Book Review: The People of God: Empowering the Church to Make Disciples

The People of God: Empowering the Church to Make Disciples by Trevor Joy and Spence Shelton, B&H, 2014

If you are numbered among those who believe that the church in the United States has problems, you have probably spent at least some time contemplating what is at the root of those problems.  We might tracpeople-of-god-covere it to theological impurities brought about by the abandonment of orthodox Christianity in many realms of Christendom.  Others may claim that we simply live in the most secular age of history and therefore the task of pointing people toward our Savior is harder than ever.  Still another group may say we have left our old time religion and replaced it with contemporary notions that look little better than the unregenerate world around us.  These and countless others can be offered up as the reason for the decline of growth and the lack of influence the church has in our context.  However, they are not the root cause.  They are merely symptoms of a nearly systemic problem found in the vast majority of our churches: we have ignored the Great Commission’s call to make disciples.

The People of God provides us with an encouraging and practical call to take seriously the way God has ordained for people to come into a relationship with Him and grow in their knowledge of His Kingdom.  The authors build on the premise that human beings have been created for community, both with God and with one another.  The Church has been created by Christ to be a community and the growth of Christ’s followers through the disciple-making process is done within this context.  For Joy and Shelton this is an intentional, theologically driven process.

Our authors explore the distinctives of a gospel community while also presenting us with the common hindrances to that same biblical community.  Within any context of discipleship, the Gospel must be at the forefront.  The Gospel provides us the pattern of discipleship as we are constantly reminded of our need to turn from our sin and our desperate reliance on Christ.

For me, the most helpful chapter in the book is the authors’ discussion of alignment.  The book calls on churches to align their teaching/preaching/discipleship/small group activities together.  While in no way new or revolutionary, it is a seemingly radical idea.  For most churches, there is very little connection between the focus of the sermon and the teaching that takes place during Sunday school.  Small groups are not connected to the spiritual emphasis of the worship service.  Children have lessons that are completely different from their parents.  There is no alignment of the things that are taught.  This method of conducting the teaching ministry of the church provides very little opportunity for depth and growth.  However, when discipleship is intentional and the ideas of the worship gathering are reinforced in Sunday school or small groups the people in our churches have a chance to understand more deeply the things of God.  When we are intentional about aligning our sermon, Bible studies, small group lessons, and discipleship efforts, we will find that the mission and vision of the church will be constantly reinforced and remain abundantly clear to those who participate in the life of the community of faith.

I was thoroughly impressed by the relevance of this book for churches of all sizes.  While both authors serve on staff at churches at are among the largest in the country, their ideas are relevant and useful for my church which is small and in a rural context.  We are all aware that this is often not the case with books produce in mega churches.  Because these concepts are so biblically based, they are functional within a myriad of church contexts.

Many of us stand concerned about the state of the church and the work of the Kingdom.  We are weary from trying to make things work the way we want and convincing people they need to do better.  The heart of our problem is often a lack of discipleship.  It is not a cure-all secret formula.  It is however, Christ’s pattern for growing His Church and expanding His Kingdom.

Book Review: Autopsy of a Deceased Church

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Autopsy of a Deceased Church: 12 Ways to Keep Yours Alive by Thom S. Rainer (B&H Books, May 2014)

An autopsy is an unpleasant thing. It is most often a sign that someone’s life did not end in a natural way. The necessity of an autopsy is an indication that there are questions that remain unanswered.

Christ did not intend for His churches to die. The death of the church is the result of sin and neglect. In his book, Autopsy of a Deceased Church, Thom Rainer serves as a pathologist, conducting a post-mortem on churches that have died in unnatural ways.

Rainer’s dissection reveals 10 symptoms which led to the untimely demise of the houses of worship studied on his examination table. I found these observations to be beyond sobering. Toxic poisons are present at different stages of their terminal work in many of the churches I have observed. Rainer has analyzed these cancerous conditions and the disastrous effects they leave behind.

