“It doesn’t always get better.”
“Sometimes things don’t improve.”
“We aren’t living our best life now.”
It’s hard to say such sentences, for we’re accustomed to a positive-thinking approach to life. Small wonder why—we’re living in a time when much does go right. We have great health care. The world isn’t currently embroiled in global war. Since the Industrial Revolution, life expectancy has doubled in many countries.
But even with these genuinely positive developments, we haven’t figured out a way to end suffering. Death looms over us all, try as we might to end its reign. So do sickness, financial challenges, and the trials of aging. For all the positive thinking around us, there sure is a lot of hardship and pain.Grappling with Limitations
All of the above is true for me (and you) as a human being. But I feel these things keenly as a father, too. In that sense, I’m not unlike a man who wrote to his child more than 260 years ago. Jonathan Edwards was concerned with Esther, his daughter. A young mother living far from her childhood family, Esther had fallen quite sick in 1753. Her famous father wrote to encourage her:
Though you are a great way off from us, yet you are not out of our minds: I am full of concern for you, often think of you, and often pray for you. Though you are at so great a distance from us, and from all your relations, yet this is a comfort to us, that the same God that is here, is also at Onohquaga; and that though you are out of our sight and out of our reach, you are always in God’s hands, who is infinitely gracious; and we can go to him, and commit you to his care and mercy.
What a surprising letter. Jonathan Edwards had a high view of God. He is the man who literally wrote a “dissertation” mapping out “the end for which God created the world.” Beyond his soaring theology proper, Edwards was a man of action. He didn’t just pray for revival; he preached for it, refusing to accept spiritual defeat. The life story of Jonathan Edwards is a ceaseless whirl of ministry, discipline, and commitment. He was no perfect man, but he was an active man, to be sure.
For all the positive thinking around us, there sure is a lot of hardship and pain.
Yet we see in this touching letter from father to daughter that Edwards knew his limitations. He was “full of concern” for Esther, for she was out of “sight” and out of “reach.” In human terms, he could do nothing to help her. Though he prayed hard, he was powerless. The truth of the matter is that Esther had less than five years to live, and so did Jonathan. Edwards already knew what he would soon experience: he couldn’t carry his daughter into eternity. He couldn’t shepherd any of his family members across the river Jordan.
This work was out of his hands.Right Where He Wants Us
Whether we want to admit it or not, we’re all where Esther was. There is no pill that can cure our terminal condition, and no parent who can guarantee our well-being. Though this sounds foreboding, we’re in truth right where God wants us to be. Like Esther, we who are in Christ are “always in God’s hands.” No one can snatch us from the Father (John 10:27). Nothing can happen to us that will derail the will of God for our lives (Rom. 8:31–39). Life is uncertain, and we don’t know how long we have on this earth (James 4:13–17). Yet even though we could not possess any less certainty about our earthly future, we cannot possess any more certainty about our heavenly home (1 John 5:13–15).
How encouraging this is for us all. The father or mother who feels so weary in this life will enjoy total rest in the age that awaits. The child battling loneliness will rise to join their true family, the family of God, in eternity to come. The pastor struggling to shepherd an unruly flock will walk into a perfected realm where there is no hostility of any kind. In Adam, things do not get better. But in Christ, the future is impossibly bright.
In Adam, things do not get better. But in Christ, the future is impossibly bright.
This hope is anything but vague and general. It’s specific and personal. It’s cosmological and Christological. We have a lasting home, the new heavens and new earth, a work of new creation already begun in Christ (Heb. 12:18–29). There is a chain, an invincible ladder, of divine providence that stretches from the beginning of history to the end, and none can knock us off it. Our salvation began in the Father’s will, was secured by the Son’s death, and has taken hold in us through the Spirit’s indwelling presence (Eph. 1:15–20). What emerges from divine foreknowledge, predestination, and election will conclude in future triumph, praise, and exaltation. You could say it this way: in the crucified and resurrected Son of God, hope is so grounded that it’s barely hope anymore.In Safe Hands
All this is because the Christian is never lost. We’re never abandoned. We’re always God’s; God is always ours. The work of Christ isn’t incomplete; it is finished (John 19:30). It couldn’t be more accomplished than it is. How heartening this is for us as we face death. Soon, we will cross the river Jordan, as Jonathan and Esther Edwards did before us. We stand now on the stormy banks of the river, but we see the other side.
Until we go there, we face great trials and considerable challenges. Things may not improve here in earthly terms. Hardship may bedevil us. But we don’t lose heart. We will make it to the New Canaan. God will not abandon us. This is our hope, hope grounded in the eternal plan and accomplished work of Christ: come what may, we’re always in God’s hands.
How do you discern a call to ministry? You’re confident in your communication skills. You have a track record of leading and influencing others. You enjoy talking about God and all the most important, life-changing, eternal ideas.
By this standard, being a pastor seems like a pretty decent gig. Who doesn’t enjoy helping others? Or at least being seen by others as wise, godly, and indispensable. Unfortunately, discerning your call this way can become self-centered. And it becomes less about laying down our lives for Christ and others than about self-actualizing, and discovering who we were meant to be.
How different, then, is the apostle Paul’s philosophy of ministry, learned from Christ and recounted in Philippians 2:3–8:
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
When we’re called to ministry, we serve as under-shepherds for the Good Shepherd. We have the mind of Christ. We are servants, emptied for the sake of others, so that they will see the exalted Christ and glorify the Father who sent him.
Don’t just take Paul’s word for it. Here’s the apostle Peter, who reminds us that if we will lead God’s people, we must lead them in suffering:
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. (1 Pet. 4:12–13)
Jesus himself told us to expect such hardship. But we’re not just supposed to grin and bear it. Rather, Jesus says we’re blessed! He told us in his Sermon on the Mount:
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matt. 5:10–12)
You might describe the pastor’s job description this way: Follow Jesus and prepare his people for eternity. Prepare them to suffer as he did and for his sake, so that they might enjoy great reward in heaven.
In ministry we’re often at head of the line for suffering and joy, as we share in the ups and downs of our congregation. We must be especially prepared, then, to suffer well, so that we might run the race marked out for us in joy (Heb. 12:1). Toward that end, here are seven steps to endure for a lifetime in ministry, finding inspiration in Scripture and in examples from church history featured in the new book 12 Faithful Men: Portraits of Courageous Endurance in Pastoral Ministry.1. Pad your résumé with weaknesses.
The typical pastoral search committee seems to want you to evangelize like Billy Graham, think like Tim Keller, and counsel like David Powlison. They may give you extra attention if you can sing like Kirk Franklin.
Why should we boast in our weakness? [Because] human strength is a mirage.
So when you present yourself for a search committee in view of a call, how do you boast about your ministry? Baptisms? Church growth? Size of offerings collected? Look at how Paul boasted in 2 Corinthians 11:23–30:
Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant? If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.
Why would we pad our résumé by boasting in our weakness? Because then the power of God will be more evident in us. We will show that it’s not the pastor alone who works, but the same Spirit who indwells all believers with resurrection power.
Human strength is a mirage. We’re all wasting away. But eternity is coming. Paul prepares us for this future in 2 Corinthians 4:16–18:
So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.2. Admit your plans may not be God’s plans.
Geneva, Switzerland, is one of the most beautiful cities in world. I’ve visited three times, and I can’t wait to go back. But John Calvin had to be persuaded twice in the 16th century to stay. He wanted a quiet academic life. Instead, God intended him to serve as a pastor.
God’s plans won’t always seem good to us at the time. And sometimes we’ll never get an explanation in this lifetime. But Calvin found perspective in his study of the Psalms:
[The Psalms] will principally teach and train us to bear the cross. . . . By doing this, we renounce the guidance of our own affections and submit ourselves entirely to God, leaving him to govern us, and to dispose our life according to his will, so that the afflictions which are the bitterest and most severe to our nature, become sweet to us, because they proceed from him.
Calvin lived the remainder of his days as an exile and ministered to fellow French exiles. He reminds us that like the “elect exiles” of 1 Peter, we’re all eagerly awaiting our eternal home.3. Look for Christ in even the dark and dismal corners.
Many of Christianity’s greatest heroes suffered in prison. Corrie ten Boom harbored enemies of the Nazis and ended up in a concentration camp with her sister, Betsie. Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians from prison. And John Bunyan wrote 60 books, many from prison, including Pilgrim’s Progress, one of the bestselling books of all time.
Bunyan’s crime was that he refused to conform his preaching to state’s standards. He spent 13 years in jail when he could not provide or care for his wife and children. But God never left him. And God never leaves us, either, especially in his Word written on our hearts and in our minds. God’s Word gave Bunyan remarkable perspective:
I never knew what it was for God to stand by me at all turns, and at every offer of Satan to afflict me as I have found him since I came [to jail]; for look how fears have presented themselves, so have supports and encouragements, yea, when I have started, even as it were at nothing else but my shadow, yet God, as being very tender of me, hath not suffered me to be molested, but would with one scripture and another strengthen me against all; I could pray for greater trouble, for the greater comfort’s sake.
You won’t always know where and how God will reveal himself. But you can be sure that nowhere is beyond his sight and reach.4. Don’t give in to self-pity when you’re rejected.
Almost every book I’ve written or edited features Jonathan Edwards. Can anyone be a better role model for success in ministry? His church experienced revival. He helped shape the transatlantic evangelical movement. Public-school students still read his sermons. Yale University publishes everything he ever wrote. Seminaries name study centers for him. He extended a ministry dynasty when he took over the same church his grandfather previously led for 60 years.
And Edwards got fired, by the same church that had once enjoyed revival under his leadership. He had gone against his grandfather’s more permissive policy toward the Lord’s Supper. Edwards demanded evidence and public profession of faith from youth seeking church membership. But many residents of Northampton, Massachusetts, felt like he was the changing the terms of agreement and judging them as spiritually lax. In trying to lead a congregation, pastors are always in danger of biting the hands that feed them (and their families).
Pastors are always in danger of biting the hands that feed them (and their families).
Even in his remarkable farewell sermon, Edwards never budged from his conviction or from his spiritual responsibility for the church and community. As evidence of this love, he continued to serve for several months during the search for replacement. That must’ve been awkward.
After Northampton, Edwards would move to Stockbridge and serve as a missionary to Native Americans from 1751 to 1758. There he published his best-read work, The Life of David Brainerd, and many other all-time classics: Freedom of the Will, Concerning the End for Which God Created the World, The Nature of True Virtue, and Original Sin.
In ministry you will face setbacks. You may even be fired, and you may wonder how to care for your family. But self-pity will only inhibit a faithful response and subsequent service to which God is calling you.5. Opposition doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve been unfaithful or that God disapproves.
We want people to like us. But if you care too much about people’s opinion, you might not be cut out for ministry. If you care too little, though, you might not be cut out for ministry, either. The point is that we can’t gauge the effectiveness of our work solely by how people respond. If Jesus told us to expect persecution for following him, then actually opposition might be a sign of faithfulness.
Such was the case for Charles Simeon. He grew up among the British elite of the mid-18th century and enjoyed the evangelical awakening as young man. He took over the famed Holy Trinity in Cambridge at age 23 in 1782. Cambridge was not exactly a bastion of piety. Back then evangelicals were known derisively as enthusiasts, because religion was meant to be endured, not enjoyed.
