Church Planting Movements Reviewed

Hi everyone. It has been a long time since I’ve posted a book review. Our move to Nashville has sidetracked a lot of how I’ve spent my time previously but I’m hoping to get into a little groove and get some posts out here.

This review is on Church Planting Movements by David Garrison, a 15-year old book that describes several explosive (in a good way) waves of missionary activity where hundreds of churches were planted among some of the least reached people in the world. The book has its rabid advocates and cautious detractors so I felt like taking my own walk through its pages made a lot of sense.

I’ll just say up front that I liked the book and am glad I read it. That isn’t to say that I found everything in the book compelling or motivating, but it is a book that should be read by more people from the more conservative evangelical circles. A review by someone smarter and much better known can be found here. The book is divided into two basic sections: a descriptions of these incredible movements of people turning to Jesus Christ in various regions and then a discussion about the conditions present in each of those locations. Garrison calls these situations “church planting movements” “rapid and multiplicative increases of indigenous churches planting churches within a given people group or population segment.”

There are lots of wonderful quotes from world (non-American) church leaders that alone make the book worth reading. Some of the direct and indirect quotes I found most compelling:

  • By contrast, our descriptive analysis reveals that God has chosen to launch most Church Planting Movements among the least likely candidates – unreached people groups, which have often been dismissed by those looking for responsive harvest fields. (loc 315)
  • Conventional wisdom in the West has often taught a reasonable yet much less effective pattern of gospel transmission. “You must first earn the right to share your faith,” goes the traditional model. “Once you have developed a friendship and demonstrated that you are really different, your lost friend will ask you what is special about your life. Then, you can tell them about Jesus.” A passionate purveyor of Church Planting Movements denounced this Western model. “We teach that it’s not about you or earning the right to share your faith. Jesus earned that right when He died on the cross for us. Then he commanded us to tell others!” (loc 2701)
  • “Pol Pot nearly destroyed the church,” she said. “All the while he was ruining the country, though, Christians were ministering to Cambodian refugees in camps along the Thai border. I do believe that the Christian ministry during that time helped prepare their hearts for what is happening now.’ (loc 969)
  • In speaking of how displaced and outcast peoples respond to the gospel, “Unfortunately the opposite is also true. Great social stability tends to lull people into a false sense of security. They forget that life is short and that one must prepare for eternity. This creates an obstacle for affluent Western Europe, Japan, and the United States where unparalleled economic health has fostered unparalleled spiritual malaise.” (loc 3563)

The book begs traditional western Christians to think of missionary activity differently. Rather than thinking of setting up churches that look a lot like they do in culturally Christian contexts, Garrison advocates using house churches of 10 – 20 new believers led by lay leaders. The shift in the goal has massive implications on church leader training, expectations of members, and exponential reach of a network of 20 churches of 10 people in different locations rather than one 200 person church led by a paid pastor. I will do a separate blog post on the practical ramifications of this approach as I see them based on our ministry experience.

I think my biggest takeaway from the book is that God has done some pretty amazing things with the expansion of his kingdom in the last 20 years or so. Almost none of them have been inside North America, so unless you’re reading books like this you would never know about them. It’s easy to look at the collapse of cultural Christianity around us and feel like maybe God is on vacation, but the many accounts (verified by independent sources) covered in this book put that idea to bed quickly. We just need to open our eyes beyond the Americas to see it.

Another key takeaway from the book is the way it documents what is common, or tends to be common, among all these totally unrelated movements. This is at one time a core strength of the book and one of its weaknesses. While Garrison does caveat his “findings” somewhat, much of what is presented in the book is more sociology than theology. It describes things that occurred in a 15 year period and looked for commonalities. It did not primarily look to the Scriptures to evaluate what was going on theologically. That’s fine provided we all recognize that. Unfortunately, the successes seen in these movements have been interpreted by some as evidence that the common elements active there are universally true of all peoples and all times and I don’t think we can take things that far.

