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Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City by Tim Keller; book (and audio) review

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*Disclaimer:  This is a longer review than I have normally written in the past, but one that I believe is longer with good reason.  This material has reinforced and transformed my Christian walk and is one over the years that I seen is very deficit in the ‘church’ at large.  I also want to show that this is ‘not new’ information, but how over time, pieces of these ‘turning points’ made up who I am as a believer and disciple-evangelist today.  Many of these items I respond to, were convictions long before the publishing date of this book.  I am piggy-backing on a review and the reputation of others, but I think you will find it brings clarity to what has been the source of my counsel and implications.  May this ‘review’ be a good discussion tool but also ‘implication’ tool to challenge the ‘church’ in remembering that God is great, glorious, good, and gracious with all of us and our messy relationships.

I have been studying this material now for 4 months.  I told my wife, that I now have a discipleship book for the big boys!  Previously I have discussed The Gospel Primer and my bromance for all things Jeff Vanderstelt (this is my discipleship evangelism go-to), so it was a providential surprise to find out where most of the concepts came from…  Center Church and a PCA Pastor.  If many of you did not already know I am a member of PCA church and have considered myself to be for quite some time even though the local manifestations have not always made that apparent.  My review of Center Church is through the lens being a owner, participant and observer of many of these manifestations.  That being said, what Connie and I have seen is that all manifestations seem to have settlers vs. pioneers and form vs. function power struggles.  Many of the sentiments that Tim Keller brings, are a fresh observation of the ‘movements’ that are biblical and what we can learn from doing balanced, gospel-centered ministry in our city that Connie and I have been convinced of for quite some time.

What I would like to do for the rest of the review is bring forth a few of the items I highlighted in my study, and provide a brief commentary on why they struck me as important as I continue to the travel the path of sanctification.

As I read, reflected, and taught, I came to the conclusion that a more biblical theme for ministerial evaluation than either success or faithfulness is fruitfulness.

This quote struck me and reminded me of 2007, when I was on staff at a PCA church and it always appeared that I was diametrically apposed to the ‘settlers’ as they were looking more for success and faithfulness rather than fruitfulness.  With over 300 members and 150 of them coming through the biblical counseling ministry at one time or another, it was much more evident to me that fruitfulness was the goal rather than the standard the settlers pushed so hard for.  Of those that came through the Biblical Counseling Ministry (or what should be called “The Discipleship River” first referenced by Steve Viars, The Journal of Biblical Counseling · Spring 2002), many are still fruitful in their endeavors and callings.  Recently Connie and I checked on this gathering and were considering going back, however the settlers were still there and had recruited the masses, but the fruitful were there too.  We were not that saddened to be asked not to come back.  These fruitful saints will continue to influence the herd.  We need churches that get behind fruitfulness.  Fruitfulness is the product of implication and movements.

A church that truly understands the implications of the biblical gospel, letting the ‘’word of Christ dwell in [it] richly (Col 3:16), will look like an unusual hybrid of various church forms and stereotypes.  Because of the inside-out, substitutionary atonement aspect, the church will place great emphasis on personal conversion, experiential grace renewal, evangelism, outreach and church planting. 

What we have today in our churches is the polarizing on one of two ways to relay biblical truth; conviction or application rather than implication.  Conviction can be a swinging pendulum of liberty and license or legalism whereas application is an interpretation in many cases of what the ‘conviction’ should look like in our daily lives.  Gospel-centered Implication however is the combination of what the gospel brings to bear on our thinking and conduct and is the centrality or functionality of our individualism as Christians or how it is manifested in the outpouring of the local church and the surrounding city.  That all said, this quote, essentially translates that ministry movements, gifts, or out-workings are not going to look the same nor should be ‘structured’ to the point of micro-managing (been there done that fun-time in ministry) so that nothing gets done and functions more like an institution rather than a movement.  The gospel does change everything.  When you are focused on success and faithfulness, we tend to settle for what works in the church, what we have always done, what we are comfortable with, who is in control or not offending the settlers.   I have found that how the leadership educates and communicates leadership-laity, secular-sacred, or form-function tend to be whether or not the people are gospel-fluent or not.  For instance if I do not believe that God has gifted some for leadership (that does not mean they are pastors, or went to seminary by the way – remember many in the NT did not even know how to read!), then I am going to separate and divide what God is doing, so it can be controlled for fear of losing power.  If I believe there is a separation between sacred and secular, then I will communicate ‘full-time ministry’ and those who ‘work’ as two separate entities versus one full life.  If I am more ‘form’ than ‘function’ oriented, then how I perform baptism for instance, is more important than being baptized or if a woman can serve communion.  If the goal is transformed hearts, then you welcome how God is doing that, with the people, with the gifts, with the resources He provides.

Most of our problems in life come from a lack of proper orientation to the gospel…The leaders of the church must always be bringing the gospel to bear on people’s minds and hearts so that they see it not just as a set of beliefs but as a power that changes us profoundly and continually.”

