Rumors of God by Darren Whitehead and Jon Tyson

I just finished reading Rumors of God by Darren Whitehead (Willow Creek) and Jon Tyson (Trinity Grace Church: NYC). More than anything else, this is Whitehead and Tyson’s attempt at describing what the Christian life looks like in 2011. They cover a range of topics including: abundant life, God’s dream for humanity, generosity, love, grace, freedom, commitment, community, justice, and hope.

For me, the strength of the book comes in two areas.  FIrst, they do an excellent job of describing our modern context. For instance:

Ironically, the culture grows increasingly more “spiritual” while the church grows increasingly more practical.

In another passage they guess the dreams of many modern Americans,

You would like to have more money – financial stability. A comfortable living environment would be nice, perhaps a newer car. You’d have a progressing career, be respected in your field. You’d like to have emotionally healthy friends, who are energetic, encouraging, spontaneous, and fun. Maybe you’d wish to change something about your appearance – lose a few pounds, be taller, more athletic. If you’re single, you might desire to find a life partner, someone supportive, kind, and attractive (not just on the inside. Maybe you want to have kids. Or maybe you already have kids, and you want them to be well-educated, high-functioning, successful, well-mannered children who do better in school than your friends’ kids.

They then helpfully compare this with God’s dream for our lives.

The second thing they do very well is tell stories of grace and transformation from their communities. In several places they describe people whose lives have been utterly reshaped by the Gospel.

Overall, the book is well-written and clearly communicates their central concept that the Christian faith is remarkable and thriving even in a world where people are more skeptical than ever about the Christian faith. I’d recommend this book most to people who are trying to teach the gospel to a modern audience in ways that are engaging and simple.

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.”

Thoughts from a Social-Media Free Lent

During Lent, I observed a fast from two of the most popular forms of social-media, Twitter and Facebook.  My Twitter feed did post an occasional automated update from my blog, but other than that I didn’t use either site throughout Lent. To make it easier on myself, I deleted each of those apps off of my iPhone and removed them from my bookmark tabs on my web browser.

I promised to share a few observations about what I noticed during this social-media free Lent, so here are a few notes I jotted down as they occurred to me during Lent and some of my quick thoughts on each of them:

  1. I read more. As many of you have probably experienced, social-media can be a big time waster. When I had free time, I’d often take a few minutes to check Facebook and Twitter, and those few minutes would turn into thirty very quickly. In the past, I spent a lot more of those moments reading whatever book was lying around. During Lent, I found myself reading a lot more, which is something I really enjoy.
  2. I found my way back to blogging. One of the strangest things about social-media is the way it reshapes the way you think. During the time I’ve used Twitter, I’ve blogged far less. Over the course of this fast, I have had more extended thoughts and even waded back into the blogging world. I think Twitter probably forces you to atomize your thinking into bite-sized pieces. While this might force you to be more clear, concise and precise, it does not encourage longer and deeper development of ideas. 
  3. It changed the way I communicated with my family and friends. My wife (who is not on Twitter or Facebook) really appreciated my fast. She told me she enjoyed knowing things before the rest of the world did. There were times she would run into people who knew things about me before she did. She said she really enjoyed being the first to know stuff and running into people who had no idea what I had been doing by reading my Twitter and Facebook updates. I’ve noticed it has been rewarding to share my “interesting thoughts” with my family before I share them with the world. This was pretty eye-opening for me and will change the way I use these tools in the future. I think I allowed social-media to be a substitute for good communication in other relationships too. During the fast, I texted and spoke to friends and colleagues far more than I had been doing. That has been refreshing and good for me.
  4. Less public whining – my fast caused me to whine less. It’s as simple as that. During Spring Break, I took some vacation time, and my kids were sick for several days. Had I been on Facebook and Twitter, I know I’d have posted things like, “great vacation, except for the kids being sick every day…” For whatever reason, we’re quicker to whine via social-media than we are in real life. I’m not going to do that anymore. I’ve also noticed that I’ve had a higher opinion of others who I’m close to that use social-media as a place to vent in their lives. I’m not saying we have to only post positive things, but we have to be careful or we can craft a persona online that doesn’t capture the complexities of who we are as people.  For example: there are people I feel a little closer to because I don’t follow their posts and updates. Maybe that says more about me, but I think I appreciate them more as people and not as the caricature they present online (intentionally or accidentally).
  5. I need to think more before I Tweet – being off of social-media reminded me of the importance of a “cooling off” period for a variety of situations. It’s easy to post something you find funny in the moment that you regret saying later on. Other times, people (myself included at times) will post something cryptic in the heat of the moment of disappointment or frustration that they then regret later on. This fast has reminded me of the importance that our words have and will help me be slower with my Tweeting “trigger finger.”

