I Then Shall Live

Several years ago I heard the song I Then Shall Live by the Gaithers and absolutely fell in love with it – in fact, I actually purchased the sheet music for my choir and it became a staple in our repertoire during my tenure at the church.  Last weekend, out of the blue, I happened to stumble across it again on my iPhone while mowing the lawn.  I was struck again by the words – a message of commitment to live as God has called us to live, something that’s been on my hearth quite a bit lately.

If you’ve been reading this blog for any amount of time you know we’ve invested the last six months in searching for a new church.  We’ve visited quite a few churches in this time and, in the last two months or so, are really sensing God answering us in some very specific ways.  Two Sundays ago the pastor where we have been attending ended his sermon with a truly profound comment – one I’ve been unable to get out of my head for almost three weeks now!  He said, “To discover your god, answer the question, ‘Where did I go/what did I do today in order to get my nourishment?'”

Now, to be honest, when I heard him say the first four words I expected him to follow it up with the traditional “Look at your checkbook and calendar to see how you spend your money and time.”  But this was different, very different than I expected – and it caught me off guard.  I started to think of the things I “have to do” before I go to bed each night – because that’s a pretty good indicator of what I do/where I go to “get nourishment”.  Some are great things (tuck the girls in, clean up the kitchen, take out the garbage) and others, while they may be “good” probably aren’t “best” (like checking my work email so to minimize surprises that may await me in the morning, or logging onto an online class to check up on the discussion forums or making sure I’ve done my discussion forum posts).  But, ashamedly, I’m not sure “spending time with God” ever makes it onto the list; I can’t even say that “prayer” or “studying my Bible” makes it high enough on the list every night because “I’m just too tired for that tonight, Lord” – but you better believe the email gets checked, Chloe gets taken to the bathroom, or the dishes get loaded into the dish washer (okay, so that dishes thing is more like a 9 nights out of 10…).

Now to be fair I’m not saying I never pray, read my Bible, or spend time with the Lord; what I’m saying is that I just don’t do it enough.  And that hit me as I reflected on the sermon and then heard this song again last week – particularly these words:

I then shall live as one who’s been forgiven.  I’ll walk with joy to know my debts are paid….

So, greatly pardoned, I’ll forgive my brother; the law of love I gladly will obey.

I then shall live as one who’s learned compassion.  I’ve been so loved, that I’ll risk loving too….

And here’s what I realized: you can’t sing these words until you realize how much you’ve “been forgiven”, how much you’ve been “pardoned”, and how much you “are loved”.  I’ll be honest, I’m a pretty decent person – I have lived a very moral and ethical life, I’ve been praised by many people for my high ethical standards and I’m honest (apparently humility doesn’t make it high on the list tonight….).  I guess I’m what many would call a “good guy” (or at least a decent one!)  I was raised in a Christian home from when I was a young child, I attended Christian school not only K-12 but also for my undergraduate education; I’ve served churches, lead Bible studies, and all the things that good Christian men do.  I’ve never struggled with addiction like many of my friends and family – be it alcohol, drugs, or pornography – and, while I sometimes get frustrated, I’m not the first person people think of when they identify someone with an “anger problem”.

But the older I get (and I’m not old by any stretch, so don’t even go there), I realize more and more just how rotten I would be without Jesus.  I see how my heart betrays the words I speak: I recognize the tendency to judge others, I see the prejudices I have, I see the natural inclination to do all those things in the previous paragraph I’ve said I’ve never done, and I know the selfish motives that are present when I do “good things”.  The older I get I realize more fully just how much I’ve truly been pardoned of, of how much I’ve been forgiven, and how deeply I am loved; I also see just how much turmoil and evil I’ve escaped because God had kept it from me.  And the more I see the rotten part of me that is slowly dying I realize more and more that it’s through no work that I do but it really is “Christ who lives in me”.

