Tag: book review

“Filled Up, Poured Out” Overflows with Stories and Insights

I have waited far too long to spotlight Mark O. Wilson’s new book, Filled Up, Poured Out: How God’s Spirit Can Revive Your Passion and Purpose.  Mark and I met as fellow-bloggers, and I have followed his blog, Revitalize Your Church for several years now. Mark is a warm-hearted, spirit-filled pastor who encourages and challenges all of us to be all that God has called us to be.

That’s exactly what Mark’s book does, too. In 13 concise chapters, Mark identifies for his readers the persistent problem that plagues ministry and ministers — running on empty, which Mark characterizes as “vacuus=empty, devoid of, free from.” He writes about empty pastors (chapter 1); empty churches (chapter 2); and, the solution to both (chapter 3).

In the next section of the book, headlined “repleo,” Mark talks about how to replenish the power of God in your life through “immersion, faith, contentment, enduement, and confluence.” In the final third of the book, Mark reveals how the filled up pastor allows God’s grace to flow out in compassion, blessing, righteousness, influence, and saturation.

Each chapter in the book overflows with stories, scripture, insights, and mind-pegs to get you thinking, praying, and dreaming about what God has for your ministry. With 13 chapters, the book’s format is perfect for small group Bible studies. Although the initial audience for the book is pastors, church leaders and members will benefit from Mark’s easy style, and memorable insights. Pastors, this book contains more sermon illustrations than you could come up with in hours of searching. Many of the stories are from Mark’s own ministry experiences.

I especially love the story about his trip to Africa. Asked to preach at a local village church on a Sunday morning, Mark was amazed to see over 3,000 people gathered for worship at 7:30 AM. The frame structure only held 1,000, but the other 2,000 worshippers surrounded the building, responding to every line in his sermon. After he preached, Mark recalls that the congregation began to sing. The local missionary explained to Mark that they were making up a new song from the points in his sermon, which was their way of remembering what they had learned that Sunday. A new song, Mark noted, flowed from their hearts. That story would resonate with any congregation which was seeking God. And, there are more just like that in Mark’s book.

Get this book. As you read, you’ll be blessed and encouraged, perhaps to the point of being “filled up” yourself, so you can be “poured out” for others. After all, that’s what pastors do, and Mark helps us remember that with joy and wonder.

Wright Offers A Compelling and Coherent Vision In ‘Simply Jesus’

It goes without saying that N. T. Wright, recently called the J. K. Rowling of the evangelical world, is a prolific writer.  The author of more than 30 books by one count, Wright cranks out multi-hundred page volumes like others do tweets.  But the difference is that Wright also packs substance and soft-edged provocation into each of his texts.  As you might expect, Wright has done it again with his latest volume titled, Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why It Matters.

In Simply Jesus, Wright gives his non-academic audience an imminently readable portal into Wright’s own framework for studying and understanding the life of Jesus.  This is not another Jesus Seminar attempt to get “behind” the Gospels to find the “real” Jesus.  Wright contends that what we need to do is get “inside them, to discover the Jesus they’ve been telling us about all along, but whom we had managed to screen out.”

We have screened out Jesus, Wright argues, by ripping Jesus out of the first-century, second-Temple milieu in which his ministry occurs, and transforming Jesus into a 21st century reflection of our own culture.  Wright critiques the popular evangelical assumption that Jesus has come to take us all to heaven, stressing that the story of God and Israel is at the heart of what God did and continues to do through Jesus.

Wright masterfully weaves together the converging perfect storm of Roman Empire domination, Jewish anxiety, and Jesus’ Kingdom ministry to explain why Jesus said what he did, and why he encountered the opposition of almost everyone who heard him.

Wright’s point in all of this is that Jesus announced that God was in charge, which is Wright’s shorthand for the Kingdom of God.  Jesus not only announced it, he acted himself as if he really was in charge by taking on the religious and cultural establishment through his teaching, miracles, and self-sacrifice.  But, Wright contends, what they, and we, want is not a king, but a religious leader.  And even if we want a king, we certainly don’t want one like Jesus who redefined divine kingship.

Most importantly, Wright makes sense of the Jesus story in a way that no one else has.  If you have read Wright’s magnum opus in three volumes (Christian Origins and the Question of God), particularly Jesus and the Victory of God, you will recognize Wright’s argument stripped down to its essentials.  Wright discredits the reduction of the Gospel into a “4 Spiritual Laws” parody.  He explains how the Exodus experience became the symbolic and actual story of Israel; and, how Jesus reinterpreted that story in his own life.

