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Embarking Blog

...on the journey towards restoration of all things

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The Other Side of Me (Beformed)

Tom Elenbaas

[Exerpt] What might happen if in humility we willingly submitted ourselves to the people we know love us who would only hurt us to help us? Do we have those people in our lives we can trust with our open vulnerability, and how might our character be formed for the better if they help us see the other side of ourselves?

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One of the phrases that I like to use is "failing forward." I believe that it takes some risk to move forward, and without risk, nothing changes. But with risk comes the possibility of "failure." Honestly, I don't even like that word. Failure surely has a category of its own, but risking new things and not achieving them is not necessarily failure. I had a conversation with someone yesterday about this who worries a lot about failure because his parents continued to tell him over and over and over that he wasn't supposed to fail. They treated him negatively when he "failed," and punished him verbally, if not in other ways. This kind of child-rearing or even management in organizations creates a risk-averse culture that then leads to a lack of innovation, creativity, out-of-the-box, and break-through thinking.

In her book 9 Things Successful People Do Differently, Heidi Grant Halvorson shares some ideas that help move us toward possibility thinking rather than fear of failure thinking. I like her understanding of the difference between "Be Good" goals, and "Get Better" goals. I like this because first of all it's practical, and second of all, it fits with my theology. Theologically, we cannot "be good" in this perfectionist mode. It is impossible to get it all right, and we are sinful, broken people seeking to follow Jesus into the better life. A friend of mine often gets frustrated with sermons he calls antithetical to the gospel - you know the ones - they have an outline like this: "You suck; do better." When I say "get better" I don't mean that kind of thing, but instead, the desire to seek something higher, greater, and more pure and right without the fear of failure, because honestly, failure isn't optional. Failure happens. Get over it already.  And yet that is not an excuse for doing better, being better, and improving. I'm not advocating for a lackadaisical kind of lazy lifestyle, but a focus on getting better rather than being good; a focus on seeking excellence, not perfection; on development rather than accomplishment; and on transformation over success.

Here is how Halvorson describes the difference between be-good goals and get-better goals:

  • Be-good Goals: Put the emphasis on proving you have ability and showing you know how to do something.
  • Get-better Goals: Put the emphasis on developing ability and learning to master a new skill.

In a recent article on - ideas on making things happen, called Tripping into Terra Incognita: how mistakes take us to new places,  John Caddell takes on this topic in terms of business management (cf. Six Sigma), and how the focusing on removing mistakes completely and the pursuit of perfection could keep us from accidentally falling into all kinds of great things. He uses examples such as the invention of the first artificial sweetener - saccarin, the process of vulcanizing rubber, not to mention things like the lightbulb and other great inventions. (Remember the old commercials for Reese's Peanut Butter Cups? Or my favorite... those meatball hors d'oeuvres that combine chili sauce and grape jelly... that can't have been on purpose). I love the idea John puts forth that "A mistake is a collision between your perception and reality," and that mistakes take us to the margins, to the unknown, to the unexplored, and that it is in these places that some of the best discoveries emerge. Mistakes often lead us to the place of realizing that our assumptions and beliefs may have been invalid, which can open us to new possibility thinking if we will let it. Think Galileo and the Copernican revolution. Many - myself included - would advocate that it takes true failure of our systems, institutions, and assumptions to create a real and lasting paradigmatic shift in belief and practice. It is failure that leads to incredible success, if we are not paralyzed by it. (Think Steve Jobs.)

  • "Failure" often leads us into accidental discoveries.
  • "Failure" leads to margin rather than mainstream thinking.
  • "Failure" gives us an opportunity to learn, and is a great teacher if we will let it.
  • "Failure" teaches humility, and out of humility often emerges truth that less dependent upon our limited thinking and abilities.

So how about we figure out better ways to raise our children and to treat our employees and colleagues? How about we find ways of embracing "failure," or figuring out how to fail forward in safe contexts that value innovation, out-of-the-box thinking, charity for risk, perfection-aversion, and seeking the opportunity to get better rather than simply getting it right.

Two weeks ago, I preached a sermon entitled "God Perfects Me," which talked about this penchant for perfection so many of us have. If you'd like to hear the podcast, click here. (Note: there was a person during the service who had a seizure - I don't think it was my preaching. What was interesting to me was that this "imperfection" in the service happened on this particular Sunday. In fact, I spoke with the gentleman later, and he was concerned about having been a distraction. I think the point was made for him, for me, and for others... I just wish he hadn't had to experience that.)

