Headed into a Great Future

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Nearly a decade ago, I started SlatyBeliever.com because I felt like material I was learning in seminary should be made available to others without the need to go broke.  So I started sharing stuff from my papers and reviews of books I was reading at the time.  I wasn't qualified to teach, nor was I the best source, but there wasn't much out there, and I was thrilled to do something to change that.  That was nearly a decade ago, and by the grace of God, I still enjoy making resources available (even if my doctoral work bogged me down for a season). 

Jared Jenkins and I started "Salty Believer Unscripted" as a way to share conversations among pastors and ministers that the Jiffy-Lube Joe wasn't often wasn't able to take part.  We felt like those conversations should be extended to anybody interested, so we started recording them.  We've had many remarkable guests along the way and I hope to have many more.  I'm also thrilled that Brett Ricley has picked up hosting responsibilities with me in this journey and will help me carry this podcast well into the future. 

From time to time, I posted videos resources, but not as many as I would have liked.  If possible, I would love to have so many resources available that bible study teaches, ministers, missionaries, pastors, and many others might have ample training available on this site and that the training would greatly help them for the work of ministry.  Brett and I are working on a plan for more. 

So I'm elated that we've made website and equipment upgrades.  As I finish my doctoral work soon, I hope to post more videos, more articles and book reviews, more podcast, and even some live-streaming events so you can join in the conversation. And I hope to bring other guest writers onboard. 

I beg that you will keep this ministry in your prayers.  We would love to have more podcast guests, more opportunities to help equip the saints for the work of ministry, and more financial resources to do even more.  I hope you might consider partnering in prayer with us at SaltyBeliever.com.  You might also consider helping us out by subscribing to our YouTube channel and podcast feed.  Like us on Facebook and keep up with what we're doing.  We'd also love to hear from you.  How might we improve what we're doing to with this ministry? 

Thanks for your support and prayers over the years!   
Bryan Catherman

Bible Study Essentials: A Simple Framework

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Studying the Bible doesn't have to be difficult, but it does require some system or progression.  How so?  

Well, let's say you are the Bible student who reads a passage through the lends of 'you first.'  You start by looking for "you" in the text and then what plays out in the biblical text applies directly to you precisely as it did in the Scripture.  Suddenly, you are David fighting your giant--a dead battery in your car.  Your promotion at work is the promised land, and you are going to take it.  Every problematic thing is 'your Jericho.'  

Now, you might be asking, why is this a problem?  

Let's take 2 Timothy 4:13 as an example.  You come across this verse through the lens of 'you.'  Out of context and void of a useful framework for Biblical study, you read, "When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, and also the books, and above all the parchments."   What does this mean?  Are you supposed to start a coat ministry?  Should you start a lending library for books at your church.  Or maybe this is about sending writing paper to pastors in other countries?  

But when you look through a system, you discover some timeless principles here.  You see that you are reading a letter from Paul, to his friend, Timothy.   Paul and Timothy were co-labors in the ministry.  Timothy was coming, and Paul wanted him to bring some things.  They help each other.  We also see that Paul was serious about his writing ministry.  There could be more, but after reading in the context of "what did it mean then" and extracting the timeless principles, we might understand that ministers of the gospel should be willing to help each other.  

In the video below, I share a simple system.  I'm not saying that you can't or shouldn't use other Bible study tools.  You should!  A Study Bible is a great start.  I'm not trying to downgrade things like learning the biblical languages, reading commentaries, doing word-studies, or other academic-type tools.  Those things all fit in the system, but you need a system.  

Also, you may download the bookmark in a full-page form here.  (Our was designed by Brett Ricley and adapted from material in Howard Hendrick's book, Living by the Book.) Use the bookmark as is, personalize it as your own bookmark, add more sub-questions, or use it how it will best help you study the Bible. 

Finally, you can buy Living by the Book: The Art and Science of Reading the Bible by Howard Hendricks here

Study on and study well!
Bryan Catherman

Gender, the Olympics, and God's Design

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There's lots of effort today to define men and woman as the same.  Exactly the same.  Exactly.  However, the Bible says men and women are equal in value but different in creation.  Genesis 1:21 says, "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them."  God created males and females.  Trying to make males and females exactly the same strips away unique aspects of God's design to create two kinds of humans--males and females. 

No matter how hard we try, we can't escape the reality of God's creation.  

Take the Olympics for example.  At the time of this post, the fasted 100-meters ran by male (a person with an x and y chromosome) was run by Usian Bolt.  He did it in 9.63 seconds.  The female record holder (a person with no y chromosome) is Florance Griffith-Joyner.  She ran the 100-meters in 10.62 seconds.  In the world of the 100-meter sprint, that's a large gap.  It's a difference.  

Imagine if a person with an x and a y chromosome (typically called a male) were to self-identify as a female and run in the 100-meter female race.  What if it were Usian Bolt?  What if this happened in boxing?  Would anybody be okay if Mike Tyson self-identified as a female and went into the ring with an actual female with two y chromosomes?  I think the world would cry, "foul."  In fact, the Olympic Committee has had to write a policy for transgendered athletes, to deal with God's created plan.  (You can read that policy here.) 

No matter how hard we try to define the terms as we want them, God, the Creator, is still the one who set the conditions.  Men and women, according to God are equal in value but different in creation.  We can try to make men and women the physically the same in creation, but in the end, God sets the terms.  Because God is the creator.  

The Pragmatic Movement

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The journalism industry did itself a grave disservice when they started giving news away online.  News companies thought that the more viewers, the more people would see the advertisements and the industry would survive the internet.  However, the more the news agencies gave away the news, the more people came to devalue real journalism.  No longer was the audience willing to pay for newspapers or watch the commercials required to pay for the journalist.  Fake news cropped up, and the standards of journalism practically died because of the unintended consequences of devaluing the service of providing the news. 

I wonder if the Church in America might be doing the same thing to the work of pastors?  

We see shrinking numbers of people engaging in church services, so we rapidly put our sermons online, even live-streaming them.  We blog and podcast everything (I realize that am a contributor of the sea of free info.)  People struggle to listen to a 40-minute sermon, so we cut Bible teaching down to 30-minutes until they can't take that and then we drop it to 20.  Soon enough, sermons will be limited to 140 characters.  Christians no longer desire to read books, make time to study, pray, or invest any resources in their growth, so we seek other ways disciple them into maturity that requires less and less commitment.  If it's not free of cost, people don't seem to want it. 

When local churches struggle to give financial support for the mission of the church or the needs of the pastor, the congregation demands that the pastor works for free.  Pastors end up bi-vocational, sacrificing time with family, struggling to find the time to study well, hurting the value they teach the church well.  When church planting is costly, the new normal is a bi-vocational guy. 

We plan and scheme and plan some more.  Business practices become more popular than Scripture.  We push out the power of God in exchange for well-conceived attempts to grow something that meets our minimum goals. 

Now please don't think I'm exempt from this problem.  I blog and podcast.  I post my sermons online.  I plan and scheme too.  I have multiple people on staff who are bi-vocational because our church plant is not yet self-sustaining.  And I know bi-vocational guys doing more than full-time guys.  I want people to hear the gospel, so I put it out there for people to find it easily (if they try).  I want Christians to grow, so I try to give away as many resources as I can afford.  

But might there be unintended consequences to downgrading the ministry?  

Yes, we want to empower the church to be the Church, but does that mean we don't need trained, equipped, empowered ministers to help equip the saints?  We don't often demand those who tend to our physical needs (like doctors, accountants, and lawyers) to shorten it up, give it away, and be bi-vocational, so why do we expect that of those tending to our spiritual needs?  

There are a Scriptures that demand we handle the gospel well as we teach and preach.  There are Scriptures that demand we financially care for those who preach the gospel.  And as I read the New Testament, I don't often see pragmatism leading the charge; yet, pragmatism is greatly shaping the Church in America today.  (It might be better if we let the Holy Spirit do the shaping and trust him with the results, even if the fruit doesn't look like we might expect.)   