Opposition was intense from the start. Church leaders locked their pews up front (yes, back then you paid for your preferred seating) and didn’t show up. They took chairs he set up and tossed them out windows. They locked up the church when he tried to start a Sunday evening service. Cambridge scheduled classes the same time as his preaching so students couldn’t attend. He was pelted by rotten eggs. Once he escaped beating or worse when he changed his exit door to avoid thugs prowling his usual route.
So how did he endure? Through Word and prayer, leading to humility. I love the perspective God gave Simeon: “I wished rather to suffer than to act; because in suffering I could not fail to be right; but in acting I might easily do amiss.”
He did not give up. He did not give in. And we’re so glad he didn’t. From his ministry emerged Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, International Fellowship of Evangelical Students, and more.
If you care too much about people’s opinion, you might not be cut out for ministry. If you care too little, you might also not be cut out for ministry.
Maybe you’re familiar with Simeon, or at least these ministries, but you’ve probably never heard of Janani Luwum. In this fallen world, though, you’ve likely heard of Idi Amin, the man who had him killed. Luwum was archbishop of Anglican Church in Uganda until his death in 1977. Judging by this outcome you might surmise he was on the wrong side of history. Nevertheless, Luwum spoke up and out against one of the world’s most murderous dictators, because Luwum knew God’s approval in Christ. As Justin Martyr said in second century, “You can kill us, but you can’t hurt us.” History is eternal and ruled by Jesus. So we fear and bow to no leader who opposes him. As Luwum said to his accusers, “God is my witness.”
At the end of the path Paul lays out for us in 2 Corinthians 4:8–11, we find Jesus:
We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’s sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.6. Wait for God, especially if you don’t know where he is.
We published this book in part because of what we saw and read about pastoral suicides, which increased 24 percent between 1999 and 2014. It’s hard to know exactly why. The job involves high pressure, but that’s not new, as we’ve seen in these pastoral profiles. If anything the stigma against clinical depression has somewhat lessened, and medicine is more widely available.
Whatever the reasons, pastors are often weighed down by sorrow. We’re worried about adding our burdens to others and letting them down if they knew our struggles. And then shame overwhelms us.
But we’re not alone.
There may be no more successful pastor in history than Charles Spurgeon. Probably no one outside the biblical writers is quoted more often today, especially by pastors, than the “Prince of Preachers.” And yet he suffered from what he variously called his personal struggles “fainting fits” or “spiritual sorrows.” Remarkably for his time in the mid-19th century, he openly admitted these feelings of despair and discouragement.
He never fully recovered from an incident on October 19, 1856, when one his critics shouted, “Fire!” in his crowded church as Spurgeon preached. This act resulted in a stampede of thousands with seven dead and 28 seriously injured. Spurgeon was only 22 years old. He had only been married 10 months earlier. He was in the first month of parenting twin boys. Still more critics blamed Spurgeon for the tragedy. His wife, Susannah, thought he might be going insane. Still, he preached, and with honesty about his condition.
I almost regret this morning that I have ventured to occupy this pulpit, because I feel utterly unable to preach to you for your profit. I had thought that the quiet and repose of the last fortnight had removed the effects of that terrible catastrophe; but on coming back to the same spot again, and more especially, standing here to address you, I feel somewhat of those same painful emotions which well-nigh prostrated me before. You will therefore excuse me this morning . . . . I have been utterly unable to study . . . . Oh, Spirit of God, magnify thy strength in thy servant’s weakness, and enable him to honor his Lord, even when his soul is cast down within him.
He was still suffering post-traumatic stress 25 years later during a large Baptist Union gathering when he endured a panic attack.
When the darkness descends, sometimes change in circumstances can help. Improved diet and more exercise can help pastors who spend much of their days sitting and eating. Sometimes pastors need to resign and move on. Sometimes medicine can be their bridge toward a healthy norm.
In these times we must be careful not to make any hasty decisions we can’t take back. This is why pastors shouldn’t think about their future on Mondays. God is there, whether or not we can see him or feel him in the Monday blues. He speaks through his Word. He hears us, even if we’re only groaning. Jesus is the head of the body of Christ, his church. And on that coming Sunday we will again partake in his body broken for us and his blood shed for us in the Lord’s Supper.
Pastors shouldn’t think about their future on Mondays.
We’re sure to be discouraged. Some of us are prone to melancholy, as Edwards was. Some will suffer clinical depression. Again, eternal perspective is key. We live in a fallen world where sin and its effects afflict body and mind. Waiting on God may be indefinite. And the only scenario that makes suffering ultimately bearable—what made Paul call it light and momentary—is the final redemption of all things by Jesus Christ. If he’s not resurrected, then we have no hope. But since he is, then we have all the hope we could ever need.7. Do the right thing, even if you think it’s too late.
Who are the real heroes, from the vantage point of heaven? I wonder how things will look when the first are last and the last are finally first.
Wang Ming-Dao isn’t well known in the West, but he’s been called the dean of the house churches in China. His ministry started in 1923. Like many other pioneering leaders, he was known for uncompromising convictions and behavior. He expected criticism and persecution. Which is good, not only because it’s biblical, but also because he ministered in 20th-century China, where Christianity would conflict with communism. Wang wasn’t interested in comfort or fame, so he was just the kind of leader to help direct dynamic Chinese churches.
A common theme in Chinese history is government control over churches. This issue recently recurred with Pope Francis’s deal to recognize Catholic bishops selected by government. It was also an issue under Japanese occupation during World War II. Wang resisted Japanese influence that wanted him to promote their mission. And then, under communism, he resisted again. Wang rejected the government-run Three-Self Patriotic Church on several grounds, mainly theological. He wouldn’t partner with pastors who rejected belief in creation, virgin birth, vicarious atonement, bodily resurrection, and the physical return of Jesus.
He was harassed by the communist government from 1951 to 1955 and arrested on August 7, 1955, after a stinging critique of Three-Self liberals. The government released him after a year—but only after confessing to crimes he didn’t commit. He didn’t think his wife, or other church leaders arrested with him, would hold up in prison. So he fessed up to get them out.
But he never did join the state church. He couldn’t live with his decision to recant. So he and his wife went back to jail in 1957. He didn’t get out until 1979. She was released in 1974.
This initial decision to confess haunted Wang. He sought and received forgiveness for recanting his views on the state church and government. He did the right thing, not knowing the consequences.
The government sought to rob him and his family of their life and ministry. But they failed. The houses churches thrived, though still under pressure to this day. Billy Graham and other international Christian ambassadors supported Wang. And we remember him now, not only as man of uncommon conviction, but also as recipient of grace in his weakness and failure to live up to his ideals.What Made Them Great?
We remember all of these men as heroes. The kinds we’d like to imitate. But we must understand what made them great. Yes, they demonstrated God-given genius, hard work, and determination. But common to every great leader is willingness to faithfully endure hardship. This is a God-appointed means for our sanctification and other purposes beyond the horizon of our understanding.
Common to every great leader is willingness to faithfully endure hardship.
We’re not above suffering, because we’re not above Jesus. And he learned obedience through what he suffered (Heb. 5:8). He suffered for the joy set before him (Heb. 12:12)—namely, his eternal exaltation, in which we also rejoice.
As ministers of the gospel, when we suffer we show that we do not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God (Deut. 8:3; Matt. 4:4). As we follow Christ we bid others to follow us and find abundant life. Paul charges us in 2 Corinthians 6:3–10:
We put no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: by great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love; by truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; through honor and dishonor, through slander and praise. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything.
The key to enduring for a lifetime in ministry is to remember that we live for Jesus, for eternity.
- D. A. Carson | Editorial: The Changing Face of Words. Don Carson reflects on how the common meaning has shifted for the expressions guilt, shame, conscience, and tolerance, in each case losing a focus on God or an external standard. It is therefore urgent to think and speak worldviewishly.
- Daniel Strange | Strange Times: Meta-Madness. Dan Strange reflects on the work of Charles Taylor and calls readers engage Tayler more deeply and push at his presuppositions while pursuing serious interdisciplinary academic work that is methodologically sound and theologically orthodox.
- Eric Ortlund | How Did Job Speak Rightly about God? Yahweh’s stated preference for Job’s speech toward him in opposition to the friends in Job 42:7 is difficult to understand in light of the many criticisms Job levels against God in the course of the debate and the many seemingly pious and biblically supportable claims which the friends made. Ortlund argues that Job spoke rightly about God even when he criticized.
- Susanna Baldwin | Miserable but Not Monochrome: The Distinctive Characteristics and Perspectives of Job’s Three Comforters. Readers often perceive Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite as delivering an essentially uniform message that (erroneously) upholds the rigid, retributive justice of God as the answer to Job’s devastating plight. Baldwin argues that Job’s three comforters embody three subtly differentiated worldviews and epistemic frameworks. She shows that each develops his own unique line of argument with regard to the origins and mechanisms of human suffering and the means by which Job may attain deliverance and restoration.
- Andreas J. Köstenberger | John’s Appropriation of Isaiah’s Signs Theology: Implications for the Structure of John’s Gospel. Köstenberger explores John’s distinct use of “signs” as part of his “theological transposition” of the Synoptic Gospels by which John transforms the Synoptic concept of “miracle” into that of “signs” pointing to Jesus’s messianic identity. He demonstrates significant links between Isaiah’s and John’s use of signs. He also proposes that John was led by Isaiah to structure his Gospel according to Jesus’s signs: the first half containing “The Book of Signs,” and the second half conveying the reality to which the signs point.
- Will N. Timmins | Why Paul Wrote Romans: Putting the Pieces Together. Timmins argues that Paul had three purposes in view in writing the letter to the Romans—namely, a missionary purpose, a pastoral purpose, and an apologetic purpose. This article explores these three purposes, explains their interrelationships, and considers some neglected evidence.
- Joseph Pak | Self-Deception in Theology. Self-deception is a fundamental experience and the starting point of philosophy since Socrates. Pak discusses a few aspects of self-deception as a theological concept. Self-deception is closely related to sin, often creates false assurance of salvation, and is caused by disordered love. He argues that diligent effort to gain self-awareness is vitally important to prevent self-deception. We can counteract self-deception by acknowledging its pervasive and universal presence, opening ourselves to self-examination and questioning, and avowing disavowed engagements. God often uses trials to bring us out of self-deception.
- John B. Carpenter | Answering Eastern Orthodox Apologists regarding Icons. The Eastern Orthodox Church claims that their practices have been preserved unaltered from the early church, thus making them the pristine church in perfect continuity with the apostolic church. However, Carpenter argues that the Eastern Orthodox practices of iconography directly contradict the consistent teachings of the early church, which strictly prohibited icons.
- Ernie Laskaris | The New Atheist Sledgehammer: Like Epistemological Air Boxing. In one of the chief works produced by the New Atheists, Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion set out to reduce the existence of God to an “almost certain” impossibility. Laskaris argues that Dawkins demonstrates a deficient understanding of the God he seeks to extinguish, is unable to account for certain concepts that he appeals to in his arguments, and repeatedly violates the commitments of his naturalistic materialism while resorting to metaphysical speculation.
You might think the story of Jonah—a man swallowed by a fish—is about as far removed from our current cultural moment as you can get. But you’d be wrong. We live in a world full of self-righteousness, nationalism, and ethnic rivalry not all that different from Jonah’s day.
