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9 Exceptional Works of Worship Architecture in the United States

Mon, 03/04/2019 - 12:02am

“A time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.” (John 4:21)

If Jesus didn’t care about worship spaces, why should we? Isn’t it more important to worship “in spirit and in truth” than in sanctuaries designed by famous architects?

Let’s get this out of the way: God-honoring worship can happen anywhere—a strip mall, a bowling alley, a rented high-school cafeteria, wherever. And the how—worshiping Jesus in spirit and in truth—is far more important than the where. But in 2,000 years, the global church has created some awesome architectural spaces that glorify God just by being. And in about a tenth of that time, the United States has produced a few as well.

In 2,000 years, the global church has created some awesome architectural spaces that glorify God just by being.

There are a number of church buildings by famous architects (Boston’s Christian Science Church by I. M. Pei, for example) that are worth an architect’s time to go see but, for me, aren’t all that inspiring. They make the short list for architectural history courses without (in my view) achieving the transcendence of the nine structures cited here.

Here are nine worship spaces in America you should make a note to see. Any are worth adding a half-day to visit should you happen to be near one of the cities they bless.

1. First Baptist Meeting House, by Joseph Brown (Providence, Rhode Island)

Located just down the hill from Brown University (named for Joseph’s nephew), this colonial church is as impressive for the stories it holds as for its architecture. One of the country’s most historic churches, this 1775 building features reserved-seating boxes more befitting a fancy stadium than a church, but that’s how colonial-era churches rolled 250 years ago. It’s worth noting that many of the patrons of this downtown congregation (including, notably, the Brown family for which the university is named), participated in the slave trade—until they didn’t. That story is too complex to summarize here, but the curious mix of Protestant asceticism—this church is plain to the point of pain—and moral ambivalence makes this a most interesting place to visit.

2. Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis, by Barnett, Hayes, and Barnett (St. Louis, Missouri)

The “new” St. Louis cathedral was constructed in 1914 to replace the “old” cathedral still standing at the foot of St. Louis’s famous arch. This basilica is Romanesque in style, which means semicircular arches define its principal space. But what makes this space worth a visit is the astonishing 83,000 square feet of mosaic tilework that covers virtually every inch of the ceiling above the tops of the columns. Both pictorial and decorative, the tilework is a tour de force of craft and a gospel narrative as compelling as any stained-glass essay you might see in Europe.

3. St. Patrick’s Cathedral, by James Renwick Jr. (New York City)

Since Europeans didn’t arrive in North America until the 17th century, the United States is largely lacking in Gothic cathedrals. But of the few that exist, this 1910 specimen is by far the most impressive. My first visit here, on the cusp of graduating from architecture school, was also my first experience of a building literally taking my breath away. It’s interesting to note that this full-on Gothic cathedral—which some consider an ahistorical oddity, since the Gothic style was by then a half-millenium out of date—is contemporaneous with Wright’s Unity Temple, showing the progressive nature of the latter and the throwback character of the former.

4. Unity Temple, by Frank Lloyd Wright (Oak Park, Illinois)

Unitarianism is deeply problematic theologically (as are other theologies preached in many of the spaces on this list). But this masterpiece by Wright is still worth seeing. The main worship space is a sublime composition in wood and plaster, virtually all right angles. The exterior is cast-in-place concrete, a shocking choice in 1908 that seems only a little less radical today. But Wright’s mastery of form and surface makes this concrete building far from brutal. Though I would never recommend concrete as an exterior material for a church, Wright pulls it off in this instance with relative ease.

5. Thorncrown Chapel, by E. Fay Jones (Eureka Springs, Arkansas)

This small chapel is a wonder in every way. Tucked into a forest glade, reachable only on foot, this masterpiece is literally crafted from two-by-fours (like you could buy at Home Depot) that had to be hand-carried to the site. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Jones was an apprentice of Frank Lloyd Wright, and his work is often mistaken for Wright’s. But Jones developed a mature style entirely his own. This chapel is the high-water mark of a distinguished architectural career, and by itself earned Jones the Gold Medal of the American Institute of Architects. While you’re in northwest Arkansas, check out Jones’s other chapel in Bella Vista (as well as Moshe Safdie’s Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville).

6. Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel, by Walter Nestsch for Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill (Colorado Springs, Colorado)

One of the best buildings of the 20th century is this transcendent 1962 building designed by uber modernist Walter Netsch. While some of his work on college campuses is nearly uninhabitable, this jewel box is on every architect’s must-see list. The soaring nave appears to be composed of folded steel triangles, a work of architectural origami unequaled before or since.

7. Boston Avenue United Methodist Church, by Rush, Endacott, and Rush (Tulsa, Oklahoma)

Another Wright apprentice, Bruce Goff, figures heavily in the design of this extraordinary Art Deco building in downtown Tulsa—although Goff’s high-school art teacher, Adah Robinson, is also credited for the design. Regardless of who drew it first, this 1929 church is a one-of-a-kind American original. It bears the marks of a superior talent who wasn’t afraid to push the boundaries of mainstream taste for a mainstream congregation. Strongly influenced by the 1920s Art Deco movement, the mosaic tile altarpiece and stained glass windows are not to be missed.

8. Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, by Rafael Moneo (Los Angeles, California)

Opened in 2002, this new cathedral is one of few church buildings built in the last 50 years in the United States to take worship seriously. The indirect approach, the materiality, the use of light, all call out to the spiritual nature of humanity in ways no converted strip mall ever could. Like the Air Force Academy Chapel, it is one of the few thoroughly modern worship spaces that celebrates transcendence without resorting to any of the traditional forms one might associate with “religious architecture.” This is a hopeful sign for architects who want to honor God without repeating past styles and patterns, although I for one see nothing wrong with the latter approach if you’re not as gifted as Rafael Moneo.

9. Grace Cathedral, by Lewis Hobart (San Francisco, California)

If you’re looking for a punk-rock Gothic cathedral, downtown San Francisco is where to look. At first glance, Grace Cathedral (completed in 1964) looks full-on Gothic, but closer inspection yields some surprises. Surprise one: Look at the ceiling. Instead of stone ribbing, you get steel trusses, and no finished ceiling at all—pretty punk for a cathedral. Surprise two: Take a close look at the columns in the nave. They’re not stone; they’re concrete. To me, a concrete cathedral with no ceiling passing for Gothic seems a perfect fit for San Francisco.

Girl, Follow Jesus

Mon, 03/04/2019 - 12:00am

There’s a woman in your church who is a #1 New York Times bestselling author, founder and CEO of her own media company, business podcaster, sought-after motivational speaker, lifestyle-website producer, and global influencer.

Not only that, but she also looks and sounds like she could be your best friend next door. Her transparent style—sharing messy, real-life stories—and her proven tips for success have garnered her more than a million followers on social media.

As a professing Christian, you better believe that Rachel Hollis has forged meaningful relationships with the women in your pews. Her first self-help book, Girl, Wash Your Face (read TGC’s review), debuted last year and has been ranked #1 in Personal Growth and Christianity, as well as Women’s Christian Living, on Amazon for months and months.

In her latest book, Girl, Stop Apologizing: A Shame-Free Plan for Embracing and Achieving Your Goals, Hollis has gained momentum. She wants you to believe in yourself, to take great pride in your hard work and accomplishments, and to do so without shame and with gusto. She wants you to go hard and unapologetically after your dreams.

Hollis’s message this time around is, “All that really matters is how bad you want those dreams and what you’re willing to do to make them happen” (83).

For a woman who claims Christ, I’m afraid this is in direct opposition to his words:

If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself? (Luke 9:23–25)

Jesus Says Deny Yourself. Hollis Says Believe in Yourself.

In this fallen world, all women are tempted to believe their lives are mediocre and disappointing. Hearing someone cheer, “You were made for more!” (xxii) is enticing. Women will be charging forward after hearing that all they need to reach their dreams is within themselves. They’ll be looking at Hollis—who built her empire with only a high-school diploma and a ton of energy and persistence—as the proof in the pudding.

For Hollis, salvation is found in ourselves:

The real you is destined for something more . . . your version of more. This is who you were made to be, and the first step to making that vision a reality is to stop apologizing for having the dream in the first place. Like Lady Gaga says, baby, you were born this way . . . it’s time to become who you were made to be. (209)

To get there, Hollis says: “First learn to love yourself well and give yourself credit; then reach for more” (62) She encourages readers to pick 10 goals, write them out every day, and meditate on the future vision we have of ourselves in order to get our subconscious involved. An example of one of her goals is, “I only fly first class” (101).

These practices are a far cry from self-denial. They are full-on faith in self.

These practices are a far cry from self-denial. They are full-on faith in self.

And this faith in self only makes sense for a certain population in a certain context. How many people across history and across the globe can “believe you’re capable of making changes to become whatever kind of person you want to be” (18)? It’s a cruel joke to say to the disabled, to the poor, to the oppressed, “you’ve got to decide right now that you can be whoever you want to be and achieve whatever you want to achieve” (18). While that may be true for Hollis—a white woman in 21st century California—it’s not realistic advice for much of the world. Jesus promises rest, an easy yoke, and a light burden to the weary (Matt. 11:30), but Hollis’s message of self-determination is condemnation.

Jesus Says Take Up Your Cross Daily. Hollis Wonders If You’ve Got Time for That.

Hollis asks, “Is your schedule populated by things that will make your life better, or is it dictated by everybody else’s wants and needs?” (25). She reasons, “Being occasionally inconvenienced is a part of life, and if you’re willing to [serve others], then you better be willing to demand that they do it for you” (140).

On staying home with her kids, Hollis says:

It’s not my spiritual gifting. It’s not in my wheelhouse. You know what is in my wheelhouse? Building a successful business, managing a team, writing books, giving keynote speeches, crushing it on social media, strategizing, branding, PR, and planning live events where a thousand women fly in from all over the world to be inspired. (80)

Lest you think I’m passing judgment on Hollis for being a working mom, I assure you that I’m not. I’ve been a working mom for all of my children’s days. But taking up your cross, sacrificially serving others, and staying home with hard, messy, needy children who don’t say thank you isn’t in anyone’s wheelhouse. I fear Hollis’s instructions will be happily heeded and lead to the emboldened absence of wives, moms, daughters, sisters, and friends who enjoy pursuing their dreams more than loving the least of these.

It is absolutely possible to be a passionate and hard-working Christian businesswoman who pursues her dreams without losing her soul. I have witnessed many myself. I’ve seen them daily confess their need for their Maker and Savior. I’ve marveled at their hard work on behalf of the kingdom, and praised God for their acknowledgment that all they have and do is by and for Jesus (Col. 1:16). It is indeed possible to build a business, a career, maybe even a global empire in a way that loves God and neighbor.

But the methods taught in Girl, Stop Apologizing aren’t the way to do it.

Jesus Says Follow Me. Hollis Says Follow Yourself—and Her.

In her opening pages Hollis says, “I am not an expert. What I am is your friend Rachel, and I want to tell you what worked for me” (xxiv). The book is then laid out accordingly: first it’s letting go of excuses, then it’s adopting certain behaviors, and finally it’s acquiring needed skills for your dreams to become reality.

In following her, you are instructed to follow only yourself. Hollis says, in fact, you should follow yourself so wholeheartedly that, if you sense any guilt, you will label it as

holy crap. No, seriously. [Guilt is] a load of crap wrapped up and pretending to be holy. I don’t care what religion you were raised in. You weren’t taught guilt and shame by your creator. You were taught guilt and shame by people. (49)

Follow yourself. No apologies.

