Archive for March, 2010

Review of Who Stole My Church?

March 23, 2010

Who Stole My Church?

©2007 by Gordon MacDonald

Published by Thomas Nelson

248 pages

I have had an on and off again relationship with Gordon MacDonald. As a young associate pastor in the mid-eighties I read his best seller “Ordering Your Private World” (which is still in print). A couple of years later I read his book “Renewing Your Spiritual Passion.” Although it was twenty-five years ago, I kind of remember spiritually profiting somewhat from those books, although if I were to re-read them now, I might have a different opinion. However, an admission of an extra-marital affair that he was involved in during the time he was writing those books kind of soured me on him. I did not read his “Rebuilding Your Broken World” or anything else by him (although that may be more of a reflection upon my former phariseeism than his restoration.)

Gordon MacDonald has been a pastor and author for more than forty years. He has also been the president of a couple of well-known parachurch organizations and is currently an editor at large for the magazine Leadership. He and his wife of almost fifty years live in New Hampshire.

This book first caught my eye a couple of years ago when it came out in hardback. I skimmed it a couple times at the bookstore, but didn’t want to pay the hardback price. However, when I eventually saw it in paperback, I plopped down my money. I am glad I did.

The subtitle of this book is “What to Do When the Church You Love Tries to Enter the 21st Century.” It is a fictional tale told in the first person. MacDonald writes as a pastor of an imaginary New England congregation of a few hundred people. The church has had a proud history and is part of a (unnamed) denomination. The sixtyish “Pastor MacDonald” has been at the church for several years and has overseen the most recent of a series of changes designed to attract younger people. Not everyone is on board with these changes, especially the aging boomer generation. Plus, there are more changes on the horizon. A proposed $150,000 initiative to upgrade the sanctuary technology did not get the expected congregational approval. This has brought the change issues to a head. Also being debated is a proposed name change of the church.

The story revolves around a series of Tuesday evening meetings that Pastor MacDonald has with a group of long time church members in their fifties and sixties. This group shares a common church experience. They remember the same hymns, the evening services, prophecy conferences and “revivals”. They miss the choir and the organ, even the “singing Christmas tree”. They don’t connect with contemporary Christian music and casual church attire. Deep down, Pastor MacDonald feels their pain.

Each chapter details successive meetings of this group of believers, which Pastor MacDonald has dubbed the “Discovery Group.” Before each chapter, he gives us (“from his notes”) a brief biography sketch of different attendees. Some are retired, some self-employed, some widowed, some married, some well off, some not so much. Although one seemingly turns out to have been a non-believer, the others are serious about their faith and honor the scriptures.

As Pastor MacDonald gently guides the group into critical thinking about the issues, he is actually helping the readers. I couldn’t help but see myself sitting in the group. I have also felt their pain. Though this book is not an in-depth Bible study, the real MacDonald does use the Bible throughout to bring the light of scripture to the issues. He also gives several good history lessons. I found both approaches to be beneficial, as did his fictional discovery group.

This is an entertaining book, which makes it a pretty easy read. If you are over fifty and you have been in church much of your life, you ought to read this book. You may not agree with all the group’s discoveries, but it will help you see the other side of the issue.

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Review of Broken Down House

March 19, 2010

Broken-Down House

©2009 by Paul David Tripp

Published by Shepherd Press

223 pages

It is often said that you cannot judge a book by its cover. The cover for “Broken-Down House” is one of the best looking covers I have ever seen. The creative team at Tobias’ Outerwear for Books has once again designed an eye-catcher. To have the inside of this book worthy of the outside, author Paul David Tripp had his work cut out for him.

Paul Tripp is the president of Paul Tripp Ministries and is on the pastoral staff of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. Previously he was a counselor at the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation (Glenside, PA) and is an Adjunct Professor at Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia, PA). He is not to be confused with his brother Tedd Tripp, also an author of note.

It wasn’t only the cover that attracted me to this book. I had just read Tripp’s “War of Words” which I found particularly edifying. Soon, I will be using his “What Did You Expect” marriage curriculum in a Sunday School class. I appreciate his “down to earth” style. A style suited for a book on a sin cursed earth, or as he calls it a “Broken-Down House.” However, it is not just this world that is broken, we are too. This book encourages us to cooperate with what the Master Carpenter is doing to restore the brokenness.

This book is divided into two parts. Part One is “Knowing” (chapters 1-10) and Part Two is “Doing” (chapters 11-16).

