For The Someday Book

Posts Tagged ‘evangelism

Mark Greene, The One About… Eight Stories about God in Our Everyday, London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, 2018, 66 pp.

TheoneaboutWEBThis is more of a booklet than a book, but I wanted to include it here to give it credit as a potentially very useful tool. I read it in a single sitting, and keep returning to imagine how to use the book or its concept in my congregation.

The book is intended to be a working tool for use to spark conversation and engagement with ordinary Christians about how God is at work in their lives. However, it is descriptive instead of prescriptive in its approach. As advertised, it simply contains eight short stories about how people practice their faith in their work life. None of them are clergy or professional church staff–all work traditionally secular jobs, across a variety of class and educational backgrounds. For example, a hairdresser prays for her clients as she massages the conditioner into their hair, and a manager listens to all his employees and develops a caring and compassionate relationship with each one. The book doesn’t just tell the stories as examples, however–it inserts questions, scriptures and tools for reflection so that the reader is prompted to imagine how they can mimic the example in the story in their own work and life. The stories are true, though names have been changed, and they are relatable.

I am imagining how to use the stories with a small group, or encourage people to read them and host a conversation about how people in my congregation engage their faith in their workplaces, to elicit their own stories and share with one another. The London Institute for Contemporary Christianity does interesting work in this area, and I am grateful for this latest resource.

 

 

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The Godbearing Life: The Art of Soul Tending for Youth Ministry by Kenda Creasy Dean and Ron Foster, Nashville: Upper Room Books, 1998, 220 pp.

Godbearing LifeKenda Creasy Dean’s Almost Christian was one of the best books I read about ministry in the last decade, which drew me to look back at her earlier work. Although she specifically writes about youth ministry, her insights about the way cultural forces and church practices compete to shape our souls rings true in ministry with people of all ages. This book did not disappoint. Even though it’s 20 years old, many of the illustrations obsolete, and a whole generation of youth now parents of adolescents themselves, the book holds up because it is about greater themes of how we as pastors and churches care for the soul.

Dean and Foster operate within the powerful metaphor of Godbearing, which is drawn from Mary, the Mother of Jesus, a teenager herself who was chosen to carry Jesus into the world. As Christian leaders, we are invited to say “yes” to God’s request to live within us and let our lives be shaped by God’s purposes. Then we form relationships and bear witness to God’s work in the lives of others, helping them to see where God is calling and to respond by saying “yes” themselves.

They write:

I began spending the bulk of my “relational ministry” helping youth, even unchurched ones, develop a vocabulary of faith. I learned that pastors have permission, and even an obligation, to ask questions others do not ask. So I quit beating around the bush and asked up front: “What’s going on between you and God? How goes your spiritual life?” (13)

This is exactly what I am discovering, especially in this particular season of my ministry. I spend a lot of time with people who may or may not be part of my congregation, may or may not be Christian, may or may not see me as pastor or just as a friend. But my role gives me both permission and obligation to have these conversations. For many people, no one else in their lives engages these questions, and people are yearning to be asked, even though it feels scary for both of us sometimes.

They also write about evangelism not as convincing people to believe in God, but to believe that God matters.

The signature quality of adolescence is no longer lawlessness but awelessness. Inundated with options and the stress that comes from having to choose between them, contemporary adolescents have lost their compass to the stars, have forgotten the way that points to transcendence. (15)

This is not just adolescents. Every day, thousands of people pass by in front of our church on the street, and most of them–whether or not they believe in God in any way–are convinced that what we do inside that building has no relevance or meaning to their lives. Dean and Foster offer incarnational and relational ministry as a response. We don’t just build relationships in order to talk about the Gospel. We live the Gospel in our lives (Godbearing) so that others will experience the incarnation of God.

