Thinking Out Loud

May 24, 2018

Review: Christianity in an Age of Skepticism

Filed under: books, Christianity, Faith, reviews — Tags: , , , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:28 am

In the past few days I’ve shared excerpts from Evangelism in a Skeptical World: How to Make the Unbelievable News about Jesus More Believable by Sam Chan (Zondervan) but I feel this book is important enough to merit a formal review.

Someone long forgotten told me that this was a must-read book for 2018, but although I can’t place who it was, I know it was someone I respected so I decided to investigate further. I know the word Evangelism scares many of you, but this is how-to book on a whole other level. Whereas Mark Clark’s The Problem of God is concerned with the particular arguments people will use against the existence of God or the deity of Christ, Sam Chan is concerned with how we craft our various types of presentations, be they a one-on-one story of God’s presence in our lives, or a one-to-many presentation in the style of a sermon.

The latter type of information might be helpful for those starting down the road of becoming preachers. I can see this book easily fitting into a first year Homiletics class in a Bible college. There are also online resource links which take the reader to the academic section of the Zondervan website. But in terms of its overall intent, its pricing, and the fact it doesn’t appear under the Zondervan Academic imprint, this is a book for everyone who wants to be better at our calling to be the life and witness of Christ in this world.

I have some favorite chapters. Chapter two deals with introducing Jesus into casual conversation with our friends and the different approaches we can take.

…our community has a powerful role in forming our beliefs. Different communities with some of the same experiences will interpret them in different ways. Different communities with the same facts, evidence and data will interpret them in different ways.  ~p43

Chapter three deals with assembling a response to the needs of people around us, and looks at the various metaphors in the Gospel narratives in a way that this reader had never seen them presented. I’m a huge believer in using charts and diagrams and this book is generous with both.


Those unfamiliar with the challenge of using traditional means to try to reach Postmoderns will find the situation well-defined in the fourth chapter.

…the gospel will remain unbelievable as long as our non-Christian friends don’t have many Christian friends, because we tend to adopt the plausibility structures of those we know and trust. ~p117

For those who haven’t studied the challenges of world missions, the fifth chapter deals with contextualization.

To the crowd, John told them to share food and clothing. To the tax collectors, John told them to stop cheating. to the soldiers, John told them to stop extorting money and to stop accusing people falsely ~p135

I don’t agree with Sam Chan on everything. (This is the probably the only book in my collection that says, “Foreword by D.A. Carson.) There were some early chapters where I thought I better subtitle might be, The Evangelism Methodology of Timothy Keller, since Chan gushes about Keller’s writing repeatedly. (Doing this with the audio book would make a great drinking game.)

The chapters on preaching topical and exegetical sermons would probably be of greater interest to… well, preachers. Though I must add that I did appreciate the idea that it’s not a case of either topical or exegetical. Both approaches borrow from the other, even if some won’t admit that. 

That Sam Chan is of Asian descent would give this book appeal to anyone who is part of a minority where Christianity also has minority status. That, plus his Australian origins play into the book many times where he argues that the Bible is not interpreted the same all over the world. (A great example is the inclusion of Don Richardson’s account that in presenting the gospel to a particular tribe, they were cheering Judas because treachery is honored in that tribe.) Because I live just an hour east of Toronto, which has a very high Asian population those stories really resonated.

Again, I view this as part of a limited collection of must-read books for this year. Everyone from the zealous, new convert who wants to reach out to his work, neighborhood or social network; or the seasoned, veteran believer who wants to reminded of the evangelism fundamentals will find this beneficial and will, like me find themselves returning to re-examine several key chapters.

Excerpts appearing here previously:

January 2, 2010

An Apologetic for Church Change

I’m late posting to my blog today because I’ve spent the whole day reading and finishing a book that a month ago, you probably could not have paid me to read.   Let me explain.

Twenty years ago we moved from The Big City to a town of about 15,000 people.   The churches here were characterized by a rural mentality that includes a resistance to change.

Before we got married, I wrote something called, “A Proposal for a New Kind of Church.”   About 200 copies were distributed.  It’s a topic that’s always interested me and still does.   Although I’m older now, I tend to think young when it comes to church and culture.

That means, in other words, that I take my cues from Brian McLaren, Michael Frost, Wayne Jacobsen, Frank Viola, Alan Hirsch, Jim Henderson, and other writers of that stripe.   I want to hear their ideas and align my thinking with some of the more progressive voices on ecclesiology.

So when a woman came in the bookstore and asked about a particular book that reinforces a more conservative view, I was a little concerned.   I knew the pastor of her church and I knew that he longs to see his church move forward, not retreat backward, so I phoned him and said, “I’m at a crossroads here.   I don’t want to refuse sales or inhibit open minded discussion, but I think to have this book circulating in your church right now would be like pouring gasoline on a fire.”

