The online journal of Luke Dockery

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A New Heaven & A New Earth Part 11: Voices From the Past

This post is part of an ongoing series. You can find links to all the posts here.

We have spent a lot of time now looking at the idea of renewed eschatology from a variety of different perspectives, and for some readers, a lot of different pieces are starting to click into place and make a lot of sense.

But something that may be bothering you (it certainly bothered me as I was studying through this): “If this is the correct view, why am I just now hearing about this? I mean, Christianity has been around for 2000 years, and we’re just now understanding what the Bible actually teaches about eternity?!”

The question, “why am I just now hearing about this?”, is a difficult one, but the short answer is that the view of eternity where this world will be destroyed and then we will go off to heaven and have some sort of eternal spiritual existence with God has been the dominant view within conservative, evangelical Christianity for all of our lives.

But here is the important idea I want to emphasize: just because this idea is relatively new to you, or because it was new to me when I first heard it does not at all mean that it is a new idea.

I am very suspicious of brand new ideas in Christianity. When someone suggests an interpretation of a particular verse that I can’t find anywhere else, that makes me very suspicious. I am supposed to believe that in the whole history of Christianity, this guy is the first person to come along and actually figure out what this means? But that’s not the case here, and what I want to emphasize in this post is that the renewed earth perspective is not new at all. It is actually a very old understanding of what the Bible teaches about eternity.

Now, I am not going to trace this perspective in detail for 2,000 years, because for the majority of people, that would be mind-numbingly boring. However, I do want to give you some examples from different time periods to emphasize that this is not a new idea.



Early Church

Irenaus is one of what we call the “Church Fathers”, Christians who lived and wrote in the first few centuries. Irenaus wrote a famous work called Against Heresies in the late 100s, in which he opposed false teachings that had arisen. One very popular heresy was called gnosticism and it held, among other things, that material creation is evil. Irenaus rejected this notion, and argued that the Bible teaches that creation is good. He also says:

  • The righteous will “rise again to behold God in this creation which is renovated…”[1]
  • Speaking of Jesus’ words in Matthew 26.27-30 (I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom), he says “[Jesus] cannot by any means be understood as drinking of the fruit of the vine when settled down with his disciples above in a super-celestial place; nor, again, are they who drink it devoid of flesh, for to drink of that which flows from the vine pertains to flesh, and not spirit.”[2]
  • For neither is the substance nor the essence of the creation annihilated.”[3]

Irenaus viewed resurrection as a bodily experience that was directly tied to the restoration of all creation. Clearly, the renewed earth perspective is an ancient view.[4]

Reformation

You are likely familiar with the Protestant Reformation that began in the 1500s. Two of the major figures of the Reformation were Martin Luther and John Calvin. These two men differed in significant ways, but they  make similar, interesting statements in their commentary on 2 Peter 3 (a text we looked at earlier):

“…some may disquiet themselves as to whether the saints shall exist in heaven or on the earth. The text seems to imply that man shall dwell upon the earth, yet so that all heaven and earth shall be a paradise where God dwells…”[5]

“Of the elements of the world I shall only say this one thing, that they are to be consumed, only that they may be renovated, their substance still remaining the same, as it may be easily gathered from…other passages.”[6]

If you have been following along with this series, these ideas will seem very familiar.

Now, Luther and Calvin agreeing with the NHNE perspective doesn’t automatically make it correct. Indeed, these men hold a variety of views that I disagree with on various topics. My point here is not that we should believe in renewed eschatology because Luther and Calvin did; rather, I am simply illustrating that this is by no means a new perspective.

Restoration Movement

In Churches of Christ, we are spiritual descendants of the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement. If you know me well or have read The Doc File for long, you know that I am extremely interested in the history of our movement. Imagine my surprise and fascination when I discovered that the renewed earth perspective that we have been talking about was held by influential early leaders in our movement!

Alexander Campbell was likely the single most influential thinker in the history of the Stone-Campbell Movement. Campbell was famous in the 19th century, and disseminated his perspectives as an orator, editor, debater, educator, and author. Among the many topics he touched on in his vast array of writings was eschatology and the renewal of creation:

“The Bible begins with the generations of the heavens and the earth; but the Christian revelation ends with the regenerations or new creation of the heavens and the earth. This [is] the ancient promise of God confirmed to us by the Christian Apostles. The present elements are to be changed by fire. The old or antediluvian earth was purified by water; but the present earth is reserved for fire, with all the works of man that are upon it. It shall be converted into a lake of liquid fire. But the dead in Christ will have been regenerated in body before the old earth is regenerated by fire. The bodies of the saints will be as homogeneous with the new earth and heavens as their present bodies are with the present heavens and earth. God re-creates, regenerates, but annihilates nothing; and, therefore, the present earth is not to be annihilated. The best description we can give of this regeneration is in the words of one who had a vision of it on the island of Patmos. He describes it as far as it is connected with the New Jerusalem, which is to stand upon the new earth, under the canopy of the new heaven.”[7]

“The impression prevails in many minds, that the earth is to be annihilated. Such is not our belief. There is a vast difference between annihilation, and change, or general alteration. This earth will, unquestionably be burned, yet, through the process of variation and reconstruction of its elements, God will fashion the earth and heavens anew, and fill them with tenants to glorify His name forever.”[8]

