Tag Archives: books

10 Books that Influenced the way I think in 2018

This isn’t the list of the best books I read in 2018, but the books that challenged or influenced the way I think. Even if I didn’t agree with all of their conclusions, they stimulated my thinking. I could tell these books were influential for me if I brought them up in conversation, went over their contents more than once, or actually changed the way I lived.

10. The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams: Life without God is absurd, and this is the world of Douglas Adams. This book is bit like a humorous version of Ecclesiastes, except that Adams doesn’t recognize the irony of it all.

9. Five Views of the Church and Politics (IVP): This book provided me with key paradigms to understanding how different traditions have understood the relationship between church and politics.

8. The Mission of God’s People: A Biblical Theology of the Church’s Mission by Christopher Wright: This book, along with the podcasts being published by The Bible Project, have given me a deeper understanding of how the Bible fits together as a whole.

7. American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism, 1865-1900 by H.W. Brands:It helps to see things in historical perspective. Class warfare and political corruption are nothing new. We’ll get through this (well, probably).

6. Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age by Alan Noble: Noble invites us to examine the ways in which our message, and the way we share it, can help people understand the gospel.

5. The Dorito Effect: The Surprising New Truth About Food and Flavor by Mark Schatzker: You won’t see food in the same way again. Also, I think the quote “The chicken situation is dire!” will stick in my head for a while.

4. Small Church Essentials by Karl Vaters: Big churches and small churches are different, and that’s Ok. This book made me more critical of advice given specifically with big churches in mind, and more comfortable with my own small church.

3. Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics by William Lane Craig:This book gave me some great tools for apologetics and strengthened my faith.

2. American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers by Nancy Jo Sales: Nancy Jo Sales effectively shows the dangers of social media, especially for girls, and the corrosive effects of porn and hook-up culture.

1. Becoming a Welcome Church By Thom Rainer: This book didn’t only change the way I think, but it drove me to pursue a few specific changes in our church.

5 Takeaways from Small Church Essentials

Book Recommendation:  Small Church Essentials: Field-Tested Principles for Leading a Healthy Congregation of under 250

Most books and podcasts on church strategy are written from the perspective of a big church leader. It’s easy to see why. Big church leaders have a platform. They’re successful. People want to hear what they have to say. We tend to equate size with success and so, if we want to be successful, we seek out those who have “made it.”

smallchurchessentials

Karl Vaters is a small church pastor who has written this book specifically for small churches. In doing so, his advice often challenges some conventional wisdom of church growth books.

While this book covers a lot of ground. Here are five takeaways I got out of the book:

  1. The world needs both big and small churches.

Though written from a small church perspective, this is not an anti-big church book. Vaters praises God for big and small churches alike. Big churches can be healthy and effective or unhealthy and ineffective. The same is true for small churches.

Vaters isn’t interested in the comparison game. Both big and small churches have a role to play in the larger body of Christ. Those churches can play complementary roles.  Vaters isn’t concerned about size, but about effectiveness: “We don’t need fewer big churches or fewer small churches – we need more healthy, active, passionate churches of all sizes, working together.”

  1. Small churches are different from Big churches, and that’s OK.

One of Vaters’ central theses is that a lot of advice given by big church leaders to small churches doesn’t work. Is that because small church pastors are lazy or ineffective? Is it because they’re not gifted or good leaders? Lots of small church pastors tell themselves this, but Vaters disagrees.

Big church principles don’t work in small churches because they just operate differently. Vaters’ explanation for this is the law of large numbers. The law of large numbers states that large groups are more predictable than small groups. “The smaller the group, the more the idiosyncrasies of individual people and the relationships between them come into play.”

Here’s one example: Because of this unpredictability, it can be harder for smaller churches to do long term planning. “The smaller the church, the less predictably it behaves, and the harder it is to plan for.” Small church plans are subject to significant change: “In a small church, the addition, subtraction, or change in plans of just one person or family can cause massive changes that you can never adequately prepare for.” That’s not to say that small churches should make long term plans, but that planning will end up looking differently than what is done in large churches.

If small church pastors try to just drop big church programs into their church, it may prove ineffective, or even detrimental, acting against the strengths of the small church. “The very systems that bring stability to big churches can make small churches seem cold and corporate, negating the main reason why most people attend a small church to begin with – the personal touch.”