“Don’t order it, then;” was his response.

The supplier had plenty in stock.    I told the customer, in a carefully worded statement that, “the book would not be available through us.”

So when a group of people from some equally conservative churches started asking about Gordon MacDonald’s Who Stole My Church? I had a similar nervousness.    I think at first, my brain was thinking more in terms of John McArthur — the names sound somewhat alike — and my attitude was, ‘What can he possibly have to contribute to this discussion?’   Gordon MacDonald’s authorship didn’t change my preconceptions.   What could he say that McLaren and Frost hadn’t already?

The answer, surprisingly is, a lot.   After several suggestions that I was being a book bigot (and then reading a few reviews) I brought the book home on New Year’s Eve and started it at 11:00 AM this morning and finished it at 7:00 PM.

I’ve never done anything quite like that before.

Although he doesn’t acknowledge it, MacDonald takes his own cue from some next-generation communicators and uses a partially-fictional narrative set in New England to make his points.   It’s a brilliant move because characters in the story are able to introduce the requisite objections to church change at each juncture.

But it’s also so very evocative because you can see yourself and situations you are too familiar with being played out in its pages.   The book also gives you another set of possibilities.    What if the Holy Spirit truly intervened where there was congregational resistance to the vision that is sometimes imparted to pastors?    (Guys don’t cry when they read books, but during the last chapter I did suddenly have a need for a tissue.    Perhaps I’m getting a cold.)

MacDonald confronts a pastor’s perspective several times in this book:

If you [i.e. a pastor] really do give away your heart, then we people leave, they take a piece of it with them.   I have known more than a few pastors who have given their hearts away piece by piece until one day there was nothing more left to give.   It’s not unusual for some pastors to reach a point where they can no longer manage the disappointments of people leaving or just hanging around and making trouble.   Something dies within them, and they either quit or begin to treat their work as a regular job in which a person counts the days until retirement.

One chapter gives some fresh insights into the underlying factors that create the traditional or conservative mentality in the church; one being the Great Depression.    His analysis also is brought to bear on the role of women in the church, although it’s not a central subject, but part of the larger issue of the ‘paid staff versus volunteers’ debate.

There are many respects in which the book says some things that have been said many times before, but it truly presents them in a fresh and compelling way.   While the book is supposedly lifted from a pastor’s case files, there is a definite plot or storyline at work here as Pastor MacDonald recollects his weekly meetings with the church Discovery Group, a nice name given to a collection of people who most strenuously helped defeat the church’s last board resolution toward church innovation.     (Think: The nay-sayers.]

Interspersed throughout the fiction are some practical steps a church can take when the generational wars are looming large.   Also mixed in are examples from both New and Old Testaments of principles of change at work in the lives of Biblical figures.

I’d write more here but I’ve got to start compiling my personal list of people who simply must read this, and that includes people on both sides of the generational and worship-style divide.

Who Stole My Church: What to Do When the Church You Love Tries to Enter the 21st Century by Gordon MacDonald was originally published by Thomas Nelson in 2007 and is releasing in paperback later this month.

~Paul Wilkinson

When your blog is intense with links to news sites and other blogs, it’s bound to be exciting.   Sometimes I link you somewhere only to learn later that on the day the post appeared, the site at the other end of the link put something up that isn’t exactly the kind of content we expected.    If that happened to you recently, I’m sorry.   The link in question has been removed.

October 15, 2009

Encouragement, Not Condemnation Needed

I am convinced that one of the biggest mistakes we are making in the church is not empowering, elevating and resourcing the next generation of leaders within the church.  Whatever happened to what we once called “Paul-Timothy” relationships?   Today, it seems things are downright adversarial.

I say that not as a 20-something, or even a 30-something, but as someone who is speaking from a greater number of years experience in the church than your average blogger.

Slight digression:  There’s a guy in ministry with whom I would have frequent conversations.   One time we were talking about the difference that exists between the conservative churches and the liberal churches in our community.   He said something like this:

‘If there’s a familiar Bible passage and the common interpretations or applications of this passage might be numbered #1, #2, #3, etc.; the evangelical churches tend to preach on one of these first three subjects, but the mainline church will read the passage and then go with interpretation or application #7.’

One of the problems we are facing today is that Evangelicals have always read the Bible as a set of doctrine propositions, and a new generation — yes, I’m back to that topic now — are reading it as story.   Embracing the narrative to which both Eastern ears generally and also first century Christians would be more readily tuned to.

In other words, reading the Bible in ways that we’ve missed.   And applying it to the felt-needs that the average 21st century Joe or Joanne can articulate.   The things they think are what matters or what is important.   In the terminology that they use.

