Top Five Books of 2019 (but I mention 9)

2019 has been a good year for reading. And as the year draws to a close, I reflect over my reading list for the year (read my earlier blog on reading lists) and a few books stand out that are entertaining and insightful. So to close out the year, here’s my list of the Top Five books I read in 2019.

Before theTop Five, however, are a couple of books that could have easily been on the list. These two books stretched my thinking and helped shape upcoming sermon series. The first is Why We Need the Church to Become More Like Jesus by Joe Hellerman. We are called to follow Jesus in community, and Hellerman exegetes significant texts to highlight our need for the body of Christ. The second is Saved by Faith and Hospitality by Joshua Jipp. Hospitality is an overlooked priority of Scripture, and though I may not agree with all of Jipp’s applications, he challenged me to think more deeply about welcoming all around me.

Ok. Here are my Top 5:

Leadership Pain: The Classroom for Growth

(5) Leadership Pain, Sam Chand. Leadership requires implementing change. By definition, change includes an element of loss, which results in pain — both for the organization and the leader. The bottom line of the book: you will never grow beyond your threshold of pain. This was a sobering and insightful book to read as I prepared to enter a new season of ministry.

The Haunting of Hill House (Penguin Classics)

(4) Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson. Full disclosure: this is the first horror book I have read. I was not sure what to expect as I dipped my toe into a new genre, but found the book engaging as we followed Eleanor’s journey through the mysteries of Hill House. Jackson is masterful in her prose and storytelling, as is obvious from the opening of the book:

“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”

Evangelism in a Skeptical World: How to Make the Unbelievable News about Jesus More Believable

(3) Evangelism in a Skeptical World, Sam Chan. I would challenge every follower of Jesus to read a book on evangelism every year, and this is a good one. Chan was especially strong in helping readers craft their personal story of following Jesus. I read a couple of chapters in this book as research for my dissertation, then made a priority of returning and reading it cover to cover. By the way, another book I thoroughly enjoyed is Winsome Persuasion by Tim Muelhoff and Rick Langer, which considers how the church engages our culture.

The Trellis and the Vine: The Ministry Mind-Shift That Changes Everything

(2) The Trellis and the Vine, Colin Marshall and Tony Payne. I read The Trellis and the Vine several years ago and revisited it this year as our church prayerfully considers our discipleship strategy. The metaphor of erecting a trellis to the neglect of tending the vine is a strong image that moves discipleship to a relational (rather than merely programmatic) emphasis. I have already started The Vine Project, Marsall and Payne’s follow-up book, perhaps it will be on my 2020 list.

(1) Scrappy Church, Thom Rainer. This may be the shortest book I read this year, but it was one of the most significant. This summer, I accepted the position of lead pastor at The Bridge Church in Newbury Park, CA, and this book quickly caught my attention. The Bridge is a scrappy church — though we have been through difficult seasons, we are convinced God is not finished with us, and this small book gives a simple blueprint for moving forward. Rainer observes that revitalized churches share three common priorities: an outreach deluge, become a welcoming church, and develop strategies to retain church attenders. Many of our church leaders read this small book, and we will put implement several of the recommended strategies.

Please comment any books you especially enjoyed in 2019 — and happy reading in 2020!

All Prayer

ALL PRAYER“Help me to be all prayer…”

I ran across that line while meditating on a Puritan prayer in The Valley of Vision. What can that mean, to be “all prayer?”

Whatever it means, most of us can admit we fall short of the standard. But in the early church, prayer was so important that the apostles delegated other responsibilities so they could focus on prayer and the ministry of the Word (Acts 6). In fact, prayer resonates throughout the book of Acts. And you can’t read Paul’s letters without reading his prayers. In our current practice, we tend to emphasize strategies and statements rather than prayer.

We should be intentional. We should be strategic. But we must be prayerful.

Join me in spending some time in this Puritan prayer:

O Lord, in prayer I launch far out into the eternal world, and on that broad ocean my soul triumphs over all evils on the shores of mortality.

Time, with its gay amusements and cruel disappointments, never appears so inconsiderate as then.

In prayer, I see myself as nothing;

I find my heart going after thee with intensity, and long with vehement thirst to live to thee.

Blessed be the strong gales of the Spirit that speed me on my way to the New Jerusalem.

In prayer all things here below vanish, and nothing seems important but holiness of heart and the salvation of others.

In prayer all my worldly cares, fears, anxieties disappear, and are of as little significance as a puff of wind.

In prayer my soul inwardly exults with lively thoughts at what thou art doing for thy church, and I long that thou shouldest get thyself a great name from sinners returning to Zion.

