The first goodbye I remember is my family standing on the church stage, our elders praying with their hands on us. Tears. Cake and a reception in the fellowship hall. Friends and family from across the country. Lots of photos.
I didn’t know it at the time, but we wouldn’t return to the United States for five years after that goodbye. I was 5 years old.
For many, summer is a time of transition, a time that most likely includes a goodbye or two. A move to college or a move to an assisted-living residence. A move across the globe or a move to a town 20 miles away.
Holding back tears, most people would agree with my 8-year-old daughter (who has moved four times and lived in three countries): “I don’t like goodbyes. They are one of the worst things I don’t like.”
Goodbyes aren’t easy, but they’re a valuable practice in our homes and churches. Instead of hiding behind our discomfort—“I’m not good at goodbyes!”—we can develop practices that lead to healthy, helpful goodbyes. Here are five suggestions.1. Acknowledge the Pain
For the person leaving, saying goodbye raises all kinds of painful uncertainties: Will I ever have this again? This fellowship? These friendships? These opportunities? This church? This community?
Those are the questions I had when I graduated from high school in Africa. As a third-culture kid, I knew I was leaving not only my school but also a culture I might never return to.
Whatever the circumstances of the parting, grief is a close companion of goodbye. God created us for community, and when physical separation breaks our community, we grieve. We long for togetherness. As I tell my children and remind myself, it’s okay to cry at goodbyes. As believers, we stand in a long line of the faithful who have grieved at a departure. However, we grieve with the hope and knowledge that eternal togetherness is certain.
When Paul left the Ephesian elders in Miletus they knew they wouldn’t see each other again on this earth. They accompanied him to the ship, “And there was much weeping on the part of all; they embraced Paul and kissed him” (Acts 20:38). These Christians didn’t conceal their tears or deny their grief. Neither should we.2. Be Intentional
Maybe you’re the one staying put and saying goodbye to a friend moving away. Or perhaps you’re the one planning the relocation. In either case, make the goodbye intentional. You don’t have to throw a fancy party among the boxes, but making space in the schedule to say a purposeful goodbye honors relationships. Often we focus on the person departing, but those left behind, particularly family members, can also feel the deep pain of separation.
In the military we have a tradition called the “Hail and Farewell.” We welcome newcomers to the team and honor those who are departing. At a farewell, colleagues and friends get the opportunity to say a word of encouragement and give parting gifts. “Hail and Farewells” are an integral part of the military community, encouraging healthy goodbyes.
Though formal goodbye parties can be important, individual parting words are essential, too. On a recent move from Romania, we were about to drive our loaded car away on an Eastern European road trip that would ultimately end at an airport in Germany and a flight back to the States. We had buckled the kids. We opened our gate.
But I felt to the urge to say goodbye to the neighbors one more time. I wanted to thank them for their friendship and kindness. Sure enough, the few extra minutes were worth it.3. Acknowledge Blessings
At the point of saying goodbye, we have an opportunity to acknowledge the blessings of the past.
Our family will soon move to house in a different neighborhood. Though the relocation is barely a mile away, we feel the impending change. Before the goodbye, we’ll walk through each room of our home with our kids and share memories of living here. We’ll write down their favorite memories—where we put the Christmas tree; the bedroom where our daughter lost her first tooth; the dining room where we hosted family, friends, refugees, and neighbors; the kitchen where we made pizza every Friday; the corner where I sat to drink in the view. We write them down as Ebenezers to God’s goodness and faithfulness.
A friend of mine, a military spouse, says her family sets aside the beginning of each relocation road trip to share the “bests” of living in the place they’re leaving. This practice teaches children to reflect on God’s kindness in difficult circumstances. And it trains our hearts to be thankful for his faithfulness in our lives.4. Pray at Departure
The best goodbyes are marked by prayer. We’ve stood in a circle at the airport to pray and bid farewell to dear friends. As a family, in the loaded minivan with the engine running, we’ve prayed before beginning yet another cross-country move. Such times of prayer help us focus our teary eyes on Christ, who goes before us.
Two thousand years ago on the coast of Syria, a band of disciples honored the goodbye by praying (Acts 21:5–6). After seven days of sweet fellowship, Paul had to say goodbye yet again as he continued his third missionary journey. He didn’t give a quick wave, quipping “see you in heaven if not before” as he boarded the ship. No. Fathers, mothers, and children alike accompanied him to the outskirts of the city. Kneeling on the beach, they prayed and said their goodbyes.5. Remember You Are Sent
Some of my most meaningful goodbyes have come in the form of commissions, like that church service from my childhood.
Our missionary commissioning service recognized God’s call on our lives and sent us to do that work. Twenty years later, I was commissioned in the United States Air Force. I took an oath, and the military confirmed my competence and sent me to do my duty. When I graduated from college, my Bible study group gave departing seniors a spiritual commissioning. We were reminded that wherever we went, we were sent ones.
When the time comes to say goodbye, we can be assured that God goes before us. He is with us in the journey, and he is preparing us for the next destination.
Few aspects of local church ministry are as challenging or necessary as bridging the timeless truths of the gospel to the historically contingent, ever-changing context of the surrounding culture. Enthusiasm for proper contextualization is to be commended. The Word of God must be made intelligible in order for it to edify (1 Cor. 9:19–23; 14:22–25).
The video-venue model of ministry—showing a live feed or recorded sermon on screens rather than having an in-person pastor preaching on stage—is an example of a popular method of ministry contextualization that, despite its efficiencies, is problematic.
I’m not talking about videotaping a live sermon and making it available on a website for those unable to attend church on Sunday. I’m talking about ministries where a sermon-on-the-screen, delivered to a satellite campus by a remote feed, has become normative for the Sunday morning service.Lessons From Paul’s Ministry
At least three non-negotiable aspects of Paul’s ministry render a video-venue approach problematic in the teaching ministry of a church.1. Relational Orientation
Consider, first, the relational orientation of Paul’s ministry. He planted the church in Thessalonica during his second journey (Acts 17). A short time after he had departed, he reminded the Thessalonians, “We were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us” (1 Thess. 2:8). The Thessalonians came to “know” Paul’s motivation for ministry (vv. 5–7) and were “witnesses” to the apostle’s “holy and righteous and blameless” conduct (v. 10).
Paul was known by those he taught. His ministry in Ephesus was characterized by the same relational intimacy between the teacher and the hearers of the Word. As with the Thessalonians, Paul confidently reminds the Ephesian elders of the relational integrity of his ministry: “You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia” (Acts 20:18). Luke emphasizes the depth of Paul’s relationships with the Ephesians later in the narrative, as he is about to depart for the last time: “There was much weeping on the part of all; they embraced Paul and kissed him, being sorrowful most of all because of the word he had spoken, that they would not see his face again” (20:37–38).
Paul apparently felt strongly about sharing close personal relationships with those he taught. Contrast this with the video-venue pastor, or any pastor of an overly large church, who teaches the Bible each week to individuals with whom he has no personal relationship.
By its nature, the sermon-on-a-screen approach dangerously isolates the cognitive from the relational aspects of our faith. Shepherds in the New Testament world did not bring in a food truck to feed their sheep. They fed the flock themselves.
Shepherds in the New Testament world did not bring in a food truck to feed their sheep. They fed the flock themselves.
For Paul and the early Christians, the cognitive and relational aspects of Christian leadership were inseparable. This, in turn, gave him and his co-workers the moral authority to challenge their converts to imitate their behavior.2. Imitation
The imitation theme was a central component of Paul’s ministry (1 Cor. 4:16; 11:1; Phil. 3:17; 1 Thess. 1:6; 2:14; 2 Thess. 3:7, 9). Paul’s converts were able to imitate him only because they knew him well. And apparently this was standard fare for early Christian leaders; the author of Hebrews similarly exhorts: “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith” (13:7).
The ability to imitate a church leader assumes you are familiar with that leader’s life. I can only imitate someone I know. But this kind of relational intimacy is hard to cultivate in video-venue settings or overly large churches where leaders are inaccessible.3. Reproduction of Leaders
The importance of reproducing leaders also raises questions for a remote preaching ministry. A key qualification for elders in the New Testament church was the ability to “give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9). There were a plurality of elders in the early Christian congregations and, from what we can tell, they shared the teaching of the Word (e.g., Acts 13:1). This dynamic likely provided a key avenue for raising up new pastors.
When a single individual teaches 5,000 to 10,000 people Sunday after Sunday, where do the other pastor-elders in the church learn to exercise this crucial aspect of ministry? Megachurches do a good job of raising up efficient ministry managers. But are we successfully developing the next generation of Bible-teaching shepherds?Christ’s Relational Ministry
Paul wasn’t the only example of New Testament ministry that prioritized a relational orientation. Jesus himself modeled it. The apostle John tells us that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). Jesus of Nazareth came to us as a person—not as a set of pixels on a screen.
Jesus of Nazareth came to us as a person—not as a set of pixels on a screen.
Jesus modeled an intensely relational ministry. He didn’t just send books or training materials to his disciples; he shared his life with them for the better part of three years. As John would later write, he and his fellow disciples knew a Jesus they “touched” with their “hands” (1 John 1:1).
For Jesus, disciple-making was a relational endeavor. The crowds Jesus taught from a distance eventually drifted away. Eleven of the 12 men he shared life with changed the world (John 6:66–69). So it was for Jesus. So it was for Paul. And so it should be for us, as we seek to make disciples today (Matt. 28:19).Bad Timing
It’s ironic that the video-venue model of ministry comes at the time when social scientists are encouraging us to decrease screen time in our lives. The title of Sherry Turkle’s bestselling, trenchant critique of digital “community” says it all: Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology And Less From Each Other.
Secular theorists now generally caution against the tendency of virtual reality to isolate us, rather than to genuinely connect us with one another. Recently a Los Angeles Times op-ed described millennials who pursue spirituality without community, through a “wave of spirituality apps” that promise to “supercharge your mindfulness and positive thinking.” But the author counters this trend by asserting that real-life community has been at the heart of spirituality throughout human history: “Strong social bonds, forged through group activity, are not just lucky accidents of religious life. They are the very point of religion.”
The video-venue model of ministry can undermine, rather than strengthen, the “strong social bonds” that have marked Christianity at its best throughout church history.
The video-venue model of ministry can undermine, rather than strengthen, the strong social bonds that have marked Christianity at its best throughout church history.Medium and Message
Decades ago, Marshall McLuhan taught us one of the great truths of the 20th century: “The medium is the message.” This means the way we deliver a message often speaks louder than the message itself—particularly when there is a disconnect between the medium and the message.
