Review: From Jerusalem to Timbuktu

From Jerusalem to Timbuktu

From Jerusalem to TimbuktuBrian C. Stiller. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2018.

Summary: A book that surveys the global explosion of Christianity, identifying five drivers of growth and five other factors that weave through these drivers.

Brian C. Stiller serves as a global ambassador for the World Evangelical Alliance, an umbrella alliance of evangelical organizations serving 600 million evangelical Christians globally. This places him in a unique position to discuss trends in the expansion of global Christianity from Europe and North America to the global south over the last fifty years. This growth accounts for the title of his book. He writes,

” With the surprising growth of the Christian community globally in the past fifty years, the demographic weight of Christianity in Africa and Asia has pulled this global center south and west. Demographers now place the center of population density of Christians in Africa.

The metaphorical center of world Christianity has literally moved from Jerusalem to Timbuktu in the nation of Mali. This is not merely some clever title—it is a remarkable sign that points out what we otherwise might miss. Long a city name used as a metaphor for a far-away and unreachable place, today Timbuktu signifies this massive shift, as the location of the center represents a mighty upsurge in Christian faith around the shrinking globe”   (p. 11).

Stiller’s book is not one focused primarily on the statistical shift but rather the factors that he believes have driven this global growth. He identifies five drivers:

  1. An awakened appreciation and experience of the person and work of the Holy Spirit. He sees this as expressive of longings for a deeper life and experience of God as well as a reaction to modernist rationalism that precluded the power of God. While this led to renewal movements in Europe and North America, Pentecostal Christianity was a major factor in the growth of movements in the global South.
  2. Bible translation. The concerted effort to translate the Bible into every language not only has preserved these languages and the culture they reflect, empowering its people, but also unleashes the inherent power of scripture to lead people to Christ.
  3. Indigeneity. Increasingly, nationals have stopped relying on Western personnel and have shaped national movements reflecting their own culture, often resulting in explosive growth, as in the example of the East Africa Revival.
  4. Re-engaging the public square. Paralleling the experience of Western evangelicalism, there has been a movement from simply a focus on inner change and eternal life to the social implications of the gospel message. Examples include Kenya’s president Daniel Arap Moi, and a growing representation of evangelicals in Brazilian politics.
  5. A focus on wholeness–a vision of the gospel concerned with all of life, and one that looks at systemic issues as well as personal redemption, one that fosters, for example in Africa “virtuous cycles” that result in both personal and economic development.

Cross-hatching these five drivers, the author sees five other factors that he delineates in his final chapter. Three of these, he calls “enablers,” which include prayer movements, women in ministry, often on the frontiers of mission advance, and worship. The other two are issues, arising at times from global missions growth, and sometimes from other factors–immigration, including refugee immigration, and persecution (including the sobering statistic of over 5,000 martyrs from the “top ten” countries in 2014 alone, probably a conservative figure).

The section on worship seemed oddly out of place with this focus on indigenous and culturally-rooted ministry. The discussion here focuses on the contemporary Christian worship movement in its Western expressions. The absence of discussion of Latin, African, and Asian examples of worship music and practice was surprising to me.

Overall, this is a tremendously positive and encouraging account. Stiller mixes judicious use of data with numerous illustrative examples drawn from throughout the world. Most clearly, Stiller’s account, along with those of researchers like Philip Jenkins, makes the case that Christianity is a global faith no longer dominated by white westerners, a fact that many American evangelicals and others who discuss the evangelical movement are woefully unaware of. In particular, it seems that we may need to listen to the voices of Pentecostal movements and what they are learning about the Holy Spirit.

The epilogue of this work notes that the dominance of the West in global Christianity has shifted to the global South and that this challenges those of us in the West to exercise humility in learning from our fellow Christians in these countries. Stiller suggests that the situation in some of our “Rust Belt” communities may be more analogous to parts of Africa, and that ministry approaches developed in these countries may have an impact in our communities. I find myself asking what might we learn from Christian migrants from these countries. What may our congregation learn from the Ghanaian Pentecostal Church (in Columbus, Ohio!) who shares our building? Will we rejoice in the global growth of Christianity? Are there lessons we might learn about engaging the public square and the wholeness of the gospel from these movements? And will we move from being patrons to partners in the spread of Christianity?


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.


Review: How to Break Growth Barriers

How to Break Growth Barriers

How to Break Growth Barriers (Updated edition), Carl F. George and Warren Bird. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2017.

Summary: A work on church growth that focuses on the vision of church leaders, how they conceive their role, and key issues in breaking through specific numerical barriers.

