY of the company which inspires them to do their best when it comes to WHAT and HOW. Sinek says that “By WHY I mean what is your purpose, cause or belief? WHY does your company exist? WHY do you get out of bed every morning? And WHY should anyone care?” (p. 39). He goes on commenting that “We are drawn to leaders and organizations that are good at communicating what they believe. Their ability to make us feel like we belong, to make us feel special., safe and not alone is part of what gives them the ability to inspire us.” (p. 55). These are the kinds of leaders in business and in the church that make serving more enjoyable. When we know what our WHY is, we can create vision, direction and inspiration. I have worked for pastors who are really good at this and some who were really bad at this. Now ultimately the United Methodist Church’s “WHY” is the make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. But the question is how have individual pastors used this WHY to inspire their own congregations. You would think this is so simple but yet I have seen it go horribly wrong.

Another characteristic that Sinek adds to great leadership is authenticity. He points out that “Being authentic is not a requirement for success, but it is if you want that success to be a lasting success. Again, it goes back to WHY. Authenticity is when you say and do the things you actually believe.” (p. 69). Nothing is worse in a church setting than an inauthentic, fake leader. And the reality is that many young people can pick up on this big time. That is why I believe that many of the younger generations are leaving the church. The church is not doing well to help define it’s WHY and then lead authentically and with integrity to be who we are meant to be. When we lead like this we build loyalty and trust with the congregation as they are inspired to fulfill the purposes of the church. Especially in the context of the church, we ought to feel like we are working for something bigger than ourselves. The Bible gives us that inspiration but it takes great leaders to take that and inspire others to believe in the bigger picture of who we are and why we exist.

Sinek goes on to say that “Companies with a strong sense of WHY are able to inspire their employees. Those employees are more productive and innovative, and the feeling they bring to work attracts other people eager to work there as well.” (p. 95). A church that is living into its WHY will be a church that is attracting others who want to be a part of the vision and direction of that church. Good leadership will take time to develop their WHY and then use it to inspire the congregation to live into that vision.

Sinek also comments that “The role of a leader is not to come up with all the great ideas. The role of a leader is to create an environment in which great ideas can happen.” (p.99). Pastors who feel that they need to do it all themselves are prime candidates for burnout. But those who help to inspire WHY will create an environment in which people can feel free to think creatively and come up with their ideas. Sinek points out that “only when individuals can trust the culture of organization will they take personal risks in order to advance that culture or organization as a whole.” (p. 104). So creating a culture in which people are both inspired and feel a sense of trust with the organization will help to bring out the very best in people.

Passion is another key aspect to inspiring people towards the WHY. Sinek says that “Passion comes from feeling like you are a part of something that you believe in, something bigger than yourself. If people do not trust that a company is organized to advance the WHY, then the passion is diluted.” (p. 111). This is what a good pastor wants to do in advancing why we exist as a church. Creating passion to feel like you are part of something that is bigger than yourself and that you are a part of contributing to that cause is huge. Instead of having passive participants you can have a church that is alive and moving in the right direction.

Now you can have a vision but not know how to get to where you want to go. The WHY needs to inspire the HOW. Sinek states that “It is the partnership of a vision of the future and the talent to get it done that makes an organization great. This relationship starts to clarify the difference between a vision statement and a mission statement in an organization. The vision is the public statement of the founder’s intent, WHY the company exists. It is literally the vision of a future that does not yet exist. The mission statement is a description of the route, the guiding principles – HOW the company intends to create that future. When both of those things are stated clearly, the WHY-type and the HOW-type are both certain about their roles in the partnership. Both are working together with clarity of purpose and a plan to get there. For it to work, however, it requires more than a set of skills, it requires trust.” (p. 142). A vision statement and the mission statement must work together to accomplish its goal. But ultimately trust has to be the glue that holds it all together. In the context of the church I would agree that dynamic pastors and leadership teams need to work through their vision and their mission and be transparent about it in order to earn the trust of the congregation. Without trust, the whole thing can come to a screeching halt.

