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‘Muscle and a Shovel’ author reflects on falling away


Michael Shank’s “When Shovels Break ” is a personal treatment of the sensitive topic of falling away from the faith and traveling the road back again. 

In Print | Darren Williamson
Shank’s previous book, “Muscle and a Shovel ,” took the Churches of Christ by storm after its release in 2011. The gritty account of his movement from the Baptist faith to Churches of Christ has in some ways become a litmus test for where one stands in our fellowship today. Some consider the book an unwelcome throwback to our sectarian past, while others view it as a needed corrective to the ecumenism currently sweeping through parts of the brotherhood.

Shank’s latest book retains the grittiness and autobiographical style of its predecessor, but most readers will find “When Shovels Break” to be less edgy and controversial — and more pastoral in tone.

Shank begins where he left off in “Muscle and a Shovel,” describing his new life as a zealous Christian ready to win souls for Christ. However, mounting financial difficulties, personal stresses and disappointments with stagnant Christians and churches eventually contributed to his falling away for more than 10 years. He put aside his Bible, stopped attending worship and went back to a worldly lifestyle. His shovel — a metaphor for his faith — had broken. 

When an ill-fated move from his home state of Illinois to Texas led to a nearly complete financial meltdown, Shank hit rock bottom. 

When all seemed lost, his wife Jonetta lovingly prompted him toward God’s Word, and through more digging — this time about the compassion of God for his erring children — Shank returned to the Lord. 

After moving back to Illinois, Shank reengaged in church life with greater zeal than before. Through an unlikely series of events, he entered full-time ministry with the Marion Church of Christ in southern Illinois. 

At this point, the book abruptly leaves behind its familiar autobiographical style and becomes more sermonic in tone and structure, including a section revealing the results of an admittedly unscientific poll about why people fall away. 

Shank concludes with several practical chapters that provide guidance to the fallen on how to return to God and how to stay faithful for the long run.  

Like the first book, “When Shovels Break” is self-published and thus has quite a few grammatical and syntax errors. As for content, the book would benefit from fine-tuning on issues connected to the doctrine of sanctification, the nature of discipleship and the theological questions related to falling away.

In spite of its limitations, the big-picture message of “When Shovels Break” makes it compelling, and its autobiographical style renders it very accessible and effective for the average reader. 

Shank deserves special credit for his humility and candor as he describes his life of sin, which included drug and alcohol abuse, sexual misconduct, greed and despair of life. This rare openness, combined with his story of recovery and restoration, will give great hope to those errant Christians who wonder whether or not Christ will take them back. 

One can easily see this book being used in small groups or in personal work to help minister to the fallen. 

Shank also provides a needed critique of the way some churches treat visitors and reminds readers that the person visiting church this Sunday may be desperately seeking to return to Christ. The way they are treated can either aid or hinder their journey toward restoration. 

The book as a whole is a valuable testimony to one man’s journey back to the God who loves him, forgives entirely and uses broken vessels for his good pleasure and his glory.

DARREN WILLIAMSON is preaching minister for the Keizer Church of Christ in Oregon. He is an adjunct instructor at George Fox University and director of the Campbell Institute for Theological Education, a ministry offering accredited courses in Bible to college students in the Willamette Valley of Oregon.

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