Book Review: Making Spiritual Progress

I received Making Spiritual Progress: Building Your Life with Faith, Hope and Love by Allen Ratta from IVP for the purposes of review.

It is exciting to read a book authored by a minister from my own denomination (the Assemblies of God), and to read a book that is probably one of the best I’ve seen to truly help people get moving in the proper direction when it comes to spiritual growth and maturity. And I say this as someone who is much more inclined toward Dallas Willard, Thomas Merton, Richard Foster, etc.

As a tool to get started, this book can be incredibly helpful.

Ratta goes to the heart of motivation. The “why” of doing things needs to come from faith, hope and love. He builds the foundation with the hope that anyone can changeIt is the power of the Spirit, but it is also the understanding that our “DNA” changes, not just our behavior. It our behavioral modification discipleship techniques that have caused so many to have stunted growth. Change is possible, but it has to come from the inside out.

The author builds from the very foundation and then gives well thought-out processes for how to build on faith, hope and love. He is also clear on the hyper-movements when things get out of alignment.

This book is very easy to follow. He does not “bury the lead” as to to “how” to walk in spiritual maturity. I find that refreshing. From the very beginning there is a sense of a journey that is possible and powerful.

The appendices are full of Scripture to help root the reader in the truths of faith, hope and love as well.

For those are analytical in their thinking, this book is well laid out. For the more contemplative, it comes across as too laid out. But this book has a place in the church for very helpful (and hopeful) discipleship.

IVP provided this copy for me to use as a review. I am under no obligation to give it a positive review.

Both/And, Part 2

Both-And: Living the Christ-Centered Life in an Either-Or World by Rich Nathan and Insoo Kim has been a refreshing read. It leaves me challenged.

Nathan takes on the really hard things we just don’t like to talk about. He discusses reaching out to and loving the homosexual community. There is something for everyone there to love… and hate. His conclusions are his convictions, but I’m pretty sure the “either/or” world that exists on both sides of this issue won’t like his honest conversation.

He tackles women in ministry. He leaves no hot potato untouched, really.

The approach is trying to live out Christ in this world as we hear the voice of the Spirit and work to remain obedient to the revelation given to us.

The context of pastoring his own church and working this out makes it much more readable for me. He isn’t talking theory. He isn’t sitting in an academic office somewhere thinking this up. He is tackling it in his context. It is refreshing to read in that way.

I think these voices are worth listening to in this day, even though no one is very good at listening right now.

It’s a Both/And World

Rich Nathan and Insoo Kim have written Both-And: Living the Christ-Centered Life in an Either-Or World, which is, of course, one more book I wish I had written first. Instead, I blog on this stuff and give it away for free… but I digress…

IVP sent me this book for review and I am not under any obligation for a positive review.

I am still working my way through this book, but want to make a few key observations in the early stages.

1. It IS a worthwhile read. They have been working these issues out within the context of church ministry and I always appreciate that view. The practitioners always have a special place in my heart. I want to work out “both/and” in my own ministry context, so I love hearing from those who are in that same path.

2. They do what most of us as evangelicals do these days: We over-apologize for being evangelical. They have a much longer list of “This is what we’re NOT” than the list of “This is what we ARE.” The political climate today has dictated this stance, so I can’t blame them.

3. I am glad they kept things positive on “charismatic,” since that is what they are, and there was much less apologizing for that stance. They demonstrated the need for the experience of the Spirit and it was refreshing to read a positive stance on Charismatics. This is truly a time for the Pentecostal/Charismatic church and we need more positive examples than the negative stereotypes.

4. They put in their own struggles. When they spoke to the issues of diversity, they told their own story with the church in Columbus, Ohio. Not all things go smoothly and I appreciate their transparency.

I think this is a day when the Body of Christ can really stand out as different than the world. We can demonstrate a “both/and” position when it comes to so many biblical terms.

In our deeply divided culture, this is where the Body of Christ should shine. Yet, we have the divisiveness just as deeply as this culture.

This book is a breath of fresh air and holds out the hope of a better possibility.

 

Book Review: Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not

I received Jesus is Lord Caesar is Not from IVP for the purposes of reading and reviewing the book. I am under no obligation to give a positive review.

The book is edited by Scot McKnight and Joseph Modica and features several authors critiquing the thought of the New Testament being “anti-Empire.” They look at the writings of several scholars over the recent years who have put forward the idea that the New Testament is a subversive text and the purpose is to give veiled criticism of the Roman Empire.