Most disturbing is how many of these ailments are silent killers. They often lie dormant for years. When they do surface, they often fester slowly, eating away the health of the church. Those who comprise the church are under attack from foreign invaders, and yet go through the motions with no knowledge that they are rapidly dying.

Rainer conducted his research with churches who have already succumbed to the poisons that infiltrated their body. The members, now separated from the body, are left to consider what tore them apart. Many of their symptoms are easy to recognize as the autopsy progresses.

For example, in churches that have met their doom the past was celebrated as a hero. The church’s identity was tied to the things that had once given cause for celebration. However, the fixation on the past resulted in neglect of things important for the future.

Dead churches refuse to adapt to the world around them. Many were located in communities that changed. The people who lived near the churches were different from those in the church. At the same time, church members moved away from the church to get away from the changing neighborhood. Over time, the church became deserted.

As the demographics around them changed, their budgets focused more and more away from their community. Seeing no reason to invite those in their community into the church, the congregations invested more in themselves. Their needs reigned supreme and, therefore, the work of the Great Commission was nowhere to be found. Instead of striving to live by the commission given by the Savior, the church set their sights on their own preferences. They were not focused on the work of the Kingdom.

With this mindset in place, leadership was hard to maintain and pastoral turnover was frequent. The church that died rarely prayed together. It was simply not important. Without prayer and with short-term leadership, churches who were once alive had no vision.

There was no purpose in their decisions as they simply went through the motions. While there were no wise plans for ministry, the facilities of these churches became their obsession. Some even split over minor disputes involving their facilities.

The autopsy report is definitive. Neglect and poor priorities are lethal to a church. With the examination complete, Rainer poses a question: Is there hope for dying churches? Not every church is at the same place in their decay. Therefore, Rainer offers four responses for each stage of the decline of a church. He encourages his readers with responses based on whether a church is showing signs of sickness, deeply in the throes of illness or audibly exhaling a death rattle. These responses are helpful, serving as good medicine for ill churches. I will let you read the book to discover your diagnosis and consider Rainer’s prescription.

Autopsy of a Deceased Church is a brief but terribly solemn read. My thoughts were drawn to the church I pastor. Could there be places where we are allowing a terrible poison to seep into our body? Are there areas that we have neglected and by doing so exposed ourselves to an infection that could one day cause our body to fail? Christ’s church is a living thing designed to grow and be vibrant. Autopsy of a Deceased Church serves as a good reminder that we must guard ourselves, watch our priorities and be about the work of the Kingdom. If we are not, our church may find itself on the cold slab of the autopsy table.

(EDITOR’S NOTE – Micheal Pardue is pastor of First Baptist Icard, Connelly Springs.)

Book Review: Manhood Restored: How the Gospel Makes Men Whole

20130817-110149Manhood Restored: How the Gospel Makes Men Whole, Eric Mason; B&H 2013

I have little doubt that many of the problems we face in both our society and the church are rooted in the erosion of manhood.  With a false manhood on television and a church that has been feminized from years of absentee males, there is much confusion about what it means to be a biblical man.  Eric Mason presents us with a concise and biblical answer to that question in Manhood Restored: How the Gospel Makes Men Whole.  He does this, not starting from actions that need to be corrected, but rather the heart changes that must take place for manhood to be restored.

Mason, Lead Pastor and Founder of Epiphany Fellowship in Philadelphia, begins by tracking the life and death of manhood.  He traces God’s creative work as He forms Adam into His image.  God gives man the greatest gift, the ability to “reflect the image of God into creation.”  Man was “to be an earthly representation of who God is.” This was to be mankind’s great joy as he was in this great relationship with his heavenly Creator.  However, sin killed this relationship and, in reality, killed manhood.  Men became “sin experts,” separated from God and ever increasing in their display of this separation.  “Because the scope of the fall is so great, the solution to the fall must be equally great or greater.”  Mason reminds us that programs, self-help, and training can only do so much.  “We need to be born again.  Being born again reverses the polarity of creation.”