I have also been a part of churches that are busy for the sake of being busy without doing the due diligence of defining our WHY and then clarifying HOW we accomplish that. Without a clear WHY, we could have so many things going on that have no rhyme, reason or connection to ultimately answering why we are doing such things in the first place. Sinek says that “When people know WHY you do WHAT you do, they are willing to give you credit for everything that could serve as proof of WHY. When they are unclear about your WHY, WHAT you do has no context. Even though the things you do or decisions you make may be good, they won’t make sense to others without a clear understanding of WHY.” (205-206). We cannot be busy just to be busy. We need to define WHY we exist first and then structure WHAT we do and HOW to get there. This kind of visioning should help a church be more purposeful in its mission as people trust the vision and see how it is being fleshed out.

Sinek concludes his book by pointing out that “Leaders don’t have all the great ideas; they provide support for those who want to contribute. Leaders achieve very little by themselves; they inspire people to come together for the good of the group. Leaders never start with what needs to be done. Leaders start with WHY we need to do things. Leaders inspire action.” (p. 228). It is with this that the book wraps up this quest for understanding our WHY. Leaders are not the ones with all the ideas but instead, are the ones who can create an environment where people feel inspired by the vision that empowers them towards action. On rare occasions I have actually seen this work the way it is supposed to in the context of the church. But when it is done right, look out! That church will find itself, live into its purpose, and attract others to be a part of the kingdom building that it is supposed to be doing in the first place. It seems so simple but yet it can be so complex depending on the ability of the pastor and her/his team around them.

This was a great book to help understand the WHY behind what we do as an organization or church. It helped me to see the difference in creating a vision statement and how a mission statement comes out of that. This book also helped me to see the importance of trust with the people you work with. If they don’t trust you’ or you don’t trust them, not much is going to happen. But with trust, you can help to inspire people towards a vision bigger than themselves. When a church does this correctly there is a desire for others to want to plug in and contribute to the vision. And that right there is a dynamic church that will attract people to Christ rather than bore people to death or, worst yet, repel people away from the cause of Christ.


Living Fully into God’s Will


91fe1Q8CSALI heard Erwin McManus for the first time at the Global Leadership Summit in August 2018. He was by far, the most passionate and dynamic speaker of the whole event. He spoke about the fact that he was diagnosed with cancer a while back. As a result of his battle with cancer, this has helped to put things into better perspective as to living his life in order to make the most impact possible.

While I enjoyed reading the book about his journey with cancer and the lessons he learns, his actual live delivery was incredible. If you ever have a chance to hear Erwin McManus speak then do it. He will get you fired up and inspired. With that said, the book was great also. He focuses his readers on 2 Kings 13. It’s the story of Elisha telling  king Joash to grab a bunch of arrows and fire them off. The king fires off some of the arrows but stops with some arrows still available in the quiver. Then Elisha gets upset with him, explaining that the amount of arrows represent the amount of battles the king will win against his enemies, but since he did not fire off all of the arrows he will not be completely victorious in his battles. It is an odd story to say the least. I am impressed with the fact that McManus developed a whole book around this passage. McManus does a great job in using this story to explain how we need to live life fully into what God has called us to do.

McManus begins by focusing on the fact that we were not made to be ordinary or average. He states that “I do not believe anyone is born average, but I do believe that many of us choose to live a life of mediocrity. I think there are more of us than not who are in danger of disappearing into the abyss of the ordinary. The great tragedy in this, of course, is that there is nothing really ordinary about us. We might not be convinced of this, but our souls already know it’s true, which is why we find ourselves tormented when we choose lives beneath our capacities and calling.” (p. 4).

