Book Review : Starting at the Finish Line

StartingAtTheFinishLine“Starting at the Finish Line; The Gospel of Grace for Mormons” is the story of Dr. John Wallace’s exit from the Church of Latter-day Saints (Mormons). He opens his book by providing unique insight into his childhood/early adult years in the church and the subsequent struggle to satisfy the requirements of the church. This struggle left him feeling empty and, at times, hypocritical. Wallace experienced a crisis of faith as became unsettled with the reality of God’s grace. In the second section of his book, he defends the accuracy and reliability of the Bible. This is crucial because the Mormon Church, as Wallace sees, is guilty of picking and choosing the parts of the Bible they will believe while at the same time dismiss it altogether. Wallace builds a solid defense of the Bible’s reliability.

In the third section, Wallace gives his readers a look into his crisis of faith as he came to terms with God’s holiness and the Mormon tenant that man has the capacity to become a god. This crisis served as the catalyst for his exit. Sections four and five consist of Wallace’s demonstration of the difference between Christianity and Mormonism in the areas of the person of Jesus Christ, the sufficiency of the blood atonement, grace, the balance between faith and works, and eternity. The latter sections are given to reconciling an existing tension between Christians and Mormons. That tension: Mormons believe there has to be something more than faith and Christians believe there can be nothing but faith.

“Starting at the Finish Line” is a good work. When it comes to leading someone out of a false belief system, the most effective means in doing so is the testimony of one who belonged to that belief system. Wallace takes a fair and balanced approach in his writing. This is not a Mormon-bashing book. Wallace puts Mormon theology and the words of their leadership alongside the Bible and asks the reader to decide. This is a great book for the Mormon who is struggling within their belief system. This is also a great book for Christians to be able to understand the basic beliefs of the LDS Church and how to defend the tenants of the Christian faith.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from CrossFocused Reviews as part of their Blogger Review Program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

FIFS : Galatians 1:6-7

6 I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel, 7 which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. (Gal 1:6-7)

The apostle Paul was a lot like the circuit-riding preachers of the early twentieth century. These preachers usually covered a certain area or a number of congregations.  They would then ride that circuit on a schedule either monthly or quarterly. We can see some of the similar travel habits in Paul’s letters. He was responsible, at least in some part, for the establishment of the churches we are familiar with in the New Testament (Galatia, Colosse, Thessalonica, Philippi, Ephesus). Paul would travel around to these churches and minister to and encourage them. He would write letters (our NT books) to encourage, teach, and address problems and issues they were facing. We see this happening in the first part of Galatians. Paul had delivered to the Galatians that the resurrection of Christ was the center of the gospel. He taught them that the death of Christ was sufficient for the forgiveness of their sin. The Galatian Christians were being led astray by false teachers known as Judaizers. Judaizers were Jewish Christians who were telling the Gentile Christians that in addition to their faith in Christ they must adhere to the Jewish Law in order to be truly saved. We see Paul’s reaction in v.6, “I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him”. He says that he is surprised how fast they turned from the truth of the gospel to something different. Paul spoke of a desire of some in his day to pervert the gospel. The same desire exists today.

The gospel is very simple and amazingly clear. The resurrection is the power of the gospel and grace is the vehicle that delivers it. 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 says, “For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures”. Paul wrote in Ephesians 2:8-9, “ For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” To “pervert” means to “misinterpret or distort”. Across the landscape of Christianity we can see the pure gospel that has been delivered to us being perverted regularly. Here are a few examples.

1. The gospel is perverted by suggesting that Jesus Christ is just simply one of many ways to the Father.

2. The gospel is perverted by suggesting that grace is not sufficient and human efforts (works) are needed to complete salvation.

3. The gospel is perverted by suggesting that an individual can accept Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior and continue living as they did before.

4. The gospel is perverted by suggesting that some are predestined to Heaven and some are predestined to Hell and there is nothing that can be done about it.

As believers who have been changed from the inside out, we have a responsibility to ensure that those who are lost receive the true gospel. They deserve the gospel, as offensive and difficult as it might be to hear, it is the only message that will release them from the bondage of their sin.

