Tuesday, August 28, 2007

I’m OK – You’re Not – John Shore

[You can see this review also at Pastor Bookshelf. That's the place where minister types can get involved in the "Review" program by reviewing a book, then signing up to receive new books to review.]

I was first introduced to this book by Kevin Bussey whose recommendation came as a result of his desire to be Jesus to friends he encounters every day (often as he sips a tall one at the local Starbucks). My attention was piqued when Paul Littleton also had it on his reading list. So, when I finally found it on a bookstore shelf, I relieved my wallet of the 13 bucks and the bookstore of its sole copy.

My take on the book may be somewhat skewed because of my disagreement with the basic premise that Shore is trying to defend. However, I’ll try to be as fair as possible in my assessment of the book and try not to get overly defensive about my own prejudicial leanings in regard to evangelism.

To a certain degree, I can agree with Shore’s assumption that many (perhaps most) evangelical Christians have so emphasized the Great Commission that they have excluded the command (what Shore and Rick Warren both refer to as the “Great Commandment”) to love your neighbor as yourself. It should be noted that Jesus indicated that the greatest commandment is to love God with all that you are and that the second is just like it—love your neighbor in the same way that you love yourself. The designations of “Great Commission” and “Great Commandment” are memory joggers placed upon these scriptural principles by the modern-day church. I also disagree with his assumption that everyone in America has heard the gospel.

In reaction to this overemphasis, Shore suggests that Christians swing to the other extreme—emphasize the Great Commandment. While he spends a great amount of time claiming that he is not against evangelism (under the right circumstances), his basic premise leads the reader to believe that Christians should love to the exclusion of witness. I believe that he would argue “let your love be your witness.” Sadly, this approach leads to an “either/or” thinking that has caused the problem warranting the publication of the book in the first place. I would suggest that our direct command from Christ isn’t to either love or witness, but to both witness and love—witness with love, if you please.

The book has several distractions making it difficult to work through. Shore has a fondness for capitalization, capitalizing words and phrases ad infinitum whenever he wants to emphasize it as something in particular. This is distracting to the reader especially when what is offered as a proper noun is in actuality just part of the sentence. He also has a proclivity for the words “amongst” and “whilst” which are overused to state his case. Another blatant distraction is Shore’s use of humor. In taking on this most serious of topics, he attempts to make his ideas more readable by including humor. I have no great problem with including a humorous anecdote or line occasionally to lighten an otherwise heavy topic; however, Shore’s levity swims on every page, if not in every paragraph, if not in every sentence. Littleton makes this observation about the use of humor in the text:

On a literary level I hardly liked this book at all. According to the back
cover, "John Shore is a humorist...." But his humor just doesn't work for me.
I'm a fan of humor, by the way. I believe it is a powerful tool in both written
and oral communication, especially if you want to disarm your audience and get
people to relax with you and your topic. I just find the humor in this book to
be a little trite. It is an easy-to-read book, but I was highly unmotivated to
finish it because it's just not my style.

The use of humor in the book almost leads one to believe that Shore is not serious about the topic (although the tone of the work suggests that he is).

Also, in a work about loving our neighbor, one would think that the object is to model love. Shore manages to alienate both his audience and his subject. He spends a great amount of time belittling the practices of believers in the form of a rant. Then he decides that name-calling is better than labeling and suggests that we no longer designate un-believers as “lost” but call them “Normies” instead. In effect, he has succeeded in angering both the Christian community and the world at large in one fell swoop.

I don’t want you to believe that this book is a waste of time or money though. There are several things about Shore’s topic that need to be said, need to be heard, and need to be addressed by the Christian community. The fact that we have too long lived in a lopsided world that disregards the necessity to love our neighbor as we share with him the gospel removes our voice among non-Christians. To use Paul’s words, “if I have not love, I am nothing.” Shore also gives a long-overdue look into the perception that the community outside the church has of Christians—especially those who live to witness. Under the heading of “Ouch” at the end of each chapter, Shore quotes non-Christians who responded to an on-line message board he set up as part of his research.

If you read this book and are a typical evangelical Christian, be prepared to be mad. But don’t let your anger get in the way of the lesson that we must hear: love must permeate our lives if we are to be credible among those who haven’t heard the message of Christ.

I'm OK -- You're Not receives 3 thumbs.