You May Gain the World, but Lose Your Soul

If you follow Rachel Hollis you may indeed gain the world. But what about your soul?

I’m here to beg you to reject Hollis’s teaching, because it’s both exhausting and damning. It’s exhausting to believe in ourselves, because that belief is only as good as we are. It will only suffice for as long as we have ample energy and good behavior and right thinking. And we already know that we get tired, we mess up, we fall short. We need more for this life than we’re able to conjure up within. Ironically, believing in yourself will not lead to freedom or wholeness or to the pinnacle of your dreams, but rather to enslavement. Enslavement to self.

And second, believing in yourself is damning. It’s a foolish and grievous thing to triumph being self-made over the kind pursuit of the God in heaven who has made a way for us to be reconciled to him. Until we fall on our knees, come to the end of ourselves, and surrender to the goodness of our loving Father, we remain in the domain of darkness, destined for hell, justly earned by the wages of our sin (Col. 1:13; John 3:36; Rom. 6:23).

I beg you to reject Hollis’s teaching, because it’s both exhausting and damning.

Friend, our Father stands ready to transfer us to “the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Col. 1:13–14). The stakes are high. They are eternal. They span heaven and hell. This is no time to believe in yourself. This is a blood-bought moment in which you may turn from yourself and trust Christ.

The Good Life Starts with an Apology

Contrary to the message of Girl, Stop Apologizing, becoming the women we were meant to be starts with apologizing. It starts with the humble acknowledgement that we were made by a beautiful and holy God, and that we rebel against him in countless ways every day. It starts with recognizing that Jesus died and rose to rescue us. And as once-hopeless sinners who have been mercifully forgiven, it starts—and continues, and ends—with treasuring Christ above all.

Becoming the women we were created to be means following Jesus, believing in Jesus, living for Jesus—not ourselves. Scripture could not be more clear:

For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. (2 Cor. 5:14–15, emphasis mine)

We were made to be more than self-made. We are God-made. God-rescued. God-loved. Only as we orient our lives and dreams around him will we experience true and lasting joy.

Girl, let’s start with an apology. Let’s turn from a self-focused way of life to a Jesus-focused way of life—and therein find true life. For it’s in him, not in ourselves, that we find the path of life, the fullness of joy, and pleasures forevermore (Ps. 16:11).

New Books You Should Know (March 2019)

Sun, 03/03/2019 - 12:03am

That Hideous Strength: How the West Was Lost

Melvin Tinker

Evangelical Press, 2018

There are few people in this world really understand our culture and then explain it all so the rest of us can get it, but that’s what Tinker does for us here. Taking his cue from C. S. Lewis (That Hideous Strength and The Abolition of Man) and Genesis 11—the Tower of Babel—he exposes contemporary culture through biblical lenses and challenges us to understand accurately the world we live in. A helpful little book and a good introduction to concepts like critical theory and cultural Marxism. A quick but rewarding read. Pastors, if you’re not up to speed on today’s culture shift, this is a great place to start catching up. Highly recommended.


Holding Fast the Faithful Word: Sermons and Addresses by Samuel Miller

Kevin Reed, ed.

Reformation Heritage, 2018

Here’s an excellent collection of sermons from Samuel Miller, Princeton Seminary’s second professor. Coming from an accomplished preacher and a man of recognized piety, Miller’s sermons that are both warm and also deeply informed. And Reed’s biographical sketch is worth the price of admission. A welcome addition to Princetonia and rich reading for anyone.


The Gospel-Driven Church: Uniting Church Growth Dreams with the Metrics of Grace

Jared C. Wilson

Zondervan, 2019

Gospel-centeredness must be more than a mere cliché, and Wilson wants to see this principle shape the church from top to bottom. His challenge to the contemporary church is needed, and his counsel is sound and informed. Written for a popular audience, simple, and engaging. An excellent refresher if you already “agree” and a friendly but clear challenge to any who may not yet “get it.”


Holy Sexuality and the Gospel: Sex, Desire, and Relationships Shaped by God’s Grand Story

Christopher Yuan

Multnomah, 2018

Our cultural moment has of necessity given rise to a growing number of books addressing the question of homosexuality. Christopher Yuan, popular speaker and a professor of theology at Moody Bible Institute, has his own captivating story to tell, but he aims to help us understand sexuality in light of biblical and systematic theology. A helpful study and a topic on which today’s Christian must be well-informed.


Human Nature from Calvin to Edwards

Paul Helm

Reformation Heritage Books, 2018

Reformed theologians have said much about human nature, but this book fills a gap. The focus isn’t on human nature as it relates to soteriology (questions of depravity and the like) but rather on human nature itself—what it means to be a human being. For answers Helm turns to Reformed writers of the 16h, 17th, and even a bit in the 18th century. An insightful quest and a genuine contribution to historical theology as well as biblical anthropology.


Three Views on Israel and the Church: Perspectives on Romans 9–11

Andrew Naselli and Jared Compton (editors)

Benjamin Merkle, Michael Vlach, Fred Zaspel (contributors)

Kregel, 2019

I must mention this book, even if it is at the risk of self-promotion. Jared Compton and Andy Naselli had a great idea to create a book from a discussion-debate of the correct interpretation of Romans 911—the crucial passage on Israel and the church—and I think the result is a helpful resource. All three sides agree that the focus here is ethnic Israel, but from there the viewpoints diverge, providing insight into the critical exegetical turns and hermeneutical questions involved.

How to Teach Children to Deal with Bullying

Sat, 03/02/2019 - 12:03am

More than half of all teenagers in America today see bullying as a major problem among their peers, according to a new survey by Pew Research. Teens were more likely to rank bullying as a problem than poverty, drug addition, or drinking alcohol. Only anxiety and depression—problems that bullying contributes to—ranked higher in the survey.

About 28 percent of U.S. students in grades six to 12 report experiencing bullying. About 30 percent admit to bullying others, and 70.6 percent say they have seen bullying in their schools. Most bullying occurs during the middle school years, but a survey of youth risk behaviors by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that about a fifth of high-school students (19 percent in 2017) reported being bullied on school property in the past 12 months, and 14.9 percent said they’d experienced cyberbullying in the previous year.

For generations, many Americans—including far too many Christians—considered bullying a normal, albeit unfortunate, part of childhood. But over the past few decades, society has begun to realize that bullying can have long-term effects on everyone involved.

Kids who are bullied can experience depression, anxiety, mood disorders, and reduced academic achievement. Kids who bully others can also engage in violent and other risky behaviors into adulthood. They are more likely to engage in early sexual activity, abuse alcohol and other drugs in adolescence and as adults, and be abusive toward their romantic partners, spouses, or children as adults.

And kids who merely witness bullying are more likely to increase their use of tobacco, alcohol, or other drugs, experience mental-health problems—including depression and anxiety—and miss or skip school.

Because of these harmful effects, understanding bullying and knowing how to address it are important parts of developing in children a biblical, neighbor-loving worldview.

Types and Modes of Bullying

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services defines bullying as unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. To be considered bullying, the behavior must be aggressive, repeated, and include an imbalance of power between the children. Kids who bully use their power—such as physical strength, access to embarrassing information, or popularity—to control or harm others.

Bullying can be classified into four types: verbal, social, physical, and damage to property. Verbal bullying is saying or writing something that is cruel or intended to harm, and includes such acts as making inappropriate sexual comments or threatening to cause pain. Social bullying, sometimes referred to as relational bullying, involves hurting someone’s reputation or relationships, and includes spreading rumors or causing intentional public embarrassment. Physical bullying involves hurting a person’s body and includes such actions as hitting, kicking, spitting, pushing, sexually abusing, or taking one’s possessions. The fourth type of bullying involves any type of intentional damage to a child’s property.

The two modes of bullying include direct (bullying that occurs in the presence of a child) and indirect (bullying not directly communicated to a targeted child, such as spreading rumors).

Because of the prevalence of media technology, children now must deal with electronic bullying, or cyberbullying—bullying that occurs using technology (including but not limited to phones, email, chat rooms, instant messaging, and online posts). Cyberbullying is not a different type of bullying; it just involves an electronic context. Cyberbullying involves some form of verbal bullying (such as threatening or harassing text messages), social bullying (such as spreading rumors online), or damage to property (such as destroying homework files).

Most bullying takes place in school areas, including school playgrounds and buses. One large study revealed the percentage of middle-school students who had experienced bullying in these places at school: classrooms (29.3 percent); hallways or lockers (29 percent); cafeterias (23.4 percent); gyms or PE classes (19.5 percent); bathrooms (12.2 percent); and playgrounds or recess (6.2 percent).

Tips for Training Children

Ask your child about bullying — Has your child been bullied? Before you say no, you might want to ask them. Only about 20 percent to 30 percent of students who are bullied notify adults about the bullying. If the child admits to being bullied, let them know you are on their side. “Realize that your child is not to blame for being bullied, and refuse to believe any lies being told about him or her,” Dr. Walt Larimore says. “The bully is the disturbed one. Remind your children of their value in your and God’s sight, and help them understand that no one can make them feel inferior without their permission.”

Labels that stigmatize children — Bullying involves both behavior and also power imbalance. When we label a child a bully, we imply their behavior can’t change (“That’s just what they are”). Similarly, when we label a child a victim, we may be giving the impression the child is weak or inferior. In both cases the labels fail to acknowledge the multiple roles children might play in different bullying situations. A child who bullies may also be the victim of bullying by other children.

Instead of labeling the children involved, focus on the behavior. For instance, rather than calling a child a bully, refer to them as a child who bullied. Instead labeling a child as a victim, refer to them as a child who was bullied. And instead of calling a child a bully/victim, refer to them as a child who was both bullied and also bullied others.

The Circle of Bullying — Even if your child is not bullying or being bullied, they may be in the broader group known as the circle of bullying. The Olweus Bullying Prevention Program identifies several roles kids play regarding bullying:

  • Students who bully
  • Students who are bullied
  • Followers or henchmen—those who participate but do not start the bullying
  • Supporters or passive bullies—those who support the bullying but do not take an active part
  • Passive supporters or possible bullies—those who like the bullying but do not display open support
  • Disengaged onlookers—spectators who don’t take a stand
  • Possible defenders—those who dislike the bullying and think they ought to help but don’t act
  • Defenders—opponents of bullying who try to help the bullied student

Encourage intervention — We should teach our children to be defenders and not to be afraid to protect other people (Matt. 7:12; 1 Thess. 5:14; Heb. 13:6). Their willingness to intervene can make a significant difference. Research has shown that more than half the time (57 percent), when children intervene and play the role of “defender,” bullying stops within 10 seconds.

Rules to remember and live by — Rather than waiting until an incident occurs, teach your child beforehand how they are expected to behave as a defender. At a minimum, children should be told to always follow these rules:

  • I will not bully others.
  • I will try to help other children who are bullied.
  • I will try to include other children who are left out.
  • If I know somebody is being bullied, I will tell an adult at school and my parents.
  • I will pray both for those who are being bullied and those who are bullying others.

New Global, Orthodox Identity for United Methodists Surprises Many

Sat, 03/02/2019 - 12:00am

The late Richard Neuhaus once recalled that in the 1970s it was widely expected among religious cognoscenti that United Methodism would be the first of America’s historically liberal Mainline Protestant denominations to abandon traditional Christian sexual ethics. After all, it was the largest and most Americanized of mainline churches, and it wasn’t protected by strong traditions of liturgy or ecclesiology. Its experiential theology often seemed muddled.