Alone Does Not Necessarily Mean Lonely

There is a fundamental fear that many people share today. The fear: being alone. We are social creatures. We were created for community. We desire, if not need, interaction with others. No one wants to feel as if they are without the support, love, and companionship of others. I can remember times in my life when I felt completely alone. Growing up, we moved around frequently. Prior to my seventh grade year in school, I had attended thirteen different schools. I remember being the new kid in class many times. Perhaps my earliest memory of being alone was standing in front of a classroom full of students who had known each other for years while the teacher had me to stand. I can remember the haunting words, “Class, I would like to introduce you to our new student, Steven Ruff”. Alone. Lonely.

Although being alone is not the preferred choice of many, there are times when it is a good thing.  The times that we spend alone with God are both productive and beneficial. It is in our time alone with God that we are able to truly hear from our Heavenly Father. In this fast-paced world that we live in, we are often required to spend a lot of time on the phone, on the road, and even hours in front of the computer. It is extremely difficult to hear from God in the middle of that activity. We must intentionally carve out some time out of our schedules to get alone with the creator of the universe. Significant things happen get alone with God. We find this pattern throughout the Bible. Consider these:

In Exodus 1, alone with God, the Hebrew midwives risked their lives by listening to God’s command to spare all male children, one of whom was Moses.

In Lamentations, Jeremiah, alone with God, pleaded for the salvation of an entire nation.

In Nehemiah 1, alone with God, the desire to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem was birthed in Nehemiah’s heart.

In Daniel 2, alone with God, the meaning of King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream was revealed.

Alone with God, in prison, Paul wrote his letter to the Ephesian church.

In Revelation, alone with God on Patmos, John received an incredible vision from Christ Himself.

Alone with God is an individual choice. It is passion we choose to pursue. It is in these times that we experience the true intimacy of our relationship with God. Alone with God, we lift our petitions to Him in with a certainty that He will hear. Alone with God, we see His Word come alive in our careful study. Alone with God, the plans and purposes He has for us are spoken to our hearts. Alone with God, we feel the conviction of sin that has grieved God’s heart. Alone with God, we feel the calm assurance that regardless of outside conditions, he has control of the inside. Alone with God, our spirits are refreshed and encouraged. I can’t think of a better place for the child of God to be.

Book Review : Leadership Lessons; Avoiding the Pitfalls of King Saul

leadlessThere is certainly no famine of books, resources, and experts that are dedicated to the subject of leadership. Even a cursory examination of the shelves of your local bookstore will reveal volumes dedicated to the science, practice, and styles of leadership. One common theme found in this myriad of leadership advice and counsel is to give the “best practices” of leadership. In other words most leadership material comes from the “in order to succeed you must do this” point of view. There is nothing inherently wrong with this. It is refreshing however to see the matter of leadership approached from the other side. In their new book, “Leadership Lessons; Avoiding the Pitfalls of King Saul”, religion professors Ralph Hawkins and Richard Parrott examine leadership from the “worst practices” perspective.

Hawkins and Parrott write, “One of the unique features of this volume is that, in it, we take a sustained look at the life of a single, individual leader. This approach has a number of benefits. First, rather than arbitrarily selecting five or ten points upon which to pontificate, the selection of a key figure out of history and the examination if his life and leadership to allow the problem behaviors under consideration to emerge naturally. In other words, the ten behaviors examined in this book were not arbitrarily selected nor were they invented by the authors. Instead, they emerged from Saul’s own life story. They are rooted in reality. This means that, while these self-defeating behaviors are, to some extent, Saul’s own character defects, they may also be, to some degree, common or universal problems. A second benefit of tracing the foibles of one leader throughout his lifetime is that we are able to get a long-term perspective of how these problems arise and how they play themselves out if they are not addressed.”

