Thursday, February 27, 2014

Book Review : Formed for the Glory of God : Kyle Strobel

The author of the letter to the Hebrews wrote, "Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith." (Heb. 13:7) While this directive has very much to do with the great privilege of learning from and imitating those whose leadership of the church is "local" and "direct," it also implies that considering the outcome of another believer, eminent in godliness, holds incredible value for the Christian. If the believer has been taken from a state of utter corruption and brought into sanctifying fellowship with Christ, then beholding God's artistry in a man's holiness is nothing short of a sight to a miracle of grace.
In the history of the church in America, few names are as significant as Jonathan Edwards. His ministry profoundly marked the American theological landscape as one who held fast to the sweet doctrines of grace and was a first-hand witness to the Great Awakening. The language Edwards employed in his sermons reflected a vision of Christ as glorious, supreme, beautiful, and eternally worthy of all delight and worship. Edwards was, however, not simply a producer of excellent sermons and weighty theology. He was a real man, a follower of Christ, whose pursuit of Jesus stood behind all his ministerial contributions. He knew what it was to walk with God and enjoy Him.
     In Formed for the Glory of God: Learning from the Spiritual Practices of Jonathan Edwards, Kyle Strobel writes of Edwards as a man whose walk with God is as imitable as his preaching and teaching are to be enjoyed. Surely, Edwards is significant as one who spoke the Word of God. By that account, his way of life is worth being considered, which Strobel strives to lay out in this book.
     Approaching the book, I was expecting to be more pointedly "discipled" by Edwards' teaching. What I found is a very helpful and balanced look at the vision of godliness that propelled Edwards and an exploration of the practices that Edwards employed in pursuit of that vision. This is not a biography proper - you won't find Strobel relating all of Edwards' life experiences and the impact of those experiences on his walk with God. Rather, Strobel puts together a kind of "systematic devotional theology" of Edwards' life. In this book, you won't necessarily find anything new or edgy. You won't find promises that following Edwards' "strategies" will somehow net you the same place in church history. Frankly, the book hearkens to a time that, while simpler in cultural trappings and distractions, holds forth a depth and complexity in the church's understanding and enjoyment of the Christian's relationship with God that surveying Edwards' practices will drive you to thinking "Where do I start?".
     The first section of the book provides an effective overview of a significant aspect of the spiritual disciplines that may often be overlooked: the enjoyment of God as enjoyable in Himself. Part One is relatively small compared to the rest of the book, but it is this section that sets apart this book as distinctly "Edwardsian" and provides a perspective on the practical pursuit of communion with God that is well to be recognized. In short, Strobel suggests that Edwards' pursuit of God was "A Journey Into Beauty." Unfortunately, this side of Edwards is often overlooked for the cultural obscuration attached to his name. While it may not be a practically-oriented section, it does give a view of Christian living that reflects Edwards' genuine concern to enjoy God as He is. Strobel ends the chapter with this helpful statement: "...the Christian life is a subtle cleaning of the glass to see him [God] for who he is, and therefore seeing yourself, life and the world for what they are."
     The second part of the book is concerned with the practical pursuits of Edwards' walk with God. This section is most certainly fodder for the believer who would earnest pursue God. What is helpful to note is that Strobel presents these pursuits of Edwards accessibly. There is not the sense of "Edwards was great at this - you are not - good luck trying to be like him." Approaching this section with a desire to grow, young and mature Christian alike should be challenged to a deeper and more enjoyable walk with Jesus. And, because these practices are God-centered, any hint of "mystical" experience can be moored to the theological vision that Edwards is so well and rightly known for.
     Altogether, this is a fine book that explores the vision and practical pursuit of God enjoyed by a man worthy, by God's grace, to be imitated for his godliness. Again, this is not a "theology of Edwards," but a review of Edwards' vision for pursuing God and an introduction to certain practices he employed in pursuit of that vision. It's a good and warm read and one certainly worthy of picking up as a matter of knowing the great and glorious Triune God more deeply. Thank you to the folks at InterVarsity Press for supplying a complimentary review copy without expectations of a positive review.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Putting the Hip in Church Planting Fellowships : Identity

     Today's installment of "Putting the Hip in Church Planting Fellowships" kicks off our look at the unintended consequences of subcultural targeting and how embracing a more well-rounded philosophy of church planting can head those side-effects off at the pass. Here's the first tick on the list:

  • A divergence from the biblical pattern of gospel-centered identity inevitably promoting a culture-centered identity among those gathered in the church plant

     At the end of the day, this first issue we're tackling is one of the primary fenceposts that mark off the problems associated with the trend in church planting in view here. This issue is really more of a big picture kind of problem and is not one that a) the vast majority of church planters are eager to see happen, even if they champion the subculture-as-necessary-target method and b) can be treated beyond abstract reflections here. It's way too big of a potential flaw in the garment to patch up with the little thread available here, so our task is going to be identifying what the problem is abstractly and providing helpful perspective on how to rightly and biblically think "abstractly" about the nature of the local church. Not much here by way of practical tips or specific targets - just a potentially major problem that would otherwise skew the perception of the local church's identity among a whole lot of people. And that makes it an issue worth addressing first.

     Any self-identified "evangelical" assents to the need to proclaim the gospel, regardless of nuances or definitions. Finding basic tenets of gospel truth are just as easily accessed on a prosperity gospel teacher's website as an Orthodox Presbyterian website. Which makes the identity issue surrounding the gospel so crucial for those involved with the establishment of new local churches. How is it that such divergent groups (theologically and by way of philosophy of ministry) can affirm the same "core" truths, yet have such radically different agendas for carrying out ministry? I suggest it is because, apart from adjacent areas of doctrine, the assumption of the gospel has given way to the prioritization of things outside the realm of focus for a New Testament church.

     Since the 19th century, the atmosphere of American evangelicalism has generally pushed back against the press for doctrinal purity and towards models of what has been considered more "practical" matters facing people. The suspicion that the very end of days was upon us provoked a rise in end-times groups, swallowing up people whose hopes were, at best, diverted from the gospel to the supposed prophecies and biblical interpretations that were only empty and false promises. The recasting of evangelistic sermons and presentations of the gospel into the mold of anxious-bench emotional manipulations drove many well-meaning Christians to reliance on presentations of the gospel instead of the power of God at work through the gospel itself. The emotionalism of the early 1900's drew the focus of many on what was billed as the work of the Holy Spirit, instead of seeing the clear gospel fruits of holiness, godliness, faithfulness, and the like prized among the miracles worked by the Holy Spirit among the people of God. Theological liberalism has consistently maintained the idea that meeting felt needs was really the missionary task. And finally, the last 30 years has seen the ascendance of a method of ministry, particularly church planting, that has focused so heavily on identifying emerging cultures, classes, and sectors of society that assembling groups of similar people has become a staple food in the diet of homefront missiology.

     While the recent church planting focus is not as radically off-base as the others listed above, it might be appropriate to consider it an opening act in pressuring local churches away from identifying closely with the gospel. Consider one of the primary purposes of Acts, signifying an interpretive lens for the book as a whole: "So when they had come together, they asked him [the resurrected Jesus], 'Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?' He said to them, 'It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.'" These were the parting words of the Lord Christ before His ascension - and words that instruct the missionary endeavor of the church.

     The words of Acts 1:8 are often associated with missionary enterprises. But the context (immediate and the big picture of Acts) supplies us with an even more helpful perspective than what might otherwise be taken from the verse itself. Notice that the apostles ask this question: "Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?" This cannot go unnoticed for the reader of Acts, because it shows an issue that surfaces multiple times in the book: the idea that the Kingdom of God would come only to Israelites. Instead, the expansion of the Kingdom to include people from every tribe, language, people, and nation is in view throughout the book. So while it was a temptation for the apostles to restrict their ministry to the Jews, the missionary commission drives Peter to not only preach to the Jews gathered (from all manner of nations) at Pentecost, but to enter Cornelius' home and proclaim the gospel to him and his household. It was through that encounter that Peter's eyes were opened to the truth that the gospel shapes the identity for all who believe.

