Every once in a while you come across a book that is good for your soul, steering you back onto a course you hadn’t yet become aware you had left. I’ve had the good fortune of reading two of those in the past couple months. The first was Pure Scum by Mike Sares (you can read my review of it here), and the second was The Pastor by Eugene Peterson.

The Pastor is a memoir, the bulk of which is taken up with Peterson’s life before he moved to Vancouver. It is filled with stories of his childhood in Montana and his church-planting days in the Baltimore area. Peterson’s pastoral reflections are priceless, and should be read by everyone in the ministry.

0323 The Pastor Eugene Peterson Message Bible coverIt’s difficult to review a memoir. They’re his stories. It was his life. What I want to write about, then, is how his book impacted me on a personal level.

There are many temptations in ministry. Envy is one. Whose church is biggest? Whose church is most renowned? Which pastor has the national ministry? Who is saving the most souls? Whose books are selling fastest? Inevitably, the answer is, “Someone else.” Envy is a pastor-killer. Go to any church conference and you’ll hear pastors comparing attendance figures. If that ain’t sad…

Peterson has taught me that none of that matters. It’s all a trap. His church never grew past a few hundred–paltry numbers in today’s megachurch climate. His words to a friend seeking significance through church size hit me like a ton of bricks: “The church you want and expect is the enemy of the church you are being given.” If you’re a pastor or in the ministry, you need to read that sentence again. Write it down, hang it on your door. Put it on your computer desktop. Here, let me type it bigger and bolder so you can read it better.

The church you want and expect is the enemy of the church you are being given.

Is it sinking in yet? God is giving and has given you a church, a congregation, a flock. (Not, by the way, an audience. God never gives you an audience.) But you are discontent with your church. You lust for more attendees, more resources, a wider appeal, a broader reach, more recognition, more fame, a book contract, a speaking circuit… The list goes on and on. But God doesn’t care about your selfish lusts, and he certainly doesn’t owe you anything. The church you want and expect is the enemy of the church you are being given. Embrace the church God has given you. Embrace the people under your spiritual care. Be their shepherd.

When I decided to go ahead with planting Ember Church in the fall of 2010, I was overwhelmed by the process. I knew there was a lot of work to be done, but I didn’t know where to start. I found a lot of books on church planting, but couldn’t tell which ones were good and which ones weren’t. I tried judging those books by their covers, but this turned out to be a bad idea. The old saying is true after all, I suppose.

9780801072628It wasn’t until several months into the process that I finally picked up The Nuts and Bolts of Church Planting by Aubrey Malphurs, and I immediately wished I had read this book sooner. This book is exactly what it says it is: the nuts and bolts of a project that can often seem overwhelmingly complex and about as solid as water. Malphurs helps the reader get his hands on and head around the process of church planting.

The Nuts and Bolts of Church Planting demystifies the church planting process and gives new church planters (like myself) a plan and some solid direction for accomplishing their end of this task. He simplifies the ministry of the new church down to the overall mission of the Church, which is to make disciples. Keeping this mission in the front of your mind, regardless of how you frame it for your church, will keep you on track as you trudge through the difficult phase of church planning and planting.

As somebody who is doing this right now, I can’t think of a better book to give to church planters than Aubrey Malphurs’ The Nuts and Bolts of Church Planting. It’s simple, practical, readable, and comes with an abundance of support material (16 appendices!) to help guide you through this difficult process. If you’re thinking about planting a church, read this book first. If you’re on a church plant team, get it for your pastor! The more time you spend with this book, the more time you will save and the more frustration you will avoid in the church planting process.

The first chapter of Genesis is the most hotly contested biblical text of our time. Theories and interpretations abound as scholars have turned the chapter upside down and inside out looking for biblical clues (and ammunition) to the origins of the universe. There are at least four major schools of interpretation on Genesis One: young-earth creationism; day-age theory; the gap theory; and the literary hypothesis. It’s time to add a fifth school to that list: John Walton’s cosmic temple inauguration.

Walton derives his thesis from his exploration of Ancient Near Eastern cultures and their creation myths. The problem with the current, Western interpretations of Genesis One is their failure to overcome the distance between our modern culture and the culture of ancient Israel (existing alongside and within larger cultures like Egypt and Babylon, which all have their own fascinating creation stories). “Despite all the distinctions that existed across the ancient world, any given culture was more similar to other ancient cultures than any of them are to Western American or European culture.” (12)

9780830837045Crossing this cultural gulf means making one significant, and seemingly obvious, proposition: Genesis 1 is ancient cosmology. (16) This means that “it does not attempt to describe cosmology in modern terms or address modern questions.” (16) What, then, are the terms in which it describes cosmology? This is the crucial question, and what sets Walton’s interpretation on a different course from the others.

Moderns tend to think of creation only terms of material origins. What is the sun made of and how did it come into being? How long did it take for the mountains to be formed and how did they get their current shape? What is the physical composition of humanity and how did we get to be the way we are now? These are the questions of a modern, Enlightenment-oriented culture. But these are not the questions of a polytheistic culture, or even a monotheistic culture within a wider polytheistic world? In order to understand Genesis One, we need to ask the questions the ancients asked.