In referring to the quiver of arrows that King Joash partially used, McManus goes on saying that “There is a posture toward life that separates those who end their lives with their quivers full of untapped potential and unseized opportunities and those who die with their quivers empty.” (p. 10). This is an interesting application of this passage of Scripture. I never thought of it this way. He sees the arrows representing all the potential that we have to offer. We are to live life in such away that we live fully into who we were meant to be, holding nothing back for the next life.

Many times we do not develop our potential due to fear. McManus says that “I am convinced of this: you must not allow fear to steal your future, and every day that you walk this earth you must make sure you save nothing for the next life. You must never allow fear to keep you grounded. The moment you choose to play it safe, you’ve lost the game. Instead of running from your fears, lean into them, for on the other side of them is the future you long for. These moments form character and forge the future.” (p.24) We live in a culture that is stoked by fear. But as believers we must not give into the fear-mongering whether it is from our culture or within our own minds. To do so will lead to a less than average life.

McManus gets more specific about living into the life we were called into in that “the one thing where you must never settle for less is the calling that God has on your life, the purpose for which he has created you, the impact he designed you to make in the world. The great tragedy that I have witnessed over and over again is that we keep underestimating how much God wants to do in us and through us.” (p. 28). Primarily, what the author is communicating is that we ought to “seize the day” fully living into all that God has created us to be.  He concludes this chapter stating that “You have one life to use everything you have been entrusted with, so you might as well save nothing for the next life.” (p. 30).

Fear is not the only thing holding people back. McManus also believes that some of us live comfortable lives that don’t require us to trust in God. He says that “Perhaps the reason so few of us have received a double portion of God’s Spirit is that the lives we have chosen require so little of God because they require so little of us. I do not want to watch God work from a distance. Neither do I want to hear the amazing stories of God’s work from a distance. Neither do I want to hear the amazing stories of God’s activity in the world as if they are fables made for other people in an ancient time. I want to live the kind of life that cannot be lived without the fullness of Christ in my life.” (p. 89). Some people live their lives in a way where they really don’t need God in their lives because they have created a comfortably average life for themselves. We hear of God doing amazing things in other areas of the country or in the world but never in our context. McManus is challenging the reader to live fully into all that Christ has made us for.

The author goes on to explain why we need to live into this life that Christ has for us in saying that “If for no other reason, we need to choose our most heroic lives, because a world desperately needs to see what it looks like to be fully alive. What the world needs most from you is for you to be fully alive.” (p. 102). We certainly need more people like this. Instead, so many Christians are know for what they are against. If we live into all that Christ has created us to be I would hope that that would attract others to the faith.

McManus goes on to implore that “There comes a time and a place where you have to decide, This is worth fighting for. This is where I stand. This is who I am. This is the life I have chosen. I will not run. I will not allow fear to move me from where I should be to where it wants me to live. I would rather die facing the challenge than exist running from it”. (p. 124-125). We need to find that which God has made us passionate about and pursue it to the fullest.

McManus focuses some of his criticism on the church in that “The church has become an institution that preserves the past and fears the future. It is not an overstatement to say that the church has become more of a reflection of what we are running from than what we are running to. No wonder we have lost our power to change the world. No wonder the church has lost its magnetism to a world searching for hope. We are seen as the guardians of tradition. The church is known for fighting the future rather than creating the future that humanity desperately needs.” (p. 140). This is his most powerful statement against the modern American church. And I pretty much agree. While we learn form our past, we must live into a future that radiates with hope, love and passion. We need to stop being a church that is only known for what we are against.

McManus explains that throughout this process we need to be in line with God first. He comments that “the process must begin by loving God first. It is in loving God with all your heart and mind and soul that he begins to shape your passions. When God has your heart, you can trust your desires. His will is not a map; it is a match. He shows you the way by setting you on fire. You will know God’s desire for you by the fire in you! The fire win you will light the way.” (p. 176). When we make God the center of our life, He will create and shape us into his image and that will develop passion in our lives to seek justice, to love mercy and to walk humble with our God. If God has made you passionate about something that stoke that fire, don’t put it out.

