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Category: Reviews (page 1 of 9)

Book Review: Youth Ministry In A Post-Christian World

I recently completed Brock Morgan’s Youth Ministry In A Post-Christian World: A Hopeful Wake-Up Call, and wanted to write a brief review.

Morgan’s basic premise is that the America we live in is now a post-Christian society and as such, requires different patterns and practices of youth ministry to be successful. Morgan is not an ivory tower speculator, but a youth ministry veteran who is in the trenches, and speaks from his own experiences.

There were certain elements of the book that didn’t connect with me. First, as a youth minister in semi-suburban Arkansas, the students I work with are less post-Christian than those Morgan describes in Greenwich, Connecticut. That doesn’t mean Morgan is off-base or an alarmist (more realistically, the trends he describes are just 5-10 years around the corner for me), but it did make part of his material seem foreign to my context.

Second, the author seems like a great guy, and the stated subtitle of the book is “A Hopeful Wake-Up Call,” but the reality for me was that as I read the book, it made me feel incredibly inadequate as a youth minister. I’m sure this was not the author’s intention and is probably more of a reflection of my own tendency to be overly hard on myself, but the repeated feeling of, “This is not the way I do youth ministry; I must be terrible” was not a pleasant one.

Third, a few times throughout the book, the author used some course language that I didn’t have a lot of patience for. It wasn’t pervasive, and some might be inclined to roll their eyes that I even mention it, but I have never had much use for Christian leaders using bad language—especially for those who work with teens.

Finally, there were some statements and sentiments sprinkled throughout the book that I wasn’t crazy about, and I’ll give a couple of examples. At one point, Morgan relates a story where he and another minister teach a student that religion is man-made, while spirituality is from God. There are certainly a lot of man-made trappings that can obscure and distort religion, but this is a tired, false dichotomy that gets on my nerves, and is contradicted by Scripture (James 1.27). In another place where Morgan discusses how grace should lead us to act, he makes the statement that grace teaches us to say no to discipline. One thing I have found as a youth minister is that there are a lot of times where I can show grace by not responding harshly to every instance of misbehavior. But grace is not antithetical to discipline; discipline is an essential element of discipling people (see the connection in the two words?!). These are just a couple of examples, but represent that there were several times throughout the book where I read something, narrowed my eyes, and thought, “I’m not too sure about that.”

Having gotten the negatives out of the way, I want to clearly say this: Morgan is an insightful thinker and there were many places in the book where I thought he hit it out of the park. Here are some of my favorite quotations:

Our students are growing up in a pluralistic society that’s much different than the world in which you and I grew up. And if you’re smack-dab in the midst of adolescence and your top goals are to fit in and not stand out, to be different by being just like everyone else, then the acceptance of all things is an important value to have. (27)

Christendom is now dead, and we need to get over it. (30)

In a post-Christian world, no value is placed on the Sabbath, so our children have some scheduled activity seven days a week. This has created the most anxious and stressed-out generation in history. (41)

I’d hate to think that people aren’t open to Jesus because we’re perceived as not being open to them. (82)

For many people, the church is a place that says, “If you don’t believe what we believe, vote how we vote, and take the same stand on issues that we take a stand on, then you don’t belong.” I believe God is calling us to bigger things and a more humble posture. He is calling us once again to trust the Holy Spirit. To trust that he will work out the minor things of the faith in the lives of our students.” (83)

Unanswered questions open us up to the bigness of God. When we offer pat answers to complex questions, we shrink God down to our level. (89)

Hiring a 22-year-old and paying that person an extremely low amount of money to disciple students apart from the church has an effect. Many students graduate from the youth group and simultaneously graduate from their faith. (127-28)

What if students began getting their identities from being a part of the church rather than being apart from the church? (129)

All in all, this is a work that I would certainly recommend to youth ministry workers. The reality is that 21st century America is increasingly a post-Christian society—if your context (like mine) isn’t quite there yet, it will be soon. We can pretend this isn’t reality, continue to do things in the same old ways, and then wonder why we are increasingly ineffective, or we can begin to think through the issues that Youth Ministry In A Post-Christian World discusses. I would prefer to do the latter, and was thankful for this guide.

