Bell Creek Community Church

A non-denominational church in Livonia, Michigan with Biblical teaching, worship, and kid's ministries.

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Faith and Facebook in ‘God Friended Me’

Fri, 09/28/2018 - 12:03am

A new TV show, God Friended Me (premiering Sunday night, September 30 at 8:30/7:30 CT), is the latest in a string of efforts by Hollywood to connect with the sizable portion of American television viewers who are religious (or at least spiritual). Some shows in this vein have been smash hits, like NBC’s The Good Place, now in its third season. Others, like HBO’s The Leftovers, found success with more arthouse audiences. Still others flopped dramatically, like CBS’s Living Biblically, which premiered earlier this year and was canceled in short order due to low ratings.

Hollywood’s interest in these stories isn’t merely commercial. However secular Western culture may be in 2018, interest in spirituality and the supernatural doesn’t seem to be waning. The arts, including movies and television shows, are as God-haunted as they’ve ever been. On top of that, questions about God and stories from the Bible provide fascinating fodder for compelling drama, especially when situated within the many challenges to belief in our secular age.

Questions about God and stories from the Bible provide fascinating fodder for compelling drama, especially when situated within the many challenges to belief in our secular age.

Take God Friended Me. The premise of the hour-long drama is interesting. An atheist in New York City, Miles (Brandon Micheal Hall), starts receiving friend requests on Facebook from someone called “God.” Assuming it’s a prank, Miles deletes the requests. But “God” is persistent, and Miles finally accepts his friend request. God then starts suggesting friends to Miles on Facebook—first someone named “John Dove” and then “Cara Bloom.” Trying to get to the bottom of the mystery, Miles tracks down John and Cara and enlists the help of his hacker friend to try to discover the identity of this “God” imposter. In the process, though, the “God”-orchestrated meetings between these seeming strangers proves to be intriguingly designed and timely. Is this an elaborate hoax, or is God real and working through Facebook to challenge Miles’s unbelief?

Honest Questions

As silly as the plot (and title) might sound—a show combining faith and Facebook seems about 10 years too late on the “relevance” timeline—God Friended Me is surprisingly mature in its treatment of faith and unbelief. Complete with references to Christopher Hitchens, Sufjan Stevens songs, and jokes about being “spiritual but not religious” (which Miles calls “The biggest cop-out in all of religion”), the show doesn’t feel out of touch with modern religious dynamics.

On the contrary, the questions it asks about God and faith are honest and fair. Miles’s backstory is interesting and believable. He grew up in the church as a pastor’s kid, his faith solid until his mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. Miles prayed fervently for a miracle, and sure enough God answered, and she went into remission. But then she died in a car accident on the way back from the hospital.

Like many who face something such a tragedy, Miles starts to question his faith. He eventually concludes that God must not exist, because if he did, he would be a cruel God. “And I don’t want to live in a world governed by someone like that,” he says in the show. Christian viewers who might otherwise be cynical about a show like this should recognize how common this story is. Before debating or jumping straight to apologetics when we come across an atheist, we should listen to them and understand how they’ve arrived where they are.

Before debating or jumping straight to apologetics when we come across an atheist, we should listen to them and understand how they’ve arrived where they are.

Though Miles is a committed atheist, his Christian upbringing means he’s familiar with the Bible and theology (as many atheists are), even though he is now estranged from his pastor father (Joe Morton) and refuses to set foot in the church of his youth. At the start of the show Miles is trying to launch a podcast, “Millennial Prophet,” driven by his conviction that God doesn’t exist and “everything in life can be explained.” To use the language of Charles Taylor (A Secular Age), Miles is planted firmly within the “buffered self” and the “immanent frame.” His world is closed to the supernatural, especially God. That is, until “God” on Facebook tries to prove him wrong.

Sovereign and Relational God

If the “God” who friends Miles on Facebook is the real God, what kind of God is he? How does the show characterize him?

I’ve only seen the pilot so far, so the show could go in any number of theological directions from here. The overall premise and first episode portray God as sovereign but not distant. He orchestrates things intricately but toward a relational end. The Facebook “friend suggestion” motif is all about demonstrating how God intends to put people in each other’s lives at specific times for specific reasons.

He is also a God who takes initiative. Miles doesn’t go looking for him; God comes for Miles. The same is true for John Dove (Christopher Redman), Cara Bloom (Violett Beane), and the other characters. This is a God who goes after individuals, seeking them relentlessly, making himself known to them in ways that feel personal. But to what end? Is this the specifically Christian God or a generic god of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism?

What God Really Wants

What kind of specificity is there to the “God” of God Friended Me? It remains to be seen how the show will go, but in the first episode there is (naturally) little specificity. Will the show dare to narrow itself to the Judeo-Christian God, or (even more daring) to the Trinitarian God of New Testament Christianity? Or will it keep “God” safely ecumenical and vague, essentially a stand-in for the “spiritual” impulses that are as normative as flat whites in Western cosmopolitanism?

And to what end would God want to “friend” us? To make us happier and healthier in our relationships? To help us reach our full potential? To celebrate us “as we are” and spread love and tolerance throughout the world? These are commonly ascribed motivations to the God of Western expressive individualism, a “God” suspiciously like a kind grandmother who just wants us to succeed and be nice. But is that what God really wants? Is that who God really is?

Thankfully no. God didn’t “friend” us for all the great things we can do. He doesn’t love us because of our great potential. He doesn’t love us because he needs us. He loved us while were yet sinners (Rom. 5:8). As Puritan Thomas Manton put it, “He loved you because he loved you.”

God doesn’t love us because of our great potential. He doesn’t love us because he needs us. He loved us while were yet sinners.

This is the glorious, shocking truth of a God who befriends us. There is nothing in us that would make us attractive “friends” to God, no status or benefit of association we can give him. It’s a one-way relationship, with him bringing all the gifts and status to us, through the Son, Jesus Christ. All we do is receive him, the ultimate and perfect friend. It’s a humbling truth in our egalitarian, contractual age; but it’s also beautiful and liberating.

William Carey’s Commitment to the Gospel and Social Change

Fri, 09/28/2018 - 12:02am

When I hear the name William Carey, I immediately think of gospel missions, and rightly so. After all, Carey has been labeled the Father of Modern Missions. He doesn’t carry this designation because he was the first missionary but because he helped evangelicals prioritize global missions. His essay An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens (hereafter, An Enquiry), and his tireless missionary efforts in India (1793–1834), led to rapid growth in gospel missions efforts and societies around the globe.

It’s also important to note, as Vishal and Ruth Mangalwadi do in their book The Legacy of William Carey: A Model for the Transformation of a Culture, that Carey would be recognized as even more than a Christian missionary in India. Other job descriptions might include botanist, economist, medical humanitarian, media pioneer, agriculturalist, translator, educator, astronomer, library pioneer, conservationist, crusader for women’s rights, public servant, moral reformer, or cultural transformer.

If Carey had been asked why he spent time in these other areas when there was gospel mission work to be done, my guess is that he would look confused and say, “That was all a vital part of my gospel mission work.”

Reflect God’s Justice

As is clear in An Enquiry, Carey believed there was no real hope for India apart from evangelistic gospel proclamation and conversion. It’s also true that he cared passionately about the people of India as God’s image-bearers and wanted to see the influence of the gospel transform the great social darkness in the nation. After all, Paul tells us that the gospel “reveals the righteousness of God” and that it’s “the gospel of peace” (Rom. 1:17; Eph. 6:5). Paul also says our conduct should be “in step with the gospel” as we live before others (Gal. 2:14). Conducting ourselves in line with the gospel means reflecting his justice (righteousness) in the world as much as we can while living “peaceably with all” (Rom. 12:18).

In regard to global gospel missions, Carey explained his understanding of the holistic nature of his gospel mission work before he ever stepped foot in India:

Can we hear that they are without the gospel, without government, without laws, and without arts, and sciences; and not exert ourselves to introduce among them the sentiments of men, and of Christians? Would not the spread of the gospel be the most effectual means of their civilization? Would not that make them useful members of society?

When writing about the door he saw opening for gospel preaching around the world, Carey’s mind immediately went to the slave trade and his longing that the spread of the gospel would spell its doom: “A noble effort has been made to abolish the inhuman Slave Trade, and though at present it has not been so successful as might be wished, yet it is to be hoped it will be persevered in, till it is accomplished.”

Pray and Act

Carey called for persistent prayer, explaining that prayer always accompanied great moves of the gospel. But he added, “We must not be contented however with praying, without exerting ourselves in the use of means for the obtaining of those things we pray for. Were the children of light, but as wise in their generation as the children of this world, they would stretch every nerve to gain so glorious a prize, nor ever imagine that it was to be obtained in any other way.”

In John 8:12, Jesus declared, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” Jesus isn’t only “the light of the world,”—a missionary assertion. He also enlightens his people in the dark world because he is “the light of life”—a social claim. Carey believed “the light of the world” was to shine in darkness now, not only light the way to future heavenly consummation. Thus, he wrote:

Christians are a body whose truest interest lies in the exaltation of the Messiah’s kingdom. Their charter is very extensive, their encouragements exceeding great, and the returns promised infinitely superior to all the gains of the most lucrative fellowship. Let then everyone in his station consider himself as bound to act with all his might, and in every possible way for God.

