Thinking Out Loud

April 17, 2017

Willow Creek Continues to Rewrite the Playbook for Weekend Services

Two weeks ago Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago’s Northwest suburbs had an “Authors Weekend.” Teaching pastor Steve Carter interviewed Anne Lamott and then went into an another exchange with Lee Strobel, the latter having been a former Willow staff member. (Later in the week Josh McDowell visited on Wednesday night.) You can watch those interviews at this link.

Doing an interview in a church service can be a hit or miss proposition. Especially if it is replacing a traditional teaching segment aka sermon. Furthermore, the reaction to any particular guest is going to be subjective. Just a week or two earlier, Willow hosted Olympic gymnast Gabrielle Douglas. That one didn’t resonate with me so much.

But watching Carter talk with Lamott and later Strobel, I realized what they are doing has some broader implications.

First, I have for a long time questioned how much time sermon has left.  With all due respect to those of you currently honing your homiletic craft at either the undergraduate or graduate level, I really think that this particular form is destined to go the way of the CD or the land line phone. I’m not saying there aren’t some great preachers out there; I spend my evening hours listening to sermon after sermon online. But that’s me. For others there are a host of reasons why sermon doesn’t work. ADD or ADHD comes to mind. Some sermons are simply too long. Some say it’s just not how they learn. Some claim that high profile Christian pastors have simply set the bar too high and average pastors can’t achieve the quality that is now widely available online. Others would argue that we’ve become accustomed to media bursts, sound bites, and increased concision.

Second, I have for a long time advocated teaching modules rather than a single focus half hour. A few of us are old enough to remember when NBC introduced the show Real People. Hailed as the first magazine format program — though I’m not sure it predated 60 Minutes — this variety-meets-information type of programming is now widely used. I always thought that the ideal solution in church would be to break up the 30 minutes into three 10 minute segments, separated by music, announcements, or scripture readings. One module might be topical. One might be exegetical. Or if you prefer, one might be light while one might go deeper. One might deal with family life. One might delve into an obscure Old Testament character. (If that last one sounds boring, remember, we’re talking ten minutes here. You don’t have time to lose people!)

What Willow and Carter did that Sunday met these objectives in the ways that follow, but I also want to add one extra point.

The interview was a nice alternative to a sermon. Key here was the fact that the two authors really had something to say. The aforementioned sports star was a good testimony, and she’s probably a role model for a lot of young girls — and they did have a sermon that week as well — but Strobel and Lamott brought a lot of substance to the table. There was also spontaneity, including an opportunity to text in questions. (I wasn’t there in person, but watching the Saturday night service live, I could have easily participated in this.)

The interviews would appeal to different people. Strobel’s was also a testimony, but also tied into an upcoming movie. A number key points in Christian apologetics were covered. Another aspect to this story is what happens in a marriage when one partner has crossed the line of faith and the other is hostile toward Christianity. I hadn’t read anything by Lamott but her personal, unaffected demeanor probably connected with people early in their Christian journey, with seniors, and also with women. In other words, a wide swath demographically.

The interviewer had done his homework. This was the thing that really impressed me. Steve Carter wasn’t just ‘winging it.’ He had spent some time studying both the literature and the biographies of his two guests. Willow had a point to all this, they were doing it for well considered reasons; otherwise they wouldn’t have done it at all. But if they were going to do it, they were going to do it well. (Their commitment to excellence shone through their Good Friday and Easter services this past weekend, also available online.)

Finally, a confession.

I’m a sermon guy. Yes, I just said it’s a dying art form, but I enjoy them. So it would be quite easy for me to feel disappointed I wasn’t going to get one from Willow that week. Truth is, I tuned in especially to see what Strobel would say, and because his connection as a former Willow Creek staffer made it especially interesting. Plus I’ve seen Carter and Bill Hybels do this sort of thing many times before and they aren’t exactly novices.

Can your church snag top name guests? You probably don’t have the budget, nor do they have a lot of availability. But there are probably some stories that Christian people in your community can tell better on a two-chair set than can be related from behind a podium. There are probably topics that can be presented with two members of the pastoral staff taking a tag team approach. There is probably preaching content that can be modified to suit a Q & A format, even if it’s not as spontaneous as you would like it to be. Finally, there’s possibly someone in your church who might, on a one-off Sunday, have something vital to share but would need the help of a more seasoned speaker to rein them in when they go off topic or off focus, or to simply keep the message moving.

I’m not advocating this for everyone; I’m just saying it deserves consideration.


 

 

April 4, 2017

Zondervan’s “Secular” Ownership is a Blessing, Not a Curse

This fictitious logo was created when Zondervan and Thomas Nelson became one under HarperCollins Christian Publishing.

