Book Reviews

Letters to the Church

Francis Chan

Francis Chan’s latest book, Letters to the Church, is powerful.  In fact, it is surprisingly powerful, because on the one hand it is so simple and yet, on the other hand, it is deeply moving.  Chan states at the outset that he was reluctant to write this book because he did not want the book to be misused by Christians who might complain to their pastor that he is not doing church right.

It is a hard-hitting book that challenges many assumptions of the church in America today.  He contrasts what we see in the church today with what we read of the church in the Book of Acts.  This book is not for the faint of heart. 

He begins the book by telling the story of why he left his large church in Southern California.  He describes why God led him to leave the church and the journey God took his family on while traveling in Asia.  After this season, God called him back to the Bay Area to start a church. 

Here is a survey of the remaining chapters:

Chapter 2:   Chan talks about the glory of the church, how much the church means to Christ and therefore how much it should mean to us.  This chapter is a strong challenge to those Christians who claim to be following Christ and yet they are not part of his church. 

Chapter 3:  He paints a vivid picture of what the early church looked like in Jerusalem, focusing on Acts 2:42-47.  He movingly writes of their devotion to Scripture, to communion, to community, and to prayer.

Chapter 4:  He elaborates what he writes about community, using the motif of an inner city gang.  This chapter includes a compelling call to radical love and unity in the body of Christ.

Chapter 5:  The New Testament is called to be a servant, not a consumer.  Every true Christian must be a servant in Christ’s army.

Chapter 6:  Chan outlines the essential characteristics of pastors and shepherds.  They are not just professional, paid pastors, but all Christians who shepherd other believers.

Chapter 7:  Suffering in the church is normative according to the New Testament.  We need a new theology in the American church today.  He includes powerful stories of the persecuted church in China and other countries.

Chapter 8:  We are called as Christians to be missional rather than self-centered.

Chapter 9:  Only in the final chapter does Chan describe the current church that he leads, We Are Church.  It is a network of house churches throughout the Bay Area.  He is not claiming that others should do church in this way, but here is one way to do church like the early church in Jerusalem.

As I was reading this book I was asking myself:  Why is this simple book on the church affecting me so forcefully?  What is it about this book?  I am not completely sure of the answer, but certainly part of it is Chan’s unusual passion for Jesus Christ that bleeds through all of his writings. 

But also, he does an excellent job of contrasting what the church so often is in America today with what the church looks like in the Book of Acts.  He challenges some of our common assumptions about church and the Christian life.  He stirs us to reflect:  “Lord, what are you saying to me through this book?  Lord, what are you saying to us as a church through this book?”

I highly recommend this book, but only for those with enough courage to hear it.

The Awakening, Revival in China 1927-1937

Marie Monsen

This is a story of revival in China in the years 1927-1937.  It is written by Marie Monsen, a Norwegian missionary who was a key leader in the movement.  More than anything, this is the story of prayer.  Believing prayer.  It is the story of conviction of sin, brokenness and repentance, and united prayer for revival.

The book is not especially well-written, but the tale of what God did is tremendous!

John Stott A Global Ministry

Timothy Dudley-Smith

This is the two-volume authorized biography of John Stott, the British pastor and writer.  I first read the two-volume work 12 years ago.  This is my second time through it.  As I was re-reading this biography, I began to realize that in some ways John Stott has been my main mentor in my life.  I’ve never met him, but through his writings and through this biography he has mentored me.

There have been several pastors in history, and in the present, who have influenced me greatly – Calvin, Luther, Spurgeon, Lloyd-Jones, Piper, Keller and more.  But I do not know that any have had quite the influence on me that Stott has.

If Stott wrote a commentary on a New Testament book, and he wrote many, he was always the first one I wanted to read.  Kenneth Kantzer, long-time President of Trinity Evangelical Seminary, the evangelical divinity school, once commented, “Whenever I heard John Stott preach on a passage, I thought to myself, ‘Of course that’s what it means.’”  I know what he means.

John Stott died in 2011 at age 90.  He was a pastor, writer, leader, evangelist and scholar extraordinaire.  He excelled in all of these areas to an unusual degree.

In the highly regarded book on leadership by Jim Collins, Good to Great, he talks about the two sine qua non traits of a leader:  unwavering commitment to the cause and a deep personal humility.  John Stott excelled in both of these.  He had an unwavering commitment to the cause of Christ that was expressed in innumerable ways, especially in leading the charge of evangelical Christianity within the Church of England for 50 years.  And when it came to humility, it seems like he had a total absence of pride and ego.  He was a remarkable man.

He was single his entire life.  He was an ardent birdwatcher and he practiced this hobby all over the globe.  He continues to disciple me through his writings and biography, though he is now in heaven.  He was a friend to Billy Graham, J.I. Packer, Martyn Lloyd-Jones and so many more.  He was a chaplain to the Queen.  He lived a simple life and had a special heart for pastors in Africa, Asia and South America.

Here are just some of the things that I learned from John Stott:

1.      Prayer.  Prayer was always a priority for him, both in his personal time with God each morning and in leading his church to prayer.  He was a true intercessor. 

2.      Scripture.  He was completely devoted to Scripture.  His preaching was biblical and expository.  He faced opposition from liberal Anglicans throughout his ministry and yet he faithfully defended the Scriptures.

