Dug Down Deep by Joshua Harris

On our trip to Colorado over Christmas, I was able to finish reading a couple of books. The first one was Dug Down Deep by Joshua Harris. I was excited about reading this book, because it seemed to be a theology book for the masses. In short, I loved it. Harris’ style makes this a great beginner’s book on theological study. He doesn’t try to overdo it; he simply touches on the basics with clarity and great illustrations.

My favorite chapter was on salvation: “How Jesus Saved Gregg Eugene Harris.” Using his dad’s conversion as an extended illustration, Josh dives into an area of doctrine that for some reason, many protestants are quite hazy on: how is one “saved”? Whether one shares Harris’ reformed point of view or not, it’s one of the clearest explanations I’ve ever heard or read on the nature of salvation. In fact, I’d say that chapter alone is worth the price of admission.

I’m definitely going to use this book at some point in time with high school students. It’s a great place to start for students who really want to study theology, and I’ll probably have a few on hand to give away from time to time. It’s also a great read for any youth worker who has dove into youth ministry with both feet, yet knows that his or her theological depth is a bit lacking. In short, if you haven’t read this book yet, it should be on your reading list for 2011.

Book: Nancy Pearcey’s Total Truth

Total Truth by Nancy Pearcey was required reading in one of my seminary philosophy classes.  It really impacted me then, so I reread it this fall.

Pearcey’s subtitle to the is book Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity, and she doesn’t hesitate to get right to the point. She argues that our culture’s worldview splits reality into two spheres: the private sphere and the public sphere.  In the public sphere belongs scientific knowledge–things we can really know for sure.  In the private sphere belongs personal preferences, such as values and religious beliefs.  The implications of this division are far reaching, but include two very important foundational starting points: 1) what belongs in the private sphere can’t really be regarded as truth because we can’t test the claims there scientifically, so there’s no point in discussing what’s really true, and 2) what belongs in the private sphere should not drift over to influence what happens in the public sphere.

The reason I love this book is because Pearcey identifies correctly the real issues for Christians when it comes to interacting with our culture.  It pains me when I see Christians try to change our culture through legislation, litigation, or just plain-old shouting matches, as though we would be a Christian Nation again (if we ever were that to begin with) if we just won the right elections, passed the right laws, sued the right people, or gained enough public support.  As Pearcey argues, the issue is not that people disagree with a Christian worldview.  It’s that our culture has a “grid” for looking at the world that believes a Christian worldview doesn’t even need to be agreed with or argued against, because it belongs in the private sphere and should not influence the public sphere.  The worst part, says Pearcey, is that Christians have also accepted this way of looking at the world, and so our faith is simply a privatized set of values that we try to keep separate from our public lives, such as our work.

For youth workers who would like a crash course in how to  articulate a Christian worldview and follow Jesus in the marketplace of ideas, I highly recommend this book.  Section 2 alone is a great resource for how to interact with and counter a naturalistic/materialistic worldview.  It’s definitely not a quick read, but studying one’s way through Total Truth is well worth it.

Books I’ve Read: Shift: What it takes to finally reach families today

Our children’s director, junior high pastor, youth ministry administrator, and I all read this book by Brian Haynes in preparation for a “dreaming meeting” (as I like to call such meetings) on how we believe God is calling us to serve, equip, and encourage families in our church and community. I’m looking forward to the meeting, but this post is on the book, so I’ll keep it to that.

I am so thank for Haynes in writing this book. It is a practical “how to” for any church that wants to implement a milestone-based philosophy of family discipleship. Each chapter is based on one of the seven milestones Haynes and his church have identified, and he explains how each milestone is implemented in his church, including parent seminars, family celebrations, and teaching resources. Great stuff. It was fun to imagine this working in Haynes’ church and to hear firsthand testimonies from parents and families about how Haynes’ church had helped them be better discipling parents to their children.