One of the things that has kept us going back to the church we’ve been visiting for the past two months is a statement made by the senior pastor one of the first weeks we visited: “We exist to help you become someone who looks more like Jesus.”  Isn’t that what this song is all about – “Looking more like Jesus”?   Jesus said that the one who has been forgiven much loves much, and it is a wonderful thing to realize more deeply every day just how much he has forgiven me, how unworthy I am of his love and forgiveness, and how blessed I am to receive it.  God has been so gracious to me – truly giving me more than I could ever “ask or imagine” in this life, so I know I can’t even imagine what the next life will entail!

This is one of those posts that, unless you’ve reached this point in your Christian walk probably doesn’t make much sense to you….  So perhaps you need to start by answering the question I shared at the beginning of this post or reflecting on the words of the song linked above….  All I can say is that if you truly let Jesus show you what he’s done in your life, and ask him to rekindle the passion for him that you once had, he will answer that prayer.


And it Continues…..Diversity in Church

One of the most influential books I’ve read in the past year has been Church Diversity by Scott Williams (the link will take you to my review of the book).  I say influential because it’s caused me to seriously reflect on how I view the issues of ethnic and age diversity in church congregations.  Living in the South (but coming from the North), I have noticed the deep racial divide here in many ways, but perhaps none so more obvious as church attendance.

Over the past five months we’ve visited a lot of churches, and this issue of diversity has been something we’ve talked about a lot.  To highlight how bad of an issue this is in the South (my friends from the North may not believe this story, but it’s true), let me quickly tell the story of what we noticed several weeks ago while visiting a church…. One of the things about Greenville is that there are lots of new church plants around (I don’t mean plants like those things that grow out of the dirt that you have to water, I mean plants as in start-up, new churches).  Many of these plants do not have home buildings, so they meet in schools, hotels, or even homes.  One week we visited a church that was meeting in one of these non-traditional locations and as we walked in I saw a really good mix of both black and white people walking in the door of the building.  I actually thought to myself, “Wow – now here’s a church that’s started to become more integrated!  Praise God!”  But then I got in the building…

I kid you not – there were two different rooms setup for two different churches.  All the black people went to one and all the white people went to another.  Now don’t misunderstand me – this was not one church with two different rooms for worship, it was simply two different churches that happened to meet in the same physical building in two different rooms.  But the contrast could not have been more severe – I actually had the thought in my head, “What is this?  1960?”

Now I don’t know what effort these two churches have made towards attracting and maintaining members of other races in their respective congregations, but I did have to wonder about it.  In the South it is very common for people to say that the racial division in churches is a result of the culture down here – and I believe there is a lot of truth to that.  But it’s not an excuse.  I was having a conversation recently with someone about this and asked about their view on reaching out to people from other backgrounds, specifically blacks, to bring them into the church.  This person responded to me that while they thought it was a great idea, they felt it would be a better idea to actually train up a black minister to go and reach black people with the gospel because as a white person he wasn’t sure he’d be able to connect with blacks and be respected by them.

Makes sense, doesn’t it?  Or does it?  I’ve also heard people say, “I can’t reach out to older people because I’m so young I’m just not respected and accepted, so I need to find an older person to reach them for me.”  Or, “If that person just had a white teacher instead of a black teacher he’d learn better.”  So let’s take race out of this discussion and replace it with any word that represents a portion of culture: food, music, whatever you want.  Haven’t you talked with people regarding music programs at churches who will tell you, “We have to be traditional/contemporary because that’s who we are and if we choose the other we will offend this particular group?” (or something along those lines?)

But here’s the bottom line: anytime, or perhaps I should say every time, we make a comment that because of our cultural background we can’t reach a certain set of people from a different background, we are limiting the power of God.  That’s right.  In essence, what the person whom I talked with that I mentioned earlier was saying was, “The power of the cultural barrier in Greenville is more powerful that the God I serve.”  What those who argue over music are saying is, “The power of musical style to divide us is greater than the power of God to unite us.”

And that’s a problem.  The problem ultimately isn’t our view of race, culture, music, or what-have-you; no, our problem is our view of God.  For me the main issue is not so much that we have segregated congregations (it’s an issue, but it’s not the main issue) – the main issue is what are we doing about it?  I get concerned for those who don’t recognize it is a problem that needs to be addressed.  I’m not saying I have the answer as to how to address it, I’m just saying we need to stop hiding behind the excuse of “that’s the culture here in the South” and start recognizing that the power of God to unify and reconcile is greater than the power of the enemy to divide.

