Archive for the ‘Book Review’ Category

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Facing Our Failure

January 10, 2009


The Fellowship Dilemma in Conservative Churches of Christ

A few days ago Jay Guin posted about an intriguing new book titled Facing Our Failure: The Fellowship Dilemma in Conservative Churches of Christ. I googled the book and read a few reviews from both sides of the question, and then contacted Todd Deaver to purchase a copy. My copy arrived yesterday, and I read it last night. (The book is self-published. I ordered my copy by contacting Todd at ptdeaver@yahoo.com. Apparently I received one of the last copies, and he is currently ordering a new batch. I also noticed that there is an ebay offering of the book.).

Todd Deaver was raised in the conservative churches of Christ, the son and grandson of well-known preachers. He received his B.A. in Bible and Philosophy and his Master’s degree in New Testament from that conservative school.

He began thinking about the question of fellowship while a student at Freed Hardeman. A curious paradox confronted him. His church of Christ heritage drew some very distinct lines of fellowship over certain doctrinal topics that were considered essential. But that same heritage accepted diversity of views on a surprising number of other doctrinal topics. Todd wondered what the guiding principle was, which led to embracing precisely this group of believers, and excluding all others. Todd writes:

I graduated, continued several years in fulltime ministry, and still assumed that the elusive key to the fellowship dilemma would present itself to me eventually. I didn’t know how, but I was convinced there had to be some way to justify our decisions about which disagreements can be tolerated in our fellowship and which ones can’t. I simply hadn’t found it yet.

Five years ago I stopped looking.

The result of those subsequent five years is a compelling book documenting rampant inconsistencies in the teaching and practice of fellowship within conservative churches of Christ. The book documents a wide array of topics on which the conservative wing of churches of Christ differ with one another. The book is filled with footnotes quoting a plethora of well-known conservative church of Christ preachers contradicting one another on numerous topics — most notably, on how to determine whom can be fellowshiped and whom cannot. Yet the brothers he quoted, in most if not all cases, never broke fellowship with others who disagreed with them on these topics.

It is widely taught in conservative churches that any deviation from the true and accurate doctrine of the scriptures is fatal — that is, it breaks fellowship with God, and therefore it must break fellowship with the church. They even hold that failure to break fellowship in those cases is itself grounds for being put out of fellowship with the church. However, Todd proves beyond question that the practice of these churches does not match their rhetoric. They extend fellowship to others who disagree on many topics. Todd identifies nineteen different aspects of the fellowship question alone, on which they differ. Yet they do not break fellowship over those differences. They do not follow the principles they teach on this subject.

So, what principles do they follow? Do they simply follow their own personal preferences in deciding which disagreements block fellowship? When they draw these lines of fellowship, are they following the teachings of men, or of God? In the absence of a clear biblical principle that can be consistently applied, I can only conclude that they are following their own human preferences and opinions. It seems they rule others as saved or lost based on what feels right to them.

Todd chose not to lay out a solution to the fellowship dilemma in this book. His reasoning was that if he were to propose a solution, that solution would divert all the attention away from the problem he set out to expose. Instead, he hopes that the book will convince people that the current doctrine and practice of these churches on the issue of fellowship is internally inconsistent and untenable. He has left the door open to the possibility that he will follow up with another book advocating a solution. I hope he does.

I have blogged often on this subject. We are called to unity in the faith. We are commanded not to pass judgment over disputable matters. We are taught that we are sons of God through faith, because we were all baptized into Christ and clothed with Christ. And if we are all sons of God, then we are all brothers, and should embrace one another as brothers. God extends grace, and so should we.

I believe church of Christ hermeneutics are the root of the dilemma that Todd describes. We are entirely too confident in human ability to infer the will of God on every subject. We have fancied ourselves as detectives with skills rivaling Sherlock Holmes himself. Instead we should practice doctrinal humility. With the judgment we use, we will be judged. If we demand that our brother agree with us on every topic in order to be accepted into fellowship, then we had better be absolutely perfectly right on every topic ourselves. I doubt any of us is.

I appreciate Todd “sticking his neck out” and writing this much-needed book. As one who longs for the Christian unity that Jesus prayed for in John 17, I recommend this book and the subsequent discussion to all in conservative churches of Christ. May we all humbly seek God’s will in this important matter!

Todd has started a blog and is currently discussing the book.