One thing I would have liked more of from this book are timeless biblical principles. Don’t get me wrong, Haynes is right on in his theology, and his whole reason of “shifting” his philosophy of ministry was to be more faithful to the Bible. However, I found myself wondering, “So, what if this particular strategy wouldn’t work in our church? Are there biblical principles you can give me that I could apply in my own ministry context?” Of course, the answer to the second question is “yes,” and I’m sure that if I were to be fortunate enough to sit down at my local Starbucks with Haynes, he’d engage me in a lively conversation on the topic. It just wasn’t a focus of the book. Instead, the focus was on outlining the seven milestones his own church has developed and how it plays out in their ministry context. I tend to like books that shy away from a cookie-cutter approach and leave me with more questions than answers, rather than “how to” books.

One other thought I had about Haynes’ program ideas found in the books is that they assume a large church context. He does give a occasional suggestions for how to implement an idea with a small staff or volunteer team, but as I think back to my last church with only about 100 people on a Sunday and 15-20 teenagers, I imagine I would have been very overwhelmed by all the staff positions dedicated to this family-based milestone programs at Haynes’ church, as well as the fact that 500 parents typically attend the parent seminars at his church. Again, not necessarily a bad thing; just not very helpful for a smaller church.

Overall, a good book that got me thinking and praying about “giving discipleship back to the family.” If you want some practical ideas or resources on family-based discipleship, check out Kingsland Baptist Church’s Legacy Milestones Website.

Books I’ve Read: A Multi-Site Church Road Trip

Last weekend, I finished A Multi-Site Church Road Trip. Our staff got copies in preparation for launching our church’s first “multi-site” location (I guess it would be our second site…still getting used to the lingo). I’m in a black/white, pros/cons kind of mood, so…

Pros
The book is definitely chock-full of really useful information. In each chapter, the highlight a multi-site church (thirteen in all). Each “stop” on the trip is tied to a particular strategy or issue (such as how to raise up new leadership or how to decide what type of technology to use) associated with “going multi-site.” I’m sure the book could have been far longer than it was, because each church only had a handful of pages, so they get some serious kudos for keeping a high elevation on some things I’m sure they could have written many passionate pages about. It was sort of like a briefing of different multi-site issues. This approach was really useful for me, since I started at ground zero a year ago when I arrived at my church (as a church, we’ve articulated moving towards the multi-site model for the past two years). The authors (Geoff Surratt, Greg Ligon, and Warren Bird) do not get bogged down in details. After all, most people reading this book are probably looking for more of an overview anyways.

Cons
There were times when the writing style is a little glib. I understand the authors are trying to keep a light tone, but at times they are a bit too funny, and it gets in the way. But that probably has more to do with my personal preferences than anything. The biggest complaint about the book is that it does not get into any theological issues, other than to say (paraphrasing here), “If it reaches people for Christ, we should do it.” Now, in an overview-type book, I don’t expect in-depth study on all the issues, but I would have liked to have more discussions centering on the theological issues of multi-site churches. For instance, they dedicate a chapter to criticisms of this particular model (which the authors advocate, but they do not take an opportunity to dive into a Scriptural argument for the multi-site model. Perhaps it’s because the authors assume that it’s a morally neutral model (neither right nor wrong per se, it’s all in how you use it). That may be so, but they don’t even touch on that argument.

As for the multi-site model, I’m excited to see how it works. I was definitely a skeptic a year ago, and the idea has grown on me quite a bit. I’m looking forward to seeing how God leads us in this area. I’m especially curious to see how youth ministry looks in the multi-site model.