Go back to the example I shared at the beginning of this post about the two different churches worshiping side-by-side in two different rooms…  I’m in no way suggesting I wouldn’t have been allowed in the room where the “black church” was meeting or that if a black person had tried to enter the room where the “white church” was he would have been turned away; I truly believe both sides would have welcomed a person of the different background into their group without making them feel uncomfortable.  I’m just wondering why it was up to me as a white person to enter the “black church” or for one of the black Christians to enter the “white church”.  Why do we always put the onus for change on the other person and rarely (if ever) ask, “What can I do to reach out to someone who is different from me?”

Does this mean the church we ultimately end up at will be a perfect representation of all the races and ethnicities found in Greenville?  No.  Does it mean the church we ultimately end up at is willing to start talking about this problem and acknowledging that it is a problem?  I certainly hope so.  Churches need to be asking the question – just start by asking the question.  And then let God take us where he wants us to go.

And It Continues….Worship

I’ve written quite a few posts regarding worship, specifically the place of music in worship, over the years, but this post is unique.  In contrast to all my earlier posts on the topic, this post is written from the standpoint of just another congregant and not a music director.  As we’ve been visiting various churches this topic is always one of the things we talk about after the service.

I really don’t want to go on and on about issues of style or mechanics (music selection, “traditional” vs. “contemporary”, to clap or not to clap, what key a song is sung in, etc), but instead want to focus on the place of music and worship in the service.  Let’s agree on one thing: worship is more than music, and the idea of a “worship section” of the service is a misplaced concept – worship is not something we attend but rather something we do; it is something that requires the engagement of heart, spirit, and mind.  These are some pretty basic concepts that I’ve explored in other posts, and perhaps I’ll come back to them again, but since I’m talking about something bigger today I won’t explore them right now.

Worship is response.  Pure and simple.  Worship is our response to God as he reveals himself through his Word.  Which begs the question: how can we respond to that which we do not know?  I’ve been the member at a lot of different churches in my lifetime, and I’ve served at two different ones as a professional music director, and this is a truth I’ve taught over and over again.  So let me say it again: worship is our response to God.  It is not music, it is not raising or clapping of hands, it is not speaking in tongues, it is not singing, it is not a particular style of music or action. Worship is response.  How we worship may be examined (at least partially) by looking at those things, but the concept of worship is much broader than any of them.

So I naturally want to know what a church believes about worship.  The obvious place to look is to examine how a congregation worships (all those things I’ve listed above), but there are some other things to consider at as well – and that’s the focus of this post.

Since the primary purpose of church is to learn the Word in community, I look at what a church emphasizes in terms of time.  If preaching takes 20 minutes and singing takes 40 minutes then a caution sign goes up in my heart.  Is that to say you can never spend more time in song than in teaching?  Absolutely not, what I’m talking about are repeated trends that happen over time.  One Sunday with that ratio isn’t going to bother me; 5 in a row is going to raise some serious concerns. (yes, for the sake of argument I’m using a standard 60 minute service, though the vast majority of churches we visit and have attended over the years have an average length much closer to 90 minutes, which is my personal preference – I’m making a broad generalization here)

Another important thing to look at is the order of worship in a service.  While there is no right or wrong here, the order can tell you a lot about how a church views worship.  Take the offering, for instance.  Is it smack dab in the middle of a service, between singing and preaching?  Based on a lot of conversations I’ve had with people I find this can often (though not always) indicate a practical belief that the offering is simply a “transition” time in a service.  Is it after the preaching?  Every time I’ve seen it here the church tends to believe the act of giving our offering is a response to the word that was preached (hence, an integral part of worship) (on a side note, I’ve actually spoken to pastors who specifically refuse to put the offering at the end of the service because “too many people may leave after the sermon and we may not get our full income for the week”.  This represents an entirely different view on the offering, and an unhealthy view at that!).  Then there’s the whole issue of do you pass the plate or let people bring it forward…. Again, I’m not suggesting there is a right or wrong place for the offering or way to take it, what I’m looking for is that a church has consciously thought these things through and can justify them.

