Saturday Afternoon Book Review: Vertical Church

Just got done reading James MacDonald’s new book Vertical Church: What Every Heart Longs for. What Every Church can be (kindle version).

Loved the emphasis this book has as compared to other books on leadership or church ministry. The entire book, while giving the reader an inside look at how Harvest Bible is laid out, the “pillars of ministry” they live out. It is all based on being vertical as a church. More concerned with glorifying God than themselves, more concerned with connecting to God than connecting the culture around them.

Here’s the back cover of the book:

An emergency call, and I rush from my coziness into the dark community where the police have requested a chaplain. Arriving in minutes, I find the family imploding with grief having just discovered their son hanging in the garage. In a moment of unshakable pain, he jumped off the ladder and into eternity. And I will never shake the look in their eyes when I asked why he hadn’t called a church. “Why would he do that?” Across town, a pool of tears on my kitchen table as an out of town guest feels the weight of his infidelity, despairing that his famished soul finds no refuge and that he has to board a plane to feel fellowship. “Has your church tried to help you?” And the Christian leader confesses he hasn’t been to church in years.

Infighting, backbiting, heartbreaking, frustrating … church.

Though exceptions do exist, the reality is that church in America is failing one life at a time. Somewhere between pathetically predictable and shamefully entertaining, sadly sentimental and rarely authentic, church has become worst of all … godless.

Vertical Church points to a new day where God is the seeker, and we are the ones found. In Vertical Church God shows up, and that changes everything.

If you want to experience God as you never have before and witness His hand at work, if you want to wake up to the first thought, “Thank God it’s Sunday,” if you’re ready to feel your heart beat faster as you drive to your place of worship … then devour and digest the lessons of Vertical Church.

I will admit, the first 4 chapters where MacDonald lays the foundation for his ministry philosophy started to get a little long, they are incredibly important. Without understanding our desire as humans for glory and transcendence, we will not understand how God fills that and how to help people move in that direction.

The second part of the book where MacDonald lays out the “pillars” of Harvest: Unashamed adoration, unapologetic preaching, unafraid witness, and unceasing prayer were great. The preaching chapter is worth the price of the book. I found myself taking all kinds of notes in that chapter and wished it was an entire book on preaching.

Personally, I was challenged in the witness chapter and the idea of boldness when it comes to evangelism. His argument against “relational evangelism” was fantastic, showing how our fears influence us more than Scripture does in evangelism.

Here are a few other things that jumped out to me in the book:

