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.

 

Meet Generation Z

generation z“Meet Generation Z,” by James Emory White, is a book primarily focused on helping readers understand Generation Z (young people born between the years 1995-2010), as well as give some insight on how the church can better minister to them. Of course, the challenge to any such work on a generation that spans young children through current college students is that research findings are still early, and tend to be focused more on the older end of the generation – we just can’t survey eight year olds the way we can older teens and college age young adults.

The strength of this book is the first third of the book, labeled part one (the book is divided into two parts); White’s summary and exploration of what the research is telling us about Generation Z. He explores the impact on a generation that has grown up with an exposure to technology like no other generation, views on race, their sexual fluidity, and the reality of being a generation that has grown up in a post-Christian culture. It’s critical for older generations to recognize the realities that are shaping young people and the fact that none of us have experienced a childhood like they have. I may have been a teen, but I do not know what it is like for my children to be teens in 2018 America.

Part two frustrated me somewhat. White details his church’s approach to ministry to Generation Z, which is good and has some great practical ideas. But there are also times where he comes across as blaming Generation Z for some of the challenges they present; the reality is, though, they are the product of the culture that has produced them. Their lack of Biblical knowledge, or views on sexuality, are not some sort of generational agenda – it’s simply opportunities for us to learn in grow in our approaches. He also includes the transcripts of three sermons he gave at his church as examples of ways to teach to Generation Z on topics relevant to them; one on gay marriage, one on spirituality, and one on the topic of why we should believe in God. As someone who spends the bulk of his time working with Generation Z, while these are topics they care about – the sermons were more how I would approach it with the congregation as a whole, not as a lesson geared towards teens.

For me, the real value to the book is in the first third; part two is a mixed bag to me. Having said that, there is not much out there on Generation Z and this is a good first step. It’s definitely good for church leaders to check out, but it has limitations.

How to Lead When You’re Not in Charge

how to lead“How to Lead When You’re Not in Charge,” by Clay Scroggins, the Lead Pastor at North Point Community Church (Andy Stanley’s church), is a really strong book on leadership for everyone. The main thrust of the book is the idea that people do not need to wait until they are at the top of the org chart before they start leading; that we actually all have influence and potential to lead from whatever position we serve in, whether at work, the church, in the community, or anywhere.

I love his challenge that being a leader doesn’t mean leaning on positional authority, rather it is effectively leveraging influence and relationships to lead.  He challenges the readers to first lead themselves well, to be active – not waiting for opportunity and blaming others when it doesn’t go as hoped, but to instead be constantly thinking critically about ways to improve and grow and then go after it.

I loved his quote, “Leaders don’t sit back and point fingers. Leaders lead with the authority of leadership … or without it. The authority [a title, positional authority] is largely irrelevant – if you are a leader, you will lead when you are needed.” (p.26) I love that challenge. It really does boil down to recognizing that God gives opportunities to act, God gives each of us influence somewhere, and are we using it to lead? Scroggins does a great job of painting a picture of both recognizing that leadership ability and giving practical advice on acting on it.

As a guy who isn’t the lead guy in my church, I loved reading leadership advice from the man who leads under Andy Stanley – one of the more famous senior pastors in America. It was incredibly thought provoking and really challenged me to rethink the ways I could grow in my leadership while not being the lead guy. The book is easy to read, flows well, and has great guidance for everyone. I highly recommend it!

 

Rob Bell’s “How to be Here”

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I just finished Rob Bell’s book, How to Be Here: A Guide to Creating a Life Worth Living, his book challenging readers to live in the present and make the most of their lives.

Meh.

I have to be honest, I was pretty underwhelmed by it. There was nothing bad about it, but nothing that really made it stand out, either. Rob Bell has been a mixed bag for me in recent years; I have significant disagreements with some of his theology, deeply resonate with other aspects of his teaching, and in general love his gift for communication.

I did appreciate his challenge that regardless of where God has placed you, your life has deep value and significance. He writes, “What you do with your life is fundamentally creative work. The kind of life you lead, what you do with your time, how you spend your energies – it’s all part of how you create your life. All work is ultimately creative work because all of us are taking part in the ongoing creation of the world.” (p.11)

Ultimately, though, while it has moments of strength and some great quotes I highlighted to use later, a lot of it felt somewhat trite. It is a short book; I think it only took me a couple hours or so to read – but it pretends to be longer than it is. Most paragraphs are only a sentence or two, most chapters are only a couple pages … there’s just a lot of white space. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing; he’s done that very effectively in other books. But this time it felt a little more forced, like he was trying to stretch it into more than it is. And maybe that’s the frustration I have with it; it’s a solid message, but maybe it should be just a message instead of trying to force it into filling a book. It’s okay. And for the first time in a while, I’m not listing any theological issues to look out for in a Rob Bell book. But there just isn’t a whole to it, either.

 

4 Views On Pastoring LGBTQ Teenagers review

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The Youth Cartel‘s recent release, 4 Views on Pastoring LGBTQ Teenagers, is critical reading for anyone connected to youth ministry. I’ll be honest; I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. When they first announced it as an upcoming book, I assumed it would be like most contrasting views books; a debate on whether or not youth ministry should minister to LGBTQ teens. I was wrong; this book assumes that as people created in the image of God, every church has a divine calling to minister to LGBTQ teens. This book is not a theological debate, rather, it is a presentation of a range of approaches to practical ministry with young people.

Given that premise, I had another assumption. Noticing a pattern? I assumed it would be four liberal/progressive authors presenting their approaches with little to no connection to the culture and context of my church. I was so wrong. Mark Oestreicher did an incredible job of assembling a group of authors from significantly different church contexts, each with drive to minister to LGBTQ teens, but in very different ways, shaped dramatically by their church cultures.

