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25 of 26 found the following review helpful:
Sharing Our StoriesMar 08, 2007
By Sandra C. Smith
If anyone had tried to tell me we could get 80 church members to come to a Saturday retreat to talk about Evangelism, I would have told them they were crazy... We're a mainline church - and Evangelism just isn't something we are comfortable with..
But Unbinding the Gospel motivated my church to move in ways I couldn't imagine.. As the book suggested, we prayed - not just once, but faithfully... and 80 people read the book and showed up on a Saturday.. And they joined in groups to pray for each other... for the church.. and for all those who needed to hear the story..
I have been an active layperson in my church for a decade.. We've tried many things along the way.. This book challenged us to be more faithful - and to share our faith more faithfully. I'm convinced it has planted mustard seeds that will bloom in ways only God can imagine.
20 of 21 found the following review helpful:
From Surviving to ThrivingJan 04, 2007
By Bruce Laverman
Unbinding the Gospel, Real Life Evangelism, Martha Grace Reese, Chalice Press, St. Louis, Mo., 2006.
Who says mainline churches can't do evangelism? Former pastor Martha Grace began a Lilly grant study to prove some can and do. Several years later she has come to the conclusion that though they can they need conversion themselves, first. The purpose of the mainline evangelism project was to find churches that are doing effective evangelism. What she found was that only 150 out of 30,000 mainline churches were. That's a demoralizing one half of one percent. Enough to dull the edge of anyone's resolve, but Martha Grace was convinced that things could be different, and that there are actions that every church along the full spectrum of theology and styles could take to reverse the sad trend of the last four decades. This book will convince you that she is right! And will (more importantly) inspire you to act on what you have learned.
From the bad news statistics we move quickly to "three stories of victory" that show us how evangelism is being done in "real life," in some mainline churches throughout North America. The inspiration these real churches provide help us to understand what new members want and need and how they are finding it in the transformation of their own lives by the gospel of Jesus Christ. What we find here is not more idealistic rhetoric but natural, proven ways and concrete examples of some of our churches that are really touching their communities with Christian hope and making a definite difference in their neighborhoods.
The last section of the book helps us work confidently and effectively with our congregations as they re-pattern themselves for ministry in the 21st Century, praying their way through changes that can drive them forward with confidence instead of just trying to survive. Here is sound advice for pastors to lead out of example and stay long enough to see their congregations change.
Each chapter of this compelling book ends with "honest to God" discussion questions to be answered first personally, and then in small groups. Suggestions for concrete action also help us move from clear, biblical motivation to the world of real church and community.
There is enough fertile ground here for any pastor and her/his church leaders to plow for at least a year. It would make a dynamic Lenten or Fall study for any group or a whole congregation. And those who sow are bound to reap in this soul searching and hope-filled guide to mainline church life in the days ahead.
Don't miss this one!
13 of 13 found the following review helpful:
Useful WorkAug 23, 2007
By Charles Denison
Unbinding the Gospel is a very useful book in a field overfull with relatively theoretical books. It is fact filled, starting with a base in a solid survey of growing churches. But it gets to real issues of parish ministry and outreach. The survey asked the right questions about how to engineer any kind of growth in a more main-line culture and theology, in which, specifically, it is NOT asumed that eternal damnation is at stake.
Ms. Reese and her associates designed a telling survey. They discovered that only a small percentage of churches "so conceived and so dedicated" have experienced significant growth. That is the bad news. But then they delved into the culture, leadership, spirituality and experience of those churches. Very good news here!
Conclusions? The book is designed primarily to be read with a group in a parish. The conclusions reached are best implemented in small goups. Simply stated, the growth of these more open churches was related in each case to a sincere spirituality. The experience of God is paramount, and crosses theological and cultural boundaries. While it may be too simplistic to say that where there is real prayer, churches will grow, it is a clear conclusion that where there is no prayer -- where there is no experience of a living God, churches will wither. And virtually each of the interviewed leaders, while diverse in ministry style and tradition, rooted their ministires in prayer and spirituality.
These are stories of churches doing the possible: of committing to six months of prayer before launching any outreach program, of reaching out to a small rural and demographically static community, of actually growing a congregation!
Very encouraging and helpful work.
39 of 47 found the following review helpful:
Persuasive but IncompleteJun 07, 2008
By Mark C. Tubbs
Would I recommend Unbinding the Gospel? Not really. Does it disappoint? In places, yes. Does it excite me? Oh yes. Let me explain.
