Monday, September 24, 2012

A Novel Approach To Discipleship--Going Deep: Becoming A Person of Influence

I saw this book while I was taking a discipleship class in my last year at seminary and thought that it might be a good source for my final paper. It would have been had I actually read it during that time, but required readings, a pinched nerve, and the birth of my first daughter cut this from my reading schedule until seminary was over. 

Going Deep is the second book of this type that Gordon MacDonald has written--a non-fiction message in novel form (the first was Who Stole My Church?, which is the same setting for this novel). In this book MacDonald (a.k.a GMac) and his wife Gail are the pastors of a mid-sized church in New England who become obsessed with a "great idea" that leads to a two-year journey in forming a fourteen person discipleship group that will reproduce itself in the coming years. The "great idea" slowly but surely becomes this pastor's all-consuming mission--his most important job in ministry is Cultivating Deep People (CDP). From the perspective of Gordon's first person narrative, readers have an inside look at how ministries like CDP come to into being, starting with conversations in parking lots, e-mails, phone calls, and board meetings. This book takes you from the inception of "the great idea" to end of the...well, you'll have to read the book for yourself to see how it ends.

The material in Going Deep is great stuff. I couldn't agree more with MacDonald's message that the Church needs to be making spiritually deepening people. The method that he presents for how to get this done is also excellent. Information-wise this book gets 4 or 5 stars in my book. When I first started this novel, I was intrigued with the style of seeing what the day-in/day-out of this type of ministry might look like; however, this is the very aspect that soon wore thin. The problem is: fiction drama really requires conflict or tension to keep it moving. Nobody wants to hear a story about Mr. A trying to get to  X and actually getting there on time with no problems...they want to read about Mr. A trying to get to point X but having to overcome between 1-10 obstacles in the process. GMac must be a idealist because everything goes smoothly for 255 pages before they hit their first snag. I've been involved in ministry long enough to know that there are plenty of opportunities for drama and conflict within the span of a year and a half, but seemingly not in the magical land of New England. Every idea meets with unanimous approval by all leaders and key members of the congregation. If you've ever worked in ministry this should seem like the Twilight Zone. The story element of the first 2/3 would get 2 stars in my rating.

Consequently, since there were no obstacles, mystery or tension, I had very little motivation to keep reading (other than writing this review). But something happened around page 255--I started to care. The characters became real. I wanted to know what happened. A bit of tension found its way into the story. So I would rate the last 125 pages 4 stars. All in all, a great message that is important and needs to be heard, but lacks in terms of the elements of fiction. Overall I would give it 3 stars.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze®.com [...] book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255 [...] : "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising." 

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Three Quick Tips For Remembering the Fruit of the Spirit

Let's face it--memorizing scripture can be very challenging. Many Christians only have a vague notion of what the books of the Bible are and forget about knowing how they fall in order. However, I would venture that many Christians would like to learn more, even memorize more, of the Bible. They just struggle with remembering what last week's sermon was about, let alone all the Books of the Bible, the Beatitudes, or the Fruit of the Spirit. Memorizing lists doesn't have to be hard. They just require mnemonic devices and occasional refreshing. Here are three quick tips that can help you remember the Fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23)  in order:

1. Remember that there are 9. Three sets of three (3+3+3).

2. Each of these three sets increases in syllables. The fruit in the first set have one syllable: love, joy, peace. The ones in the second set have two syllables: pa-tience, kind-ness, good-ness. And the ones in the third set have three syllables: faith-ful-ness, gen-tle-ness, and self-con-trol.

These two tips alone helped me remember the list, but if you still struggle to remember them there is always...

3. Learn the song. Campy children's songs stick in your brain forever, and if they come with hand motions so much the better. If you're not much of a fan of Sunday school songs, you might try inductive Bible study instead. After spending 9-12 hours on in-depth study on a passage, you usually can't forget it if you try. The trick here, whatever it is, is to make logical anchors in the brain.

Share your thoughts by leaving a comment.

Did God the Father Turn His Back On the Crucified Christ?

