Book Review: Christian America?: What Evangelicals Really Want by Christian Smith

Some have referred to Christian Smith as a “rock star” among sociologists of Religion due to his prolific and wide-ranging work. Currently serving as the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame, he has recently released titles exploring the nature of the human person (What is a Person?, 2010) and teen and emerging adult spirituality (Soul Searching, 2009 and Souls in Transition, 2010) and has on a forthcoming on evangelical readings of Scripture (The Bible Made Impossible, 2011).  Following up on the landmark American Evangelicalism released in 1998, Smith produced Christian America? drawing on the same body of research that intentionally accessed the thought of common self-identified evangelicals.  

The New Calvinism's definition quotes Wikipedia:
The New Calvinism is a growing perspective within conservative Evangelicalism that embraces the fundamentals of 16th century Calvinism while also trying to be relevant in the present day world. In March 2009, TIME magazine ranked it as one of the "10 Ideas Changing the World Right Now."
Some of the major movers in this area are John Piper, Mark Driscoll, C.J. Mahaney, Joshua Harris, and Al Mohler.

Here are a few interesting articles on New Calvinism.

Time Magazine called "The New Calvinism" one of "10 ideas changing our world now."  

Christianity Today published a relevant article on the Young Reformed and Restless touching on the same issues as the book by the same title.

The Barna Group shows that there is no appreciable resurgence of Calvinist Churches in this recent research.

Here's my work on Calvin's Gospel of Predestination, and some critical engagement with his doctrine of election

American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving by Christian Smith: Book Review

As the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame, Christian Smith is a notable figure in contemporary Sociology of Religion.  His recent work has explored American Evangelicalism as well as the religious lives of teenagers and emerging adults.  According to his faculty page, his “larger theoretical agenda has been to move culture, morality, and identity to the center of sociological theorizing.”  Released in 1998, American Evangelicalism preceded the increased national and media attention on Evangelicals after they

Save the Planet vs. Save Souls

There's a debate in Christian circles which goes like this: "We must save the planet, it's God's creation!" and the other says "No, the earth is doomed, we must save souls from this sinking ship!" Perhaps you've heard or participated in a version of this conflict yourself. I want to propose that the former is a strategy for the latter.* That is, a vibrant, flourishing planet is an irrepressibly persistent, remarkably effective and undeniably global apologetic for the God of the Bible. It can't be stopped by borders, or language barriers. It has the power catch people when their defenses are down. It can be both overpoweringly awesome and quietly insistent. Helping Creation speak, by preserving it's wildlife, habitats, and resources, ought to be a top priority for those with true evangelistic zeal. Not sure you agree?

Hear the Psalmist's claim: 

The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world. (Psm 19)

And Paul's assertion:
For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities— his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. (Rom 1:20)

And St. Augustine's rebuke:
Some people, in order to discover God, read books. But there is a great book:the very appearance of created things. Look above you! Look below you! Read it. God, whom you want to discover, never wrote that book with ink. Instead He set before your eyes the things that He had made. Can you ask for a louder voice than that?

And St. Bernard of Clairvaux's (1090-1153) opinion:
Believe an expert: you will find something far greater in the woods than in books. Trees and stones will teach you that which you cannot learn from the masters.

So if you're a Christian as yet unconvinced to join the green cause, someone who admits no other aim than 'saving souls' then drive a hybrid or plant a tree for those souls that will be drawn to the Creator God through the beauty of his Creation.

*Nancy Ortberg gave voice to this idea in a sermon titled
"A.K.A. Creator" at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church on 6/14/09.

Book Review: Christian Smith's Moral, Believing Animals: Human Personhood and Culture

Christian Smith is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame.  He is the author of numerous books including Christian America: What Evangelicals Really Want, Evangelicals: Embattled and Thriving and very recently, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers and What Is a Person?: Rethinking Humanity, Social Life, and the Moral Good from the Person Up which shares and develops themes from Moral, Believing Animals which was released in 2003.

The seven chapters of Moral, Believing Animals begin by identifying Smith’s agenda as resolving the age-old question of how to describe what it means to be a human.  Smith’s thesis is that

Christianity Rediscovered by Vincent Donovan: Summary & Review

To put words in the mouth of Vincent J. Donovan:  After a futile century of missionary strategies in Africa that centered on purchasing slaves or educating Africans, I felt compelled to pursue a different, more direct approach: to simply go to the Maasai people and talk to them about Christ (13).  I was driven by one conviction:  Christianity is of value to the world and all people have a right to hear it (1, 133).   The Maasai are an elegant, polygamous, cow-herding, monotheistic people nonetheless beset by fears about evil spirits.  When I arrived, I was met repeatedly with the question “If this is why you came, why did you wait so long to bring the message?” 

I began by expressing my belief that the Maasai were very pious already knew about God (20).  From this launching point, I attempted to convey only the essential message of Christianity, removing from it not only the accretions of Western culture (54) but also elements of biblical cultures that would prove a stumbling block such as the agricultural propaganda of the creation

Book Review: The Celtic Way of Evangelism by George Hunter

According to George Hunter III:  The way St. Patrick and those who followed in his legacy went about evangelism has much to teach us today.  Patrick’s experience in slavery among the Celts attuned him to Celtic culture and informed his approach when he returned decades later as missionary bishop.  His strategy included a team that wouldset up camp near a settlement, engage with the local leader, converse with all, pray for the sick and make open-air presentations of the gospel in culturally familiar forms including story, poetry, parable, symbol and drama, all with the goal of planting a church (21).  Church took shape as lay monastic communities that offered a visible place of hospitality free from violence (29).  Celtic Christianity (CC) prized the imminence of God and thus gave attention to the middle-level issues of life and

