Review: The Reluctant Witness

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The Reluctant WitnessDon Everts. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2019.

Summary: One reluctant witness shares personal narrative, helpful principles, and survey data that indicate that spiritual conversations may be delightful rather than dreadful.

Most Christians are reluctant to bear witness to their faith. The idea of this raises images of street preachers, intolerance, arguments, and offended friends. Most of us don’t want to be those kind of persons. We love people too much, and frankly want to be loved by them as well. Don Everts was like so many of us, except for a small problem. He was a campus minister, part of whose job was to witness to his faith, and help others learn to do this.

In this book, Everts shares his own journey of discovery that spiritual conversations can be delightful, not just for the believing person, but also for the other person in the conversation. He also shares Barna research that both offers support for his contention, and a bleak picture that indicates that if anything, there is far more reluctance on the part of Christians to engage in spiritual conversations, even with each other, than a couple decades ago.

First the bad news. We are having fewer spiritual conversations, our level of discomfort in having these conversations has risen, we mention Jesus and the Bible less, even though we know we should have these conversations. Furthermore, these practices find parallels in the general culture. The main reason for our silence is fear, particularly the fear of offense. We also feel far less prepared by our churches. In 1993, 77% felt their churches prepare them well to speak of their faith. Today it is only 57%.

Through various conversations–on a long bus ride, with a neighbor, and others, Everts discovered that these conversations could be delightful, and that some of those he conversed with became friends, and some even changed their beliefs. He describes five myths and how these conversations gave the lie to them for him:

  1. Spiritual conversations take place in special places, at special moments, by special people. The reality is that most belief-changing conversations took place with friends in everyday settings.
  2. Spiritual conversations are serious and sober events. The reality is that laughter and joy are actually a significant part of conversations for both parties.
  3. In a spiritual conversation I need to be able to give the right answer. Actually, what is more important is having the chance to ask one’s questions and responses that are humble and honest, which sometimes means, “I don’t know.”
  4. Most spiritual conversations involve conflict, which ruins everything.  Actually, this turns out not to be a significant factor in the data, and most people expect some disagreement and even think it is healthy.
  5. Spiritual conversations are burdensome duties that are, in the end, painful and regrettable.  Actually, 35 percent of Americans report making a change in their lives because of a spiritual conversation. Among Christians, 38 percent report that someone has come to faith after a spiritual conversation. And only 14 percent of those who would identify as non-Christians said “no” to the statement “I’m glad about my latest spiritual conversation.”

This doesn’t mean that negative conversations never occur. Rather, all this suggests they are far less frequent than imagined, and especially as we grow in our conversation skills. Everts goes into the factors that turn reluctant conversationalists like him into eager conversationalists. He discovered that the difference was that eager conversationalists look for spiritual conversations in everyday life, they pursue and initiate conversations, they are open to share their faith in a wide variety of ways that are sensitive to those with whom they speak, and they gently push through awkward moments.

One thing Everts doesn’t name, although I think it is assumed in his account, is that Christians are genuinely persuaded of the goodness of what they have believed. I can’t help believe that for some, they have at least in part believed a mythical cultural narrative of Christian faith as naive, narrow-minded and intolerant. Sometimes, this is the case despite the transforming work that has taken place in their lives. One of the delightful moments in the book was when Everts admitted in a class where a professor belittled the idea of a chaste lifestyle, both the problems he faced when he previously had embraced the morality his professor commended, and how trusting Christ in the area of his sexuality had made a huge positive difference in his dating relationships.

Beyond all the interesting statistics, the most winsome part of this book was Everts’ own modest example. His story, and the principles he offers are so helpful for those who have a sense that their faith is too good to keep to themselves and want to break through their reluctance. He helps us see that much of it comes down to having good conversations with people, where we welcome questions, listen with respect, and share what we’ve found with honesty and humility. If Everts is right, we might even find ourselves laughing together with our friends. That would be delightful, wouldn’t it?

