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“Yet another book about the differences between men and
women,” was my thought when I first received “For Men Only.”  My expectation was that this was going to be
a superficial explanation about the different ways in which men and women
think, communicate, and process life.
However, I was pleasantly surprised to find that this book went beyond
the surface treatments of gender differences and explained not only why men and
women are different but ways in which men can use the knowledge of how women
see the world to improve their relationships with them.  The book is written in the voice of Jeff as a
man to a man.  Because of this, he can be
very frank and open not only about how women are but how we men can better
relate to them in a way that is helpful and not preachy or clinical.  It’s an easy book to read, I read it in two
afternoons, but it is packed with useful survey results, real-life examples,
and practical ways to respond to women to make for a better relationship.  There is a lot of humor and the examples are
all things that men can relate to.  Much
of the research and information compiled by Jeff comes from time spent with his
wife Shaunti as she conducted interviews and conferences with women in her work
with “For Women Only”, therefore the findings are not just academic but drawn from
real-life situations.  Interspersed with
the discussion are numerous surveys which back up the points made.  Also included with the book on the front
cover is a “Quick Start Guide” which sums up the book in easy-to-read chart
form.

I highly recommend this book for a number of reasons.  True, there is not much new or
ground-breaking here; after all, women have been the same since God created them,
but, the material here is fun and easy to read and offers many practical
techniques to put the findings into practice.
Also, since it is so short and easy to read it is much more likely to
actually be read by a typical guy and since the language is so conversational
it is less likely to be put down.  I
could see this book being used in a men’s small group, taking each chapter per
week and it would be a great book to give to men in pre-marital counseling
sessions or as a gift.  Finally, I appreciated
that the language in the book was very frank.
Jeff deals with things like sex, lust, and communication in ways that
are very direct while still being respectful.
I received a free copy of “For Men Only” by Shaunti and Jeff Feldhahn in
exchange for an objective review from the publisher Waterbrook Multnomah.

Wishful thinking or prophetic observation?  That’s the question I’m left with after reading “The Next Christians” by Gabe Lyons, author of the popular book “UnChristian” and founder of Q.  He begins the book with what could be considered bad news by defenders of the status quo but good news for the thesis of his book.  The news is this: Christianity in America is undergoing a sea change which spells an end to the cultural dominance that evangelicalism has enjoyed for nearly 200 years (a point which is hardly news at this point).  In a nutshell, the church is losing influence in the world of the 21st century.  However, this is not necessarily bad news for Lyons, who sees a new breed of Christian emerging: the next Christians of the title.  In the past, he maintains, there were primarily five kinds of Christian.  Those who separated from the culture were insiders, cultural warriors, and evangelists while those who acceded to the culture were blenders and philanthropists.  All of these kinds of Christians had flawed methodologies, according to Lyons, and were not effectively sharing the Gospel with the culture.  The good news to Lyons is that the “next Christians” which are emerging are restorers, who do not flee from the culture nor blend in with it but instead are restoring the culture which they are in to a model of God’s Kingdom through five paradigms.  For example, instead of being offended they are provoked to action, instead of criticizing culture they create, and so on.  Lyon rejoices that the old paradigms are withering on the vine and are being replaced with those who are restoring culture by advancing the Gospel.   

I have very mixed feelings about this book.  If Lyon’s prediction is right, then I rejoice with him.  I would love to see the church take seriously the charge to proclaim the Gospel in such a way that culture is changed as people place their faith in Jesus.  I agree with his caricatures of the negative types of Christians and would love to see the church be seen more as a force for good and restoration instead of as a source of comedy for Jon Stewart, Lewis Black and Stephen Colbert.  However, I have a number of reservations.  First, I wonder where all these Christians are that he describes as the “next Christians”.  The book is filled with many anecdotes of people doing things right (though not all of them are Christians: one example he gives is of the gay movement), but I wonder if these anecdotes represent a real quantifiable movement or just a few isolated examples.  He states in the last chapter that it too early to chart this movement which leads me to wonder if his examples are truly representative or are just examples of what he would like to see.  After all, a person could find examples of any kind of Christian in small numbers to list in anecdotal form.  Second, I felt that he danced very close to a message of a social gospel where leading people to Christ is less of a priority than painting schools and cleaning up city parks.  Mind you, I don’t think this is what he is saying, but it would be very easy to come away with that conclusion.  His last chapter insists that sharing the Gospel is of prime importance, but I wish that point were made more clearly and throughout the book (then again, maybe I’m just an “evangelizer”).  Third, I don’t get any idea from his book about why he thinks these “next Christians” are becoming the prime moving force in Christianity.  Is it simply because people are embarrassed to be called Christians due to the negative stereotypes of the other Christians, is there some movement of God, or is this the result of a concerted preaching and teaching emphasis?