The sermon-on-a-screen approach delivers a quintessentially relational message by means of an impersonal, non-relational medium. The disembodied, pixelated medium hijacks the people-oriented message, and we end up discouraging (rather than encouraging) embodied Christian community by the way we teach the Bible in our churches on Sunday morning.
Your church isn’t perfect. You probably know this. Just as our physical bodies have aches and pains, often the body of Christ is weary and wounded. Every congregation has failings and frustrations.
While the odd ache is no cause for concern, what if it that persistent throbbing is something serious? What if it’s life-threatening? Jesus gives step-by-step instructions for calling a straying believer back to health (Matt. 18:15–20), but how do we call back an entire congregation?
My family has been in ministry for four generations, and we’ve seen our share of unhealthy churches. We’ve seen pastors fired without biblical grounds. Congregations split by musical preferences. Doors slammed in the face of racial minorities. Reputations ruined. Marriages broken. And that’s just in my comparatively short lifetime.
I’m no stranger to unhealthy churches. But thankfully, neither is Christ.
From Laodicea to Corinth, the Bible is littered with unhealthy churches, sick with everything from materialism to heresy. But the very presence of these churches in Scripture proves we follow a God who doesn’t give up on unhealthy churches, but patiently works to heal them. The same power that raised Christ from the dead lives in you and in every believer alongside you (Rom. 8:11), and that power is sufficient to bring dead churches back to life.
Here are five ways to be a healthy member in an unhealthy church.1. Pray
More than anything, an unhealthy church needs the Holy Spirit. He guides believers in righteousness (John 14:26) and brings the lost to saving faith (1 Cor. 12:3), and he alone can bring true and lasting vitality to a dying congregation.
“Prayer,” in the words of Oswald Chambers, “does not equip us for greater works—prayer is the greater work.” Prayer transforms, not merely our circumstances, but ourselves. Prayer keeps us focused, not on our suffering, but on our Savior. Prayer keeps us fighting for our churches when everything in our flesh screams out in anger, bitterness, fear, and apathy. So start praying, and never stop.2. Seek Godly Counsel
Don’t render a diagnosis without pursuing a second opinion. Proverbs is stuffed with this advice (Prov. 12:15; 11:14; 19:20–21; 28:26). We’re all fallen and finite, after all, and might be misinformed or simply wrong. So if you believe God has opened your eyes to a serious defect in your church’s heart, make sure you’re seeing clearly before you whip out a scalpel.
If you believe God has opened your eyes to a serious defect in your church’s heart, make sure you’re seeing clearly before you whip out a scalpel.
The next church business meeting is not the time to take this step, and the church malcontent is not the person from whom you should seek counsel. Public diatribe and private gossip will only wound your church further (2 Cor. 12:20). Instead, approach a fellow church member or two whom you know to be wise and theologically sound, and take them aside quietly and in confidence. Cover the conversation with prayer, laying your anxiety and frustration before the Lord. This is not only your church that’s hurting you; it’s Christ’s bride who’s hurting him.3. Tell Your Leaders
When the early church realized their benevolence ministry was being hampered by racial prejudice, they took the problem to their leadership (Acts 6:1–7). So should we, with prayer and godly counsel, take our fears for the body directly to the head.
But I would I ask you, as a minister’s daughter, granddaughter, great-granddaughter, niece, sister, and sister-in-law: please do this with gentleness and grace. Your church elders have the Holy Spirit, too, and they probably see the same sickness you do. Satan is likely already tearing into them with accusations of incompetence and failure, so don’t join the attack. Be their ally. Defend them in prayer. Let them know you’ll support them as they lead the church toward health.4. Be a Part of the Remedy
If your leadership is willing and able to address the problems you’ve brought before them, then lend a hand! Healing will almost certainly mean change, and change is scary. So speak up with encouragement and affirmation at every opportunity. Gently and humbly help your fellow members see the same reasons for change that you do. Join the new Bible study. Volunteer in the new service project.
But even if your leadership can’t or won’t address the sickness you see, you can still be a part of the remedy. Concentrate on nourishing what’s already strong, building up what’s weak, and communicating a call to repentance with your own lifestyle. If your discipleship program is lacking, then dig into the best Bible study group you can find at your church. If your preschool ministry is under-resourced, then volunteer to help out. If your church has lost its love of fellowship, then start inviting people over for cookouts. Feed what’s healthy. Fill what’s lacking. And again, never, never, never stop praying.5. Don’t Leave Too Soon
Now, after months, perhaps even years, of prayer, discussion, and faithful service, you may see no improvement. Indeed, your church’s health might continue to decline. You may be forced to sorrowfully conclude that your church has gone further into heresy or willful, unrepentant sin than you can righteously follow. And God may come and remove your church’s lampstand from its place (Rev. 2:5) and call you to break fellowship with your congregation in the same way we’re called to break fellowship with an unrepentant brother or sister (Matt. 18:17). But as someone who has experienced the worst wounds of my life at the hands of unhealthy churches, I would ask you: let this be a last resort.
Don’t give up before the fight is truly over. If your unhealthy church proves itself to be a false one, the above steps will better prepare you to make that painful distinction. Be “quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19), “abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Ps. 86:15). Just as you would persist in calling an individual brother or sister back to the faith, persevere in calling your church back to health. Our Savior believed they were worth dying for. Keep believing they’re worth fighting for.
“Bootleg Christianity says that Jesus is a great addition to your life. There are things you need: you need a job, health care, relationships, and yes, you should add Jesus to that mix. But Scripture doesn’t give us that version of what faith and life is all about. It says you and I used to be dead, and now God makes us alive.” — Jordan Rice
Text: Ephesians 2:1–10
Preached: February 11, 2018
Location: Renaissance Church, New York City
You can listen to this episode of TGC Word of the Week here.
- Help Me Teach the Bible: Bryan Chappell on Ephesians
- Grace All the Way (Justin Holcomb)
- Ryle: Justification and Sanctification (Kevin DeYoung)
We know the command. Love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:31). But how consistently do we apply it to our pastors?
If we’re honest, we can often demand grace from them but extend little to them. With regular access to podcasts and social media, it’s tempting to compare our pastors unfavorably with those we admire from afar. We can subconsciously expect them to supersede the qualifications defined in Scripture (1 Tim. 3:1–7, Titus 1:5–9)—and judge them when they don’t.
Assuming our pastors are biblically qualified for their role, it’s likely most of us could grow in loving them. Here are four suggestions from Scripture for how we might do so.1. Esteem and encourage your pastor’s labor (1 Thess. 5:12–13).
The preaching of sound doctrine should never, ever be taken for granted. Only through careful study and Spirit-filled diligence do the words we hear on Sunday accurately teach God’s Word. So when our souls are fed by the careful exposition and application of Scripture, we should encourage our pastors.
We also should encourage our pastors as they care for the flock. They carry broken marriages, rebellious teens, suffering saints, and much more on their hearts. They feel the weight of division among congregants, the sting of gossip among dissenters, and the eternal need of the unsaved. They counsel those in overwhelming circumstances: people enslaved by addiction, betrayed by infidelity, or healing from childhood abuse. Knowing their burden, encourage your pastors—help them run to Christ when they are heavy laden, that they may find rest for their souls (Matt. 11:28–30).2. Be patient toward your pastor’s weaknesses (1 Cor. 13:4).
All pastors have weaknesses—tendencies or personality quirks that can often irritate or cause hurt within a church. Some pastors might be forgetful and fail to follow up on conversations or sensitive situations, hurting feelings in the process. Some might be too slow to make decisions, discouraging the go-getters. Others might simply be disorganized, frustrating churchgoers with their administrative mistakes.
Sometimes these weaknesses should be addressed with proactive steps for the pastor to grow. But even if the forgetful pastor sets reminders on his phone, his deficiencies will be apparent. Even if the overly analytical pastor seeks to streamline decision-making processes, his natural inclinations will be there. We should bear with these weaknesses—just as we want others to bear with ours—hopeful that God will use them. As iron sharpens iron, flawed saints sharpen one another. Your pastor’s weaknesses that most provoke you might be the very tools God is using for your sanctification.
Your pastor’s weaknesses that most provoke you might be the very tools God is using for your sanctification.3. Forgive your pastor’s sin (Col. 3:13).
No matter how godly, pastors will sin against their congregants. At times they might say harsh words or make unfair judgments. They may exhibit pride or act selfishly. When our pastors stumble, are we eager to point out their failings? Or do we live as brothers and sisters, eager to forgive and point them to the grace that covers sin?
Who are we to keep a record of wrongs when Jesus has erased the record against us? Who are we to withhold forgiveness when Jesus has lavished us with it? Who are we to withdraw in cords of bitterness when our Savior has sought us in love? To love our pastors means to kill resentment when we’re tempted to feed it, knowing that “love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Pet. 4:8). It means to pursue them steadfastly when we’d rather retreat from them angrily; to call out their sin graciously rather than rebuke them vindictively.4. Respect your pastor’s leadership (Heb. 13:17).
In a culture that worships autonomy and rails against authority, the idea of “respecting your pastor” feels oppressive. But Scripture commands it, and it’s for our good. God calls pastors into leadership and holds them accountable to handle their authority with humility and godliness. He also calls churches to respect and submit to their leaders and holds us accountable to do so with joy (Heb. 13:17). God has established pastors as a means of extending his provision and protection. It is because we trust the Good Shepherd that we respect the pastoral shepherds he places over us.
It is because we trust the Good Shepherd that we respect the pastoral shepherds he places over us.
Respect does not mean we consider our leaders infallible (which is idolatry), or that we never confront sin (which is unloving), or that we withhold input in decision-making (which abdicates our roles as members). Church members can and should offer insight for building up pastors and churches. But these opinions must be brought to the right people (complaining to others is still gossip even if you’re “right”)—and must always be brought in meekness and love. We dishonor our King with spirits of contention. Love calls us to hold our perspectives humbly, not insisting on our own way (1 Cor. 13:4–5).
When we commit ourselves to loving our pastors well, they will be strengthened, we will be sanctified, and the witness of the church will be spread—all for the glory of Christ.
Lead sheets contain the lyrics, melody line, and chord symbols for each song. They can be played on guitar or keyboard.Part 1: God, Creation, Fall & Law
- Q1 What Is Our Only Hope in Life and Death?
- Q2 What Is God?
- Q3 How Many Persons Are There in God?
- Q4-Q5 How and Why Did God Create Us?
- Q6 How Can We Glorify God?
- Q7 What Does the Law of God Require?
- Q8 What Is the Law of God Stated in the 10 Commandments?
- Q9-Q12 What Does God Require…?
- Q13 Can Anyone Keep the Law of God Perfectly?
- Q14 Did God Create Us Unable to Keep His Law?