Abolition & the Stone-Campbell Movement: James O’Kelly’s Essay on Negro-Slavery

I have written before about the unfortunate fact that there were some Christians in the antebellum South who used the Bible to justify the practice of slavery. I argued that they were wrong to do so on at least two grounds:

  1. They failed to see a distinction between the ancient slavery described and regulated in the bible and the race-based chattel slavery of the U.S. colonies and Southern states that was basically “man-stealing,” something the Bible expressly forbade (Exodus 21.16).
  2. They failed to see the profound argument set forth by Paul in the Letter to Philemon. Here, he does not seek to abolish all slavery in the Roman Empire, but instead seeks to get one man to understand the radical implications of the Christian message: slave owners should view their slaves as Christian brothers and sisters (or at least, as potential brothers and sisters) in the family of God, and to treat them accordingly. In such a family where all are equally servants of God, there is no place for slavery.

Thankfully, many Christians were not wrong on these points, and were actually at the forefront of the fight for the abolition of slavery. One prominent abolitionist (in fact, he was one of the first clergymen to write an anti-slavery publication) was James O’Kelly (1735-1826), who is of particular interest to me (and many of my readers) because of his connection to the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement.

O’Kelly was a circuit-riding Methodist preacher in North Carolina in the 1770s and 1780s. O’Kelly withdrew from the Methodist Church in 1792 over matters of church polity, and founded the Republican Methodist Church, which later became a part of the Christian Connexion. Some of the members of this group later became a part of the Stone-Campbell Movement (though O’Kelly himself died before the Stone and Campbell groups united). You can read more about him here.

In 1789, O’Kelly wrote Essay on Negro-Slavery, in which he published his strong anti-slavery views. Abilene Christian University has a digital scan of this work available for free download, and I enjoyed reading this short publication last summer. O’Kelly writes forcefully and well. I have included some quotations from the work below, along with some of my own thoughts.

First, O’Kelly didn’t actually desire to write about such a topic, but felt compelled to do so:

“Not that I looked upon it as difficult to prove the injustice of slavery, for a man of half sense can see that; but I was reluctant to become an author. Yet the word of the Lord, whenever I thought of declining, would burn like fire in my bones, and rob me of my sleep.” [“To the Reader”]

He seeks to help his audience feel empathy, as he describes the horrible practice of the breaking up of families in slave markets, and the inhumane treatment that slaves at times received from their masters:

“O husbands, who have tender wives and precious children, can you acquiesce with a law that tolerates a practices so inhuman, which enslaves human creatures who have as much right to their natural liberty as to their common air?” [9]

“A master who drank to excess, one morning, lately, took his man-slave, and hoisted and weighed him by a tobacco-beam fixed between his legs, another standing on the beam to increase the pain; beat, cut, and lashed him, till the blood poured down in streams: the slave begged for mercy, but in vain; then spake in a soft manner to the tyrant, saying, master, you have killed me. He then lifted up his eyes to Heaven and expired.” [9]

Beyond an emotional level, O’Kelly addresses the issue of slavery from a theological perspective:

“When GOD called Abraham (Gen. xii) he preached the gospel to him, saying, “In thy seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed,”—Africa not excepted.” [15]

“The Son of GOD did not come to destroy lives, but to save. Neither did he come to enslave men’s persons, but to preach the great jubilee. Involuntary slavery directly opposes the benevolent purposes of the Christian religion. The Christian religion is the pure undefiled religion, gathering proselytes from every nation into one fold. The Christian, who through the Spirit hath received a divine nature, even the mind of Christ, hath learned of his great master to be meek to his countrymen, neighbors and brethren, and the inhabitants of the remotest regions as well as of the nearest. He calls no man common or unclean. He is like his Father and his Master, whose sun shines upon the evil and the good, and who sends rain on the just and the unjust.” [17]

O’Kelly also does not shy away from the difficult issue of the practical consequences of emancipation. With blacks subjugated for so long and deprived of education and a means of building up personal wealth, what would happen to them if they were suddenly freed? O’Kelly acknowledges this problem and suggests that a gradual emancipation would be best, but with the clear understanding that the very people who have created this problem through enslaving others need to be involved in helping former slaves to live as independent, self-sufficient free people:

“You say, “they are poor and having to begin upon, how can they live, if free?” This objection is stronger than all. They are the poorest people that mine eyes ever saw. you shall take every rag of clothing that is on a thousand, and put them in the road as free plunder, and hardly a free-man would alight from his horse to pick them up! But why such poverty? Where is all their labour that you have got? Your objections make your injustice only more glaring. You are the cause of their poverty. Will you rob a man of his all, and then out of pity make a slave of him, because he has nothing to begin upon? Perhaps the grand objection lies here. “What shall we do?” Only let a gradual emancipation commence, from the pure love of GOD and man in our christian brethren, and that glorious example will influence the civil powers. Reward them for their labour; encourage good behaviour; subject them to your laws; let them have interest to study, and our country will not want hands to till the earth with comfort; their minds will be no longer so contracted: the activity of the magistrates will suppress the flagitiousness of white and black. The natural genius of the people will soon appear.” [26]

“If your present situation is such that you cannot liberate your captives without defrauding your creditors, or reducing your family into deep distress; acknowledge the wrong detention, converse with your dear preachers who feel for you, and emancipate them in a more gradual manner; and we shall rejoice in your sincerity, and acknowledge you as dear brethren in Christ.” [31]

 

In many ways this was not an enjoyable read, as it described and decried a terrible practice in a dark period of our national history. However, it was inspiring to read the thoughts of someone like O’Kelly who, thoroughly infused with the principles of the Gospel, was willing to buck the trends of his time and take a stand for justice and righteousness. Furthermore, the knowledge that he was in some sense a spiritual ancestor of mine was a simultaneous source of pride and hope.

Thoughts on The Shack

A decade ago or so, The Shack was a best-selling book. Millions of people read it, and many, many of those who did had strong opinions about it. For some, it was a wonder-working book, which offered healing for times of grief. For others, it was nothing short of heresy, portraying theologically dangerous ideas about the nature of God and salvation.

Fast forward ten years, and not much has changed: The Shack is now a blockbuster film, but the response to it has been largely the same: amazing or blasphemous. I have had people ask what I think about the story, and I have witnessed some of the discussion, and while I won’t try to convince you to love or hate The Shack, I would like to offer a third perspective.

My Story

I read The Shack for the first time in 2009, and when I did, I wasn’t impressed. There were some good elements to the story, and I found a few quotations that I liked, but I thought the book had major theological problems which were a big hang-up for me. If you’re interested, you can read a review I wrote back in 2009.

In the fall of 2014, I took a grad school class called Providence and Suffering, and The Shack was one of the texts that we were required to read for the class. Honestly, I was disappointed, because I had read the book before and largely dismissed it, and wasn’t thrilled to be reading it again. But I did read it again, and was surprised at what I found: the theological problems were still there, but they didn’t capture my focus in the same way. Instead, I read a powerful story of sin and suffering, and a God who loves us in spite of those things even when it feels like He doesn’t.

What changed between 2009 and 2014? It wasn’t that a new edition of the book came out that ironed out the theological difficulties; the text was the same. What changed was me.

When I read the book the first time, I was a 25 year-old minister who pretty much had it all figured out. In a lot of ways, I hadn’t experienced a whole lot in life, and I certainly hadn’t experienced any significant suffering. I “knew what the Bible taught,” was bothered by some of the finer theological points of the book, and basically, wrote it off.

When I read the book the second time, I was a 31-year old minister who had learned a lot in the intervening 5 1/2 years, and most of all, had learned that I absolutely did not have it all figured out. My wife and I had suffered through the heartbreak of miscarriage, and had been absolutely devastated by our beloved daughter’s diagnosis of a severe genetic condition that would greatly affect her life. I had learned much, much more about the Bible than I knew previously, and while my theological convictions remained (and, in fact, were deeper in many ways), I read the book in a completely different light. This time, I saw The Shack as an insightful and touching parable about suffering, and how God loves us in the midst of it.

Two Practical Considerations

Really, you can feel however you want to about The Shack, but here are some thoughts to consider:

The Shack is a parable; it is not a systematic theology. Parables are meant to make a point, but they are not meant to be pressed in their details. Even parables of Jesus can convey theologically inaccurate ideas if they are pressed in ways that they are not intended. If you go to The Shack looking for rigorous exposition of biblical theology, you are looking in the wrong place. That doesn’t mean The Shack is theologically perfect (it’s certainly not), but that’s also not its purpose.

Maybe The Shack is not for you. People are different, and that means that different things “speak” to different people differently (I wanted to see how many times I could use the word “different” in a sentence). If you are hung up on the theology, that’s fine; don’t read the book or watch the movie. But for some people, I think The Shack can be a powerful reminder that God cares for them deeply, even (especially?) in their suffering. I don’t think The Shack was for me the first time I read it; it was the second time.

