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Can Hymns Be Saved from Extinction?

Thu, 02/07/2019 - 12:02am

We live in a day of heightened fear about the extinction of plant and animal species. The world is losing as many as 200 species every day. A different kind of extinction is happening in our churches. In our generation, we could lose the great hymns of the Christian tradition.

The expulsion of hymns from a church can occur either imperceptibly over time or instantaneously, but in many churches they are fading away or already gone. In this context, I propose a way for those who love the hymns of the faith to preserve them. We can save our beloved hymns by reading and pondering them as devotional poems.

This suggestion isn’t revolutionary. During my research for a forthcoming anthology of hymns presented as devotional poems, I encountered The Hymnal: A Reading History (read my TGC review). This book demonstrates that until the 1870s, the customary format for a hymnbook was a portable, five-by-three-inch anthology of poems without music.

These poetry anthologies weren’t used primarily for singing in church on Sundays but in everyday life during the week. They were used in private and family devotions. They were carried from home to offices, schools, fields, and markets. They played a major role in children’s education and literacy instruction. Children memorized from them and received them as gift books. Their parents used them to record family memories and carry everything from railroad tickets to business letters.

Whether as a supplement to the singing of classic hymns or as a replacement in churches where they have been removed, reading and assimilating hymns as devotional poems is a project whose time has come.

Hymns Are Poems

A good starting point is to acknowledge that a hymn is a poem before it is a hymn. Even when writers compose with a view toward eventual singing, they compose a poem first. When we encounter these poems only as hymns to be sung, we come up against limitations that prevent us from fully enjoying their poetic qualities. One limitation is that the music diverts our attention away from the verbal text without our knowing it. Additionally, when we sing a hymn, we are hurried along. There’s no time to pause or slow down to ponder the images and metaphors and nuances of language.

An additional limitation to singing hymns is that when the verses of the text are printed under the preceding ones and enclosed within lines of musical notes, every new stanza returns us to the same starting point. The result is a strongly cyclical arrangement in which the linear unfolding of the text is largely lost and our dominant impression is that of covering the same territory over and over. By contrast, a poem is structured on the linear principle of beginning-middle-end, not a repeated cycle.

To fully experience hymns as poems, we need to change our approach.

Reading Hymns as Poems

We begin by applying the usual rules of reading poetry. It’s a truism that poets speak a language all their own. A popular book about poetry when I was in graduate school half a century ago was aptly titled The Language Poets Use. I use the label poetic idiom to designate the special resources of language that poets use. In brief, poets think in images and figures of speech such as metaphor and simile.

What obligations does this poetic idiom place on readers?

First, it requires a “slow read” in place of the speed reading that characterizes our daily lives and that also occurs when we’re hurried along by the ongoing music when we sing hymns. This slow reading entails unpacking the multiple meanings of images and figuring out how A is like B in metaphors and similes. It also means pausing on the verbal beauty of words and phrases, drinking in the effect and admiring the skill of the poet.

A second major element of poetry is the careful structuring of thought in a linear manner. As I produced my explications of hymnic poems in my anthology, the biggest discovery I made was the importance of sequential progression in our great hymns. This discovery is made possible primarily by printing the hymns as successive stanzas, the way all poems are printed.

Several things immediately stand out when we see hymns printed in this way. One is the care with which the great hymn writers package their content by stanzas. Usually each stanza has its own “duty” to perform in the overall flow of thought, and not infrequently each stanza has its own imagery and word patterns. Once we experience a stanza as its own small world, we can see how the next stanza advances the line of thought or feeling into a related one. At the end of the poem, we can look back over the stanzas as a coherent sequence, seeing at a glance how the stanzas relate both to each other and to the unifying theme of the entire poem.

A third element of poetry is genre. Our hymnbooks have the effect of consigning all hymns to a single genre, namely, hymn. But if we come to a collection of hymnic poems as we do to an anthology of English literature, multiplicity begins to emerge. We start thinking in terms of familiar literary and biblical genres. Then the genres start to explode—poem of personal testimony, song of victory, enthronement hymn, poem of self-address, occasional poem (a poem arising from a specific occasion in a poet’s life or times), Christ hymn.

Placing hymns into the category of familiar poetry also pays dividends when we come to the poetic texture (the images and figures of speech). To cite a particularly important example, our familiar hymns contain so many allusions to the Bible that again and again I use the formula “a mosaic of biblical references” as I compose explications of hymnic poems. But it is only when we take time to analyze these poems that we see how carefully the poets have worked out their network of biblical allusions.

Benefiting from Hymnic Poems

I trust that it’s becoming apparent that even if our great hymns weren’t in danger of becoming extinct, it would be an excellent idea to read and assimilate them as devotional poems. When we do so, we find a whole new dimension to hymns, which are an important ingredient of Christian culture (works of literature and other arts that express the Christian faith).

My own venture of approaching my favorite hymns as devotional poems has been an unfolding journey of discoveries. It has been like unlocking a treasury of literary and devotional triumphs. I’ve repeatedly felt that I’ve been introduced to the hymns that no one knows.

How can this newfound treasure trove be turned into currency in our individual and corporate Christian lives? In much the same way devotional poetry can. We can incorporate hymnic poems into our church bulletins and websites. Ministers and Bible study leaders can incorporate them into sermons and studies. We don’t need to abandon hymns simply because they’re no longer sung. If congregations hear hymnic poems referenced in the forms I have suggested, perhaps they will insist on singing them. These corporate uses can be supplemented by individual ones.

I’m reminded of a television commercial for a cereal where the slogan is, “Try it—you’ll like it.” I challenge my readers to give what I have proposed a try. I predict that they will like it.

How Long Should Sermon Prep Take?

Thu, 02/07/2019 - 12:00am

As preachers, we all share the same task—to equip the church by preaching the Word so our people will love and serve one another (and others) throughout the week (Eph. 4:11–16). To fulfill this task faithfully, we must ask a number of questions of every passage we preach.

So, then, perhaps the most important question is not, “How long should I spend preparing my sermon?” The more important question is, “How long will it take me to work through the process of answering all the questions I have of this passage?”

Let me explain by walking through the six main questions I ask of each passage I’m preparing to preach. (You can find a sermon preparation worksheet with these questions at the Simeon Trust website.)

1. How has the author organized the passage?

Every passage has a structure that reveals the author’s emphasis. We want to preach the author’s emphasis, not ours. To do that faithfully, we must discern how the author has organized the text, and allow that structure to shape the sermon’s emphasis and structure.

Throughout the week, I read the text devotionally each morning, praying for the Spirit’s guidance. But my sermon prep officially begins when I sit down to discern the structure of the passage. Because each text-type has its own strategies for discerning structure, you’ll first need to identify the type you’re working with. When working with New Testament letters, for example, grammar, discourse analysis, key words, repeated words, transitional words (so, and, but, therefore, thus), verbs, chiasms, and more reveal the text’s structure.

We want to preach the author’s emphasis, not ours.

When preaching through narrative, tools of grammar and discourse analysis can be helpful, but generally, you’ll want to consider plot (setting, conflict, climax, resolution), characters, changes in scene, voice (first person, second person), time (present, past, future). When preaching through poetry, say the Psalms, or much of the prophetic literature, you’ll want to consider grammar, of course, but you’ll also need to take into account changes in scene, time, and voice along with parallelism, stanzas, comparisons and contrasts.

Admittedly, this is hard—sometimes long, tedious—work. But this is the most important work of sermon preparation, since the structure will reveal the author’s emphasis. And if we are to preach the emphasis of the passage, we want to get this right. To be sure, as we move through the prep process, other questions may shed light on the text’s structure. Don’t think of this as a linear process; it’s a hermeneutical spiral. Each question helps shed light on answers to the other questions.

2. What light do various contexts shed on this passage?

Having discerned the structure, I also want to see what light the various contexts shed on my passage. The immediate literary context (the passage before and after) helps me to root my particular passage in the unfolding narrative of the book. I want to understand where I am in the author’s argument. Of course, we can keep moving out from our immediate passage to understand how it’s functioning in the entire book. The more we know about the book we’re expositing, the better we’ll preach any given passage.

The more we know about the book we’re expositing, the better we’ll preach any given passage.

Often, the historical context will also shed light on our text. When we can’t gain the historical context from Scripture itself, we may turn to Bible dictionaries, atlases, encyclopedias, and commentaries for help.

Additionally, we want to understand what light other biblical texts shed on our passage. Is our passage quoted elsewhere? Does the author deal with the same issue elsewhere? How is the theme the author treats here developed throughout Scripture?

And of course, how did the biblical authors apply it to their original audience? Context protects us from ripping texts out of their original settings and allows us to better apply the Bible to our audience today.

3. What is the author’s main point?

The point of reading the passage devotionally each day, discerning the author’s structure, and placing the passage in its original context is to understand the author’s main point, which becomes the main focus of our sermon.

I want to identify in one sentence the primary point the original author is making. And I want to state it as clearly and specifically as possible in the context of the original hearers. After identifying the text’s original point, I reflect on what light Christ sheds on my passage.

4. What gospel connections in my passage point to Christ?

As Christian preachers, we must preach Christian sermons. That may sound obvious, but it’s possible to preach a sermon from the Bible that’s not uniquely Christian. To preach a Christian sermon, we must legitimately connect our passage to the gospel. To do so, we’ll want to note any cross-references to the opposite testament from the one we’re preaching. We’ll want to develop a good sense of biblical theology.

As Christian preachers, we must preach Christian sermons. It’s possible to preach a sermon from the Bible that’s not uniquely Christian.

Other helpful strategies include considering promise-fulfillment, theological themes, typology, and systematic theology. Again, we’re asking what light does Christ (his life, death, resurrection, exaltation, return) shed on my passage, and what is the strongest connection to Jesus from which I can naturally preach the gospel?

5. What’s the main argument in my sermon from this passage?

I’m still not ready to write my sermon. At this point, I want to state the main argument I’ll make from the text under consideration. I want to preach the author’s main argument, but I want to say it in “us/today” language. So, I’ll try to restate the author’s main point, in light of Christ, in the language of application to my audience—all in one brief sentence. Now I’m ready to write the sermon.

6. What’s the structure of my sermon from this passage?

I want my sermon outline to reflect the structure of the original author but be stated in the language of my audience. My sermon points will serve my only main argument. Such brevity will help provide clarity.

Often, those of us who focus much attention on getting the text right don’t spend much time on clearly communicating it.

Often, those of us who focus much attention on getting the text right don’t spend much time on clearly communicating it. I want to be sure I have enough time to think carefully about application, connecting it as closely to my main argument and sermon points as possible. The passage should also shape my application.

However Long It Takes

I hope you can see why I argue that the most important question is not, “How long should I take to prepare a sermon?” The better question is, “How long will it take me to answer all the questions I have of this text in order to preach it faithfully?”

Again, the answer is, however long is necessary.

Previous installments in TGC’s Pastor’s Toolkit series can be found here.

