I’m offering a snapshot on three books today: Vertical Church by James McDonald, Deep & Wide by Andy Stanley, and Shrewd by Rick Lawrence. The first two are explicitly related to ministry vision; the third does make application to ministry vision but it’s wider in its scope. Each had its strengths and weakness. Ironically, these three books may be three of the most polarizing books I’ve read. I found myself saying hallelujah! and head scratching more times in each book than I can can remember with any other of the books I’ve read this year. It was interesting that it happened in all three of these books. Without further ado.
I was intrigued by Shrewd precisely because you don’t hear a lot surrounding this topic. But I was disappointed on the delivery for two reasons. First, the premise is built upon a misunderstanding of the two passages which use the word shrewd (Matthew 10 & Luke 16). Second, and closely related, because the foundation was shaky you never got a crisp definition of what he means by Christian shrewdness.
Let’s addresses my first objection. Matthew 10:16 says, “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” This verse is in the context of persecution and shepherding Jesus’s flock in the midst of wolves. So the command to be wise as a serpent it seems most natural to connect with dealing with the wolves mentioned and the innocent (harmless) as doves connects with dealing with the sheep. Lawrence in the book tries to make the connection between serpent and Satan and dove and the Holy Spirit but Matthew doesn’t seem to make that connection (pp. 34-35).
Luke 16 Jesus tells a parable about the dishonest manager who is about to getting fired so he settles his master’s debts for half price and saves his job. Jesus immediately provides the point of the parable. Jesus says, “ I tell you, use the riches of this world to help others. In that way, you will make friends for yourselves. Then when your riches are gone, you will be welcomed into your eternal home in heaven” (v. 9). Rick suggest Jesus was praising the servant’s dishonesty as a positive model of shrewdness (pp. 153-54) but that line of thought misses the point which Jesus explicit teaches in verse 9.
Now the second objection. The word shrewd rarely occurs and where it does is constrained by the context of these scenarios. It seems then unnatural to lift up this one quality as ultimate for Christian living. I do applaud Rick’s push back on the idea that Christians should just be naive and nice. A kind of simple minded pushover (pp. 45-50). But because of the confusion over the first point and the stretching of the intent the definition of shrewd never comes across clearly. Rick frequently references (pp. 24-27) studying the situation and applying pressure with levers (last 50 pages) and coming at the situation sideways (pp. 142-151). One selection demonstrates the kind of tension due to the unnatural use of these texts and the word shrewd. Rick says,
There are few things we hate more than feeling like someone is playing us for the fool. Even more, we abhor the thought that we might be playing someone for a fool. That’s just not . . . Christian. Shrewdness is a breach of our social contract with each other--our innate agreement to treat others as we’d like to be treated (p. 50 see also p. 143).
Rick seems to be suggesting playing someone would be the Christian thing to do. After finishing the book I was disappointed because I felt like there was something there worth exploring but the presentation and emphasis was all wrong. The something there came out when he made statements like,
This same dynamic was at work in the mother of all shrewd encounters—when the Trinity plotted the over- throw of “the ruler of this world,” winning back God’s beloved from the kingdom of darkness. When Jesus willingly gave up His life as a sacrifice for all, defeating the claims of Satan and stripping him of his authority and power, He knew His Enemy had grown soft after countless millennia spent killing, stealing, and destroying with only spotty resistance. Though the sacrifice was inestimable and the pain was incalculable, it was a relatively easy turn of the wrench for the Sensei of Shrewd. (p. 161 see also p. 61)
But unfortunately the potential didn’t out weight misunderstanding of shrewdness.
A free copy of this book was provided by David C. Cook. If you plan on purchasing Shrewd, consider supporting Grace for Sinners by purchasing from Amazon
What I loved about Vertical Church was MacDonald’s emphasis on the glory of God. That theme ran through out the book and for that alone the book was worth reading (p. 300).