Rather than questioning the material origins of the universe, the ancients told stories about the functional origins of creation. Existence, for them, was not tied to the material properties of an object, but rather to how that object functioned within a closed system. “In a functional ontology, to bring something into existence would require giving it a function or a role in an ordered system, rather than giving it material properties.” (26) Walton proves his point through numerous examples from ancient Near Eastern texts, and concludes with this contrast between modern and ancient thinking: “We tend to think of the cosmos as a machine and argue whether someone is running the machine or not. The ancient world viewed the cosmos more like…a kingdom.” (35)

Functional Ontology is the cornerstone of Walton’s interpretation of Genesis One. Using this as his lens, he sees in Days 1-3 the creation of the three fundamental functions of life: time, weather, and food. “So on day one God created the basis for time; day two the basis for weather; and day three the basis for food. …If we desire to see the greatest work of the Creator, it is not to be found in the materials that he brought together—it is that he brought them together in such a way that they work.” (59) Perhaps a better translation of “It was good”, then, would be “It worked.”

From here, Walton proposes that Genesis One “should be understood as an account of functional origins of the cosmos as a temple.” (84) Because “divine rest takes place in temples,” (87) the seven days of creation are best understood as a temple inauguration. “By naming the functions and installing the functionaries, and finally by deity entering his resting place, the temple comes into existence—it is created in the inauguration ceremony.” (89)

The implications of this interpretation are numerous., but I will only mention two. First, if Genesis One is an account of functional origins rather than material origins, there is no conflict between a “literal” reading of Genesis and the findings of evolutionary science. (Walton argues that the real fight between the creation (and ID) camp and the evolution camp is over teleology, and he makes some interesting prescriptions for public scientific education.) Second, if the cosmos is God’s temple (or divine resting place) then there are no such things as natural resources—there are only sacred resources, and we must adjust our ecology accordingly.

Walton’s book offers valuable insight into the Genesis One debate, and ought to be carefully examined by those on all sides. There is much more in the book that is worthy of discussion, and it is accessible enough to encourage conversation between all interested parties.

Questions: Does Walton present a reading of Genesis One that allows Christians to remain theologically and exegetically faithful while being scientifically relevant? Do you find the argument of functional ontology convincing? How does this interpretation change the game on cosmic origins?

The only bland thing about Wolfgang Simson’s The House Church Book is the title. From the first page he confronts the reader with a passionate and prophetic call for the Church to return to its biblical and first-century roots of form and expression. Whether you agree with him or not (and you’re likely to find yourself shouting “Amen!” on one page and crying foul on the next), Simson offers a compelling vision for how to move the Western Church forward.

Between the preface and the introduction you’ll find Simson’s “15 Theses Toward a Re-Incarnation of Church”, which is as rich and challenging as anything else in the book. Here are three of my favorites:

  • Christianity is a way of life, not a series of religious meetings. “The nature of church is not reflected in a constant series of religious meetings led by professional clergy in holy places especially reserved to experience Jesus. Rather, it is mirrored in the prophetic way followers of Christ live their everyday lives in spiritual extended families, as vivid answers to the questions that society asks, and in the place where it counts most—in their homes.” (xiii-xiv)
  • Time to change the “cathegogue system.” “The historic Orthodox and Catholic Church—that existed after Constantine in the fourth century—developed and adopted a religious system based on two elements: a Christian version of the Old Testament Temple—the cathedral—and a worship pattern styled after the Jewish synagogue. …Until today nobody has really changed the system. The time to do that has now arrived.” (xiv)
  • A church is led by more than a pastor. “A pastor (shepherd) is an important member of the whole team, but he cannot fulfill more than part of the task of equipping the saints for the ministry. He has to be complemented synergistically by the other four ministries [of Ephesians 4:11] in order to function properly.” (xvi)

978-1-4143-2552-1The two major themes of Simson’s book are: 1) The shift from organized to organic church, and 2) The application of the fivefold ministry (from Ephesians 4:11) to the leadership structure of the local church. These two themes come up again and again as he advocates for a smaller and broader church structure, one that is worked out, not in cathedrals or auditoriums or “sancti-nasiums”, but in living rooms and dining rooms and backyards.

As you have probably deduced from the book’s title, Simson advocates a return to the house church format, one that he believes is biblical and consistent with God’s intended plan for the Church. Shifting from megachurches to house churches is the shift from organized to organic church. Something happens, he says, when a group exceeds twenty people—it becomes an organization. “In many cultures twenty is the maximum number of people in a group that still feels like ‘family.’ Groups of this size and smaller still feel organic and informal, without the need to become formal or organized.” (3) Growing larger than twenty requires an artificial organizational structure be placed around the organism, which “chokes it, conditions it, and ultimately prevents relational and spontaneous fellowship.” (4)

What happens when your group exceeds twenty members? Time to multiply! It is through multiplication that the organic church grows—a model Simson sees working out in creation itself. The growth potential of the organic house church far outpaces that of the current megachurch, much like a rabbit can vastly out-birth an elephant. The numbers are staggering, as Simson estimates that a multiplying house church of 12 people can, by multiplying each church once per year over a period of 20 years with an attrition rate of 25% every 5 years, grow to over 165,000 house churches with nearly 2,000,000 people attending. (59)