Your Zip Code Is Not Your Home

Wed, 02/06/2019 - 12:04am

“Abraham, who’s been promised the land, doesn’t have a home. The Lord Jesus, who’s been promised the world, doesn’t have a home. You and I, promised that if we’re trusting Jesus we’ll rule the world with him, are not truly at home here.” — Simon Tomkins

Text: Genesis 13

Preached: January 20, 2019

Location: St. James Audley, England

You can listen to this episode of TGC Word of the Week here.


Millennials Aren’t as Cause-Oriented as You May Think

Wed, 02/06/2019 - 12:03am

Over the years, many leaders have become frustrated with millennials because they’re not as cause-oriented as they were sold to be. I remember someone once complaining to me, “Millennials aren’t activists. They’re slacktivists!”

I see his point. Still, young people do have a higher propensity toward causes than generations before. But what many leaders don’t understand is this: Millennials aren’t drawn to causes. They’re drawn to cause communities.

Communities, Not Causes

Millennials don’t volunteer as individuals. They volunteer as groups. It’s not unheard of, but it’s rare that I meet a young person who faithfully serves alone for a long period of time. For example, here are some causes everyone jumped on:

  • Remember when everyone was looking for Kony?
  • Remember when everyone put ice buckets on their head?
  • Remember when everyone was rocking LiveStrong bracelets?

Yet you probably won’t see anyone jumping on them today. Why did they stop?

  • Was Kony captured?
  • Is ALS no longer an issue?
  • Has cancer been cured?

No. The need hasn’t gone away, but the community has. Therefore, the millennials have too.

If young people are looking for a cause community, then they should look no further than the church.

I think we can all agree that one of the most well-known activists to ever live was William Wilberforce. When your cause takes more than 25 years to accomplish and successfully puts an end to the British slave trade, you’re no slacktivist. But what many forget is that Wilberforce didn’t accomplish this alone. His community was crucial.

He joined the Clapham Sect, a diverse community of pastors, mathematicians, brewers, writers, artists, and members of parliament. It was a joint effort. It was a cause community. When things got tough—when their cause wasn’t trendy, when they had nothing going for them—they had each other and their convictions. Sounds a lot like the disciples and the early church.

Millennial Disconnect

If young people are looking for a cause community, they should look no further than the church. The church is the hope of the world. So why is the world’s most cause-oriented generation generally not connecting to the world’s most cause-oriented organization?

I think they’re not connecting because many of us have strayed from our unique cause. Christ called us to make disciples of all nations, but the reality is most Christians don’t disciple anyone. Only 17 percent of Christians say they meet with a spiritual mentor as part of their discipleship efforts. It doesn’t sound like Jesus’s last words have been our first priority.

In Jesus’s last words, he gave us the Great Commission to go and make disciples (Matt. 28:18–20). I know there’s a lot of talk these days about making America great again. But what Christians need to do is make the commission great again. (I may or may not have a red hat with this on it.)

The church doesn’t have a millennial problem. It has a discipleship problem.

Making disciples is the core of what the church needs to be about. I believe it’s our failure to do this that has turned off many millennials to the church. It’s not because the church played the wrong music or the pastor didn’t wear skinny jeans or have a big enough social media following. It’s because many churches stopped taking discipleship seriously. Instead of inviting young people to the same exciting and demanding adventure that Jesus called his disciples to, many churches effectively invited them to join a club and maintain the status quo.

The church can no longer bank on just providing content as their main commodity, because this generation can google content all day. In our digital world, the seeming value of content is at an all-time low. This is affecting colleges, the publishing industry, and even the church. You don’t need to go to church to get content. Millennials can live-stream a message, download a podcast, or watch a YouTube video. But there’s still no app for genuine connection and life-on-life discipleship. That’s what the church can provide that the world can’t.

The church doesn’t have a millennial problem. It has a discipleship problem.

I’m not saying discipleship is easy. I’m just saying it’s worth it. The Great Commission needs great attention, not mere spiritual finger-crossing.

Again, we don’t have a millennial problem; we have a discipleship problem. And if we don’t fix it, then millennials will be the last of our worries. Because there’s already another generation on the way. So what we prioritize over the next 10 years will promote or hinder the health of the American church. 

If they want a cause, let’s give them one. Instead of obsessing over how to reach millennials, let’s invest in how to mobilize them. Let’s disciple this generation so they can disciple the next.

6 Lessons from Gladys Aylward About Gospel Success

Wed, 02/06/2019 - 12:02am

Have you longed for God to use you on the foreign mission field? Is there a specific area of the world on your heart? Perhaps you feel convinced it’s God’s will for you to serve there, but he hasn’t sent you yet—although you’re willing. Do you wonder if it’s because you’re unqualified for the task? Or if he would rather use someone else?

Gladys Aylward probably had similar feelings. Born in Britain in the early 1900s, she became a Baptist missionary to China and served among poor children for 25 years. But her success on the mission field came only after great difficulty.

As an adult, Aylward stood less than five feet tall in her ragged clothes, and she had very little formal education. This small woman looked unlikely to make much of a difference in the world. According to her credentials, it was doubtful she would impact thousands with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

When our lives feel stagnant and ordinary, Aylward’s life can encourage us. God uses the weak—not the strong—so that no flesh should glory in his presence (1 Cor. 1:27–31). Aylward didn’t set out to become a well-known missionary. She didn’t expect to be a world-changer. She simply set her face on Christ, then toward China. God accomplished the rest.

Aylward’s life can teach us six things about gospel success:

1. Our Goal Should Be God’s Will

Aylward felt God wanted her to go to China, but many people urged her to continue gospel work at home instead. Her labors among England’s poorest citizens proved good work indeed, yet the thought of lost souls in China tormented her, making her unable to shake the sense that God wanted her there. Aylward didn’t want to merely do good works; she longed for God’s will, which meant doing the specific work he called her to. This meant going to China.

2. Our Plans May Fail

Aylward’s mentors insisted she join a missionary society, enroll in their college, and be sent to the mission field under their care. The missionary society committee, however, found her unfit in terms of education and intellect. They rejected her and told her the Chinese language would be far too difficult for her to learn. With her rejection by the missionary society, Aylward’s dream seemed impossible.

3. We May Face Obstacles

Without the support of a missionary organization, Aylward was without qualifications. She possessed little money and had no contacts. Aylward eventually reached China by traveling through a war zone with a one-way ticket and a rationed amount of food.

These struggles are similar to those faced by many modern would-be missionaries. Whether we struggle to find the missionary organization fit for us or fear the inability to raise enough support for our family, we can’t boast that we’ll get on the field no matter what.

Instead, we ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that” (James 4:13–17). Like Aylward, we set our faces where we think God wants us to serve; and if God wills, he will get us there.

4. We May Possess Unexpected Qualifications

At the beginning of her time in China, Aylward lived with a veteran missionary and innkeeper. Having not yet learned the language, she took care of the guests’ mules while the missionary taught Bible studies nearby. Listening night after night to God’s Word taught in Chinese, Aylward eventually learned the language.

God also uniquely equipped Aylward in another way. The Chinese custom of foot-binding was a cruel practice to stunt girls’ growth. Since Aylward had not been born in China, she walked on unbound feet. To her surprise, a government official approached her with a mission. He wanted her to travel to every surrounding village and enforce the new law which outlawed foot-binding.

Aylward obliged under one condition: She would preach the gospel in every home she visited. He agreed, and she had countless opportunities to share the gospel with Chinese families.

5. God’s Plans Won’t Fail

Aylward’s initial plan to get to China may have failed, but God’s plan to use her there succeeded. She put her hope in his sovereign plan, knowing whatever he willed would succeed. She trusted that this was the way God would be most glorified.

After adopting a child she found for sale in the street, the Lord brought hundreds of other children to Aylward. During the wartime, God used her to lead this group of little ones across dangerous terrain, among opposing soldiers, to safety. Aylward rejoiced that this was God’s doing—not hers.

6. God Uses the Weak

Riots broke out often in the local prison, and the guards asked Aylward to come calm them. The first time she visited, she took an ax from a rowdy prisoner. Eventually, even convicted murderers listened with awe to the small woman who stood on a mound of dirt and fearlessly proclaimed truth.

Many of the prisoners trusted Christ, not because Aylward studied how to be an effective missionary, but because God opened their hearts when she boldly spoke his Word—even when she was inwardly frightened.

Success in Which We Can’t Boast

We often despise the thought of failure, but Aylward’s story encourages us that even our failures lead to success—when we define success as God does. If we set our minds on Christ and his will, we can be confident. Our plans may fail, but God’s most certainly won’t.

Gladys Aylward didn’t know God would lead thousands to Christ through her. She didn’t know she’d save the lives of hundreds of children and have books written about her, but she knew God wanted to use her in China for his name’s sake—despite her weaknesses.

To learn more about Gladys Aylward:

How Contemporary Worship Music Is Shaping Us—for Better or Worse

Wed, 02/06/2019 - 12:00am

It was roughly 50 years ago that young people started bringing their guitars to church. Converts from the hippie culture, known as Jesus People, strummed a chord that would echo around the world. Modern worship was born.

In the ensuing decades, the phenomenon known as “praise and worship music” or “contemporary worship music” has seen its share of developments. By no means a monolithic movement, it has nevertheless coalesced into a highly recognizable sound and ethos, as demonstrated by the numerous parodies that poke fun at its most predictable features. The dust has settled after the so-called “worship wars” of the 1980s and 90s, and it appears that contemporary worship has emerged victorious in many spheres of evangelical life.

Now that contemporary worship music has become not only a major feature of evangelical identity in North America but also a multimillion-dollar industry, it’s worth asking an often neglected question: How does contemporary worship music shape us?

Worship Music as Sociological Phenomenon

Monique Ingalls, assistant professor of music at Baylor University, tackles this question in her book, Singing the Congregation: How Contemporary Worship Music Forms Evangelical Community. Focusing on the decade from 2007 to 2017, she examines modern praise through sociological lenses. Ingalls analyzes five gatherings in which this type of singing plays a prominent role: worship concerts (ch. 1), student conferences (ch. 2), one local congregation in Nashville, Tennessee (ch. 3), public praise parades (ch. 4), and the virtual “community” of online “worship-video” creators and consumers (ch. 5).

Though these social gatherings differ from one another in many respects, one thing unites them: the centrality of contemporary worship music. “For evangelicals, the use of contemporary worship music immediately marks an activity as ‘worship’” (22). Therefore, Ingalls reasons, the act of engaging in modern worship singing produces a sort of “congregation” out of gatherings not traditionally thought of as such. This has deep, often unnoticed, effects on how Christians understand worship and the church.

The main value of Singing the Congregation is its thorough description of the world that contemporary worship music has created.

Ingalls’s book is a work of musicology. Each chapter is full of anthropologist-style “field notes” and insights culled from interviews with worshipers and music ministers alike. As such, the main value of Singing the Congregation is its thorough description of the world that contemporary worship music has created. For that reason, even if musicology is a new field for you, I recommend this book to pastors, worship leaders, and anyone with an interest in the modern worship movement—fans and critics alike.