Walter Scott was another key early Restoration leader.[9] Unlike Campbell, Scott’s focus was particularly on evangelism, and his use of simple, memorable methods led to thousands upon thousands of baptisms in the Western Reserve. Scott was also a theologian who mused on the nature of eternity. From Embracing Creation:

“Just as the present world was “formed out of the ruins of the first and original one, so the third and future world shall, by the power of God, be constructed from the ashes of the present one.” The “present habitable globe,” like the primitive one, will be destroyed, but “from the ashes will rise another heaven and another earth…the abode of [the] righteous.” This is “the new heavens and new earth…created as the second coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” This “new earth” is the inheritance promised Abraham (Rom. 4.13) and it is the “hope of all Christians.”[10]

In case the above language is confusing, Scott is reflecting on ideas from 2 Peter 3. He is referencing the “destruction” of the world through the flood, and then the future “destruction” by fire. This accounts for his three worlds.

David Lipscomb was an influential leader in Southern Churches of Christ following the Civil War (so, a different generation of leadership than Campbell and Scott). Lipscomb was primarily an educator, and also served as the longtime editor of the Gospel Advocate. In his words:

“God is holy. As a pure and holy being, he cannot tolerate guilt and sin. The two cannot permanently dwell together in the universe. When sin came into the world, God left this world as a dwelling place. He cannot dwell in a defiled and sin-polluted temple. He has since dwelt on this earth only in sanctified altars and temples separated from the world and consecrated to his service. He will again make this earth his dwelling place, but it will be only when sin has been purged out and it has been consecrated anew as the new heaven and new earth in which dwelleth righteousness.”[11]

James A. Harding was a contemporary and close associate of Lipscomb, but while Lipscomb functioned primarily as a teacher and editor, Harding was a traveling preacher. His thoughts on renewed creation closely resembled Lipscomb’s:

“But—thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ grace came with a mighty hand to meet this great, dark, cursing, onrushing tide of woe and death, to roll it back, to free men from death and the earth from every curse of sin, and to give to it a glory and beauty never dreamed of by Adam and Eve in the midst of their Edenic home. This earth, with its surrounding heaven, is to be made over, and on the fair face of the new earth God himself will dwell with all the sons and daughters of men who have been redeemed through grace…through Adam we lost the garden of Eden; through Christ we gain the paradise of God.”[12]

“…the earth is God’s nursery, his training grounds, made primarily for the occupancy of his children, for their education, development and training until they shall have reached their majority, until the end of the Messianic age has come; then it is to be purified a second time by a great washing, a mighty flood, but this time in a sea of fire. Then God will take up his abode himself with his great family upon this new, this renovated and purified earth.”[13]

Jimmy Allen was one of my favorite teachers at Harding University; he was legendary there for his class on the Book of Romans. He was a longtime teacher at Harding, but was most famous for being a revival-style evangelist in the tradition of Billy Graham. Back in the 1960s, he would preach to overflowing arenas and baptized thousands.

Here are some thoughts from Allen in his commentary on Romans (and also, from 2 Peter):

“The point about groaning creation is that when man fell, the earth was cursed, when man is glorified, the earth will also be glorified…This means, if I am correct, that at the end of time our present system will not be annihilated…

What are the “new heavens” and “new earth” (II Pet. 3:13)? There are at least two Greek words that are translated as new. One is “neos” and the other is “kainos.” A few times they are used interchangeably…However, there is a difference in the two words. “‘Kainos’ denotes new, of that which is unaccustomed or unused, not new in time, recent, but new as to form or quality, of different nature from what is contrasted as old… ‘Neos’ signifies new in respect of time, that which is recent” (Vine, III, pp. 109-110).

The word translated as “new” in connection with the earth at II Pet. 3:13 is not “neos,” signifying an object that is “brand-new” like the Ford pickup truck that has been in my carport the last couple of weeks. Rather, it is “kainos,” meaning new as to its form, quality, or nature. We will have new bodies in the next life in that they will be changed from what they are now. Similarly, we will have a new earth in eternity in that it will be this one changed by fire into what is glorious and incorruptible.”[14]

These influential leaders from Restoration Movement history are certainly not infallible, but for me, as someone who has great respect for Campbell, Lipscomb, Harding, and others, it was a relief to see that they held these views. In a sense, it was almost like it “gave me permission” to believe this myself: “we” had historically believed this!

Again, all of these quotations—from the Early Church, the Reformation, and from Stone-Campbell Movement history—do not prove anything about the accuracy of the New Heavens/New Earth perspective. That stands or falls based on what Scripture teaches, and we have spent several posts examining that case. But these quotations do demonstrate that this is not a new perspective, and for those in churches of Christ, this is a perspective that has historical roots in our own heritage.


[1] Irenaeus, Against Heresies Book V, Chapter 32, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0103532.htm

[2] Irenaeus, Against Heresies Book V, Chapter 33, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0103533.htm

[3] Irenaeus, Against Heresies Book V, Chapter 36, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0103533.htm

[4]Other Church Fathers refer to elements of renewed eschatology as well. Papias (Eusebius, Fragments of Papias VI) was a historical premillennialist, and understood that there would be a personal reign of Christ on earth after the resurrection. The author of the Epistle of Barnabas (late first century, early second century document) believed that Christians in eternity would reign over birds, fish, and beasts, clearly suggesting a material existence.