We live in a world in which we like to play with our sin rather than hate our sin.  What if the ‘church’ really believed in the power of the gospel to change everything?  I was just reading last night for instance about ‘the challenge of counseling licensure’ for Biblical Counselors.  Although there was some good points about secular licensing, I was struck that the author thought that by hiding in Christian Ministry that it was ethical to ‘be licensed’.  I thought about writing to the author and got tired thinking about it, as I have had many of these ‘talks’ in the past and now realize that this is a liberty issue.  I get why folks want to be licensed (showing grace) so that 1) they can evangelize and 2) participate in insurance billing so that they can make a living.  The ‘bad news’ however is that they are being disobedient to Romans 13 by ‘lying’ that they subscribe to the presuppositions of licensure, and when later cornered, state that they can ‘redeem’ it by becoming a Christian Counselor who is licensed.  To clarify, I used to write to the licensure board every year here in SC and ask this question:  “Please advise if this is within the confines of being licensed and does not jeopardize my licensure.  Can I share my worldview with counselees?  Said another way, If I come from a world view different from my counselee, can I share that world view and can it be the lenses in which I perform my counsel?  Further clarification, can I share my worldview, for instance as a Christian, Muslim, Mormon, or Jehovah’s Witness as the basis of my counsel?”  Without fail, each year, I was adamantly informed that I could not share my worldview, and it could jeopardize my license.  I bring this foundation on this quote, because it comes to another soap box of mine.  From where does this ‘counsel’ come and is it based upon the gospel?  Every local manifestation of the church I have been a part of, has swallowed the pill of integration, which leads to my next point.  How can we bring the gospel to bear on people’s minds if we cannot discern the truth or know the truth ourselves?  Three of my favorite resources calling this lack of discernment into the light, should be read, studied, and part of the ‘elder’ training of every biblical church.  I discovered these goldmines while in seminary and my ACBC (formerly called NANC) Certification process;

  1. “How John Calvin Led Me to Repent of Christian Psychology” by Steven Cole.
  2. Why Christians Can’t Trust Psychology” by Ed Bulkley.
  3. A Call To Discernment:  Distinguishing Truth from Error In Today’s Church” by Jay Adams

These bring to light how much of the ‘gospel’ brought to bear on people’s minds and hearts is psychobabble which is why it never renews or transforms.  A few years ago I wrote to one of the ‘new’ advocates of this when he asked me to review is work in the early years of his ministry.  He was proposing new addition to standard Systematic Theologies that have a historical precedence and authority and was suggesting it was not sufficient and proposed to include “sufferology”.  Did you catch that “not sufficient” and “I have some new ideas and ways” when the reality is “…there is nothing new under the sun.” {Eccl. 1:9 ESV).  However, when one has a Christocentric view of scripture or Gospel-Centered view, deviations and syncretism don’t push against the classic or beg for a new category for historical systematic theology topics.  Of course when this is pointed out, you make a lot of friends and tend to be the ‘harsh’, ‘no grace’, ‘legalistic’, ‘not understanding the value of common grace’, ‘oh, you are one of those’ and put in ‘that camp’ of biblical counselors.  I like what Keller said here, “Our truth allergic, experience-addicted populace wants transformation but doesn’t want the loss of freedom and control associated with submitting to authority within a committed community.”  Good talk, on to the next quote.

So if the root of every sin is idolatry, and idolatry is a failure to look to Jesus for our salvation and justification, the the root of every sin is a failure to believe the gospel message that Jesus and Jesus alone is our justification, righteousness, and redemption…Those who preach and counsel for gospel renewal should constantly speak CenterChurchBookCoverabout underlying idols, which show us our hearts’ particular, characteristic ways of failing to believe the gospel.”

     As many of my readers know, I have been a fan of Tim Chester and Jeff Vanderstelt, who consistently beat the drum of these implications of the gospel and have made a profound affect on my personal sanctification but also in the ‘counsel’ to others for many years.  When I read these items above, I was immediately reminded of a couple of tools that are the grids for remembering these implications.  With Tim Chester, it is the “4 G’s” and with Jeff Vanderstelt, it is “Gospel Fluency.”  They have summarized these concepts in easy to understand statements that immediately bring to bear on any situation, the implications of the gospel with our idols.  Here are my summaries that I have found helpful for me:

Is God is great?  (Then why do I have to be in control?);  Is God is glorious? (Then why am I fearing others?); Is God is good? (Then why am I looking elsewhere?); Is God gracious? (Then why am I trying to prove myself?)” {Tim Chester}

How does the Gospel address this?” and, “What about the Gospel are you not believing?” {Jeff Vanderstelt}

These are very sobering questions that cause me to pause and think through my heart motivation (idol) in a current situation.  Every time I have shared these either in a discipleship, counseling or over a coffee, the standard response is, “Wow, I never thought of it that way.”  As a disclaimer, I am not saying that ‘all you have to do is ask these questions and your fixed’ but what I am saying is, Do you have something that reminds you of the implications of the gospel consistently and regularly whether in community, privately, or through the influences in your life?  I think Tim Keller would agree, to be the center church, these are the types of tools that we are using to remind each other of the implications of the gospel.  Again, the ‘church’ should be no stranger to these types of statements or teachings as an older (2006) CCEF article points in One Church’s’ Story.

There are, in the end, only two questions to ask as we read the Bible:  Is it about me?  Or is it about Jesus?  In other words, is the Bible basically about what I must do or about what He has done?”…Sound contextualization is not – as often argued – ‘giving people what they want to hear.  Rather it is giving people the Bible’s answers, which they may not at all want to hear, to questions about life that people in their particular time and place are asking, in a language and forms that they can comprehend, and through appeals and arguments with force they can feel, even if they reject them.”

