One of the themes that came from the platform at that conference is a theme that was resounded at the very next event to which we traveled. One of our favorite yearly gatherings where we sell books is called the Wee Kirk event. That's Scottish brogue for small church (ahh, we odd Presbyterians!) Pastors and lay leaders, elders and supply preachers, retired clergy and working farmers and small town volunteers all endure to keep their struggling congregations alive and well. We have well over 20 different titles for small church leaders, offering unique insights about small church renewal, tiny choirs, single digit youth groups, administration for small congregations and how to lead quality worship in such settings. Call us if you need to and we can tell you about them.
And, there are plenty of very thoughtful and helpful books on church revitalization, regardless of size, like, say, Alice Mann's book from the Alban Institute called Can Our Church Live? Redeveloping Congregations in Decline ($15.00.) or the good books by Tony Robinson (his excellent new one, Changing the Conversation: A Third Way for Congregations is a sequal to the popular 2003 Eerdmans release Transforming Congregational Culture which Marva Dawn called a "must read.") I will be reviewing that one in earnest shortly... See his website here in the meantime and call us if you'd like to order any.
Most congregations, you may not know, are, in fact, small (even if the big ones get the media attention.) We have promoted Diana Butler Bass' fine study of rather ordinary, and often smallish, mainline congregations called Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church is Transforming the Faith, published by HarperOne ($13.95) and it seems good to mention it again, here. Truly, not all small churches are in decline; some are quite healthy and doing fine work for God's Kingdom. Wee Kirk speaker Dr. William Carl (President of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary) says that Fred Craddock told him that he is convinced that some of the best preaching in America is in wee kirks. Even in very small, aging parishes, pastors bring God's truth and proclaim Christ's saving grace----even small churches in out of the way spots deserve to have a preacher bring them into the presence of God week after week. We are glad to be around these stalwart friends. It is telling that they buy books, showing that they are not giving up, but remain eager to learn, to grow, to expand their understandings.
Yet, it isn't easy being a Christian lawyer or a small church leader. We heard hard and painful stories from folks at both conferences. Endurance is a theme that unites these two very different gatherings: God calls us to costly discipleship and although we can rest in the finished work of Christ, we must press on, hanging in, holding forth, even if others resist us or we are tempted to grow bitter due to our weariness. And that sometimes takes new energy and courage. It is why I promoted (yes, once again) N.T. Wright's important book Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, Resurrection and the Mission of the Church (Harper; $24.95) at each conference: hearing God's Word about bodily resurrection and the coming new creation can serve us to re-envision our current missional perspectives by reminding us that our story is part of His Story. I think this book is one of our best sellers these days and I love telling folks about it.
One "under the radar" book that has come out recently is the story of one small church that just decieded it would re-work it's identity around missional themes, doing wholistic service in their small town community where needs were very great. God's Ground
Force: What Happened When One Church Dared to Leave the Comfort Zone by Barbara Sullivan (Bethany; $13.99) is an easy to read story and very exciting, for churches large or small who need reminded of the call to outreach.
I wished I had had a chance to tell about these about endurance at those two events, too. Maybe our BookNotes readers will find them interesting. Who of us doesn't need reminded about what Eugene Peterson, borrowing Nietzsche, called "A Long Obedience in the Same Direction."
The Swans Are Not Silent Book 3 The Roots of Endurance: Invincible Perseverance in the Lives of John Newton, Charles Simeon, and William Wilberforce John Piper (Crossway) $14.99 This third book in the Swan series is fabulously encouraging to anyone who needs reminded to hang in there. These three short biographies highlight how these men of God remained faithful to their respective Kingdom tasks, not giving up even though they failed and were frustrated over and over again. The great Anglican Simeon preached to an empty Trinity church in Cambridge for years until revival finally broke through in late 1700s. You know the Newton and Wilberforce stories, no doubt, but they are encouraging to read about in such brief form. I like all four of these hard-hitting books but this one is very special.
Stand: A Call for the Endurance of the Saints edited by John Piper & Justin Taylor (Crossway) $14.99 This collection of essays has some stuff that I haven't seen before. (I have long admired Helen Roseveare's work on a war-torn Congo mission field and glad she is included.) John Piper's no-nonsense chapter "Growing Old to the Glory of God" picks up themes from his Don't Waste Your Life and warns against the ease of retirement. Other pieces are equally rich theologically, calling for radical commitment even in hard times, even as we face challenges and great, great sorrow or fears. I find this "finishing well" stuff invigorating. These writers (including Randy Alcorn and Jerry Bridges) are deeply confident about the sovereignty and trustworthiness of God and are equally sure that we are most joyful when we live most fully for Christ's glory. Persecuted Christian in a Muslim country? Hassled attorney in a highly secularized Western culture? Wee Kirk pastor in rural West Virginia? Heartsick older parent of a prodigal child? Frustrated baby boomer not seeing fruit in your particular vocation? Post-modern nomad vacillating about important commitments? We are called to stand. This could help.