In today’s podcast, Maina Mwaura asked TGC vice president Tim Keller why he wrote a book on Jonah and what modern-day attitudes are reflected in the prodigal prophet. Keller points out that Jonah didn’t recognize his own lack of merit before God, which made him reluctant to extend grace to pagan people. “Because he didn’t grasp the gospel of grace in his own life,” Keller says, “he was a terrible missionary.”
You can listen to the episode here.
Have you ever wanted to be an answer to prayer? How about an answer to Jesus’s prayer? Well, your church can be.
John 17 is that prayer. It’s the conclusion of what is known as the “farewell discourse,” wherein Jesus informs his followers what will take place after his departure, tells them what they should expect from the world, and reveals rich truth about his relationship with his Father.
The discourse ends with Jesus interceding on behalf of his followers, akin to a high priest, and thus it has come to be known as the “high priestly prayer.”High Priestly Prayer
Contextually, Jesus’s prayer appears to center on those who have believed in him up to this point in his ministry—his disciples (John 17:6). But he doesn’t stop there. Jesus widens the circle and prays for the future witness of his disciples in the world:
I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. (John 17:20–21)
Jesus prays for the unity of his people through the ages. He’s not just asking for any unity, but that which models the unity between the Son and the Father. It’s a unity not only of spirit or mission, but of relationship. God means to display his glory in the church before the nations, so that the nations will come to glorify him in the church (see also Eph. 3:10).
God means to display his glory in the church before the nations, so that the nations will come to glorify him in the church.
The high priestly prayer is a hope-laden, faith-fueling prayer. Here we have the King of the universe interceding for his people. We aren’t merely a part of God’s plan for reconciling the world to himself; we are central to it. That’s the glory of the church.One With Christ
When Jesus expands the scope of his prayer to include “those who will believe in me through [the disciples’] word” (John 17:20), he not only reveals his heart for the future people of God, but also the means by which they will become his people. Sure enough, as we read the book of Acts we see the Father answering the prayer of his Son. We see churches being planted, beginning in Jerusalem and extending to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).
Jesus’s prayer, in other words, isn’t just a prayer for the apostles; it’s a prayer for church planting. Knowing this should spur churches today to consider partnering with like-minded church-planting organizations, be they networks or denomination-based.
When we link arms to plant churches, we continue to be an answer to the prayer of our great high priest.Plant Churches
That’s why my local church has prioritized church planting not just as something we do, but as who we are. It’s why we’ve chosen to be part of a diverse, global family of church-planting churches in Acts 29. It’s also why we founded the Houston Church Planting Network (HCPN). We wanted to see other gospel-centered, mission-minded churches demonstrate unity and reach our city. More than 100 local churches from various denominations have formed a coalition that has trained individuals from Asian, Hispanic, African American, and Anglo backgrounds and has planted approximately 50 new churches in the Houston area.
When we link arms to plant churches, we continue to be an answer to the prayer of our great high priest.
In addition to these new church plants, we’ve seen almost 100 future church planters enter into HCPN’s training pipeline. We’re seeing increasing numbers of churches joining HCPN, greater racial diversity among our planters, and a deep sense of unity through it all. This excitement is only surpassed by the thought that HCPN is one small way that the Father is answering his Son’s prayer for the unity and expansion of the church.
So pastor, your church can be an answer not just to any prayer, but to one uttered by the Savior himself. You become an answer when you heed the call to church planting.
How will you heed that call? What groups can you partner with? Who in your church might have the potential to become a future church planter? Or is God calling you to plant? How can you foster a vision before your congregation for planting churches around your city, nation, and world? Whatever answers you find, remember that you’re not just joining the mission of church planting. You’re also an answer to prayer.
Anyone who reads thoughtfully knows that words often change their meaning with time and context. Christians are a “peculiar people,” the KJV tells us, only “peculiar” did not mean in 1611 what it means today. Sometimes an older meaning of a word continues in a restricted sector of the culture, even though most people use it in quite a different way: e.g., for most readers today, God’s gift is not “unspeakable” but “indescribable” (2 Cor. 9:15), even though a conservative fringe of the populace confuse the two words. Sometimes a difference in meaning or overtone is triggered not by the passage of time, but by a different context. “Redemption” in the arcane legal terminology of a mortgage document does not conjure up exactly the same images as the use of the word in the New Testament.
All of this is common knowledge. These examples are innocuous precisely because the change in meaning is widely recognized. Far more inimical to careful conversation are those expressions whose meanings, or whose associations, are frequently unrecognized. Here are a few of them.1. Guilt
For many decades now, “guilt” has sometimes referred to culpability, but very commonly referred to what might better be thought of as feelings of guilt. Our judicial systems try to establish the guilt or innocence of accused parties, regardless of whether those parties feel guilty; by contrast, our counselors often focus their attention on the guilt feelings of their clients, taking relatively little notice of the extent to which guilt feelings may be grounded in guilt. All of this, as I indicated, has been understood for a long time. When preachers talk about “penal substitutionary atonement,” they understand that the punishment is merited: before God the party is guilty and deserves the penalty which, in the case of substitutionary atonement, is discharged by another. This does not mean that wise pastors overlook the terrible burden of guilt feelings. Guilt feelings may be the psychological result of real guilt. Sometimes, however, people feel terribly guilty over things that have no valid tie to real guilt (as, for example, when a woman is sexually assaulted as she walks home from work, yet labors for years under guilt feelings [or shame? See further below.]). The careful application of passages about the cross of Christ rightly addresses both our guilt and our feelings of guilt. Efforts to expunge the latter without addressing the former may leave a sinner feeling better about themselves, but still unreconciled to God; and exclusive emphasis on addressing the real guilt before God may generate a cerebral grasp of the nature of penal substitution without providing much comfort.
This is our most recent effort to meet a need amid an awakening to sound doctrine in the Spanish-speaking world—the need for faithful, free theological resources that equip the church. Cursos Coalición is a platform where every Spanish-speaking believer can study God’s Word in depth, apply it, and lead others to do the same. This is a tool not only for personal study, but also for small groups and Sunday school.
We currently have 34 courses available on various topics, including work and vocation, marriage and family, apologetics and philosophy, biblical doctrine, and more. These courses have been selected, organized, and published by the Coalición team, working in conjunction with TGC.
In coming weeks we will publish more courses as we continue to partner with churches and ministries to grow the content library. We are collaborating with ministries and churches recognized for their fidelity to the Word and service to the church, such as Integridad y Sabiduría, Ligonier, Third Millennium, and Iglesia Bíblica del Señor Jesucristo.
TGC Courses has already exceeded 500,000 users in one year. In Spanish, nothing like Cursos Coalición exists. We’re hopeful that, with all the material to be added, this platform will influence an even greater number of Spanish-speaking believers around the world. We thank God for this platform and pray it will bless his people. We invite you to share it with your Spanish-speaking friends as we continue praying for a revival in our lands.
President George H.W. Bush died on Friday at the age of 94. Prior to his death he had been the longest-lived president in American history. Here are nine things you should know about America’s forty-first president:
1. George Herbert Walker Bush was born in Milton, Massachusetts in 1924, to Prescott Sheldon Bush and Dorothy Bush. His parents named him George Herbert Walker after the famous Anglican priest and poet George Herbert and his mother’s surname, Walker. GHW followed his father’s path by attending Yale, serving in the military during wartime, running a business, and seeking political office (Preston served ten years as a U.S. Senator from Connecticut).
2. George H.W. Bush was a seventeen-year-old student at Phillips Academy, a private high school in Andover, Massachusetts, when the Japanese launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Bush decided he wanted to be a pilot and even briefly considered enlisting in the Royal Air Force in Canada because, as he would later recall, you “could get through much faster.” When the U.S. Navy dropped the requirement that pilots had to have two years of college, Bush enlisted on his 18th birthday and eventually became an officer in the Naval Reserve and a naval aviator. At age eighteen, he began flying torpedo bombers based on aircraft carriers in the combat zones of the Pacific.
3. Two years after joining the Navy, Bush was sent on a bombing raid over a small island 700 miles south of Tokyo. Bush’s plane was among the several that was shot down after the raid, and he was among only nine airmen to escape from their planes. Bush crashed further from the island than the other crews and was rescued by a U.S. submarine. The Japanese captured, tortured, and executed the other eight men. Four of the captured Americans were butchered by the island’s surgeons for a cannibal’s feast. Their livers and meat from their thighs were eaten by senior Japanese officers because it was considered a “delicacy” and “good medicine for the stomach.” Bush said that while on the submarine he asked himself why he had survived. “Why had I been spared and what did God have in store for me?” he wondered. “In my own view there’s got to be some kind of destiny and I was being spared for something on Earth.”
4. In September 1945, one month after the surrender of Japan, Bush left the Navy and enrolled at Yale. He earned his bachelors degree in economics in two and a half years and then moved his family to West Texas to begin a career in the oil business. During the 1950s Bush started two oil companies. Although he was already from a wealthy family, Bush became a millionaire through his own business ventures. He became so successful that the business titan Ross Perot asked Bush to run Perot’s oil business in Houston. Bush declined, choosing instead to run for political office.
5. By 1964, Bush had produced two successful businesses and, with his wife Barbara, created six children: George W. (b. 1946), Robin (1949–1953), Jeb (b. 1953), Neil (b. 1955), Marvin (b. 1956), and Doro (b. 1959). He decided it was time to continue in his father’s footsteps by running for the U.S. Senate in Texas. Bush lost that race, but was elected in 1966 to represent the Houston area in the U.S. House of Representatives. He served two terms in the House before running—and again losing—a Senate race in 1970.
6. After losing his second Senate race, Bush was considered for several positions in the Nixon administration, including being head of NASA, running the Small Business Administration, or serving as special assistant to the president. During an interview with Nixon Bush managed to talk the president into appointing him as ambassador to the United Nations. He served two years in that position before being assigned chairman of the Republican National Committee. When Gerald Ford became president, he appointed Bush to head the U.S. Liaison Office in China (at the time, the U.S. did not have an ambassador to China) and later to take over the CIA as Director of Central Intelligence (DCI).
7. Bush ran for President in the 1980 Republican Party presidential primaries. He gained nearly 24 percent of the vote but dropped out after it became clear that he was losing to former California governor Ronald Reagan. When it came time to select a Vice President at the GOP convention, Reagan’s first choice was former president Gerald Ford. Reagan initially did not find Bush suitable because of their differences on policy (for example, Bush favored an Equal Rights Amendment, which Bush opposed, and Reagan favored a pro-life constitutional amendment, which Bush opposed). After Bush agreed to fully support both Reagan and the GOP platform, Bush was invited to join the GOP ticket. During their eight years in the White House, Bush and Reagan became close friends as many of their political differences faded.
8. Bush succeeded Reagan by winning the 1988 presidential election. Although his presidency included a number of important domestic changes—such as the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990—may of his most significant achievements came in the area of foreign affairs. Bush sent troops into Panama to arrest the Panamanian leader and narco-trafficker Manuel Noriega and to the Persian Gulf as part of multinational mission to expel the Iraqi Army’s unlawful occupation of Kuwait. He also played an essential role in post-Cold War events, such as the reunification of Germany. As German Chancellor Angela Merkel said after hearing the news of Bush’s death, she “probably couldn’t be standing here” if Bush had not played his pivotal role.