I also found his counter-emphasis on the sameness of mankind in its desire for eternity and God refreshing. It’s a necessary balance to the over-contextualization that happens today. Says MacDonald,
We are taught to study out culture and contextualize the message to fit the uniqueness of the mass we seek to minister to. . . . Is the church about scratching the minutia of our unique itches, or is it about filling the vacuum of universal commonalty instilled in us by God? (p. 40)
While I say yes and amen, I also say it seems short-sighted to junk all contextualization as improper. Harvest Bible Church contextualizes their worship service. The first of the hallelujah! and head scratching.
However, my main issue was movement from the emphasis of God and his glory ( Hallelujah!) to over specific application (head scratching). For instance, in describing how you can tell if God’s glory is present in your church James offers these among other in a checklist: “people line up at the door long before the service starts and rush to the front to get the beast seats for passionate, expressive worship where voices are loud, hands are raised, tears are flowing, minds are expanded, and hearts are moved as Christ is adored,” conversion rates in contrast to church size, or small groups meetings (pp. 90-92). Many of these things I am for. I frequently raise my hands in worship, I attend a large church that typically sees lots of conversions, and my church offers small groups but what about people who don’t and let’s be honest most churches are not large, may not offer small groups, and according to the sovereign will of God they may not see a lot of conversions even though they preach and evangelize fervently and faithfully.
In close conjunction with that was the over emphasis on singing but specifically singing which results in manifestly expressive worship. MacDonald explicitly states that singing that doesn’t manifest itself with hand-raising and other outward expressions is wrong (p. 183). He also explicitly reject hymns for having too much doctrine. He contrasts doctrinally deep songs with simple repetitive songs which tend to produce the outward expressiveness.
Intimacy demands simplicity, and with all due respect to hymns filled with great theology, that level of complexity is not what the Scripture reveals as God’s personal preference. Yes, God has worship preferences too, and Vertical Church is about understanding those prerogatives and shaping our service plan to fit them (p. 176 what follows is a discussion about the angels singing “holy, holy, holy” as a model for simplicity and a rejection of the complex theology found in hymns pp. 173-79)
Of course, that’s a false dichotomy but what’s more he’s made his musical preferences (his contextualization ironically) binding on everyone else.
Finally, he seems to write with a lot of angst. Not necessarily bad but not helpful either. For instance,
Where rebuke comes from elders in the body of Christ it should be directed against confirmed, substantive error, not disagreement over method or minor variation in doctrine, and it should come from those qualified to give it. Even ESPN realizes that veteran NFL players are in the best position to critique those currently on the field. (p. 126)
He talks about deciding not to send his manuscript off for review by pastor friends who had offered help for fear their push back causing more spiritual warfare for him (p. 305). It was hard to separate the fiascoes of the last 18 months from the tone of Vertical Church. He takes potshots at everybody from reformed, seeker-sensitive, attractional, missional (p. 40, 168), and especially at those pesky fundamentalists (pp. 128-29). The last group takes the most heat which is ironic because as a former fundy one of my biggest gripes was how they often bound people’s consciences over preference which is what James does here as well.
The emphasis on experiencing the glory was wonderfully refreshing but would have been more impactful had it focused on the working of the Spirit in church through preaching the word. Preaching was emphasized but it seemed less than singing. A trend which is harmful for the body of Christ since preaching is the only guaranteed, never coming back void method of the Spirit to bring dead people to life in Christ. James says,
We preach so that worship will increase, not the reverse.
How often have we sat in church and heard the platform misnomer that a song will be sung to “prepare our hearts for the message”? Yes, ascribing worth to God elevates Him to His place and lowers us to ours, readying souls for God’s instruction, but the phrase can seem to imply a pecking order that should not be intended and is not true. We don’t worship so that preaching will be more impactful for us; we preach so that worship will be more impactful for God. (p. 170 the context of the chapter is lifting up singing as worship not acts of service or love see p. 168)
That’s a matter of emphasis which is important. James does offer some penetrating cultural observations about the state of preaching (check out pp. 151-55, 220). The most helpful chapter for me was the one on prayer. I realized I don’t pray enough or as boldly as I ought and so I do not receive because I do not ask. Vertical Church has some profound hallelujah! but also some of the most puzzling ironic head scratches.
A free copy of this book was provided by David C. Cook. If you plan on purchasing Vertical Church, consider supporting Grace for Sinners by purchasing from Amazon.