If we flash forward to our contemporary culture, Mason illuminates the impact of “daddy deprivation.”  With fathers increasingly absent from the lives of their children, the result “is a tremendous loss of self.”  Men have developed countless numbers of destructive behaviors to “cover up what is really missing—our fathers.”  With the absence of fathers and the societal denigration of manhood, many men never grow up, always living in extended adolescence.  This, accompanied by severe emotional immaturity, leaves many men as children, in a stage of life “devoid of wisdom and understanding.”

In the absence of fathers, young men find replacements, most often in the wrong places.  God, however, intends for fathers to be not only present, but active in the lives of their sons.  Fathers serve has the clarifiers of identity and the spiritual leader.   God reveals himself to us as Father and thus serves as the ultimate and perfect example of fatherhood.

Who then can be the restorer of manhood?  Who can make men whole and stop this free fall of morals, enthusiasm, and commitment that threatens our society, institutions, churches and the spreading of the Gospel of Jesus Christ?   The answer is Jesus; who, looking at our lives, knows we need a “systemic restoration.”  Mason writes, “In transforming the soul of sinful man, Jesus will set in motion an eternal chain reaction that will change all things forever.”  Jesus has restored, is restoring, and will restore all things.  He is the “prototype man.”  Manliness is defined by Christ.  “Men are only as manly as it relates to the standard set by Jesus.”

For the remainder of Manhood Restored, Mason focuses on what Christ restores by His redeeming work. These areas include worldview, sexuality, vision, family, and church.  The restored worldview involves a change in priorities.  “A disciple of Jesus Christ is one who has renounced himself and pledged his life in a lifetime apprenticeship to the Lord.”  For men there is often an unhealthy individualism that comes from the death of manhood.  Men are prone to looking out for themselves as opposed to dedicating their lives to Christ, their families, and the community of faith.  Conversely, men need to develop a biblical worldview, rooted in their dependence on Christ and His finished work of restoration.

Congruent with worldview, Jesus seeks to provide restored sexuality.  Society has written off the sexual exploits of men as second nature—“Boys will be boys” as Mason puts it. However, God has a plan and clearly stated commands when it comes to sexuality.  He writes, “Genesis 2 tells us that in sex, the two become one. … Since God create man to be heterosexual, married, monogamous beings, fornication confuses our bodies as well as our souls. … [W]e still need to be teaching men about God’s intent for sex.  Right now young me learn about sex from the streets, friends, or pop culture; it must instead begin to be the regular practice of the covenant community to make sure sexual education of the young begins in our homes and churches”

Restored vision is Mason’s third area cleansed by the power of Christ.  Contemporary manhood is marked by a lack of direction.  Christ was a man of purpose, direction, prayer and wise decisions.  Restored men must be as well.  While there are plenty of obstacles to a healthy vision, men must have a plan to accomplish what God has called them to.  Mason reminds his readers that “God has provided the resources for making decisions. … [and] as we work through the process of arriving at the decision, God is continually present and working within us.”

Restored family is the next area where men are transformed.  Mason shows clearly how husbands are called to reflect the sacrificial love of Christ, calling Jesus a “sacrificial lover.”  In their love, husbands must concern themselves with the spiritual growth of their wives and tenderly cherish them fully.  He boldly states, “The husband’s role is to reflect Jesus’ self-denying death as he helps the spiritual growth of his wife.”  He calls on pastors to demonstrate this as the role model of personal character, family character, and community character for those men in his care.  Christ also desires to restore how men view their children, especially their sons.  “Heaven views children as a gift that needs to be directed.” Men should desire to see their sons become strong leaders in their homes, godly men who have “a masculine passion to defend the honor of the Lord and His desires.”

Finally, Mason sees a restored church in the restoration of men.  Men can engage other men with a clear and intellectual presentation of the Gospel.  Men are able to serve as the spiritual father of others.  This leads to the discipling of those who are younger or spiritually immature.