It was a Christian bookstore that was a million miles off most people’s radar and we found it somewhat by chance. Subsequent searching failed to turn it up in a directory of such establishment, or even the Yellow Pages for that matter. Stocking a mixture of English and foreign language products, it had a ‘Mom and Pop’ type of vibe, though a rather large stockroom suggested it was a mix of wholesale and retail.

I got talking to the manager as I browsed, told him of my industry connection, and noted that he didn’t seem to have any Zondervan books or Bibles in his English section.

“We don’t carry them;” he said; “They’re owned by HarperCollins and HarperCollins prints The Satanic Bible.”

End of discussion.

Well, not quite; he didn’t realize what he was taking on here.

It’s true that under its Avon imprint, the company does carry the Anton Le Vey version of that title — there are many books that use the same moniker — but the sole paperback edition at 9.99US/12.50CDN hardly seems worth considering when compared to the over 6,000 titles Zondervan has, not to mention another 900+ under Zonderkidz and let’s not forget at least another 6,500 published under the Thomas Nelson banner. Add in some smaller labels and the ratio is about 14,000:1.

Still, if he were raising the question today, he could have added that HarperOne currently has a chart-topping title in the Self Improvement category by Mark Manson, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life. And let’s not forget Charles Silverstein’s The Joy of Gay Sex (Third Edition).

It’s all dowhill from there; this information is generally used as a basis for attacking the NIV Bible, because those attacks are generally a house of cards theologically, and need some other external reason to exist. The discussion at an Amazon forum on this is always amusing:

C. Goff: I applaud Hapercollins for respecting free speech and publishing books that offer a variety of perspectives.  Perhaps Evangelicals should pool their money and buy an island somewhere, so they can live together in their own theocratic fantasy land. Then they won’t be corrupted by so many sinners who like to think for themselves.

Be Still: Ummm….we did “buy” an island. It was call America, but not look at whats happened because so many people were left to their own “thinking”. Rest assured, corruption commeth from both inside and outside the church. God is the only one good. Not any human.

It goes on and on — there and elsewhere — but I think Joshua really sums up one side of the argument:

Zonderman [sic] is owned by HarperCollins (Satanic Bible, 90% of witchcraft published in world, NIV) which is owned by the devil and Knight of Malta Rupert Murdoch and a Knight of Malta is the first protector of the Antichrist the Pope of the Roman Catholic whore of Babylon church. Jimmy Savile the UK mass child murderer (and mentor of the wife murderer Prince Charles – his other mentor Mountbatten was also a child rapist and a sodomite) is also a Knight of Malta and buried in a Roman Catholic Church in Leeds – he was given a full freemason funeral service. At the 33 degree freemasons receive an Iron cross with a medallion under it and around the medallion is written in Latin: ‘the holy see’ – the Freemason head is the Antichrist – why? – because Freemasonry is also known as the CRAFT and God said in his true and only gospel the King James 1611 bible: Dan 8:25 And through his policy also HE SHALL CAUSE CRAFT TO PROSPER IN HIS HAND; and he shall magnify himself in his heart, and by peace shall destroy many: he shall also stand up against the Prince of princes; but he shall be broken without hand.

Yikes!

But as the chart below shows, there are a very large number of Christian publishing imprints which have secular ownership.

You don’t want to know about Christian record labels, either. This chart of Christian music market share is from 2014, but not much has changed:

So this is a bad situation, right? That depends on your preconceived biases going into the discussion.

  • Many of the people making the argument are KJV-only, looking for a reason to attack the NIV which, of all the other translations, has always had a target painted on its back.
  • Most of the people making the argument would find a way to reject the ministry of all of the company’s top authors including Rick Warren, Anne Graham Lotz, Lee Strobel, Charles Stanley, Philip Yancey, Henry Cloud, etc. (I will concur, Yancey’s hair could disqualify him from being a Christian.)

But allowing some of these people their fifteen minutes of fame, if Harper’s parent company NewsCorp is basically evil, why would they want to own an imprint like Zondervan?

They bought the company because it looked to them to be a profitable business. They’re in the book business. They wanted to expand. In publishing there are sports books, and cookbooks and science fiction and host of genres of which religious publishing is but one. Furthermore, with a unique arrangement between the company and their printer, mega corporation R.R. Donnelley, they can bring an efficiency to Zondervan’s publishing that can only improve that bottom line.

But what’s in it for Zondervan? They get access not only to HarperCollins’ expertise, but also a distribution channel that brings access to a host of markets they might not otherwise tap: Gift stores, airport boutiques, and foreign market sales just to name a few.

How best to keep your “Christian division” profitable? Leave them alone! Let their acquisitions and marketing people operate with autonomy. Let them do what they do best in a business that they know and understand best.

