June 1, 2016

Eat This Book and Adventist Churches that Make a Difference

The Scriptures are about more than information or propaganda; they are about a relationship.

Ella Rydzewski & Jonathan Paulien
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Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading, published by Eerdmans, is available through Amazon.

The Word of God is powerful. All of creation came into existence through God’s Word. Jesus is the Word incarnate. And Eugene Peterson, author of The Message, tells us that we need to eat and digest the written Word, as the angel instructed John the revelator (Rev. 10:9, 10).

A Relationship

The Scriptures are about more than information or propaganda; they are about a relationship. They are not manipulative, but straightforward, honestly revealing sin and its consequences, yet full of promise: “Submission and obedience are a large part of it, but first we have to listen,” both to how it is said (form) and what is said (content).

According to Peterson: “In a hundred years or so, the early Christians had essentially the same Holy Bible that we have today” being read in churches to Jewish Christian audiences who understood its symbols. There was nothing secret about Revelation.

Peterson warns against the “depersonalization of the Bible,” which happens when we use the Bible as merely intellectual challenge, or moral guide, or inspiring material that makes us feel good in troubling times. Using the Bible this way, for our own purposes, denies its purpose—getting involved with God. The Bible is more than feel-good literature or history or moral compass. God is personal, and so is His Word. Peterson calls it formational rather than informational. We must participate in its stories, feed on them, like manna, until they become part of us.

New Trinity

Peterson laments society’s tragic new trinity, a trinity of self—“our holy wants, our holy needs, and our holy feelings”—that makes our own experience the ultimate goal, using the Bible like another secular self-help book. Self-help reading wouldn’t be a hindrance if we actually digested the Word. But that mentality has given rise to alternative spiritualities that don’t demand anything of us, but promise to make us feel good about ourselves. It’s not so much that such practices are wrong, but that they replace our relationship with God with a relationship with self.

We need the Bible as a whole, not a “garage sale of assembled texts.” As Peterson says: “It takes the whole Bible to read a part of the Bible.” The Bible is a large comprehensive story with the primary goal of knowing God and what He is like. It tells of Jesus from beginning to end. It is about a relationship with the Holy Trinity. To receive maximum benefit, Peterson quotes P. T. Forsyth: “Bible searching and searching prayer go hand in hand. What we receive from God in the Book’s message, we return to Him with interest in prayer.” It’s like praying before eating a meal.

Ella Rydzewski, now retired, served for many years in the editorial departments of Adventist Review and Ministry magazines.

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Pacific Press Publishing Association, Nampa, Idaho, 2016; 128 pages; US$13.99; softcover. May-Ellen and Gaspar Colón, authors. May-Ellen is director of Adventist Community Services International; Gaspar is resource materials developer for the Global Mission Urban Center and mission integration coordinator for Adventist Review.

The book Adventist Churches That Make a Difference, by Gaspar and May-Ellen Colón ,was designed as an enhancement to the Third Quarter 2016 Adult Bible Study Guide lessons for the Seventh-day Adventist world church. As such, the book was subject to many constraints. It was held to a brief and fixed length. Each of its 13 chapters had to be similar in length. And each chapter had to correspond to the topic of that week’s lesson. The format has been a popular one, since many members and teachers are eager to supplement the study guide with additional resources.

Because of the constraints of the format, I didn’t expect the book to break any new ground. But I was in for a pleasant surprise. This is a landmark book. It not only advocates that every Adventist church should be deeply engaged in its community, but provides dozens of specific illustrations of Adventist churches around the globe that are doing just that.

These kinds of ministries are divided into four types: (1) relief, (2) personal development, (3) community development, and (4) confronting injustice. The Colóns use a fishing analogy to describe these ministries: (1) relief is giving a hungry person a fish; (2) personal development teaches people how to fish; (3) community development provides the fishing tools; and (4) social justice ensures everyone has equal access to the fishing pond.

Gaspar and May-Ellen are eminently qualified for the task they take on in this book. For many years May-Ellen served in the General Conference Sabbath School and Personal Ministries Department, and Gaspar was director of the Center for Metropolitan Ministry, based at Washington Adventist University. In these capacities they traveled worldwide, encouraging community outreach and observing firsthand many success stories. While most churches in the Western world are stuck in neutral, some have actively filled recognized needs in their communities, causing these churches to be highly valued by those outside the church. These success stories are a gold mine of fresh ideas that stimulate thought and provide readers with options that their own churches can consider.

The book is extremely well written and easy to read. The variety of stories keeps the reader’s attention. But the stories are not just random and entertaining—they are structured into a carefully crafted philosophical foundation built on both Scripture and the best scientific evidence of how groups of people relate to each other. While the Colóns are not specialists in the Bible, their use of Scripture is measured, solid, and persuasive. The stories illustrate how real churches in real communities apply both biblical and scientific principles to real-life problems.

This book is a must-read, not only for Adventist Sabbath School teachers but for pastors, church leaders, and members who desire that churches make a difference in their local communities.

Reviewed by Jonathan Paulien, dean of the School of Religion at Loma Linda University.