‘Jesus is Better Than You Imagined’ by Jonathan Merritt

I could probably characterize the last several weeks of my Twitter feed with the following messages:

Jesus is more restrictive than you imagined.
No, Jesus is more permissive than you imagined.
Jesus is more masculine than you imagined.
No, Jesus is more feminine than you imagined.
Jesus is more authoritarian than you imagined.
No, Jesus is more democratic than you imagined.
Jesus is more glamorous than you imagined.
No, Jesus is more ascetic than you imagined.

And on and on and on. And on. And then more.

Thus, on the day Jesus is Better Than You Imagined by Jonathan Merritt was released, I posted this:

Now, having received a review copy for myself, I can tell you that this book is what I was hoping for and is not just another brick in the Christian Living wall at Barnes & Noble.

I’m not a proper book reviewer and so this this isn’t a proper book review, but suffice it to say that I thoroughly enjoyed this book and happily recommend it to you. In an effort to make my case, here are my thoughts on what Jonathan Merritt has brought us:

This is not a formula-driven roadmap to your best life now. This is not a guidebook to becoming a slightly better version of yourself. This is not a daisy chain made of platitudes and pronouncements.

This is the story of how one man was found and lost and found again. This is the story of meeting Jesus in silence, in mystery, in tragedy, and more.

This is not a book about what to think about Jesus, it’s a book about encountering him.

I don’t know about you, but that’s the kind of book I need in this season of my life and in this morass of belligerence we call the American Evangelical conversation.

At one point in the book Merritt reflects, “Jesus is better than I imagined because He transforms my desires into opportunities to experience what truly satisfies.” That’s not religious drivel to be stitched onto a decorative pillow — it’s a hard-won bit of wisdom. And ultimately, I think that’s what I like most about Jesus is Better Than You Imagined — everything Jonathan Merritt shares in these pages has come at a cost to him. As such, the book is an invitation to travel a hard but worthy road. And like all good books, it’s also a reminder that you’re not alone on the journey.

Find Jesus is Better Than You Imagined on Amazon here »

Find Me On Sunday|

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For the last couple years, my friend Jonathan Malm has run a great outfit called Sunday| Magazine. I’ve enjoyed reading it and even contributing to it twice in the last year. But something changed this week.

Now, if you check out the footer of the Sunday| site, it says, “A venture by Jonathan Malm and Scott McClellan.” That’s right — I’ve joined the team. I’ll be running the Sunday| blog and posting there a few times a week with content that’s short, timely, and (hopefully) helpful to church communicators like me.

Keep an eye on SundayMag.tv and follow @SundayMagtv on Twitter because this is going to be fun.

What Pete Said

Years before Pete Carroll won the Super Bowl as the coach of the Seattle Seahawks, and before he led the USC Trojans to a title, he was the head coach of the New England Patriots. He won some games there, but his brief tenure was somewhat middling — nothing terrible, nothing remarkable. Then Carroll was let go.

On Sunday before the Super Bowl, Fox aired a pre-taped interview between Carroll and former head coach Jimmy Johnson. Johnson asked Carroll about what happened in New England and why Carroll was ready to give the NFL another shot in Seattle, and I found the response fascinating.

Carroll began by intimating that he didn’t have as much control over player personnel in New England as he wanted or maybe deserved. Then he said that when he decided to take the Seattle job, he spoke to Seahawks general manager John Schneider (aka Carroll’s new boss) and said this:

“I want our relationship to be famous.”

In other words, I want us to be on the same page. I want us to define our roles, own our roles, and trust one another to play those roles. I want us to work so well together — you as the GM and me as the coach — that football teams, basketball teams, hockey teams, creative teams, and executive teams come to us to study how we cooperate and collaborate.

As a football fan, I thought that was fascinating. Then, in an instant, I was hearing Carroll’s words again in my context as a communications pastor.

“I want our relationship to be famous.”

Have I said that to my supervisor or my executive pastor or my senior pastor? Have I thought it? Honestly, it never occurred to me. But more than saying it, could I mean it? What about my attitudes and actions would have to change? What would it take for church leadership teams around the world to come to Irving Bible Church and study how I cooperate and collaborate with my leadership?

I don’t know exactly what would need to change yet. The only answer I’ve come up with so far is, “A lot.” Evidently I’ve got some work to do.

Get The Social Church!


My friend Justin Wise’s book — The Social Church — came out this week, and I’m here to tell you to get a copy of it. As you can see on Amazon, people are already raving over this book. And hey, it starts at just $8.

When Justin asked me to write a blurb for The Social Church, here’s what I said:

“Justin Wise is my first and best source for social media insight and inspiration. Justin’s work has made a difference in how my church communicates and connects, and for that I’m profoundly grateful.”

What you’ll find when you read the book, and you already know if you follow Justin’s work, is that he’s helpful, thoughtful, and engaging. In other words, this book is more than some Mashable post on how to get more Retweets on your Vine video. This is the mission, vision, and values of social media for your church, written by a guy who knows his stuff when it comes to both social media and the church.