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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.

Reading When Others Want to Talk

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Screenshot of GIF posted on BookBub

Have you ever been trying to read when others want to talk and you end up reading the same paragraph over and over again? Do you find yourself internally “clinching up” and having to stifle your impulse to scream “shut up!”

Unless we decide to become hermits (who still depend on others for the necessities of life), a reality of life is that there will be times when we want to read and others want to talk. Even more, sometimes they want to talk with us!

Here are a few thoughts of how I (very imperfectly) deal with this dilemma:

  1. Sometimes you just need to give it up and choose relationships over books. Especially with spouses or partners or children who want to talk with us. Does it really pay to lose those you love to lose yourself in a book? I hope you don’t have to think too long about that!
  2. This also applies to social gatherings. Most people don’t assume this is a time for reading unless it has been arranged as a reading party–yes there is such a thing, and I’ve written about it.
  3. Try reading when others are sleeping, although this means sleeping on a different schedule.
  4. Agree on times that are “reading times” as a family. For the sake of the talkers, don’t exceed them! People will more readily allow you time to read if they know when you will be available–and you are.
  5. Sometimes, finding a quiet place, like a library reading room can work if that is the shared expectation. It only takes one loud talker on a cell phone to spoil it!
  6. If you want to read where there are conversations going on that don’t involve you but can be distracting, choose books that engage your attention, and don’t involve careful reading of densely articulated ideas.
  7. Depending on how you and other people in your household feel about it, and their bodily needs, the bathroom can sometimes offer a temporary refuge–emphasis on temporary!
  8. Weather permitting, is there a place outside your home that might be secluded, perhaps a “readers garden”? (I draw this term from a nearby bookstore of the same name).
  9. Speaking of bookstores, these also sometimes have alcoves or seating that allow for reading, and should be places that respect that.
  10. Sometimes, the best answer that combines reading and sociability is to read aloud together. Maybe you can even give each member of the family or group a chance to share a passage of what they are reading.

Reading is a conversation with an invisible author and requires our full attention. So do conversations with people. Most of the time, trying to multitask means we end up doing both badly, present to neither conversation. At least part of our screen time on cell phones is also reading–texts, comments, news, and shopping sites. Perhaps the offense of not being present happens here more than anywhere. Sometimes we are more present with what is on the screen than the person we are sitting with.

It all comes down, I guess, to which conversation we really want to be in.

 

Review: How the Body of Christ Talks

How the Body of Christ Talks

How the Body of Christ TalksC. Christopher Smith. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2019.

Summary: A discussion of how substantive conversation can be central to the growth and transformation of our churches and the people who are part of them, the ground rules and spiritual practices that enable such conversation, and how conversation might be sustained as conflict arises.

C. Christopher Smith believes that one of the reasons many of our churches are struggling and many people are heading for the exits has to do with the lack of the capacity for substantive conversation about things that really matter. Just as our physical bodies are an ongoing conversation between our various members, so our social bodies, including churches, require ongoing and deeply connected conversations for both individuals and our collective bodies to thrive. Yet we live in a society where people have lost the capacity to talk about any serious matter where they might differ and we have become isolated in echo chambers of those who think like us. Sadly, conversation in the church often is little more than polite chit-chat about sports or recipes, or where we are going out to eat afterward. This happens in a body that is an earthly echo of the mutuality and conversation of the Triune God who is “God with us.”

Smith and his church have been practicing substantive conversations about ideas and practices that deeply matter in their congregation for over a decade. It was messy at times. People became angry. Some left. They learned how to set up ground rules to enable the speaking of truth in love. They developed practices to prepare for those conversations. They learned how to address conflict that can threaten to shut down conversation. This book is the distillation of that experience.

He begins by treating the subject of conversational dynamics, dealing with questions of group size, formal and informal conversation, how often a group meets, who facilitates and how to foster coherent conversations. He explores what to talk about, and not talk about, particularly when a group is learning conversation. He highlights three methods that have been developed to facilitate conversation: Open Space Technology, Appreciative Inquiry, and World Café, giving brief explanations of each method and providing additional resources in an appendix.