When Carey witnessed widow-burning, infanticide, the caste system, a refusal to educate females, child marriage, and polygamy, he was compelled to work for the eradication of such aspects of social unrighteousness. How could he preach about the righteousness of God if he ignored unrighteousness around him? Carey frequently ate meals with all levels of people in the caste system and encouraged believers toward inter-caste marriage. Why? He knew his preaching of the gospel would have more power if the one preaching was conducting himself in line with the gospel and demonstrating love by working to eliminate injustice among the people to whom he preached.

Embrace the Entailments

It’s possible to abandon or truncate the gospel in opposing directions. One direction tragically replaces gospel preaching and attendant calls for repentance and faith with immediate societal transformation. The other also prioritizes culture—but in defense of the status quo by shrinking the gospel’s effect to individual salvation only.

We would do well to heed the vision of Carey in our day by neither replacing the gospel with social justice nor acting as though the gospel has nothing to say about social justice.

Encouragement for Weary Youth Pastors

Fri, 09/28/2018 - 12:00am

All-nighters. Leading mission trips. Itemizing the youth ministry budget and keeping track of receipts. All-nighters. Communicating program details via email, text messages, and the latest social media platform. Graphic designer and all-around technology engineer for the entire youth ministry. Staying informed about all latest trends in youth culture. Did I mention all-nighters? Vacuuming, taking out the trash, turning off all lights, and locking the doors after youth group. And don’t forget to foster meaningful relationships with parents, develop an expert team of volunteer leaders, and, most importantly, disciple your students in the way of Christ.

I’ve served at my church for 13 years. My wife and I arrived in 2005 when we were newlyweds, the latest platform was Xanga, smartphones didn’t exist, Palm Pilots were high-tech, Xbox 360 was just released, and The Da Vinci Code was the heresy of the day. My current junior-high students weren’t yet born.

Let that sink in for a second.

During that time, I’ve also become affectionately known as “Grandpa McGarry” in my local network of youth workers because I’ve been around so long. I’ve seen multiple youth pastors cycle through each of the churches around me, generally corroborating the statistic that churches change youth pastors every three years.

This leads me to wonder more often than I want to admit out loud: Am I getting too old for this?

Expiration Date?

When I entered junior high in 1992, my parents had just separated, and it felt like my family was dissolving before my eyes. As this was unfolding, my church hired a new youth pastor named Craig. I thought he was old. I realize now he was younger than I am today. But to a junior higher, our church was hiring an old man as youth pastor, and that felt confusing and overwhelming. But I soon discovered something strange: he understood me, and I really liked having an adult listen to my fears and concerns.

Craig taught me by example that youth workers don’t have expiration dates. Rather than age as a determining factor, one’s passion for Christ, desire to understand students, and commitment to real-life discipleship should characterize one’s calling to youth ministry.

Youth workers don’t have expiration dates.

Youth ministry veterans regularly get asked, “When do you want to become a real pastor?” It’s a comment we can only laugh about, because it’s so innocently offensive. But it does unveil a common opinion. Tricky thing is, most of us have wondered the same thing: Am I getting too old for this? Is this still the best use of my gifts and passions? Should I minister to the parents instead of the students?

Be Encouraged

“Let us not grow weary of doing good,” Paul writes, “for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up (Gal. 6:9). Rather than giving up in frustration that our seed-sowing hasn’t born fruit according to our timetable, we must not grow weary. The exegetical context demands a link between “not growing weary in doing good” and the fruit of the Spirit listed a few verses earlier (Gal. 5:22–23). Galatians 6:9 isn’t anchored in ministry longevity, even though that’s the most common application I’ve heard. Instead, it’s a call to longevity in sowing gospel seed.

Isn’t that what we’re after? We’re the sower in Christ’s parable, spreading gospel seed all over the place and prayerfully trusting the Lord to bring growth. The gardener has authority to till, weed, and clear land as he sees fit so that thorns can be uprooted and the gospel can take root. We preach, teach, and apply the gospel of grace in order to see lives transformed by the power of God. He uses us, but it’s his work in his time. Fruit doesn’t sprout up overnight—not in the garden, not in youth ministry, not in adult ministry, not in our own lives.

So, tired youth pastor, press on. The longer you stay at your church, the more responsibilities are put on your plate. Problem is, your plate hasn’t grown. It’s just more crowded, so the things you don’t enjoy but recognize as “worth it” begin to slide onto the floor. Obviously, from my earlier list, I place “all-nighters” near the top. But since you used to do these things (and did them well; otherwise you wouldn’t have lasted this long), you realize the spillover responsibilities matter, and you feel guilty seeing them on the floor. This only adds to the I’m too old for this feeling.

None of this even gets into the conflicts you barely survived or the hurtful comments that ring in your head on the ride home after a lackluster youth meeting. Amid your frustrations, your battle scars, and your struggle over whether to join Snapchat, remember your ministry is built on the gospel. Amid the temptation to believe those who say you’ve “outgrown youth ministry,” remember that while younger youth pastors may connect with students quicker, your age uniquely positions you to dignify a kid whose world is turned upside-down and needs an adult who will listen.

I was that kid. Now I get to be that youth pastor.

Yes, there are days I want to “jump up” the ladder to a more comfortable fit. But I’m certain I’m of more use to teenagers today than ever. Not merely because of my age, but because students need mature (“uncool”) adults who will pastor them.

Don’t grow weary. Continue to sow that gospel seed in your own life and in the lives of teens—even if it requires more all-nighters.

God’s Faithfulness in Andrew Peterson’s Weakness

Thu, 09/27/2018 - 9:36am

In this new video, Andrew Peterson—artist and president of The Rabbit Room—remembers a time when his family and the hope of redemption carried him through a season of depression.

Planting Gospel-Centered Churches in Italy

Thu, 09/27/2018 - 12:04am

Throughout the book of Acts, Luke describes the unstoppable progress of the gospel. And he ends the book with Paul preaching in a Roman prison. It’s an unusual but powerful ending, in that Luke shows us the triumphant power of the gospel.

The messenger is in chains, but the Word of God is not bound.

Luke’s ending communicates something like: this book is finished, but the mission isn’t. We get to be part of this ongoing mission. We get to join the drama of spreading the good news to the nations, and planting churches in every nook and cranny of the world.

God replaces the messengers, but this life-changing message continues to be preached. In Italy, where Paul finally reached in Acts 28, many faithful men and women are continuing this mission today.

One of the men helping lead a missional movement in Italy is J. D. Gilmore, who’s with us on the podcast today.

You can listen to this podcast episode here.

Your Work Matters. But Don’t Deify It.

Thu, 09/27/2018 - 12:03am

While my childhood friends spent their Christmas breaks relaxing or watching television or spending time with my other friends, I was forced to wake up at an obscenely early hour, put on several layers of warm clothing, and will myself out into the world.

My father, for reasons that were mysterious to me in my teenage years, thought it important for me to work with him in his plumbing business. I worked with Dad on almost every school break and most summers, installing copper water lines, plastic drainage piping, and steel gas lines in new homes. Though I knew early on that, unlike Dad, I wasn’t especially gifted to work in construction, I got pretty good at plumbing houses. But more important than the opportunity to earn money were the lessons I learned about hard work and Christian calling. These lessons didn’t occur to me until well after I stopped working for my father and began finding my way in my own career.

Dad isn’t a trained theologian. He doesn’t have a college degree. But he spoke into my life powerful lessons about the dignity of working hard and working well. Dad, a quiet man, is known as a Christian by the quality of his work and the integrity of his character. I stopped counting the days when he insisted we stay on the job longer than I thought we needed to, simply so he could perfect his work. “But Dad,” I learned not to bother to argue, “nobody will see those pipes in the wall. Why do you care about them being so straight and uniform?”

“Son,” Dad would say, “I see it. And more importantly, God sees it.”

God-Imaging Gift

What I learned at my father’s side is a vital part of what it means to be human. Work is good. This shouldn’t surprise us, since we are made in the image of a working God: “On the seventh day God finished his work” (Gen. 2:2). Jesus told the Pharisees, “My father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working” (John 5:17).

Work, then, is a God-imaging gift that the Creator gives to his image-bearers: “When no bush of the field was yet in the land and no small plant of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain on the land, and there was no man to work the ground” (Gen. 2:5).

Work is woven into our humanity. We were made to master the earth: to innovate and to explore.

God’s creative project is, in a real sense, incomplete without people, made in his image, working, cultivating, and stewarding his creation. It’s almost as if Moses is making sure his readers understand that the cosmos won’t work—can’t work—without humans cultivating it.

We are made neither to worship the earth nor to exploit it. Image-bearers should be environmentalists in the best sense. We care about the earth because God created it for us to cultivate. And our work isn’t merely a byproduct of life—a necessary means to an end. Work is woven into our humanity. We were made to master the earth: to innovate and to explore.

We image God by working hard in the world and by taking care of the world.