When Neuhaus shared that recollection in 2005, the Episcopal Church and United Church of Christ had already surrendered. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Presbyterian Church (USA), and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) were on their way. Besides the American Baptist Church (liberal northern counterpart to Southern Baptists), only United Methodism among the “seven sisters” of mainline Protestantism has officially retained Christian teaching that sex is exclusively for husband and wife.

That teaching was stunningly reaffirmed this week at United Methodism’s governing General Conference, specially called to adjudicate the church’s teachings about sex. Stunning at least to the U.S. bishops and other American church elites who’ve long assumed that United Methodism would remain attached to the liberal Protestant project that captured mainline denominations early in the last century. It also stunned secular observers, many of whom assumed that all “mainstream” churches (i.e. not evangelical or fundamentalist) had long ago aligned with American secular culture on sex.

History of the Debate

United Methodists have openly debated sex since 1972, when the General Conference, responding to ambiguous language on sexuality proposed by a church agency, added to the church’s Social Principles that homosexual practice is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” It also stipulated that “sex between a man and a woman is to be clearly affirmed only in the marriage bond.”

Over the decades subsequent General Conferences, which typically convene every four years, added that practicing homosexuals—along with other persons sexually active outside natural marriage—could not be ordained. And they banned clergy and churches from celebrating same-sex rites. Funding by church agencies to advocate for homosexual causes was also banned.

United Methodism, after a century as a liberal mainline Protestant denomination, is slowly emerging into a new identity that is global and orthodox.

These policies across years were sustained by evangelical delegates based on theological conviction and by institutionalist delegates for pragmatic and cultural reasons. Liberal activists—cheered by seminaries, church agencies, and many bishops—reasonably assumed that eventually they would prevail. After all, United Methodism was a progressive denomination, and wasn’t sexual liberation the inevitable next step?

Debate Today

And they would’ve been right, but for the rise of United Methodism in Africa, which exploded over the last 25 years to 5.3 million members, or about 43 percent of global United Methodist membership. U.S. membership has shrunk since the 1960s from 11 million to 6.8 million and loses nearly 100,000 annually. Meanwhile the African churches are gaining more than 100,000 annually. African United Methodists, who are uniformly conservative theologically, will outnumber U.S. church members in a decade or less. Churches in the Philippines and Eastern Europe, though much smaller than Africa, are also mostly conservative.

American delegates were 58 percent of the recent General Conference, which meant that liberalizing the church’s marriage teaching required unobtainable votes from conservative overseas delegates. A “Simple Plan” to remove the church’s sexual prohibitions failed by 60 percent to 40 percent. The “One Church Plan” heavily pushed by U.S. bishops, allowing local churches to choose their own policies on sexuality, failed by 55 percent to 45 percent. A “Traditional Plan” backed by U.S. evangelicals and overseas delegates to enhance enforcement of the church’s sexual standards passed by 53 percent to 47 percent.

We are not children in need of Western enlightenment when it comes to our sexual ethics.

This General Conference debate over sexuality was even more intense than most. A self-identified “centrist” who presented the One Church Plan to delegates likened the Traditional Plan to a “virus” being injected into the church. Others compared it to segregation. Since the main talking point for the One Church Plan was that it would tolerate different viewpoints within the church, traditionalists wondered why liberals and “centrists” who so abhor their beliefs would want to share the church with them. How long would their traditional beliefs be tolerated by United Methodists who view support for historical Christian sexual standards as morally equivalent to white supremacy?

Proponents for the One Church Plan, veering from their ostensible purpose of church unity, in their arguments doubled down on LGBTQ advocacy, further alarming overseas delegates. Liberian seminary president Jerry Kulah electrified a General Conference evangelical breakfast by declaring of his fellow African United Methodists: “We are not children in need of Western enlightenment when it comes to our sexual ethics.”

Liberal Response

Liberals inside and outside United Methodism have responded to the General Conference with outrage. A prominent “centrist” large church pastor who backed the One Church Plan is summoning allies in April to plot next steps. In response, one prominent pro-LGBTQ activist in academia complained about the “arrogance” of this “white cis-hetero man” calling “folks together to his church to talk about how to move forward,” when it should be the victim groups who now lead.

Some liberals are now speaking openly of quitting United Methodism and creating a new progressive church. The General Conference approved legislation allowing congregations to leave the denomination with their property if disagreeing with denominational teaching on sexuality. This legislation may have to be clarified at the 2020 General Conference.

Creating a new liberal Methodist church would take time. And some church liberals remain in denial about the political and demographic realities that bar their future success within United Methodism. But their defeat at the February 23–26 General Conference was decisive and momentous. United Methodism, after a century as a liberal mainline Protestant denomination, is slowly emerging into a new identity that is global and orthodox. Richard Neuhaus, if still with us, likely wouldn’t be surprised. But many others are.

Don’t Pit Atonement against Kingdom

Fri, 03/01/2019 - 12:04am

“Many Christians either cling to the cross or champion the kingdom, usually one to the exclusion of the other. And the polarization of these two biblical themes often leads to two divergent approaches: cross-centered theology that focuses on the salvation of sinners, or kingdom-minded activism that seeks to change the world.” — Jeremy Treat

Date:  October 17, 2018

Event: TGC West Coast Conference, Los Angeles, California

Listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition podcast.

Find more audio and video from the 2018 West Coast Conference on the conference media page.

Mentioned in this podcast: The Crucified King: Atonement and Kingdom in Biblical and Systematic Theology

In Praise of Renewal-Driven Mission

Fri, 03/01/2019 - 12:03am

Has my growth in spiritual depth made me more or less evangelistic?

The question began to haunt me. I had been reading deeply in spiritual formation and was growing genuinely more in love with God. Yet as my pursuit of conformity to Christ continued, this question came up again and again.

Consider the question yourself: Have you become more or less evangelistic with time? And if, like me, your fruitfulness among those outside the church has atrophied, where do you begin again?

Pattern of Mission

Tim Keller has observed the consistent pattern of mission throughout the Scriptures: God draws us in to send us out.

In Genesis 12, God speaks to Abraham, draws him into his presence, and promises to make him a blessing to all the nations. Then the Lord says, Go! “Leave your country and your people and go to the land I will show you.”

In Exodus 3, Moses is a killer on the lam when God appears in a burning bush. Moses falls on his face in worship, and the Lord says, Go! “I have heard the cry of my people. Now go, I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people out.”

In Luke 5, Simon Peter is a hardworking fisherman who hasn’t caught anything all day. A man from the beach says, “Put your nets out one more time.” Peter draws in so many fish that his nets break and the boat begins to sink. Peter cries out that Jesus is the Lord, and Jesus says, Go! “Leave your fish behind; from now on, you’ll be a fisher of men.”

In Matthew 28, after the resurrection, the women reach the empty tomb. Mary Magdalene turns to see the risen Lord calling her name. Overwhelmed with joy, she clings to him. Jesus embraces her but then says, Go! “Don’t hold on to me; go instead and tell others what you have seen!”

Over and over, God draws us in to send us out. He draws us in to know him; he sends us out to make him known.

Renewal-Driven Mission

In the various seasons of my 12 years in ministry, I’ve emphasized either spiritual depth or missional advancement to the neglect of the other. While serving with church-planting teams in 2008 and 2010, relationship building, evangelism, and one-on-one discipleship were the priorities of my ministry. Yet while serving in a more established congregation, I was busy with pastoral care and administration to the exclusion of missional engagement.

But as I return to the pattern of mission in the Scriptures, spiritual formation and missional living can’t be separated. As one pastor once said, “The gospel needed to change our hearts is the same gospel needed to change the world.”

To borrow a phrase from a pastor-friend: “Renewal-driven mission” occurs when an individual or community is renewed by the Spirit to an awakening around the gospel and is then sent out to reach people, disciple new believers, and start new churches. Again, God draws us in and sends us out.

Renewal-driven mission is the great need of our day.

Renewal-driven mission is the great need of our day. When the Holy Spirit produces depth and renewal in our souls, it isn’t for our own sake alone. We exist not for ourselves but for Christ and his glory among the lost. Paul’s prayer for the Thessalonian church demonstrates this great need: “May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you” (1 Thess. 3:12).

This is the pattern he prays for: that our love for God may (1) overflow in our hearts, (2) overflow to one another in the church, and then (3) overflow even more to “everyone else”—to those outside the faith in desperate need of the good news about Jesus.

Love isn’t a limited commodity in the kingdom of Christ. It can “increase and overflow” over and over. Such is the great love of God—abundant, ever-renewing, always seeking and saving and multiplying.

So how do we cultivate this love for God, church, and world—and form the foundation for renewal-driven mission?

1. Watch and Pray

Before Paul gave his famous message to the Athenians, he walked around the city and was “greatly distressed” by the city’s spiritual confusion (Acts 17:16). He spoke in the marketplace from a deep, heartbroken compassion for their souls.

To the degree we look at our communities with the eyes of Paul, we will see brokenness and be moved to prayer and action. Our cities, neighborhoods, and rural communities are in desperate need of Christ and community. Most people I talk to week in and week out feel disconnected, lonely, and overwhelmed. Our hearts should break, and prayer should be our first impulse.

All great revivals start with prayer gatherings. How can you and your people begin gathering regularly to pray for your city?

Christian history has shown that all great revivals start with prayer gatherings. How can you and your people begin gathering regularly to pray for your city?

2. Do Hard Things

About two years ago, after six great years at a large and thriving church, we decided to move back home and plant a church. We recruited friends to join us, moved to our little flyover city, and began building relationships from the ground up. At once, renewal-driven mission went from a doctrinal conviction to a lifestyle. But even though it’s been consistently trying, it’s thrown us back on the Lord unlike anything else.

Wise counsel suggests that we should choose difficult, even humanly impossible things to grow our hearts in dependence on God. It doesn’t require a big move or planting a new church. Every day presents us with opportunities to walk across the hall or lawn to check in on a neighbor, text a coworker to get together, or share the good news about Christ with a friend. And after some fruitfulness in evangelism and discipleship, your local church can equip you for the next step—helping to plant a church, start an organization with a redemptive mission, or take the gospel to the nations.

What might the Lord be inviting you into right now? A new relationship? A new redemptive opportunity? A new mission field?

3. Work from Rest

Ministry is exhausting. Relationship-building requires emotional output. Evangelism incurs frequent rejection. Hard things are, well, hard. But the pattern of Jesus is to work from rest. He often retreated in complete solitude, or just with his disciples, before major ministry trips. His earliest followers in Acts found rhythms to balance fervent prayer with vibrant outreach.

Conformity to Christ means participation in his renewal-driven mission.

I think of it in terms of input and output. I’m an endurance cyclist, and on a two-hour ride I will burn about 1,800 calories. That means I need to take in additional calories—donuts! hamburgers!—before and after the ride, or I will collapse. The body needs an intake of nutrients equal to the output of the demands placed on it. Spiritually, we all need to take in God’s presence and Word through prayer, reading, and other spiritual disciplines so that our inner strength matches the demands placed on us.

What would it look like for you to be drawn in before you are sent out?

Earnest Prayer

Conformity to Christ means participation in his renewal-driven mission.

Has growing in spiritual depth made you a more evangelistic person? My earnest prayer for myself and for you is that what the Lord has begun in us inwardly will be manifested outwardly in a harvest of new disciples and healthy, multiplying churches.

Heavenly Father, draw us in and send us out! Amen and amen.

