A Book You Should Read: Amy L. Sherman’s Kingdom Calling

Any church is an outpost of the Kingdom of God. There is the mission of the church, expressed in terms of what it does together as a congregation. Then there are the myriad ways members of a congregation—especially but certainly not limited to ones involved in teaching, social services, and other care-taking roles—live out the church’s call to love, to be salt and light, to share the good news of God’s love..

Even if we are at church four hours a week, we churchgoers spend some 98% of our lives not gathered with the congregation as a whole. How can churchgoing folks continue to build the Kingdom of God, not just when we are together, but when we are apart?

3809There exists among congregations an impressive amount of what Amy L. Sherman in Kingdom Calling refers to as “vocational power–knowledge, platform, networks, position, influence, skills and reputation.” As a pastor I am keenly aware of the importance of equipping the body of believers to use their “vocational power” for the growing of the Kingdom of God. How, as Ephesians says, can we “equip the saints for the work of ministry”—ministry not just at church but in our day-to-day lives, in all the places in which God has set us?

Sherman sets the course with a definition of vocational stewardship: “the intentional and strategic use of one’s vocational power (skills, knowledge, network, platform) to advance the values of the Kingdom of God.” In calling for “foretastes” of the Kingdom of God, she speaks of a righteousness that has three dimensions: up (God and me), in (myself), and out (the world and me). This robust understanding of righteousness gets at the heart of the Old and New Testament’s definition of righteousness as right relationship with God, self, and others.

Throughout Kingdom Calling Sherman tells inspiring stories of non-profit owners, teachers, pastors, small groups, construction workers, cleaning service providers, and many others who are helping to advance the Kingdom of God by offering foretastes of it in their own spheres.

As a pastor I appreciated Sherman’s focus on “four pathways for deploying congregants in the stewardship of their vocations” (22). These are:

  1. “Blooming where we are planted by strategically stewarding our current job,”
  2. “Donating our vocational skills as a volunteer,”
  3. “Launching a new social enterprise,” and,
  4. “Participating in a targeted initiative of our congregation aimed at transforming a particular community or solving a specific social problem.”

Sherman shares inspiring stories of church-school partnerships and congregation-wide initiatives, although it is hard to know how to replicate some of the successes Sherman mentions, absent more specific implementation suggestions. But insofar as her aim is to cast a vision to church leaders and attendees of vocational stewardship and the great potential found in vocational power, Sherman’s work has excited me to move ahead in my own church with what I’ve learned from Kingdom Calling.

Preaching at the Crossroads (of Postmodernism, Secularism, and Pluralism)

Preaching at CrossroadsDavid J. Lose, in his Preaching at the Crossroads (Fortress Press, 2013), helps preachers respond to three significant cultural trends: postmodernism, secularism, and pluralism. Postmodernism, according to Lose, asks an epistemological question: “How do we know for certain whether anything is true?” Competing metanarratives mean that the Christian story has become one among many.

A second related trend, secularism, is “marked first and foremost by a loss of transcendence.” Long says, “[I]f postmodernity challenges us to explore the possibility for claiming the Christian story is true, secularism demands to know how Christianity is relevant.” Faith is still important to people, to be sure, but it “no longer plays as meaningful a role as it did for our parents in helping us navigate our day-to-day lives in a secular world.”

Third, Lose addresses pluralism, noting that we are more than ever “faced with a plethora of religious and spiritual options,” many of which are just a click, tap, or scroll away from us. He notes one estimate that on a daily basis everyone is “subjected to more new information than a person in the Middle Ages was in his or her entire lifetime.” Even so-called digital natives “yearn for the sense of stability that tradition lends.” But when seeking wisdom or making decisions, “even those that are rife with ethical consequences, we are far more likely to consult our iPhone than the teaching of our denomination or even our pastor.”