In prayer I am lifted above the frown and flatteries of life, and taste the heavenly joys; entering into the eternal world I can give myself to thee with all my heart, to be thine for ever.

In prayer I can place all my concerns in thy hands, to be entirely at thy disposal, having no will or interest of my own.

In prayer I can intercede for my friends, ministers, sinners, the church, thy kingdom to come, with greatest freedom, ardent hopes…as a son to his Father, as a lover to the beloved.

Help me to be all prayer and never to cease praying.

The fall season at Venture will begin with a focus on prayer. The challenge is to be “all prayer,” as we move in God’s purposes for our church. We can pray for “friends, ministers, sinners, the church, thy kingdom come” and for God to work in powerful ways in our community.

The fall season is an exciting one at Venture Church. We move into the all-church focus on Romans 8, Friend Sunday, Baptism Service — we launch into September with great expectations!

But first, we quiet our hearts and bend our knees. We enter the place and priority of “holiness of heart and the salvation of others,” and we seek God’s desire for his  people.

Help us to be all prayer and never to cease praying!

Santa in the Bible?

drew-coffman-175709I found Santa Claus in the Bible!

Ok, this blog is a playful way of pointing out a sad reality. It is possible to lift Bible verses out of their intended context and use them to back up most any point you want to make. To demonstrate this, I found out how to make a “biblical” case for Santa! Ready for this? It starts in Zechariah 2 in the King James Version:

Ho, ho, come forth, and flee from the land of the north…” (Zech. 2:6). Can’t you hear the “Ho, Ho, Ho” of Santa as he and his team of reindeer flee the land of the north every December 24?

But it doesn’t end there, check out this verse from Revelation in the English Standard Version:

“…and those who dwell on the earth will rejoice over them and make merry and exchange presents.” (Rev. 11:10)

There you have it — right from the Bible! Ho, Ho, Ho, be merry and exchange presents! It makes perfect sense — except that it doesn’t!

Obviously, neither of these passages has anything to do with Christmas, reindeer, or Jolly Old St. Nicholas. But this is the danger of lifting verses out of context. The interpretive key to understanding God’s Word is always to ask what the original author (and Author) intended for the original readers and how that message applies to us today.

For example, let me show a better Christmas passage of Scripture (Matthew 1:21-23) and notice the clarity of its message:

21 “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:

23 “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
    and they shall call his name Immanuel”

(which means, God with us). 

In this passage, Joseph is given instruction from an angel in a dream, and then Matthew identifies how this fulfills a prophecy from Isaiah. Jesus will be born, and his birth will fulfill what was promised of old. Many of Matthew’s readers were Jewish, so it was important for him to show that Jesus came in fulfillment of Old Testament promises.

Also, you notice there are two names given for the baby. He is “Jesus” (“Savior”) and “Immanuel” (“God with us”). These names reveal his identity and his purpose. This baby will be “God with us,” the fullness of deity in bodily form, the very presence of the very God. He will be the Word made flesh living among us. And his purpose is to save people from their sins. He is “Jesus,” the one who saves. This reveals his purpose — he came to save people from their sins, which would eventually be accomplished through a rugged cross and an empty tomb.

It is given with such clarity — Jesus would be born as fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies. He will be God in the flesh, come to save people from their sins. When God came to be with us, he came to save. Just like he promised in the days of Isaiah.

Scripture is clear. We don’t need to lift things out of context to prove a point. We just need to worship God as he is revealed in his Word.

 

Christmas in a Barn

Untitled designSometimes, I just need to break the routine. Do something unusual. Gain a new perspective. That can be especially true at Christmas…and I love Christmas! I turn on the Christmas music early. I love Elf. And It’s a Wonderful Life. And The Nativity Story. I use a real tree…and an artificial tree. Get the point? I enjoy Christmas!

In the midst of a busy season, though, it’s easy for the Christmas season to become routine and miss the annual opportunity to think deeply about Immanuel – “God with us.” Several years ago, I found myself at home alone one evening during the Christmas season. I turned on some music, lit up the tree, started a fire, and picked up a small book by Michael Card, Immanuel: Reflections on the Life of Christ. Here’s what I read:

Christmas is a struggle for my wife and me. Our ongoing war with the world seems to intensify as the decorations go up all over town. there is His name, in every window. Sometimes there is even a statue of His sweet infant body, lying in some straw with shepherds and wise men standing around with blank porcelain expressions. (I’ve always thought their faces convey the attitude of the world toward Christmas: blank, dazed, and bewildered.) If people today would just look at the birth of Jesus “straight on,” they would be puzzled that we should celebrate the horrific birth of a baby who was born to die. The contradictions should be more than the world can take. If Christianity could just be seen for what it is — a paradox and a mystery. The beginning in that dirty stable is one of the greatest mysteries: the plainness and greatness of Jesus, the grime and the glory. Wise men with gold in their hands and shepherds with sheep dung on their shoes. A smelly stable below and a shining star above. The birth of a gentle Lamb who was the fiercest Lion.