This is an updated version of a classic work on church growth. Ultimately, this book boils down to one simple idea–we are the greatest barrier to the growth of the church and our thinking about our vision of what we are doing, and how we conceive our role often is the most significant factor hampering the growth of a church or ministry.

First of all, the authors focus on vision. They consider the ways we limit vision to fixing what breaks, keeping pace with other churches, making budget, wagons, and other limiters to a harvest vision that cannot be outgrown. Vision is birthed out of prayer and motivates by giving clear direction, a “party line” of what we are and are not about, and “hero making. Systems thinking that understands how an outsider sees one’s church and the factors that have contributed to its growth and life is vital. Finally, it is critical to assess how strong our growth bias is, and in particular, our “holy imagination of what God can lead a person to become,” both for ourselves, and those apprentices we coach into leadership.

This leads into the second part of the book. One of the greatest barriers pastors face is conceiving of their role as primary caregiver rather than caregiving coach. We are helped to see the characteristics of one who is a primary caregiver and how differently ministry coaches behave. These include emphasizing  the big picture, setting expectations that develop ministry competence in others including expectations that people in the church will minister to each other in a context of groups and teams, giving flexible supervision and fostering nondependency.  They also focus on the multiple leadership styles needed to be a caregiving coach with different groups within a church. The concluding chapter in this section is perhaps the most challenging because it faces the vital underlying question, “is our addiction to workaholism or other addictive behaviors preventing us from embracing a ministry that grows by releasing the leadership of others?”

Part Three focuses on breaking through specific numerical barriers. In separate chapters, the authors look at the shifts of thinking and structures that need to take place in breaking the 200, 400, and 800 barriers. Then they look at breaking the barriers beyond 800, which comes down to breaking the “Care Barrier” and focuses around developing cell-based ministry, including ministry around the specific demographics of one’s church.

There was much I found with which I resonated. I’ve been involved in some growth coaching work and found that the insight that our own vision for growth and our own patterns of ministry are the most significant barriers we face to growth. We may say we want growth and yet we engage in patterns of ministry that undermine growth. As the authors observe, in many cases these are wonderful things like a deep and genuine care for people. Yet we limit how many people can experience that kind of care by controlling it rather than coaching others to engage in that work. I also appreciate how the authors diagnose this as a key factor in the workaholism that characterizes the pastorate, that may lead to moral failures, undermined health, and family breakdowns.

I would be curious how much the authors have consulted in non-Western contexts. At points, they describe buildings and finances and paid church staffs in ways that I suspect might not be applicable in some situations. Yet the focus on multiplying leadership, including lay leadership, centering ministering in effective cell groups led by this leadership, and coaching caregivers seemed to have high cross-cultural applicability.

This can be a useful resource for pastors and church leadership teams ready to take a hard look at themselves, and the ways of seeing and doing things that erect barriers to growth. It doesn’t answer all the questions of how one develops caregivers, beyond the importance of taking apprentices along in all the things you do, or how you build networks of effective cell groups. But it helps identify the ways in which we need to change to foster a culture of growth as well as giving some very specific structural help around key numerical barriers.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.


Review: Learning Change

learning change

Learning ChangeJim Herrington and Trisha Taylor. Grand Rapids: Kregel Ministry, 2017.

Summary: A biblically-rooted approach to congregational transformation that centers around personal transformation and that draws research on effective organizations and systems.

I’ve been there and perhaps you have as well. Gathering with a church leadership team. Writing vision and mission statements. Drafting core values. Identifying strategies and action plans. And then nothing changes. The plans sit on a shelf or in a file. And cynicism sets in that anything can really change.

This book takes a different approach to these things. It focuses on transformational learning that involves not only information but acting upon, and then reflecting upon, what is being learned that drives further change. Perhaps most radically, the authors propose that transformation starts with us, the only people we really can change, and to face the truth that we are the number one obstacle to change in our families, churches and communities. Until we start facing the work that needs to happen within ourselves, addressing our own way of being, we can’t truly look for other change.

The work begins with re-connecting with core values. The authors talk about four key core values. Integrity means living a life conformed to God’s design where we keep our word and do our word and own up when we don’t. Authenticity means to stop hiding our true selves and managing our images and taking the risk to reveal the real persons we are. Courage begins with these risks and grows as we pursue risky obedience as we move out in mission. Love commits to insuring that no one wins unless everyone wins, not just ourselves and the people we like.

