A Biblical Theology of Youth Ministry (review)

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Dr. Michael McGarry’s new book, “A Biblical Theology of Youth Ministry,” is an important resource for the youth ministry community. He powerfully addresses the need for, and the importance of, youth ministry from a number of perspectives.

An experienced youth pastor, McGarry opens the book addressing one of the fundamental concerns many youth ministry veterans and experts have identified; the drop out rate from church is far too high when young people graduate from the youth ministry. We can’t just keep replicating the approaches and systems that have contributed to this problem.

McGarry writes, “the emphasis of this book is on presenting a clear and simple but thoroughly biblical framework for thinking about youth ministry as the church’s expression of partnership with the family for co-evangelizing and co-discipling the next generation.” (p.3)

Towards that end, he does something I have not seen done before; he works through the modern landscape of youth ministry, youth ministry in the Old Testament and New Testament, youth ministry in church history, the theology of youth ministry, and ultimately how this all connects to the family and the local church. For me, this systematic working through youth ministry in each of these contexts is what makes this book so important. He creates a backdrop of history and story that gives weight to his final chapters describing the important components of a healthy approach to youth ministry.

I love his quote, “Youth ministry is for adolescence, the family is for life, and the Church is for eternity.” (p.143) This theme is repeated throughout the book and plays a critical role in shaping a biblical theology of youth ministry.

At 164 pages, this is an easy read. While part of the Randall House Academic line, McGarry does a great job of balancing solid research and methodology with an approachable writing style making this a book for youth ministry professionals and volunteers alike. I highly recommend the book; it is definitely a must read for anyone who wants to see young people and families impacted for God.

The Gospel of Ruth

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The Gospel of Ruth: Loving God Enough to Break the Rules, by Carolyn Custis James, is a fascinating book. While I’ve always enjoyed the book of Ruth, I’ve never taken the time to do a deep dive into it’s message and narrative. Unsurprisingly, there is far more to this short book of the Old Testament than many would assume.

James does a powerful job of dispelling the mistaken ways we romanticize the story through our modern cultural bias and instead brings light to how the ancient writer and readers would have read the text. What comes through are incredible lessons in hesed, in seeing the dramatic ways in which Ruth broke with expectations, how Boaz and Ruth both serve as incredible examples of kindness way beyond what was expected or required. James’ comments on Naomi’s story’s connections to the book of Job were eye opening for me.

Walking with God takes us into a sea of possibilities that stretch our capacity for sacrifice and our imagination for obedience, reminding us there’s always more to following God than we think. (p. 102)

All that to say, I really enjoyed this book. It’s definitely worth checking out. It’s fascinating to see how Ruth and Naomi pushed the cultural bounds and expectations. It’s amazing to learn about the response of Boaz and the community. This book really helps open the reader’s eyes to what God accomplishes and teaches through the book of Ruth.

Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age (review)

Disruptive Witness Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age

I recently finished Alan Noble’s “Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age.” Noble’s goal in writing the book is to challenge the reader to a deeper, more disruptive (to the culture around us) faith, freed from the distractions of the technology and culture we are immersed in. I found the following passage particularly powerful:

We can adopt thin beliefs about almost anything. Perhaps you become deeply convicted about the plight of Syrian refugees after the US president callously calls for them to be banned. His words strike you as offensive, inhumane, and cruel. And while you may still harbor some unspoken suspicions about Middle Easterners after 9/11, this issue feels like the perfect opportunity to show your goodwill. The next time you see a meme showing refugee children with a superimposed verse about caring for the “least of these,” you decide not only to like it but to share it with your friends. This signals what your stance is on the issue and maybe something about your personal character, your open-mindedness and concern for foreigners. An argument breaks out on your post, with some of your distant relatives and old high school friends arguing over whether Islam is a religion of peace and whether “moderate Muslims” exist. You jump in to defend your position, citing lines of argument that you’ve picked up from other viral images or a John Oliver clip you watched on YouTube. You care about this issue passionately. There is a tremendous moral urgency to your writing, and you are even willing to anger and lose friends over your stance—a stance you adopted fifteen minutes prior, after seeing a compelling viral image on Facebook. Meanwhile, the foundation of your belief goes unquestioned. (p.45)

When he’s calling out these kinds of thin beliefs, the ways we allow ourselves to be distracted, disconnected – Noble really hits his stride. His challenge to live a life of faith that brings a witness to the world around us is a strong one. I found those parts of the book deeply compelling. In other parts, he critiques contemporary worship services, expresses his dissatisfaction with Vacation Bible School, and other modern attempts to bridge culture and faith. I wasn’t convinced that he was right that these approaches are wrong – just that they don’t resonate with him and his pursuit of God, and even found myself somewhat frustrated with his conclusions in those areas.

Overall, I’m glad I read the book. Having said that, it was a bit of a mixed bag for me; parts I loved, parts I found frustrating.

I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness

still hereI’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, by Austin Channing Brown, is a powerful book. From her opening sentence to the close of the book, Brown writes a provocative, challenging call to not just awareness, but action. She shines the light not just on the blatant ways in which American culture reveals its racism; she also highlights the more subtle, insidious racism that often times goes unnoticed by those exhibiting it.

“White supremacy is a tradition that must be named and a religion that must be renounced. When this work has not been done, those who live in whiteness become oppressive, whether intentional or not.” (p.22)

For me, this book is a call to action for the church. If we’re really honest with ourselves, “white churches” largely ignore this topic, or periodically give it token acknowledgement, but for the most part ignore it because it’s easy. And it’s uncomfortable to actually acknowledge.

