For Life AbundantFor Life Abundant: Practical Theology, Theological Education and Christian Ministry

Dorothy C. Bass & Craig Dykstra, editors
Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2008

Want to know more about the abundant life promised in the gospels? This book is a great place to start.

Based on the presuppositions that “God in Christ promises abundant life for all creation,” that the “church receives this promise through faith” and takes up a way of life that embodies this promise both in and for the world, and that pastors are not only called to embrace this way of life but also to lead others in it, this book successfully takes on the tremendous task of redirecting theological education toward that end and, in particular, using the tools of practical theology as a resource to teach pastors to not only embody but train others in the ways of abundant life. While they have a sincere appreciation for academia, the coeditors hold the notion that practical theology is a “movement involving many people in various settings and roles rather than an exclusively academic enterprise.”

In five sections, the contributors cover everything from general theory to application to anticipation of new directions and greater things to come. While their task is enormous and their final product not completely comprehensive, they have written a thoughtful and thorough approach concerning the application and envisioning of the fullest education toward, and practice of, abundant life.

The book is written for a wide range of readers, defined by the editors as those “whose work involves them in discerning and building up ways of life abundant.” It was catalyzed and informed by four separate “conversations.” The first of these is within academia and the continuing evolution in the field of practical theology. The second is around the aims and purposes of theological education. The third “focuses on efforts to strengthen Christian ministry and discipleship by recruiting, preparing, and sustaining excellent pastors for congregations.” And the fourth focuses on what abundant life looks like as it takes shape in and for the world.

As someone who has done graduate work in psychology, pastoral care, and counseling in both seminaries and secular universities, and whose sole focus is pastoral care of clergy, I found this book challenging, full of helpful information, and endless in its direction toward other resources. While not an easy or simple read, it is full of rich material that deserves thoughtful consideration.

For those who recognize that we are living in a time that is literally crying out for life abundant but have no clue as to what it looks like or how to get there, this book provides indispensable insight for theological educators, pastoral counselors, pastors, and Christian educators on how to teach, practice, and lead others toward the life we were created to live in Christ Jesus. Hopefully, as those in Christian ministry come to a fuller understanding of what it looks like to inherit this abundant life, we can empower others along the same path. For Life Abundant is a book that I will refer to time and time again for years to come.

Rebecca M. Spooner
The Laurence Schmidt Center
Little Rock, Arkansas


Sustainable Youth MinistrySustainable Youth Ministry: Why Most Youth Ministry Doesn’t Last and What Your Church Can Do about It

Mark DeVries
Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008

In Sustainable Youth Ministry, Mark DeVries asserts that youth ministries, everywhere in crisis, are headed by senior clergy hoping “that this time they’ll find the superstar youth director who will change everything…fast. This time they’ll find just the right curriculum.” Devries argues—and this notion is at the heart of the book—that only after several years, a great deal of patience, and considerable financial investment can churches produce effective, long-lasting youth ministries, often using in-house staff.

The book begins by introducing the patterns and attitudes of three types of youth ministries: failed, stagnant, and successful. Successful ministries focus not on programs but on systems, patterns, structures, and the ethos of the church community. Throughout the book, DeVries uses architecture as a metaphor to describe how a successful ministry should be built and maintained. He encourages his readers to make use of stories in their ministries, quoting a Hopi proverb: “The one who tells the stories rules the world.”

DeVries goes on to say that leaders of sustainable youth ministries are systems thinkers whose attention stays fixed on patterns, not tasks and programs. These leaders work in a healthy cultural atmosphere, building organizations that remain viable even after the leaders have left that position. Sustainable youth ministries have an overall structure composed of specific key documents, such as directories, calendars, job descriptions, and curriculum templates. Visioning documents like mission statements, measurable three-year goals, organization charts, and statements of values also help provide structure. Such a youth ministry deals forthrightly with persistent challenges like making wise hiring decisions, developing a volunteer team, helping pastors develop and preserve boundaries, and navigating church politics.

The text on nearly every page is broken up by boxed quotations, mainly from people associated with the emergent church or postmodernism. The book contains many lists and several tables and charts. A particularly helpful table compares sustainable and traditional approaches to youth ministry. The book ends with three appendices: a discussion guide, an outline of the procedures and documents needed for a youth ministry, and a compliance checklist outlining relevant licenses, permissions, and policies.