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Book Review: Family-Based Youth Ministry

July 22, 2007


Traditional youth ministers work themselves to the bone to hold their ministries together “with Scotch tape and paper clips” while at the same time ignoring the most powerful resource they may have–teenagers’ parents. We can no longer continue to view parents as neutral factors in our ministry to their teenagers. Parents, simply by the way they raise their children, will either empower our ministries or sabotage them. Parents play a role second only to that of the Holy Spirit in building the spiritual foundation of their children’s lives.

In Family-Based Youth Ministries (revised and expanded, 2004) by Mark DeVries, churches are given a new vision and hope for their youth ministries. Devries describes the traditional view:

During the last century, church and parachurch youth ministries alike have increasingly (and often unwittingly) held to a single strategy that has become the defining characteristic of this model: the isolation of teenagers from the adult world and particularly from their own parents.

Traditionally, success in the youth ministry has been measured by participation statistics, by whether the teens enjoy the programs, and even whether the teens commit their lives to Christ–but without evaluating the long term retention of these teens in their adult lives. Unfortunately, as an inherent consequence of separating the teens from the adults, they receive limited preparation for adult life. Their understanding of adult spiritual life comes from memories of a room full of adolescents being entertained by a dynamic young youth minister. That picture is inadequate to support them through the struggles they will face as adults. Statistics confirm the bleak picture that youth ministries in general are not getting the job done, from the long term perspective.

In this book Mark DeVries advocates a different approach, in which the youth ministry is built on the foundation of parents and other spiritual adults. In his approach, primary responsibility for the spiritual formation of the children is given, not to the youth minister, but to parents. Focused help is given to the parents to empower them in carrying out this responsibility. And deliberate steps are taken to build relationships between teens and other adult members who can be mentors and encouragers as the teen navigates the transition to adulthood.

DeVries addresses the difficult nontraditional family situations that are becoming more prevalent–blended families, single-parent families, and families with spiritually weak parents. Especially in those situations, mentors outside the family are a crucial part of the extended family that is the church. This extended family works to provide what is lacking in the immediate family unit to help the teenagers develop a healthy vision of spiritual adulthood.

Reading this book, I couldn’t help thinking that the phenomenon of the traditional youth ministry, isolated from adults, is a smaller piece of a larger problem. My wife and I noticed the same thing happening in campus ministry a few years ago. At this stage of life, students are living away from their parents for the first time, and are wrestling alone for the first time with roommate issues, with managing their own finances, with finding a career, and with dating and marriage. They are deciding who they want to be as adults. This is exactly the wrong time to be separating them from the older spiritual adults whose examples and decades of experience in those areas can make all the difference in the students’ search. College students need older adults as mentors. And based on my experience, they are hungry for those relationships. They love the adults who guide them away from dangers and toward the right path.

We often make the same kind of mistake with adult singles, young marrieds, families with small children, etc. I believe we do so to the detriment of the future of the church. God designed the church as a family. The older men and women should teach the younger men and women how to live a godly life, both by example and by word. That goes for every stage of life, but none are more critical than the teen and college stages.

This book provides more than theory about adult involvement with teens. At the end of each chapter there is a list of “Implications for Ministry” and a “Wild Hair Idea” to get started implementing the concepts from the chapter. This second edition (2004) of the book includes a chapter titled “Making it Work” and appendices with implementation ideas, and even a curriculum to help parents connect with teens.

On the back cover is the following endorsement of the book:

When I am asked to recommend one book every youth worker must read, I tell them to get Family-Based Youth Ministry. It’s without question the most important youth ministry book of the past ten years. — Wayne Rice, Cofounder, Youth Specialties, and Director, Understanding Your Teenager

This is an eye-opening book. It just might be the start of a new era in your youth ministry–and perhaps even beyond.

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Book Review: The Churching of America (1776-2005)

May 13, 2007


Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy
by Roger Fink and Rodney Stark

Where do our modern churches come from? How did we get here? And what can we learn from that, to help us move forward? These are crucial questions for the church today. The Churching of America (1776-2005) is a great place to gain insights into these questions.

