Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Church, Maui, Hawaii

Church, Maui, Hawaii (Photo credit: aimforawesome)

Imagining the Small Church by long-time small church pastor Steve Willis is an important new book for small churches and for the church at large.  Here is my mini-review that appears on the back cover:

“Are you weary of books aimed at ‘fixing’ the small church? Read this book instead. With deep respect, Steve Willis shows how healthy small churches simply and lovingly embody God’s upside-down wisdom. Long experience at the periphery gives us much to teach the larger church that now finds itself pushed to the sidelines of culture. Read, imagine—and hope!”

You can read my full review in The Presbyterian Outlook here.

Read an excerpt here, and another excerpt here on the Alban Institute website.

Small church friends, read this book and be uplifted and challenged.  Large church friends, read this book and be challenged and uplifted.

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The Vibrant Congregations Project of Luther Seminary has just published a free e-book that you can download in formats for your Kindle, iPad or Nook, or in pdf format to view and print from your computer.  It’s entitled Renew 52, and inside you’ll find over fifty short articles grouped under these headings:

  • Leadership
  • Community
  • Worship
  • Children, Youth, & Family
  • Preaching
  • Service & Mission
  • Discipleship & Spiritual Practices

Click on the image above or on the title to go to the web page.  The producers of the book want it to be shared freely.  You will find articles that you can share with people and groups in your congregation.  You could use them as discussion starters for your congregation’s board.

I scanned them all, and here are some that I found especially helpful:

  • “Change Your Self-Image from Performer to Coach”:   David Lose, who also edited this volume, writes, “[W]e need to stop executing religious skills for our people and train them to perform them for themselves.  Otherwise they will continue to be spectators, appreciating the faith but never really learning how to do it for themselves,” p. 19.
  • “Avoid McDonaldization and Advocate Distinctive Discipleship”: Ronnie McBrayer says that in their desire to do what “works,” churches imitate one another’s programs and marketing plans.  This leads to churches being like brands or chains, like McDonald’s–when you’ve been to one, you’ve been to them all.  Instead, each congregation is called to be a unique community of God where God has placed it.  He writes, “Churches should cease their efforts to build spiritual shopping malls and focus instead on helping people become committed followers of Jesus,” p. 26.
  • “Reinvigorate Youth Ministry by Learning from Eli and Samuel”: Kathy Wolf Reed and Nick Reed find inspiration for intergenerational youth ministry from the story of Eli and Samuel in 1 Samuel 3.  They maintain that the best youth ministry is intergenerational, authentic, and reciprocal, i.e. generations care for and learn from each other.  See p. 55.  This leads to deeper faithfulness for everybody.  (Small churches who can’t hire a “cool” youth director: are you listening?)
  • “Create Family-friendly Worship Spaces”: Theresa Cho offers creative ideas to help families with children be able to worship together in the sanctuary.  She writes, “Worshipping with children in our midst can be a vital asset to a faith community–not solely because they need to learn something from us, but because we need to learn something from them as well,” p. 58.

Many, many thanks to the Vibrant Congregations Project for this gift to the whole church!

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The Hungry Coat makes a marvelous illustration for James’ stern warning against showing partiality to the wealthy and well-dressed.  Children’s author and illustrator Demi retells a delightful folk tale about Sufi mystic Nasrettin Hodja.  Nasrettin was known for his wisdom and wit, and many stories are told about him.  If you search for them, you will find many spellings of his name, including Nasrudin, Nasreddin and Nasr-id-deen.

