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.

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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.

What to do when the house is burning…

Kristen has been especially moved by the love of Christ shown in Corrie Ten Boom. If you are not familiar, Corrie (15 April 1892 – 15 April 1983) was a Dutch watchmaker and Christian who, along with her father and other family members, helped many Jews escape the Nazi Holocaust during World War II. She was imprisoned for her actions. Her most famous book, The Hiding Place, is a biography that recounts the story of her family’s efforts, as well as her time spent in a concentration camp.

Here’s the quote…

When a house is on fire and you know that there are people in it, it is a sin to straighten pictures in that house. When the world about you is in great danger, works that are in themselves not sinful can be quite wrong.

What is moving to us about her life and what this quote sheds light on, is the fact that many Christians are spending their lives on trifles when people are in grave danger. This is more true today that at any point in my life when there are tens of thousands of Christians going to Christian conferences, joining Christian education movements, participating in Christian book clubs, and generally living in a happy little Christian bubble.

A friend who has been a Southern Baptist leader for 20 years reminded me today that only 5% of professing Christians will ever share the gospel with an unbelieving person. That, dear reader, is a life committed to rearranging pictures while the house is on fire. Is it that the other 95% are bed-ridden? No, they are spending all their energy on things of questionable eternal value. They are doing what Corrie described as straightening the pictures in a burning house.

Imagine that you walk up to a house on fire. Inside you hear people screaming for help. There is a young mom struggling for air holding two small children out a window. Outside there is not just one but several fire brigades and 20 or 25 firemen in full gear washing their trucks and arranging their hoses. They tell you it’s important to have the fundamentals right and to get to know their equipment well. What would you think? You would be out of your mind with anger because while it is important for a fire department to maintain their equipment and improve their preparations, their job is to rescue people in danger. To be fully dedicated to the lesser thing and ignore the mission is a catastrophic failure of calling.

I’m afraid this is where we are in the church in the west. I say this with no great joy and with the admission that I am not doing all that I can do either. Not that many years ago I was one of those people living in the Christian bubble. (Ironically, you tend to not see the bubble until you get out of it even though it has taken over your whole life.) We must focus on saving those on their way to destruction, and risk our lives doing so. The house is burning and the pictures don’t really matter that much.

In the next post I will share some of the things that can help us focus on the rescue mission.

 

Two Voices, One Reminder

This week I got a reminder from someone who loves me and desires God’s best for me that it is very possible when someone is highly committed to something to use language that makes it seem that everyone should be equally committed to precisely the same thing. That is not what I do believe, but since communication involves both a sender and a receiver, it’s important to consider this kind of feedback.

I got a second dose of that this morning while reading my latest “stretch” book, “I Must Resist, Bayard Rustin’s Life in Letters.” Rustin was a black, gay, communist turned socialist, conscientious objector, civil rights leader whose career extended from the 1940’s thru the 1970s.

He had heavy Quaker influences and objected to all violence to achieve political ends. This meant that at his draft hearing he refused to go to war but also refused to participate in the alternative but still war supporting camps the government made available for conscientious objectors. He was sent to prison and worked hard to bring change to a prison system that was still segregated in every way possible.

He would often get in trouble there – sometimes unnecessarily. Once, his friend and mentor A.J. Muste sent Rustin a stinging rebuke of how he was allowing himself to get in the way of their mission. It rang true to the dangers I face as well, although in a very different context. The entire letter is worth reading for those pursuing humility, but here’s one part:

A third consideration – you want to hang onto shreds of self respect, and that means you want to continue to feel superior to somebody at least, because it is by  comparing itself with other people that the unregenerate self manages to keep a good opinion of itself. “God, I thank thee that I am not as other men are.” So you have a mental image of certain people as conspirators, bureaucrats, etc. Toward the individuals on whose faces you plant these masks you can be haughty or arrogant. You can completely forget the complexities of their task, the opposition which they may have to encounter.

Rustin’s friend was saying that part of the job of someone trying to bring systemic change is to empathize with those who have not yet changed in the way Rustin wanted. As I think about what I see as conservative evangelical churches contentedness in being a white, middle class movement I also need to consider how hard it would be on a church leader who genuinely felt like a directional change was necessary. Doing so will not only grow my heart for those brothers and sisters and remind me that at one time I was one of them, it will put me in a better position to help them anticipate the practical challenges they might face and overcome them.

(The book has been really interesting and I’m looking forward to finishing it and writing the review.)