- Q15 Since No One Can Keep the Law, What Is It’s Purpose?
- Q16-17 What Is Sin? What Is Idolatry?
- Q18 Will God Allow Our Disobedience and Idolatry to Go Unpunished?
- Q19 Is There Any Way to Escape Punishment and Be Brought Back into God’s Favor?
- Q20 Who Is the Redeemer?
- Q21 What Sort of Redeemer Is Needed to Bring Us Back to God?
- Q22-23 Why Must the Redeemer Be Truly Human? Why Must the Redeemer Be Truly God?
- Q24 Why Was It Necessary for Christ the Redeemer to Die?
- Q25 Does Christ’s Death Mean All Our Sins Can Be Forgiven?
- Q26 What Else Does Christ’s Death Redeem?
- Q27 Are All People Just As They Were Lost Through Adam Saved Through Christ?
- Q28 What Happens After Death to Those Not United to Christ By Faith?
- Q29 How Can We Be Saved?
- Q30 What Is Faith in Jesus Christ?
- Q31 What Do We Believe by True Faith? (Apostles Creed)
- Q32 What Do Justification and Sanctification Mean?
- Q33 Should Those Who Have Faith in Christ Seek Their Salvation through Their Own Works, Or Anywhere Else?
- Q34 Since We Are Redeemed by Faith Alone, by Grace Alone, through Christ Alone, Must We Still Do Good Works and Obey God’s Word?
- Q35 Since We Are Redeemed by Grace Alone, through Faith Alone, Where Does This Faith Come From?
I recently spoke with a dad who raised his three kids in a loving, Christian home. He and his wife are faithful parents, and each child once professed faith. But now in college, none follows the Lord. There is still hope, of course, but my friend has wrestled with self-doubt. Did I do something wrong? He’s also questioned God’s will. How could he let this happen?
This dad gravitates toward verses like Psalm 38:10–11:
My heart throbs; my strength fails me, and the light of my eyes—it also has gone from me. My friends and companions stand aloof from my plague, and my nearest kin stand far off.
We’ve all been there. Someone we care about—someone with whom we’ve shared the gospel clearly and often—refuses to submit his or her life to Christ. You’ve planted gospel seeds but see no growth.
How can a mature Christian stand firm in the faith when a loved one refuses to bow the knee to Christ? I’ll answer with a couple of don’ts and a couple of do’s.Don’t Abandon the Doctrine of Hell
When you wrestle with the persistent unbelief of family and friends, Satan will ask, “Did God really say there is such a thing as hell?” Don’t tolerate this line of thinking. The doctrine of hell is tempting to abandon yet crucial to embrace.
God used the doctrine of hell to save me. When I first heard the gospel from a high-school friend, I pushed back. She pushed back even harder and said unless I repented of my sins and put my faith in Christ, I’d go to hell. I couldn’t believe she said this, much less believed it. Thankfully the Holy Spirit used her conviction and boldness to open my eyes. Months later, I trusted in Christ.
But I don’t finally believe in hell because of a young woman’s conviction. I believe it because my Savior preached it:
And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. (Matt. 10:28)
And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire. (Matt. 18:9)
Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” (Matt. 25:41)
Avoid leaning into the ethical teaching of Jesus while dismissing his teaching on eternal punishment. Christ is not just the Savior; he is the Judge. Please don’t abandon good theology because you don’t like the implications. We are either a people of the Book or a people of our own inclinations. There is no in-between.Don’t Stop Crying
If Jesus could weep over the physical (and temporary) death of Lazarus, how much more should we mourn when those we love don’t love Jesus?
Paul grieved that so many of his Jewish brothers and sisters rejected Christ. They claimed to love the law and the prophets, but they hated the One both the law and the prophets predicted. It tore Paul up inside:
I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh. (Rom. 9:2–3)
Paul rightly grieved the unbelief of his Jewish family.
Our theology is useless if it leaves us unfazed by the unbelief of those we love. Don’t stop crying over your lost friends and family. The absence of grief is not the presence of maturity. Jesus and Paul shed tears. But maybe you don’t mourn over your loved ones the way you should. If that’s you, what should you do?
Pray more. Pray for your lost friends and family by name. Plead with God to give them life. Ask your Father to do whatever it takes to bring them to a saving knowledge of himself.
Ponder eternity. There is nothing more sobering than the reality of life without the Lord. To be “cut off from Christ” is to be without hope. Proper meditation on hell will soften our hearts to those who have yet to bow the knee.Do Back Off
If you’re confident you’ve shared the gospel clearly with your family and friends, feel the freedom to back off. They know where you stand. They know where you think they stand. It’s time to be quiet and pray.
Does this mean you never bring up their spiritual state? Of course not! There may be times when it’s appropriate to say, “Mom, it’s been a while since we talked about Christ. I know what you believe; I just want to remind you if you ever want to talk more about him, I’m always available.”
Backing off your family member doesn’t mean ignoring or cutting them out of your life. Rather, it means spending time with them without constantly discussing their spiritual state. What does this look like practically? Four things:
1. Pray for them regularly. Where there is life there is hope.
2. Be yourself. Don’t hide your faith. Continue to talk about things you value. This will undoubtedly mean talking about your relationship with Christ and your local church.
3. Express affection. Let them know you care. Remember birthdays and anniversaries. Make it obvious they matter to you not because they may one day be saved, but simply because you love them.
4. Give them space. This may mean you no longer forward them spiritual emails or even invite them to church. Think twice before getting them another Christian book for Christmas. If you have made the gospel clear, you are free to back off.Do Trust the Lord
One of the hardest sermons I ever read was preached by Jonathan Edwards. He took Romans 3:19 as his text: “that every mouth may be stopped.” The doctrine of this verse, Edwards argued, is simple: “It is just with God eternally to cast off and destroy sinners.” In other words, who are we to talk back to him? He is a just God.
I need to remember punishment is what I deserve. I have rebelled against God, I have sought to be my own personal king. Had not the grace of God broken into my life and replaced my heart of stone with a heart of flesh, I would be facing an awful eternity (Ezek. 36:26).
I once heard Mark Dever urge his congregation to “take God’s side against sin.” This is what Edwards did. This is what I want to do. When it comes to the sin in my own heart, the sin in the world around me, and even the sin in those closest to me, I must always take God’s side.
Those who are sinful—and that’s all of us—deserve eternal punishment. It’s not easy to make this statement, but it’s true.
All this leaves us with a simple question: Will you take God’s side against sin, even when that sin is found in those we love? By God’s grace, I want to. If I’m going to follow him faithfully, I have to trust not only that he is in control, but that he is good. When I’m faced with the possibility of those I love never submitting to Christ, I must believe with Moses that my God is the “Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice” (Deut. 32:4). All of them.
When it comes to your unbelieving family and friends, will you trust the Lord? Ultimately, the only way to have peace in the face of loved ones who reject Christ is to marvel at the grace of God who, in Christ, accepts us. God saved us when we were dead in our sins, and he can surely save our loved ones with the same power that raised Jesus from the dead. It would be no less a miracle for him to save them than it was to save us.
In this new video, Andrew Peterson—musician and president of The Rabbit Room—talks about the shift towards a healthier view of aesthetic and art in Christian culture.
In this new video, Trillia Newbell helps Christians to understand how to enjoy created things, as they relate to the ultimate worship and glory of God.
Americans are busy, and people in ministry are often even busier than most. But the unchecked life, even when lived for God, has real consequences. We can’t push the boundaries of our physical limits forever without feeling the effects.
Today’s podcast is one pastor’s story of how service to God—and the resulting burnout—nearly ruined his life. It is an episode of the second season of the Love Thy Neighborhood podcast. Check out Love Thy Neighborhood wherever you listen to podcasts to hear more stories about the intersection of social action and Christian faith.
When earlier this year Illinois ratified the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the U.S. Constitution, questions arose about the potential for the amendment to be adopted in the near future. Here are nine things you should know about the ERA, its history, and its potential effects.
1. The original push for an equal rights amendment came from the National Woman’s Party (NWP) in 1921. The first version, introduced into Congress in 1923, was the “Lucretia Mott Amendment,” which read: “Men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction.” That version of the amendment was introduced in every session of Congress from 1923 to 1942.
2. In 1943, NWP founder and head Alice Paul rewrote the ERA to reflect the Fifteenth and Nineteenth Amendments. The “Alice Paul Amendment” read: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” This version was introduced in every session of Congress from 1943 to 1972. During most of those years, the ERA had attached to it the Hayden Clause, which read: “Nothing in this Amendment will be construed to deprive persons of the female sex of any of the rights, benefits, and exemptions now conferred by law on persons of the female sex.” Many women’s rights groups and supporters, however, rejected this addition.
3. In 1972, a reworded version of the ERA was introduced that states:
- Section 1. Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.
- Section 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.
- Section 3. This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification.
This version passed both houses of Congress and was submitted to the state legislatures for ratification.
4. At various times in its history, both the GOP and also the Democratic Party supported and opposed passage of the ERA. In 1940, the Republican Party became the first national party to endorse the ERA. It would be added as a plank to the party’s platform in 1952, 1956, 1960, 1972, and 1976. But by 1980, due to the influence of conservative women within the party, the platform had changed: “We acknowledge the legitimate efforts of those who support or oppose ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. We reaffirm our Party’s historic commitment to equal rights and equality for women.” From the mid-1920s to mid-1940s, the ERA was opposed by many Democratic factions. Eleanor Roosevelt and most New Deal supporters opposed the ERA, because they believed it would harm labor unions and the labor movement. The party adopted the ERA in 1944, but it did not receive wide support among Democrats until after the rise of the “second wave” feminist movement in the 1960s.
5. After a Constitutional amendment has been officially proposed, either by Congress or a national convention of the states, the Constitution requires that it then be ratified by three-fourths of the states. Between 1972 and 1977 the following 35 states had ratified the amendment: Hawaii (1972), New Hampshire (1972), Delaware (1972), Iowa (1972), Idaho (1972), Kansas (1972), Nebraska (1972), Texas (1972), Tennessee (1972), Alaska (1972), Rhode Island (1972), New Jersey (1972), Colorado (1972), West Virginia (1972), Wisconsin (1972), New York (1972), Michigan (1972), Maryland (1972), Massachusetts (1972), Kentucky (1972), Pennsylvania (1972), California (1972), Wyoming (1973), South Dakota (1973), Oregon (1973), Minnesota (1973), New Mexico (1973), Vermont (1973), Connecticut (1973), Washington (1973), Maine (1974), Montana (1974), Ohio (1974), North Dakota (1975), and Indiana (1977). Five states would later rescind their earlier ratification: Nebraska (1973), Tennessee (1974), Idaho (1977), Kentucky (1978), and South Dakota (1979). By the time of the 1979 deadline, the amendment was still three states short of the required number needed for passage. The ERA was reintroduced in Congress in 1982 and has since been put before every session of Congress.