McManus concludes with stating “Don’t make the mistake of living your life waiting for good things to happen – make good things happen. Be faithful in the small things that do not matter to you as much and treat them with the same level of respect and importance as the big things connected to your hopes and dreams. Remember that Jesus laid out this principle for us: it is the person who is faithful in the small things who will be entrusted with bigger things.” (p. 194). When you read all that McManus has done in his life it is pretty amazing. But he is not saying “be just like me”. He points out that we need to be faithful in all things. We need to be trustworthy in the little things of life and that helps to prepare us to take on bigger responsibilities. Don’t wait around for the BIG opportunity but be faithful now in all the things related to your life.

I really enjoyed this book. Erwin McManus is a popular American pastor and writer. He is involved in a lot of great things. But to have to face cancer and to not let that derail you is amazing. Instead, it seemed to light a fire under the author where he wants to make the most of every moment of every day living faithfully for Christ and doing all he can to expand the kingdom of God in the remaining amount of time that he has. His story is powerful and passionate. And to build a book around the passage of King Joash shooting some arrows I thought was great.

The Positives of Youth Ministry

WRAYM-front-coverThere is enough negativity out there directed at youth ministry that when I saw the title of this book I knew I just had to get it! Mark Oestreicher has been in the “business” for quite a while now. I have aged in my ministry to youth following the career and writings of Marko. And just about anything he has written on the topic of youth ministry has been very thought provoking and enlightening.

Marko begins his book by pointing out the importance of youth ministry in stating that “The church is called (see: the New Testament!) to share the gospel and grow disciples, to be the presence of Christ on earth. In a world where youth culture exists, this simply must include adults who are cross-cultural missionaries, willing to embody the gospel into that cultural context.” (p. 24). So the question becomes, how can we do this effectively?

Marko continues his book by expanding on 6 values that great youth ministries embrace. The first value is The Long View. “the humble youth worker knows and lives a ministry approach that actively practices faith in God to transform lives, knowing we are powerless to change hearts.” (p. 49). This is vital for youth pastors to understand. Sometimes we want to see results now as an affirmation of the time you spend ministering to youth, but we must realize that we need to be patient and faithful in what God has called us to do, trusting that the Holy Spirit, in his timing will bring to light what that teen needs in her/his life. All we can do is plant seeds. It is up to the Holy Spirit, in his timing, to grow those seeds. Marko goes on to explain that “As much as we might try to control the beliefs and behaviors of teenagers, we’re powerless to transform lives. That’s God’s role, not ours. Of course, I don’t desire that any post-youth grouper walk away. But their stories and their journeys are not mine to control. All I can do is be faithful in the here and now while trusting God for each teenager’s future. The Long View leans into humility, trust, and hope.” (p. 54)

The next value is the Power of Small. Marko’s point here is that what really works in youth ministry is “a caring, Jesus-following adult engaging a small group of teenagers.” (p. 57). No matter how big a youth ministry might get, there is power in making sure to break it down into small groups. Youth ministry needs to be relational. In a large group context it is hard to do that; but to break that down into small groups where real relationships and dialogue can happen helps in the process of developing faith. In a small group a teen is known, recognized, loved and is given a voice to share about their lives and their faith journey.

The third value is the Role of the Holy Spirit in you and your ministry. It is important to make time to listen and be sensitive to the leading of the Holy Spirit in your ministry. Now this is not to say throw out any planning and organizing and just “let the Spirit lead”. I have know people like that and the irony is they go to the same scripture references and tell the same stories as a lack of their preparation. Marko states that “your best youth ministry will never come from excellent brainstorming; your best youth ministry will always be the result of stepping into God’s dreams for your ministry.” (p. 68). God has plans for our youth ministry and it is important to be aware of that. You want to be on the same page in which the Holy Spirit is leading. We are being invited into a much bigger plan and purpose we could ever imagine. Listen, pay attention, and be open to the Spirit’s leading and prompting.

