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A book that doesn’t live up to its title

Book Review: The Light is Winning: why religion just might bring us back to life, by Zach Hoag

I did not like the book. The book did not live up to its title. The book describes the flaws of a narrow slice of legalistic Christianity rather than stories of the benefits of religious practices. I do not recommend the book. These four statements summarize my evaluation of Zach Hoag’s latest book, The Light is Winning: why religion just might bring us back to life.

The author’s purpose is stated on p. 28, “…the decline of Christian faith in America is not a problem to be solved but an opportunity to be embraced.” However, he never develops that idea but instead spends the bulk of the book, fully two-thirds, describing his journey from growing up in an apocalyptic cult in east Texas to an overbearing, controlling father to a legalistic Calvinistic Baptist Church to planting a church that would ultimately fail. If anyone has a reason to quit the church, it’s him. You come away feeling sad for the author.

Despite describing the problems of American Christianity, he doesn’t really give a solution to the problem. He spends a few pages saying that the church needs more Jesus, specifically that we need to spend more time in the Gospels than the rest of Scripture. He spends a few pages extolling the virtues of Methodist traditions and rituals and how they helped him recover from his failed church plant. However, he never gets to the title of the book until the last chapter and never truly develops why he believes there is hope for the church or American Christianity. In between, he peppers his ideas with illustrations from HBO TV shows.

My guess is that the book is aimed at a younger generation than mine, and certainly not aimed at a long-term pastor like myself. I did not agree with all the endorsements inside the front cover.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookLook Bloggers <http://booklookbloggers.com> book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 
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Posted by on June 24, 2017 in Books, Church, Quotes

 

On the Fast Track to Failure

The story is told of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, and how he played a practical joke on some friends. As the story goes, he sent an anonymous telegram to each of twelve friends, all men of great virtue and considerable prestige and position in society. The message simply said: “Flee at once … all is discovered.” Within twenty-four hours, all twelve had left the country.

No doubt there is some playful exaggeration here, but the point is that each one of us can identify with failure. Each one has at least one skeleton in their closet. However, very few are willing to admit it. John F. Kennedy once said, “Success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan; no one wants to claim it.”

Moses was no stranger to failure. Though he was on the fast track to success, he ran ahead of God, made a huge mistake, and then ran and hid from his failure. His early life provides a cautionary tale for us all about the danger of running ahead of God’s plan.

Moses was on the fast track to greatness (Acts 7:20-25). Moses had:

  • Position (21). Moses was brought up in Pharaoh’s palace and nurtured for the throne.
  • Education (22). Moses was probably educated in the Temple of the Sun, “the Oxford of the ancient world.”
  • Skills (22). Moses possessed intellect, charisma, eloquence, and leadership. He made a name for himself as a young man.
  • Heritage (20, 23). Though raised in the palace, he identified with his Jewish family. He knew who he was.
  • Sense of compassion and justice (24). Moses could not stand idly by and watch the weak being downtrodden. He wanted to help the oppressed.
  • Destiny (20, 25). Though God does not call him into service until the burning bush (Exodus 3), Moses seemed to sense what God was going to do through him.

Moses ran ahead of God’s plan (Exodus 2:11-12; Acts 7:23-25). As a man of action, Moses did not like marking time and waiting. He initiated his own plan to deliver the nation of Israel (Acts 7:23). He rolled up his sleeves and jumped in. In so doing, he demonstrates a misguided understanding of his own importance (Acts 7:25). He seemed to have the idea that all he had to do was sound the rallying cry and all Israel would come running. Rather than think through the situation and develop a plan, he reacts emotionally (Exodus 2:11-12). He acted alone, in secret, and in his own strength. With one rash act, he threw away forty years of preparation.

Moses ran away from his mistakes (Exodus 2:12-15; Acts 7:26-29). When you act in the flesh, you have to cover up your sin. Moses buried his in the sand (Exodus 2:12). However, it did not remain a secret very long and the next day it was common knowledge. Rather than embrace him as deliverer, his own people rejected him (Exodus 2:13-14; Acts 7:26-28). After realizing his failure (Exodus 2:14), Moses flees and becomes an exile (Exodus 2:15; Acts 7:29).