Then there are some pretty goofy things in the book as well but these are easy to overlook. It’s obvious that 2 Tim 3:5 is not a licence to ignore existing local churches that have a different missiology as Garrison tries to claim (Loc 3990). According to Romans 8:1-8, it is not theologically possible for people in a church planting movement to “often begin serving Christ even before they become his follower.” (loc 3700) It is borderline ridiculous to claim that the caution used by traditional churches in assigning leadership roles to newer believers makes them bored enough to leave the faith (loc 3693). Most of these real problems are confined to one section of the book and were easy to overlook for me.

Overall I think it is a book worth reading. Feel free to question the valuing of rapidity over stability, how theologically astute church leaders can become under these conditions, or whether error will easily creep into this kind of movement. But please do it from a position that honors the ways these brothers are more theologically correct than many traditional churches. Sentimental pats on the head while arguing they have nothing right and are all headed to ruin is not loving but also not right. Those like Garrison arguing for rapid multiplication of churches have more theologically correct views on the urgency of the missionary task, the priesthood of believers, the power of God, and in many cases the way the gospel is supposed to triumph over culture (especially American academic loving culture).

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Tips for a Pastor Job Description

Many of my readers know our family is in the process of figuring out what God may have next for us following the necessity of closing down Living Stones Church late last year. This has involved scouring job openings seemingly relentlessly. While some of these are extremely well written and likely to produce high quality matches between churches and candidates, many (if not most) are almost comical to read.

It turns out there is a secret manual for writing pastor search postings, and I’ve located a portion of it. I probably should not share it on the internet, but I’ve decided it’s the best way to get the word out on this valuable resource. Please forgive my breach of confidentiality of this classified information, but if anyone else has found additional pages in this manual please be certain to share them here.

Tips for effective job postings:

  • When discussing qualifications, your goal is to strike a balance of having high expectations for the role but low expectations for compensation. Do this by asking for the moon, then saying you want someone with 2 – 5 years of experience. Of course anyone who has actually accomplished everything you want will have far more experience, so you will hire them on the cheap.
  • It is hard to be honest about the crumbs you are willing to pay someone who has spent years preparing for this role. If you believe it must be done, give unrealistically low pay ranges that candidates will dismiss quickly. They do not need to believe that you are seriously planning to pay less than Walmart until they are far down the line with your church and have told other potential churches that they are no longer interested.
  • Sometimes it is helpful to be intentionally vague. In the “description” section just say “regular duties of a senior pastor” or “normal things for a youth minister.” This lets you play the candidate’s experiences against them because what is normal to you is much more work than what they consider normal.
  • If you know you will not hire a Calvinist or an Arminian based on the church history and culture, be certain to avoid mentioning that. It is much better to have those people who are clearly wrong in their theology waste their time and energy and hope on your church than to simply be honest from the start.
  • It is important to send the message that the pastor will not be someone you will lovingly follow, but rather someone you will oppressively direct. Make sure that it is clear that any time he is away from the church building for more than 24 hours you have no less than seven means of contacting him at any time of day. But as a word of caution, be careful that you do not write the job description as if you are recruiting a slave. Indentured servant is the tone you want.
  • Sometimes it is very useful to combine several extremely fuzzy expectations into one sentence to make it seem like you are more precise than you really are. Saying something like “Be an ordained preacher able to preach a sermon in the time allotted, be well grounded in the scriptures and able to care for the congregation.” is good because you cover a lot of ground without actually communicating a single expectation.
  • Make sure you have the candidate submit more information than the Secret Service would require to spend a week alone with the President on an isolated island. Never mind that you will never have time to read all this information from the 50 people who will apply. If they are not more serious about finding a role than you are about filling yours then it shows they are not hungry.
  • Remember to ignore labor laws as much as possible and ask questions that would be illegal in any other role. Find out about family problems early as a way to eliminate potential issues that might make you care for your new pastor as a fellow brother or sister. This will limit the pool of candidates to those who you can force to dote on you as an influential member of the congregation.