     Many folks don’t realize that I went to seminary and graduated in the top of my class.  I don’t draw attention to it (and there will be some evidential apologist who is going to say I am doing that now…because they are not reading in context  or finished reading the thought) and try not to.  I have found that when someone finds out, for some strange reason, the conversations change.  People ‘clean up’ language, attempt to put on a ‘better’ mask, or believe they must say something ‘more spiritual.’  I went to seminary because I was struck by the conviction that “sanctification has not happened yet because you have not applied it…” and “don’t believe what I am saying about the text but learn to read the text for yourself as inevitably you are going to stand before God and be responsible for it.”  These statements spoken in love to me at critical times in my Christian walk were part of the turning points that have built the foundations for my ‘walking theology’.   I took hermeneutics courses (loved them), I took original language courses (Greek and Hebrew… there was no Aramaic at the time), and I took contextualization courses.  A few of the seminary courses I took involved ‘debates’ and I always enjoyed taking a topic that I particularly would not subscribe too, and learn all I could about it and argue it convincingly.  I remember one such debate in a systematic theology course.  I chose to be an ‘Arminian’ against a ‘reformed’ guy.  I won the debate because I chose to challenge my ‘reformed’ brother with covenantal apologetics (reformed tool) regarding the sufficiency of scripture and hermeneutics.  I asked him to explain how someone was to see the authority of scripture and interpret it from a reformed perspective?  He went down the TULIP road which immediately baited him for my summary.  When I was asked by the mediator how an Arminian would argue for sufficiency/authority of scripture and how we must interpret it, I responded.  “If the Bible is true? If God is the final authority?  Then scripture is read from who gets the glory.  If it is about my self-esteem and who should seek reconciliation, then it is about me.  If it about seeking first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and these things will be added to you, then it is about God.”  I don’t believe sufficiency, authority, or hermeneutics are reformed or Arminian or dispensational BUT they can be when one listens or reads who gets the glory in the ‘push’ of the discussion.  I won the debate not because I was an Arminian (had a few reformed folks come to me afterwards and say… “Hey I thought you were reformed…?”  I replied, “I am…a truly reformed guy understands his depravity, that he has come to God kicking and screaming, that it is by grace he is saved, and if God’s hand is upon you, it cannot be resisted, and my chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever, which includes how I view authority, sufficiency, and hermeneutics.”) but because we all agreed that God should get the glory.

“In every gospel presentation, there is an epistemological challenge.  People are being told that their understanding of God and ultimate reality is wrong…There is also a personal challenge regarding sin and a depiction of the listener’s fallen condition…There there is a proclamation of Christ as the answer and solution to their sin…The gospel makes us both humble and confident at once; these two attitude are critical for doing faithful and sound contextualization.”

This quote struck me in that only someone who is washed in humility and understands that it is by grace they have been saved, could say these things.  There are brief moments of my life when I truly fathom the love of God and the depth of depravity that He has saved me from.  It is these moments that cause me to love non-believers and the lost.  People say to me, “Yeah but you have the gift of evangelism” and I always want to respond, “No, I am being obedient, what is your excuse.”  Yeah, harsh but c’mon’ folks, if we say we are of God, made in His image, and love His word, then like Him, we also pursue those that are lost.  It is not a gift when thought of this way, but a humility born out of thankfulness for His pursuing you!  How can I not share?  Early in my Christian walk, I was an evidential apologist (facts/evidence – challenging folks to believe what is obvious to all) in which I quickly grew tired and weary of the responses, but also the incessant need to be ‘right’.  I remember the day when I was particularly ‘worn out’ with an exchange, when the spirit of God reminded me that it was only by grace that I understood in the first place.  It is for this reason that I am a presuppositionalist.  I am a firm believer in that if you join with people on their side to wrestle with things of the faith and if their argument is with God and His word, then it breaks down the walls of self-righteousness, arrogance, and pride when you join with them on the road to discovery without presuppositions.  Let me share what I mean with what I call the gasoline analogy.  For the sake of argument, let’s say I go to my usual gas station and find out that gas is only 15-cents a gallon.  I go in and verify with the store, and sure enough, it is 15-cents a gallon.  I verify that it is going to be this way until the end of the day.  In my excitement, as I am leaving I call up family and friends.  My family and friends who know me can respond a myriad of ways but again, for the sake of argument, these are the responses I am going to get.

1.  “Yeah, that sounds really good, but I bet it was fluke and after you left someone changed the prices back to what they were.”

2.  “I would really like to get over there and get some, but I never see these things or win anything, so it will probably be over by the time I get there.”

3.  “Yeah, right, are you sure you paid that much.  {seriously, let me show you my receipt}, Nah, I don’t believe it and you probably faked the receipt, you are so gullible, they will find out their error later and take the funds from your account.”

4.  “No there isn’t and I don’t believe you, why do you have to always get excited about things that don’t matter or are not true?”

5.  “Wow, I am going to head over there right now and get some.” {and never does} and never says anything to you about it and hopes you never bring it back up.

6.  “Really, I am pulling in there now, and although I don’t believe it, sure enough the sign says 15-cents and thanks for letting me know.  I am going to let some others know too!  Thanks for thinking of me.”

Here is what I discovered.  God is looking for #6.  For me, without the Omniscience of God, to find him/her, I have to go through a lot of 1-5’s.  I have learned to be a fan of the parable of the soils as it relates to evangelism, and it makes a lot of sense when you think of how people respond to the gospel, kind of like my analogy above.  I later learned that I need work on not being the obstacle (credibility, delivery, integrity, tone, patience, manipulating, etc.) for them hearing the gospel.  I don’t think enough is said about this in our ‘apologetics training’ either.  I used to know a guy who was particularly fond of preaching outside of Abortion clinics with his wife and kids.  He would bring unborn fetus pictures with him.  I used to try to ask the guy if he discipled anyone, if any of the young girls he was showing these pictures to lived in his house for 6-12 months because they did not have a home and they were now convicted of keeping the baby.  Always without fail, he would look at me like I was crazy, he truly believed he had done his part and all that was required.  I don’t believe that.  I am a fisherman… you catch em, you clean em.  What he never admitted was that he got some joy out of blasting, condemning, and shocking, not living, submitting, obeying or walking with them.  He then would appeal to Way of the Master ministries and claim he was doing what he was taught.  Really?  Keep telling yourself that.  Because we live in a moral relativistic society (truth is relative and opinions have weight/value over that ‘truth’).  We can come off as arrogant, self-righteous, us-vs.-them, condescending and forgetting, that they are made in the image of God and deserve respect.  I am a fan of participating with them in wrestling through it, and the funny thing is, it goes a lot farther than arguing.  I highly recommend a book I am currently reading part of the the  “Five Views” series on Apologetics, and to clarify, I am a presuppositionalist and have been for quite some time.  I discovered that it is the way Jesus did it, asking questions and letting people wrestle with the answers they had not really thought through.  Some great work in this area has also been done by Randy Newman, who is messianic Jewish in decent.