Though written for senior clergy, youth ministers, and interested laity of very large churches, readers who belong to smaller churches will find much practical information in this book. It has its weaknesses, however. Readers unfamiliar with family systems theory will find that the vocabulary gets in the way of accessing the text. And access to the templates and other forms alluded to in the book is only through Youth Ministry Architects, a coaching firm owned by DeVries.

Rae McCartney
The Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit
Dripping Springs, Texas


Great EmergenceThe Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why

Phyllis Tickle
Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2008

Phyllis Tickle, former religion editor at Publishers Weekly, explores two thousand years of Christian and social history to help readers understand how Christianity is changing in our time. She particularly seeks to explain the Emergent Church movement and its significance as a religious and social phenomenon. The three questions this slender but far-ranging volume addresses are (1) What is the “Great Emergence”?; (2) How did it happen?; and (3) Where is it going?

Central to Tickle’s exploration is the thesis that every five hundred years the structures of institutionalized Christianity are challenged—and the challenge is so significant that it amounts to a “giant rummage sale” in w
hich outworn items are disposed of so that new growth can occur. The last such rummage sale happened in the sixteenth century, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of Wittenburg Cathedral and the Great Reformation trumpeted the priesthood of all believers as well as the sole authority of Scripture. Five hundred years prior to that, the Great Schism divided Eastern and Western churches as the Patriarch of Constantinople and the Pope of Rome excommunicated each other and debate raged over the nature of the Holy Spirit. That sequence of events was preceded five hundred years earlier by the ascension of Gregory the Great and the launching of the monastic tradition. And of course moving back five hundred years from Gregory lands us in the first century and the time of the apostles.

Each of these eruptions was accompanied by shifts in the larger culture and each resulted in new and more vital forms of Christianity, a re-working of entrenched Christian structures, and a dispersion of the faith into new geographic and demographic areas. Tickle reveals her distinctive prose style (and sense of humor) in her discussion of cultural shifts when she points to Copernican theory and Columbus’s voyages as cultural accompaniments to the Reformation: “Copernicus’s theory was hardly the only body blow to the story that had prevailed between the Great Schism and the Great Reformation. For one thing, that fool Columbus had insisted on sailing west, the tragedy for the story being that he failed to fall off the edge of the earth.”

What are the cultural shifts that have preceded and accompany our own “Great Emergence”? Tickle outlines a number of them—from the intellectual contributions of Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, and Joseph Campbell to the technological influences of the automobile, the television set, and the Internet. She explains how new roles for women and new family configurations have altered our views of authority—especially religious authority. Each of these factors has led to a religious model that is more relational, less hierarchical, and ever more willing to tolerate ambiguity and paradox.

At fewer than two hundred pages, this book can and should be read more than once. In fact, you may want to read it with a small group in your congregation. A free guide for reading and discussing the book is available through Baker Books and the “Great Emergence” website:

Claudia Greer
Resource Associate
Alban Institute


Into the DarkInto the Dark: Seeing the Sacred in the Top Films of the 21st Century

Craig Detweiler
Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008

The author believes that movies are a form of general revelation that can help us to understand scripture. He writes: “I am suggesting that movies can bridge the theological divide, demonstrating how general revelation mediated through art can deepen our understanding of the revealed Word of God found in Scripture. The IMDb (Internet Movie Database, provides a control group, a set of films by which to measure the postmodern condition.”

Detweiler has a Ph.D. from Fuller Theological Seminary, is codirector of the ReelSpirituality Institute, and associate professor of theology and culture at Fuller. He is also a movie nut. He divides the book into an introduction, three main sections, and a conclusion. In the introduction he treats the issues of how to define the canon of movies and makes his case for the IMDb as that canon. He sees the IMDb as the voice of the people since the lists are voted on by people all over the world. In this regard, Detweiler provides three appendices: The Top 250 Movies as Voted by IMDb users (January 1, 2007), The IMDb’s Top Films of the 21st Century (January 2007), and finally the IMDb’s Top Films of the 21st  Century (April 15, 2008). The author then makes his case for a general revelation outside the church, working from a pantheistic stance.