This book piqued my interest for several reasons. I have a friend who has as a tagline on her Facebook page regarding political views: “I don’t do empire well.” Also, I worked my way through NT Wright’s Simply Jesus a couple of weeks ago and was fascinated by the idea of “Kingdom allegiance.” That added to what I read from James Smith a couple of years ago in Desiring the Kingdom.

The question put forth in this volume is this: Is the New Testament as subversive as recent scholarship seems to claim? The answer generally is “No.” However, I appreciated the volume not simply saying, “No, the New Testament is not a subversive text at all.”

It was more a call for balance, to realize that saying, “Jesus is Lord” in Roman times did indeed mean something. It just may not have meant, “Tell Caesar where to stick it,” or something like that.

As the introduction points out, the whole idea of being “anti-Empire” seemed to gain steam when George Bush was president and we didn’t like his war policies. Now that we have a different president there may be some modification to that whole idea.

I thought Judith Diehl’s chapter on “Anti-Imperial Rhetoric in the New Testament” was extremely helpful. She took the time to walk through some Roman history and different views on how emperors should rule in the Roman world. She points out that the Church comes into being in a time when the Roman Empire held to the belief that the emperor had absolute power. There could be a hostile environment if the empire thought some rhetoric appeared to be “anti-emperor.”

While emperor worship was not obligatory for most people, to publicly worship an “unseen God” represented by a “peasant Jew” who was crucified as a criminal by Roman authorities could be seen as a challenge. It was at least open to scrutiny (p. 45).

She offers a question as to whether Paul in Acts 22-28 is the same as the person who authored the epistles because they seem like two different people (p. 51). Did Paul’s view change as he grew older?

Diehl’s quick overview of the entire New Testament was a good start. Other chapters offer more specific critiques of specific NT books (like Matthew) and specific scholars who wrote on just how “subversive” the New Testament writers were in those books. Generally, the consensus is that the NT is not quite a “subversive” and “anti-Empire” as those scholars may claim.

In the conclusion, the warning is clear. When you have a hammer you think everything is a nail. That’s good advice whether it’s an academic exercise or church ministry. We can have an “anti-Empire” burr in our saddle and then read everything that way. That works when you don’t like a particular president, but when you like the next president and his policies, it may tend to tone down your rhetoric.

Personally, I like the work of Smith and Wright on this issue. The Kingdom calls for allegiance and that means the allegiances of this world will clash with our Kingdom allegiance from time to time. Whose Kingdom do we serve?

This is a book worth exploring and it helps bring a bit of balance to the understanding “empire” and what that may truly mean in a New Testament context.

Book Review: What Jesus Started

Steve Addison’s book, What Jesus Started, was sent to me for review by IVP.

It is a book that repeats itself, and for once, that’s a good thing. There are books that repeat themselves because they need to fill up pages. Addison does so to reinforce the main points over and over, but using different applications to drive the point home. And this is an important point in mission and pastoring: you sometimes have to repeat yourself. A lot.

This is about discipleship and getting discipleship at such a basic level, we can quickly multiply believers into disciples and see a movement truly grow. This is not something where you sit around and ponder. This is about teaching and acting, then analyzing, then doing it all over again. Learn and grow.

Addison could literally sketch this out on the back of a napkin, and that is the point. The process is simple… just do it!

 

It all starts with “See.” See the end. Jesus could SEE what needed to be done. He knew the big picture. He was swept away with compassion for the lost.

You can’t stay at “See.” You have to “CONNECT.” Jesus had the ability to connect across just about every barrier anyone could imagine. He didn’t wait for people to come to him. He was out making connections.

From “connect” you move to “SHARE.” There needs to be proclamation. At some point I need to declare to other people the hope that is within me. I don’t force it on them, but my connection to them has given me the ability to speak into their lives at some point. When that moment happens, I must be ready to share the hope that resides within me.

“TRAIN” is the next step. The command of Jesus is to “teach them to obey” all that he commanded. Part of that command is to make disciples of others. We model our lives to others, then lay out the expectation that they follow that example. THIS may be the biggest sticking point we have in our culture today. Okay… SHARING may be a problem, too. Come to think of it, we’re not so good on that “seeing” thing, either… but I digress.

Obviously, we have problems. Expectations we need to set is a glaring example. We just don’t like expectations. Yet, Jesus had them.

“GATHER” is about coming together is worshiping communities. We gather together around worship, communion, prayer, love, teaching, service, etc. We raise the level of expectation by modeling the need to give, to pray, to work…

“MULTIPLY” is that last leg of the journey. We have our area we reach as a worshiping community, then we release people into new areas.