Active contextualization involves a three-part process:  entering the culture, challenging the culture, and then appealing to the listeners…If we are deeply involved in the lives, questions, and concerns of the people, then when we study the Bible in order to preach it to them, we will see God’s answers to their questions…Our criticism of the culture will have no power to persuade unless it is based on something that we can affirm in the beliefs and values of that culture.”

     In seminary, one of my favorite classes regarding the discussion of contextualization was by the late William Larkin (we always called him Dr. Larkin).  He was one of the must humble, tentative, patient, and loving apologists I had ever encountered.  His book/class on contextualization has been my go-to since graduating, and one that I highly recommend.  The biggest turning point in my Christian walk was when he discipled me through thinking and analyzing how historical and cultural relativism challenges the hermeneutical process when applied to scripture.  I remember thinking after one of my projects.  “Wow, we do bring a lot of our own presuppositions to the bible and make them authoritative without context or data gathering.  I wonder how many more of my ‘presuppositions’ are being imposed on the bible and impact my understanding, counsel, training, teaching, and methodology rather than letting the Bible/God speak for Himself.”  Contextualization is process, and it takes time.  It takes love, and it takes involvement.  It is why street corner ‘preachers’ do not win many converts, it is why ninja tract evangelists (they mysteriously end up in your wallet, in the public restroom, or with your receipt after a purchase for instance) are not producing fruit, it is why inward focused churches and movements do not have any new visitors or converts.  Cross-cultural churches are few and far between because everyone is bringing their presuppositions to the text, to people, to culture… and doing a lot of damage.  These quotes reminded me that the gospel is not about me or others like me but about the whole world, races, and worldviews.  Something we all need to be reminded of regularly.

“One occupational hazard of urban church planting is having a new church rent its worship space and therefore only corporately reside in a particular neighborhood for the few hours during which they rent the space.”

The PCA church I was on staff with recently told me they still have a ministry to a Section 8 housing area to this day.  I attribute that to a vision of the gospel to the city demolished the ‘renter’ mentality.  Here is the history of how that was established in 2005.  When I went to ask the property manager if we could serve the residents in some way and what would be best, I was immediately confronted with, “What makes you different than the other churches who come here and want to check their box and do their good deed but never invest in the people?”  I was stunned first by her comment, and second, grieved that was how the ‘church’ was perceived.  The mail boxes reflected 5-7 posters from local churches offering rides to church and bible studies, but no one was getting their hands dirty.  I reminded her that we were right next door, and that ‘church’ was not checking a box nor were people ‘projects’ to salve our consciences.  I suggested a monthly breakfast for the residents.  We would come during the last week of the month when their benefits were running out, and offer breakfast, offer stable foods to be taken with them (donated from local businesses), and just hang out with the residents and find out what the needs were.  The property manager was rightfully tentative about this, and decided to give us a try.  So we canvassed our church (local assets) on what we believed we were called to do.  Were we just reaching our neighbors and co-workers, or are we to reach all those where God had placed us?  Our church put together canned goods and clothing to provide the residents who would come through the breakfast line.  I challenged the leadership next with, what if they want to come to Wednesday night dinner (normally an inward focused event) or worship on Sunday, who is going to pick them up and drive them back?  What if someone needs a ride to the doctor, or for prescriptions or to the grocery store?  This really challenged many of the settlers at that church and thankfully a few saints ‘got it’ and got messy with the residents who lived next to our church.  Pretty soon, the Saturday breakfast was a pool in which many resources of the church were invested… from the deacons, to donations, to the community, the volunteers, and the critical point, when the residents themselves got involved and saw it as a resource for their community.  We had members of the church giving rides during the week, we did oil/filter change days, we did clothing auctions (that did not cost anything), we did food drives, we ran summer water camps for the kids etc.  I realized things had changed in everyone’s heart when one of the residents became a member and was baptized in front of the church and it was all because of the ‘Saturday breakfast ministry’.  We need more churches that are owners of their community in which they are placed and not renters, sadly I don’t see this changing any time soon.

“I believe most of these concerns can be reduced to two fundamental questions.  The first question deals with our attitude toward cultural change:  Should we be pessimistic or optimistic about the possibility for cultural change?  The second question exposes our understanding of the nature of culture itself and speaks to its potential for redemption:  Is this current culture redeemable and good or fundamentally fallen?  Our answers to these questions will reveal our alignments with biblical emphases as well as our imbalances…The biblical material calls for a balance of not compromises but being controlled simultaneously and all the time by all the teaching of scripture…I suggest 4 seasons in the cycle of the church’s relationship to culture…Winter, Spring, Summer, and Autumn…So the model we embrace will likely be influenced by the temperament and spiritual gifts we possess”

When I was first exposed to the power and purpose of the gospel (power=God, Sin, Jesus, Faith; purpose=Creation, Fall, Redemption, Restoration), I was actually in seminary and it was after taking “Progress of Redemption” based upon the material by Buck Hatch, that the Bible finally made sense to me.  It answered questions like, how does the old/new testament fit?  Has God’s plan ever changed?  Is God a benevolent grandpa who reacts to man’s disappointments and must set things right to clean up the mess?  Is God surprised by what man is doing? and many more.  Today I would understand this be Covenant Theology and one that to me, presents the Bible in a way that gives God all the glory for how He has pursued man.