6. Most historians agree that public sentiment about the amendment changed during the 1970s primarily because of constitutional lawyer Phyllis Schlafly and her “STOP ERA” campaign. (The “STOP” was an acronym for “Stop Taking Our Privileges.”) Schlafly and her supporters were able to convince a significant portion of the American public that the ERA would lead to several negative consequences that conservative and religious citizens had not considered.
7. Schlafly’s campaign argued that rather than expanding the rights of women, the ERA would harm the interest of men, women, and children. Schlafly claimed that adoption of ERA would lead to all of the following:
- ERA would take away women’s traditional exemption from military conscription and from military combat duty.
- ERA would take away the traditional benefits in the law for wives, widows, and mothers. For example, she claimed it would be used to strike alimony laws and prevent mothers from being given chief consideration in custody cases.
- ERA would give enormous power to the Federal courts to decide the definitions of the words in ERA, “sex” and “equality of rights,” thereby broadening abortion and homosexual rights.
- ERA would give Congress the power to legislate on all areas of law, which include traditional differences of treatment on account of sex: marriage, property laws, divorce and alimony, child custody, adoptions, abortion, homosexual laws, sex crimes, private and public schools, prison regulations, and insurance.
- ERA would force all schools and colleges, and all the programs and athletics they conduct, to be fully co-educational and sex-integrated.
- ERA would mean the end of single-sex colleges.
- ERA would force the sex integration of fraternities, sororities, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, YMCA, YWCA, Boys State and Girls State conducted by the American Legion, and mother-daughter and father-son school events.
- ERA would risk the income tax exemption of all private schools and colleges that make any difference of treatment between males and females, even though no public monies are involved. (“ERA would apply the same rules to sex that we now observe on race, and it is clear that no school that makes any racial distinctions may enjoy tax exemption.”)
- ERA would eliminate veterans’ preference, since most veterans are men.
- ERA would require “unisex insurance,” that is, would prohibit insurance companies from charging lower rates for women, even though actuarial data clearly show that women, as a group, are entitled to lower rates both for automobile accident insurance and also life insurance.
- ERA would put abortion rights into the U.S. Constitution, and make abortion funding a new constitutional right. (Abortion supporters had used state-level ERA language to justify state funding of abortions.)
- ERA would enshrine homosexual and transgender rights into the U.S. Constitution, because the word in the Amendment is “sex” and not “women” (i.e., the courts would define the word “sex” to include “orientation”).
- ERA would legalize the granting of marriage licenses to homosexual couples.
8. Twenty states adopted state equal rights amendments between 1879 and 1998. The texts of most of these amendments either are similar to the proposed federal amendment or restate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Several states have used their ERAs to prohibit restrictions on abortion, Stephanie Russell-Kraft notes. In 1986, the Connecticut Superior Court struck down an abortion restriction using state’s ERA, ruling that “discrimination against pregnancy by not funding abortion when it is medically necessary and when all other medical expenses are paid by the state for both men and women is sex oriented discrimination.” In 1998, New Mexico’s high court ruled that a policy to restrict funding for “medically necessary abortions” violated the state’s ERA because it “result[ed] in a program that does not apply the same standard of medical necessity to both men and women.”
9. Since the 1982 deadline, there have been two main approaches to reviving the ERA. The first is a new joint resolution passed by the House and Senate that would allow the amendment to be presented once again to the states for ratification. The second approach is based on the continued legitimacy of the 35 state ratifications and ratification, thus needing only three additional states for passage. This second option, called the “three-state strategy,” would likely be challenged in the courts based on the expiration of Congress’s original ratification deadline and the rescission of ratifications by five states between 1973 and 1978.
Other posts in this series:
Russian President Vladimir Putin • Supreme Court Nominee Brett Kavanaugh • MS-13 • Wicca and Modern Witchcraft • Jerusalem • Christianity in Korea • Creation of Modern Israel • David Koresh and the Branch Davidians • Rajneeshees • Football • The Opioid Epidemic (Part II) • The Unification Church • Billy Graham • Frederick Douglass • Memphis Sanitation Strike of 1968 • Winter Olympics • The ‘Mississippi Burning’ Murders • Events and Discoveries in 2017 • Christmas Traditions • Sexual Misconduct • Lutheranism • Jewish High Holy Days • Nation of Islam • Slave Trade • Solar Eclipses • Alcohol Abuse in America • History of the Homeschooling Movement • Eugenics • North Korea • Ramadan • Black Hebrew Israelites • Neil Gorsuch and Supreme Court Confirmations • International Women’s Day • Health Effects of Marijuana • J. R. R. Tolkien • Aleppo and the Syrian Crisis • Fidel Castro • C.S. Lewis • ESV Bible • Alzheimer’s Disease • Mother Teresa • The Opioid Epidemic • The Olympic Games • Physician-Assisted Suicide • Nuclear Weapons • China’s Cultural Revolution • Jehovah’s Witnesses • Harriet Tubman • Autism • Seventh-day Adventism • Justice Antonin Scalia (1936–2016) • Female Genital Mutilation • Orphans • Pastors • Global Persecution of Christians (2015 Edition) • Global Hunger • National Hispanic Heritage Month • Pope Francis • Refugees in America • Confederate Flag Controversy • Elisabeth Elliot • Animal Fighting • Mental Health • Prayer in the Bible • Same-sex Marriage • Genocide • Church Architecture • Auschwitz and Nazi Extermination Camps • Boko Haram • Adoption • Military Chaplains • Atheism • Intimate Partner Violence • Rabbinic Judaism • Hamas • Male Body Image Issues • Mormonism • Islam • Independence Day and the Declaration of Independence • Anglicanism • Transgenderism • Southern Baptist Convention • Surrogacy • John Calvin • The Rwandan Genocide • The Chronicles of Narnia • The Story of Noah • Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist Church • Pimps and Sex Traffickers • Marriage in America • Black History Month • The Holocaust • Roe v. Wade • Poverty in America • Christmas • The Hobbit • Council of Trent • Halloween and Reformation Day • Casinos and Gambling • Prison Rape • 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing • Chemical Weapons • March on Washington • Duck Dynasty • Child Brides • Human Trafficking • Scopes Monkey Trial • Social Media • Supreme Court’s Same-Sex Marriage Cases • The Bible • Human Cloning • Pornography and the Brain • Planned Parenthood • Boston Marathon Bombing • Female Body Image Issues • Islamic State
Scan the most popular podcasts on iTunes, and you’ll find the usual suspects. Oprah, The New York Times, Serial, Malcolm Gladwell, and This American Life. And if you peruse the latest episodes of these top podcasts, you’ll see takes on current events, compelling stories from the past and present, and a profile on . . . church planting?
NPR’s This American Life recently ran a profile on church planting being told by another podcasting giant, Gimlet Media, on their show StartUp. From the ways of Silicon Valley, to pitching a billionaire, to naming a business, StartUp is a documentary series about the entrepreneurial life. And now they are telling the story of Restoration Church, a church plant in North Philadelphia.
Who would have thought, in our current cultural climate, that millions of people would be listening to a story of a church plant—produced by the same company making a podcast by actress Kristen Wiig? God works in mysterious ways.
Gimlet may not realize it, but they are spreading seeds of the gospel. And in this, we should rejoice.
I’m thankful to hear Eric Mennel, the host, explain the meaning behind Easter Sunday in Episode 3. I was thrilled to hear Doug Logan, Acts 29’s co-director of Church in Hard Places, talk about ministry centered on Jesus. Gimlet may not realize it, but they are spreading seeds of the gospel. And in this, we should rejoice (Phil. 1:18).
It’s encouraging to know that stories of gospel ministry are hitting people’s speakers and earbuds. StartUp has given us a gift in their podcast. After three episodes, I’m encouraged by the story being told. And I also wince as StartUp unfolds.Honest Biography
The story of Restoration Church is well told, engaging, and interesting. But the real strength? The episodes are real. Raw. Vulnerable. Honest.
The founding pastor, Watson Jones III, and the current lead pastor, AJ Smith, don’t act like superheroes. Far too often, you’ll hear tales of church planting that seem to come out of a comic book. Not so with these brothers. The podcast not only reveals the difficulties of planting a church—gathering people, finances, and so on—but it also highlights the personal struggles of planters and their families.
AJ opens up about his anxiety and fears as a child, and now as a church-planting pastor. Leah, AJ’s wife, confesses to finding too much of her identity in the church plant. These are the real struggles of real people. Other would-be church planters should listen to these episodes with antennas up. These will be your struggles, too.
Like AJ, and like me, you’ll have to battle the temptation to find your worth and acceptance in Sunday morning attendance. AJ shared that when the service starts on Sunday mornings, and he’s standing and singing on the front row, he refuses to look back. He doesn’t want to see how few people have come to the service.
I did the same thing at the beginning of our church plant. I couldn’t handle it. My identity was so fragile. I had put my hope in a church plant instead of the one who bought the church with his blood. And though I’m 10 years in, and now a church-planting church, if I’m not careful, I can misplace my hope all over again. Listen and learn. Watch out for the potholes of church planters.Contextualization and Innovation
You see two lessons of contextualization and innovation in the example of Restoration Church. It’s true that a church is not the building. The church is the saints—brothers and sisters, pastors and deacons—the people of God. And while you could plant a church in the suburbs of Houston and begin meeting in someone’s house, that doesn’t work as well in places like North Philly.
Restoration Church contextualized their ministry back into a building. Every context will have different needs, assumptions, and difficulties. It’s the job of the planter to identify the uniqueness of his context and then learn how to faithfully do the ministry.
Before Easter weekend, Restoration Church went old-school: free frozen dinners. The neighborhood was invited to come by their building and enjoy a free meal. Though Restoration Church unleashed Facebook ads, hardly anyone came.
One lady did come by, but she didn’t see the ad on Facebook—her friend’s mother’s case manager saw the ad, took a picture of it on her phone, and texted it out to a group of people. A surprising providence. Eric Mennel said it best: “God’s gonna find people the algorithm can’t.”
As unclaimed dinners sat there, beginning to defrost, Restoration went old-school again: knocking on doors and handing the dinners to cars as they stopped at the red light in front of their building. Innovation isn’t always something new. Sometimes it’s creatively finding ways to serve, love, and spread the good news. Sometimes there’s no school like the old school.Is StartUp Really About Church Planting?