All in all, I recommend the book because all of the strategies that he describes the next Christians as employing are commendable if the Gospel is being truly and clearly proclaimed in the process.  I can’t say that this was a life-changing book, but only because it seemed based more on what he thinks should be backed up with individual stories rather than a description of what actually is: I’m simply not convinced that the examples he gives represent a vast movement in Christianity that will be the dominant model of Christians in the coming years.  The book is very well-written and he drops enough big names to clearly indicate that he travels in well-heeled circles in the evangelical subculture, so he carries some credentials by the company he keeps.  I received this copy of “The Next Christians” from WaterbrookMultnomah as a part of their Blogging For Books review program in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.

If you are a fan of allegory in the tradition of “A Pilgrim’s Progress” or, indeed, the parables of Jesus, then you will find Randy Alcorn’s “Chasm” to be a wonderful read.  “Chasm” is the life-story of Nick Seagrave—his rebellion from God, search for meaning, false paths and wrong turns on his spiritual quest, and ultimate salvation through Jesus told as a tale with symbolic elements and figurative language.  In this allegory the choices that we make in life and the values we embrace are depicted by pathways in a bleak land.  All the pathways are grey except for one: the red path.  All the paths ultimately lead to death in an impassable chasm except for the red one.  The chasm is the gulf that separates all people from the beautiful city of Charis (heaven) and thus represents the gulf which separates us from God with only the path of Jesus leading to salvation.  The story begins with Nick standing at the chasm, wondering how he can cross it since it is far too wide and deep to get across on his own.  Then there is a flashback to explain how he got to the chasm through bad choices, sins, and deception from Joshua (the devil).  Finally, he agrees to follow a mentor who is on the red path and meets the Woodsman (Jesus) who sacrificially provides the one and only way across the chasm and towards the heavenly city.

This is a beautiful allegory which thoroughly explains the problem we all have—separation from God as a result of our sins—and the only way that we can be reconciled through the sacrifice of Jesus.  The book is well-written and theologically sound; even though it as the feel of a fairy tale (as do most allegories), this is not a shallow look at the Christian faith but rather a very complete explanation of the Gospel: the bad news and the good.  It’s important in an allegory to be able to understand what the elements represent.  I had no trouble whatsoever understanding what the elements of the allegory stood for and I doubt that any Christian would.  However, someone who is not familiar with the Gospel or with elementary Christian theology would need some things explained, which would make this an excellent book for a book study with new believers or non-believers.  I’m not sure I would recommend just giving this to a non-believer, but would highly recommend going over the book with them or having them read it and then explaining what each part represented.  There is a good study note section in the back which would facilitate this excellently.  Apparently the novel “Edge of Eternity” tells the story of Nick Seagrave in novel form, but I’ve not read that novel and this allegory stands well on it’s own; you will not need to read the novel to make sense of this allegory (though I am now compelled to seek out the novel and read it).  I read all 110 pages of this book in just a few hours and I am a slow reader, which speaks volumes of how fast-flowing and interesting it was.  Randy Alcorn is a very well-respected and gifted Christian writers and one of the most popular authors out there now and this allegory is yet another reason why he has this sterling reputation.  The only real negative criticism I might have is that this book has some elements that might not be suitable for children, but that makes the book all the more useful for adult readers since it shows a very honest look at our sinful proclivities.  Also, I was not very impressed by the illustrations: they seemed amateurish; more like something you would find in a cartoon drawn by a teenager, but they do not detract from the book.  I was given this book by the publisher, WaterbrookMultnomah as part of their Blogging for Books program, but the opinions here are mine and I am free to provide both positive and negative reviews.