Like I said, get it!

Playing God by Andy Crouch

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“Power is a gift.”

So begins Andy Crouch’s latest book, Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power. What follows is certainly the most comprehensive , thoughtful, and imaginative meditation on power I’ve ever read. Crouch’s first book, Culture Making, remains one of my favorite books of the last 10 years, so it comes as no surprise that I enjoyed Playing God as much as I did.

What, then, is power? May I begin with a deceptively simple definition: power is the ability to make something of the world. — Playing God, Andy Crouch

My original temptation was to summarize the book as a theology of power, but to do so would be to misread Crouch entirely. Playing God is theological, but it’s also social, cultural, historical, economical, political, practical, relational, and so on. In other words, the book considers what the Bible has to say about power, but it does not stop there.

Crouch wants to share with us a robust vision of who God is, who God made us to be, and how we might better pursue the flourishing of God’s creatures and creation.

Why is power a gift? Because power is for flourishing. When power is used well, people and the whole cosmos come more alive to what they were meant to be. And flourishing is the test of power. — Playing God, Andy Crouch

And what does that pursuit look like? Playing God invites us to forsake our god-making and god-playing in favor of true image-bearing. To be image bearers, as Crouch so masterfully articulates, is to be empowered by the Spirit of God toward lives of grace, justice, creativity, community, humility, wisdom, and worship.

And doing justice is likewise the means to an end— shalom, that rich Hebrew word for peace, describing the conditions where every creature can be fully, truly, gloriously itself, most of all where God’s own image bearers bear that image in all its fullness, variety and capacity. The work of justice is to restore the conditions that make image bearing possible. — Playing God, Andy Crouch

This book will open your eyes to the power that both surrounds and indwells us. Watch the news and you’ll see power used and abused. Review your checking account activity or your calendar and you’ll see traces of god-making, god-playing, and image-bearing. Step inside what Crouch calls an “arena” — maybe a mall, a stadium, a church, or a school — and you’ll hear the hum of power above the din of the crowd.

Read this book, not because you’re hungry for power, but because you’re hungry for redemption of the power you already possess.

The Work Before the Work

At Echo Conference a few weeks ago, Blaine Hogan shared a wonderful and challenging quote from Parker Palmer:

“Before I turn to my work in the world, I have inner work to do.” — Parker Palmer

When I hear quotes like that one, the air in my chest tends to escape in a burst. It’s funny how ideas can punch us in the chest and we can have a tangible reaction to an intangible blow.

A quote like Palmer’s, a session like Blaine’s, and a keynote like Donald Miller’s (on identity, fear, and shame) can be tough for us, especially in a context like Echo, because we’re so prone to focus on our “work in the world.” After all, this is the work by which we’re judged and affirmed, for which we’re compensated and promoted. This is the work with which we identify and are identified.

I once heard someone point out that we even train our children to be identified by their work in the world:

Q: What are you going to be when you grow up?

A: I’m going to be a teacher!

We’re really asking about what kind of work they’re going to do in the world, but we’re conflating that work with identity. When a child tells us what she’s going to be when she grows up, we don’t expect her to say, “I hope to be mature, faithful, loving, and generous. I hope to be a devoted Christian, wife, and mother.” No, we want her to say, “I’m going to be a ballerina or a scientist. Or both.”

We put our work in the world first. As a result, the inner work suffers. Just as it does in a culture of over-work and over-commitment. In a plague of workaholism, we’re unlikely to hear someone confess that they’re an inner-workaholic. But where the inner work suffers, so does the work in the world — it’s harried or dispassionate or something worse.


Right before I came on staff here at IBC, I had lunch with the pastor to whom I was going to report. In the midst of our conversation he offered me some words that likely saved my time here before it even got started. He said that while I certainly brought a lot of assets to my new position (enumerating those here would be the height of arrogance, so just use your imagination), there was one asset that was more important than any other: myself. Beyond skills, abilities, talents, experiences, or expertise, I was bringing myself, and that meant more to the staff and people of IBC than anything else. As you might imagine, those words were liberating. At the same time, they were terrifying. I think I felt more confident in the skills and abilities than I did in the self. I had a different kind of work to do, and it wouldn’t show up on my résumé.

“Before I turn to my work in the world, I have inner work to do.” — Parker Palmer

This is the work before the work. In reality, it’s the work before, behind, inside, and underneath the work. It’s the work that endures when the hard drives crash and all our TPS reports have been tossed in the recycling bin. It’s the work that imbues all our other work with grace and passion and humanity. To neglect this inner work is to undermine our work in the world and short-change those with whom and for whom we work.

As fall ramps up, God knows we all have work to do in the world. But let us not forget the work before the work.

Jeff Goins On The In-Between

My friend Jeff Goins is a prolific and popular writer who just released his second book, The In-Between: Embracing the Tension Between Now and the Next Big Thing. You should absolutely grab the book between now and August 10 so that you can also get all of these great bonuses Jeff has put together.