If honesty is StartUp’s strength, focus is its biggest weakness. The episodes focus on planting a service, not a church. The focus is solely on growing the attendance and getting people in the building.
In reality, planting a church is much more than starting a weekly service. Yes, a Sunday service is a big part of any local church, but it’s not the only thing. I wish there was more emphasis on making disciples than filling a building. Maybe future episodes will explore these areas. I hope they do.
So much of the emphasis thus far is about the systems, strategies, and the similarities to starting a business in Silicon Valley. This emphasis left me groaning at the potential for the perpetuation of the old stereotypes: churches are no different from the world; they are run like a business; all they care about is numbers.
Maybe the editing is to blame. Maybe the intended audience—entrepreneurs—is the reason for this mistaken emphasis. Or, maybe the current state of church planting in the United States is to blame. Whatever it is, this is a gift for us to receive too. We should not miss it.
Let’s plant churches in such a way that we can’t be so easily compared to the business tactics of the world.
Let’s rewrite the narrative in our day. Let’s plant churches in such a way that we can’t be so easily compared to the business tactics of the world. Let’s make it clear we have some kind of extraterrestrial, heaven-wrought power on our side. As one well-known, modern theologian has helpfully taught: brothers, we are not professionals.
Metrics and strategies aren’t evil. Through God’s common grace churches can learn from the likes of those in Silicon Valley—whether it be systems relating to communication, planning, and/or assimilation.
But remember: systems can’t raise people from the dead. Strategies from the tech world can’t reconcile a marriage in the wake of adultery. Addictions won’t be crucified by angel investors. And eternity has nothing to do with equity.
Church planting is powered by someone off the grid, above the grid, and coming back to judge the living and the dead. Spreading the word of a blood-stained cross and empty tomb of Christ is our strategy.
God is the original entrepreneur.
God is the secret sauce in church planting. As the apostle Paul reminds us, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Cor. 3:6–7). God is the original entrepreneur. He started all of this up from nothing. Ex nihilo.
Sovereign grace is the underwriting strategy of every faithful church plant, whether it’s in Shawnee, Oklahoma, or Beirut, Lebanon. Silicon Valley’s got nothing on that.
As you listen to StartUp, remember, God’s gonna find, call, and resurrect people the algorithm can’t.
Perhaps you’ve noticed a certain tone when we, particularly in Reformed circles, talk about global missions. At times we slip into categories of desperation or even defeat. Some approach missions with a pious resignation to failure—after all, we were promised the world would reject us. Even those with a more hopeful outlook, who would rouse us to great missionary endeavors, sometimes motivate with past failures and the disgrace of an unfinished task.
When we look at our collective world and consider the missionary mandate, we note all we’re not doing, all the unengaged peoples we’re not reaching. We criticize the lack of giving and subsequent lack of resources, human and otherwise. When we turn to the global church, we become cynical, bemoaning shallow theologies and rampant false teaching around the world. Thus we label the missions glass half-empty. As a result, our global Christian perspective tilts toward melancholy.
But if we consistently approach missions from the standpoint of all we’re not doing, of all that’s yet to be done, we miss the glory of what has already been fulfilled. If Christ’s mission, as far as we’re concerned, remains largely unaccomplished, then we don’t have a fully formed biblical perspective, one that recognizes all that God has done and is now doing in the world.Fulfillment from the Start
The final verses of Acts present a powerfully subversive picture. Luke records Paul, imprisoned in Rome, freely and daily proclaiming the message of the kingdom directly under the nose of Caesar (Acts 28:30–31). The good news had, in the span of one generation, traveled from a fearful group huddled in Jerusalem to the Gentile masses in the capital of the known world. Sometimes persecuted, sometimes scattered, Christ’s kingdom had spread and grown amid earthly kingdoms and raging nations.
Of course, Luke’s tone in Acts could’ve been much different. His record could’ve been dire and dread-filled. But he composed the first church history text to tell the story from a perspective of victory, albeit a victory through suffering. He did so taking Jesus’s life and death as the pattern, with our Lord’s final words as the thesis (Acts 1:8). The disciples were to be witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth—and in one generation, they were!
From the beginning, the church’s narrative has emphasized success.
The message of Acts, then, is primarily one of mission accomplished and promise fulfilled. Luke portrays Jesus’s words of commissioning not as the last gasp of a dying general hoping to hold territory, but the victorious prediction of a reigning King seated on the throne and reclaiming his realm. So, from the beginning, the church’s narrative has emphasized success. The Spirit-inspired outlook of the Christian mission—flawed, yes, and suffering—is strikingly positive.Fulfillment in the Middle
But that was then. This is now. Since the earth-upending ministry of the apostles, the church has slumped in failure and inactivity. History is littered with church controversy and division. We’ve isolated and insulated ourselves from the world, or else we’ve become so much like the world that we’re of no heavenly good.
In my current role, traveling to countries where the gospel has spread in unprecedented ways, I could easily focus on innumerable problems. There’s rampant heterodoxy in Africa. Persecution reigns in much of Asia. Churches languish under gross abuse of power from without and within. Misapplication of Scripture is the norm. Sinful indulgence is unfortunately not rare.
But these aren’t new problems. Paul faced the same in his own sprouting congregations. Yet his demeanor was anything but constant gloom. Sure, he was vexed by Corinthian worldliness and Galatian gospel-distorting. His churches had no shortage of false teaching and false practices which aroused his ready rebuke. But that’s only half the story. We’d err to miss the positive tone of Paul concerning the church, and especially the rapid advance of the gospel.
If our default perspective is a half-empty vision of global missions, then we have a half-picture of the whole truth.
The Corinthians, according to Paul, were saints who would judge angels (1 Cor. 6:3). The Macedonians, suffering in poverty, were abounding in generosity (2 Cor. 8:2). The Bereans were noble (Acts 17:11). The Philippians were faithful partners (Phil. 1:5). On account of the Thessalonians, the gospel had resounded throughout the whole region, going everywhere (1 Thess. 1:8). During Paul’s years in Ephesus, the good news spread to everyone in Asia Minor (Acts 19:10).
In fact, Paul exclaimed with joy that the gospel had gone into all the world (Col. 1:23; Rom. 10:18) and was bearing fruit and increasing (Col. 1:6). By the end of Paul’s life, he could speak with surprising confidence, using comprehensive language about his life and ministry to say the gospel was fully proclaimed to all the Gentiles (2 Tim. 4:17). If that was true then, it’s even more so today.Fulfillment at the End
I suspect this effusive outlook of Paul rubbed off on Luke. But I think they both got it from Jesus. Jesus saw the end from the beginning, having the keenness of sight to recognize a kingdom growing from a minuscule seed, to envision a holy assembly against which hell itself couldn’t prevail.
When we consider mission, we often hover over the negative words of Jesus. We remember that the world will hate us. We recall that the way will be hard. The path is narrow, Jesus said, and those who find it few (Matt. 7:14). Yet we seem to forget Jesus’s hope-filled words in the next chapter. He announced that many would come from East and West and recline at table in the kingdom (Matt. 8:11). According to Jesus, many, and not a few, would inherit the kingdom and enjoy the feast.
The Bible doesn’t merely expose our missionary failures. It should also read as a life-giving and hope-filled announcement of an accomplished mission, seeing our present in view of the future.
We interpret Matthew 24:14 as a slap on our missionary wrists: Jesus’s delayed return is due to our missionary shortcomings. But I find the tone of Jesus in Matthew 24 to be quite positive, promising the success of the kingdom news and predicting it would reach all the world before the end.
So we have a choice. We can interpret those promised realities as indictment or inspiration. Or both. The Bible doesn’t merely expose our missionary failures. It should also read as a life-giving and hope-filled announcement of an accomplished mission, seeing our present in view of the future.Whole Truth
If our default perspective is a half-empty vision of global missions, then we have a half-picture of the whole truth. Such a view is dishonoring to Christ, his promises, and his worldwide bride. It’s also dishonoring to Scripture and the record of amazing gospel advance. Last of all, it’s dishonoring to missionaries who have carried the good news ever since Paul, witnessing to Christ in the uttermost parts of the earth.
Does that mean there’s no work left to be done? Absolutely not. Jesus promised the gospel of the kingdom would go to all nations—then he commissioned his followers to take it there. Paul could speak of the good news having reached the whole world yet still long to go to Spain. Acts demonstrates the fulfillment of Jesus’s promise all the way to Rome, then leaves us to finish the story.
But whenever we consider our role in that glorious missionary narrative, when we look at the state of the church globally, we should look with the eyes of the Bible. Despite all the real problems and challenges, I’m convinced a biblical perspective doesn’t focus as much on our failure as it does on God’s fulfillment. All over the world the gospel is advancing and bearing fruit. Jesus’s words are true. The kingdom is at hand. The glass is fuller than we realize.
In some churches, it is a word that conjures up images of an angry and capricious God who acts arbitrarily to save some, but consigns most sinners—including deceased infants—to eternal perdition. For many professing Christians, it is the mother of all swear words.
Let the pastor breathe it in the presence of the deacon board and he risks firing, fisticuffs or worse. A God who chooses is anti-American, anti-democracy. It bespeaks a long-faced, puritanical religion, a doctrinal novelty invented by a maniacal 16th-century minister whose progeny manufactured a theological “-ism” that has plunged countless souls into a godless eternity.
In other churches, it is a cherished word that describes a beloved doctrine, one that bestows comfort and unshakable confidence that not one maverick molecule, not one rebel subatomic particle exists outside of God’s loving providential control—even in the matter of salvation. Want to start a lively conversation? Then utter the word: predestination.Biblical Doctrine
Few doctrines in the history of American religion have assembled such a pugilistic resume. And yet, there it stands, in the plainest and most unapologetic of terms, in Ephesians 1:5: “In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ.” And again six verses later: “In him (Christ) we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will.” Those Ephesians texts, along with Romans 9, much of John 6, and Jesus’s high priestly prayer in John 17 toppled my commitment to free-will theology two decades ago. Acts 13:48 threw the knockout punch.
Disputed and disdained though it may be, predestination and its sibling, election, are plainly taught in Scripture, and every exegete must make peace with it.
Many evangelicals—including pastors—see the doctrine as best left alone, forbidden theological fruit, fraught with speculation. It’s just not practical, they argue. It’s a debate for seminary classes with no real bearing on the full-court press of everyday life.
But John Calvin, the pastor-theologian mistakenly credited with inventing predestination, argues to the contrary:
This great subject is not, as many imagine, a mere thorny and noisy disputation, nor speculation which wearies the minds of men without any profit; but a solid discussion eminently adapted to the service of the godly, because it builds us up in sound faith, trains us to humility, and lifts us up into an admiration of the unbounded goodness of God toward us, while it elevates to praise this goodness in our highest strains.