What must we know? “Sin has left this world in a sorry condition. You see it everywhere you look” (p. 17). Because of this at “every point and every moment, your life is messier and more complicated than it really ought to be because everything is so much more difficult in such a terribly broken world” (p. 17). In spite of this, “God calls us to live productively in a world gone bad” (p. 21).

To live productively we must know where we are (chapter 2) and who we are (chapter 3). We also must understand God’s sovereignty (chapter 4) and our limitations (chapter 5). We must forsake human wisdom and trust God’s wisdom (chapter 6). We must be careful not to confuse “spirituality” with true conversion (chapter 7). We must focus on eternity (chapter 8), actively wait (chapter 9) and get angry at sin (chapter 10).

After knowing comes doing. According to Tripp, we should get involved in renewing this broken-down world (chapter 11). We need to pursue biblical community (chapter 12) and love others (chapter 13). We must celebrate grace (chapter 14) and see our total life as ministry (chapter 15). Finally, we should take steps to insure that we leave a strong spiritual legacy (chapter 16).

The key to this book is chapter three. Every Christian has two identities, sinner and saint (“child of grace”). As a sinner, we are not as good as we think we are. The Bible, however, serves as “the world’s best diagnostic tool” (p. 36). Even though we live in a broken-down world, our environment is not the problem. We are the problem. Our spouse, children, job, church, government, etc. is not our biggest problem. I am a sinner, that’s my biggest problem.

But we are more than sinners. As a child of grace we are better than we can imagine. “It is only the person who is deeply aware of his sin who gets excited about grace, and it is only grace that can give you the courage to humbly face the enormity of your sin” (p. 42). “Grace will put you in your place without ever putting you down” (p. 42). Where sin leaves us unable, grace enables us. Grace will inevitably and finally deliver us. We are loved by a “dissatisfied Redeemer” (p. 46).

One area that Tripp revisits is how this sinful condition affects marriage and family. It starts with “our western culture” concept of dating, which he likens to “used-car sales” (p. 25). The idea is to sell yourself. “The last thing you want is for the other person to really get to know you. Consequently, a man who doesn’t like to shop will suddenly be saying things like ‘Sure, honey, I would love to go to another twelve stores to look for those special shoes you have in mind.’ A woman who doesn’t appreciate sports will find herself volunteering to watch sports with her date and his buddies for hour upon endless grueling hour” (p. 25). The problem is, forgetting we live in a broken world, they each believe they have found the perfect mate. “Six months after the wedding, the wife is crying and saying, ‘This is not the man I married!’ But of course, he is. He is precisely the man she married. It’s the guy she dated who was the fake!” (p. 25-26).

Tripp believes that even Christians often marry out of love for self, not love for the other person. The one believes that the other will meet a need in his or her own life. “They think they love one another, but in the biblical sense they really don’t. What they love is what the other person appears to offer them. What they have actually married is their dream. In an act of narcissism, they have made a lifelong vow to an aspect of themselves” (p. 198).

Concerning how this broken down world affects child rearing, he writes, “It amazes me how often parents are actually irritated at the amount of parenting their children seem to need” (p. 194). “We are easily satisfied with raising children who learn to jump through our behavioral hoops, but don’t really have hearts for God” (p. 197).

The remedy to all this is what Tripp calls sharing our “Redeemer’s dissatisfaction.” Our “dissatisfied Redeemer” will “not rest until every microbe of sin has been eradicated from every cell of the hearts of every one of his children” (p. 196). We must be as dissatisfied as God is about our problems. We must be the tools He uses to restore this world gone bad.

Although this book is thoroughly biblical, the author could have used more scripture to support his propositions. As a premillennialist, I would have liked to see some reference to the second coming as the ultimate answer to a broken-down world. In spite of these reservations, I heartily recommend this book.

Review of “Why We Love the Church”

March 9, 2010

Why We Love the Church

©2009 by Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck

Published by Moody Publishers

234 pages

I loved this book, but I shouldn’t have. For starters, the authors are closer to my children’s ages than mine. Additionally, the authors are reformed and I am not. Also, in the past, I have found books with multiple authors to be too unevenly written to be enjoyable. I do have a theory that might explain the success of this joint effort however. Ted Kluck is really Kevin DeYoung’s alter ego. I mean, come on, “Kluck”?