Back to my discussion with the store manager. What would I say to him differently if we were having the discussion today in 2017.

I’d probably tell him to look no further than the rollout of the new Christian Standard Bible. Happening right now we have a Bible being brought to market by Holman, a division of B&H Publishing, which is a division of LifeWay which was founded back in 1891, and yet they are bringing the new Bible to market a few editions at a time because they don’t have the resources to do it any other way.

However, Zondervan, when they rolled out the 2011 update to the NIV was able to bring hundreds of editions and formats on the same day because they had a parent company who was able to bankroll the whole thing. Furthermore instead of “running out” the older editions, most were remaindered within weeks of the conversion.

Projects like this would simply be a dream if were not for the resources of a major corporation backing them. It also means that these Bible editions are able to reach people in ways that simply wouldn’t happen if the company were still independent.

When you look at the big picture, you have to see this relationship as a blessing, not a curse. In terms of propagating the message of Jesus Christ and building the Kingdom of God, the partnership is a win-win-win.

 

March 21, 2017

C. S. Lewis’s Greatest Hits

C. S. Lewis certainly belongs in any list of the Top 10 Christian writers of the 20th Century, but for many his thoughts are more easily digested in sound bites rather than the reading of complete works. I was a little surprised when, with 2017’s season of Lent well underway I was offered an opportunity to review Preparing For Easter: Fifty Devotional Readings from C. S. Lewis, but I wasn’t about to turn down a chance to reconsider Lewis’ brilliance in a different format.

Really, the seasonal title of the book is unfortunate, a better one might be C. S. Lewis’s Greatest Hits, though the book is not limited to his apologetics but introduction makes clear that, “being a leading Christian defender of the faith would not be the only reason to explain Lewis’s posthumous popularity… [He] was also a pioneering explainer of the Christian life itself… Lewis’s apologetics are so powerful precisely because many find his vision of the Christian life so compelling and inspiring. It is this later role of Lewis’s, as a visionary prophet for how to follow Christ today, that this collection is concerned with.”

It’s also helpful to take the more more familiar passages; the Lewis-isms which have become soundbites, such as,

  • Aim at Heaven you will get earth ‘thrown in’: am at earth and you will get neither
  • If I find in my self a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.
  • The dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship…There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.
  • I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.

and read these, at least partially, in their fuller original context.

But there is also the more obscure, the sections in the various Letters… collections which I have never perused. I would have liked more of these, such as his take on pacifism — a view he describes as “recent and local” — as well as his picture of heaven:

The symbols under which heaven is presented to us are (a) a dinner party, (b) a wedding, (c) a city, and (d) a concert.

Equally helpful to me were the sections in books I had read previously but had somehow simply missed, which in these shorter, daily readings — most run four pages in a digest-sized volume — are brought into clearer focus, such as the excerpt I ran on Friday.

Not every word that Lewis wrote is gospel. Some of his ideas were his own opinions and perhaps a few were somewhat fanciful. But such is the nature of his writing. I don’t always get Song of Solomon, either, but it’s in the same volume that offers me the gospel of Luke or the epistle to the Romans.  Many passages are highly personal to Lewis, or perhaps the reader.

Some people feel guilty about their anxieties and regard them as a defect of faith. I don’t agree at all. They afflictions, not sins. Like all afflictions, they are, if we can so take them, our share in the Passion of Christ. (194)

Included with each of the 50 readings are references to selected scripture passages which enhance the devotional experience. The volume ends with a reading for Easter Sunday. Again, to repeat what I said earlier, this really ought to be a non-seasonal product. In the meantime however, it will well serve people charged with preparing material for the central season of the Christian year, or latecomers like myself who were able to binge-read it in several sittings.


HarperOne; 2017 hardcover; 214 pages; 17.99 US; 9780062641649. Material is suitable and helpful for all Christian traditions. Compiled by Zachry Kincaid. Thanks to Nadea Mina for a review copy.

More info at CSLewis.com

 

March 12, 2017

“…The arts should be evaluated artistically, not just theologically.”

Filed under: books, Christianity — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 9:13 am

On Friday, Internet Monk ran two articles back-to-back by the site’s founder, the late Michael Spencer. The subject was The Shack, both the movie and the book, though Spencer did not live to see the movie. I have reproduced the second of the two articles here because it deals with some general principles, but for added context, I encourage you to read both, which you may do so at this link: Fridays with Michael Spencer…On “The Shack” but for those who choose not to click, here is the second part.

Difficult Concept Workshop: Repeat After Me…”The Shack Is A Story”

by Michael Spencer

I just finished doing another interview about my writing on The Shack. My posts on The Shack have attracted a lot of readers, which is good, because if nothing else, The Shack is a phenomenon that needs to be discussed and better understood.