 

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Postmodernism, secularism, and pluralism are not problems to be fixed, per se. Or if they are, Lose focuses more on how the preacher can envision them as opportunities to reimagine preaching, rather than as challenges for which preachers need to seek a new panacea. Sure, preachers could reach for better use of multimedia or development of new homiletical techniques. But the cultural shifts in front of us, Lose argues, require more than just tinkering from the pulpit. They call for a paradigm shift:

The choice is before us. We are at a crossroads—one where not only the outcome is unclear, but also the primary challenge and perhaps even the alternatives. We can either continue adapting and refining established techniques or be willing to call into question our fundamental practices by leaning into and listening carefully to the world in front of us.

Lose is as engaging a writer as I imagine he must be a preacher. He sweeps the reader up in a compelling childhood narrative at the book’s beginning. He speaks as one who knows and loves the culture around him, but who is not afraid of it. He writes as one who loves preachers and is faithful to the Gospel, but is not afraid to freshly envision creative contextualizations. I can’t remember the last thing I read that got me this excited about preaching in the 21st century—even while the cultural challenges Lose presents were not lost on me.

Much of Lose’s analysis was sobering to me as a pastor. It’s not that I haven’t observed postmodernism, secularism, and pluralism having an effect on the congregation (myself included). And I knew that the days of pastor-as-assumed-authority were gone. But to read (again) that the pastor is no longer the assumed spiritual authority was an important reminder (even if I find this cultural trend short-sighted). Mileage varies, of course–how congregants view the pastor differs according perhaps to generations and a number of other factors. And we preachers do speak to the authority that is really found in the Word of God (and not in ourselves). But preachers, if Lose is right, will have to be ready to work from the pulpit to gain a hearing with a congregation listening to a million other voices and Tweets in a given week.

 

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Preaching at the Crossroads is short (124 pages) but inspiring. It has already given me action steps and sermon illustrations that I’ve started in on—and this was true even before I had finished the book! He quotes from a W.H. Auden Christmas poem, which, it turns out, provided the perfect perspective for me to preach about resurrection on the Second Sunday of Easter. He recommends asking congregants this difficult but brilliant question (which I plan to do): “What biblical stories provide you with comfort or courage when you are struggling with a problem at home or work?” And he reminds preachers of our rightful place, and how we can pray: “Our job is to testify; it is up to God to make that testimony potent.”

The whole book is great, but chapter 4 (“Preaching the Grandeur of God in the Everyday”) was a real highlight and gift to me. He calls for preachers to help congregants connect their Sunday church-going worlds to their Monday morning work-going worlds. He wants preachers to go to parishioners’ workplaces and ask them things like “where they see God in this place.” But, he wisely offers, “be prepared to help with an answer, as we have not trained our people to look for God anywhere outside of church.”

Lose is convicting throughout his book, but never without also encouraging the preacher and giving her or him practical ways forward. Especially good is Lose’s focus on how preachers can equip the congregation for the work of ministry, where ministry is much more than just what happens on Sunday morning. He paints an inspiring picture:

Over time… your congregation may grow from being a place where the word is preached more fully into a community of the word where all the members take some responsibility for sharing the news of God’s ongoing work to love, bless, and save the world.

In the end, Lose draws on the Internet’s shift to “Web 2.0” (more interactive, socially networked, and user-focused) as a metaphor to envision the sermon as the locus of not passive but “active identity construction.” His closing suggestion is:

If we can imagine making a leap similar to that made by users and programmers who left the static world of Web 1.0 to inhabit the more dynamic and interactive world of Web 2.0, we might be able to offer the sermon as, indeed, a “transport mechanism, the ether through which interactivity [between God’s word and God’s people] happens.”

I don’t read many books twice, but I’ll be back for more of this one.

Find Preaching at the Crossroads on Amazon here, and check out the publisher’s product page here, which includes link to some .pdf samples.

 


 

Thanks to the book’s publicist for a review copy, sent to me so I could review it, but with no expectation as the the review’s content.