Hawkins and Parrott shine the light on the life of Saul, Israel’s first king and expose the gross leadership failures of the man whom God chose to be the earthly leader of His people. (Reviewer’s note: It should not be concluded that God is to blame for Saul’s failure. It should also not be concluded that God was wrong in His choice of Saul as Israel’s first king. Saul’s failures were his own; the result of his free will.) Although King Saul is credited with some small successes, the authors term his overall reign as a “net-negative”. Hawkins and Parrott list the ten areas where King Saul suffered leadership failure. They term these as pitfalls. They are:

1. Saul Failed to Handle Authority Humbly.

2. Saul Failed to Break Out of His Tendency to Isolate Himself.

3. Saul Failed to Think Before He Spoke.

4. Saul Failed to Act When the Time Was Right.

5. Saul Failed to Lead the People, but Let Them Lead His Instead.

6. Saul Failed to Promote or Make Necessary Changes.

7. Saul Failed to Love the People.

8. Saul Failed to A Be True to His Own Ethics.

9. Saul Failed to Admit Failure or Concede to David.

10. Saul Failed to Consult God.

In each of the sections the authors make their case for Saul as a failed leader. Using the biblical account of Saul’s reign, Hawkins and Parrott demonstrate, through Saul’s actions, words, and attitudes that he is an example of who not to follow. Included in each of these ten pitfalls are modern-day examples of the same leadership style and failure. The authors provide solid examples of both secular and spiritual leaders who failed in the same manner as Saul. Action steps are included in each of the ten sections that help the reader to avoid making the same mistakes Saul did. Finally, each pitfall contains a section for group discussion and personal evaluation. Leadership Lessons is a fantastic book. In places it is brutally honest. In others it offers much needed encouragement. Still in others it passionately calls all leaders to understand the weight of their assignments. I feel strongly that this book should be required reading by everyone who holds a leadership position; most especially ministry leaders. It is that good. The term “must read” is over-used and is often inaccurately applied to many books today. However, this is one of them. In the beginning the authors asked the question, “Why study a failed leader?” They quote leadership expert Denis Waitley as their answer. He writes, “King Saul resides within each of us, and this marvelous book provides a magic mirror reflecting the essence of how to turn failure into the fertilizer of success.”

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from Thomas Nelson Publishers as part of their Blogger Review Program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Worth Repeating : Ed Stetzer and Thom Rainer

worthrepeatingExtended quote from Stetzer and Rainer’s Transformational Churches.

“Most Bibles have several maps in the back. If you spent a lot of time in church services, you discovered those maps. When maps are included in the Bible, usually one or more of them trace Paul’s missionary journeys. Paul’s work was not just traveling from place to place. Paul traveled from people to people.

So how did Paul decide where to go and do his “mission work”? Paul’s choice to go was not random or accidental. Could he have gone anywhere he wanted to go? People are people, right? God is not willing for any of them to perish, right? There was nothing random about where Paul, the missionary, chose to do his work for God.

Every church is filled with people who are called to ministry (1 Peter 4:10) and sent on mission (John 20:21). Transformational Churches empower and release people to live on mission, with a missionary mentality, where they are right now – at the right time, following God’s activity and obeying His assignment.

Acts 16:6-10 gives us a snapshot of Paul in action, choosing (or actually being sent) to a specific place: “They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia and were prevented by the Holy Spirit from speaking the message in the province of Asia. When they came to Mysia, they tried to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them. So, bypassing Mysia, they came down to Troas. During the night a vision appeared to Paul: a Macedonian man was standing and pleading with him, ‘Cross over to Macedonia and help us.’ After he had seen the vision, we immediately made efforts to set out for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to evangelize them.” Paul’s choices were not random. Paul was a mission-minded man sent by our missionary God. There were three important factors behind where Paul went and ministered:

1. Time: Paul’s choice to go to Macedonia included another choice we seldom consider. It was a choice against going to Phyrygia. The Holy Spirit prevented Paul from going there. Paul had a limited amount of hours, days, months, and years. He needed to invest in the right places. He could not go everywhere at once. The assignment of God’s calling is critical to the Transformational Church leader. Transformational Churches understand that they must seize the time afforded to them in the community God has placed and given to them.

2. God’s Activity: God is already at work ahead of where He has called you. The vision Paul experienced of a receptive man from Macedonia was significant detail. God was at work preparing people for a church plant in Philippi. He was at work in the heart of a wealthy business woman named Lydia. He was preparing a demonized girl to experience freedom from bondage. He was even working in the life of a middle-class security guard (the Philippian jailor) preparing him to receive new life. To say no to Macedonia would have been to miss the incredible work of God for people who were hungry for more.