  • Where Jesus Christ is at work, things are happening that cannot be explained by rational categories.
  • Any pastor who doesn’t grieve deeply the loss of people is in the wrong line of work.
  • When people are taught that their ultimate purpose is reaching the lost or building a church or extending their hands to the poor, they derail during difficult times.
  • When people are taught that their ultimate purpose is reaching the lost or building a church or extending their hands to the poor, they derail during difficult times. Horizontal purposes, even ones that express God’s heart for the lost, are not adequate to sustain a lifetime of devotion to the gospel through the valleys people inevitably face.
  • God won’t do through me what He can’t do in me.
  • evangelism and discipleship are equal in priority because both bring more glory to God.
  • A church that tries to feed thirty-ounce exegetical ribeyes that satisfy the seminary graduates and no one else is not an acceptable alternative. Doctrinally precise churches that pride themselves on depth and substance but reach almost no one, while critiquing everyone who does reach people as shallow, do not honor God or steward the gospel better.
  • If you expect Jesus to congratulate your doctrinal accuracy that reached a white suburban elitist few but didn’t weep for lost people or socialize with sinners or find ways to meet the gaping needs of the broken all around you, you are going to be crushed by disappointment when you meet the Savior.
  • No theologian anywhere who takes the Bible seriously sees salvation as anything other than a sovereign act of God. But we have so elevated the role of human persuasion in evangelism that we see ourselves significant at the center of every human interaction, using our personalities and cultural connectedness to convince a person to Christ.52 All of this is an offense to the saving God who draws people to Himself and just needs the messenger to speak the gospel words in love then get out of His way.
  • Worship or adoration is the most powerful expression a human being is capable of. When worship is directed to an unworthy person or object, we call it idolatry. Idolatry, not pride as we are often told, is the root of all sin. Pride is the wrong view of self that fuels idolatry, but the ultimate sin is the actual act of placing anyone or anything on the throne that is God’s alone.
  • The highest and most powerful human experience is to express our love to the most worthy object of that affection. In the elevation of Christ’s worthiness, our greatest joy is discovered. The greatest sin, then, is directing that adoration elsewhere, not only because it insults God, but also because it insulates our hearts from the delight we were created to revel in. To fail at worship is the greatest failure a human is capable of with the gravest and most immediate of consequences. But when a believing community amplifies worship as their ultimate priority, they are shaped by that adoration into the most powerful human force possible.
  • We preach so that worship will increase, not the reverse.
  • We don’t worship so that preaching will be more impactful for us; we preach so that worship will be more impactful for God.
  • If we believe God is present in our worship as He promises to be,20 then we must frame all language of worship as to Him and not merely about Him.
  • Preaching is much less about the person or the place it happens and more a pattern for how God wants His message given.
  • Bible explanation is not preaching. Exegetical review by itself is not preaching.
  • If you are unpacking your lexical study and dispensing biblical accuracy without Holy Spirit urgency, you are not preaching in the biblical sense,
  • Preaching is theology coming through a man who is on fire. A true understanding and experience of the Truth must lead to this. I say again that a man who can speak about these things dispassionately has no right whatsoever to be in a pulpit; and should never be allowed to enter one.
  • All truth is God’s truth, but hear this: all truth is not God’s Word.
  • God’s voice will not be heard in our churches unless we are preaching the Bible.
  • The biggest leak in the boat of biblical authority during proclamation: apology. How did we come to the place where we think God needs PR? Who is responsible for the constant concern about how culture hears what God has to say? When did we become more anxious about offending people than offending God, and why? Preachers who manufacture content or marginalize what God has said because they are concerned that people will be offended by it or the culture won’t be comfortable may convince themselves they are giving God a leg up, but the one they are really protecting is in the mirror. Trust me on this; God is never watching in appreciation when we make His Word more palatable to pagans. I am not for pulpit ranting, and I don’t believe God is honored in making the Bible complicated where it’s simple. Preaching should not nullify the Word of God through tradition or negate the Word of God by speaking in religious terms the uninitiated can’t access, but Vertical, biblical preaching should never place loyalty to the audience’s sensitivities ahead of loyalty to God and His Word.
  • Preoccupation with making sure the listener is not offended leads inevitably to offending God.
  • If no one ever says, after hearing you, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” you don’t have a ministry like Jesus had, and you’re not being faithful to the Word of God!
  • Apology preaching teaches people to resist the Bible’s authority instead of submit to “it is written.”
  • When you evaluate a message, how much weight do you give to asking, “What did the Holy Spirit do?”
  • In order for God’s voice to move through a human mouthpiece, that person must have a true sense of Who the sermon is about, which begins with a clear understanding of whom it is not about.
  • God has done more than give us good news He wants to get out. He has given us a manner that must accompany every method and a rationale for that manner. The single term that best describes the way God wants His gospel given is boldness.
  • Boldness (parrhesia) is used forty-two times in the New Testament. It is translated “openly,” “freely,” “plainly,” “with confidence” but most commonly some form of the word “bold.” A bold witness is not a pushy witness. A bold witness is not a loud witness, unless it needs to be. Boldness is not obnoxiousness. It’s not rude or demanding. Boldness is the furthest thing from some wild-eyed preacher screeching in the streets, “You’re going to hell!” Boldness is clear, direct communication in the face of potential opposition, nothing more or less.
  • Boldness is simply speaking the gospel plainly.
  • unless you are willing to be the aroma of death to those who are perishing, you will never be the aroma of life to those who are being saved.
  • When the church becomes a circus, concert venue, or a clown show, God is long gone, glory doesn’t come down, and we are left with the performance we put on to tell people about a God they will never experience personally.
  • If you are not willing to be the aroma of death to those who are perishing, you can’t be the aroma of life to those who are being saved.
  • The idea of having conversations with a person for months or years to “earn the right” to talk to him or her about Jesus betrays an elevation of the role of human persuasion in evangelism that just doesn’t square with the Gospels or the book of Acts.
  • Unless we believe that God has installed a hunger for Himself in the human soul, we waste massive amounts of time seeking to engage people instead of simply addressing the longing for transcendence God has already given.
  • God must speak in the preaching, God must show up to receive our worship, God must ripen the hearts of people to the gospel, and all of that He will do if we pray biblically, but He will do none of it if we do not pray.
  • Prayer is the first thing our flesh stops when times get easy, and true prayer is the last thing we resort to when times get tough.
  • The reason God responds to persistence is because prayer is changing the one who prays.
  • We needed greater specificity into our prayers, asking in faith for God to do actual, measurable things such as breaking someone’s addiction or bringing a family back together.

All in all, a great book. One definitely worth reading if you are a church leader or desire to see God do more in your church.