Perhaps one of the most important parts of the book is the section on “Spirituality for the Journey.” Smith focuses on prayer as a means of being attentive to God first and throughout, including Quaker practices of silent, listening prayer. He helps us see the connection between the messiness of real life and our honesty about that, and the messiness of our conversations. Good sustained conversations have a high capacity for messiness. Finally he speaks of how we might prepare ourselves heart, mind, and body for conversation.

Conversation is critical in remembering and telling our story and discerning its next chapter. Often understanding our history and identity helps us discern how we might proceed on questions of how we might pursue our mission. The toughest season of conversation is conflict, which Smith believes is inevitable and can be healthy. Using the analogy of broken bones, he talks about acknowledging our fractures, aligning the fractured parts (our “like heartedness in Christ”), and supporting and healing the fractures.

His final chapter fuses the idea of conversation and dance and the picture of being drawn into the dancing conversation of the Triune God. His conclusion focuses on his church, Englewood Christian Church, and how conversation has eventuated in action creating a vibrant set of community ministries in the Englewood, and a church community that is integrally a part of the community in which it is situated.

The book includes numerous examples from different churches, including an appendix of examples of conversational ground rules different churches have set, and the governing principles at which a church arrived out of extended conversations on how to relate to LGBTQ+ persons joining their community in a denomination with traditional convictions.

Smith dares us to believe that the church could be the place where we recover the art of serious conversation, the kind that has the capacity to cultivate respect among people who differ, to live with messiness that defies neat resolutions, and to persist to the shared understanding that enables people to act creatively and missionally in their context. He shows how it has taken shape in real congregations, which makes it the most valuable sort of guidebook, one born out of years of trial and error and learning.

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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: Mere Science and Christian Faith

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Mere Science and Christian FaithGreg Cootsona. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2018.

Summary: Many emerging adults think that science and faith should complement each other and are put off by church contexts that force a choice between faith and science. The book contends that it is possible to bring science and faith into fruitful conversation, and provides examples of how this is possible.

Emerging adults (18-30 year-olds) are leaving the church in record numbers. “Nones” or those who identify as “spiritual but not religious” are on the rise. There are a number of causes for this but one is that emerging adults encounter congregations where science is the enemy and the relationship between faith and science is defined as a conflict. Many of these emerging adults see beauty in creation that is enhanced by their study of science and don’t see science and faith as opposed. But if forced to choose, many choose science. Science and technology play a huge role in their lives, whether it is in their concern for their environment, their understanding of human sexuality, or the smartphones that are a ubiquitous presence and have changed their ways of relating to each other and the world.

Greg Cootsona writes about these trends and how Christians might foster a better conversation that aspires to intersection and integration rather than conflict and warfare. After profiling emerging adults, he discusses our engagement with the new atheism, often alienated by anti-science attitudes in Christian communities, principles for interpreting the Bible, recognizing both the good in technology, and where we may need to take a break from it.

These chapters are interspersed with “case studies” of engaging various contemporary developments–cognitive science, the Big Bang and fine-tuning arguments, Intelligent Design, climate change, and sexuality. Can cognitive science explain belief? How can we take fine-tuning arguments too far? What does Intelligent Design’s focus on irreducible compexity miss? How can we have a fruitful conversation about the highly politicized subject of climate change? How do we engage genetic understandings of orientation and gender?

