Category Archives: Book Review

9 Marks of a Healthy Church: Book Review

41Be-zFOs6L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Summary:

In 9 Marks of a Healthy Church Mark Dever “describes some marks that distinguish” healthy churches from unhealthy one. His book is less like an “anatomy of the body” (an exhaustive list of what a church is/should do) but a prescription (how a church can be/become healthy.)

The Marks:

#1: Expositional Preaching: It is the Word of God that forms and gives life to the people of God. Therefore, the purpose of preaching should be to faithfully explain and apply that Word to the congregation. For Dever, this is “far and away the most important of them all, because if you get this one right, all the others should follow.”

#2: Biblical Theology: Closely related to the first, this one particularly relates to correctly understanding the character of God, namely that God is the creator, He is holy, He is loving, and He is sovereign.

#3: The Gospel: A right understanding of the Good News flows out of our understanding of God. Healthy churches understand what the gospel is (and is not) and call people to faith and repentance.

#4: A Biblical Understanding of Conversion: A right response to the gospel – faith and repentance – leads to conversion, a radical change in the new believer’s life. Dever argues that this sort of change is necessary, possible, involves further reliance on Christ, and comes about through God-given faith.

#5: A Biblical Understanding of Evangelism: Dever promotes evangelism that is undertaken by the whole community of the church and not just left to the “experts.” Evangelism shouldn’t be done out of a desire to win an argument, but out of love for God and neighbor.

The first five marks are standard fare for evangelical Christians and churches, if not in execution, at least in philosophy. Marks six through nine cut against the grain of (at least older) church growth books.

#6: A Biblical Understanding of Church Membership: Dever argues for a making church membership more of a priority and of having there be a higher bar for membership. Against the trend to deemphasize membership Dever says, “membership in a local church is intended to be a testimony to our membership in the universal church. Church membership does not save, but it is a reflection of salvation.” Members commit to the church and have certain obligations to the church, to the pastor, and to fellow members. A high view of church membership makes the remaining marks more intelligible.

#7: Biblical Church Discipline: For many this is a scary one (and in a later Appendix Dever argues that in churches where discipline has not been exercised, that it should only be eased into slowly.) For those unfamiliar with this concept, church discipline occurs when a member falls into unrepentant sin. The end result is either repentance and reconciliation, or exclusion from membership. The goals of church discipline are restoration of the person being discipline, to serve as a warning to other believers to see the danger of sin, to promote the overall health of the church, to serve as a corporate witness, and to reflect the holiness of God. Mark number 7 relies heavily on mark number 6.

#8: A Concern for Discipleship and Growth: Here finally Dever explains more of what he means by a “healthy church.” Healthy churches are concerned about individuals “growing” and “bearing fruit” as disciples of Jesus. By “growth” he doesn’t mean numerical growth, but spiritual growth. A church should be concerned to see “people who are growing up, maturing, and deepening in their faith.” He then goes on to show how each of the other marks contributes to this kind of growth.

#9: Biblical Church Leadership: Dever’s Baptist distinctives come through in this chapter. He argues for congregational rule, with leadership work delegated to a plurality of male elders. The task of those elders is to exercise authority, lead by example, equip the church for ministry, and serve the congregation. Dever acknowledges that often authority is abused, but that God gives authority as a gift, and when exercised in a godly way, it is ultimately life-giving.

Review:

The goal of 9 Marks of a Healthy Church is to lay a biblical foundation for healthy churches. It doesn’t get into a whole lot of particulars. That’s helpful to know going in. I found myself skimming through some of the material because I take so much of it for granted already.

For church leaders, pastors or elders, this will serve as a good rubric by which to examine the health of your church. In reviewing this list, I see some areas where we could improve. Though, I would supplement this book with other, more practical ones.

For those who attend church, I recommend reading chapter six on the importance of church membership, and if not a member of a church, to consider it, or if a member of a church, to consider how you can better serve your church.