From the very opening page, this book challenges conventional wisdom:

The most striking trend in the history of religion in America is its growth–or what we call the churching of America. The backbone of this book consists of our attempt to explore and explain how and why America shifted from a nation in which most people took no part in organized religionto a nation in which nearly two-thirds of American adults do. …Not all denominations shared in the immense rise in membership rates, and to the degree that denominations rejected traditional doctrines and ceased to make serious demands on their followers, they ceased to prosper. The churching of America was accomplished by aggressive churches committed to vivid otherworldliness.

The first chapter of the book discusses the methodology of the writers in their investigation into the patterns of church growth in America, and for the causes of those patterns. They viewed the religious environment as a kind of economy, where different denominations compete with their ideas and methods for followers. In the subsequent chapters, they traced not merely the number of adherents in various denominations, but also their market share (percentage of the “churched” population) and market penetration (percentage of the total population). They traced church growth in America, starting in the year 1776, when 17% of the population were members of a church, through the year 2005, when 62% of the population were church members. And in the midst of that dramatic growth, they examined the meteoric rise of particular denominations, and the severe decline of others.

The authors traced the fortunes of the Congregationalists, Episcopals, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, and Catholics starting from colonial days—the decline in market share of the first three, and the gains in the latter three. In particular, the Methodists experienced breathtaking growth, from a 2.5% market share in 1776, to an amazing 34.2% by 1850. That gain in market share is all the more impressive when one considers that the market itself grew in size during those years.

In 1776 the Methodists were a tiny religious society with only 65 churches scattered throughout the colonies. In 1850 there were 13,302 Methodist congregations, enrolling more than 2.6 million members — the largest single denomination, accounting for more than a third of American church members.

The Methodists won America during those years through hard work and a simple, passionate message. The trend started with the revolutionary effect of the great George Whitefield, preaching to tens of thousands at a time and converting thousands. Following Whitefield came a cavalry of circuit riders, men who spent their lives riding on horseback from village to village, holding large evangelistic camp meetings, building and strengthening churches. The message was sin, repentance, and judgment. The congregations were organized into small groups called classes, consisting of a dozen or so people under the care of a class leader. Several of these classes would form a congregation. The preacher of the congregation, more often than not, was a farmer like the the rest of the congregation, receiving little or no pay for his role as minister.

As the Methodists rose, the Congregationalists declined. The decline was not obvious at first because, while they were clearly losing market share, their numbers were growing because the overall population was growing rapidly. But under the liberal influence of their universities (including Harvard and Yale), they were leaving behind many basic convictions about the nature of God and his relationship to man. Humanism and Deism crept in, and the message became ever less compelling. The Methodists, with their passionate plea for repentance and warnings of judgment to come, ate the Congregationalists’ lunch.

After 1850, the Methodists entered their own decline. They had acquired nice buildings and were beginning to employ a university-educated clergy. Their message became diluted and other upstart groups began to take away their market share.

The authors trace a similar pattern through several other religous groups. They identified a common thread distinguishing the winners and the losers. They described a continuum extending from “sects” to “churches”. They used the term “sect” to identify religious groups that exist in strong tension with the culture around them. Sects expect a lot from their members. There is a high cost and a high reward for membership. On the other end of the continuum, the authors applied the term “church” to those religious groups that blend into their culture. For these groups, the cost of membership was not high, and the reward was correspondingly low. The consistent pattern seen in this book is that the sects beat the churches every time. As churches go into decline, sects enter the vacuum and thrive. Thus the overall religious adherence in America has risen steadily for over 200 years, despite the severe decline of many prominent religious groups.

This is a fascinating book for anyone interested in learning lessons from church history. As the saying goes, those who fail to learn from history are destined to repeat it.

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Book Review: Set Apart — calling a worldly church to a Godly life

May 6, 2007

Who can deny … that the evangelical enterprise has become worldly, that materialism grips the church, that pleasure-seeking dominates us, that evangelicals watch sensuality and violence like everyone else, that immodesty is de jure, that voyeurism and pornography and sexual laxity and divorce are on the rise, and that we, like Lot, could find that Sodom has been born anew in our own homes. God help us if while decrying sin, we are sprinting headlong after it.

We must lay this to heart: A worldly church cannot and will not reach the world. — R. Kent Hughes, Set Apart

In Set Apart (available at amazon.com), R Kent Hughes calls our attention to a serious problem in the modern church. He cites multiple sources and calls upon the reader’s own experience to prove that the church has become contaminated by the world. Speaking from the perspective of an evangelical preacher, he urges the church to be “Set Apart to Save.”