Evangelism after Christendom: Review and Reflections Pt. 3

According to Bryan Stone:
Evangelism, as a practice of the Spirit, is therefore  utterly pacifist in nature.  The pacifism of evangelism is not passive but arises from an eschatological trust in the Spirit who goes before the evangelist (229).  Apologetics, if an attempt to make faith compulsory on the basis of reason, fail the test of pacifism (232).  Instead, apologetics are primarily an act that seeks to reveal the beauty of holiness.  Thus the primary tasks of evangelism are “confession, proclamation and public exemplification” rather than argument and persuasion (232).  This task occurs in and through

Evangelism after Christendom: Review and Reflections Pt. 2

According to Bryan Stone:
Christian conversion is foremost an exchange of narratives. Two rival narratives have significantly shaped the social, political and economic orders and religious life of Western cultures.  The Constantinian story fuses church and world and calls for ‘realistic’ appraisal of faithful Christian living.  Constantinian-storied evangelism pragmatically values worldly power and is committed to effectiveness, control and success (125).  The second rival, the Story of Modernity, is characterized by the freedom of the individual and the ‘secular’ arenas from the influence of religion.  Modern-storied Evangelism is reduced to “church marketing” (167) and promoting the “usefulness of the gospel for “everyday living” (146).  This is commodification of salvation, and

Evangelism after Christendom: Review and Reflections Pt. 1

If you haven't read Bryan Stone's Evangelism After Christendom: The Theology and Practice of Christian Witness, consider these next three posts a primer to this significant contribution to the theology of evangelism.  

Stone’s overarching thesis is that faithful evangelism is most fundamentally accomplished in the “beauty of holiness made real in the church” (12). Laying the foundation for this thesis, he identifies evangelism as a veritable practice—a virtuous activity whose ends are intrinsic. Moreover, evangelism is a constitutive Christian practice (47); the whole Christian life can be described as evangelism and the absence of evangelism, broadly defined as witness, is effectively the absence of Christianity. Stone asserts that most of what has been written in recent decades on evangelism is misguided due to a focus either on pragmatics or apologetics, both of which are grounded in non-Christian narratives. The primary logic of evangelism is that

This is Monvee

Ok, so I work for them. But it's still cool. Even better, if you're serious about becoming like Jesus, monvee can help.

A Missional Structure?

The Verge Network - a promoter of all things missional - posted a video of Matt Carter, Pastor of  The Austin Stone Community Church declaring that "missional community is the long awaited structure that the American church has desperately needed to unleash everyday believers into the mission of their every day life."  I have nothing against Matt or Verge (in fact, I celebrate anyone contributing to the missional conversation), but hopeful as this sounds, I am afraid it is placing hope in the wrong thing: a structure.

Missional is most fundamentally a property of a life, or a people, not a structure. And it is the natural property of a life of one who lives in the kingdom of God in...intimate, obedient, joyful relationship with the King. Participating in any form of structure, however good, simply can not a missional person make. Matt presumes that we need a structure to unleash (already missional) people when in fact already missional people "go," "do," and "send" whether there is a well-suited structure for it or, as in the case of the early church.  In those communities they are creating structure to try to keep up with  their community what the spirit is doing, not engineer a the conditions to make something happen. If you have truly missional (ie. Kingdom) people in community then structure is an afterthought, not a precondition.  

I wish it wasn't true, but the American church's issue is much deeper than structure.  It's an issue of message, means and ends. 

How (and Why) Spiritual Disciplines Work

The kingdom life which Jesus offered is accessible to all, but it is not entered fully without a serious and active intention.   It takes the kind of intention that would lead one to sell all they own to buy a field with a pearl in it.  The disciplines are means by which an individual opens themselves to the transforming grace of God, and they cultivate holy habits of mind and body.[i] 

As disciplines, they are indirect means toward a goal that cannot be directly apprehended.  The goal is a whole self subject to God.  Spiritual disciplines are simply those “special activities through which we present our bodies as a living sacrifice”[ii] so that we can live in “more effective cooperation with Christ and his Kingdom.”[iii]

A life full of spiritual disciplines is not necessarily a spiritual life, since disciplines

A Conversation about Guidance: Hearing God

What do you think God wants me to do?

First of all, let me just commend you for asking that question.  It’s evidence that you want to do what God wants you to do. This is 90% of what it takes to hear God.

Well, I hope that’s actually true.

Do you believe that God knows what will lead you to the abundant life?  Because if that’s in limbo, then it’s really the very fabric of your relationship with God at issue.[i]  Questions about guidance only really make sense as a part of an interactive relationship with God in which you trust him.

Are you saying that God won’t tell me what he wants unless I get more serious about my spiritual life when I’m not at moments of decision?

No, not really.  I’m saying that you may not be able to tune in to what God might be saying about this particular decision

Don't Admire Jesus

This is, in my opinion, one of the best sermons I have heard John Ortberg give in the three years I've been attending and serving Menlo Park Presbyterian Church.  You can read it below or watch it here.  It's a question that so many church-goers need to have thrust upon them: Are you just and admirer of Jesus, or do you want to follow Jesus?  Is Jesus your Lord, or just your homeboy?

Did any of you see Michael Phelps swim in the Olympics? Isn't he unbelievable? He has won 8 gold medals, all kinds of world records. It is remarkable how popular one man can become. I talked to somebody a couple of weeks ago who works with Facebook, and he was telling me Facebook added, they are estimating, about 5 million people to their ranks over the Olympics because Michael Phelps talked about being on Facebook, because so many people admire him. How many of you here would be willing to raise your hand and say, “I admire Michael Phelps.”? Just about all of us.