For discussion: If you were to add a “mark” to this list, what would it be?

The deeper wisdom of Future Babble

Last week I wrote critically of the worldview underlying most of the sociology books I read using Future Babble as the prime example.

Future Babble is all about expert predictions gone horribly wrong. Daniel Gardner’s basic thesis is that a lot of experts are really bad at predicting what will happen in the future, but that people tend to keep buying into these predictions anyway.

It was an interesting book, and even though I find fault with some of the underlying assumptions, the book still has a deeper wisdom that is worth paying attention. I took two big lessons from this book.

Humble people are usually better at analyzing the future

Gardner makes a distinction between experts who he calls hedgehogs and others he calls foxes. Hedgehogs know one thing really well. They are smart and confident. They are usually the ones who appear as talking heads on cable shows. They sell lots of books. But they are often wrong. If fact, they’re no better than non-experts at making predictions about the future. Hedgehogs are also great at “explaining away” their misses. “I just got the timing wrong,” “If only this hadn’t happened,” “you misunderstood what I said to begin with,” etc.

Foxes, on the other hand, don’t focus on only one thing. They are less confident and more cautious. Because they are more nuanced, they’re less likely to be on talk shows and TV. They’re also a lot more likely to be right about the future. When they get it wrong, they’re more likely to admit it and learn from their mistakes.

Hedgehogs are marked by pride; foxes by humility. I think I remember something about pride going before the fall. We should be wary of our own overconfidence.

Be cautious of experts who are confident of what the future holds

Don’t be a hedgehog. But don’t trust a hedgehog either. They’re often wrong.

There have been many doomsayers throughout the years. The world was supposed to be way overcrowded by now, with the end of affluence, and whole sections of the earth wiped out by famine. The age of oil was supposed to be over.

There have also been those who predicted that all would be sunshine and roses, that we would be living in a Utopian age.

Neither of these predictions, confidently given, turned out to be correct. But a string of bad predictions doesn’t dissuade a new generation of confident pundits from boldly predicting the future. We should be cautious of them.

Gardner’s argument for why experts so often get it wrong is two-fold. First, we live in a complex world. Second, we’re biased in our judgments. I would agree with both of these (though for slightly different reasons than he does). I would add a third element. There’s another hand at work: the providence of God. He holds history in his hands and his ways are beyond and above our ways. Though we can expect the future to be filled with both highs and lows it’s less important for us to know exactly what those will be or when they will occur than it is to focus on our relationship with the One who holds that future. Uncertainty is a cause for worry, but God has not given us a spirit of fear, but a spirit of wisdom and self-discipline. Leave the future to God, focus on following him now.

Foundations for a life that pleases God

Yesterday I started a series on the book of Ephesians. I used the opportunity to lay out some of the major themes of the book as foundations for living a life pleasing to God.

The reality and character of God. In our secular age, it has become rather popular to jettison the idea of God all together as a mere illusion or crutch and to find some other foundation of life. Even among people who believe in God, He is far from foundational, instead, He is a peripheral part of life which we bring in or throw out as seems useful to our own goals. But for Paul, the reality and character of God forms the very foundation for every other argument he makes.

Reality: What Paul assumes in Ephesians, the writer of Hebrews makes explicit: “Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Hebrews 11:6).

Character: Paul is less interested in defending the reality of God than he is in describing his character. Indeed, the purpose of much of Ephesians is simply to draw his readers to love and worship God. God is the creator of all things (3:89). He is “over all and through all and in all” (4:6). He is the “glorious Father” (1:17). And, He is characterized by great love and as being “rich in mercy” (2:4). In this vision of God, He is the creator and sustainer of all things – and thus serves as a good foundation not only for our personal lives but for the entire cosmos. Further, He is not a distant and removed creator, but one who loves and shows mercy to his creation.