Discipling Kids Is a Long Game of Small Interactions

Fri, 03/01/2019 - 12:02am

My family used to live in France. My brother was put into a local primary school without being able to speak a single word of French. (Don’t judge my parents. They’re lovely.) For about three months he didn’t say one word in school. Not one. Mum and Dad were just about to pull him out when he walked into the house one day speaking fluent French. And he’s never lost it. Today, 35 years later, he can still startle our continental neighbors with his perfect French.

The human capacity for learning is amazing, and it’s at its most inspiring during childhood. Still, it can often feel slow, unpredictable, and usually a little frustrating.

You don’t remember the moment you learned to speak English. Not because your memory fails you, but because—as we all know—learning to speak as toddlers doesn’t work that way. The process is long and slow, moving gradually from babbling (“She’s definitely saying ‘Mummy’!”), to sentence fragments (“Want car!”), to actual conversation. And while most of the time adults can make ourselves understood well enough, we’re all still learning. Even now I’m discovering new words—apparently the thing I almost vacuumed up this morning is called a “butterfly clutch.” Who knew?

Our spiritual growth works much the same way.

Maturity Takes Time

There may be significant, penny-dropping moments when we grasp a truth more clearly, or experience something of God that was previously only “head knowledge.” But most of the time we grow in knowledge and love for Jesus gradually, through an accumulation of Bible reading, daily exercised faith and obedience, and listening to the wisdom of other Christians.

We should expect the same for our children.

As parents we must remember that spiritual growth—just like growth of all other kinds—is usually a slow, gentle, and even painful process rather than a series of big leaps. It rarely comes through amazing performances in which we explain an aspect of Christian faith clearly and comprehensively to a child who listens, spellbound, before responding with perfect understanding and immediate acceptance. Imagine if it did work that way. You would explain the gospel once; they would “pray the prayer.” Then they’d ask if God really is in charge of everything; you’d deliver a brief summary of all aspects of God’s sovereignty. They would smile and say, “Thanks—I get it now.”

Resist the Lure of Quick-Fix Discipleship

We’re so often tempted to look for shortcuts. The consistent habit of reading the Bible together, talking about it, and making connections between what you read and ordinary life doesn’t feel spectacular. But consider this: Ten minutes a day spent talking about Jesus, five days a week, 40-something weeks a year adds up to around 39 hours. I’d be amazed if even the biggest “big conversation” with a child lasted an hour. So even if you did get three of those in a year, and made perfect use of them, you’d still have less than 10 percent of the input you’d have using a little-and-often approach.

And when the big conversations do come along, we’ll be ready for them, because we already have the building blocks in place—an accumulation of conversations and examples and familiar verses ready to refer back to. We don’t need to pin all our hopes on the “big leaps.”

God’s Wisdom in the Slow

The God who is growing our children’s faith is the same God who grows a 300-foot redwood over seven centuries, creating something strong and beautiful at a rate invisible to the human eye. The same God chose to carve out spectacular canyons one droplet of water at a time—when he could’ve spoken them into being in an instant.

So perhaps it’s no surprise that God-given means of spiritual growth are often small and unspectacular—ten minutes a day; reading from the Bible; an ordinary, unimpressive parent talking with their ordinary, unimpressive child; little by little, step by step.

If you’re already engaged in this everyday pattern of sharing Scripture with your children—keep going! You may not see the effect immediately, but you can pray with confidence that God would use those small, forgettable moments to do great and lasting things.

If you haven’t yet started—get going! All you need is a child, a Bible, and faith in a God who delights to achieve magnificent things in unspectacular ways.

Make ‘Christian’ Engagement with the Arts More . . . Christian

Fri, 03/01/2019 - 12:00am

The “arts and theology” subgenre of evangelical discourse is livelier than ever before. There are countless blogs, journals, books, conferences, and university programs devoted to exploring the intersection of faith, creativity, and the arts. Since I started publishing film reviews in Christian magazines some 15 years ago, I’ve been encouraged by much of what I see. But I’ve also been concerned over some of the movement’s tendencies.

I’ve seen many in my generation overcorrect from legalistic faith environments that were hostile, or at best apathetic, toward the arts. Desperately seeking to shed evangelicalism’s legalistic and inartistic reputation, many—myself included—have at times swung the pendulum to the other extreme, engaging the arts with an uncritical, “everything-is-awesome!” enthusiasm that is, in the end, just as simplistic as the legalism we wanted to lose.

I’ve witnessed how often arts-theology discourse is much more robust on the arts side than the theology side. Many in this conversation exhibit either a low theological literacy or a depressing disinterest in Scripture, employing it where convenient (“the Old Testament was R-rated, so let’s not be prudes”) or leaving it out altogether. At times the connections between Christianity and some piece of art—a Banksy stunt, perhaps, or a Batman film—are so much of a stretch that it raises the question of why we should even bother. Indeed, unless Christian engagement with the arts is more rigorously rooted in Christian theology from the outset, rather than a sanctifying afterthought, we shouldn’t expect the conversation to advance beyond the superficial categories (“positive values,” “uplifting,” “redemptive,” “Christ figure”) that have long been mainstays of the discourse.

Jeremy Begbie, a noted pianist and professor of theology at Duke Divinity School, has similar concerns. In his new book, A Peculiar Orthodoxy: Reflections on Theology and the Arts, Begbie laments that too little in the arts-theology conversation draws on Scripture or finds inspiration in biblical orthodoxy. Begbie says it is the “stubborn peculiarity of biblically based orthodoxy—centering on the embodiment of the world’s Creator in a crucified king, and a God who is perplexingly threefold—that seems to be all too easily screened out or sanitized by those exploring the resonances between faith and the arts today” (vi–vii).

In A Peculiar Orthodoxy, Begbie models—in a diverse array of standalone essays—the sort of direct, unembarrassed engagement with this “peculiar orthodoxy” that is lacking in much theological writing about the arts. But what exactly does this look like?

Trinitarian Approach

For one, it looks like moving from abstract vagaries to concrete specificity when Christians talk about “spirituality” and “beauty” in the arts.

“A Christian account of beauty,” Begbie writes, “will be oriented to a particular God . . . not an undifferentiated monad or blank ‘Presence’ but a triunity of inexhaustible love and life, active and present to the world as triune and never more intensely than in the saving life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ” (3).

A Christian vision for the arts should be more robustly Christological and trinitarian, Begbie suggests. It should see in the risen and ascended Christ the culmination of creation’s beauty. It should be “charged with promise” in its orientation around Holy Spirit, recognizing how the beauty we apprehend now is “a Spirit-given foretaste of the beauty to be given” (10).

A Christian vision for the arts should be more robustly Christological and trinitarian.

Far from limiting the potential of engaging beauty and art from a Christian perspective, the trinitarian orientation opens up possibilities and gives more precise language and coherent rubrics for grappling with beauty, Begbie’s book shows. Among other things, a Trinity-shaped aesthetic delights in a “diversity of particulars” and the lavish, unpredictable, uncontainable abundance of love that we see in intratrinitarian life.

Taking Form Seriously

It’s refreshing to see Begbie—a towering figure in the arts-and-theology world—not only call out the laziness of so much Christian writing about the arts but also elegantly model the alternative: rigorously Christocentric conversations between art and theology, in a way that enhances both.

Chapter 8 (“Room of One’s Own”) models this approach particularly well. Begbie skillfully demonstrates how a tricky theological concept like the compatibility of divine and human freedom can be uniquely illuminated through the arts, in this case music. Sonic space is a perceptual field different from visual space, and it’s a difference that can shed helpful light on certain theological quandaries. I love how much Begbie attends to form. He respects the distinctive theological capacities and limitations of various genres and mediums of art, not only in what they say but also in how they say it.

Too much in the arts-theology conversation treats the arts merely as packaging of content, where the message is the primary level at which theology is engaged (“Does a character function as a Christ figure? Does the plot have redemptive qualities? Is a gospel to be found?”). Too little attention is paid to the medium itself. How do the unique stylistic capacities of certain forms bear witness to theological truth? In my own writing about films I have challenged myself to pay closer attention to this question, pondering the possibilities of a Christocentric aesthetic of cinema.

Though the writing is academic and at times difficult to follow (particularly for those of us with little training in music), A Peculiar Orthodoxy has much to offer anyone interested in the arts and theology.

Christians need to make and interpret the arts in a way that echoes both the darkness of crucifixion and also the joy of resurrection.

Among the standout essays is Chapter 2, which addresses the problem of sentimentality in Christian art-making (think Thomas Kinkade or the Fireproof-type Christian movies). Building on his Christocentric focus, Begbie suggests sentimentalism is properly countered only by an appropriate attention to the Son’s journey from crucifixion to resurrection in Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. Christian sentimentalism in art, Begbie rightly suggests, often stems from “a premature grasp for Easter morning, a refusal to follow the three days of Easter as three days in an irreversible sequence of victory over evil” (41).

This framework is a helpful antidote not only to the saccharine, cheaply cheery tendences of “skip-to-Easter!” evangelical art-making, but also to the other extreme that I see often among younger evangelical artists: a “wallow-in-Good-Friday” disposition that fetishizes brokenness and suffering, as if Easter didn’t exist. Christians need to make and interpret the arts in a way that echoes both the darkness of crucifixion and also the joy of resurrection, as well as the “already but not yet” tensions and longings of Holy Saturday.

What the Reformed Tradition Offers

The book’s final essay is a fascinating and somewhat surprising case for why the Reformed tradition—often caricatured as being suspicious of the arts and apathetic about beauty—is actually well positioned to move the arts-theology conversation in a more theologically grounded and fruitful direction.

With its focus on the Word and understanding that human language is “irreplaceably intrinsic” to God’s self-revelation (205), the Reformed tradition brings necessary focus to the free-for-all tendencies of some who position the arts theologically as an alternative to or escape from the confines of language. As Begbie argues throughout the book, God’s self-disclosure through Scripture and the incarnation (the Word made flesh) bring an unavoidable specificity that is sidelined at our peril.

For too many bored or otherwise restless and relevance-seeking evangelicals, fidelity to the arts has overtaken fidelity to Scripture, with the latter deployed as theological cover when convenient, but often not at all. We can do better.

But we must also recognize, Begbie argues, that “the God who appropriates human language directly into his purposes is the God of gracious freedom, who exceeds all that can be spoken or thought, all that can be said or conceived” (206). This is where we need balance: recognizing that faithfulness to the realities of God’s revelation must be central and foremost, but that such fidelity need not be threatened by the nonverbal arts, which have unique capacities to mediate these realities:

The arts do their own kind of work in their own kind of way, articulating depths of the Word of the gospel and our experience of it that are otherwise unheard or unfelt, while nonetheless being responsible and faithful to the normative texts of the faith. A major research agenda opens up here, as well as a major practical challenge to all who care about the arts in the church. (207–8)

This is a worthy challenge indeed. The arts can lead us astray when untethered from theological orthodoxy and the “normative texts of the faith.” For too many bored or otherwise restless and relevance-seeking evangelicals, fidelity to the arts has overtaken fidelity to Scripture, with the latter deployed as theological cover when convenient, but often not at all. We can do better.

A fierce devotion to Scripture and a groundedness in the “peculiar orthodoxy” of trinitarian Christian faith should be the starting place in our art-making and art-appreciating, not a dubious add-on to justify any and every TV show, movie, or musical work we love. This proper orientation will not stifle or simplify our experience of art. It will enhance it, placing it within the glorious, illuminating frame of the ultimate referent for beauty: the triune God.