But the world doesn’t seem to struggle with these contradictions. They join in our season of celebration unruffled and oftentimes more joyful than we.

In an attempt to preserve some of this perspective, it is our family tradition to pile in the car and go to a real working barn, with horses in their stalls and a barn cat on the prowl for its prey amongst the hay bales. Together, we read the Christmas story by candlelight. The odor and the dark seem to press in against the fragile light of our candle. The horses stamp they feet against the cold and look at us sideways, as horses must, as if we were a little “off” for being there in the middle of the night.

The shabbiness of this setting reminds us of that other shabby place Jesus chooses everyday to be born: the human heart, a place more filthy and cold than any stable. All this comes so much closer to reality for us than the singing Christmas trees or the huge services. They may have their place and might become a genuine part of the real celebration, but not without the smell of the straw and the bewildered animals who seem almost about to speak. A baby and a barn. Only with these things can the celebration be truly complete.

It’s been many years since I read those words, and I’ve never made it to the barn. This year will be different. At Venture Church, we were dreaming about how Christmas could be a bit different this year. Out of the routine. Something unusual. A new perspective. A baby and a barn.

So we are making plans for a Christmas Eve gathering in a barn. It will be simple. It will be humble. It won’t smell like pine and cider. But we will gather in a barn to sing carols and read the Christmas story. And I hope some of us leave with a new appreciation of mystery – the grime and the glory – of Immanuel, “God with us.”

A Puritan Prayer for Preaching

As I spent some time in The Valley of Vision, I ran across this prayer from the Puritans entitled “A Minister’s Preaching.” It resonated with a lot of my thoughts and feelings, so I thought I’d pass it along:

“My Master God,

I am desired to preach today, but go weak and needy to my task; Yet I long that people might be edified with divine truth, that an honest testimony might be borne for thee; Give me assistance in preaching and prayer, with heart uplifted for grace and unction.

Present to my view things pertinent to my subject, with fullness of matter and clarity of thought, proper expressions, fluency, fervency, a feeling sense of the things I preach, and grace to apply them to men’s consciences.

Keep me conscious all the while of my defects, and let me not gloat in pride over my performance. Help to offer a testimony for thyself, and to leave sinners inexcusable in neglecting thy mercy.

Give me freedom to open the sorrows of thy people, and to set before them comforting considerations. Attend with power the truth preached, and awaken the attention of my slothful audience.

May thy people be refreshed, melted, convicted, comforted, and help me to use the strongest arguments drawn from Christ’s incarnation and sufferings, that men might be made holy.

I myself need thy support, comfort, strength, holiness, that I might be a pure channel of thy grace, and be able to do something for thee;

Give me then refreshment among thy people, and help me not to treat excellent matter in a defective way, or bear a broken testimony to so worthy a Redeemer, or be harsh in treating of Christ’s death, its design and end, and lack of warmth and fervency.

And keep me in tune with thee as I do this work.”

Note: I struggle a bit with his intention of “slothful audience,” as the Puritans were industrious people. I think the intent is that truth would be preached with power to awaken the spiritually apathetic. Hope this prayer is an encouragement to you.

4 Things You Can Do Today to Share Jesus

evangelism-608x459Many Christ followers want to point people to Jesus, especially in these crazy times we live in. Recently, we were challenged at Venture Church to pray for three people who have not put their faith in Jesus.

But the thought of sharing our faith can be terrifying! I’ve often chuckled at books that make it sound easy, like you “just walk across the room,” “tell someone,” and simply “invite our friends on a spiritual journey.” (Good books to read by the way, just follow the links!)

Today’s cultural context of pluralism and political correctness makes pointing people to Jesus even more intimidating. Why would we share the gospel if the content of belief is irrelevant? If all roads truly lead to God, why bother offending someone or risking ridicule? But if Jesus meant it when he said, “I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me,” we should take seriously our call to share the gospel.

