Book Review: Roadmap to Reconciliation by Rev. Dr. Brenda Salter-McNeil

Roadmap to ReconciliationThis is the third of Dr. Brenda Salter-McNeil’s books that I have read, including The Heart of Racial Justice and A Credible Witness.  These works generally specialize in motivating followers of Jesus to pursue racial reconciliation, motivated by her beautiful retelling of familiar Gospel narratives (e.g. The Woman at the Well from John 4 in A Credible Witness) and clarion call to recognize the deeper spiritual realities at work in the social and racial inequities we see in our world (The Heart of Racial Justice).  Her storytelling is excellent and often deeply personal, admitting her own failures along the way and making space for reconciliation novices and experts alike to engage fully in the text.  My only critique of her writing is the one that apparently became the impetus for this new book.  Namely, what is the actual process communities should undertake if they wish to become reconciled?  I have found it hard to practically apply much of what I’ve read from her beyond my own individual life. Thankfully, this critique has been soundly answered with this book.

The Good & The Quotable:

reconciliation roadmapThe long and short of it is that this is the most accessible and practical book on reconciliation that I have ever read.  Dr. Salter-McNeil’s roadmap (see image) is an indispensable resource for churches and other organizations who are wondering where to begin after the catalytic events (to borrow her language) we see happening on the news seemingly every week involving racial injustice in our country and abroad.  One of my favorite elements of the book is that she takes great pains to give the reader access to brief bits of the academic research that went into her model, summarizing complex sociological theories and seamlessly weaving them into the popular level insight she means to impart. You can certainly check the endnotes for further personal research and this section of the book alone is worth the price of admission.

Here are a few of my favorite quotes to give you a taste of her insight:

“Reconciliation is an ongoing spiritual process involving forgiveness, repentance, and justice that restores broken relationships and systems to reflect God’s original intention for all creation to flourish” (22)

“Transformation requires disruption and a degree of chaos to increase the sense of urgency that change must happen. However there must also be enough psychological safety that the chaos does not completely overwhelm our ability to reflect and reorganize ourselves.” (52)

“If an organization wants to shift its cultural identity, it is crucial that it have an internal team of diverse leaders who model the diversity change initiative.” (69)

The Transferable:
On a practical level, this book is written to be immediately applied in a leadership team or small group setting; almost everything can be transferred.  In my own life and ministry, I found the rules she gives for facilitating dialogue between different groups (racial groups, congregations, political sides, etc.) to be incredibly practical and I will almost certainly use them at the next opportunity.  Near the end of the book, she also passes along “Eight Habits of Interculturally Competent Leaders, providing a quick self-assessment that I can also imagine using in a staff meeting quite easily.

Who Should Read This:
I think every Christian leader responsible for interpreting Scripture alongside the events happening in our world should own and reference this book.  I think it would be an incredible resource to go through with a leadership or staff team that is serious about making serious and significant organizational change to pursue reconciliation and justice together.  If you’re looking for a book with more personal application, I would try one of her other books listed above.

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Best of 2015: Books

One of my goals for 2015 was to read a book every week. I blew it. Before I get into telling you which books I loved (and loved less or, frankly, disliked) from 2015, let me start with that confession. I had every intention of reading one book, every week, and then blogging a review of that book to help me process and integrate what I read into my life. It didn’t happen.

How badly did I miss the mark, you might be wondering? Pretty badly. I read 31 books this year (that I remember) – 25 non-fiction and 6 fiction. That works out to just a little over one book every two weeks. Not exactly setting any records but still somewhat of an impressive list when you type them all out single-space in Microsoft Word.

With no further ado, let me tell you what I thought was great in 2015, bearing in mind that this simply means books that I happened to read within the calendar year 2015, not necessarily books that came out in 2015. As C.S. Lewis taught me, old books are to be valued at least as highly, if not more so, than new, and so I tried to read some of both this year. Bear in mind as well that top five lists on the internet are so arbitrary and subjective that you might just as well ask a stranger on the street than take my opinions as helpful but, if you’re feeling especially curious, read on.

Non Fiction

This is the category in which I focus most of my reading time. As a campus minister working for an organization with its own press, I have ready access to a number of low-cost or free titles from what I believe to be the best Christian publishing company in the market and I take full advantage. That being said, on further reflection, it seems as though I read somewhat broadly this year – from academically rigorous research projects to popular theology to memoirs to practical ministry and beyond. Here were the top four from that list, in no particular order:

Knowing God by J.I. Packer
Knowing GodThere is much to praise about Packer’s classic theology but there is one specific element of his writing that moved me more than the rest: his questions. Like any great teacher, he is at his best when he is unpacking the mysterious and simplifying the complex realities of God. The worst theological writing oversimplifies to the point of minimization, leaving us with a god that may be understandable but seems so petty or boring as to curtail our desire to know him. I will contain my praise by sharing a few examples of how Packer uses questions to both provoke our apathies and lift our gaze up to the God he describes:

  • “If our God is the same as the God of New Testament believers, how can we justify ourselves in resting content with an experience of communion with him, and a level of Christian conduct, that falls so far below theirs?” (p. 81)
  • “And who are you to suppose that you will be the first exception, the first person to find God wavering and failing to keep his word? Do you not see how you dishonor God by such fears?” (p. 271)