God’s work in Christ. Many monotheistic religions would affirm this vision of God as the foundation for life, but what makes Christianity unique is this second foundational principle: God’s work in Christ. God’s work in Christ naturally flows out of his love and mercy. How does He show us love and mercy? By sending His one and only Son into the world to save the world (John 3:16). And what did Jesus do? He gave us “redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins” (1:7). He “brought us near [to God] by the blood of Christ” (2:13). He “raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms” (1:19b-20).

The Christian faith rests on the foundation of the historical reality of Jesus, on His historical death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven. Through this reality we can be forgiven, redeemed, reconciled, and made alive.

God’s gifts, given through Christ. Through the work of Christ, and out of the boundless riches of God’s mercy and grace, God gives gifts to those who believe in him. These gifts are expanded throughout the letter but nowhere more than in Ephesians 3:3-10 (explanatory video in the link), but for the purposes of this blog I will focus on just three which are mentioned in 1:1-2: Paul’s apostleship, Grace, and Peace.

Paul’s apostleship: In some circles, it has become popular to accept the teachings of Jesus but reject Paul, but to do so would be a mistake. Indeed, God has given us apostolic teaching as one of the key foundations for the church (2:20). Specifically, God gave Paul special insight (revelation) into the mystery of the gospel; that Gentiles could be saved and incorporated into the people of God in the same way that Jews could, through faith alone, apart from the law. It was in large part due to Paul’s special mission to the Gentiles that the church expanded the way that it did.

Grace: Grace is God’s unmerited favor and this unmerited favor is what leads to our salvation. It equips us to serve the body of Christ, making it mature in the faith. And, will be revealed in its fullness when Jesus returns.

Peace: In our harried 21st century lives we’re particularly interested in how to achieve inner peace, but the peace which Paul refers to in Ephesians is, first, peace with God and second, peace with one another within the body of Christ. But, it makes sense that if we were to achieve peace in these first two senses, an inner peace would likely follow.

Without these gifts – knowledge of the gospel revealed through Paul’s apostleship, grace, and peace – the Christian life would be impossible. We would simply lack the power to accomplish what God has commanded us to do.

Our identity in Christ: Paul spends a large portion of his letter exhorting Christians to obey God. But prior to these commands he identifies his audience as “God’s holy people… faithful in Christ Jesus.” This identity comes first and foremost from what God has done for us. Out of God’s great mercy he sent Jesus. Jesus died on the cross and rose again. It is through this work that God grants us the gifts of grace and peace. And, it is these gifts which make us truly holy in the eyes of God. We’re objectively holy, with a righteousness that comes from God and is received through faith, even before we are subjectively and imperfectly holy. Indeed, our faithfulness flows out of this new identity in Christ, and apart from that identity, living a faithful life would be impossible.

There are many things in life competing for our core identity. But our identity in Christ is the only one which will never, can never, be shaken.

Actions: Only after laying this firm foundation does Paul lay out the moral exhortations later in the letter: “I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received” (4:1). It may be useful to think of Christianity as an iceberg. Most of the iceberg is below the surface. This forms the foundation of the iceberg and makes that which is above the water stable.

In Christianity, this foundation is the rich theological principles of the character of God, God’s work in Christ, God’s revelation, grace, and peace poured out on us, and the reality that when received by faith these form in us a new and lasting identity. The “above the surface” part of the Christian faith is what we actually do. These too are essential, but are not foundational. We make a mistake when we flip the proportions of the iceberg, when we make Christianity essentially about what we do, de-emphasizing theology and the incredible work of God. Such a faith is fundamentally unstable. If we get the foundations right, the actions, while still requiring the hard work of obedience, will follow naturally.

Book Review: Youth Ministry in the 21st Century: Five Views

youthminMy first thought when I saw the title of this book: “I didn’t even know there were five distinct views, what could they possibly be?” Here they are, in a nutshell:

The Gospel Advancing View by Greg Stier: This view focuses on evangelism, on saving the lost. Stier believes that discipleship happens when the mission (the Great Commission, the “Cause”) is at the forefront.