It seems that a willingness to denounce The Shack has become the latest indicator of orthodoxy among those evangelicals who are keeping an eye on the rest of us. It’s a lot less trouble than checking out someone’s views on limited atonement, that’s for sure.

Hear me loud and clear: it’s every pastor and Christian’s duty to speak up if they feel The Shack is spiritually harmful. I’d only add one point: it’s equally the right of those who find The Shack helpful to say so.

Obviously, The Shack isn’t for everyone. Like a lot of Christian fiction, it has a certain amount of gawky awkwardness. No one will ever call William Young a skilled wordsmith. I wouldn’t teach The Shack in a theology class, even though I find Young’s willingness to explore the Trinity commendable and personally helpful.

(Oh… I probably would use The Shack to discuss whether the Trinity is a hierarchy, a belief that critics of The Shack seem to hold as essential.)

It’s the presentation of God in The Shack that creates the controversy with the critics and the buzz with the fans, but the longer I’ve talked about this story with other Christians, I have to wonder if all the focus on Young’s “Trinity” isn’t missing the larger point of the book- a point that many theological watchblogs don’t seem to see at all.

The Shack is a pilgrimage. It’s an allegorical account of one person’s history with God; a history deeply affected by the theme of “The Great Sadness.” It’s a journey, and overlooking what’s going on in Mack’s journey is a certain prescription of seeing The Shack as a failed critique of Knowing God.

I’ve come to believe that the most significant reason for The Shack’s early success- certainly the reason I picked it up- is the endorsement from Eugene Peterson on the cover, an endorsement where Peterson refers to Young’s book as another “Pilgrim’s Progress.” That’s not a random compliment.

The Knights of Reformed Orthodoxy like to talk about Pilgrim’s Progress as if it is Calvin’s Institutes made into a movie. In reality, Bunyan’s Book is a personal pilgrimage, one that illustrated his version of Christian experience and retold his own experiences.

Even Spurgeon realized that Bunyan’s theology wasn’t completely dependable. The loss of the “burden” comes after a long search for relief, a storyline that reflected Bunyan’s own struggles with assurance and obsessive subjectivity. Few pastors today would endorse a version of the Gospel that left people wandering in advanced states of conviction, unable to find any way to receive forgiveness. Bunyan’s particular personality has too much influence on his presentation of belief and assurance.

But what Bunyan does illustrate is valuable in a manner much different than a theological outline. He tells the story of a journey from guilt to forgiveness, the confrontation with worldly powers, spiritual conflict, imperfect fellow believers and the inertia and resistance within ourselves. We can measure Bunyan’s book by measurements of correct theology, but I believe most of us know that this isn’t the proper measurement for Pilgrim’s Progress. We should measure it as a presentation of one Christian’s life.

It’s a story of a journey.

The same could be said of many other books. Take C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed. It’s the journey of grieving the death of a spouse. Along the way, God’s appearances are all over the map because the “pilgrim” is moving in his journey through “the Great Sadness.”

Be clear: I agree with Ben Witherington III that Young’s book could use a theological revision, but I believe his adventurous exploration of God’s character is set against “the Great Sadness,” not “the Great Theological Examination.” When someone analyzes The Shack and finds 13 major heresies, I’d suggest you look very closely at the list. Some are legitimate concerns. Some are brutal victims of context and some are not heresies at all, but the critic’s discomfort with the medium.

Young is talking about a God who draws you out of your hiding place. If I understand Young’s own journey, this is the primary image in the book: A God who invites you and meets in the the very place where “the Great Sadness” entered your experience in a way that you understand the love that comes to you from the Trinity.

This journey is what should capture the reader. In one sense, The Shack is a bit of Rorschach test, and if you put it in front of someone and what they see is “emerging church heresy!” and “God is a black woman,” then you’ve learned what that person was most looking for in the book: a familiar and historically orthodox affirmation of God and a similar affirmation of who are the good guys.

But what about those who look at the book and see Mack’s journey? The Great Sadness? The God who draws you out and meets you in the place of your greatest loss? What if that reader sees the theological awkwardness and occasional imprecision, but sees those problems in balance alongside Mack’s journey to self-forgiveness, resolution and renewed intimacy with God? Maybe that’s why so many people who know good theology STILL like The Shack?

There is enough in The Shack to give all of us plenty to blog about, so don’t expect posts to end anytime soon. But I’m wondering if anyone is understanding that The Shack isn’t selling because there’s such a hunger for theological junk food. No, there’s a hunger for someone to compellingly narrate the central mystery of God, the Trinity. There’s a hunger for a God who is reconciling toward those who have believed and then turned away because they can no longer understand a God who allowed “The Great Sadness.” There is a hunger for a God who comes into our life story and walks with us to the places that are the most hurtful.