Decades after the seeker-sensitive movement, we see the problems.  A decade after the purpose-driven programs, we see the problems.  I wonder what problems we'll see after we conclude that the pragmatic movement didn't accomplish what we hoped?  

Why do Mormons Want to Be Christians Now?

In recent months, I've had a few surprising conversations with members of the LDS church (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, also knows as Mormons).  Most of the conversations are about the same. The most recent LDS gentleman was kind, but the conversation was troubling.  When he discovered that I'm a pastor of an evangelical church, he started speaking to me as if both of us are Christians under the same big tent.  He fished for me to affirm that I thought either he was a Christian or that the LDS church is but another denomination with the universal Church of the biblical Jesus Christ.  I can affirm neither. 

I'm confused by the LDS church's recent desire to be viewed as the same as or under the same tent as the Methodists, Presbyterians, and Baptists.  

When I first enrolled in a Baptist seminary, an LDS co-worked took me out to lunch, Book of Mormon in hand.  Actually, it was the Joseph Smith History included in the Pearl of Great Price that he opened to read.  

I learned that in Joseph Smith's day, a great religious zeal erupted in New York.  The enthusiasm included Methodists, Presbyterians, and Baptists (1).  This fervor caused the founder of the Mormon church much confusion (2).  So he read James 1:5 and decided to ask for wisdom (3).  Smith states that he had a vision of two people he believed to be God the Father and Jesus Christ.  He asked them which church he should join: the Methodists, Presbyterians, or Baptists.  

Smith wrote, "I was answered that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong; and the Personage who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors [referring to the Christian preachers] were all corrupt; that: 'they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof'" (4).  

The person in the vision forbid Smith from joining any of these three Christian groups.  Instead, the LDS religion was born.  Smith returned home and told his Presbyterian mother, "I have learned for myself that Presbyterianism is not true" (5).  Something that is not true is false.  Smith said the Presbyterianism is a false faith and it is safe to say he felt the same about Methodists and Baptists too. 

My co-worker used Joseph Smith's story to try to convince me that the Baptist faith was wrong.  A lie.  An abomination, detestable, false.  He went on to tell me about the Great Apostasy, a belief that after the last New Testament Apostle had died, Christ's Church fell into darkness and was grossly wrong.  So wrong that something new had to come to restore Jesus' Church.  He claimed that restoration was the LDS church.  

Now here's where I struggle.  If the Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist creeds were an abomination in the sight of this vision character, why do LDS people want to be seen in the same category as these Christian organizations?  Why do they want to be a part of the wrong, offensive, despicable group who hold to doctrines of men not worth joining?   

Frankly, the Presbyterians, Methodists, and Baptists are either still wrong, and the LDS should want nothing to do with the creeds of Christianity these three Christian denominations profess nor the doctrines they teach, or the LDS owes these three Christian groups a serious apology for such harsh statements that they now seem not to believe.  I'm not sure which it is, but I'm still confused why I've started having so many conversations with LDS folks who have forgotten that the creeds and doctrines of my faith were as offensive to Joseph Smith as the creeds, articles of faith, and doctrines he wrote are concerning to me.   

___
1. Joseph Smith -- History: Extracts from the History of Joseph Smith, the Prophet. Published by the Church of Jesus Christ Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 1981, v. 5.      

2. Ibid., v. 6-10. 

3. Ibid., v. 11-14. 

4. Ibid., v. 19. 

5. Ibid., v. 20. 

The Disciple-Maker's Toolbox

We've wrapped up a Salty Believer Unscripted series called, "The Disciple-Maker's Toolbox."  In this series, we looked some of the various tools those making disciples are using to do their job well.  It was a joy to interview a few people in this series too.  

If you would like to get better at making disciples and walking along disciples, or if you're curious about some of the tools we've found to be helpful, this series is for you.  If you haven't already, check out "The Disciple-Maker's Toolbox:

The Disciple-Maker's Toolbox
-- An Introduction audio
-- Using Scripture and Prayer in Discipleship audio
-- 15-Second Story audio
-- Discipleship of Presence audio
-- Perseverance audio 
-- Story audio
-- The Workplace audio
-- Sunday School audio
-- Using a Roadmap audio
-- Tools for Campus Ministry audio 
-- The Sermon audio
-- The Local Church audio 
-- Conclusion audio

You will find many more episodes like these by following the Salty Believer Unscripted link on our website. 

Coffee, A Pride-Busting Blend

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The church I pastor was a church that served bad coffee.  Coffee worse than gas station coffee.  Not only were we a church that served bad coffee, but we also didn't provide liquid creamer.  Bad coffee, somehow, had become a mark of my pride.  So God used a coffee grinder to grind down my arrogance. 

Kids love fruit snacks and fish crackers and Jesus Storybook Bibles and coloring sheets and play time.  They love silly sermons and a fun student pastor.  These simple things contribute to their worship experience and make them want to come back.  I think it might be these things that cause my kids to invite the neighbor kids.  They love our children's ministry not only because they get to learn about Jesus, but because those other things that contribute to their worship too. 

Adults are like kids.  Metal folding chairs are not fantastic; padded seats are much better.  We like air conditioning.  Beautiful worship slides enhance the worship service.  We have professionally printed connection cards and good graphics.  We give away door hangers and tracts.  Most of the time we vacuum and clean the windows.  Lighting and sound quality improve our worship service.  I hope and pray that the adults of Redeeming Life Church love learning about Jesus on Sunday mornings and want to invite their friends too.

But the coffee at our church was so bad.  We'd make it, nobody drank it, and we'd toss it.  

I was too cheap to buy better tasting coffee on our church budget.  It just sounded so consumeristic to me.  "If people are only coming for the coffee, what's the point?" I asked to myself.  But if people want to come worship, pray, hear a sermon, connect, and invite their friends because we have slightly better coffee, we ought to think about having amazing coffee.  I mean, it's not like people were asking us to build a coffee bar and make custom espresso drinks.  But based on my response to requests for better tasting coffee and liquid creamer, you'd think they were asking me to convert our church building into a Starbucks. 

Then I pulled a bottle of water from the refrigerator before a staff meeting.  Wait.  I use our church budget to buy coffee at in the community during meetings, and sometimes I buy it for others (when they don't buy it for me.)  I don't carry around a can of Nescafe to make instant coffee during the week.  I want to be a hospitable church, and I like good coffee during the week. Some how, Sunday became an exception to drinkable coffee.  Why?  My pride I guess.  

Then I read something about how most people attend church because someone invited them.  I thought about the coffee.  Later, I went to buy a cup of coffee so I could grab a couple of creamers for my wife to use at church (I don't tend to use creamer, but she does.)  Was I stealing creamer from a hospitable gas station because our church didn't provide creamer?  It would seem so.  What was the matter with me!

So I gave in and went to purchase some better coffee. 

God really started speaking when I came to the coffee grinder.  Standing at Trader Joe's red grinder, I was agitated that I had to spend 20-minutes of my day grinding coffee instead of doing something evangelistic or super spiritual or something.  My son, on the other hand, was having the time of his life helping me.  "The people are going to love this!" he exclaimed with joy.  He was smiling, making a laughter-filled game out of the process, and offered to wait there to grind other people's coffee so we could tell them that Jesus loves them.  

I had been working on a sermon on the spiritual discipline, "service," from Psalm 101:2.  Part of this sermon would look at Jesus' foot-washing experience in John 13:1-21.  How evangelistic was that act?  It wasn't.  How humbling was that act?  Humbling!  Jesus didn't say, "You can wash your own feet because we're here for the Lord's Supper, an impressive multi-chapter sermon on abiding in me, and a killer prayer people will be talking about for thousands of years!"  Nope.  Instead, Jesus looked around, saw that the disciples could use a foot washing, and served them.  I don't want to wash feet, but I can figure out how to get drinkable coffee.  Coffee might be one of the highest indicators of hospitality in our culture, and I was proud to serve undrinkable motor-oil?  