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To Change the World or Not, that is the question (sort of)


That's not exactly how he phrases it, but James Davison Hunter in his recent book To Change the World: Irony, Tragedy, and The Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World questions the possibility of Christians really changing the world through intention.   It's not nearly that simple, particularly for this brilliant sociologist, but Hunter argues - among other things - that changing the world is a long, complicated process involving cultural elites and centers of power, particularly in politics, that run contrary to the biblical vision given to us by Jesus.  I've been reading this book over the past couple months and have finally brought it to conclusion, although I think I'll read it again.  In a nutshell, Hunter challenges the assumption that aggregated individuals through grassroots efforts can make any lasting or significant change in culture, particularly without wielding the very power of coercion that Christianity rejects. I think Andy Crouch from the Christian Vision Project sums it up well when he says, "The irony is that there is no phrase more beloved to a certain kind of Christian than 'to change the world.' But in Hunter's persuasive account, the strategies those very same Christians have pursued are, by themselves, woefully incapable of changing the world..."  "...the very idea of 'changing the world' is rooted in a quest for dominance that fundamentally misunderstands the Christian gospel and the way of Jesus."

Hunter goes on to critique the Christian Right (conservatives), The Christian Left (liberals or mainliners), and what he calls the "Neo-Anabaptists" made up of folks like Hauerwas, Yoder, Claiborne, and the New Monastics.  In this critique, Hunter betrays his philosophical (or sociological?) postmodernism in agreement with the likes of Foucault, Nietzsche, and others about language, power, and the coercive nature of culture creation.

There are several people who engage Hunter's work, not the least of which are Andy Crouch and Chuck Colsen (see the posts below) who ask some great questions.  What I found interesting was that nowhere (I'm sure it's out there somewhere) have I yet seen someone challenge the philological, linguistic, postmodern philosophical assumptions of Hunter's work.  Don't get me wrong, I actually agree with Hunter on these points about power and cultural transformation, but he doesn't fully tip his hands about the philosophical foundations of those ideas, choosing instead to shroud them more spiritually in the non-coercive, non-violent leadership of Jesus.  I happen to think these two things are very compatible, but haven't seen much work done to connect the two (which I'd love to do if I had the time).  Hunter does his sociological work as a Christian within a postmodern philosophical framework, but only acknowledges his indebtedness to the likes of Foucault at a cursory level hidden in the endnotes (yes, some of us do read them, cf. endnote 1, Chapter 4, Part I) and to Nietzshe with a short explication ofressentiment from Nietzsche and its relationship to Christianity in Chapter 7 of Part II.  Generally I find most Christians merely lambasting postmodern thought and philosophy without a) really understanding some of the seminal thoughts, b) seeing the ability to be a Christian and acknowledge some of these realities, or c) understanding how deeply these ideas affect issues of hermeneutics, missions, and even contextualization.

Don't get me wrong, there are serious problems with postmodern philosophy, postmodernity as a cultural project, unthoughtful "postmodern churches" and edgy "postmodern pastors".  But some of the more serious questions about our embeddedness in cultures of understanding based on would help us think through contextualization in mission, understanding of  power and language might help us avoid our sometimes coercive tendencies (in marketing, preaching, the use of guilt, etc.), and a greater honesty about our presuppositions and framing stories might help us get closer to real conversation with people about basic beliefs without mere condemnation and help our evangelism.  Recently Tim Keller told a group I was a part of that we need a new approach to apologetics, and I think this is part of it.  Hunter, in my opinion, opens the door to some of these conversations in a different (and potentially less volatile) way than Brian McLaren.

So, here are a couple wrap up thoughts on Hunter's book:

  1. This is a wonderful, scholarly work on how cultural change actually functions.
  2. This work requires additional study on these issues by Christians and non-Christians alike.
  3. There is much more work to be done in helping Christians to wrestle with some of these underlying issues of power, language, and culture (which, honestly, postmodern philosophy is mostly about).
  4. This analysis is extremely helpful in understanding many of the drawbacks of the Christian Right, Christian Left, and the Neo-Anabaptist approaches and their rooting (or not) in ressentiment (which, interestingly enough, was the subject of one of my senior seminar papers in 1994 dealing with Neitzsche and the will to power.)