The forth value is Integration over Isolation. Marko says that “we’ll see long-term faith more often when we work to decrease the constant ghettoization of teenagers and help them find meaningful belonging in the life of the church.” (p. 73). Some people have reacted to the isolation of youth ministry by stating that youth ministry is unbiblical therefore banishing it from their churches. I think this is a huge overreaction. It is important to have a place specifically for the youth but we must also look for ways to integrate them into the life of the larger church. Let teenagers get involved in other areas of ministry through the church, sing in the choir, play in the praise band, attend the main services. At our church we close down the youth Sunday morning class on every 5th Sunday so that we can go down and attend the worship service together. If we don’t do this, then church will seem foreign to them when they graduate out of the youth ministry. They will be less inclined to integrate into the life of a church away at college unless it looks and feels like youth ministry. That is not healthy. Integration into the life of the larger church is important. They need to connect with other generations. To strictly separate each generation within the church does not help anyone. It is important to help integrate everybody on all levels.

The fifth value is Embracing the Role of the Parents. In this Section Marko points out that we youth workers need to listen, communicate, equip and involve parents. I couldn’t agree more. It is important for us to come along side of parents and be a source of encouragement, and love, recognizing that the parent is the number one spiritual role model for their teen, not us. This isn’t to say, as some churches have done, that we throw away youth ministry in favor of family ministries, expecting parents to be their teen’s “youth pastor”. Parents need help and having other adults pour into their teens’ life is invaluable. But we must understand the importance of the parents. We should regularly communicate with them, we should honor them as the primary role to their teen, we need to equip them to be great parents, and, as I have always done, use them within the youth ministry! Get them involved! They are the best resources I have in my ministry.

The final value that Marko lays out is in the area of Contextualization. He states that “In an age of splintered youth culture. great youth ministries have discerned an approach to ministry that is wonderfully unique to their context. . . . The best youth ministries are always weird. They have a high degree of self-awareness about their uniqueness, and they celebrate them.” (p. 95). The fact that my current youth group has a plastic mascot taken from one of the three wisemen in a nativity set and we call him Hoku and he goes on almost every trip with us I think shows off our uniqueness and weirdness! Anyhow, it is important to know your context in the particular community that God has put you in. In the 4 churches that I have served at in my lifetime, each had a very different cultural context and my approach to ministry changed and adapted to their needs.

A final thought that Marko closes out with is that “A youth ministry anchored in faith believes that God is at work.” (p. 108). There are a number of books out there that will tell you what is wrong with modern day youth ministry. Some are very good books that we need to read and wrestle with. Some are just bad. But overall, if you want to have a great youth ministry you can’t go wrong with incorporating these six values into your ministry. Marko leaves us with a great foundation to build a successful youth ministry.

When Jesus Wrecks Your Life

interuptedWhat happens when God messes up your comfortable Christian life? Author Jen Hatmaker takes you on a personal journey of how God did just that for her and her family. She begins by recognizing the facts about poverty around the world in contrast to a comfortable Christianity that so many of us practice. Through the influences of Shane Claiborne writings, and the promptings of the Holy Spirit, Jen was challenged to step out of her comfort zone and let her faith get messy. She states that “I am still stunned by my capacity to spin Scripture, see what I wanted, ignore what I didn’t and use the Word to defend my life rather than define it.” (p. 5). The sad fact is that I believe that many American Christians do approach their faith like this. Jesus came to radically change our lives. Too often we want Jesus in our lives but on our terms, not His. We don’t want Him to ruin the life we have created for ourselves. Jen points out that “Americans living in excess beyond imagination while the world cries out for intervention is an unbearable tension and utterly misrepresents God’s Kingdom.” (p. 31). Jen balances this out though, not trying to lay a big guilt trip on her readers, but instead she is trying to wake us up to many of our realities. Jen comments “Please don’t hear me say that America stinks and all her citizens are narcissists. It’s just that most of us have no concept of our own prosperity. Nor do we have an accurate understanding of the plight of the rest of the world. Our perspective is limited, and our church culture is so consumer oriented that we’re blinded to our responsibility to see God’s kingdom come to ‘all nations’. . . . We stand at the intersection of extreme privilege and extreme poverty, and we have a question to answer: Do I care?” (p. 34-35).