Santa Biblia by Justo González
Santa BibliaThis book wrecked me in the best possible ways. One of the things I have most appreciated about my time with InterVarsity is the heavy value that has been instilled within me for fighting to understand the world from ethnic and cultural perspectives outside my own. This brief-yet-brilliant little book helps the reader understand some of the critical themes that underscore a Latin@ hermeneutic of Scripture and the Christian experience. As a white man living in Saint Louis in 2015, this book challenged my reading of Scripture from a position of privilege and power and caused me to look again at stories that I thought I knew, calling my attention to a God who aligns himself with the marginalized and beckons for the privileged to join him not in the centers of power but along the frontera, that place at the edge of our understanding and along the borders between two peoples where mutual growth and flourishing, instead of alienation and conquest, can thrive.

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
New Jim CrowMuch ink has been spilled over this book’s brilliance and necessity “for such a time as this.” Dr. Cornel West called it “the secular bible of a new social movement” and that makes complete sense to me. This book challenged what I thought I understood about the depths of brokenness of the system of mass incarceration (hint: no matter how broken you thought our justice system was, it’s worse). However, the most startling parts of the book for me were Alexander’s brilliant retracing of the historical connections that link Mass Incarceration back to Jim Crow and back still to Slavery. As the saying goes, those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. As I see Donald Trump continuing to rise in popularity, Alexander’s book haunts me and I pray that it will not be any more prophetic than it already has been. This book is a must-read, particularly for evangelicals trying to make sense of the #blacklivesmatter movement and other burgeoning populist social movements and their place in our nation’s history.

Beyond Awkward by Beau Crosetto
Beyond AwkwardMy only practical ministry book that made the best of cut. To be honest, I find a lot of “how-to” ministry books to be incredibly boring. Normally, the author has a handful of paradigms they are desiring to transfer into your skill set but, instead of creating a five-page PDF, they write a 200 page book, mostly filled with haphazard exegesis about how their acronym on discipleship was, can you believe it, what Jesus was doing all along! So simple – how did we miss that!?

This book, on the other hand, was the most practical evangelism book I have ever read. Crosetto, an IV staff in California, covers every issue I can imagine to address our natural fearful bent away from sharing our faith. From Spiritual Warfare to Asking Good Questions to Sharing Stories to Learning to Discern the Holy Spirit’s Voice, there are steps and tips all over the place, yet you never feel overwhelmed. The book has a natural progression that I think would be brilliant to go through with a group of leaders of any age desiring to grow in their ability to share the Gospel. The stories are useful as examples and the Scripture used is helpful without feeling like unnecessary page-filler. There’s even some additional videos and group resources that were created to aid in learning transfer. Overall, a great book.

Fiction

I’ll only include one entry here to round out my top-five, as my reading in 2015 was so heavily slanted toward non-fiction. I love fiction and was even an English Literature major in college, but these books always take me much longer to read. It’s probably because I can’t really count it as work hours but I’d like to believe it’s also because I tend to savor books more when I know the author put intentional thought into every word of every sentence. The fiction books I read this year were all worth savoring but one stands above the others, not in quality, but in how it broke my heart (another C.S. Lewisism for gauging whether a book is good or not):

Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry
Jayber CrowI actually don’t want to say much about this book because you just need to go buy it right now and read it. Berry is most famous for a series of books about a fictional rural farming town in Kentucky transitioning in the early-to-mid twentieth century away from previous generations who have valued community and longevity above all else to the rising generation escaping via newly formed highways and readily accessible automobiles to cities far from home. I have never ached for home or community more than when I read this book (and Hannah Coulter before it). Go buy it and then force your best friends to all move on to your block with you – that’s my plan from here.

Whew. We made it. Those were the five best books I read in 2015. If you’re curious and haven’t fallen asleep at your computer yet, I’ll include the full list from 2015 – feel free to comment below if you want recommendations from the further list.

Non-Fiction

  • The Question of Canon – Michael Kruger
  • The Permanent Revolution – Alan Hirsch & Tim Catchim
  • Life Together in Christ – Ruth Haley Barton
  • Miracle Work – Jordan Seng
  • The Return of the Prodigal Son – Henri Nouwen
  • Sacred Rhythms – Ruth Haley Barton
  • Emotionally-Healthy Spirituality – Pete Scazzero
  • Let’s All Be Brave – Annie Downs
  • A Long Obedience in the Same Direction – Eugene Peterson
  • Knowing God – JI Packer
  • The Next Evangelicalism – Soong-Chan Rah
  • The Good & Beautiful God – James Bryan Smith
  • Culture Making – Andy Crouch
  • The Meaning of Marriage – Tim Keller
  • Santa Biblia – Justo González
  • Different – Brian Sanders & Mike Patz
  • Influencer – Grenny, Patterson, et al
  • The New Jim Crow – Michelle Alexander
  • Ragamuffin Gospel – Brennan Manning
  • Scary Close – Donald Miller
  • Reflections on Christian Leadership – Henri Nouwen
  • Beyond Awkward – Beau Crosetto
  • Learning to Walk in the Dark – Barbara Brown Taylor
  • Understanding Gender Dysphoria – Mark Yarhouse (honorable mention)
  • The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert – Rosaria Butterfield

