The book of the month
First published in hardback in 2018, Love Church: An adventure in church planting (Hodder & Stoughton, London 2019. 272pp: £9.99) by Tim Matthews, is an inspiring account of how the author together with his wife Deb planted a new church from Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB) at St Swithun’s, Bournemouth in 2014 with a focus on reaching the town’s unchurched younger generations. In 2017 the church also partnered with the struggling church of St Clement’s Boscombe. Now on the two sites there are around 600 people, over a third of whom are under 25. I liked the book because it is an honest rather than a triumphal book: “Every step of the way has been fraught with difficulty and last-minutes rescues”. I was struck by the church’s initial four ‘core values’: “famous for love, flowing with life, focused on Jesus, fully committed”. I was interested that “the first team member we hired was a full-time worship pastor – for a church of eleven people”! I loved the idea of a party for key volunteers: “Less than a year after we’d started, I could see 200 people laughing, eating, drinking, and dancing the night away under the stars. It was such a celebration and you can’t beat that. God is deeply into teams.” I was impressed by the hope expressed that “the story I’ve told ignites faith in you”. It is, of course, an exceptional story – yes, the HTB tag helps, but nonetheless the church is clearly evidence of a miracle-working God.
Other books to make us think
In his introduction to The Lost Message of Paul: Has the Church misunderstood the Apostle Paul? (SPCK, London 2019. 295pp: £9.99) Steve Chalke, Baptist minister and founder of the Oasis Trust, tells the story of a bishop who’d recently written a book on Paul’s theology: ‘Everywhere I go to speak about Paul they serve tea and cakes afterwards accompanied by polite conversation. Everywhere Paul went to speak a riot broke out.’. Like the Apostle, Steve Chalke also tends to create ‘riots’. As far as this latest book is concerned, I fear it will be dismissed by many without bothering to read it. This will be sad: for although the author effectively tears up his evangelical membership ‘card’, he does so as a result of an unusually deep engagement with Scripture. Although have known Steve for longer than most, I was impressed by the breadth of his reading – and by the way in which he wrestles with the Hebrew and Greek text of the Bible. Although I do not share many of his conclusions, I respect the way in which he arrives at his conclusions. Yes, Steve’s theological position has shifted over the years – he would say that it has deepened, developed and matured. He writes, “rather than placing my primary emphasis on defending immoveable doctrinal positions, the real quest – the real responsibility – is to commit wholeheartedly to the continuous task of grappling with Scripture”. For Steve this means a radically different understanding of salvation: traditional doctrines of sin, of atonement, and of hell, are done away with. However, rather than focussing on his conclusions, Evangelicals need to focus afresh on the Scriptures. For Steve is right in one respect: it is all too easy to force our preconceived cultural assumptions on to the Apostle Paul: “our task is to try to listen as hard as we can to the meaning of his words in terms of their original context and culture”. This is a book which needs to be studied and then argued about!
Mission in Marginal Places: The Stories (Paternoster, Milton Keynes 2019. 275pp: £14.99) edited by Paul Cloke & Mike Pears, is the third of a series of books on Mission in Marginal Places: the first two dealt with The Theory and The Praxis. The convictions underlying this series are threefold: firstly, Christian mission must give priority to those on the margins of society; secondly, mission must be predicated on a practical or ‘lived’ theology which grapples with the actual experiences of life in a broad range of contexts; thirdly, mission studies must be in dialogue with the social sciences where much can be learned about the context for mission. I found The Stories a challenging read -and was left with a real sense of admiration for those who live out their faith in some of the toughest of circumstances. This series should be essential reading for men and women preparing for ministry.
First published in 2012, When You Pray: Daily Bible reflections on the Lord’s Prayer (BRF, Abingdon, 2nd edition 2019. 191pp: £10.99) by Joanna Collicutt, who teaches psychology & spirituality at Ripon College Cuddesdon, is a series of readings arranged in seven blocks of seven, so that they can be used in a weekly pattern, with the seventh reading of teach block shorter than the others ‘as a kind of sabbath rest’. According to the author, “the Lord’s Prayer contains all that Christians really need to know; it is the very essence of the Gospel”. I found it a fresh and insightful guide to prayer and warmly commend it both for individual study and for use in small groups – it comes with discussion questions for each chapter.
Seriously Messy: Making space for families to talk together about death and life (BRF, Abingdon 2019. 156pp: £8.99) by Joanna Collicutt, Luce Moore, Martin Payne and Victoria Slater, was for me an unexpectedly impressive book. I too passionately believe that we need to talk about death in the church, and to include children in the discussion. There is far too much fear about death, even amongst Christians. And yet, research indicates that “when churches put on courses that provided opportunities for people to talk together about death and dying, there was a very positive response; people wanted to be able to talk about this profoundly important aspect of life, and it was a relief for them to have a safe and comfortable space in which to do this”. This is a great resource not just for those engaged in Messy Church, but also for more traditional churches.
A previous book of the month, Phoebe: A Story. Pauline Christianity in Narrative Form (Hodder & Stoughton, London 2019. 308pp: £8.99) by Paula Gooder is now in paperback. I cannot praise this book enough. Imaginative in style, and yet rooted in scholarship, this is a superb introduction to how life would have been for many of the early Christians.
Homeward Bound: Sabbath Rest for the People of God (Paternoster, Milton Keynes 2019. 143pp: £9.99) by Graeme Goldsworthy, an Australian Anglican theologian, makes the interesting argument that “for Christians the Sabbath law is not a direction about what to do, or not to do, on a Sunday. Rather it is of the essence of the essence of the eschatological hope of eternal rest. On the seventh day of creation God rested in the sense that he had achieved his goal of a perfect universe with humankind at its centre…For us the Sabbath rest speaks of a similar perfection that is to come. It speaks of a new creation that is the fulfilment of Eden and the promised land, and is the realm of eternal life.” This is a theme which we seldom hear in our churches and brings a new and welcome perspective to the life to come.
