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More Books About Church & Congregational Life: 20% OFF

Last week I did a BookNotes post describing books for church leaders, new resources that help pastors and others think about different aspects of the congregational ministry.  There were some written from the context of liturgical and mainline church life and others perhaps more inspired by an evangelical spirit. Something for everybody, really. (And, by the way, a quick update:  We just got into the store Center Church by Timothy Keller, a bit earlier than announced.  Those who pre-ordered it will get their order soon. What a book!) 


And, as they say, "there's more where that came from."  So, here's another list of new churchy books -- part two.  Spread the word if you can: the local church matters and there is good reason to believe that study and wide reading and professional development of clergy and church leaders is essential for parish health.  Not the only thing that is necessary, but essential.  Read for the health of your church!


a in c.jpgAdventures in Churchland: Finding Jesus in the Mess of Organized Religion   Dan Kimball (Zondervan) $16.99 A few years ago Kimball made a name for himself for his book and DVD curriculum They Like Jesus But Not the Church. He had been in a rockabilly band (hence the, uh, unhip haircut) and somehow grew passionate about Jesus.  The church, not so much.  In that book, and in another on creative, contemporary worship, Kimball gave us tons of ideas about how outsiders view our churchy activities, customs, and often off-putting rituals.  Well, he's back, with a cool book with graphics that look like rock concert poster silk-screen type. Same concerns, same punky hair.  His description of his journey, his fingering the mess that is the church, and his invitation to what he calls Graceland is compelling and important.  And cool. How many books carry blurbs from rock starts like Zack Lind of Jimmy Eats World, or rockabilly legend Wanda Jackson (who has toured with Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and, more recently Adele?)  There is message here, I think---there are culturally important folks out there who frankly don't "get" church.  There are lots of their fans and followers, ordinary kids who are comfortable in all kinds of clubs and shows and venues, but the whole church thing just doesn't make any sense to them.  It just doesn't. Especially when they notice us squabbling.

Importantly, this book admits and jokes about and suggests solutions to the divide between the richness of the Biblical account of the life of Jesus and the tacky and exclusive nature of most churches, independent or denominational.  Most churches want to be welcoming, I'm sure, and most want to help people love God.  Kimball's a great storyteller and he really shines when he lovingly mocks his own conservative evangelical sub-cultural world (like how he had to be in a cheesy musical)---sophisticated mainline folks will cringe at some of this---even as he invites us all to realize the huge dissatisfaction with organized religion that is commonplace.  And he helps us do something honest and effective about it.  Check out his for study helps for Adventures in Churchland including discussion questions, teaching resources, and more.  Fun, funny, and kinda weird.  Not bad for a guy who reads comic books and loves vintage Ford Mustangs. Not bad for any of us who want a quick glimpse of how many unchurched young adults think about us.


ancient f, fm.jpgAncient Faith, Future Mission: Fresh Expressions in the Sacramental Tradition  edited by Steven Croft, Ian Mobsby & Stephanie Spellers (Seabury Books) $22.00  Okay, you get the critique offered in the poignant stories of Dan Kimball.  You realize that skeptics, seekers, and nearly anybody under 50, statistically speaking, has no clue about mainline religion, liturgy, sacramental theology.  Most people can't find their way from a nave to a sanctuary and don't know a pyx from a pixel.  (I know a few of you are thinking: "Not bad, Borger. So you know what a pyx is."  Ha.)  Enter the Fresh Expressions movement from England and this brilliant book situated within the liberal, Anglican tradition, a tradition that means business when it talks about being ancient/future. 

You know that this "the way ahead goes through the past" mantra of McLaren and Tickle and others is common these days---brilliantly promoted decades ago by the ecumenical evangelical Robert Webber---is sometimes co-opted by evangelicals that tinker with some candles, maybe, or dare to read a book about the desert fathers, tacked on to an essentially modern or postmodern congregational ethos and rather thin sense of ritual.  Most Anglicans and, in the US, Episcopalians, have tools of reaching out in very edgy, new ways, but without sacrificing liturgical sensibilities, spiritual practices, and sacramental worship.  This book is a collection of essays about a blending of liturgical church life and emergent movements, "the latest iteration in an ancient and essential tradition."  There are contributions by Rowan Williams, Karen Ward, Richard Giles, Phyllis Tickle, Ian Mosby and more. 


that we may.jpgThat We May Perfectly Love Thee: Preparing Our Hearts for Holy Communion  Robert Benson (Upper Room) $14.00  Benson is not a rockabilly critic of peculiar evangelical practices and he's not an emergent hipster doing U2charists, either. Both of the above books are big picture important, but, I'm sure, for most of us, we are carrying on doing church pretty much the same as always.  Even if we are extraordinarily creative, creating para-church outreaches or fresh expressions, we, sooner or later offer communion rituals.  Whether you approach it as an austere Lord's Supper or a formal Eucharistic liturgy, a mournful recollection or a celebration feast, we have to figure out what we believe and what we do, and how and why we do it.  There are good books all about that, and we have plenty.  This one, though, is more basic, and it is elegant and wonderful.  It is a book I wish every Christian person would read, a deeply meaningful and lovely rumination offering a deeper understanding of Holy Communion.  These days, Frederick Buechner doesn't blurb many books (not that he ever did) but his rare imprimatur speaks volumes. "This is an unpretentious book, simply written, truly felt...It reminds us of things we have half forgotten.  It opens our eyes to things we have only half seen."


