Monday, December 30, 2013

BookPastor >> "The Rebirth of the Church" (Eddie Gibbs)

This review was first published at Panorama of a Book Saint on November 20th, 2013. 


TITLE: Rebirth of the Church, The: Applying Paul's Vision for Ministry in Our Post-Christian World
AUTHOR: Eddie Gibbs
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013, (272 pages).

Many different churches, denominations, movements have tried to relate Church, mission, and culture, but few have reportedly succeeded in what they planned to do. In the past few decades, the idea of "church growth" was the popular paradigm for Church and mission. Programs and literature are produced to accompany the excitement. The next paradigm becomes "church health" in which churches tend to prefer to be healthy inside first before reaching out to others. More recently, the excitement hovers around the term "missional" which is an initiative to let any mission work reflect God both directly as well as indirectly. The belief is that the heart of missional work is not about initiatives, projects, or programs. The heart of missional is God. Missions in this instance is not simply a program, but a full-fledged demonstration of one's identity in a missional God. While in the past, the evangelicals tend to be more "defensive" of key doctrines and theological stands as they live counter-culturally; the liberals tend to be more concerned about "relevance" to the culture around them; the Anabaptists work toward purity and separation from the culture; the missional aims to be the Church within the culture. All of these movements struggle with acceptance by the wider Christian population. All because of the increasing separation of Ecclesiology and Missiology, so says Eddie Gibbs, Professor Emeritus of Church Growth at Fuller Theological Seminary.

Gibbs begins with a no-holds-barred criticisms of the post-modern Church, calling them fragmented, reductionistic, and largely reflective of the culture around them, instead of being an influencer or them. He looks at the collapse of civil societies through the ages, and laments the similar plight of the Church at large. The few shining spots of Christianity are increasingly being threatened by postmodern influences like pluralism, secularism, relativism, and of course, acts of terrorism that create a negative backlash against any religion. A response is needed. So Gibbs relooks at the Early Church, eager to learn on the one hand, but also cautious about the different contexts involved. This is something that the Apostle Paul did. Although there were population centers throughout the Roman Empire at that time, what we learn is that instead of strategizing on the different approaches to the different cities, Paul was primarily led by the Holy Spirit.  Gibbs then looks at the cultural backgrounds and the lifestyles of the people in the first century, noticing the rise of institutional power; increasing crowdedness and busyness; households the building blocks of society then. In terms of understanding and applying the idea of "oikos" (housing) then, Gibbs notes how the house meetings flourished then, and how many modern churches adopt that same idea into their home-based meetings like small groups. The difference is that first century "oikos" is more about bonding, obligatory protection, and subordination to authority; while our modern home meetings are more about independent lives coming and meeting together on the basis of convenience and independence, instead of community and co-dependence. In terms of the locations of Paul's ministry, Gibbs notes that while the population centers at Galatia, Ephesus, Philistia, Corinth, Rome, and many others are large, our modern cities are even larger. This is one reason why modern churches need to design their missional strategies from the ground up, instead of simply transplanting what Paul had done to our complex world. Three challenges need to be considered:

  1. The richness and treasure the gospel itself is and how to share this message;
  2. Our culture's historical and social baggage;
  3. Various economic and political powers that world-class cities exert on its citizens as well as outside.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Midweek Meditation: "Blessed Christmas!"

"Christmas day declares that he dwelt among us. . . This is the festival which makes us know, indeed, that we are members of one body; it binds together the life of Christ on earth with his life in heaven; it assures us that Christmas day belongs not to time but to eternity." (Frederick Denison Maurice, 1805-1872)

Monday, December 23, 2013

BookPastor >> "In Search of the Real Spirit of Christmas" (Dan Schaeffer)

TITLE: In Search of the Real Spirit of Christmas
AUTHOR: Dan Schaeffer
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Discovery House Publishers, 2003, (208 pages).