Lorraine Boettner, author of perhaps the most extensive single volume ever written on predestination, agrees:
This is not a cold, barren, speculative theory, not an unnatural system of strange doctrines as many people are inclined to believe, but a most warm and living, a most vital and important account of God’s relations with men. It is a system of towering but practical truths which are designed and adapted, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, to mold the affections of the heart and give right direction to conduct.Beautiful Doctrine
Predestination is a beautiful doctrine. Its beauty lies in the fact that a holy God has revealed it to us. And, as Calvin and Boettner point out, it has significant practical application. Predestination is not merely a topic for discussion and debate among curious seminary students. It tells us much about the character of God:
- God is meticulously writing the story of history according to his own script. Though we speak of “accidents,” really, there are no accidents. Nothing will take place today that hasn’t been carefully planned in eternity past by an all-powerful and good Creator.
- God loves sinners. We should never get over the stunning reality of this statement. Though we have rebelled against him, God sent his only Son to die in the place of sinners to rescue them from sin and death (Rom. 5:8). Christ, who was not guilty, laid down his life for the guilty (1 Pet. 3:18). He bore the wrath we deserve.
- God uses means to achieve his ends. Our Lord selects weak clay pots and sends them to the ends of the earth to preach the good news of his rescue mission in Christ (Rom. 10:14–15). He gives fallen men the unconscionable privilege of proclaiming his sin-slaying, death-defeating gospel.
- God’s glory is ultimate, not man’s. The outset of the Westminster Shorter Catechism famously marks out the chief end of man—to glorify God and enjoy him forever. God made us for his glory (Isa. 42:8). Every pursuit in life is to be done with an eye to the spread of his fame.
Predestination also says something important about us: apart from a unilateral work of grace, we cannot please God. We are dead in our sins, and dead men can do nothing (Eph. 2:1). Therefore, we ignore predestination to our own spiritual malnourishment.Practical Doctrine
Here are three ways this oft-maligned doctrine puts steel in our spiritual backbones.
1. Predestination means our salvation is as secure and settled as the God who selected us.
If our inheritance is rooted in God—who chose us before the beginning of time—then we cannot fall away. We did nothing to gain it. We can do nothing to lose it (Rom. 8:31–39). By his grace, God’s people will persevere to the end, through many dangers, toils, and snares. This truth is a balm of comfort to saints who are wearied by the daily struggles of life, whose spiritual legs may be weakened by the daily war within and without. The God who chose you will surely keep you (John 10:28). Calvin writes:
For there is not a more effectual means of building up faith than the giving our open ears to the election of God, which the Holy Spirit seals upon our heart while we hear, showing us that it stands in the eternal and immutable goodwill of God toward us; and that, therefore, it cannot be moved or altered by any storms of the world, by any assaults of Satan, by any changes, by any fluctuations or weaknesses of the flesh. For our salvation is then sure to us, when we find the cause of it in the breast of God.
2. Predestination means our salvation is eternally grounded in a sovereign, good God; therefore, our sufferings, sorrows, persecutions, and defeats are not an accident.
God is not taken off-guard when we suffer. As Charles Spurgeon put it, “All the hounds of affliction are muzzled till God sets them free.” And, of greater importance, as Paul famously put it in Romans 8:28, “God causes all things to work together for good for those who love him and are called according to his purpose.” God is never late. He never gets the wrong address. Though you may never fully understand it, your hurt is God’s instrument in his indefatigable mission of remaking you into the image of his Son. God’s absolute sovereignty wed with his goodness is the best medicine for human anxiety.
3. Predestination should humble us and make us thankful, not bitter, fearful, or always spoiling for debate.
Why did God choose to adopt me into his family? Why am I a Christian and (at least for now) my neighbor is not? Why was I born to parents who valued the church and treasured God’s Word? Why do I have the indescribable privilege of preaching God’s truth every Sunday?
I can’t explain any of it except as Scripture does: It was the kind intention of his will (Eph. 1:5). I did not—could not—save myself. That it pleased God to do so should humble me and put thanksgiving on my lips every moment—because God did it all, I did nothing. My life could’ve been radically different, but because of his grace, it’s not. God has been good to me, has suffered long with me, and I must extend the same grace to others, particularly brothers and sisters in Christ who have yet to fully wrestle with this doctrine.Nothing We Need More
Like many others, when I first encountered predestination, I immediately put God in the dock and pled injustice: “But that’s not fair. How could a loving God choose some and not others?” Those pleadings are all too common. But God, true to his character, was tender and patient with me. He eventually gave me eyes to see the beauty and life-stabilizing force of this unfathomable biblical tenet.
If God had given me what I demanded—justice—then I would be receiving the wrath my sins deserve this very moment. But he has given me—and millions of others along his unfolding timeline of history—something no human deserves: mercy. And there is nothing we need more.
Elementary science textbooks depict our immune system as a battalion. At the slightest breach in defenses, we learn, white blood cells surge through the bloodstream to protect us from invaders. Such illustrations portray the immune system as elegant, even heroic, in its commitment to an ultimate good.
Closer inspection reveals the workings of this arsenal to be far more complex, sometimes even sinister. The white blood cells we seek to boost with vitamin C can lay siege to our own bodies, causing autoimmune diseases like hypothyroidism, lupus, and diabetes. White blood cells gobble fat and burrow within our blood vessels to prime us for heart attacks. In severe infection, the immune system floods the body with chemicals that compromise blood flow to our own organs. Such examples reveal that in specific circumstances, our immune system is more foe than valiant ally.
In her book Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer, political activist Barbara Ehrenreich, who holds a PhD in immunology, argues that such cellular rebellion exposes the folly of America’s wellness craze. Her premise is fascinating and relevant. How do we justify frenzied resistance against our own mortality, when our bodies are destined to self-destruct? Unfortunately, Ehrenreich’s book is more likely to offend and confuse than challenge and inspire. Despite her background, from the first pages Ehrenreich veers away from scientific inquiry in favor of disparagement. The resulting text tears down without refining, and offers little that is honorable or lovely (1 Cor. 10:23; Phil. 4:8).
How do we justify frenzied resistance against our own mortality, when our bodies are destined to self-destruct?
Ehrenreich, an outspoken advocate for abortion, considers life “an interruption of personal nonexistence” (xv). No one should expect Christian themes in her work. However, plenty of secular books offer valuable truths written with poise and objectivity. Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal, a meticulous commentary on care for the elderly and infirmed in America, is one such excellent resource.
Natural Causes, on the other hand, reads as a rant. In chapters riddled with hyperbole, Ehrenreich demonizes health-care professionals, alternative medicine, fitness gurus, Silicon Valley, and the late Steve Jobs, to name a few subjects. She condemns the entire medical establishment as corrupt, with its practitioners promoting “unnecessary procedures for the sake of profits or simply to gratify physicians’ egos (and, in the worst case, sexual impulses)” (41). Mammograms, she writes, are “a refined sort of sadism,” and the colonoscopy a “kinky procedure” akin to “an actual sexual assault” (7). In a bizarre diatribe about “pro-menstrual propaganda,” she criticizes the “affluent and educated” for normalizing menstruation (129). Smoking cessation, according to Ehrenreich, is a “war on the working class” (101). Even those who share Ehrenreich’s political convictions will squirm when she indulges in schadenfreude about the untimely deaths of public figures who championed longevity (91–94). Page after page of Natural Causes broils with such wild and illogical expressions of contempt.Paltry Evidence
Despite her vehemence, Ehrenreich offers paltry evidence to justify her allegations. Her tone is authoritative, but she substantiates her claims with news headlines and personal blog posts, rather than peer-reviewed research. One exception is the chapter detailing the immune system, in which she reviews the scientific literature with care. This is the strongest chapter, with data sufficiently compelling to require little editorialization. The bulk of the book, however, repeatedly misrepresents opinion as fact.
Ehrenreich’s recklessness especially unsettles as she ventures into theological territory. Her disdain for monotheism is clear; she declares that “science pushed [God] into a corner and ultimately rendered him irrelevant” (200). She conflates Christianity with Gnosticism, postulating an unbiblical mind-body divide (72). She backs up her claim that “one can’t even find the concept of ‘the immortal soul’ in the Bible” (183) not with exegesis, but with a single online editorial written in 1999.
Meanwhile, throughout the book her own theology appears to crack, unable to sustain the burdens of her arguments. She struggles to cull meaning from the nihilistic and atheistic ideology she proclaims, and grasps for contributions from animism and magic mushrooms (204–205). After 200 pages spent denigrating religion, medicine, and all efforts to preserve health, she offers half-hearted reassurance that death “is not a terrifying leap into the abyss, but more like an embrace of ongoing life” (208).
Considering her graphic description of death in the preceding pages, complete with brain liquefaction and the body devolving “into a stinking pool or, what may sound worse, a morsel in a rat’s digestive system,” this conclusion offers meager consolation.Accidental Wisdom
Ehrenreich’s inflammatory approach is unfortunate, because her topic raises intriguing questions. American culture chases after youth and health, with diet fads emblazoning magazine covers and anti-aging products cluttering shelves. At first glance, these preoccupations may seem honorable: as bearers of God’s image we steward his creation, including the bodies he has given us (Gen. 1:26–28; 1 Cor. 6:19–20). But when does pursuit of wellness slide toward idolatry? When does our reliance on aggressive medical treatments cross the threshold from stewardship into denial of our own mortality?
When does pursuit of wellness slide toward idolatry? When does our reliance on aggressive medical treatments cross the threshold from stewardship into denial of our own mortality?
The insurgent tendencies of the immune system remind us that bodily wellness doesn’t achieve salvation. The wages of sin is death (Rom. 5:12; 6:23), and its ill effects infiltrate our DNA, propagating through proteins and cell membranes. Death comes to all of us, whether through white blood cells run amok, or through tragic accident. In the most helpful line of her book, Ehrenreich comments, “If there is a lesson here it has to do with humility. For all our vaunted intelligence and ‘complexity,’ we are not the sole authors of our destinies or of anything else” (161).
Ehrenreich didn’t intend the wisdom inherent in her conclusion. She points to unconscious cells as authors of our destiny, to thoughtless particles that muck up the works as we catapult toward oblivion. But when we consider the failings of our own earthly bodies, as Christians we can turn to the Author of life and find hope. We can consider the intricacies of processes beyond our control, admit our limitations, and rejoice. Because even as our bodies crumble, through saving grace Christ restores the brokenness. He cups the wayward cells, the spreading tumors, and the bitterness in our hearts as he makes all things new (Phil. 3:20–21; Rev. 21:5).