9. As a lifelong Episcopalian, Bush was always hesitant to talk openly about his Christian faith. Asked whether he had been “born again,” he said, “If by ‘born again’ one is asking, ‘Do you accept Jesus Christ as your personal Savior?’ then I could answer a clear-cut ‘Yes.’ No hesitancy, no awkwardness.” If the question, though, were whether there had been “one single moment, above any others, in which your life has been instantly changed then I can’t say that this has happened, since there have been many moments.”
Other posts in this series:
Religious Freedom Restoration Act • Jim Jones and the Jonestown Massacre • Out-of-Wedlock Births • Bethel Church Movement • Christian Hymns • Hurricanes • Infertility • The STD Crisis • Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) • Russian President Vladimir Putin • Supreme Court Nominee Brett Kavanaugh • MS-13 • Wicca and Modern Witchcraft • Jerusalem • Christianity in Korea • Creation of Modern Israel • David Koresh and the Branch Davidians • Rajneeshees • Football • The Opioid Epidemic (Part II) • The Unification Church • Billy Graham • Frederick Douglass • Memphis Sanitation Strike of 1968 • Winter Olympics • The ‘Mississippi Burning’ Murders • Events and Discoveries in 2017 • Christmas Traditions • Sexual Misconduct • Lutheranism • Jewish High Holy Days • Nation of Islam • Slave Trade • Solar Eclipses • Alcohol Abuse in America • History of the Homeschooling Movement • Eugenics • North Korea • Ramadan • Black Hebrew Israelites • Neil Gorsuch and Supreme Court Confirmations • International Women’s Day • Health Effects of Marijuana • J. R. R. Tolkien • Aleppo and the Syrian Crisis • Fidel Castro • C.S. Lewis • ESV Bible • Alzheimer’s Disease • Mother Teresa • The Opioid Epidemic • The Olympic Games • Physician-Assisted Suicide • Nuclear Weapons • China’s Cultural Revolution • Jehovah’s Witnesses • Harriet Tubman • Autism • Seventh-day Adventism • Justice Antonin Scalia (1936–2016) • Female Genital Mutilation • Orphans • Pastors • Global Persecution of Christians (2015 Edition) • Global Hunger • National Hispanic Heritage Month • Pope Francis • Refugees in America • Confederate Flag Controversy • Elisabeth Elliot • Animal Fighting • Mental Health • Prayer in the Bible • Same-sex Marriage • Genocide • Church Architecture • Auschwitz and Nazi Extermination Camps • Boko Haram • Adoption • Military Chaplains • Atheism • Intimate Partner Violence • Rabbinic Judaism • Hamas • Male Body Image Issues • Mormonism • Islam • Independence Day and the Declaration of Independence • Anglicanism • Transgenderism • Southern Baptist Convention • Surrogacy • John Calvin • The Rwandan Genocide • The Chronicles of Narnia • The Story of Noah • Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist Church • Pimps and Sex Traffickers • Marriage in America • Black History Month • The Holocaust • Roe v. Wade • Poverty in America • Christmas • The Hobbit • Council of Trent • Halloween and Reformation Day • Casinos and Gambling • Prison Rape • 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing • Chemical Weapons • March on Washington • Duck Dynasty • Child Brides • Human Trafficking • Scopes Monkey Trial • Social Media • Supreme Court’s Same-Sex Marriage Cases • The Bible • Human Cloning • Pornography and the Brain • Planned Parenthood • Boston Marathon Bombing • Female Body Image Issues • Islamic State
Chances are you’ve seen an unboxing video. People unbox everything from tech to toys, food to fashion. There’s something addictive about watching someone open a new product on camera and experience it for the first time. New is tantalizing. It feels so much better, stronger, prettier, cooler.
And my generation can’t get enough.
My friends and I have grown up in the Culture of New. We’re wired for perpetual newness—new iPhones, new social media platforms, new entertainment, new styles, new profile pics.
Through relentless marketing and subtle societal shifts, we’ve been led to believe that new is always flashier and more fun, and old necessarily implies unreliable and out of touch. No one’s making a video unboxing something they found in Grandma’s attic. We love the thrill of newness.We Need Old Truth
In this mad obsession with new, we’ve grown skeptical of anything old. But we miss a great treasure—in fact, all treasure—when we reject what’s old. Because truth is old. And every human needs a faith rooted in ancient truth. We need regular reminders of how old, unchangeable truth influences our real lives.
That’s why Ben Myers’s new book, The Apostles’ Creed: A Guide to the Ancient Catechism, is a timely (yet timeless) resource for the modern church, especially its young members. This small book contains 22 devotional reflections on each line of the Apostles’ Creed, starting with “I” and ending with “Amen.”
We need regular reminders of how old, unchangeable truth influences our real lives.
Myers—director of the Millis Institute in Brisbane and a research fellow of the Centre for Public and Contextual Theology at Charles Sturt University in Canberra, Australia—firmly believes that this creed applies “equally to old and young, men and women, pastors and church members” (x). He says, “Even today, the creed provides a framework—strong yet surprisingly flexible—for Christian thinking and Christian commitment” (5).
The book is beautifully written, with the kind of vivid and stirring language that leads you to deeper reflection and worship. It’s historically rigorous, drawing heavily from church fathers like Gregory of Nyssa, Athanasius, Irenaeus, Augustine, and Tertullian. But it’s eminently readable, making it a compelling resource for all Christians.
And it’s simply a joy to read. My two favorite chapters were “Born of the Virgin Mary” and “The Communion of Saints.” Both connected the contemporary church to the bigger vision of God’s story that can’t help but fill you with wonder and excitement. Myers’s love for the universal church is contagious.Not a Complete Theology
This book isn’t an exposition of the Apostles’ Creed. Nor is it a complete theology or apologetic of Christianity, packaged to give to an unbeliever or skeptic. These are meditations for Christians who want to think deeper on their faith.
One example is Myers’s chapter on the crucifixion. Instead of focusing on (or even mentioning) sin, his emphasis is on the shame of the cross in an honor-bound culture. For the believer who has a firm grasp on human depravity and the necessity of atonement, this chapter provides thought-provoking insight into another dimension of Jesus’s crucifixion. If taken as an exposition on crucifixion, however, it would be incomplete.
Further, some of Myers’s reflections on judgment and the afterlife are fuzzy, and occasionally his lack of fuller expositions results in confusion. For example, when explaining the line “and he will come to judge the living and the dead,” Myers explains that some early Christians believed that heaven and hell are the same place. He quotes from seventh-century monk Isaac the Syrian, who argued that “all people are ultimately brought into the presence of divine love” (92). This sounds uncomfortably universalist, but Myers doesn’t contradict Isaac or identify his error. He simply explains Isaac’s beliefs and then moves on with a “moreover,” leaving the reader puzzled as to what Myers is actually communicating.
Despite this regrettable lack of clarity, The Apostles’ Creed is a powerful book for the believer.3 Reasons Young Christians Need Ancient Creeds
Many in my generation would look at Myers’s book and still be skeptical of creeds (or books about creeds). “Isn’t Jesus enough?” they might say. Myers knows these objections and provides a series of compelling reasons why every Christian needs ancient creeds.1. Creeds are countercultural.
Young Christians feel pressure to conform to the pattern of the world. Our culture is alluring. It’s cool. It tells us to follow our hearts, create our own destiny, and embrace individualism.
But the creed points us to the message of the cross—a reality that has always been countercultural. Confessing a creed means we’ll stand out among our generation, but we’ll unite with a multigenerational community across the ages.
Myers writes: “To confess the creed is to take up a countercultural stance. . . . We are joining our voices to a great communal voice that calls out across the centuries from every tribe and tongue. We locate ourselves as part of that community that transcends time and place” (10).2. Creeds protect us from false teaching.
The Apostles’ Creed developed partially as a stance against Gnosticism—the belief that physical matter is evil. The creed outlines the basics of the gospel and defends against false gospels.
Young Christians still need protection from false teaching, especially since there is really no new false teaching, only ancient heresies repackaged. One heresy that young people often latch on to is universalism. Many young Christians are terribly uncomfortable with hell and prefer an indulgent, tolerant view of God—all mercy, no judgment.
Creeds draw us back to ancient truth. They keep us established in orthodoxy and vigilant in discernment. Every generation needs them to guard against their day’s versions of heresy.
But creeds draw us back to ancient truth. They keep us established in orthodoxy and vigilant in discernment. Every generation needs them to guard against their day’s versions of heresy.3. Creeds point us to Jesus.
This is Myers’s most passionate point. “We tend to think of creeds as cold didactic summaries of doctrine,” he writes. “But the real centerpiece of the Apostles’ Creed is not a doctrine but a name. . . . Everything else in the creed radiates like the spokes of a wheel from that hub: personal attachment to Jesus; total allegiance to him” (37).
Creeds aren’t colorless facts we’re meant to recite and then ignore. They’re life-altering revelations of the God-man, Jesus Christ. They’re truth drawn from his Word, summarized for his people to learn and love. They remove us from a narrow, individualistic mindset and root us in the ancient community of Christians.
Ultimately, this is why Myers loves the Apostles’ Creed and could write such a profound book on it: because it points us to Jesus, driving us to worship and delight as we know him more.
And to that, the church can say, “Amen.”
What if your daughter, raised in a Christian home, returns from college radicalized by the LGBTQ community? What if she comes out as pansexual and tells you in no uncertain terms that it is her way or the highway? What if you discover that your most obedient and faithful daughter, the one you never had to worry about with boys or drugs or reckless bad-choice making, has been struggling with same-sex attraction since she was 12?
It is deeply frightening when a child you have loved and raised and prayed for daily leaves the faith, and with it, God’s protection. It can feel shameful to admit to others in your church that you are torn between your faith and your child—that you fear losing one for the other.
It may feel unsafe to ask for help from your elders and pastors with matters that isolate you and set you apart from others in painful ways. You may feel jealous or angry or deeply depressed that while your peers in the church are planning biblical weddings for believing children, you are wrestling with whether to attend the gay wedding of your prodigal.
If these are your feelings and concerns, take heart. The Lord is near.
Or perhaps you feel the weight of others in your church who struggle with same-sex attraction and are faithful members of your church, forsaking sin and living in chastity, but still feeling torn between the culture of the church and the culture of the world.
If you are struggling with same-sex attraction in God’s way—forsaking sin, drinking deeply of the means of grace—then you are a hero of the faith. Nothing less.
You may feel as if all your Christian friends do is make straw arguments against homosexuality—declaring it a choice and a bad choice, and demanding that real believers won’t struggle with that struggle. You may be sick and tired of hearing “arguments against” something and are hungering for the Jesus who argues for people, and who beckons and promises comfort for bruised reeds.
Or perhaps you are someone who also struggles with same-sex attraction. You are silent, though, and the hateful things people in your church say make you more silent every day. Your shame may be increasing as you are saying to yourself: If they only knew how I feel and how I struggle, they would kick me out for good. You may wonder if you will ever hear these words of Jesus in real time: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28–30).
This is a painful reality for so many sisters in the church. If you are someone struggling with same-sex attraction in God’s way—forsaking sin, drinking deeply of the means of grace—then you are a hero of the faith. Nothing less.
If this is your burden, then the Bible has the answer for it: the practice of daily, ordinary, radical hospitality.Daily Hospitality for Sexual Strugglers
Where should you start? As a church community, designate a house where members live and where people can gather daily. Yes, I said daily. And then start gathering daily. And not by invitation only.
