Replant: How a Dying Church Can Grow Again Reviewed

This is a book I hoped to like a lot. I am working through the North American Mission Board’s process to be a replanting pastor and the topic is very interesting to me. I didn’t love it for reasons I’ll explain.

That being said, it is an easy read and I’m glad Mark DeVine and Darrin Patrick wrote it. The book chronicles one church (First Calvary Baptist Church in Kansas City) and its journey through a growing awareness of its status as a dying church, the political infighting of a few influential people who were happy to see the church die provided they remained in charge, and the path the church took (led by Mark) to deal with the problem. Mark and Darrin are both very conversational and they did the reader a favor by simply telling their story. At various places in the book they clarified that they were not trying to write a manual on replanting but just telling the story of one situation.

For what it’s worth, they accomplished what they set out to do. It just wasn’t that ambitious of a goal. The book has very little for anyone to learn other than a fact pattern that went basically unchallenged or even contemplated. The story is presented as though the steps taken were the only possible steps that could be taken and perhaps it’s true. The problem is that they never built (in my opinion) any kind of a basis that argued for why selling out this autonomous church and giving everything to The Journey was the best course of action. It’s not even clear how much other replanting/revitalizing options were considered or what the barriers in Mark’s mind were to their implementation. Pulling back the curtain on this could have been something very valuable to readers drawn to this kind of book but it is noticeably absent.

I have to say that while I sympathized somewhat with Mark as he tells the story with himself being the main character and protagonist, it was hard for me to like him as a character. By his own admission, he got most excited not at the idea of helping these believers find an electrifying identity in Christ, but rather by the prospect of ending their church as they knew it and handing it off to someone who would do more with it than they could (in his opinion). Even his comment about his family being absent from the church created less sympathy for him and more suspicion over how differently he would be processing things had his loved ones been directly affected by his decisions. I am confident my decision making is improved by my wife’s active involvement in it and I didn’t pick up any introspection by Mark as he discussed trying to figure out his next steps absent his wife other than to say that if the church folded or the new owners fired him he’d lose 1/3 of his income and his family would be impacted. To me, he came across much more as a consultant than a pastor and while I’m sure that was not the case in reality it is the way the book reads.

I gave it three stars because I have to admit that once I realized it was not a serious book I started skimming some parts and may have missed something that would counter the things I found lacking. Otherwise I would have given it two stars.

There are so many better books out there on the topic that offer more wisdom, more practical help, a better understanding of the supernatural battle that is replanting, more compassion for the senior saints that tend to be in these churches, etc. The best one I’ve read so far is Mark Clifton’s book Reclaiming Glory but even Darrin’s book Church Planter would equip most people far better to attack this kind of situation than this one did.

Advertisements

Dairy Queen Days Reviewed

There’s no shame in writing a fiction book that is not David Copperfield or Count of Monte Cristo or another top flight fiction book. I don’t read a lot of fiction so as I write this review I’m trying to be fair and not expect everything to be a masterpiece.

Still, this was not a good book. It took me 276 pages to finally care about the characters and where the story was going. Given it took me 200 pages to get to the same point with Count of Monte Cristo that may not seem too bad. The big difference is that Count had 850 pages and this book has 283.

When I say it is not a good book, I do not mean to say there were no parts of the book I found interesting or compelling. In fact, one of the tragedies is that the more interesting characters were basically ignored. I think the protagonist in the story is supposed to be a sympathetic character, but mostly he seemed to me like a whiny teenager that was not going to be happy until he got to live the life he wanted. Even after the major trajectory change in the closing pages of the book, he runs away from a time when someone with an ounce of character would have stood firm. This is all the more pathetic to me because throughout the book, the author has been trying to show that he was the one person in his family that was sensible, sane, and resolute.