To be sure, readers will need to look elsewhere for sustained analysis of the lyrical themes found in modern praise songs. Ingalls’s focus is on worship music as sociological phenomenon, so there is little here in the way of theological interaction with worship lyrics. Still, Ingalls’s in-depth account of how contemporary worship shapes evangelical life proves the axiom that “the medium is the message.” In other words, contemporary worship music not only reflects evangelical values and convictions about how to engage with God, it also profoundly influences those values and convictions.

For me, as a church elder, song leader, and hymn writer who “grew up” musically in a variety of modern worship settings, Ingalls’s book provoked me to reflect on the unintended consequences of contemporary worship music. Rather than proceed with a traditional book review, it may be more useful to my readers to share some ways in which Ingalls’s work has prompted my own thinking.

So here are four areas of reflection, which I invite you to consider with me.

1. The Worship Experience

First, I’ve reflected on how the notion of personal experience has become a crucial expectation in contemporary worship. Ingalls reports that the language of “worship experience” is pervasive, not only in worshipers’ own descriptions of what they are seeking when singing modern songs, but also in marketing materials for worship concerts and events (22). These worshipers have come to expect “a personal encounter with God during congregational singing,” described as God “‘speaking into,’ ‘ministering,’ or ‘being real to me’” (85). It‘s worth noticing that these folks describe worship more as an experience of receiving blessing from God, rather than responding to God’s majesty with praise. Does that shift toward self reveal that our worship may sometimes not be as God-centered as we hope it is?

In a similar vein, some Christians use the language of “worship fix” or “worship junkie” to describe their craving for contemporary worship music. Ingalls suggests what may be behind this: “The language of addiction [seen in such terms] evidences the overwhelming success of the major worship brands in not just responding to felt needs, but also actively producing desire” (204). The question is: desire for what? My aim as a song leader is to foster desire for God and for his glory. My fear, however, is that in the contemporary worship movement we have too often trained people to seek a caffeine jolt of emotional bliss.

My fear is that in the contemporary worship movement we have too often trained people to seek a caffeine jolt of emotional bliss.

This is where Ingalls’s book can prompt us to some healthy soul-searching about the future of contemporary worship music. What if composers of modern praise songs carefully selected lyrics that focus more on God’s character than on our experience? What if we embarked on a campaign to teach believers that worship is more about ascribing worth to God than pursuing an emotional response—that in fact, our emotions will often be stirred in the right ways when we focus more on God and less on ourselves?

2. Better Than Church?

Second, Ingalls caused me to consider how contemporary worship music in parachurch settings shapes evangelical expectations for worship through song at church. Many of Ingalls’s interview subjects reported that they found the music at worship concerts and youth conferences more engaging than the weekly singing at their own home congregations. Due to the professional production quality and an environment more conducive to bodily interaction, one young woman concluded that the singing she heard at a concert promoted more authentic self-expression than the singing at her church (53). Others viewed the worship at a conference as “more sacred than church” because of the excitement of worshiping with thousands of anonymous fellow “pilgrims” who have all gathered for a special purpose (102).

I’m not against singing at concerts or conferences per se, but it’s worth pausing to consider Ingalls’s point: “Understanding their worship concert activities as worship shapes what evangelicals expect of a ‘worship experience’ in other settings”—especially at church (42). For example, one typical feature of a worship concert is “the amplified wall of sound that facilitates, even as it covers over, the gathered crowd’s signing” (58). Though I love a loud concert as much as the next millennial, and the Bible certainly has some positive things to say about high volume (see Ps. 150:6—though I’d imagine that the decibel levels we can achieve today aren’t quite what the psalmist had in mind!), this aspect of the worship concert is subtly teaching folks what worship through song means. A wall of sound communicates a set of values. It suggests that passion, intensity, and a sense of losing oneself in a massive sonic ocean are supreme virtues in corporate worship, rather than being able to hear the voices of those around you.

If our musical experiences in parachurch settings result in lower esteem for the holy privilege of singing with the assembly that Jesus founded, then perhaps something is amiss.

There is an irony here. One of the original goals for the contemporary singing style was to awaken more passionate singing at church, to bring fresh participation out of cold formality. But Ingalls’s interviews made me wonder if contemporary worship music—at least as many evangelicals experience it in concert and conference settings—has become so professionalized and emotionally charged that singing with one’s local church simply seems lackluster in comparison. Stage lights, fog machines, and wall-of-sound arrangements aren’t forbidden in Scripture, but when worship concerts including these components inform what evangelicals understand as “authentic” worship, then we must ask what results when such concert conventions become expected in church services as well.

It’s first and foremost the church where the word of Christ dwells in us richly as we sing (Col. 3:16). The church—embodied in visible, local congregations—is the only institution that Jesus has promised will endure to the end (Matt. 16:18). If the musical intensity of a concert is our benchmark for optimal worship, then singing at a church service filled with noisy kids, elderly folks, and people from different cultural backgrounds will let us down. But it seems to be the biblical standard. And if our musical experiences in parachurch settings result in lower esteem for the holy privilege of singing with the assembly that Jesus founded, then perhaps something is amiss.

3. The YouTubification of Worship

Third, a similar question arises from Ingalls’s research about the prevalence of YouTube “worship videos” being used in churches. Some small congregations have turned to online music videos produced by major worship media companies to accompany their singing. This “phenomenon was not created simply by a lack of musical or personnel resources; it was also a growing sense within these small churches that they could not measure up to the new musical standard” (197). Somehow, though I trust it’s been unintentional, the contemporary worship movement has conveyed that a certain level of production quality is necessary to achieve faithful modern worship.

In this sense, contemporary worship has come quite a long way from the folk guitars and simple choruses of the 1970s, which were designed to democratize congregational singing so that more people could engage with it meaningfully. In the 2000s, contemporary worship media has embraced the values of polished production and mass-market appeal. But as modern praise has become more professionalized, it’s led at least some church leaders to conclude that they’d be better off foregoing human musicians altogether and leaving accompaniment to the (virtual) experts.

The good news is that God gives each congregation all they need to serve him. First Corinthians 12:18 reminds us that “God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose.” If that means a church is unable to produce the same quality of music they see at worship concerts and on YouTube, then we can trust God’s good purposes. He cares far more about the state of our hearts than the ability of our band to recreate the sound of an online video.

4. The Power of Image

A fourth area for reflection involves how contemporary worship has become a visual phenomenon, not just an aural one. According to Ingalls, digital projection of lyrics and background images has become “pervasive” in churches with a contemporary style (174). She argues, “The worship experience has become irreducibly audiovisual, combining . . . musical devotional practices that accompany contemporary worship and the visual piety surrounding the image” (179).

Many Protestants have long been hesitant to incorporate visual elements in corporate worship, stemming from a common view that the second commandment prohibits not just idol worship but any visual representation of God. For some, this has implied that even so-called visual aids—apart from the God-given symbols of baptism and the Lord’s Supper—are potentially distracting to our wandering hearts. It is fascinating, then, to hear Ingalls comment on “how essential the visual dimension has become within the evangelical worship experience,” even cataloging which sorts of images function as “evangelical ‘icons’ during worship” (179). Though she doesn’t give hard numbers, her research would suggest that many churches don’t merely project the words for congregational songs, but also use extensive background images and videos. Nature shots and pictures of anonymous worshipers are especially common.

The forms of worship we adopt aren’t neutral. They will mold the next generation of worshipers.

Time doesn’t permit a full interaction with the theological issues raised by the question of visual backgrounds in projection slides. I merely mention it here because it shows, again, how the medium shapes the message. Even if images were originally introduced “merely” to provide a pleasing backdrop for the words, many people now engage with worship as “a site of audiovisual convergence” (178). That is certainly a curious state of affairs for a theological tradition with roots in prioritizing the ear (hearing the Word read, sung, prayed, and preached) over the eye.

For example, Ingalls tells of one congregant who believed God was giving her a special message through the swirling orbs of light on the screen, which corresponded with similar colors she had pictured while her eyes were closed (190–91). While an example like this is admittedly extreme and indicative of other theological problems beyond the mere use of imagery, it does show that the forms we use in congregational worship will shape people’s understanding of how they should engage with God.

Future of Contemporary Worship Music

Contemporary worship music is here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future. I’m thankful for its strengths. It has provided a vehicle for countless millions to honor God through their musical vernacular.

A book like Ingalls’s, however, summons us to be semper reformanda—always reforming. I pray that studies like hers will help those of us involved in the contemporary worship movement to understand more clearly the ways our corporate worship shapes people as disciples—for better or worse. The forms of worship we adopt aren’t neutral; they will mold the next generation of worshipers. Let’s never get complacent about where corporate worship is today, but ask God for the wisdom we need to serve him more faithfully in the future.

When Should I Leave a Church?

Tue, 02/05/2019 - 12:04am

There are times when Christians have no choice but to leave their church, such as when they move to a different city. At other times, churches may send members out to help plant a new congregation. But is it ever right to leave a church because you disagree with the leaders or don’t like the music?

Sam Allberry, Juan Sánchez, and Afshin Ziafat sat down to discuss wrong—and right—reasons to leave a church. They consider what steps a church member should take before leaving, such as meeting with elders to humbly discuss their concerns.

You can listen to their conversation, or watch a video.

Related Resources:

Explainer: What You Should Know About the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act

Tue, 02/05/2019 - 12:03am

What just happened?

Last week a Virginia lawmaker and the state’s governor garnered national attention because of their support for a bill that would late-term abortions for mental health reasons up until the moment of birth. This prompted Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse to fast track the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act, a bill he reintroduced earlier this month to protect newborns from infanticidal neglect.

What is the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act?

The Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act (hereafter Born-Alive Act) is a bill, first submitted in 2017 and recently reintroduced by several Republican senators, that would protect infants born after a botched abortion.

According to the bill, if an abortion results in the live birth of an infant, the infant is a legal person for all purposes under the laws of the United States, and entitled to all the protections of such laws. The bill also states that any infant born alive after an abortion or within a hospital, clinic, or other facility has the same claim to the protection of the law that would arise for any newborn, or for any person who comes to a hospital, clinic, or other facility for screening and treatment or otherwise becomes a patient within its care.

The Born-Alive Act would amend the federal criminal code to require any health care practitioner who is present when a child is born alive following an abortion or attempted abortion to (1) exercise the same degree of care as reasonably provided to any other child born alive at the same gestational age, and (2) ensure that such child is immediately admitted to a hospital.

Additionally, a health care practitioner or other employee who has knowledge of a failure to comply with these requirements would be required to immediately report such failure to an appropriate law enforcement agency.

The House version of the bill was introduced by Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), and has 131 co-sponsors, including one Democrat, Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-IL). That version passed last year by a vote of 241 to 183.

What does the term “born-alive” mean in this legislation?

The term “born alive” means the complete expulsion or extraction [of the child] from his or her mother, at any stage of development, who after such expulsion or extraction breathes or has a beating heart, pulsation of the umbilical cord, or definite movement of voluntary muscles, regardless of whether the umbilical cord has been cut.

How many children are born-alive after a botched abortion?

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) statistics show that between 2003 and 2014, at least 143 infant deaths “could definitively be classified as involving an induced termination.” The CDC also states “it is possible that this number (143) underestimates the total number of deaths involving induced termination.”