 

 

Normally when you think of a monk from Kentucky who writes challenging books on spirituality you think of Thomas Merton, but in this case the monk is Michael Spencer and I can honestly say that his book “Mere Churchianity” is one of the best books on the Christian life that I’ve read in years and one that I will certainly be reading again soon (I normally don’t read books more than once).  If I were to write a book on the church and my frustration with it, this would be it.  Michael Spencer was the author of a very popular blog called “The Internet Monk” where thousands of readers found his analysis of the church and modern evangelicalism to be challenging, inspiring, and sometimes infuriating in its honesty.  Spencer is no outsider lobbing brickbats at the evangelical church: he was a minister and a teacher in a Christian school until his death in 2010 and his frustrations are those of an insider.  He has his credentials and has paid his dues to write this book and it is a tragedy that he is not able to follow up on it.

“Mere Churchianity” is ostensibly written for those who have “left the church in search of Jesus” and for those who are in the church but are thinking of checking out, not because they don’t believe in Jesus or no longer want to follow him but for just the opposite reason: because they love Jesus but don’t see him represented by the church.  Spencer’s analogy in the beginning of the book is of “Deer-crossing” sign on the highway; the implication of such a sign is that deer could be expected to be near such a sign.  He points out that he has never seen a deer near such a sign.  Likewise, a person would expect that a building with a sign promising that it is a Christian church would be a place where Jesus could be expected to be found; sadly this is often not the case.  Spencer attacks the idea that a church-centered spirituality, which so many of us are familiar with, is the true or only way to follow Christ.  Indeed, he empathizes with those who have left or are leaving the church and insists that the failure of the church to lead people to Christ (as opposed to a counterfeit church culture) is the reason that many people have left the church rather than some kind of apostasy or moral failure.  Spencer relentlessly skewers the church for missing the point and lays out a Christian life which is centered on following Jesus: he calls this a Jesus-shaped spirituality.  This is a life in which believers actually study the bible on their own to find Jesus, live honest, grace-centered lives, and serve Christ by serving the needy instead of just attending church programs.

Spencer really spoke to my heart as a minister in a Christian church.  I suspect that even though this book is written to those who are outside or leaving the church it will really resonate more with those who are in the church.  It must be emphasized that Spencer is not anti-Church;, he’s just against churches which are not pointing people towards Jesus.  Most of his ire is directed towards fundamentalism and consumer-driven mega-churches, but its obvious that any church which is failing to emulate Christ and provide a honest, grace-filled place to find community would be considered a failed church (in other words, this is not just a reaction to fundamentalism or a critique on mega-church excesses).  To be honest, there were times when I was greatly disturbed and even angered at Spencer’s analysis of the church, but in most cases my anger was not because he was saying something wrong but because what he was saying was absolutely right.  Many of his assessments are hard to read because he is speaking as an insider—a former minister and a teacher in a Christian boarding school for decades.  He knows what he is talking about and is not just attacking the church from the outside.  On many topics he strays very close to the third rail—you think he is going to cross a line which would place him into heresy—but he always manages to say things which are challenging and even disturbing without going too far or being unbiblical.  For example, he stresses that true Christian life should involve social work without falling into the camp of those who would ignore the Gospel in favor of good deeds.  “Find a community that encourages servant Christianity.  Wherever God places you, make it the place you serve him.  Whenever possible, seek out the little corners of darkness and pain in our world.  Go there and the Jesus-shaped path will rise up to meet you.  While crowds rush to a megachurch to be entertained, you go to the poor, the obscure, and the forgotten” (pg. 204).  He encourages people to drop the pretense of trying to be a “Good Christian” and instead rely on the grace of a God who loves us in our fallen state without slipping into antinomianism.  He attacks the failings of the church without being anti-church, more of a Martin Lutheresque reformer than a bitter critic.  Suffice to say, if you are an evangelical who is invested in the church you will get mad at what he has to say but you will most likely have to agree that his views are correct.  Furthermore, if you are simply someone who despises the church or has left the church with a chip on the shoulder you will not find ammunition in this book to attack Jesus: his goal is to lead people to Jesus, whether they do so in their current church or denomination or not.  “..My purpose in writing this book is to talk to you as someone who is willing to follow Jesus, not as someone who has decided to give up on Jesus.  You may have given up on a kind of religious experience or a particular kind of institutional religion, but you haven’t given up on Jesus” (pg. 198-199).  He does stress the need for community in the Christian faith—which is what the church should be—without insisting that it has to be in the traditional church setting.  As he says in the last page of the book (pg. 221), “It is my hope that the time we have spent together will encourage you to keep pursuing Jesus, no matter where you are in your journey.  Don’t neglect the search for authentic, Jesus-shaped spirituality.”

