Tuesday, December 31, 2013

My Favorite Book of 2013

As I reflect on all that I read in 2013, by far the most helpful book, other than the Bible of course, was D.A. Carson’s The Intolerance of Tolerance. It is such a timely word for us who live in a culture where tolerance has become the highest virtue and is prized above truth. 

In the book, Carson distinguishes between what he calls the old tolerance and the new tolerance. The old tolerance is what gave us the form of religious liberty in America. The old tolerance values objective truth and understands that there will be disagreements between individuals who are seeking the truth. Yet people can tolerate one another with whom they disagree. For example, while I will disagree with a Mormon neighbor over who Jesus Christ is, we can still live peacefully together as neighbors and practice our freedom of religion. We do not have to worry about killing each other over our belief system, yet we can still disagree strongly with each other under the old tolerance. In other words, rivals can tolerate each other. 

The new tolerance, which is the cultural norm today, is much different. To summarize what Carson says about it: the new tolerance argues that no one view is exclusively true; the new tolerance avoids serious engagement over difficult moral issues, and yet most importantly (and inconsistently) it holds that anyone who attempts to arrive at truth and moral conviction is labeled intolerant and will not be tolerated. So those who claim that they are “tolerant” end up being the most intolerant by their own actions. Those who cry for tolerance become very intolerant if one does not agree with their view of the new tolerance, which downplays all truth claims and puts all beliefs on equal playing field.  Carson demonstrates in the book that the new tolerance is largely secular since that is considered the “neutral” position. 

I’ll share two quotes from the book that encourage Christians to engage the new tolerance. 

“So part of our task, whether in scholarly output or casual speech, is to call into question this delusional supposition that ours is the best society because it is becoming the most tolerant society. The petty gain in open-mindedness that we have achieved in recent decades cannot compare with the staggering losses in clarity as to what tolerance is, in understanding the non-negotiability of truth, in the moral blindness that is rocking our world--a blindness we barely detect” (p. 167 italics mine). 

And in the final pages Carson sums up the Christian’s responsibility in this, 

“Evangelize. Evangelize and plant churches. Evangelize and pray. Evangelize and live life in the light of the consummated kingdom for which we wait. Evangelize” (p173).

I love those two quotes because they capture the nature of Carson’s writing (for the record, I have probably read more from D.A. Carson than any other author in the past decade of my life): he is a well thought philosopher, yet also applies truth very practically and clearly as a lover of God’s Word. 

And he helps us think through the Christian's response to the new tolerance. It is not retreat of fear, nor buying into it full-throttle, but challenging it with obedience to the very command of our Savior, “Go therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt 28:19-20 ESV). 

Monday, December 23, 2013

Most Helpful Ministry Book of 2013: Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome

These final blog posts of 2013 I want to reflect on my reading this past year and share the most helpful books that have shaped my thinking. This post is specifically geared towards those in ministry. The next post will be about a book that I’ve found very helpful for all evangelical Christians.

I read several books on pastoral ministry this year, but by far the most helpful one was Liberating Ministry From the Success Syndrome by Kent and Barbra Hughes. The book was birthed from the their “failed” ministry experience. Decades ago, Kent planted a church that had all the elements of success on the outside. But attendance and zeal soon began to decline from the hundreds down to around 20. This left Kent in a state of depression and despair, even doubts of his call to ministry. 

God was gracious to Kent and Barbra during this time and “liberated” them from their misunderstanding of success. As Kent and Barbra began to study the Scripture about how God evaluates success, they found a different picture than the one they had bought into. 

The book emphasizes what success looks like from a biblical perspective: faithfulness, serving, loving, believing, prayer, holiness and a positive attitude. Sadly, this runs contrary to how churches and pastors are viewed. Success is usually seen in the numbers. 

I want to mention a few things about the book personally. First, I wish this was required at some point during my training for ministry. How many men enter ministry with the wrong model and aspiration of success? Statistically around half of the men who finish seminary will be out of the ministry within 5 years. Is this, in some way, tied to a wrong mentality of success? The attendance in our church has remained roughly the same over the past couple of years since I have been pastor.  We have gained some great families and also lost some. Certainly I could do things better as a leader. But without a biblical perspective of success, in a few more years I could feel like a great ministerial failure if the numbers do not increase. This book was helpful to evaluate true success. 

Second, I wanted to share my favorite part of the book. It is found on pages 102-103. Kent describes a conversation he had with a child of a retired pastor, who on the outside had all the elements of success, yet he was miserable. The son described his dad like this: 

“My father is retired now, but he’s just as resentful and unhappy as he has always been.....he literally married himself to the church, all the while disliking the people he served, and envious of his colleagues who had it ‘better’ than he.” 

Remember, this describes a man who throughout his life, on the outside, looked very successful as a minister. But listen to the next minister Kent described who had a genuine joy: 

“What a contrast with the pastor I met in a remote little western town. His church met in rented facilities and his car had seen better days, as had his trailer-house home. But as he walked down Main Street, stepping around the tumble weeds, he remarked, ‘I can’t believe how good God is to me. I have a wonderful wife, a church to serve, and sunshine 365 days a year!” 

The lesson: “success” from an outside perspective is not always better for the soul. True joy comes not as a result of the outward circumstances but from the Spirit working in the heart. 

After finding myself more “liberated” from the success syndrome, I find myself more echoing the second pastor. I too can’t believe how good God has been to me. I have an amazing wife who loves our church,  four fantastic children who are fun to be around, a church to serve with people who Christ died for, and sunshine probably 90% of the year!

So my suggestion is that all pastors should read this book at least once in their ministries. It is never to late to be liberated from the success syndrome. Thank you Kent and Barbra Hughes!