In other words, the theological fact checkers are probably missing what is so appealing to readers of The Shack, even as they see some crimes in progress. It is a contemporary Pilgrim’s Progress, but the pilgrim is a not a 17th century puritan, but a 21st century evangelical. The burden isn’t sin, but the hurtful events of the past. The journey is not the way to heaven, but the way back to believing in a God of goodness, kindness and love.

If Paul Young writes a book of theology, it should be better than The Shack. But if he writes his story, it is The Shack. I don’t buy it all, and most people I’ve talked to don’t either. But that’s not the point. It’s Young’s journey that he’s recounting and we’re reading, and that’s how we’re reading it: a story.

Note to writers: When it comes to fiction, don’t listen to the critics who want to take you down for your theology. Tell the story that’s in you, whether it passes the orthodoxy test or not. This isn’t Puritan Massachusetts yet. WRITE THE STORY. The people who read stories as theology lectures are NEVER going to approve.  -M.S.


Something we rarely do here is close comments; but if you have one, it is better posted at the original source.

The post title here is a quote from the first part of what ran Friday. I would have like to have run both, but it’s a best practice to send them the internet traffic.

February 26, 2017

Requiem for Christian Bookstores Not Needed

fc-logoOn Friday we reported the impending closure of 240 Family Christian bookstores. If you missed that, you can read it here. I started my Saturday morning at Internet Monk, and was a little surprised by both the negative comments concerning this type of establishment, but also the great number of people bashing the stores compared to those saying they were sorry they were closing and that the store would be missed. Such as:

  • So Family JesusJunk Stores are closing. I feel for the employees, but I can’t say I’m disappointed otherwise. Those places were an abomination.

I’m not sure what you are expecting. Here: Take $100,000 and spend it on products that will be of interest to: Mainliners, Evangelicals and Charismatics; kids, teens, twenty-somethings, middle-agers and seniors; seekers, new believers and veterans; scholars, students, and blue-collar workers; people needing help with their marriage, parenting, addictions, finances, interpersonal relationships, prayer life, devotional life and bad habits; those wanting to learn more about missions, church history, denominational distinctions, and church leadership. To all this add some products which enhance Christian life for those who want to: fill their home with Christian music including hymns, chants, country, adult contemporary, modern worship, rock, rap, etc.; have a few inspirational quotes on their walls and tables including plaques, paintings and picture frames; offer their family a wholesome substitute for the movies they would otherwise watch; have some little gift or novelty that they can give to a child to remind them that God loves them.

Oh yes… and Bibles!

And this is an abomination? That’s rather strong language.

  • I already have more than enough Bibles, and I can’t think of a single other book they’d carry that I would want to read.

Seriously? There’s nothing there for you at all? Not one author who represents your brand of Christianity? Nothing you need for personal enrichment? You’ve got it all.

  • I am sorry for the employees losing their jobs in depressed places – but the closing of Family Values Propaganda Market is a good thing, IMO. Good riddance.

To the above we now add propaganda? By definition, this is material that a group writes about itself. There isn’t one book on the shelves is about Jesus? Maybe you simply (think you) know too much. You’ve been totally jaded and can’t see the good that is still be accomplished through those books.

Or…maybe you’ve never been in a country where nationals would give their eye teeth to get their hands on a commentary or Christian living title or even a praise CD.

  • Yeah, I am not sorry to see the Family Christian book stores close. So much “Jesus junk” made in China; candles with Bible verses, straws in the shape of the Jesus fish, sox that have some religious symbolism, and a few cheesy books but very little that is truly theological.

You focused on the non-book products, and when you did look at the books you wrote them all off with the term cheesy. Perhaps you don’t realize that the high-brow academic tomes you seek are sold in places like that by special order.

Oh, and by the way, if something is anti-theological, bookstore chains and independents vet their product very carefully, something you can’t say for the “Christian” section of Barnes and Noble.

  • The last couple of Bibles I bought for gifts, I got online just to avoid the bookstore.

The bookstore was more than a store. It was a meeting place for Christians and performed a large number of non-retail functions, including referrals to local churches and Christian counselors; as well as staff trained to help new believers connect with that first Bible and parents get the appropriate Bible for their kids, rather than buying one online and then finding it’s too young or too old for them. In 240 places, that will not happen anymore. Your disdain led to the demise of something which you judged as not necessary.

Sorry. That attitude does not emanate from someone who possesses the Spirit of God. A Christian wants to be with and encourage fellow Christians. A Christian wants to come alongside the people, places and ministries which God is using.

And God used those bookstores. You just don’t hear those stories as loudly as you hear from those who seem to be almost rejoicing at Family Christian’s demise; a behavior I would more expect — forgive me for this — from demons.