The Reformed View by Brian Cosby: This view attempts to apply consistently Reformed beliefs and practices to Youth Ministry. This includes an emphasis on faithfulness instead of “success” and a emphasis on the “means of grace”: the Word, prayer, and sacraments, as the primary drivers for youth ministry.

The Adoption View by Chap Clark: Clark believes that we have erred and become too individualistic in our view of discipleship and need to focus, instead, on building up the body of Christ. This view emphasizes the need for churches to “adopt” children into “family” of God by including them more deeply within the broader church.

The Ecclesial View by Fernando Arzola: Like the Adoption view, the Ecclesial view focuses on the Church. Where the adoption view emphasizes the local church congregation, the ecclesial view focuses on the “one, holy, catholic, apostolic” church. It emphasizes connecting youth with the historic church.

The D6 View by Ron Hunter: “D6” stands for Deuteronomy 6. This view argues that it’s God’s design that parents should play the primary role in discipling their children and that the church’s job is to lay the theological foundation, equip the parents for their work, and come along side the parents in a supporting role. The D6 model also emphasizes having and integrated approach to children, youth, young adult, and family ministry where ministry leaders work towards a common goal.

Analysis: In my initial estimation, the Adoption view and the D6 view made the strongest case for being the overarching philosophy for youth ministry. The others are important to keep in mind as well, though, and could provide necessary correctives when things get out of balance.

I’m curious, which of these types of youth groups did you grow up with? What worked and what didn’t?

Book Review: The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt

The Righteous Mind_I finished this book about a week ago and would have liked to have a more thorough review. Time doesn’t permit, so instead, I want to share a few brief thoughts. I suspect several of the themes of this book will work their way into my regular thinking on a few topics.

1) Haidt is a brilliant psychologist. He does a great job of explaining the way people think. I found myself fully convinced by his first two points which were that (a) our moral intuitions drive our moral reasoning most of the time and (b) that our moral intuitions are based on six moral “taste buds”.

2) Related: Everyone should familiarize themselves with Moral Foundation Theory and how/why it divides conservatives, progressives, and libertarians. This by itself is worth the price of the book.

3) My deepest critique of the book is not of Haidt as a moral psychologist, but Haidt as a philosopher. He offers an account of the origin of morality and religion that is purely evolutionary. For Haidt, both arose out of natural group selection because they helped groups outperform other groups. He is, therefore, relatively friendly towards religion. It’s helpful, for Haidt, it (along with morality) is an illusion.

4) This leaves Haidt’s “oughts” hollow. He ultimately argues for a sort of utilitarianism that is less individualistic, but does not (cannot) explain how he got to that conclusion. He makes many moral judgments throughout the book, but doesn’t have any of the tools to back them up. He just assumes that they will be self-evident to the reader.

5) The end result is that a lot of the descriptive parts of the book are very helpful for understanding individuals, politics, and culture. And a lot of his main points coincide very well with a biblical point of view. For instance, the Bible also teaches that we have “innate” moral intuitions. The Bible also bases its moral laws on various moral foundations (harm/care, fairness, proportionality, liberty, sanctity, etc.). The Bible also teaches that those intuitions can be trained through culture, law, parents, etc. The Bible also teaches that we operate as both individuals and as groups, etc. And these principles can be helpful in how we relate with people in different groups, even how believers share the gospel, etc. And yet, chunks of the book will nevertheless be frustrating.

6) One final thought: Haidt’s description of moral intuition as taste buds is apt. The problem is that for Haidt these don’t correspond to objective reality. I think they do. I think that these taste buds are more than just helpful tools to allow us to work together as groups to accomplish amazing things. I think they correspond to an objective moral reality. Good really is good. Evil really is evil. And the fact that we have the sense to see that, is evidence of that reality, and evidence of an ultimate law giver to his given us moral minds to see it.