God used the coffee grinder to set an appointment to speak to me.  

I'm glad.  My pride needed ground down.  And hey, maybe standing around drinking coffee will help our church connect better as a church.  Maybe it is one less thing to hinder our church from inviting others to hang out with God's family?  Or maybe the coffee at church is just one more way God is sanctifying me. 

Engaging the City for What, Exactly?

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I live in an area of the Salt Lake that doesn't have franchise restaurants outside the fast-food category.  No hip coffee shops.  No Cafe Rio.  Not even a Chili's.  I live in what some call the last affordable housing, and others call the hood.  It' neither the hood nor affordable, but it's my home. When I moved across the valley to plant Redeeming Life Church, I think I had an idea in my head that with the gospel would come more restaurants and a more affluent quality of life. 

Why did I think like this?  

Maybe because it's natural.  How many missionaries travel around the world to share the gospel but spend most of their time trying to import a better quality of life in the now? Often well-being in the now is given much more energy and prayer then welfare in eternity.  The same goes for short-term missionaries. Pictures during a report show far more poverty than brokenness and sin.  And how often is that the poverty makes the pictures so sexy, and they become shocking to us because they display something less than our affluence?  What might the people of the mission field say if they saw our pictures and heard our reports?

The same thing happens in my area of Salt Lake City.  

I was talking with some Christians who moved to my community to live as missionaries.  A big concern was the lack of great stuff in my community.  I get it.  The people here often feel of less value than those across the valley.  I tell our mission teams that they come to show the people of my community that Jesus values them enough to send mission teams armed with the gospel. But just because we don't have remarkable housing or a sit-down joint with tasty steak or RVs and big boats doesn't mean we need the gospel more than those who have the good stuff.  That thinking only targets the now.  No.  My community needs the gospel because we are broken sinners, separated from God.  Someday we may have a Starbucks, but that doesn't matter either way if we don't have the gospel. 

"But Jesus often healed people before he shared his good news," missionaries argue; "Jesus fed the people because he cared about their physical needs."  This is true.  But it is not always the case and not the definitive model for mission work.  He didn't give the women at the well physical water.  In fact, he asked her for a drink from the well.  Paul didn't go barging into the idol shops in Emphasis to shut them down in the name of social justice.  Instead, he started preaching the gospel to his people in the synagogue, and when they weren't interested, he didn't dig them a well or repaint their building.  I moved on to others who might be open hear the gospel.  Eventually, the gospel changed people so much the they stopped buying the false idols.  Also, idolatry was their problem, not the lack of a great coffee shop.  Idolatry is our problem, and a great coffee shop might be an idol. 

I am not saying we don't serve our communities.  I'm not saying I don't pray for a great (inexpensive) sushi place in my neighborhood.  I'm certainly not saying we don't dig wells, clean up trash, or fix up the city.  But I am saying that if the gospel reality that redeems sin and brokenness is not leading our motivation, we probably have the wrong motivation. If affluence is our objective, affluence might be our gospel too. 

Arrogance in the Multicultural Church Movement

I've had a difficult time putting my finger on it until now, but I've struggled with the tone of the multicultural church movement in the US.  It's not because I think local churches should be segregated; I certainly don't (more on that in a moment).  Instead, it's because of the arrogance I've seen on the part of a some pushing this movement within the Church .

Let me explain. 

The arguments for a multiculturural church body are good.  Heaven will be populated by every tribe, tongue, and nation; therefore, it wouldn't hurt to practice now as a shadow of the things to come.  Another argument pushes that the gospel bridges racial and socio-economic divides.  This is true. If we are indeed united around Christ, then slave and master can worship together, as can Jews and Greeks, circumcised and uncircumcised.  Another argument says the local church body should reflect the local community.  That sounds good, right. (But is it?)  And finally, there are arguments that work against segregation driven by sin, such as racism or other factors.

These are well-meaning arguments, but they don't play out well in our current scope of thinking.  

Often, church leaders desire to have non-english speaking members join the local church as a way to move toward diversity.  But if diversity is this important, why are these leaders not encouraging their church members to leave and join churches that hold services in other languages?  Do English speakers want to to worship in Mandarin, Spanish, or Arabic spoken services ever week? (I mean, in the name of multiculturalism?)  I don't see this happening much. So why would we expect other non-English speaking people to do that in English speaking churches?  Might it be that God has called people in many languages to minister in languages people can understand?  Might Acts 2 still be playing out today by way of God's call on men and women who speak or learn the languages God desires them to reach?  

What about a diversity of skin color in church?  I live in Utah.  There are many places that have but one skin color within the community.  Is it reasonable to think the local church in that community would look any different?  But in communities where there is a racial variety (like the specific area of Salt Lake where I live) the gospel should, and must bridge racial divides.  That being said, why are church leaders not encouraging the majority population to flood into local churches of minority races?  Why is the minority race expected to bridge the divide?  And why are little local churches reaching Somali refugees not expected to bring in Tongans and Irish and Japanese people too?  Why is the multicultural church typically only argued one direction? (But please don't hear that I think we should promote racial or language segregation.  That is sinful.) 

I believe the gospel bridges our differences and we become united around Christ, which is also why I believe the gospel is the determining factor what our local churches should look like.  When we target specific races of people instead of doing our best to target lost people, we get segregated churches and segregated hearts (even if we target a race other than our own).  But when we go after lostness in any and every place we find it in the community, God's transforming power determines who is in the local church, worshiping the Lord together in community. 

Furthermore, all of the arguments about multicultural church are really good, just as soon as we make them about God's Church and not the local church.  The Church (big "C," universal Church) is God's plan to reach every tribe, tongue, and nation.  In that plan, one local church might reach Spanish speaking people in a community and God might be using another local church to reach the Sudanese, but they are both God's Church, bridging the divide with the gospel.  Some local churches might have many skin colors and languages represented because lostness is being broken across all of these differences, while another local church might be seeing fruit within one people group, but that does not mean God's Church is not diverse.  His Church, all over the globe, is very diverse. 

As a pastor in a somewhat diverse area of Salt Lake, I want to see my community redeemed by the power of the gospel, across all races, cultures, and languages.  I'm thankful for the diversity at the church where I pastor, but the common factor is English.  I'm not apposed to other languages, I just don't preach well in them.  And if a non-English family should come to worship with us (which has happened on more than one occasion) I want to connect them to one of God's Churches in our community where they can be best equipped, which likely means one that speaks their language.  That's the beauty of God's Church!  I want to see every tribe and tongue in my community worshiping the Lord, but I realize I am not capable of reaching them all.  Not even close. I can hardly reach English speakers.  So it would be unwise for me to view multiculturalism in the microcosm of one local church, when God is doing so much more, with so many more, in his Church.  

Maybe it's time we stop thinking in our perspective and start seeing the Multicultural Church through God's perspective.

The Contemplative Pastor By Eugene Peterson

Peterson, Eugene H. The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction. Grand Rapids, Mich: W. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1989. 

I've served on staff at a long-established church and I've planted a church.  Both of these tasks are substantially different than the role of Pastor to a God-given family of Jesus-followers.  I was a pastor when I was on the church staff, and all along I've been a pastor as I've worked tirelessly to see a seedling church take to life and get off the ground, but neither of these are the same as where I find myself now: PASTOR.  I manage a small staff and I'm still doing the hard work of church planting, but as I'm writing this review, I am very aware of the church family God has tasked me to tend to, provide care for, and feed.  It's different.  So after a long season of reading discipleship and church planting books, it was time for something different.  