Make it a place where the day closes with a meal for all, and with Bible reading and prayer, and where unbelievers are invited to hear the words of grace and salvation, where children of all ages are welcome, and where unbelievers and believers break bread and ideas shoulder to shoulder.
This is the best way that I know of to evangelize your LGBTQ neighbors—and everyone else. To live communally as Bible-believing Christians who care for each other in body and soul. To live openly, such that you know each other well enough to know each other’s sin patterns and temptations. To be a community where everyone is repenting of something all the time. To be a community where Christ could come, eat, wash his feet, and lay down his head. To be a community where hard conversations are had over warm soup and fresh bread.
You see, two hours on a Sunday morning and two hours at a small group on Tuesday night is not enough. God so loves you that he wants you to live 24/7 as a Christ follower, doing the will of God from the heart and the home.
Maybe this seems pie-in-the-sky crazy. Maybe it is.
But this is the kind of house in which I first saw the gospel lived and loved.
And, by God’s grace, this is the kind of house in which I now live.
The best way to evangelize your LGBTQ neighbors is to get upstream of the culture war—and to stay there. And practicing daily, ordinary, radical hospitality is the way to do that.Real Friendships for Real Needs
In a culture of biblical hospitality, we develop real friendships.
We talk about our differences as grown-ups who can understand each other’s point of view even if we don’t share it. We understand why people who cannot have eternal peace are driven to accumulate rights and privileges to compensate. We know that the accumulation of rights and privileges causes great anxiety within the LGBTQ community, especially when you are winning.
The potential blow of losing that which you have is far greater than never having something. Without the gospel’s checks and balances on the things of this world, you are awash in anxiety in a nanosecond.
When we meet a neighbor who identifies within the spectrum of LGBTQ life and identity, we do not presume she is sexually active. She may be, but celibacy is high in the lesbian community. So we commit ourselves to listening, and to treating each person we meet as an individual.
We understand that sins of identity run deep and hard.Christ Loves Best
How do we evangelize our LGBTQ neighbors? We remind our neighbors that only the love of Christ is seamless. Not so for our spouses or partners. Only Christ loves us best: he took on all our sin, died in our place bearing God’s wrath, and rose victorious from the dead.
And yes, Christ calls us to be citizens of a new world, under his lordship, under his protection, under his law. Original sin explains why some struggle with same-sex attraction and have from the day they remember being attracted to anything. We know that we were all born in original sin and that this imprints our deepest desires. As we grow in Christ, we gain victory over acting on our sin, but our sinful desires do not go away until glory.
And we stand in the risen Christ alone, in his righteousness, not in our own. But we are called—by the God who loves us enough to die for us and live for us—to carry a cross, repent of sin, and follow him. Christians know that crosses are not curses, not for the believer.
Crosses are not curses, not for the believer.
And Christ puts the lonely in families (Ps. 68:6)—and he calls us to live in a new family of choice: God’s family.
So we evangelize the LGBTQ family by living differently than others, by living without selfishness or guile. We tell each other the promise found in Mark 10:28–30—the hundredfold promise—and we bear out its truth in our homes:
Peter began to say to Jesus, “See, we have left everything and followed you.”
Jesus replied, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.”
Receive a hundredfold.
Raising children is an overwhelming task, especially given how much insight we need to impart before they leave home. I want my six kids to know God’s love and to desire to live out his vision for their lives. I want them to know they’re cherished. And that’s only the beginning.
For example, I want my children to know this: Courage isn’t the absence of fear; it’s the resolve to act rightly even in the face of fear. I can sit them down and explain this point. I can give the word’s Latin root, cor (“heart”), and say that courage means taking heart and behaving with pluck when the odds are against you. We can brainstorm ways to demonstrate courage in everyday life: introduce ourselves to the new family down the street or calmly face a drill at the dentist. Such activities take courage of some sort, but not the kind that quickens the hero’s heartbeat within me. And I’m absolutely certain it wouldn’t inspire my kids.
The problem, of course, is that it’s a boring lesson. And I don’t want my greatest act of heroism to be overcoming shyness or having a cavity filled. I was made for more than that. And my kids? They were, too.
What if, instead of sitting down my kids and rehearsing the lesson above, I cuddled with them on the couch and began reading the Wingfeather Saga? We’d join the Igiby children in facing the fearsome Fangs of Dang, reaching deep within themselves to find what they need to live as crown jewels of Anniera, facing insurmountable odds with a tenacity they didn’t know they had. We’d lose ourselves in the story and witness firsthand what it looks like to be truly courageous. We’d see that, in no uncertain terms, there can be no courage without adversity, no virtue in staying without the temptation to run away. There can be no honor when there is no opportunity for sin.
The courage of a hero starts to beat dimly, quietly within our hearts, growing steadier and steadier as we walk through the story with Janner and Tink and Leeli, as we vicariously live as chosen ones called to a harder and higher path.
If you want a child to know the truth, tell him the truth. If you want a child to love the truth, tell him a story.
I once heard Andrew Peterson, author of the Wingfeather Saga, say: “If you want a child to know the truth, tell him the truth. If you want a child to love the truth, tell him a story.”
We don’t want our kids to grow up and face adversity wondering, Do I have what it takes? We want them to know. We want them to have witnessed so many heroes living with integrity and fighting their weaknesses that they trust in the sureness of doing the right thing, even when no one is watching. We want them to stand up like warriors. Forget wondering, Do I have what it takes? We want them to ask, What kind of hero will I become?Asking the Right Questions
When we read Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis, my children faced the question, “What would you do if you were locked overnight in a shed like Bud was?” They had to wonder if they’d be as brave or as positive as Bud in the dark days of the Great Depression. Since my children have never encountered the kind of cruelty, prejudice, or hardship Bud had to overcome, those were questions that touched them in new places.
My three oldest kids were still quite young when I first read aloud The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum. After reading the part where the Tinman and Scarecrow debate whether it’s more important to have a heart or a brain, I decided to pose a question to my young listeners—then ages 9, 7, and 5.
“Which do you think is more important?” I asked. “A heart? Or a brain? If you could only pick one, which would you choose?”
Audrey didn’t miss a beat, answering “brains” before I’d finished asking the question.
“But how would you love God?” Allison cried. “And how would you ever fall in love?”
Forget asking, ‘Do I have what it takes?’ We want them to ask, ‘What kind of hero will I become?’
There began a short but powerful conversation about how important it is that we let neither the brain nor the heart override the other. When we met the Cowardly Lion, we added courage to that mix, realizing how important it is to think deeply, love fully, and face our fears.
I’m not sure I could’ve pulled off that conversation if the story hadn’t propelled us. I’m certain it wouldn’t have sunk in as deeply as it did that day. It didn’t only leave an imprint on my kids, after all—here I am, nearly seven years later, still talking about it.
By the time our children leave our homes, we don’t want them to wonder whether their lives matter. We want them to know they do. If we tell them enough stories, they will have encountered hard questions and “lived” through so many hardships and unexpected situations that, God willing, they will possess what they need to courageously follow the ultimate Hero, all the days of their lives.
What just happened?
In 2015 a team of Chinese scientists sparked a worldwide ethical debate when they used a technique to “edit” the genomes of human embryos. Although the embryos were never implanted and brought to term, the experiments led to concerns the technique would soon be used to create babies with edited-genes.
This week a Chinese researcher announced he had done just that.
He Jiankui (pronounced HEH JEE’-an-qway, with the surname first) reports that he altered a gene in a set of twins who were born this month. Seven couples seeking in-vitro fertilization (IVF) allowed He to edit a gene in embryos before implantation. The gene was edited with the intention of preventing HIV from entering the child’s cells, increasing their ability to resist possible future infection with HIV, the virus that can cause AIDS. So far, two of the children that had a gene edited have been born.
How did He Jiankui alter the gene?
The Chinese scientist engaged in gene editing (or genome editing), a form of genetic engineering in which DNA is inserted, replaced, or removed from the genetic material of a cell using artificially engineered enzymes, or “molecular scissors.”
A common method of gene editing, and the process used by He Jiankui, is the CRISPR/Cas9 system. The simplistic explanation is that the “molecular scissors” (Cas9, an RNA-guided DNA enzyme) cuts an enzyme on a specific spot of DNA in the nucleus of a cell. The cell then repairs the break using a piece of single-stranded DNA that has been injected into the cell by a scientist.
Was He Jiankui’s alteration to the gene successful?
Currently, there is no independent confirmation that He Jiankui successfully edited the genes on the children. His claims have not been verified by other scientists or published in a scientific journal, though He said he will make his raw data available for third-party review. He announced the results at a recent conference and in an interview with the Associated Press (AP).
According to the AP, several scientists reviewed materials He provided to the news agency. Their conclusion is that tests so far are insufficient to say the editing worked or that it would not harm the children.
Is gene editing unethical?
The main ethical consideration for gene editing is the purpose (i.e., therapeutic or enhancement) and long-term effect. This is why the ethical issues differ for gene editing on somatic cells, non-reproductive cells that would affect only the individual being treated, and on germline cells, reproductive cells (i.e., sperm, ovum, embryonic cells) that could potentially affect not only the individual but also their offspring and future generations of their descendants.
The concern for editing germline cells is that therapeutic treatments passed along to future generations may have unexpected and unintended consequences. In essence, we would be experimenting on future generations without their consent, without knowing the outcome, and without knowing whether we can reverse the damage we cause.
The other concern is that the procedure could eventually be adopted for non-therapeutic genetic enhancement, a form of eugenics. For instance, wealthy people could create “designer children” whose genetic “improvements” (e.g., height, intelligence, longevity) would be passed along to future generations.
What is the specific concern in this situation?
Dr. Jeffrey Keenan, the president and medical director for the National Embryo Donation Center, told TGC that this situation raises three concerns:
First off, this research was apparently conducted without the approval of any recognized ethics panel, and was performed under conditions that would never have been approved by any established institutional review board. Second, there is no empirical evidence to show that disabling the CCR5 gene in an embryo will produce the desired outcome. We have no idea what the short-term or long-term consequences could be for the twins who were born, let alone the potential negative effects that could be passed down to future generations. Furthermore, very effective solutions already exist for treating and/or avoiding HIV/AIDS, so engaging in human experimentation as a possible alternative is absolutely indefensible. As an organization dedicated to protecting and preserving life in its embryonic stage, the National Embryo Donation Center is firmly opposed to this research.
Is it legal to edit the genes of embryos?
In the United States and throughout much of Europe, it is illegal to genetically engineer an embryo that will be implanted in a woman.
In China, the vice minister of science and technology ordered He Jiankui to halt his experiments, saying they were illegal and unacceptable.
How has the international community responded?
Scientists and bioethicists around the world have been nearly unanimous in denouncing the experiment by He. As Ed Yong notes at The Atlantic, ethicists and watchdogs have already called the work “monstrous,” “unconscionable,” and “a grave abuse of human rights.”
Francis S. Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, issued a statement saying, “The need for development of binding international consensus on setting limits for this kind of research, now being debated in Hong Kong, has never been more apparent. Without such limits, the world will face the serious risk of a deluge of similarly ill-considered and unethical projects.”
Why did He conduct the gene-editing experiment?