Wright sees the biblical narrative as one piece, and sees Old Testament fulfillment in Jesus’ New Testament life.  This is no longer the “Jesus came to take us to heaven” story; it is now the “Jesus came to be King of all creation” story, and all that implies.

Wright will not please everyone with his approach, and he acknowledges that himself.  But what Wright does do is to offer both a compelling and coherent vision of who Jesus is, “what he did, and why it matters.” Or to put is another way, the conversation about what God is up to in the world doesn’t start with man’s sin, but with God’s grand purpose for creation. Others have hinted around the edges of this, but Wright walks through the Bible blazing a trail that makes one ask, “Why didn’t I see this before?”

Wright’s Simply Jesus should be at the top of your reading list.  Small groups, Sunday School classes, and others interested in understanding the story of the Bible, and where Jesus fits in, will benefit from reading and discussing this book.  This book has the potential to be a game-changer, and others are already picking up the idea of Jesus as king and what that means.  Scot McKnight’s new book, The King Jesus Gospel, is a case in point.  And, Wright is coming out with his own take on the Gospel in March, 2012, with his next book, How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels.  This approach isn’t going away, and Wright is its most prolific spokesman.

Disclaimer: I purchased Simply Jesus as a Kindle book from Amazon at my own expense, and received no compensation for this review.

How Evangelicalism Changed And Why It Needs To Change Again

Evangelicalism has thrived in America because of its ability to adapt to its culture, according to Randall Balmer in his book, The Making of Evangelicalism: From Revivalism to Politics and Beyond.

Balmer, professor of American religious history at Columbia University and a contributing editor to Christianity Today, writes in this brief book published in 2010 by Baylor University Press, that five historic shifts have shaped evangelicalism uniquely as “America’s folk religion.”  These shifts are:

1.  The shift from state church to free church.  Balmer contends that the First Amendment, which guarantees that the government shall not establish or impede religious expression, set evangelicalism free from state influence to flourish or die on its own.  Unlike Europe where acts of toleration permitted dissenting groups to exist in the shadows of the state-sanctioned church, the First Amendment assured that American churches would be allowed to “compete” among themselves for the attention of the American public.  This freedom was not only a freedom to worship, but also a freedom to freelance the Christian faith by any person or group who chose to do so.  Balmer notes, The genius of evangelicalism throughout American history is its malleability and the uncanny knack of evangelical leaders to speak the idiom of the culture…”

It is this freedom to change that has enabled evangelicalism to flourish and adapt to the culture around it.  However, there are dangers associated with adapting to the culture, which Balmer addresses in the book.

2.  The shift from Calvinism to Arminianism.  Balmer illustrates this important theological shift by describing the differences in the First and Second Great Awakenings in America.  The First Awakening was dominated by a sense of helplessness expressed by Jonathan Edwards in his “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” sermon.  Revival and salvation were God’s work, and sinners were at the mercy of God as to their eternal destiny, according to Edwards.

But by the time of the Second Awakening, preachers like Charles G. Finney believed that revival was “man’s work.”  Finney published a manual telling how others could hold revival meetings and included details about location, songs, and even the mourners’ bench.  This shift from hyper-Calvinism (“God’s work) to hyper-Arminianism (“man’s choice”) changed the ways in which the gospel was presented, and changed the focus of evangelical life.

Balmer explains the recent renaissance of Calvinism among those who believe in a person’s ability to “decide for Christ” (an Arminian belief) as an attempt to reclaim the intellectual high ground despite the shifting history of evangelicalism’s theology.

3.  The shift from postmillennialism to premillennialism.  How could one’s view of the millennial reign of Christ, a rather esoteric theological doctrine, influence the practice of evangelicals in America?  Balmer points out that the evangelicalism of the nineteenth century grappled with some of the great social issues of its day.  Evangelicals were on the forefront of the battle to outlaw slavery, clean up the effects of alcohol, create public education opportunities for poor children, and secure the right for women to vote.  Great institutions were founded to care for the sick, educate the illiterate, feed the hungry, care for the homeless, and rehabilitate the fallen.

Balmer believes that this urgency to reform society and cure its ills came from the postmillennial idea that Christ would return after a 1,000-years of peace and righteousness.  However, with the twin horrors of the Civil War and then World War I, the hope of a 1,000-years’ of righteousness brought in by human effort faded from the evangelical imagination.  Evangelicals turned their attention to the salvation of “souls,” separating spiritual souls from the harsh reality in which those souls struggled.