[5] Martin Luther, Commentary on Peter and Jude (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1990): 285.

[6] John Calvin, Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles (New York: Cosimo, 2007): 421.

[7] Alexander Campbell, Christian System (Pittsburg, PA: Forrester & Campbell, 1839): 257.

[8] Alexander Campbell, Familiar Lectures on the Pentateuch (H.S. Bosworth, 1887): 310.

[9] Scott, along with Alexander Campbell, Thomas Campbell (Alexander’s father), and Barton W. Stone (the “Stone” in “Stone-Campbell Movement”) are often referred to as “the big four”. Scott is less remembered than the other three, but was of tremendous importance in the solidification and spread of the Movement and its ideals.

[10] This quotation comes from John Mark Hicks, Bobby Valentine, and Mark Wilson, Embracing Creation: God’s Forgotten Mission, (Abilene, TX: Leafwood: 2016): 203. The quotations referenced herein are from Walter Scott,“Of a Succession of Worlds, and of the Great Physical Destinies of Our Globe, as Spoken of in the Scriptures,” The Evangelist 6 (January 1838): 3-5, (February 1838): 34-35, and (April 1838): 77.

[11] David Lipscomb, Salvation from Sin (Nshville: McQuiddy, 1913): 35-36.

[12] James A Harding, “Three Lessons from the Book of Romans,” in Biographies and Sermons, ed. F.D. Srygley (Nashville: McQuiddy, 1898), 249.

[13] James A. Harding, “What Are We Here For?” The Way 5 [3 December 1903], 1041).

[14] Jimmy Allen, Romans: The Clearest Gospel of All (Searcy, AR, 2005): 178-80.

A New Heaven & A New Earth: What the Bible Teaches about Eternity

Introduction

A major part of the hope that we have as Christians—a hope that gives us motivation to live faithfully—is that we trust that God will raise us from the dead and that we will live with Him for eternity. 

This should give us peace, confidence, purpose, and boldness.

But there are different ways of viewing what this eternity with God, this paradise, will look like. In fact, an entire branch of Christian theology called eschatology is devoted to the study of eternity and the end times.[1] I’d like to spend several blog posts talking about eschatology, and looking at what the Bible says about it. 

I want to warn you up front: this will be a very challenging study for some. The view that I am going to propose in this series of posts I will refer to as renewed eschatology or NHNE.[2] I believe this to be the biblical view, but it is not what I would call the typical view of eternity that most American Christians hold.

Before we get any further, I want to quickly give you two different perspectives to help frame what we are going to be talking about in this series. These are two different views of what the Bible is about and what our future looks like.

The first view, which I will call the spiritual heaven perspective, says that we live in a world that was created good but became tainted after Adam and Eve’s sin in the Garden. Things are bad and broken and we are lost in our sin.

The Good News is that Jesus came to die for our sin and save us, so that when we die, we can forever leave this broken world (which is bound for fiery destruction) and enjoy a spiritual existence with God forever in heaven. The people that reject God will spend eternity in hell.

In the meantime, we are basically running out the clock, doing our best to survive in a broken world, waiting for Jesus to come rescue us, and hopefully, trying to help other people to be rescued as well. You might think of the Titanic going down: as Christians, we are in the lifeboats, going around trying to save people from drowning…but the ship is going down.



I think this is what much of the non-Christian world believes that Christians believe,[3] and furthermore, I think it actually is what many Christians believe. I believed it myself for a long time. In many ways, it is the traditional Christian perspective.[4]

The problem is, I don’t think the Bible actually teaches this. It certainly teaches parts of it: heaven and hell are real, judgment is real, Jesus came to save us, etc.—but the overall presentation of this view is not, in my opinion, what the Bible teaches.

(Some of you are thinking that I am nuts, and at this point, that is okay.)

The second view, the renewed earth perspective, also says that this world was created good as the dwelling place of people. Earth parallels heaven, the dwelling place of God (Genesis 1.1), and at the beginning, these two realms overlapped: God was able to dwell with people and walked in the Garden with them. But we sinned. The earth became tainted. Our close relationship with God was destroyed. Our sin separates us from God, forcing the close union of heaven and earth to be driven apart. Things are bad and broken, and we are lost in our sin. And more than that: our accumulated sin multiplies and continues to defile the earth—there is a sense in which we have created hell on earth with our cumulative rebellion against God.

The Good News is that God is not content to leave things this way. Jesus came to reconcile all of creation to Himself, including humanity, and to specifically confront the problem of sin. Through His death and resurrection, Jesus has brought about a new order of things, or as Paul says, “new creation.” One day Jesus will return and sin, Satan, and death will be fully defeated, the entire cosmos will be made over into a “New Heaven and New Earth”—a unified whole—and God will dwell with His people forever, while those who reject Him will be separated from Him forever.[5]

In the meantime, rather than running out the clock, waiting to be rescued, or even frantically rowing around in our lifeboat picking up survivors while the world sinks around us, we are actively involved as citizens of God’s kingdom and agents of new creation in taking back the world that rightly belongs to God and inviting others to join us in that project. We do this by living according to the principles that Jesus lays out for His followers, and seeking to counteract the effects of sin in our world.

Now, these two views share a lot of terms and concepts, but when you look at them as a whole, they are two very different perspectives on the story the Bible is telling, and what eternity will look like.