“I feel a strong responsibility that it’s not just to make a first, but also make it an example,” He told the AP. “Society will decide what to do next” in terms of allowing or forbidding such science.
The website maintained by He’s lab says:
For billions of years, life progressed according to Darwin’s theory of evolution: random mutation in DNA, selection and reproduction. Today, human [sic] meet great challenge when the industrialization has caused great environment change. Genome sequencing and genome editing provided new powerful tools to control evolution. In our lab, we work hard to develop single molecule sequencing platform to read the genetic code of life. We aim to bring down the whole genome sequencing to the goal of $100, and make it available to everyone. As long as the genetic code is known, we use CRISPR-Cas9 to insert, edit or delete the associated gene for a particular trait. By correcting the disease genes, gaining protective alleles, we human [sic] can better live in the fast changing environment.”
What should Christians think about non-therapeutic gene editing and germline editing?
Within the realm of Christian ethics, it can be difficult to distinguish between therapy and enhancement. Additionally, not all therapy is beneficial, and not all enhancements are sinful. Nevertheless, we can still formulate some general guidelines to help us think about the moral use of medical technology.
From a Christian perspective, therapy implies fixing a malady that is a result of sin entering the world. Certain therapeutic uses of gene editing—such as correcting conditions of individual patients—may be morally unproblematic when used to cure diseases or restore broken physical systems to a healthy condition.
However, non-therapeutic gene editing for the purposes of “enhancement” is attempting to make improvements to the body that are not the result of sin or not necessarily caused by human brokenness.
Using gene editing for non-therapeutic enhancement is troubling for several reasons. For example, using the process for this purpose implies humans know how to “improve” on God’s general design for the human body. It also can imply that certain traits (such as height or a high IQ) are so preferable that they should be purposefully engineered so that they can be distributed in a way that is outside the normal distribution range for the human species. (Even He Jiankui thinks that gene editing for enhancement purposes “should be banned.”)
Other concerns include questions about the cultural and social effects of having certain humans be engineered to have the “right” traits. Creating “designer” children who possess preferred traits may cause those who lack them to be treated as inferior or sub-human. This may also lead to discrimination against groups (such as evangelicals) who are unwilling to modify their children’s genome to fit society’s preferences.
Similarly, germline editing raises problems about unintended consequences and experimenting on current and future generations without their consent. Ultimately, the reason we should oppose germline editing is because children (and future generations of children) are to be considered as gifts from God (Ps. 127:3) and not as products that we can tweak to suit our taste.
The perennial “how early is too early to listen?” debates exist, in part, because there is a glut of really great Christmas music in the world. Too much, some argue, to confine it to only one month of the year. But it’s December now, and Advent begins tomorrow (Sunday, December 2), so this year’s debates are over. It’s officially time to start listening to Christmas music.
To that end, I have curated a new playlist of 111 Advent songs. Not “holiday” songs, mind you. Advent songs. You won’t find “Deck the Halls” or “Let It Snow” on this list (lovely as they are). But you will find songs that beautifully capture the theological gravitas of this season in the Christian calendar—a season that is about both joy and longing, celebration and expectation, gratitude and petition.
The songs on this list include both centuries-old classics and recent originals. Many are somber and contemplative, appropriately subdued in the face of the majesty and mystery of the “God with us” incarnation. Others are jubilant and musically maximalist, appropriately grandiose in the face of the “Gloria in excelsis Deo!” worship that the birth of Christ demands.
You can find all 111 songs in this playlist on Spotify. I pray this 7-plus hours of music will bless you and your loved ones during this and future Advent seasons.
- “O Come O Come Emmanuel,” Future of Forestry
- “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus,” Robbie Seay Band
- “Love’s Coming Down (Isaiah),” Melanie Penn
- “Isaiah 11,” Rain for Roots
- “Emmanuel (Every Promise Yes in Him),” Caroline Cobb
- “Sing We the Song of Emmanuel,” Matt Boswell
- “Song of Zechariah,” The Gospel Coalition
- “The Coming of Jah,” Low
- “Comfort, Comfort Now My People,” Page CXVI
- “Joy to the World,” Sufjan Stevens
- “Oh for Joy,” Folk Hymnal
- “Joy,” 116, Abe Parker, Lecrae, Trip Lee
- “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” Belle and Sebastian
- “Hope,” The Brilliance
- “O Magnum Mysterium,” Morten Lauridsen
- “The Light Came Down,” Josh Garrels
- “Break Forth, O Beauteous Heavenly Light,” Choir of King’s College (Cambridge)
- “Light of the World,” Lauren Daigle
- “A Light,” The Brilliance
- “Mary’s Song,” Robbie Seay Band
- “Mary Consoles Eve,” Rain for Roots, Sandra McCracken
- “Breath of Heaven (Mary’s Song),” Amy Grant
- “The Earth Stood Still,” Future of Forestry
- “Silent Night,” Sojourn
- “O Holy Night,” Nat King Cole
- “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!” Choir of King’s College (Cambridge)
- “Silent Night,” Over the Rhine
- “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence,” The Modern Post
- “Noel,” Lauren Daigle and Chris Tomlin
- “First Noel,” Leslie Odom Jr.
- “Angels We Have Heard On High,” Sarah McLachlan
- “Gloria,” Josh Garrels
- “In Dulci Jubilo,” 14th century traditional
- “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!” The Eagle and Child
- “Gift of Love (Angel Chorus),” Melanie Penn
- “O Come,” 116, CASS, nobigdyl, Tedashii
- “O Come All Ye Faithful,” Johnnnyswim
- “Lo, How a Rose ‘Ere Blooming,” Penny and Sparrow
- “There is No Rose of Such Virtue,” Sting
- “With Us,” MissionSong feat. Satoya Foster
- “Handel’s Messiah,” Jenny & Tyler
- “Unto Us,” JJ Heller
- “O Holy Night,” Future of Forestry
- “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” Young Oceans
- “Exult in the Savior’s Birth,” Matt Boswell
- “What Child is This Anyway?” Sufjan Stevens
- “Child of Love,” Sara Groves
- “Who Would Have Dreamed?” Sovereign Grace Music
- “Little Town,” Over the Rhine
- “City of David,” The Gray Havens
- “Once in Royal David’s City,” Choir of King’s College (Cambridge)
- “Messiah,” Bifrost Arts
- “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem,” Nat King Cole
- “Cradle in Bethlehem,” Sleeping At Last
- “The Friendly Beasts,” Sufjan Stevens
- “Coventry Carol,” Pentatonix
- “What Child Is This / The Holly and the Ivy,” Bing Crosby
- “Away in a Manger,” Drew Holcomb and The Neighbors
- “Manger Throne,” Third Day
- “The Cradle and the Cross,” Austin Stone Worship
- “God Made Low,” Sovereign Grace Music
- “Immanuel,” Folk Hymnal
- “Midwinter,” Audrey Assad
- “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” Ella Fitzgerald
- “Creator of the Stars at Night,” High Street Hymns
- “Still Still Still,” Future of Forestry
- “I Wonder and I Wander,” Chanticleer
- “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” Amy Grant
- “Star of Wonder,” Kurt Elling
- “Oh, Watch the Stars,” Elizabeth Mitchell, Aoife O’Donovan
- “Written on the Sky,” Max Richter
- “Star of Wonder,” JJ Heller
- “We Three Kings,” 116, Abe Parker, Lecrae, Paul Russell
- “Do You Hear What I Hear?” Future of Forestry
- “Awake My Soul, Awake My Tongue,” Page CXVI
- “Hosanna,” Josh Garrels
- “Peace Peace,” Sara Groves
- “This Is the Christ,” Sandra McCracken
- “Jesus Born on This Day,” Mariah Carey
- “Pie Jesu,” Future of Forestry
- “Lo, How a Rose ‘Ere Blooming,” Young Oceans
- “Joy Has Dawned,” Kings
- “Hymn 87: Welcome Happy Morning,” Hanan Townshend
- “O Sacred and Immortal Day,” Leigh Nash
- “Unto Us Is Born a Son,” Choir of King’s College (Cambridge)
- “Advent Hymn,” Christy Nockels
- “Little Drummer Boy,” Shane & Shane
- “Nun komm der Heiden Heiland,” comp. Michael Praetorius; lyrics by Martin Luther
- “A Mighty Fortress / Angels We Have Heard on High,” Amy Grant
- “Come Light Our Hearts,” Sandra McCracken
- “Cradle Hymn,” Elizabeth Mitchell
- “Messiah: Hallelujah Chorus,” George Frideric Handel
- “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” Bing Crosby
- “Lift Up Your Head Ye Mighty Gates,” Sufjan Stevens
- “Oh Children Come,” Keith & Kristyn Getty
- “I Wait,” All Sons and Daughters
- “Wait for You,” Rivers & Robots
- “She Waits,” The Gray Havens
- “Wait for the Lord,” Taizé
- “Every Valley (It’s Hard to Wait),” Rain for Roots, Flo Paris
- “How Long?” Bifrost Arts
- “The Gates (Among the Ruins),” Young Oceans
- “O Come O Come Emmanuel,” Rain for Roots, Sandra McCracken, Skye Peterson
- “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus,” Page CXVI
- “Come to Us Lord,” Young Oceans
- “White Horse,” Over the Rhine
- “Justice Delivers Its Death,” Sufjan Stevens
- “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” Caroline Cobb, Sean Carter
- “All Bells in Paradise,” John Rutter
- “Joy to the World,” Future of Forestry
- “All Glory Be to Christ,” Kings
Police raids and demolitions are not an uncommon threat to Chinese churches. But now Cambodian churches are experiencing another form of persecution as a result of China’s Belt and Road Initiative: economic displacement.
Largely unnoticed amid news of China’s growing crackdown on its own churches is the profound fallout that Chinese investment is having on churches in the predominantly Buddhist country of Cambodia.
In Sihanoukville, in southwest Cambodia, glittering Chinese casinos have rendered the idyllic beach paradise unrecognizable. The number of casinos—more than 80 already—is expected to double in the coming year. These have transformed the tranquil city into one of Asia’s major gambling hubs, bringing crime, prostitution, poverty, and despair.
Catering almost exclusively to a massive new wave of wealthy Chinese tourists, these gambling houses have also created a real estate boom that displaces Sihanoukville’s poor residents and its churches. Buddhists temples and schools fare much better since they are supported by the larger community and most properties are owned instead of rented.
One longtime pastor of a Reformed church in the town explained the difficulty churches are facing. When the lease expires on his church building in December, the monthly rent will soar from $500 to an astonishing $12,000 because the landlord plans to rent to Chinese. (The pastor asked to remain anonymous because his country’s rapidly changing human rights situation is fueling a mounting sense of unease.)
In the past two months alone, out of Sihanoukville’s 15 active churches, three are unable to afford the skyrocketing new rents. These have been forced to move to the outskirts of the city into tiny homes where only a handful of worshippers can fit. One church building (in photos) was sold to Chinese investors for two million dollars. Another church had to move out of the province altogether, giving up its ministry to the least of the least.
The fallout to Cambodian churches for now remains mostly economic. However, the Khmer government, which already monitors social media for criticism and controls news sites, could be looking to take a page out of its billion-dollar benefactor’s playbook. A global mission worker in the capital city of Phnom Penh expressed his concerns about the future: “I believe every follower of Christ should count the cost and prepare for the potential reality of persecution.”