I loved her story of a fellow classmate beginning to get it;

“‘I don’t know what to do with what I’ve learned,’ she said. ‘I can’t fix your pain, and I can’t take it away, but I can see it. And I can work for the rest of my life to make sure your children don’t have to experience the pain of racism.’ And then she said nine words that I’ve never forgotten: ‘Doing nothing is no longer an option for me.'” (p.58)

I’ll be honest, it’s hard to capture the book in a short blog post. It’s powerful. It’s important. Christians need to read it, but not just pat themselves on the back for reading it – it needs to provoke change, not just awareness. The challenge of doing nothing no longer being an option rings loud and clear through every page.

The Lost World of Scripture: Ancient Literary Culture and Biblical Authority

lost worldThe third book in John Walton’s “Lost World” series, this is the first to feature a co-author, and the biggest of the five. The Lost World of Scripture is heavy reading, but fascinating. Walton and Sandy follow the format of previous books with building propositions, but this time with regard to ancient views on communication, authority, and literature. Essentially, Walton writes the first half of the book with a focus on Old Testament literature, while Sandy does the same with the New Testament. The book then concludes with a few more propositions written by them together.

Walton’s contribution was riveting; I was fascinated with his exploration of ancient authority, oral based cultures, and the minor role the written word played – which makes sense, given how few were actually literate. In some ways, it became abundantly clear that as a text-dominant culture and world, it is almost impossible to fully understand ancient culture’s oral based system of authority and passing on of information. Walton does an effective job of identifying those cultural differences and how it has both shaped the scriptures, as well as ways in which we should reconsider our approaches to scripture today.

Sandy’s New Testament portion was also interesting, however somewhat redundant. Literacy was becoming more wide spread during the writing of the New Testament books, but it was still a primarily oral based culture so there was a lot of overlap in what he wrote with what Walton had already established in the Old Testament portion of the book.

In the conclusion, the authors tackle issues of inerrancy, modern standards versus ancient standards, and a present a compelling argument for the authority of scripture. Overall, I’m really glad I read the book. I feel like I have a much stronger sense of scripture and authority. At the same time, it was not an easy read. It took me a while to work my way through the whole book; I’m not sure that it’s ideal for the casual reader. You really need to want to understand ancient languages and literature, as well as ancient views on authority and values in writing to enjoy this book. Having said that, it’s definitely an important work for anyone who teaches/preaches from scripture to read.

Becoming a Welcoming Church

BecomingAWelcomingChurch“Becoming a Welcoming Church,” by Thom Rainer, is a must read for anyone in church leadership. I picked it up thinking it might be worth checking out; loved it so much the rest of our Ministry Leadership Team got copies, and now we have a case of them on the way to give to our board of deacons and other leaders who are interested. It’s that good.

Basically, Thom Rainer set out to answer the question of how to become a welcoming church by interviewing people who visited churches one time and didn’t come back. He went after the reasons they didn’t return; what were the barriers to connecting? The result? This short little book (only 128 pages) packed with critically important observations for the church. Some of the things he pointed out were already on our radar to deal with; other things were areas we hadn’t even considered. Either way, it’s great having such a solid resource based on current research, to help inform decisions we make as a church in our pursuit of reaching this region.

It’s an easy read, packed with solid advice and insight, based on decades of church consulting and solid research, and a must read for those in church leadership. You can buy individual copies on Amazon, or get it in bulk on Thom Rainer’s website for a significant discount.

A Handful of Book Reviews …

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There are a number of books I’ve read in the last couple months; here are a few with brief summaries of my thoughts on them!

“Half the Church: Recapturing God’s Global Vision for Women,” by Carolyn Custis James. I thought this is a fascinating book; it was not what I expected. I really appreciated her comments on the different experiences for women around the world, challenging readers to recognize that while our fallen world often does not give women the respect and honor they deserve, the answers are not the same worldwide – that cultures and different environments demand different next steps. Ultimately, she challenges readers to capture God’s vision for women, to see the ways in which His will is not lived out and be a part of the answer to moving the world towards His intent. In our American culture, we are not yet a place as a country, or as a church, that can claim to be treating women like the image-bearers of God that they are. I definitely recommend this book.

“Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church,” by N.T. Wright. I really, really liked this book. I read it to explore Wright’s thoughts on heaven; that it is not a place we escape to, rather, it is a resurrected earth – part of our resurrection – a world finally fulfilling the vision God desires for it and His creation. What I didn’t expect was the incredible challenge to begin practicing for that resurrection life now; in how we live, how we treat others, how we care for the creation around us. Powerful, powerful stuff.

“Adam and the Genome: Reading Scripture After Genetic Science,” by Dennis Venema & Scot McKnight. I thought Venema and McKnight took an interesting approach; Venema, a scientist who is a believer, wrote the first half of the book focusing on what the latest research has told us about the human genome. McKnight wrote the second half of the book, taking a theologian’s approach to reconciling that information with faith. I was blown away by what has been learned from the genome; Venema is right when he asserts it points to a Creator – even if that evidence might challenge some of our traditional assumptions about origins. McKnight’s half of the book was good as well; I didn’t agree with all of his approaches, and honestly, I think John Walton has handled these topics more effectively in his “Lost World” books. Either way, it’s a fascinating book, and having been released in 2017, makes use of the latest research powerfully.