Cursed Work

But of course, as with all of God’s good gifts, our work is corrupted by the fall. Listen to the words of God as he speaks to Adam after his and Eve’s sin:

Cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread. (Gen. 3:17–19)

The planet, once created in perfect harmony to be worked and tilled for God’s glory, now groans in corruption (Rom. 8:22), feeling the aches of the curse. The ground fights back. Work becomes hard and exhausting and, at times, a cycle of fruitless drudgery. Work, eat, sleep, work, eat, sleep. Then die.

We’re right to want our work to be fulfilling. We’re wrong to think our work will never be free of frustration. In a good-yet-fallen world, we’ll experience both fulfillment and frustration in our work.

Moreover, the gospel gives renewed purpose to our work. This doesn’t necessarily mean that Christians are the best artists and craftsmen and administrators and stay-at-home moms and lawyers, but that the gospel helps us see the creative value of our work and points us toward the kingdom of God, where our labors will finally be free of the thistles and thorns that steal our dignity. In Christ, God restores us to our original, image-bearing purposes: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10).

We don’t work to be saved. But being saved, there is good work for us to do.

When Work Becomes an Altar

Tragically, we can make our work everything: an object of worship and devotion instead of the good gift God meant it to be.

Our careers, for example, are often seen as markers of identity and worth. Consider the way a conversation goes when you meet someone for the first time. Next time you greet a visitor at church or strike up conversation on the train or meet a new family in your neighborhood, you will likely, without even thinking, ask, “So, what do you do for a living?” Their answer will, to some extent, inform the way you think of them.

I spend much of my time in either Nashville or Washington, D.C.—two cities where this question takes on heightened significance. In Nashville, a city blessed with a vibrant artist community, people are often defined by their creative acts. I’m a songwriter. I’m working on a project with so-and-so. I’m working in marketing for this or that label/company/nonprofit. In D.C., it’s a power game; business cards are exchanged and contacts are stored to leverage influence. I work on the Hill on Ways and Means. I just started at this think tank. I work at this government agency.

Just think about the questions that work often provokes:

  • Is my job significant?
  • Does it give me influence?
  • Do people know what I do, and do they think it matters?

We don’t ask such questions aloud, of course, but we think them subconsciously.

Unbearable Weight

Sometimes it’s important for us to step back and see what work, when worshiped as an idol, demands of us. We don’t just leave it at the office or the factory floor—we take it home. It’s in our pocket, always pulling us away from our family and friends with one more email glance, one more phone call, one more quick project. Work whispers in our ears that we are God-like, without a need for rest.

If we aren’t careful, we’ll load our vocations with the weight of a significance they weren’t meant to bear.

If we aren’t careful, we’ll load our vocations with the weight of a significance they weren’t meant to bear. We often don’t even realize we’ve worshiped this faceless god until we’ve looked up and seen all of the unnecessary sacrifices we’ve made to it.

Work matters to God, but it makes a poor God-substitute. We weren’t created in the image of our salaries or our positions or the organization for which we work. These good things will one day pass away—leaving us, if we aren’t careful, empty and unfulfilled.

This is why we must return, again and again, to the truth that our identity doesn’t depend on our utility or our influence or our paycheck, but is grounded in God’s love for his image-bearers. And in Christ, we know we aren’t merely laborers for corporations, but co-heirs with him forever.

Burnout Is Coming. Here’s How to Prevent It.

Thu, 09/27/2018 - 12:02am

In the helping professions, burnout can seem almost inevitable.

The thing we want to give—deep, sincere compassion for others in their time of need—runs dry. We want to help, but we can only take so much suffering. We become victims of our own giving.

Compassion Burnout

We don’t have to imagine the burnout progression for a Christ-following pastor, counselor, or ministry leader. We’ve either witnessed it or experienced it ourselves.

A young leader enters ministry with high hopes, extensive training, and a heart full of compassion. But after several years of long hours, little to no appreciation, and insufficient compensation, the leader grows weary. Working with less motivation and seeing fewer positive results, frustration sets in, and then frustration breaks into indifference.

Researchers have identified four universal stages of burnout among the helping professions:

  • enthusiasm
  • stagnation
  • frustration
  • apathy

To be honest, I’ve experienced all four in a single day of pastoral ministry. I can be full of compassion in an appointment at 7 a.m., weary and on autopilot by lunch, frustrated in afternoon meetings, and, by the time I get home, utterly numb.

Disillusionment is the clinical term for burnout. We had a vision of generous ministry but went broke before it was realized. The vision turned out to be illusion.

Where do we go from here?

I’ve found a deep and refreshing resource for ministry renewal in an ancient but underrated aspect of Christianity: The way to restore compassion for others is by receiving and savoring the compassion of God.

The way to restore compassion for others is by receiving and savoring the compassion of God.

Compassion is at the heart of the Christian gospel, an attribute of God that spans the history of redemption, and an essential virtue of healthy, sustainable ministry in the pattern of Christ.

Search for Compassion

So, what exactly is compassion?

Our word compassion comes from the Latin words pati and cum, which together mean “to suffer with.” As Henri Nouwen and his co-authors write in Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life:

Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human. (3–4)

Compassion is a common term in the English language, but it has immense theological weight. Compassion is an attribute of God, a virtue of Christlikeness, and a metaphor for ministry. Theologian Andrew Purves writes:

A case can be made for seeing compassion as the center of pastoral care. Compassion makes caring specific. Compassion radicalizes caring, giving our caring root in the deepest places of God’s being.

We’ve been created in the image of a compassionate God. To be fully human is to embrace our need to receive his compassion, and to show compassion to others in return.

So why do we experience “compassion burnout”? Because we are finite and fallen. Our compassion is a diminishing resource.

But when we turn to the Scriptures, we discover that God’s is a never-ending supply.

Lord of Compassion

The LORD is compassionate and gracious,
slow to anger, abounding in love. (Ps. 103:8)

Depending on your translation, “compassion” shows up 50 to 80 times in the Scriptures.

The historical books are full of references to God’s compassion in his promise-keeping to Israel (for example, 2 Kings 13:23). The Psalms consistently praise God’s fatherly compassion to his people—Psalm 103 stands out as the best example. And the prophets promise a coming compassion from God for the faithful of Israel (see especially Isa. 54:7).

When we reach the Gospels, we find compassion embodied. Jesus Christ is the ultimate Lord of compassion. When he sees the crowds, he has compassion on them (Matt. 9:36; 14:14; 15:32). His healing ministry overflows from his compassion on the broken, weak, and needy (Matt. 20:34).

Compassion demonstrates our triune God’s grace and mercy in tangible acts of patience and love.

And two of Jesus’s most beloved parables hinge on compassion. The Good Samaritan is commended for acting with it: “But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion” (Luke 10:33). And the prodigal son returns to find his father full of it: “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him” (Luke 15:20).

Finally, the New Testament letters repeatedly appeal to the Lord’s compassion (Rom. 9:15; 2 Cor. 1:3; James 5:11) and urgently call believers to show compassion to one another (Eph. 4:32; Phil. 2:1; Col. 3:12; 1 Pet. 3:8).

From creation to Israel to Christ to the church, compassion demonstrates our triune God’s grace and mercy in tangible acts of patience and love.

Here are three ways to renew your depleting compassion.

1. Slow Down

Compassion isn’t efficient. To care for the burdens of others requires slowing down, paying attention, and not being in a hurry.

Hurry is a surefire recipe for ministry burnout. By definition, it’s an unsustainable pace.

In our church-planting process, we set 10 commitments, including “We are not in a hurry.” To cultivate compassion, we must let God redirect our plans, let go of our timelines, and respond to the suggestions and needs of our people.

2. Stock the Pond

Artists or writers are often encouraged to “stock the pond” with images, experiences, and books from which they can later fish in creativity. In a much deeper sense, the minister of compassion will return to the well daily, drawing fresh resources from the Source of all compassion.

We stock the pond for compassion through a consistent reading of the Scriptures and a regular, abiding life of prayer. In the Scriptures, we find our compassionate Lord speaking directly to us, comforting us, encouraging us, and renewing our souls. In prayer, we lay our burdens before God, beg for help, and find peace in our time of need.

3. Lead from Within

When fatigued, we default to leading from our intellect (what we know), our competency (what we can do), or our reputation (who others say we are). But the model of healthy ministry is to lead from within, from who we are in Christ.

Think of it like this: The compassion of Christ embraces us, transforms us into his likeness, and then empowers us to the ministry of compassion.

The compassion of Christ embraces us, transforms us into his likeness, and then empowers us to the ministry of compassion.

Leading from within means reflecting on our deep thoughts and feelings throughout the day, sharing our inner lives with others, and encouraging the hearts of our people. We’re not simply trying to change others’ behavior or teach them knowledge and skills. We want their hearts to be formed in the image of Christ.

So a Christ-shaped compassion will include an inner receptivity to the compassion of the Father and an outward ministry of compassion toward those who need it most. Like Jesus, when we’re moved with compassion, we go and show compassion.

As Purves summarizes, “Our compassion is a participation in Jesus’s compassion.” Jesus extends his compassion to a needy world through us. We are his compassion conduits.

Compassion burnout is a reality of ministry life as finite and fallen creatures. But by slowing down, stocking the pond, and leading from within, we can find ongoing renewal for a compassion-filled life.