The concluding chapter is titled “Moving Forward.” Cootsona articulates a compelling vision of telling better, true and beautiful stories that bring faith and science together. He writes:

“I do know, however, that these true, better stories are also beautiful. They will bring together the goodness and truth of the good news with the beauty of God. There truth becomes beautiful. And it should not be overlooked that rhetoric–as an engagement with beauty–should be used in concert with philosophy–as the pursuit of truth. Truth is only worth engaging if it’s beautiful, and beauty is that which allures us.” (p. 162)

This is a short, pithy book that is written conversationally rather than didactically. Quotes from emerging adults illustrative of chapter themes are sprinkled throughout the text. Pithy however does not mean light weight. Current scientists like Katherine Hayhoe and Elaine Ecklund are cited, writers on the philosophy of science like Ian Barbour, and theologians like Arthur Peacocke. Both text and footnotes point readers to further resources in both print and online form. This is an ideal introduction for those working with emerging adults as well as for emerging adults themselves who are wondering if it is possible for there to be a better conversation between science and faith. If Greg Cootsona is right, there are indeed many better conversations we might have.

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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.

Let’s End This War!

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Andrew Dickson White, President of Cornell, who contended there was a war between science and Christianity, Photo Public Domain via Wikimedia

This week on the blog I will be reviewing several books on science and Christianity. A theme that runs through all of these books is that science and Christian faith needn’t be in conflict. That is my own conviction as well. John Calvin, and others, have spoken about God revealing God’s self through two books, the Bible and the Creation. God has authored both, and they do not conflict with each other, properly understood.

The language of “warfare” came from two critics of Christianity, John William Draper, who wrote History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874) and Andrew Dickson White, president of Cornell University, who wrote A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896). Sadly, many Christians, rather than recognizing that many of the “conflicts” were simply ones of interpretation, were only too happy to join the battle, either arguing how science had gotten it wrong or offering forced explanations that shoehorned science into scripture, often resulting in both bad science and bad biblical interpretation.

Sadly, there are a number of people on both sides who have continued the conflict down to the present day. The cynic in me wonders how much money has to do with it, as key figures have built empires around fighting for creation or science. There is money to be made in perpetuating this war, as in many others. What troubles me is to see the casualties of this war. There are some who have turned their backs on a science that sometimes offers seemingly total explanations but cannot offer meaning and purpose. There are others, often who began as enthusiastic believers, were presented with the false dichotomy of choosing either faith or science, and seeing the beauty of science, turned away from their faith. Finally, I have friends, Christians in science, who often get shot at from both sides. Scientists question how they can be serious about their science if they believe, and believers question how they can be authentic in their faith if they do science.

Here are some suggestions I would make for those interested in a “cease fire” proposal:

For Christians:

  • I would start by reading your Bible more carefully. A good friend who is an evangelical and was an English major in college said, “I don’t read the Bible literally, but rather literarily.” Many of our conflicts have to do with trying to answer questions the biblical writers had no interest in answering. We don’t do our homework to understand what scripture might have meant to a people 2000 to 3000 years ago in very different cultural settings.
  • Resist the effort to try to “prove” Christian faith by science, when theories change and evolve. Also, if Christianity has to be proved by science, we end up suggesting that science is actually prior to and more important than our revealed faith. Far more constructive is to observe where Christian belief and scientific finds are consistent with each other.
  • It helps to understand that most actual science is very evidence driven, and not driven by some “godless agenda.” I have friends (a number are believers) who have literally gone to the ends of the world collecting data about changes in the earth’s climate, and documented effects of warmer climates on glaciers and the water they provide to communities, and are mystified when fellow believers accuse them of liberal political agendas. They are just doing research and reporting their findings, which are very concerning to them.
  • Instead of fearing conflict or getting uneasy when something doesn’t jibe with our beliefs, why not view this as a doorway to a greater understanding? The Reformation began when Martin Luther struggled to interpret Romans. Anomalies lead to breakthroughs. Instead of defending one’s current understanding against something in science that seems to challenge that understanding, why not ask of science, “tell me more” and really listen. And then keep studying and digging in the scriptures as well. The truth is we often are woefully illiterate in our knowledge of our faith.