Identity Myth: I am What I Do

There are a number of myths about identity.  There's the false connection between identity and commodity.  And there's the idea that having identity requires self-sufficiency.  But neither of these are as destructive as the myth I'm going to address in this post.   It's about the relationship between identity and productivity.  We’re going to debunk the myth that “I am what I do”—this idea that my work defines me.

Before I dive in, let's reflect on the absurdity of this myth by thinking of a job you once had, probably when you were young, that you would be embarrassed to hang your identity on – embarrassed if you still had to introduce yourself as having.  To give you few seconds to think, I’ll go first. 

When I was in college, I was pretty in to art.  I thought about getting an art minor and took a few classes, I even convinced a roommate of mine to drop his pre-med major which he hated and be an art major, which he did.  I think he paid me back by letting me know about a job offering in the Art department – as a model.  That’s right, I took my shirt off for money.

John Ortberg Interviews Dallas Willard @ Catalyst

Dallas Willard changed my understanding of the Christian life and gospel, for the better (and the more biblical).  Watch John Ortberg interview him at the Catalyst West conference where I witnessed the audience gasp and burst into applause at a few of his pearls of wisdom.  He speaks to young leaders about the need to clarify the central message of Jesus.  Is it the announcement of the minimal entrance requirements for entering heaven...or something else?  He also speaks about the role of grace and spiritual disciplines in the process of becoming like Jesus through spiritual formation.  

Some of Dallas Willard's most life changing books are:
The Spirit of the Disciplines
The Renovation of the Heart
Hearing God

Light as a Biblical Metaphor Pt. 2

This is Part Two in my series on Light as a Biblical Metaphor. 

Part One explored the three dominant biblical metaphors for light:
1) Light as Goodness/Virtue
2) Light as Knowledge/Vision
3) Light as Life/Vitality

In this post, we'll look at how the three primary metaphors for light developed in the Old Testament get applied to Jesus and his followers.

Light as a Biblical Metaphor Pt. 1

In response to a request from a group of artists at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church, the topic my next two posts is Light as a Biblical Metaphor. I will explore how the authors of Scripture use the physical reality of light to illuminate spiritual realities.

To start, we need to know that light is a significant metaphor in Scripture and the word “light” occurs on the very first and very last pages of Scripture, and more than 250 times in between. In order to enter into the way that biblical authors use light as a metaphor, we are going to spend a good amount of time reading passages of the Bible so that they can shape our imaginations. My hope is that by the end of this series we will have entered into the creative and metaphorical imaginations of the authors of Scripture.

Karate Kid and the Jesus Dojo

Fans of the original Karate Kid can't fail to remember these words: "Wax on! Wax off!"  But lesser known is the lesson they conveyed - for Daniel-son - and for us.

As you watch the clips below, try substituting Jesus for Mr. Miagi, yourself for Daniel-son, spiritual disciplines for washing, waxing, sanding and painting and Kingdom-living for Karate.

Just as Daniel's training for the fight was won through indirect training of his impulses, so our quest for Christlikeness must be undertaken by enrolling in the Jesus Dojo* - where we intentionally learn the motions of grace which enable us to live in the Kingdom of God.

*The real Jesus Dojo is the name of an intriguing project of ReImagine which focuses on inviting people into the way of Jesus (his practices) before formal commitment to any particular doctrine.

Throwing Trash Around: The Story of Stuff

So, who takes out the trash in your home? Next time you're putting something in the trash can, think about this: it is impossible to throw something away - you just throw it somewhere else. And that's a problem.

Screwtape's Latest Letter on the church

Fans of C.S. Lewis' Screwtape Letters will appreciate this post written by Neil Cole, though I've fixed a few typos, and added the gargoyle just for fun.

My Dearest Wormwood,

If you want to make sure that the enemy's people are relegated to obscurity, lead them to believe that the church is for them, not the other way around. Hire professionals to make sure their church experience is more personally

John Ortberg on Monvee and the Future of Spiritual Formation

"God is a handcrafter, not a mass producer," says John Ortberg a video promoting monvee.   Monvee is a innovative use of technology providing customized spiritual growth plans that take into account your learning style, your personality, your spiritual pathway, your stage of life and your signature sin.  Monvee allows church leaders to actually come along side their congregations and say "we want to help you become like Jesus in the way that will work best for you" rather than measuring success on how many people have been cajoled into participation in their discipleship class or small groups.  Prominent churches across the country will be launching monvee this Fall.  The video below includes some of the themes in Ortberg's newest book, The Me I Want to Be, quite possibly his best yet.

Find out more about monvee at and watch this preview video.

The End of Christendom

Still in denial about Christendom's sunset?
  • Eight churches in America close their doors every day
  • Less than 20 percent of Americans now attend church
  • The average church has shrunk to less than 90 people
  • The average church member gives $756 a year
  • Only 2.5 percent of church volunteer hours are with the poor
  • Church members total annual giving to all sources averages $756 a year
  • Less than 10 percent of church-giving is for any form of outreach
This is reality.  We need to get out of denial, move beyond angry resistance and begin seeking God for wisdom about how to live out the gospel in our new post-Christian world.

Covered in the Dust of the Rabbi Video by Rob Bell

Rob Bell is getting some heat these days, and I'm not going to weigh in on everything the guy has said.  But this teaching on the meaning of Jesus as a Jewish Rabbi is worth watching whether you think he's a heretic or a hero. 

Is God's Forgiveness Conditional?

A teacher in one of the churches I used to serve emailed me asking: 

Can you give me a simple explanation of the role of repentance in our salvation? 
I know we are saved because we believe in Christ, but what about if we have some unrepented sins?  I think the answer is we will all have some, and we are saved anyhow, but I need to understand this better.  I know repentance requires change, and sometimes we do not succeed at changing.  I think we are forgiven for everything, regardless.  If we don't repent, we don't lose our salvation, but it keeps us from being closer to God, and from having the life he wants for us on this earth.  Am I correct in all of this?

