Review of Muscle and a Shovel by Michael Shank (Part 1)

 [Michael Shank, Muscle and a Shovel: A raw, gritty, true story about finding the Truth in a world drowning in religious confusion (5th edition, 2013; Kindle version). I have cited the book with chapter number first, then the Kindle location. For example, Chapter 1, location 245 is cited as 1:245.]

[I have expanded my three-blog review into a 21,000-word review, which is available here.]

Obeying the Gospel

In 2011, Michael Shank published the story of his own conversion. He describes how he was convicted by his encounter with the word of God when an African American co-worker named Randall led him through Scripture. Previously, Michael was a church-going Baptist whose sincerity was authentic and whose life was decent and moral but less than thoroughly dedicated. In other words, Michael was “Christian” in mostly a nominal sense (4:582-596).

He was awakened from his apathetic slumbers when Randall, in the light of 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10, asked, “have you obeyed the gospel of our Lord?” (3:449). Michael soon learned, through Randall’s gentle questioning, that “saying the Sinner’s Prayer is not obeying the gospel of Christ” (3:478). This set Michael on a quest, mostly under Randall’s tutelage, to “know what the gospel was and how people obeyed it” (3:484).

Searching raised many questions for Michael, which Randall addressed. They discussed baptism, how the church is organized (pastors, elders, bishops, deacons), what kind of music a church should use (instrumental?), denominationalism, Calvinism, unity, and tithing as well as other questions. Michael wanted to know the truth—he asked religious leaders, read his Bible, researched at the library, and studied with Randall.

In the end, Michael and his wife Jonetta were baptized at the Jackson Street church of Christ in Nashville, TN.

The book is an evangelistic narrative. Michael Shank came to the conclusion that though he was “saved” at the age of eight in a Baptist church and was immersed at the age of thirteen in a Baptist congregation, he had not really obeyed the gospel. He only obeyed the gospel when he was baptized on March 15, 1988 at 1:15am (38:6004).

Not only an evangelistic narrative, the book is an extended evangelistic tract. Towards the end of the book, Michael invites his readers to obey the gospel:

            “Friend, if you’ve read this book in its entirety you have been taught of God” (38:6103).

            “Someone gave you this book for a reason….Will you obey the gospel of Jesus Christ or will you reject it?” (38:6112, 6121)

Chapter Thirty-Nine, after a brief history of the Sinner’s Prayer, outlines “God’s marvelous plan of redemption and salvation, which is” (39:6278ff): hear, believe, repent, confess, and be baptized.

Michael portrays his own conversion story as an objective search for truth in the Scriptures. His final chapter (Forty) begins with this appeal

            Please let me point out something that I hope is completely apparent. I’ve used no personal interpretation of the Holy Scriptures. I’ve merely shared my story and revealed the Scriptures of God just as it happened.

            Here’s the hard part. Will you accept the simple, plain, straight-forward teaching of God’s Word (40:6502)?

Consequently, Michael encourages everyone “to get out your shovel and dig. Read the Word for yourself. See whether the things I’ve shared with you in this book are really so” (40:6560). It takes “muscle and a shovel” to discover for oneself what the Bible teaches. It takes some persistent willingness (muscle) and honesty (shovel) to dig deep enough—to work hard enough—to discover the “Truth.” “It takes a heart that is willing to dig. It takes an honest heart (Luke 8:15) that is willing to lay aside preconceived ideas” (24:3846).

What Did Michael Find When He Dug Deep?

The “Truth” Michael discovered was essentially “proper scriptural baptism,” and how this ushered him into “the true church of Christ,” which is the body of Christ (26:4246). This is the basic message of the book, that is, it is “about the gospel and the church of our Lord” (22:3562). Baptism is the moment God saves because it is the moment we reenact the gospel; it is the “split second in time” when sins are washed away (38:6075).

This is a critical discovery for Michael. Since it is the gospel that saves and baptism is the reenactment of that gospel, God saves in baptism because of what God does in baptism. Consequently, Michael emphatically states, “The argument that men and women can be saved before baptism is a lie. It originates from the father of lies who was a murderer from the beginning and in whom is no truth” (21:3453, emphasis in original).

Baptism is only biblical if the believer submits to it for the “right reason.” Specifically, Randall said, “If you get into the water of baptism thinking that your sins are forgiven before you get into the water, you’re not being baptized for the right reason. That’s not Bible baptism” (35:5677). The “right reason” is to be baptized for (in order to receive) the remission of sins in accordance with Acts 2:38 (21:3360). So, Michael reasoned, “if I got into the water thinking I had no sins, I was not baptized for the remission of sins. I wasn’t baptized like those in the Bible were baptized. It wasn’t biblical” (36:5872).

God adds the baptized to the church, the body of Christ. What group is that on the contemporary scene? What are the criteria for identifying the “church of Christ”? “The way you identify the true church of Christ today is” by what “it teaches and how it practices” (26:4247).