It is not good for man to be alone. So God gave Christians a family: the local church.
I love my church family. We have our flaws. for sure. But many Christians have not yet committed to a church family. Some have been looking a long time. Maybe that’s you.
Christians need a church family where they can encounter Jesus, deepen meaningful relationships, and make disciples of Jesus Christ. Yet visiting churches and checking out websites is time-consuming and often frustrating. I know what it’s like to visit a church and feel discouraged. I’ve also tasted God’s goodness and grace through the church. So keep looking!
Here are five things I encourage you to seek in a church.1. Commitment to Expository Preaching
“Expository” means the content and intent of the Bible passage shapes the content and intent of the message preached (Mike Bullmore). “Preaching” means that teaching is applied directly to the hearer’s conscience. Many churches say they preach the Bible, but the content and intent of the passage don’t shape the message.
You gather with the church to hear directly from God through the Bible preached. A solid church preaches the gospel of Jesus Christ, because that’s the Bible’s main message. A faithful church must believe and teach that man is accepted before God by faith alone through the death and resurrection of Christ alone.2. Clear Vision for Discipling One Another
The essence of the church unfortunately can be missed by both churches and church-seekers alike. Members of the local congregation are responsible for one another’s discipleship, both collectively and also individually. The church is not merely a crowd gathered on a Sunday. It’s a group of people committed to Christ through repentance and faith, committed to each other’s spiritual growth, and committed to share together in the practices of baptism and communion as commanded by Jesus.
This commitment to discipleship should be mutually understood by all members. Is the church you’re considering clear that it expects members to minister to one another? Do leaders expect you to be your brother’s keeper? God does. They should too. If you really want to know if it’s clear, don’t ask church leaders—ask the members.3. Backbone to Love Wandering Sheep
Churches should have a backbone. By this I mean they should have the courage to practice church discipline on those who refuse to repent from sin. That may sound a bit harsh and unloving in our day. But Jesus was clear that discipline is an act of love:
If your brother sins against you, go and rebuke him in private. If he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he won’t listen, take one or two more with you, so that by the testimony of two or three witnesses every fact may be established. If he pays no attention to them, tell the church. But if he doesn’t pay attention even to the church, let him be like an unbeliever and a tax collector to you. I assure you: Whatever you bind on earth is already bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth is already loosed in heaven. (Matt. 18.15–18)
Paul also encourages the body to practice redemptive discipline in 1 Corinthians 5. You want to join a loving body, which means you need to find one that will care enough to restore you to Jesus and his people at any cost, even if that means biblical discipline designed to win you back.4. Sense of Mission
Jesus gave the church a clear mission: Make disciples of all people groups (Matt. 28:18–20). You were created and saved for great things. Your life has an important and eternal purpose. Join a church where leaders and members remind and equip you for the disciple-making mission Jesus established for all his followers.
A faithful church should sweep you up into that life of mission.5. Place with People Unlike You
Many Christians are looking for a church that fits their preferences: their style of music, their style of preaching, their demographic (age, stage of life, ethnicity, culture), a thriving youth group, a first impression of friendliness, or size (large or small).
But none of these factors should be decisive.
When these take top priority, you have swapped the essence for the extras. It’s like choosing a car because of the tires or steering wheel. If you buy a car because it has the rims and radio you want, even though the engine doesn’t work and the transmission is broken, you’re confused about an automobile’s main purpose.
The church is a group that takes responsibility for one other’s Christian discipleship—a group of varied ages, ethnicities, musical preferences, and interests. They all love Jesus and the gospel. He makes them a family. Sure, such diversity may bring conflict at times. But that can be a good thing ifit challenges our selfishness. When we sacrifice personal preferences for the sake of others, we are getting closer to King Jesus. And isn’t that why we’re joining the church in the first place?Find a Church
Be intentional. Ask questions. You don’t want to wander around for many months from church to church when you could be building up a church family and glorifying our Lord Jesus. Find a good church so you encounter Jesus and help others encounter him.
When you finish your life, which is a vapor, you’ll be glad you did.
On the eastern side of Indianapolis, there’s a neighborhood that police used to call the “swamp.”
Less than four miles from the city’s revitalized downtown (including the Indiana Convention Center and 10-year-old Lucas Oil Stadium), Brookside is lined with quaint old houses and spacious yards. If you tip your head and squint, you can see how it used to be a beautiful and bustling middle-class neighborhood back in the ’40s.
But if you stop squinting, you’ll see the garbage piled up in the alley. You’ll see the broken and boarded-up windows and the overgrown lawns. More than a third of houses here are abandoned (37 percent). Residents earn a lower per capita income than 97 percent of the rest of the country. Only 40 percent of kids attending the local public school pass state examinations. And the wider area—called the Near Eastside—is one of the most dangerous in Indianapolis, with 24 murders in 2016 and 10 in 2017. (As a whole, Indianapolis’s 2018 murder rate is outpacing 2017.)Brookside home / Photo by Anna Montgomery
It’s been that way for a while. More than 20 years ago, when College Park Church asked the mayor which part of their city needed the most help, he pointed to Brookside.
The church initially started a Saturday kids’ church in a local community center in the mid-’90s, but the need seemed greater elsewhere. College Park spent the next 10 years focusing on other countries.
“We wanted to go where people had never heard the name of Jesus,” urban outreach pastor Dale Shaw said. “But we had a blind eye to some of the needs in America.”
It wasn’t until a congregational survey in 2006 that the leadership realized their weakness on local missions. “We needed to ‘build bridges of grace that can bear the weight of truth,’ a statement I borrowed from Randy Alcorn,’” lead pastor and TGC Council member Mark Vroegop said.
Shaw was tapped to start the local effort. He figured they’d focus on Brookside—after all, they already had that kids’ church there.
Shaw wasn’t naive; he knew it wasn’t going to be easy. The set-up—a wealthy megachurch from the suburbs reaching back into the city—does not lend itself to easy success. Even with patience and hard work, there are cultural and socioeconomic barriers that often prove too hard to cross. He’d seen other churches try and fail and try and fail.
That’s why it was so weird when College Park succeeded.Brookside / Photo by Anna Montgomery
By the end of 2016, media reports called the Brookside neighborhood “one of Indy’s most improved neighborhoods,” where “crime and drug activity are both down.”
“It’s amazing to see how this place has changed,” said Indianapolis police spokesman Aaron Hamer, who patrolled in Brookside when he joined the department 11 years ago. (He attends the College Park Fishers congregation.)
For that change to happen, holistic investment was needed—everything from job opportunities to education to mothering support to legal aid, all centered around the grace and guidance of the gospel. It’s too much for any church to pull together in 10 years, even one with the resources of College Park.
And that’s the secret. Because aside from planting a church in 2012, College Park didn’t set up a single program or design a single ministry.Grassroots
Shaw is on the extreme end of extrovert, honking and waving hello to every single person he drives by, whether he knows them or not. He can’t stop himself from chatting with strangers in the park or restaurant or street.
He hasn’t read When Helping Hurts, but he did listen to co-author Brian Fikkert when he came to speak to College Park. (“I love that guy,” he says enthusiastically.) And Shaw’s nature lends itself to asking questions, listening, connecting people, and investing in relationships.
So when College Park took its first Christmas offering for local ministry in 2008, Shaw didn’t use it to start a local ministry. Instead, he thought about the people he knew who were already running good urban ministries.
“We said to our grassroots friends, ‘We want to do something in Brookside. If we gave you a grant, how could you help us?’” said Shaw, who had $643,000 to spend. “It was really fun and exciting. We had all kinds of ideas.”Brookside / Photo by Anna Montgomery
Heart Change—a discipleship and life skills school born after College Park member Cindy Palmer saw the ongoing needs of moms at the pregnancy center where she volunteered—said they’d move into Brookside when Shaw offered them a small, unused building.
The Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic, headquartered about five miles away, said they’d open an intake center in Brookside. (Attorneys there provide free legal help to urban residents in areas of bankruptcy, clearing criminal history, and foreclosure defense.)
And a shrinking Nazarene church gave College Park their building for Kids’ Church and other ministries in exchange for renovating it.
Kids’ Church was by now 10 years old, and steadily plugging along. But with the excitement at College Park around building a new sanctuary, commissioning more than 50 missionaries, and planting two new churches, it wasn’t grabbing a lot of pulpit time or headlining any capital funding campaigns.
While nobody was looking, Kids’ Church was slowly building a foundation for everything else.Foundation
The best thing College Park did for Brookside was not try too hard in the early days. The church didn’t roll in with well-funded programs staffed by outsiders, provide quick answers to decades-long problems, or even set any long-term goals.
Instead, Kids’ Church staff and volunteers learned about problems without being able to offer immediate solutions, watched the slow progression of intergenerational poverty, and built genuine friendships.
“Kids’ Church created enough relational capital that when we did start working intentionally in 2008, it really took root,” Shaw said.
We needed to ‘build bridges of grace that can bear the weight of truth.’
“It’s a mercy,” he said. “We’re not smarter than anybody else. We were just concentrating on other things.”
When Kids’ Church did get its own space and a little more attention, it stabilized and began to grow. The College Park boost helped the legal clinic (which takes between 100 and 200 cases a year) and Heart Change (which outgrew its meeting space in two years).
The more College Park got to know Brookside, the more opportunities for long-term development it saw. And the more development it did, the more change it saw—in both Brookside and College Park.Fanning Out
In 2012, College Park helped The Oaks Academy—a nearby classical Christian school designed to offer excellent education regardless of income—open a second campus in Brookside. The Oaks Academy was a known entity: Its first campus was started in 1998, in a neighborhood just ten minutes away. (Former Indiana governor Mitch Daniels would later say that “of all things life has brought, the start of The Oaks is the most important human endeavor I’ve ever been privileged to be part of.”)
The brick Brookside building opened to 85 students, then doubled to 165 the next year. Five years in, they have more than 250 students. (About 92 percent of them will go to college.)
Half of the students are from low-income households. “We see every person as an image-bearer,” said Kelly Altman, head of school at The Oaks Brookside. “Education is a great equalizer.”Head of school Kelly Altman prays at a school program / Courtesy of The Oaks
One little girl, who just finished second grade, was living with her mom and two little sisters in a shelter three years ago. Today, her mom is in Heart Change, she and her sisters live in a house and ride bikes around the neighborhood, and she can recite Alice Joyce Davidson’s poem “Even-Tempered” flawlessly. (“But the thing that’s most amazing to me is I have seen you be so quick to pardon your sisters lately,” Cindy Palmer tells her. “You don’t get mad at them. You’re not easily irritated by them. You’re doing really well.”)