Quick Tips on School Shooting Debate

With all the talk currently going on about last week’s school shooting in Florida, I think it’s important for Christians to use the Scriptures and the truth to inform our points of view. In my admittedly limited experience professing Christians sound a lot like the NRA when discussing this topic rather than Jesus followers. My goal in writing this post is simply to lay down some ideas for us Christians to consider to help us approach this topic redemptively rather than politically. They are as much a reminder for me as they are for anyone else who reads them.

In terms of a factual article covering the nuance and challenges of this debate and its solutions, I commend Ari Schulman’s work here.

Tips for the Christian:

  • Remember that people on all sides of this issue are probably partially right and partially wrong. This side of heaven we will not be 100% right on much of anything so approach this topic with humility.
  • Ask yourself whether your passion on this issue is matched by your passion for reaching lost people (Luke 19:10) and serving others (Mark 10:45). If not, it is probably time for some repentance.
  • Most people are coming to this issue out of anger or fear, not reason. While statistics should absolutely inform the debate, we need to try to use them sparingly and in context.  Using stats from neutral sources can lovingly paint a more accurate picture of the situation that invites further conversation.
  • The 2nd amendment is not God. God is God. While the right to keep and bear arms was important enough for the founding fathers to put ahead of critical things like unreasonable search and seizure or cruel and unusual punishment, let’s not cling to it as if we owe it our loyalty.
  • This issue has a lot of similarities to the arguments around systemic racism. One side prefers to look at specific instances, and the other side likes to only talk about the big picture. Explaining why a particular new approach would not have stopped a particular mass shooting does not prefer others in honor (Rom 12:10) if they are expressing concerns over the big picture trajectory of the issue.

Charitably engaging people with different views on gun control can open the door to discussing truths about sin, brokenness, redemption, and hope.

  • Spend as much time reading the opinions of those who likely disagree with you as you spend finding information supporting the position you currently hold.
  • Understand that within the church there are different points of view on this topic. Loving your brothers and sisters in Christ means making an effort to understand how they arrived at different conclusions than you have.
  • Charitably engaging people with different views on gun control can open the door to discussing truths about sin, brokenness, redemption, and hope.
  • It may be time to listen for some logical inconsistencies in the NRA’s talking points. If we think background checks are wise in 90% of gun sales, what is so special about the other 10%? If someone is old enough to serve in the military but never has, does that really mean they should be able to buy para-military style weapons? Certainly develop a rationale to support these ideas but don’t assume NRA talking points are sufficient to persuade anyone who isn’t already in their camp. They haven’t yet.
  • We owe those with whom we interact on this topic the honor of thinking through the best arguments for their point of view. We should be able to articulate their concerns as well as they do. Would armed security officers really make a difference? (It didn’t last week.) Are AR15s going to hold back a tyrannical government with tanks and fighter planes? We can refute arguments without being dismissive or condescending. Keep in mind that Jesus often cited his opponents’ positions while exposing their errors. (e.g. Luke 4:23-27, Matt 15:5, etc.)
  • It’s important to appreciate the good intentions and fair logic of those who take a more liberal view on the issue of guns. Christians should be the first to commend the commendable. Paul said he became all things to all men in order that he might win some, and part of that means that we are the ones who are expected to change.
  • Consider whether a tweet or FB meme about this topic oversimplifies the it or shuts down dialogue rather than encourage it.

Public policy matters, and we should not give in on what we believe the right public policy is for the sake of being nice to people who may disagree with us. That is peace-faking, not peacemaking. But we should always keep the main thing the main thing, and that isn’t gun control. It is seeing broken people whose hope is in something other than Jesus see their need for Him and put their trust in Him.

2018 Reading Plan

I’ve made the offer again to let others choose my reading list, and sadly I have not gotten nearly the response as I have in years past. I think getting so precise on my themes for the year affected that, and it’s certainly reasonable to think that the more narrow my focus the fewer people will have books that meet the criteria.