The book got on my reading list because I wanted to have something there that depicted my region of the country. Did it do that successfully? Probably it did. Basically every main character adhered to a form of religion but denied its power. Their faith was a showpiece, not a living and active reality in their lives. The protagonist’s father, a Methodist preacher, loved cliches and clever sayings more than the Bible. People showed up to church to get a show rather than be changed into the image of Jesus. There’s a line in the early pages of the book that captures that sense well: “An old piece of Bear Bryant wisdom. Joe Pike was fill of Bear Bryant wisdom. It had the ring of Scripture to it.”

So that was one of the disappointing things to me about the book. Yes, the Bible Belt is filled with people for whom Christianity is nothing more than a social construct, but it isn’t exclusively those people. There are lots of real, committed Christians in the Bible Belt. None of them made it into this book. The point of including a book with a regional focus is to experience your actual area through the lens of another person, not a caricature of your area. This book (written by an Alabama alum) presented small town Georgia as a series of fake people pursuing phone dreams carried along by sentimentality and regret. That’s just not reality.

Plus, it has a really dumb ending that makes no sense whatsoever.

Picking Cotton Reviewed

Picking Cotton is an interesting book because it brings together the stories of two people who on all basic levels should have nothing to do with one another. Jennifer Thompson was a college student raped in her home by a stranger, and Ronald Cotton was the man she falsely identified as her attacker. Cotton ended up wrongfully convicted and served nearly 11 years in prison.

As a book there really isn’t anything to complain about. It’s well written. The story is compelling. The characters are believable. For a true story they do a good job expressing their weaknesses as well as their strengths. Ronald is especially interesting to me because of the hope he finds in some incredibly flawed people like the father that never really supported him as a child. It’s generally written in the first person she said/he said format which works for what it is.

One thing I appreciated about the book is how closely it linked the root cause of Ronald’s false conviction to the overarching story. Ronald was the victim of mistaken identity due to what were common but still unhelpful law enforcement and prosecutorial practices. I don’t believe anyone said the reason he was wrongfully convicted was his race, which was refreshing. If we don’t look at the actual root causes we will never remedy these injustices, and I think this book helped in that regard. (about 75% of people freed by DNA evidence after wrong convictions were put in jail simply by eyewitness accounts.)

There is a lot of talk in the book about things like forgiveness, mercy, grace, God’s plan for us, etc. but they are generally not in line with the biblical definitions of those words. They are self serving usages about inner healing or leaving the past behind. Of course there is some value to that, but there is far more value to understanding and applying these terms biblically.

There are side characters such as Ronald’s legal team that I would have liked to learn more about. What motivates people to give up their time and energy to right these wrongs? I realize that one book cannot cover every angle of a story but this is something I think would have rounded out the book. It was also a bit long for me – at roughly 300 pages it seemed about 50-75 pages too long. In today’s day, I feel like a book should do more than what could be done in a 15 minute segment on an evening news talk show. Frankly, I don’t think this book did that to much of a meaningful degree. (The story is compelling but the 15 minute version can be found here.)

Ministry of Expansion Reviewed

There are two unique things about this review for me. First, I don’t believe I’ve ever been the first person to review a book on Amazon. Second, I don’t think I’ve ever done a book review where my rating has changed so many times for different reasons as has been the case with this book. (I bounced back and forth between four and five stars about six or seven times.)

The book is exactly as described. Some modern experts on Roland Allen write some chapters in the beginning to set up the context under which Roland Allen wrote his work. These are helpful in themselves, but I was immeasurably helped by listening to JD Payne’s “Strike the Match” podcast on this book before reading even these chapters. I suppose I’m like a lot of potential readers in that I read Missionary Methods St Paul’s or Ours to great benefit as a much younger Christian, but I wasn’t all that familiar with everything else going on around Roland Allen’s life and ministry. The podcast filled in the important details beautifully and I highly commend it to anyone wanting to get this book.

The book is set against the background of Roland Allen’s high church Anglican’s insisting that the only time communion could be served was in the presence of ordained priests. Allen objected to that because in many contexts there was such a shortage of ordained priests that to follow the rule would be to deprive genuine believers of the ordinances entirely. Allen seemed to believe the Anglican power brokers were motivated by fear and in J.D.’s introductory chapter he includes what is a helpful corrective for all of us seeking to prevent error by restricting ministry to a few men.