And a few words on the science side:

  • The big one is to honestly acknowledge when you are making statements that arise not from your science but from beliefs or even axiomatic statements that cannot be scientifically demonstrated. Take off your lab jacket when you make these statements. It’s not wrong to make such statements. Even statements that disagree with Christian belief. Just don’t use the aura of science to add weight to them. It gives science a bad name.
  • Avoid reductionistic or totalizing statements that convey that your little slice of the scientific pie explains all reality. Truth is that this makes other scientists in other disciplines angry as well as those who believe in other, including religious, ways of knowing.

Perhaps for all of us some humility would help, and truthfully we don’t have to go far to find it. Our own disciplines should be enough. As a student of scripture, I have walls of books, many of which I’ve read, and have read and re-read the Bible cover to cover, and I’m constantly surprised both with new insights and new questions. Any honest scientist will say the same.

What I love, and I think all too rare, are the conversations where scientists and believers come together, not to fight, but to learn from each other. I know of conversations where environmental scientists and Christians who believe they have been entrusted by God to care for his good world learn from and teach each other. I can envision conversations where neuroscientists and Christian philosophers and theologians talk about the science of the brain, the nature of consciousness, and the soul. I’ve watched the collaboration of linguistic researchers and Bible translators in preserving languages that could be assimilated and lost. I’ve delighted to listen to astrophysicists describe the wonders of the cosmos as well as the things, like dark matter, that perplex them, and I share their perplexity as I meditate on Psalm 8:3-4:

When I consider your heavens,
    the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
    which you have set in place,
what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
    human beings that you care for them? (NIV)

In all this incredible vastness where we are mere specks, how can it be that we are known by God–and yet we are!

I will not be enlisted for this war. Scientists are flesh and blood people and not the enemies we are to fight (Ephesians 6:12). Through history many great scientists have in fact been great believers. For example, it was Georges Lemaitre, a Belgian Catholic priest, known as the father of the “Big Bang,” who used Einstein’s theory of relativity to show that the universe was not static but expanding, contrary to Einstein who argued for the static model. Later Einstein said Lemaitre’s theory was “the most beautiful and satisfactory explanation of creation to which I have ever listened.” Why fight wars when you can have a conversation like that, one that at times was an argument, but eventuated in a larger understanding of our world? Let’s end this war!

Word Care as Culture Care

Caring for WordsAs a reader, a singer, and a writer I love words. I love that moment when I find just the right word or sequence of words to convey a thought. I love when we find the right words to give a name to something a group I’m a part of is trying to express. I delight in the varieties of expression I find in great writing. There is the spartan economy of a Hemingway, the rich description of a Tolkien, and the evocative writing of Alan Paton in Cry, the Beloved Country that makes you realize how much he loved South Africa, and grieved for her. Last year I found myself moved to tears at the sheer beauty of words set to music in Ola Gjeilo’s setting of St. John of the Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul.

I’ve written recently about the idea of culture care instead of culture war and Makoto Fujimura’s fine book on Culture Care. I am in the midst of another book that explores this theme, Marilyn McEntyre’s Caring for Words in a Culture of LiesSome might think that the book was just published in a political season where accusations of lying seems rampant. Rather, it came out of the Stone Lectures at Princeton in 2004. McEntyre covers the range of ways we might care for words in conversation, in long sentences(!), in poetry and story, in reading and writing well, and in resisting lies and telling truth. I’m finding every page a rich reflection on the use and power and wonder of words, and the necessity of using them well. She speaks to me, and for me when she writes in the beginning:

“If you’ve ever loved and learned a poem by heart, or underlined sentences just because they were beautiful, or labored over a speech about something that mattered, I know we share the concerns and the pleasures of stewards who recognize that we hold a great treasure in trust. It is my hope that a sentence here and there will start a conversation or encourage some of you to speak the truth that is in you, to find a sentence that suffices in a hard time, or simply listen into the silences where the best words begin.”