  1. Church health matters more than Church size.

Here’s what happens: Small church pastors go to a conference, read a book, scan an article, or listen to a podcast promising church growth. The pastor does his best to put it into practice but, since it is only written from a big church perspective, it doesn’t work as expected. The pastor feels discouraged, assuming he is the problem. He either gives up or just moves on to the next big thing.

Vaters wants us to know that some “big church” principles are just not likely to work in small churches because they operate differently. He also wants us to know that simple numerical growth is the wrong goal.

Instead of seeking growth, churches should be seeking health. Vaters defines health as “increase[ing] our capacity for effective ministry.” Therefore, “instead of telling struggling churches to get bigger, let’s help them become healthy. If those churches grow as a result of their health, that’s great. If not? At east they’ll be healthy.”

After all, if a church is unhealthy, growth won’t help. “If something is broken, you can’t fix it by making it bigger.”

So how does a small church become an effective church? That’s what Vaters wants to answer, and that’s what this book is about.

  1. Vision casting matters less in small churches

Big and small churches will have different strategies and different priorities. A lot of church growth books put a major premium on crafting a vision statement and then consistently casting that vision to the church. Vaters sees value in having a vision statement, he just thinks its not that important for small churches.

He gives several reasons for this. First, we have already been given a “vision statement” from Jesus: “We’ve already been given the biggest, most audacious God-inspired vision of all… We have the Great Commandment and the Great Commission.”

Second, small church pastors need to focus on the clear command in Scripture on equipping the saints for ministry. “If the burden of having to find, cast, and promote a unique vision for the church was lifted from pastors’ shoulders, we would feel free to become the equippers we’re meant to be.”

Third, while in big churches a top-down approach to vision casting may be necessary, in small churches the preference should be for a bottom-up approach. Vaters doesn’t see many examples in Scripture of top-down vision casting. Instead, he argues that “a healthy small church on mission with God can and should be hearing God through various voices in the congregation.”

Pastors and congregations should be listening to God together and then get to work doing the ministry. Once a church understands its call (through actually doing ministry) then it can craft a mission statement. In this bottom-up, action-oriented approach, a vision/mission statement might still come, but it does later in the process. “In most small churches, a mission statement should be the last thing we do, not the first.”

  1. In small churches, relationships (and friendliness) are a priority

While Vaters doesn’t put a big priority on “vision casting” leadership, he does put a big priority on relationships. “Small churches live and die on the strength of their relationships.”

Why do people generally come to small churches? To find meaningful relationships. Why do people visit a small church? Because a friend invites them. How do people grow spiritually in small churches? Meaningful relationships (including mentoring relationships).

Guest friendliness also needs to be a priority. Yes, this matters in big churches as well, but often people expect a level of anonymity when they visit a large church. That’s not true for small churches. “Walking into a small church for the first time can be an act of great vulnerability.” But small churches are positioned well to do just this. You don’t need a lot of resources to be friendly to guests and foster meaningful relationships.

Conclusion

There’s a lot more that could be said, of course, but I hope you get the idea. I especially recommend this book for small church pastors and leaders. There are a few things in the book that I would push back on, but this book did what good books tend to do, it got me thinking about things through a new paradigm. I really appreciated Vaters’ small church insights.

What Does it Mean to Be a Christian? Now Available


What Does It Mean to Be a Christian?: Exploring the Foundations of the Faith is now available in paperback from Amazon. I’ll have a Kindle version available within the next day or two.

I want to offer a few reflections on writing and publishing this work. I’m glad that I did it, but it also tapped me out emotionally on a few occasions.  

First, what in the world was I doing writing a book?! It just feels so, well, presumptuous. And what a topic!? Who in the world am I to write such a bold title? I really hope nobody thinks this is a definitive work on the topic!

Then there was the reading and re-reading. I wrote and re-wrote it again and again. Every time I read it I was unsatisfied with some wording selection, or I found a minor typo. And every time I made an update I needed to wait another 24 hours for the self-publishing website to complete the review. I eventually discovered that perfection was elusive. At some point I needed to say: Enough is enough. I know it’s not perfect, and I hate then it never will be.

Finally, there’s the fear of putting my work “out there.” I cycle through moods of wanting to share with the world and wanting to make myself invisible. For that part of me that seeks anonymity, this is terrifying.

And yet, here were are. And, despite the fact that I’m 90% embarrassed that I have written and published this book, I’m 10% pleased. That 90% almost convinced me to pull the plug at the last minute. But that 10% is what kept me going throughout and to finally hit submit. So, why did I take on this project?