“We fear corruption and degeneration; when shall we cease to fear them? The roots of that fear are in us, and when shall we eradicate them, and how? There will always be cause for that fear, if we look at men. If we look at Christ, then, we may escape.”

According to Allen’s critique, the root cause of the problem is focusing on the people who could screw up the ordinances rather than the Christ who commanded they be practiced.

This is I think the cement that has me locked into a five star review. How often are we as 21st century church leaders motivated by fear and controlled by the idea that if we just restrict things enough we can prevent all error from the church. This is a ridiculously arrogant notion for if we claim to work to prevent error because of our love for the Church, does not Christ love His bride even more? Is He not also working to cleanse and purify her, which would include protecting her from error? The core concept of Allen’s previously unpublished work is communion, but the application is I think much broader than that. We could use his work as a necessary corrective for all sorts of restrictions we put on church life and ministry that are really just preferences rather than biblical commands. Many times there are logical reasons for these preferences, but when we cling to them as if they are commands we would do well to ask whether that is motivated by fear or by love for Jesus.

Many of the points brought up by Allen in his work remind me of something I heard Francis Chan say once. If we just had the Bible and no church traditions or structures, would we expect things to work they way they do today? I suspect the answer is no. This is the strength of Allen’s whole argument and especially his chapter 4 on The Practice of the Early Church. Are we really content to let the Bible be our guide? How ready are we to read the Bible for it to correct our views rather than to reinforce them? I was challenged on this point a lot.

The book is well written and easy to read. I finished it in a few days while on a business trip. I think it is a very useful resource for anyone who is really ready to challenge some presuppositions about extra-biblical restrictions we put on church life and ministry. Of course Allen’s primary motivation is to encourage his tribe to think about believers in distant lands and should apply it to how we serve unreached people groups and such, but I think it’s a mistake to end there. We should receive the book as a nudge to reevaluate how biblical our positions really are on all sorts of things (ordination, logistics of church gatherings, staffing models, church planting (and especially the fresh movement toward re-planting dying churches), etc.

And this is the reason I moved the review to a five star review. It is Allen’s commitment to practical theology. This book is not a theoretical exercise to him. He is looking at a real issue that was affecting real brothers and sisters in his day and applied theology to it. We have far too many books by far too many authors that talk about the truth of the Bible as if it did not meaningfully affect people for time and eternity. Allen deserves a lot a credit for tackling a topic that would have lost him favor with his high church Anglican peers because he was committed to look out for those without a voice in his circles.

Same Kind of Different Reviewed

Same Kind of Different as Me by Ron Hall and Denver Moore is not a book that made my reading list but I added it after a friend said he thought it might resonate with me. The book did resonate and I’m glad he suggested it.

The book started a little slower for me than I’d like in the same way that some good fiction books do. It just takes time to develop characters for you to enjoy them later. While this book is the account of a true story, the same is true here because the main characters are so different that you really need to see what brought them to the situation where they meet.

It’s basically a story of a rich art dealer who becomes a Christian and starts caring about the people around him. Foremost, he cares for his wife in a way he never did before and her faith led her to serve the homeless in Fort Worth, Texas. His commitment to support her vision ultimately changes his life as he befriends a violent, isolated homeless man (the co- author of the book, Denver Moore) and they go through good and bad times together.

The book resonated with me on a few levels. The title explains one, namely that every person we meet is basically the same as us. Race, economics, jobs, etc. don’t really matter that much in the grand scheme of things. I first found this to be true in counseling. The temptation when you’re meeting with someone who has destroyed their life or ruined their marriage or got hooked on drugs or porn is to look down on them, but in God’s eyes we are far more alike than we are different. Bringing this to my ministry life has helped me and those I’m serving have a more natural relationship as we pursue Jesus together.