Altogether, I found more time to do things I enjoy and noticed some of the unique temptations that social-media has to offer. My Lenten fast was a good discipline and taught me some important lessons. I’d love to hear your thoughts below.  Also, if you fasted from social-media over Lent, I’d love to hear what you learned in the comment section.

The Value of Tradition

I was fortunate to get a Kindle back in February for my birthday, and I have really loved it. One of the unexpected surprises with this new gadget has been the opportunity to read some of the great classics that I’ve never read. The big one I’m working through right now is Moby Dick, which I started right after Chesterton’s Orthodoxy.

I’ve always believed that creativity is aided by reading apparently disconnected works and seeing the things that tie them together.  That’s what I always loved about taking several different classes simultaneously during seminary. Unexpected connections are often the place where we find true inspiration and creativity.

In reading these two books, I came across two quotes that I really appreciate that offer a unique perspective on the value of tradition. The first is one that I have heard before,

Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead.  Orthodoxy – G.K. Chesterton

The next is one I hadn’t heard,

Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Moby Dick – Herman Melville

These two quotes were important reminders to me that we lose an important voice when we forget or ignore the wisdom of those who have gone on before us.

Marks of Discipleship and Effectiveness

I’ve been really fascinated with a conversation happening between Kevin Watson and John Meunier regarding measuring effectiveness in ministry.  Here are the basic premises for the discussion:

  1. Numerical growth is one way to measure effectiveness and faithfulness.
  2. Faithfulness and effectiveness do not always result in numerical growth.
  3. Drawing a crowd is not the same thing as gathering a congregation.
  4. Sometimes we can substitute winning praise and approval for faithfulness.
  5. Therefore, how do you measure faithful ministry?

Kevin suggests the means of grace (prayer, searching the scriptures, communion, fasting, and Christian conferencing/community) as a key to discerning whether or not a ministry is both faithful and effective.

On one hand, I totally agree with Kevin.  Living the faith is central to my life as a minister.  If I am not searching the scriptures daily, meeting weekly with my small group, praying faithfully, etc. then I am not the person I am called to be.  When I fail to do these things, I notice more frustration and confusion about the core commitments I have as a Christian and a minister.  These practices allow me to know the difference between faithfulness and going through the motions.

However, I think he’s even closer to answering the original question when he mentions trying to be more concrete about what faithful fruit looks like.

Here at Church of the Servant, we have recently started sharing the results of our vision work with the congregation.  Included in that work we have a series of “marks of discipleship” that are intended to help us discern whether we’re helping people down the road of discipleship or not.  We’re not interested in simply “drawing a crowd.”  We want people to actually become disciples.

Here are those marks, which are prefaced with the phrase, “A Servant:”

  • worships weekly
  • prays daily
  • gives faithfully
  • loves God’s word
  • embodies God’s love through service
  • grows through small group relationships
  • shares their faith with others

Of course we’re careful with how we teach and share this.  These are not the way to establish a relationship with God.  That only happens by accepting the grace of Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:8-9).  However, these are several of the places God has promised to show up and meet his people.  These are faithful ways to respond to and grow in God’s grace.

Over time, we will use these marks to determine whether or not we are succeeding at the call God has placed on our lives as a community of faith.  It’s one thing to just have more people.  It’s another thing altogether to have more and more people falling in love with God’s word, connecting in deeper spiritual relationships, and embodying God’s love through service.  While it’s a challenge to measure these things, we can actually count the number of people who are using the resources we provide (bible reading plans, small group involvement, missional participation, etc.) to make educated guesses that they are meeting God in these means of grace.

We’re convinced that can lead to both effective and faithful ministry.

Too Busy?

Timothy Larsen has a great reflection on Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the danger of self-importance.  It centers around this wonderful, yet challenging quote from Bonhoeffer’s Life Together,

The second service that one should perform for another in a Christian community is that of active helpfulness. This means, initially, simple assistance in trifling, external matters. There is a multitude of these things wherever people live together. Nobody is too good for the meanest service. One who worries about the loss of time that such petty, outward acts of helpfulness entail is usually taking the importance of his own career too solemnly.

Larsen discusses this quote in light of the tendency of academics to be “too busy.” The not-so-subtle effect of telling others we are busy is, “announcing that we think we are important and that our time is more valuable than that of most other people.” Unfortunately, this is a tendency of ministers (and probably every other vocation) as well. According to Larsen,

Being worried about the loss of time is not a sign of a healthy awareness that our work is of vital importance. Quite the contrary; it is actually a sign that something is amiss in our character.