First, I’m a pastor and I saw an opportunity to share the good news of Jesus. This lies at the root of it. I get to spend a lot of time with young people and adults who have only limited knowledge of the faith, or whose knowledge is distorted.

I wanted a resource that I could give them that went beyond a pamphlet, but that wasn’t so dense or thick they would never read it. I wanted to show the simplicity of the gospel, but at the same time not be so simplistic that essentials were lost. I saw that there was a need to connect the dots between salvation, the Christian life, and the church. I knew of some other books that did something similar (think: John Stott’s Basic Christianity or N.T. Wright’s Simple Christianity) but nothing that was exactly what I was looking for.

Second, I know that my relationship gives me a voice other author’s might not have. No, I’m not the best writer or theologian out there. I’m no John Stott or N.T. Wright. But, I do have a voice, and I know those to whom I am speaking. To that degree this book is eminently local. In that sense it’s like a letter, written in a context, for people who I want to know and love Jesus.

So here it is, better or worse. I offer it to God as a meager offering. I pray he uses it in someone’s life to get to know Jesus, or get to know Jesus better.

 

Manuscript Complete! What Does it Mean to Be a Christian?

<EDIT>What Does it Mean to Be a Christian? is now available on Amazon.</EDIT>

I just wrapped up writing a short book called “What Does it Mean to Be a Christian?” I’m grateful to those who read and edited the first draft.

I hope to self-publish this book so that I can make it easily available to new or prospective believers. To do that, I have a few more steps to take:

  1. I’ll need some cover art (more broadly, cover design). If anyone is interested in doing some pro bono work, I would gladly take it.
  2. I’ll need to go through the self-publishing process. The last time I published a book someone else did this part for me, but this time I’ll do the process myself. If anyone has expertise in this area, I’d appreciate the help.
  3. I feel good about the content, but I’m always interested in feedback. It will be a “living document” until I can publish it. My editors did a great job of cleaning up my writing, but I’m especially interested in feedback of the theological nature.

Feel free to do whatever you want to with the linked manuscript. Read, distribute, whatever.

God bless,

Steven Kopp

Book Review: The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher

The “benedict option” has been an influential idea in certain sectors of Christian culture for a while now, even before Rod Dreher made it into a book. So, despite my interest in how Christianity relates to the broader world and culture, it’s a little surprising that I only now got around to it.

For those unfamiliar, the basic concept behind The Benedict Option is that America culture is becoming less Christian. Additionally, some Christian beliefs, especially regarding marriage and sexuality, are becoming especially unpopular. The question for Dreher is this: How do we respond to this trend? How can Christians be faithful to Christ in an increasingly post-Christian country?

Dreher does not give a prescription for “getting back” to the old days when Christianity dominated the culture or the political landscape. He sees the election of Donald Trump, while possibly staying the tide of more formal animosity, as ultimately a symptom of bigger cultural problems. His answers are not political, at least not in the American political sense.

Instead, Dreher’s emphasis is on forming thick communities of faith which will be able to withstand the strong winds of secular culture. This means that the church will need to get back to a more faithful version of itself, to escape the hold of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, and be the church.

Dreher begins with a history lesson: Where are we and how did we get here? He paints a bleak picture of a culture increasingly post-Christian and a church increasingly influenced by secularism. The time to act is now, if we can have eyes to see and the will to act.

He then moves onto the solution, starting with the St. Benedict. Benedict is the hero of this story because, as civilization was crumbling around him, he formed a community of monks who continued both the preservation of the faith and the fruits of Western civilization. The monks, and monastic life, are featured prominently in this book. Our homes, Dreher says, can become miniature monasteries with all the practices therein: order, prayer, work, and asceticism, hospitality, and balance. The rest of the book is an expansion on this theme.

Three chapters stood out to me: “Education and Christian Formation”, “Eros and the New Christian Counterculture”, and “Man and the Machine.” Each chapter, for a certain audience, is bound to be provocative.

In “Education and Christian Formation” he argues Christians should enroll their kids in Christian schools, specifically Classical Christian Schools, or to homeschool their kids while participating with some kind of Classical Christian school partnership. He arrives at this conclusion, first, because he sees education as central to Christian formation and central to the formation of the communities he envisions. He looks to minority religious Jews in this regard. Second, he notes that right after parents, peers are the most influential group in a young person’s life. Add onto that the fact that many American schools are overtly secular and Dreher arrives at the following provocative conclusion: “The rationale [that we have to keep our kids in public schools to be a witness] begins to sound like a rationalization. It brings to mind a father who tosses his child into a whitewater river in hopes that she’ll save another drowning child” (157). So, why Classical Christian schools? Classical education approaches education from a different perspective. It focuses not on just adding a Bible class, but on integrating all disciplines of education under Christ himself (plus it has an emphasis on Western civilization, which Dreher is a fan of).