I responded by saying: 
You know how to make a young pastor happy!  Asking theology questions!

Here are a few thoughts:
Repentance is not mere confession.  Repentance, proper, follows confession (I did what is wrong) and recommitment (I want to do differently) but its definition is reorientation (living differently). We have to admit we’ve done poorly, aspire to do differently and act differently.  The call to repent, means “re-examine your life and take a new course”. 

An example:  I am competing in a paper-airplane distance throwing contest.  I try make the farthest-flying paper airplane using folding pattern A.  Lindsay makes one using folding pattern B and hers consistently flies farther, regardless of who throws it.  I confess, that my folding pattern is inferior.  I commit to using folding pattern B and finally, I repent and henceforth fold and throw pattern B planes whenever I compete.  

True repentance is not present if a person’s life does not change, at least enough to indicate that they are trying to change their sinful thoughts or behaviors, regardless how much regret they express.  

Your question about the role of repentance in salvation is a tricky one, and often people will try to simplifying it by only discussing one aspect of salvation, namely that salvation is being saved from hell after we die.  But the New Testament has a lot more to say about salvation during our living years, than about its value for the afterlife. 

Dallas Willard captures this by saying that “salvation is a life.”  I am uncertain if you are right when you suggest that if we merely confess our sins (and not repent of them), we will still be forgiven and we won’t go to hell for them.   Of course, if we were required to verbally confess every sin or else pay its price, we’d be immobilized, needing to confess constantly. But an even better question would be “Does failure to repent (failure to live differently) cut one off from salvation in the present ?  To this, the biblical answer is a resounding “Yes!”  The saved life is a life lived in intimate connection to God’s presence, love and power.  This is the Kingdom of God that was Jesus dominant message.  

In the synoptic gospels Jesus talks about the Kingdom of God.  In John’s Gospel, Jesus uses the word “life” in a similar manner.  Consider John 17:3 which is an equally fitting definition of salvation, the Kingdom of God and eternal life: Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent. Do you notice that “eternal life” seems to belong as well in the land of the living as it does as the possession of those who have died? Knowing God and Jesus, closely, intimately, daily, personally – this is salvation.  And this salvation is inaccessible to the unrepentant.  Not so much because God won’t tolerate being around us if we continue to sin, but because our sinful patterns of thought and action actually shut us off from that intimate, personal, close relationship with God.  

The hard question has to be asked: if we are not willing (wanting and trying) to repent, not actively seeking to change the thoughts and behaviors that cut us off from the presence of God, are we really desirous of being totally immersed in his presence in the afterlife (aka heaven)?  If we don’t want salvation in this life, what makes us think that we really want it at all?  

Then, after I received a distressed reply, I added: 

Let me assure you that, as you know, forgiveness of sins is the free gift of grace by the atoning work of Jesus.  Forgiveness flows freely and lavishly.

What I wrote before was mainly to highlight that salvation is much bigger than mere forgiveness for the penalty of sin.  Salvation is also freedom from the present enslaving power of sin – freedom from the things that cut us off from vibrant interactive relationship with God in this life.  Not just freedom from sin, but freedom for the salvation life, the eternal life, life in the Kingdom of God.

Thoughts?  Agree?  Disagree?

Thoughts on the Search for the Historical Jesus

A friend of mine is wrestling with her seminary class on the New Testament, and asked for my thoughts on the Search for the Historical Jesus.  Here's what I said (in the midst of a threaded discussion on peace)...

The Search for the Historical Jesus seems like a good idea, but in practice it was loaded with biases that ruled out the discovery of the Real Jesus as one that could do miracles and did expect people to identify him as God. I found my NT seminary classes challenging too, but found great insight in the whole experience of approaching Scripture not as a book dropped out of heaven (from non-biased observers of historical happenings) but as faithful records of the experiences of God's people with God as they interpreted them. (I think that's pretty close to how Dallas Willard described the OT).

The gospels aren't the same as our modern genre of historical biography and thier intent isn't passing on the facts of Jesus' life but instead through them to illuminate the meaning of his life and the nature of his person. Certain events are undeniably historical, but chronology and exact quotations just aren't what the authors were concerned about...and it turns out these aren't what disciples need to be concerned about.

To tie this all into peace - there's a certain peace discovering that our faith doesn't rest on the book and any single interpretation of it, but on the God to whom the book and its characters testify. The book faithfully ushers us into his presence, it does this without error without being 'inerrant' in the technical fashion invented by modern minds foreign to ancient sensibilities. Since our faith doesn't rest on the book (but flows through it to God) we need not be anxious about 'historical criticism' or any other scholarly approach. Our God, and our experience of God is unassailable. It is this reality that gives the Bible it's authority, not the Bible's authority that makes God real.

I'm an Evangelical (Gasp!)

I am a born and bred evangelical.  I was born in an evangelical Christian family, attended private evangelical Christian schools in elementary, middle and high school, graduated undergrad from the ‘Harvard of evangelicalism,’ Wheaton College, got an M.Div from the largest evangelical seminary, Fuller Theological, and have worked in two evangelical mega-churches.  So, I guess I’d have to say,
“I’m an evangelical.”

I consider it quite a daring move on my part to come out as an evangelical, given some recent polls,  published in UnChristian.  These indicate that among young people who aren’t church-goers, 49% think ‘evangelical’ is a dirty word...and only 3% think good thoughts when the word is mentioned.  In other words, there is an 16:1 ratio of bad connotations to good.

So odds are good that you think less of me now than you did before I opened my mouth.  So why would I admit the label?  Simply because evangelicals are my people.