Randall has a rather long list and it is a particular sort of list (a summary begins at 32:5380). Here is the list—“Plain Bible teaching with no human opinions” (25:4194):

  • biblical name or descriptor (25:4136)
  • non-denominational (25:4172)
  • autonomous congregationalism (25:4180)
  • governed by elders, served by deacons, and headed by Christ (25:4180, 27:4464)
  • “five articles of worship” on the first day of every week, including the Lord’s Supper, prayer, singing, giving and preaching (26:4251)
  • the Lord’s supper every first day and exclusively on Sunday (26:4281)
  • singing without instrumental accompaniment (26:4361)
  • free will offerings without the regulation of tithing (27:4349)
  • teaches the biblical plan of salvation, that is, how to obey the gospel (30:4960).

The church of Christ practices and believes only what is prescribed in the Bible. It is the New Testament church because, guided by the New Testament alone, it neither adds nor subtracts from what is prescribed there.

In essence, Muscle and a Shovel is about how to obey the gospel and what constitutes the true church of Christ. According to Shank, one must be immersed in water for the right reason (for the remission of sins) and be “faithful to the [right] church” (25:4005) in order to have eternal life.

This explains one of Randall’s earlier statements, which startled Michael, and—no doubt—astounds others. Nevertheless, it is the clear import of what Randall taught Michael.

“Mr. Mike,” [Randall] said meekly, “from my understanding of God’s Word, if you’re a member of a denomination, whether it be Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Mormon, any church that Jesus Christ did not establish and buy with His blood, there’s no question that you’re headed toward eternal destruction” (6:941).

What I Appreciate

I value a non-denominational approach to Christianity, a high view of the independence and importance of the local congregation, the government of the congregation by wise, experienced, and godly elders, weekly communion at the table of the Lord, and an emphasis on congregational generosity rather than imposed financial programs.

I also value believer’s baptism. I appreciate how baptism is given more significance than the “Sinner’s Prayer.” Indeed, I have argued, as Michael also ultimately concludes, that baptism is the sinner’s prayer (cf. my 2004 Down in the River to Pray with Greg Taylor, p. 197).

I welcome the reports of baptisms that arise from the reading of Muscle and a Shovel, and I rejoice when anyone is immersed in obedience to God out of an authentic trust in Jesus as Redeemer.

What I most appreciate about the book is how Randall serves as a model for us.

In fact, Shank says this is one of the major reasons for publishing the book. He wanted to encourage us: “Will you become a Randall?” (40:6736). When he reviewed the notebook that he rediscovered in 2008, he knew “Randall’s attitude, approach, love, sincerity, persistence, scriptural ability, compassion, faithfulness, and desire to save the lost was a story that needed to be told” (40:6652).

One of the most encouraging aspects of the book is how everyone is called to read the Bible for themselves without a slavish dependence upon creeds, Pastors, or traditions. Everyone must pick up the shovel and dig; pick up the Bible and study it. Everyone must take responsibility for their own spiritual journey, including whether and how they read the Bible.

Another formative aspect of the story was its inter-generational and multiracial nature. Randall is African American, and Michael is Caucasian; Randall was in his mid-thirties, and Michael was twenty; Michael served in a higher capacity in the company for which they both worked. Michael was baptized at the Jackson Street church of Christ, which is, arguably, the “mother” of all African American churches of Christ. Marshall Keeble called this Nashville (TN) congregation home, and Alexander Campbell (African American), S. W. Womack, G. P. Bower, and Keeble planted it in 1896. The Jackson Street church has long honored God in many ways, especially in their support of evangelism and a passion for the lost. So, this is a beautiful testimony to how two men can study together, love each other, and embrace each other in the Lord despite their social, economic, generational, and ethnic differences. It truly embodies Colossians 3:11—what matters is a renewed image of God, not our economic, social, or ethnic status.

The relationship between Michael and Randall illustrates how one person can lead another into deeper discipleship. Michael saw the testimony of Randall’s life, and Randall loved Michael enough to speak into his life. The fruit of this relationship is the heart of the story.

In my next two blogs, I will address some of the book’s serious deficiencies.

15 Responses to “Review of Muscle and a Shovel by Michael Shank (Part 1)”

  1.   Warren Baldwin Says:

    I had some of the same positive thoughts about the narrative nature of the book, the Col. 3:11 spirit between Michael and Randall, and the teaching on baptism as you expressed here. I’m glad it is encouraging many to look at what they believe and why.

    I also have some questions and reservations as well, so I look forward to your future posts.

  2.   Stan Cunningham Says:

    Thanks John Mark. I know lots of folks who believe it’s the best thing that has ever happened to the fellowship of Churches of Christ. It’s being lauded as the greatest evangelism tool available today! Yet one has to search very hard to find an inkling of grace in its pages. Is it Evangelism? Or isolationism? I look forward to your future discussion.

  3.   Johnny Says:

    I am hard pressed to see how it is not akin to the Galatian heresy, condemning Baptized Believers over disputable issues, substituting a works based salvation in place of faith, almost ignoring Jesus for most of the books, (he is the Savior and King shouldn’t he take preeminence?) It is an interesting well intentioned book and may lead some to Christ, but …………… at what cost? How much damage does it do and how many does it turn away from the Kingdom?