I leave you with this, “In the gospel, Jesus is restoring our vision of manhood.  He is blowing up our own versions of what it means to be a man with His own quintessential masculinity.  His life, death, love, and resurrection push us onward to our restored relationship with God and others. …[I]n Him and Him alone, we can find that the gospel is applied to all areas of our lives that we might become the men God intended for us to be—those conformed to the image of Jesus Christ.”

Book Review: I Am a Church Member

This review will be in an upcoming issue of the Biblical Recorder.

I Am a Church Member: Discovering the Attitude that Makes the Difference
by Thom Rainer (B&H Books, 2013)

It seems there have been few, if any, recent studies that have reached positive conclusions on the overall health of churches. By and large they have painted a bleak outlook on the direction of God’s chosen vessel of the Great Commission. Thom Rainer paints a different picture of what might be in I Am a Church Member.

 Working from the obvious premise that overall church health is a byproduct of the health of its members, the president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources presents six commitments that church members must make if they are to function as biblically focused church members. These are not simple doctrinal affirmations or even the written statements provided at the end of each chapter. For most they would require a deep and lasting change of heart and mind. They constitute a change in belief and action.

Rainer’s first pledge is: I will be a functioning church member. For Rainer, biblical church members “give abundantly and serve without hesitation.” These two commitments come from the idea that church members have the love of Christ dwelling within them and it guides their life. It is a natural reaction to the knowledge that as members of a church we are part of a body. We are brought together to function as one in Christ, even with our distinct gifts and characteristics.

The second pledge is: I will be a unifying church member. No church can claim vitality without unity. Church members must put to death gossip and other negative talk. These have no benefit for the mission of the believer. These are replaced with forgiveness. Forgiveness breeds unity. Rainer writes, “church unity is torn apart when members refuse to forgive, when any member is too prideful to grant forgiveness.”

The third pledge is: I will not let my church be about my preferences and desires. I often tell folks in my church that God does not really care what they think. He definitely does not care about the preferences of their pastor. Much of the disputes and upheaval in the local church begins with the phrase “I want” or “I think.” These are a poor substitute for “thus says the Lord.” Rainer encourages us to take on the roll of a servant, making our minds and attitude that of Christ’s. In the end, church is not about us, and all about Him.

Rainer’s fourth exhortation is: I will pray for my church leaders. I have worked in churches where I was the only minister. There have been other times when I worked with a team of folks serving together. However, in both situations I have still found plenty of time to be lonely. Serving as God’s under-shepherd requires long hours, precious time away from family, and caring the burdens (often alone) of many of the people in your care. Pastors need prayer. Rainer encourages his readers to pray for pastors and their families, pray for their protection, and pray for their mental and physical health. I do not know how often I have been to the breaking point only to find someone praying for me. Just the knowledge that they have taken my name before our Heavenly Father has reenergized my outlook.

Part of being a biblical church member is leading others to do the same. Rainer considers this with his fifth pledge: I will lead my family to be healthy church members. The family and the church are really inseparable. Therefore, we must pray together, worship together, and fall deeply in live with Christ together. Rainer writes, “as I grow more deeply in love with my church, I will do all I can in God’s power to bring my family with me. We will pray for our church leaders together, we will worship together. And we will serve together.”

In many ways the sixth pledge serves to tie the others together: I will treasure church membership as a gift. So often we treat church membership as something we are entitled to because of our goodness or lineage. However, being a member of the church of the living God is a wonderful and marvelous gift – a gift that demands a response. Rainer writes, “when we receive a gift with true appreciation, we naturally want to respond to the Giver.  We, therefore, see service to God as a natural outflow of the joy of our salvation and the consequent joy of our church membership. We consider it a privilege to serve the King, so we look for those opportunities at the church where we serve.”

I have served six Baptist churches in various ministry capacities since I was 17 years old. They each have had different struggles. They have each had struggles common to all churches. After reading I Am a Church Member, I have concluded that the struggles of each congregation were tied up to a commitment problem in one or more of these areas that Rainer lays out before us. If we are to love and treasure the church of the Living God in a similar fashion to Christ – He gave Himself for her – we must all make the commitment: I Am a Church Member.