When we take matters into our own hands …

  • We think we are the answer to God’s problems, not the other way around. He reveal our pride and arrogance.
  • We become impatient because God is not moving fast enough. We become anxious and chafe at waiting.
  • We react instead of respond. Rather than think through the issue and develop a plan, we react emotionally in the heat of the moment.
  • We experience rejection because of our foolish mistakes. Instead of our message being rejected, we are rejected for our choices, rudeness, or compromising approach.
  • We end up as exiles. We find ourselves on the sidelines wondering if God can ever use us again.
  • We discover the well of a new life lies nearby (Exodus 2:15). Unbeknownst to Moses, the well Moses sat next to would lead to a new life and renewal.

Don’t run ahead of God. As Moses learned, God will not be bent to our will. He will bend and shape us to his will. Even if it means letting us sit on the sidelines for 40 years.

This is the synopsis of a message given to the congregation of First Central Bible Church in Chicopee, MA, on June 18, 2017. It is part of a series of messages on The Life of Moses. Please click on the link to download a copy of the sermon notes.

 

Take a Risk and Become an Artist

Book Review: Real Artists Don’t Starve: Timeless Strategies for Thriving in the New Creative Age, by Jeff Goins

If you major in art, you’ll starve! If you want to be a writer, you’ll never make a decent living! These are two of the myths that most of us have heard growing up. And they are the myths that author Jeff Goins wants to eradicate in his latest book, Real Artists Don’t Starve: Timeless Strategies for Thriving in the New Creative Age.

As the author explains,

You don’t have to starve. Today there is a New Renaissance changing everything we thought we knew about creative work—one that is turning Starving Artists into Thriving Artists—and all we have to do is embrace it. We can, in fact, create work that matters and earn a living doing so. We can share our gift with the world without having to suffer for it. And the sooner we acknowledge this opportunity, the sooner we can get on with doing our work.

The author uses Michelangelo as his primary illustration, along with stories and lessons from Jim Henson, C. S. Lewis, Dr. Dre, George Lucas, John Lassiter, and many others. He divides the book into three major sections—Mind-set, Market, and Money. In the area of Mind-set, we need to realize that artists are not born, they are developed; you don’t have to be an original but simply build on the work of others; you should learn from a master rather than try to grow by your lonesome; and you need to be stubbornly persistent. In the area of Market, an artist cultivates patrons, goes to where creativity is happening, collaborates with others, and demonstrates their work in public. Regarding Money, an artist doesn’t do anything for free, they own their own work, diversify their portfolio, and make money in order to make more art.

In the Renaissance, artists were not aristocrats as Michelangelo hoped to become. But he was committed to not only making a living but earning the respect of his peers. It was not easy, but in the end, he changed the game for artists. How did he do this?

First, he mastered his mind-set. When many artists were opening shops to train apprentices, he resisted such temptations to conform. He knew that to make for himself, he would have to think differently. He befriended those in power so he didn’t have to beg for scraps. He became an apprentice.

Then he mastered the market, plugging into a web of influential relationships that included popes, kings, patrons who helped his work thrive. Building this network ensured he’d never starve.

Finally, he mastered his money, earning ten times what an average artist made by charging what he was worth. He invested in land and property, which secure his position as an aristocrat. Only the wealthy owned property. But long after he had more than enough money, he kept creating, living twice as long as the average person and creating an unforgettable legacy. He made money to make more art.

The book is both informative and encouraging. It also provides practical ideas on how to pursue your art and craft in the midst of your daily life until you get to the point where you can do it fulltime.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookLook Bloggers <http://booklookbloggers.com> book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

 
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Posted by on June 16, 2017 in Books, Quotes

 

Gaining Victory Over Our Toughest Challenges

Book Review: Goliath Must Fall: Winning the Battle Against Your Giants, by Louie Giglio

How do you gain victory over your toughest challenges? How do you get rid of an adversary that constantly steals your joy and passion? How do you live a life of victory rather than succumb to defeat and give up? Those questions lie at the heart of author and pastor Louie Giglio latest book,

Goliath Must Fall: Winning the Battle Against Your Giants.

Using the story of David and Goliath as a backdrop, the author suggests that each of us face one or more threatening giants. He specifically addresses the issues of fear, rejection, addiction, anger, and comfort. Rather than be demoralized and defeated, the author reminds us to fix our eyes on the size of our God, not the size of our giant. The author combines Scripture, personal stories, illustrations, and practical application to flesh out his argument.

On the one hand, Goliath Must Fall is a helpful and encouraging book. On the other hand, I found myself uncomfortable with how the author interprets the story of David and Goliath. As he explains, he adds three twists to the story.