I'm sure you've heard it at one point or another. It has become so prevalent in Christian books, sermons, and songs that it must be in the Bible. Right? It always goes something like this: "On the cross Jesus bore the sins of humanity and even the rejection of the Father as God turned His back on Jesus."
So, is this really true? Is it Biblical? Thomas H. McCall says, "NO!" and I happen to agree with him.

In his recent book Forsaken: The Trinity and the Cross, and Why It Matters, associate professor of biblical and systematic theology Thomas McCall makes a strong case for dismissing the idea that the Father turned His back on the Son as He atoned for the sins of humanity. As someone who has long rejected this theology, I have read many articles that make their case for why the Father did not turn His back on the Son; however, McCall takes it to a whole new level by reflecting on the very nature of the Trinity and God's attributes.

In the first chapter, "Was the Trinity Broken: The Father, the Son, and Their Cross," McCall sets the stage for the argument by looking at what contemporary theologians and Biblical scholars are arguing before turning to his own Biblical argument and early Church beliefs on what "My God! My God, why have You forsaken me?" means. If you can only read one chapter, make it this one. 

Chapter two turns to atonement theologies--the wrath of God and holy love. Here he tries to bring balance to both wrath and love by examining them in Biblical, rather than contemporary, terms. 

"Was the Death of Jesus A Meaningless Tragedy?: Foreknowledge, Fulfillment and the Plan of the Triune God" (otherwise known as chapter 3) explores the topic of who was to blame for Jesus' death. Did people kill Jesus or did God?

Finally, chapter four, "Does It Make A Difference?,"turns to matters of Justification and Sanctification. What did the cross accomplish? How are we to understand Jesus' sacrifice?

I greatly appreciate the fact that McCall engages many dialogue partners and looks at this subject from many angles. This is an important book to read and reflect on the implications for theology and ministry. Too often we sing songs about God turning His Face away or hear sermons that hammer home the idea that substitutionary atonement requires a Divine mental fiction, in which an omniscient God sees only sin in the obedient Son and detaches Himself from the second member of the Trinity in the crucial hour.  I don't want to give away McCall's points because you really need to read this one for yourselves. This book deserves attention among Evangelical intellectuals. Props to IVP for publishing it.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Christus Victor or Buddy Christ?

While reading Robert Webber's book Ancient-Future Faith, I was struck by a topic that he raised, something I feel that we in the Church really need to hear on a regular basis--Christus Victor. Christ the Victor. According to Webber, this understanding of the work of Christ dominated the writings of early Fathers for the first thousand years or so. Jesus did not merely come to bring me my own prepackaged and personalized single-serving salvation, he came to redeem the cosmos. This high Christology is what we find in Colossians 1:15-23.

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by
him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and
invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were
created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold
together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and
the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the
supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and
through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or
things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the
Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your
minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ's
physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish
and free from accusation— if you continue in your faith, established and firm,
not moved from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you
heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which
I, Paul, have become a servant (emphasis mine).

While I realize that there are several atonement theories out there (Ransom/Christus Victor, Satisfaction, and Subjective/moral influence theories seem to be the main three), I am not trying to get hung up on one over the other at this point since I am still trying to understand this and study it myself. I do, however, believe that we would definitely do well to understand the universal implications of Christ's victory in His death, burial and resurrection. Here in the ego-centric US of A we have a tendency to think only in personal terms. It is easy for us to loose the epic view of Jesus Christ's work. This world does not belong to satan. After His resurrection Jesus told his disciples:

"All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age." Matthew 28:18-20

Notice the inclusive scope--ALL authority in Heaven and on EARTH. This is the launch point for the commission.

Where is the fire in our souls when we hear the resurrection story on Easter or any other time? We are often guilty of turning Jesus into our buddy. We take the call to a close relationship with God as a license to make him safe and cool and ok with our sin. This weak, anemic Jesus is left ineffectual to conquer and heal the evil of this world. Jesus calls us friend (incidentally, the somewhat popular song "I Am a Friend of God" would work best in the context of Jesus' original dependent clause "if you obey my commandments") , but this does not demote Him from His being "the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation..."

