[nick duffel]

thoughts on leadership, books, design + more.

AUDIOBOOK REVIEW: Designed to Lead

9781633898912Should business management principles be applied in the church?  Does the Bible actually speak to leadership development or is that a misappropriation of larger churches with misplaced priorities?  These are tensions that have been at the forefront of the church growth conversation for at least the last three decades.

In Designed to Lead: The Church and Leadership Development, Eric Geiger and Kevin Peck address these “big picture” tensions as well as the smaller day-to-day ones by focusing on something much older than the church growth movement—the purpose and mission of the church.  This is a book that incorporates the theological as well as the practical in such a concisely comprehensive way, that it seems destined to become a go-to manual for church leaders for years to come.

Geiger and Peck are stubbornly theological, using the Bible as a starting point and not a proof-text reference.  Also, they are “high church” in the best was possible: insisting that the church should be the primary leader-producing entity in the world.  And not just leaders for vocational ministry, but leaders in every sector of society.  The fruit of discipleship in the church should be transformational leaders in the culture—and so culture is transformed for Jesus.

On the “practical” side of the equation—although something tells me the authors would not appreciate “theological” and “practical” being separated—the book is a gift in so many ways.  Geiger and Peck synthesize ideas from books that have been very influential for me: Good to Great, Scaling Up Excellence, and Simple Church, the latter also being co-authored by Geiger.  I also appreciated insights that I assume were brought to the table by Peck, who is lead pastor at The Austin Stone, a church I follow closely and respect greatly in the area of leadership development.

Designed to Lead follows a logical progression, starting with chapters on “Convictions,” moving to chapters on organizational “Culture,” and finally addressing “Constructs” of leadership development.  This layout ensures that readers are developing leaders from a place of biblical conviction in a church culture that won’t be counterproductive.  The authors acknowledge the temptation to skip straight to the practical constructs, but of course they advise against this.  A wise leader will heed this advice because the journey is important.

I highly recommend this book for church leaders who want to take seriously God’s call to make disciples and equip leaders.  This book will make you think, give you the courage to address cultural issues, and move you from theory into the messy trenches of building leaders.

Jim Denison does an outstanding job on the narration of the audiobook version.  His voice is perfectly suited for the tone of the book.  My one quibble with the audiobook version is it is hard to go back and reference ideas and constructs.  After listening I bought a print version of the book that I can highlight and write in, and use for later reference.

Please Note: This audiobook was gifted as a part of the Christianaudio Reviewers Program in exchange for my unbiased review of this work. This has in no way influenced my opinion or review of this work.  More information can be found about this and other Christian audiobooks at christianaudio.com.

BOOK REVIEW: “Walking On Water: Reflections on Faith & Art” by Madeleine L’Engle

51817536.jpgWhat comes to mind when you hear the expressions “Christian art,” or “Christian artist”?  For many, the connotation is negative, conjuring images of subpar work with some Jesus messages tacked on.  In Walking On Water, fiction writer Madeleine L’Engle reflects on the intersection of faith and art in a series of connected essays.  This book has become a classic since its publication in the early 80s, and rightfully so.  L’Engle not only redeems the idea of Christian art (a term she avoids), but she elevates it as well.

L’Engle undoubtedly values words.  Not just because words are her livelihood, but because she knows the damage that can be done when words are misused.  Words like “story,” “true,” “zeal,” “grace,” “human,” and “inspiration” are no longer allowed to lie lifelessly and uselessly on the page.  L’Engle coaxes the artistic and existential meaning from each one.  Along the way we get gems such as, “The minute we begin to think we know all the answers, we forget the questions,” and “Story was in no way an evasion of life, but a way of living life creatively instead of fearfully.”  Perhaps the best blow she lands in the struggle for the validation of “Christian art” is, “If it’s bad art, it’s bad religion, no matter how pious the subject.”  In this statement she indicts both the world that would marginalize, and the artistic Christian—“Christian” is a better noun than an adjective—who would shrink back in fear.

I highly recommend this book, which left me both shattered and reflective multiple times, putting words to things I’ve felt, but never been able to speak.  L’Engle speaks for the artist that lives in all of us; calling it out like Jesus called Lazarus from the tomb.

Please Note: This book was gifted as a part of the Blogging for Books Reviewers Program in exchange for my unbiased review of this work. This has in no way influenced my opinion or review of this work.