Background of this Study

Over the last couple of years, I have seen more and more discussions about eschatology in the Christian blogosphere and in various Facebook groups, and, honestly, I have been concerned at times by the tone I have witnessed in some of those discussions (where those who hold to renewed eschatology are written off as false teachers or heretics) as well as the general level of ignorance (where some who have sought to refute the NHNE perspective reveal that they don’t actually understand it at all). Perhaps this series of posts will add something constructive to those conversations, but really, I did not write all of this material in response to the recent interest that I have observed about this topic.

Actually, this topic is one that I have been personally wrestling with for about ten years. When I first heard the renewed earth perspective, I was in graduate school and, well, I thought it was crazy. I had several immediate objections based on some specific passages of Scripture, and I wondered if my professor had ever read them! But, as it turned out, my teacher had read the Bible (more thoughtfully than I had), and had answers to my objections.

Time passed and I continued to read and study, and this idea of God redeeming and renewing all of creation at the return of Jesus continued to pop up over and over. I realized that a lot of respected biblical scholars held to this view, and I also came to realize that this wasn’t a “new” interpretation, but actually a very old one, and one that had also been held by my ancestors in the Restoration Movement. I gradually came to think, “This isn’t so crazy…I can see it either way.”[6]

Later, I began to study some of the specific passages that I used to think refuted the renewed earth view, but I realized that when I studied them in context and did the linguistic and historical legwork, they actually seemed to argue against the spiritual heaven (“traditional”) view rather than for it. I grudgingly thought, “Well, this renewed eschatology view seems more biblically accurate to me, but I’m not sure it really matters that much.”

Eventually, at the church where I worked, we started this project called The Story of the Bible. This was a long Bible survey study for our adult Bible classes using videos from The Bible Project as a companion resource. As I had never done before, I sat down and studied the Bible, writing dozens of lessons (and editing dozens more) about different biblical books and drawing main ideas from them. When we started that project, I had zero intention of teaching a different view on eternity (or really, emphasizing anything related to eternity) but as we studied, this idea of God redeeming all of creation just hit us over and over again…because this is what the Story of the Bible is about.

As we went through this study in our adult classes, it became clear to me that our church leadership needed to discuss eschatology (and specifically, the renewed earth perspective) more, so I went to our Elders and they agreed. We had a great study together for several weeks and wrestled with a lot of Scripture and talked back and forth and challenged one another. By the end of the study, they no longer thought I was crazy (I think a couple of them did when we started!), and they wanted me to teach an adult Bible class specifically on renewed eschatology. And that class is the source of the material you are reading now.

Goals for this Series

I believe that Scripture teaches that when Jesus returns, the cosmos will be renewed and redeemed and that the faithful will live with God eternally in a New Heaven and a New Earth. If, at the end of this series, you agree with me—great! But that is not my primary goal for this series.

Instead, here are my goals:

First, I want to look at what the Bible teaches about eternity with an open mind. This will be very difficult for some, and I get that—this material was very challenging for me when I was first exposed to it. I am stubborn and I give up the positions I hold with great reluctance; as I mentioned previously, I have been wrestling with this for ten years. 

Ultimately, I don’t ask that you agree with me, but I do ask that you have an open mind and honestly consider what we discuss. Read the biblical passages that are mentioned. Look at the extra material I link to that lays out certain arguments in greater detail. If you want to respond to something that I say (and I welcome that!), make arguments based on Scripture, not on tradition. Ultimately, what I am going to present in this series of posts is correct or incorrect based on whether or not it lines up with what the Bible teaches. With that in mind, counter-arguments to what I am presenting that start with, “I always thought…” or “I’ve always heard that…” aren’t the best.

Second, I want to provide an opportunity for us to challenge ourselves. Some of the ideas that we’re going to discuss will be challenging. It will require looking at certain passages very carefully and learning some things about Greek, about history, and about textual criticism.

From my perspective, we have decades and decades of confusion and misinterpretations that we have to peel back to see what the Bible teaches on this subject, and that is going to require hard work. I will do my best to make everything as understandable as possible, but I am sure that I will not be as clear sometimes as I would like to be. Having said that, if you feel like some of this material is difficult, that’s okay, because it is supposed to be.

I’m not sure where we got the idea that we can become mature Christians by never challenging ourselves to dig deeper into God’s word, but it’s not true. 

Finally, at the end of this study, I want us to respect one another regardless of which conclusion we come to. I think this is an important topic, and at the end of all this, I will explain why I think it matters, but ultimately, understanding how eternity works is not necessary for you to enjoy it. Getting this right or wrong is not a “salvation issue” (I dislike that terminology), although I would argue that you will appreciate and anticipate your salvation more if you hold to the view that I am going to teach in this series.

I mentioned earlier that I have witnessed some unfortunate conversations over the last couple of years where people who hold to renewed eschatology are branded as false teachers. I would find that to be laughable if writing someone off as a false teacher was not such a serious act—one that Scripture doesn’t take lightly. Suffice it to say, if at the end of all this you arrive at a different conclusion than I do, I will still respect you for it; I hope you can reciprocate that feeling.

What does the Bible teach about eternity? I hope you’ll join us as we seek to answer that question.


[1]The Greek word εσχατος means “last”, so literally, “eschatology” refers to the study of the last things.