What would be the penalties for failing to obey this law?

Failure by a health care practitioner to follow the care and reporting requirements would result in a criminal fine, up to five years in prison, or both. An individual who commits an overt act that kills a child born alive would be subject to criminal prosecution for murder.

Would the mother be charged with a crime?

No. The bill prohibits the criminal prosecution of a mother of a child born alive for conspiracy to violate these provisions, for being an accessory after the fact, or for concealment of felony.

Additionally, a woman who undergoes an abortion or attempted abortion would be able to file a civil action for damages against an individual who violates this bill.

Isn’t it already illegal to allow a child born-alive after a botched abortion to die?

No. As Alexandra DeSanctis notes, only about half the states in the union (26 states) have laws creating a specific affirmative duty for physicians to provide medical care to infants born in botched abortions. She also points out that as of 2016, only six states required that abortion providers report instances of infants born alive under such circumstances.

“In New York, a born-alive protection was on the books, but the state’s recent abortion expansion removed it,” says DeSanctis. “The new Virginia bill would downgrade the requirement that doctors provide care to newborn infants from a ‘must’ to a ‘shall’ standard, a legally significant distinction.”

Does anyone actually oppose this legislation?

Yes, almost all Democrats in Congress oppose this legislation and are expected to vote against it. When the U.S. House voted on similar legislation on last year, 183 of 189 of Democrats (97 percent) voted against it. (And one of the six who voted for the bill said he had done so by accident.)

Hug the Parade: Ministry Challenges (and Opportunities) in Transient Places

Tue, 02/05/2019 - 12:02am

Planting a church is hard work in any context. Planting in transient places, though, can make it feel like permanence and sustainability are nothing more than the stuff of myths and legends. Most large cities naturally lend themselves to a pulsing beat of people coming and going—whether due to a high concentration of university students, military personnel, government workers, or financial power.

My home—Washington, D.C.—is a tale of two cities—long-term residents combined with the ongoing swirl of people coursing in and out. To ignore one or the other is to miss out on the reality of the place. The challenges of planting and pastoring in such a transient place can be brutal. In the first several years of our church plant, we saw an average turnover of about 45 percent every year. I was not prepared for almost half of our church to change from year to year.

In the first several years of our church plant, we saw an average turnover of about 45 percent every year.

On the personal side, constantly saying goodbye is emotionally taxing. Friendships are hard to develop, since they take time. I’ve found this to be especially true for my family. Over time it can become just as hard to engage with new people out of a sense of weariness and even self-protection.

There are real challenges on the practical and organizational side of church planting as well. It’s tough to think through intentional discipleship plans, let alone identify, train, and appoint leaders in a church when anyone could pick up and leave at anytime.

Maintaining a sense of DNA for a church plant can be overwhelming with such a high ebb and flow of personnel. Even those coming in often bring with them the good and bad from previous churches. Budgeting can feel impossible. Church plants in transient places face massive financial pressure and instability, along with a cultural mindset bent toward assuming everything must happen fast.

But it’s not all bad. As another local pastor put it, doing ministry in a transient city is a little like hugging a parade. While the challenges are real, so are the opportunities.

Big Opportunities

Certain aspects of ministry in a transient city energize me. We have to keep a sharp missional edge and outward focus. Early on in our church, we had to grow at a rate of 50 percent just to maintain our numbers. I’m invigorated by a constant influx of new people who are desperate for community.

The transience means we don’t have the comfort of routine, but it also means ministry is never boring. We’re constantly working to develop leaders and reach more people who need Jesus. We have to embrace the reality that we’re a sending church who has equipped people and sent them out to cities all over the world.

We have learned many things along the way about thriving as a church plant in a transient city. Here are six.

1. Seize Every Opportunity

You don’t have time to waste. This is true for people both inside and outside the church. So get after it. Transient settings breed an urgency in people that can translate into great opportunity for the gospel to take root in their lives.

2. Stay Through Hardship

It took five years of living and working here for our neighbors to start believing we weren’t just a flash in the pan. What sealed it was when we had our house broken into twice in the span of 10 days. Neighbors couldn’t believe we stayed, and they rallied around us to help our family through it.

Longevity will give a church planter hard-won credibility with long-term residents and neighbors.

While I don’t recommend getting robbed as a ministry strategy, we praise God for opportunities to go show Christ’s love by staying through hardship. Longevity will give a church planter hard-won credibility with long-term residents and neighbors.

3. Constantly Recast Vision and Values

Unrelenting transience means any preaching we’ve done on vision, values, or doctrine tends not to be remembered. We have a bank of sermons online, and we regularly refer new folks to past sermons that are important, even though it’s not the same as walking through such topics with the church.

We also recently reworked our membership-class material to focus more heavily on our church’s values and ethos. We’ve found it’s crucial to find ways to articulate and teach the culture of the church, and not just hope that people catch on.

4. Call People to Stay

While some churches rightly emphasize that God may call their members to go, we tend to emphasize that God may call people to the costly decision to stay. We encourage members to stay as long as they can, and even to take it a year at a time.

It’s essential, though, not to begrudge people who are leaving. It can feel like personal betrayal at times. That also makes it difficult to avoid moralizing choices to leave or stay. But as you call people to stay, remind everyone of their freedom in Christ.

5. Guard Your Heart

In our city we see clear examples of church jadedness toward transience. Some churches have responded by setting up extraordinarily high walls that make it difficult to connect or commit. Others don’t bother with meaningful membership or commitment; they’ve given into a revolving-door approach to ministry. Neither approach is healthy.

Commit to love the people God entrusts to your care for as long as you have them. Throw yourself into it. Allow your heart to become tied up with them, even though you know there’ll come the pain of leaving. As Paul Miller said, “Every act of love is a means of being forgotten. The heart of love is a focus entirely on the other.”

6. Find Sustainable Rhythms

Transient places have a tendency to chew people up. Work life is intense; relationships are difficult to foster. Many are in jobs that are fast-paced and full of travel. If you get caught in the grind, it will kill you in time.

In D.C., few things are as countercultural as slowing down.

We’ve had to learn the rhythms of our city and take opportunities to rest. In D.C., few things are as countercultural as slowing down. Holidays often mean a lot of our members travel, so we intentionally slow down midweek meetings, simplify our approach to Sunday services, and tell our church we’re taking time to intentionally rest. We want to model sustainable rhythms as a whole church.

Invest For Long-Term Impact

Most of our partnerships were on a three year taper. This is a common approach for sending churches and donors when it comes to church plants, and I’m forever grateful to those who gave sacrificially to us and our church. Without them, we wouldn’t be here. But, at the same time, we were forced to accelerate some decisions and timelines because of that pressure.

We’ve sought a different approach with the churches we’ve planted and invested in. Rather than set a specific time limit, we’ve intentionally devised plans for long-term partnership—working with the planter to evaluate the church plant’s need on an annual basis. Such an approach will help to plant sustainable ministries in transient cities and other hard places.

A good friend shared a stanza of an Isaac Watts hymn that is framed on my office wall. It has helped me to refocus as a pastor and church planter in a transient city:

The sure provisions of my God attend me all my days;

O may thy house be my abode and all my works be praise

There would I find a settled rest, while others go and come

No more a stranger, nor a guest, but as a child at home.

That D*** Dog: How Pets Can Be a Catalyst for Evangelism

Tue, 02/05/2019 - 12:00am

“The German Shepherd is running loose again. She came out of nowhere and charged me this morning while I was walking Little Napoleon!”

“The shepherd is on the loose tearing up my rose garden. That d*** dog!”

“I almost ran over the shepherd coming home from work last night!”

“Whose dog is this? Do these people know about the leash law?”

“I think that dangerous dog belongs to the new people over on 4th Street. Do they speak English? Do they know about the leash law? Someone needs to do something about this!”

I only imbibe social media through Nextdoor, an app used by many of the 300 households in my North Carolina neighborhood. I intentionally focus on pictures of the kids or dogs or lunch that start and stay local—local enough to comfort with my own hand or taste with my own mouth. The above quoted messages represent a typical day in my neighborhood.

Our Nextdoor postings sometimes read like a bad epic drama: no plot, but a host of characters that pile on one after the other. Loose dogs, dogs that need walking, dogs that need new homes, dogs that need good manners, dogs that need friends. My first instinct when I see another “Loose Dog” notice on Nextdoor is to check to see if Sully, my goofball, three-legged Gordon Setter mix has—again—found his way to an afternoon of thrill-seeking and freedom resulting in the ignominy and disgrace of Nextdoor. More than once, this is how I’ve come to the realization that I have a d*** dog committing crimes against roses and leash laws.

Once Sully is accounted for, I know these postings on Nextdoor are all evangelistic bridges. Indeed, the phrase “that d*** dog” fills me with evangelistic expectation. If I were ever to write an evangelistic outreach program, I might just have to use this as my title. Why? Two reasons. First, crisis should bring out the best in Christians. Second, I love dogs. And I love the kids and old people and everyone in between who are looking for lost dogs. And so when dogs and kids are in the unforgiving spotlight of bad behavior, my Christian calling comes fully into focus. I feel at once a sense of connection with the unsuspecting criminal and a clear calling about what I can do to help.

Here’s how this goes down.

1. Pray

I start with prayer. Any of my children not currently taking an online high school course is summoned to pray with me for the dog and the people behind the dog. Yes, I pray for dogs. I don’t pray for their souls or eternal future, but I do pray for their wellbeing. Dogs have made my life infinitely kinder. As a toddler, one of my now-teenagers was housebroken with Sally, our deceased Golden Retriever. Another teenage child used to take naps with her. During the years we were fostering and adopting even older teenagers, we had dogs who slept and cuddled and loved these children. When Kent and I couldn’t touch them, couldn’t offer physical comfort, the dogs always could. So when a dog goes missing, my children feel as much empathy as I do. We pray for about five minutes, and then we lace up our shoes.

2. Act

After prayer, I gather my own dog, stuff treats and leashes into my pockets, and bring along any available children to come with me to look for the lost dog. Always, and I mean always, I meet either the said dog or the people looking for her. If we find the dog, we leash her up, take her home, and post her picture on Nextdoor. The former prodigal looks up from her bowl of food with contrite eyes, and the neighborhood witnesses her redemption.

If, instead, we find the people and children looking for the dog, we find out how we can help. We exchange phone numbers and addresses. More than once, we have learned that the lost dog is owned by a new neighbor. We make plans to get together—with the dog and the kids and the family. This conversation takes time, but not usually more than about an hour. This hour allows us to get to know people—strangers—in a crisis. It allows us to walk with them—to accompany them in their fear. We learn how to pray for and help our neighbors. It also gives us a good walk, which we all need in the midst of a busy homeschooling day.

3. Use Your Gifts

Having our own dog who runs away with reckless abandon means that my kids know all of the good dog-gathering spots. There’s the creek behind our house. There’s the woods at the edge of the neighborhood where the deer reside. My children possess local wisdom that comes in handy. We also know all the best tricks for getting a skittish dog to come running. One child has a special whistle that no four-legged friend can resist. Another knows just how to rattle a treat bag for maximum effect. These particular skills may not be on Paul’s list of spiritual gifts, but they are often used by the Spirit just the same.