For this year I wanted to focus on books that are either about other religions or were published at least 100 years ago. The list is not that long because I’ve learned from past years that I never complete any list made in January because other books end up getting added for various reasons. My goal is to work on books from prior years as I have time in 2018.

Inspiration and Authority of the Bible by B.B. Warfield. The author lived at the turn of the last century and was a well known leader in the defense of the reliability of the Bible against critics of that era. Of course the critics never stopped so I’m interested to see how his setting is different than our age and how he handled those who denied the inspiration of the Scriptures.

Sharing Your Faith With a Hindu by Madasamy Thirumalai. This book was recommended by a friend so it made the list. By the title it’s clear that it will be a Christian take on Hinduism so there is always a risk that the presentation of what Hindus actually believe will be skewed, but I have a second, more neutral book on Hinduism on my list as well.

Holiness by J.C. Ryle. This book was one of the top things I read in 2012 and it’s time I re-read it. Ryle was a faithful gospel advocate in the U.K. in the 19th century but his wisdom and insights are powerful today as well.

The History of Mr Polly – HG Wells. My friend Nick sent me a list of the Guardian newspaper’s best 100 books of all time which started a discussion of those we had and had not read. We’re going to read this together.

Holy War by John Bunyan. Bunyan’s famous work, Pilgrim’s Progress, also made the Guardian’s list. This book is lesser known but I have friends who contend it is actually better than Pilgrim’s Progress so I’ve added it to the list. Written in 1682, it is probably the oldest book on the list (if I don’t add On the Incarnation by Athanasius). I already own the Complete Works of John Bunyan, so I’ll try to read it in the original vernacular, but may need to switch to an updated version so I’m not bogged down.

Unveiling Islam: An Insider’s Look at Muslim Life and Beliefs by Ergun Mehmet Caner and Emir Fethi Caner. I got this book at a used book sale for 25 cents shortly after deciding to focus 2018 reading on non-Christian religions. When I got it I didn’t know anything about it, but it turns out some of my friends know the authors. Another book written from a Christian point of view so I’ll try to add something on Islam later in the year by a practicing Muslim, or maybe just read the Qur’an.

Hinduism, A Very Short Introduction by Kim Knott. I got this book at the same book sale. The #1 thing I liked about it was that it was also 25 cents. It’s only about 120 pages which means I’m likely to finish it. The author doesn’t seem to be a practicing Hindu, which would be better, but she is a credible academic and the work is published by Oxford University Press so I’m cautiously optimistic.

A New Buddhist Path by David Roy. I have to admit that I didn’t know there was an old Buddhist path, so reading about the new one could be over my head. Still, I’m hopeful there will be enough background in this larger than average book to keep my feet on solid ground and for 25 cents at the same book sale it seemed like a risk worth taking. (It gets fantastic Amazon reviews.)

The Souls of Black Folk by WEB DiBois. In a year where I didn’t get as many suggestions as usual, this book got two votes so it automatically makes the list. I’m guessing it’s not about white people, so that will keep my goal alive of reading things written by people who are not like me about people who are not like me.

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. My favorite librarian recommended this so I’m sure it will be wonderful given the thousands of books she sees every week that she didn’t recommend.

Purpose Driven Life Reviewed (final)

Well, it’s been a journey to get through this book and the additional time has given the more opportunities to reflect on it than had I just rushed through it. The book is very light reading and it would be easy to finish in under a week to a reader that is committed to finishing it. Rather than give a point by point review of everything I liked and didn’t like I thought I would group my comments.

