September 18, 2010

Book Review: Nudge by Leonard Sweet

 Nudge: Awakening Each Other to the God Who's Already There is Leonard Sweet's latest - this time focusing on the topic of evangelism.

 The book starts strong, Sweet makes the case that there is a better way between the strong-arm  approach built around the question, "If you died today, do you know without any doubt that you would wake up in heaven," and the completely passive position where you just sort of hope someone picks up faith by osmosis. He notes:
"Evangelism as we know it hasn't worked. Either evangelism is so aggressive you want to get a restraining order, or else evangelism is so restrained you want to call it to order. Our strategies have been spectacularly useless at best, counterproductive at worst. We have lived through an exodus, but not of the biblical kind" (pg. 35)
 The alternative is the "nudge" - a touch, but not a shove - gently guiding people into the reality of God's constant presence in the lives of all people, and God's constant desire to be known in the lives of God's people, reunited in a restored relationship made possible through Jesus. The nudge is built upon a foundation of honesty, compassion, and respect, recognizing that we aren't the ones who bring God to people or taking Jesus to the 'unsaved', our job is to help people simply see what God has already been doing. Sweet writes:
"Evangelism is nudging people to pay attention to the mission of God in their lives and to the necessity of responding to that initiative in ways that birth new realities and the new birth" (pg. 28)
 "The integrity of the nudge requires that it be welcomed and that it be reciprocal. The purpose of the nudge is to manifest Christ in a moment of mutual knowing, which benefits both the person being nudged and the nudger. Nudging is not best driven by fear or by some need within the nudger. Nudges are not contrived but are the natural consequence of being with someone in a moment and wishing them to join you in recognizing a God-moment. The best nudges culminate in a grunt to mutual recognition. God nudges me because God likes me. I nudge others because I like them. There is an implied caring that comes with nudging" (pg. 29).
 Sweet is able to articulate an understanding of evangelism that I've been trying to get my head around for the last few years, he offers a thoroughly Wesleyan concept of grace (prevenient, justifying, sanctifying), with an approach that is accessible to all Christians.

 He then speaks of how nudge evangelism must be rooted in semiotics - the art and discipline of reading those signs from God that are constantly in our midst, but are often missed. God is constantly speaking, reaching out to us, nudging us, but in our attention-deficit-disorder world most of us (even within the church) just aren't paying attention. According to Sweet:
"When we don't pay attention to what God is doing, we dishonor and devalue him. In everything we do, whether it be reading the Word, hiking in the woods, watching a movie, viewing a painting, we respect God when we ask ourselves this question: 'What is God's invitation here?' By not paying attention to life, we pay God no respect" (pg. 59). 
  Again I'm completely on board with the case Sweet is making here, he does a great job explaining why we need to be paying attention, as well as reminding us of the reasons why we frequently miss Jesus in our midst.

 Len then unpacks the connection between semiotics and holistic evangelism by developing an extended metaphor of a "sensational" Christianity that engages all five senses - we pay attention to God and we do the work of evangelism by engaging all fives senses - to hear, to taste, to see, to touch, and to smell. Unfortunately, for me, it is this second part of this book, focused on this metaphor that the book begins to break down.

 The problem isn't that the metaphor doesn't work, it's pretty inspired as a whole, but it personally felt a little too long (and tortured) in some spots, while lacking in others. For instance, in the chapter on hearing Sweet delves into a discussion around physics and string theory that seems completely unnecessary. I get what he is trying to do here - all throughout the second half of the book he's trying to identify all those signs, big and small, obvious and unseen, that point to God's grand design; he wants this to be an exercise in semiotics. While I appreciate the attempt, it doesn't quite work - it seems a little belabored. Maybe I wasn't reading this section with the right frame of mind or an appropriate level of attentiveness, and Sweet continues to make some good points here; it just felt like there were too many clever metaphors, illustrations and word-play that only obscured the larger point. As I kept reading, it struck me that this is still a good book, but there is a great book hidden within half-as-many pages that could really connect with lay people, instead of feeling like an exercise for scholars.

 Overall, Sweet does a excellent job inviting and challenging the reader to be more intentional about paying attention to God and reaching out to others so that they might experience God who is already in our midst. The first half is brilliant, the second half is a little bumpy but worth your time. If you are at all interested in a vision of evangelism that makes sense, check this out.

(Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book for review).

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