Word care is indeed an important part of culture care. To care for words, to expose their deceitful use, and to strive in our own use to speak truly and well is the work of those who realize the stewardship of a “great treasure in trust.” Words can be used to appeal to “the better angels of our nature” or to our basest instincts. Words can commend what is most noble in thought and character and deed, or they can be used to pollute our minds, debase our character, and bid us to sordid acts. Words can edify or tear down. How we use words can strengthen the warp and woof of a culture or rend the garment of our life together.

Words matter.

For those who claim to follow Christ, we claim to follow one spoken of by John as “the Word.” He is the one who equated contemptuous words with murder. His brother James wrote, “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless” (James 1:26, ESV). Jesus said, “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak” (Matthew 12:36, ESV).

This gives me pause. I speak and converse and write a good bit. It is all an open book to God. Whether it is “petty” deception or cutting speech, it will be accounted for. By the same token, I take great encouragement that gracious words, or maybe even the restraint from the gratuitous cheap shot will receive God’s “well done.” Proverbs 16: 24 says, “Gracious words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body.” Words well-spoken contribute to the health of a culture and enjoy the approbation of God.

I hope I can live up to this at Bob on Books. When I write about books, I want to portray them accurately so that the prospective reader is not misled, and the author can say I understood what he or she was trying to say, whether I agree with that or not. I aspire to use words with care, both in the art and the intent of the writing. I hope I can inspire those who read me to the love of words, both in books and life, and to a better conversation about all the things that make up our life and culture. And I long that my words might at least dimly reflect the beauty of the God I love and the unspeakable grandeur of the future hope that grounds my life, that others might long with me for these things.

This to me is to care for words.

 

 

Closeted, Confronting, or Conversing?

Small_group_conversation_at_a_Gurteen_Knowledge_Cafe

By Dgurteen, Photo of a Gurteen Knowledge Cafe. CC BY-SA3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20737750

 

Over the last year, I’ve had three occasions to hear a speaker by the name of Terry Halliday, who holds appointments with the American Bar Foundation and Northwestern University in the fields of globalization and law. Working in the university context, he has developed a valuable model of engagement, that I think is quite valuable for the Christian community within which I work, and may equally be useful for other religious communities as well as any communities formed around ideas and deep commitments. The basic idea is conversation.

What is striking to me is that we often employ very different approaches to this. One is what I would call the closeted approach. We have very vigorous conversations, to be sure, regarding the things we care about, but we do this only within our own community. We may be involved in conversations outside our community as well, but in those contexts, we give no hint of how our deeply held beliefs inform our views. Likely, the reason is fear that we will be excluded from the conversation if we let people know who we are and the sources that shape our views. Sometimes it is simply a matter that we have never connected our faith or worldview with the discussion at hand. There is a disconnect between our deeply held beliefs and the important conversations that go on in a university, or in other public settings. We are effectively closeted, with our faith or other deep commitments not only personal but private. The question for any of us who take this approach is whether we can for long take this schizophrenic approach to life, whether we can for long hold to commitments that have no relevance outside our community of belief.

The second approach is what I would call the confrontational approach. On the campus I work there are preachers who show up in warm weather who basically tell people they are going to hell, who denounce passing students for what they wear and for their presumed activities. That is an extreme version of confronting but it illustrates what is at the heart of this approach. It is essentially a monologue. There is no discussion where others are seriously listened to and understood. Presumptions are made without personal knowledge of the other. While it has the advantage of being able to say you have been faithful to the core of your message, it is rare that this approach is appreciated.

What Dr. Halliday has advocated (most recently at a conference I’ve just returned from), is the model of conversing. He notes that a conversation is:

  • An exchange
  • An expression of inquisitiveness
  • An expression of wonder—inquiry
  • A relationship building experience
  • A prelude to action

Many of us are finding that there are in fact important conversations to be had in the university on everything from the high incidence of depression among grad students to issues around race and gender, to discussions of the values and ethics that inform the development and applications of various technologies to societal issues like sustainability, various forms of inequality, and more. And we are finding that people deeply appreciate real conversations, where respect and mutual learning occur (do we think we can also learn from others?). We are finding that many are interested in knowing how our faith perspective informs our thought about an issue, when we are also open and interested in the perspectives of others.