Tips for Teaching Kids About Marriage

Thu, 09/27/2018 - 12:00am

Children are curious about marriage. They see families with various parental arrangements, and they have legitimate questions about them. Children need answers. And children deserve good answers—answers based on the eternal Word of God rather than shifting cultural trends.

As Christians, we must raise a generation that understands clearly and confidently the biblical vision for marriage—and why it matters. I wrote A Child’s First Book About Marriage to help equip children in their early years with the understandings they’ll need to stay true to Christ in their time.

How Children Learn

Young children absorb information most thoroughly through observation and imitation. Think of a baby’s first smile. Just a few weeks after their birth, most babies are happy to catch your eye and smile back at you.

Children need to understand that marriage isn’t what we think it should be. Marriage is what God says it is.

Children are impressionable and open to what the adults in their world say and do. If a child sees from his first days that marriage is a good gift from God, they’ll more readily long for that gift in the years ahead. If they learn God’s guidelines for marriage from an early age, they’ll be better prepared to develop a strong, Christ-centered marriage as an adult.

Equipping by Example

Begin teaching your children about marriage through example. If you’re married, give your children a living example of the unique and beautiful love that can grow between a husband and wife. Let them see you light up when your spouse walks through the door. Snuggle, kiss, hold hands—show them what it means to bind yourself to that one person who’s more special to you than anyone else in the world.

Let your children hear an abundance of loving words flowing between Mommy and Daddy: I love you, darling. I can’t wait to see you tonight. Thank you for marrying me. I missed you today. Fill your children’s senses with the delight of a father rejoicing in the wife of his youth (Prov. 5:18) and the security of a mother embracing her godly husband (Eph. 5:25).

Whether you’re married or not, expose your children to a variety of marriages that are solid, godly, and filled with joy. Talk to them about happy marriages you know, those of loving, selfless, committed couples. Give them real-life examples to help them believe God’s way is always best.

When possible, take your children with you to weddings. Prepare them beforehand to witness the beauty and significance of this sacred ceremony. Talk about the vows the bride and the groom make. Explain that when a man and a woman get married, they promise God they’ll stay together as long as they both live, no matter what.

Who Created Marriage?

Additionally, make sure your children know God created this good gift of marriage. Take them back to the Garden of Eden—to the first wedding. Help them understand that even with all the other creatures—even with the presence of God—there was still something missing for Adam.

The true story of how marriage began deserves to be familiar and captivating in every Christian home.

Look at Genesis 2:18 together. Even in the perfect Garden, something was “not good.” What was it? A man alone.

God knew Adam needed someone strong and kind and lovely—someone like him, but also different from him. God knew Adam needed a wife, and so he made the first woman and brought her to Adam, like the father of the bride (Gen. 2:20–22).

This true story of how marriage began deserves to be familiar and captivating in every Christian home.

Which Law Is Right?

As they grow, children come to understand that people get married all over the world. Each country has its own laws about what marriage is and who can get married. Help your children learn to distinguish between the laws of the land and the law of God. They aren’t always the same.

Your child will be confronted with relationships that go against the wisdom and purposes of God. Some countries say marriage can be between two men or two women, or that a husband can have more than one wife. People sometimes believe they’ll be happier if they decide in their own way what marriage can be.

But our children need to understand that marriage isn’t what we think it should be. Marriage is what God says it is, because God made us, and God made marriage for his own good reasons. Make sure your children grasp that God intended marriage to be between one man and one woman for life (Mark 10:6–9).

God’s Kind Gift

Marriage is an unconditional commitment to an imperfect person, and our own selfishness can often complicate that commitment. Sometimes we get angry, and we hurt the people we promised God we would love the most. Children need to see how to deal with anger and hurt within the bonds of marriage. They can learn that marriage is God’s good gift to help us become more selfless and more Christlike.

Sometimes we aren’t good at keeping our promises. Sin can harden our hearts, and we break our marriage vows. If divorce has intruded into your child’s experience, talk this through with them, assuring them of God’s nearness in his sadness (Ps. 34:18) and God’s help when family life is hard (Isa. 41:10).

Then bring the conversation back to hope for their own future. When they get married, it will be hard at times, but God will be with them.

Assure your children that marriage is God’s kind gift, and it comes to us filled with his blessing. Show them how marriage brings joy to adults and security for kids. And teach them that, best of all, marriage is an up-close display of the forever love of Jesus for his church, whom he calls his bride.

By God’s grace, our children can stand firm in their generation. What a privilege to teach them that God’s way is loving, and his way is always best.

Is It Really Important That You Emphasize Hell?

Wed, 09/26/2018 - 12:39pm

In this new video, Francis Chan discusses how the reality of hell should impact evangelism in the Christian life.

Repentance That Sings

Wed, 09/26/2018 - 12:04am

“In your ears, what does repentance sound like? We think of groaning and groveling, of grinding teeth and weary resolve. But what does repentance really sound like? When it has completed its work, it sounds like joy.” — Bryan Chapell

Text: Mark 10:17-22

Preached: October 3, 1996

Location: The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky

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


How Art Can Reveal Truth

Wed, 09/26/2018 - 12:03am

When one imagines West Texas, celebrated poets rarely come to mind. Yet that’s exactly what the region has produced in Christian Wiman, an artist described by Marilynne Robinson as writing with a “purifying urgency that is rare in this world.” Wiman, professor of the practice of religion and literature at Yale Divinity School, grew up on a diet of rugged Texas violence as well as a charismatic Christian faith he abandoned after leaving home. By his late 30s, he married his wife, held the post of editor at Poetry magazine, and reconnected with his faith only to receive a diagnosis of a rare and incurable form of blood cancer. Since then, Wiman has written extensively on the intersection between art and faith, especially as it relates to the deeper experiences of life, like death and suffering.

His latest work, He Held Radical Light: The Art of Faith, the Faith of Art, revisits such themes to ponder a specific question: What is it we want when we can’t stop wanting? While his book never quite reaches concrete answers, it provokes readers to consider the essential value of art for life. Can poetry teach us about our faith in ways that systematic theology cannot? To what (or whom) does humanity’s creative impulse point? Does the practice of theology require more than simply a sharp mind?

Ode to Poetry

To the casual reader, Wiman’s book might appear to be little more than an ode to poetry. And it’s certainly that. Thanks to his tenure as editor of Poetry magazine from 2003 to 2013, he befriended numerous well-known poets and collected handfuls of charming stories. He recalls the time A. R. Ammons paused halfway through a reading to tell his audience, “You can’t possibly be enjoying this,” abruptly concluding the evening. Then there’s the time he accompanied Mary Oliver who, on her way to an event, pocketed a dead pigeon in her hunting jacket, where it remained for the entirety of her reading.

Woven among such anecdotes, Wiman quotes poems and poets at length, musing on their meanings with piercing precision. But his ode frames a larger meditation on the value of art. In a post-Enlightenment world, even the church isn’t immune from the tendency to relegate creative works to the realm of the rational, stripping them of ambiguity and systematizing their perceived beauty. Wiman argues that we lose something when we do so, as some truths require more ambiguous modes of communication to be truly understood.

Embracing Mystery

Halfway through the book, he writes, “One of art’s functions is to give form to feelings that would otherwise remain inchoate and corrosive, to give us a means whereby we can inhabit our fears and pains rather than they us.” Art, like life, is a complicated experience, and there are times when creative forms of silence are our most effective communicators.

Art allows us to engage theologically with our whole person as opposed to limiting our practice solely to a cognitive realm. That said, Wiman doesn’t dismiss more systematic terms of thinking. Rather, he insists on a fuller practice. And he reiterates at multiple points that art is a means, but to what end? Is our creative hunger merely an appetite for God? An expression of our faith? In a sense, yes, but Wiman warns against such simplicity, like suggesting “Jesus” is the correct answer to any Sunday school question. The answer may be correct, but Wiman wants readers to take the time to understand why.

Still, the artistic hunger is an appetite that both feeds and must be fed. Near the end of his final chapter, Wiman quotes a poem from Frank Bidart with these verses: “Understand that there is a beast within you / that can drink till it is / sick, but cannot drink till it is satisfied.” Only something other, something external (read: “God”) can satisfy that beast, and plenty of forgeries can sicken it. But there are edges to reality that can only be perceived, Wiman argues, when “the truth of its elusiveness is part of that perception.” Then, the abstract of art can speak the truth to us in ways that will keep the beast at bay.

He Held Radical Light reads like a math problem. Some will long simply to arrive at the conclusion, but Wiman, like a proficient classroom instructor, wants to show the work it takes to arrive there. It offers much in the form of conversation and goads readers to embrace mystery without producing concrete answers to the questions he raises. But perhaps that’s the point. As he writes repeatedly, art is essential to our human experience, but it isn’t enough. It’s a necessary guide, but an incomplete one. Yet it sharpens our attention along the way until we arrive, at last, in the presence of the Source of all mystery, the only One who truly satisfies.

Lamenting Is Not Admitting Defeat

Wed, 09/26/2018 - 12:02am

This is me. From the outside, I look like your average, healthy, strong 21-year-old woman. I’m just beginning my senior year of college. On a normal day, you will see me going to class, studying, going to the gym to work out, and having fun with my friends.