—Benjamin Potter, August 28, 2007

Monday, August 27, 2007

Skin – Ted Dekker

There is a problem with a book that only ends well. It never gets read. When I taught literature, I convinced many of my students to explore the possibility of reading. I never expected them to truly enjoy those things that I made them read—I didn’t even expect the majority of them to read those books I told them to read. However, I wanted them to give reading a chance. My answer: give a book two to three chapters before saying, “This one’s just boring,” and giving up. I figure that most of the time, even the slow starters will show enough sign of promise to keep the reader reading.

Skin is a book that ends well. It ends really well. So well in fact that I can’t give much information without invoking a double spoiler alert. I stuck with the book to get through the interesting parts, not because I wanted to (really), but because I was determined to give a plausible review here. (Something that can’t be done if you stop after chapter three.) Why was this important? Because Dekker is such a talented wordsmith. Perhaps the struggle with Skin lies in the pressure for talented, rising-star authors to crank out at least one book a year forces occasional mediocrity.

The story follows the adventures of a group of young adults thrust together by circumstance. During the course of their lives together, these six people are thrust back and forth between the town of Summerville (devastated by a massive tornado and the terror created by a ruthless murderer) and a vast desert which replaces the town from time to time leaving only the structures of the town library and the house of the doctor who had the library built. This jumping back and forth leaves the reader trying to decide whether or not he is reading a fantasy (played out in the desert) or a police procedural-type mystery.

From time to time there are glimpses of Dekker’s writing talent, usually embodied in the setting of the town without the advent of the desert. Often the writing seems disjointed. So how long should the reader give this selection in order to make it worthwhile reading? My estimation is about 40 to 45 chapters. Die-hard Dekker fans will want to read this book. Those who enjoyed House and Showdown will like portions, but will find the writing not up to Dekker’s normal par. If you must read everything that Dekker writes, I would advise you to rush to the last 125 or 150 pages. As I said, the book ends really well. Because of the good ending I give Skin 1 ½ thumbs. Sorry I can’t give the first two-thirds of the book even a thumb to stand on .

—Benjamin Potter, August 27, 2007

Friday, August 24, 2007

Chazown – Craig Groeschel

My review of Chazown by Craig Groeschel has been posted over at Pastor Bookshelf. If you're looking for a book to help you bring focus to your Christian walk, this one is pretty good. It's not without its distractions, but the interactive style is enough to make any Christ-follower say, "I can do this." Don't pick this book up if you don't want to be responsible for focusing your life, though.

I gave Chazown four and a half thumbs.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

The Kingdom-Focused Church – Gene Mims

Not only has Gene Mims served as the vice president of church resources division of LifeWay Christian Resources, he also seems to be the king of re-statement. The Kingdom Focused Church starts with a three-chapter introduction (Preface plus the first two chapters) in which he repeatedly tells the reader that he has a system that will work for the pastor who wants his church to be successful. He actually guarantees that the advice held within the pages of the book will work if it is genuinely applied. Throughout the course of the book he takes pages to tell what paragraphs will achieve. He also re-states what others have said eloquently—not so much to steal from them or to beat a dead horse, but to remind church leaders of the obvious that others have said before.

Two things keep you with him through the seeming braggadocio of the early chapters: (1) what he is taking so long to tell is true—the successful church is successful by virtue of its kingdom focus, and (2) he also repeats the fact that he isn’t bringing something really new to the table, he’s just repackaging it. He even invites the reader after years of success in a kingdom-focused church to write a new re-telling of the principles in the book for a new generation of frustrated pastors and church leaders.

Following the lengthy introduction, Mims divides the remainder of the book into two major sections—defining for the reader the kingdom-focused church, and offering practical help in implementing the changes needed to cause your church to have that kind of focus.

For Mims, the bottom line of church success is evangelism. The desire of the church should be to follow the Great Commission—make disciples and help those disciples to grow so that they can multiply the ministry. In the first part he defines his purpose by tearing each word from the title down and defining it. The – an article indicating a specific church (your local church; Kingdom – referring to the basis for the church (God is the King, and the church is part of His kingdom); Focused – each church can only be successful if it knows where it is going (see Rainer and Geiger, Simple Church for a deeper look at focus); Church – the chapter on church deals with what church is and is not.