[2]Short for “New Heavens and New Earth.” Throughout this series, I will use “NHNE”, “New Heavens and New Earth”, “renewed eschatology”, and “renewed earth” interchangeably. 

[3]I think many non-Christians also fundamentally misunderstand the notion of God’s grace, and think Christians believe that we get to heaven by being “good enough”. To be fair, many Christians misunderstand this as well!

[4]I really hesitate to concede the term “traditional” to refer to this view, because as we will see later, the alternative view—renewed eschatology—has a long and storied place in the historical Christian tradition. But nevertheless, the spiritual heaven perspective has been the dominant view among evangelical and fundamentalist churches (and certainly churches of Christ as well) for as long as any of us have been alive.

[5]Much of the language in this description is drawn from Timothy Mackie and Jonathan Collins, When Heaven Meets Earth: A 12-Part Biblical Study on Heaven (Portland: The Bible Project, 2017). This resource is available for download on The Bible Project website here.

[6]I will have a post later focusing specifically on this, but as many readers of this blog know, I am deeply interested in the history of the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement, and seeing that many of my spiritual forebears believed in renewed eschatology was very significant to me.

Reading in 2019

Regular readers of The Doc File know that I keep track of what I read each year, and that I enjoy chronicling that here on the blog and offering some reflections about my favorite reads from the previous year.

Without further ado, here is my list from 2019:

  1. The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, by Jeff Hobbs
  2. The Lost Letters of Pergamum: A Story From the New Testament World, by Bruce W. Longenecker
  3. Enter the Water, Come to the Table: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper in Scripture’s Story of New Creation, by John Mark Hicks
  4. Success Sparklers: A Treasury of Quips, Quotes and Sparkling Sayings for the Positive Person, compiled by Ivy Conner
  5. The Honorary Consul, by Graham Greene
  6. Small Group Strategies: Ideas & Activities for Developing Spiritual Growth in your Students, by Laurie Polich and Charley Scandlyn
  7. Walking Away From Idolatry, by Wes McAdams
  8. The Abolition of Man, by C.S. Lewis
  9. Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery, by Eric Metaxas
  10. The Hidden Harbor Mystery, by Franklin W. Dixon
  11. Between Shades of Gray, by Ruta Sepetys
  12. My Brother Sam is Dead, by James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier
  13. The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition, by Caroline Alexander
  14. Selected Stories of O. Henry, Introduction and Notes by Victoria Blake*
  15. The Nightingale, by Kristin Hannah
  16. Beyond Atonement: Recovering the Full Meaning of the Cross, by N.T. Wright, Gregory Boyd, and Ruth Padilla DeBorst
  17. The Glory of Their Times: The Story of the Early Days of Baseball Told by the Men Who Played It, by Lawrence S. Ritter
  18. God, Guys, and Girls, by Derry Prenkert
  19. Sabbath Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now, by Walter Brueggemann
  20. Christians in the Age of Outrage: How to Bring our Best When the World is at Its Worst, by Ed Stetzer
  21. How To Lose a Kingdom in 400 Years, by Michael Whitworth
  22. The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak
  23. The Cross & the Prodigal: Luke 15 Through the Eyes of Middle Eastern Peasants, by Kenneth E. Bailey
  24. Rich Dad Poor Dad, by Robert Kiyosaki
  25. I Am A Church Member, by Thom S. Rainer
  26. The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary, by Robert Alter
  27. That’s Why We Sing: Reclaiming the Wonder of Congregational Singing, by Darryl Tippens
  28. Fire Upon the Earth: The Story of the Christian Church, by Norman F. Langford
  29. The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates, by Wes Moore
  30. Family Worship, by Donald S. Whitney
  31. The Shepherd’s Ring, by Whit Jordan
  32. The Yellow Feather Mystery, by Franklin W. Dixon
  33. The Clue in the Embers, by Franklin W. Dixon
  34. Murder at Wrigley Field, by Troy Soos
  35. Visions of Restoration: The History of Churches of Christ, by John Young
  36. New Day: Restoring the Revolutionary Mission of Christ’s Church, by David M. Young
  37. Gorky Park, Martin Cruz Smith
  38. The Greenest Island, by Paul Theroux
  39. Disrupting for Good: Using Passion and Persistence to Create Lasting Change, by Chris Field
  40. The Secret Agent on Flight 101, by Franklin W. Dixon
  41. Jesus for President, by Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw
  42. Discipeshift: Five Steps That Help Your Church to Make Disciples Who Make Disciples, by Jim Putnam & Bobby Harrington with Robert Coleman
  43. Faith Unraveled: How A Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask Questions, by Rachel Held Evans
  44. Practical Wisdom for Youth Ministry: The Not-So-Simple Truths That Matter, by David Fraze
  45. 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos, by Jordan B. Peterson
  46. The Fourfold Gospel, by J.W. McGarvey and Philip Y. Pendleton
  47. Prayer, In Practice, by J.L. Gerhardt
  48. It’s All Too Much: An Easy Plan for Living a Richer Life with Less Stuff, by Peter Walsh
  49. Learning to Speak God from Scratch: Why Sacred Words Are Vanishing—and How We Can Revive Them, by Jonathan Merritt
  50. D2: Becoming A Devoted Follower of Christ, by Phil McKinney II
  51. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander
  52. One Loaf and One Cup: A Scriptural and Historical Survey, by Clinton De France

A few observations before I talk about my favorite books of the year:

  • My reading total decreased from 54 books in 2018 to 52 in 2019. I was pleased with this number considering that we moved in the middle of the year, my life was crazy busy preparing for that move and adjusting to it, and my reading time was (probably) somewhat less.
  • For the last several years, I have been between 48-54 books per year. This really seems to be my sweet spot.
  • This was my first full year removed from grad school, so I wondered how that would affect my reading. I still read a lot, with a decent amount of reading still geared toward faith, ministry, discipleship, biblical studies, etc.
  • I enjoyed my reading this past year. There were some books I didn’t love, but really, no major disappointments.