J. N. Darby provided the theological impetus for this shift with his doctrine called premillennial dispensationalism.  Darby’s theology explained neatly the epochs of God’s dealing with mankind.  It also freed Christians from creating the millennial kingdom because believers would be taken out of the world until Christ came to establish that kingdom himself.  One of the results of premillennialism was a disregard for creation.  This issue is still with us today.  In 2008, Richard Cizik resigned under pressure from his position at the National Association of Evangelicals.  Although not the immediate reason for his resignation, Cizik had drawn criticism for advocating care for the environment as an evangelical issue.

4.  The shift from engagement to disengagement and back again.  Facing the twin pressures of attack on their beliefs from the scientific community via Darwin’s theory of evolution, and the academic community via higher criticism of biblical texts, evangelicals sought to define themselves by enumerating an indisputable list of “fundamentals” to which they subscribed.  This differentiation between evangelicals and “liberals” in both academia and science played out in the famous Scopes “monkey trial” in the small town of Dayton, Tennessee.

Fed up with being portrayed negatively after the Scopes’ trial, evangelicals began to withdraw from the wider culture, establishing their own schools, colleges, seminaries, and other institutions to counter the encroachment of “modernism” and “liberalism” on their families and churches.   But in 1947, Carl F. H. Henry published his book, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, and a group of evangelicals founded Fuller Theological Seminary.  Both events marked the re-engagement of evangelicals with American culture.  Billy Graham’s Christianity Today became the journalistic voice for an active and thoughtful evangelicalism.

5.  The shift from the marginalized to the powerful.  Re-engagement was to take a right turn after the election of Jimmy Carter as president in 1976.  Carter, initially the darling of conservatives, soon became their whipping boy.  With the IRS threatening to revoke the tax-exempt status of the ultra-conservative Bob Jones’ University, the rise of the Religious Right began.  Denominations and churches which had begun their ministries to the lower classes and the marginalized of society, shifted to embrace the power of politics and the prestige that went with it.  Balmer sees this shift as the “capitulation” of evangelicalism.  But he believes that the Religious Right was dealt a “mortal” blow with the election of Barack Obama in 2008.  Balmer may or may not be correct about that, but what he does hope for, in his own words, is…

“…an evangelicalism for the twenty-first century that takes seriously the words of the Hebrew prophets who called for justice, an evangelicalism that honors the teachings and the example of Jesus, who asked his followers to act as peacemakers and to care for “the least of these.”  Such an evangelicalism, I am confident, would look rather different from that of recent years.”

Perhaps evangelicalism will remember its 19th century accomplishments of setting at liberty those who were captive, of healing those who were sick, of visiting those who were in prison, and of caring for those who were in despair.  If we as evangelicals are adaptable as Balmer contends, then perhaps we can adapt again to the crises around us, and again share the love of Christ with those at the margins of society.

The Myth of Why Conservative Churches Are Growing

The Myth of Why Conservative Churches Are Growing

The myth that conservative churches are growing today because people are looking for theological fundamentalism is roundly debunked by Mark Chaves in his new book, American Religion: Contemporary Trends.  Despite the book’s mundane title, Mark Chaves sheds dramatic new light on the shape of the American religious scene today.  Chaves’s conclusions may surprise you and contradict what you have long heard.

In his 1972 book, Why Conservative Churches Are Growing, Dean Kelley shocked the religious world by concluding that conservative churches demanded more of their members theologically and behaviorally; therefore, they attracted more people than liberal mainline congregations who focused on social and political issues.    The book’s credibility was further enhanced by the fact that Dean Kelley was a liberal Protestant, an executive with the National Council of Churches, and a member of the board of the ACLU.  The common wisdom was that if a liberal was identifying reasons for conservative church growth and liberal church decline, then it must be true.

Kelley’s book continues to be cited by conservative church leaders such as Al Mohler as proof of the inherent validity of the conservative agenda.  In an April, 2011 article, Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, quotes Kelley:  “Amid the current neglect and hostility toward organized religion in general,” Kelley noted, “the conservative churches, holding to seemingly outmoded theology and making strict demands on their members, have equalled or surpassed in growth the early percentage increases of the nation’s population.”

For almost 40 years Kelley’s conclusions held sway as the conventional wisdom of American religious institutions.  Conservative churches grow, liberal ones do not, and it’s all because of conservative theology and politics.  Or maybe not.