I enjoyed Eugene Peter's book, Working the Angles.  I've written about it on SaltyBeliever.com and Jared Jenkins and I did an entire Salty Believer Unscripted series around the point of that book.  I also enjoyed Peterson's Long Obedience in the Same Direction.  Therefore, it didn't take arm-twisting to pick up a copy of The Contemplative Pastor

As a pastor, I read Peterson's book through the lens of a pastor.  In fact, I'm not sure if there's any other lens through which to read this book.  It would seem Peterson was writing a book for pastors.  And given the nature of the book, I'm not entirely sure I'm qualified to write a review of such a book.  Therefore, I'll simply provide a reflection of my thoughts. 

I loved this book.  I read it slowly.  I would read, pause, read some more, and sometimes reread the same section.  I underlined specific sections that seemed written directly to me.  One specific line reads, "How can I lead people into the quiet place beside still waters if I am in perpetual motion?  How can I persuade a person to live by faith and not by works if I have to juggle my schedule constantly to make everything fit into place?" (19).   I'm a church planter and I've spend time with church planters, and that sounds like a church planter.  I've been a busy church staff member and spend time with them, and that statement sounds about right for a busy church staff member.  And I'm a pastor and this statement is true of my trouble.  

It's difficult to put a single theme on this book, other than a book of thoughts by a pastor deep in contemplation.  In that way, it's a little like Lectures to My Students by Charles Spurgeon.  I felt as if the third angle of Working the Angles was a little lacking, but also that The Contemplative Pastor is the answer for that book's shortfall.  In any case, this is not a quick 'how to pastor' book.  It might not even be a good book for a pastor who doesn't yet feel the weight and burden of pastoring of souls.  Yes, it's that kind of book.  

The interview at the opening of the book was informative but did not fit with the rest of the book.  The poetry at the end was a little odd, too.  I appreciate Peterson's drive to appreciate words and read poetry, but I would rather look at the poets he suggested.  His poetry isn't bad, but I'm not sure if it fit well in this book either.  All the pages between the interview and the poetry are excelent. 

I enjoyed Peterson's book.  I found it rather helpful.  It was a much needed and timely perspective.  If you're in a place were you could use the timely thoughts of a seasoned pastor, this book might be for you.   

 

* By using this link to purchase The Contemplative Pastor or other mentioned books, you support this website.  Thank you!

Saving the Bible from Ourselves by Glenn R. Paauw

** Before I get into my thoughts on Saving the Bible from Ourselves, I owe an apology to Glenn Paauw, Alisse Wissman, and Krista Clayton.  I love reading, and I enjoy reviewing books for SaltyBeliever.com, so I was thrilled when InterVarsity Press sent me Paauw's new book, Saving the Bible From Ourselves.   However, just as the press was done printing Paauw's pages, my doctoral work shifted into high-gear and a literature review consumed every minute I was awake and even a few when I was asleep.  Then a prospectus had to be written and that sucks away time too.   Saving the Bible from Ourselves was forced to sit on my shelf, lonely and ignored.  Yet, when freedom finally came and I returned to Paauw's book, it was a refreshing, enjoyable journey through an argument too few are making.  To Glenn and the good folks at IVP, I'm sorry my review was not within the timely window you were seeking for marketing purposes.  I hope you can forgive me.  

Now, with that out of the way, on to the review! 

Paauw, Glenn R. Saving the Bible from Ourselves: Learning to Read & Live the Bible Well. Downers Grover, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 2016. 

If the title alone does't grab your attention, thumbing through the 238 pages of Paauw's newest book, Saving the Bible from Ourselves: Learning to Read & Live the Bible Well should cause you to ask, "Why does the Bible need saving, and from what?"   That's actually the crux of the whole thing: we don't even know.  We don't even see it right before our faces every time we encounter the Bible.  

Paauw writes, "We've never been able to leave the Bible alone," as he launches into a history of the problem (26).  The problem is that our well-meaning effort to make the Bible more user-friendly has actually cut into the natural flow and presentation of God's revelation to us.  And with every cut, we adopt more habits in how we read and understand the Bible differently.  To help readers navigate their way around, chapters were added.  Then verses.  Cross-references came along to help.  Section headings.  And footnotes, don't forget the footnotes.  Study Bibles are great, but how much material captures our eye that's not the Bible?  Formatting, printing style, and on, and on. These tools have altered our reading plans and devotionals.  They've encouraged that we simply snack on God's Word rather than feast, as Paauw argues.  Context and story and form and literary flow is lost in the sea of all the things designed to help us read the Bible well.  

"The Bible needs saving," argues Paauw, "not because of any defect in itself, but because we've buried it, boxed it in, wallpapered over it, neutered it, distorted it, isolated it, individualized it, minimized it, misread it, lied about it, debased it and over sold it. We have over-complicated its form while over-simplifying its content" (16-17).   

We've also changed the way we read God's book.  Where Paul's letters were once read in community, as was the Law, we now read more in isolation.  We interpret in light of ourselves, within the chopped up, over-complicated, framework of our personal Bibles.  No longer is the Bible a book that reads and dissects us; we've turned the tables on the Bible.  

Paauw's journey through history and his explanation of the problem is informative and alarming.  As the bells are going off, the author beckons the reader further into the journey to witness the horrific results of this long-standing problem.  I can only imagine this is how a 25-year smoker might have felt when the commercials of black lungs started appearing on television. The reader can only be compelled that maybe something needs to change. 

As I was reading Saving the Bible from Ourselves, I was moved to purchase a reader's Bible.  It has no footnotes, no verses, no section headings or cross-references.  The chapter numbers are extremely unobtrusive and the print runs all the way across the page rather than working down two columns.  It's shocking how much easier it is to read large sections of text.  It's not only less exhausting on the eyes and mind, it's less distracting.  Reading an entire epistle is simple, likely as it was when the letter first arrived at the church.  The minor prophets read like blog posts to the world.  Narrative is exciting and spurs on the imagination again.  This reader's Bible has entirely changed the way I'm reading the Bible.  

One challenge to Paauw's argument is that it's too well argued.  I can see people tossing out the tools that help us study the Bible.  It would be difficult to locate Scripture without verse markers.  Cross-references and study notes are helpful in gaining a better understanding.  How are we to read in the context of the book when we are so far removed from the context?  This is were those extras can help us engage with the text better.  It would be a terrible thing to chuck out these tools.  While I certainly wouldn't suggest that Paauw argue less powerfully, I do suggest that he give a little more positive discussion to the value of the things we're saving the Bible from.  (Unless, he believes we need not use these tools at all, which I do not gather from his book.) 

That being said, I still highly recommend both Saving the Bible from Ourselves as well as a reader's Bible.  Both of these books would be a wise investment for seminary students, pastors, Bible teachers, and anybody who wants to pull back out of the dryness and taste the richness that the unencumbered Bible has to offer.  

I'll leave you with an excerpt from the book's conclusion: 

"The Bible is bigger than our previous ideas, our regular prejudices, our self-loving distortions.  The Bible really is a strange new world.  And yet it invites us.  The Bible doesn't want to merely reflect us; it wants to remake us.  What if we knew the Bible deep down, in our bones?  What if moment by moment, day by day, we made sense of our lives by seeing them as active continuations of the narrative we find in the sacred words?  What if we tied our journeys inseparably to the great journey we find in the Holy Scriptures?  What if we found the beauty always intended for the stories of our lives by rediscovering the profound beauty of this great, preeminent story?" (214) 

Purchase Glenn Paauw's book, Saving the Bible From Ourselves: Learning to Read & Live the Bible Well by following this link or find the book wherever Christian books are sold. 

Discipleship that Fits by Bobby Harrington

Harrington, Bobby and Alex Absalom. Discipleship that Fits: The Five Kinds of Relationships God Uses to Help Us GrowGrand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 2016. 

Lately, there are few books that I talk about more than Discipleship that Fits by Bobby Harrington and Alex Absalom (other than the Bible), so it is fitting that I've finally got some time to write a review.    