4. Practice Hospitality

Once the straying dog has been returned to his pillow by the fire, we follow up by inviting the new neighbor over for a doggie playdate and a family meal in our enclosed backyard. Keeping things informal and spontaneous and outside puts everyone at ease. Paper plates and leftovers are more likely to forge friendships with dogs and people than fine china ever could. Lower your expectations to increase your joy.

Getting to know the kids and dogs in the neighborhood has given me great joy. It has also provided gospel bridges of spiritual and earthly good. A doggie playdate in the backyard sparks friendships with people who think differently and who are positioned by a thoughtless social-media-infused world as cultural enemies. Dogs don’t have cultural enemies (cats don’t count).

A lost-then-found dog often results in getting to know an old and infirm neighbor who is shut in more than she likes. A lost-then-found dog often results in dog/kid backyard playdates. And sometimes these salt-of-the-earth situations morph into dinner followed by family devotions, prayer, doing life together, and, when the Lord allows, saving faith. Dogs in a crisis can be the bridge that God uses to transform strangers into family.

The Spiritual Dangers of Disconnecting from Creation

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

“But ask the beasts, and they will teach you;
    the birds of the heavens, and they will tell you;
or the bushes of the earth, and they will teach you;
    and the fish of the sea will declare to you.
Who among all these does not know
    that the hand of the LORD has done this?
In his hand is the life of every living thing
    and the breath of all mankind.

Job 12:7–10

I’ve spent my career working at the intersection of development and conservation in parks, recreation, and preserved open spaces. Over the last 30 years I’ve witnessed a deep and growing disconnect between people and nature. This disconnect is accelerating as the digital revolution means more people spend less time outdoors in creation, particularly in developed and urban contexts. I believe this disconnect can negatively affect our individual and corporate spiritual health.

Increasing evidence shows that the loss of regular connection with nature (creation) negatively affects the human psyche and our ability to operate in functional societies. When humans are engaged in nature, our brains work differently. People without regular and routine time in creation behave in fundamentally different ways. Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods and Florence William’s The Nature Fix are just two examples of recent books that highlight the science behind these realities.

Christians have been largely silent on this growing disconnect, it seems. I’ve heard little reflection on what spiritual life looks like without regular connections with creation. If Martin Luther’s frequently attributed quote is correct—“God is entirely and personally present in the wilderness, in the garden, in the field”—what happens when man abandons these landscapes? Christians should not take lightly the vital role creation plays in God’s work on our souls. The elimination of close, regular, routine human contact with creation has typified punishment for eons. Now we are doing it voluntarily.

The elimination of close, regular, routine human contact with creation has typified punishment for eons. Now we are doing it voluntarily.

Christians should take time to seriously consider the implications, both individually and corporately.

What We Lose

Creation is an ever-changing, ever-constant reflection of a living, creative God who uses it for his purposes. And it is magnificent in scale. As Thomas Aquinas once said, “All the efforts of man cannot exhaust the essence of a single fly.”

Yet in our post-industrial societies, humans are growing increasingly distant from the wonder and communicative power of creation. Climate is controlled by a thermostat. Our windows rarely open. We need not notice weather, the seasons, and other cycles of creation unless we want to. Our food is delivered without any dirt getting under our fingernails, from places we know not where, in seasons of harvest we know not when. We barely notice when trees bud or creeks rise.

What do we lose in the Christian life without meaningful, intentional immersion in and connection to creation?

We lose a dimension of the grandeur and glory of God. We lose a sense of the sublime that we experience standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon, staring down mortality in a Class V rapid, or intentionally exposing ourselves to the brutality of a winter storm. We lose a sense of wonder when we aren’t planting flowers, harvesting food in our garden, or watching a bird built a nest. We miss opportunities for gratitude and worship when we don’t take time to pause before the simplicity of a tree, taking in its bark, leaves, shape, form—and realizing this little piece of nature is perfectly achieving the purpose God set for it. John Calvin said, “There is not one blade of grass, there is no color in the world, that is not intended to make us rejoice.” But when we are far from the grass and colors of the world, we miss opportunities to rejoice.

Calvin said, ‘There is not one blade of grass, there is no color in the world that is not intended to make us rejoice.’ But when we are far from the grass and colors of the world, we miss opportunities to rejoice.

We also miss a sense of healthy proportion and orientation. Exposure to creation reveals that we are small and God is big. It humbles us and reminds us of who we are in relation to a holy God. But technologies like smartphones have distorted our sense of proportion by placing us firmly in the center of a universe wholly within our digital grasp. They situate us as consumers who need not bother going outside because the world is infinitely accessible, supposedly, on the device in our pocket. Our digital environments sever us not only from one another, but  also from God’s beautiful creation.

What We Can Do

So, Christians, what are we to do? Here are four simple ways we can reconnect to God’s creation in a world that’s creating more and more distance from it.

1. Make time to go outside.

Sit under a tree, walk beside a body of water, or just sit in your backyard. Find sustained periods for quietness and observation, prayer and biblical meditation—moments when creation confronts your mortality and places you properly in relationship to an omnipotent God.

2. Go outside in all types of weather and all times of day.

God provided seasons and weather for a reason. There are aspects of his goodness to be experienced in all conditions. These experiences often quicken our souls. Get wet. Get cold. Get hot. Don’t become oblivious to the drama of air and wind and clouds and precipitation.

3. Attend to your church’s landscape and grounds, particularly in an urban environment.

Given the frequency of times “gardens” are referenced in Scripture, think about your church’s trees, plants, and landscaping likewise as a garden. Are they thriving? Do they point to a beautiful God? Do they honor his creation? Do they communicate to unbelievers something of his goodness and provision? Pick your plants, then care for them thoughtfully and intentionally.

4. Enjoy local parks, national forests, wilderness areas, or other public lands.

While many Americans contributed to this remarkable system, the Christian tradition made them possible. Protection of nature as a common good—and not just something for the nobility or wealthy—is an under-appreciated, uniquely American witness of the Reformed Christian community. Mark Stoll’s Inherit the Holy Mountain: Religion and the Rise of American Environmentalism offers a nice review of our shared heritage.

Creation is not an end in itself, something to be worshiped in place of the Creator. It is rather something that points us—if we are willing to pay attention—to a good, gracious, powerful, extravagant, and loving God. A world that disregards or distances itself from creation is a world that will naturally disregard and distance itself from God.

A world that disregards or distances itself from creation is a world that will naturally disregard and distance itself from God.

God does not remove us from creation; he intentionally keeps us in it. We are removing ourselves. Recognizing the spiritual dangers that come with ambivalence toward creation, then, Christians should be leading the way in modeling a healthy appreciation for and connection to the beautiful world around—a world that is, as Gerard Manley Hopkins put it, “charged with the grandeur of God.”


You Might Need Marriage Counseling—Especially If You Think You Don’t

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

After giving birth to my daughter, I just didn’t feel like my normal self. I was grumpy, easily annoyed, and mentally and physically exhausted. I was still reeling from a traumatic pregnancy, and some dear friends suggested I go to counseling to talk it out. I was eager to attend my first counseling session because I thought it would be a prime opportunity to vent about my current challenges.

I went in ready to discuss me and my feelings, so when my counselor suggested we include my husband in the remaining counseling sessions, I was taken aback. I balked at the idea of him attending.

We don’t need counseling, I thought.

Like many people, my husband and I assumed that seeing a counselor implied something was inherently wrong with our marriage. Neither of us wanted to feel like we were failing at being good spouses, nor did we want others to believe our marriage was “on the rocks.”

And yet, because we both desired a better marriage, we committed to biweekly sessions with our counselor.

Overcoming the Taboo

As a Christian woman of color, I’ve noticed that marriage counseling can be taboo subject among both the Christian and the African American communities. I believe this stigma thrives for several reasons.

1. Self-Help Culture

You’ve got to pull yourself out of this. Stop being dramatic; you don’t need counseling. You can help yourself and save the money. At one time or another, I’ve heard counseling dismissed in all these ways.

Such exhortations reveal that many of us have a self-centered view when it comes to growth. Our pride leads us to believe we don’t need help. Instead of viewing counseling as a mark of wisdom, we’re prone to view it as a blemish of weakness.

2. Fear

Sadly, our reluctance to receive help often reveals deep fear. We fear we’re beyond repair.

In years past, I doubted the effectiveness of counseling simply because I magnified my struggles so they seemed insurmountable. In my mind, my problems were too big for even a professional to fix.

3. Misunderstandings

I didn’t grow up in an environment where counseling was regularly discussed or promoted, so I had many misconceptions. I viewed counseling as a response to things gone wrong, as opposed to a precursor for personal growth and healthier relationships. I believed counseling would always be too expensive; I was unaware of the mental-health benefits offered by many employers. I was wary of most counselors because I didn’t want to be influenced wrongly; I didn’t know if could find a Christian counselor who shared my convictions and upheld a biblical worldview.

Humility Receives Help

Initially, because of these misunderstandings, my husband and I both hesitated at the thought of marriage counseling. We were proud. Extremely proud. But during each session, we got a heavy dose of humility as we learned about specific areas in our marriage that needed work.

As humans, our lack of humility can be traced back to Genesis 3. The fall of man immediately followed our prideful rebellion against God in the Garden of Eden. But in his infinite grace and mercy, he didn’t abandon us. He rescued us by sending Christ to save us from sin.

But to receive the benefits of Christ’s sacrifice, we must humbly repent. At the heart of embracing the gospel is humility. God resists the proud; only the humble will receive his grace (James 4:6). This point is central to all of Christian life: We must be humbled. We must recognize our need for help. Our marriages are no different.

Marriage Wellness

These days, our marriage-counseling sessions resemble a routine wellness appointment. Typically, when someone goes to the doctor for a wellness appointment, the doctor simply checks that everything is working properly, but sometimes he or she will find something requiring a bit more attention. This is the case with us. Although we often feel like everything is fine in our marriage, through our counselor we arre able to uncover areas of our marriage that require help.

Now, when my friends discuss their marriages with me, I don’t hesitate to recommend they see a counselor who is godly and possesses a biblical worldview.

My husband and I view marriage counseling as a grace that’s beautifully reshaping our marriage. Our lessons in humility began with taking the first step to pursue counseling, and they continue with each session. Our commitment to continue counseling serves as a simple yet grand reminder of our lifelong commitment to love, honor, and cherish one another.

Why It’s Good to Be a Woman

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

Women are told that we have options. That we can choose whatever we want: friends, education, work, careers. Spouse or no spouse. Gender of our spouse. We’re told that happiness comes with limitless choice, and the answer for what to choose can be found within us.

That’s what our world says, at least. But God has something else to say, something timeless, something true. His Word gives answers to our many questions: What does it mean to be a woman? How does womanhood relate to being human? And what does it all mean in light of being a Christian?

Abigail Dodds’s (A)Typical Woman: Free, Whole, and Called in Christ tackles these difficult questions in three parts: women in identity, women in action, and women in freedom. In our day of fluid gender identity, Dodds wisely and clearly describes the meaning of womanhood.