On these days, there are often moments when I’m able to forget about the internal brokenness of my physical body. The daily reminders of my chronic illness—the pills, the dietary restrictions, the little aches and pains—have become so routine that they no longer make me feel anything less than the healthy 21-year-old I appear to be.

This Isn’t Normal

But every six weeks, I drive myself to the hospital early in the morning. I sit in an armchair for four hours while the drugs slowly trickle into my veins. Sometimes it all goes smoothly, and I walk out at noon and carry on with my day.

More often than not, something goes wrong. Today the nurse blew my vein, and the fluids began to fill up my arm, causing painful swelling while my blood pressure plummeted. I laid back trying to breathe through internal panic and increasing light-headedness.

On these days, I drift in and out of uncomfortable sleep while nurses worry that my blood pressure is too low and alarms on the IV pump go on and off. When my appointments are like this, I shuffle slowly out of the hospital to my car, thinking, This isn’t normal. I can’t pretend to be normal today.

I don’t believe in feeling sorry for myself or letting my ailments control my whole life. I learned early on in my health struggles that feeling sorry for myself won’t accomplish a single good thing, or help me learn to live with my brokenness.

Time to Mourn

But when the weight of my physical brokenness hits me hard, and I have to sit and cry for a minute or two, I acknowledge that this isn’t normal. These are the days when I lament.

In my experience, lament isn’t a popular evangelical response to suffering, especially physical suffering. All too often, the Christian community seeks to support those suffering physically by offering encouragement and exhortation to hope—without providing space for lament.

Encouragement and hope in the absence of lament invalidate a sufferer’s experience.

Encouragement and hope in the absence of lament invalidate a sufferer’s experience. It says, “You should be happy and hopeful always” without saying, “We mourn with you because what you’re experiencing isn’t what you were made for, and it’s hard and painful.”

You can’t offer real hope and happiness to those suffering without first acknowledging that they are, in fact, suffering.

There’s certainly a time to pray for healing, a time to rejoice in the hope that my body will be well again someday, and a time to soldier on. But there is also a time when the sufferer must lament the brokenness—the brokenness that reveals this world isn’t how God created it to be.

Lamenting Together

The kind of lamenting I envision is simple. My father recently corresponded with the wife of Andrew Brunson, a pastor who’s been unjustly imprisoned in Turkey for more than a year. He sent her a note that simply said, “I’m so sorry; I know this is so hard for you.” In saying this, he both acknowledged the difficult reality of her situation and also affirmed that he stands alongside her.

I can think of no stronger Christian argument for the act of lament, which Webster defines as “to mourn aloud,” than the simple fact that Jesus himself participated in it (see John 11). When he heard that his friend Lazarus was dying, and in fact already knew when Lazarus would die, he delayed going to Lazarus’s home. When Jesus arrived, although he already knew he would raise Lazarus from the dead, he didn’t rush to do so immediately. Instead, he stopped. He weeped. He lamented. Jesus laments.

Our Lord’s actions show the importance of taking time to acknowledge, and enter into, suffering and pain. When physical suffering feels like a crushing weight, we can sit and cry over the reality of a broken world, because Jesus sits and cries with us.

4 Ways to Conquer Your Envy

Wed, 09/26/2018 - 12:00am

Envy is the only sin I can think of that is really no fun at all.

It begins in negative feelings of inferiority, progresses into nasty feelings of resentment, and then stagnates in a stewing, frothy mess of petty or belligerent offspring sins. Even when envy gets what it wants—the destruction or removal of another person’s good gift—it is left with empty energy that must be redirected to a new object of hatred.

None of this lights up any pleasure centers in anybody’s brain. Gluttony, greed, lust, vanity, pride, and all their cousins at least have that much going for them. Envy is a perfect example of slave-master sin—it requires all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and delivers you nothing (not even a lighted pleasure center) in return.

Put on Love to Put off Envy

Thankfully for the Christian, it’s both our right and our business to “put off your old self” and to “put on the new self” (Eph. 4:22–24).

The Christian who battles the sin of envy may mistakenly feel that he’s in more of a skirmish than a battle. Why? Because envy is so easy to keep a secret, even from oneself. And like other sins of the heart, the human imagination is always trying to relegate it to second place in the sin scale. Envy can’t be as dangerous as fornication because nobody ever sees it and it doesn’t really hurt anyone. Then, if envy ever produces natural offspring—other, more overt sins—our tendency is to cut off the sin that has flowered up out of it without attempting to remove the envious root.

Envy is the only sin I can think of that is really no fun at all. . . . Envy is a perfect example of slave-master sin.

This attitude is terribly insufficient. Here are two good reasons to take envy seriously enough to pull out the big guns against it.

One, Scripture makes it clear that although man cares mostly for the outward appearance, God is concerned with the heart (1 Sam. 16:7). This means that all this business about envy being a “secret sin” is nonsense. God can see your envy and your fornication side by side as if they were two slugs lying next to each other in the sun. There are no secret sins.

Two, Scripture makes it clear that what is in the heart doesn’t stay in the heart because, as Jesus observed on more than one occasion, it’s out of the heart that the mouth speaks (Matt. 12:34; 15:18). Envy often leads to action—like every other sin of the heart. Envy is not safe, it doesn’t stay put, and it comes with some very unpleasant friends.

Envy is a monster, and you’re going to have to do explosive, violent war with it. In the spirit of Ephesians 4, one wonderful way to “put off” the sin of envy is to “put on” the virtue of love. Here are four ways to fight envy with love.

1. Thank God for the success of the person you envy.

Jesus commanded us to pray for our enemies as one way of doing good to them (Matt. 5:43–48). But the envious heart turns even friends into enemies. Whether or not it’s accurate, your heart believes that a friend or acquaintance is an enemy to your happiness—just because they have (or are) something you would like to have (or be).

That means you can pray for your coworker, whom you’re thinking of as an enemy, and still be obedient to Jesus’s word here. When you pray, thank God for her and for the gifts God gave her. Thank him for granting her success.

2. Ask God for the further success of the person you envy.

That’s right. Pray specifically for her continued success, especially in whichever gift you’re envying her for.

Ask for things for your friends the way you would ask for things for yourself.

This means that if you have a friend who is getting all A’s and just got a free ride to Yale, then your order of business is to pray that he would keep getting A’s at Yale. If your friend just married the kind of man you’d have done anything to marry, pray for rich intimacy and growth in their marriage.

Ask for things for your friends the way you would ask for things for yourself, giving thought to their spiritual good as well as their earthly blessings.

3. Enjoy the gifts God gave to the person you envy.

Many of the things we envy in others aren’t possessions but personal traits, such as intelligence, beauty, talent, and interpersonal skill. The wonderful thing about these divine gifts, though, is that they can be possessed by one person and enjoyed by others—simultaneously.

This means that when you’re spending time with your friend, her charm and humor is something you can belly-laugh over. When you’re listening to your coworker give a talk at a professional convention, you’ve got a chance both to learn something and to worship the Father for making him so good at what he does. The fact that your sister plays really good music means—to state the obvious—that you have the opportunity to hear really good music.

Go through the exercise of doing what you may have avoided for a long time—gaze upon the glory with an unflinching gaze. Look for opportunities to praise the Father for what he has made.

4. Praise the person you envy.

Under normal circumstances, praising something is both a natural result of enjoying it and part of the process of enjoying it. So for you to silently, stoically sit and soak in the gifts of a friend or acquaintance without expressing admiration is unnatural. It truncates the exercise of enjoyment.

Ephesians 4:29 commands, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.”

What talk is more corrupting than the natural talk of an envious person in polite society? They find ways of inserting a barb into every compliment. They find ways of gossiping without openly declaring anything

What talk is more corrupting than the natural talk of an envious person in polite society?

But the alternative, according to this passage, should fill us with joy and possibility. We can instead use words that are “good for building up,” that “fit the occasion,” that “give grace.” Is that possible? Can we really do that today? Yes—by God alone as the sole source of every good gift. This liberates us to praise our neighbor naturally and freely.

Envy’s Expiration

It’s not for us to make our hearts new. Only the Spirit can produce love in us—which is exactly what he’s promised to do (Gal. 5:22)! Love is flowing even now; it’s beginning to crowd out other things in our hearts.

In the end, God will remove all traces of envy from his world. Good things—you may be sure—will be happening all the time to other people in heaven. A million Instagram accounts won’t be enough to capture it all.

The difference will be our reaction. Our love for God, responding to love from God, will produce genuine gladness for those around us. This is the kind of existence we’re preparing for.

Envy is for now. Love is forever (1 Cor. 13:8–13).

The Most Important Requirement for Work in Ministry

Tue, 09/25/2018 - 12:08am

In this new video, Collin Hansen—editorial director for TGC—discusses how waiting on God’s timing can develop character in the life of a minster.

Many hopeful men emerge from seminary eager to dive headfirst into ministry. Confident that seminary equipped them with the tools they need for the journey ahead, they find themselves discouraged when the realities of their first call don’t line up with what they came to expect from assigned readings and classroom discussions.

This book, with contributions from 15 veteran pastors, including Daniel L. Akin, Juan Sanchez, Phil A. Newton, and Scott Sauls, offers real-world advice about the joys and challenges of the first five years of pastoral ministry—bridging the gap between seminary training and life in a local church.