Another thing I look for in terms of order is a response time after the sermon.  I’ve visited churches where after the sermon there is a quick “God bless you.  Amen.  You’re dismissed”; I’ve been at churches that force an alter call every week (and keep extending it until someone comes forward for prayer, it seems); I’ve been at churches that will sing a single “song of response” (sometimes with very little response by anyone); and I’ve been at churches that fall somewhere in-between those extremes.  I believe there needs to be a time for response – whether it is prayer time, singing, offering, whatever, there needs to be a time in the service where congregants can meditate on the words and challenge of the sermon and then respond to it appropriately.  When churches place extended singingafter the sermon instead of before it they communicate to me they view response in worship as a crucial part of the service, and they communicate an understand that worship is response.  By placing all the singing before the sermon and no response after of any sort they communicate a belief that music is to prepare us to hear the word (in other words, worship is initiated by us) but that worship is not response (after-all, if we can’t respond then response must not be very important).  Again, I’m not suggesting there is a clear right or wrong answer here, except to say that I personally think there should be music before (to help prepare our hearts for worship/learning and demonstrate a physical/aural break with the world we came from) as well as after (to give us an opportunity to respond to what we’ve just heard).

Finally (for this post), one last thing I’m looking for is a church’s belief on the presence of communion in the service.  Perhaps it’s because I spent part of my childhood in a liturgical church, but I think communion should be present more often than it is absent.  Communion is the sacrament we do to remind us of the death of Christ and what he paid for us; we are told to do it “in remembrance” of him.  Do you have to do it every week?  No.  Is there any specific verse in the Bible that says how often it should be done?  Not that I’m aware of.  But if it is part of the regular worship service then it is never viewed as an “after-thought”.  On a broader scale, participation in communion is a constant reminder to me of my membership in the universal church and not just my local church.  Call me crazy if you want, but when I take communion not only do I think of what Christ did for me on the cross, but I am reminded that I belong to a body of believers that crosses geographic, political, and even time lines.  Some argue that if it is done every week it looses its meaning.  If we accept that line of reasoning, though, then we should not pray or read the Bible every day because it will loose its meaning if we do it that often.  For those churches that offer it every week I ask them, “Why” and I want an answer – and it better be good.  For those that do not I ask the, “Why not?” and I also want an answer – and it better be a good one.

I guess what I’m trying to say in all this is that I want to know a church has put much prayer, thought, and study into the construction of its worship service.  To say “That’s how the church has done it for years” is one sure way to turn me off – I could really give a horse’s rear end about tradition.  If tradition helps focus us on God then by all means keep it.  Don’t keep it for tradition’s sake, keep it because it draws you closer to God.  But if tradition doesn’t draw you closer to him and lead you into authentic, responsive worship, then for cryin-out-loud get rid of it!  Just as much as churches need to be able to answer questions of doctrine (where do you stand on such-and-such), they also need to be able to answer questions on worship; churches should invest just as much time defining and studying the structure and components of their worship service as they do defining their statement of faith.  This is, after all, the primary time during the week where the “church” gets together – don’t you think we should be clear on what that is going to look like?

And It Continues…Children’s Ministry

Last month I wrote my first blog post on our current church search, so this is just a continuation of that.  In the past eight weeks (five in January and three in February) we’ve visited a couple of different churches, each with some great points and each with concerns that either Melissa or I have.  We know we will never find the perfect church, and that’s okay, but we’re looking for the right church.

One of the advantages, if you can call it that, of this journey is that it’s really causing us to think and talk about what it is we want in a church, what we need in a church, and what a church should be.  Since we have two little girls we’re obviously spending time looking at the children’s ministry programs, trying to make sure that where ever we land it will be the right church for our family, not just for us as parents.

One of the really important things for us is to find a church that not only allows but welcomes kids in the service.  We’re not looking to have them with us the entire time, because once the sermon starts we want them to have the opportunity to hear the Word at an age-appropriate level.  Why do we want them in the service?  A couple of reasons…  First, so that they can learn to participate in a service and understand how adults (since they will one day be one!) “do church”.  Second, because we want them to see that we place a high value on attending worship and participating in the service.  If their experience is limited to what they see in children’s church they won’t see the big picture.