College Park also helped elder David Palmer (Cindy’s husband) start a furniture-making business. Purposeful Design grew up in response to Palmer’s 15 years of volunteering at a nearby homeless shelter, hearing “I’m looking for a job” over and over. He began teaching the men how to work with wood and how to read their Bibles. Palmer now employs eight full-time craftsmen—all formerly addicted and/or homeless.
One is the son of a College Park couple—“grew up in the church but kinda got lost in addictions,” Shaw said. “But he is thriving here.”
Another is Rusty Phillips, who moved in with his dad when he was in high school. “My dad owned a bar, and I thought—being 16—that was the best thing in the world,” said Phillips, a bear of a man with tight orange curls springing from beneath his baseball cap. “I thought I hit the jackpot.”
He didn’t. Phillips “got in with the wrong crowd,” drinking and doing drugs. He taught himself to read in prison, and picked up a Bible in another prison. He found out about Purposeful Design while staying in the homeless shelter where Palmer used to volunteer.
“It was definitely a godsend,” he said. “This place is wonderful. It kept me clean. It keeps my relationship with the Lord—this place and the men here.” Now Phillips goes to church twice a week, works hard to stay clean, and encourages his colleagues to do the same. (“We’re just one beggar showing another beggar where to find bread,” Palmer said.)Craftsmen Rusty Phillips (kneeling) and Jesse Slaugh working on a table top / Photo by Braden Kimmel
Also in 2012, College Park planted Nehemiah Bible Church. It was the next iteration of Kids’ Church, because “kids were aging out at 18 with nowhere to go,” said Kids’ Church then-pastor Cory Johnson. So College Park stopped the Kids’ Church to plant Nehemiah, ordaining Johnson to keep him in the neighborhood. (It’s practically home for Johnson; he grew up 18 blocks north of Brookside. Because he’s got both the history and also the gift of preaching, he’s effective where a traditional College Park pastor couldn’t be, Shaw said.)
In five years, Johnson started a food pantry but shut it down when it was too enabling. He tried a dignity project to encourage people to work, but couldn’t motivate them. Finally he landed on a daycare, which provides a Christian environment for low-income families so parents can work. At Nehemiah, he teaches Reformed theology, practices church discipline, and has done about 80 baptisms in the last five years. (And he restarted Kids’ Church.)Pastor Cory Johnson / Courtesy of Nehemiah Bible Church
College Park’s efforts in Brookside were working. In fact, it looked like a textbook example of the When Helping Hurts principles—listening and building relationships, grassroots ministries springing up in response to actual needs, long-term development instead of quick relief, centering everything around the gospel and the need to live biblically.
“I love the layers,” Altman said. “There are moms who attend Heart Change and dads who work at Purposeful Design and children who attend The Oaks. There is an opportunity to redeem what has been broken for many years because there are so many layers around it. That’s invaluable for families—that there is such strong partnership and so many people cheering them on.”
The most influential cheerleaders are peers—the men and women from the neighborhood who have already believed the gospel and begun to stabilize their lives.
But the B-team cheerleaders from College Park are also passionate, because nothing is more attractive or invigorating than watching the Spirit of God at work. (“I told my husband I would do this for free,” Altman said.) They just kept edging closer and closer—until they started moving in.Moving In
College Park sits in the first suburb north of Indianapolis. Carmel (originally named Bethlehem by Quakers back in the 1830s) was ranked America’s best place to live at CNN Money in 2012, then by Niche.com in both 2017 and also 2018.
Seven out of 10 Carmel residents have graduated from college. Most own their own homes (78 percent), the median value of which is more than $305,000. Their median household income tops $106,000. No one’s been killed there since a man shot his wife and then himself in 2014.
College Park fits in well, with 2,400 members, a gorgeous new sanctuary, and an $11 million annual budget. The church offers live-streamed church services, small groups (you can search for the one geographically closest to you), and online directions on how to donate stock.
The congregation is about 30 minutes north of Brookside. From the beginning, it seemed like a long trip, especially since part of the ministry of Heart Change is picking up mothers who don’t have their own vehicles.
“You’d be driving to their homes and have to go around four cop cars just to get to the house,” said Sarah Shaw, wife of Dale. Doing that over and over “defanged it. These are just people, and so many of them are young and isolated.”
Heart Change volunteers went with their moms to the bank, to the doctor, to the kids’ schools. They attend baby showers and parent-teacher conferences and court proceedings.
Eventually, Cindy Palmer and Sarah began to joke with one another, “Boy, it sure would be easier if we lived down here.”A torched car in Brookside after the Fouth of July / Photo by Dale Shaw
And then, somebody did. Dori Morton—who was involved with Heart Change—and her husband, Frank.
“They fell in love with it,” Shaw said. “They said they had found more friends in one year than they did in 20 in [their suburb].”
Cindy and Sarah got a little more serious. “Look,” their husbands said to each other. “It doesn’t have to be forever. We could try it.”
A week later, Sarah found the house she wanted. When she and Dale walked in the first time, he felt “nauseated.” It was falling apart, full of junk, and smelled horrible.
They bought the place and gutted it; now it’s a charming 1913 home with an open floor plan, a fireplace, and a screened-in porch off their second-floor bedroom. From it, you can see both their well-kept backyard and also the scrap metal piled up at the neighbor’s.
Another College Park couple moved in, and then another. Today, there are 12 College Park families living within a few blocks of each other and more thinking about making the move.
“They’re not just cosmetically fixing the houses—they’re making them nice,” said Todd Ralston, who has lived in Brookside since the early ’70s. The Shaws now live two doors down from him.Dale Shaw (right) leads a Bible study on his front porch / Courtesy of Dale Shaw
“You look at it, and it stands out, like, ‘Wow. I didn’t know the street could look like that,’” Ralston said. “That is very uplifting. Even if it’s one house or two, that can change a whole block.” (And Shaw makes sure it’s just a house or two—he’s mindful of spacing, making sure church members aren’t gentrifying the neighborhood.)
But the advantages are deeper than stable home ownership and better-kept lawns. “Most of our moms only experience community when they’re in class with us,” Cindy said. “Most of these women live in isolation. Many are afraid that if anyone comes in your house, they’re seeing what you have so they can come and steal it, or to see how you’re living so they can report you to the [Department of Child Services].”
Now that Heart Change women are living in the same neighborhood, they walk together—and with Heart Change mentors—on Tuesday evenings. They have coffee on Saturdays. They sit on each other’s porches.Cindy Palmer (left) on a neighborhood walk with a Heart Change mom / Photo by Dale Shaw
Shaw’s dream is for every one of the 50 blocks in Brookside to have an “anchor house,” where a solid College Park family lives missionally. To drum up interest, he offers “roadies,” or short road trips through the neighborhood and ministries for College Parkers on Saturday mornings. On it, Shaw explains the “five pillars of a healthy community” he’s seen change the community—a culture of place and relationship, Jesus-centered churches, opportunities for economic development, strong educational structures, and safe and affordable housing.
The roadies are working; of the about 250 people who have been on one, 36 are thinking seriously about moving in. Still, it’s a lot to ask. The blocks with Covenant housing and College Park homes feel moderately safe (no bars on the doors or windows), but last month someone dumped the bodies of three decomposing dogs a few streets over. Last year, a man was shot dead in an alley, a teen was shot and killed in front of the public elementary school, and two children were kidnapped over unpaid drug money.
In the last six months, Brookside has had 376 reported crimes, including 69 against a person (mostly battery), 135 property crimes (including theft, fraud, vandalism), and 42 crimes against society (such as prostitution, juvenile runaways, criminal trespassing). In comparison, the neighborhood just to the north of Brookside had half the crime (175 incidents in the past six months), and at least one on the other side of the interstate had 7 percent of the crime (27 incidents).
“I have wondered what I’d do if I was upstairs and somebody came in and the alarm went off,” Sarah Shaw said. “I’d lock myself in my room and pray, ‘Lord, just help.’”
The Shaws are leaning on that help.Lighting Up the Neighborhood
“We think the gospel has the power to light up the whole neighborhood,” Dale Shaw said.
He’s already seen it, in the smiles and waves of neighbors, in the kids giving speeches at The Oaks and the men praying before work at Purposeful Design, in the funeral he did for a neighbor in which he laid out the gospel message. He sees it in the houses themselves, with their fresh paint and cut lawns and bright flowers. And he sees it in himself, in his prejudices that have been challenged and his heart that has been softened.
“God is on the move,” he said. “He keeps changing us.”Purposeful Design founder David Palmer and his neighbor Crystal Bell / Photo by Dale Shaw
That’s a common sentiment.
“We have women [volunteers] who may be in a dry spell with their own walk, and God really uses this environment where we are servants and it’s all about God’s Word,” Barb Tait said. She’s speaking from experience. “I thought I was going to go help the poor, and the first thing I realized was that I am a broken sinner, and it was my heart that needed to be saved from prejudices and assumptions and selfishness. God exposed me.”
“I can see people in poverty, and I’m not intimidated by that anymore,” said Heart Change volunteer Kris Schneider. “I can talk to them. I love the relationships I’ve formed with the women here and what that does for me and my heart.”
Her heart change can hardly be overstated. Schneider and her husband are finishing up an adoption process—they’re taking home two children of a Heart Change mother who could no longer parent.
“As Brookside has flourished, it has created a hunger for a similar but different transformation to take place in the suburbs as we consider what incarnational gospel influence looks like outside of the urban core,” Vroegop said. (They’ve found it looks a lot like the same five pillars.) “Brookside has expanded our understanding of how the gospel brings hope.”Keeping On
“The contemporary evangelical church is too quick to overlook social issues out of pragmatism, write off social justice as ‘liberal theology,’ and forget that the Bible uses strong words when the poor and disenfranchised are neglected,” Vroegop said. “The ‘though your sins are like scarlet’ issues that will be washed white as snow in Isaiah 1 include failing to seek justice, not correcting oppression, not bringing justice to the fatherless and neglecting to plead the widow’s cause (v. 17).”
He knows that College Park can’t cure poverty in Indianapolis. Indeed, as Brookside brightens, drug deals and violence may simply darken another area of town.
“The fact that social issues may move to another part of the city is, perhaps, discouraging because there is no comprehensive solution,” Vroegop said. “But isn’t that what the church is called to do—to bring light in darkness and hope in despair? We are convinced that we should try. . . . Our prayer is for more churches and individual believers to engage the needy parts of our city with the hope of the gospel not just because it works, but because it is right.”
“We see through a glass darkly—we cannot get a full picture,” Altman said. “God does far more with our ‘yes’ than we could ever do by plan or intent. It’s definitely a privilege to be here—sometimes I feel like I need to pinch myself.”