This approach is grounded in faith practices:

Practices are the constitutive acts of a community that both identify us as, and form us into, people who belong to that community. Christian practices mark us as and make us into Jesus’ followers. (107)

Dean and Foster offer a helpful rubric of organizing the variety of Christian faith practices into six major categories (communion, worship, compassion, teaching and nurture, witness, and dehabituation), highlighting particular faith practices that one uses in youth ministry, but again applicable to all ages. They devote full chapters to each category, but lift out spiritual friendship, “hand-holding and finger-pointing” (presence and direction), service, speaking in familiar language, and sabbath as particularly important.

One of the key challenges for youth ministry and all ministry is avoiding burnout. The authors introduced a helpful biblical metaphor in the burning bush.

God is most evident in our ministries not when we are “on fire for Jesus” but when we burn without being consumed. … God is not calling us to identify with Moses. God is calling us to identify with the bush. (72)

Faith practices are those things that keep our fires burning, and engaging more deeply in growing our faith so we can nourish the faith of others is a model for sustainable Christian ministry for everyone. It’s not about growing programs, it’s about growing faith and relationships.

This is an insightful read that has already helped me shape some of the work I am doing to lead a conference for youth pastors and to engage my congregation in a Lenten series on faith practices. It has also given me new language to understand my own work in ministry. I recommend it not only for youth ministers, but for clergy and lay leaders looking to understand our work in the world in a deeper way, especially around inviting others into relationship with Christ.

 

Talking About Evangelism: A Congregational Resource by D. Mark Davis (part of the Holy Conversations series), Pilgrim Press, 2007, 111 pp.

evangelismD. Mark Davis’ book is designed as study for church groups to use as they consider and reconsider the role and importance of evangelism. Davis begins by acknowledging the tension around the meaning of evangelism. While evangelism is supposed to be simply about sharing the joyous good news of Christ, it has often devolved into a coercive act of persuasion, convincing others that your truth is better than their truth. How can we engage in evangelism that is open-hearted and open-minded, not confrontational and judgmental? Davis reassesses the entire practice and meaning in this short study.

Davis himself grew up in a conservative tradition that practiced aggressive evangelical tactics aimed at convincing other people of their need to “accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.” He shares memorable personal stories throughout the book of his own experiences, both positive and negative, and his changes in perspective along the way.

One keen observation I appreciated was his understanding that good evangelism does not presume that others have no experience of or relationship with God. Instead, we might ask where God has been in their lives up to this point, and invite them to know God’s presence in a new way. It’s the opposite of the traditional conservative approach that takes our human sinfulness as the starting point. Instead, we start with our status as God’s beloved children, always. That one turn changes the entire perspective of evangelism, and the rest of Davis’ book is built upon it. He continues:

What would the practice of evangelism look like if we addressed people, not as fallen sinners, but primarily as children of God, however estranged? … Everyone’s story has real and meaningful significance; it is not just a jumping off point for our monologue. … Everyone’s story is a “faith journey,” in some way, no matter how angry, confused or destructive that journey might be. (41, 43)

Davis’ study is rooted in scripture, with several deep studies of biblical texts about sharing our faith. He also includes a detailed and helpful discussion guide that is an easily executed lesson plan for any church group reading the study. I think this book would be ideal for churches who think of evangelism and faith sharing as something “those people” do, or cannot conceive of a way of sharing faith that is not coercive or judgmental. It is long on explanation and justification, shorter on implementation. It is not a “how-to” book in a concrete, easily applicable way, but it is an important first step for congregations and individuals who are resistant or at a loss for how to begin any kind of conversation about faith-sharing.

Changing the Conversation: A Third Way for Congregations by Anthony B. Robinson, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008, 199 pp.

Changing the conversationAnthony Robinson is among my favorite authors when it comes to explaining the changes facing the world, articulating their impact on the church, and raising the questions that we all need to contemplate in response. In this book, he takes it farther, drawing some conclusions about what mainline congregations need to do to engage with this new era. In Transforming Congregational Culture (one of my favorite guides for leading change in the church), Robinson makes the case for why change is necessary and hints at the kinds of changes that will be required. Changing the Conversation is a tool to help congregations launch the conversations that will engage the work of transformation.