I love this quote about That We May Perfectly Love Thee from Daniel Benedict, Abbot of the Order of Saint Luke, himself author of Patterned by Grace: How Liturgy Shapes Us, which says it more nicely than I could:

This treasury of insight is a book small enough to read in an evening and big enough to be a short course in what it means to worship the triune God in the church's diverse practice.  Ever the artist and teacher, Robert Benson helps us reimagine our participation in God's radiance."  There is, by the way, a fine little study guide in the back, great for small groups, adult classes, or personal reflection.


The Welcoming Congregation- Roots and Fruits of Christian Hospitality.jpgThe Welcoming Congregation: Roots and Fruits of Christian Hospitality  Henry G. Brinton (Westminster/John Knox) $17.00  As I skimmed this the other day, I knew I'd want to study it carefully, draw on it for classes I teach at our own Presbyterian church, and offer it to thoughtful readers as a key resource for congregational life.  Brinton is a pastor of a serious, growing Presbyterian (USA) church outside of Washington DC and it carries endorsements by renowned mainline scholars such as Serene Jones (President of Union Theological Seminary) and Amy G. Oden (Dean and professor of church history at Wesley Theological Seminary, herself an author of a study called God's Welcome.)  Will Willimon has a glowing forward, reminding us of the great gift that a reconciled people in a local church can be to such a fractured world as ours.


Firstly, I can assure you this book has theological substance and is rooted in mature Biblical analysis.  Neither overly pious or overly critical,  it strikes the right tone, I think, and is stimulating but not arcane, faithful but not fastidious.  He cites a variety of sources, a strength that offers a richness and diversity that BookNotes readers will appreciate.  (Brinton, in fact, had a large Lilly Grant and traveled widely, researching for their National Clergy Renewal Program, which took him from the Iona community in Scotland to Saddleback in California, if you get my drift.)  Not only is this book open-minded and diverse, it is solid, with great Biblical material, great study notes, good pull quotes and sidebars and suggested exercises.  It is ideal for congregational study, especially in mainline denominational churches.


In the "roots" section, there are chapters on sites, meals, small groups. In the "fruits" sections there are extraordinary hopeful signposts pointing towards what might come from a truly hospitable congregation, reconciliation, outreach, and new perceptions.  I suspect this will challenge some congregations as it becomes clear that being welcoming and Biblically hospitable means more than just greeting new members, but is about forming a inclusive, caring, authentic community that is honest about our differences and allowing the Spirit to transform our identities and loyalties, in Christ.  This is Kingdom stuff, radical, provocative, good. 


gcc_us_7576ab471469769a7af9d72350b03161.jpgGospel Centered Church: Becoming the Community God Wants You To Be  Steve Timmis & Tim Chester (The Good Book Company) $9.99  You may know these authors, from the European Acts 29 church-planting network and author of the very good (and quite wholistic) Total Church.  This small resource is a very impressive 18-session study, arranged with six sessions each around three major themes: the Priority of Mission, the Priority of People, the Priority of Community. The "gospel-centered" phrase should make it clear that this sees our outreach, ministry, hospitality, formation of caring community and all we do as rooted in the grace-filled, saving work of God in Christ.  I love the way this calls us to trust in God's redemptive work, motivating us not by tradition or worthy causes or our own needs or hopes, but, quite simply, in the gospel.  Gospel. Centered.  Not bad, eh?  Nice graphic icons and symbols make this user friendly, easy on the eye, and, in just under 100 pages, a fabulous small group resource.


being church.jpgBeing Church: Reflections on How to Live as the People of God  John F. Alexander (Cascade) $29.00  When I saw this last month in the Wipf & Stock catalog I could barely believe my eyes.  John was a bit of a friend in the 70s, a hero of mine, back from his days helping what were then called "young evangelicals" start up stuff like Sojourners and The Other Side magazine, Discipleship Workshop, ESA, and Jubilee Housing initiatives and inner city health clincs. With friends like Rene Padilla and John Perkins and Susan Gallagher and Richard Mouw and Ron Sider, a movement of socially engaged, community-minded, spiritually-formed edgy evangelicals literally changed the face of religion in America.  That evangelicals are now in the forefront of social justice, fighting sexual trafficking and starting micro-financing organizations, that the most multi-ethnic congregations in American tend to be evangelical, that groups like the New Monastics and their call to from "community at the edges of Empire" are published by publishers like Zondervan, that the biggest-selling serious book in religious publishing these days is one on Bonhoeffer, all of this can be directly traced back to author/activists like John Alexander. He was a profound thinker, a tireless activist, a great writer.  He died in 2001.