Perhaps the greatest challenge is whether we have thought about our beliefs in more than personal terms. Have we considered their relevance to the work we do, to the headlines in today’s paper, to the important issues of the day? Have we deeply mined the resources of our faith, or simply repeated the things we learned in our youth?

I like the last two points Dr. Halliday mentions. Conversing can lead to warm relationships, even with those with whom we many differ, and they may sometimes lead to shared beliefs and ideas on which we act together. That seems to be something we can use more of.

 

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.

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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.”

Happy Birthday Bob on Books!

One of my TBR piles

One of my TBR piles

Bob on Books is two years old! The picture above is the one that adorned my very first post. Since then, I’ve read most of those books but some never managed to work their way to the top of the TBR pile, for reasons known only to my subconcious, if that. Looking back on that first post, I had no idea where this blog was going to lead! The one thing that has been true is lots of conversation on books, reading, and life.

Bob on Books by the numbers. This is my 689th post. One or another page on the blog has been viewed just under 100,000 times (I expect to hit this milestone later this week). The growth of the readership has been slow and steady–I write for a bit of a quirky audience–booklovers, university geeks, people of faith, and surprisingly, a loyal audience of people from my home town of Youngstown. In 2013, I averaged 23 views a day on the blog. Last year, this went up to 124, and this year so far, I’ve been averaging 227. Currently 2,229 “follow” the blog in some form, but the viewership is far wider because of posting in a number of groups and re-posting on other blogs. WordPress tells me that people have visited from 150 countries, the top five outside the U.S. being Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, Brazil (!), and India. Altogether, I don’t think this is too bad for a “toddler”!

Bob on Books — the conversation. I wrote early on that my hope for this blog was that it would be “a meeting place for anyone who cares about good literature, who loves books and reading, and wants to talk about ideas that matter.” It has been that and so much more. We’ve talked about what we liked and disliked about books, about what makes for a good society and a good life, and even a good pizza! We’ve explored this activity so many of us love and take for granted, the act of reading and what makes for good reading. We’ve talked about what we do with all those books once we’ve read them, and what we do about the ones we haven’t read.

A big surprise has been the continuing conversation with the unique tribe of people who, like me, grew up in Youngstown, Ohio. What began as a few posts to answer the question of what it was like to grow up in working class Youngstown has become a rich conversation about what made this such a good place. I’ll never forget a post from last fall in which I posted a picture of a cigar box, which many of us used for pencil boxes, only to get a flood of comments from others who did the same, and who, in some cases still had them. I’ve come to understand something I’d only dimly intuited–that growing up working class was an incredibly rich experience that has shaped my life more than I knew.

Bob on Books — On reviewing. I don’t think I anticipated when I started this blog that I would become far more reflective on the art and ethics of reviewing. One of the things I’ve discovered is that authors are engaging us in a conversation, and reviewing and discussing books via social media can be a wonderful way of turning monologue into real conversation, mostly with other readers, but sometimes with the authors. We don’t always agree, but what I hope for is that they can say, “you understood what I wrote and were fair in representing the book.”

I’ve come to realize that reviewers, and not just the ones in the New York Times, play an important role in connecting authors to readers and promoting a literate society. Fundamentally, we help people answer the basic question of “why should (or shouldn’t) I read this book when there are so many others?”

Bob on Books — The Vision. Years ago, a leader I respected said, “you may be a reading Christian without growing, but you cannot be a growing Christian without reading.” In an age of busyness and visual media saturation, I hope to encourage the rediscovery of ways the reading of good works may nourish our souls, deepen our intellects, and elevate our aspirations. There is more to life than reading, but I am firmly convinced that the best books point us to that “something more” and that the richest conversations in life are about that “something more.” I look forward to more of those as long as God grants me to write!