The ultimate goal is that every Christ follower will understand the gospel and have the boldness to share it with others. To quote the great Leo Marvin,Dr._Leo_Marvin however, we often take “Baby Steps” to arrive at that goal. Here are 4 things you can do today to share Jesus with people around you:

  1. “Share” the gospel. Social media can be a good platform for getting the word out. It’s a casual way to identify yourself as a Christ follower, and it further spreads the message of the post. The simple step of “liking” a Facebook post from your church or “sharing” an interesting blog extends the reach of the post exponentially.
  2. Be friendly. Smile at people, greet people, strike up a conversation with your neighbor. Resist the societal pull towards isolation. One caveat, however, don’t be friendly in order to “win people” or with the goal of converting them. Just be friendly. If God is at work in this person’s life, he will draw them to himself. We just need to communicate love and be ready to tell the story of the gospel when opportunity arises.
  3. Ask questions. It’s the old adage: “Everyone’s favorite subject to talk about is themselves.” Develop the art of asking questions. Caring for people is so much better than arguing over beliefs. And don’t jump to your own story, don’t try to out-do your friend’s story. Just listen.
  4. One final tip: pray. If you are praying consistently for people to follow Jesus, you are more likely to find opportunities to invite them to church or have a spiritual conversation with them. God works in response to prayer!

TV-Classics-Outline2

You may think, “I’m no Billy Graham” when it comes to sharing the gospel. None of us are! Hopefully all of us will grow confident in sharing Jesus with those around us. In the meantime, take a few baby steps to point others to Jesus.

 

The Mystery and the Mission

FVYV2NWHEBN9EWK.MEDIUMThose who follow Jesus are called to mission. That’s clear.

The mission is fueled by a mystery. What? Not very clear.

When we see the word “mystery,” we usually think of our favorite investigative show. Depending on your generation, you may think of Sherlock, Shawn and Gus, Scooby and Shaggy, Monk, Columbo, Matlock, or some may even think of Jessica Fletcher. A mystery is a problem to be solved, a “whodunit” scenario. The game, it is famously said, is afoot.

In the book of Colossians, however, Paul writes of a different sort of mystery. The gospel is a mystery because it has been hidden for ages and generations, but is now revealed. We don’t need Nancy Drew or Encyclopedia Brown to figure this out — it is a mystery revealed. Throughout the Old Testament, people tried to understand what was being foretold -even the prophets themselves according to 1 Peter 1:10-12. When Jesus finally came, the gospel was revealed. And his last piece of instruction was to share the gospel with everyone…all people, all nations. In the early church, the gospel spread to the Gentiles. God was doing a great thing.

So Paul writes that “God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery…” Notice how Paul piles up lavish descriptions of the mystery: great, riches, glory. We know something powerful is coming. And Paul reveals this mystery:

“Christ in you, the hope of glory.”

It’s a message of inclusion, Gentiles are part of God’s kingdom. It’s also a message of indwelling, Christ IN you is the hope of glory.

And this mystery fuels Paul’s mission. In the surrounding verses, Paul rejoices in his suffering for the  sake of the church, he labors, and he struggles. Why? This mystery is great, rich, and glorious, and it’s worth giving your life to share it with others.

Venture Church is preparing for a Missions Sunday. And there is much to celebrate! We like to think of ourselves as a small church with a big vision. And it shows up on Missions Sunday. We will celebrate our guest speakers Jonathan and Tracy Shoemaker, church planters in Lisbon, as well as people within in our church body who are assisting church planting ministries in Liberia, our upcoming trip to build a house for a needy family in Mexico, opportunities to serve in global missions with E3 Partners, the church planting missionaries we support in Ireland, and a young adult preparing to do missions work in eleven countries in eleven months through an experience known as “The World Race.”

A great mystery has been revealed to us: Christ in you, the hope of glory.

Our mission is to reveal this mystery to the nations.

The game is afoot!

 

A Simple Step to Better Reading in 2016

3-28-13_ReadingDid you make New Year’s Resolutions this year? Having grown weary of failed resolutions, I “resolved” a few years ago to back away from the over-promise/under-deliver reality of New Year’s Resolutions.

This year, however, a personal goal grabbed my attention: I want to grow as a reader. I am not setting numeric goals, such as 3 books a month or 50 books a year. Nor am I using a creative tool that leads to reading a variety of genres. Instead, I am setting a simple, attainable goal that I think will help me become a better reader this year: keep a list.

That sounds too simple doesn’t it? Just a list. Create a document, read a book, and add it to the list. As the year continues, I will keep adding more books as I finish them. Here are a few reasons I think keeping a list will make me a better reader, and why I invite you to join me in this:

Finish what you start. Confession time here, I have a staggering number of books in which I have eagerly consumed a few early chapters, only to set it aside for the next book I get excited about. But only the books that we actually finish get added to the list.

Diversity. Though I am not setting specific goals for breadth in reading, a list will make if painfully clear if I am unbalanced in what I read. If we are only reading fiction, we should read some history. If we are only reading theology, we should read a bit on leadership. If we are only reading professionally, take a break and read something light-hearted. A dynamic list of books should give direction for what type of book to read next.