While it is true that conservative churches are still growing, Mark Chaves, Professor of Sociology, Religion, and Divinity at Duke University, has mined new data that paint a dramatically different picture.  Chaves says,

“Contrary to what many believe, this decline (of liberal Protestantism) has not occurred because people have been leaving more liberal denominations in droves to join more conservative religious groups.  Nor does the decline of liberal denominations mean that liberal religious ideas are waning.”  (American Religion, chapter 7, Kindle location 923.)

Chaves offers four reasons that conservative churches are growing, and they are not an echo of 40-years’ of conventional thinking.   Chaves concludes:

1.   Conservative churches are growing and liberal ones declining because of a differential in the fertility rates of each group.   This demographic fact accounts for 80% of the “shifting fortunes of liberal and conservative Protestant churches” according to Chaves.  Apparently women in conservative denominations have borne an average of one more child than women in more liberal or moderate denominations.  Over several generations this difference becomes apparent and dramatic.  But Chaves points out that the gap in fertility rates is narrowing between conservative and liberal denominations.  In the future this could be a factor in the slowing or decline of conservative groups as well.

2.   The flow of people from liberal to conservative churches is not a factor, but the decline of movement from conservative to liberal churches is.  This argument requires some explanation.  Chaves contends that the “pews of liberal churches are emptier now partly because a steady influx of upwardly mobile former evangelicals has been stemmed.”   Chaves notes that 28% of conservative Protestants born prior to 1931 “switched to a more liberal denomination as an adult.”  In other words, the more successful the pre-WWII generation was, the more they gravitated to more prestigious churches and denominations.  However, that trend dropped dramatically among those born after 1950, when only 12% of conservatives gravitated to more prestigious denominations.  Chaves’s conclusion is that conservative groups like Baptists have become more respectable in American church life.  Because of this new-found respectability, it is no longer necessary for upwardly-mobile adults to find a church that more closely fits their secular success.

3.   Conservative Protestants lose 12% of their youth as adults, but liberal churches lose 15%.  Clearly, over several generations the stickiness of conservative groups with emerging adults contributes to the stabilization of those groups.  Mainline Protestants, on the other hand, lose 20% more of those who grew up in liberal churches than do conservatives.  Obviously, this differential adds up over time.

4.   Culture has influenced the growth of conservative churches and the decline of mainlines.   Chaves contends that conservative churches benefited from a backlash in the 1960s and 70s against “liberalizing changes in personal sexual morality” and other social factors.  Conservative churches of that era attracted those who liked a more traditional approach to sexual mores including premarital sex, cohabitation, homosexuality, abortion, and other social issues.

While that sounds like a contradiction to Chaves’s conclusions, it really confirms them.  If Kelley’s book identified conservative churches themselves (their membership demands, strict theology, etc) as the reason for their growth, the reverse was actually true.  As the culture became more conservative, people sought out more conservative churches.  In other words, conservative churches benefited from a turn to the right in the wider culture.  However, the opposite trends are now in play.  Even among conservatives the trends are for greater tolerance of other denominations and religions; greater tolerance for lifestyle diversity; and, less adherence to doctrines such as the inerrancy of the Bible.  It remains to be seen how this “liberalizing effect” plays out in church attendance and membership.

In the introduction to his book, Chaves points out that “The range of beliefs, attitudes, experiences, and practices that remain unchanged (in American religious life) is impressive.”  But he says, “even in the midst of substantial continuity in American religion there are signs of change in the direction of less religion.”

All churches and denominations including the conservative Southern Baptist Convention and moderate Cooperative Baptist Fellowship face the same challenge: participation in religious life is declining in America, even if that decline is occurring slowly.  Mark Chaves’ book can be a helpful resource to those who are interested in understanding the reasons for religious decline in America.  The first step in that direction is to acknowledge that we may have been wrong about the reasons for conservative growth and liberal decline for 40 years.

Rob Bell’s New Story Challenges Evangelicalism’s Party Line

Rob Bell’s newest book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, And The Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived sits at number three today in Amazon’s book sales list.  Love Wins will no doubt hit the New York Times bestseller list this week.  Bell obviously has churned up tremendous interest in the Christian doctrines of heaven and hell, but is that what Bell intended?

If you read Bell’s book as doctrine you are missing the point Rob Bell is making.  In short, Bell is taking on the evangelical establishment.  And while Bell asserts ultimately that Love Wins, it remains to be seen if Rob Bell will.