Armed with wisdom from those who have gone before them, young pastors will find encouragement to stand firm in the thick of the realities and rigors of pastoral ministry.

Order today!

Study: American Christians Are Erasing the Divide Between ‘Sacred’ and ‘Secular’ Jobs

Tue, 09/25/2018 - 12:04am

The Story: A new study finds that most Christian workers in America know how their work serves God or a higher purpose. But too many still don’t have a fully biblical view of vocation.

The Background: Barna Group, a religion and social research firm, in partnership with Abilene Christian University, released a new study that sets out to provide a comprehensive look at how working Christians think and feel about their calling and career. Christians at Work is Barna’s first release in a multi-year initiative focused on studying vocation.

According to Barna, five years ago one-third of employed Christians (34 percent) had never even thought about whether they felt “called” to their work. Today, that has dropped to 15 percent.

Many Christians today feel their current employment is also well-matched with their sense of calling. Three-quarters are at least somewhat satisfied with this measure of their career (39 percent “very,” 36 percent “somewhat”). A majority of Christian workers say their unique strengths, talents and abilities are being utilized in their present job (42 percent “strongly” agree, 43 percent “somewhat” agree).

Six in 10 working Christian adults believe they’ve been given certain skills and talents to use for God’s glory (61 percent) or for the good of others (61 percent). However, only four in 10 (40 percent) agree strongly that they are aware of these gifts might be or how they should be applied, and only about one in three (34 percent) wants to know more about how they could serve God through these talents.

Practicing Christians (defined by Barna as those who strongly agree their faith is important to them and attend church at least monthly) are 36 percentage points more likely than their non-practicing peers (81 percent vs. 45 percent) to strongly affirm that they possess God-given gifts, and more than half (52 percent vs. 31 percent) are acutely aware of these gifts. Almost three-quarters (73 percent) of practicing Christians want to use their gifts and talents for the good of others.

The study also finds that most Christian workers don’t see a strict spiritual hierarchy of professions or a divide between “sacred” and “secular” jobs.

Asked whether it is better for a Christian to become a pastor or missionary, or to represent their faith well in their place of work, the majority of respondents (64 percent) said neither is better than the other. Only 12 percent thought it was better to be a pastor or missionary, and twice that many (25 percent) said it was better to represent faith at work.

The majority of Christian workers believe that there is potential for a variety of occupations to be categorized as “callings.” Nevertheless, as Barna notes, there is a “subtle perceived hierarchy in this regard, with ministry-related jobs at the top and more technical jobs at the bottom.”

More than a majority say that being a pastor (69 percent), missionary (67 percent), worship leader (59 percent), or parent (52 percent) is “usually a calling.” Slightly fewer than half believe that being a financial adviser (46 percent), accountant (45 percent), musician (45 percent), athlete (42 percent), military officer (42 percent), pediatrician (42 percent), firefighter (40 percent), or non-pastoral church staff (40 percent) is “sometimes a calling.” Only 3 percent said that being a school janitor is “usually a calling” while 32 percent said it is “sometimes a calling.”

Why It Matters: While it took about 500 years, the Reformation view of vocation is finally catching on.

A vocation is something we are called to by God. It is not something we choose for ourselves. It includes all the roles in which we are called to serve and minister to our neighbors.

While vocation is broader than just our occupation, our jobs are often a primary way we serve our neighbors. As TGC’s Theological Vision for Ministry states, “Christians glorify God not only through the ministry of the Word, but also through their vocations of agriculture, art, business, government, scholarship—all for God’s glory and the furtherance of the public good. Too many Christians have learned to seal off their faith–beliefs from the way they work in their vocation.”

Over the past decade, organizations like TGC have helped to show people how to better integrate their faith and work. This new study by Barna confirms that we’re making progress. Unfortunately, it also shows we have much further to go.

My grandfather spent most of his adult life working as a school janitor. I suspect that during his lifetime he never heard another Christian tell him his job could be considered his calling. Even more dispiriting, he’d face the same situation today, as nearly three-fourths of Christians today would be hesitant to say that God called him to such work.

“Even janitors and accountants serve the common good,” says Cory Maxwell-Coghlan, a senior writer at Barna Group. “When we conflate God’s kingdom with the institutional church (i.e., only clergy or missionaries are engaging in full-time sacred work) we restrict the scope of God’s work and kingship.”

What does it say about the church when we dismiss the work of men and women who provide a safe and clean learning environment for our own children as unimportant? What does it say about us when we act as if we don’t believe God could call anyone to such worthy labor? What do such dismissive attitudes reveal about our beliefs, not only of calling and vocation but about God himself?

Saints Are Needed in Every Sphere

Tue, 09/25/2018 - 12:03am

Every pastor has regrets. David Platt now realizes that, earlier in his pastoral ministry, he unintentionally implied that all serious Christians go into full-time ministry. “In zeal to raise up pastors within the church, in zeal to call out missionaries from the church,” he recalls, “I was implicitly setting up this tier that, ‘If you’re really passionate about Christ and the spread of the gospel, then [go into full-time ministry].’ I would never have put it that way, but I think that’s the way it often came across.”

In this discussion, Carl Ellis (academic dean of The Makazi Institute and senior research fellow at Reformed Theological Seminary), Phillip Holmes (director of communications at Reformed Theological Seminary), and Platt (teaching pastor at McLean Bible Church) talk about why we need Christians in a wide variety of vocational spheres—and the effect their work can have for the kingdom of God.

You can listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition podcast here (or view it here).


God Didn’t Call Someone Else to Preach to Your Church

Tue, 09/25/2018 - 12:02am

A church in Colorado recently posted a job listing that created a buzz.

They were searching for a preacher who would memorize and repeat sermons preached by famous communicators, such as Steven Furtick. When you listen to certain preachers, they argued, you “feel like you were fed.” So why not try to replicate their preaching?

While their proposal is unorthodox, it’s simply the logical (if extreme) outworking of an assumption that permeates many churches today. Namely, that what a church primarily needs from their pastor is a certain communication style.

And it is an assumption to which church-planting pastors are particularly susceptible.

Danger of Comparison

As we battle the insecurity that so often accompanies church planting, it’s almost impossible not to compare ourselves to other preachers and their successes (or, at least, perceived successes).

Almost daily we’re exposed to the preaching “greats,” whether by podcast or sermon clips on social media, and we can’t help but evaluate our latest offering in light of those we hear online. We want to listen to be edified, but sometimes we just end up discouraged.

As we battle the insecurity that so often accompanies church planting, it’s almost impossible not to compare ourselves to other preachers and their successes.

Then we begin to believe the lie that led to the job listing: in order to be good, you need to preach like “that guy.” His effectiveness must lie in his cadence or charisma, we assume—certain speech patterns or mannerisms that naturally yield a desired outcome.

I need to be funnier, like he is . . . I should show more passion, like he does . . . I really ought to [fill in the blank].

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with laboring to develop as a preacher; and as church planters, preaching development must remain a priority. And part of this development includes learning from others, especially those whom God has gifted. But learning does not entail mimicking.

Trying to parrot other preachers undermines both our faithfulness to and effectiveness in the pulpit. So here are two encouragements to remember when the temptation to parrot arises.

1. Preaching is not less than communicating. But it is more.

Simply developing as a communicator does not mean you’ll develop as a preacher. To be sure, preaching is not less than communicating, but it is far more. As Paul explained to the church in Corinth:

When I came to you . . . I did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom . . . and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest on the wisdom of men but in the power of God. (1 Cor. 2:1–5)

Paul was not opposed to using effective rhetoric and persuasive language (Acts 17). So when he says he didn’t preach with “plausible words of wisdom,” he doesn’t mean his preaching lacked these things altogether, but that it lacked the kind of persuasion used by the sophists and rhetoricians of the day—the kind where the power lies within the person and his delivery.

The desire to mirror another’s teaching style arises from the false assumption that effectiveness comes primarily from style, not from the Spirit.

2. God has given your flock to you. Not someone else.

I once heard Matt Chandler encourage a roomful of church-planting pastors to stop trying to be Tim Keller. For one, he said, you aren’t smart enough. But more importantly, if God wanted Tim Keller to pastor your church, then he would’ve had Tim Keller pastor your church.

The New Testament is clear: God desires to see the truth of his Word proclaimed primarily through local-church preaching. Which means that when God entrusts the pastorate to us, he entrusts the pulpit to us.

When God entrusts the pastorate to us, he entrusts the pulpit to us.

Naturally, that can be hard to believe. But as pastors, do we not regularly encourage others that God has placed them in their spheres of influence—neighborhoods, places of work, and so on—for a specific purpose? We have to believe the same applies to us.

In his infinite wisdom, God has chosen you to shepherd your church. If he wanted someone else, he’d have called someone else.

Mature, Don’t Mimic

Continuing to learn and grow as a preacher is vital. There may be times, though, when you’re tempted to blur the line between learning and mimicking. Perhaps it’s when you’re wondering if more people are ever going to come to your church, or when you’re inundated with social-media highlight reels from other churches and preachers. Perhaps it’s when you’re just not sure you’ve “got what it takes.”

Brother, it’s precisely in those moments that you must fight the lies and cling to the truth: God abandoned neither his sovereignty nor his goodness when he called you to plant—and preach to—your church.