Fiction

  • On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness – Andrew Peterson
  • North! Or Be Eaten – Andrew Peterson
  • The Monster in the Hollows – Andrew Peterson
  • The Warden and the Wolf King – Andrew Peterson
  • Jayber Crow – Wendell Berry
  • LOTR: The Two Towers – JRR Tolkien
    *Note: Andrew Peterson’s The Warden and the Wolf King, the fourth book in his Wingfeather Saga, came out in 2014, but I made myself re-read the previous three to recapture the story before finally finishing it this past year. It was beautiful and moving and a perfect ending to the saga. If you have kids, go buy those books. If you don’t have kids, admit that you still love kids’ books and go buy them anyway – you will not regret it.

Book Review: Miracle Work by Jordan Seng

The Overview:  The subtitle on the cover of Miracle Work reads, “A Down-to-Earth Guide to Supernatural Ministries.”  This is a perfect description of what this book is all about.  Jordan Seng, the pastor of Bluewater Mission in Honolulu, HI, contends that followers of Jesus should live and minister in two distinct ways: (1) with an everyday awareness and practice of the supernatural power of God at our disposal and (2) in humble proximity to those who most need the miraculous work of God in their lives.  The chapters in his book, after a few introductory pages, alternate between descriptions of five supernatural ministries (healing, deliverance, prophecy, intercession, and the Baptism of the Holy Spirit) and personal anecdotes of those gifts at work.  He labors to give an explanation of both what supernatural ministries are and what it feels like to use and grow in them.

The Good:  This book is immensely practical and relatable.  For someone coming from a conservative evangelical background with minimal exposure to supernatural ministry (or charismatic gifts or practice as it is sometimes called), I came in open-minded but wary of potential red flags that I have often associated with ministries particularly focused on these practices.  Honestly, other than some likely theological disagreement with the chapter on the Baptism of the Holy Spirit, I didn’t see much with which my fellow conservative evangelical friends would disagree.  This is simply a primer on what these five miraculous ministries are and practical steps in learning and using them.  Dr. Seng is charming and personable as he explains simple tips and shares stories from his own experiences, including his failures as well as successes.  He is sharp and succinct on the “how-tos” and thorough and pastoral in his explanation of the “what-ifs” (“What if this doesn’t work the first time? What if I use the wrong words? What if things get really intense?”).  The interesting thing about supernatural ministry, in my experience, is that though the listing of these gifts is seemingly always associated with gifts that are used all the time in our church and parachurch ministries (teaching, knowledge, wisdom, serving, evangelizing, etc.), they are almost never talked about, let alone used, in many Christian circles.  I have given hours of my life to being trained as an evangelist; I have never even heard of a training on healing or deliverance.  In this book, Dr. Seng balances this equation and gives us some practical tools that we need to be fully equipped for ministry as those who walk by the Spirit.

The Bad:  This is a book that you will either love or ignore, period.  I wish that Dr. Seng had included a chapter near the beginning that addressed the walls of resistance that many will no doubt have about retooling their ministries or worship services to allow for the utilization of these supernatural ministries.  A five-page chapter entitled “For all my Reformed and Catholic readers…” with some sharp theological critique of the neglect of these gifts and caring pastoral guidance over the stereotypical barriers that exist between certain camps of Christians would have done wonders to help this book appeal to a broader audience.  It is somehow both a relaxing charm and a minor disappointment that Dr. Seng moves quickly out of the station without slowing down to see if he lost anybody who wasn’t already on the bus.

The Transferable:  Literally everything in this book is transferable.  The chapters on each ministry are so incredibly practical and full of little tips and simple steps to take in using supernatural gifts.  I will share one practical tool that Dr. Seng describes as “the heart of this book.”  He (with some self-deprecation) calls it “the power equation.”  According to Dr. Seng, “growing in power is the biggest key to doing supernatural ministry well” (54).  Here is his “equation” for growing in power:

Authority + Gifting + Faith + Consecration = Power

Using Scripture and experience to back up the argument, Dr. Seng argues that our growth in these four areas will lead to greater access to successful uses of the Holy Spirit’s power.  Admittedly, I was a bit skeptical of something so spiritual laid out in an equation but the more I read his explanation, the more I found myself resonating with his logic.  If we grow in our obedience to Jesus, our understanding of and appreciation for the gifts, our willingness to risk and say yes to Jesus, and our willingness to sacrifice our worldly desires for holy living, doesn’t it make sense that we would become more attuned to the voice of Jesus and be able to discern his will and access the resources of the Holy Spirit?  It certainly does to me.

Who Should Read This:  This is a book that should be read by ministry leaders and practitioners who are genuinely desiring to grow in their understanding and practice of the gifts of the Spirit.  This is not a book for those who desire a theological explanation for why these gifts are still usable and useful today (other than the chapter on the Baptism of the Holy Spirit, which is quite challenging and theologically well-argued).

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.

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.