If you are involved in a church and yet you sometimes wonder if the church in America, especially the evangelical church, is somehow missing the point, you must read this book.  Oh, it will challenge you, it might even enrage you, but you will find that your anger is only because Spencer is pointing out the dirty secrets that we like to keep hidden in the church: that often the church is more interested in promoting the church than it is in glorifying Jesus.  Spencer speaks not as an outsider-critic but as an honest insider.  At the end of the book you may find yourself more determined than ever to get closer to Jesus and in the process to bring the church closer to Jesus.

Disclaimer: I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review, but the thoughts are mine and I am under no obligation to give a favorable review.

You can read an excerpt of the book here: http://waterbrookmultnomah.com/catalog.php?isbn=9780307459176&view=excerpt

Please take a moment and rank my review if you don’t mind, it will only take a moment:

http://waterbrookmultnomah.com/bloggingforbooks/reviews/ranking/3257

I’ve not updated my blog in a long time and if history is any guide I might get back out of the habit before too long.  But, in the chance that I might be more regular on here I thought I would start putting some of my sermons back up here.  I know that reading a sermon is not what most people want, so I understand if you don’t read this.  However, in looking at the blog stats, I find that most people find the blog while looking for a sermon (they are the most viewed entries).  There are a lot of ministers out there who are looking for inspiration, ideas, or commentary on various scripture passages and sermons from other preachers help.  So, for that reason, I’m going to try to update my blog with my current series on Matthew.

I started preaching from Matthew about 2 years ago, and since I preach verse-by-verse I’m only in Matthew 12 now and will probably be in Matthew for a while, but I think this is the best way to really get at the message of Matthew.  I couldn’t find Matthew 1; the earliest one is Matthew 2.  Hope this can be of help to someone.  I’ve not gone through and edited, so there may be typos in the text.

Continue Reading »

I was talking to a couple yesterday who just joined the congregation where I am currently ministering.  We were talking about different aspects of the church which would be relevant for a new member: doctrine, vision, history, ministries, leadership, where the bathroom is…  I was very curious to know more about how they found the congregation and what their initial reactions were– good and bad– since they were seeing things through “fresh eyes”.

Then he asked something which really touched and humbled me.  “How long are you going to be here?”  In other words, do you plan to stick around for a while?

That really got to me, because it shows me just how important the longevity of the minister is to the health of the local congregation, and I think there are some warnings to both ministers and congregations here.

Now, I know that the congregation should not be based solely on the minister.  There is a real danger when a congregation sees the minister as the personification of the congregation or when he has too much power in the church to a negative effect.  We are all in the priesthood of believers and the minister is no closer to God than anyone (though he should be held to a high standard).  But, let’s face it, in a lot of ways the congregation will take on the personality, doctrine, and vision of the minister as he is often the point-man of the church.  He is the one people look to as a leader in the church (even if he has very little leadership responsibility or is just a hired hand).  He also literally has a bully pulpit since he is in front of the congregation constantly in his preaching and as the “face” of the church.  Let’s face it, no matter how good the congregation is, if you can’t stand the preaching you’re not going to last long.  He is also the person that people will have the most contact with in most churches in an official capacity.  I think most visitors to a church will judge a church by its worship service, the preaching, ministries offered (usually for children), and the friendliness of the people, probably in that order (flip worship and preaching depending on how interested in doctrine a visitor is).

I’ve also found that congregations that have the best long-term growth usually have a minister who has been there for a long time.  I can think of three churches around here which have steadily grown and are seemingly healthy and have had a minister there for over 20 years.  Contrast that with congregations that change ministers every three years and are extremely unhealthy (not sure which is the cause and which is the effect, though).  Some churches will have flash in the pan growth with a dynamic preacher, but if he leaves soon so will the growth.