What is the Christmas Spirit? Is it about giving presents or seeing the sign of Santa and reindeers? What about decorating Christmas trees and the food around the dinner table? Is that what Christmas is all about? Intrigued with all the big shopping frenzy and the numerous arguments back and forth about the religious significance of this annual day, author and pastor Dan Schaeffer helps us to reflect more meaningfully on the different symbols and purposes of Christmas. At the heart of the book is the conviction that without a real sense of Christmas and what it is all about, we will all be impoverished year on year, going through the motions of trying to make Christmas meaningful, but regretfully always falling short. Any fun-filled expectation seems busy on the outside but empty on the inside. Even Christians are not immune. In the search for the real Spirit of Christmas, Schaeffer has the following to say:
  • We should not just read about the story of Christmas. We ought to "put ourselves" into it.
  • Learn to imagine how Jesus laid in the dirty manger while our modern babies are delivered in a posh and modern hospitals;
  • Think of the humble and simple way Jesus was born, and compare it to the huge medical facilities we enjoy.
  • As we remember the nativity image, think of what it all means.
  • Christmas is not so much our search for God, but God's search for us!
  • Christmas is not just for friends or family. It is for all, just like Christ came for the whole world.
  • Think about the Christmas gifts and the persons behind the gift. Compare the giving to the way God gives us Jesus.
  • If Jesus is coming to our modern city and lifestyle, how would he be treated?
  • Are we more receivers or givers? Think how love can be the background of receiving and giving.
  • Beware of the Christmas grinches, and learn to pray for them, and not despise them
  • The world presents a wooden, a plastic, a cloth, or an artificial Jesus. God gives us a real person.
  • The Spirit of Christmas may not be a material thing. It is something much more. It is the giving our ourselves and our gifts are to reflect a part of us that we want to share.
  • ...
Observing the festival year on year has kept Schaeffer himself searching for a deeper meaning behind the increasingly commercialized and secularized day. While arguments continue to mount for and against the use of Christ in Christmas, it is important to remember that God is able to defend himself. God is able to make himself known to anyone at anytime. As we try to put back "Christ" in the word "Christmas," we must not forget to put "Christ" back in the word "Christian."

Schaeffer has eloquently put together a great set of reflections and questions to help us appreciate the real spirit of Christmas. For too long, we have focused on attention on the temporal instead of the eternal. Some of us see Christmas and the rituals surrounding the shopping spree as some kind of a magical potion to keep ourselves fulfilled. Sadly we have forgotten that Christmas is about an Omnipotent God in Christ. Christmas is about Jesus who is Omniscient, who is Omnipresent, who is all righteous and holy. Whether we sing carols, go to Church, buy gifts for the poor, treat our family well, or enjoying some Christmas program, we need to learn to think back on that beautiful day when the baby was born in a manger. This act of remembrance is an annual ritual that will increase in meaning as we learn to train our minds on the Giver behind any giving or receiving of gifts.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Midweek Meditation: "Christmas Love"

"Charity means nothing else but to love God for Himself above all creatures, and to love one's fellowmen for God's sake as one loves oneself." (From the Cloud of Unknowing)

Monday, December 16, 2013

BookPastor >> "Life After Art" (Matt Appling)

This review was first published at Panorama of a Book Saint on November 12th, 2013.


TITLE: Life After Art: What You Forgot About Life and Faith Since You Left the Art Room
AUTHOR: Matt Appling
PUBLISHER: Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2013, (160 pages).

There was a time in which a typical child would be thrilled to have the chance to play, to draw, and to paint with pretty brushes. There was a time in which prim and proper expectations are relaxed so as to unleash the creativity and the chaos that only children can imagine. When the child grows up and leaves the art classroom, what happens to the art, and more particularly, what happens to the artist in the person? This question is cleverly dealt with in this unique book written by an arts teacher who is not just passionate about art, but also deeply convinced that life in itself is a way of art. A pre-kintergarten through six grade art teacher himself, Matt Appling spends his time writing, reflecting, teaching, and promoting the idea of life and art through his website. He believes that the artistry in each person is a gift from God.

In six succinct chapters, Appling begins with a proclamation that all children are artists. They are risk-takers. They are not so disturbed by what is good or not good in their work. They simply do it. Unfortunately, the moment the child leaves the classroom, the artistic capacity starts to leave the child as the child grows up in a competitive and a challenging adult world. The logic of fear of failure inhibits the faith in trying and testing. They gradually lose the three childhood traits: 1) that creating was important; 2) that generosity is part of creating; and 3) a lack of self-consciousness as one gets totally immersed in the creating.

Appling laments that one starts losing the creative charm when one begins to think creating is unimportant; that art is not creative; and that arts per se are self-limiting which leads one toward laziness. As a result, adults soon start to manufacture a world that is increasingly lacking in creativity and beauty. Survival concerns overwhelm creative activities.We prefer functional activities over fictional imagination. We forsake art and creativity in exchange for survival-based activities and busyness. What works becomes more important that what is worthwhile doing. Such a life may be practical but it lacks beauty. Slowly, Appling turns the story from children in general to the children in us.
  • What if our creation tells us a lot about ourselves?
  • What if we are filling our physical spaces with "junk" instead of clearing them out for a space to be creative?
  • Are we willing to continue exchanging a life of creativity with a toilsome routine of non-stop practicality?
  • Is sacrificing our creative bent worth it over the long run?