Throughout the book Jen takes you on her family’s journey out of a comfortable faith and into a much more dependent faith on the leading of the Holy Spirit. Jen and her husband Brandon went to go hear Shane Claiborne at a local event. Having never met him, they noticed a homeless looking guy when they entered the building not realizing that that was Shane! Shane challenged them at the end of his talk to give up the shoes on their feet for the poor in the community. It just so happened that Jen and Brandon had some quite expensive boots on but they felt convicted to give them up anyhow and go back to their car barefooted. This propelled them to open their eyes more to serving the poor. Jen says that “We don’t get to opt out of living on mission because we might not be appreciated. We’re not allowed to neglect the oppressed because we have reservations about their discernment. We cannot deny love because it might be despised of misunderstood. We can’t withhold social relief because we’re not convinced it will be perfectly managed. We can’t project our advantaged perspective onto struggling people and expect results available only to the privileged. Must we be wise? Absolutely. But doing nothing is a blatant sin of omission.” (p. 62). The church needs to be about reaching out and serving others in a profound way. We need to get back to getting our hands and feet dirty for the cause of Christ. Jen goes on to remind the reader that “We have the privilege of serving Jesus Himself every time we feed a hungry belly, each moment we give dignity to someone who has none left, when we acknowledge the value of a convict because he is a human being, when we share our extreme excess with those who have nothing, when we love the forsaken and remember the forgotten. Jesus is there.” (p. 109).

At this point of her story, Jen and her husband decide to leave their church and start a new one that is more focused on getting out and serving the poor. Jen stresses that “I worry the Christian community has accepted an insidious shift from laboring for others to prioritizing our own rights. We’ve perpetuated a group identity as misunderstood and persecuted, defending our positions and preferring to be right over being good news. . . If we were not too beneath Christ, who died for us while we were still sinners, then how dare we take a superior position over any other human being? How lovely is a faith community that goes forth as loving sisters and brothers rather than angry defenders and separatists.” (p. 202). This is such a profound statement in light of current state of politics and religion. So many of us in America are more concerned about my rights, my experience, and feign as if we are being persecuted. With this approach we are losing the next generation who aren’t interested in this type of American Christianity. Instead, we need to be on the forefront of social issues related to those who are in need and actually serve them as Jesus served others.

Jen concludes her book by emphasizing that “If an endless array of Bible studies, programs, church events, and sermons have left you dry, please hear this: living on mission where you’ve been sent will transform your faith journey. At the risk of oversimplifying it, I’ve seen missional living cure apathy better than any sermon, promote healing quicker than counseling, deepen discipleship more than Bible studies, and create converts more effectively than events.” (p. 233). I couldn’t agree more with this quote. We must get outside of our buildings and get busy applying our faith through serving and helping those in need. We need to stop with arrogant Christianity that is tied to politics and be about being Christ to others. If the church focused more on this then we would be attracting people to Christ instead of repelling people from our “unchristian” Christianity.

Yet, I see so many churches and youth ministries trying to help people KNOW Christianity without helping them to DO what Jesus did by example. I am afraid that if Jesus were to reappear in America right now, the American church wouldn’t even recognize Him and quite possibly crucify Him again. I see this right now in how some are reacting to the mass of humanity that is walking to the USA through Mexico. Jesus would be with these people. Jesus would expect the church to be leading the way in serving them. Yet I see well-meaning people on social media falling in line with our political leaders and demonizing these people without even considering their plight and how we can help them. I will say this though, I love being in a mainline denomination that can have the ability and resources from the support of thousands of churches to help with situations involving natural disasters, humanitarian crises, and poverty within our country and around the world. One church can only do so much, but collectively we can achieve a lot for the Kingdom of Christ. The danger though is that we in our individual churches can just write a check and feel that we are done with our contribution. My hope is that everyone would find opportunities to actually serve others face-to-face so that you have the opportunity to practice the ways of Christ up close and personal.