Books I’ve Read: Deep Church by Jim Belcher

I finished this book in the beginning of July, but haven’t had time to post on it. This is a very good book. Put simply, it (as its subtitle promises) examines the Emergent Church movement as well as more traditional churches and their “complaints” about each other. He takes a look at seven particular topics, including preaching, truth, and worship, and offers a “third way” approach that neither succumbs to the relativism of hard postmodernism nor the tone-deaf-to-our-culture approach of traditional churches that insist that if we could take a time machine to the mid-1900s America, we would find the Church as God intended it to be and have a template with which to start new churches.*

Belcher does an amazing job at defining the Emergent Church and postmodernism by not tying those labels to one particular straw-man definition. He recognizes that a person or church can mean several things by defining themselves as “Emergent,” and is careful to distinguish between those whom some consider “Emergent” because they spend a lot of energy and resources on a style of church and worship that will reach a younger generation but firmly adhere to the Bible and orthodox theology (such as Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill Church) and those who hold to a harder postmodern worldview that is inconsistent with a biblical worldview (such as Brian McLaren). Anyone or any church staff that is wrestling with how to engage those within our American/western culture while being faithful to the Gospel should read this book.

In addition, this is a book whose importance extends beyond the Evangelical/Emergent debate. It’s just good, plain, pastoral theology written in a very accessible way. I definitely recommend this book and will refer to it often.

*My words, not Belcher’s. And yes, I say this with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek. I realize that it is a broad and unfair generalization to say that all traditional churches are off the mark culturally, and that is not what I’m trying to say. My point is that there’s a difference between sticking to our theological guns–i.e. what we find in the Bible–and being scared to innovate within the bounds of Scripture for the sake of reaching the lost and broken-hearted with the Gospel of Jesus. Don’t worry, in thirty years, I’m sure I’ll be holding on to my 16:9-formatted screens in the sanctuary insisting that it’s the way Paul would have worshiped had he been given the option.

Books I’ve Read: Les Misérables

In an effort to keep me on track with my reading (something I consider to be an important spiritual discipline), I’ve decided to start keeping a list of books I read and when I finish reading them. It’s an idea I first got from a philosophy professor at Denver Seminary, Doug Groothuis.

A few weeks ago, I (finally) finished Les Misérables by Victor Hugo. It was an unabridged English translation, and I loved it. There were times when I was bogged down with the many history lessons that diverged from the plot. However, I had to remind myself that novelists wrote very differently in the 19th century when the novel was a relatively new literary genre. Les Misérables is one of my favorite stories. I was introduced to the story through the musical, and reading the novel made me love it even more. It is a wonderful story of redemption, with political and philosophical treatises woven throughout. It took me a year to read through (it’s over 1,400 pages and very thick writing), but it was well worth it.

Books that changed my life – Patheos.com

I stumbled across this a few days ago, and it’s a good read. A few notable Christian thinkers list books that changed their life. I’ve been trying to think through what my list would be, and here’s a start:

An Arrow Pointing to Heaven (a Devotional Biography of Rich Mullins): The reason this book changed my life is because of the person of Rich Mullins. While James Byron Smith notes Rich’s faith, the biography does not degenerate into hagiography. Mullins is an inspiration to me and learning more about my life lit a passion in my soul for following Jesus that no other work has, aside from Scripture.

There are at least two more that I will add to the list. What are some of yours?

Why Nobody Learns Much of Anything at Church (And How To Fix It)

The title of this post is a book I’m currently reading by Thom and Joani Schultz. As the title suggests, the book is about education within the church. I’m enjoying it so far, and have a few things to think through after only one chapter. Some takeaways so far (in my own words):

  • It’s silly to teach without knowing the overall goal of teaching. We’re not talking just about the goal of a particular sermon, “talk” or lesson; we’re talking about teaching in general. If I picture teaching as a ministry as a machine of sorts, and if the input to this machine includes our time, effort, resources, etc., what do I hope to get out of the machine? What do I want the outcome to be? If I don’t know the answer to this question, I need to really think and pray about it before I teach another lesson or preach another sermon.
  • It has been shown that students do not learn best in primarily lecture-based format. So why is this format the “go-to” for most youth pastors? Time is one factor (it’s easier to simply talk), fear comes into play (what if I try something new and it bombs?) and some of it is just plain “We’ve always done it this way!” (insert your favorite denominational joke here).
  • What we’re doing isn’t working. Fewer and fewer students (according to studies) can articulate a biblical worldview or are impacted in a positive way by what they learn in church.