The truth is, though, that I’m beginning to wonder if “my people” really want me anymore.  It seems that since being educated in some of our/their most prestigious evangelical schools, I somehow no longer belong.

As I was finishing up at Fuller seminary, I began a conversation with an evangelical Christian high school about filling an open position as a Bible teacher.  All was going so well I thought it was a done deal, until the head of the Bible department asked me about my view of the Bible.  My answer would have made my Fuller professors beam.  I talked about its divine authority and its contextual nature. Then I gave an example: “I don’t believe Scripture intends to teach us that creation happened in a literal 7-days, but rather that it demonstrates, by deliberate contrast with the then dominant creation myths, the true nature of God's good intention for creation, and most importantly, his love for humankind.”  Suffice it to say, ‘my people’ didn’t want me teaching their students.

More recent events, which are too raw to mention, have been even more painful.  And now, I find myself ready to identify as a recovering evangelical.

St. Augustine, a major source of Christian theology, has this jarring quote that rings true for me, and I suspect for many of my post-evangelical peers.  He said “The church is a hoar, but she is my mother.” Well, when it comes to my relationship with evangelicalism, that about sums it up.  I wouldn’t brag about her virtue, but I no less owe her an eternal debt.

Purpose Statement for Practical Theology PhD

Two rising streams within Western Christianity seem to be flowing in opposite directions. Missional ecclesiology and spiritual formation are significantly shaping the course of the Christian church but they are rarely understood as tributaries of the same great river, whose vitality depends upon their fusion. Thus, missional ventures without spiritual currents dry up and spiritual formation efforts stagnate when disconnected from the missio dei. My interest in a PhD in Practical Theology, with a concentration in Mission and Evangelism and a minor in Spirituality, is in drawing these divergent movements into conversation, through a robust academic research project and an applied ecclesiological framework characterized by missional and formational practices in vital symbiosis.

In my research, I will explore ecclesial practices of outreach and spirituality, seeking those that promise to give shape to a fundamentally missional and formational ecclesiology. Theologically, I intend to locate the church within the biblical redemption narrative, and historically I will mine for exemplar communities that have been at once contemplative and service-oriented, such as missionary orders.

My zeal and qualifications for this course of study stem from my academic background and ministry endeavors. While earning a Bachelor of Arts in Christian Education and Ministry from Wheaton College, I provided philosophical leadership to an evangelistic ministry on Europe’s hostel circuit. This degree, along with a Master of Divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary, has given me firm grounding in theological, historical, biblical and educational disciplines and granted me language skills in biblical Hebrew and Greek. Burning questions about the nature of the church led me to an in-depth study of Lesslie Newbigin’s missional ecclesiology, and to missional praxis in a local congregation through a course in Church Based Urban Research. My leadership in local churches since 2002 has granted me experience as a small groups minister, church educator and mission leader. Finally, I am actively engaged in the spiritual formation movement as a member of the Renovare International Institute of Christian Spiritual Formation and as a contributor to the development and implementation of Monvee, an innovative spiritual formation webtool.

The primary catalyst for my desire to pursue doctoral study is my mounting distress over the two-headed failure of the American church: typical congregations neither bless their communities nor produce Jesus-like people. These realities, not falling attendance rates, are together a true crisis in American Christianity. My experience in two mega-churches has led me to suspect that this idolized model is complicit in the scandal. I am compelled by a sense of personal calling to present a viable alternative. To this end, I currently serve as a board member with an emerging church plant in urban San Francisco and am in discussion with Anglican Bishop Todd Hunter, founder of Churches for the Sake of Others. Bishop Hunter has expressed interest in the prospect of my research partnership as he initiates a massive missional church planting effort.

I am convinced that Boston University School of Theology’s unique collection of initiatives and faculty members make it the ideal academic environment for this course of study. The Center for Practical Theology, Congregational Research and Development Project and Spiritual Formation and Church Life Project are hubs for precisely the kind of research and praxis that give birth to original work, such as I intend to produce. The surfeit of faculty expertise in missiology, ecclesiology and spiritual formation, approached as subjects for practical theology, is unparalleled. Dr. Stone’s exceptional work in post-Christendom evangelism and new church development provide a substantial foundation on which to build. The expansive expertise in missiology of Dr. Robert and Dr. Daneel would supply the rich insight of cross-cultural praxis that informed Newbigin’s corpus. The depth and originality of Dr. Wolfteich’s contributions in spiritual formation, particularly on its intersection with justice and social action, would provide an essential element to this integrative work.

I am eager to serve the church and academy as a professor, author and congregational practitioner, believing that these roles would apply my best gifts to the highest cause: equipping churches and their leaders to facilitate transformation in individuals, congregations and their local communities. Specifically, I aspire to teach and lead in a local congregation, advise denominational leaders and teach academic courses in Ecclesiology, Practical Theology, Missional Theology, New Church Development and Revitalization, The Emerging Church, Mission in the West, Spiritual Formation and the Theology of Lesslie Newbigin.

How to Live in the Kingdom of God

The Kingdom (or Reign) of God is the realm in which God’s will is actualized. Thus heaven is a part of the Kingdom of God, angels are citizens in the Kingdom, animal life and all creation (generally speaking) are within the Kingdom of God. It is only people and evil spirits who, through their resistance to God’s will, find themselves outside of the Kingdom of God.

People come to inhabit the Kingdom of God when their wills become aligned with God’s. Thus, the Kingdom of God is available to any who are willing to surrender their will to God’s. When a person makes their will, their mind and their body available to God as tools in the hands of his will, then they are living in the Kingdom of God.

A Theology of Spiritual Formation: Fruits of the Renovare Institute

The theological grounding for spiritual formation in Christ is found in answering two fundamental questions with the same answer: What was God’s hope for the creation of humans and why did Jesus live, die and resurrect?