I highly recommend this book if you want God to mess with your faith. But keep in mind that you don’t necessarily need to leave your church and start a new one to make change happen (but sometimes you do). Reform needs to happen within the churches that already exist too. Change happens within the individual through the power of the Holy Spirit. The question is are we trying to manage the Holy Spirit to conform to our way of life, or are we allowing to Holy Spirit to have his way with us completely and entirely. A church like this will do tremendous things for their community and will attract people to Christ. I want to be a part of that kind of church.

No Fear


While I will be the first to admit I kind of lost my mind during and after the 2016 election, I was genuinely upset by what was happening to the Republican party in it’s choice of Trump. You may really like him, or you may really hate him, but this is an important book that you should read. Bob Woodward is a highly respected journalist who became famous for breaking the Watergate story on President Nixon. Since then he has written many books about the presidents and the government. I’ve also read “Bush at War” when it came out.

While I believe that character matters, especially when it comes to our leaders, this book shows exactly the opposite with what is going on in the White House. Democrats dismissed President Bill Clinton’s moral indiscretions back in the ’90’s, while the Republicans seem to be doing the same with Trump.

I believe pretty strongly that we are living in a time where we have a lack of leadership in the government as well as the church. Morality and character seem to have been replaced by power and control by any means. I personally miss the days when the two parties, while having their differences, seemed to have enough respect for each other that they worked together for the common good of the country.  My belief in where we have failed was in the creation of the 24 hour news cycle. News transformed to be more commentary than factual reporting, thus creating news that tailors to your specific politics. If you are conservative, you have Fox News. If you are liberal, you have MSNBC. Truth has been hijacked to become truth AS I SEE IT. Facts don’t matter anymore. I just interpret things as I want them to be. We are truly living in post-modern times where truth is relative. Truth is what I make it to be, regardless of actual facts. And this is one aspect of Trump that deeply concerns me. He defines his own truth regardless of facts. And the scary thing is, his base (not saying all Republicans) eats it up. This concerns me. Again and again in the book, people in his own cabinet claim that Trump is incapable of the truth. Instead, he creates the narrative he wants.

The interesting thing here is that I grew up in the evangelical church that warned me about post-modernism and truth becoming relative. What is shocking to me is how 80% of the evangelicals embraced Trump. So what were Christians to do? Vote for Clinton? I don’t know what the answer was but I can say when it came to character, both parties picked candidates with glaring character flaws which made this election difficult for a lot of people. I have a relative that made the decision to not vote at all, and I have to say, now that time has passed, I have more respect for that decision. In every election I have been a part of, I always hear the phrase, “I am voting for the lesser of two evils.” Well, this election might have been the epitome of that more than any other election.

While there is a lack of character, integrity and truth from those in government, this presents an opportunity for the church to rise up and lead in these areas. Instead, you have a large percentage of evangelicals identifying themselves with Trump, and there are incredible moral failing playing out in the evangelical and Catholic churches, and many denominations are not leading in the way of Christ because they are too enamored by the “way of Caesar” with power and control.

My hope is that we as a church, the Bride of Christ, wake up to the history of when the church tried to identify itself with political power. Every time it failed. The church lost in a big way, again and again. It is time we find our main identity with Jesus and the kingdom of God more than any other system. It is that which should unify us above the mess that our country finds itself in.  Truth matters. Character matters. Jesus matters.