(EDITOR’S NOTE – Micheal Pardue is pastor of First Baptist Icard in Connelly Springs.)

Stop Asking Jesus into Your Heart: How to Know for Sure You are Saved

July 19 2013 by Micheal Pardue, Book Review

Stop Asking Jesus into Your Heart: How to Know for Sure You are Saved
by J.D. Greear (B&H Publishing, 2013)

It was clear from before the first word penned by J.D. Greear that Stop Asking Jesus Into Your Heart: How to Know for Sure You are Saved was going to be no ordinary book. Five pages occupy the front of this little book – five pages full of endorsements from well-respected pastors, professors, and religious leaders. Within the endorsements it is clear that this book forces its readers to carefully examine the nature and doctrine of salvation.

Greear opens the book with, and subsequently weaves through, his own story of salvation. His story brings practical application to his thesis that assurance of salvation is found in our present posture toward Christ. Our faith and hope rests on His sacrifice. Greear jokes that he must hold the world record for “asking Jesus into his heart.” As a young man he was plagued by doubt and a lack of assurance. This book recounts his discovery of the wonderful assurance that Christ wants His people to have.

Stop Asking puts it very simply, either we believe or we do not. Everything else will flow out of whichever of these two postures we dedicate ourselves. In this, we accept we are dependent on Christ or we rely on ourselves.

Greear writes, “Truly admitting unworthiness and inability is difficult because we have spent our whole lives trying to prove we are anything but unworthy. Most people will admit they make mistakes and are not perfect, but far fewer will go on from there to admit their ‘mistakes’ make them unworthy of eternal life and worthy of utter condemnation.”

Understanding we are unworthy shows us we don’t deserve anything from, and have nothing to offer, God.

However, because Christ has died in our place and settled our account with God, “God’s forgiveness of us is not mercy, it is justice.” We have been given this gift of righteousness through the finished work of Christ on the cross. Greear calls understanding this gift a “key component in obtaining assurance.”

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Moving further in his encouragement toward assurance, Greear spends two chapters dissecting the two pivotal words associated with salvation: repent and believe. Greear calls these two sides of the same coin.

“Jesus lived and died; we believe He lived and died for us and we choose to rest our hopes for salvation upon Him,” he writes.

“We believe not only that Jesus is Lord (as a fact of history), but that He is our rightful Sovereign as well, and we submit to Him (as an act of volition).”

This is a far cry from what we often make salvation out to be and gets to the crux of the point made in Greear’s title – “‘Repentance and belief’ and ‘asking Jesus into our hearts’ are not always interchangeable.”
So often, he points out, many people only have a brief moment in time, when they said a prayer or walked an aisle to hold on to as their hope for salvation and an eternity with Christ. This reality causes Greear to state boldly that, “your present posture is more important than a past memory.” For me that statement draws my mind somberly to the remembrance of so many funeral services I have conducted when the testimony of the one lying prostrate in front of me was solely based on a very distant memory.

Greear goes on to point out that belief is inextricably coupled with repentance.

Repentance is not simply outward actions, but it is “fundamentally a motion of the heart in which we abandon our posture of rebellion and adopt one of submission toward Christ. Repentance is evidenced by outward action, but it does not equal that.” Repentance is not perfection, partial surrender, becoming religious, simply confessing or feeling sorry for sin, or even praying a prayer. Repentance is a heart change where settled defiance is eradicated, Jesus is followed, and the Spirit changes our desires.

Greear closes the book by considering eternal security, and his explanation is concise, pastoral and sobering: “The full doctrine of eternal security is that once we are saved, we will always be saved, and that those who are saved will persevere in their faith to the end. It is true that ‘once saved, always saved;’ but it is also true that ‘once saved, forever following.’” The scriptures provide both assurances of salvation and warnings against falling away.

Greear contests it is vital for both to be present in pastoral ministries. For those still with questions, Greear lays out a simple observation: the Scriptures point to our love of God and our love for others as evidence of our salvation. These are present in the heart and life of the believer.