The work continues by shifting our mental models. The first of these cultivates a model of discipleship that shifts from making church members to moving as authentic communities into mission. In a chapter I found particular illuminating, it means moving a fuzzy fusion of responsibility where we are responsible for everything and nothing to a mature responsibility for our selves and to others, but not for others and their transformation. A significant amount of church dysfunction occurs in this area. It moves from a status quo mentality to one of creative tension in moving toward God’s emerging future. It means moving from committees or static “teams” to high performance teams with clear goals, complementary skills, a common approach and accountability.

They also address some additional tools leaders need as they lead through learning change. One is they become aware of the “vows” arising from past wounds that block us, and making new vows rooted in truth. Another, which draws heavily on Peter Senge’s learning organizations is moving from discussion to dialogue–from a clash of ideas to conversations where we learn together. Finally, they talk about moving beyond good intentions to real accountability.

I appreciated the approach of this book, that suggests that real transformation comes through the hard, and long term work of becoming the change, personally and in teams, that we want to see. A perspective that sees congregations as systems and becomes aware of how each of us contribute to those systems reveals why many change efforts don’t work.

This book is based on the work of Ridder Church Renewal and each of the chapters is linked to related web resources. The writers, which include a number of pastors who have been through the renewal program, illustrate from their own ministries and churches. The book is set up so that individuals or groups can use the book, and the reflection exercises in each chapter. Better yet would be to use this book as part of a coached process, because good coaches can “lean in” with people to do the hard things that lead to change, that we often just excuse with each other. For groups who have created visions and strategies of what “they” will do that just sit on the shelf, this book will help them wrestle with “how will we become the change we want to see in our congregation?”


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Growing God’s Church

Growing God's ChurchGrowing God’s Church, Gary L. McIntosh. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2016.

Summary: In light of the changing culture that has rendered classic approaches to evangelism less relevant, the author looks at how people in our contemporary culture are coming to faith while arguing for the continued priority of not only presence but proclamation and persuasion in our witness to the gospel.

There is no question that the church in America has faced a significant culture-shift in the past thirty years. This book represents a research project in which over 2000 people who had come to faith and joined churches were interviewed to understand how people are coming to faith today, and what has changed from earlier days.

The interesting thing is that the author spends the first half of this book, not on the study but rather what seemed to me a rather traditional restatement of the importance, indeed priority of proclamation evangelism in the life of the contemporary church. In five chapters, he argues for what is our mission, the priority of sharing the gospel of salvation, our roles of presence, proclamation and persuasion in calling people to faith, our focus on making disciples, not just converts, and the context of the church as the vehicle of mission.

The next five chapters turn to the study itself, and explore the questions of:

  • Who led you to faith?
  • What method most influenced your decision?
  • Why did you begin to attend church?
  • Why did you remain at your church?
  • What is the pastor’s role in evangelism?

For the first question, similar to earlier studies, family and friends were most significant, followed by church staff. Conversation outstripped any other method in influence a person’s decision to follow Christ. Family, friends and “no one” were most significant in beginning to attend a church. Friendliness followed by mission, worship styles, and teaching and beliefs were important to people remaining. Pastors play a key role in why people remain.

McIntosh concludes with principles of effective evangelism and the importance of conversation–“inviting people to dine with Jesus.” The book also includes the questionnaire used in his study as well as questions and practical suggestions at the conclusion of chapters.

I had several thoughts as I read this. One was that the book is a helpful corrective to the de-emphasis on proclamation and persuasion in many contexts. If churches are having ministry with significant numbers of people yet seeing few people coming to faith, it may be worth asking whether this corrective is needed. It particularly has helpful challenges to pastors to examine how well they are exemplifying a commitment to gospel witness.

The second was that this felt like it was addressing a fairly traditional suburban or smaller town church setting. I had a hard time imagining those in storefront churches, urban congregations, and intentional communities warming to the language of this book.

Finally, the author draws a distinction between holistic and atomistic views of the Missio Dei, and seems in the end to come down for a more atomistic view, one that does not neglect service and presence, but sees these as subordinate to the priority of the gospel. There is warranted criticism of ministries that never call people to faith, but I am also aware of ministries that combine robust care for both physical and spiritual needs of people under the rubric of “the gospel of the kingdom” in a way that both evidences conversions and compassionate care for people. These would probably find the formulation of this book unsatisfying.

In conclusion, this book felt to me a bit like the idea of putting new material on old wine skins and left me wondering whether what was needed were new wine skins for a time when the church is undergoing great ferment in a radically shifting culture. Nevertheless, the message of the unchanging gospel, our continuing call to gospel faithfulness, and the call to incarnational relationships through the medium of conversation seems timeless, and always worth heeding.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. 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.”