On a similar note, we appreciate finding out what the girls are learning in the children’s time.  At one of the church’s we attended when we pickup the girls we are given a sheet with a summary of what the teachers covered, as well as follow-up questions we can ask to reinforce the lesson.  It makes us feel like we are involved with what the girls are learning in their teaching time even though we are not there with them.

Another important thing we’re looking at is the entire philosophy that runs through the kids’ ministry.  Recently we attended a visitor’s luncheon at one of the churches we’re considering and the director of the children’s ministry got up and spoke for a few minutes – and what he said has profoundly impacted me and caused me to really consider children’s ministry in a new light.  He said the focus of their “program” was to show kids that they could have a real, authentic, personal relationship with Jesus – it wasn’t “just for the adults”.

It was the fact that he verbalized it exactly that way they made such an impression on me.  Both our girls are involved in some great programs, and I really like the programs they are involved in, but at times I feel like the programs focus more on transferring head knowledge than building an authentic relationship than with the creator of the universe and the one who can be their personal savior.  Now I’m not saying that memorizing Bible verses is a waste of time and learning scripture stories isn’t important – it is – what I’m saying is if that’s the limit of what a kids program is then there’s something missing.

All this to say that the children’s ministry at a church is a very important component of our church search…  We’re not trying to allow our kids to pick our church for us, but we want them to have a say in it because we are looking for a church to attend as a family, so that means every member of the family needs to get a say (even if there’s still someone who gets veto power :))  We also are taking our responsibility to direct the spiritual development of our girls seriously – and, ultimately, we’re looking for a church to partner with us as we raise our girls, we’re not looking for a church to delegate it to (and that’s a major difference)

And it Starts

I’ve been largely silent on the blogging front over the past few months, and I guess that’s for good reason.  For the past 8 1/2 years I have served as a part-time music director, both to supplement my income and as a way for me to do ministry.  This past fall, however, the church I’ve been at for the last 3 1/2 years cut my position due to “budget concerns”.  So I’ve tried to keep my comments and thoughts largely to myself throughout the last several months.

But now that we’ve left that church we are in the process of finding a new one – and so that means I’ll be blogging more often.  After a lot of prayer and discussion we’ve decided that for the time being I’m not going to pursue another church job – for now we’re going to take a break as a family and focus on finding a church where we can get plugged in and become members.  All this raises the question of “where”?  To that, I don’t yet have an answer.  It is opening some some great conversations about what we are looking for in a church, what a church is, and what the church’s role in our lives is.  I’ll be sharing about our search for a new church home, but in the interest of protecting both the innocent (and maybe the guilty), I won’t share names of pastors or churches.  Please also understand that anything I write is not meant as a slam against any individual church (including my former one) – while I’m not sure what I’ll be writing (since I haven’t visited all the churches we want to visit), sometimes people can take these types of comments as a slam against someone in particular.  They won’t be – I can assure you of that.  I’m just going to share our journey as we seek God’s direction in our lives for a church home.

With that said, I’m actually going to share something I experienced several months ago while visiting a church while on vacation….  This church (which, for the record, is a pretty good size church) was in the process of starting a church plant – but the amazing thing was that they were starting a church plant not only in the same city as them, but literally in a building only about a 1/2 mile down the road from them (which they happened to own).  So many churches I have attended over the years seem to compete for congregants like McDonald’s and Burger King compete for customers that the thought of doing a church plant in the same geographical area where they draw “customers” from would seem counter-intuitive.  Yet that is exactly what this church was doing.  Not only that, but a current member of their pastoral staff was going to be leading this new church – and not as a break-off church over some disagreement, but as a missionary the church was sending out to reach unsaved souls.  To top it all off, the church even asked current congregants to consider committing to attend this new church as their new home church for one year as a starter congregation.  At the service I attended they called forward the pastor they were sending off on mission as well as the 40 or so families who had signed up to go support and attend this new church and ended the service by laying hands on them and praying God would bless their efforts.