Paige Patterson, author of the book’s foreword, declares that Stop Asking is a book that he had needed recently to place in the hands of a “young man who was concerned about the state of his soul.”
I agree that it would be expedient to keep this close at hand as it is a most helpful tool to encourage those who are often heavily weighted down by doubt.

(EDITOR’S NOTE – Micheal Pardue is pastor of First Baptist Icard.)

Creature of the Word: The Jesus-Centered Church

This is appearing in tomorrow’s Biblical Recorder. You can view it HERE or read below

May 24 2013 by Micheal Pardue, BR Book Review
Creature of the Word: The Jesus-Centered Church
by Matt Chandler, Josh Patterson and Eric Geiger (B&H Publishing, 2012)

It would seem natural that any organization that labeled itself a church would be Jesus-centered. However, it does not take many pages in the new book Creature of the Word: The Jesus-Centered Church by Matt Chandler, Josh Patterson and Eric Geiger, to realize that being Jesus-centered involves intentionally conforming the entire being of the church to the gospel of Christ.
The authors have delivered an authentic and practical plea for church leaders to consider their first love and the call of the Creator – the gospel of Christ.

Creature of the Word is a 256-page theological call for gospel-centrality in the theology, philosophy and practice of the church. The authors make it clear that this is not about having the gospel and the flavor of the week. The authors write: “It is one thing to see the gospel as an important facet of one’s ministry. It is quite another to hold firmly to it as the centerpiece for all a church is and does, to completely orbit around it.”
The authors believe that the loss of and misunderstanding about the gospel has led to a loss of power in the church.

Many churches, they lament, “have developed gospel amnesia, forgetting that the gospel not only creates and sustains the Church but also deeply shapes the Church. Present and future.”
Within these churches community is not being developed because the gospel is not central. People are not transformed when the gospel does not fuel their time together, they write.
When the gospel is not central, believers are robbed of their God-given opportunity and adoptive responsibility to be ministers of the gospel, exchanging it for consumer-driven religious experiences.

The authors do encourage those readers who realize the gospel is not the centerpiece of their church. They write, “Without Jesus, your church culture is useless. But because of Jesus your church culture can be transformed … and become transformational. … If you are frustrated with the lack of gospel-centrality in your current church culture, understand that cultural frustration always precedes cultural transformation.
“The frustration is good and beautiful if it leads you to long for the grace of Jesus to permeate your theology, philosophy, and practice. Being gospel-centered is, for the authors, in part, about having a firm theological foundation that works its way out into every aspect of the functioning of the local church.”

The authors have composed a book that is also amazingly practical. Obviously speaking from experience, they have captured many of the nuances of ministry and poured out for the reader how the gospel should run through the minutest veins of life within the local church body. So often with books of this nature the reader is inundated with theological insight, but is left to fend for himself when it comes to practical application.

Or, practicality is presented so narrowly that the church leader only finds it useful if he can completely reorient everything in the local body toward the newest programs presented. This book is neither. The authors honestly examine the makeup of church structure and give gospel-driven commentary on how even the most seemingly irreverent goings on of the church should be molded by the gospel.

They examine areas of obvious import, such as preaching the Word and the Jesus-centered leader. They also make an impassioned plea for a gospel-centered ministry to children, as opposed to a babysitting service, and a Jesus-centered student ministry in exchange for a moralistic, legalism driven attempt at indoctrination.

These are real-life applications that force the reader to examine the motives behind some of the most cherished idols of church culture – from the budget to the social ministries of the church – through the lens of the gospel.

The authors close the book with three important ways that “God lovingly removes our self-sufficiency, reminds us of grace, and emboldens us for the call of gospel-ministry: prayer, suffering, and celebration.” These three enable the church to define success on gospel terms. Creature of the Word is an exciting and convicting read. The authors display a passion, not just for the gospel, but for the local church. This book calls believers to gather together under the banner of the gospel, centering their lives and work on Christ.

(EDITOR’S NOTE – Micheal Pardue is pastor of First Baptist Icard in Connelly Springs.)