In this story a friend invites Nasrettin to a banquet.  Wearing his old patchwork coat, Nasrettin sets out for the banquet.  Along the way he stops to help capture a runaway goat.  When Nasrettin arrives at his friend’s house, the friend, the servants, and all the other guests ignore him. He realizes that it is because his coat is now dirty and smelly as well as worn-out.  Nasrettin hurries home, bathes, puts on a magnificent new coat, and returns to the banquet.  Now everyone is glad to welcome him.   Delicious food is set before him, which he proceeds to feed to his coat.  “Eat, coat!  Eat!” he says.  The host and guests are aghast.  “Why surely you wanted my coat to eat,” Nasrettin responds.  “When I first arrived in my old coat, there was no food for me.  Yet when I came back in this new coat, there was every kind of food for me.  This shows that it was the coat–and not me–that you invited to your banquet.”

James writes, “For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?” (vss.4-5).

For at God’s banquet it is the poor and sick and marginalized who have priority seating.

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Andrew Taylor-Troutman is a young pastor who loves his small congregation in Dublin, Virginia. In his book, Take My Hand, he takes readers on a journey through their first year together as pastor and people.   He stands with the congregation where their lives meet the word from scripture, and the living Word, Jesus.  Along the way he reflects on many topics, including how faith communities can live together despite differences of opinion.  Pastor and people take one another by the hand.  I highly recommend this book for anyone who loves small churches, and for beginning and experienced pastors alike.  You can read my full review of the book for the Presbyterian Outlook here.

You can visit Andrew’s web site, read an excerpt from the book,  and read his blog here.  You can also hear him speak about the book at this July 31, 2012 Morton Library Book Talk at Union Presbyterian Seminary via Union Live.  You can hear it live at 6:00 p.m. EDT on July 31, or you can view the archived version later.  Just scroll down to Book Talks on the Union Live page.

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Flagon, ruby glass, silver-gilt mounts, stones...

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In The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe Father Christmas gives Lucy a small bottle containing a healing cordial.    A few drops of this medicine can cure almost anything, and even bring people back from the brink of death.

Near the end of the book, after the battle against the White Witch, Lucy’s brother, Edmond lies near death.  The Great Lion Aslan, who is the Christ-figure in The Chronicles of Narnia, urges Lucy to act quickly with her cordial:

“Her hands trembled so much that she could hardly undo the stopper, but she managed it in the end and poured a few drops into her brother’s mouth.”

Notice what happens next:

“‘There are other people wounded,” said Aslan while she was still looking eagerly into Edmund’s pale face and wondering if the cordial would have any result.

“‘Yes, I know,’ said Lucy crossly.  ‘Wait a minute.’

“‘Daughter of Eve,’ said Aslan in a graver voice, ‘others also are at the point of death.'”

Lucy gets up and goes with Aslan to tend to other wounded folk.  When she is able to return to Edmund, she finds him “standing on his feet and not only healed of his wounds by looking better than she had seen him look–oh, for ages…”

I thought about this scene recently when I was reflecting on Mark 1:38.  Jesus has been caring for many people at Peter’s home in Capernaum.  There is still much more work to be done there, but after a time of prayer,  Jesus insists on moving on to other villages: “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.”

Jesus and the disciples move out in mission, traveling throughout Galilee.  Yet in Mark 2 and again still later in Mark, they return to Capernaum and resume work there.  Matthew 4 puts it this way:  Jesus made his home in Capernaum. Jesus goes out to reach people, but he also comes back home to those who already love him, and who still need him.  Jesus does both.  Jesus’ mission is a dual mission.

This gives me food for thought as we face a dual calling: caring for our dear  “home folks” who have long been in our congregations while simultaneously reaching out to others.  Yes, we are called to go into all the world.  But caring for people already in the church is also a holy calling.  Chaplaincy and evangelism are both holy callings.  The resources of prayer and the power of the Holy Spirit are crucial as we seek to be faithful in both directions.

The grace and strength of the Lord Jesus Christ are sufficient for us all.  There is enough of the healing blood in his cup for us all.  Let’s practice our ministry as if we really believe that!

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The talking drum is an instrument unique to th...