BOOK REVIEW: Avenue of Spies by Alex Kershaw

23648884There are endless stories lurking in the dark, historic corners of World War II Europe just waiting to be told.  Some of these stories are historical fiction, borrowing against the high drama of the war and the epic struggle between light and dark it represented.  There are also many true stories, no less dramatic, if not always as Hollywood-ready.  And these stories are precious; as the generation that remembers them quickly begins to fade, these stories cannot be told fast enough.  Avenue of Spies by Alex Kershaw is a true story that reads like a thrilling historical fiction.

Kershaw tells the story of an American doctor, Sumner Jackson, and his wife and son who live in occupied Paris.  The family joins the French resistance to the Nazis, putting themselves at great risk since the Avenue Foch—their street of resistance and the titular “Avenue”—is also a hotbed of Gestapo agents.

The book is truly thrilling and rich in history.  I found myself writing down place and people names to look up later, as well as carefully reading through the 40-page notes section in the back of the book.  Kershaw has obviously done his homework, but he strings together a narrative with his research, sounding neither rote or sensational.  Kershaw also gives a sense of the scale of conflict that frames the story, but his focus stays unwaveringly on the family at the center.  By the end, the reader cares deeply what happens to this family.

I recommend this book whether or not you are a World War II history buff.  Woven through this narrative are themes of sacrifice and family that are timeless and striking.  What would you do if called on to put your family at risk in order to fight a great evil?  In smaller ways than the Jackson family, we are confronted with value decisions like this on a regular basis, and so this story speaks to something universal.

Please Note: This book was gifted as a part of the Blogging for Books Reviewers Program in exchange for my unbiased review of this work. This has in no way influenced my opinion or review of this work.

AUDIOBOOK REVIEW: Wreck My Life by Mo Isom

9781633896567What does true brokenness look like?  What does it mean to truly surrender our lives to Christ?  Soccer star Mo Isom tells her powerful story and gives us a vivid picture of both brokenness and surrender in Wreck My Life.

I should state up front that I am not a huge sports fan.  And my understanding is the market for books written by sports stars relating their faith journeys is a crowded one indeed.  Be that as it may, Isom tells her particular story with an almost shocking honesty and intensity.  She shows she isn’t concerned with maintaining her image as she graphically describes her struggle with an eating disorder, how the suicide of a loved one rocked her world, and how a car wreck revealed her life for the spiritual wreck it was.  Her humility is obvious, and she speaks as one who has overcome a crippling insecurity because she knows the One who offers true security.  Her boldness isn’t a star athlete’s bravado, but a committed believer’s quiet strength.  She knows that in her weakness she is strong, and she lives it.

Isom’s story will speak powerful truth into the life of any young person who will care to listen.  She knows firsthand the pressures faced by those who place too much hope in academics, athletics, appearance, achievement, or popularity.  She encourages us to learn from her mistakes, and she presents an example that is worth following.  To top it off, she writes very well, and the reader feels along with her the joy, anguish, fear, disappointment, anger, and shame of her experiences.  She also does a great job narrating the audiobook version.

Isom’s story will inspire you—and I really mean that.  Highly recommended.

Please Note: This audiobook was gifted as a part of the Christianaudio Reviewers Program in exchange for my unbiased review of this work. This has in no way influenced my opinion or review of this work.  More information can be found about this and other Christian audiobooks at christianaudio.com.

AUDIOBOOK REVIEW: Reset: Jesus Changes Everything by Nick Hall

9781633898387You notice one thing very quickly when reading Reset: Jesus Changes Everything by Nick Hall: this guy is passionate about reaching the next generation for Jesus.  His passion is obvious in just about every sentence of Reset, and he has a reckless faith in Jesus that is contagious.

This book is his clarion call to a generation, declaring that all the challenges they face can be met in Jesus.  Self-image, relationships, purity, habits—all of them can be reset by Jesus.  Hall is calling his generation up to something higher and bigger.  I can imagine this book being very helpful to many young people as they consider how Jesus’ influence can permeate every area of their lives.  The true value of this book is to be found in its call to systematically surrender each area of our lives to Jesus.

Hall mentions the planning for Together 2016 multiple times in the book: an event with the goal of drawing one million people to the National Mall in Washington DC.  The book released before this event, and was intended in part to promote it.  Together 2016 place on July 16 and drew an estimated 500,000 people.  Unfortunately, the event had to be shut down early because of safety concerns due to the heat.  Now, it is difficult to quantify the impact of an event like Together 2016, but despite the early ending, reports are very positive.  There is now an effort to get people plugged into churches and serving in the wake of this event.  However, I would estimate far less energy being dedicated to this effort than to the hype leading up to the event.