A central theme to the book is this; “if we say we are all made in the image of God – the Imago Dei – then we must affirm that LGBTQ individuals are also made in the image of God” (p.17). Each of the authors are united in the calling to minister to all young people, regardless of labels; what was fascinating to see them each present their approaches, as well as push back on one another  in areas of disagreement. One author comes from a point of view of full inclusion and equality, another writes, “even though we may not agree with their sexual behaviors or what many in the church would call lifestyle choices, we can still offer love and extend grace” (p.76). What would seem such conflicting theologies, and did result in some thought provoking rebuttals in their responses to one another, was still incredibly exciting to see because each of these ministries were being proactive and intentional in their love and ministry to a community typically rejected or ignored by the church at large.

The format was simple; each author (Shelley Donaldson, Gemma Dunning, Nick Elio, Eric Woods) presented a personal story that shaped and challenged them, followed by their theology and ministry framework, and concluded with a description of how they applied that practically in their ministries. Each of the four views are followed by one response from one of the other authors, highlighting areas of agreement, concern, and even outright disagreement. The book concludes with two appendixes on ministry to transgender teens (Mark Oestricher, Audrua Welch Malvaez); the first from the parent of a transgender teen, the second from the perspective of pastoring transgender teens. For me, perhaps one of the most convicting and powerful quotes came from Oestricher in his appendix, “Thoughts from a Parent of a Transgender Teen.” He was answering the question of what he needed as a parent, and it was simple; “to know that you still want my kid here, even if they don’t fit your idea of the ideal youth ministry kid. I want you to celebrate all that is good and beautiful and true about my child and my relationship with my child” (p.122).

So, to sum up; this book is a must read. It’s not huge; at just under 140 pages, it is not overwhelming. For me, as a youth pastor, I felt like it was the first time I was reading something that gave actual direction on possible approaches to ministry instead of just theological arguments. It’s a risky book to write in our American church climate; I wonder if there aren’t more resources out there like this one because of fear? I may have drained the ink in my highlighter as I was reading; there is something marked on just about every page of my copy. It’s well written, from significantly different ministry theological and practical climates, and it is a significant contribution to the youth ministry world.

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Jeremy & Jerusha Clark’s “Your Teenager is Not Crazy”

teenagernotcrazyI really, really like this book. It’s  a must read for parents of teens, tweens, and those that work with them. Dr. Jeremy Clark and Jerusha Clark’s book, “Your Teenager is Not Crazy: Understanding Your Teen’s Brain Can Make You a Better Parent” is a strong exploration of the biological, psychological and spiritual changes and developments happening in adolescents. What makes this book stand out from others I have read like it is how the Clark’s have used some of the latest in brain development research help shape and inform their approach to understanding teenagers. Adolescence triggers explosive amounts of neurological development, a process that does not finish until the mid-twenties, and actually explains much of the conflict and misunderstanding between parents and their teens.

Their approach is simple; over the course of 26 chapters, the Clark’s tackle a wide variety of adolescent and parent issues, from emotions, to sex, to blame, selfishness, friends, food and more. With each topic they introduce the issue, then follow a pattern; Bio 101 is where they tackle exactly how adolescent brain development connects to the topic at hand, Psych 101 address the psychological aspects of the issue as well as how to approach it effectively with your teen, and finally, Faith 101 is where they give advice on how to point the teen (and parents) to Christ in this area. At the end of each chapter, they give a practical challenge on how to live out their advice in your home today.

The book is strong. It’s clear they have done their homework in researching the topics, and their years of experience counseling, as well as parenting their own teens, come through loud and clear through the stories and illustrations they share. As a parent of a fifteen and a thirteen year old boy, I found this book incredibly enlightening. As I understand more and more the psychological and physical development going on under the surface, it makes it far more attainable to understand what is going on with my kids and the teens I work with as a youth pastor, as well as help give me the ability to be more patient and confident in how I approach them.

I already said it at the beginning; this is a must read for parents and those interacting with adolescents. It is a strong resource, covering a wide range of adolescent topics – making it something that can be turned to as different issues and situations arise. It’s available as a book, digital book and audio book, so it’s very accessible. Check it out!

Thom Rainer’s “Who Moved My Pulpit?”

thom rainerThom Rainer’s “Who Moved My Pulpit?” is a great book for pastors and church members alike. Rainer has built a reputation for knowing how churches move, the latest trends, for solid research and great leadership advice. In this book he tackles the question of how pastors can lead change in their churches, giving an eight stage model for approaching and leading change effectively.

The title of the book comes from an actual story; a pastor once changed the pulpit without giving anyone a heads up … resulting in massive controversy and ultimately taking two years to rebuild ministry momentum after the conflict. I’ll be honest, stories like that are frustrating to read; a part of me is shocked at the things that can become sources of conflict, but at the same time, Rainer does an effective job of using such stories to give extreme examples of how poorly implemented change can incredibly disrupt a church’s ability to ministry.

He describes the different types of church members and how to most effectively guide them through change, how to build a coalition of support, gives guidance on the pace of how change should work, coaches on how to communicate to the church as a whole and ultimately how to implement the change.

Ultimately, Rainer is a change advocate. He writes that “nine out of ten churches in North America are losing ground in the communities in which they are located. They are declining or growing more slowly than their respective communities” (Kindle location 366). He attributes that decline in part to many churches’ inability change with the culture, a result of a far too often inward focus instead of an outward focus.

It’s a great book. Over the last couple years I’ve become a big fan of Rainer’s work. It’s small, so it’s a fast read. It’s definitely a great book for pastors and their leadership to read together as they think through how to lead their churches. Towards that end, he includes discussion questions at the end of each chapter that can be used either by the individual reader to diagnose his/her church, or for the leadership team as they process the information together.