Published in the ‘Contours of Christian Theology series’, which is intended to be a series of introductory textbooks on the main themes of Christian theology, The Last Things (IVP, London 2019. 322pp: £15.99) by David Hőhne of Moore Theological College, Sydney, Australia, uses the structure of the Lord’s Prayer to expound the Bible’s understanding of ‘the last things’. Karl Barth and Jürgen Moltmann are the author’s principal ‘modern’ conversation partners, but and at the same time he draws frequently upon John Calvin when exegeting Scripture. It is a good ‘solid’ textbook!
First published in 2013, Servant Ministry: A portrait of Christ and a pattern for his followers (BRF, Abingdon 2019. 155pp: £8.99) by Tony Horsfall, a freelance trainer and retreat leader, consists of a series of helpful reflections on the first Servant Song in Isaiah (42.1-9). Although a premise of the book is that all Christians are called to be engaged in servant ministry, I read with particular interest the chapter on servant leadership, and appreciated his understanding that servant leaders at times need to be assertive: “To serve is not to be passive, and servant leadership-is not a convenient cover-up for cowardly behaviour… We serve our congregations best, sometimes, by standing firm and holding them to the noblest ways.”
Escaping the Maze of Spiritual Abuse: Creating healthy Christian cultures (SPCK, London 2019. 180pp: £10.99) by Lisa Oakley, who is Chair of the Task and Finish Group for Spiritual Abuse in the Church of England, and Justin Humphreys, CEO of Thirtyone:eight, a Christian safeguarding charity, is a disturbing book, and yet essential reading for all in Christian leadership. The harm caused by abuse in church life is powerfully illustrated by Mark Stibbe in the Foreword as he relates his experience at the hands of John Smyth of the Iwerne Minster camps. Stibbe’s story is then relentlessly reinforced by many more instances of spiritual abuse. The authors emphasise that spiritual abuse is to be found in every denomination and stream of church life. Thank God, however, there is a positive balance to the book, for the authors are concerned not just to depict abuse, but also to suggest ways in which abuse can be prevented. In this regard I found the chapter on ‘The challenge of authentic leadership’ particularly helpful, and not least its emphasis on leaders daring to be self-reflective. As the authors point out, in many cases, “far from being wilful, those who have fallen into spiritually abusive patterns of behaviour did so without realizing”.
God of Violence Yesterday: God of Love Today? Wrestling honestly with the Old Testament (BRF, Abingdon 2019. 176pp: £9.99) by Helen Paynter, a Baptist minister based at Bristol Baptist College, tackles a difficult theme in a simple and thought-provoking way. I appreciated her opening statement: “I write this book because I am convinced to the core of my being that God is Love. And the love of God is fierce, it is exacting and it is utterly faithful.” I appreciated too her words of wisdom: “It is important that we do not automatically assume that someone’s actions – even if we have been taught to consider them a ‘good guy’ – are necessarily being endorsed by the biblical narrator”.
First published in 2004, L is for Lifestyle: Christian living that doesn’t cost the earth (IVP, London 2019. 186pp: £9.99) by Ruth Valerio, is based on the premise that “to be a disciple of Jesus and knowingly to harm his creation is a contradiction in terms”. Her action points which come at the end of each chapter are provocative and imaginative, but are not universally applicable. For instance, not everybody in work can do a ‘car-fast’ for week, nor is it realistic for everybody to grow their own vegetables!
Sister Wendy’s 100 Best-Loved Paintings (SPCK, London. £19.99 hardback) is a beautiful collection of this Carmelite nun’s ‘all-time favourite paintings’ published posthumously – for Sister Wendy, an unusual art critic, died at the end of 2018. Her eye for detail and her gift to appreciate the underlying spirituality of great works of art, make this a great book.
Recent booklets from Grove of Cambridge, all 28pp in length and £3.95 in price, include Leading and Shaping a Discipleship Culture: Six essential shifts for creating a culture of Biblical discipleship (Leadership 36, 2019) by Chris Rogers, an Anglican minister, emphasises the importance of developing a culture of embodied grace, authenticity of leadership, a risk-taking welcome, a people-focused programme, the engagement of all, and community-led leadership. Mixed-Economy Mission: Collaborative ministry for multi-church growth (Mission & Evangelism 126, 2019) by Anna Brooker & Andrew Dunlop is a fascinating account of the East Durham Mission Project where a group of declining parishes were transformed by imaginative mission involving ‘context-based training’ for Cranmer Hall students. I loved the image of ‘an orchard’ for ‘mixed economy mission’: “traditional forms of church are pruned and revitalized, and co-exist alongside new forms, or saplings”. This insightful telling of a mission project is a story from which every church could learn. Loving and Serving your Local School (Youth 54, 2019) by Matt Brown, the national director of Reality Youth Project, is a passionate challenge to church leaders and Christians in general to get involved in schools work in such roles as school chaplains or governors or mentors. The Celtic Soul-Friend: What place today? (Pastoral 157, 2019) by Andrew Scholes, a Baptist hospital chaplain, begins with an overview of the role of ‘soul-friends’ in Celtic Christianity, and ends by looking at the place of confession in contemporary discipleship, which includes the important observation that instead of the terms ‘confession’ and ‘penance’, the terms ‘accountability’ and ‘spiritual exercises’ are more helpful