Jeff was nice enough to spend a few minutes with me yesterday talking about the book, his writing process, and what he has been reading lately. Take a look:

The In-Between is available now on Amazon and wherever else good books are sold.

Telling Stories On Sunday

image credit: Stephen Proctor

Last week I taught a breakout session at Echo titled, “Telling Stories On Sunday,” and I thought I’d share a few thoughts from that session here. They’ll be a little rough and lacking in context, but when has that ever stopped my before? Here we go:

  • “Where are you taking me?” — this is a question from the movie Finding Forrester (one of my favorites), and I believe it’s a question that every human heart is asking. Storytelling is about answering this question.
  • It feels as though the American Church has, at least in part, forgotten our calling to be storytellers. As a result, we offer a lot lights, a lot of noise, a lot of principles and propositions. We’re heavy on fear, but what if we were heavy on hope?
  • We are not called to dispense good advice. We are storytellers, witnesses, and ambassadors.
  • We think we don’t need imagination because we have truth on our side, but we couldn’t be more wrong. Imagination is required in order to connect the truth to a person and a person to their future.
  • Before he ascended, Jesus told the disciples they would be his witnesses (Acts 1). Growing up in church we talked about witness as both a verb (something we go do) and a noun (something we possessed, and could therefore lose). Jesus wasn’t telling them to do or possess, he was telling them to be. “Witness” is an identity.
  • There are a lot of great definitions of story out there, but here’s mine: story is about people and pursuit.
  • Telling a story on a Sunday means going beyond the broad or the easily accessible. “Faith” is not a story, it’s a topic. A story would be something like, “From Fear to Faith.”
  • The Bible is not a fortune cookie — don’t treat it like one. As Sean Gladding put it, the Bible is the story of God, the story of us.
  • We can honor the Scriptures by honoring the form in which they’re given — story — rather than breaking everything down in soul-less systems and bulleted propositions. We can read the Bible through the lens of people and pursuit.
  • Sources of story: Scripture, history, pop culture, community, congregation, personal experience, imagination, and vision.
  • Where stories fit on Sunday: announcements, offering, music, readings, the Table, art, testimony, preaching, and the Christian calendar.
  • One challenge for us will always be conflict — an essential part of story, but a difficult element for Christians who want to pretend that we’re all shiny, happy people. Can we commit to conflict?
  • Vonnegut said story was “man in hole.” Whether we are ready to admit it or not, we are preaching to men and women in holes. Or who’ve just climbed out. Or who will fall in soon. That’s why we have to tell stories on Sunday.
  • The beauty of story is that within its frame despair turns to hope, pain turns to healing, loss turns to wholeness. It’s in the story of God that wanderer a find the promised land, the cross becomes our salvation, and a tribe becomes a kingdom.

And there you have it — a rambling, disjointed summary of a rambling, disjointed breakout session on story. You can also read these notes from my session courtesy of Church Juice.

What Makes a Good Meal?

Matthew Anderson’s new book, The End of Our Exploring, has me thinking about questions and questioning. Here’s one question I’ve been asking myself recently:

What makes a good meal?

Wait, let me back up …

Five months ago I joined the staff of my church for the last nine years, Irving Bible Church. I soon found that I’d walked into the middle of a number of ongoing conversations, one of which was about our worship services — specifically, their audience, objective(s), design, and execution.

In the midst of this particular conversation, we heard from someone who framed their worship services as something like “a family meal with guests present.” There’s something to that phrase, certainly, and it’s a helpful frame for the saints-versus-seekers debate. And yet, the metaphor begs the question (at least in my mind): What makes a good meal?

In other words, what does the family need to eat, week in and week out, in order to grow and thrive and all that?

This is the question that has my cerebral hamster wheel turning these days (even though it’s not exactly my job as the Communications Pastor to answer it). The question even prompted me to pick up James K.A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom at the recommendation of some colleagues, and the book has proved to be a dense and fascinating read.

I’m terrible at proper book reviews, but suffice it to say that Smith connects our liturgies (sacred and secular) to the shaping of our desires. Worship practices, whether we’re at church or at the mall, teach us to love and desire something, a particular articulation of “the good life.” And so once again I’m asking what should be served at the family meal. What corporate worship practices will best shape the IBC community into the sort of disciples God would have us become?

It’s a big question, and I think it’s a good question. I imagine it’s a question that I and my cronies at IBC will ask often in the months and years to come. If you have any insights, I’d love to hear them. Or if you’re content to simply pray for us in our questioning, I’d appreciate that too.

Now that I’ve shared my question, I’d like to share another link to Matthew Anderson’s The End of Our Exploring. Matthew is a friend and a Moody label-mate, so it’s my pleasure to tell you about his new book and a pretty great opportunity:

If you buy the book by Friday, Moody will send a free digital copy of the book to one person of your choosing. Buy one, give one — it’s that simple. Get the details here.

Communications Pastor and author of Tell Me a Story