I want to share my Top 10 books for the year, but before I do so, I wanted to offer some brief thoughts on a few books that didn’t make my Top 10, but I still wanted to comment on:

  • The Glory of Their Times: The Story of the Early Days of Baseball Told by the Men Who Played It, by Lawrence S. Ritter: this was a great book of memories of baseball players from the early 1900s. As a huge fan of Ken Burns’ documentary Baseball, I was delighted to recognize that this book was a major primary source for many of the quotations for that series.
  • Family Worship, by Donald S. Whitney: This was a very short, yet very convicting, read. Christan parents, we really don’t have a good excuse for not having regular worship or devotional time at home with our families. If you want motivation, guidance, or conviction related to this, read this book.
  • The Shepherd’s Ring, by Whit Jordan: This was a novel for children written by a friend, and I loved it. It is currently unpublished, and I read an early draft. I can’t wait to hold the real thing in my hands and tell you about it.
  • Gorky Park, Martin Cruz Smith: This is one of my all-time favorite books. I read it frequently. It doesn’t make my Top 10 list because that feels like cheating. Otherwise, it would be there almost every year.
  • Faith Unraveled: How A Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask Questions, by Rachel Held Evans: RHE was just a couple years older than me, and tragically died from an illness earlier in 2019. I am not really the audience for this book, but I listened to the audio version (read by the author) and am so glad I did. I disagree with Evans on a variety of issues, but she is incredibly likable and it is clear that she genuinely loved God and other people, and wanted to remove barriers that prevented people from knowing the God she loved so much. It was good for me to read.

Regarding my Top 10 books for the year, here are some brief thoughts on those (presented in order of when I read them, not ranked 1-10):

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, by Jeff Hobbs: This was a fascinating and tragic true story of a man who grew up in the rough neighborhoods of Newark but managed to find his way out and graduate with honors from Yale, only to end up back in his former neighborhood where he ultimately was murdered in a drug-related crime. This story was well-written and gripping, and also filled with impending dread, as you knew from the title that it would not end well. Memoirs are not the best way to analyze complex social issues, but this book did provide for thoughtful reflection on racial issues (which, between this book, The Other Wes Moore, and The New Jim Crow {described below}, was a repeated focus for me in 2019).

The Lost Letters of Pergamum: A Story From the New Testament Worldby Bruce W. Longenecker: Longenecker, a well-known biblical scholar who specializes in the origins of Christianity, writes this epistolary novel that consists of a series of letters between several characters, including Luke the Evangelist. What results is a moving story that helps to illuminate the New Testament world including aspects such as honor-shame culture, patronage, the nature of letter writing, and Roman persecution. It took a little bit for me to get into it, but by the end, I absolutely loved it.

The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expeditionby Caroline Alexander: This was a fascinating account of Shackleton’s Antarctic Expedition complete with penetrating character studies and amazing photographs. This is simply an incredible, unbelievable tale. I really didn’t know what to expect going in, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The Nightingaleby Kristin Hannah: I have discovered that I love reading fiction set in WWII, and this is a good example of this. This novel tells the story of two sisters living in Nazi-occupied France, and the very different ways they seek to survive and resist during a very difficult time.

The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentaryby Robert Alter: Alter is a world-renowned expert on the Hebrew Bible who gives special attention to its literary features. This is his own translation along with commentary, which I used for my daily Bible reading early in the year. I don’t know Hebrew well enough to evaluate how great his translation is, but it was certainly readable, and I found his commentary to be frequently insightful.

New Day: Restoring the Revolutionary Mission of Christ’s Church, by David M. Young: I mentioned this book, and Young, in my recap of this past year’s Harding Lectureship, where I heard him speak three times. The short version of the book is that Churches of Christ (and really, churches across the spectrum) are declining in the United States, and the solution to this problem is to get serious about prayer, making disciples, and planting churches. If you have come to suspect that church should be about more than a social gathering, worship wars, and a consumeristic buffet of programs catering to the whims of members, this book is for you (wow, that was a little preachy!).

Disrupting for Good: Using Passion and Persistence to Create Lasting Changeby Chris Field: I did not have high expectations for this book, but I really liked it. Basically, it is a book about how to bring about culture change: you have to find a problem that really bothers you, and then attack it with creativity and perseverance. Most of the book is a series of inspiring vignettes of people who did exactly that. This was a really encouraging book for me.

Practical Wisdom for Youth Ministry: The Not-So-Simple Truths That Matterby David Fraze: I already reviewed this book here on the blog, so I don’t feel the need to say much here, other than the fact that this is now one of my favorite youth ministry books (I read a lot of them), and I plan on using it from now on with all of my youth ministry interns.