Atypical Women

Dodds—a wife, mother of five children, and Bible study leader for the women at Bethlehem Baptist Church—devotes a chapter to being wholly women, not limited to feminine ideals or roles, stating, “When we opt to see womanhood as merely an aspect of ourselves, we make it small and unglorious, sometimes condemning it to a silly caricature” (37). To be female, as to be male, is to bear God’s image, so feminine virtues aren’t first found in women but in God. No two people bear God’s image the same way; each woman is atypical.

The chapters in part two describe women in action: transforming, single, married, mothering, working, and discipling. Dodds works through how God designed women to faithfully reflect his glory in what we do, including pitfalls and opportunities.

Part three covers free and fearless women who are strong, afflicted, and dependent on the Lord. A strong woman can rejoice in the talents and gifts God has given her for his use rather than grumble about these gifts or bury them in a field. An afflicted woman can trust that the Lord blesses in all circumstances, even trials that grow our faith. Dependent women trust God to keep our wayward hearts in him. Free women aim to live righteously out of love for the Lord; obedience brings joy.

A reader in more progressive environments would find (A)Typical Woman particularly helpful. Dodds excels in engaging post-Christian gender topics, particularly transgenderism. Her chapters often include defenses against transgender arguments. She addresses the embodied self and self-expression, hyper-femininity versus feminists, the abilities of the female body, and biblical gender roles. Dodds displays keen awareness of our culture’s potential pitfalls in an effort to help readers sidestep them, including exulting sin, social media dependence, lazy mothering, lies of comparisons, sexual exploitation, tribalism, and so on. In her introduction, Dodds admits that she pulls no punches, and she doesn’t.

(A)Typical Woman is a deeply thought-provoking read for women who’d like to dig through their identity to see how God designed them. The book includes discussion questions for the reader to work out for herself or in community. Dodds’s chapters are admittedly too brief to answer all of the questions posed; the reader will have to do some work exploring for herself. This is the type of book that will help the reader see herself and her world differently in a beautifully challenging way.

Little to Critique

(A)Typical Woman leaves little to critique. Yet Dodds’s chapter on marriage could’ve commented on divorced women and expounded on abused women. Her counsel to oppressed women is to “go to trusted Christians in your church.” What if her husband is a church leader or even a pastor? Whenever this topic is addressed, it warrants careful attention to help women in crisis.

On motherhood, the book presupposes that mothers stay at home with young children. A career before staying home with the kids or while being a mom with young kids isn’t addressed. The chapter also skews young without advice for the mother of grown children or the grandmother parenting a parent. In women’s ministry it’s natural to draw from our experiences and to miss the opportunity to make teaching illustrations applicable for women in all stages of life. We’d do well to consider the caveats in our illustrations. Let’s have a word for the woman who doesn’t fit the demographic mold: the woman who did this or that later or earlier in life, who lost a child or a husband, or who suffered bad circumstances not of her own choosing.

Dodds’s stated goal in writing (A)Typical Woman is this: “I want women to be at peace as women, to be grateful for being made women, and to see it all as an essential part of Christ’s mission and work” (13). That is indeed a worthy and needed aim. To reflect our Creator and to do his work, we must know who he made us to be and what we’re to do.

How Stories Unsettle Our Secular Age

Mon, 02/04/2019 - 12:00am

When Christians interpret, critique, and discuss stories with our neighbors, we can model a contemplative approach that promotes self-reflection and honesty, inviting empathy rather than promoting the detached rationalism of the buffered self. We can lean into the cross pressures produced by these stories. We can offer interpretations that affirm and account for our longings for forms of beauty, goodness, order, and love that find their being beyond the immanent frame of our secular age.

By “stories” I don’t just mean novels. I’m referring to all the cultural works that involve narratives: films, TV shows, songs, albums, plays, commercials, video games, and so on. Obviously, most stories aren’t thoughtful and compelling enough to invest time in, but there are a great many that are worthy of praise and attention. We participate in stories when we receive them charitably and dialogue with others about how to interpret them. Participation is the combined act of receiving (watching, listening, reading, seeing, etc.) and dialoguing (writing reviews, critiquing, arguing about a film’s ending, and so on). According to this definition, virtually everyone in America is participating in stories everyday—grandmothers who speculate about a cliffhanger on a soap opera, users who add annotations to lyrics on, or friends discussing a film they just saw in a theater.

Participating in stories is a vital part of culture, and it is not a coincidence that it has so much capacity to disrupt our understanding of the world.

Seeing Beyond the Frame

Stories allow us to question our vision of fullness and consider alternatives. And because stories can convey a world, they can help us imagine new paradigms, whole new ways of understanding life, like the possibility that there is reality beyond the immanent frame.

Given the ability of stories to create this space for imaginative reflection on meaning and existence, it shouldn’t be surprising that Charles Taylor, in A Secular Age, points to literature as one of the ways modern people can envision a paradigm shift out of the immanent frame (732). Taylor argues that converting from something like a materialist view of the world to a spiritual one is not merely a change in beliefs. It involves changing our background assumptions about life. This kind of change requires new ways of speaking, new languages that resonate more fully with people who are deeply inured by the closed, immanent frame.

Many of the great founding moves of a new spiritual direction in history involve a transformation of the frame in which people thought, felt and lived before. They bring into view something beyond that frame, which at the same time change the meaning of all the elements of the frame. Things make sense in a wholly new way. . . . There was something very disruptive of existing habits of thought, action, and piety. (731)

Asking people to see beyond the frame is extremely difficult, because the frame of the immanent world is our background assumption, and what we can’t see is hard to look beyond. It takes a work of imagination to go beyond—a spiritual imagination. Stories provide the space for this imagining.

Intimations of Transcendence

In a well-crafted story we not only rationally consider the vision of the world created by the artist or artists, we also enter that world. And good storytelling invites us to empathize; we viscerally feel the world and the values and ideas that govern it.

Stories provide models for ascribing meaning to our own lives, which makes stories ideal for the kind of disruption Taylor has in mind. His focus is specifically on how Christian authors and poets can help those of us stuck in the immanent frame to imagine a world beyond, without taking us out of this world in a gnostic fashion (732).

But we can take Taylor’s claim a step further. For those of us who are not artists, our participation in other people’s stories can also “break from the immanent order to a larger, more encompassing one, which includes it while disrupting it” (732). Our interpretation and dialogue about stories can help our neighbors “feel the solicitations of the spiritual” as they appear in art (360). Our cultural participation can challenge the buffered self by showing that “part of being good is opening ourselves to certain feelings; either the horror at infanticide, or agape as a gut feeling” (555). With discernment, charity, and dialogue, Christians can participate in stories in disruptive ways that challenge the distracted, secular age.

With discernment, charity, and dialogue, Christians can participate in stories in disruptive ways that challenge the distracted, secular age.

In concrete terms, this participation might involve going to a movie theater with a friend and talking about the film afterward, book clubs, discussing the latest episode of a TV show with a coworker, hosting parties for watching a TV show that intentionally include time for dialogue, hosting movie nights, or making time to talk about an album with a group of friends. Again, virtually all of us in America do this sort of thing to some extent. Stories of one kind or another are at the heart of our culture, and we relate to one another by sharing them and interpreting them together. I’m recommending that we be more intentional about our participation in stories in specific ways, in order to make the immanent frame more visible and to interpret intimations of transcendence toward the more satisfying and fulfilling account of existence found in Christ.

Haunting Stories

Practically, this means choosing aesthetically excellent stories, whether or not they are the most popular. These stories will tend to be darker or more depressing or heavy, which sounds unpleasant. But Christians should be known for their appreciation of tragedies, because in good tragedies we must reckon with our place in the world, the problem of evil, and the struggle for meaning. (In the classical sense of the term, comedies can also make us face these difficult realities, but in the contemporary world, this is less true.) All those questions and concerns our distracted age is good at helping us ignore come to the fore in stories that deal with the tragic element of life.

I am not asking Christians to stop seeing superhero movies or listening to pop music, but we need to be mindful of how we use our time. Many of the popular stories in our culture leave us worse off. Instead of haunting us, they glorify vice, distract us from ourselves, lift our mood without lifting our spirits, and make us envious and covetous of fame, sexual conquests, and material possessions.

Christians should be known for their appreciation of tragedies, because in good tragedies we must reckon with our place in the world, the problem of evil, and the struggle for meaning.

When a story haunts us, it troubles our buffered self; it intrudes on our thought life, makes connections to other stories and experiences and ideas, and compels us to contemplation. More often than not, this haunting is a manifestation of Taylor’s cross pressures. This doesn’t mean we should watch or read content we find objectionable or that we should only watch serious movies. A story that captures the beauty of creation or the imagination can haunt us just as much as a deadly serious story.

Every time I watch Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory I am haunted by Dahl’s vision of wonder as captured so beautifully by Gene Wilder. Here is a world in which the immanent frame has a chocolate-factory-size hole in it. The final song in the movie, “Pure Imagination,” is about retreating to a world of “pure imagination” where anything is possible, a world that Wonka calls “paradise.” The lyrics (not written by Roald Dahl) are corny and heavy-handed, but with Wilder’s sincerity, we begin to feel awaken within us a genuine longing for paradise, not unlike the experience of hearing Judy Garland sing “Over the Rainbow.” When the song and the credits end, I am left with the feeling that there ought to be paradise, and I am reminded of C.S. Lewis’s famous quote: “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” We do not need to only participate in dark or troubling stories, but we do need to give priority to stories that haunt us, unsettle us, and expand us, whether through beauty and delight or tragedy.

Revealing Cross Pressures

We also need to make time and find space to interpret the stories through dialogue with others. Living in an atomistic culture, our default response to receiving a story is not to interpret it in community. We may have a personal opinion about it. We may tweet a 280-character review. We may debate parts of the story. But most of us are not inclined to take the time to slowly work through the meanings of the story in dialogue with one another. In other words, the prolonged, thoughtful, charitable dialogue about stories I’m recommending will not happen naturally. We need to intentionally pursue it.

The goal of this kind of dialogue is to reveal the points of cross pressure in the story, to consider the visions of fullness it portrays, and to relate it to the world as we know it.


The Gospel Does Not Need Super Bowl Rings

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

Whether it’s the Super Bowl or any Saturday in college football, you’ve probably heard it—the postgame praise of God for a thrilling win. It’s a rite in the liturgy of much American sport, almost as scripted as a responsive reading. Fans are conditioned to expect that many victorious athletes, approached by microphone-clutching reporter, will breathe out glory to God for unrivaled success.

As Christians living in a culture increasingly averse to the gospel, we exult in their opportunity to speak for Christ to millions. We also ascribe incredible worth to their evangelism. As powerful personalities and American celebrities, people look up to them. Compared to our own meager evangelistic efforts, professional athletes, we think, surely have a distinct advantage. They have a platform and a voice. When they speak, the masses listen!

But I’m more skeptical about the witness of winners. Not that I question these messengers or their declarations of faith—only the prospects for their soundbites to reach many for Christ. Because there are inherent realities in success that leave me suspicious about its effectiveness in communicating the gospel.