The Value of Praying Parents: A Teen’s Perspective

Thu, 02/28/2019 - 12:04am

My mom once said prayer was like learning another language. If you grew up with parents who prayed regularly in the home, it would feel natural—like a native language. But if you waited, it became harder to learn. It wasn’t that you couldn’t learn to pray, but it would take more time for it to feel natural. It might feel foreign or odd and somewhat uncomfortable at first.

I can testify that prayer will feel natural when children are exposed to it, because I grew up with prayerful parents. From a young age, I was taught what prayer is and how to do it. I prayed with others at church, school, meals, and family devotions. It was always just a part of who I was and felt like a normal part of life.

Looking back on the past 18 years of learning and growing in prayer, I realize what an effect my parents praying for and with me had. Through their prayerful guidance, I’ve been shown not only the how and why of prayer, but also the amazing Christian community that arises from it.

Learning by Example

My parents didn’t give me a class to teach me how to pray. There was no instruction manual, video, or lecture. I simply learned by watching them pray each and every day. Through their examples, I was able to further understand the importance of communal and personal prayer.

Every evening, sitting by my bed, my dad would read a Bible story and pray with my siblings and me. Every morning I would come downstairs for school and see my mom finishing up her quiet time as she wrote out her prayers to the Lord. Because my parents prayed with me, it never seemed odd or unfamiliar. I never felt uncomfortable about prayer, because they made it such a normal part of my life.

Similarly, I never felt unclear on how to talk to God. Through seeing my mom every morning alone with the Lord, I began to prioritize this same sort of time, and I began to understand the importance of it. I began to write out my prayers like my mom did, and as I grew in this time, I understood God more, and therefore understood prayer more. God is my Father, my King, my Friend. I saw him as caring and loving in my sorrows, but also as ruler and King over my life. Together, these truths brought me comfort and peace and a growing love for my Creator.

Praying Community

My parents example taught me what to look for in Christian community, especially as I prepare to head off to college.

Prayer is an essential part of their friendships. Both my parents have been involved in prayer triads at our church (a group of three people who pray together on a regular basis), and I’ve sought out this same type of community with my high-school friends.

Also, by seeing my parents pray for those who are suffering, I began to understand the importance of Christian community, especially in the intense trials of life. Now, as I prepare for college, I’m looking for this same community of prayer and care for one another that my parents have shown me. I want a church that values prayer as a part of its service. I want a campus ministry that seeks to encourage us to pray. Most of all, I want friends who care about prayer and want to walk in a life of prayer together.

Prayer is a vital part of walking with God. I’ve seen the community it creates and the ways it strengthens faith. My parents have faithfully encouraged me in it. I’ll forever be thankful for the ways in which they’ve taught me and supported me in prayer, showing me what it means to have a personal relationship with Jesus.

For parents with kids of any age, remember this: Your children see you. They watch you and look up to you. They want to be like you. How amazing would it be if the next generation saw parents of prayer, and that’s what they wanted to be like when they grow up? Pray for and with your children. Show them how you pray, give them a journal, pray with them at night. Your example will teach, your prayers will be heard, and your children will be encouraged.

Why Church Planters Must Be Pastors

Thu, 02/28/2019 - 12:03am

Our world has no shortage of information on leadership. A Google search on the topic will produce results ranging from: “10 traits every good leader must possess” to “4 essential elements of great leadership”—and much more.

While there are many good things church leaders can learn from secular leadership models, all of them—for one reason or another—will fall short of the standard set by our Savior. The leadership model of Jesus isn’t popular based on what’s trendy today. After all, his leadership was marked by profound self-denial (Phil. 2:7), leading him to death on a cross (Phil. 2:8).

And yet any healthy, biblical leadership will follow in his footsteps.

Likewise, Peter urged elders not to be domineering, but humble; not greedy, but exemplary servants of sheep (1 Pet. 5:1–5). Leadership is not lordship—it’s about following Jesus and inviting others to join you. Therefore, in order to plant healthy churches, we need healthy leaders.

I’m excited to have Josh Hedger with me on the podcast today to discuss leadership in church planting.

Listen to this episode of Churches Planting Churches.


‘The Light Princess’ and Not Getting What You Want

Thu, 02/28/2019 - 12:02am

“You can’t always get what you want,” the Rolling Stones sang, but our instant-gratification society doesn’t want to believe them. Why shouldn’t we always get what we want?

Experienced comic-book writer Meredith Finch (of Wonder Woman and ROSE fame) is exploring this question by adapting George MacDonald’s fairy tale The Light Princess to the medium of graphic novels. Through this new series, Cave Pictures Publishing seeks to reintroduce this beloved tale, and with it the grounding anchor true love really brings.

The first issue presents the conflict of unmet desire. The king and queen of the realm suffer from the pain of being childless, while their regal peers seemingly bear children at every turn. At the midpoint of the story the king’s sister, Princess Makemnoit, suffers the pain of exclusion and exile, uninvited into the festive celebrations of the kingdom. Both situations raise the question: What should you do when you don’t get what you want?

Our world says that when there’s an obstacle to reaching a desire, you should simply find other ways to achieve it. Barriers are not so much blockades as they are speed bumps. But how does a seemingly barren couple conceive a child? How does a forgotten and excluded sister make sure she’s not sidelined or ignored within the family? How do we as readers deal with the painful points of our lives when we don’t get what we want, or believe we should have?

Ends and Means

These questions often spark another: Do the ends justify the means? Can we bypass ethics in order to accomplish a desired outcome, or do the means matter at least as much as the objective itself?

Fitch’s adaptation sets up for the king and barren queen a scenario similar to the shortcut that Abraham and Sarah faced in the Bible. Can’t have a child by your barren wife? Consider a maidservant who could carry the desired offspring, regardless of the effect it will have on the marriage. For the forgotten and slighted Princess Makemnoit, being ignored and forgotten means you act, and curse your family, in such a way that ensures you’re never ignored or slighted again. Once people see how capable you are of ruining them, Makemnoit reasons, they will never leave you out of the “Inner Ring” again.

While the characters in The Light Princess play out the scenarios in different ways, they challenge us to consider how we go about reaching the desires of our hearts. Do we consider the means, or just the end result of getting what we want?

Do we consider the means, or just the end result of getting what we want?

As a pastor, I’m sometimes surprised by the thoughtlessness many Christian couples exhibit toward solving infertility issues—without considering the nature of various treatments in light of biblical ethics. In politics, it’s surprising how many Christians today will ignore or downplay the egregious character and frankly wicked actions of political leaders in order to achieve some desired political outcome. Closer to home, the American church has bought into the pragmatic proposition that a large, growing church is the chief goal, worth achieving by whatever means necessary.

Embracing the Wise Goodness of God

While this first issue in The Light Princess primarily introduces the story and sets up the larger conflict to come, the question of how we get desired ends without abandoning proper means stands in bold relief. The king won’t undermine his marital vows to obtain an heir, even if the suggestion comes from his own wife. Princess Makemnoit, however, destroys the joy and delight of others through sinister means in order to make her mark.

These two responses in The Light Princess provoke further questions: When we’re faced with the challenge of not getting what we desire, do we see this as the loving hand of our Father restraining us from something that might be our undoing? Or do we believe he is capriciously withholding good from us? Our response reflects our theological assumptions. Are God and his ways always good? Or is he a miser who sometimes needs our help to figure out what the good life looks like?

Such reflection forces us to examine our methods just as much as we examine our goals. It requires us to have a big view of the providence and wisdom of God. It means we meditate on Jesus facing Satan’s temptations (Matt. 4:1–11) and persevering for the joy set before him, enduring the cross in order to reach the end of being exalted above all (Heb. 12:2). We must fix our eyes on Christ, not only as our example but also as our only hope of rescue from our devastating attempts to always get what we want.

Stories like The Light Princess are timely reminders—in our instant-gratification, follow-your-heart world—that getting what you want is not always best. Especially because, in Christ, we already have what’s best.

What Millennials Really Think About Evangelism

Thu, 02/28/2019 - 12:00am

Three weeks ago, a new Barna Group report surprised almost everyone.

Almost half—47 percent—of practicing Christian millennials told the research group that “it is wrong to share one’s personal beliefs with someone of a different faith in hope that they will one day share the same faith.” (Barna defines as “practicing Christian” those who identify as Christian, agree strongly that faith is very important in their lives, and have attended church in the past month.)

The response of news articles and blog posts lamenting and explaining the finding stretches over five pages of Google results. (TGC offered two reactions.)

“New research from Barna Group and the creators of the Alpha course offers some disappointing news,” Christianity Today reported. The numbers make “millennials the most evangelism-adverse generation on record,” Relevant magazine wrote. “Are millennial Christians really killing evangelization?” Catholic News Agency asked.

And it’s true—if half of millennial evangelicals thought that sharing their faith was morally wrong, the future of evangelism would be in serious trouble.

But that isn’t quite accurate.

‘We’re Not Seeing Them Back Off’

“It’s a great study,” said Billy Graham Center Research Institute director Rick Richardson. “And Barna does a great job. Overall, it pretty much agrees with our research, too.”

Except that one answer.

“So much depends on how you ask the question,” he said. “There’s no way to know what people were thinking when they answered.”

It’s possible young people focused on the “of a different faith” phrase and thought of Catholics, or even a Protestant denomination different from theirs. Or maybe the phrase seemed to leave off atheists and agnostics, who most often come to mind as people in need of the gospel.

In any case, “drawing the conclusion that 47 percent of practicing Christian millennials think sharing their faith is always wrong would be a bad conclusion,” Richardson said.

It doesn’t line up with what Richardson sees, or even with the rest of Barna’s survey. Practicing Christian millennials said part of their faith means being a witness about Jesus (96 percent), the best thing that could ever happen to someone is for them to know Jesus (94 percent), and that when someone raises questions about faith, they know how to respond (86 percent.)

It also doesn’t line up with a LifeWay Research and Ligonier Ministries survey released this fall. Researchers asked 3,000 American adults if it is “important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus as their Savior.”

About 58 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds agreed—more than any other age group, and up from 48 percent in 2016. If you narrow it to just young evangelicals, the number goes up to 89 percent.

“We’re not seeing them back off on evangelism,” LifeWay executive director Scott McConnell said.

Campus Outreach isn’t seeing that either.

“We are seeing as many, if not more, people come to Christ on college campuses than I can ever remember,” said executive director Brian Lewis, who has been with Campus Outreach for 32 years. “And guess who is leading most of these people to Christ? The millennial staff.”

At a Cru winter retreat for six Northeast universities in January, around 65 students spent an afternoon learning how to share their faith.

“I didn’t hear any pushback, like ‘I can’t believe we’re spending time on this’ or ‘This is offensive,’” said Rachel Gilson, a millennial who works for Cru at Boston University (BU). “What we heard from students was they were so thankful to have a place to talk about sharing their faith in a way that was winsome and Christlike.”

Extra Sensitive

Here’s a better conclusion to draw from Barna’s question: Millennials are more sensitive than previous generations about how they share their faith.

Their secular peers think evangelizing “is an aggressive colonialist move,” Gilson said. “It trips every wire. . . . My students are highly aware of the vision of the 19th-century white man who goes to Africa or Southeast Asia and doesn’t just share the gospel, but also tries to force these people to be Europeans. They want to be as far away from that as possible.”

In a 2015 survey, nearly half of Wheaton students said the biggest obstacle to sharing their faith was fear of what other people would think of them, said physics professor Robert Bishop. He’s also the associate director of Wheaton’s Evangelism Initiative and a Presbyterian Church in America ruling elder.