12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaosby Jordan B. Peterson: Although I have friends who are big fans of Peterson, I was not a fan, and actually began to read this book with a great deal of skepticism. Peterson’s breadth of knowledge is so vast that I found it difficult to evaluate at times (Is this brilliant? Is this nonsense?). At other times, when he crossed into areas I could better evaluate, I was blown away: his handling of the biblical text, especially the Book of Genesis, was very impressive (he is a little shakier on the teachings of Jesus—on a very deep level, I don’t think Peterson knows what to do with Him). Ultimately, what I would say is that each of Peterson’s rules range from helpful to profound, even if I don’t fully agree with all of the reasoning he uses to arrive at them. I “read” this book in audio format, and will likely reread it, soon.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindnessby Michelle Alexander: This is not a fun read. On the contrary, it was devastating. Alexander has two basic arguments in the book: (1) the American criminal justice system disproportionately punishes people of color (specifically through the War on Drugs), relegating a large chunk of African American society to being residents of an “undercaste”, and (2) this has been done intentionally. Although I don’t believe she established her second argument (to be fair, I don’t want to believe it), her first point seems absolutely clear to me. For those who do not understand (or worse, deny) the reality of systemic racism, this is a great book to read.

That was my reading for 2019. For comparison’s sake if you are interested, you can see my reading lists from previous years:

As always, I have a bunch of books lined out to read in 2020, and can’t wait to get into them.

What are some of the best books you read this past year?

*Books that I did not read in their entirety, but read significant portions of.

2019 Harding University Lectureship Recap

I am a little late posting this, but I wanted to provide a quick recap of Harding University’s 96th annual Bible Lectureship, which was September 29-October 2. The theme for this year was “Fan the Flame—Acts: Renewed by the Power of the Holy Spirit.” This was my third time to take part as a presenter at Lectureship (I was part of a panel for young ministers), but this was my first time to take part as a resident of Searcy, so it was nice to be able to enjoy the many sessions and also sleep in my own bed. 🙂

I was privileged to attend several good lectures and classes, and here is a brief recap of what I went to:

  • Restoring an Acts 2 Church, David Young: David is the preacher at the North Boulevard Church of Christ in Murfreesboro, TN, and kicked off Lectureship with this keynote on Sunday night. This was a highpoint for me. I was reading Young’s book, New Day: Restoring the Revolutionary Mission of Christ’s Church before and during Lectureship, and was really tracking with much of what he had to say. Short version: Churches of Christ (and churches across the spectrum) are declining in the US, and the solution is to get serious about making disciples and planting churches. Another helpful takeaway: as a church (or an individual, I guess), you can seek to be comfortable, or you can seek to be awesome; there is no overlap between the two. In addition to this keynote, I also attended Young’s two class sessions on Monday, which further covered similar material.
  • Devoted to the Apostles’ Doctrine, Scott Adair: Dr. Adair is on the Bible faculty at Harding, and recently has been developing a proposal for unity by identifying the central tenants of the Christian faith by mining the practice of baptism. In this lesson, he used the sermon material from the Book of Acts to highlight these same central beliefs: (1) Jesus Christ is Lord, Son of God; (2) A Belief in One God, who is Father, Son, and Spirit; (3) The Death and Resurrection of Jesus; (4) The Church as the Assembly of the Saints; (5) Forgiveness of Sins; (6) The Gift of the Holy Spirit; (7) Resurrection of the Dead. There is still more to work out beyond these beliefs (each has ethical demands that goes along with it), but I do think this is a helpful framework for trying to distinguish between preferences, important convictions, and foundational gospel matters.
  • Resurrection Preaching, Fate Hagood: Fate is a preacher from California, and presented a really stirring message during Monday evening’s keynote session on the nature of resurrection preaching from the Book of Acts. While he said a lot of good things, his closing was incredibly powerful for me, as he used Paul’s reasoning from his block of teaching in 1 Corinthians 15 to encourage us that our labor for the Lord is not in vain.
  • Devoted to the Breaking of Bread, B. Chris Simpson:  B. Chris has been a great speaker for as long as I have known him, and the depth and quality of his content just gets better and better. He presented a thoughtful and powerful lesson emphasizing that if we wish to resemble the Acts 2 church, we must be similarly devoted to food and fellowship, and the radical hospitality they practiced.
  • Intentional Connections with Parents and Teens, Brent Wilhite: Brent is one of the youth ministers at the College Church of Christ here in Searcy, and talked about current trends for teenagers both in the church and in the culture at large, and also tips for building resilient faith within teens. Brent had a lot of good content, and I felt like he could have gone for another thirty minutes.
  • Devoted to Fellowship, Harold Shank: I had heard of Harold Shank before, who is well known in Oklahoma Christian circles, but I had never heard him speak. I enjoyed his Tuesday night keynote, where he discussed why the early church was devoted to fellowship, and dreamed aloud what Acts 2 churches might look like in modern contexts.
  • Devoted to Prayer, Juan Meza: Juan was a former classmate of mine, and serves as the Latino Minister at the Church of Christ at White Station in Memphis. I thought he did a good job discussing how prayer builds our relationship with God, its power, and its purpose. It was all the more impressive to me because he was presenting in a second language!
  • A Dialogue on Two Views of Heaven, Dan Chambers and Ralph Gilmore: This was a discussion on the nature of eternal life: will eternity be spent with God in a spiritual heaven (“up there” somewhere), or will it God come to dwell with His people on a renewed earth (“down here” somewhere)? On the whole, I was disappointed in this. The two men had not shared their notes ahead of time, and I thought this was a mistake as it lead to a disjointed conversation, where Chambers was presenting his perspective on a renewed earth, while Gilmore tried to anticipate Chambers’ arguments and refute them rather than actually present his own perspective on heaven. On the positive side, the two men repeatedly affirmed their love and respect for one another and were adamant that this was not a fellowship issue, or something to be divisive about. I appreciated that.
  • Artifacts and Acts, Part 3: The Flame in Jerusalem, Dale Manor: Dr. Manor is a treasure—a classically-trained archaeologist with a wealth of information about the ancient world, and I try to catch one of his lectures each year. This one focused on some archaeological finds and background information from Corinth, Ephesus, Jerusalem, and Caesarea.
  • This Is Us, Part 3: Spiritual Ancestry of Churches of Christ, Monte Cox: Dr. Cox is another favorite of mine, and I thought he had some good things to say about the history of Churches of Christ and our future. He talked about the early days of the Restoration Movement (focusing on Thomas and Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone) and their strong emphasis on unity. In the 20th century, the (unofficial) list of essential doctrines grew longer and longer, and a unity movement became increasingly fractured. He concluded by posing the question: are Churches of Christ in crisis, or are we experiencing a reorientation toward Christ at the center?
  • Boldness In Adversity, Jesse Robertson: Jesse is a New Testament professor at Harding, and also a deacon at Cloverdale (where I work), and is someone I have come to deeply respect and appreciate. He closed out Lectureship on Wednesday by focusing on the boldness that we witness in the Book of Acts: it is something the apostles repeatedly prayed for and then evidenced in their lives. Jesse passionately implored us to pray for courage as we seek to tell the world about Jesus. As he pointed out insightfully: it takes one kind of courage to speak truth to your enemies; it takes another kind of courage to speak truth to your friends.