Enough of that for now.  I have more to say, and if I find the time I'll write more.  Here are some helpful articles that give some more information about the book and Crouch and Colsen's responses.

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Cizik, Emerging, and Evangelicalism


I read a blog post tonight in the Washington Post from the Georgetown/ On Faith by Jacques Berlinerblau on "Evangelical America's Future."  I'm actually really interested in the topic of the future of evangelicalism.  Personally, I believe we are going through some major transitions, not only in Evangelicalism, but in Christianity in general.  My friend Doug put me on to Phyllis Tickle's book The Great Emergence this past year, and I really enjoyed her argument [tuncated here] that we're going through a major shift in Christianity out of which will emerge both a changed Christianity and possibly a new breed of Christianity as well.  (As an example, the Prostestant Reformation lead to the birth of Protestantism as well as a forever changed Catholicism - two new things out of one.) I'm interested in who will lead the new evangelicalism, what will happen with the so-called "emerging church" (lots of conversation lately on whether Emergent is dead or alive), how orthodoxy will be restated (it's always restated into new cultural contexts when the culture shifts... and the culture is shifting... truth is still true but may be communicated, understood, or incarnated differently in new and emerging cultural contexts).

Anyway, this article was looking at how Richard Cizik, former head of the National Association of Evangelicals, has been changing his political position (Cizik resigned from the NAE in December after 28 years) from classic conservative and Republican political positions to more liberal positions on a number of issues.  This isn't uncommon these days, what I call the de-Republicanization of evangelicalism.  I have always maintained that being evangelical is neither congruent fully with Republicanism or Democratic platforms.  There are biblical issues on both sides of the spectrum, probably making the more faithful political position of a committed evangelical being somewhere in the independent middle.  In any case, I haven't watched the video of the interview, yet, but I was disappointed in his apparent stance on same-gender civil unions.  Now, to be fair, there are some people I know who are not in favor spiritually or biblically of same-gender sexual union but are ok politically with civil unions, and maybe this is Cizik's position (though I doubt it).  I'm not there, either, and I remain biblically conservative on homosexuality, but I can see their point in a non-Christian liberal democracy.  (I appreciate Stanley Grenz's phrase "Welcoming but not affirming" for the church).   However, I will agree with Cizik that many younger evangelicals (certainly not all, particularly not the young calvinists) tend to be more politically liberal.  This younger evangelical political liberalism tends to be focused around issues of war, poverty, ecology, racial issues, gender equality, nuclear disarmament, etc.  I think it's important to note that there are many younger evangelicals who have a conservative view of marriage as between one man and one woman, are concerned about the protection of the unborn and at the same time are anti-war, concerned about global and local poverty, have a high value for racial reconciliation and gender equality, are eco-concerned, etc.  To continue to act as if there are only two sides for evangelicals to be on politically is to make simplistic political positions that are highly complex.  The two-party system is not only broken from a secular political theory point of view, but is broken from a biblical, evangelical point of view.

Just sayin'.

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Religious Leaders and the G8 Summit


We are using the term
“security” in a new way.the wellbeing of each is related to the wellbeing of others and to our

Had a little time to read tonight the draft of the final call of the IV Summit of Religious Leaders in Rome on June 16 – 17 , 2009 on the occasion of the G8 Summit in L'Aquila, Italy.  Here are some of the highlights of the call to the world's most powerful and richest nations, including of course, the US.

  • We, leaders of the worlds religions and spiritual traditions gathered in Rome on the eve of the G8 Summit of 2009, are united in our common commitment to justice and the protection of human life, the building of the common good and the belief on the divinely established and inviolable dignity of all people from conception to death.
  • In a time of economic crisis when many securities are crumbling, we feel even more acutely the need for spiritual orientation.
  • We are using the term “security” in a new way... the wellbeing of each is related to the wellbeing of others and to our environment.
  • The current financial and economic crisis weighs most heavily upon the poor.
  • In continuity with previous world religious summits we continue to call for the fulfilment of the Millennium Development Goals.
  • ...we call for nations to resist making war a means of international politics and to make every effort to establish a just peace for all.
  • We request the G8 Summit to pursue rigorous implementation of nuclear reduction and nonproliferation policies leading to the goal of total nuclear disarmament.