In demonstrating the contamination of the church by the world, he calls on us to become set apart from the world in nine areas: materialism, hedonism, viewing sensuality, violence and voyeurism, sexual conduct, modesty, pluralism, marriage, and commitment to the church. On materialism, he shows that the spending habits and debt problems of Christians are no different from those of non-Christians. He shows that Christians pursue the same twisted, dysfunctional pleasures that the world pursues. We watch the same sensual television shows. We entertain ourselves with the same violence. We are immersed in the same warped attitudes toward sex and marriage. Rather than taking a stand against the corrupt values of society, we have blended in. Society tells us that anyone who preaches one true way, to the exclusion of others, is a narrow-minded bigot and a social pariah. So we have kept quiet. Some of us have even begun to believe what society is saying.

Hughes points us to another road. By saying “No” to the world we can say “Yes” to the blessed life to which God calls us. Instead of distorted and dysfunctional pleasures that do not satisfy, we can fully enjoy and participate in the pleasures prepared for us by God. In doing so, we can be a light to the world.

The Restoration Movement churches need to listen to this message. We are immersed in the same culture that Hughes describes, and are taking on the characteristics of that society. If we are to be a light to the world, we must be different. We must be set apart. A worldly church needs to be called to a Godly life–first for our own salvation, but also for the salvation of the world.

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Book Review: Kingdom Come

November 15, 2006

Today I am reviewing Kingdom Come: Embracing the Spiritual Legacy of David Lipscomb and James Harding
by John Mark Hicks and Bobby Valentine

Can we say anything good about 1906?

This book recovers a piece of forgotten history from the first decade of the twentieth century. Some of the finest examples of kingdom living to be found among Churches of Christ are found in the midst of that heartbreaking year of division. The “best” of Churches of Christ in 1906 is represented by the life, thought and practice of David Lipscomb (1831-1917) and James A. Harding (1848-1922), despite the fact that Lipscomb and Harding participated in the conditions which resulted in division.

The above statement from the preface sets the stage for the remainder of the book. The authors proceed to outline what they call the Nashville Bible School Tradition (NBST), the set of beliefs that defined the world view of these two men. It is a world view that was drowned out by the noise of the 1906 division, and largely died out at the end of the lives of its two most public articulators.

The majority of the book is devoted to describing the views that comprise the NBST. The authors affirm that Lipscomb and Harding defined the NBST, which consisted of the following views (based on my best effort to enumerate them):

1. Resident aliens: Christians are to be in the world but not of the world. Yet we are affected by the world in ways, and to an extent, that we scarcely realize. The Sermon on the Mount summarizes the counter-cultural principles by which we should live while residing as strangers in this world.

2. God rather than Country. They opposed the idea that America is a special Christian nation in God’s eyes. While they lived in America, their relationship to their country of residence was the same as Abraham’s relationship to the Canaanites, or as the first century Christians to the Romans.

3. Special Providence. God acts in supernatural ways to care for his children and to answer their prayers. They rejected the idea that God only works through the laws of nature set up in advance.

4. Personal Indwelling of the Holy Spirit: They believed that the Holy Spirit personally lives inside a Christian. They opposed the teaching that the Holy Spirit acts only through the written word of God.

5. Four Means of Grace: Apostles’ teaching, fellowship, breaking bread, prayer. These were not merely acts of worship but were means through which God and the Holy Spirit work in the life of the individual Christian.

6. Passivism: They believed that Christians should not participate in warfare nor defend themselves with force.

7. Freedom to Think and Speak: They believed that opposing viewpoints on many subjects should be tolerated within the church.

8. Postmillenialism and Redemption of the Earth: They believed that Christ will return to rule the earth for a thousand years, after which the Kingdom will be transported into the new heaven and new earth.

I can attest to the fact most of these views have survived in churches of Christ, at least in the southeastern US. Only #6 and #8 would have been regarded as strange teachings in the mainline church of Christ congregations where I have been a member, though acceptance of some of the other positions was not at all unanimous.

After reading the section on passivism (a position I personally do not find persuasive), I wondered whether the NBST would grant their opponents the freedom to think differently on that topic, as advocated in #7. The line drawn by the NBST on the subject of passivism is not unambiguously drawn in scripture, as far as I can tell.

