God’s Heart, God’s Servants, a Growing Church

By LeRoy Lawson

Life on Mission: God’s People Finding God’s Heart for the World
Tim Harlow

Pastors.com, 2014

Timeless: Devotions Based on the Sermons of Floyd Strater
Kim Hamilton

Self published, 2014 (available at amazon.com & lulu.com)

No More Dragons: Get Free from Broken Dreams, Lost Hope, Bad Religion, and Other Monsters
Jim Burgen

Nashville: Nelson Books, 2014

The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (Future of Christianity Trilogy)
Philip Jenkins

New York: Oxford University Press, 2011

The 2014 North American Christian Convention was a profitable one for me. In addition to Ian DiOrio’s Trivial Pursuits, which I reviewed in last month’s column, I received books from two other friends—and enjoyed them both.

03_books_JNTim Harlow, the convention’s president, authored the first one. No one in attendance could miss Harlow’s passion for mobilizing the church to reach the unchurched. He introduced the theme in his opening message and inspired all the speakers to address it. Then he made certain his Life on Mission was available for all of us. Usually when a preacher puffs his own book from the platform, I turn a deaf ear (which isn’t all that hard since I have a built-in one). This time I didn’t because I’m persuaded of Harlow’s integrity. He was pushing a cause, not promoting himself.

He writes as he talks, employing a simple, direct, colloquial—even provocative—style. You can’t remain neutral about the writer or his subject matter. Or at least I can’t. This man cares about all the people God loves—and whom doesn’t God love?—and is doing all he can to prick the consciences of Christians to get busy on their fivefold mission to (1) connect with, (2) serve, (3) share the good news, (4) disciple (help people grow in Christ), and (5) pray for—you guessed it—all those God loves. Tall order. But that’s our mission.

He Gave His Best

I devoured the second gift in one sitting. I shouldn’t have. It was designed to be read slowly, meditatively. Kim Hamilton’s Timeless consists of devotions based on a selection of sermon outlines and anecdotes from her father Floyd Strater’s 60 years of preaching. I couldn’t keep myself from reading straight through. On every page I heard the much-loved, crackly voice of my longtime friend.

As Hamilton says, there was never another voice like his. Severe allergic reactions attacked him in midcareer and left his voice so weak and distorted that doctors told Strater he had to give up preaching. He didn’t. Instead, he moved from Illinois to Southern California where, with a little medical help and voice therapy, and lots of stubborn determination, he kept on—and built the great Knott Avenue Christian Church in Anaheim.

At the same time, he led the area’s church planting organization and served this movement in many other ways. He was one of the most respected and influential leaders in the Christian churches.

Of course, I am biased. Strater was one of the trustees of Pacific Christian College (now Hope International University) who called me to the presidency there. He further helped me by joining our university staff when he retired from Knott Avenue. He never stopped giving of himself until ill health at last forced his final retirement.

Tim Harlow does his best in Life on Mission to move us to give our best in God’s service. Kim Hamilton gives an insider’s view of one man who did just that.

Slaying Dragons, Saving People

July was a rich month. The week following the NACC, I was in Colorado for the annual retreat for Globalscope, the international campus ministry arm of Christian Missionary Fellowship. This is always a special week for me, an opportunity for this septuagenarian to hang out with a bunch of dynamic young leaders who are “on mission” on university campuses in eight countries.

A guest speaker this year was Jim Burgen, lead pastor of the fast-growing Flatirons Community Church, whose first campus is located in Boulder County, Colorado. His talk borrowed generously from his No More Dragons. Inspiration for Burgen’s dragons comes from one of C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, in which Eustace, not an exemplary boy, obsesses over treasure that had been guarded by a dragon. But the dragon is dead, so Eustace takes over, determined to keep anyone else from sharing his booty. But then he turns into a dragon himself. He is trapped in a scaled dragon’s body he can’t escape. Only Aslan the lion, Lewis’s Christ figure, can save him.

But, of course, Burgen isn’t telling fairy tales. It’s his own story. He was trapped until Christ freed him from his addictions and life-defeating selfishness. Burgen sees himself as a kind of everyman (and everywoman). He isn’t the only one who needs to be rescued. Having shed his own reptilian scales, he now shares Harlow’s passion for saving others, and wants us to do the same. It won’t be easy. We’ll have to find a way to connect with people we aren’t comfortable with. But these are the very people Jesus hung out with. So must we.

This author doesn’t make any easy promises. “Just give your life to Jesus and all your troubles will be over” is definitely not his message. His wife still suffers the ravages of bipolarism, for example, and others he knows continue battling their own dragons even after the rescue operation. Burgen’s own rough edges can stand a little more sanding. He definitely won’t appeal to the Pecksniffs among us. I haven’t visited Flatiron church, but I suspect it offends people for whom propriety trumps compassion. But it’s pretty easy to see why his church grows: like Tim Harlow, he’s on mission.

Shunned by the World, Growing the Church

And so, if Philip Jenkins is to be believed in The Next Christendom, is worldwide Christianity. We are accustomed to gloomy tales in the West (North America and Europe, specifically) of the decline of the Christian religion and the rapid growth of the “nones” (those who tell surveyors they have no religion). Against these prophets of doom, Jenkins asserts that Christianity is growing rapidly and will be stronger tomorrow than it is today. Just not where we live.

The Christian faith’s center of gravity has moved south. Africa and Latin America—and even some parts of Asia—are experiencing dramatic growth. That’s the good news.

What could be seen as not-so-good news is that it’s not always Christianity as we understand it. Throughout its 2,000-year history, the Faith of Our Fathers has always adapted to local situations. American Christianity, of course, bears little external resemblance to the First Christian Church of Jerusalem or Antioch, or for that matter of medieval Paris or 18th-century England. It should come as no surprise, then, that the booming churches in Africa and Brazil or Korea don’t much resemble American heartland’s mainline church.

This is the third edition of The Next Christendom. In it Jenkins draws on recent scholarship to buttress his case that ours is not a dying faith. But it is a dramatically changing one, and it poses real challenges for us comfortable Christians in the North.

One thing hasn’t changed: from its beginning the church has appealed to and most effectively evangelized the poor. With the North’s increasing prosperity, though, the mainline church has drawn us away from the poor. If we are sincere about reaching these and other marginalized persons, our outreach will have to change. The South is teaching us that the gospel still has power to rescue the world’s disenfranchised—abused women, orphaned children, the politically powerless, the culturally shunned.

These are the ones through whom the church is growing, but not where respectable Northern churches dominate.

Jenkins makes such a strong case for a strong Christianity in 2050 that I’d like to stick around until then just to see the results for myself. Of course, that would require a near-miracle (I can do the arithmetic). Yet if you ask our Southern Christian friends, miracles are high on the list of what the Christian faith has to offer!

LeRoy Lawson is international consultant with CMF International and professor of Christian ministries at Emmanuel Christian Seminary, Johnson City, Tennessee. He also serves as a Christian Standard contributing editor and on Standard Publishing’s Publishing Committee. 

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