  • I haven’t set foot in a Christian bookstore in twenty years. I won’t miss them when they go.

Again, a personal choice perhaps, but being flaunted like a badge of honor. I haven’t given to the Salvation Army in twenty years. I won’t miss them when they go. Or, I haven’t been to a Christian conference in twenty years. I won’t miss them when they go. Or, I haven’t listened to Christian radio stations in twenty years. I won’t miss them when they go.

It’s just too easy to fill in that blank, but to what end? It’s not particularly righteous sounding is it? But it has enough of an air of spiritual arrogance and self-righteousness that someone might be impressed by it. For at least 60 seconds. And then it kind of hangs there and the speaker’s heart is laid bare.

So…want to know the real reasons Family Christian stores closed? It wasn’t the stores’ fault.

  1. The U.S. publishing establishment is caught in a “hardcover first edition” mentality which diminishes sales potential through high prices. When a “trade paperback conversion” happens a year later, the sales momentum is completely lost. As more and more Christian authors migrated from the traditional Christian publishers (Baker, Cook, Tyndale, etc.) to the big publishing houses (Hachette, Harper, S&S, etc.) where this mentality is more entrenched, average retail prices for new releases by the bestselling authors actually skyrocketed.
  2. The industry is founded on a “stack ’em high and watch ’em fly” mentality instead of a common sense, “just in time” distribution and delivery system. They send out “floor dumps” and “planograms” with an “if you build it they will come” confidence while failing to see to the organic nurture and cultivating of an author over time.
  3. The parent company never embraced the “order online; pick up instore” concept, even as record numbers of parcels were being stolen off front porches. Or the idea of “shop online, refine your purchase instore.”
  4. Christian publishers were too content to produce products for Christians, when in fact Christians were looking for things to give their non-Christian friends, neighbors, relatives and co-workers.
  5. Individual FCS stores were caught in national marketing programs that necessitated purchasing of products nobody wanted or needed at the expense of things for which there was demonstrated local interest.
  6. There was no equivalent to the woman at the big box store handing out samples. First chapter excerpts of the latest Christian titles were simply too hard to come by online. Give people a taste of the author, let them understand his or her heart and intention, and perhaps they might have made the purchase.
  7. Chain stores and publishers have no consumer product panels and no working customer feedback mechanisms. There’s no suggestion box, no place for people to offer their opinions except for the angry rants when a chain shuts down. (As an insider, I can tell you that some of the major players in Christian publishing have nobody to whom store owners and managers can send an email suggestion. They know it all. They have all the answers. They create the products, the stores just sell them; a condescending relationship.)
  8. The industry lost credibility when authors and artists admitted moral failure and yet they continued to market and distribute their products.
  9. Ten years ago, publishers offered print on demand as kind of second life for slow-moving backlist titles and series, but then got seduced by the quicker, lower-cost solution they found in eBooks.
  10. Some pastors got too big for their britches. Once they started to see national success on a grand scale they stepped down from their churches and lost a big part of their platform overnight. I challenge you to show me a “former Pastor of …” who is better known now then they were then. (Okay, maybe the guy who teamed up briefly with Oprah.)

This is a crisis for American Christianity generally. Don’t blame the people at Family Christian. Yes, management mistakes were made; but many were doing the best they could with the materials they were given.

If the industry doesn’t shake itself awake, LifeWay and Parable are next. Hopefully, the requiem for the entire retail genre is still not needed.

February 21, 2017

Christianity in 30 Seconds

God Enters Stage Left - Tim Day

Three years ago, we introduced you to Tim Day’s book God Enters Stage Left. At the time it was published, it was part of a movement wherein many authors and publishers were looking for ways to express the Biblical narrative as a single story, unfettered by the divisions between its various books in general and the line of separation between the first and second testaments in particular. Today that sentiment among writers and Bible edition creators is, if anything, continuing to grow.

The thing I especially liked about God Enters Stage Left — and mentioned in the review — was that “everything is written with the non-churched, not-Bible-literate reader in mind. The pass-along potential here is huge…”

That was then. Very recently I was alerted to an interview that Tim Day did a few months ago on the program Context with Lorna Dueck on the power of story. (See below.) That got me thinking. The book is already very concise, but what if Tim had to reduce the story arc of the Bible’s 66 books to a 30-second elevator pitch? What would that look like? I got in touch with Tim through Twitter and what follows was his response. Note that the book and the core message of Christianity’s sacred text are somewhat synonymous; so this is also an elevator pitch for the book itself.

God Enters Stage Left is a creative retelling of the Biblical story as a six-act play.