In Part 1 he deals with the question of identity and launches a critique of the Enlightenment notion of a detached observer. The central question here is “who are you?” In Part 2 the question is “whose are you?” It deals with the nature of community through the discussion of such films as Little Miss Sunshine and Million Dollar Baby. In the final part, the central issues involve history. Detweiler wonders how to move forward in a painful world not be means of nostalgia but by openness to the new heaven and new earth presented in the book of Revelation.

The conclusion is built around the Lord of the Rings trilogy. According to the author, “All three films are about courage, community, and finding our place in a sacred drama. They are riddled with violence, greed and deception. But as in the fantasy films we have studied in the end they offer a hard-won hope, an opportunity to usher in a peaceable kingdom despite seemingly overwhelming circumstances.”

This is a well-written book. It will probably appeal most to folks who have seen some of the movies mentioned. Detweiler deals in some detail with 45 films. One can argue with his choice of the IMDb as his canon, but it is the one that allows for the broadest input. A possible problem is the amount of violence in many of the films and the dark vision of reality they present. Detweiler believes that at least questions that lead to an openness to God can be found in these works. Let us hope that he is correct.

I believe Detweiler is on the right track. If we are open to the culture around us, we may hear God’s Spirit
at work there and find points of contact with people who are rarely, if ever,
in church.

Gerald A. “Rusty” Butler
Pisgah Presbyterian Chruch
Somerset, Kentucky


Change the ConversationChanging the Conversation: A Third Way for Congregations

Anthony B. Robinson
Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, Publishing Company, 2008

In this book, a sequel to Transforming Congregational Culture (2003), Tony Robinson proposes ways to promote congregational renewal by directing conversation away from the dead-end polarities around which congregations typically become stuck toward issues of a broader and deeper perspective (the “third way”). Discussions about worship style or ways to increase membership often go nowhere because underlying these debates are more fundamental questions about congregational identity and purpose in the midst of a rapidly changing culture.

This is an eminently practical book. Robinson proposes ten subjects for conversation, including reasons why the old way of doing church has come to an end, the need for creative responses, the purpose of the church, relating vision to purpose, the nature of leadership, and the function of governance and organization. And, taking seriously that these are subjects for conversations, he has interspersed each chapter with questions for reflection and discussion. The tenth and final conversation offers concrete suggestions about how to implement the ideas of this book under the subject “Where do we start?”

The book is clearly targeted at American mainline Protestant denominations. Nondenominational megachurches, Roman Catholic parishes, strongly fundamentalist congregations, and synagogues are less lik
ely to find material here that fits their experience.

Most readers of Congregations may not find much new here. Robinson draws heavily upon the works of writers such as Kirk Hadaway, Michael Foss, Peter Drucker, Diana Butler Bass, and Ron Heifetz. However, in compiling and synthesizing their insights, he has put together in one place a basic seminar for congregational renewal. This book could be quite useful tool to put into the hands of key lay leaders or to serve as a text for a discussion group.

To his credit, Robinson does not underestimate the difficulty of the task. While proposing solutions, he recognizes also the power of resistance and grief. At times he sounds like a cheerleader, interspersing his comments with phrases like “Don’t give up!” and “This will take time, but that is no reason not to get on with it today!”

The ninth conversation, about “Death and Resurrection,” in some ways seems out of step with the upbeat tone of the rest but may be the most original chapter of the book. In it Robinson provides three examples of congregations faced with the reality that death rather than renewal was a more likely prospect. The practical do’s and don’ts he offers for these situations may alone be worth the price of the book.

There are things with which one could quibble. The author seems to have a tendency to overgeneralize. Can one really trace a direct line of “Christendom” from Constantinian Christianity to American mainline Protestantism in the way one does church, which is now for the first time coming to an end? He also seems to disparage “chaplains” as well as “congregations as caring communities,” setting them in opposition to pastoral leaders and congregations promoting discipleship. Most chaplains that I know have exactly the kind of skills needed to deepen conversations when the old way of doing things is no longer working. And is not a part of discipleship learning to care in meaningful ways? But, then, no doubt Robinson would enjoy the conversation generated around those subjects.

Roger Kruger
Partners in Caring
Omaha, Nebraska