Addison takes each section of his book and simply repeats these steps in different contexts. He demonstrates this in the gospels, in Paul, the early Church, and examples today.

The simplicity of repetition may be overkill for some, but this is not a bad discipleship/leadership tool. This book is useful in mobilizing new believers into quicker action. We need to keep the basics in mind at all times!

Thanks to IVP for sending me the book. I am under no obligation to give it a positive review. (Legal statement done.)

Help in Prayer

Growing up as a Pentecostal it was assumed you just prayed. There were times we might be taught prayer, as in a “life” of prayer, but when it came to actual praying a good Pentecostal just closed their eyes and let ‘er rip.

To pray someone else’s words was simply, well, backslidden. You were supposed to know God

Over the years I learned it was “legal” to use the Psalms. This really helped my prayer life. I could hear the cry of the heart in Psalms and then turn to my own words after a time of reading Psalms.

What was never encouraged was using a “Book of Prayer.” That was for backslidden liberals who had no idea how to pray, so they faked it.

Why can’t you talk to God “on your own?”

As I began my journey in spiritual formation I learned that for centuries saints had been doing what I had been doing in prayer: writing them down. I had come to a point devotionally where I would write out my prayers to God.

Those who had gone before had done so as well. Then, I discovered those prayers were actually published into books and used.

While I know my own private prayers would be of inspiration to absolutely no one else, I discovered the words of Benedict or Anthony or Evagrius could lead me into significant prayer times.

I still pray “on my own” when I am in public, most of the time. When I pray for people in hospitals, I do pray with people using my own words.

But when I pray in my own prayer time, I have found books of prayer to be helpful to get things going. I can hear a phrase that makes my heart cry out, “Yes! That was what I was thinking!”

IVP sent me a book for review called simply A Book of Prayers by Arthur A.R. Nelson. I am not under obligation to give a good review.

I don’t even know anything about Arthur Nelson.

But as I have leafed through this book I have read the prayers of a man of prayer. Many of these prayers are poetic and he says they are his words. There is also a major section of Scripture prayers that are organized by subject.

It is a nice little volume to have with me in my office so I can take small moments for reflection.

There is one prayer titled “I Need to Breathe Deeply.” The title alone is enough to cause me to slow down and breathe that very sentence back to God. I need that that space. My life is full. Help, me Lord, to slow it down!

Then, there is the poem/prayer itself, and it is beautiful.

“…make me attentive still
to good news,
to small occasions,
and the grace of what is possible
for me to be…”

What delightful thoughts.

You may not need these little helps in prayer. But if you find a need from time to time to have some assistance to get started in a time of prayer, this little volume is a breath of fresh air.

Book Review — The Art of Pastoring

The Art of Pastoring (Revised Edition) by David Hansen.

I have had the first edition of The Art of Pastoring on my shelf for several years and picked at it a couple of times, but never got into it for one reason or another. The revised edition allowed me a fresh look, and it is a look I have enjoyed. There are no firm answers in this book, and I have found in over 25 years of ministry that anyone claiming to have answers just hasn’t been in ministry long enough. Hansen sets the myth of “having all the answers” aside and just gives us real life stories.

Most of his stories come from his rural pastorates in Montana, but I found the stories applicable in my own urban setting.

The refreshing attraction to Hansen’s book is his incredible honesty. I found my story in this book.

When he describes his calling to ministry, he said his first desire was to be a history teacher.

“I had two options. I could be a history teacher; I couldn’t be a pastor. One was possible, the other was impossible. Since being a pastor was impossible, I decided to do that. I prayed: ‘Lord, being a pastor is impossible, so if you will be with me all the way to help me, I will be a pastor.'”

That is so similar to my own calling it was uncanny. I had grown up planning on being a historian or a journalist. When I was called into ministry on a student missions trip my senior year in high school, I was completely thrown off. No one else was surprised, but I was totally shocked. It was, to me, the impossible.

For those with a few years in ministry, this book is a great encouragement. For those going into ministry, this book is a MUST read. 

I teach in a college that has about half the students preparing for Christian ministry. They are fed dreams of megachurches. When I get any opportunity to pour into their lives in a practical level, I try to temper those dreams with the realities of living life in a much different way. It is a life that can be enjoyed

The Art of Pastoring (Revised Edition) by David Hansen was sent to me for review by InterVarsity Press. I am under no obligation to give it a positive review.