Good food for thought here. After thinking about this for a few minutes, here are my, “but what about…” thoughts:

  • So what should be our primary form of communication? I’m not ready to buy into the idea that since students watch a lot of T.V. and movies, we should totally embrace those media. Teaching in the form of a sermon seems to be a consistent form of teaching in the Church and was embraced by Jesus (although I doubt Peter and the other apostles were too worried about having three points or organizing their thoughts into easily remembered acrostics).
  • Okay, I agree that we shouldn’t focus on the memorization of facts as a benchmark for how well students are learning. I want to graduate faithful followers of Jesus who are passionate about being doers of the Word, and not mearly hearers. But don’t we need the building blocks of a decent understanding of Scripture, theology, church history, and other disciplines? At some point in time, hard work that might not be the most exciting is necessary. In athletics, sprints and strength drills aren’t always the most fun, but they provide for us the endurance and strength necessary to enjoy and be successful at the game.
  • How do I provide ways for a large group of students to really engage what we’re learning so that it sinks in? I know that not everyone I teach will totally dive right in to applying what I teach to their lives, but how do I provide tools for students “take the next step” and live out what they’ve heard? When I led a smaller congregation, I felt like it was easier to do this, because we could do more things as a group. So what’s the answer? Encourage my small group leaders to do this in their groups?

Well, here’s looking forward to a nice evening reading more of this book and holding my sweet girl Samantha…

New Book: An Atheist Defends Religion: Why Humanity is Better Off With Religion than Without It.

From Here:

Bruce Sheiman doesn’t believe in God, but he does believe in religion.

Setting aside the question of whether God exists, it’s clear that the benefits of faith far outweigh its costs, he argues in his new book, An Atheist Defends Religion: Why Humanity is Better Off With Religion than Without It.

“I don’t know if anybody is going to be able to convince me that God exists,” Sheiman said in an interview, “but they can convince me that religion has intrinsic value.”…

…In recent years, the skeptical scene has been dominated by the New Atheists —Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and others — who argue in best-selling books that religious faith is a mental illness, or worse.

But now, a new crew of nonbelievers is taking on the New Atheists, arguing that while they may not have faith themselves, there’s little reason to belittle believers or push religion out of the public square. The back-and-forth debates over God’s existence have shed a little light, but far more heat, they argue, while the world’s problems loom ever larger.

“The work that we need to do, we atheists, humanists and non-believers, is to build a better world and not try to tear down those with whom we disagree,” said Greg M. Epstein, the Humanist chaplain at Harvard University.

Two thoughts on this:

First, this is a good example of a two-tiered view of Truth. Tier number one is what we can know from science or nature. It is knowledge based on the material world, and includes such topics as gravity, medicine, and the physics of baseball. Tier number two is what can be known about spiritual matters. This truth is not provable and should not have any bearing on tier number one. Tier number two is valuable as long as it remains private and does not claim to shed any light on tier number one. In short, religion may not be true, but it doesn’t matter because it gets good results, and it can be positive as long as we don’t claim that it has any bearing beyond our personal, private life. This concept has been very well explained by Nancy Pearcey in her great book, Total Truth.

Second, I see many students buy into this type of fallacy. Many times we as youth pastors (myself certainly included) present Christianity in a utilitarian kind of way. What I mean by this is that we try to show how following Jesus “works” and can improve their lives. This is different from applying truth to everyday situations. Too many times we present Jesus by saying, “Jesus can change your life and your relationships” rather than “Jesus is Lord of all, he died to save you, and by accepting that truth, your life will be changed.” Do you see the nuance there? There is a difference between following Jesus and following Christianity, a church, or any religion. It reminds me of Mark Driscoll’s sermon series and eventual book, Religion Saves: and Nine Other Misconceptions.