So preach knowing that God is sovereign. Preach knowing that his Spirit empowers you. And, most importantly, preach with the assurance that your worth is found not in your sermons, but in the finished work of your Savior—the One you have the privilege of exalting week in and week out.

3 Ways to Navigate Politics in the Pulpit

Tue, 09/25/2018 - 12:00am

With another political season upon us, pastors again stand on the edge of a knife. If we say nothing, some will insist, we fail to offer pastoral leadership. If we speak out, we will face criticism, even harsh accusations, whatever we say. People may even leave our churches. Yet politics almost inevitably reaches the pulpit, if only because the Bible says so much about rulers and citizens.

Faithful pastors can hardly avoid social and political issues if they expound the full teaching of Scripture. But how can we do so in ways that are constructive and helpful?

Scripture and Politics

First, let’s consider how the Bible addresses politics. It doesn’t legislate any political or economic system, nor does it specifically tackle most burning issues of the day. Rather, it describes the basics: God’s standards for leaders, especially kings and elders, and the disposition believers should have toward them.

For example, Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles record the ways of faithless rulers, which, Paul says, should instruct us (1 Cor. 10:6–11). The Gospels do the same with the Herod clan and Pilate—while offering the contrasting positive example of King Jesus.

To mention just two particular teachings, Deuteronomy 17:14–20 says kings should act like brothers to their people, submitting to God’s laws and not merely accumulating wealth. And Proverbs 31:4 holds kings, like elders, to a higher standard: “It is not for kings to drink wine, or for rulers to take strong drink, lest they drink and forget what has been decreed.”

Scripture also says believers ordinarily offer respect, prayer, payment of taxes, and obedience to human laws (Rom. 13:1–7; 1 Pet. 2:13–17; 1 Tim. 2:2). Of course, if rulers command believers to isolate God’s law, then “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 4:18–20; 5:27–29).

The Bible has abundant information on these matters, and a preacher dedicated to proclaiming the whole counsel of God can hardly avoid them (Acts 20:26–28).

But in politically charged days, how can pastors speak without endangering church unity? Here are three guidelines.

1. Embed teaching on politics within a philosophy of preaching.

Wise pastors make clear that they follow the text wherever it leads and they give instruction on every (biblically addressed) issue, as the prophets and apostles did. Therefore, they preach on hard topics: predestination, sex ethics, blood atonement, and social injustice.

Mindful of the dangers of identifying with any political leader or party, one approach to preaching holds that pastors exercise the greatest influence when they avoid explicit political or social statements. This has the advantage of preserving the preacher’s first task: to proclaim the gospel and expound God’s Word. Explicitly partisan comments in the political season may have minimal effect anyway, because people are prepared to disagree with challenges to their views. Similarly, a life-affirming pastor might speak to life-related issues whenever they arise, instead of just making remarks on a designated pro-life Sunday.

2. Make noncontroversial points that touch law and politics.

A tentative pastor might begin with a social issue that has no partisan bent, an issue where all parties see an injustice. For example, the Bible often calls for judges to act justly, neither acquitting the guilty nor condemning the righteous (Lev. 19:15; Isa. 5:22–23; Prov. 17:15). But there is widespread agreement that America’s system of bail and plea bargaining leads to injustice. The current system grew incrementally, with no grand design, but it has come to favor the wealthy who can afford bail and capable lawyers. Meanwhile, the poor languish in jail before trial because they can’t make bail. They also plead guilty when innocent because the system, according to one noted law professor, “creates incentives that induce rational innocent people to plead guilty.” Since this topic is nonpartisan, it’s a safe place to apply Scripture to a legal matter.

It’s risky to speak plainly on debated issues because emotions flare. Perhaps because they find too much of their identity in politics, some will jump on any perceived deviation from their position on guns, schools, or sex ethics. Here the practice of preaching through the Bible has side benefits. First, it keeps us from riding a favored topic. Second, if someone asks, “Why did you speak on this today?” we have an honest answer: “We are working through Corinthians, and this was the next passage.” Still, pastors must remember that the Lord charges his messengers to proclaim his Word, whether sweet or bitter (Isa. 6; 21; Jer. 20; Ezek. 33; Rev. 10:8–10). As pastors gently but plainly preach whatever Scripture says, their flock will grow accustomed to that.

3. Follow the principles for pastoral leadership.

Pastors who anticipate speaking on politics or a hot ethical topic should follow known principles for pastoral leadership. Explain your philosophy of preaching and share its biblical basis. Seek your fellow elders’ blessing and support when approaching controversial topics, whether theological, ethical, or social. Consult with wise leaders, male and female, and talk to experts, whenever possible, to ensure your comments are accurate. (When I was a pastor, I recruited trusted professionals in medicine, law, engineering, finance, business, and politics for that reason.) Above all, pray that your people will hunger for, and internalize, biblical teaching.

Wise pastors also make certain basic points: God is not a Republican or a Democrat. No political leader is the 13th apostle. All political parties need the gospel’s correction. For example, conservatives tend to believe the self-directed individual can improve, even rescue, himself. Meanwhile, many liberals think society can bring the transformation that individuals cannot. Of course, all parties boast that their principles are superior, yet no party consistently follows its own principles. So everyone needs to humble himself, repent, and believe the gospel. Every person is fallen, and every movement is flawed. Jesus is the only One who will never disappoint us.

In addition, wise pastors pray regularly for all governors and leaders, according to Scripture. They will urge everyone to vote. They may also remind Christians that while there are real differences between the major parties, they are partial.

No Party Spirit Necessary

Today, the Republican party pays more attention to evangelicals, and Democrats are more likely be irreligious. But positions and alliances shift over time. The first major-party presidential candidate to endorse a right to abortion was Barry Goldwater, a Republican. His reasoning was libertarian: the government has no role in reproduction.

Even today, perhaps one-third of Republicans support abortion rights, and one-third of Democrats oppose them—which is logical, given their concern for the weak and defenseless. The point here is not to scrutinize politicians for inconsistencies, but to remember Psalm 146. We put no confidence in “princes . . . in whom there is no salvation” (v. 3). Rather, “Blessed is he . . . whose hope is in the LORD his God” (v. 5).


10 Lessons I Learned from Preaching Revelation

Mon, 09/24/2018 - 12:04am

In June I concluded a series of 38 sermons in the book of Revelation. As I reflect on my time in this remarkable book, 10 truths stand out.

Spoiler: the things that had the greatest effect on me had nothing to do with numerical symbolism or 666 or the Beast or the Great Prostitute or the millennium.

1. Persecution Is Part of the Christian Life

Christians in this present age can expect to suffer intense persecution at the hands of an unbelieving, idolatrous world. No one is exempt.

To suffer is not an indication of God’s disappointment with us but of our identification with Jesus.

To suffer is not an indication of God’s disappointment with us but of our identification with Jesus. When embraced with humility and courage it can be a tremendous way to make known the sufficiency and beauty of all that God is for us in Jesus.

2. God Is Sovereign

God is absolutely and comprehensively sovereign over all the affairs of all mankind. Not even the most wicked stand outside of God’s providential power.

It often appears that the entire world reels with one blow after another. In Egypt, dozens of Christians are killed when ISIS detonates a bomb on Palm Sunday. Bloody civil wars continually erupt around the globe. Racial strife continue in our country.

The world, by all appearances, appears horribly unstable, chaotic, and out of control. Revelation is God’s word to us that he is in complete control.

3. Christ Is King

Jesus Christ is pre-eminent above all earthly powers and persons. At the heart of human sin is the tendency to exalt as god anything or anyone above or in preference to Jesus Christ. But he is King over all kings and Lord over all lords.

Jesus is alive from the dead and seated at the right hand of the Majesty on high, reigning and ruling and exercising absolute sovereignty over all the kings of the earth, all the events in the Middle East, throughout Central and South America, and even in the plans of North Korea, China, and Russia.

As “the ruler of the kings on earth” he mysteriously governs and regulates what all earthly kings and presidents do, sometimes restraining them from doing evil, sometimes frustrating their plans, but always ordering events so they might serve his purposes. We can’t figure out how he does it, but he does. Paul declares in 1 Corinthians 15:25 that Christ “must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.” So don’t just read the newspaper or scour the internet. Read and reflect with the eyes of faith on the supremacy of Jesus Christ over all things.

4. All Things Will Culminate in Jesus

We have assurance that God will accomplish his purposes and bring all things to their consummation in Jesus. No matter how bad circumstances may become, no matter how oppressed the church may be, no matter how successful and powerful the world and its wicked ways appear, nothing can derail or disrupt God’s purpose in history to bring a Bride to the Bridegroom at the wedding feast of the Lamb.

5. The Church Will Appear Dead

As the global oppression of the church spreads and intensifies, there will come a time when it will appear that the church has been destroyed. For a time, its voice will be silenced and its presence barely noticeable. But this is only in appearance, as the church will rise up in power, as the catalyst for a global harvest of souls. If you wonder where I find this point, I encourage you to listen to my sermons in Revelation 11.

6. Satan Is a Formidable, but Defeated, Foe

Satan hates God and hates you and hates the church. He will do all within his power, under God’s sovereignty, to undermine your confidence in God’s goodness and lead you to abandon your faith. But we are assured complete and final victory as we overcome Satan by the blood of the Lamb, by the word of our testimony, and as we do not love our lives even unto death (Rev. 12).