In “Eros and the New Christian Counterculture” Dreher talks about how Christian communities can respond to the sexual revolution. First, he says we shouldn’t compromise just to try to “keep” the younger generation in church. Those who are accepting the secular view of sex aren’t becoming part of liberal churches, they are leaving church altogether. Second, we need to affirm a positive and wholistic view of sexuality. Third, we need to support unmarried people. Fourth, we need to fight pornography with everything we have.

Finally, “Man and the Machine” addresses the Christian community’s response to technology. Dreher, of course, notes the negative uses of technology – such as rampant pornography among younger and younger teenagers. But he goes further and addresses the technological mindset, the mindset that judges everything by whether we can do something rather than whether we should do it. To that end he argues that technology is not morally neutral, but has the power to reinforce a scattered and impulsive life. How should we respond: Go on regular digital fasts, work with your hands, take the smartphones away from your kids.

Dreher concludes with two images of floods. In one, Christian communities are little arks, weathering the storm of a crumbling culture. In the other, the flood waters are redemptive, sweeping away the old so that when the waters recede new life can spring up. He concludes with this more positive image of the church, retaining its life and saltiness so that it can once again bring life to the world.

Review

Agree or disagree with some of Dreher’s points above, his book is worth a read and his arguments are worth considering. I agree that one of our primary strategies during this time is the formation of Christian communities, to refocus our attention and energies on faithfully being the church. I’m not sure I share as bleak a picture of the world as Dreher, but time will yet tell who is right.

I also think this book is worth balancing with another book which covers a similar set of topics: This is our Time by Trevin Wax. The thesis of Wax’s book is that we should get to know our cultures deepest desires and then show how those desires are fulfilled only in Christ. Take technology: We’re drawn to social media because we want to be known and liked. But social media only disappoints. We show ourselves, but only versions of ourselves. We are liked, but only superficially. But God knows us fully and loves us fully. Our desires – given expression in our use of technology – are only fulfilled in Christ. Wax, then, sees the same sorts of problems that Dreher does, though his book offers a more outward focused way of dealing with them.

That’s not to say these two books are mutually exclusive. Both have important things to say. There is a worthwhile balancing effect. Also, The Benedict Option is not insular. He does give a nod to the importance of hospitality and of welcoming others into the community. His emphasis, though, is primarily on preservation.

All in all, this is an important book. I hope you’ll read it and consider its arguments.
Book Recommendations
The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation

This Is Our Time: Everyday Myths in Light of the Gospel

Announcement: Proof readers and editors wanted!

Over the past month or so I’ve been working on a handbook for new believers, or those considering the basics of the Christian faith. As I was writing I was primarily thinking of the teenagers who are involved in our After School program. Many of them have very little knowledge of Christianity. Or, what they know about it is confused or distorted. I wrote this book for them.

To that end I made it short and simple. I tried to make very few assumptions about what these kids already know. I did my best to start at the very beginning, to lay out just the basics, to avoid religious language – or to define the language I used as I went.

The book has three sections. Part one: What does it mean to be saved? Part two: What does is the Christian life? Part three: What is the church? (Aside: There are a ton of much better books that talk about part 1 and part 2, but not many that I have found that really talk about part 3 at all. I’m hoping to rectify an overly individualistic view of Christianity a little in this book.)

15 minutes ago I finished the first rough draft. Over the next week I’m going to make some edits. After that, though, I want to run it past more people. I need more eyes on this book, or on portions of this book, to see what I might have missed, or what could be improved. (The book is 26 “word” pages long). If you would be interested in proofreading or editing this book or one of its parts please let me know. I don’t know the final form it will end up taking, but if you help me out I’ll give you a copy of whatever form it takes.

If you’re interested, please send me an email or a comment.

Thanks!

Book Review: The Vanishing American Adult by Ben Sasse

Book Recommendation

The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis–and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance

Summary

I’ve been admiring Senator Ben Sasse for about a year now. He’s one of the few Senators who speaks with substance about broad principles. He’s consistently conservative, but isn’t very partisan. He doesn’t just buy the into the party line – and that’s earned him a number of enemies within his own party, but also a lot of respect in my eyes. It’s one of the reasons why I wanted to read this book.