Competition. Another confession, I tend to be very competitive. I think keeping a list will drive me to read more. Though there is no shame in getting to the end of December and only having a handful of books on the list, many of us tend to be more driven when we are keeping score. And we often set smaller goals as we go along. For example, if by December 15 I have read 28 books, I will probably try to crank out 2 more to have read an even 30!

So that’s my goal. Keep a list. It’s simple. It’s attainable. And I think it will help. I hope to look back on 2016 and see that I read and finished a significant list of books with a healthy dose of diversity.

Want to join me in this simple practice? Have you found other methods to improve your reading? In college, I heard a motivational speaker
say, “Five years from now, you will be the same person you are today but for the people you meet and the books you read.” Let’s make 2016 a productive year of reading together. And I hope this simple step can help us become better readers.

Unleash the Word

mensstudyAnytime something is labeled, “The Most Important…” or “The Best Ever…” you always invite more debate than agreement. This seems to be true if you are naming the best quarterback of all time, the most important battle, or the best movie ever. But have you thought about a church worship service? If you were to identify the “Most Important” part of a church worship service, what comes to mind? The sermon? Worship music? Communion or sacraments? Greeting or fellowship time? Announcements (anyone??)?

I’m hesitant to deem this element the “Most Important” part of a church service, but I wonder how many of us even thought of the public reading of Scripture as one of the most important things we do when we gather to worship? Paul instructed Timothy to “devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture…” (1 Timothy 4:13), but we often make our way carelessly through God’s Word with little forethought or preparation.

Yet it is in the reading of Scripture that we can confidently say, “God has spoken!”

I just finished reading Unleashing the Word by Max McLean. He is uniquely gifted in memorizing and performing Scripture (he dramatically performs the Gospel of Mark, and I can’t stop watching it). The book is a clear call to put as much effort into reading Scripture as we do singing, announcing, and other parts of the service. The goal is not to be dramatic, but to read Scripture as if we are having an animated conversation with a friend.

His goal is “awakening the passion contained in any text of the Bible as it is read aloud,” certainly a worthy ambition for every worship gathering. In fact, maybe it’s time to devote ourselves to it.

4 Ways to Apply the Bible

bibelThe Bible calls us to obey. You can’t get away from it. If we love Jesus, we keep his commandments (John 14:15). This leads to turning the other cheek, forgiving those who wrong us, resisting temptation, working against injustice, not judging based on outward appearance….and the list goes on.

How do we understand and teach the Bible in a way that leads us to obey, but doesn’t lead to legalism? (Read my previous blog, 4 Types of Legalism).  This is another topic I encountered in Daniel Doriani’s book, Putting the Truth to Work. He lists four different types of application, and I found it helpful for applying the Bible without legalism.

  1. Duty. This asks the question “What should I do?” This is important, you can’t read the Sermon on the Mount without being challenged to “do” something. The  one who hears Jesus’ words and acts on them is like the wise man building his house on the rock. We hear, we obey, we are wise. Duty alone, however, can quickly lead to any of the four types of legalism, and is unfortunately where many people stop when applying Scripture.
  2. Character. This asks the question, “Who should I be?” Character emphasizes the work of the Holy Spirit in renewing  us, giving us new natures that reflect Jesus. The beauty of Christianity is that our obedience results from God’s work within us. We are not good because we obey, we obey because we have been made good.  Application of Scripture should emphasize who we are in Christ, not mere obedience to his commands. Our character determines our actions.
  3. Goals. This asks, “Where am I going?” Our causes, dreams, and aspirations direct our decisions. If, for example, my goal is to paint a bedroom, my choices must align with the goal. I need to choose a color, get supplies, and clear my schedule or painting will never happen. If my goal is to be a godly husband and father, lead an effective ministry, become a mature Christ follower, and help alleviate suffering in the world – I need to align my life to make these goals a reality. Notice how different this is from mere duty or legalism!
  4. Discernment. This asks the question, “How can I know right from wrong?” At this level, we are asking difficult questions about how to live out biblical principles in our cultural context. How do we engage non-Christian thought without being consumed by it? How do we put difficult teachings of Scripture into practice? But knowledge or commands are useless without the discernment to put it to use.

This list is helpful because it provides a broad spectrum of application. Instead of limiting it to “This is what you must do,” we focus instead on who we are becoming, where we are heading, and how to live biblically in our cultural context. As we wrestle with these deeper issues, duty has more clarity and motivation. Legalism is avoided, our lives are transformed, and God is pleased.