The premise implied in the title is that congregations have been having conversations for the last few decades about whether they are liberal or conservative in their politics, traditional or contemporary in their worship style, emergent or established in their way of life. Robinson labels these conversations ubiquitous, unhelpful and even destructive. (4) The third way moves beyond “either/or” into “both/and.” How can we be about faith formation AND social justice? How can we be about personal transformation AND public transformation? How can we be serious about scripture AND about reason? The path he charts guides congregations around those unhelpful conversations and into new ones, conversations that will move the church forward into a new way of life.

Much of the material was familiar to me, both from Robinson’s other books and from a myriad of authors addressing similar topics, like Brian McLaren, Diana Butler Bass, Phyllis Tickle, and Gil Rendle. However, this book is unique because it condenses all that material into short, topical chapters that are perfect for discussion with leadership groups in congregations. I ordered copies of this book for every member of my church Council, and we are going to be working through these conversations throughout the coming year, one chapter at a time.

Robinson covers all the major topics that churches should be considering. The first two chapters are titled, “It’s Not About You” and “And Yet…It Is About You.” These two chapters recap his earlier work (which I think is some of the best out there for mainline churches) on the death of Christendom and its implications for the church. The third chapter puts forth the key challenge for mainline churches: moving beyond civic faith to have “a new heart,” passionate about God and following the way of Christ. This chapter reminded me of a line in Martha Grace Reese’s work in Unbinding the Gospel, “You can’t give what you don’t got. Changing the church demands that all of us grow in our faith and in our relationship with Jesus Christ. He imagines four chambers of this new heart:

an encounter with the living God and the message of and about God; the power and purpose of Scripture; evangelism for the “churched”; and reclaiming theology as “wisdom proper to the life of believers.” These are four aspects of one whole transformation, that is, being “formed anew” or “formed over” by the living God. (79)

Subsequent chapters address more specific questions: leadership and governance, vision, purpose, mission and public role, stewardship and faith formation.

One of the most important things for me in this book was the chapter on a church’s purpose. Robinson traces a variety of authors (including each of the Gospel writers) on the purpose of the church, such as making disciples, changing lives, embodying Christ’s way of life in the world, glorifying God. All of these are variations on a theme. In a workshop with Robinson I attended on Sunday, he put it this way, “we’re in the people-making business,” making Christians not just by conversion but by a steady, shaping way of life. I think clarity of purpose is critical for all congregations, because it should shape everything else. Our purpose guides what we do (and what we don’t do), and how we go about it. We need to be clear on it, and reiterate it over and over again in everything we do as a church. For my congregation, this will be our starting place. We developed a purpose a few years ago, but we have not revisited it recently.

While I may have read or heard many of these ideas before at multiple clergy workshops, and while our church has already been doing this conversational work together over the last five years, it will still be new to many of the Council members reading this book throughout the year. For me, it is a reminder that the conversation needs to be ongoing, not just a one-time thing. Most importantly, this book (far more than many others) does not just lament the past or imagine the future in vague and dreamy ways. Robinson’s questions and model of congregational conversations offers a path for practical, local, immediate and meaningful ways for real churches to engage with change. Rather than feeling overwhelmed, I finished Changing the Conversation thinking, “we can do this!” I can imagine my church having all these conversations, and, with the help of this book, we will.

Liberating Hope: Daring to Renew the Mainline Church, by Michael S. Piazza and Cameron B. Trimble, Pilgrim Press, 2011, 230 pp.

It has taken me months to finish reading this book, which is not like me at all. I have read and reread chapters, and noticed that sometimes they fly by without impact, and sometimes I immediately act on the content. I think this is a book that is like “just-in-time training.” You need to reach for it at the moment you are preparing to act and change and work on a particular topic. When I started it back during sabbatical, I just couldn’t connect to it when I was away from church leadership. When I tried to read it all the way through like a monograph, I just couldn’t get inspired. Now that I’m back in the groove of transformational church leadership, I was ready and eager to absorb the content and make use of the ideas and information.