A West African Talking Drum. Image via Wikipedia

Isaiah 40:31 says that those who wait for the Lord shall mount up with wings like eagles.  There are many versions of a folktale about enslaved people rising up and flying to freedom.  The story probably originated in West Africa and has been passed down through the years in the African-American community.

The Rev. Otis Moss tells one version of this story in which a young woman with a small child collapses from the heat and labor of picking cotton.  The child tries to rouse her with no success.  An elderly man known as the Preacher and Prophet comes over and whispers into her ear, “Coolebah!” a West African word for God.  She stands up, takes her child’s hand, rises into the air, and flies away.  The Preacher speaks the word to many others, and they rise up and fly.  Moss concludes, “When we get the word of God in us, we fly.”  You can read this version of the story in its entirety here.

Children’s author Virginia Hamilton tells another version of the story called The People Could Fly.   You can find this story on its own in picture book format, and also in Hamilton’s anthology entitled The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales.  Both formats are beautifully illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon.

Otis Moss asks a question that we church folk need to ponder: “Are we a part of a church, are we part of a ministry that causes people to fly?”

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English: A collection of pictograms. Three of ...

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There is no question.  As 1 Corinthians 12 puts it, all the members of the body of Christ are necessary for its healthy functioning, and that includes people who have disabilities.  We’re not talking about ministry TO but ministry WITH people with disabilities as disciples of Jesus together.  Here is an article excerpted from a new book entitled Amazing Gifts: Stories of Faith, Disability, and Inclusion by Mark Pinsky, published by the Alban Institute.  I’ve already read one story from the book in Alban’s journal and look forward to reading the whole book.

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English: Icon of the Resurrection

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Mary and Joseph both laid down their old lives in order to embrace new life in Jesus.  The themes of Christmas and Easter hold together.  Here is a review I wrote of a book entitled In Dying We Are Born, which calls the church to lay down its life in order to receive the gift of the resurrection.  Yes, all Christians and all churches are called to die, and then we will be born anew by the power of God.

In Dying We Are Born The Challenge and the Hope for Congregations By Peter Bush The Alban Institute, 2008.  Pb. 138 pp.  $17.00.

“No, Lord!  This shall never happen to you!” Peter cried when Jesus declared that the way to life led through death.  Not said aloud but surely echoing in every disciple’s heart was this: “And it had better not happen to us, either!”  Congregations and denominations in North America certainly don’t want it to happen to us.  As we struggle with decline we want someone to tell us what to do so that we won’t die.

That person is not Peter Bush.  He calls the church to stop focusing on explanations, stop looking for people to blame, stop putting our faith in technical solutions, and above all, stop trying to save the church from dying.

Instead, we need to start depending on the God of the resurrection to raise the church to new life in God’s own way and in God’s own time.  The future of the church lies in dying and rising with Christ.  Every church is called to die.  There are no exceptions.  Death means dying to self, taking up the cross, and following Jesus.  We must be ready to lay everything down, even models of church and ways of doing ministry that we have cherished.  For example, Bush believes that the assumption that there always should be paid full-time clergy in every local church is one that must die.

Bush presents a succinct review of various models for congregational renewal.  Generally they take one of two approaches: build on what you’ve got (e.g. Kennon Callahan and Christian Schwarz), or tear down and start again (e.g. Alice Mann and Easum & Bandy).  Bush finds much that is helpful in these models, particularly where they recognize that God is the one who transforms lives and renews the church.  He critiques them where they focus too much on human effort and human planning processes.

Drawing on the whole range of scripture, Bush reintroduces us to the God of the resurrection, who alone breathes life into the church.  He points to this God in action in the Book of Judges, as well as in Ezekiel 37 and in the Easter texts we expect to wrestle with in any discussion of resurrection.  Bush also shows this God in action in stories of contemporary congregations that have been raised to new life.  He offers much inspiring material for preaching and teaching.