Mims includes five functions of the church (a la Rick Warren and the Purpose Driven Church)—Evangelism, Discipleship, Fellowship, Ministry, and Worship. I think that it is no coincidence that he addresses these functions in this order. He admits that all are important for healthy churches to be kingdom focused, but he indicates that each builds on the other moving members through to what he refers to as multiplying ministers. Also included are the four “results” which indicate that your church is focused: numerical growth, spiritual transformation, ministry expansion, and kingdom advance. Admittedly the only one of these that can truly be quantified is the first, but if the others are absent, the first (if it does happen) will flounder quickly according to Mims.

His advice is illustrated by a chart he has named the MAP (Model and Process) which gives a visual of the process that Mims states is the New Testament model for the church: Make Disciples, Mature Believers, and Multiply Ministries. In the course of the reading you can hear echoes of Henry Blackaby (Experiencing God), Rick Warren (Purpose Driven Church), and Bobby Welch (FAITH Evangelism Strategy). Along the way there is also a reference to Arthur Flake, the layman who developed the basic formula for Sunday School growth known as Flake’s Formula.

The best advice to church leaders (both pastors and lay leadership) is that growing the healthy church takes time. Preachers should not look for the perfect church, and nor should dissatisfied/disinterested church members. Instead, work where you are to turn your church into the kingdom-focused, healthy church that you are looking for. He claims that a pastor who moves in the first three to five years is not really the pastor of the church. It takes seven to ten years just to get started, he states.

The fictional pastor, Bro. Mike, and his story used to tie the book together and transition from one topic to another is sometimes interesting but often forced.

Mims closes the book with a chapter highlighting churches that he sees as models of the kingdom-focused church and another aimed at inspiring and challenging the reader to take the action needed to transform their church into the healthy church depicted in the book. The difficulty with the penultimate chapter is that the examples used are all in the category of Mega-church. (It was refreshing to read the quotation from a pastor who utilized the FAITH strategy in his church and “average Sunday School attendance . . . skyrocketed from 90 to 150, with a high of 200.”) It’s not my desire to be a wet blanket, or a jealous whiner, but in his “Models” chapter, Mims does what many denominational workers do in holding up the mega-church as the desire, the goal, the example for all churches. This is a drawback in regard to the fact that most of the church leaders and pastors who will read this book will never be a part of that church. Instead they are looking for ways to make their rural or community church to the measure of health that shows them to be focused on God’s focus—the kingdom. When there are not more than 5000 people living in the county, it is difficult to identify with the urban/suburban church which is averaging 17,000 participants each week.

The Kingdom-Focused Church has a great title, some worthy advice, and some major distractions. It is a good companion piece to Simple Church. It earns 3 thumbs.

—Benjamin Potter, August 2, 2007

Leading from Your Strengths – John Trent, Rodney Cox, & Eric Tooker

I’m all for leadership development. I think that all pastors need to find was to become the leader that God intends for them to be. With this in mind, I picked up this little book at a bookstore and tried to slog through it.

With the intention of keeping the reader engaged, the authors set up a scenario based on a whitewater rafting excursion which requires a team to work together. It also requires the team to follow the direction of the experienced guide. Early chapters are introduced with a clipping from the “diary” from such a trip to set up the material discussed in that chapter. Rather than enhancing the reading, this extended illustration actually distracts from the intended teaching that should go on.

In short this is a book that is based on a seminar that is probably very helpful. The book without the seminar is cumbersome in its shortness. About halfway through the book (the edition I have, anyway) there is a reference to an Internet link that will allow you to “purchase” the assessment materials to evaluate your strengths. This is advertised on the front of the book jacket as a special “Book Bonus” which allows you to receive a $7.00 discount on the price of the evaluation tool.

The book is also filled with sample charts and graphs which have little meaning without your personal evaluation for comparison purposes. Again, a great feature when going through a seminar (which you pay for up front). This is not so helpful when you are looking for a book that advises on how to become a better leader.

In short, this book is one that is actually a waste of money if you don’t want to—nor have the funds to—add the expense of taking the evaluation. I am sure that the seminar is very helpful, but the book is a big disappointment.

1 ½ thumbs for Leading from Your Strengths.

—Benjamin Potter, August 2, 2007

Jim & Casper Go to Church – Jim Henderson & Matt Casper

Here's a book that will get you to thinking in a number of different directions--some good, some maybe not so good. It may make you laugh, it may make you angry, it will make you think. To read my full review click over to PastorBookshelf.com. I give it three and one-half thumbs.

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