Piazza and Trimble are the founders of the Center for Progressive Renewal, an inspiring non-profit organization dedicated to helping people start new churches and renew dying ones in the mainline and progressive traditions. Both have extensive experience and a proven track record in starting and renewing. This book is a compilation of their best practices, critical questions, strategies and insights. It is a treasure trove for pastors and church leaders doing the work of congregational growth and transformation.

Liberating Hope covers an enormous range of topics—leadership, small groups, stewardship, mission, worship, administration, social media, databases, and more. Unlike many other books, Piazza and Trimble do not offer a formula or program for your church to follow. Instead, they focus on the big questions and important things a growing, thriving church must be doing,  then leave the details of what that looks like to you in your own context.

For example, in the chapter on worship they emphasize that the experience must be transformational–it must bring people into a real encounter with God that will leave them changed. Worship that is transformational will be authentic, accessible to newcomers, of excellent quality, sensual, touching both head and heart, and it will demand a response. Any church, of any size or style, can aspire to offer that kind of worship. The authors do not offer steps to follow, but questions and measures to help a church improve its effectiveness and enhance its service to God.

This book is not new or radical information. What makes it different is the freshness of the material (in response to new media and technology) and the comprehensiveness of the content (every aspect of church life is included). It is a great starting place, foundational text and reference point for any pastor or congregation engaged in birth or renewal. It won’t tell you everything you need to know, but it will help you identify what you need to know, where to find resources, and how to figure things out in your own church. For exactly that reason, I recommend it highly.

Here since 1954.

I have driven by this church sign about once a month for the last four years. The words have remained unchanged in all that time: “Here since 1954.” Every time, it makes me wonder, “Does this church actually DO anything, or is it just here?”

“Here since 1954” makes me wonder if the church has ever moved or changed at all. Are they still doing things now like they did back then? The year 1954 evokes images of a Leave It To Beaver church, full of button-down boys and crinoline girls sitting neatly in a row. It is foreign to my broken life, to a living God, to a real community, to a world in need, to a message of hope and purpose.

“Here” is a noun, a place. Is this church’s greatest accomplishment simply existing, holding down their corner property on a prominent thoroughfare? Surely there must be some verbs alive and well since 1954. How much more interesting would it be if they replaced “here” with any number of action words? Serving, growing, learning, worshiping, inspiring, praying, witnessing, proclaiming, giving, living. Throw in a single bonus descriptor like “together” or “faithfully” or “this community” or even “God,” and the church becomes downright interesting.

I visited this church’s website, and they seem a lively enough place to worship. They had pictures of smiling people, vibrant altar colors, and sermon recordings online. The problem is: I drive by their building every week, and never knew any of that. How many of our churches suffer the same problem?

This church is not alone. I lift up this church’s example not to be snarky, but because their sign speaks to a deeper concern. Every time I drive, my heart hurts for the vitality of the gospel and the witness of the church. I know that there are people, especially those that live in the neighborhood, who are desperate for community, for good news, for hope and grace. I believe that this church, by the power of the Spirit, has all those things to offer. But the only message we see is the one that tells us they haven’t gone anywhere in more than 50 years.

My church’s sign with moveable text.

Every church struggles with this challenge. How do we let people know that this is the place to find life? Every word on our signs, every image we project, the weeds in our church yards and the condition of the paint on our buildings communicates a message to the world. Is it a message of life-giving vitality? Do we vibrate with the verbs? Or do we just tell people that we’re here, like we’ve always been here—whether for 50 years, 150 years, or 350 years.

Assuming our church is in fact a life-giving, active, changing, growing place (which is not always true), how do we communicate that to people who pass by? The rise of the “nones” (people with no religious affiliation) has been all the news this week. Many of those absent from our religious communities believe that the church and Christianity are out of touch and out of date. Yet they most also continue to believe in God, pray and understand themselves as spiritual beings. They just don’t think the church has anything relevant to offer on those matters.