I was first introduced to Harrington's work during the literature review for my doctoral research.  I noticed an idea presented in DiscipleShift, by Jim Putman and Bobby Harrington was showing up in other work on discipleship; but typically, this ideas was only given one or two pages.  The concept, shared in secular work, centers around relational spaces.  The proximity, size, or space in which a group exists has different advantages and disadvantages in discipleship.  In his book, Discipleship Uncomplicated Warren Hayes refereed to these groups by where they meet in a home.  Living room, dinning room, and so-on.  Discipleship that Fits is a book entirely dedicated to these relationships/spaces and identifies them as Public, Social, Personal, Transparent, and Divine.  

Understanding these relationships between groups is vital in discipleship.  Missing any relationship means there's likely a lack in the full range of possibilities of discipleship as a church.  House Church movements often want to disregard the public space.  Small groups (Personal relationships) are often seen as the only relationship for discipleship in church, but while that relationship has great advantages, it misses out on the advantages of the Social relationship, Transparent relationship, and Divine relationship.  Each relationship has different strengths and weaknesses. 

Harrington builds on the 1960s work of Edward Hall, and a more recent work by Joseph Myers called The Search to Belong (2003).  The idea is that physical distance shapes the nature and depth of relationships (51).  Harrington takes the physical distance idea and compounds that against the intimacy of the relationship.  He points out that someone standing next to another in a shopping line may by physically close but intimately very far.  The same is true for a group of people on an airplane.  But there are still huge advantages in this space.  Harrington also looks at the spaces more as "contexts" (52).  

Discipleship that Fits starts with a discussion on discipleship.  Why is it biblically important?  How did Jesus model discipleship, specifically in the different relationship contexts?  And what are some ways in which discipleship might be more natural and easier than we've tried to make it?  Harrington answers these questions and many more in discipleship.    

For the remainder of his book, each of the relationship contexts is examined.   Strengths and weaknesses of each relationship context bring the reader to new conclusions.  Why can't we just dump the Sunday service?  Oh, because the Public relationship context has advantages in discipleship that can't be picked up anywhere else.  Why should every church have Missional Communities (or whatever they call their Social space context) and how do those communities fit with Small Groups in relationship to discipleship?  This book deals with that too.  And what about one-on-one discipleship?  Also covered.  

Discipleship that Fits puts to rest the arguments about different group types.  Sunday school or small groups?  Missional communities or dinner parties?  Is it okay to meet in larger gatherings or should we dump all that and only meet in houses?  Small church or mega-church?  These questions all come from thinking that misunderstands the value of different relationships. Harrington argues that a church should have every type of context represented if it is to be as effective as possible in discipleship.  

After reading this book, I realized that I was trying to cram Social spaces into our Sunday services (Public space), causing some grief.  I also realized we were missing Social contexts.  At the church where I pastor, we started making changes, understanding how to better capitalize on the strengths of each relational space.  We also started doing things a little differently within each of those contexts and have found much more fruit.  

I often flirt with thinking there's not much value in a Sunday gathering, but that is because I often miss the value of discipleship in the Public space.  I also now understand what drives pastors into their preferred relational contexts.  I see my own preferences and understand why I would rather have a church in one relational context over another, but I also know that all five are completely necessary.  I love the Personal context but I can't try to make everything fit in that context or it just gets awkward.  In addition, our church misses out on other discipleship opportunities.  Churches shouldn't give preferential treatment to one space over another because it's the balance between them that has the most value.  I also started seeing that some of the different things we were doing at Redeeming Life, although somewhat different, were actually all camping out in only one or two spaces; therefore, we dumped some of those things in favor of adding other activities that function in other relational spaces. 

I believe this book should be required reading for any seminary student, pastor-in-training, missionary, and frankly, anybody in ministry.  It's also helpful for the church member who wants to see things dropped at church or is jaded against discipleship in different contexts beyond his or her own preferences.  There are so many young people who think the Sunday gathering is obsolete, but I now know these individuals simply don't understand the Public space (which they love so much in non-church context).  If you know someone like this, get him or her a copy of this book.  There are many people of older generations who want everything done at the church building on Sunday morning.  They have a lot in common with the jaded young people--it's a misunderstanding of relational contexts.  Get these folks a copy too.  Just imagine what could happen when we all start to see discipleship the way Jesus discipled in the various relational spaces and followed his example! 

You can purchase Discipleship that Fit where books are sold, but if you use this links on this page, you'll help support the costs of this website and the podcast, "Salty Believer Unscripted."  

Finding Joy

By Derek Earl, Guest Author

[This article originally appeared on Kingdomslc.com.] 

The movie turns on, the Pixar intro begins to play, and my son John runs into the room yelling, "Dory! Dory! Nemo! Nemo!" He knows what movie it is even before it's begun. I have probably seen Finding Dory 10 times, or at least caught glimpses of it while he watches. He's too young to remember the original Finding Nemo, but I certainly remember the first time I saw it. I loved that movie. I loved the concept and plot of a father searching for his lost son.

Now, as much as I would love to draw a big theologically-tasty parallel between a father (Marlin) searching for his son (Nemo), and God searching for His lost sons and daughters, I'll refrain. Instead, let me pose a question about these particular Pixar movies that you've probably never asked yourself.

Would Marlin and Dory have been content if they had never found what they were looking for?

We all smiled when Nemo made his way down the dentist's drain and into the sea. We laughed as Dory forgetfully made her way back to her parents. And we were overjoyed when all was well again for both of them. Would we have been happy if it hadn't ended this way? Would we have had joy in that kind of ending? These questions are a bit silly given that they are about a fictional story, but what about our own stories? What happens when we don't find the job we're looking for? What happens when that special someone leaves or never shows up in the first place? What happens when our world falls apart? 

You see, happiness and joy are two very different things. 

Happiness is fleeting and cheap. It's like a sparkler on the 4th of July. It's lit and begins to crackle and spark, all in a variety of wonderfully different colors. And in about 30 seconds, it's gone. 

Joy, on the other hand, is like slow-burning ember or coal. It is not always the flashiest of things to gaze at, but its intense heat will continue to burn long after the sparklers have all gone out. Not only that, but if you care for the ember well enough and add just the right kind of tinder or fuel, you can create a fire so great that others will be able to see its light from miles away. And even when the rains come and the great fire dies down, the ember will continue to burn steady, waiting for its next chance to ignite. 

All this to say, life does not always turn out like we think it ought to. We do not always get the Pixar ending to our day, week, month, or year that we sometimes believe we deserve. However,

James 1:2-4 tells us to, "COUNT IT ALL JOY, MY BROTHERS, WHEN YOU MEET TRIALS OF VARIOUS KINDS, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing." As Christians we have the source of all joy, "since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us" (Romans 5:1-5). 

So get out your sparklers, turn on some Pixar, and enjoy all of the little things that bring us happiness, but let us never forget about the deep burning joy we have because of what God, through Christ, has done for us! 

Building Walls

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By Nicole Ricley, Guest Author

[This article originally appeared on DisplayTheGospel.com.] 

So, here's my confession: I build walls. Big, heavy, stubborn, impenetrable walls. Walls built with the stones of pride and fear that I have for so long allowed to become the prominent building blocks in the construction of my life. And if I'm really being honest, this wall-building is nothing more than a defense mechanism designed to give me a false sense of safety within the boundaries I have established. For years, these walls have dictated how I interact with and love others. They have hurt me and hurt others, and it's not a fun way to live. It can be exhausting, lonely and honestly, just pretty darn miserable. This has been what I like to call my Quarter-Life Crisis. 

In the midst of all of it, I have started to realize the greatest irony of it all; while I envision these walls protecting me and keeping me safe from possible pain, judgment or heartache, these walls are simultaneously keeping out so many good things. Friendship, joy, intimacy, complete and freedom-giving "known"ness. And that is where God has been challenging me for the last couple of years. 

WHEN I BUILD WALLS, I AM OPERATING IN AN ANTI-KINGDOM PARADIGM. 