Likes

  • As I said above, it is very easy reading. My friends who did not finish high school could probably read and understand everything in it.
  • Warren is trying to address a common problem of professing Christians living meaningless lives without any emphasis on eternity.
  • There are certain points that he makes in the book such as God’s claim on the life of a Christian or the idea that the Christian life is to be one dedicated to serving others that are totally biblical and in short supply in our consumer driven churches.
  • I appreciated his emphasis on churches being a group of people committed to one another and to Jesus. (“Attenders are spectators from the sidelines, members get involved in the ministry”, p 136)
  • He can be very effective in using analogies and illustrations to make his points for him (for example when explaining that growing in Christ is meant to be a lifelong pursuit rather than a lightning bolt moment he says “When God wants to make a mushroom, he does it overnight, but when he wants to make a giant oak, he takes a hundred years”, p 222)
  • Chapters 10 on the heart of worship and chapter 29 on service are perhaps the best chapters in the book.
  • I have to admit that upon reflection, some of what initially rubbed me the wrong way ended up being an issue of improper emphasis rather than outright error.

Dislikes

  • By far my #1 complaint about the book and the reason I could never recommend it is Warren’s willingness to twist the Scriptures to get verses to say things he wanted to be able to say. This is true in the majority of the verses he cites. He tries to explain his use of so many different versions by saying other versions make verses more clear, but in reality he often chooses translations that do not hold the original language’s meaning if they include a particular work he wants to use. So on page 141 when he chooses the GWT version to get the word “sympathetic” in English, he abandoned the truth that the word the GWT translates “sympathetic” every other version translates “compassionate.” The only reason he did that is he already talked about compassion and now he wanted to make the Bible say what he wanted it to say. (The Greek word is oiktirmos, and you can see this by simply looking up Col 3:12 on biblehub.com). He does the same thing over and over which sadly I find sinfully dishonest.
  • Beyond that, there are just too many places in the book where he introduces psychobabble where the Scriptures have a voice. Psychology has some uses and I wouldn’t ever throw it overboard completely, but when the Bible has a competing claim, the Bible must win. Warren doesn’t seem to believe that – he believes things like “the more you fight a feeling, the more it consumes and controls you. You strengthen it every time you think it.” This is nowhere in the Bible but I did see it on Oprah once. This is most evident in his series of chapters on SHAPE (Spiritual Gifts, Heart, Abilities, Personality, Experience). Over and over he introduces concepts about who we are as people that are formed more by Dr. Phil than the Apostle Paul. When he introduces concepts like our “emotional heartbeat” to tell us where we should be serving he completely removes the supernatural from the equation. He seems to believe that God has hardwired people a certain way from birth and this never changes. To the contrary, the Apostle Paul said that he BECAME all things to all men that he might win some (1 Cor 9:22). I get why this is a popular stance to an American church that cherishes comfort above all else, but it’s just nowhere in the Bible.
  • Those two reasons alone would be enough to sink this book but there are more reasons to dump it. Warren will occasionally introduce sin, but not God’s wrath. I don’t remember seeing the word “repent” anywhere, even though the Reformers thought it was critical to the purpose driven life (see esp. Luther’s 1st thesis). He prefers to talk about hurts, flaws, or mistakes. He writes about Christianity mostly in terms of the benefits it brings in the here and now rather than either the heavenly reward Paul and the author of Hebrews tout, or even as an escape from the wrath of God.

Overall, this book is much less bad than I thought it would be but it’s nowhere near good enough to recommend to anyone.

Purpose Driven Life Reviewed (2)

As I promised, I’m taking this review in sections as the author asked the reader to do. Granted my sections are bigger than his, but I trust I’m honoring the spirit of what he intended.

I’ve just finished day 20 of 40 and my giant takeaway is that I don’t hate the book as much as I suspected I would. There are many things in the book that are helpful and if believers actually did them would transform their lives. For example, Warren spends day 13 talking about worship that pleases God. He goes out of his way to say that all of life is essentially worship, not just the music time during a weekly gathering on a Sunday morning. I am amazed how many people identify worship exclusively with music when that concept is nowhere in the Bible. The chapter includes some negatives like the paragraph on nine ways people draw near to God which is more Dr. Phil than Peter, Paul, or John, but for the most part Bible Warren gets this one right.