I remember recently responding to a question on Quroa (after which I remembered why I do not like forums or these types of venues, as I have seen it reveal the worst of humanity especially for those who are honestly seeking answers. Do people really look to Quroa to answer their deepest needs and questions?) when a user asked how should they read the Bible.  Of course one of the responses which baited me to respond to,  to what I perceived to be – an honest question, and after scrolling through a long-winded 5-screen scrolling tirade complete with convoluted steps, filled with Christianese, I responded with, “What if God really did want everyone to know His plan and made it so simple that even a child could understand it, and the clincher, you don’t even have to know how to read, to understand it?  What if God’s Story was based upon what I will call 4/4.  What if the power of the Bible/gospel started with God, the problem of sin, His sending of Jesus, and the role of faith?  What if every story in the Bible can all be understood through the lens of Creation-Fall-Redemption-Restoration?” Within 12-hours I was notified of 12+ responses to my response and 4 of them were from the ‘diatribe-guy’ who wanted to tell me that Covenant Theology was from the Devil and that I was causing people to go to hell because of my watering down of the gospel.  I thought to myself, “really?” and this dork thinks that he is evangelizing?  I closed my account because I get tired of these types of folks.  Folks like this ‘guy’ are more interested in getting the glory for his method rather than pointing someone to the Word and getting them reading and letting the Holy Spirit do the rest.  It was very clear, that this person had a pessimistic view of culture and that he believed he was an instrument of redemption, and if I just followed his 49-steps on how to read the bible then all would be right with the world and with God.  The reality of it is that this guy answered the second question above by outlining that culture was fundamentally fallen and only through rules, regulations, legalism, and his reading plan would things be right with the world.  Being a Christian for 20-years, I now fully get why most of Jesus’ arguments were with the Pharisees/Sadducees.  They were not interested in learning about God or how to have a relationship with Him, or how God worked in their daily lives.  Read Matthew 23 and see a great example of the exchanges Jesus had with the ‘too heavenly minded – no earthly good’ and His warning to the rest of us.  I heard it said, that sometimes people are looking for a fight because they are not in one.

“So a Christian is not a spiritual consumer, coming in to get his or her emotional needs met and then going home.  A missional church, then is one that trains and encourages its people to be in mission as individuals and as a body.  All of the voices in the missional conversation agree that the church must not be only attractional; it must equip and send the laity in to the world to minister.”

     Most of the church culture’s I have seen and participated in are filled with ‘consumers’ and ‘observers’ versus ‘participants’.  Let me explain.  A consumer believes the church owes them something.  For instance, that there should be youth groups to take care of his kids, marriage groups to take care of his marriage, single groups to take care of his singleness and operate as a dating venue, and that small groups should be social clubs.  A consumer wants feel-good bible study and unaccountability on how they live their lives.  An observer sits back and does nothing and gives nothing.  They tend to take up space and listen to calls to discipleship, volunteering, or evangelism and believe it is for the ‘other people.’  A participant gets their hands dirty, sees needs and fills them, doesn’t need permission to disciple or share the gospel, and gives back to their community out of the love and grace that has been shared with them.  I realize there are deviations and these short definitions may seem harsh and callous.  But humor me with these definitions as I share some manifestations I have seen of them.  I have seen consumer’s when challenged to step up and get in the rotation for teaching Sunday school for their own kids balk and complain that I was not a good pastor and needed to be doing that for them.   I remember one particular ‘consumer’ who insisted that I have curriculum, activities, and refreshments for little ones.  We did not have any small kids other than his and one other family, and when I mentioned that it sounded like he had a passion for it and should start that ministry, balked at me and started recruiting others against me and the leadership.

I have seen good causes get left undone because observers checked their box in showing up, but did not tithe, give back, nor serve others and the burden was left on the 10% who always do (participants).  I have seen consumers compromise solid theology and hermeneutics, refuse accountability, and threaten to ‘take their toys and leave’ when the community wanted to walk beside them through their bad marriage.   I have seen consumers and observers compromise what is happening in small groups because they felt they were too legalistic ( their term for when someone asked them how their bible reading was, marriage, or work life).  We live in a culture of unaccountability and reproach.  A recent article I was reading talked about the blessing of community and being in each other’s lives.  These things are not promoted or shared, or presented as the norm as they should be.  Another article I was reading was titled, “Why modern Christianity makes people vomit” and they author was right on with similar sentiments on how consumers/observers continue to do so much damage to the witness for Christ and culture. We need to promote what we want.  I remember going to Randy Pope’s church in Atlanta and only hearing about evangelism, discipleship, and small groups.  These were the things that were important to their culture, therefore were the only things that got the limelight.  It literally dripped of evangelism stories, it was thick with discipleship and how many groups were in operation around the area.  They promoted what was important and made sure that it was also reinforced.  We need more of that.

“In general, simply bringing nonbelievers into the Christian community at any point is safe if the whole community is very warm and accepting toward those without faith.  If the community is not culturally alien, if the community is shepherded by pastors who make lay ministry a priority, and if the church is doing balanced and integrative ministry…Let me propose four ‘fronts’ to ministry:  1) connecting people to God (through evangelism and worship); 2) connecting people to one another (through community and discipleship); 3) connecting people to the city (through mercy and justice); and 4) connecting people to the culture (through integration of faith and work).”