It also hit me because of our church planting experience. While it’s true that we are all more the same than we are different, our experiences and cultures do matter. One of the things that Denver points out in the book was that all the questions Ron asked made him (and the other homeless) suspicious of them. (They asked “Who wants to know the name and birthday of homeless drunks except the CIA?) It’s a major cultural difference because middle class people, especially white middle class people, tend to use questions as a way to show interest. It’s a contrast in cultures that anyone who works with those of differing racial or economic backgrounds has to factor into his or her approach.

Whenever I read a book with religious overtones that doesn’t claim to be theology I always have to check my theological discernment radar at the door and just try to appreciate the book for what it is. I had to do that a couple times in the book but found I could do it in a way that didn’t compromise the main story of the book or make me love the main characters any less. I would love to meet either of these two guys in real life and look forward to meeting them both in Heaven whenever the Lord chooses to call us to himself.

Overall, I would give the book a very high recommendation. The story is told from both points of view with candor and humor. The chapters don’t exactly alternate but without counting pages I’d say it’s 60% Ron and 40% Denver so you get an excellent sense of both these men and what makes them tick. I heard there was a movie made and I’m not sure if I should be excited to see it or dread the way they could ruin the story.

Putting imagination to work

I woke up last night following a nightmare of my family being caught in a tragedy. It was one of those vivid ones where you are sure it was real for some time even after waking up. Usually my reaction to these situations once my mind is calmed down is to figure out the fastest way back to sleep, but last night the Lord directed my thoughts to those people who have endured my nightmare in real life. I prayed that God would give me more vivid nightmares if that’s what it took to help me imagine the lives of those struck with great suffering better than I do now.

Imagination seems to be one of the least used tools in the lives of Christians I meet. Those who use imagine God working in mighty ways are often cast aside as unrealistic or idealistic. People routinely respond to the tangible circumstances of the world as if they are the most real things in the universe when the Bible says that the things that are most real are the things we cannot see with natural eyes (2 Cor 4:18). Contrary to this thinking, the throughout the scriptures show us that imagination is a powerful force that can be used either to boost self-confidence (Prov 18:11, 1 Cor 8:2) or confidence in God (1 Cor 2:9, Eph 3:20).

There are several passages in the Bible that use the word “imagine” or “imagination” but we should think more broadly than that. Perhaps one of the best words to use as a pivot point for applying imagination to the Christian life is the word “consider.” When Jesus instructs his hearers to “consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these” (Matt 6:28-29), he intends that we use our imagination. How did the lilies get to be more beautiful in appearance than even the richest and most opulent man who ever lived? We’re supposed to imagine the level of detailed care involved for God to have planned out and then executed his plan to make these flowers so beautiful so that we can truly appreciate God’s wonderful care for his kids who are often tempted to be anxious.

When the apostle Paul says “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom 6:11), he means for us to use our imagination. We are to imagine what it would look like if we were truly dead to sin and it had no control over us because of the life of God in us. What specific things would we stop doing? What specific things would we start doing? What would an ordinary day in my life look like? Imagine it and then go use the faith God supplies to live like that.

When the author to the Hebrews says “Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted” (Heb 12:3), he means for us to use our imagination and make a comparison between how Jesus suffered mistreatment and how we suffer it. We are supposed to wonder what it was like for him and what was his motivation and his fuel. It’s only after we use our imagination to get a fuller appreciation for what it was like for the creator of the universe to be abused by his own creation that we gain the fuel and motivation we need in the gospel to prevent weariness and a desire to quit.

As we train our imagination to work for the Kingdom rather than for our flesh, we receive other benefits as well, especially in how we might live out the one another commands. An obvious place to start is Hebrews 10:24 where we are commanded to “consider how to stir up one another to love and good works.” Imagination is our helper because not everyone we know will be stirred up in quite the same way that we are. Think about your friend, spouse, child, or parent. What kinds of things do they pursue? What is it that they love? What motivates them to act under normal circumstances? How could you present a current problem or need to them in such a way that the gospel’s demands of them are more vivid than they would be to a generic person? Creatively loving, encouraging, admonishing, comforting, serving, and even forgiving one another begins with a godly use of imagination. That’s what I hope my vivid nightmare will produce in me as I try to comfort those who are dealing with situations I have not faced in real life.