     Even though the contemporary emphasis on targeted church planting may not stress the need to follow certain aspects of the ceremonial law for inclusion, the tendency in the human heart toward self-righteousness and partisanship is not altogether removed. Thus, the warnings in the New Testament for the people of God to avoid such behavior in the church. And that brings us full circle to what stands as a primary concern regarding the culturally-driven identity shaping many church planting efforts: they run a significant risk of strengthening the cultural aversions (doctors, lawyers, and businessmen don't typically spend time with migrant workers) that the gospel eradicates as it becomes the new identity of the people of God. This is the potentially great hazard that a culture-centered identity poses for the relationships within the church, a hazard that a gospel-centered emphasis in evangelizing a whole community would do well to avoid. And it almost goes without saying that it runs the risk of compromising the church's identity as a church targeting "X type of people," rather than the identity the church holds as the people of God, where the gospel replaces other identities.

     At the end of the day, the risk to gospel-centered identity has the potential to compromise to significant aspects of the local church: its ministerial focus and its identity as the gospel-transformed people of God. Both of these are priorities that ought to be guarded and pursued by any local church. In the next few days, we'll be moving on to another "unintended consequence." All of these are related in some way, though they all are tangential to this: the local church needs to be shaped by, driven by, and held together by the gospel. It is its message and its identity is found in the glorious Christ whose gospel it is. We cannot afford to assume it.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Book Review : Transformed by God : New Covenant Life and Ministry : David Peterson

     Few theological themes exist more prominently throughout the Scriptures than that of covenants. While this review isn't the place for discussing the importance of covenants, it is the place to give a brief word on it, as Dr. Peterson's book, Transformed by God : New Covenant Life and Ministry, assumes a foundational understanding of just how important the presence of covenants throughout the Old Testament, particularly, find their way to fulfillment in the New Covenant sealed by Christ. So, to introduce this review and the theme generally, here we go:

     Covenants play a significant role throughout the Old Testament. The formal covenant exists at peaks throughout redemptive history, as God addresses His promises to major biblical figures: Abraham, Moses, and David. The general role of divine promises is asserted soon after the Fall, when God promised in the "proto-evangelion" that One would come who would stamp out the serpent. Since that anticipation in Genesis, there are more or less formal events that concern the promises of God to His people. The prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel, however, are mouthpieces whereby a "New Covenant" would come about, a Covenant that would be fulfilled by God Himself. All of the other covenants and promises would ultimately find their converge point and fulfillment in the New Covenant. Which makes the New Covenant a very important aspect of redemptive history.

     Dr. Peterson's volume has to do with the proclamation of that New Covenant during the ministry of the prophet Jeremiah, in particular, and how the Covenant, "signed, sealed, and delivered," effects the people of God, our worship and ministry, the hearts of God's people, and our knowledge of God. This important reality indeed changes "everything" and Dr. Peterson's aim in writing this volume is admirable and more than appropriate. It is a commendable pursuit and an entry into what I would consider an "under-served" field of theology, particularly as it specifically concerns the New Covenant.

     The first four chapters of Transformed by God are adaptations of lectures delivered by Dr. Peterson, while the remaining two chapters are additions made to the work. To be fair, I have a good deal of respect for Dr. Peterson as a scholar. I own a couple other books by him, including his contribution to the Pillar Commentary series regarding Acts. There is no doubt that he is a fine scholar and theologian, I must say, however, that my experience with this book was not as engaging as I had hoped it would be. The book's content is solid, which alone merits a positive review on the grounds that it both addresses a very important theme and does so soundly. However, I found the book to be somewhat dry. This may have something to do with the adaptation of previous material or the extended time period I took to complete the book. Nonetheless, on such a major and largely unaddressed (in book form, at least) topic, I expected a bit more in the department of "engagement."

     I would certainly recommend Dr. Peterson's book to anyone looking to gain some perspective on the New Covenant and its implications for Christian life and ministry - that's the thrust of the book and, as I said, it does not fail in that regard. That being said, I would ensure that if you do read this book, that you stay intentionally engaged. Thank you to the folks at InterVarsity Press for supplying a complimentary review copy without expectations of a positive review.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Putting the Hip in Church Planting Fellowships : The Law of Unintended Consequences

     The other day, my wife (who happens to be one of the most hospitable and generous people I know) made a meal for some good friends of ours who had just welcomed their third child into the world. Now, my wife does an excellent job on two fronts with these meals: 1) She stays on top of caring for others with them; and, 2) She does a very good job of figuring out what kind of meal should be made and then does a great job making it. So, last week, to accompany some well-made soup, she found a recipe for bread that we hadn't tried before, a recipe that had received some good reviews from others. The soup turned out well. The "bread" did not. Accordingly, it did not accompany the soup to this family, whom we care about and did not want to be responsible for breaking any of their teeth. As an aside, if anyone works for a brick manufacturer and would like to find a way to only heat their bricks in a 300+ degree oven (as opposed to the kilns presently used), we have a bread recipe that would substitute your brick recipe well.