I appreciate the Christ-centeredness of its title and the promise of the subtitle and cover image, a red ribbon being cut with scissors. An apt metaphor, I thought, for `unbinding the gospel' and practicing real life evangelism. The Greek verb luo means `to loose, to unbind.' So far so good. But for all the red ribbons I perceived, some red flags were apparent as well.
Author Martha Grace Reese's main thesis is that mainline churches - of which she used to be a pastor and is now a church consultant - need to recover the practice of gospel evangelism, not just out of a sense of duty, but a sense of joy. Mainline churches have so much to share, so much to offer, that they are doing the world a disservice by functioning in maintenance mode, she maintains. The book's stated purpose is to be used as a seven to ten-week small group study which aims to encourage committed leaders and laypeople to share their faith. Set out in three parts, the first part of the book asks the what, why, and how of evangelism in mainline churches, the second part gives some examples of effective mainline evangelism, and the third part suggests possibilities for churches that have yet to engage in evangelism.
First, the red ribbons. It's always a time to celebrate when any church, movement, or denomination rediscovers the apostolic mandate to spread the good news of Jesus Christ. In the mainline denominations, evangelism has apparently been relegated to a backseat, neglected for decades and often actively discouraged by pastors and seminaries. Reese's book seeks to remedy the widespread desertion of the core commandment in the Great Commission.
Reese makes the case that mainliners through the decades have been turned off evangelism because they see it as delivering the message that Jesus saves from hell - and they don't believe in a literal hell. In this book Evangelicals are disparaged one too many times for believing in a literal hell, but on the whole Reese is extremely sympathetic towards Evangelicals, and even suggests that mainliners have something to learn from the evangelical spectrum, from fundamentalists to charismatics and everything in between.
Reese speaks as a solid Trinitarian:
What's at the heart of life with God? A powerful relationship between each one of us and the Trinity. A powerful relationship between each one of us and other Christians, all of us together helping to bear Christ to those who don't know him...Knowing it and saying it - that's the heart of evangelism.[i]
Reese seems to possess a realistic and biblical view of the Church:
Great churches aren't mushily, sentimentally, smotheringly "caring." They aren't "damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead." They aren't all Venus; they aren't all Mars. They're messy. They allow intuition, action and spontaneity while providing teaching, support, correction and accountability. They feel alive. They're in touch with joy. God is all over them. The Spirit is palpable.[ii]
Later Reese identifies four aspects of healthy relationships in churches. They are characterized by authenticity, truthfulness, real as opposed to sentimental, and contagious - i.e., visitors can feel it when they walk in the door. Even later, Reese explains that an insider-focused church is merely engaging in chaplaincy. "It is not the vibrant ministry of the Gospel." This statement requires nuance, of course, but her meaning is clear.
Now for the red flags. I don't write off the mainline churches, as some do. I believe we can learn much from our brothers and sisters in the mainline churches. But this book does reveal issues that reflect so-called `progressive' theological and hermeneutical stances in those denominations. Smarmy assertions of not only universal atonement but unlimited election appear in comments such as "God adores us and everyone else." At times this book exemplifies what some theologians have termed `sloppy grace.' It's an ill-defined, unbiblical subspecies of true grace that goes hand-in-hand with antinomianism and license.
Reese sometimes makes unqualified statements. "Evangelism has no theological bounds." Well, yes it does: biblical bounds. "It isn't about talking people into beliefs." No, everyday evangelism is not about belligerently talking people into beliefs, but it is about being ready to give an explanation for the hope we have, in and out of season. Evangelism without the persuasive element of talk ignores a major mode of Pauline evangelism. "At its core, evangelism is people sharing with others their personal understandings that life is better, richer, truer, if one has faith in Christ and lives in a faith community." Political party members are constantly encouraged to stay "on message." But if your concept of evangelism is diminished to "life is better with Christ," then your message is at best minimized and at worst ignorant - of substitutionary atonement, of the true nature of union with Christ, of the centrality the Cross. Intriguingly, Reese brings up the evangelical cliché "Jesus is the Answer" near the end of the book and ruminates on the question it answers. She posits that its prompt question is, "From what does Jesus save us?" (author's emphasis). She goes on:
What is the biggest problem of human existence? From what does Jesus save us? Sin? Yes. Jesus saves us from sin. Some parts of the church focus strongly on sin as the main problem. Other churches see death as the biggest human problem. Jesus saves us from death, too. Some parts of the church look at the biggest human problem as distorted human community that draws us away from God and the truth. The know that Jesus can heal community, miraculously transform isolated individuals and sick societies...Jesus is the answer to all of these human problems...