We are not supposed to read the Bible like we read the newspaper. Be creative about using your imagination with the Scriptures. It will help you to grow in love, grace, and discernment more than you can imagine.

Putting things in their place

In my last post, I commented on a quote from Corrie Ten Boom to urge Christians to consider the ways in which they were devoting large segments of their lives to things that may be okay on their own but have grown too significant. I’m sure there are hundreds of good things that we could let become ultimate things if we are not careful. This is why Solomon gave the stern warning, “Above all else guard your heart, for from it flows the wellsprings of life.” (Prov 4:23) Jesus echoed this idea when he said “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matt 6:21)

What follows are some practical tips to help diagnose whether this could be true of you. Could you be, as Corrie Ten Boom said, rearranging pictures in a house that is burning down with people inside?

Get out more: Conservative evangelicals are generally a white middle/upper class bunch and it is possible and even probable that most will avoid being challenged with seriously struggling people in their context. The middle and upper classes have the means to hide or drown their struggles so unless you do something differently, you can live your whole life thinking everyone is pretty much okay. This is true in the church as much as among unbelievers, and is the basic definition of the Christian bubble. I think it’s even more powerful in the “good churches” that tout themselves as better than the others because of (mostly correct) doctrinal distinctions, but have the boomerang effect of shaming struggling people into silence.

Get out more effectively: Once you decide you may be affected by the Christian bubble, come up with a plan. You don’t have to sell everything and move into our neighborhood to start coming out of the bubble (but you are welcome to do that). The Bible is clear that people around you are hurting and if you simply engage them on a more than superficial level you will begin to see it. This means you may have to say no to some of your “Christian” stuff or personal time but it’s really the only way you’re going to do it.

Read the Bible differently: One thing that God used to motivate us was simply reading the Bible to look for God’s attitude toward struggling people. God spends a lot of time talking about people exploited by leaders, and many of those groups continue to exist today. God does care about widowed, orphaned, materially poor, shamed, outcast, and lonely people differently and his promises to them reflect their actual condition. It could be that you are God’s

Ask different questions: If you’re going to do #3, you’re going to have to ask different questions. Rather than reading Matthew 25 and explaining why it doesn’t apply to you, you will need to ask how it does apply to you. When you read about God’s care for widows, you will need to ask whether obedience and love demand you get to know a widow on more than a surface level and start caring for her. As you struggle through Leviticus in your annual reading plan and get to 19:34 You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and kyou shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God, you will have to ask yourself whether you know strangers in your context and how you will mirror God’s love and mercy toward them. You can’t just assume someone else is doing it because for the most part, they aren’t.

Stop comparing yourself to others: This one came back to the front of our minds recently when my wife and daughter read the biography of Keith Green. It’s easy to think of the progress you make as monumental when you compare yourself to people whose eyes are not yet open to this need. Keith Green is an encouragement, but he is not the standard. Jesus, who left heaven and perfect fellowship in the trinity and constant, pure praise of angels to die for people who would reject him is the standard. Christian literally means “little Christ” so we should always be evaluating our lives relative to his example and nobody else’s.

Leave the Republican party behind: I saved this one for last because it will offend the most people. GOP does not stand for God’s Own Party. It does not represent Christianity well, and given its current standard bearer the trajectory is getting worse. I think Wayne Grudem is right when in his book Politics (which was excellent) he said the traditional GOP party platforms were more in line with the Scriptures about 75% of the time when compared to Democrat positions, but that doesn’t mean we walk in line with the GOP no matter what. The American political process tends to favor extremists in the primary system which means you’re never going to find a 75% Republican who lines up with the Bible well on everything. Marco Rubio, a 93% Republican, got run out of the presidential race because he wasn’t Republican enough. We need to be a people that engages politics on the basis of our Christian witness rather than political affiliation. Much harm has been done by people professing to be Christians blindly posting stuff on social media by right wind websites without doing any fact checking. If these stories end up to be false, and many of them are, we are bearing false witness.