I know he’s right.  Far too often when people ask me how I’m doing, I reply, “Oh…I’ve been really busy.” If I’m honest, it’s for the very reasons he describes.

I’d ask for your thoughts, but I don’t want to be a bother when we’re all so busy.

The Bodily Resurrection

As an associate pastor, my ministry is far more specialized than it was when I was a solo pastor in rural churches.  As a result, I spend the majority of my time teaching in assorted settings.  One of the things I love about this role is the way I get to respond to people’s questions about the faith.

When I come across a resource that helps me think through why I believe what I believe and teach what I teach, it’s like discovering a new tool for the toolbox. Thanks to Allan R. Bevere I came across one of those resources this week.

Professor Craig Blomberg, of Denver Seminary, wrestles with the question, “Must I Believe in the Bodily Resurrection of Jesus?” If you don’t want to read the whole article, here’s the summary of his answer,

Without a supernatural, bodily resurrection we are still dead in our sins and of all people most to be pitied (1 Cor. 15:12-19).  Without Christ’s bodily resurrection we have no bodily resurrection to look forward to.  Death ends everything and we might as well “eat, drink and be merry” (in moderation of course, so as not to get sick) and not bother with any of the sacrifice and self-denial that even just following Christ’s cause requires.

If there is no life after death, indeed if there is no embodied life after death as in the new heavens and new earth…then we are idiots to be Christians and should give it up immediately.  If there is, on the other hand, then being a Christian makes all the difference in the world—and in the next!

At a conference I once attended the speaker said, “Jesus is alive every time we remember him in our hearts…” to which the more seasoned pastor sitting next to me replied, “Yeah…so is Elvis.”  With my friend, I believe that Jesus is more than a memory.  I believe in the bodily resurrection.  Jesus is alive, whether we remember him in our hearts or not.

Catfish & God’s Mercy

This is an adaptation of one of my most popular posts, which was originally posted on October 28, 2007.

On Saturday, I went to our local ministerial alliance meeting. We met out at a church about 15 minutes from town, because they were having their monthly men’s breakfast. We drove out into the country and found the church sitting next to an old cemetery just about a mile off of the lake. We walked in to a hearty breakfast. The biscuits and gravy were delicious, the coffee was stout, and the bacon was cooked crispy, which in my opinion is the only good way to cook bacon.

After the breakfast we preachers broke off into another room to carry on the business of the day. There were only eight of us there that day. Southern Baptist, Freewill Baptist, Church of God, two Community Churches, and two men from another community that I didn’t know. We took care of the business of planning our upcoming Thanksgiving service with the usual conversation.

After that, a few of the preachers left and the real conversation began. Several of the men took turns sharing how God was at work in their lives, oftentimes sharing how they had led someone to the Lord. Finally, one of the men who I’ve really come to respect started to share. In order for you to fully appreciate this story, you need to know this preacher is a “whoopin’ and hollerin'” sort of preacher. He has a mostly-baptist background, but doesn’t really belong to any denomination. He doesn’t have any kind of degree and he couldn’t quote a theologian to save his life, but he proceeded to share a remarkable story that I will never forget.  It is a story that reminds me of my call to ministry.

He began to share about a man named “Catfish.” Catfish was a friend of his but not a churchgoing man. His wife had went to my preacher friend’s church for many years, but Catfish never would darken the doors except occasionally on a Sunday night. Catfish got cancer. My friend went to see him several times in the hospital. Each time, before he left the hospital, he told us how he’d ask Catfish if he was right with God. To this Catfish always replied, “The Lord’s Spirit don’t strive with me anymore, because I denied him and missed my chance.” This happened twice. The third time, when my old friend returned, Catfish was in bad shape – just waiting to die. They began the same conversation they always had about various things from the weather, to fishing, to how the doctors thought he was doing.

Before leaving, my preacher friend reached out to hold Catfish’s hand. He said, “You know what I’m going to ask. I want to know if you’ve made your peace with God.” Again, Catfish said, “The Spirit don’t strive with me anymore. I’ve missed my chance.” My friend then told us, “Right then, I tightened my grip on his hand just a bit…and I looked him in the eye.” In a quiet trembling voice he shared with us the words he spoke to Catfish, “I said, my God is more merciful than that.” At this, he said, Catfish broke into tears. In that moment, he knew a merciful, forgiving, and loving God – a God who doesn’t give up. Catfish made a commitment to Christ right then and there, with his wife and my preacher friend sharing tears by his bed.