3.      Heart for the lost.  He was an evangelist.  He personally led people to Christ.  He preached the gospel all over the world.  The lost were always on his heart. 

4.      Love for people.  He was quite scholarly and learned.  He cared about people.  He had a pastor’s heart.  He wrote pastoral letters to people.  He learned people’s names.  He gave attention to individuals who came to him.  H was unfailingly gracious.  He loved people.

5.      Courage.  He was a courageous man who would not back down from his principles.  In fact, if he believed in something he could be quite obstinate!  It was a good stubbornness!

6.      Humor.  He didn’t take himself too seriously.  He always had a playful sense of humor and often, I understand, a twinkle in his eye.

For those who are not so familiar with his life, here is a brief biographical sketch of high points:

·         He came from a prominent family in London, the son of a physician.

·         He came to Christ in his late teens when he was at boarding school.  He was a devoted follower of Christ the rest of his life.

·         He studied at Cambridge and did superbly.

·         His ministry position was curate (assistant pastor) of All Souls Church in downtown London.  This was the church that he had grown up in and was one of the most prominent churches in London.

·         When the rector of All Souls died, the congregation wanted him as their pastor, and so he becomes rector of All Souls at age 29.

·         He was either pastor or pastor emeritus of All Souls the rest of his life.

·         He began speaking more and more widely throughout England and then throughout the world.  He was in wide demand.

·         He wrote over 50 books in his life, some of which have had enormous impact.

·         He started and led numerous organizations, from gatherings of evangelical pastors to ministry organizations with third world pastors.

·         In many ways he was not only the “pope” for evangelicals in the Church of England, but he was the “evangelical pope” in the last 30 years of his life.

·         His impact and legacy are remarkable.

From Weakness to Strength

Scott Sauls

This is an outstanding book by Scott Sauls, who is the lead pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tennessee. Formerly Sauls served on the lead team and on the preaching team with Tim Keller at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City.

In this book Sauls discusses eight vulnerabilities – eight things to be alert to that can cause problems for leaders. But at the same time, these are eight weaknesses that God can use to make us better leaders.

The book is quite good. Sauls is insightful and bright. He is well read and the book has excellent quotes and anecdotes. He is also humble and transparent about his own struggles.

Here are the eight vulnerabilities: ambition, isolation, criticism, envy, insecurity, anti-climax (disappointment), opposition, suffering. I would say that the chapters on ambition, criticism, envy and insecurity are especially good, but all of them are good.

Near the outset of the book, he makes these comments:

Jesus also offers a radically different understanding of what it means to be a leader. His vision for leadership often parts ways with the typical American view of such things. For example:

In America, credentials qualify a person to lead. In Jesus, the chief qualification is character.

In America, what matters most are the results we produce. In Jesus, what matters most is the kind of people we are becoming.

In America, success if measured by material accumulation, power, and the positions that we hold. In Jesus, success is measured by material generosity, humility, and the people whom we serve. (p. 21)

Because of his own struggles, he makes this prayer a daily prayer for himself:

Father in heaven,

Always grant me character

that is greater than my gifts

and humility

that is greater than my influence.

Amen.

(p. 64)

The book is rooted in the Scriptures. For example, he has very good sections on the rivalry of Jacob and Esau, and on Jacob’s wrestling with God in Genesis 32.

Here is an example of the kind of honesty and vulnerability that he models:

One season flattened me physically, spiritually, and emotionally to the point where, though not suicidal, I prayed daily that God would either heal the affliction or end my life. I could not sleep despite taking sleeping pills, lost thirty pounds, and could barely eat or get out of bed. If you had quoted Romans 8:28 to me or referenced other Scripture promising that God would work my situation out for good, it would have fallen on deaf ears.

In retrospect, however, I can now see the hand of God in that horrid season. (p. 179-180)

Finally, he concludes with a tribute to Tim Keller. He wrote this tribute after Tim Keller announced his planned retirement in March, 2017. There is much to be learned simply by reading about Keller’s life in this tribute.

Overall, I highly recommend this book.

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott is an American writer who has written both novels and non-fiction books. She has taught classes on writing. This book is the substance of what she teaches.

The book is a helpful guide to writing. She makes some excellent points. Here are some of the suggestions that I found most helpful:

* Write a little each day.

* Write a bad first draft. Just get the words on the paper. Then you can edit and re-write.

* If you get stuck in your writing, you might write your story as if it’s a letter to someone. The informality of a letter might deliver you from perfectionism.

* Publication is overrated. Writing is its own reward.

* To be a good writer, write a lot.

She gets the title from a little story about her dad:

I also remember a story that I know I’ve told elsewhere but that over and over helps me to get a grip: thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” (p. 18-19)

One of her big points in the book is that publication is overrated. Rather, writing is its own reward. These are her words:

But I still encourage anyone who feels at all compelled to write to do so. I just try to warn people who hope to get published that publication is not all that it is cracked up to be. But writing is. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do – the actual act of writing – turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward. (p. xxvi)

Anne Lamott is an excellent writer. She is honest and vulnerable. She is funny – at times, hilarious. Unfortunately, she is profane at times.

For those who are interested in the art of writing, Anne Lamott is a helpful teacher.