It is in this struggle, and in all the other areas that I find myself most fearful, Christ calls me to lay my life down and follow Him (Matthew 16:24). To follow Him into vulnerable territory, the world of openness and freedom. Because our God is the God who breaks down walls. He destroys physical Jericho-sized barriers (Joshua 6:1-27). He obliterates invisible social and racial walls between those "chosen" and those deemed "unclean," destroying and dividing walls of hostility (Ephesians 2:14). And as if that weren't enough, He rips heavy curtains from top to bottom, removing barriers that once separated people from His Holy Presence (Matthew 27:51). 

He brings them all to rubble. 

He is the God who brings people in and draws them closer. And just like He did for them in the stories we find in Scripture, and just like He continues to do for His people today, He is my Father who sees me and gently whispers,

"Surrender your pride"
"Trust Me enough to open up your heart."
"Let go of thinking you can control "

But sometimes those gentle love-drenched whispers to my soul are drowned out by the nagging voice of the enemy.

"You're not good enough."
"There is something wrong with you."
"This is the way it should and always will be."

Lie after lie after lie. The broken, prideful, lonely woman that emerges when I listen to this nagging accuser is not the woman I want to be. At all. And more importantly, it's not the woman God has created me to be. So, I'm fighting back. Fighting to believe that what is really true. 

He's constantly beckoning me to return to Him and find my true identity in Him and in His Word. That's a beautiful grace I still have trouble understanding. But still, as a loving Father with arms open wide, He embraces me. At the altar. 

By faith, I will come and I will trust that He will help me break down my walls. 

Stone by stone.

- Nicole

A Different Acts 1:8 Strategy

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Why did Jesus say we would be his witnesses in Samaria rather than someplace like Galilee? And why do we often act like he said Galilee rather than Samaria?   Acts 1:8 reads, "But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth."  

One way we look at this (and I'm not saying it's wrong) is that Jerusalem is our community or city; Judea is our state, Samaria is the nation, and the end of the earth is the other nations. But what's strange is the reality that the disciples weren't from Jerusalem and that wasn't even their home.  They were mostly from Galilee.  Yet, Jesus told them to stay in Jerusalem.  Why?

I believe there's another way to look at this mission plan.  

Jerusalem was a place were spiritual discussions were the norm.  There were already many people expecting spiritual things to happen.  There was a spiritual infrastructure with the temple and all the other religious systems. In addition, it was the place everybody was traveling to for spiritual activity and festivals.  There were already spiritually ready people when Acts 2 hit the scene.  You could say that Jerusalem was low hanging fruit.  And maybe that's why the Apostles struggled to leave and God had to bring on Acts 8:1 persecution.  Jerusalem might have been the starting place so the gospel could get a foothold and establish a hub of operations.  

Judea is the surrounding area, like a state, but it might have been more than that.  It was the highways and byways.  It was all the smaller communities that could easily be reached from the base of operations.  The idea might have been to start with any receptive people in Jerusalem and start working out.  Nonetheless, take some ground and get moving.  

Next comes Samaria.  

Samaria didn't have the best reputation in the Old Testament.  Sure, it was a home and burial place for kings, but Amos rebuked Ahab for building a elaborate palace.  Then Jezebel convinced her husband to make Samaria the epicenter for Ba'al worship.  And if that wasn't bad enough, she had God's prophets killed there.  In 2 Kings 6, the city is besieged and two women are fighting because they agreed to eat their babies, but after eating one of the babies the other women hid her baby.  The city didn't fall that day, but eventually it did.  The Assyrians end up exiling anyone of any significance, leaving a little more than 27,000 nobodies in Samaria.  Then the imported other concurred countries.  The people started inter-marrying and adopting false Gods.  It was so bad, that when it was time to rebuild Jerusalem Ezra and Nehemiah wouldn't let the people of Samaria take part.   

By the time of the New Testament, the strain between the returned Jews and the left-behind Samaria was so bad Jews had nothing to do with Samaria.  They went the long way around to avoid traveling through there.  

But Jesus had a heart for Samaria.  He not only traveled through Samaria, he stopped and talked with a Samaritan woman at a well, even telling her he was the Christ (something he didn't often do with the Jews).  He not only traveled through, he stayed there two more days. And remember when Jesus was sharing a story with the religious Pharisees about what it means to be a good neighbor? The goats in the story were religious Pharisees and the hero is the guy we call the Good Samaritan.  Jesus even rebuked James and John for wanting to call down fire from heaven to burn up Samaria (see Luke 9:55-56).   

Maybe our Samaria is the place our heart really doesn't want to see saved?  Samaria is the place we avoid.  It's not the sexy mission trip. Samaritans are those we look down on.  And maybe we don't want them in our churches but they rarely come anyway.   Samaria is on the "other side of the tracks."  

Jesus could have said go to Galilee, but I believe he needed to say as you're taking the gospel out from the starting place, don't bypass Samaria.  Go even where you don't want to.  

The end of the earth is when you've circled the globe and there's no place left.  Start where you can get a foothold and start working your way outward, never stoping.  

I wonder if every local church in the world did this, not neglecting Samaria, what might happen?  Share the gospel anywhere you can get something going, then keep working outward.  Help other churches where they're at.  When you go into a new place, get something going and keep working.  But by all means, don't forget or bypass Samaria!           

The 2nd Hardest Question in Church Revitalization

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By Scott Catoe, Guest Author

What is the second most common question I hear as I talk to folks about church revitalization? (We’ll save the most common question for a later post.  How's that for a teaser?) 

The question: What is the hardest part of church revitalization?

In truth, my first response is often to paint with a broad brush and say “everything.” To some degree, that really is true. If God calls a man to revitalization, He is calling him to go into an environment where nearly everything is at best confused and at worst falling apart. For most of us, the building is in disrepair, the people are tired and discouraged, and the leadership is overwhelmed. And it takes years, in many cases, to turn things around. So, my temptation is to say “everything.”

But, I realize that’s probably not helpful, and it certainly won’t do much to actively recruit people to consider pouring their lives out for the sake of a dying church. So, here is my answer now, I think:

It depends.

I know, that seems even more noncommittal than the previous answer. But bear with me a minute and let me explain. Over time, the hardest thing changes. So the hardest thing depends on where you are in the journey of revitalization. Different leaders are equipped and gifted with different strengths, so what may be a real struggle to me may not show up on another pastor’s radar.  So it depends. 

For me, it's, 'Where in the world do I start?'

With so many different things that seem to be in need of leadership, guidance and repair, where do you even begin in revitalization? 

You must start with prayer.

In the context of Southern culture, prayer is a catch phrase for many, but in this case I really think this is truth. In order to effectively lead by the power of the Gospel, you simply have to be a person committed to deep, long, wide seasons of prayer on behalf of the community, on behalf of the people of the church, and on behalf of your family. As God grows a church in revitalization, opposition is imminent. The constant reminder of this truth, along with the constant petition the pastor lays before God for strength and wisdom as he faces that opposition are critical keys to long term tenure in church revitalization. In fact, I would go so far as to say that a pastor who is not deeply committed to the discipline of prayer has little chance of staying long term in a revitalization situation.

The hard truth that I must constantly remind myself is this: I don’t revitalize a church. I can’t. I am not clever enough, strong enough, smart enough. Only God revitalizes churches. If that is true, then my first and greatest priority in the work is not even to work. It’s to beg God to do the work. So, it simply has to start with the personal prayer life of the leader. And it should begin long before your boots hit the ground, if you can. Before you ever preach your first sermon, saturate your community in prayer. Pray for the people God has entrusted to you. Don’t be distracted by simply praying for the people you wish you had. Pray for the people God has entrusted to your care now! Thank God for those faithful people, who have given you the opportunity to lead them. Pray for God’s strength to lead them well. Don’t simply pray for God to “grow” the church; pray for Him to grow you! Pray for wisdom in leadership, for insight and guidance into the people you have, for clear vision about what applying the Gospel to your community looks like.