I wrote in the margin of my book, “Where is this?!?!”  Over the years I feel like I have grown increasingly more and more hermetic like Arthur Pink, due to topics like these in the church.   I remember back to when I was in seminary one day, working with Campus Crusade For Christ, I had taken a ‘friend’ with me (although a strong believer – it builds the case) and on the way to our ministry location, he started telling me how thankful he was that I was I ‘letting him’ into ministry and that ‘others’ had not given him opportunities and he felt useless in the body Christ.  I wept that day with that ‘friend’ because Christianity sometimes is a ‘bubba club’ (Matthew 23).  Perhaps some more examples will explain.  When I was on staff at a PCA church in 2000’s as a biblical counselor, small group director, and tech ministry leader, I was able to participate in the lives of many that came through the doors.  As God has graced me, I am a natural presuppositional discipleship-evangelist.  Roughly translated, I would rather be around broken, messy, high-maintenance, caustic, rough, non-believers than the religious righteous most of the time.  This is true of me even today.  I remember I was talking with a Hispanic family that was interested in spiritual things and worked at the restaurant that I had many ‘appointments’ at.  One day he asked me where I went to church and if he and his family could visit.  Because I tend to have rose-colored glasses I said sure, and invited him to the next thing he and his family could attend.  It was an event called “Wednesday night dinner” and although pitched as an ‘open’ even and opportunity, it really isn’t.  I remember arriving late, and much to my chagrin, my ‘friend’ and his wife were sitting at a table alone!  As I looked across the venue, I saw pockets of my ‘church family’ in their circles and conversations, but no one had greeted nor welcomed my friend and his wife.  Connie and I immediately and warmly brought them some food and proceeded to have some time to talk.  There was a slight language barrier with his wife, however, she had brought an electronic translator so she could talk with us.  Sitting at the table behind us was a couple of Parishioner’s who had taught ESL (English As A Second Language), and I knew that one of them in particular was more fluent in Spanish than I was.  I remember, going and sitting down with that person and asking if they would come join us and assist me to communicate with my friend’s wife.  I will never forget the response.  “I am sorry, I just came here to eat and meet with my friends, not do ESL.  I do that all day long and don’t want to do it when I am off and especially at church.”  I was nervously smiled at and the conversation ended.  I went back and sat with my friend as we struggled through sharing the ‘Christian Community’ with my friend.

Another time, I was involved in a section 8 housing ministry (mentioned earlier) and it was Thanksgiving.  Again, our church advertised that we would be having a ‘family meal together’ but that this was also a venue to bring non-believers, safe, yada-yada.  We had invited a whole bunch of them, and when we arrived they had been shuffled to an isolated table outside of the busy conversations, groups, and clicks.  I walked in on seeing one parishioner telling one of the ‘visitors’, “I am sorry, that seat is taken, I think you might want to sit over there with the rest of the XXXXXXXX Housing folks over there.”

Another time, I invited a ‘friend’ to a Sunday morning service and afterwards when we were having lunch, he said to me, “I did not meet anyone today.  I thought they would be warm and welcoming like you and Connie.  I did not understand all the ‘rituals’ (order of service, up-and-down for singing, raising hands, tithe message, little bread-little grape juice, why do people dress up, etc.).”  It is ‘real’ questions like these that are not ‘safe’ to ask and I realized how foreign it was for non-believers to come to our churches without translation, even when they are just coming on an invitation.  I remember them asking Connie and I why we did all those things and was it like that every week, and who decides what is presented.  Talk about warm and fuzzy conversation.  If I have to give disclaimers, explain away behaviors, and traditions, then it is not really safe.

Another time we were involved in a ‘church plant’ (which is supposed to be the safest place on earth for non-believers right?) and when I asked if I could bring a few of my non-believing friends to our small group, the ‘leader’ was uncomfortable and said that it was perhaps not the venue to bring a non-believer and that I was more than welcome to bring him to Sunday (see previous paragraph on how well that turns out).  I remember saying to the leader, “I am sorry, I thought that Christianity was about doing life together?  Is that not what we are supposed to be living?”  The conversation went further on and finally I said, “Let me be frank with you (the leader), first, I never invite someone to my ‘church’ activities if I have not first invited them to my house and my life.  Second, part of my life involves my church gatherings and attendance and if I am communicating the importance of having others around for fellowship and discipleship, why not start with the periphery ministries of the church which will have venues for dialogue (c’mon folks is Sunday morning really the time to get into deep-discussions and people’s stories – or is it more passive, sit in a pew and follow the order of worship and check your box and leave?).  Finally, if I cannot invite them to small group, why would I invite them to Sunday morning which is even more confusing, isolated, vernacular and tradition eccentric?  I realized that day, that I could not rely on the church systems to participate in evangelism/discipleship.  Churches want cleaned up, behaving, in-line, submissive and compliant observers rather than open-dialogue or questions.

Another church we were attending, allowed us to have a ‘missional community’ at our house.  Mind you we had been doing it long before getting permission, going through The Story, having community and neighborhood events in which we served and participated with many non-believers.  Of course, whom know we are believers and feel ‘safe’ to ask questions but also be real and authentic.  The pastor at the church we were attending is a good friend of mine.  He asked me if I would participate in some of the groups that were nearby and ‘energize them’ toward evangelism and engaging their communities.  As we started participating it became blatantly obvious this ‘group’ was not interested in evangelism but having a social club.  Being honest though, there was a few times at the beginning that attempts were made to engage neighbors but there was always excuses.  “Oh we can’t do that…We don’t have an HOA…”  Connie and I would delicately ask questions, “How many of your neighbors do you know?”  Crickets…  There was/is always the guy who believes that by waving at his neighbor or by happenstance their families walked out together that there was a bond.  We would press deeper and suggest events or ways to engage and the reasons why they couldn’t …“I work every day and Saturday is my only day to surf”.  One of my favorites was when a couple of friends of ours started an apartment ministry in their complex and when I inquired and even mentioned that Connie and were participating, the ‘evangelist’ could not find the time or get out of his comfort zone to participate in his own apartment complex…all he had to do was show up, the rest had been already done!

Later, my pastor friend asked us to host a missional community, and the main drive was for a ‘project’ guy who came to my pastor friend begging for a missional community and fellowship.  We had just wrapped up a “Story” (mentioned above) group and the guy was so uncomfortable to have non-believers around that he complained to my pastor friend that I was not caring for him and that he thought this was a ‘care group’ and that he was going to be around believers.  My pastor friend attempted to persuade him to persevere but that all changed the day he ‘ninja’ visited and returned the materials I had loaned him that he was interested in, mumbling something about thanks for the group, but sorry I will no longer be attending.  I think I saw him like 5x after that at Sunday services.  He was a consumer, and took his toys and left when he was not the focus.