I just wonder what would happen to our understanding of the Kingdom and our daily walks if we heard more sermons about Christ's work instead of self-help or self-affirmation. Listen to these concluding words from an Easter sermon by Melito of Sardis (A.D. 195):

But He rose from the dead and mounted up to the heights of heaven.
When the Lord had clothed Himself with humanity, and had suffered for the
sake of the sufferer, and had been bound for the sake of the imprisoned, and had
been judged for the sake of the condemned, and buried for the sake of the one
who was buried, He rose up from the dead, and cried with a loud voice:
Who is he that contends with me? Let him stand in opposition to me. I set
the condemned man free; I gave the dead man life; I raised up the one who had
been entombed. Who is my opponent? I, He says, am the Christ. I am the one who
destroyed death, and triumphed over the enemy, and trampled Hades underfoot, and
bound the strong one, and carried off man to the heights of heaven. I, He says,
am the Christ.

Christ has triumphed. Death is dead. Christ has conquered sin and all the powers of darkness in the spiritual realms. Christ is the Victor! And He is the Head of His Church.

"This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, [Nick], have become a servant."

(Updated from previous post @

Monday, August 27, 2012

What Can Good Will Hunting Teach Us About Thinking For Ourselves?

Perhaps you've met someone who seems to have opinions on a topic until they are challenged by someone else questioning them deeper. Then they stonewall--defenses go up or they check out. I know several people that are this way, and I pray to never be one of them.

I think one of the reasons people do this is that they do not truly own their beliefs. They have never really engaged in critical thinking on the issue, rather they have blindly accepted someone else's words. They believe the philosophy or the theology of whomever they are reading or listening to at the time. At first they like one pastor/author, then another pastor/author calls them a heretic and he falls out of their good graces. All of this reminds me of a scene from the movie Good Will Hunting:

                  There's no problem. I was just hoping 
                  you could give me some insight into 
                  the evolution of the market economy 
                  in the early colonies. My contention 
                  is that prior to the Revolutionary 
                  War the economic modalities especially 
                  of the southern colonies could most 
                  aptly be characterized as agrarian 
                  precapitalist and...

          Will, who at this point has migrated to 
          Chuckie's side and is completely fed-up, 
          includes himself in the conversation.

                  Of course that's your contention. 
                  You're a first year grad student. 
                  You just finished some Marxian 
                  historian, Pete Garrison prob'ly, 
                  and so naturally that's what you 
                  believe until next month when you 
                  get to James Lemon and get convinced 
                  that Virginia and Pennsylvania were 
                  strongly entrepreneurial and 
                  capitalist back in 1740. That'll 
                  last until sometime in your second 
                  year, then you'll be in here 
                  regurgitating Gordon Wood about the 
                  Pre-revolutionary utopia and the 
                  capital-forming effects of military 

                            (taken aback)
                  Well, as a matter of fact, I won't, 
                  because Wood drastically 
                  underestimates the impact of--

                  "Wood drastically underestimates the 
                   impact of social distinctions 
                   predicated upon wealth, especially 
                   inherited wealth..." You got that 
                   from "Work in Essex County," Page 
                   421, right? Do you have any thoughts 
                   of your own on the subject or were 
                   you just gonna plagiarize the whole 
                   book for me?

             Clark is stunned.

                   Look, don't try to pass yourself off 
                   as some kind of an intellect at the 
                   expense of my friend just to impress 
                   these girls.


(From script at

This conversation inherently points to the problem of not thinking for one's self. Our minds float along like the feather in Forrest Gump, carried by the winds of change. And when some one calls us to task, asking why we believe what we believe, do we have any solid footing? Have we thought through it all and arrived at honest conclusions? Or are we merely mentally plagiarizing the work of others?

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Why Disciples Should Be the #1 Priority

Yesterday I sat down in a pastor's office to discuss his thoughts on discipleship. From the church website I could see that it was a big deal to him and the life of his church, so I wanted to meet with him and find out what that looks like. When he sat on his couch, kicked off his shoes and propped his feet up on a chair I knew this guy was comfortable in his own skin and was going to be real with me. If I were to write all of what we talked about, it would fill a whole string of blog posts, but I'll share with you one important insight from our time together.