It is good to see some cooperation between religious leaders, including Christian leaders, continuing to make the call for nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation, commitment to justice, care for the world's poor, resistance of materialism, a call to seek spiritual answers and orientation, the call for peace and nonviolence, commitment to the Millenium Development Goals, and the value of human life and dignity.  I found it interesting in light of my last post the focus once again upon an understanding of security in terms of "global" security and interdependence rather than merely the security of particular groups and/ or countries.

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A Jesus Manifesto


I just finished reading A Magna Carta for Restoring the Supremacy of Jesus Christ aka A Jesus Manifesto for the 21st Century Church by Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola.  I enjoyed reading it, and many things resonated with me.  Apart from potentially being a marketing tool to sell more books possibly suggested by the publishers (my cynic is always present), the manifesto essentially highlights the importance of Jesus the Christ over and above anything in his name - be it justice, being missional, good works, laws or any other thing.  It is a reminder that Jesus it the one important thing, not anything else.  True.  I think what stood out for me were a couple of phrases:

Christianity is the "good news" that Beauty, Truth, and Goodness are found in a person.

This connects to what I've always said that truth is relational rather than (or superceding) being objective.  Jesus - as a member of the Trinity - is truth, and truth is personal.

We believe that the major disease of the church today is JDD: Jesus Deficit Disorder.  The person of Jesus is increasingly politically incorrect, and is being replaced by the language of "justice," "the kingdom of God," "values," and "leadership principles."

I agree with this in principle, but also want to make the point that much of the [evangelical] church has for far too long ignored issues of justice and particularly the gospel focus on kingdom.  Some of the strong language in these directions is to recapture the biblical messages of Jesus in a more holistic fashion.  Agreed that Jesus himself is the point, but because he is the point, his kingdom and justice are important.  I'm not as big a defender of "values" and "leadership principles," although I certainly do have both, and the bible speaks to both as well.

The center and circumference of the Christian life is none other than the person of Christ.

Those of you who know my story of conversion to Christ know that Paul's statement in Colossians that "in Christ all things hold together" means a great deal to me both existentially and philosophically.

Christians don't follow a book.  Christians follow a person, and this library of divinely inspired books we call "The Holy Bible" best help us follow that person.

Well said.  Many people never get through the book to Jesus the Christ.

Christians don't follow Christianity; Christians follow Christ.

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National Congregational Studies report


There is a new National Congregations Study’s report out looking at trends in congregations in America.  There's some interesting information here, particularly when read along with the report on megachurches from my last post.  Here are some highlights:  

  1. Most congregations are small but most people are in large congregations.
  2. Worship services are becoming more informal.
  3. Congregational leaders are still overwhelmingly male.
  4. Predominantly white congregations are more ethnically diverse.
  5. Congregations embrace technology.
  6. Congregations and clergy are getting older.
  7. Congregations’ position in the social class structure remains unchanged.
  8. Congregations’ involvement in social service activities remains unchanged.
  9. Only a small minority of congregations describe themselves as theologically “liberal,” even within the Protestant mainline.
  10. Congregations are more tolerant and inclusive than we might expect them to be, even when it comes to hot-button issues.
  11. There has been no signifi cant increase in congregational confl ict since 1998.
  12. Congregations’ involvement in political activities is largely unchanged since 1998.

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New Mega Church Study


Scott Thumma and Warren Bird have released another study on America's Megachurches.  The last 10 years, a number of studies have been released through the Leadership Network.  The new one is called "Not Who You Think They Are".  Some of the other studies are the following:

There are a number of interesting items in this report.  Here is a quick list of their findings:

  • Young and single adults are more likely to be in megachurches than in smaller churches.
  • Nearly two-thirds of attenders have been at these churches 5 years or less.
  • Many attenders come from other churches, but nearly a quarter haven’t been in any church for a long time before coming to a megachurch.
  • Attenders report a considerable increase in their involvement in church, in their spiritual growth, and in their needs being met.
  • Forty-five percent of megachurch attenders never volunteer at the church.
  • New people almost always come to the megachurch because family, friends or coworkers invited them.
  • What first attracted attenders were the worship style, the senior pastor and the church’s reputation.
  • These same factors also influenced long-term attendance, as did the music/arts, social and community outreach and adult-oriented programs.
  • Attenders can craft unique, customized spiritual experiences through the multitude of ministry choices and diverse avenues for involvement that megachurches offer.

What do you think?  Read the whole piece if you can.  I think there are some interesting things to reflect on here.

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