Which brings us to my major criticism of this book: Hall tends to lean into the hype too much.  At times, I got the impression I was reading a collection sound bites from some his messages to thousands of gathered young people.   This is all well and good, but following Jesus is a process, not an event.  Just as I imagine thousands walking away from Together 2016 with a newfound sense of purpose, but no idea how and where to put it into action—this is how I felt after reading this book: excited, fired up, and completely aimless.

The systematic surrender of our lives to Jesus was meant to take place in the authentic community offered by the church, but Hall leaves this part out.  In fact, most of the times Hall mentions church it is in a negative context—pointing out the judgmental attitudes and irrelevancy of many churches.  This generation is not lacking for passion, what we are lacking for is authentic community in which to cultivate authentic faith.  Hall, with his event-centric approach seems to have no category for this, and as a result his book—and events—will do little to change the trend of passionate-yet-disconnected young people stumbling in and out of churches across America.

Of course, this trend isn’t Hall’s fault.  Churches themselves need a “reset” in how they engage young people.  In Reset, the passion is palpable, but there is an irresponsible over-focus on our individual relationship with Jesus.  In short, this is a book written for individuals in a crowd, not a community of believers determined to reach their world for Christ.  And as such, in many ways, it is a missed opportunity.

Nick Hall narrates the audiobook version himself, and he does a great job.

Please Note: This audiobook was gifted as a part of the Christianaudio Reviewers Program in exchange for my unbiased review of this work. This has in no way influenced my opinion or review of this work.  More information can be found about this and other Christian audiobooks at christianaudio.com.

BOOK REVIEW: “Love That Boy” by Ron Fournier

9780804140485Ron Fournier spoke right to my heart in his new book, Love That Boy.  He manages to capture the fears, expectations, joy, and confusion that come along with fatherhood.  As a father of four sons, this book was both a reassuring hand on my shoulder, and a punch to my gut.

Fournier is a political columnist who has brushed shoulders with three US Presidents, his career taking him to great heights, but also making him something of an absentee father and husband.  When his son, Tyler, is diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, on the autism spectrum, Fournier launches on a series of road-trips to try and connect with him.  Fournier has to come to grips with the fact that Tyler won’t meet his expectations.  Fournier is an avid sports fan, Tyler is uncoordinated and uninterested.  Fournier is winsome and driven, Tyler is awkward, quirky, and unpopular.

The moments between father and son are touching, funny, and heartbreaking in equal parts.  Fournier is courageously confessional.  He manages to weave other stories into the story of his time with Tyler: stories of the extended Fournier family along with the stories of other families whose children face challenges similar to Tyler’s.  Hearing these other stories lends perspective to the central story of a father trying desperately to connect with his son, first on his own terms—with no success—and then gradually on his son’s terms.

But the real value of this book is in the social commentary that Fournier offers throughout.  He begins this commentary with a stinging statement. “A parent’s love is unconditional.  A parent’s satisfaction comes with caveats.  This is an important distinction: you love your kids no matter what, but you expect them to be something—smart or popular or successful, maybe a scholarship athlete who marries well and runs the family business.”  Ouch.  While Fournier goes on to unpack this thought in one convicting passage after another, it never comes off as heavy-handed.  This is because Fournier takes on a confessional tone, as if to say, “These are the hard lessons I had to learn and I want to share them so they become even more meaningful.”  That’s not to say these lessons are anecdotal; Fournier cites studies and stats in keeping with his journalistic bent.  This is solid, helpful stuff.

This is such an important book, working on so many levels to confront an issue that plagues the American family. As parents, we must confront the tendencies to compensate for our own shortcomings in the achievements of our children.  What’s at stake is being able to really connect with our children as they are, and not just our idea of what they could be.  Fournier finishes the book by laying out three attributes we need to instill in our children: grit, acceptance, and empathy.  We can’t instill these characteristics if we are unable to connect with our children on a heart-level.  Once again, the stakes are high.

In my opinion, this book is a must-read for parents, and for dads especially.

Please Note: This book was gifted as a part of the Blogging for Books Reviewers Program in exchange for my unbiased review of this work. This has in no way influenced my opinion or review of this work.