     Last week, I began a series entitled "Putting the Hip in Church Planting Fellowships," providing some perspective on what I see as some missteps in contemporary philosophies of church planting. Let me emphasize again that I love church planting as a ministry, which is one reason I hope these posts will resonate with folks. Because I want to see church planting increase and be done the right way. But not only one or the other. They both have to be there. And that leads us into today's post.

     Like the recipe my wife used to make the brick-bread, a philosophy of ministry that fails to incorporate the necessary components will inevitably fail. For whatever reason, the results might be endorsed by a whole host of people. And it might even seem to start out well, like a good recipe would have it. But neither endorsements nor good beginnings avail for a good loaf of bread or, much more importantly, a healthy local church. So my concern here in these posts is to address a missing step in the recipe for planting local churches that, in my opinion, is creating a local church culture in the United States that is out of character for that most precious ministry. It is the "law of unintended consequences" - well-intended tweaks to the nature of a ministry that ends up rerouting things down the road in ways not intended, yet damaging to churches, families, individuals, and the culture at large.

     This post is intended to give you a preview of some of those concerns, which I'll pick up and discuss over the days ahead. Each concern has its place and will have a separate post devoted to it. The list below summarizes the inevitable "unintended consequences" that, in my opinion, the present emphasis in the church planting culture on targeting segments of culture rather than geographic regions are creating, both short-term and long-term:

  • A divergence from the biblical pattern of gospel-centered identity inevitably promoting a culture-centered identity among those gathered in the church plant;
  • Focus on a segment of culture inevitably gathers a homogeneous group. Accordingly, this group fails to represent the cross-cultural character of the New Testament church that testifies to the supremacy of the gospel. Along with this, the group will find it difficult to pursue the missionary enterprise of the church in pursuit of others, both "naturally" and due to the reinforced philosophy that focuses on people "like them";
  • The oft-selected subcultures tend to be widely shared in church planting fellowships. Twenty years ago, it was "unchurched Harry and Mary." Now it appears to be hipster Harry and Harriet or tattooed Tom and Tracy. But this emphasis on targeting subcultures ends up marginalizing such a tremendous percentage of the population that instead of evangelizing a community, it evangelizes a part of the community. And the rest of the community continues to go unreached, though the statistic of a "church plant" goes up, gets us excited, and leaves thousands of people without a witness while zeroing in on a few hundred.
  • When emerging or popular subcultures are targeted, an inevitable premium of the church plant ends up being "newness" or "relevance." While this dynamic may "help" some folks who spend Sunday mornings in a bar, it can be a major stumbling block for the large percentage of folks who spend Sunday mornings at churches that proclaim a false gospel. When these people encounter someone from Hipster Church of Cooltown, they stumble over the apparent lack of transcendence accompanying worship and would prefer to stay with something familiar that at least "seems" like a real church. While there's nothing necessarily wrong with being from Hipster Church, why is it okay to justify the "relevance" as the removal of a stumbling block, when a large percentage of Americans are more prone to stumble over the fact that a church plant doesn't even seem like church to them?;
  • When we target subcultures, we inevitable shift the focus off of the transforming power of the gospel and the saving power of the Triune God to a subtle trust that our methods are trustworthy enough to hang the church's hat of identity on. "We're not like other churches" shouldn't be the banner flying over a church unless it's because every other church in the community fails to proclaim the glorious gospel of God's grace to sinners through Christ;
  • Instead of reconciling natural differences by the gospel and providing occasion for actual application of that amazingly peculiar effect of the gospel within the body of Christ, it can further harden long-held differences that are based on culture, rather than believer/unbeliever. In a culture that continues to demonstrate racism and class warfare as not only de facto, but even pursued for the sake of political gain, there is tremendous opportunity for church plants that embrace a model of ministry holding forth the gospel as a reconciler of man to God, first, and then men to men as a byproduct of great witnessing value;
  • Prioritization means time and resources that are diverted from elsewhere. Which means that even the best-intentioned efforts to plant culturally-targeted local churches end up focusing more on sharpening cultural relevance than they should, while diverting resources away from the biblically emphasized ingredients for a healthy local church;
  • And, finally, what happens when the targeted culture becomes over-saturated? Not only do we end up neglecting a large segment of the population, but we end up burning over a segment that will, over time, inevitably "die out." Focusing on the hipster crowd today will only last as long as there is a hipster crowd to focus on. The crowd either changes, dies off socially, or dies with the people who comprise it. The church then becomes irrelevant, unless it grows with the group it targeted, which, in my mind, inevitably means that they move closer to what should have been done in the first place: focus on the under-evangelized community as a whole instead of a small fragment of it.
     I hope these thoughts provide some more thought stirring-up in your mind. As I seek to address the concerns individually and expand on the problem and seek to show how a different philosophy of church planting can help avoid the "unintended consequence," I genuinely desire this to be a sharpening and edifying series. Stay tuned.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Book Review : The Acts of the Risen Lord Jesus (NSBT) : Alan Thompson