Appling declares no. There is hope. There is a way back to the creativity in the classroom. There is life after art. What we need to do is to learn how to re-create the environment that gives us fresh hope of life in the first place. Do not be content with mere "good enough" but be passionate to become the best person we are created to be. We learn that risk taking is a way of life and is a necessary step in any creative activity and ability. The freedom to fail is not about the risk of failure per se, but the liberation of oneself toward unleashing the best of us.

Finally, Appling reminds us again that our creativity is all possible because we are created in the image of God our Creator. It is because we are creators on earth that our natural selves cannot stop creating; cannot stop thinking about creating; and cannot help but create. Suppressing such creativeness is essentially suppressing what is human.

So What?

When the child leaves the art classroom, what happens to the art that the child has learned? If the world outside starts to dull our creativity and our sense of artistry, perhaps it is time to return to the art room, the one we all loved as children years ago. In order for creativity to flourish, one needs to learn to give and take directions not in terms of conformity that suppresses one's freedom but in terms of enhancing the creativity within the boundaries given. Some of the memorable quotes from the book are worth noting:

  • "In math class, you could not improve on a 'right' answer. Right answers were 'good enough.' You could not come up with a 'better' answer, or exceed the teacher's expectations. Life is not like math class. It is like art class." (50)
  • "Much like the case of the hunters, creativity appears to be something of an instinct that people follow, whatever circumstances they live in." (56)
  • "It is precisely that ultramodern thinking that causes most Christians to miss the truth of the Bible, many other Christians to become disaffected with the Bible, and non-Christians to scoff at the Bible. We are stripping all the beauty out of the Bible and demanding that it provides us with a formula instead of faith." (63)
  • "There is a great focus today on the amount of trash and waste that modern man produces, and we prioritize reducing waste. But think about the mental landfill that we've created with all of the junk that fills our minds. It dwarfs everything we throw in the trash can." (78)
  • "An amateur artist tries to erase a mistake. A master artist learns how to work with a mistake." (105)
  • "But consider this: perhaps the anxiety that you feel about your life, your purpose, and all of your hopes and ambitions is due to the fact that you have been looking at them all wrong." (132)
  • "A little bit of beauty can change everything." (139)
Let me offer five thoughts from the reading of this book.

First, this book reminds us that there is a childlikeness in all of us even if we grow old. I learn long time ago that there is an impending second childhood when one grows old. Now, I believe that there are more than two childhoods simply because this childhood never really goes away. One can suppress it. One can try to inhibit it but one can never eradicate it completely. For to do so would be deleting a part of us. Remember that Jesus calls us children? That must be for a reason.

Second, in a world of progress that is defined by scientific advancement and technological prowess, we need to learn to appreciate life and creation for what it is. Enjoy nature. Appreciate the simple things in life. Do not be fixated by machines and the kinds of manufactured brilliance to the point that we forget the most beautiful things in life are also the most simple. In fact, a lot of created things in life are due to proper observance of the natural world we live in.

Third, the stories of arts and creativity in the book give readers a renewed hope that art in itself is not necessarily a path toward poverty. See the creative giants like Jim Henson, whose puppetry ideas have charmed children all over the world in the Muppet Show. Remember Theodor Geisel who created the Mr Seuss cartoon character? What about Shigeru Miyamoto, where people easily remember his design and games at Nintendo?

Fourth, this book is not simply talking about creativity, it is also speaking to the creativity inside us. Wake up! Pick up your creative energies and create something! This is that sign that makes this book worth reading, buying, and gifting it to friends. When the reading of this book awakens the child in us, when the pondering of the ideas triggers the inner desire to want to create, to admire creation, and to be creative, this book would have been worth more than the sticker price. There is no price tag for creativity, for creativity in itself is priceless.

Finally, there is no need to dig too deeply for a reason just to enjoy art. Just admire or appreciate art for what it is. If we can do that, we will be better at appreciating life what what it is. That way, enjoying art becomes a metaphor for enjoying life.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by Moody Publishers without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Friday, December 13, 2013

"Evil Did Not Win"

It has been a year since the Sandy Hook killings where 20 children and 6 adults were gunned down in what is America's second worst massacre. Tomorrow (December 14th) is the first anniversary of that fateful day. The questions remained. Why did the gunman did what he did? Why must innocent little children die? Why must loved ones suffer? Perhaps, one of the biggest questions is: Did evil win? The mother of Emilie in this video answers it with an emphatic: "Evil did not win."