As always, Lectureship was a blessing for me and I greatly enjoyed it.  I would highly recommend taking part in this next year if you are able!

Preparing for Ministry in Small Churches

 

Several days ago, I had the opportunity to speak to a class of ministry students at Harding University who are near the completion of their degrees. While my primary task was to speak to them about youth ministry, I was also supposed to give them some practical tips for doing ministry in a congregational setting.

I offered several tips, some of which were likely more helpful than others, but some of my advice was focused on the reality that Churches of Christ represent a fellowship of small churches.

Consider some of the following information from the 2015 edition of Churches of Christ in the United States, compiled by Carl H. Royster. Of 12,303 congregations of Churches of Christ in the United States:

  • 1,932, or 15.7%, are congregations of 0-24 people
  • 3,351, or 27.2%, are congregations of 25-49 people
  • 3,556, or 28.9%, are congregations of 50-99 people
  • 2,159, or 17.5%, are congregations of 100-199 people
  • Combined, this means that roughly 89% of congregations are less than 200 people in size

The congregation where I currently serve doesn’t seem overly large to me, but at 230, it is in the top ten percent of congregations in our fellowship by size.

Again, Churches of Christ represent a fellowship of small churches. With this reality in mind, I offered a couple of suggestions to the Harding students I talked to who were about to graduate and head into ministry roles in Churches of Christ.

First, it is important to develop a diversified skill set. If you want to work in a church of Christ, and what you really, really want to do is be an adult education minister and do only that, there just aren’t that many jobs like that out there. The reality is that in smaller churches (i.e., the vast majority of churches of Christ), you have to wear a lot of hats, and you need to have a diversified skill set to be able to do that.

In my current position (and remember, we are over 200 in size, so we are larger than 9/10 churches in our fellowship), in a given week I might find myself planning a youth retreat, writing adult Bible class lessons, designing our church website, preaching, and negotiating a new contract with our copier company—and that’s not an unusual week!

Out of necessity, you have to wear a lot of different hats. You might have a specialized skill or skills that you are really good at, and that’s great, but you need to develop general skills as well.

Second, it is important to develop humility about your role. I was speaking that day to Christian college-trained ministry students, which means that in many ways, they are the upper echelon, the elite. They have spent lots of money and countless hours receiving training in biblical languages, intensive Bible study, ministerial skills, etc. Simply put, there are things that they have been trained to do that a lot of people in the congregations where they serve won’t be able to do, and it’s important that they prioritize and do those things.

But at the same time, that doesn’t mean they are too good to do less glamorous, more menial things. I cannot begin to count the number of hours I have spent straightening up chairs, taking out the trash, or putting things away in storage closets while at work. I didn’t need an M.Div to do that work, but it was still a vital part of my job. A couple of years ago, we had a major problem with the sewage line at our church building. Toilets backed up, and foul water flooded the hallway. And our preaching minister got out the mop and went to work. Ultimately, ministers are servants, and they step up to serve where it is needed; they are not too good to do the “small” things.

I am sure there are many more ideas that could be added, and again, this is coming from a guy who isn’t really at a small church. But if these lessons are true for me, how much more they must apply to even smaller congregational contexts. There are some real blessings that come with working with small churches, but it requires a certain type of minister as well.

Judging by demographic realities, many of the ministry students I spoke to will find themselves (at least at some point) working in smaller congregations. I hope what I shared with them will prove to be helpful.

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