Two things to kick off this book review that I want to grab your attention right away :
  • It's my opinion that the book of Acts is arguably one of the least understood books in the New Testament. The misapplication of this valuable portion of sacred Scripture is, sadly, behind the development of some very unhealthy theology. Accordingly, getting the book "right" is absolutely critical for those responsible for handling the Word and leading in the local church.
  • Before I even get to the review itself, I have to say that Alan Thompson's entry into the New Studies in Biblical Theology series, The Acts of the Risen Lord Jesus (being reviewed here), is an extremely valuable read. It's a five star book and I hope that can encourage you to consider this book as a study aid in approaching the book of Acts.
That being said, here's the official "review":

     Over the past decade plus, InterVarsity Press has been releasing some excellent volumes in a series entitled "New Studies in Biblical Theology." With contributions from scholars such as David Peterson, Greg Beale, and Andreas Kostenberger, the NSBT series, which is edited by D.A. Carson, is a treasure chest of biblical theological insights that are academically rigorous and evangelically faithful. There is a lot of very helpful material to be found in these books (at least in the few I've looked at).

     How does Alan Thompson's entry, The Acts of the Risen Lord Jesus, which concerns a biblical theological framework for approaching the book of Acts, stack up to that reputation? With all of the out-of-the-strike-zone stuff out there regarding a theology of Acts, what kind of material does Thompson supply to the discussion? And with all of the differing interpretations of Acts, what really qualifies as a convincingly biblical theology of Acts? In light of all that background, I'm very happy to say that I found this book to be incredibly helpful. Frankly, I haven't read a more paradigm solidifying synthesis of theological analysis pertaining to a scriptural book/author in recent memory. It really is that well written and thoroughly biblical

     After introducing the book, Dr. Thompson supplies an initial framework for approaching New Testament theology, generally referred to as the "already/not-yet" description of the Kingdom of God. (If you're not familiar with that hermeneutic, check out Graeme Goldsworthy or George Eldon Ladd, who supplied some contemporary pioneer material on the Kingdom come/yet-to-come theology.) From that starting point, he treats the place of Jesus' death and resurrection in Luke's theology, with particular emphasis on how the resurrection is emphasized in Luke and Acts. Continuing, Dr. Thompson addresses what I think is one of the most critical areas of interpretation that fails to be understood in many deficient approaches to Acts: the missionary character of the book, particularly the expansion of God's Kingdom beyond ethnic Israel to include Gentiles throughout the earth. Chapter Four concerns the role of the Holy Spirit, which treatment by Dr. Thompson is excellent in its correction of the unhealthy doctrine of the Spirit held in many circles of popular evangelicalism today. Chapters Six and Seven address the role of two very significant factors in Old Covenant Judaism and the place that it takes in the life of the New Covenant community, as communicated by Luke. The final Chapter is a conclusion of the material.

     All things considered, while the book may be a bit more "technical" than some folks are used to, I would recommend that any Christian with an interest in understanding a biblical framework of Acts ought to pick this book up. Simply put, this book is well-written and thoroughly biblical. Thanks to the folks at InterVarsity Press for providing me a no-cost copy of this book for review purposes. While there was no expectation of a positive review on their part, I am glad to have had the opportunity to read through this excellent volume in the NSBT series.