God’s loving desire from the beginning has been that he might extend the fellowship enjoys in the Trinitarian community and enter an interactive love relationship with humans.  It seems that divine love is constantly finding and creating new objects of love.  God intended that in this relationship these created beings would come willingly to God in full surrender and obedience such that God would be able to entrust to them free use of his power for good.  And this is still God’s good intention for humankind and in order for it to be realized, people—broken and spoiled by the fall—will need to be formed into the character of who, by virtue of his humble submission to God’s will was given “all authority in heaven and on earth.”  

What is a human?

Biblically speaking, the human person is a created being with immeasurable worth, conferred freedom, a spiritual nature, a bodily presence and relationships to the surrounding persons and objects.

            The human person has several primary interrelated dimensions.  At the center of the individual is the will, often referred to variously as the “spirit” or “heart” in the Bible.  This is the “executive center” of the self.  It is here that decisions are made and the relation of this dimension of the person to God is of primary importance, for as Scripture says “the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).

            Though the will is the epicenter of the individual, from out of which the whole life of the person reverberates, the will does not have direct access to the world.  Rather, the will is only able to make decisions about those things which the mind brings to its attention.  (This is why the mind is the necessary beginning point for spiritual transformation.)

            The mind is that aspect of the person which includes its consciousness.  In the mind are thoughts and feelings.  The mind is the operating system of the individual, receiving its source data from the body, from the senses of sight, sound, smell, touch and taste.   The character of the mind determines how the external world will be perceived and interpreted and thus presented to the will.

            The mind is the residence of beliefs and ideas about reality and goodness.  It is through these beliefs that the external world is interpreted to the individual.  The mind is domain of the primary and inalienable freedom of the will.  For while others may infringe upon the social or physical bodily freedom of the self,  “the ultimate freedom we have as human beings is the power to select what we will allow or require our minds to dwell upon.” (Renovation, 95.)

            What the mind dwells upon has irrevocable influence on what the will chooses to do.  This is both good news and bad news.  For it means that however pure a heart be, an undisciplined mind will, though sheer persistence, deform it; conversely, however misshapen a heart may be, if it but exercises its authority over the mind, it will inevitably be restored.

            The body is the part of the person that is material, and thus empowers the individual to interact with the material world.  The body enables a person’s spirit to impact the physical world of others, and thus impact their minds(thoughts and feelings) and thereby, their hearts.  Of course, the mind can also act independently of the body, through sheer concentration on an idea or object that is not materially present, say through remembrance, imagination or memorization.  (In a similar way, the mind can pray, through the power of God thus influencing both the material world as well as the unseen world.)

            The body, like the mind, is characterized by habits.  It is not a machine acting always and only in conformity to the conscious intentions of the mind, but operates largely on instincts and routines which may be either righteous or carnal, in alignment with the will or outside of it.  Thus the body, too, must be formed into likeness with Christ, being trained for a thoughtless readiness to do and speak good.    

            A description of the person is not complete without reference to the space between the person and what surrounds it.  The self is essentially an interconnected entity.  In other words, a person is defined not only by what it is, but by how it relates to what else is.  Thus, the social dimension of the self is the way in which it interacts with other persons (and animals and created objects).

            The soul is that which integrates all the other dimensions of the self into a whole.  Hence, scripture sometimes counts people by their souls, for a soul is a person in its entirety.  A healthy soul is healthy person, one whose will is surrendered to God and is directing the mind to dwell on “whatever is lovely...”, whose body habitually enacts the good intentions of the will and who’s social interactions are a benefit to others.

This description was written as part of an assignment with the Renovare Institute and is hugely indebted to the work of Dallas Willard, especially The Renovation of the Heart.

Render Unto Caesar? Jesus' Subversive Submission

What you think "Render Unto Caesar" means is probably wrong.  That's right.  Mark 12:13-19 is a widely known, and generally misunderstood passage.  Here it is in the TNIV.
 13 Later they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words. 14 They came to him and said, "Teacher, we know that you are a man of integrity. You aren't swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not? 15 Should we pay or shouldn't we?"
    But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. "Why are you trying to trap me?" he asked. "Bring me a denarius and let me look at it." 16 They brought the coin, and he asked them, "Whose image is this? And whose inscription?"
       "Caesar's," they replied.
    17 Then Jesus said to them, "Give back to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's."
       And they were amazed at him.

In order to understand this passage, we really need to unpack several layers of the context.

The first thing we need to know:  Israel was an occupied nation.  This was deeply disturbing to Jewish faith.  Jews were Exodus people.  They were free for several hundred years in the beginning under David and Solomon and others, but then had been conquered by Babylon and exiled and when finally brought back, had never really been free, but always under the thumb of a global empire.  Now it was Rome, and one of the most visible and offensive signs of this occupation were the taxes. The tax represented the fact that the People of God were inexplicably subject to a sinful Gentile kingdom.

New Video from Gary Hamel on Church Innovation

Hear Gary Hamel, Wall Street Journal's Top Business Thinker of 2009 apply the principles of innovation to the church.

Find it here.
Find some of earlier reflections on innovation in the church here.

The Ordinary Radicals

Check out the fresh liturgy at the beginning of this trailer!  That's my kind of Christianity - radically opposed to what God opposes.

Dear Glenn Beck: I'm a Social Justice Christian

Glenn Beck recently told his listeners to leave any church that teaches social justice, and to report its pastor to church authorities. He suggested "social justice" was a code word for communism and nazism.  You've got to be kidding.    