In Deep & Wide Andy Stanley is offering another how-to book on copying the North Point model. It’s an apology of that model in the framework of his story and the church’s. The overall thrust of the model is making church a place where the unchurched and irreligious love to attend (pp. 12-13, 16). Depending on how that’s fleshed out hallelujah! More often than not as described by Stanley it was the head scratching. I will say I was impressed with Stanley’s heart towards those he knows criticize his methods. He seems genuinely willing to listen and possibly learn.
My main concern with the model presented is the ethos Stanley creates around it. He seems to downplay the importance of Scripture on multiple points and readily admits this when proposing certain practices. Multiple times through out the book he made the comment that many would consider x unorthodox but we do it, we don’t have any biblical explanation for this but it works, or on the rare instance any Scripture is brought to bear it’s done poorly. I’ll provide examples of all of the above below. Granted depending on what the topic under discussion is not having Scriptural warrant is ok (for instance, there is not command about the color of your church carpet) but when the issue is the unsaved ministering in the church, deacons (they don’t have them p. 269), and divorce (p. 39). the Bible has lots to say explicitly and by good and necessary consequence we must obey what the Scripture explicitly and implicitly teaches.
Not long ago there was a controversy about Stanley’s comments about a homosexual who had separated from his family but was still serving in the church. After reading this Deep and Wide, I understood clearly why for North Point there was no controversy and why the model itself is deficient. They value reaching the sinner and doing so by inviting them to serve in some capacities and also lead small groups (p. 80). The issue is a matter of ecclesiology. What does church membership entail? What does Scripture say about it? How much should unbelievers be involved in the actual ministry of the church? and what role does church discipline play in the church?
If unbelievers are welcoming people and leading small groups, how does that impact those who profess Christ and then are disciplined? What point is the discipline if there’s no distinction between being a Christian in the church and an unbeliever? The bible provides a better way to love and be for unbelievers than muddying the waters (p. 92 bad explanation of Jerusalem Council for support of this church model). A few examples of the muddy waters. Stanley says,
My doctor is also one of my best friends. He’s not a Christian. But it’s not from a lack of conversation. In some respects he’s a better “Christian” than a lot of the Christians I know. He closes his practice every Thursday to volunteer at a local hospice. He holds dying people’s hands, does what he can to make them comfortable, and speaks to the concerns and expectations of family members. Basically, he’s a pastor on Thursdays. But don’t tell him. (p. 254)
Again he says, “Putting people in ministry environments is the quickest way to capture their hearts. So we move quickly” (p. 128 see p. 136, ); Paul says, “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” (Romans 10:14).
There’s a false dichotomy between being for the unsaved and being against sin (pp. 69, 73). Between Scripture and the church. For instance, he says,
I give people permission to filter out the “Jesus” parts of my messages. Consequently, Jewish attendees often bring friends. They refer to me as a good motivational speaker. I’m fine with that. A Muslim attendee tweeted that he hums through the Jesus parts of my messages. I retweeted him (p. 180)
The goal of their service is for first time visitors to return (short term) and to effect life change (long term) more so than people “crossing the line of faith” or baptism (pp. 196-98). To be fair, the life change would seem to overlap with faith and baptism but absent is any primary or even secondary focus on God.
Last, he confuses the idea of leadership and pastoring. He actually says that the original apostles were good preachers but not good leaders which is why Jesus recruited Paul (just a woeful representation of the events of the early New Testament church). According to this interpretation of the New Testament church in Acts, pastors are typically woeful leaders and we should have more business-minded leader types in the church running the show while pastors are preaching (pp. 296-97). Stanley really misses the boat here because he has failed to interact with what the Bible requires of pastors. Paul uses the word “overseer” when admonishing Timothy and also demands men be able to lead their family well. Leadership is closely intertwined with the requirement of pastoring well. The two cannot be separated.
The few helpful nuggets I took away were just not worth all the confusion and misunderstanding promulgated through Deep & Wide
A free copy of this book was provided by Zondervan. If you plan on purchasing Deep & Wide, consider supporting Grace for Sinners by purchasing from Amazon.