It is a touching gesture that shows the world that in the midst of much hatred, violence, and ill-will, we can still choose to love.


Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Midweek Meditation: Christmas Joy


"There is an inescapable logic in the Christmas message: we experience joy, quite simply, in self-surrender, in giving up our lives. Joy calls for renunciation. (Ladislaus Boros, 1927-1981)

Monday, December 09, 2013

BookPastor >> "Vertical Church"

This review was first published Sep 3rd, 2013 at Panorama of a Book Saint.


TITLE: Vertical Church: What Every Heart Longs for. What Every Church Can Be.
AUTHOR: James MacDonald
PUBLISHER: Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2012, (320 pages).

What is Church about? Why do we go to Church in the first place? Is it about men meeting one another's needs? Or is it about people pointing one another to the true Giver of all things, the Helper of all help? In a book that has received multiple endorsements by many different church leaders, this book aims to shake us back to the fundamentals of faith, and church going. We must be reminded what is the chief goal of men, not to magnify our needs or to amplify our human lack, but to glorify God.

If a Church is to truly be the Church of God, it cannot be constantly focused on the meeting of needs, meeting desperate people,or focusing constantly on horizontal level matters such as management, leadership, Church strategies, problem-solving, caring etc. These things are important, but the moment the Church loses its transcendental and eternity perspective, it is not becoming of the true Church of God. MacDonald is compelling:

"We are taught to study our culture and contextualize the message to fit the uniqueness of the mass we seek to minister to. Is this helpful, or has it taken us off track? Is the church to be about scratching the minutiae of our unique itches, or is it about filling the vacuum of universal commonality installed in us by God?"

The book is structured in two parts. The first part deals with the doctrinal basis of "Vertical Church." Here, MacDonald reminds us of four things to peel away the layers of self-based needs so that we can face our real needs. Firstly, the author looks at our universal longing, that we have a God-shaped heart that only God can fill. The "eternity" idea is glimpsed through Ecclesiastes 3:11. The author even highlights how Maslow amended his famous Needs hierarchy, conceding that there is a need for an encounter with transcendence beyond the highest level of self-actualization. An awesome meeting with God far surpasses any kind of a relevant meeting of needs. Secondly, the highest passion of a "vertical church" must be the glory of God, for the glory of God. It is the manifestation of the presence of God that is far greater and better than the relevance debate. Thirdly, the glory of God is the sustaining fuel of a life-giving Church. This is the secret of John Wesley's ministry. It is also the secret of Jesus' ministry on earth. Only God can give this glory, and only this glory can meet the deep longing of the human soul. Creation shouts out praising God. Glory comes down blessing creation. The flip side is also true. If the Church is focused only about building the Church, meeting needs, or trying to reach the lost, or to help the poor, when difficult moments arrive, they falter. Fourthly, MacDonald warns us that if we fail to make the glory of God our primary focus, we are in danger of letting the spirit of the age of this world become the spirit of the church. He warns us against becoming like Eli, whose sons went astray. This happens when we put the the needs of the church as the primary product, and the glory of God as the byproduct.

"When the people of God are not told the works of God, they lose the wonder of God, and everyone does that which is right in his or her own eyes." (133)

Thankfully, the second part of the book shows us the way. In "Unashamed Adoration," we are urged to bring our churches back toward a worshipful community. In worship, the glory of God comes down and fill us. We learn to direct our longings for God and God alone. In worship, we fall down and kneel at our feet, bringing all of our needs, our lives before God in humble access. The word 'adoration' is a good guiding word. Worship is not the 'what,' the 'how,' or the 'where,' but the 'who.' Second, we preach so that our worship of God increases. Moreover, preachers need not be apologetic about preaching the Word of God. In fact, there is no need to apologize as long as God is glorified and Christ is preached. It is about heralding the message of God like men on fire. Third, witnessing our own testimony of God's work and grace on our own lives is key. Be bold. Be plain. Be clear. MacDonald points out three "time-tested" but "dishonest" ways of sharing the gospel.
  1. "Relational gospel" or friendship evangelism, where people receive Christ on the basis of personal friendship. What if their friendship crumbles sometime later? Will the faith then crumble as well?
  2. "Renown gospel" where people receive Jesus because some people they admire are Christians. 
  3. "Reasonable gospel" where people believe because it makes sense or it is easy.
  4. "Resource gospel" which makes Christ becoming our own self-improvement program.
Instead, one needs to be bold in their sharing of their personal testimony. People also need to learn to pick ripe red apples, and not be too fixated on green apples that are not ripe for picking. MacDonald even pleads with his church not to bring "green apples" to church.