Whether you're a church leader, a church member, or a church seeker, if you're a Christian who believes in the biblical call to social justice, I invite you join me in turning myself in as one who stands in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets and the teachings of Jesus that demonstrate God's will for justice in every aspect of our individual, social, and economic lives - an all encompassing shalom in his Kingdom.

Report yourself here. reports.
Jim Wallis comments

But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream! Amos 5:24

Lord, Save Us From Your Followers (The Movie)

Why is the Gospel of Love Dividing America?

If you were to meet ten average Americans on the street, nine of them would say they believe in God. So why is the Gospel of Love dividing America?

Dan Merchant put on his bumper-sticker-clad jumpsuit and decided to find the reason. After talking with scores of men and women on streets all across the nation, and also interviewing many well-known activists in today’s “Culture Wars,” Dan realized that the public discussion of faith doesn’t have to be contentious.

From its opening Talking Heads sequence through its touching look at faith in action, Lord, Save Us From Your Followers is a fast-paced, highly engaging documentary that explores the collision of faith and culture in America while opening up this important conversation to all of us.

As discussion of religion floods the media, the rhetoric is divisive, hyper, and most often, angry. With humor more common in a comedy-sketch program than a documentary, Merchant brings the sensibilities of someone who is deeply concerned with how his faith is being represented by others. Lord, Save Us provides a provocative, funny, and redemptive discussion that is sure to continue long after the credits run.

Merchant sits down for interviews with well-known people on all sides of this great divide, including best-selling author William Paul Young (The Shack), comedian/politician Al Franken, former “Religious Right” Senator Rick Santorum, noted “liberal evangelical” Tony Campolo, conservative radio host Michael Reagan, and racial reconciliation activist Dr. John Perkins.

If that’s not divergent enough, other features include Bono, Rick Warren, Bill Maher, James Dobson, George Clooney, Jerry Falwell, Stephen Colbert, Ann Coulter, Pat Robertson, Lewis Black, Tony Perkins, Monty Python, and even Stewie from “Family Guy”… along with many others.

Add to that the nationwide man-on-the-street interviews with “Bumper-Sticker Man,” the Culture Wars game show, the “renaming” of St. Paul to New Leningrad, and a controversial and moving “Confession Booth” at Portland’s Gay Pride celebration, and Lord, Save Us From Your Followers delves into religious hot-button issues with candor, humor, and balance.

Engaging, unpredictable, and challenging, Lord, Save Us From Your Followers will change the way you talk about faith.*

Watch Lord, Save us From Your Followers free on hulu

*Text from

Proof-texting and Topical Preaching

"What is proof-texting?"
That is what someone asked me the other day, as I was cautioning against it. I replied:

Proof-texting refers to using Scripture to prove your point, without reference to the context of that Scripture. It is irresponsible exegesis, lazy theology and, I might add, inadequate preaching. (Can you tell I have feelings about this?) When we proof-text we are coming to Scripture to make it back up what we already believe and want to enlist Scripture’s authority to defend. It’s very easy when proof-texting to twist and contort the meaning of a passage so that it says something it never meant to say. For example “May the LORD keep watch between you and me when we are away from each other” (Genesis 31:49), might sound like a nice Christian Hallmark saying (and has been used that way) but the context tells us that Jacob is invoking God’s wrath on whoever breaks the pact he just made with Laban.
Good use of Scripture requires us to come with an open heart, to read without an agenda, and allow Scripture not to tell us the answer to our question, but which question it is attempting to answer (known only by literary and historical context) and the answer it offers.

This question was followed up by mention of topical preaching. Here was my reply:

Indeed, topical preaching is prone to proof-texting. Though, in it’s better forms it only enlists passages that (if read in context) do sincerely teach on the topic, it nonetheless tends to dissuade hearers from serious study, and make them prone to irresponsible proof-texting. The best topical preaching, in my inexperienced opinion is to take a single text on a subject, and dive into it deeply enough to discover that the context reinforces the meaning of the text as an example of teaching on the desired topic. I have several times chosen a text with an particular ‘message’ in mind, and after careful study, been forced to abandon this message in favor of what the text (+context) seem to actually be teaching. 

The upside of topical preaching is that it is immediately relevant. The downside is hearers haven’t learned how to find relevance in Scripture themselves. You might say it is giving a man a fish, rather than teaching him to fish. Of course, if you’re trying to persuade someone of the value of learning to fish, feeding them a fish is the right place to start…but it’s not a very sustainable way to make a community of fishermen.


This morning (and last night) I watched two episodes of CBS’ new show Undercover Boss, which has CEO’s go undercover as grunts in their own company.  Frankly, I was moved - and that's saying something. 

One of the episodes takes place inside of the Hooter’s restaurant business.  As you might expect, there is a chauvinistic manager named Jimbo.  What you might not expect is the other manager worth emulating.  (I suppose making a saint of a Hooter’s manager is about as close to Jesus’ story of neighborly Samaritan as it gets.?

In Hearing God, Dallas Willard quotes a story from Guideposts in which an ordinary Suburban housewife supposedly saw a ball of white light through her window, spraying showers of multicolored light in its wake...Instantly she knew this was Jesus for his eyes were full of absolute caring and unconditional love. According to her account, Jesus remained with her like this for three months, then his presence began to fade, though he told her “I will always be with you.” She asked him how she would know it is she could no longer see him. Jesus replied, “You will see me.” Some years later when she was speaking to a church group, she found his eyes looking into hers again—but the eyes belonged to a woman in the second row. And suddenly she saw his eyes looking at her from the eyes of every person in the room (88).

Whether this inspirational story is exaggerated or even fallacious matters very little to me, because we know from Scripture that this is the kind of thing God does. God went undercover in Jesus, and it must run the family because Jesus is constantly in disguise.