  4.   Matt Raines Says:

    “Mr. Mike,” [Randall] said meekly, “from my understanding of God’s Word, if you’re a member of a denomination, whether it be Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Mormon, any church that Jesus Christ did not establish and buy with His blood, there’s no question that you’re headed toward eternal destruction” (6:941).”

    SO SAD

    Hopefully people who have come to faith with this text keep the shovel-they are going to need it to dig out of the legalism. Looking forward to your review.

  5.   Ann Says:

    So sad that the COC have tried so hard to get away from this stigma. Kind of a arrogant way of thinking. Anyone that believes they have all the right answers is just arrogant!

  6.   Rob Says:

    I appreciate John Mark’s generous comments in this first post, however just based on the his summary and quotations so far this narrative seems to “double down” on many of our traditions more unfortunate ideas and beliefs.

  7.   Ann Says:

    I was in the COC tribe for almost 30 years. My husband was a elder in the church. In the year 2012 we decided to leave the COC and this is one of the reasons. Sorry but the God I serve looks nothing like the person described in this book. Why would anyone want to be a part of a church that believes this way. I am so glad I do not have to get everything right! No one does so think you as a body of believers think you do is just wrong. The God I serve is full of mercy,grace,forgiveness, everlasting love. He died because He loved you so much! This book just makes me so sad that people think this way and others think how narrow minded the COC is. This book reminds me of another book Who Is My Brother. If this is all the COC has to offer in evangelistic tools all I can say is Lord have mercy.

    •   John Mark Fields Says:

      Ann, please keep in mind not to paint with an overly broad brush. I am faithful to Christ in clinging to His feet in trusting desperation. I am desperate for Him because I can’t help myself in the ways of salvation. My ways are what put Him on the cross. I do not in any way subscribe to the legalism portrayed in this book and remain a part of “that church”.

      Keep in mind that there are a multiplicity of beliefs within. Just as there were those who would still be saved in a “dead church” in Revelation there are those faithful intermixed with those who are not across the broad religious spectrum known as “Christendom”.

      You will find scary, detestable beliefs in ANY Christian group of which one is a part because people are “too awful to be lawful”. It is why we need salvation. If you’ve found one which does not have these problems, please let me know. I’d like to pack up my bags and move there. I need all the help I can get.

  8.   David Says:

    Jesus asked us to present His “truth in love”, so it’s not equated automatically to “arrogance”. Nadab and Abihu would probably choose not to enhance God’s specified fire. The man carrying the Ark would probably recall that God just plainly said not to touch it…period. Jesus warned us in Matt. 7:13-14 that His plan is not popular and never will be. He really doesn’t offer a “cafeteria plan”, no matter how kind and sweet we want to think it would be. He gave His life, so He gets to make His plan.

  9.   Jeff VanEtten Says:

    If the only reason to be baptized is for the remission of sin (Acts 2:38) then Jesus was baptized for the wrong reason. He had no sin! He was baptized to fulfill all righteousness; what a great reason to be part of Jesus!!! I can list at least six other reasons to be baptized. We in the COC need to quit being so narrow minded.

  10.   Phil Says:

    On the Muscle and Shovel review: I was handed this book by someone “concerned for my salvation”. I am so grateful for this book and grateful to have it behind me. Im grateful because it put me on a discovery to really look at the roots of my faith which have changed a lot over time. I am grateful that it led me to your review in order for me to more fully understand just how immature and under informed the doctrinal beliefs in that book are. Also you gave really good arguments which are backed with good evidence, unlike the Muscle and Shovel. Thank you Dr. Hicks for leading me to better see the “truths” of the claims in the book. There is so much more that I could say. But I think I will save it for a therapist.

  11.   Michael Shank Says:

    June 29, 2015

    To: John Mark Hicks

    From: Michael Shank, author of Muscle and a Shovel

    Dear friend and brother in Christ,

    I pray this finds you well and prospering in our Lord! May we proper as our soul prospers (3 Jo. 1:2). I am writing to reach out to you in love and to ask you to review my second book, the sequel to Muscle and a Shovel. It is title, “When Shovels Break.”

    The story picks up where Muscle left off: what happened to us after our baptism into Christ. Brother, I would love to send you a free copy for your review.

    I also want to express my gratefulness to all of those on your site who have expressed both positives and negatives about my work and your follow up work. With this in mind, I truly believe with all of my heart that you (and all of those posting here) will find the love, kindness, mercy, grace, and the true hope that we have in the Lord Jesus Christ in this story, for it is a story of falling away from Jesus Christ, returning to the world of sin, and being redeemed!

    My personal email address is Please send me a good mailing address for you and we will get a copy out to you immediately.

    Please remember that you have my sincere brotherly love and prayers. your bro with humble love, mike

    Michael Shank

    •   John Mark Hicks Says:

      Thanks, Michael. I appreciate your kind offer and your kind words. While I don’t have time at the moment to review your new book, I will make some room in my schedule to read it and perhaps offer a blog on it.

      Blessings in Christ,

      John Mark


  1. Links to Go (August 25, 2014) | Tim Archer's Kitchen of Half-Baked Thoughts
  2. Muscle and a Shovel | Tim Archer's Kitchen of Half-Baked Thoughts

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