AUDIOBOOK REVIEW: “Living in the Light: Money, Sex, and Power” by John Piper

9781633899896John Piper’s preaching and teaching have fallen out of favor recently as many have rejected a message they see as narrow and unloving.  I admit that Piper has become to me somewhat of a fuddy-duddy, offering a conservative, reformed commentary that stands in stark contrast to those “more engaged” in culture like Tim Challies and Timothy Keller.  Those who feel as I do should read his newest book Living in the Light: Money, Sex, and Power, and get a refreshed perspective.

The book’s subtitle says it all: “Making the most of three dangerous opportunities.”  This is a book about taking three gifts of God that are often abused, and using them for Kingdom good.  Many who are dismissive of Piper will assume there would be a primary focus on the negative aspects of the abuse of money, sex and power, but that is not the case.  He spends more time reflecting on the good that could be accomplished were Christians serious about redeeming these three gifts for the glory of God.

The path of redemption laid out by Piper is realizing the potential danger of these gifts, finding deliverance from destructive patterns by placing them under the Lordship of Christ, and deploying sex, money, and power to be used for God’s glory.  A central illustration of the book is that of a solar system.  The “planets” of sex, money, and power are only in their proper, most useful place when they are orbiting the “sun” (Jesus) and not having our lives orbit them.

This is a short book is valuable because it espouses the idea of total redemption—God doesn’t just redeem people, he is also redeeming creation and those good things which we have corrupted.  Piper’s writing is accessible, but he still struggles with the tendency to be dry.  All in all, a solid, focused piece of writing that I can imagine I will return to as a teaching reference.

Bob Souer does a good job on the narration of the audiobook version.

Please Note: This audiobook was gifted as a part of the Christianaudio Reviewers Program in exchange for my unbiased review of this work. This has in no way influenced my opinion or review of this work.  More information can be found about this and other Christian audiobooks at christianaudio.com.

AUDIOBOOK REVIEW: “Finding God in the Ruins” by Matt Bays

9781633897038Many people have wondered, “Where is God?” in the midst of their suffering.  If answers are ever given by others in those moments, they are usually unsatisfactory.  Worship leader Matt Bays offers a different perspective in his book, Finding God in the Ruins.

It doesn’t get much rawer than this.  The book cuts between Bays’ dysfunctional childhood (which includes heartbreaking sexual abuse), his brother’s death at a young age, his sister’s battle with cancer as an adult, his struggles in counseling and ministry, and other stories of suffering.  Bays spends time ruminating on some of the darker questions most of us are afraid to ask, like “Where is God when a trafficked child is being raped?  Isn’t he complicit in this atrocity if he doesn’t stop it?”

What Bays never offers is pat answers.  In fact, answers are few and far between in this book, because that is not the picture of God that Bays is trying to paint.  He doesn’t believe the God of the Bible lives in the answers, but rather in the questions and the suffering of people.  That is where real, deep faith is born and where trust is learned.  Can we really believe God when he tells us he will redeem our pain?  Does redemption look the way we expect after all?

Bays manages to give us A Grief Observed for the 21st century, showing God to be sovereign, but not complicit in our suffering.  He avoids theological pitfalls—open theism is just another disturbing pat answer offering no comfort—and he avoids them through his sheer, brutal honesty.  It’s hard reading sometimes, messier than we Christians like things to get.

For all his writing prowess and admirable honesty, Bays is a difficult narrator to listen to.  He speaks softly and very slowly.  I listened to the audiobook version at 1.5x speed and that was comfortable.  That said, I’m glad Bays narrated his own book.  It just wouldn’t have seemed right for someone else to read a story this raw.

Anyone who works with those who are suffering and downtrodden should read this book.  Any who are suffering and downtrodden themselves should read this book.  Bays offers real peace and real hope, or more accurately, God offers those things through Bays’ story.

Please Note: This audiobook was gifted as a part of the Christianaudio Reviewers Program in exchange for my unbiased review of this work. This has in no way influenced my opinion or review of this work.  More information can be found about this and other Christian audiobooks at christianaudio.com.

Book Review: Democracy in Black by Eddie S. Glaude, Jr.

41xC1w14Q5L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_We supposedly live in an era of racial enlightenment; an era of equal value and opportunity for all people, regardless of color.  Slavery and the Jim Crow South are the stuff of history books—cautionary tales—and the central figures of the Civil Rights Movement are generally held up as archetypal heroes of the people, devoid of squirm-inducing political extremism.  But is this the truth?