The key to this growth is “the fivefold ministry” of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. One person cannot play all five of these roles, but the church desperately needs all five in order to be a healthy, multiplying body. Their task, according to Ephesians 4, is to equip the church to do the actual work of the ministry. “They are to be evangelistic, prophetic, teaching, pastoral, and apostolic trainers—not demonstrators, teachers, or one-man shows. An evangelist’s true fruit is not a convert, but more evangelists.” (62) The problem we have today, he warns, is that “instead of equipping God’s people for the ministry, [these people] are performing it for them.” (62) The solution is to change the leadership model from CEO to parent. “Leadership in the way we are used to seeing it in the business, political, or religious world is not really a biblical concept. But leadership in the form of parenthood is. After all, God is not simply a leader; He is a father.” (63)

Simson is calling for a reformation of structure—what he calls the Third Reformation. Our current models will continue to frustrate God’s plan for the Church. In order for the gospel to get bigger, the Church must get smaller. In order for believers to grow (and therefore their churches to grow), they must be exposed to the spiritual parenting of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. “Many Christians have reached a plateau in their lives because they have never really been exposed to the exciting variety of these ministries and are instead sitting ‘under’ the ministry of a one-size-fits-all ‘pastor,’ who is trying to embody all of the ministries himself. Many such pastors burn out quickly, and many traditional congregations are left wondering why things aren’t moving.” (70)

According to Wolfgang Simson, the way forward for the Church in the twenty-first century is to look back to our brothers and sisters in the first century and find in their congregational models God’s intended plan for his people. As long as we try to grow our congregations large, the individual Christians and the gospel itself will remain small.

Questions: Is the house church model the God-ordained, biblical model of Church for all places and all times? How do small groups in large churches succeed or fail to live up to the house church model? Is the single-leader, pyramid structure of church leadership an acceptable model for God’s people? Is the fivefold ministry for today? If so, how would it look if it were implemented in your church?

After buying it at a book store that was going out of business, I was very much looking forward to reading Chris Seay’s book, The Gospel According to Jesus. In fact, I almost bought his book The Gospel According to LOST, but I decided against it. I think I’d like to go back and read that one now, too.

The thesis of The Gospel According to Jesus is that Christians have long misunderstood the concept of righteousness, and therefore misunderstood their faith. We have mistakenly categorized righteousness in terms of morality and good behavior, he says, and have grossly mistaken the gospel of Jesus Christ for a set of rules and regulations for life. The impetus for the book seems to have come from a Barna survey in which a majority of Christians (including active churchgoers) confessed to being unfamiliar with the term and concept of righteousness. Of those who had heard of the term, most associated it with holiness or faithfulness.
This deeply troubled Seay, because he believes that a proper understanding of righteousness is essential to Christian faith and practice. Here is his definition of righteousness:

We also know what [God’s] righteousness is not: a morality that can be attained by the works of man. The best, simplest translation of the word righteousness is “restorative justice.” God is stepping into our brokenness and making things right, taking fragments shattered by sin and restoring them to fullness. …Seeking his righteousness is about being an active agent for his restorative justice in all creation.

By this definition, the righteousness of God is the activity of the restoration of creation through the outworking of God’s justice. Jesus said that we are to “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness”, that is, God’s restorative justice. Our task, as disciples of Jesus, is to see that God’s restorative justice is enacted on the earth.

That’s all well and good, but is that really what righteousness means? He says it, and he is the president of Ecclesia Bible Society, but is he right? Because he never really proves it. And there are plenty of instances in Scripture where we find the word righteousness, but it certainly doesn’t mean “restorative justice.”

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For example, Genesis 15:6. Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness restorative justice.

Or Deuteronomy 6:25. And if we are careful to obey all this law before YHWH our God, as he has commanded us, that will be our righteousness restorative justice.

In fact, perhaps the most damning case comes from Matthew 6, the same chapter in which we find the command to “seek first his…righteousness.” Verse 1 reads: Be careful not to practice your righteousness restorative justice in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.

Chris Seay was very upset because he believed the church was getting righteousness wrong. But it seems that Chris Seay has also gotten righteousness wrong, or at least defined it too narrowly. I can’t attempt to provide a definition here, but I believe that restorative justice is part of what righteousness means, but by no means all of it.

With that, somewhat major, caveat, I thought this book was excellent, and well worth a read by anybody trying to figure out how to follow Jesus well with others. This is really a book about being disciples of Christ together, and the author even models that by bringing in other voices for conversation at the end of each chapter. The most beneficial chapter is actually the last one: The Ten Commandments of a Shalom Life. In that chapter, Chris draws on his experience as a pastor and church planter to give a good and biblical perspective on how to live well the commands of Jesus together.

All in all, this was an interesting and thought-provoking book that will resonate with younger Christians who feel caught between the pull of conservative fundamentalism and liberal emergent-ism.