Through history, the Bible has been used to support war, oppression and religious legalism, leading many people to question belief in God. God Enters Stage Left walks through the unfolding Biblical narrative to show that the actual meaning of this story is quite the opposite of popular belief.

God’s approach to transforming the human heart is not outside in – having the right rules, getting rid of bad people, following strong leaders and facing harsh accountability. Rather, Jesus shows us that God’s approach is quite the opposite. God changes the human heart inside out. As we experience deep love from a close friendship with God, this enables us to live a life of love. We are freed from a life governed by rules, top-down leadership, and harsh accountability. We can experience peace within and peace with others. We are freed us to serve others compassionately, even those we may consider our enemies.

God Enters Stage Left ends with a Q & A section that provides concise answers to many of the common questions people have about the Bible.

Tim Day is the Director of City Movement. He previously served for 14 years as Senior Pastor of The Meeting House. He lives in Burlington, Ontario, Canada with his family. He is married to Liz and they have three children, Nathan, Rachel and Josh.

Learn more about Tim and City Movement at his website.

Order the book at this link

What would your version “Christianity in 30 seconds” or “The Bible in 30 seconds” look like?


Watch the interview with Lorna Dueck: Fast forward to 17:23

February 9, 2017

Books Which Influenced Me

Filed under: books, Christianity — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 8:24 am

bookshelf-backgroundIn more spiritually formative years — and spiritual formation should be ongoing — there were several books I was encouraged to read which had a lasting effect. Many of these are now out of print, but I’ve included here things published in the last 40-50 years only. I have read some classics as well, especially Andrew Murray and A. W. Tozer. Glancing at my bookshelf, here’s what I came up with:

Less recently published

The Mind Changers – Emory Griffin  – Compared the evangelism process to candle-making with three stages: Melt, mold, make hard. Was recommended at a conference.

Contemporary Christian Communication – James Engle – Central to this was a chart showing the spiritual formation process from pre-conversion to decision to post-decision.

The Translation Debate – Clark Glassman – From the perspective of a Bible translator this looks at the challenges faced on the mission field. Wish IVP could find a way to revise and update this.

Shout it From the Housetops – Pat Robertson – Not exactly a popular name with some people today, but this early bio challenged me as Pat and his wife Dede sacrificed a posh lifestyle to buy a rundown TV station.

Destined for the Throne – Paul Billheimer – This was the first doctrinal book I was encouraged to purchase in the two years I was attending a charismatic congregation. It was recently repackaged.

Flirting with the World – John White – Showed that it’s the inner life that matters, not the externals by which people might be judged.

The Pursuit of Holiness – Jerry Bridges – A wonderful companion read to the above title, this proved to be Bridges’ signature work.

Your God Is To Small – J. B. Phillips – Especially the first half, dealing with the false ideas people have about God. Should be required reading.

The Liberator and The Word on the StreetRob Lacey – Written for street youth in Manchester, England this was the most extreme paraphrase I’d ever encountered.

The Jesus I Never Knew – Philip Yancey – Based on some well-made and badly-made films on the life of Christ, a look at shaping an accurate picture of Jesus.

Theology for Non-Theologians – James Cantelon – One of the first of many I would read in the theodicy genre.

More recently published

Radical – David Platt – A challenge to be aware of and consider giving time to the cause of third world missions.

Irresistible Revolution – Shane Claiborne – What happens when a young man takes the teaching in an Eastern College course seriously.

Mark and Luke – Michael Card – There are actually four gospels in the series, I read these two and on each page Card brings the narratives to life in a fresh way.

Jim and Caspar Go to Church – Jim Henderson – Our modern church scene through the eyes of an atheist.

The Shack – Wm. Paul Young – Love it or hate it you have to admit this started a ton of conversations about the nature of God and the place of Christian fiction.

Days of Elijah – R. T. Kendall – For an Old Testament study, Kendall brought a lot of Christ to the table in this look at key Bible figure.

Not a Fan – Kyle Idleman – A great “first book” for a new Christian; it is a good representation of the Christian Living genre previously typified by Lucado and Swindoll.

If You Want to Walk on Water You’ve Got to Get out of the Boat – John Ortberg – Maybe it was because I read this concurrent with the video series; a great faith-builder. 

There’s also the writers who brought significant elements to the discussion table; alternative thinkers like Rob Bell and Brian McLaren; church planters like Michael Frost and intellectuals like Greg Boyd.

I’m sure I could have listed this many again and I’ve left out somethings I would have wanted to include. The reviews on the blog are also books I recommend.

I’ll be away the day this publishes, so if you leave a comment and it gets caught in moderation, I’ll catch up to it eventually.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

January 22, 2017

How We Treat Our Physical Copies of the Bible

water-damaged-bible

I want to ask for your help with something I’m working on for a future article; and this possibly applies more to those of you who have been a Christian for a longer period of your life, or even grew up in the church.