So, those are my thoughts. Ultimately, I think there are a lot of more pressing issues for Christians to get riled up about than the orthodoxy of what is, in my opinion, a therapeutic parable. For my part, having read the book twice, I don’t feel a great need to see the movie (and honestly, am not eager about the emotional burden that I know will accompany my watching it), but I’ll probably catch it on Netflix in a couple years.

Book Review: The Need for College Ministry

Last week, I read Neil Reynolds’ brand new eBook, The Need for College Ministry: Awakening the Church to One of the Most Receptive Mission Fields in the World. Neil is the campus minister at the Church of Christ Student Center (CCSC) at Arkansas Tech University in Russellville, AR, and also has a good blog, where he writes frequently about discipleship and campus ministry.

I am a youth minister, and my primary goal in working with young people is to help them develop a faith that will stick with them throughout their college years and, indeed, their entire lives. Because of that, I have been a fan of campus ministry for several years, because research shows that for students who do not attend a Christian university, getting plugged into a campus ministry is a vital part of their remaining faithful during their college years (and beyond).

So Neil did not have to do any heavy lifting to convince me that college ministry is important. However, The Need for College Ministry was a major eye opener for me in its emphasis on the college campus as a particularly receptive field for sharing the gospel and making disciples. In other words, college ministry isn’t important just because it helps “our” kids stay faithful during college (although it does); it is also vitally important because it is a particularly effective means of spreading the borders of the kingdom, and doing so among a generation that is typically considered to be hard to reach.

Here are some of my favorite quotations from the book:

But, there’s more to my love for the restoration movement than relational connections. I love what we stand for…I love the we have a high view of God’s word. I love that we’re a unity movement. I love that we’re a restoration movement, partnering with God to restore something he’s already done. Our focus on restoring the New Testament church is great. But, as a lifelong participant in the restoration movement, I’d love to see the missionary spirit of the New Testament church restored. (17-18; emphasis is the original)

No generation should be evaluated while they’re still in their twenties. (25)

[Donald] McGavran discovered that people are open to new ideas, including the gospel, in newly developed areas. College campuses aren’t exactly new settlements. But the school year rhythm creates a sense of newness each fall especially when you consider that 25% of the campus is new every school year. (36; emphasis is the original)

I believe that we could change the course of an entire generation, reach the nations with the gospel, and revitalize the Churches of Christ simply by prioritizing ministry to college students. (47)

In our campus ministry efforts, the goal is to make fully devoted followers of Jesus. I’m not suggesting that we compromise our convictions in order to attract students. We have one task: make disciples that make disciples that make disciples. (58; emphasis is the original)

The whole “I love Jesus but not the church” sentiment isn’t new but it’s just as wrongheaded now as it’s ever been. (58)

During college, most students will decide, consciously or unconsciously, what their priorities will be for the rest of their lives. (61)

Simply put: in order to start new ministries on many campuses, we’ll have to start new churches, too. If there were healthy, vibrant communities of faith in these university towns, they would already be reaching students. (80)

Here’s a simple litmus test. If you aren’t reaching students and you aren’t willing to change anything you’re doing as a church, you won’t reach students. It’s that simple. (81)

The Need for College Ministry is a quick and easy read, it is affordable, and for me, it was very convicting. If you are a minister or church leader in or near a college town, or just someone who is interested in reaching young people with the gospel, this is a must read.

Book Review: Embracing Creation

At the end of December, I finished one of the better books I read in 2016: Embracing Creation: God’s Forgotten Mission, by John Mark Hicks, Bobby Valentine, and Mark Wilson. Dr. Hicks is a former professor of mine, and I “know” Bobby through social media. Both men have written much that has challenged me, and I have been blessed by their thoughts on the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement (Hicks and Valentine), suffering and the problem of evil (Hicks), and the “Jewishness” of Christianity (Valentine). I had not previously read anything by Wilson.

I will go ahead and jump to my overall conclusion and recommendation: this is an important book, deserving of a wide readership (especially within Churches of Christ, which is the primary intended audience). Although Embracing Creation is more complex than I am indicating here, it largely comes down to two significant arguments, which are both based on the biblical reality that God cares deeply about what He has created.

First, humans are to reflect God’s care and concern for creation, and should practice thoughtful stewardship of our planet. Truly, this should not be a controversial claim, but because conversations surrounding care for the environment are frequently hijacked for political purposes, it often is made out to be controversial. Embracing Creation does not argue for a godless environmentalism that holds up nature as something to be worshipped; it does encourage a deep, biblical care for a creation that God calls good, but has been too often treated as expendable and unimportant by humans.