Pastors should focus on making disciples. Too often we try to develop servants or givers or people who will share the Gospel. We may succeed in developing all those things in our people without ever really making disciples. A person can be a giver without being a true follower of Jesus. A person could serve the needs of the community without being a disciple. Someone can even witness to others without being truly a disciple of Jesus. How do we know this? Just think of what people in our churches would do if we took away the nursery, the youth group time, the padded seating, the flashy lights and rock star worship performances...what about the air conditioning or heat? True disciples are there for Jesus--not for any of these other reasons. True disciples are consumed with Jesus (what a novel idea!). However, if we spend our time growing and cultivating disciples, then we will have churches filled with givers, servants, evangelists, teachers, etc. etc. because true disciples do all of those things.

This is an interesting thought that rings true. We often get consumed with getting the fruits on the tree and we spend our time on the fruit rather than cultivating and feeding the tree itself. Can you imagine someone going throughout an orchard stapling apples to sick or dead trees?
 "Why is this fruit rotting on the tree?"
 "Wake up and smell the coffee, Einstein, the tree is dead. Start growing trees that bear fruit in keeping with repentance."

So let me finish by asking some logical questions:

Why are many (if not most) of our churches focusing on life enhancement, like some late night infomercial, rather than getting to the core of discipleship?

Why do we work so hard to attract people to our churches based on self-gratification and materialistic pyrotechnics, when following Jesus (you know...the Guy who said to people who thought they were ready to jump on the band wagon, "Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head," or, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.") is ultimately to lead them in the opposite direction? How many people would still show up to church if they knew that they might be arrested?

Why are we building our houses on the sand of feel-good-
fluff and superficial community? (Matt 7:26-27).

Why shouldn't discipleship be every pastor's number one priority?

Monday, July 9, 2012

Church Community: Ends or Means?

Perhaps you have noticed that one of the buzz words circulating in the church world today is "community." Recently I listened to an interesting and eye-opening talk by Chris Rosebrough on some of the origins of this movement (if you are interested in listening to the 90 min talk you can click here). It is quite interesting to trace some of these modern roots, but there is a lot of biblical warrant for a focus on community. After all, the Greek word where we get our word "church" ekklesia means gathering or assembly. What I am troubled about is that "community" has become the end rather than the means to an end. Let me explain.

In recent years, seeker-friendly churches have moved away from small group Bible study classes to "community groups." The goal of these groups is personal connection and interaction. I see a fundamental problem with this:

The last hold out in the church for true, transformative discipleship has been replaced with watered down conversations focusing on subjective experience (this is right in line with a postmodern/existentialist worldview). This might seem like a bit of a hyperbole, but talk with your average seeker-driven church and you will probably find something like this:

You: I've noticed that your sermons focus on life topics rather than on in depth teaching of the Bible.

Church Staff: Our Sunday morning experience is arranged to be accessible to everyone. We don't want to push people away with a lot of heavy teaching. Hopefully they will find a home here and get plugged in deeper.

You: So, if I want more knowledge of the Bible, I should go to a Sunday School class?

Church Staff: We are moving away from these type of classes and pushing for community groups.

You: OK. So that's where I would go to learn more about the Bible?

Church Staff: Actually, the primary goal of community groups is not in depth Bible study but fellowship and connection within the church--a good place to bring your unchurched friends. They are designed to be a safe environment for unbelievers.

You: So...where do I go to learn more about what the church actually believes, more about the Bible and theology?

Church Staff: Well, you can study on your own or start a study, but Christians need to quit whining about going deeper and wanting to learn more. We need to be out in the community "loving on people" and not be bickering about our beliefs.

You may think that I am exaggerating, but I as have researched church trends, talked with friends in ministry or who are looking to plug-in to a local church body, scrolled through dozens of church websites, and read articles and books, I assure you I am not.

I hope you can see the problem with this model too. Namely, no true discipleship ever happens. In Matthew 28:18-20, Jesus calls us to baptize and teach them to observe everything that He has commanded.