I want you think about a Bible in physical (print) form that you once owned, or that you own now, and ask if you have any reservations or feelings about one or all of the following questions.  (i.e. pick one and focus on it, or attempt to answer a few…)

  1. Is it okay to leave a copy of the Bible lying on the floor? (Either flat or upright.)
  2. Is it okay to have your Bible in a stack of other books with other books piled on top of it?
  3. Is it okay for stores to sell Bibles in damaged condition? (Especially if pages are slightly torn?)
  4. If a Bible becomes damaged, what is the proper method of disposing of a Bible? (Regular garbage / recycling / never dispose of … Consider the possibility of water damage if your home is flooded, for example.)
  5. Parents: Do you lean toward letting your kids use their Bible at whatever cost to its physical condition, or do you encourage greater reverence for the physical copy? (Keeping it in a special place, etc.)
  6. Finally (here’s a tricky one) what about underlining, circling, highlighting or the current fad of coloring in Bibles; is that appropriate? *

I don’t get a lot of feedback here despite the number of readers, but I really need your help on this one. Please use the comments, not the contact page, so everyone can see your response. And feel free to share the short-link for this article http://wp.me/pfdhA-8HS on social media. (Tell your friends it’s an open-ended survey about the care and feeding of Bibles.)

Bible Journaling 2

Bible Journaling 1

Bible Journaling 4

* The coloring Bible samples were already in my picture file; please don’t focus entirely on that particular question.

Please note that this article contains several keywords which may result in WordPress adding advertising below which does not originate with Thinking Out Loud or Christianity 201.

January 19, 2017

The Harsh Reality of an Aid Worker’s Life

Filed under: books, Christianity — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 8:12 am

Today’s a bit of an exception: A book that’s not new (published in 2012) and not carried by Christian retailers. Rather, it was loaned to me by a friend who met the author at a work-sponsored event several months ago and thought I would enjoy it. I need to return the book to him now, so I don’t even get to keep it, which means I really didn’t need to bother to write anything about it but the fact is, I’m really pumped (a pun which will you’ll get in a minute) about this and want to share it in the hope some of you might track it down.

wine-to-waterWine to Water: How One Man Saved Himself While Trying to Save the World (Avery) is the suspense-filled autobiographical account of how Doc Hendley went from bartender in a college town to founding his own charity and being sent carte blanche to Darfur, Sudan by Samaritan’s Purse to develop a program to bring fresh water to people there regardless of their religion or politics.

Ever watched or read an appeal for a third-world charity and wondered what the people on the ground actually do when they wake up each morning? It’s possibly the polar opposite of what you imagine. As the story unwinds, Hendley is basically an actor in a play in which he has to write (and re-write) the script daily. There is guaranteed opposition and no real promise that you’ll live to the same the next day. In one harrowing tale, he is at a loss to understand how a bullet fired directly at his head could possibly have missed.

If you haven’t figured it out, the book’s title relates to how Hendley the Bartender begins a series of pub-based fundraising events with the aim of helping with the world water crisis. But he does so not knowing where the money will be used. When he first connects with Samaritan’s Purse, they actually turn down his donation and invite him to see the situation firsthand before he spends the first dollar.

I mentioned at the outset that Wine to Water isn’t sold at Christian retail, but perhaps it should be. On a personal level, Hendley strongly identifies with his religious upbringing as a preacher’s kid.  His personal faith in God and the power of prayer ought to be a challenge to the rest of us who perhaps have the dotted the is and crossed the ts when it comes to doctrine and theology, but may be missing out on actual real faith. I think it’s true that there are no atheists in foxholes.


Read an interview with Doc Hendley on the book’s page at Avery/Penguin. Donations can be made at winetowater.org .

January 15, 2017

Christian Bookstores Wondering What Happened to Christmas

Only a small handful of you would know that I also write a blog specifically for Christian bookstore owners and managers in Canada. This past week we’ve heard from a few about how their year ended, and the common theme seems to be that the bottom fell out of the month of December. One store apparently had a 20% drop from the same month a year previous, others reported less severe drops, and I suspect many of our brothers and sisters in the US experienced a similar year.

So what happened? Were there weather factors? Was there a gravitational pull to other types of retail to buy hot items this Christmas? Was it the Trump effect?

I can only say that I know the value of these stores and the ministry that can take place when such a place exists. The “category killing” of bookstores in general may not have stopped people from reading, but where Christian stores are concerned, the loss of stores is a loss of a neutral meeting place for Christians of all denominations and the loss of potential referrals to those churches.

Someone put it this way:

we-heart-christian-bookstores-2

Tomorrow we’ll take another look at why the stores are hurting.

 

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