Book Review: Prophetic Lament

Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times by Soong-Chan Rah, like the book of Lamentations of which it is is a sort of hyper-contextualized commentary, offers a counterbalance to the dominant voices of triumphalism in our culture and reminds us of the role of lament in Israel’s history, and in ours.

Prophetic Lament works through the book of Lamentations chapter by chapter and theme by theme. It is not a traditional commentary. Instead it looks primarily at the “big picture” of the book, how it is structured (acrostics in four of the chapters), its genres (funeral dirge, city lament), its voices (the narrator, the people in the city), and its major themes. Rah then applies those big picture elements to the context of the American Church, primarily to issues of racial injustice.

Prophetic Lament offers balance to the more common voices in American Evangelicalism.

Rah calls for incorporating lament into our worship, instead of only praise and triumphalism: “The loss of lament in the American church reflects a serious theological deficiency.” He encourages us to listen to voices other than just white men. He reminds us of the reality of corporate sin and the need for corporate confession, instead of only viewing sin through a hyper-individualistic lens.

Other major themes include God’s sovereignty, including his sovereignty in judgment and the need to look at the raw and uncomfortable reality of the “dead body in front of us”, the ravages of sin and injustice in the world. Applying this to racial injustice Rah states “Our nations tainted racial history reflects a serious inability to real with reality. Something has died and we refuse to participate in the funeral.”

Prophetic Lament, like Lamentations, can be bleak. But, like Lamentations, the glimmer of hope resides not in our abilities but in God’s faithfulness to his covenant. God’s judgment comes out of his faithfulness to his covenant. And so, if God is faithful, it is that same covenant faithfulness which brings about ultimate restoration. That restoration, Rah reminds us, is finally found in the saving work of Jesus.

In the mean time we lament. We have failed to live up to God’s standards and so we repent where necessary, listening to the voice of those who suffer, advocating for our brothers and sisters, moving forward in hope that is anchored in the character of God.

I’m not sure if Rah always makes all of his points. The book deals with some highly controversial topics and I was not always convinced by his arguments. His applications of the text sometimes felt contrived. But overall he offers an important perspective. I agree that, in many ways, we as an American church have a hard time entering into sustained lament. We stick a toe in, perhaps, but jump out as soon as possible. We have a hard time listening to other perspectives (particularly in regards to race!) Perhaps we ought to begin by grieving together, acknowledging the ways we have failed. Ultimately I am grateful for the voices of those like Soong-Chan Rah, challenging the status quo.

Summary and Book Review: The Good of Affluence

Summary

The Good of Affluence by John R. Schneider lays out a theological framework, primarily through interpreting the biblical text, by which to view wealth. In many ways this book is a defense of affluence over and against the view that the wealthy should divest themselves of most or all of their luxuries in order to provide necessities to the global poor. It is also, to a lesser degree, a defense of capitalism as a means of creating wealth which benefits both the rich and the poor alike.

Before entering into an analysis of the biblical narrative, Schneider makes an important observation about modern capitalism. In his view, capitalism is a “new” and different way of acquiring wealth which the world did not know in biblical times. For most of human history great wealth (affluence) was acquired primarily by taking it from other people through unjust means such as war, thievery, or taxation which rose to the level of extortion. But capitalism is different in that it is not a “zero-sum” game. In capitalism wealth is acquired by adding value into the whole system, which raises the level of all, or most, of those involved in the process. “When capitalism really works, every member of society becomes affluent to some comparative degree and (as D’Souza’s numbers show) that is exactly what has happened in some nations. The cultures that capitalism helps to create do not merely contain great wealth. They are cultures of wealth” (25). This “new” form of wealth building is a set of “new wine skins” which require a fresh look at the data, namely, the biblical text.