Work as “Partnership with God”: The Gospel-Centered Life at Work

Gospel Centered Life at Work PG

 

The Gospel-Centered Life at Work is “about the spiritual dynamics of work and life and how God uses our work in the lifelong process of making us more like Christ.” Robert W. Alexander says, “This study is a tool to help you build a bridge from your personal faith to your work. It will help you see how Jesus’s work for you applies to the work you do every day” (1). Through a combination of biblical study, good theology, practical application, and hands-on exercises, Alexander’s book is capable of helping any Christian living out faith at work.

What is work? Alexander says, “Work from a biblical point of view is whatever activity a believer pursues in the sight of God, for the glory of God, to the benefit of others” (3). The “vocation or calling of those who live by faith” is that “even the simplest tasks we perform by faith become acts of worship reflecting God’s character and ways” (8). Work is, ultimately, “a partnership with God” (10).

Having lain the foundation of work as partnership with God, Alexander addresses God’s work as Creator, Provider, and Redeemer. We, too, as participants in this work, create, provide, and redeem (10). Alexander is at his best in offering specific examples of each of these kinds of work. A biochemist, for example, is a provider because she or he says, “I help in harvesting and/or restoring of natural resources” (11). The book’s first exercise inspiringly calls for the reader to “jot down how your work reflects aspects of God’s work” (12).

If “vocation” is an imposing word or concept, Alexander helps demystify it. “Work” for Christians moves from being “a daily grind” to the locus of God’s work and presence, that space where we live out our faith (14). Vocation is discipleship, in other words, and the workplace is one of a few “chief laboratories of the gospel” (65).

Our jobs (whether inside the home or outside it) turn a mirror on our hearts, motivations, and idols (lesson 2). We are flawed and so either pretend or perform at work, if we’re not careful (lesson 3). But in our partnership with God (Creator, Provider, and Redeemer), the Gospel calls us to several roles: image-bearers (lesson 4), imitators (lesson 5), bond-servants (lesson 6), stewards (lesson 7), ambassadors (lesson 8), and messengers (lesson 9).

Alexander offers guidance and asks questions to help the reader think through each of these roles, which build on each other. For example, of image-bearing he asks, “How can Jesus’s work and presence in your life affect your own fears, expectations, desires, and goals?” (41) With this in mind the worker is more confident in his or her identity as image-bearer of God.

Gospel Centered Life at Work LGBoth the Leader’s Guide (pictured and hyperlinked at left) and the Participant’s Guide (pictured and hyperlinked up top) have a “Big Idea” introducing the lesson. The Leader’s Guide adds a “Lesson Overview” for small groups (complete with times!) and “Bible Conversation,” a guided tour (with ready-made questions) through relevant biblical passages that ground the topic at hand. One would hardly need to do much more supplemental preparation to lead a group through the material.

A few minor points in the book gave me pause. Alexander speaks of “housewives” (in 2016!) without mentioning “househusbands,” or the “stay-at-home mom” without considering the stay-at-home dad. And he inadvertently uses the Greek word diakonos in describing stewards. (The intended Greek word is oikonomos, which has to do with managing the economy of a house.) There are also a few points that feel Christian jargon-heavy.

But the spiritual meatiness of the book, coupled with practical questions and exercises, far outweigh any drawbacks. To take just one more example, Alexander offers a two-columned assessment a Christian can make of his or her day, including both a “To-Do” list and a “Done-For” list, which focuses on “the ways God worked through others to serve you as his beloved child” (66). I found this reassuring and motivating.

The final lesson on Sabbath-keeping is the best one in the book, alone making it worth the price of purchase, or the time it takes to go get it at the library. While the book is well-suited for individual use, Alexander has done small groups and small group leaders a service in writing his articles, exercises, and study guide.

 


 

Thanks to the kind folks at New Growth Press for the review copies. Check out the book’s product pages here and here, or find them at Amazon here and here.