Leaders journeying with the church through death to resurrection must ourselves be willing to die and rise with Christ.  We must die to our own plans and to our desire to be right.  With a prayerful, humble spirit, we are called to refocus the church on God’s story, help the church to grieve what is lost, articulate the promise of the resurrection, and invite the church to trust God.  Leaders guide the church to put God’s will for the church first, trust God’s ways, and stand in awe of the One who brings life out of death.

Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  This means that every disciple, every congregation, every judicatory, every affinity group and every denomination must die.  And then God will raise us to new life.

(This review is published in the December 12, 2011 issue of The Presbyterian OutlookYou can view an article adapted from this book at the Alban Institute’s website, and read the book’s prologue there as well.)

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Relationships are primary in small congregations.  Those of us who have experienced the blessings of life together in a small church often ask how other people get along without the close relationships that we cherish.  It turns out that healthy peer relationships are key for changing human behavior in general and for solving problems that seem intractable.  Recently I read an important book entitled Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World.  Author Tina Rosenberg tells stories drawn from across the world and from across domains: medical, social, political and spiritual.  She shows how positive peer power can help people practice healthier life habits and follow medical regimens, develop sources of income, leave gangs and terrorist cells, bring down dictators—Slobodan Milosevic in this case—and help people draw closer to God.

Rosenberg includes a lengthy chapter chronicling the struggle of a megachurch, Willow Creek, to create true community in small groups where people actually are a part of one another’s everyday lives, encouraging each other to go deeper in love of God and neighbor.  The results have been mixed.  The author describes in detail one of Willow Creek’s successful groups, which is really a minichurch inside the megachurch.  I found myself having a new compassion for large churches, who have to work so hard to develop what comes naturally in a healthy small congregation.

In the small churches I’ve been a part of, I’ve seen the positive difference good relationships can make.  It was inspiring to read so many preachable examples of the power of community in Join the Club.  It’s a very long book, so you may not have time to read it.  Just keep it in mind for future reference.

Meanwhile, this book reminds us to look at our own communities.  Are we drawing closer to God and maturing as disciples?  Are we influencing one another in a positive way?  And are we turning outward to form community with others?  Join the Club is food for thought as we discern how to do that.

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Cover of "Charlotte's Web (paper-over-boa...

Cover of Charlotte’s Web (paper-over-board)

Charlotte’s Web is an inspiring story for small congregations.  As the story opens, Fern’s father is on his way to the hoghouse, ax in hand, intending to kill the runt of a newborn litter of pigs.  “It’s very small and weak, and it will never amount to anything.  So your father has decided to do away with it,” Fern’s mother explains.

Fern cannot believe what she is hearing.  “Do away with it?” shrieks Fern.  “You mean kill it?  Just because it’s smaller than the others?”

“Don’t yell, Fern,” her mother replies.  “Your father is right.  The pig would probably die anyway.”

If author E.B. White had used a word we sometimes use in the church, he would have written, “He’s not viable.”

As the story unfolds, Fern lovingly nurtures the little pig, now named Wilbur, and he thrives.  Later Wilbur moves to Fern’s Uncle Homer’s barn where he makes new friends.  The most special friend is a gray spider named Charlotte, who comes up with an ingenious plan to get the humans to see Wilbur in a different way.  Whereas the humans see Wilbur as a runt or as future bacon, Charlotte gets them to see that he is “Some Pig,” “Terrific,”  “Radiant,” and “Humble.”  In succession she weaves these words into her web, and the humans get the message.

Scripture makes it clear that God’s vision is quite different from human vision, particularly when it comes to what the world sees as small and weak.  This means that your small congregation is not a runt!  What God sees in you is a community that is “Beloved,” “Beautiful,” “Blessed,” and “Brimming with Potential.”

Our small congregations need friends like Fern and Charlotte who see them through the eyes of God.  With this kind of vision they can thrive!

E.B. White.  Charlotte’s Web.   New York: HarperCollins, 1952.  Illustrations by Garth Williams.

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