Spine Tingling Worship

When it comes to church, and I am Pentecostal when I reflect on this particular subject, we just flat out like “excitement.” There is emotion in our lives, so we don’t try to pull out emotion when it comes to singing and praise in a church service. As Pentecostals, we like to pray for people and things happen.

But it is one thing to sense some excitement because the presence of God is doing something, and another altogether when we design a service just to relieve boredom in someone’s life. It’s a big difference.

David Hansen in the revised book, The Art of Pastoring, warns against creating something exciting just because people are trying to flee boredom for a few moments in their life.

“Worship as entertainment, defined as the ritual excitement of the central nervous system to temporarily relieve boredom, is a shortcut to the believer’s soul-deep satisfaction of serving God through vertically oriented worship.”

Worship should be active. It should draw us into the presence of God. I am thankful our church works hard to put together worship that draws people into the presence of God. And, yes, that can be emotional at times. But we don’t want to try to create something that relieves boredom in people’s lives. We want to create an avenue whereby people can know God. And when God shows up, it does, indeed, get exciting.

Following Christian Movements Instead of Christ

I was delighted to receive a copy of the revised book, The Art of Pastoring, from IVP. It was unsolicited, and I look forward to reading this new edition. Early on I find it intriguing.

When the author, David Hansen, began his ministry in Montana, he inherited an entire library from the previous pastor. That pastor had left the ministry and as a result, just abandoned the library he had built in the church office.

As Hansen perused the nice selections, he wondered why the previous pastor had abandoned the ministry. His conjecture: Maybe the previous pastor confused following Christian movements with following Christ.

Great observation. It’s such a temptation. As a pastor, the temptation is to plug in the formulas as quickly as possible so the numbers start coming in and there is a sense of satisfaction. If we move from one formula to another, we will find ourselves off-track in a hurry.

A few years ago I watched an interview with Dr. George Wood, general superintendent of the Assemblies of God. The question asked was the value he saw in furthering his theological education. The Assemblies of God has had a love/hate relationship with theological education since its founding. Dr. Wood said he was fortunate to advance his education, and he understood not everyone would get that opportunity. In his own life, he found that if he had not learned to think theologically, he probably would not be in ministry today.

If we follow fads and programs, when those fads and programs don’t work out… we tend to quit.

But if we follow Christ, and can work through the painful conversations from other pastors about “How many you running?” there is hope.

Next year are two significant milestones for me. I will celebrate 25 years of marriage with my incredible wife and it will also be my 15th year at my current church. I love this church, as I think about ministry.

There have been my moments when I thought ministry might not be for me, but this church has anchored me. I don’t have all the answers, and they know it. I follow Christ as best as I possibly can, and I want them on that journey as well. I wish I could report the fabulous numbers. What I can report is we have a church following Christ as best as we know to do at this moment in time.

The current fad in my movement is “satellite” campuses. It’s “working” in many spots.

That comes on the heels of the “seeker sensitive” model.

That came on the heels of the “Brownsville Revival” model.

And so on.

Each of those movements have their place somewhere and for some reason. But if I follow only those things and try to build my church off of that method, what do I do when that method is on the trash heap and the next thing is coming down the road?

We keep following Christ. It may not look great all the time, but it’s what I know to do best.

A New Series for Group Bible Studies

As our church has been reading through the New Testament this summer, the format for the reading schedule has come from Biblica’s project The Books of the Bible. I have commented before on how this edition is made more for public reading and getting the reader into the full book of the Bible.

IVP has now come out with a set of group Bible studies that compliment this edition. Still in progress, the series is called “Connect Series.” IVP sent me a review copy of Paul’s Prison Letters by Christopher R. Smith. The copy was sent for review and I am not under obligation to write a positive review.

This series looks promising. For those in my church, this is a good “next step” after we finish our New Testament project this August.

In this volume on Paul’s letters, Smith has some background information on reading the Bible together. Then, he walks us through each of Paul’s letters in several sessions. For each letter, the first group session will feature simply reading that letter out loud. Subsequent sessions will break down certain sections and plunge a little more in-depth.

The focus is on the group reading the text together. There are some great exercises involved that are designed to help believers grow together. 

This is a series worth considering if you are a pastor or small group leader. Getting people plunging directly into the Word of God is a vital need today. Our church’s journey this summer has been phenomenal. We are watching people grow as they learn the Word. Our small group sessions have been lively.

IVP’s series is a great companion to The Books of the Bible project.