From there Schneider works through the biblical narrative. He begins with creation (chapter 2) and observes that God’s original intention was for people to live in a state of material delight. This was Adam and Eve’s experience in the garden before the Fall and it is where we are heading after the resurrection. From there he moves to the exodus and the laws of the Old Testament (chapter 3). Here he argues that part of the exodus meant moving the people from a position of slavery (including economic slavery) and into a position of delight and economic freedom – life in the promised land.  The laws which govern the people in the promised land do indeed include care for the economically vulnerable but they are followed with the promise of God’s material blessing. Schneider interprets the Jubilee, not as primarily a radical concern for the poor (since many of the most vulnerable – foreigners, for instance, were left out of any benefits the Jubilee might have brought) but as a way to re-establish God’s people in the land – a sort of re-living of the exodus.

At this point Schneider also introduces a principle central to the book, that of moral proximity. The principle of moral proximity essentially means that the closer one’s “moral proximity” is to someone else the greater one’s obligations. For Schneider this means that we are most responsible for our immediate family and have only loose obligations towards the global poor.

In chapter 4 Schneider reviews the Prophets and Wisdom literature. He focuses primarily on Proverbs and the book of Amos. His central thesis here is these writings assume God’s original intention of delight while, at the same time, decrying the abuses of the wealthy over and against the poor. He summarizes his view of Amos in the following way:

“It is a matter of become a mature person with a vision of the Lord and a heart for people, especially the poor and powerless. The rich must be liberated not from riches but from the selfish mind and the heart of the serpent. We must have the mind of God, the true Lord, who is our servant. We must strive toward the light of the exodus vision and recover the spirituality of redemptive power, which turns our delight into love” (106).

Schneider then moves to the New Testament, beginning with the Incarnation (chapter 5), Jesus’ teaching and his call to discipleship – the parable of the rich ruler, the call of Zacchaeus (chapter 6) – and Jesus’ parables (chapter 7). Here Schneider argues that Jesus did not call all to completely divest themselves of property but that he did call all to creatively use their wealth for kingdom purposes. Finally, Schneider moves to the early church, particularly to Acts, James, and Paul’s appeal for funds to help the church in Jerusalem (chapter 8). All in all, his review of the biblical text is representative and he deals with some of the more difficult passages to Scripture without (in my opinion) being evasive.

Schneider concludes the book (epilogue) with a reflection on how his view of affluence might be understood in a world of poverty. His conclusion here is that what holds people in poverty is not a lack of hard work or from a lack of capital, but systems which have not allowed for the release of capital. He summarizes the work of Hernando de Soto who argues that what is common to all stagnant economies is a lack of functioning rules regarding property, which are necessary for the creation of wealth. If this is true then the problems of these countries can’t be solved (at least not in the long-term) through external aid. Instead they need to be solved internally, through the creation of necessary economic infrastructure. The second implication is that in this view the “global poor” are not a problem which needs to be solved, but are in fact, are themselves the solution.

Review

Of Schneider’s work I have two words of commendation, one of critique, and one of warning.

First, Schneider’s exegetical work is of the first order. He offers scholarly, clean, and convincing arguments. Those who would disagree with him, if they are believers, will first need to deal with his formidable exegetical work. Second, reviews which state that Schneider is arguing that wealthy Christians have no obligation to the global poor are mistaken. They simply do not understand Schneider’s argument. If everything looks like greed then the only answer they will accept is divestment of property. But Schneider views the world in a very different way (more nuanced and complex) so they don’t recognize his solutions when he states them.

My critique is that Schneider offers very little in terms of concrete applications to the reader. I believe this is intentional on the author’s part, but it is still frustrating. I was personally hoping for a bigger payoff in his epilogue. I understand his “solution” I think, but I have no idea how I can play any part in it.

Finally, a warning: This book could be read by the rich to justify either inaction or indifference. Again, this is not the author’s intention. I simply state it this way: Wealth, while a blessing from God can, because of our sinful natures, become a deceptive snare. If you have been blessed with affluence Schneider’s call would be to creatively use your wealth in service to others.