I’m not sure I’ve written a book review since the early years of secondary school, when I summed up The Hobbit thus: ‘The dragon was cool, and I liked Gollum’s riddles.’
So don’t expect too much from my book reviews. Think more Richard and Judy than New York Times…
And so here, my review of the last book I read, Michael Green’s Thirty Years That Changed the World.
The book is essentially a thematic study of the book of Acts, looking at many of the key principles and practices that played such a vital role for the early church, and then applying them to us in the modern day.
On the whole, I enjoyed the book. I like Green’s style, and appreciate that he takes seriously charismatic gifts and the spiritual dimension. Knowing a little about the man, I could imagine him preaching, living, ministering and pastoring people with the same sort of levels of zeal he was describing in the early church. In other words, he lives what he preaches… and I appreciated that.
For me, the standout chapter of the book was right at the beginning: Bridges and Ditches. Green began by looking at the advantages and disadvantages that the early Christians faced in terms of preaching the Gospel both to Jews and to Gentiles. This was a fascinating chapter. It was a succinct picture of what life would have been like in those first thirty years: the particular aspects of Roman and Greek culture that aided the spread of the Gospel, and the major stumbling blocks that Jews and Gentiles would have faced in coming to Christ. There were many comments and quotes I’d heard before, but also a good number of insights I had never previously appreciated.
Chapter 6: What of their Message?, picked up some of these themes again, and looked at how the Gospel message directly challenged people’s mindsets and lifestyles. Chapter 7 was less enlightening, but rounded off this theme well, by looking at the early church’s approach to apologetics. These three chapters together were worth the price of the book.
In my opinion, there were a few weaknesses. Firstly, its repetitiveness. Due to its thematic nature, there is a great amount of overlap between the chapters. Even a cursory glance over the chapter titles (Approach, Lifestyle, Message, Apologetics, Methods, Church Planting, Pastoral Care, Church Life, Leadership, Hardships, Holy Spirit, Priorities) hints that this may be the case. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the chapter on priorities feels like a ‘greatest-hits’ amalgam of approach, lifestyle and methods!
The second weakness was that I’m not 100% certain for whom the book was written. It feels very much like a collection of challenges and mild rebukes from one older evangelical to younger evangelicals. And thinking back to a few churches I’ve attended in the past, some of his comments and encouragements really hit the mark. But, if I can say this without sounding too arrogant, many of his observations just don’t correlate to my present experience.
When he critiques worship for not being dynamic, or churches for not preaching the word, or having the sermon as the shortest element of the service, something to be got over and done with quickly, I smile (gratefully), knowing that on the whole, that is not my experience in the family of churches to which I belong. Newfrontiers, seems to have got hold of the strategy of targeting key cities and places of cultural influence, in the pattern of the early church. Green draws this out as if it’s a fresh revelation, which to many I’m sure it is, but again, I am grateful to belong to a movement that thrives on this understanding.
Regularly Green talks about ministry in the Spirit, including signs and wonders, and laments that it’s something that is seen regularly in the two-thirds world, but rarely in this country. Again, I rejoice that I belong to a church that sees regular demonstrations of God’s power, encourages people to be filled with the Spirit, and seeks to exercise spiritual gifts. I think his slight generalisations are designed to wake up slumbering Churches. They make me grateful to be in a ‘generally awake’ movement.
That said, a number of his challenges did impact me and make me rethink genuinely how much of a priority I make of: caring for the poor, prayer, the down-to-earth pastoral side of church life, and being willing to face opposition. In a long section on ‘visiting’, spanning everything from door to door evangelism, to regularly visiting parishioners, Green provokes us to rethink whether, in trying to build large, slick churches, we have lost this aspect of church life, which was so vital in the early days. Maybe we’ve got better at putting strategies in place for discipleship and pastoring? Or maybe we have replaced genuine support with structures and systems?
The ‘Gospel in the open air’ section was painful and made my toes curl with embarrassment. ‘We laugh at the man on the street corner shouting verse from the King James Version at the passers by,’ writes Green. ‘It is an embarrassment.’ (p121) I agree. But then: ‘But open air work can be done imaginatively.’ Fair enough… I realise I have an inbuilt prejudice toward artistic evangelistic endeavours that are shoddy, half-baked, public, cringe-worthy and patently un-cool. They wouldn’t reach me, and so I have little faith to engage in them myself. And I’m aware that some of my prejudice needs to be ironed out – so I did find the chapter provocative – but what of Green’s so-called ‘imaginative’ techniques that work well (p123):
- Holding up an unusual object that catches people’s attention
- Using posters that you gradually unveil
- Standing on a chair in a pub and spout rubbish until everyone is listening, then preaching the gospel
- Jugglers using the ups and downs of the balls to explain the ups and downs of life, and how Christ can catch you in any situation
- Using sketchboards
And my personal favourite…
- ‘I have found circle-dancing to Israelis folk tunes a marvellous way of drawing a crowd.’
Suffice to say, his examples didn’t give me any more faith for this sort of open-air ministry. But I have taken his point, and his final challenge was a good one: ‘We have become too respectable, that is the trouble, and respectability and Christianity are bad bedfellows. Until we take to the open air we may not be taken seriously by the man in the street.’ (p126) Whilst I may still want to quibble that respectability gains a hearing from a different kind of audience, the kind of person that would not be seen dead near a living statue, I do acknowledge that there are many who will be attracted by the down-to-earth quirkiness of open-air ministry. And I thank God that some people have the faith and gifting for that, whilst simultaneously breathing a sigh of relief that ‘juggling the gospel’ isn’t a requirement for all believers!
All in all, a helpful book. I enjoyed it. I think the early chapters particularly will become a pool that I can dip into, alongside F.F. Bruce’s The Spreading Flame, for a picture of early church life. Green brings Acts to life. That shouldn’t be too hard; it’s a book brimming with vitality and intrigue. But commentators have become adept at quashing the fresh, radical, Spirit-driven nature of the book of Acts, and in that sense, Green’s portrayal was a breath of fresh air.