I will report more later on another aspect of John's story----from white-bread Wheaton'sjohn alexander icon.jpg conservative evangelicalism to a post-evangelical, rancorous liberation theology and back to a more rigorously orthodox doctrinal view, a painful rediscovery of roots that caused him to leave The Other Side magazine and community, a journey he brilliantly chronicles in one of my all-time favorite books (now reissued) called The Secular Squeeze: Finding Christian Depth in a Shallow World (Wipf & Stock.) That quick summary, though, is a hint that will help you understand the passion and the brave willingness of Alexander to seek the truth and live it out, wherever it may lead, and anguish dripping between the lines of Being Church, this brand new posthumously published collection of writings.  Alexander earned a degree in both philosophy and psychology from Oxford and his heady style and scholarly influences are evident, here. (Gotta say, I love the footnotes!)   But more, John is writing with his bleeding heart on his sleeve, a bleeding heart, indeed, as he longs for people to take Jesus seriously, to reject the narrative of the American dream, to be in community in ways that calls us all to accountability and obedience and forms us towards radical discipleship. Can a normal church do that?


This exceptional book is about philosophy and theology (think Stanley Hauerwas, perhaps) and social ethics (Volf? Yoder? Hays?) but it is mostly about community.  John Alexander draws on the Biblical sources, citing the New Testament often, and profoundly.  He draws on the classic sources, from Life Together to Body Life to the weighty, but stunningly important Gerhard Lofhink and Robert Bank's famous book about Paul's view of community and Jean Vanier. (I think it was John who once told a group of us to read Community and Growth, a thick classic for anyone interested in intentional community.)  I don't want to discourage ordinary church people from getting this, but he's a house church guy, Anabaptist, mostly. Some of his stories are drawn from his role in intentional house-holding and community living.

Here is a good introduction to the book, a touching portrait written recently in patheos by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove.  Especially with his new DVD and book The Awakening of Hope: Why We Practice a Common Faith (Zondervan; DVD $26.99;  book $14.99)---I'll dedicate a BookNotes review to it soon---it is increasingly clear that Wilson-Hartgrove, Shane Claiborne, and the other "New Monastics" are standing on the shoulders of John Alexander and his tribe.  What an honor for Jonathan to be asked to write the foreword to Being Church.  Do check out his patheos piece, and come on back here.  

Still, philosopher though he was, in light of his serious critique of individualism (Malcolm X and Thomas Jefferson are lumped together for their anti-Biblical view of the autonomy of the self), he ends up mostly being quite practical about what it means to not be autonomous, to serve one another.  This is a book with much to say about the relational arts that keep us together, how a commitment to unity needs practices and wisdom for a joyful life together.   I love this book, and am glad to recall having met John a time or two; I may disagree with him on occasion, and am scared by some of it.  I could underline stuff on every page, cite his clever lines and celebrate his big vision of a local place that gathers people together to follow in the ways of Jesus the servant King.   I know I recommend a lot of books, but this one is in that company of books that are the best of the best.  Just listen to these ringing endorsements. They might assure you that I'm not making this up: this slightly over-sized book is one of the most important books to come out in a very long time.

"John Alexander has been one of the unsung heroes in the modern Christian world. His understanding of Christianity as a counter-cultural movement is profound, and he has been able to communicate it with effectiveness in his writings. Everything he has written has been marked by fresh insights into what it means to be a Christian in a society in which cultural Christianity has become the norm."
--Tony Campolo, author of Red Letter Christians

"Superb. Disturbing. Challenging. Radical because it is biblical. Being Church is an extremely well-written, theologically profound but easily understood presentation of a hugely important truth: almost everything depends on recovering the revolutionary reality of genuine Christian community. A must-read."
--Ronald J. Sider, author of Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger

"Being Church is a comprehensive and winsome invitation to embrace a more radical and holistic vision for the church. It is also a testament to the remarkable story of Church of the Sojourners. John's voice has the weight of wisdom that comes only from deep reflection and hard-earned experience--it is a voice that we should pay attention to."
--Mark Scandrette, author of Practicing the Way of Jesus

"It took a sixty-year journey before John Alexander could write this book. Eventually he learned that trying harder and doing more is not the way God changes us. Nor is it the good news of the gospel for the world. This book shares the alternative: the culture of grace. It was worth the wait."
--Chris Rice, author of Reconciling All Things

living into community.jpgLiving Into Community: Cultivating Practices That Sustain Us  Christine D. Pohl (Eerdmans) $20.00  Serious readers of Christian books surely know Pohl's classic 1999 book, Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition (Eerdmans; $20.00.)  It happily put the phrase "hospitality" on the theological map.