Cru students on summer mission / Photo by Lil’aA Photography

“Their comments include things like, ‘I feel like I’d be imposing my view on somebody,’ or ‘I’m worried about losing a friendship,’ or ‘They’ll think I’m being judgmental,” he said. The next biggest obstacle was feeling inadequate in evangelistic social interactions (48.5 percent), followed by feeling unprepared (26 percent).

In secular universities, Christians can be on the receiving end of a lot of aggressive opinions—in one ethics class at BU, the professor maligns Christianity several times a week, Gilson said. “So the students know there’s a way to share their opinions that is extremely off-putting,” she said.

The post-Christian environment—especially strong in those secular universities and urban areas where many young people live—also means that talking about faith “loses you social status points,” said Seattle pastor David Fairchild. More than 30 percent of his church’s 550 members are millennials.

“One day not long ago, to be a Christian held some social capital and opened some doors,” he said. Today, young people’s “slight embarrassment of church and Christianity isn’t because of Jesus or even their local church. It’s because a lot of what is put out there with the label of Christianity on it is offensive and unhelpful. To be labeled a Christian means you’re a racist misogynist bigot.”

The shrinking number of American Christians also means millennials have more non-Christian friends, he said. When young Christians read a question like Barna’s, they’re probably thinking about a specific person. For older generations, the question may be more theoretical and thus easier to answer.

“The environment is a little more hostile now,” Lewis said. “The temperature feels turned up.”

So it’s no wonder millennials are careful not to offend. And certainly, being gentle with people and careful with your tone is a great idea.

It’s one of this generation’s greatest strengths. But it’s also their biggest challenge.

Biggest Obstacle

Almost three-quarters of millennials (73 percent) told Barna they were “gifted at sharing my faith with other people,” more than Gen X (66 percent), boomers (59 percent), or elders (56 percent.)

It’s a weird number to see right next to the 47 percent who said sharing their faith was wrong. It means at least 20 percent of millennials believe (1) they’re gifted at sharing their faith and (2) doing it with the hopes of a conversion is wrong.

“I wonder if students who are saying, ‘I’m good at sharing my faith’ are thinking, ‘I’m winsome at sharing that I have faith,’” Gilson said. “That’s different from sharing the gospel.”

Cru tells students they “haven’t shared the whole gospel with someone until you get them to a point of decision,’” she said. “That doesn’t mean conversations that stop short of that aren’t valuable. But we need to get people to see the choice—they’re either for or against Jesus as their Savior.”

Pushing the conversation from “this is true for me” to “this is also true for you” is this generation’s biggest challenge, Richardson said.

Pushing the conversation from ‘this is true for me’ to ‘this is also true for you’ is this generation’s biggest challenge.

“You can share your faith story but not imply somebody ought to believe what you do,” he said. “How do you take the step and tell them they should believe what you believe? That’s the big transition in conversations and relationships.”

That’s hard for all Christians, not just millennials. A 2016 LifeWay survey found that only a third of 2,000 unchurched Christians have heard the benefits of being a Christian (35 percent).

“The unchurched indicate they know Christians, but most of the time they’re not saying [the Christians] are talking about their faith too much,” McConnell said. “We’re not pressing the line here. We’re not overdoing it.”

Most of the unchurched (79 percent) said that “if a friend of mine really values their faith, I don’t mind them talking about it.” Almost half said they’d “interact freely” if the topic came up (47 percent).

“If young adults are being tentative at all—and from all the other data, I don’t think they are—they might be more sensitive and tactful than they need to be,” McConnell said.

From ‘Belonging’ to ‘Truth’

Millennials hear and tell their stories in a different way than the “I was a horrible person who got saved by a prayer and now I’m an amazing person” testimony that used to crop up in churches and rallies, Fairchild said.

He teaches them to share “microredemption stories” of everyday life—“I had a fight with my wife last night, and here’s how I sinned, and here’s how God forgave me and helped my wife forgive me.” Those “vignettes” show unbelieving friends “what it looks like to put on Christ,” he said.

Students in the Memphis region / Courtesy of Campus Outreach

Cru teaches the same way. “One of the main things we do is to help staff and students figure out how to share their testimony in a way that people around them can see that Jesus is relevant for their lives right now,” Gilson said. “We don’t want to say we prayed at 5 years old and now everything is fine. We want to show how Jesus relates to a 20-year-old full of stress.”

Talking about the stress—or the anger, or the struggle with pornography, or the embarrassingly bad decision—is crucial for a generation who’ve been marketed to since first swiping onto their parent’s smartphone. (With social media, they also market themselves.) “They can smell inauthenticity a mile away,” Fairchild said. “They have a great filter. And they treasure authenticity.”

But then millennials have to bridge the gap from “Jesus is making my life better” to “You have to decide whether you’re for or against him,” Gilson said.

Millennials have to bridge the gap from ‘Jesus is making my life better’ to ‘You have to decide whether you’re for or against him.’

At Wheaton College, Bishop gives his students the language to use.

“The second law of thermodynamics tells us that that to transform energy into something useful, there is an energy cost,” he says, helping students see a bright line between physics and the cross. “As our bodies transform the food we eat into energy that keeps us going, there is an amount of energy given off as heat that keeps us warm and healthy. God made a world where an ordinary physical fact that we usually don’t think about enables life.”

Their first reaction is, “Oh, I never saw that,” he said.

A God who loves us enough to give us the second law of thermodynamics, Bishop tells students, would also give his Son for us.

If you’re having a conversation with a nonChristian about this, “you can to talk about God’s love in Christ in various ways: ‘Love always has a kind of cost to it, have you noticed?’” he says. “Or ‘To fully live in the love of God, he made the ultimate sacrifice to bring us into relationship with him.’”

And then the kicker.

If the conversation progresses, “you could ask them something like, ‘Is there anything that’s keeping you from accepting Jesus as your Savior right now?’” he tells students.

At Trinity West Seattle, Fairchild uses an older generation to help millennials cross that gap. In community groups of mixed ages, he encourages the older members to “be there for [the millennials] when they ask questions.”

He likes the evangelistic mentorship possibilities. “It’s such a beautiful thing when millennials say, ‘Hey, what do you do with this?’”

Good Millennial Evangelism

In every generation, “we have some things where we’re really intuitively in line with God, because he made us in his image,” Gilson said. “And every culture has things that are out of step with God, because we’re fallen.”

No matter their strengths or weaknesses, “we aren’t going to run into a generation whose heart is harder or more powerful than God’s Word in changing and shaping a heart for evangelism,” Lewis said.

Gilson agrees. “The gospel is the same gospel. You have all these walls that come down instantly once the Spirit moves. . . . To quote [pastor and TGC editor] Sam Allberry, ‘It is laughably easy for God to save anyone.’”

And like previous generations, she said, “when [millennials] see God is real and active and his promises are meaningful—they want to share that with their peers.”

What God Cares About Winning

Wed, 02/27/2019 - 12:04am

“God’s like, ‘No, no, no, no, no. This is not about me winning your battles. This is about me winning your heart. Gideon, I want you to trust me.’” — Aaron Weiss

Text: Judges 7

Preached: February 3, 2019

Location: Mission Hill Church, Calgary, Alberta, Canada

Listen to this episode of TGC Word of the Week.


United Methodists Reject Call to Embrace Homosexual Clergy and Same-Sex Weddings

Wed, 02/27/2019 - 12:03am

The Story: The United Methodist Church voted on Tuesday to retain a ban on homosexual clergy and same-sex weddings.

The Background: The United Methodist Church (UMC) held a special session of their General Convention this week to determine the denomination’s policy on ordaining practicing homosexuals and blessing same-sex unions. (For more on the structure and background of the denomination, see 9 Things You Should Know About the United Methodist Church)

The support for these issues within the denomination has put them at odds with the church’s official position on homosexuality, which was adopted in 1972:

“We affirm that sexuality is God’s good gift to all persons. We call everyone to responsible stewardship of this sacred gift. Although all persons are sexual beings whether or not they are married, sexual relations are affirmed only with the covenant of monogamous, heterosexual marriage.”

Because of the disagreement, in 2016 the UMC’s Council of Bishops appointed a commission to submit a recommendation to a Special Session on how to resolve the issue in a way that would maintain unity.

The commission considered three plans:

(1) the One Church Plan, which would have removed the language on homosexuality from the Book of Discipline but would not require local churches to perform or host same-sex weddings,

(2) the Connectional Conference Plan, which would reorganize the regional conferences around shared beliefs about sexuality rather than geography, and

(3) the Traditionalist Plan, which would not only maintain the current language but also broaden the definition of self-avowed practicing homosexual to include persons living in a same-sex marriage or civil union or persons who publicly state that they are practicing homosexuals. It would also require bishops and every annual conference to “certify that they will uphold, enforce, and maintain the Discipline’s standards on LGBTQ marriage and ordination.” Clergy who could not maintain the Discipline’s standards on LGBTQ marriage and ordination would be encouraged to join the “autonomous, affiliated, or concordat church.”

Although the Council of Bishops recommended the One Church Plan, a majority of the 863 delegates at the Special Session (53 percent) voted in favor of the Traditional Plan.

What It Means: For decades faithful members of the denomination have attempted to maintain unity with LBGT affirming apostates. But because their churches were not united on the gospel, they could not long remain united as a movement. No denomination can be truly united when some of its churches and members are condemning unbiblical sexual behaviors as immoral, sinful, and in need of repentance while others are treating the same behavior as moral, accepted, and worthy of being celebrated.

Faithful Christians recognize that God has spoken clearly in condemning sexually immorality, including homosexual behavior (Rev. 22:15; 1 Cor. 6:9–10; Gal. 5:19–21; Eph. 5:5; 1 Tim. 1:9; Heb. 12:14). Yet many leaders in the UMC—mostly Americans—chose to align with the Sexual Revolution rather than with Scripture. Fortunately, other UMC leaders—including many Africans and Asians—still have a high view of the Bible, and so refused to sell out their faith for acceptance by the world.

Whatever outcome was chosen this week, it has long been obvious that United Methodists were not united, and were headed to an inevitable schism. The split will be painful and rancorous. But it is necessary. The “go along to get along” mentality that infected other mainline denominations has lead to the destruction of wayward churches and the damnation of misguided souls. By dividing now, faithful United Methodists can save themselves from being dragged down by churches that continue to be in open and unrepentant rebellion against God.

The Book on Singleness I’ve Been Waiting For

Wed, 02/27/2019 - 12:02am

I spent 34 years of my life single and, several years later, most of my friends are still unmarried. It’s common to hear phrases like “It’s too hard to be single,” “I’m all alone,” “My eggs are drying up over here,” and “I just don’t feel like God called me to be single.”

I get it. There are real biological, physical, and emotional sacrifices made in years of prolonged singleness. And in those long and sometimes lonely years, the way a thing feels can seem more real than the truth of what it is, especially when we don’t look the lies straight in the face and call them out.

In his new book, 7 Myths about Singleness, Sam Allberry—a pastor, global speaker for Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, and editor for The Gospel Coalition—stares down the lies we can easily believe about singleness. It is the book on singleness I’ve been waiting a long time for, and Allberry was the right person to write it.

Using personal illustrations, Scripture, cultural insights, and his trademark dry wit, Allberry tenderly helps us see the the folly of believing these myths about singleness. He never sugarcoats the difficulties of singleness, but he doesn’t allow us to sulk in them either. He shows that it’s possible to have fruitful, deep, intimate, and familial relationships within singleness, but he also acknowledges the real feelings of sadness and pain. In other words, he tells the truth.