You Are What You Love Reviewed

At this point I have to admit something to the people who read this blog something you already know, namely that I’ve been terrible at keeping up with the blog. The good news is that I’ve been slightly less terrible at keeping up with my reading list and I will try to get around to publishing more reviews of my books in the next couple of weeks assuming that my paying job and my church responsibilities don’t keep me away

I mentioned in my reading list that today’s book “You Are What You Love” was on many book of the year lists from people I greatly respect. I wanted to like this book simply based on the fact that the title sounds like something I would say both figuratively and literally (we’ll get to that). Ultimately, I think the book did have some very strong point but I did not like it, had to work like crazy to get through it, and I don’t think it benefitted me or would benefit most anyone in my little mission field much. Even so, I’ll start with the positives

I think the author and I would get along well and see eye to eye on many things, even things he covers in the book. He rightly and forcefully makes the case early and often that the Christian life is a life of “knowing” in a relational sense and not “knowing” in an academic sense. I think the one sentence that basically summarizes the whole book is found on page 127, “You might have bible verses on the wall in every room in your house and yet the unspoken rituals reinforce self-centeredness rather than sacrifice.” Indeed, this idea that how we actually live our lives reveals what we truly love most is part of his core message and a core message of the Bible. Why did Israel turn from God to idols? Ultimately it was because they wanted to. Maybe they thought God was unreliable, or the idols promised something better, or they didn’t want to wait for God. The bottom line was in the moment of that hope transfer from the one true God to an idol they wanted what they believed the idol promised more than what they believed God promised

So he goes on to point out all the ways God asks people to examine their desires and how the life of desire is more central to the souls of people made in God’s image than the life of knowledge acquisition. He blows up the idea you see in many conservative Christian circles “You grow by what you know” and he points out this means that the life spent following Jesus is “more about hungering and thirsting than of knowing and believing,” and I think that’s more or less right. He shows very well how that philosophy would play out in practical ways in churches and homes and youth groups. That emphasis and those specific applications can be appreciated by almost anyone who wants to transform life. It is in the unconscious “default setting” of our hearts that ultimately makes most of the choices in life, and thus we need to make conditioning that setting (which he calls telos) a major priority in becoming more like Jesus. These points are very strong in my view.

So why not a positive review and recommendation? I’ll list several reasons:

  • It’s important to remember that for books related to ministry in the church, I’m reading them in a totally different context than I did a few years ago. I am serving poor, minority, mostly under-educated people here. Not a single one of them could have gotten 10 pages into this book. It was written by a philosophy professor and it shows. If you’re a middle class, white, college educated, philosophy lover that serves people like yourself, than you’ll like this book way more than I did. It’s not just the concepts that are hard to tackle, there are far too many complicated words for no apparent reason which makes it difficult to read. Take “telos”. Why not just say “default setting” or the word the Bible uses, “heart.” Any term you pick is going to take some explanation, but it would have been nice to read this book without a dictionary. I could have used the word “pattern” instead of liturgy. There are at least a dozen more. The book is just not that accessible.
  • I am also underwhelmed at how far he takes this idea of “liturgy.” At one point I asked in my notes why he keeps doing this and then it finally occurred to me that it’s the whole point of his book. He believes that church liturgies – the doing the same things over and over routine seen in some church traditions – are somehow more of an interaction between God and people even though it’s really just the people doing the same things over and over. He equates these church traditions that stand out in our culture as somehow automatic evidence of transcendence. I think he goes way too far with this in a way a Baptist with the same core convictions would not go simply because of a different experience in Sunday gatherings. He is imposing his form of church on his notion of spiritual formation (although he argues he is not doing that).
  • Related to this, I am not comfortable with the way he praises liturgical forms of so called “Christian” traditions that do not hold to the core teachings of the faith such as Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodox. I’m not trying to start a fight, I’m only saying those groups do not believe the same things about how to become a Christian, how to grow as a Christian, or how Christian identity is expressed in a local church. It is mind boggling to me that he would promote them as examples.
  • Since he sees liturgies as transformational, he then takes the massive leap that if we just start doing a different liturgy we will become changed people. I just don’t think the Bible says that. I think, contrary to his earlier quote which I mostly like, discipleship is primarily about believing. It is about choosing to believe the truth or believe a lie. I would totally agree with Dr. Smith that the truths you believe show up in your practical life patterns, but I don’t believe that changing patterns changes hearts. A man who hates his wife and kids and believes they are the reason for everything bad in his life will avoid them. Having a family dinner every night is not going to change anything but that man’s schedule. Might God use something in that commitment to change the man’s heart? Only if he is operating from faith (what he believes) when he makes the change. That is what the bible says and what it means to walk by faith and not by sight.
  • And so my #1 concern with the book is what I see as an over emphasis on what amounts to religious externalism. The author wants us to believe that “rehabituation” is the key to a transformed life. If only people did different things, then their hearts would change. If only they were more committed to “transcendent” ceremonies and liturgies and traditional worship contexts then they’d really look like Jesus. The problem is that idea perfectly describes the Pharisees who Jesus condemned by saying “These people honor me with their lips but their hearts are far from me.” All of their liturgy didn’t make them follow Jesus. The Bible just doesn’t seem to indicate that people change like that.
  • Even at just under 200 pages the book seemed long to me. I cover half of his concept in a sentence I say all the time to my church family and those who come to counseling: 100% of the people, 100% of the time, chase what they love most. I bet if he worked with Mez McConnell or someone else focused on less highly educated disciples he could get the book down to 120 pages and make it far more accessible at the same time.