The Reformed church in Sihanoukville, faced with insurmountable rent, could be on the verge of shutting its doors. The pastor says, “It seems a big doom is coming … devils are working in the land of Cambodia.”
The Gospel Coalition is pursuing biblically solid resources in the Khmer language for Cambodia. We are currently producing a book addressing prosperity teaching called, Prosperity? and plan to publish it in 2019.
We develop gospel-centered print and digital resources for missions-engaged Christians, so they can provide Theological Famine Relief for the Global Church. We create opportunities for our partners to support strategic resource projects, to define their mission fields, and to deliver books to church leaders around the world so that the Scriptures will be taught accurately, and the gospel will strengthen congregations for the sake of the Name of Christ among all the nations.
“The Lord is so faithful to straighten things out, if we’ll give him time. We usually panic and give in to our own impatience five minutes before the Lord was going to step in. We just need to wait longer.” — Ray Ortlund
Date: October 16, 2018
Event: TGC 2018 West Coast Conference in Orange County, California
- With Great Power Comes Great . . . Temptation (Russell Moore, Sam Allberry, Vermon Pierre)
- Tim Keller on the 3 Dangers for Anyone in Ministry
- What I Wasn’t Ready for in Pastoral Ministry (Ray Ortlund)
Find more audio and video from the TGC West conference on the conference media page.
With the recent success of The New City Catechism, catechisms appear to be back in style. Recent books like Mark Jones’s Faith. Hope. Love. have also been structured around the question-and-answer catechism format. New from Crossway is another kind of catechism, The Preacher’s Catechism, by British pastor Lewis Allen.
Allen’s book contains 43 questions, based on the Westminster Shorter Catechism, but reworded specifically for preachers. Question 1, for example, becomes, “What is God’s chief end in preaching?” (Answer: “God’s chief end in preaching is to glorify his name.”) The book’s concept seems like such a good idea that I’m surprised no one has done it before.
For preachers like me who are still relatively young, some of Allen’s counsel will function more as prophetic warning. But Allen writes with such realism that pastors will feel the call to preach as both a heavy burden and also a heartfelt blessing.
Let all who preach take up and read.
Your book seems to be part of a renewed interest in catechisms. Why do you think the catechism format is so helpful—not just for children, but for preachers, too?
Ours is the soundbite age, where we want the headlines and the need-to-knows, with minimal words and in the shortest time. Catechisms have a way of hooking biblical truth into our crowded minds.
Catechisms also serve modern Christians because many are rightly tired of the shallow, a-historical, and ghettoized nature of church today. Catechisms are our opportunity to peek into what others believe in different places, including in previous centuries.
For example, I’m a Reformed Baptist but have turned to the Westminster Shorter Catechism and the Heidelberg Catechism countless times for my own profit. One of the first things we did as a church plant was to take one question and answer from the Heidelberg to read and reflect on each Sunday. People were struck by the deep theology and memorable phrasing, and got to see how biblical, well-articulated theology feeds their souls.
You discuss Christ-centered preaching in your book (ch. 5). How do we preach Christ from texts where he doesn’t seem obvious without resorting to fanciful eisegesis?
Yes, we should be wary about eisegesis—but we usually have the opposite problem. Jesus is the Lord of all Scriptures, and the Lord in every Scripture, so we should read every passage expecting to see signposts to his gracious rescue and rule. If that’s our basic approach, the Scriptures will come alive as we see Christ and our need for him in every place, and we will keep inappropriate reading into the text to a minimum.
That said, we must preach Christ in a way that’s fresh and in keeping with the tone and purpose of each text. Who wants to hear the work of Christ bolted on to the end of each sermon in the same formulaic way, bearing little apparent relation to what the preacher has just expounded? Let Jesus be proclaimed in a way that suits the passage’s direction and content—be it one of hope, despair, crisis, reassurance, warning, or command.
And—mother of heresies—let’s admit that it’s sometimes okay to say relatively little about Jesus in some sermons. Hearers must be left feeling their need of him, and then going to him, in the light of the passage preached, without the preacher actually feeling bound to deliver a significant part of the sermon on him. For example, Ecclesiastes is all about the vapor of life. Preach life’s transience, and preach the permanence of Jesus and his kingdom—but let people really learn first about life as they find it under the sun.
Never before in history have we had such easy access to so many great preachers. (I’ve recently been listening to Martyn Lloyd-Jones online, something he would likely bemoan.) How can we use this online wealth of sermons to our benefit, and what are some pitfalls we should avoid?
Here would be my brief tips, especially to preachers:
Listen, but know why you’re listening. Don’t listen to myriads of preachers, or have them on in the background, just hoping that something will “go in.” Listen selectively and purposefully. I never manage to listen to more than two online sermons a week, and that’s plenty for me.
Learn from preachers, but don’t try to sound like them. If you succeed, you only succeed at sounding like Pastor X—and less like the you God is developing you into as a preacher.
That said, have a few preachers you love and trust as good friends. Learn how they handle a passage, handle their congregations, make their preaching effective, and so on. Think about how your preaching needs to grow, in the light of their strengths.
Listen to a good sermon several times over—and commend it to others.
Avoid the failure in much modern preaching of not preaching specifically to the needs and issues in your congregation.
Avoid the failure in much modern preaching of not preaching specifically to the needs and issues in your congregation. I sense that many preachers are trying to preach for the audio, and so for posterity. This is a great mistake. Preach for your church, for your church’s situation, and for the week ahead your hearers face. Bring challenge and correction where you must, and worry little if parts of your sermon don’t connect with others when it goes online (or might make the mask of your perfect-looking church slip). You serve your people, and forget about anyone else.
As men continually preparing sermons for one setting or another, it can be difficult for us to separate our sermon prep from our devotional life. Or should we even try? Is it dangerous for preachers to rely on their sermon prep for their heart food? (147)
I’ve never managed to locate this quotation after I read it 20 years ago (but would love help to do so), but the great 19th-century missionary to Muslim people in India and Iran, Henry Martyn, said something to the effect of “incessant sermon preparation has brought about a great strangeness between my soul and my God.” That really resonated with me as a young pastor, and still does.
I preach twice a Sunday fairly regularly. That’s a heavy pressure to bear each week (though I love it), and the sheer fact of being in God’s Word can sometimes fool us into thinking we have intimacy with Christ. We need to take stock and see if sermon preparation is feeding our souls, or actually starving them, because the prep is turning us into sermon machines, rather than delighted sons and servants of our God.
There’s no set rule, but for me, I need a meaningful engagement with God through his Word each morning, in passages other than those I’m working on. I need to read, make notes on the passage, write out prayers, and do soul work that is separate from sermon work. Others do it differently, and it’s fine if that meets their needs.
Ministry is a dangerous business, and we must guard and look after ourselves.
Based on your years of ministry experience, what’s the most important piece of advice you would give to a newly ordained pastor?
Ministry will break you. It will break your self-reliance, your expectations, your emotional and mental balance, and it will break your heart, over and over again. And all of this is good. Ministry is never the making of you, if “you” is a successful, fruitful version of the sinner who started out in the pastorate. Let God sanctify you through many ministerial disasters—and don’t ever believe you have permission to quit just because you’re discovering that it’s far harder than you thought. Jesus walks towards you in your failures, and strengthens you to press on.
Ministry will break you. It will break your self-reliance, your expectations, your emotional and mental balance, and it will break your heart, over and over again.
I would say to a younger brother starting in ministry, expect hardship and humiliation. Expect tears. Expect to feel overwhelmed. Embrace it all. Put in place habits of devotion, and schedule prayer times each day for the people you minister to and the ministry you bring to them. Don’t rush to the internet or your favorite podcast for all the answers to your latest ministry problem. Think deeply, pray over them, seek the counsel of your elders and friends in ministry, find out the wisdom of long-dead gospel servants in time-proven books. Grow as a servant, in other words, by being slow, careful, humble, thoughtful, and prayerful. Ignore the noise, cope with the pressure, keep going, in grace.
My youth pastor used to say of our Wednesday night worship services: “This is not a concert!” And his warning was certainly correct and helpful. But I can’t help but think that the sensory experience of our services often stood in contradiction to what my youth pastor was saying. The lights, sounds, and vibe of the room correlated to what many of us would identify plainly as a concert. But it wasn’t a concert. Right?
On one hand we know corporate worship—particularly congregational singing—is something distinct from a concert or other performed art or entertainment. When the church gathers and sings together, there’s a “set apart-ness,” a qualitative difference from any other kind of gathering or event in which someone, or group of people, is singing.
On the other hand Christians are called to worship God in every facet of their lives (Col. 3:17; Rom. 12:1), seeing our work, for example, as an opportunity to glorify God. What happens when Christians practice the “all of life” worship in their vocation, in part, by leading other Christians in corporate singing?
Enter the awkward position of the worship leader.Inherently Performative
Worship leaders—that is, musical worship leaders, for the whole gathering is worship—are doing something different from entertaining, but their role entails some elements that are inherently performative: aesthetic sensibilities, technical proficiency, and stage presence. These elements may be obvious or subtle, but they are there, and they have to be dealt with.
Some churches deal with these elements by simplifying song arrangements and musical accompaniment to reduce opportunities for worship leaders to embellish or direct attention to themselves. Other churches, often operating with high production value, see these performative elements as assets to be used in full capacity, with little thought toward what end they’re serving. And most tragically, some worship leaders are blind to the unique power that comes with performance, and their naïveté causes serious harm to others and themselves.
Worship leaders are doing something different from entertaining, but their role entails some elements that are inherently performative.
The word “performance” itself has become a kind of antonym for the word “worship.” In the context of church life, I don’t think I’ve ever heard the word used except as a critique of the way a musician is leading—seeking their own glory instead of God’s. But this is not entirely fair. I think Christian performers, whether in the realm of dance, music, or theater, would be offended at the notion that their performance robs God’s glory and seeks it for themselves. That is certainly a temptation, but any Christian performer who views vocation through a biblical lens recognizes that his or her work is a service to others and an occasion for worship. So what’s the distinction in roles between a godly performer and a godly worship leader?Distinctive Service
A Christian performer serves people who have chosen to lend a listening ear or an attentive eye (or both). The audience participates by paying attention, and so the performer’s job is to help ensure their attention is well invested. A worship leader, on the other hand, serves people who have been called to sing; the performative elements of his or her job should serve that end.
This doesn’t mean we strip things back to their bare essentials, because that doesn’t always encourage people to sing passionately and wholeheartedly. It also doesn’t mean we give full freedom to our aesthetic sensibilities, technical ability, or stage presence, because that can end up being manipulative or confusing.Five Ways to Steward Performance
Here are a handful of ways worship leaders can steward their performance to best serve the church.1. Grow in aesthetic tastes.
Worship leaders should regularly listen to music and engage in art beyond what’s popular in their particular circles. Listen to music that is challenging, intricate, born of a culture outside your own. Listen to music that feels more like a complex, delicious meal than a protein bar or energy drink. The more we grow in this, the more we are filled with wonder that God calls his people to employ the gift of music to worship him—and that we get to be part of leading his people in that response, to the praise of his glorious grace.2. Grow in technical ability.
If we are called to work wholeheartedly in whatever we do (Col. 3:17), Christians have the greatest reasons to pursue vocational excellence. Worship leaders might find it wasteful to put intentional time into growing their craft, but in God’s eyes, this is time well spent.