Singleness, Intimacy, and Friendship

The strongest chapters in 7 Myths about Singleness are “singleness means no intimacy” and “singleness wastes your sexuality.” In the former Allberry makes a case that friendship isn’t simply a stand-in for the kind of intimacy we hope to get in marriage, but is the foundation of all relationships between humans:

When we find we’re able to cultivate these Proverbs-type friendships, we find it’s possible to enjoy a huge amount of intimacy in life. It is deep intimacy any of us can enjoy, and yet many around never experience (sadly even sometimes within marriage). As a single person, there is a depth of intimacy my married friends enjoy that I am not able to experience—to share pretty much all of life with one other person. But it is not as simple to say that I have less intimacy in my life as a result. Singleness gives me a capacity for a range of friendships I wouldn’t be able to sustain if I was married. (61)

Allberry argues that although sex is part of intimacy in marriage, it isn’t as foundational to intimacy as friendship—and friendship is available to the unmarried as well as the married. This concept, if truly believed and adopted, would free many unmarried Christians who worry they’re missing out on intimacy because of their singleness. And, if God does give the gift of marriage, this understanding of foundational intimate friendship could help address the complications many marriages have around sex.

Every person, married or unmarried, will face unfulfilled longings for intimacy at times, so how much better to learn as a single the richness to be found in intimate friendship. Allberry shows it’s not just possible; in some ways it’s better. He is free, as a single man, to drop everything at a moment’s notice and join his friends in moments of difficulty. “While I might not know the unique depth of intimacy a married friend enjoys, there is a unique breadth of intimacy available to singles that married friends would not be as able to experience” (62).

He’s right. I rarely missed a wedding for one of my faraway friends before getting married; since then I’ve missed most. Marriage, for all its beauty and depth, stunts our ability to stretch with the breadth we previously had. Allberry’s encourages his fellow singles to press into that breadth of intimacy, knowing it is good in itself and may someday be unavailable to them.

Singleness and Sexuality

In the chapter on “singleness wastes your sexuality,” Allberry tackles the lie many in seasons of prolonged singleness feel most potently, even if they say it rarely. It can often seem like the best physical years of life are being thwarted by the lack of a partner. For women, their eggs are in limited supply, and for men and women, both their sex drive and also appeal may be dwindling, or perhaps their drive is strong and there seems to be no outlet for it. It’s difficult to not feel shriveled or squashed in those years. Much of the church ignores these conversations, or pretends the answers are easy and just a matter of self-control. Allberry doesn’t back away from the hard questions but uses deep thought, adept counsel, and tender empathy to shepherd his readers.

It is the book on singleness I’ve been waiting a long time for, and Allberry was the right person to write it.

He communicates the beauty of a created being with a sexual nature designed by God for procreation, and how that fits in the narrative of singleness. Singles aren’t anomalies in God’s created order; they poignantly convey an aspect of the gospel as those who are married do. While marriage tells the story of the age to come, the marriage between the church and our Groom, “singleness now is a way of saying that this future reality is so certain and so good that we can embrace it now. It is a way of declaring to a world obsessed with sexual and romantic intimacy, that these things are not ultimate and that in Christ we possess what is” (120).

Read in Community

7 Myths about Singleness isn’t a book for married people to simply hand off to their single friends when they’re tired of hearing them grumble about their season of life. It’s a book that would be best used in small groups of both married and also unmarried people, especially among mixed genders. Many of the lies singles believe are reinforced by the way they’re treated by married people. There is an equal onus on the married, then, to fight the lies about singleness. 7 Myths about Singleness will help us do so.

Allberry is like a sculptor in this book, chiseling away everything that isn’t singleness, so he can show us the spectacular and intrinsic goodness within seasons of singleness, however long or short. This is what singleness isn’t, and once we see that, we can see what it truly is: a sometimes hard, but always good, gift of God today for the one he loves.

Jonathan Edwards and His Support of Slavery: A Lament

Wed, 02/27/2019 - 12:00am

There are two people who have significantly shaped my pastoral ministry: John Piper and Martyn Lloyd-Jones. They share the person who molded them most in ministry: Jonathan Edwards.

John Piper’s pastoral debt to Jonathan Edwards is widely known and well-documented. The pastoral debt that Lloyd-Jones owes Edwards isn’t as well known. Lloyd-Jones discovered the two-volume works of Edwards at a secondhand book shop and later said, “I devoured these volumes and literally just read and read them. It is certainly true that they helped me more than anything else” (125). Lloyd-Jones’s discovery of Edwards left an indelible impact on his life and ministry.

So the direct and indirect debt I owe to Jonathan Edwards is inestimable. Imagine my surprise, then, when I learned he owned one or two slaves (255). It felt similar to what happened when I learned to drive on icy South Dakota highways. It was easy to either underreact or overreact—and end up in one ditch or another.

When it comes to our theological heroes, here are a few thoughts on avoiding ditches when we hit an icy patch on the highway of history.

First Ditch: Underreact

The first ditch becomes an inevitable destination when one underreacts. I’ll expound on the dangers of this ditch more, since I believe people in Reformed circles tend to underreact rather than overreact on this issue.

There are three primary ways to underreact when we learn that Edwards owned slaves.

1. Ignore the Issue

Some people wish to ignore the obvious, but the ice is there. It does no good to change the subject or look away. Such a response is dishonest. We shouldn’t pretend we can’t see undesirable things simply because they’re undesirable. If we’re willing to overlook this troubling fact, what other things are we willing to overlook?

2. Minimize the Issue by Maximizing the Positive Impact Elsewhere

If ignoring the issue doesn’t work, one may try to minimize it by drawing attention to all the good the person did. This response is essentially a diversionary tactic to draw our gaze away from slavery and toward Edwards’s incredible legacy of preaching, writing, and the Great Awakening.

3. Minimize the Issue by Making It Historically Understandable

If redirection doesn’t work, one may try to minimize Edwards’s support of slavery by offering excuses for him. Some argue that he was simply a “man of his times”: slavery was so common and the economy so dependent on it that Edwards’s support of slavery is, though perhaps not excusable, entirely understandable.

My problem with this response is twofold. First, excusing or minimizing injustice never honors God. I never want to form the habit of making excuses for things that hurt people, things that God hates. We must practice faithful naming. Call it what it is without flinching. Let the full horror be felt. I never want to speak of slavery as so “understandable” that it starts to seem more palatable and less lamentable. Slavery dishonors God and dehumanizes those made in his image. Regarding and treating a fellow human being as property devalues the intrinsic worth of the imago Dei.

Second, excusing Edwards’s support of slavery by comparing him to his contemporaries simply doesn’t work. The argument is self-defeating. It’s true that many in his day supported slavery, but it’s also true that others fiercely opposed it.

Second Ditch: Overreact

It is also possible at this point to overreact and overcorrect by saying slavery cancels out the entirety of Edwards’s legacy. This reaction is rare in Reformed circles, but it’s still a ditch and thus we should be wary of it. Scrapping his legacy because of slavery would effectively lock away Edwards’s theological contributions and throw away the key. If people like Piper and Lloyd-Jones had never discovered the works of Edwards, we would be worse off, not better off.

Straight and Narrow Road

The only way to stay on the straight and narrow is to practice this biblical principle: “Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good” (Rom. 12:9). What does it mean to abhor what is evil in the legacy of Jonathan Edwards?

It should be noted that abhorrence is something beyond awareness. We mustn’t stop short at the mere awareness that Edwards owned slaves. We should abhor it. This response requires a strong emotional reaction in keeping with the nature of the evil involved. After all, awareness without abhorrence breeds apathy. Are our ethical sensibilities functioning properly when we read that Edwards owned human beings? Let me tell you about the moment this fact personally became bitter for me.

Awareness without abhorrence breeds apathy.

When I was a young seminary student I learned that Jonathan Edwards would sometimes study for 13 hours a day. I almost idolized that piece of information. We then learned that sometimes when he was in a good frame for study, he would skip supper with his family and keep studying. That idea was dangerous for a newly married egghead. I wasn’t sure what to think, so some students and I asked John Piper whether or not we should imitate Edwards. Pastor John told us we shouldn’t simplistically copy this pattern, because we don’t necessarily have Sarah Edwards for a wife. Her gifts as a mom enabled him to be less present in the home, since she could pick up the slack.

I learned later that Edwards owned slaves, but I still never made the connection between owning slaves and enjoying extra study time until I attended a play in Natchez, Mississippi. The play depicted the glory days of Natchez, when it had the highest per-capita income in America and people lived a life of leisure with parties and picnics. But no mention was made of the fact that their wealth and leisure were carried on the scarred backs of slaves. I remember feeling angry. It was like I could feel the heat of injustice starting in my toes and rising to my heart.

Then something clicked that brought a truly bitter taste to my mouth: The people of Natchez had a lot of leisure time because of their slaves. Jonathan Edwards enjoyed a lot of study time, in large part, because of his slave or slaves (Venus and/or Leah). Suddenly, all that study time seemed sickening to the degree that it depended on slavery. I had idolized something I should have lamented. It was a powerful moment of prayer and lament and confession to God.

Complicated Legacy and Cautionary Tale

What should we say about Edwards’s legacy? Was slavery just a blind spot? Or was it a more active matter of turning a blind eye to something sinful? One piece of evidence appears to point to the latter. Scholars have recently discovered a document Edwards wrote to support a fellow minister’s right to own slaves. His overall defense of slavery hinges on the observation that the Bible explicitly allowed slavery, the New Testament doesn’t repeal slavery, and the Bible isn’t self-contradictory. Edwards’s support of slavery even includes the concession that the African slave trade couldn’t be justified because “European nations had no right to steal from the Africans” (257). One should read the entire discussion in George Marsden’s biography to appreciate all the nuances of Edwards’s support of slavery, but at the end of the day it still amounts to support (255–58).

So we shouldn’t underreact and ignore the impact of slavery on Edwards’s legacy. We also shouldn’t overreact and throw his theological legacy to the scrapheap of history. The fact that Edwards owned slaves severely complicates his legacy, but I don’t believe it completely cancels that legacy. We must practice wise and skillful discernment that abhors what is evil and holds fast to what is good.

We can’t engage in this exercise as armchair theologians interested only in antiquity. Edwards’s complicated legacy is a cautionary tale for us. Jonathan Edwards had more intellectual firepower than any person reading this article, and he was a systematic thinker. He could connect theological dots like no one else. If he could succumb to such obvious, woeful oppression and injustice and theological hypocrisy, then we should be spurred on to greater levels of self-examination. Where are our blind spots? Or where do we willfully turn a blind eye to things we’re simply afraid to address?

My closing plea is that we wouldn’t pretend such hypocrisy isn’t possible for us. Redeemed sinners never reach the point in this life where they’ve moved beyond the possibility of hypocrisy. Galatians 2 reveals that the apostles Peter and Barnabas were led astray and guilty of hypocrisy—and needed to be confronted and corrected (Gal. 2:11–14). If Peter, Barnabas, and Jonathan Edwards needed to be corrected, we should humbly welcome the warning of history and the warning of Scripture. We should eagerly pray for grace to see where our conduct isn’t in step with the truth of the gospel (Gal. 2:14). We should plead for grace to grow in our ability to abhor what is evil and hold fast to what is good (Rom. 12:9) as we navigate the intersection of lessons from the past and life in the present.

How (Not) to Plant a Church

Tue, 02/26/2019 - 12:04am

I can’t imagine what our church would be like without a robust confession of faith and its historically forged system of doctrine.

Except for the fact that this is precisely what we didn’t have for the first two years of our church plant.

Here’s what I mean.