In short, cultivate a prayer life that will model for the people of your church body what a joy the discipline of prayer is in the life of a church. To do so lays a foundation that will help provide you, and your people, with a measure of spiritual stability that will help you establish a foundation for long-term work.

When I had been at Slater (the church I am serving) about six months or so, I was beginning the process of making some changes that, though they seemed small to me, were nonetheless tectonic for many of our senior members who hadn’t seen change in years. Some were none too happy with it. One of the most substantial moments of my first year came when one of the members approached me to share their uneasiness with the changes. I’ll never forget what they said. “Preacher (which is what almost everyone called me the first year), I don’t understand what you are doing. I don’t even know why you are doing it. But here is what I know: I know you love Christ because we hear you pray, and we see you pray, and we know you are praying for each one of us. And I know that you are listening to Jesus, so I am going to try to listen to you.”

Listen to Jesus, pastor. And then wait patiently for others to listen to you. 

Gospel Story Telling

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By Brett Ricley, Guest Author

[This article originally posted at DisplayTheGospel.com]

I'll be the first to admit that I'm terrible at story telling. Maybe it's because there's an art to it and I'm not the "artsy" type?

Nonetheless, over the past few years I've observed that the art of gospel story telling has become something the Church has begun to engage in and embrace more. I think this is a good thing.

In Jesus' day, much of the gospel story was communicated orally and even transmitted from one generation to another, orally. Today, we live in a visual world where everything is communicated through graphic design, websites, blogs, television, etc. It's not common that people sit down to communicate gospel truths to each other anymore...unless we're sitting in a church service listening to a sermon. However, I think there is immense value to followers of Jesus being able to communicate the gospel in their own words.

This hit home for me a few days ago when my six year old recently began asking me to tell him Bible stories in the car during our 45 minute commute to school. At first it took me a minute to skim through the mental files of Bible stories to find one I was familiar with enough to confidently tell him. It was a little rough at first but when I finished the story my son immediately wanted to hear another one!

After a few days of this, it dawned on me that I didn't know as many Bible stores by memory as I thought I did. It also dawned on me that there were multiple benefits to this oral gospel story telling thing, whether it's with our kids or other people in general:

  1. People get to hear true stories about God's creation, love, wrath, justice, mercy, and redemption in our own words.
  2. We get to basically lead an oral Bible study with people if we're communicating the timeless principles of the Text along the way and pointing them to Jesus.
  3. It forces us to know our Bibles better. Who doesn't need to know the Bible better?
  4. It serves as a springboard into an endless possibility of conversations about God, theology, and Truth in general.
  5. It (hopefully) shows people far from God that following Jesus is more personal than some religiously organized thing it often gets criticized for being.

Regardless of how good you may or may not be at telling the timeless stories of the Bible, keep pressing on to communicate the greatest story ever told: the gospel!

For the Kingdom,
Brett Ricley

5 Signs Your Church is Dying

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By Scott Catoe, Guest Author

[A variation of this article originally appeared on The Pillar Network.] 

Of all the things we have euphemisms for, death is at the top of the list. “Passed,” “passed away,” “moved on,” and many others, serve as sanitized phrases to convey what we are truly talking about here:

Death.

Likewise, when we speak of dying churches, we often sanitize our language in much the same way: “we’ve had better days,” “we’re in decline,” or maybe even such well-intentioned statements as “our vision just isn’t clear” all serve much the same purposes. We just don’t like to talk about churches dying.

 Yet, no topic could be more relevant to the state of our contemporary church. Most churches in the South and especially in the rural south, are currently in a state of decline. For most of them, the signs of that slow death were starting long before anyone noticed. What are these signs? How can a church tell if it is in decline, aside from the obvious lack of attendance or decline in giving?

In what follows, I hope to offer 5 signs that can help a church identify if it is headed for death. The intention is not to kick a church while it’s down; it is, rather, to help others see some signs that things are seriously wrong. What are some subtle signs of a dying church?

1. Few people know what they are doing – many in the congregation couldn’t tell you why church matters, what the church does, or why their particular gifting or role is significant. Ultimately, this is the long-term result of one major deficiency in the life of the church: a lack of discipleship. In fact, it is not uncommon in my area to talk to others in church life, including pastors, who will say “I know discipleship is important, but I’ve never done it. In fact, I don’t know for sure that I’ve been discipled myself.” This leads to a litany of problems, all of which will lead to the ultimate erosion of the church.

2. Few people know why they are doing it – purpose. The church exists for the Gospel. The church’s purpose is the propagation and proclamation of the Gospel, in the lives of individuals, communities, and around the world (Matthew 28:20). If a church, or a ministry for that matter, loses sight of the fact that it’s primary purpose is centered on the Gospel, death is imminent. Purpose is critical in the life of any organization, but for the church, it isn’t just any purpose: it’s the purpose of the Gospel.

3. Few people in the church reflect the community around it – the sense of purpose is, to some degree, reflected by the demographics of the church. A simple question, but a helpful one to ask is: does the church look like the community? Does the ethnic and cultural demographic match the community? If not, it is highly likely that the church is headed for precipitous decline and, ultimately, death.

4. More people look backward than forward – it sounds so well intentioned. “We want to restore this church to its glory days.” We package that in many different ways, but most often it is some nostalgic memory that, quite often, has been embellished, albeit unintentionally, over time. Nostalgia in a church that needs revitalization can be a strong ally or a powerful enemy. The church that looks at its past and longs for the day when it looks just like it did 50 years ago is often headed down a painful path.

5. Hope is hard to find – I saved this one for last. The lack of discipleship in the church leads to a lack of understanding about the content and priority of the Gospel. The lack of Gospel focus leads to lack of Gospel fruit. The lack of Gospel fruit leads to lack of hope. Hopelessness is an impending reality for the church that is in decline. These churches, in many cases, feel there is no hope for them, that they are destined for death. Some may be open and frank about this hopelessness, but it is almost certainly palpable, if not on Sunday morning then in vision meetings or calendar planning or budget meetings. Any church that wrestles with feeling as though there is little hope for its survival has, quite simply, accelerated the process of its own demise.

 I want end on a hopeful note. These signs are all reversible. The Gospel is sufficient. Christ loves His church. I have had the blessed experience to watch God take a faithful group of men and women who love a church and snatch it from the jaws of death to become one of the most vibrant churches in its community. Signs of death are signs, not promises. We serve a Christ who beat death, and that victory can, and often does, empower churches to be raised from death or near-death by the power of the Gospel. May we be people who are willing, however, to take a hard look at ourselves and the churches we love and evaluate their condition with honesty and clarity.

*Scott Catoe pastors Slater Baptist Church in Slater, South Carolina. 

THE DEEP THINGS OF GOD By Fred Sanders

By Jared Jenkins, Guest Author 

[This review originally appeared on www.EnturstedWithTheGospel.com]

Any discussion of the Trinity tends to be deep...or nonsensical. Furthermore, deep discussion of the doctrine of the Trinity leaves many Christians with unanswered questions and a nagging desire to know why the doctrine of the Trinity matters at all. The doctrine is touted as central to Christian belief and yet it does not seem to work itself out in day-to-day reality as the Christian life is lived. Or does it?

In The Deep Things of God Fred Sanders makes a call for Christians and Evangelicals, in particular, to “embrace the doctrine of the Trinity wholeheartedly and without reserve, as a central concern of evangelical Christianity” (7).  This is because, according to Sanders, “the Trinity is the Gospel” (10). The more we understand the Trinity the more we understand the Gospel and the more we understand the Gospel the more we understand the Trinity. The Trinity and the Gospel are “internally configured toward each other” (9). The Gospel is actually an invitation to participate in the relationship that resides within the Triune God from all eternity. The Trinity contains within itself God’s character, rooted in love, which is worked out naturally in the Gospel.