Speaking of extremism, Eddie S. Glaude, Jr. believes that may be just what the doctor ordered for America and tells us as much in his new book, Democracy in Black.  Why does he advocate extreme measures?  Because business-as-usual black politics and our standard responses to occurrences like the shooting of Michael Brown are not addressing the deeper issue.  Even electing the first black president has not addressed the deeper issue.  And the issue is the “racial value gap:” the deeply-held belief—so deeply held that it’s part of the national sub-consciousness—that white people are more valuable than everyone else.

Glaude makes a compelling case for his belief that there is a racial crisis in America and white people remain largely unaware and even culpable because we sit on top, not really understanding the value gap.  As a result, true democracy suffers.  As a white reader, there were several times I wanted to put the book down, but I knew I couldn’t look away.  I needed a big bowl of this, and you probably do, too.

Glaude, as a Princeton professor, knows his history and writes with both skill and venom.  Paragraphs land like blows.  He connects the dots of American history, reminding us that there isn’t a direct line between the founding of the NAACP, the Harlem Renaissance, Brown v. Board of Education, King’s “I Have A Dream Speech,” and Obama’s election.  It is the events that happened in the margins of the history books that tell the most important story, which is the story of the narrowing of the American mind to accept the value gap that still exists.  We narrow our minds because we want our idealized view of America as a land of equal opportunity and value to remain untarnished.  We want to believe in an America that “rights itself” when injustice rears its ugly head.

Here is a statement from the climatic chapter:

“Obviously we know we matter.  The phrase isn’t about asserting our humanity to folks who deny it…#BlackLivesMatter reminds white people that their lives do not matter more than others.  It is a direct challenge to white supremacy.”

Are Glaude’s statements inflammatory?  Yes.  Do I agree with him categorically?  Of course not.  That doesn’t change the fact that this book stands as a bold statement of the value of black people at a historical crossroads.  I pray his message is not ignored or dismissed.  Glaude calls for all Americans to cast a blank, “none of the above” ballot for the upcoming presidential election as a “hard reset” of American democracy.  That’s starting to look like a really good idea right now.

Please Note: This book was gifted as a part of the Blogging for Books Reviewers Program in exchange for my unbiased review of this work. This has in no way influenced my opinion or review of this work.

AUDIOBOOK REVIEW: The Real Heaven by Chip Ingram

9781633895867In The Real Heaven: What the Bible Actually Says, Chip Ingram sets out to both re-frame the dominant “Hollywoodized” vision of heaven and restore the excitement of believers at the prospect of going there someday.  He mostly succeeds in these endeavors.

This book gives a good overview of what the Bible says about heaven, addressing the most frequently asked questions, and, indeed, building a great case for believers to be excited about going to heaven.  In one poignant anecdote, Ingram asks the reader, “If you asked for a show of hands in your church, ‘How many of you would like to go to heaven today or live ten more years and then go?’ how would people answer?”  What a convicting question!  How excited are we REALLY that we get to go to heaven?

However, this book is not without its problematic sections.  First of all, Ingram turns to the parable of the rich man and Lazarus for clues about the afterlife, but many prominent theologians, Martin Luther included, see this as a parable about rich and poor in this life and the afterlife details are not to be taken literally.  Indeed, turning literary details into literal doctrine is a dangerous practice.  Also, Ingram is a premillennialist—which is fine, he’s entitled to that interpretation of scripture—but his two chapters on the end times mix afterlife doctrine and the apocalyptic language of Revelation to an unsettling degree.  The fact is, many of the passages of the Bible that seem to speak of the life to come don’t lend themselves well to a brief “What the Bible Actually Says about…” book such as this one.

That said, I really appreciate Ingram’s focus on the new heaven and new earth being reflective of this earth, complete with experiences, vocation, relationships, landscapes, and more.  The idea of heaven being “elsewhere” ignores a core teaching of scripture.  What we look forward to as believers is not an evacuation from this world, but a restoration of all that this world was meant to be.  And that is worth looking forward to.

The narration by Lloyd James in the audiobook version is well done, but he reads very slowly.  I listened to this book at 1.5x speed in the Christianaudio app, and this the second book narrated by James that I have done that with.

Please Note: This audiobook was gifted as a part of the Christianaudio Reviewers Program in exchange for my unbiased review of this work. This has in no way influenced my opinion or review of this work.  More information can be found about this and other Christian audiobooks at christianaudio.com.