Finally, unceasing prayer is the fourth prerequisite of becoming a vertical church. For more than 25 years, Harvest Bible Church has prayed non-stop. If we dare to pray we will grow. If we dare to pray boldly, we will grow boldly. For MacDonald, his entire ministry is bathed in prayer.

My Thoughts

I am moved. This book to me is a wake-up call for Churches to put first things first, to channel their resources toward the central mission, rather than to spread themselves thin by focusing on peripheral issues. Far too many churches and their leaders are paying lip service to the need for worship, or to be too focused on earthly matters at the expense of God's glory. Some churches even live as if there is no heaven, but all earth. The relevance debate continues to grip many churches wanting to make a difference in their churches and in society. Unfortunately, that is only a peripheral matter. Christians in Churches have only this one goal: Glorify God and to see God's glory come down and be manifested through us. I find myself doing lots of underlining and nodding my head frequently for the things that resonate with me. As a preacher myself, I do feel that the chapter on preaching is worth the price of the book. That said, if church leaders do want to make a difference, they need to know more of the Difference Maker: God Himself. If we truly desire to be the true Church of God, we must desire God. Any other desiring is like fast food. They are essentially junk food.

Will this be a book that is too heavenly focused that it ignores earthly needs? No! Far from that. In fact, I will venture to say that a heavenly focus is the only way that creation can truly fulfill its calling. It is the way to usher in the glory of God, for God's work done in God's way will never lack God's supply.

Do your pastor or church leaders a favour. Buy them this book.

Ratin: 5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by David C. Cook Publishers and NetGalley without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Midweek Meditation: "Christmas Peace"

Peace comes not from the absence of trouble but from the presence of God.

In Christ's peace,


Monday, December 02, 2013

BookPastor >> "Jesus+Nothing=Everything"

This review was first published in January 25th, 2012 at Panorama of a Book Saint. 


TITLE: Jesus + Nothing = Everything
AUTHOR: Tullian Tchividjian
PUBLISHER: Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2011, (224 pages).

This is Tchividjian's (pronounced as 'cha-vi-jin') personal spiritual journey from fear to faith, and from law to grace. The basic conviction behind the book is reflected in the following phrase:

"Jesus plus nothing equals everything."

In a personal confession of how he has intimately filled his faith with other things, he lists his personal pain and struggle as a senior pastor of a merged Church. The crisis leads him to focus more on what it means to live for God. Tchividjian points out powerfully the many different idols that believers have piled up in the name of Christian service. Many people have unwittingly added stuff to Jesus in order to feel that they are accomplishing everything. The result is a works-based kind of service that basically scorns the work of Christ at the Cross.

In 6 parts, Tchividjian dissects the human problem. In Part One, Tchivijian goes through a period of painful self-examination and make powerful observations about how trapped believers are, in wanting to do everything apart from God's strength. In Part Two, he guides readers in going beyond intellectual faith, toward heart-work and soul-search. In Part Three, he points out succinctly the many barriers which Christians often either fail to recognize, or unwittingly place before themselves, that prevent them from following Christ more truthfully. Part Four exposes the painful reality where Tchividjian does spiritual surgery to expose not so much of our sins, but how much we need Christ. Thankfully, Part Five makes a redemptive turn toward hope. With Christ as our focus, not only will we get everything we need for this life, we get more. This chapter is worth the price of the book.

Closing Thoughts

I like the way he points out how many Christians focus too much on fruit that they ignore the roots of the problem. Grace is the root, while peace is the fruit. I enjoy the way he exposes the three deadly sins in the lives of many Christians: 'legalism, performancism, and moralism' (45). The book flows intuitively from sin to grace to hope. Along the way, the author makes some rather bold statements, especially the part about the Christian life that needs to be 'better' than simply imitating Christ. While I appreciate his point about going beyond imitating to 'be crucified, buried, and raised with him,' I think true imitation of Christ is already inclusive of all those. Maybe, Tchividjian finds it necessary to break the verbs up. Personally, I think it is unnecessary. Thomas a Kempis, who wrote the classic work, 'Imitation of Christ' sums up all the theology and Christian actions in one word: Imitation of Christ.

I think we can do no more than what Christ has done. Tchividjian has given us a wonderful book to help readers move from legalism-performancism-moralism to grace and peace. Our Christian living needs to reflect a grace that embraces all of Jesus and no idols. That is God's will for our everything in life. 

Rating: 4.75 stars of 5.


This book is provide to me free by Crossway Books and NetGalley without any obligation for a positive review. All comments above are freely given.

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