Chi-Dooh Li’s life changed forever when a visiting preacher commented that the amount of money being spent on fighting communists in Central America could be used to buy all the land in Central America and give it to the poor. In his book Buy This Land, Li describes how the comment became his inspiration for setting up the organisation known as Agros International to buy land in Central America on behalf of the poor.
It is a remarkable and compelling story. A child refugee from China when the communists came to power, Li lived in Sydney, then in Taipei, then for 6 years in Guatemala and Colombia, as his father was given diplomatic postings in those countries. Li subsequently went to college in the US, became a Christian, married and settled in the US, and began his career as a lawyer. His life was already busy and full when he heard God’s call to help the poor in Central America.
As anyone with significant experience in serving the poor will attest, helping people out of poverty is a lot more difficult than it seems. Effective poverty relief requires changes to the systems which keep people poor, and it requires the active participation and enthusiasm of the people who are being helped; money alone is ineffective. Agros International has found an effective way of addressing poverty because it changes the system of landlessness which has kept people poor, and it motivates the poor to work for land of their own.
The book describes how Li’s dream of buying land on behalf of the poor led to an initial experiment in Guatemala, and then to gradual expansion in other countries. In a typical project, Agros buys a large parcel of land and provides technical expertise to numerous smallholder farmers who gradually pay for their own portion of the land out of the profits they make on their crops.
This is an inspiring story, showing how a person with a God-given vision can overcome numerous obstacles and make a significant difference in the lives of many. Chi-Dooh Li’s dream has grown into a large organisation with a multi-million-dollar annual budget, but he still has not given up his day job, continuing to work as a lawyer in Seattle.
Sooner or later, almost all attorneys realise that speaking in public is part of the job, according to Brian Johnson and Marsha Hunter in their book The Articulate Attorney: Public Speaking for Lawyers. Most lawyers do not particularly enjoy public speaking, and most are not particularly good at it; but anyone who is smart enough to become a lawyer is smart enough to become a proficient and polished presenter, given appropriate technique and sufficient practice.
We don’t do our churches any favours by being wimpy and indecisive; identifying and celebrating our quirks is not the gateway to communism or being un-American, and autocratic leadership is not as evil as it’s made out to be, according to John Voelz in his book Quirky Leadership: Permission Granted. We can celebrate creativity, diversity, freedom and permission, but we don’t have to be afraid of well-defined boundaries, preferences and styles.
The book discusses why church leaders should lead according to their own personality and sense of calling, rather than trying to conform to the generic leadership stereotypes advocated by the leadership literature. The author recommends setting “plumblines”, which are general principles setting out what the leader thinks is important, and which are used as the basis for decisions, so that everyone can understand the organisational philosophy.
In my opinion there is a great deal of wisdom in the book, and many usable insights for church leaders, even if they subscribe to different leadership styles. On the other hand, there is a danger in going too far with quirky leadership. As the author clearly states, church leadership is primarily about following Jesus. It is not about big-haired self-obsessed leaders developing their own cult following.
As serious philanthropists know, the results of philanthropic giving are often significantly less than anticipated. Philanthropic organisations have to decide whether it is more important to make donors feel good about themselves (in which case “results” are reported merely in terms of inputs such as amounts disbursed and number of people “helped”) or to maximise the achievement of their mission (in which case it is necessary to do the hard work of measuring and evaluating the actual outcomes such as the net benefit or detriment of a program to a poor community). The book The Robin Hood Rules for Smart Giving by Michael Weinstein and Ralph Bradburd describes one technique for valuing and comparing the relative effectiveness of different types of philanthropic endeavours.
Many of us church members have lost the biblical understanding of what it means to be a part of the body of Christ, according to Thom Rainer in his book I am a Church Member: Discovering the Attitude that Makes the Difference. We join our churches expecting others to serve us, to feed us, and to care for us; and we don’t like the hypocrites in the church, but we fail to see our own hypocrisies.
The book is a journey of rediscovering the privilege and joy of church membership, a journey through six pledges which are about the joy of being last instead of first, the joy of being a unifier rather than a complainer, the joy of being a servant rather than being entitled. The six pledges are:
To be a functioning member, giving cheerfully and abundantly, and serving without hesitation.
To be a unifying church member, avoiding gossip and negative talk, and promoting forgiveness and unity.
To avoid insisting on personal preferences and desires, and to put up with associated inconveniences.
To pray for church leaders every day, including for protection and physical and mental health.
To lead one’s family to be healthy church members, worshipping together and praying together for the church.
To treasure church membership as a gift, rather than treating it as a legalistic obligation.
The book is a very short one, at around 80 pages, easy to read and inexpensive. I found it quite inspiring, and by the end I was feeling eager to commit to a higher level of church membership. The problem with passivity in churches is usually diagnosed – probably correctly – as a leadership problem, but it is also a followership problem, and this book is a great way to open the eyes of ordinary believers to the importance of their role as fully participating members of the body.
The core question of effectiveness for a church – the question that ultimately matters – is whether the people who are getting saved are being conformed to the likeness of Christ, according to Jim Putman in his book Discipleshift: Five Steps That Help Your Church to Make Disciples Who Make Disciples. Are we making mature disciples of Jesus who are not only able to withstand the culture but are also making disciples of Jesus themselves?
Unfortunately, most churches do not rate highly when discipleship is the measure of success, and accordingly the book proposes that we need to be making five key shifts in the direction of the church:
From Reaching to Making: Instead of focusing all our efforts on reaching the lost, we should be focusing our primary efforts on making disciples.
From Informing to Equipping: Instead of concentrating on giving people information about Jesus, we need to concentrate on equipping them with the character and skills of a disciple.
From Program to Purpose: We need to replace our emphasis on having good programs with an emphasis on the purpose of making disciples.
From Activity to Relationship: Instead of seeing ministry as being primarily about activities, we should see ministry as being mainly about relationships.
From Accumulating to Deploying: The way we measure our success needs to change from the number of attenders, converts and size of budget to the number of mature disciples actively deployed in disciple-making ministry.
I found the book to be helpful and challenging in equal measure – helpful, because it provides quite a lot of information on how to start making disciples, the key areas in which a disciple needs to grow, what the role of a leader should be, what you actually equip disciples to do, how to achieve alignment between your church’s ministries and your discipling purpose, how small groups should work, and how to measure results; and challenging, because I can see how difficult it might be to implement.
This book is the title book for the 2013 Exponential Conference, and Exponential have released a number of free ebooks on the discipleship theme, recognising the subject as one of the key weaknesses of the church in the US. Another useful recently-released book with a similar theme is INsourcing by Randy Pope.