All of this is just to say that it’s a humbling responsibility to be a minister.  Yes, you are usually hired, but hopefully you consider your ministry not to be a job but a calling to be a shepherd.  I hope that ministers will consider the impact they have on their congregation before they consider an opportunity to leave.  Yes, there are valid times when it is best to leave and many valid reasons to do so, but that decision should not be made lightly.  And, congregations should think very hard before they rush out to dismiss their minister.  Again, there are valid times to do so, but often ministers are let go because it’s easier to change a minister than to actually start being the church or to make the “lay leaders” be held accountable.

A new couple joining a church most likely has decided that the preacher is someone with a heart for God and a good message if they commit to join.  I can understand why they might be reluctant to be part of a church where that might be changing.  I hope that congregations and ministers alike consider the importance of the shepherd to the “sheep” of the local congregation.  Congregation: pray for, encourage, and support your minister if he is a man of God.  Ministers: take seriously the trust you’ve been given by your congregation and lead well and live a life worthy of your calling.

Randy Alcorn, the man who brought us a comprehensive look at heaven, tackles the question of why life on earth is often more like hell.  “The Goodness of God”, at 117 pages, is a good-sized condensation of his book “If God Is Good: Faith in the Midst of Suffering and Evil”.  This book tackles the ancient question of theodicy: why bad things happen in this worl.  This is a book that you will probably want to buy multiple copies of to give to friends—believers and non-believers alike—who have questions about why there is so much evil and suffering in the world if indeed God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving (which He is).  There are so many good things to say about this book, I really can’t think of anything negative.  To begin with, I greatly appreciate Randy’s voluminous use of scripture to lay out his arguments.  In a time when many Christian books are light on scripture, this is refreshing.  Randy doesn’t just proof-text scripture like so many others, either, but grounds those scriptures in solid theology.  Best of all, he doesn’t offer pat answers or mere anecdotes but delves into the theological reasons for evil and suffering in the world.  Essentially, he argues that suffering is a result of the sin in the world which came about through the Fall.  The only way to understand sin and suffering is to have a biblical worldview that understands that this world is not the way the God wanted it to be in His original plan.  One chapter deftly skewers other worldviews and religions by showing how inadequate those views are in explaining suffering and by maintaining that a worldview that denies God has no basis for morality.  For example, to an atheistic Darwinist, rape and murder make sense and could not be considered “bad”; “survival of the fittest”, after all.  Only a holy God could define what is “good” and what is “evil”.  He encourages those who are suffering to consider the cross of Christ as proof that God not only understands our pain but has also experienced it with us.  Many of his points are standard fare in the world of theodicy, but he explains them in a fresh new way and I found his encouragement to keep the promise of the resurrection and heaven in mind while suffering to be well thought out; no doubt based on his research into the subject of heaven.  The book is easy to read, the illustrations and pertinent anecdotes are a good balance to his heady theology, and the length is perfect for those who want a solid overview on this difficult subject (I’m a slow reader and read it in an afternoon).  I would highly recommend this book to anyone and especially for someone going through a time of suffering, though it would be much better to read the book before suffering occurs to have a solid theological grounding to prepare for the inevitability of suffering.  As he quotes a friend of his who lost a son, “I think it’s good for books to offer biblical guidance on suffering and evil, but the greatest comfort for me has been to focus on God.  I’m not as concerned about the whys.  When you know him, it’s okay.  I can trust him with what I don’t know.  That’s what brings me back to the Bible.” (page 96)  This book will not offer pat answers but a look at what the bible teaches about suffering.  Finally, the crowning point of the book is his invitation at the end.  He does not encourage the reader to pray some unbiblical “Sinner’s Prayer” with an assurance that they will now be saved.  Instead, he accurately urges readers to “Ask God to mercifully open your eyes and reveal to you this Jesus you read about.”  (page 113).  “The best way to do this is to open the Bible.  Set aside all other arguments and study the person of Christ.”  In a time of vacuous and unbiblical popular Christian books, Randy Alcorn gives a very solid, theological, hopeful book to understand what the bible teaches about sin and suffering.  This book promises to give hope and encouragement to all who read it.  I highly recommend this book!  I do need to mention that I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review, but this had nothing to do with my high opinion of this book, it truly was one of the best books I’ve ever read on this subject.

 

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