All of this is more or less correct, but Reese is making a category mistake. Whereas she differentiates between sin and death and "distorted human community" as "presenting problems," Scripture indicates that sin is the overarching, omnipresent problem in the resultant human issues of death, broken relationships, etc. This is precisely why presenting the gospel must focus just as much on the problem of sinful man as it does on the grace of God. The two concepts are inextricable: God's solution (grace) to man's problem (sin). We must be as clear as possible on both fronts. Providentially, the other book I was reading for review alongside Unbinding the Gospel was R.C. Sproul's Saved From What?[iii] Whereas Reese spends just over one page answering the question, Sproul spends 123 gospel-rich pages answering it.
Put simply, the content of the gospel matters. Reese narrates the true story of a gathering of mainline pastors in which eight pastors of mainline churches did not know how to answer the question, "What difference does it make in your own life that you are a Christian?" Silence meets the question, and the silence stretches on and on. Finally, one pastor tentatively volunteers, "Because it makes me a better person?" Elsewhere: "The typical barrier for people raised in mainline congregations is that we are foggy on why it matters that anyone be Christian." Apparently, "Being Christian is so natural you don't really think about it. You just do it, you just are it!" But true Christian living doesn't come "naturally" to anybody. The flesh is always resisting the Spirit's nudges towards holy living - this is the essence of Paul's argument in Romans 7. It therefore follows that if we are in Christian cruise control, then we are probably foggy on the gospel. And if pastors cannot clarify the crux of the gospel, then what hope is there for the churches they lead? They will not be evangelistic churches because they do not know the gospel.
One more thing worth mentioning is the strong sense of God's sovereignty on the author's part. I'm quite certain Reese would take exception with much of Calvinism's teaching on the sovereignty of God, but she shows here that she holds to it in essence:
Christ is the calmer of the waves, the master of the storm. God holds the untamable chaos of our lives in God's hands and can calm it. Don't stop. Keep going...Step up communication with God...Talk, pray... Don't do everything yourself. Ask for help. Don't panic. Sail smart. You are, now and forever, in God's hands.
Finally, a word about Brain McLaren's afterword. While he is right on about the need to be ready to simply talk about our lives of faith, he tries to navigate the reader in a social gospel direction that wasn't warranted by the book itself. The contents seem to be lifted directly out of McLaren's Everything Must Change. Of course the gospel has social implications, but his suggestion that the world will welcome the good news of Christ is naïve. The gospel is bad news to so many, because like the rich young ruler, they refuse to renounce the earthly things that vie with Christ for first place in their lives.
A cynic might say that a book like this is simply an effort to shore up the sinking ship of mainline Protestantism. Having read the book, I believe it's much more than that. My hope and prayer is that in listening to the promptings of the Spirit, and in meditating on the Word, those who lead and attend mainline churches will locate the message of Christ not only in His universal welcome and unbridled love, but in the godhead's unity of character and purpose, reflected in the command not to add nor take away from His Word (Rev. 22: 18-19). As mainliners "Understand the Gospel, live it out, convey it accurately to new people," which is how Reese encourages her readers, I am excited to see the work God will do in His Church.
[i] Two excellent books on the heart of evangelism's message are Know and Tell the Gospel by John Chapman (Matthias Media) and Tell the Truth: The Whole Gospel to the Whole Person by Whole People by Will Metzger (IVP).
[ii] "The Church is messy and inefficient, but it is God's wonderful mess - the place where he radically transforms minds and hearts." Paul Tripp has an uncommon ability to describe the intersection of the holy and the messy in church life, in Relationships: A Mess Worth Making (New Growth Press), co-authored with Tim Lane, and in Instruments in the Redeemer's Hands: People in Need of Change Helping People in Need of Change (Resources for Changing Lives) (P&R), from whence the above quote derives. Bob Kauflin's book on worship, Worship Matters: Leading Others to Encounter the Greatness of God (Crossway), also addresses the presence of what he calls `healthy tensions' in churches and in corporate worship.
[iii] Saved from What? by R.C. Sproul (Crossway).
7 of 7 found the following review helpful:
For any Christian struggling for a new perspective of evangelismMar 29, 2007
By Mark Irons
Excellent review and study tool for the Mainline Evangelism Project. Reese challenges those Christians and churches that have underplayed the role of evangelism in their congregations to look at the call of the gospel anew. There are questions at the end of each chapter that make this an excellent study for Sunday School classes or any church leadership group.
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