Let’s compare that to how many churches seem to function: someone gets mad, they leave the church, they take a bunch of people with them, then begin attending (or form) a new church.  People from the old church call the people who have left and beg them to come back (“Things have changed” they tell them or “So-and-so has left so you’ll be happy now” they say) because they are “missed”.  What about when people visit our churches – how do we counsel them?  “Let’s find a ministry to plug them into so they’ll stay.”  I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve heard someone counsel a person to seek the “church God has for them” – even if it’s not the current church!

Church leaders (and that includes pastors, music directors, deacons, councils, elders – whatever your particular church/denomination calls them) need to get over themselves and their in-securities and realize that God moves people around from one church to another and that God calls people to churches to fulfill certain functions – and that sometimes he then calls them to another church to minister there.  We need to stop being afraid of letting someone go (if God has called them to go) and instead of chastising or condemning them praying God’s blessing on them.  We need to stop praying only for “our” church and pray more for The Church (which is the bride of Christ).  The excitement I experienced while visiting this church I mentioned was infectious – everyone was ecstatic about the possibilities a new church in town presented for reaching unsaved people whom this particular church couldn’t reach.

That’s the type of church I want to attend – one that has it’s eyes and focus on the Gospel.  One that understands our goal is not to build our kingdom here but to build God’s Kingdom.  One that understands that different church buildings are not competitors but partners in the call to reach the unsaved and lead both Christians and non-Christians into a transformational relationship with Jesus.  A church that says to someone, “If you don’t believe this is the church for you, let me help you find the one that is right.” In short, the church that is more interested in developing people spiritually – even if the physical location isn’t their building.

Book Review: Beautiful Outlaw by John Eldredge

Last week I posted my response to Chapter 12 of Beautiful Outlaw as part of the daily blog tour, as well as referred to chapter 10 in last week’s choir devotional so today I want to give a general review of the book.

Let me start by giving the disclaimer that John Eldredge is one of my favorite authors – for many reasons.  Having said that, though I do caution people when I share his books.  While I find it difficult to find specific parts of his books that I disagree with, I do read his words carefully and make sure they line up with scripture.  Eldredge is one of those people who is, quite frankly, very controversial in the church.  Many of the more conservative pastors and authors out there have some serious disagreements with his theology as presented in his books.  I, for one, though have found that when read in context I find very little to disagree with.

What one must understand when reading Eldredge, at least in my opinion, is that he bases much of what he writes and teachers on his own interpretation of how God has worked in his own personal life – ie, his experiences.  Now to be fair, Eldredge always uses scripture to back-up what he says, but I believe it is dangerous to use personal experience and psychology to read the scripture.  Beautiful Outlaw is the perfect example of this.  The first 11 chapters focus on different characteristics of Christ’s character – characteristics that, while they are not necessarily anti-scriptural, requiring a reading-in to the scripture.  Do I think Jesus had a sense of humor?  Absolutely.  Do I think he laughed and played practical jokes?  Sure.  Do I find support for that in scripture?  No, not really.  Am I going to base a theology or view of Jesus on what I think about Jesus?  Not in this case – at least not to the point that I feel Eldredge does.

The second area I struggle with Eldredge – and I wish he’d just come right out and address this for everyone – is his view (or lack-there-of) of the Church.  Eldredge’s books – including Beautiful Outlaw – attack the “religious” experience at every chance he gets.  Too often “religious” can be read as “church.”  We know from his writings that Eldredge left the church for a year – and I don’t have a problem with that – and we know from past interviews that he is the member of a house church (or at least was several years ago).  Again, to be fair, here are two posts from Eldredge on his views on the Church: Finding Church and a FAQ from Ransomed Heart’s website.  Do I agree with Eldredge that the church has a lot of problems?  Absolutely and without question.  But I guess I’m just one of those people more inclined to stay in the church and fight to make it better instead of leaving to find (or create) something different.  He writes on his site about how churches around the globe generally follow the house-church format, except here in the US (and I assume he actually means in the developed world), but I don’t see how that can be a reason to put down the organized church.  If for no other purpose, organized church – for better or worse – helps provide a system of accountability for individual congregations.  Am I one who subscribes to a specific denomination?  No – but I do believe it important for a church to maintain membership with some sort of organization, denomination, or network of churches so that it does have some outside accountability.  I also know that throughout scripture we read that the Church is the Bride of Christ.  For the past several years it seems to be in vogue to bash the church – and I just have a hard time doing that considering the church is Jesus’ bride.  Does the church (global and local) have problems?  Yes – but, again, I feel it only right to try and work on those problems to fix them, not run away.  Ultimately, though, I think this is a perfect example of how Eldredge’s views have been a result of his experiences through life (see point #1 above).

