Book Review: The Permanent Revolution by Alan Hirsch & Tim Catchim

One of my goals for 2015 is to finish one book every week. I love reading and usually have a few books going at a time but I notice that though I may finish several books in a year, I don’t always retain much of what I’ve read. To combat this trend, I want to start reviewing and synthesizing some of that here, likely just for my own personal enjoyment. Here we go!

The Overview:  In Ephesians 4, Paul offers what many have argued to be the key lever for understanding missional leadership in the Church: the fivefold gifts of Apostle, Prophet, Evangelist, Shepherd, Teacher (APEST for short).  Hirsch and Catchim weave together biblical studies, theology, organizational theory, leadership theory, and elements of other social sciences to argue for the return to this model of leadership, particularly for the re-centering of the apostolic function in our understanding and praxis of missional leadership in the Church.  They trace a historical de-centering of the apostolic (along with the prophetic and evangelistic) and an unhealthy bias and obsession focused on those with shepherding and teaching gifts.  They spend about 1/3 of the book establishing Ephesians 4 and the APEST roles as a framework and the rest of the book unpacking the function of the apostolic specifically.

The Good:  This book is brilliant at its best moments and smarter than most at its worst.  The authors offer a solid and well-reasoned argument for the prominence of the Ephesians 4 text in our understanding of leadership in the Church and an equally strong critique of its marginalization.  Alan Hirsch is at his best when he is trumpeting the priesthood of all believers and his “everybody gets to play” understanding of mission in the local church context and this book is no exception.  The first third of the book presents a robust understanding of how the five functions fit together and the capacity for Kingdom-building that could be unlocked were they properly understood and empowered.  Without doubt, the authors paint a compelling picture of the Church fully activated in the world.  Throughout the other two-thirds, they employ (unforgettably, at times) the best of current thinking in entrepreneurial practice and sociological understanding to illuminate the truths of Scripture and apply it liberally to much-needed areas of church leadership, particularly focusing in on culture change, leadership development and deployment, and missional innovation.  This is a small detail but I also highly enjoyed the quotes from various world leaders, Christian and otherwise, that began and cast light onto the chapter to come.

The Bad:  While intelligent and well-researched the book certainly is, easily accessible it most certainly is not.  The first third is well worth the price of admission and easy enough to understand and apply.  The back two-thirds, however, take a fairly disciplined reader with a heavy interest in social psychology, entrepreneurial leadership, or both, to endure to the end.  The book is tedious at times with diagrams, analogies, and expansions of material already covered.  Hirsch and Catchim seem almost overly eager to show the reader how many connections to sociology and business practice can be made in the realm of the apostolic.  No doubt a heavier editorial hand would have been welcomed by many a reader (or would-be-reader).  Also, my wife hates the cover, so -2 points.

The Transferable:  Much of the first hundred pages would be easily transferable in the realm of the average ministry leader.  Hirsch and Catchim’s definition and explanation of each of the fivefold gifts are brilliant in their scope and application.  I recently taught a group of young potentially-gifted evangelists the Evangelistic Ministry Matrix (pictured at left), which helps explain four different types of evangelistic function. This was an eye-opener to some who had previously questioned their evangelistic gifting based on stereotypes with which they could not relate.

Who Should Read This:  I would argue that a basic “reader’s digest” version of the book’s best material can be found in other works by Hirsch (and his tribe).  However, I have yet to come upon a more thoroughly unpacked rendering of the five gifts and their functions in the Church.  For that reason, I would highly recommend the first third of this book for any leader with a level or two of leadership beneath her who desires to see everyone activated in mission.  I would also recommend parts of it to any follower of Jesus who seeks to understand the APEST gifts and their rootedness in Scripture.  I would recommend the back two-thirds to apostolic leaders (planters, entrepreneurs, movement thinkers) who geek out on Seth Godin, Malcolm Gladwell, and the like, and who love making connections between the worlds of church leadership and the social sciences.

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Book Review: Life Together in Christ by Ruth Haley Barton

One of my goals for 2015 is to finish one book every week. I love reading and usually have a few books going at a time but I notice that though I may finish several books in a year, I don’t always retain much of what I’ve read. To combat this trend, I want to start reviewing and synthesizing some of that here, likely just for my own personal enjoyment. Here we go!

The Overview:  Ruth Haley Barton writes a lot about spiritual formation and spiritual disciplines.  This is a book about pursuing Christ-centered transformation in communal settings that leads to deepened relationships with both God and others. Core to the book is the idea that our communities need to be practicing communal spiritual disciplines and intentionally creating space for Jesus to speak and move in our gatherings.

The Good:  Honestly, there is a lot to praise about this book. It is structured around Jesus’ interaction with the disciples on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24.  Barton’s writing is that rare combination of deep rootedness in Scripture, practical application, and pastoral guidance of the reader through the material.  The reflection questions peppered throughout each chapter are actually helpful and the next steps designed for groups at the end of each chapter feel like something I would actually want to do with some friends.  For ministry leaders, there are many group spiritual discipline tools that she presents throughout that are easy to adapt and borrow for use with your people – in fact I just used one recently with some of my InterVarsity leaders.  To summarize, the book is an incredibly useful guide in moving community groups from a loose confederation of people who attend the same corporate gathering to a family of people committed to walking together as they are being changed by Jesus.

The Bad:  There is not much that I have to offer in critique of this book but one small notes does seem important.  In Chapter 5, Barton takes on the issue of gender in community. Much of what she has to say is beautiful and incredibly helpful, particularly while much of Western evangelicalism seems bent on reading our own specific cultural marriage and gender norms into Scripture. Barton maintains that men and women were created for equality and partnership in relationships and that the best communities will affirm and recognize the gifts that both bring to the table. I think this is refreshing and helpful. However, she seems to push the pendulum a bit too far back (in my opinion) as she openly criticizes the perceived need for gender-specific community and vaguely seems to advocate for completely unguarded vulnerability between men and women in community settings. While I don’t think that gender-specific community is best for someone all the time, it has been my (albeit, limited) experience that there are specific issues that are handled best in gendered sub-communities, particularly as relates to sexual brokenness. Paul seems to advocate for at least some functional need for gendered community in Titus 2 and I would guess that most followers of Jesus have benefited from such sub-groups in various seasons. That being said, there was much to glean from this chapter as well.

The Transferable:  Each chapter contains a tool or two that would be easy to replicate and teach to people that you are discipling. My favorite was from Chapter 3, which focuses on intercession in community. Here Barton gives a helpful framework and a very simple tool for teaching listening prayer as a means of helping people within a group hear a word from the Lord for themselves and others. I just used this with my leaders recently and several of them reported hearing encouraging and refreshing words from Jesus with its use.

Who Should Read This:  This is a great book for all but I would highly recommend it for anyone who leads a group of people on a regular basis and is desiring deeper community and a deeper realization of how Jesus can transform you as you gather.  As someone who has led several communities over the past 10 years, it was a breath of fresh air and a helpful reminder that Jesus is the one who brings change to our communities.