Twenty years ago, I was working as a bartender in central London and had picked up a nasty cocaine habit. I returned home to South Africa, hoping to lay low and clean up my act.

After getting high one night, I heard a preacher’s testimony playing on TV in the living room. With nothing else to do, I decided to watch. I was poised to mock the foolish preacher, but the Word of God cut straight through me. Deeply convicted of my sin, I knew that Jesus was alive. From that point on, everything changed.

After getting high one night, I heard a preacher’s testimony playing on TV in the living room. I was poised to mock the foolish preacher, but the Word of God cut straight through me.

Working at a nightclub at the time, I started to share the gospel immediately. I couldn’t help but tell others of the merciful rescue of God in Christ. My first convert was the beautiful bartender I worked with, whom I would later marry. (I stopped marrying converts after that.)

Since I had a story to tell, I started getting invited to share my testimony in various places. I seemed to do well with public speaking, and I loved encouraging people in their walks with the Lord. But there was a downside: I appeared significantly more mature and theologically precise than I actually was. Truth be told, I had no business on a stage, much less in a pulpit. I was only beginning to grasp the basic tenets of the Christian faith.

Truth be told, I had no business on a stage, much less in a pulpit.

Of course, you don’t know what you don’t know. And from my perspective at the time, all these speaking engagements were exhilarating. Added to this, the large charismatic church that we were part of was highly energized in its missionary endeavors. It often felt like we were part of a rapid-fire, machine-gun missionary mothership.

The problem—although unbeknown to me at the time—was that they saw no need for the theological training of those they sent. The premium was instead placed on stage personality and apparent “giftedness.”


My new wife and I were soon asked to be part of a church-planting team headed to New Zealand. We were thrilled. After all, what could be more exciting than heading off to the literal “ends of the earth”? As a team of nine, we packed up house and home to move across the world and pioneer a church plant for our network (at the time, Church of the Nations).

Once in New Zealand, I officially began my ministry as an associate church-planting pastor. It wasn’t long until we held our first public service, and the church got traction quickly.

About a year in, however, things started to get difficult. We were committed to preaching the Bible, but that conviction was getting us into trouble. As it turned out, we had grossly underappreciated what was required of this weighty task. To say nothing of the doctrinal accuracy required, there was—at the very least—the need to stay consistent with ourselves from week to week.


Our lack of experience began to show. In a nutshell, we didn’t know the Bible well enough. We knew we were contradicting ourselves at nearly every turn, and we quickly realized that a single week wasn’t enough time to get our heads around the greater theology of a given passage.

Our lack of experience started to show. In a nutshell, we didn’t know the Bible well enough.

The doctrines of the Bible, we came to see, are all connected. They weave together like a giant tapestry. If you start tugging at one piece of thread, you’ll soon see its connection to the greater picture. But you’ll also start to see a glimmer of how vast and complex that greater picture is.

From a practical standpoint, this is one of the major reasons that prospective planters would, ideally, do the groundwork of theological study ahead of time, whether via seminary or other means. It takes a few years of intensive study, at least, before one can arrive at any settled level of conviction.

Regular preaching to the same people week in and week out is one of the main ways that church planting tests theological grit. Don’t get me wrong, you won’t have a bunch of people sitting down with homiletic worksheets ready to grade you on theory. But you will be preaching to real sinners with real struggles.

Therefore, the theology that you preach is constantly being tested in the furnace of real life. If you’re clearly inconsistent from one week to the next, people notice. And if you’re unable to account for that, people may get hurt. I know this. That’s what happened to our church plant.

Our theology was being tested in all of these ways, and we were failing. It became painfully clear we hadn’t given enough time, prior to planting, to the task of study. We came apart at the seams. People left. Our leadership unity fractured. Our lead pastor numbly handed the reigns over to me and returned home to South Africa. He was understandably burnt out, desperately in need of some space to recoup from the difficult experience.


As more people left, we dwindled to a small core who decided to stick it out. We left the church-planting network who sent us to New Zealand, joined the Reformed Baptists, and would later join Acts 29.

Moving forward with what little we had left was probably the hardest time of my life. Without the support of the one remaining elder, I wouldn’t have been able to do this. With singular focus, we gave all of our attention to study, laboring to figure out what we actually believed.

One of the things that helped us most in this process was coming to a greater awareness of history and the confessions of faith forged over the last 2,000 years. As G. I. Williamson once said:

The Bible contains a great wealth of information. It isn’t easy to master it all—in fact, no one has ever mastered it completely. It would therefore be foolish for us to try to do it on our own, starting from scratch. We would be ignoring all the study of the Word of God that other people have done down through the centuries. That is exactly why we have creeds. They are the product of many centuries of Bible study by a great company of believers. They are a kind of spiritual “road map” of the teaching of the Bible, already worked out and proved by others before us.

When studying theology, don’t forget the confessions, especially the more developed Reformed confessions. Study them. Connect yourself to them. Use them.

Leading up to that point, we read voraciously. We wept our way through volume after theological volume. The process was challenging, but we slowly reconsolidated and built back up. Brick by brick, we have experienced the conscious smile of God.

When Jesus commissioned the planting of churches (Matt. 28:18), he mandated we teach “all” he had commanded. This includes the Old Testament, as it points to and is fulfilled by Christ himself. Of course, it also includes the New Testament, as it interprets, expands and explains Jesus’s ministry.

We praise God for anchoring us in sound, biblical doctrine. Without it, I doubt we’d be here to tell the tale.

This then, is the church planter’s commission. Church planting involves going and making disciples. But the only way to do this is by first taking the necessary time to be well trained yourself. Before teaching others, you need to be taught.

By the sheer grace of God, we made the transition. Fourteen years later, we’re still around. Gracenet Community Church is planted and, though small, we’re a healthy and vibrant witness for the gospel in Wellington, New Zealand.

We praise God for anchoring us in sound, biblical doctrine. Without it, I doubt we’d be here to tell the tale.

How to Be More Public with Your Faith

Tue, 02/26/2019 - 12:03am

It’s no surprise every poll and study shows the same thing: Over the past two decades, there has been a steady increase in the number of Americans who say they are atheists, agnostics, religiously unaffiliated, or believe “nothing in particular.” Each generation—from Gen X to Millennials to “Gen Z”—is significantly less religious and less churchgoing than the generation before.

This should mean Christians talk more to their neighbors, colleagues, and friends about the reasons they believe, but that isn’t happening. A recent study commissioned by Lutheran Hour Ministries found that since 1993 the number of Christians who said “I believe every Christian has a responsibility to share their faith,” and the number who said they’d speak to others about the benefits of becoming a Christian, has dropped precipitously (see Spiritual Conversations in the Digital Age, Barna Report, 2018). So at a moment when there is more need for evangelism—sharing the good news about Jesus—there is less willingness to do it.

Why We Aren’t Being Public

Why? There are many factors. First, talking about Christian faith is more complicated. A generation ago you could assume that the vast majority of people believed in a personal God, an afterlife, moral absolutes, the reality of their sin, and had a basic respect for the Bible. Christians routinely assumed the existence of these concepts (or “dots”), and evangelism was mainly connecting the dots to show them their personal need for Jesus. No longer can we assume, however, that any of these basic ideas are common knowledge or, if they are, even acceptable. To talk about faith now entails working to establish basic concepts before Jesus’s gift of salvation can have any meaning.

Second, talking about the Christian faith is more difficult. In the past, those who didn’t believe usually granted that religion is a good thing for society, though “not for me.” But Christianity and religion in general is no longer accepted as a good influence in society or in individual lives. From the history of the church supporting slavery and religious wars to the current involvement of religious persons in politics and abuse scandals, the flaws and sins of the Christian church are foregrounded in our culture. There is particular anger over traditional Christian views of sexuality. To talk about faith now means being peppered with often-hostile questions.

Third, younger adults have been told repeatedly that “no one has the right to tell others what to believe, so you shouldn’t be trying to convert anyone.” This very statement, of course, is self-contradictory, since it’s doing the very thing it forbids. Nevertheless, it’s a slogan with enormous cultural power, and it’s hard for younger Christians not to be swayed by it. In addition, Sherry Turkle, in her book Reclaiming Conversation, points to studies that show the more people use social media, the less able they are to empathize or put themselves in another’s shoes, and the more unable they are to talk face to face with anyone who disagrees with them.

In short, doing evangelism today will take more patience, courage, and thoughtfulness than was needed a generation ago. And yet there is no substitute. Jesus told his disciples: “You will be my witnesses, in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). In Acts 8:4 we’re told that after the persecution in Jerusalem all the Christians were scattered (except the apostles) and that they “evangelized wherever they went.” Obviously, not all Christians are either gifted or called to do public speaking. It meant, and means, that every Christian talked to friends, neighbors, and colleagues about the gospel.

What We Need to Be Public

In the end, what we most need to be public about isn’t more training (although that’s highly recommended), but proper motivation arising from a grasp of the gospel—that we are sinners saved by grace.

There are at least three major reasons for evangelistic unfruitfulness. There is a lack of sensitivity—countered by the humility that comes from knowing we are undeserving sinners. There is a lack of courage—countered by the boldness that comes from knowing we are unconditionally loved.

Finally there is indifference. We look around us and see people struggling to find meaning, satisfaction, hope, confidence. The biggest reason we keep our mouths shut is that we’re failing in love for them. But the gospel produces love (Gal. 5:6). Now you may say, “Well, yes, I see I ought to be that humble, that confident, that loving—but I’m not.” But see, you’ve confirmed the point. The problem is ultimately in our hearts, not in our lack of training or knowing how to answer all the questions.

Remember the woman of Samaria who Jesus met at the well. “Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony” (John 4:39). Why? She had no training, but he had changed her with his mercy, and now she didn’t need to care what people thought. “Come,” she said, “See a man who knew all my failures and still loved me.” And they came. “They said to the woman, ‘We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world’” (John 4:42).

Lord, change our hearts so that we have a love for our sorrowing, perishing friends that will fuel our bold yet humble witness to the grace that can only be found in Jesus.

Editors’ note: It’s not too late to join us at our 2019 National Conference, “Conversations with Jesus,” April 1 to 3 in Indianapolis. You can browse the complete list of 74 speakers and 58 talks, including a plenary talk and workshop from Tim Keller. The conference is fast-approaching, so register soon!

A version of this article appeared in the Redeemer Report.

Sam Allberry on Myths About Singleness

Tue, 02/26/2019 - 12:02am

Jesus never married. Paul commended singleness as preferable to marriage, at least for some. And for centuries, and still today in the Roman Catholic Church, priests were expected to be celibate.

But in much of the world today, the pendulum has swung to the opposite side. We look with skepticism on singles, especially if they serve in ministry. Maybe there’s something wrong with them, we assume. Spiritual maturity is sometimes equated with marriage, and then with children. And that’s not necessarily wrong, since God can and does use those roles and responsibilities to sanctify believers. But such a view still reflects many cultural assumptions not necessarily shaped by Scripture.

Sam Allberry has contributed a timely word for this discussion in his new book, 7 Myths About Singleness. Sam is a pastor, global speaker for Ravi Zacharias Ministries, and editor for The Gospel Coalition. He argues that neither marriage nor singleness can satisfy our longings. Only Christ can do that. And I love this quote from his book that sums up his whole argument: “If marriage shows us the shape of the gospel, singleness shows us its sufficiency.” How true. It all points to Christ.

Allberry joins me on The Gospel Coalition Podcast to discuss these myths, why we don’t talk enough about the challenges of marriage, the need for intimate friendships, sexual temptation, and much more.

Listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition podcast.