The library I got this book from categorized it as “politics”, but it’s not a policy book (and he explains why in the postscript). It’s closer to a parenting book, actually, and all the chapters in Part 2 give practical suggestions to parents. If you want to classify it as a “political” book, you should define “politics” more broadly to mean “public life”, or maybe even “culture.” Sasse sees culture as upstream from policy and partisanship and it’s the broader context of culture and shared public life that Sasse addresses.

The Problem

Sasse is specifically concerned about the “vanishing American adult.” He’s concerned that we’re failing to teach our younger generations how to be grown-ups, that we’re consigning them to perpetual adolescence. Part 1 of his book gives a more detailed account of the problem and how we got here. Part 2 provides suggestions for specific remedies. For the purposes of this summary and review I’ll focus on Part 2.

“An Active Program” 

How do we remedy the problem. The Vanishing American Adult outlines six solutions. 1) Avoid age segregation. 2) Teach hard work. 3) Embrace production over consumption. 4) Travel. 5) Read good books. 6) Embrace America as an idea.

Avoid Age Segregation: We live in a highly age-segregated culture with precious few opportunities to learn from our elders. If we only interact with people our own age we get a truncated view of life. Most importantly, we miss out on learning about the most fundamental questions that comes to us at the end of life, but that we should ask sooner: What is a life well lived? What truly matters? How can I cope with the reality and immanence of my own death and the deaths of those I love? To that end, Sasse encourages providing young people opportunities to interact with and learn from people of all generations.

Teach Hard Work: Sasse believes that, as a result of our unprecedented national wealth, we’re becoming softer and more averse to hard work. Hard work builds character and a healthy sense of self-worth. His advise? Figure out how to develop a sold work ethic in your children.

Embrace Production over Consumption: Consumption (beyond the necessities, of course) doesn’t bring us happiness, even though the marketing world would have us believe it does. Production – and knowing that our work is meaningful – does. To that end, Sasse encourages us to produce more and consume less.

Travel: Sasse makes a distinction between travel and tourism. Tourism, while it has it’s place, is just a different form of consumption. Travel, on the other hand, is about gaining wisdom, experience, and a broader perspective of the world. Sasse is after adventure. He believes that good travel doesn’t necessarily have to be expensive – or even far away – so long as it embraces that attitude of exploration. He recalls several of his own trips as a young man.

These reminded me of my own 10-day road trip I undertook with a couple of classmates immediately after high school. We took a loop through Canada and then to the East Coast, sleeping in our Jeep Wrangler, or at a friend’s house, or on a park bench in Boston Commons when we didn’t get back to the parking garage on time. This is the kind of travel Sasse is talking about, and I agree that this trip was an important “coming of age” step for me.

Read good books: Amen.

Embrace America as an Idea: The American idea is that of self-rule as opposed to external rule. Before America, the dominant idea was that governments ruled over their subjects, conferring a few limited rights to its people. The American idea flipped that around. In America, the people would rule and the government’s job would be to protect our unalienable rights. This idea has proven successful and transformed the world. But, this idea only makes sense if the people are able to self-govern. Children, though, lack that capacity. This is why it’s so critical to avoid being trapped in perpetual adolescence. America works only if it’s citizens are adults, are self-reliant, are self-governing. Without a self-governing public, we will try to hold back the chaos by ceding more and more control to the government – the path to eventual tyranny.

(Exhibit A in this discussion is the alarming trend of young people seeing the First Amendment as a dangerous thing. This most fundamental of American principles is under attack on college campuses and elsewhere. Why? Because we’re afraid of hurting people’s feelings. We’ve lost the adult ability to argue about great ideas. We’ve adopted instead the childish path of shutting down discussion, much to our detriment. Just before writing this review I read an article about BLM protesters shutting down a speech from the ACLU about free speech. Ironic. And sad.)

Review

I read this book primarily as a citizen and a parent. I’m worried both about the direction of our country, and my own ability to raise adults. I recognized, at various points, my own failure to “toughen up” my kids. I need to recapture simple tasks, like making my kids do chores before they watch TV. I also read this as a pastor – how do we encourage multi-generational interaction in the church? How do move kids in our children and youth ministries toward spiritual adulthood? How do we avoid perceptual spiritual adolescence?

I recommend this book to, well, just about anybody, but especially those who are more politically inclined, or parents who are concerned about raising self-governing adults.