Continue reading “Rob Bell’s New Story Challenges Evangelicalism’s Party Line”

Interview: Russell Rathbun, author of ‘nuChristian’

Russell RathbunRussell Rathbun, pastor of House of Mercy, has authored a new book, nuChristian: Finding Faith in a New Generation.  Rathbun’s title riffs off Kinnaman and Lyons’ book, unChristian, both visually and topically.  Rathbun knows what he’s talking about because he is one of the founding pastors of House of Mercy in 1996.

Judson Press sent me a review copy, which I read with appreciation because Russell seemed to be writing to traditional churches, providing guidance on how to engage with young adults.  Rather than a book review, I asked Russell if he would respond to a few questions.  He graciously agreed, and here’s the interview:

Chuck Warnock: As I was reading the book, I could see our congregation, comprised primarily of older adults, really benefitting from your insights on how to connect with a new generation.  Who did you write the book for, and do you anticipate it being studied by established congregations?

Russell Rathbun: I wrote the book for churches, pastors and the folks in the pews who have  already begun to maybe have gotten a hint that there is something different going on that isn’t represented in their churches and are interested in exploring what ever that is (how is that for a nonspecific over qualified sentence?).  I really hope that it will be used as the beginning of a continuing discussion.

CW: I’m hearing  a lot about “authenticity” these days.  How does a church navigate between being authentic and making changes necessary to reach out to a new generation?

NuChristianRGBRR: That really is an important question.  And I think the answers are difficult.  I really would like to say that, if you are a church with no one under 50 years old, that the best thing you can do is figure out who you are, what you love, how God has called you to be the church in your context and do that—be who you are.  Don’t try to be something else, it won’t work and it won’t be true.  But, you know, by doing that, there is a good chance that you are not going to attract a lot of people under 50, which means the church wont be around in 25 years.  But on the other hand, what do I know?  I guess I do know that if we are honest, authentic, about what God has called us to do, beautiful things happen.  I hope people in churches like I’ve described really feel the gracious freedom to be who they are.

CW: Some of my members would have a problem with your statement, “Love people; don’t save them.”  In our church, most of our members “got saved” as the result of an evangelistic, revival-type meeting or message.  How would you help an established, traditional church that is accustomed to “crisis” conversions become open to a more gradual process of transformation?


RR: I don’t want to say that people have to change their understanding of the process of salvation (even though it might be different than mine),  maybe just refocus a little on some of the important ways that Jesus talks about making disciples and loving the neighbor, to maybe realize the Holy Spirit was able to speak to them in a way that compelled them to pursue Jesus and that the Holy Spirit is probably capable of speaking to others as well, so maybe we love and serve, and the Holy Spirit does the speaking.

CW: If your book was intended as a kind of answer to books like unChristian by Dave Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, what would you say are the key steps a congregation needs to take to connect with a new generation?  I realize you took a whole book to answer this question, but if you had to summarize in one or two statements, what are the core elements?


RR: Get know know them.  Ask questions you don’t already know the answers to.  Meet people you have never met before and enter into open relationship with them.

CW: You’re really doing this stuff you write about, and you use House of Mercy as examples of how you have reached a new generation.  What issues is House of Mercy facing now that present new challenges to you?


RR: We are facing the challenge of transitioning from a young, upstart community to being a church institution that has a youth group and volunteers to help with potlucks and all that stuff.  How do you become a church institution in a way that reflects who we are.

Thanks, Russell.  Check out reviews of nuChristian at the book’s website.

Bart Ehrman does not have horns

Please watch this 2-minute video produced by HarperOne to promote Bart Ehrman’s new book, Jesus, Interrupted. Erhman is the author of Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, and God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question–Why We Suffer.

Here’s what Wikipedia says about Ehrman:

Bart D. Ehrman is an American New Testament scholar and textual critic of early Christianity. He is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has written about how the original New Testament texts were frequently altered by scribes for a variety of reasons, and argues that these alterations affect the interpretation of the texts.

I’m going to review Ehrman’s book, Jesus, Interrupted soon.  Just wanted you to get ready because Ehrman’s books have caused others to rush to the defense of God, the Bible, and now probably Jesus.  None of whom need a defense, but I think we need to know what the arguments are for those on the other side of the prevailing view of scripture.

And, when you watch the video you may be surprised that Ehrman does not have horns.   A tail, maybe, because we can’t see that on the video.  Just kidding, of course, and I do look forward to the book.  Should make for interesting conversation.