Mary didn’t recognize him near the tomb, mistaking him for a gardener. Jn 20:13-17
The disciples mistook him for a foreigner on the road to Emmaus. Lk 24:13ff
Ultimately no one seems to recognize him in the persons of the poor, naked and imprisoned. Mt 25:31ff

Jesus, is, after all, the ultimate undercover boss.

What if we lived like Jesus just might be undercover as
our incompetent co-worker,
our annoying family member,
our emotionally needy friend,
the homeless person on the corner,
the clumsy clerk at the grocery store,
the slow driver on the freeway,
the person texting during a movie,
or the off-tune person singing next to us at church?

The author of Hebrews advised this kind of thoughtfulness for a similar reason: Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it. Heb 13:2

Last night a friend told me about a very affluent church that had a homeless person try to attend a worship service. Though he was creating no disturbance, they called the police and had him escorted out. I couldn’t help but wonder out loud if they hadn’t unknowingly ushered Jesus out of their church.

As the undercover boss, Jesus isn’t just spying on us to see how we’ll treat him, he’s undercover so that he can be with us in a tangible way; so we can freely choose to love him. He’s undercover for our sake, not his own. John Ortberg (borrowing, as he so often does from Willard) points out that God, in his mercy, allows us to live as if he's not present. If we were forced to be aware of God’s presence it would be like driving with a police officer trailing us.

Willard says it with even more pith: “God hides so that we can hide.” For if God did not obscure his visibility we would perish--not to mention that our freedom would be significantly impaired.

If we don’t want to see God, we don’t have to. But whether you see him or not, you should know, he IS undercover in your life. Forget about Waldo and Carmen SanDiego – the question is "Where’s Jesus?" 

Ears that hear and eyes that see— the LORD has made them both. Proverbs 20:12

Dr. Kara Powell on Sticky Faith for Teenagers

 Dr. Kara Powell, youth ministry expert and Executive Director of the Fuller Youth Institute, on what it takes to make your teenagers faith stick.


Plastic Jesus Video

Sound like anyone you know?
Maybe like someone you see every morning in the mirror?

Words from a Saint with Alzheimers

On December 19, 2009, I taught at Saturday Morning Men's Bible Study, a group that has met at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church at 7:30am on Saturday for decades.  During the prayer time, a man stood up and said that the aged gentleman sitting in wheelchair next to him was Vern Turner, and that he'd asked him to read something he had written, since Vern couldn't read it himself.  None of us were expecting what came next, and it has been one of the holiest moments of the last 6 months. 

This is what Vern had handwritten in barely discernable script:

About 19 years ago I got up in this group and said "Please pray for me."  I have Parkinson's disease.  I am not suffering from Parkinson's Disease, I just have Parkinson's disease.  I am not afflicted with Parkinson's disease.  You live long enough and you get something.  I got Parkinson's disease.  I could have gotten something else but I got Parkinson's disease.  Since that day, you have been faithful to that prayer.  Now I can't talk or walk.  My grandson asked me why I drool all the time.  I can't do much, but I can still pray. 

May God give you the grace of aging like Vern Turner. 

What is Missional Church?: A 2-minute video explanation

Like to use the buzz word "missional" but not really sure what it means?  This simple video defines the missional church in exactly two minutes, contrasting it to the attractional model. 

Gary Hamel on Innovation in the Church

Watch Wall Street Journal's Top Business Thinker of 2009, leading innovation expert and author of "The Future of Management," Gary Hamel tackle the challenges facing the church.  It's painful and promising.

End Human Slavery: Freedom Sunday 2-21-2010

The primary biblical metaphor for salvation is being freed from slavery, because the Exodus was Israel's defining encounter with God.   

Freedom Sunday is February 21, 2010.  You can get your church engaged in this divine action with biblical precedent by visiting

In order to get you ready for Freedom Sunday, let's review the ethics of Deuteronomy.

Treat your servants well, because you were once slaves yourselves.  Treat women well, because you've been weak and vulnerable before.  Don't be a slave driver or taskmaster, because you've been on the other end of that oppression.  Take a day off every week, because you're not slaves anymore.
Every seven years, free your slaves, because God freed you.  Every seven years, cancel all debts, because you've seen how debt destroys society.  Don't take advantage of people, because you know what its like to been taken advantage of.  Don't do anything to make people cry out to me, because you know I hear those cries.  Be generous to the poor, because God was generous to you when you owned nothing.  Treat foreigners kindly, because you yourselves were once foreigners.

You get the idea.

Act like freed slaves.

Remember, you were slaves in Egypt. 
That is why I command you to do this. 
Dt. 24:22

God's people are forever supposed to understand themselves as the Exodus people: ex-slaves, former-foreigners, once-vulnerable. A people with that kind of identity simply can't help but living ethically toward others. We too, are the people of God. And if we understand the Gospel of Jesus Christ we know that we too are an Exodus people...

...ex-slaves to sin (Rom. 7:14)

...former-foreigners to the covenant (Eph.2 )

...once-vulnerable to judgment (Rom. 3)

We are a freed people. We are an exodus people. God's people are former slaves.  If the people of Israel could have lived out of this memory, they would have served as an effective instrument of God's redemption...a light to the nations. Of course, we know, they forgot and their ethics followed suit until, as Bell points out, they began to look a lot like the Egypt they had escaped. And so, as Deut. 28 promises God brought on them "all the diseases of Egypt" and treated them like the anti-people of God they had become.
How's your memory? If you're finding your ethics don't seem to be as gracious or generous as God seems to demand, the best prescription is a little trip down memory lane--not trying to will yourself into obedience.

Remember, you were slaves to sin, alienated from God, isolated from real relationship, destined for death and without hope. Now live like you remember from whence you've came.

Don't know about horror that is modern day slavery?  Watch.