Our old sign, which definitely did not communicate vitality.

For too many people, the church has become a noun, a place—unmoved and unmoving, fixed in space, here since 33 CE. In our signs, images and publicity, we must find our verbs again. More importantly, in our worship, our community and our ministry, we must be active and vital, so that the verbs take over. We are not just “here.” We are serving, loving, praying, caring, connecting, living, worshiping, uniting, working, building, growing, learning, deepening, stretching, discovering, listening, helping, changing and infinitely more, by the power of the Spirit. May all those who seek life see Christ alive in us.

This is a major improvement, but…

… this is even better. Even with the old sign.

Pop Goes Religion: Faith in Popular Culture by Terry Mattingly, W Publishing Group (Thomas Nelson), 2005, 198 pp.

If you’ve been following this blog, you’ll know that I have been reading a lot on the topic of evangelism lately. When I purchased this book, I was just pursuing my interest in religion in pop culture (check out the last post about angels on TV). However, in reading it now, I had an eye toward using pop culture as a means for telling the Gospel story using images familiar to people outside the church.

Mattingly is a columnist, and this book is a compilation of his columns over the course of ten years, beginning in the mid-1990s. I was initially disappointed that the book was not a more systematic analysis or sustained thesis, and feared the book would be too random and hodgepodge to be useful. However, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the disparate columns hung together well. Mattingly is an insightful analyst and critic.

The most important thing Mattingly offers in this book is the conviction that faith matters, and that popular culture matters. Both are real forces in people’s lives, shaping their worldviews for good or for ill. Both deserve to be taken seriously and analyzed deeply. Mattingly demonstrates a level of insight about both that is rare to see. Most people (especially writers/journalists) speak eloquently about one, but ignorantly about the other. The gift of this book is the author’s ability to comprehend both so well, and understand how they speak to one another.

One of the interesting themes that emerges over and over again is the way that attempts to form Christian popular music (Christian films, contemporary Christian music, Christian fiction) rarely get beyond shallow tropes. Because they seek to be positive, to stay within well-established orthodoxies, and to promote doctrine, elements of popular culture labeled “Christian” rarely manage to find the depth of struggle and hope that render them powerful and inspiring. This is why I got turned off years ago by Christian music and just about anything else that can be purchased at a Christian bookstore. It just seemed saccharine and over-marketed, an attempt to sell Christians a bunch of junk because it was labeled “Christian.” Mattingly returns to this theme in several articles:

Since Christendom is built on a story that is literally larger than life, Peacock wonders why CCM is smaller than life. The Bible is full of sin, death, doubt, love, hate, anger, war, lust and other messy subjects. The faith of the ages wrestles with the bad news before getting to the Good News.   — on Charlie Peacock’s book At the Crossroads (7)

Most Christians, he argues in the first chapter, are sinfully content to write for other Christians, to sing to other Christians, to produce television programs for other Christians, to educate other Christians, debate other Christians, and only do business with other Christians. “Shameful,” he writes, “We have failed and are failing America.” — on Bob Briner’s book Christians Have Failed America (69)

By mining popular culture inside and outside the targeted Christian markets, Mattingly uncovers the spirituality and the yearnings at work in everything from Star Wars and Lord of the Rings to U2, Carl Sagan and the Veggie Tales. He points out what makes “popular culture” so popular, why it become a spiritual experience for people. Mattingly does not make an argument about how Christians should respond, he simply points out the connections. In other words, if you want to connect with people who live in this pop culture world, here are the things they are connecting to, and this is why they are connecting to them.

As I take time to contemplate evangelism and how to tell people outside the church about the story of Christ, I found this a helpful way of thinking, and full of insight about the quest for meaning in non-Christian sources. It’s a fun read, and light, and invites further reflection.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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