I share these ‘memories’ because it is not safe in most Christian environments, and despite the ‘missional community’ or ‘gospel-centered’ mantra that is part of what’s happening now Christianity, many still fault to what my seminary professor (Roy King) said.  “Either they are inward focused or outward focused but rarely both (like Keller is talking about).”

Maybe you can tell that in some areas I have grown disappointed (not with His bride) but with the denial and stained glass masquerade of Churchianity these days.  We say we have the ‘good news’ but we so easily forget (and I include myself in this) that God is great – so we do not have to be in control; God is glorious – so we do not have to fear others; God is good – so we do not have to look elsewhere; God is gracious – so we do not have to prove ourselves.  We forget to ask, “How does the Gospel address this?” and, “What about the Gospel are we are not believing?”  If we did, I think that we just might be ‘safer’ places for everyone.  Or maybe I am just taking ‘pot shots’ at His bride forgetting that none of these things mentioned above were meant to permanently satisfy and if I am looking for them to be ‘perfect’ then I am going to be sorely disappointed.  Needless to say, there is a lot of work that needs to be done, for the ‘church’ to become the Center Church.  I also believe that many of us think we are going to get extra credit for climbing a mountain, when the reality is, there is an elevator next door (nothing new under the sun…) and instead of looking for the ‘new’ nugget, new method, or ‘yeah but we do it this way…’ we were faithful with the things we have already been taught, there would be no need for a blog posting/rant like this or for that sake a book like this.

The Great Commission
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw Him they worshiped Him, but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of
all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matt 28:16-20 ESV


Disclaimer

Disclosure of Material Connection: I freely purchased this book and audio book and I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Family Financial Prayerfully Sanctification

The man in the mirror: Solving the 24 problems men face; 25th anniversary edition, revised, updated–Book review

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     When I bought a case of these for Christmas last year (2015), I did so knowing that the material was fantastic, but also that it had been some time since I initially read it.  I actually think that it was when I had initially professed faith in Christ back in…dang it has been a long time.  What I received in my case however was the anniversary, revised and updated edition and with bold letters, “Foreword by R.C. Sproul”.  I was pleasantly surprised that this great book had been updated and this was my queue that I needed to re-read it.  If you are not familiar with Patrick Morley or Man in the Mirror then I hope this review gives you some exposure to one of the best Men’s Ministry Missions.  Yes, I said it… mission.  One of the few heart beats to my call is reaching men and it is books/missions like this that have help me personally and millions of other men.

     On to the book review.  The 24 problems men face are are grouped under 7 topic headings; Solving our Identity Problems, Solving our Relationship Problems, Solving our Money Problems, Solving our Time Problems, Solving our Temperament Problems, Solving our Integrity Problems, and Conclusion.  As you can see under these topicMIM headings, much can be said and address under these.  These are also areas where most of us would agree that most of the problems a man face can be found.  This time around with my reading, I found sections 2, 5, and 6 (Relationship, Temperament, and Integrity) to be the places that were most impactful for me this time around.

     This re-read was just as interesting as the first time I read it.  It challenged, inspired, and enlightened me in ways that I needed to be reminded of especially in regards to my relationships, temperament and integrity.  I like the end of chapter ‘deep questions’ as they could be used either for small groups, a reading group, or accountability partner.  I would enjoy having these discussions with other guys and the fellowship and ‘fox hole’ experience that follows.  Patrick Morley does hold your attention in the new, revised updated edition just like he did the first time around.  I found the information to be presented in a cohesive and appealing manner (essentially short chapters) that would make it conducive to all types of men.  Finally, I want to finish in that Patrick successfully conveys Biblical truth and it because of this, that I bought a case of 48 of these and gave them out to co-workers, friends, acquaintances, and vendors.  I highly recommend this book to others, and especially the follow up, if you gifted it to someone.  You will never know where people are when they get a chance to look at the gift found in this book.  I have quite a few redemptive moments with co-workers and the like because of investing this book in others.

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Disclaimer

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the Man in the Mirror. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Uncategorized

The Power of Prayer – Guest Writer…

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The power of prayer is said to be a great thing and a powerful way to keep going when things just seem to hard. In fact, prayer is what we’re encouraged to do when we’re feeling too far away from God, and need to find a sense of balance and harmony in our lives. One such man who goes by the name of “Derek”, and has been given the role of reviewing religious books (usually three a year at least,) has reminded us of the power of prayer as well as why it is he does what he does. Each year he chooses a number of books that are written in a spiritual and meaningful way to guide people through religion in life.

You see family and finances are two of a few things these books that he reviewed are reminded can be worked with, sculpted, and helped through prayer. Sometimes we lose sight of the big picture, of what we should be done instead of giving in to temptation and sinful ways. One such Milton Vincent has been an incredible person to encounter when it comes to the book that he’s written. It speaks volumes because we sometimes do snap when our days seem too long and stressful. Sometimes we do give in to the pressures of sin in which we are lusting after a stranger, or thinking thoughts that we shouldn’t. However, by staying close to our religion, and faith these are things we can work through and work on.

The reason for this choice in literature is simple, these are things we all deal with and sometimes more often than we care to admit. Sometimes people need to find a sense of fulfillment in other ways beyond their Sunday sermons or the passages they read in the bible. Now I’m not saying that you should stop going to church or even put down the bible, but these are books that enrich all of those things. They allow you a deeper sense of connection with God, Jesus, and his teachings by adding additional literature that presents real life struggles, situations and thoughts we all experience.

It guides you through these situations and allows you to understand the way you can deal with these thoughts and situations as well how to guide yourself through them. There are so many passages out there that go great with many of these books, and it’s helpful to find peace in them. Best of all, you are given someone like Derek who is giving an honest opinion and who isn’t paid for that opinion. He wants people to find the same sense of closeness to God or whomever they worship that he has. That they can get the same kind of guidance and relief that he has found by combining his devotionals, these books that he has chosen and recommended. With these books and help he hopes to help strengthen the bond others have with God and their religious beliefs.