And the Bible, being living and active (and sharper than a double-edged sword) is going to speak to the needs of all people in all places at all times.   (You could almost say it won’t bounce back off the walls with an empty echo.)    In other words, we don’t need to make the gospel relevant, we need to communicate the relevance it already has. The robed and sandaled carpenter and itinerant teacher has something to say to our high-tech world.

The problem is, the people of a previous generation don’t get it when next-generation leaders speak to their tribe.    They listen to the words that they can’t possibily ever hope to process and say, “That’s not application #1 or #2 or #3.   That’s #7 or even #12 and it’s a million miles from the central message of the text.”

Let me say this to the critics as respectfully as I can:  Maybe they’re not talking to you.   Maybe you’re eavesdropping on a conversation you were never invited to be a part of.  (And remember that I’m saying this as a blogger who is measurably older than most.)

I don’t endorse 100% of every word spoken or written by every young pastor or author I mention or review here.    Let me be honest, I hear and read stuff that makes my eyes bug out with surprise.   But then again, I’ve sat and listened to sermons delivered by some of the most respected names in conservative Christianity and heard things that simply should not have been said.    I’ve heard things passed off as fact that were merely opinion.   I’ve heard jokes that were inappropriate for Sunday morning.    I’ve heard conclusions that were illogical.   I’ve heard points of doctrine that contradicted points made five minutes earlier.   I’ve heard bad exegesis, bad eschatology and bad hermeneutics.  However, I didn’t go on public forums and trash those respected pastors or authors.

But I know that in listening to some of the younger voices in the breadth and width of the faith movement we call Christianity,

  • I’ve been inspired to read more Bible, more commentary, more discussion;
  • I’ve been made aware of things in both the Old Testament and New Testament that, despite growing up in the church, I had never heard preached before;
  • I’ve become more passionate about my personal faith;
  • I’ve become more willing to pray bigger prayers, not in a charismatic sense but in the sense of believing in a God who is able to do, as He wills, the things we would consider impossible;
  • I’ve become better able to articulate the truth and beauty of scripture to seekers and new believers;
  • I’ve been inspired to try to do more to make a difference in the lives of those who are hungry, both in terms of our local weekly meal project and in terms of doing some alternative giving at Christmas;
  • I’ve been stretched in my understand of who God is, who we are in Christ, what The Church consists of and is meant to accomplish;
  • I’ve been witness to people who are so intentional about faith and witness and being serious about communicating the love of God and the need for salvation, that it consumes their every waking moment;
  • I’ve been refreshed in my spirit in hearing things said in new ways with new energy to people who otherwise would never give attention to anyone who mentions the name, Jesus.

And I owe all that to pastors and teachers and authors and bloggers who were or are, for the most part, under the age of 35.

Oh yeah, and thanks to all the trashing they’ve had to put up with from the older generation because they lit a few candles, or dressed casually, or refused to use certain words and phrases,

  • I’ve become sharper in my discernment; separating truth from lies, yes, but also separating what matters most and what really counts from what creates division and what is said in hate.

To you under-30s or even under-25s who are just starting out in ministry:  Go for it!   Study.   Aim for God’s approval.   Correctly and accurately handle God’s Word.    Then say it the way it needs to be said to your generation, in your location at your place in time. Don’t let the world squeeze you into its mold, yes; but also don’t let the church force you into its mold, either.

Do that, and I support you.

December 3, 2008

A Lesson in Synonyms

Filed under: Christianity, Church — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 8:15 pm

Postmodern does not equal relativist.

Modern does not equal christian.

Truth does not equal certainty.

Mystery does not equal doubt.

Inerrant does not equal exact.

Narrative does not equal fable.

Missional does not equal social gospel.

Inclusion does not equal pluralism.

Justice does not equal democrat.

Christian does not equal republican.

~as posted by Grace at Kingdom Grace

October 19, 2008

Unitarian Modern Worship: I Am Not Making This Up

Filed under: Christianity, Church, music, worship — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 8:22 pm

Adam Walker, on his blog Pomomusings informs us about — and unless I’m misreading this, strongly recommends — a new album by Dana Decker & His Band of All Stars, titled When We Sing. (You can video preview some of the tracks here.)

For Adam, the issue seems to be one of, “Why should the evangelicals have all the good music?”   Apparently, there are not enough good bands and songwriters out there creating songs that the liberal wing of the church can sing with conviction.  (I apologize ahead of time if the word “conviction” doesn’t square with Unitarian Universalist theology.)  (Ditto the word ‘theology.’)

And so Pomomusings heralds the coming of Liberal Worship, complete with a link if you’d like to buy a copy.   Obviously, some of the dozen or so people who left a comment after the article aren’t so sure about this.

Create a free website or blog at