DeYoung is the senior pastor of the University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Michigan. Kluck is a sportswriter who attends the church DeYoung pastors. Together they also wrote “Why We’re Not Emergent (by two guys who should be).”

The odd number chapters were written by DeYoung. Kluck wrote the even number chapters. There are eight chapters and two epilogues. The first epilogue is written by Kluck to his five-year-old son Tristan, the second is written by DeYoung. Each also writes an introduction.

DeYoung writes as a theologian/pastor. Kluck writes in laymen’s terms. A layman with a great sense of humor. Together, this is an informative and entertaining read. I appreciated DeYoung’s copious endnotes at the conclusion of each chapter. Also, the use of the hymn “The Church’s One Foundation,” a verse of which precedes each of DeYoung’s chapters, was very edifying.

DeYoung’s four chapters deal with four broad categories of excuses that people use for disparaging the church. These categories are missological, personal, historical and theological.  Kluck follows up each of those chapters with his own person spin on the subject. In DeYoung’s terms, “Come for the logic, stay for the laughs” (p.18).

Missional seems to be the new buzzword. Although hard to precisely define, it describes an intention of transforming the surrounding culture by purposely doing good works. In proper balance, this is a worthy endeavor.  However, a lack of missional success is a frequent excuse for leaving the institutional church. DeYoung asks ”where do we see Paul talking to his churches about transforming their communities?” (p.38).  What is needed is an understanding of the “difference between the responsibility of the church’s calling and the individual Christian’s calling” (p. 40). Realizing that much of the community service taking place is being done by Christians, we should recognize this as the church being missional. DeYoung also warns of the danger that transforming culture may be hiding the message of the gospel. Works, no matter how successful, do not take the place of words. Cultural transformation is a worthy goal, but preaching the saving message of the cross is the utmost importance.

Anyone who has been in church for long has certainly had occasion to be wounded. The issue is how a person responds to these let downs. Too many are using these personal slights as an excuse for leaving the institutional church. As brothers and sisters of the wounded, we should take these criticisms seriously and strive to make our churches less hurtful. DeYoung, however, asks those who have left four questions. Firstly, are you rejecting the church or the faith? (p.85).  “If Christians are interested in a Christianity free from doctrine, demands and damnation, they aren’t just sick of the church and its unflattering quirks; they’re tired of the Christian faith altogether” (p. 87). Secondly, are you trying to have your cake and eat it too? (p.87).  DeYoung writes, “I’m not against homeless shelters and parachurch nonprofits. I just want the anti-institutional church leavers to see that these are institutions too” (p.87). Thirdly, are you making an idol out of authenticity? (p. 89). “We should trust God and not be angry with Him. We should not consider ourselves abandoned. This is not phony Christianity; it’s faith” (p.90). Lastly, are you repeating the mistakes of the previous generation? (p.90). There have always been anti-church movements, yet the church marches on. “And what makes us think that after nearly two thousand years of institutional church, Christians are suddenly free to jettison the church and try things on their own?” (p.91).

In his third chapter (chapter five) DeYoung dissects the historical arguments for leaving the institutional church. I enjoyed this chapter the most. Throughout the book, DeYoung interacts with popular books written about what is wrong with the institutional church. In this chapter he corrects the misconceptions of the “restorationist literature” (p.116), which postulates that nearly everything the institutional church is currently doing, the early church would have never done. DeYoung agrees that there are things that don’t have to be in church (pulpits, stained glass, robes, etc.), but that doesn’t mean that they can’t be in church. “If you don’t like pews, fine. But they’re just benches. Can we not have hinges on our church doors if a nonChristian invented them?” (p. 118). He specifically deals with the areas of church buildings and orders of worship. In spite of what the critics claim the “worship of the early church was simply not without ritual and structure” (p.126).

Finally, DeYoung addresses the theological concerns of church-leavers. He first refutes the claims that Christians don’t need to belong to a visible church and then dissects the claims concerning what constitutes a church. There is no such thing as churchless Christianity. And the New Testament clearly identifies the components of the visible church. “The church, as the elect people of God, is both organism and organization” (p.170). DeYoung surmises that what many church-leavers are really escaping is the sermon. Contrary to what the critics claim, the preaching of the sermon goes back to the time of Jesus and continued on with the early church.

I highly recommend this book, to pastor and interested layman alike. I am grateful to be able to profit from the ministry of younger pastors, such as Joshua Harris’ similar little book “Stop Dating the Church.”