Finally, and this is a touchy one, I struggle anytime I read or hear anyone say they have received a message directly from God.  Don’t get me wrong – I believe God speaks directly to people today and there are specific instances I can look back on in my life where I believe I heard God speak to me.  So it’s not that I don’t believe it happens; it’s just that I believe we need to be careful when we say, “God told me.”  Why?  Because if anyone disagrees with us (with good or bad reason) then we are actually telling them, “If you disagree you aren’t disagreeing with me – you’re disagreeing with God.”  And that’s a dangerous place to be.  Again, this ties in with struggle #1 – just because God tells Eldredge something (or me something for that matter) doesn’t make it something to be applied to everyone.

Take music for example – there are those out there who can never set foot in a bar because of the lifestyle they used to live and the fact that if they go back in they run a very high chance of slipping back into sin.  And God may tell those people, “Do not go into a bar – if you do it is a sin.”  But then there are other people who have the same background and same struggles that have been overcome and God says to them, “Go into the bar and witness – you’re the one with whom they can connect.”  The point here is that if the first person takes that message from God and then transfers it to everyone else they are invalidating the message the second person has received (and vice versa).

Does God speak to us individually?  Absolutely.  Has he spoken to me in very direct words?  Yes.  Have those words changed my life?  Of course.  But will I take them and put them forth for others as a requirement?  No.  I don’t put them on the same level as scripture, but all too often when I hear people say, “God told me” they seem to elevate it to a command for everyone.  Again, to be fair, I’m not sure Eldredge has actually done that – it’s just that it is so easy to interpret his writings as such.  He specifically points out in the book that every message we believe we get from God must be measured against scripture and, if it doesn’t fit with scripture we know it is not from God.  So he’s right – I just wish he would have devoted a little more time to helping the reader understand how to do that (I guess that’s what his previous book, Walking with God, was for, though :))

Now before I close and you think that I absolutely despised the book let me say I think it’s one of the best books on the life and character of Christ I have ever read – and it challenged me (more than any other book on Jesus) to dig into the gospels and study Jesus more, to spend more time with him in prayer getting to know him, and to really think about who Jesus is.  So in that sense it can’t be a bad book <grin>!  Read the first 11 chapters as one man’s opinion on who Jesus was – and if you disagree with something don’t worry about it.  In all honesty, if you just start reading at chapter 12 and read to the end you’ll have read the heart of what there is to read.  As I mentioned in my earlier review, chapters 1-11 seem at times disjointed and I struggled to find a common theme.  But once I came upon chapter 12 I just couldn’t put the book down – I almost wish he has started with chapters 12 & 13 and then inserted 1-11 before going on to finish the book.  They provided the big-picture for what those individual chapters was trying to communicate.

My thoughts in short?  Read this book.  But read it with a firm grasp of your own beliefs and understanding of Christ.  Allow the book to challenge your beliefs, and then examine the book’s claims and your own beliefs in light of scripture.  I honestly think you’ll be hard-pressed to find anything in the book as anti-scriptural, and you may even find some of your own beliefs are in conflict with scripture.  Just be careful not to read too much into what he says.  As someone who’s read all of his books over the past few years it’s easier to understand what he writes in light of his past experiences – but there are no prerequisites required (though after reading it you may want to go and read some of his other stuff).

I’ll give this book 5/5 stars because it is worth every minute you invest in it (didn’t expect that when you read my first three paragraphs, did you?)  Yes, I received a free copy from the publisher in return for an honest (though not necessarily favorable) review.