If we want to have any hope in reaching younger generations we need to show them the way of Christ lived out through the Sermon on the Mount and the teachings of Jesus. We need to be able to talk about what is true and false in both political parties allowing the Bible to be our standard. We need to model what it means to serve the least and the lost. We need to lead through servant leadership, empowering others to live lives of community, love and respect. The church needs to be counter-cultural in this respect. So my encouragement to you is to tread lightly when it comes to politics. It would be nice to have moral leaders who live out character that you would want your kids to look up to.  Unfortunately that is not the case. So instead of finding our main identity in political parties or leaders, let’s get serious about finding our main identity in Christ, and Christ alone. And let’s be honest, Jesus would not easily fit into either political party. My fear is that we would not recognize him if he were to appear and we would crucify him all over again.  Let’s get back to the business of the church being the bride of Christ and live such counter-cultural lives that actually ATTRACT people to Him instead of repelling people away from Him because of our political affiliations. We must rise above this.


Restaurant Work and the Church



When I think of visiting New York City I often think of Broadway productions I want to see. But after reading Danny Meyer’s “Setting the Table” I now want to visit NYC just to try out his restaurants. Unbeknownst to me, the last time I was there I did go to a Shake Shack not realizing the story behind the restaurant.

I first heard Danny Meyer at the Global Leadership Summit back in August of 2018. He struck me as a very dynamic and inspiring speaker which lead me to buy his book. This should be required reading for anyone in the hospitality business as well as churches. My grandmother used to have a cross-stitch frame that said “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” This book hammers that point hard. Churches need to consider what a visitor’s first impressions might be upon visiting the church. If there is no initial hospitality, chances are that person may never return again.

There was so much in this book that I enjoyed, but I also felt that, although the church does not fall into the restaurant business, there is a lot to learn here about hospitality and leadership and how we can apply it to our context.

One thing that impacted me was Danny’s use of the 51% rule. What he meant by that is that he would hire people that were 49% skills and 51% character and people skills. Danny states that “far more important to me than a friend’s skills was always his of her goodness as a person. . . . I want the kind of people on my team who naturally radiate warmth, friendliness, happiness, and kindness. It feels genuinely good to be around them. There’s an upbeat feeling, a twinkle in the eye, a dazzling sparkle from within. I want to employ people I’d otherwise choose to spend time with outside of work. Many people spend a large percentage of their waking hours at work. From a selfish standpoint alone, if that’s your choice, it pays to surround yourself with compelling human beings from whom you can learn, and with whom you can be challenged to grow.” (pp.142-144). In the context of the church, I believe that this is true for those on staff and leadership. Skills can develop and be taught, while heart and people skills are at least 1% more important.

Danny believes in servant leadership as a bottom-up manager. He makes the point that “An organization puts itself in grave danger when it permits integrity to be compromised.” (p. 198). While this may apply to management, waiters and cook, I believe that this is essential for the church. It is imperative that a church staff and leadership have integrity and a servant-leadership model toward the rest of the congregation. In modeling this, we hope to empower the congregation toward love and good deeds!

Another great chapter in Danny’s book dealt with how you handle problems. Danny comments that “the secret of the game is anticipating mistakes, harnessing them, and addressing them in constructive ways so that we end up in a better spot than if we had never made them in the first place.”  (p. 221). He gave a lot of great illustrations in which costumers had a mistake occur, and then how the management of the restaurant didn’t allow the mistake to define their experience, but found a way to go over and above in creating a positive outcome that would overcome the mistake. This can be done in the context of the church with a simple phone call, visit, or letter.

In the context of church it is important that we are hospitable, that we empower people to live into being a child of God, and that we lead with integrity.  Granted, in a good church, this will not necessarily apply to the sermon because the job of the pastor is to teach the Bible within the context of our lives today and I know sometimes that can leave a person feeling really good, or convicted, or angry because they are not ready or willing to receive the message. But in the context of first impressions, we should absolutely have a hospitality team that helps people feel recognized and important. We should expect high moral integrity from our leaders which should inspire the rest to live better lives. And we should look to make difficult situations better with real conversation, warmth and kindness.