Success Doesn’t Equal Blessing

While praising God for victory is clearly right and good, we shouldn’t be quick, like Job’s friends, to interpret God’s intentions in our experiences. Success doesn’t always follow favor, nor suffering punishment. As the psalmist laments, the inverse is true: The righteous tend to suffer as the wicked prosper. So material prospering—even victory in sport—doesn’t necessarily equal blessing. If anything, such “blessings” can be a curse.

For Christians, even failure can be a gift.

The Corinthian church also had the misconception that success signals God’s approval. Paul’s affliction and troubles, from their perspective, brought his apostolic ministry into question. If God’s hand of blessing was on him, it would be evident through realized triumph. And yet Paul’s argument in 2 Corinthians assumes the opposite. Physical weakness and external opposition were, in fact, the marks of true apostleship. So if Paul was going to boast in anything, it would be his sufferings over his achievements. Thankfully, on occasion, some believing athletes have made this distinction.

Because for Christians, even failure can be a gift.

Success Breeds Success

Ask any college football recruiter, and they’ll affirm: “Success breeds success.” Winning attracts winners. When you achieve success you attract those passionate to prevail. But this truism presents a real danger for any evangelist, especially for the successful. Because, as we know, what you win people with is what you win them to. If the Christian gospel, first and foremost, is a message from the powerful and prosperous, it won’t take long for that dynamic to be reflected in the expectations of followers.

The prospects for the average Christian aren’t Oscars or Olympic gold; more likely they are wooden crosses of loss.

Repeatedly in the Gospels we encounter Jesus’s secrecy about his identity. He didn’t want to attract people to their version of a victorious Messiah, complete with thrones and glory. His baptism is into suffering.

The prospects for the average Christian aren’t Oscars or Olympic gold; more likely they are wooden crosses of loss. That’s why Jesus turned prospective disciples away with caution, calling them to run a price check on following him.

Success Can Be Dangerous

Another reality is that Jesus believed earthly success to be inherently dangerous—it’s easier for a camel to traverse a needle’s eye than for the rich to enter the kingdom. According to Jesus, wealth, fame, and stardom don’t make the gospel more believable—just the opposite! They make the humble, childlike dependence necessary for kingdom entry nigh impossible.

But we question if Jesus really meant what he said. Surely he was exaggerating. So we’re surprised when another superstar Christian athlete has his heart, like Solomon’s, lured away by beautiful women. Or we’re shocked when celebrity Christian musicians, like Demas, fall in love with this present world. Contrary to Jesus, we in the church invest energies promoting “Christian camels”—creating them and cheering them on—as paragons of the faith. We elevate the biggest and greatest among us as examples to follow, while Jesus put forward the little ones and least of these as models for entering his kingdom.

We elevate the biggest and greatest among us as examples to follow, while Jesus put forward the little ones and least of these as models for entering his kingdom.

Just as the widow’s penny says more about the worthiness of God than the tithes of the rich, the testimony of the afflicted carries more weight than exultations from the successful. But we think it’s the other way round. We think people are more attracted by “Touchdown Jesus” than by suffering servants. And we’re overly encouraged when so-and-so professional athlete or TV personality professes faith, as if the gospel becomes more powerful when powerful people proclaim it. As if God is most glorified when he’s most satisfying to the well-heeled and wonderful.

Success Is Temporary

Finally, hanging our evangelistic hopes on the successful is troubling, because the days are coming when they won’t be acclaimed (even in SEC country) for being Christian. Success is always temporary. The applause only lasts so long, and it’ll quickly end if Christian athletes or artists align themselves with churches that espouse faithful positions, for example, on biblical sexuality. How quickly then will the lights of fandom fade!

Success doesn’t make the gospel more believable. It never has.

As we reconsider what evangelism looks like in this cultural moment, we should look again at our evangel. True, we preach a message of glory and victory and a kingdom. But in the Christian economy, the cross always precedes the crown. Shame before glory. Suffering before salvation. Which means that speaking about Calvary from the zenith of cultural acclaim is like preaching Weight Watchers from McDonald’s. It’s not that what you’re saying is wrong or isn’t good. It’s that it doesn’t accurately convey reality.

Most significant, if we remain on the sidelines and leave evangelism to “professional” Christians, if we laud their witness as more significant than ours, we’re guilty of believing the old Corinthian lie that prestige and put-togetherness are what count for Christ. We might decry prosperity preaching, but do we subtly assume that those with the best life now make for Christianity’s best apologists? And do we posture as if notoriety and having a voice are what validate the cross more than suffering and faithful witness? But success doesn’t make the gospel more believable. It never has.

In order to win a hearing, the gospel doesn’t need superstar evangelists or Super Bowl rings.

Achieve or Die: Reflections on ‘Free Solo’

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

I sat on the edge of my seat watching Alex Honnold cling by his fingertips to the side of the 3,000-foot precipice of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. Sitting in a packed IMAX theater, I forced my brain to tell my muscles to relax for the duration of this intense, 100-minute documentary.

Free Solo gets its name because it follows Honnold’s attempt to become the first man in history to “free solo” El Capitan—climbing it without support equipment. The film is gripping, dizzying, and conflicting.

On one hand, the Academy Award-nominated Free Solo is a perfect illustration of Andy Crouch’s thesis in Strong and Weak, that “flourishing requires us to embrace both authority and vulnerability.” Honnold’s performance combines commanding authority with catastrophic vulnerability. You come to trust his expertise, but you also learn there is zero margin for error. A minor mistake means death. Honnold’s combination of proficiency and lunacy mesmerizes audiences.

On the other hand, Free Solo fascinates us because we—like Honnold—are a product of our time. We live in a culture of hyper-achievement.

One Film, Two Stories

You go to see Free Solo for the story of achievement: a man conquering a daunting mountain in a death-defying way. But you also get a story about failure. Honnold comes across as an emotionally distant man who views his death as inconsequential to the world around him; a man who taught himself how to hug because it’s what people do; a man who finds it almost impossible to utter “the l-word” with his girlfriend.

It’s painful to watch a man who stupefies us with his climbing career struggle to relate to those who love him—even to the point of viewing relationships as a distraction from climbing. But while we might lament Honnold’s childhood and even empathize with his relational difficulties, we leave the theater more moved by his achievement than troubled by his personal life. Our performance culture gives us permission to clap and cheer for this man’s self-described pursuit of perfection, even while his relationships suffer as collateral damage.

Our performance culture gives us permission to clap and cheer for this man’s self-described pursuit of perfection, even while his relationships suffer as collateral damage.

As awed as I felt at Honnold’s rock-climbing prowess, his polarizing ambition ultimately repulsed me. Why? Because I am like him, too. I can allow goals to distract and even distance me from those who love me most. Perhaps we’re all similar to Honnold in that way.

Achieve or Die

Honnold displays many commendable virtues—discipline, focus, and courage to achieve unimaginable feats. His industriousness in figuring out how to scale impossibly sheer rock walls is part of the beauty of his being made in the image of God.

What do we make, though, of Honnold’s casual approach to death as a likely outcome of his ambitious goals? This is, of course, part of what makes the story so spellbinding. God knits into human DNA the value of dying to self for a greater cause, and we see this especially in Jesus—the perfect human—whose willingness to obey his Father and die for his friends (John 15:13) provides the ultimate example of sacrificial love.

But while Free Solo touches on the freedom and joy that come from a willingness to sacrifice comfort for a greater goal, it misses the mark of actual flourishing. The achievement is not others-centered. Honnold is willing to sacrifice his life not for others, but for himself and his own fame.

Though there is a hint of redemption at the end, when Honnold tells his girlfriend he loves her, it’s clear that his achievement goals still drive him—with love as an afterthought. Again, we’re in danger of living this way, too.

Which Mountain Are You Climbing?

I walked away from Free Solo wondering, What obsessions drive a wedge between me and the ones I love?

In a hyper-achievement culture, it’s so easy to prioritize passions while relationships suffer. This is especially true when others celebrate what we do more than who we are. When we find our personal obsessions are hindering our capacity to love and be loved, however, we must die to ourselves and choose love over achievement.

Alex Honnold achieved something no one dreamed possible, and Free Solo is an inspiring, thought-provoking reflection on this accomplishment. But at what cost? Is the most jaw-dropping achievement in the world worth it if we become less human in the process of achieving it? What mountain are you climbing in life, and is reaching the summit worth whatever sacrifices it’s taking to get there? Are you sacrificing yourself for others, or others for yourself? What, in the end, are you willing to die for?

For the Christian, the gospel of Jesus Christ provides a decisive answer. Only Jesus is finally worth living and dying for (Phil. 3:1–11). As we pick up our crosses daily and die to ourselves, we will ironically find that, in that sacrifice alone, we truly live (Matt. 16:24–26).

Sports Show Our Best Life Is Later

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

The Los Angeles Rams probably should not be playing in the Super Bowl.

You likely know what happened a couple weeks ago in the NFC Championship Game; a non-call on what was clearly pass interference (more like pass assaulting) on New Orleans Saints receiver Tommylee Lewis with 1:43 left in the game opened the door to an improbable Los Angeles victory in overtime.

Outrage from NFL players, fans, media, bloggers—even politicians—exploded with the ferocity of an arctic vortex. Numerous players took to Twitter to demand accountability and discipline for the errant officials, who hailed from Los Angeles. Fire the referees! Fire NFL commissioner Roger Goodell! The game’s integrity demands it, many cried.

Football fans want justice—and well they should. They’ve been created to crave justice.

We All Crave Justice

All of us, as image-bearers of God, crave justice but live in a world that so often never gives it. Sports affords many occasions to cope with this reality. This dark side of sports has given me opportunity to prepare my two sons for the brutal disappointments they’ll face in life. My sons inherited their dad’s zeal for the games people play, particularly baseball and college football. We’ve still not quite healed from the heartache of our Georgia Bulldogs losing the SEC championship to Alabama in the closing seconds a few weeks ago. For 58 minutes, Georgia was the better team. But the better team doesn’t always win.

Such is life—good doesn’t always win; there’s not always a happy ending; second chances elude us. Yet we tend to live out of the convenient fantasy that if we just try hard enough, work hard enough, believe strongly enough, things will work out just the way we want. But the real world quickly explodes that notion, and my sons see it on the field and in rooting for their favorite teams.

Be All You Can Be?

My boys play baseball virtually year-round, and I’d love to tell them that if they stick with it and work hard enough, someday they’ll be the next Mike Trout, the next Manny Machado, the next Willie Mays. I will encourage them to put forth maximum effort. But I can’t promise the road of hard work will end in Cooperstown. No matter how many reps they get in cage or how hard they throw, even if they go in the first round of the MLB draft, they’ll probably never appear in the Show. Life is like that. The valedictorian never finishes college. The drop-out becomes a millionaire. Who can understand?

We also love sports because sometimes they inspire by giving us storybook endings. In 1983, Jim Valvano coached an underwhelming 10-loss North Carolina State team to the NCAA basketball championship. A decade later, he was diagnosed with glandular cancer. On the 10th anniversary of the Wolfpack’s championship, a physically depleted Valvano gave a famous speech noted for its courageous call: “Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.” Ten months later, Jimmy V was dead. Death steals our happy endings. Our heroes, like so many of our dreams, eventually grow old and die. We want justice to deliver a final benediction. But life instead ends with a whimper.