Personally I would have liked to see more extensive quotes from Lipscomb and Harding on these subjects rather than merely the authors’ description of those views. Maybe that’s just my appetite for Restoration history. There were some delicious morsels of that history throughout the book, and those alone make the book worth reading.

I would also have liked to see a clearer distinction between statements coming from Lipscomb and Harding, and those coming from Hicks and Valentine. On some topics, the passion in the book seems to come more from the authors’ views than from those of Harding and Lipscomb.

Passing over a few quibbles about details, I think the broad theme of the book is very appropriate for the church today. We need to examine the influence that the world has had on the church, and to pray that God will help us to throw off that influence. To that end, this book is a worthwhile read.

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The Body Broken

April 9, 2006

The church faces threats that imperil its witness and its future….Things are not what they used to be. In substantial ways, the future will not look like the past, at least as many have idealized the past. As a consequence, public rhetoric in the church has grown heated. Even worse, in many places meaningful communication has ceased. Some are advocating further division. Other shrug at the division they believe has already occurred in fact if not in name. The church is fragmented, Christ’s body broken.

For this very reason, there is cause for hope.

So begins The Body Broken by Jack R. Reese, Dean of the Graduate School of Theology at Abilene Christian University. I believe this book carries one of the most important messages for Restoration Movement churches of our day.

This is not a book about who is right and who is wrong on the various issues of the church. Instead it is a book on how we should approach one another regarding such issues. In a very personal and confessional way, Dr. Reese writes about the unfortunate manner in which the differences among Christians are currently being addressed. He describes the road we keep taking, a road on which people are all too willing to label, to attack, and to divide rather than to work for peace and reconciliation. And he calls us to a more constructive dialogue and process which can bring us together rather than tear us apart.

Often people contrast truth and unity, on the premise that seeking unity puts us at risk of compromising the truth. Dr. Reese points out the fallacy in that reasoning: If we do not make every effort for unity, we are not living according to the truth in the scriptures. The failure of Christians to live in unity is sin, a rebellion against the will of God. Dr. Reese does not call on us to abandon the truths we hold. Instead he calls on us to pursue the peace of Christ.

He illustrates his message with compelling insights from Philippians, 1 Corinthians, Ephesians, Romans, and the letters to Timothy. He presents a gripping picture of a typical assembly in the early church, with its love feast and centered around the communion service. And he calls us to be a community of brokenness, where people embrace the peace of Christ.

He closes with a word of hope. The brokenness of the church today is causing some to seek peace. In our broken state, the grace of God can work to bring about peace. He calls on us all to seek to be instruments of peace.

The underlying message is clear: Christians should be able to talk to one another in a manner that conveys love and mutual respect. We should be able to disagree without hostility. And we should tenaciously work for reconciliation rather than settling for division.

I highly recommend the book to anyone who seeks the blessing promised to peacemakers:

Mat 5:9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.

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The Crux of the Matter

October 18, 2005

Today I would like to recommend a great book focusing on current unity issues within the churches of Christ:

The Crux of The Matter: Crisis, Tradition, and the Future of the Churches of Christ
by Jeff W. Childers, Douglas A. Foster, and Jack R. Reese
Abilene Christian University

This is the first book in the “Heart of the Restoration” series by these authors. First the reader is given a fascinating look at the historical roots of the churches of Christ. The authors show that the message of these churches was articulated in the language of its time, the modern era, an age of science and reason. Then the authors address the current crisis in these churches as the world around them transitions to a postmodern mindset, one where the mechanically logical message traditionally associated with these churches has more limited relevance.

As they discuss the crux of the matter, they postulate that there are some issues that are more centrally important than others. Issues closely related to the cross are the core issues. According to the authors, the churches of Christ have a history of dividing over issues that do not really matter. That is, they are not the crux of the matter.

My hope is that we can avoid the mistakes of the past, where everything was made to be a core issue. History shows us that such an approach leads to division and not unity. I believe it can be demonstrated that the apostles did not take that approach. Let’s allow the scriptures to tell us what is crucial.

I believe that anyone attempting to bring about unity must contemplate a pivotal question: What are the crucial issues on which we must agree? This book addresses that question in a fresh, relevant, and urgent way. Clearly some conservatives in the churches of Christ are not comfortable with where this book seems to be leading. But the authors raise a question that we must consider if we are to make progress toward the unity for which Jesus prayed. I believe this book points in a constructive direction.