If you’ve been keeping track of the twists and turns in this book, we started by touching upon one big twist. In the story of David and Goliath, we are not David; Jesus is David. We unpacked that twist in depth near the beginning of the book.

Then we looked at a second twist, that our giant is already dead. The victory is already won. Jesus has accomplished what he set out to do. We have unpacked that twist throughout the whole book as we’ve looked at various specific giants.

As we close this book, we want to look at one final twist, and we’ve touched upon it in several places already. It’s that David’s motivation in this whole thing was the fame of God. David was motivated by God’s honor and glory. That’s our invitation as well.

While I understand what the author is trying to do, and while I agree with his main points, I am not comfortable with spiritualizing a story rather than interpreting it correctly. Jesus is not in the story. David faces a very live giant, not a dead one. David is victorious because he keeps his focus on God and his promises, and because his motivation is for God to be honored and glorified. While his third twist is true, his first two are not. While you can be encouraged by the stories and principles, you must not follow his method of interpreting Scripture.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookLook Bloggers <http://booklookbloggers.com> book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 
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Posted by on June 9, 2017 in Books, Quotes, Scripture

 

The challenge of preaching

Adlai Stevenson summed up the challenge that all public speakers face, including preachers, when he addressed the students at Princeton,

“I understand I am here to speak and you are here to listen. Let’s hope we both finish at the same time.”

Cited in James: Faith That Works (Preaching the Word Commentary Series) by R. Kent Hughes

 
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Posted by on June 7, 2017 in Preaching, Quotes

 
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Invest in training leaders

 
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Posted by on June 1, 2017 in Leadership, Quotes

 

Practical advice on growing a church

Book Review: When Your Church Feels Stuck: 7 Unavoidable Questions Every Leader Must Answer, by Chris Sonksen

What does a pastor do when his church is not growing and the attendance is plateaued? What questions should he be asking? Where can he find answers?

Chris Sonksen has written a book trying to provide solutions for the problems related to church growth.

I want to encourage you to do the work necessary to create the clear picture and plan that God has for your church. God’s heart is for your church to win—to be a place of life change and transformation and to build a church that lives in the stage of increase.

In chapter one, the author lays the foundation for his approach to diagnosing and solving the problem of why a church isn’t growing. He explains the difference between the “God factor” and the “Leader factor.”

“Jeremy, there are two things you have to realize; there is the God factor and the leader factor. The God factor says ‘We can’t do anything without God.’ Would you agree?” He nodded his head and quietly said, “Yes, I agree.” I went on to say, “The leader factor says that ‘God doesn’t do anything without a leader.’ Now, Jeremy, we both know that God can do whatever he wants; he’s a miracle-working God. But when it comes to building a thriving local church, more often than not God looks for a leader. Would you agree with that, Jeremy?” Again, he quietly said, “Yes, I agree.” I said, “Jeremy, what this means is that we have to be willing to do our part. God will always do his part. He never lets us down and never quits on us. He will always come through. Our part is to be willing to change. Be willing to be honest about where our church is and willing to take it where it needs to go.

I found the second chapter to be the most helpful. Using the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:20-25), Sonksen lays out the principle, “God determines the talent, We determine the choices.” Success is not measured by results, but rather by whether or not we are faithful in using the gifts God has given us.

The bulk of the book identifies and explains 7 questions that pastors need to ask about their church:

  1. Mission: What do we do?
  2. Strategy: How do we get it done?
  3. Values: What are the guiding principles we live by?
  4. Metrics: How do we measure a win?
  5. Team Alignment: Do we have the right people in the right seats moving the in the right direction?
  6. Culture: How do we change the culture of our church?
  7. Services: How do we match what we say is important and what we really do?

The strength of the book is that it gives practical solutions to the difficult challenges of church growth. In that sense, it is a helpful volume. The weakness of the book is that it lays all the emphasis on human effort and tends to leave God out of the equation. While he stresses that success is not determined by numbers and size, he implies that if your church is not growing, then the pastor is failing. Since much of the examples in the book are of the author coaching another pastor through these questions, it tends to be a promotion of the author’s consulting service.

Disclosure: I received this book free from Baker Books through the Baker Books Bloggers www.bakerbooks.com/bakerbooksbloggers program. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review.

 
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Posted by on May 31, 2017 in Books, Church, Quotes