Christians have the greatest reasons to pursue vocational excellence.
Worship leaders who grow in aesthetic tastes and technical ability, with the aim of serving God’s people, will have a growing capacity for discernment. They will grow in the ability to choose, arrange, and lead songs in a way that boosts congregational singing, rather than their own ego.3. Avoid novelty.
There’s a temptation for worship leaders to use their gifts in such a way that they’re perceived as clever, witty, or cutting edge. Steer clear of this temptation.
Novelty masquerades as creativity and beauty, but it’s a cheap replacement. If we’re seeking to point people to the glory and beauty of God, we are shooting ourselves in the foot if we give our churches cheap tricks and amusement.4. Build a team of musicians from the congregation.
Psalm 150:4 calls God’s people to “praise him with tambourine and dance; praise him with strings and pipe!” In 1 Chronicles 15, as the ark of the covenant is brought to Jerusalem, David “commanded the chiefs of the Levites to appoint their brothers as the singers who should play loudly on musical instruments, on harps and lyres and cymbals, to raise sounds of joy” (v. 16).
The worship of God’s people can and should be led and accompanied by a skilled group of musicians, and the Bible demonstrates that robust musical expression can serve God’s people as they sing. But as we consider worship leading in our churches, the liturgy (literally, “the work of the people”) should be led primarily by the people. It is the work of the congregation, not the work of outside professionals.
Liturgy is the work of the congregation, not the work of outside professionals.
In my church, we have music team members who sing or play music professionally, and others who are hobbyists. While we have standards in place for leading, there’s a concerted effort to make sure our team comprises people within the church. This approach helps mitigate the pressure to look and sound the same as the most popular worship band on the Christian music charts. It frees us up instead to look and sound like the people of our church community, and hopefully, the neighborhoods we represent.5. Follow Jesus, who leads us in singing.
In Hebrews 2 we see this curious quote from Psalm 22:22: “I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise.” These words are attributed to Jesus himself, who is not ashamed to call us brothers and sisters. Isn’t that amazing? For worship leaders, the hope that gives us both humility and also confidence in leading God’s people is that Jesus himself leads us and sings with us. When we begin to experience Jesus’s presence with us as we lead, temptations toward self-glory and misuse of power begin to diminish, and we lead more creatively, more selflessly, and more fruitfully.
I long for that in my own ministry—maybe you do, too. Let’s pray for a greater awareness of Christ’s transforming presence in the midst of our church gatherings, and may we experience renewal and revival as a result.
It was my first Sunday at church after the birth of my son. I spent the service alone in the nursing mother’s room, soothing my squalling baby while trying to hear the sermon from a speaker in the corner. When it was time for Sunday school, I found the nursery and signed in my son. The nursery volunteer looked at me and said, “You’re too young to have a baby.” I gazed at her a moment, my throat tight, and replied, “Well, he’s mine.” Then I turned and walked out. I had attended this church every Sunday since kindergarten.
I grew up in a quiet South Carolina town, where people donned sunny dispositions like a uniform. As a teenager, I was a member of the church and made all A’s, so my pregnancy provided scandalous news for the high-school rumor mill. Behind my back, people were certainly talking, but to my face, they said almost nothing.
After my high-school graduation and my son’s birth, we lived with my gracious, supportive parents while I attended a local university. Somewhere in the blur of time, our household found a comfortable rhythm of life. But most people in my larger community continued to relate to me with awkwardness—or silence.
If not silent, people typically approached me like that nursery worker did. I can’t count the number of times individuals both inside and outside the church told me I was too young to be a mother, or assumed my son was my brother. Their words left me discouraged. I longed for close friends willing to know the woman behind the single-mother label.
I longed for close friends willing to know the woman behind the single-mother label.
Thankfully, not everyone approached my circumstances this way. I had the privilege of belonging to two churches as a single mom. In each there was a group of women who knew and loved me well. Their willingness to enter into the uncomfortable fray of single parenthood spurred me toward joy in Christ.
For churches looking to welcome single moms, I can affirm the life-giving value of six practices.1. Acknowledge Mess, Speak Truth
The church women who mentored me didn’t try to offer an easy solution to my struggles. Instead, they acknowledged my difficulties and sat with me as I cried tears of disappointment and fear. While they held my sweet baby and poured me a steaming mug of coffee, I grieved the loss of moving away for college and having an adventurous career. I grieved for the family I couldn’t give my son.
My emotions ebbed and flowed with seasons of loneliness, struggles to fit in with peers, and sheer exhaustion from being a mom, student, and employee. The women listened without judgment to my doubts about God’s goodness and love for me. They asked hard questions and gently pushed me to seek biblical answers. When I lacked faith, they encouraged me to endure.2. Look Beyond Labels
These women didn’t see me as a project to fix or a fool to rescue; they saw me as a friend and a fellow Christian. They knew the shame I carried, yet they never reduced me to a label. Their acceptance helped me believe the truth—I am more than the sum of assumptions people made about me. I am more than past sins and circumstances I never imagined I’d be in. I am a beloved child of God.3. Have Fun
These friendships weren’t always intense. We laughed and played card games together. We gathered every Wednesday night to watch Lost. We made fondue and exchanged slow-cooker recipes. We stayed up late sharing our hearts and singing ’90s music. We celebrated our kids’ birthdays together, and I always volunteered to make the cake.4. Love Her Child(ren)
The love of these women extended to my son. My friends brought my son into their families. Their husbands included my son in ball games and bike rides with their own kids. They asked how school went and listened to him talk about tractors and skid steers. These men provided secondary male role models for my son when his father or grandfather couldn’t be there.5. Offer Practical Help
Because these women knew me, they also knew what I needed. They watched my son so I could grocery shop, go to class, or go to work. They helped me find babysitters in the church, and asked others to help with yard work. Several months, while I was working and in grad school, unexpected groceries kept us from eating ramen noodles every night.6. Encourage Her to Serve
When I asked to serve in the church youth group, the leader didn’t turn me down because my past sin was obvious. He encouraged me to minister and share my unique story with the students. Through loving and serving the youth in my church, I more fully grasped how God never falters in his love for us.
When we hear of serious struggles within our churches, it’s easy to assume God will provide through someone else—someone who can better relate. It’s easy to practically love only those who appear to have it together. It’s easy to remain silent in the face of obvious adversity.
But God calls his church to be the hands and feet of Jesus, his provision for the lonely and fatherless. James 1:27 exhorts believers to “visit orphans and widows in their affliction.” May the church—our churches!—be a place of active love for the brokenhearted among us.
David and Sally Michael founded Children Desiring God in 1998 while serving children and families at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis. Today the ministry is called Truth78 and is devoted to teaching the whole counsel of God to the next generation.
Truth78 provides all kinds of resources for teaching the Bible to kids—from the nursery to youth group—that seek to instruct the mind to engage the heart. “It is not enough to simply receive knowledge about God,” the Michaels say. “The child who has memorized the most Bible verses in your class or is always first to find a passage, may have a heart far from the Lord. Genuine faith in Christ also involves the heart and will. To leave these unaddressed in our teaching is dangerous—eternally dangerous.”
You’ll hear in their voices the passion these two have for children and for God’s Word, as they offer wisdom for recruiting, training, and supervising volunteers in ministry to children.
You can listen to our conversation here.
It’s the book C. S. Lewis never wrote but wanted to: a guide for new believers to learn how to pray. But it was never to be, at least not in his lifetime.
In the summer of 1949, an American lady and pen pal of Lewis asked him about writing a book on the topic. “I don’t feel I could write a book on prayer,” Lewis responded. “I think it would be rather cheek on my part.”
But don’t let Lewis’s candor fool you. A book on prayer became a pervasive theme for the rest of his life.Book on Prayer
In the winter of 1953, in a letter to an Italian priest, penned in Latin (the only language the two shared in common), Lewis asked for prayer for a writing project he was struggling to complete. The topic of the book was prayer. It seems Lewis was willing to give a cheeky effort at composing a book on prayer after all.
“I invite your prayers about a work which I now have in hand,” Lewis wrote to the Italian priest. “I am trying to write a book about private prayers for the use of the laity, especially for those who have been recently converted to the Christian faith.” This letter gives the greatest detail in terms of what Lewis was hoping to accomplish in his book on prayer.
That same year, Lewis and Martin Lloyd-Jones shared a conversation while traveling by boat from England to Ireland. Jones asked Lewis when he might write another book like Mere Christianity. “When I understand the meaning of prayer,” Lewis replied. Just a year after the trip, in a letter to another friend, Lewis says he’d finally given up hope on the prospect of writing the book altogether.Project Abandoned
“I have had to abandon the book on prayer,” Lewis told her. “It was clearly not for me.” His difficulty with the book on prayer affected his writing in apologetics and theology as well. Thus in 1955 Lewis told Carl F. H. Henry, first editor of Christianity Today, that he couldn’t write articles for the inaugural publication of the magazine:
My thought and talent (such as they are) now flow in different, though I trust not less Christian, channels, and I do not think I am at all likely to write more directly theological pieces. The last work of that work which I attempted had to be abandoned. If I am now good for anything it is for catching the reader unawares—thro’ fiction and symbol. I have done what I could in the way of frontal attacks, but now I feel quite sure those days are over.
Lewis’s reference to Henry about the “last work” that had to be abandoned was, of course, the book on prayer. It had become a mental roadblock to Lewis’s writing of direct theology and apologetics. But Providence has a way of closing one door to open another. If Lewis was no longer writing books like Mere Christianity, it could mean only one thing: Aslan was on the move.
The Narnia stories were born out of this season of “writer’s block.” Most authors would give anything for a similarly productive season of stalemate. While there were indeed other converging influences in Lewis’s move to share the Christian story primarily through fiction and symbol, the book on prayer is certainly the most pronounced. But Lewis never fully gave up on the project.Attempt
The last book Lewis completed was Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer. His prayer project finally came together as an imaginary conversation between the author and a fictional character. One reviewer in The Times likened Lewis’s final book to his earlier work of fictional correspondence: “Old Screwtape will be glad that Mr. Lewis has written his last letter.”
Sadly, Letters to Malcolm is considered by many to be Lewis’s least successful work. Even his friend J. R. R. Tolkien found it “distressing and in parts horrifying.” But to be fair, it wasn’t the book Lewis originally set out to write. His original vision was to present a guide to prayer for laity and recent converts. This conversational format and indirect approach doesn’t fully execute that vision, as one reviewer noted: “The author does not claim to be teaching.”Completion
Nevertheless, Lewis’s goal—a simple, direct primer for prayer—has finally come to pass in the posthumous publication of the book How to Pray: Reflections and Essays (HarperOne, 2018). How to Pray is a collection of reflections and essays pieced together from Lewis’s publications, including lesser-known writings and personal correspondence.
This is a valuable resource for anyone wishing to see an organized account of Lewis’s thoughts on prayer. As the preface states, “Lewis spent a lot of time practicing, thinking about, and writing about prayer.” This short book captures those thoughts and reflections from across his literary corpus, organized around chapters that begin with a basic question about prayer followed by pertinent content from Lewis.
Lewis, I’m sure, couldn’t be less concerned about what we’re doing here on earth with the words he left behind. He is now in the presence of the One with whom he regularly conversed throughout his Christian life. Still, we have much to learn from a life so well lived, not least of which are his thoughts on prayer.