Years in the making, this substantial sequel is a "truly beautiful book" and one that Marva Dawn insists "every Christian should read!"  When a book this thoughtful and this good get this kind of attention, you know it should be on your list.  Now is a good time to ponder how our congregations can embody four core practices that sustain healthy community life.  If you hunger for a church that is more intentional about relationships and an ethos of caring community, you need to know this material. 

I know I have spoken of this book before, but I have this sense that in this new church season, some churches are pondering how they can foster better body life, how they can be a community.  Maybe they aren't ready for the intentional living arrangements of the "new monastics" or the radical koinonia described in John Alexander's book.  Okay.  This book will get you further towards being a sustainable community, and her study and experience--from L'Abri to Asbury--is remarkable.  This should be in every church library, a few around so anybody longing for great community might be able to have access to it.  It is very well done, complete with discussion questions.  Here is another list of books I did a few years ago on community with some very interesting titles.

hurting with god.jpgHurting with God: Learning to Lament with the Psalms Glenn Pemberton (Abilene University Press) $19.99  I worshiped in a church this summer where a young man had just died after a long and painful struggle with cancer.  It was awful, I gather.  There wasn't a word of prayer or mention of it that morning, let alone any liturgical attention to it, even though many in the congregation were grieving, having attended the funeral the day before.  I was sad about this for weeks, and continue to ponder why our congregations are so often unwilling to name our pains, to be honest about our brokenness, and to avoid any liturgical affirmation of the hurt so many of us carry.

Interestingly, there have been several books released lately on using the Psalms devotionally and in worship, and a few on using the lament Psalms.  This one is masterful, a good study and "a rich resource for the practice of faith" as Walter Brueggemann says of it.  Pemberton (an Old Testament scholar) offers a persuasive case for restoring the biblical language of lament in the church and in the lives of believers.  I like that Brueggemann also notes that it is "well informed about scholarship but brings to it the heart and humor of a pastor."  And it is honest.  It will engender honest prayer.  I bet you could use some of that in your congregation, too.  Highly recommended. 

Pursuing-Gods-Will.jpgPursuing God's Will Together: A Discernment Practice for Leadership Groups  Ruth Haley Barton (IVP) $20.00  I know I did a longer review of this when it first came out this spring and I all but begged folks to consider giving it to their elders, council, vestry or other leadership board.  You can read my positive review, here, but please know that it is a helpful call to contemplative, lived spirituality, a helpful overview of spiritual formation nurtured through classic disciplines, and then--get this--a very practical guide to doing this together.

Ms Barton is not the first to invite us to language of discernment rather than vote-counting and decision-making, but no one has guided us towards congregational habits with as much gusto and good writing, practical and yet inspiring, as Ruth Barton.  As Richard Foster writes, it "drills down deep into rock-bed practicalities for any community."  Amen.strengthening-soul-your-leadership-seeking-god-in-crucible-ruth-haley-barton-hardcover-cover-art.jpg

I am sure you know this in your heart: no church will get far without profound commitments to spiritual formation and no plan will be lasting and fruitful unless it is truly God's will.  It is, as the title suggests, for leaders, and offers help for leadership groups.  In this regard it is a natural follow-up to her book for spiritual leaders (on avoiding burnout and such) called Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership (IVP; $18.00.)  Use these books---over time, I am confident, you will be glad you did.  And so will your fellow church folks.

Watch even the first two questions she answers in this video podcast and you'll realize she is a gem --- honest, caring, helpfully aware of the stresses of life in ministry (these days, especially.)  It is both sobering and I think exciting.  Are you exhausted? Do you want to be well? 

discerning god's will together.jpgBy the way, any day now we will get a brand new book on this topic published by the ecumenical folks at the Alban Institute. (We carry all their books.)  It will be called Discerning God's Will Together: A Spiritual Practice for the Church written by Danny E. Morris & Charles M. Olsen (Alban Institute; $17.00) and it is a considerably re-written and expanded version of an older work of the same title.  I don't know how updated it is, but it has a great new cover and is apparently considerably different.  I loved the first version, published maybe in 1999 or so.  Both of these authors are experienced counselors and leaders. Morris developed the famous Upper Room Academy for Spiritual Formation and Olsen, who has 22 years experience as a Presbyterian (USA) pastor, was written widely, including Transforming Church Boards into Communities of Spiritual Leaders, an early invitation to consider these very things. 

And guess who will have an endorsing blurb on the back, calling it "classic and seminal...a blessing to any group committed to seeking God's will together"?  That's right---Ruth Haley Barton.  Nice.


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