Second, God does not intend that His creation be destroyed, but will redeem and recreate it, and will dwell with creation in the New Heavens and New Earth. This will also be a controversial claim for many, but again, it need not be.* Hicks, Valentine, and Wilson argue (and effectively, in my opinion) that the notion of an annihilated and completely destroyed earth and an eternal existence for God’s saints in an other-worldly heaven is actually a fairly modern notion, and does not reflect the biblical text, the belief of the early church, or the beliefs of pioneers in the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement. Instead, these witnesses all point to a redeemed earth, which will be refined and recreated in a way that is analogous to our own resurrection bodies, and will serve as the location of our joyous eternal existence with God. Three texts which are generally brought up to refute this perspective—John 14.2-3, 2 Peter 3.6-7,13; 1 Thessalonians 4.16-17—are all addressed (and quite adequately, I thought).

Here are some of my favorite quotations from the book:

Creation does not belong to human beings. It belongs to God, and it is the Messiah’s inheritance. We are only stewards and junior partners, though we are coheirs with Christ. (16)

Too often we hear “dominion” in tyrannical, oppressive, militaristic, or manipulative ways, but this is not how God rules. As images of God, we rule in the likeness of God. (39)

Above all, Psalm 104 reveals an astounding truth: creation, animate and inanimate, is the object of divine love. If God, like an artist, dotes so tenderly over it, then should not those created in God’s image reflect the same divine delight, love, and care for creation? (53)

The resurrection of Jesus, then, is the pledge of a future harvest, a preview of coming attractions. It is God’s answer to creation’s lament. (91)

Though chaos remains in the old creation, chaos will disappear in the new. (130)

God’s promise is “See, I am making all things new” (Rev. 21:5). The text does not say that God will make new things. Rather, God will make all things new. This is restoration, healing, and renewal. (131)

Creation is intrinsically good, and this goodness is not based on its utility for humans. (139)

On one level, it does not matter if “global warming” is real or imagined, caused by nature or humans. Caring for God’s good world is a matter of obedience and discipleship…If the Father is mindful of the death of even a single sparrow (Matt. 10:29), then we, who reflect the divine image, will care as well. (140)

Scripture never says heaven, separated from the earth, is the eternal destiny of the redeemed. Forecasting a doomed earth and an eternal celestial abode can result in an escapist outlook that hunkers down until we “fly away,” diminishing support for creation stewardship. (166)

Before closing, there were a couple areas of the book which I thought were weaknesses. First, I think Embracing Creation is a very challenging read for the average Christian. I have spent years (and years!) in grad school reading books on Scripture, theology, and ministry on a regular basis, and felt right at home with this work, but I found myself wondering how well I would have followed it if I had read it as a young minister before I had any sort of seminary training. Now, the exact intended audience of the book is never stated directly (that I can remember), but because I feel the two main points described above are so important and so often neglected, I wish the book would have been written at a somewhat simpler level to make it more accessible.

Second, there is an intriguing chapter at the end of the book entitled, “God’s Restoration Movement: Revisioning the Restoration Plea.” This chapter will be of special interest for readers from Churches of Christ (or other branches of the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement), and basically argues that we should view the concept of Restoration not as a return to the practice and beliefs of the first century church (i.e., a look back to restore the church), but rather, a working towards the time when God will come and redeem all of creation (i.e., a look ahead to restore the entire cosmos). This is a thought-provoking proposal, but ultimately, I think it presents an either/or dichotomy which is not necessary: can we not be a people who seek to follow the basic design, practice, and spirit of the early church while also eagerly anticipating and working toward the day when God will make all things new? Interestingly, throughout Embracing Creation, early Restoration pioneers such as Alexander Campbell, Walter Scott, and David Lipscomb are quoted as men who understood God’s plan of Restoration for all creation, and yet they still held to the idea of Restoration as we have typically conceived and discussed itCan we not do the same?

With these gentle critiques in mind, the fact remains that Embracing Creation is a compelling and important book. It is a book that not everyone will agree with, but perhaps for that reason alone, it should be read by many people. And as I described above, I think its two main points are scripturally spot-on, and their understanding is greatly needed in the church today.


*Some will hear this and associate it with some version of Premillennialism or Jehovah’s Witness eschatology. What Embracing Creation proposes has nothing to do with either.

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