If community is the end goal or service is the end goal, then let me ask what the fundamental difference is between being in a book club or a service organization like the Rotary or the Lions clubs? Why go to church?

Community is important, but the identity and center focus of that community must be Jesus Christ, as revealed by the Scriptures, if the church is going to be fundamentally different--if it is going to be salt and light in the world. Thus, community is not the ultimate goal--Jesus is. So if the body, the church, the ekklesia isn't focusing on helping us be more like Christ (and not just in the narrow focus of service to others) it isn't Christian community. Jesus didn't die because He was a really nice guy that helped people. His theology got Him killed. He didn't found 4H. He founded His church (Matt 16:18). A casual glance through Stephen's speech in Acts 7 will show that God has abandon rebellious and hard-hearted projects, such as the tabernacle at Shiloh and the Temple, before. For the "church" to be the Body of Christ, it has to be the place, the community where the Spirit of Christ resides. Jesus thought little of the masses. Jesus focused on discipleship.

Does this ring true to your experience? I would love to hear your thoughts on this subject.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Going Where the Wild Things Are

Several years ago, I reread Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are. I had also recently read John Eldridge's Wild At Heart, so I was immediately struck by an observation that I might not have noticed without the juxtaposition of the two books. Normal people would probably read this popular children's book in the understanding that it is about a young boy named Max who starts acting out and gets his rightful punishment of bed without dinner. After visiting his wild and aggressive side, he is tamed by the love and care of his mother who fixes him dinner in spite of his behavior. 

This is probably a healthy("normal") reading of the book. However, at the time I was looking through a primary lens of "masculinity studies" and as they say "when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail." In my rereading of the book I saw a controlling mother who wanted a docile boy that would stay neatly within the confines of tame domestic living. I saw in it the taming of a masculine soul, and I was sad.

A few years later, now that I am a father, I have changed the way I look at this story and think that Max got off pretty lightly by way of punishment. However, my goal here is not really to discuss Mr. Sendak's ultimate intentions for the book or even to force my subjective interpretation upon the story--though, as an English major, this is tempting. This particular reading may or may not be fair to Where the Wild Things Are, but part of my original thoughts on this topic still stand.

Eldridge makes an interesting point when he writes, "Man was born in the outback, from the untamed part of creation. Only afterward is he brought to Eden" (Wild At Heart, 3-4). He also rightly points out that many heroes in the Bible went to the wilderness: Jacob, Moses, Elijah, and Jesus to name a few. As a matter of fact, Mark's gospel says that after Jesus' baptism "immediately the Spirit drove Him into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness 40 days,  being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals..." It sounds like Jesus went to His very own place where the wild things are.

So why do the biblical heroes go to the wilderness? What is it about the wilderness that allows them--perhaps even allows us--to hear from God?

A short time ago I went on a hike and could not get rid of these thoughts. I was wondering what it is about wild places that works on our souls so powerfully. As I hiked, these thoughts came to mind:
--God created a perfect environment for people to live. It was controlled, safe, and totally on God's terms.
--When Adam and Eve sinned, they where doubly naked--no clothes and no home. In a word they were vulnerable.
--When Cain killed his brother, God cursed him to wander the wilderness for the rest of his life. But Genesis 4:16-17 says that "...Cain went out from the LORD's presence and lived in the land of Nod...then Cain became the builder of a city." In other words, people rejected God's way of life and His plan for safety and security which made them feel naked and vulnerable. But rather than turn to God and rely on Him, people began constructing their own forms of control and security.

When we go through wilderness wanderings, the point is so that we can release our control and rely on God. That is when He can truly speak to us. At home, in the city, in the car (wherever we have our technology) we feel like we are in control, but when we are not in control of the world--in the wilderness where the wild things are--we become aware of our need. And God meets that need. He comes as a burning bush. He sends bread by His messenger ravens. He sends angels to attend. If we want to hear a fresh word from God and have Him move powerfully in our lives, then perhaps we need to spend more time in wilderness wondering, vulnerable and depending on God. When we come out of the wilderness, I think that we will find our supper waiting on us, just like Max did. 

Have you ever had a "wilderness experience?" What did you learn from the experience?