Justice Is Coming Soon

Even as I teach my boys that justice sometimes doesn’t come in this life, they know there is a different ending for all who follow Jesus. The psalmist often looks at life from this perspective. Psalm 73 is particularly vivid—there, Asaph ponders the question every son of Adam has probably asked at one time or another: “Why do the wicked prosper?” The psalmist had kept his heart clean, gone to church regularly, done the right thing—and yet, the unrepentant man has far outstripped him in worldly success. Unjust? Feels like it. The equation for success of God plus righteousness seems to have arrived at the wrong sum. But Asaph gets to God’s solution in verses 16–19 and 23–24:

But when I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task, until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I discerned their end. Truly you set them in slippery places; you make them fall to ruin. How they are destroyed in a moment, swept away utterly by terrors! . . . Nevertheless, I am continually with you; you hold my right hand. You guide with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me to glory.

Asaph saw what we do as followers of Jesus: The Just has died for the unjust. Messiah has borne the wrath our sins deserve. He defeated death by coming out of the ground, securing a happy ending to every believer’s story.

In the end, believers don’t get justice; they receive mercy. Some day, everything crooked will be made straight. The wicked will get what they deserve, and the righteous will get what their Savior has won for them. Then, and only then, will there be full and perfect justice.

Parents, if you watch the Super Bowl this weekend and your team breaks your heart, don’t dismiss the pain of this fallen world. Tell your children about a Savior whose redeeming love gives heartbroken sinners the perfect justice and happy ending they are hardwired to crave.

A Gospel Voice in Southern Malawi

Fri, 02/01/2019 - 3:27pm

She searched for a gospel-focused church for four years before finding one. A University of Malawi medical student had become discouraged, since every church seemed to focus on success and the importance of holiness.

After discovering Antioch Baptist Church (ABC) in her college city of Blantyre, Zaithwa Matemvu was amazed by the depth of its preaching. As an Antioch member for a year now she says, “Jesus and what he did for us on the cross came through very clearly.”

Blantyre is the second-largest city in Malawi. This “commercial capital” of the country’s southern region has four universities within reach, so it’s a natural place for young adults to stay for a season. Yet, as Matemvu found, Reformed churches like ABC are scarce—even though 75 percent of the Malawi population identify as Christians.

Antioch Baptist sprouted eight years ago from a college Bible study that met in the home of a former engineer, now ABC pastor, Malamulo Chindongo. Although its congregation started out as a group of singles, it has grown into a church of 66 young members.

Sowing and Watering Seed

Jason Dohm is a pastor at Sovereign Redeemer Community Church in Youngsville, North Carolina, and since 2009 he has partnered with Chindongo through their mutual connection to the National Center for Family Integrated Churches in the United States. Dohm describes ABC as a church with evangelistic zeal and a heavy outreach to local universities.

“Antioch is healthy and growing,” he says. “They have a plurality of qualified elders leading the church, a plurality of qualified deacons serving the church, members who are hungry for the things of the Lord and committed to the church, and many visitors who are learning and loving what they are experiencing.”

Every week, multiple Bible studies take place on college campuses in and around Blantyre, many led by ABC members. Throughout the school year, the church also hosts small conferences to address topics of interest to college students that tie directly to faith, helping them understand what the gospel is and how the Bible should saturate every aspect of their lives.

Many of these students are questioning the prosperity gospel, Chindongo explained. “They want something with more meaning and to address their struggles with sin and addiction,” he says.

Some of the students attend ABC and are invited into the lives of members who actively live out their faith and serve as spiritual role models. Those who move to other cities in Malawi to step into the workforce face the new challenge of finding a biblically healthy church.

To Blantyre and Beyond

The faithful teaching of the gospel at ABC and other Reformed churches in Malawi is slowly taking root after almost a decade of the widely proclaimed prosperity message. ABC holds an annual Bible conference, and the pastor receives invitations to speak at other Christian conferences.

“We moved from being a small church tucked in the corner to a voice in the city where people are willing to listen,” Chindongo says. “Other churches are embracing sound doctrine and Reformed theology.”

He reports that other Reformed churches in Malawi are finalizing an agreement with ABC to “establish unity and community.”  Also, one South African church partnered with former ABC members to plant two Reformed churches in the capital city of Lilongwe. And a network of South African churches started a Reformed church in Mzuzu and worked to “revitalize” a church in Zomba.

Material in Motion

ABC further fuels spiritual growth by having a bookstore that supplies free or low-cost Christian literature. This provision creates a culture of discipleship as members read through books together.

Chindongo leads an effort to translate gospel resources into the local language of Chichewa. Though many in Malawi’s big cities may know English well, those in smaller towns and villages typically do not. In the last seven years ABC has translated 19 books, and some of these have ended up in neighboring countries.

Dohm has visited Malawi four times now. He participates in preaching and teaching at conferences and he brings books supplied by The Gospel Coalition for free distribution to church leaders. At a pastor’s conference in Blantyre last summer, Dohm handed out Expositional Preaching by David R. Helm.

Regarding these global partnerships, Chindongo noted that American men of faith he meets have come from three or four generations of believers, which is something Malawi churches do not yet have. He says, “This encourages us to see it’s possible to pass your faith along.”

Watch Your Doctrine

Fri, 02/01/2019 - 12:04am

“One of the things I loved about my church is it felt like the sermons that were most central and foundational were the sermons the people loved the most. I took that to be a sign of a good church. You don’t want a church that says, ‘Man, sin and salvation again, the cross . . . when are you gonna get back to the millennium? When are you gonna talk about homeschooling? When are you gonna talk about all the issues that are out there?” There is a time to talk about all those things as they connect, but you want people to say, ‘Yes, I want to hear about the Trinity and the gospel and Christ.'” — Kevin DeYoung

Date: October 17, 2018

Event: TGC West Coast Conference, Los Angeles, California

You can listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition podcast here or watch a video. Find more audio and video from the 2018 West Coast Conference on the conference media page.


Morality Is Not Scientific

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

One of the enduring questions of our time is this: How do cultures characterized by moral pluralism promote human flourishing, despite vastly different visions of the good life?

With the Enlightenment’s turn away from the medieval Catholic worldview, modern moral philosophers sought to construct a unifying view of morality that didn’t depend on religiously based values. Increasingly, this involved attempts to ground morality in various “scientific” ways, capable of some sort of empirical verification.

Science and the Good is the historical and sociological record of this quest. The book’s subtitle—The Tragic Quest for the Foundations of Morality—gives the reader a preview of the authors’ conclusions about the success of this quest. While recognizing the need for a common foundation for a moral culture (19), they ask this question—”Can science demonstrate what morality is and how we ought to live?” (11).

In other words, can science move beyond descriptive ethics to normative ethics—can it tell us not only the origins of morality and how people and cultures make moral decisions, but also give us enduring moral norms that can unify pluralistic cultures?

Search for Scientific Morals

In Science and the Good, University of Virginia professors James Davison Hunter (a sociologist of knowledge and culture) and Paul Nedelisky (a philosopher) give readers a selective survey of the history of ethics for the past 400 years. They present and assess the three main schools of moral philosophy: the moral psychology of Hume; the utilitarian ethics of Bentham/Mill; and evolutionary ethics, the attempt to account for morality as a product of evolutionary development. The authors conclude the survey with a discussion of newer trends toward a scientific morality based in neuroscience and moral psychology.

The historical survey is only half the book, however. Once this groundwork has been laid, the authors begin their assessment of the quest for a scientific basis for morality. They distinguish between three levels of results. Level one would provide specific moral norms that could help settle enduring moral debates and tell societies what kinds of things are morally valuable. Level two findings wouldn’t provide the moral obligation that level one provides, but “would give evidence for or against a moral claim or theory” (100). Level three provides what is commonly called “descriptive ethics,” telling us how moral decisions are made, and the origin of moral norms (100).

Hunter and Nedelisky conclude that the overwhelming majority of the new science of morality contributes at level three—interesting, but nowhere close to providing a unifying foundation for morality, not to mention anything that approaches normative ethics. They conclude that the scientific quest ultimately ends up in moral nihilism, with morality being redefined essentially out of existence, replaced with subjective accounts of well-being or the admission that moral norms are arbitrary (191). They point out that the scientific quest continually overreaches, moving uncritically from the descriptive to the normative, then finally giving up the normative quest altogether.

The book is full of insightful commentary on the historical figures and the current evolutionary and neuroscientific bases for morality. The authors maintain that the neural or evolutionary basis for particular traits or virtues may be interesting but tell us nothing about whether they should be adopted or rejected (143). They’re insightful in their critique of contemporary “science of morality” advocates Michael Shermer and Sam Harris, in that they both make “assumptions about what is valuable, independent of science” (158). They also cite the shift of emphasis from morality being “a source of objective action-guidance” to “understanding morality socially (and psychologically) and prudentially” (183). They further point out that this quest for moral foundations has proceeded apart from any reflection on the dynamics of power and position (201–2).

The list of insightful comments could be multiplied substantially.

Failed Quest

They conclude that the scientific quest for morality has failed, largely because the prior commitment to philosophical naturalism precludes anything resembling traditional morality. This is where Nedelisky, the philosophical member of the co-authoring team, significantly contributes. In what seems to be almost a side comment, the authors state that “no one in fact has any idea how enchanted [non-scientifically verifiable, such as souls, etc.] features [such as morality] emerge from scientifically tractable reality.” To put it differently, no one has any idea how we get moral properties from mere matter—chemistry and physics.

No one has any idea how we get moral properties from mere matter.

Even atheist philosopher J. L. Mackie famously regarded this as a fundamental difficulty with atheism. He put it this way: “Moral properties constitute so odd a cluster of properties and relations that they are most unlikely to have arisen in the ordinary course of events without an all-powerful god to create them” (115). Atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel, whom Hunter and Nedelicky reference, maintains in Mind and Cosmos (controversially in the philosophical community) that naturalism can’t account for moral properties. Some suggest that moral properties emerge from physical properties in the same way that wetness emerges from the combination of hydrogen and oxygen. But those are physical properties that emerge from physical reality, not non-physical properties emerging from the physical world.

Religion and Morality

The authors reject the scientific quest for morality, but they also say that “to look to religion for such a unified, socially binding foundation [for morality] is out of the question” (191). In what sense is that true? They may mean it’s historically or culturally true, given global religions’ penchant for violence and divisiveness. Or as a practical matter, it can’t be such a foundation given the non-religious segments of most cultures. But it should be noted that ontologically, morality and moral properties are most at home in theistic worldviews, though the authors don’t attempt to make this point. Their work shows the awkwardness of trying to situate morality within scientific naturalism, and that its proponents have largely given up the original quest.

Instead, the authors argue that we should find a common understanding through our differences rather than in spite of them, but they don’t explain what that might actually look like. Perhaps that is the direction of a follow-up work, one that will address the pressing issue of getting along amid deep and passionate differences about morality.