ALESSANDARNOLD – Awi’s Writing Services

Financial Sanctification

Money, Possessions and Eternity by Randy alcorn; book review

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      I was first exposed to this work in 2007 when I resigned from active ministry to plant a reformed house church.  I had been familiar with Randy Alcorn’s ministry and even the fellowship I was on staff with, used the “Treasure Principle” as congregational stewardship material.  However, it was this work that became the staple for elder and deacon training at Oasis.  I remember EPM Ministries donating these books to myself and our team and the blessing it was to go through for three months together as a leadership team.  Know there have been ‘Christian’ principled financial teaching ministries over the years and many have come and gone, but this work has been a standard go to even for my discipleship ministry recommendations.  If you are looking for a great tome that presents a biblical and comprehensive view ofMEPCover money and possessions, this is the work for you.

     The book is broken into four main sections, 1) The Challenge of Money and Possessions; 2) Seeing Money and Possessions in Eternity’s Light; Giving and Sharing our Money and Possessions; 4) Handling our Money and Possessions.  This is probably my 3rd or 4th time reading this and I am amazed about how relevant it continues to be and timely with my current situations in life.  This time, I am not in seminary, on staff at a church, planting a church or a pastor.  I am just like 90% of the rest of us who have a full-time job, student loans, a mortgage and a family.  It is to these types of life events that I am so deeply engulfed in these days, surrounded by those who live pay to paycheck and the mentality that comes with it, it is refreshing to pull this book off the shelf and be reminded that someone has thought this through and made it understandable to the rest of us and brought us back to redeeming.  

      Like all good books that are re-read, it is always those ‘new’ things that stick out compared to the last time you read it.  I was struck this time around with the dangers of materialism, ministry finances and fundraising with the associated special ethical considerations and the appendix on whether giving should be kept secret anymore.  Because I like to re-read good books, there is now an audiobook version of this work to compliment those like myself who like to be reminded of things we have read.  This book did challenge, inspire, and remind me to think differently about the word ‘stewardship’ and how we tend to throw that word around without really knowing what it means.  Especially what the biblical definition of that word is and how God intended it.  It was good to be reminded too, that money is not everything and how lost I have been at times pursuing success at work and the like.   Randy makes you think through the his personal illustrations and transparency with his own life as well with the real trials and tribulations that come with money and possessions.  He presents the material in a cohesive, yet appealing manner while successfully conveying Biblical truth.  After reading this work, you will agree with Randy, that there is a powerful relationship between  our true spiritual condition and our attitude and actions concerning money and possessions.  I would highly recommend this book to anyone and do.

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Disclaimer

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from EPM Ministries. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Family Financial Prayerfully Sanctification

A Gospel Primer for Christians: Learning to See the Glories of God’s Love, by Milton vincent; audiobook & book review (yearly review)

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“Preach the gospel to yourself every day.” ― Jerry Bridges, The Discipline of Grace: God’s Role and Our Role in the Pursuit of Holiness.

There is a few (more than 3 by the way) books that I re-visit each year, and in 2016, I have decided that I am going to complete reviews of them and make sure that my followers/readers know why they too might consider having these works in their ‘yearly review’ list.  First up is “A Gospel Primer for Christians:  Learning to see the glories of God’s Love” by Milton Vincent.

I think some background will be helpful on why this work has made it to the ‘yearly review’ list.  In the comments made by the author, he states that he had come to a stumbling point in his faith, and realized that he needed to be reminded of the gospel (both the good and bad news) and in that light, started to write important snippets on index cards.  Those index cards turned into bulletin inserts for his church which were disseminated each week, to finally culminate to a 97-page work that should be a Gospel Primervital piece to each of us who need to be reminded of the gospel.  What is the gospel?   “The gospel is that God Himself has come to rescue and restore creation in an through the work of Jesus Christ on our behalf.” – Tim Keller.  I have learned to summarize the power and purpose of the gosepel this way:  God-Sin-Jesus-Faith; Creation-Fall-Redemption-Consumation if that helps.  I need to be reminded of these truths daily not because I am checking a box, but because I so easily forget.  I forget when I am being self-righteous with my co-workers, I forget when I am snapping at my wife of 20yrs, I forget when I curse out the guy in traffic in front of me on my way to work, I forget when I am standing in line at the conveinence store, I forget when I succumb to the the temptation to look longer than I should at that woman walking down the street, I forget when I am listening to a counselee and I don’t understand how they got where they are and are sitting in front of me with their life in shambles…I forget regularly…

This work has made it to my review yearly list because I choose other things that I beleive can satisfy me other than what God has already provided.  “Sinful acts always have their origin in some form of unbelief:  behind every sin is a lie that God is not good, gracious, great, and glorious.”(Tim Cheseter).  Let me also make the disclaimer that it does not replace a regular intake of God’s Word through consistent and regular bible reading and assimilation.  It is because of that time in the Bible that this work compliments what I need for a yearly reminder.  If you like me, you start to drift… why am I going to a building on Sunday?  Why do I need to think of others as ‘family’?  What does it mean to be a ‘servant’?  What does it mean to be a missionary?  Is this about ‘form’ or ‘function’?  When did it become about sacred or secular?

This work challenges and enlightens me every time I revisit it.  Milton makes you think by using scripture as the illustration and keeping one focused on the bible versus taking away from it.  I also recommend the audiobook version which makes it a good rehersal when your driving to work in the morning (wink).  The information is presented in a cohesive and appealing manner.  Milton successfully conveys biblical through and I would highly recommend this work to others.  Some great resources for further information on this work/topic can be found here:


Disclaimer

Disclosure of Material Connection:  I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”