There are lots of things I think he misses like how the holiness of God ought to terrify us or the Kingship of God ought to make us willing subjects or the transcendence of God ought to amaze us. He does more or less treat people as consumers and Christianity as the product that offers the most fulfilling life with the best benefits. But there is a lot of good mixed with the bad – certainly a lot more than I expected to see.

And I think that has been par for the course for most of these 20 chapters. For every time he chooses to talk psychobabble, there is good biblical instruction. For each time he makes the Kingdom of God sound like a shopping mall, he calls professing believers to some kind of accurate biblical commitment. For every time he abuses the Scripture with tortured interpretations or swaps out a Bible translation until he finds an English word he prefers, there is a time when he simply presents a passage in the proper context and calls the reader to respond.

Halfway through, this is still not a book I would recommend to anyone. The people I hang around are not likely to read more than a handful of books this year and there is just too much mixed content in here to have it push a good book off the list I would recommend for a light reader. But I am glad to have picked it up and had some preconceived notions of Warren get dispelled in the process.

Purpose Driven Life Reviewed (1)

Since the author (Rick Warren) asks the reader to take his book one chapter per day for 40 days, I felt like the least I could do is consider it and write about it in chunks. I certainly won’t be spending 40 days seriously contemplating it, but breaking my impressions into several posts seems to at least honor the point he’s wanting his readers to get.

I thought I would hate the book. Rick Warren is a generally loose theologian with a murky gospel who excuses a lot of things the Bible calls “sin” under the umbrella of pop psychology. I’m sure he’s a nice man but he’s not  a good pastor in the biblical sense of the word. Yet my impression so far is a little different than I expected it to be.

I hate the book more than I thought I would not because he is so far off, but because at several times he gets the reader so close and then dumps the truth down the toilet. For example in chapter three he lists all kinds of things which are not God that can control people. He is totally right about them. The problem is he talks about them more like Dr. Phil than the Apostle Paul. He calls them “driving forces” but the Bible defines them as idolatry. They are not episodes of confusion but rebellion. Then he lists his “solution” to be considering the benefits of a purpose driven life rather than repenting from a self-centered life.

Chapter 7 is the epitome of this. The chapter starts so well. Warren correctly explains the glory of God and what it means in practical terms. He outlines five ways Christians should be living for the glory of God responsibly. Then, just as I’m about to commend him, he tells people who aren’t sure if they’re living for God to just “believe and receive,” no strings attached. There is a sense in which salvation is offered as the free gift of God which nobody could ever earn, but it absolutely 100% of the time requires repentance and Warren does not use that word once. He gives the reader the impression that if they just trust Jesus, God will forgive whatever hangups and screw ups they’ve done without any commitment to turning away from them. Maybe that will come later, but the fact that he’s not explained the basics of the gospel yet seven days into calling people to live a purpose driven life is preposterous in my view.

Throughout the first seven chapters he abuses the Bible quite freely. My assumption is that anyone who uses 18 different Bible translations is doing it because he or she wants to twist the Scriptures to include only what they want to include. Warren does exactly that. What’s worse is he frequently claims passages mean something that they don’t (such as 1 John 4:18 should comfort someone who chooses to fear earthly circumstances rather than the fear of eternal judgment which it is actually referencing). He’ll also leave off parts of a verse like he does in Ch. 7 with John 3:36 when he wants to promise a carefree life in Christ but intentionally omits the 2nd half of the verse that says Jesus demands obedience from those He saves.

Part of his carelessness also shows up in the quotes or analogies he uses. Of note, he quotes George Bernard Shaw, an atheist who hated all types of organized religion, to make the point that being made in God’s image means to seek purpose. The purpose Shaw is claiming is antithetical to any purpose an image bearer of God should manifest.

There is a reason the book has sold so well. It is a call to get the contentment of a life purpose without any kind of actual commitment or cost whatsoever. That is the spirit of this age. Perhaps this will come later in the book for for now I find it seriously lacking. At least I give him credit for finding the sweet spot of what passes for Christianity in the west and writing a book that audience would read.