God lead Paul to say no to the right places. Where you pastor or plant a church matters to God because the people there matter to God. Your first calling is to the people of the place of God’s activity. He calls you to a people first, not to do the thing you do. The missionary mentality perceives how God is working in the people He assigned a church to live among.

3. God’s Assignment: God calls every believer to be on mission and an ambassador for Him. The what is settled. The variables are: Where? When? How? God’s assignment can be difficult and involves risk. Paul’s willingness to respond to the Macedonian call resulted in jail time. Paul never confused the Macedonia assignment with a promise of prosperity and success. He was clearly given an assignment and chose to obey. There was a place and a time where God wanted Paul to go and do something. Why? God assigned Paul to Macedonia because there were specific people in whom God was working and for whom He had a greater plan.

Paul is a great example of passion for God’s work. He spoke about the Philippians in these terms, “It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because I have you in my heart, and you are all partners with me in grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and establishment of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I deeply miss all of you with the affection of Jesus Christ (Phil 1:7-8). The missionary mentality demands a passion for God’s work because it is among a needy people.

A missionary mindset is focused more on geographic terms versus methodological terms. Evangelism, church planting, preaching, and discipling in Transformational Churches are a given. Adjusting their work to the community becomes natural.”

Of Church and Coffee; a Parable

Most businesses have a certain flow to them. Unique lingo, systems of seating, and flashy advertising are a few of the things that cause one to stand out over the other. Churches are no different. They have a certain flow. From the moment a person gets out of their car in the parking lot, they are confronted with the “routines” that we have put into place. We feel these routines help things move along a little more smoothly. It is not long after their arrival that they figure out there is secret “language” that needs to be learned. As a pastor I have always wondered that all of this looks like to the person who is coming to church for the very first time. Do we make things harder than they need to be? Could we do a better job of explaining ourselves? Could we be more “user-friendly”? I also wonder what it would look like if secular business conducted themselves like churches do. What would that look like? The video below is alight-hearted parable that answers my question above. While humorous, there is something painful about it. Enjoy. Leave your thoughts in the comment stream and we will discuss.

Missional Monday : What Others Are Saying

mmI am thankful for the many voices, resources, institutions, and ministries which are actively assisting the church and her people today to out a missional lifestyle. As our communities, cities, states, and nation evolve before our very eyes, it becomes more critical every day that the local church be the missionary for the gospel in their field. I hope this collection of thinkers and ministries will further challenge you to live mission lifestyles.

Read: Missional Moves by Rob Wegner and Jack Magruder. This book describes fifteen “shifts” that have the capacity to alter our understanding of the church and how its mission is carried out in the world.

Follow: Dr. Thom Rainer. Dr. Rainer is the president of Lifeway Christian Resources. He is the author of the books Simple Church, The Unchurched Next Door, I Am a Church Member, and Autopsy of a Deceased Church among many others. Dr. Rainer consistently publishes articles and blog posts that deal with church, pastoral, and ministry related issues. He is the consummate encourager. You can read his work here or give him a follow on Twitter – @ThomRainer

Meet: Heifer International. Their purpose is to “empower families to turn hunger and poverty into hope and prosperity”. Heifer brings sustainable agriculture and commerce to communities with a long history of poverty. This happens through the provision of farm animals that provide both food and reliable income in the form of agricultural products such as milk, eggs and honey that can be traded or sold at market. Families in turn pass on farm animals to other communities who have similar need. This sustainable income brings opportunities for building school and funding small businesses. You can find them here or give them a follow on Twitter – @Heifer

FYI: Statistics speak loudly.

According to the American Psychological Association, the top five ways in which teens today deal with stress are: play video games (46%), social media (43%), exercise (37%), watch TV (36%), and play sports (28%). What’s missing?

According to LifeWay Research, 46% of Americans say their religious beliefs impact their daily work.

According to Barna Research, 79% of practicing Christians say they want to know how their faith speaks to current issues they face.

According to LifeWay Research, 59% of churchgoers attend some type of small group Bible study at least once.