According to Sanders there is no stream of Christianity more fitted to live in, experience, believe in, and display the Gospel in the Trinity, and the Trinity through the Gospel, than Evangelicals. Trinitarian theology forms the roots and contours of Evangelical Christianity and this tacit belief “must be coaxed out, articulated, and confessed” (12). When the contours of the doctrine are seen to be the very essence of the Gospel, these deep things of God change everything about our Christian lives.

Sanders works out his argument by setting the stage for the discussion at hand with introductory matters in chapters 1-2, then moves into a discussion concerning the Trinity and salvation in chapters 3-5, and chapters 6-7 consider the Trinity and its place within the important Christian practices of Bible reading and prayer. Of note, chapter 4 entitled “The Shape of the Gospel” is a must read. Here Sanders brings such clarity to the Trinitarian shape of the Gospel that salvation shines in new and bigger ways. Salvation history is shown not only to be a plan of salvation for the world but the very way in which God reveals himself (133). Through this revelation we are being invited to participate in the very nature of God as sons through adoption.

Sanders work is loaded with historical theology from known scholars and lesser know theologians that only add to and illuminate the very argument Sanders is making, and sometimes in very colorful ways. Sanders book is also helpful in the ways that it gets at some of the problems of Evangelicalism such as shallowness in theology and the reductionist tendencies of Evangelicals to only focus on the cross and salvation missing the life of Christ before and after the cross. His application of the doctrine of the Trinity provides phenomenal answers to these profound issues.

Sanders work is geared toward anyone with an interest in the Trinity and is aimed at deepening a Christian’s walk with the Godhead. Sanders book is profound and has changed the way I see everything. I highly recommend The Deep Things of God.

Here are few quotes to taste the deep things of God:

“Behind the missions of the Son and the Spirit stand their eternal processions, and when they enter the history of salvation, they are here as the ones who, by virtue of who they eternally are, have these specific relations to the Father. For this reason, the Trinity is not just what God is at home in himself, but that same Trinity is also what God is among us for our salvation.” (155)

“[Evangelical Trinitarianism] changes everything, not by introducing you into something that was not previously true but by showing you the significance of something that has been true all along. Salvation is Trinitarian, whether you know it or not…” (184-185)

“Salvation is not an experience; experience is only a gateway by which salvation comes into our conscious lives. We have to preach the great thought of God behind the experience.” (186)

“…We have an invitation to pray…to the Father, through the Son, by the Holy Spirit. This is not just the ‘theologically correct’ way to pray but a way of praying that draws real spiritual power from being aligned with reality. The reality is that Christian prayer is already tacitly Trinitarian, whether we recognize it or not.” (212).

Sanders, Fred. The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes EverythingCrossway, 2010.

The Missional Language of Poker

When Christians think of the mission to take the gospel to every pocket of the earth, two conversations emerge.  The first is centered on learning a foreign language and going to places where the gospel has never been preached.  Or if not ever preached, hardly preached.  We call this going to an "unreached people group."  

The second conversation says, "you are a missionary right where you are."  This means, as Scripture rightly says, that God has given you specific opportunities to take the gospel to the pockets where you live, work, and play.  The Christian life doesn't depend on the 'professional' to reach your co-workers with the gospel--God sent you to those people.  After all, the pastor has zero chance of working side-by-side with your co-workers for eight hours a day, every day.  Why?  Because God has called you to reach your co-workers.  If God wanted your pastor to reach them, he would have given your pastor your job.  But God gave you the job of reaching your co-workers.  Your neighbors too.  And your family.  And your friends.  

Both of these missional conversations are correct.  We have no need to argue one over the other.  Christians should go into all the world as God calls them.  And we should be the sent ones where we live, work, and play. 

But could there be more mission fields around us that we simply miss?  As we are fishers of men, might there be more fishing ponds that nobody is reaching?  I think so, and I've recently found an unlikely one.  Bar poker. 

Before you jump to conclusions, I urge you to continue reading. 

Me and my co-laborer in the ministry, Brett Ricely were struggling to reach the lost in our community this winter.  We live in Utah, a place where winter play can be expensive.  Neither us go to workplaces where there are lots of lost people (the challenge of the pastoral life), so we usually engage with people where they work (i.e., coffee shops, auto shop, the gym, etc).  But play is usually limited to free, outdoor activities.  Our engagement with the lost was slowing down thanks to sub-freezing temperatures and heaps of snow.  So we began praying and exploring places were people play indoors.  Could we adopt a new mission field by adopting a new hobby? Could we simply be missional by changing where we play?

Through prayer and keeping our eyes open, we discovered that a group of unreached people were playing Texas Hold'em poker at a local bar.  This is Utah, so they don't play for money; they play for points.  The point leaders win an entry to the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, Nevada.  There's no buy-in and no cash incentive.  It's really just a way to get people in to the bar to eat and drink.  Through further exploration, we actually found a large community of people who play bar poker, and poker is their community.  There are more than 4,000 people around our community that play.  As many as 80 or 90 pull up a chair to the felt tops, and most play once or twice a week at the specific 'poker club,' as they're called.  There's usually more than 50 players at every tournament at the club we had our sights on. More significantly, the other poker players in the club are 'family,' and it seems others players around the valley are treated like 'extended family.' 

We spent some time in prayer, sought wise counsel, and set some rules.  We would not ever be in the bar alone.  We would not drink.  And when the game became more important than the mission, we were done.  We also started praying that God would open the door to a Bible study over dinner before the tournament started.  

After a lot of prayer, we walked through the doors on our first night.  I quickly learned some things.  First, poker has its own language.  Second, the longer you stay in the tournament, the more time you have to sit next to people and chat.  Third, people in the bar are very lonely and deeply long for community with others.  And finally, nobody was hostile when they found out we were Christians.  It was the opposite, actually.  Doors were open on our very first night to start a Bible study over dinner before the tournament, just as we asked God to do. We prayed for people right there in the bar.  And we were asked to share what we believe. 

During the week before the next poker night, I downloaded a poker app on my phone and played about 5,000 hands of free poker with people online.  I read some blogs about how to play.  I watched the World Series of Poker from the previous year.  I did an internet search of every strange word and term I didn't understand. I had to learn the language of the mission field.  And I prayed my face off.

The next Monday night started with a Bible study.  There we were, in a bar with open Bibles, talking about Jesus with lost people.  We prayed for our server.  We prayed for some of the players that we met the previous week.  And we enjoyed some really good Irish food.  We weren't weirdos (I hope), we were just regular guys who love Jesus and like poker.  And we were ambassadors of the Light of Jesus in a place where his light was not previously shining.  We were engaging our city with the mission of God, one fishing pond at a time.  

In the following weeks, the Bible study grew.  God gave me good enough cards and some wisdom to win second place on the side-table, meaning credibility with the other players.  I've since made it to 14th place out of about 60 people on the main game.  More credibility.  I'm learning the language and making friends.  Connections are happening.  I'm praying for the players and dealers throughout the week.  I'm having fun and being missional at the same time.  We've shared the gospel many times and invited people to join us at Church on Sunday morning.  Brett and I started bringing our worship pastor, Derek, with us. . . and it turns out he's good at poker and even better with the missional part.

We've also got a monthly 'church game' going at our church building.  There's no money involved, no drinking, cussing, smoking, or anything else that's often associated with the game of poker.  We do, however, eat good snacks and laugh a lot.  There is a large trophy we bought at a second-hand store that's ugly enough to make second place look really good.  And we have fun.  It's usually about a 50-50 split of Christians to non-Christians.  We also offer a chip incentive to anyone who brings a guest and the guest gets the incentive too for being a first timer. 

Being missional means we are missionaries where we live, work, and play; but it also means sometimes we change were we live, work, or play to be more intentional for the advancement of the gospel.  And who knows, you might just pick up a new hobby along the way.