7. Christians Will Be Preserved by God

Although the wrath of God against sin and idolatry will intensify and expand as we approach the second coming of Christ, no Christian will be the object of it. We will be preserved eternally safe and secure. God has sealed his servants, all of them, with the Holy Spirit—and no amount of suffering or hardship can separate us from the love of God in Christ.

8. We Can’t Comprehend the Great Things that Lie Ahead

Neither eye has seen nor ear has heard the marvelous blessings God has in store for his people in the new heavens and new earth. As Paul put it in Romans 8:18, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”

9. Justice Will Be Served

The one thing that will guard your heart from becoming cynical and pessimistic is the repeated assurance in Revelation that a time of reckoning is coming when God will bring justice to bear on the earth. Truth will be vindicated; evil will receive its rightful recompense.

10. Christ Is Coming Soon

Amid all the argumentation over this book with its symbolism, the question of Israel, the rapture, and the tribulation, may we never lose sight of what is pre-eminent: the physical, personal, bodily return of Jesus Christ to consummate his kingdom. That is our blessed hope!

So remember: although some will tell you that you are wasting your time reading and meditating on Revelation because it’s too difficult and obscure, Jesus tells us otherwise:

Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near. (Rev. 1:3)

Behold, I am coming soon. Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book. (Rev. 22:7)

The book of Revelation is not beyond your ability to understand and believe and obey. Don’t miss out on the blessing promised for all who keep what is written in it.

How the Gospel Takes Root in ‘Crazy Rich’ Singapore

Mon, 09/24/2018 - 12:03am

The tiny island nation of Singapore was brought to colorful life on the big screen this summer with the hit movie Crazy Rich Asians. For a film about the absurd opulence of some “crazy rich” families in Asia, Singapore makes the perfect setting. The famously modern and affluent city—the world’s most expensive for the fifth year running—is on vivid display in the film, from the over-the-top spaceship architecture of the Marina Bay Sands Hotel to the ridiculously nice Changi Airport (routinely voted the world’s best) to the colonial luxury of the Raffles Hotel.

An early scene shows a group of wealthy Singaporean women having a Bible study on Ephesians inside a posh mansion. The dichotomous scene plays for laughs, but it captures one of the unique contours of Christianity in Singapore—a nation where affluence and piety often coexist, for good and for ill.

Once a vulnerable and dubiously viable Third World island, Singapore quickly transformed itself into a First World nation with one of the highest per-capita GDPs in the world. Though it faces some of the same challenges as any developed nation (high income inequality, poverty, burdensome cost of living), Singapore is consistently one of the most competitive, affluent, and well-governed countries in the world. But this remarkable feat of nation-building—no doubt a result of the determination and industriousness of its people—has come with certain attitudes that can make it hard for the gospel to take root: self-reliance, pragmatism, and materialism, to name a few.

I asked three pastors in Singapore—Simon Murphy of Redemption Hill, Guna Raman of Agape Baptist Church, and Huai Tze Tan of One Covenant Church—about these and other challenges they face preaching the gospel and making disciples in Singapore. Here’s an edited transcript of what they told me.

What should TGC readers know about Christianity in Singapore?

Murphy: Christianity is very visible in Singapore: there are many churches, and churches play a fairly active role in the community. While the percentage of Christians is growing, it is still small, and there are many who do not know Jesus. While most churches earnestly strive to preach the Word and display the love of Christ, the gospel is merely assumed in some churches, and the way it intersects with one’s life and circumstances is not clearly grasped. This disconnect easily leads to Christianity being seen as either a moralistic religion, where the approval of God needs to and can be earned, or as a contract between God and man, where faith and/or works results in security and prosperity.

Nevertheless, God is active here in Singapore, drawing unbelievers and giving Christians a deeper longing for himself. We see this in a growing number of conversions and churches, and in a vibrant Christian presence in the community. 

Raman: On the surface, Singapore looks like a nation that is well “Christianized,” with more than 800 churches in a small island (278 square miles) of 5.8 million people. But while Christianity here can appear robust and strong—with several high-profile megachurches that have gained international fame and recognition—much of it is theologically weak and shallow. Many churches preach heavily moralistic sermons or, on the other hand, proclaim “hyper-grace,” subtly (if not overtly) proclaiming the prosperity gospel. There is a great need in Singapore for more theological depth.

There is a great need in Singapore for more theological depth.

Tan: Singapore was a former British colony. Hence, the lingua franca here is English, and Christianity arrived here early on with the British colonialists. More than 18 percent of Singapore residents identify as Christian, of which 7 percent are Roman Catholic, and 11.8 percent chiefly Protestant, with a small number of Eastern Orthodox Christians.

Describe your churches.

Tan: One Covenant Church is a new church plant meeting at Redhill in Singapore, supported by Mission to the World (MTW) and Redeemer City to City. We launched public worship in April 2017 and currently average around 40 adults and 10 children on Sunday mornings. We have singles, young families, professionals, and students. We seem to have some traction among those who had left church and even the faith and are finding their way back to God, as well as among non-believing friends of our members, Singaporeans who have come back from overseas, and internationals who have moved to Singapore.

We seek to be a winsome, humble, and credible witness of the gospel in Singapore to the skeptic, seeker, and saint. We are confessional, subscribing to the ancient Christian creeds and the Westminster Standards. We are connectional, believing that churches should work together for mutual accountability, encouragement, and mission. And we are commissional, believing that God has commissioned the church to proclaim the gospel and engage the culture.

Murphy: Our church, Redemption Hill, will turn 10 in November. Across our three congregations, we average between 1,000 to 1,100 people on Sundays. We are located in Chinatown, in the heart of the city. Our congregation is healthy mix of locals and internationals. Our average age is fairly young (28 years) and made up mostly of students and professionals. We have a good proportion of singles and families.

Those who have come through our doors seem to have a real hunger for deep, soul-satisfying knowledge of God. They are not content with Christian platitudes or a light understanding of God. There is a passion and desire for God’s Word (both read and preached), as well as for gospel explicitness and applicability. We strive to apply the gospel to all aspects of life, and to help members form deep, intentional, gospel-centered relationships with one another. As a church that holds to “city renewal” as one of our values, we long to see the proliferation of the gospel in our city, and for the city to be renewed culturally, socially, and spiritually for the glory of God. This means we actively pursue mercy and justice and integrating our faith with our work.

Raman: I have pastored Agape Baptist Church, the church I planted, for the last 29 years. We have two campuses: OneDorset and OneFarrer. Four years ago, the church at OneDorset planted a new congregation, which is now at OneFarrer, primarily to attract young professionals seeking God. The OneDorset congregation is active in serving the immediate community just behind the church, with 21 blocks of high-rise apartments, making up around 2,100 household units with about 10,000 people. For years the church has been active in bridging the gap between church and community through works of justice and mercy to win the heart of the community and win a hearing for the gospel.

One of the key milestones for our church was when I made a fresh discovery of the power and centrality of the gospel in 2010, through the books of Tim Keller. That discovery led the church on a gospel journey that has been rather amazing, bringing about changes that have been transformational to the life of the church in every possible aspect, from ministry design to gospel-centered preaching.

How does the unique culture and history of Singapore influence the shape of Christianity there?

Raman: Singapore has become very affluent in the last 30 years, largely due to the government’s pragmatic thinking. By and large, Singaporeans don’t care for what is of intrinsic value as opposed to what works and can bring in more money, more success, more comfort, and more convenience. This approach has spilled into the church. Churches in Singapore tend toward the easy and comfortable life. The nation has not seen a major catastrophe (except for SARS for a brief period in 2003) or a major economic downturn. As result, many Christians here are averse to suffering. Many believe God is a god of love but not of wrath. There is little understanding of the doctrine of sin and, therefore, little appreciation for the work of the cross and the grace that comes to us from the finished work of Christ. Christians are often more interested in a god of healing and a god of blessing than the God of the Bible.

Christians here are often more interested in a god of healing and a god of blessing than the God of the Bible.

Murphy: Singapore is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society. The harmony that exists among different races and religions is zealously guarded and ardently protected (both by the government and also by society itself). For many, Singapore is a shining example for the world of multiculturalism at its best. While this means there is a need to be extremely aware of religious sensitivities in the city’s context, the tolerance for other religions actually forces a generosity of spirit and charity that is helpful as others seek to understand Christianity (and other religions). It is an environment of respect and cooperation. The downside is that the insistence on truth can, without proper dialogue, make Christianity seem intolerant, exclusive, and even detrimental to society. 

As with most other Asian countries, Singapore puts great value on the family unit. Individualism is often expected to cede to family honor, reputation, and harmony. Many—especially the older generation—view filial piety and conformity as the paramount expression of love for one’s elders. In addition, ethnicity is closely tied to the expression of the family unit (e.g. “We are Chinese, therefore we think/act in a certain way”). This can cause challenges for a Christian with unbelieving parents or a Christian trying to live by countercultural biblical principles. Also, because Christianity came to Singapore through foreign missionaries of colonial powers, Christianity can still be perceived as a Western religion that is fundamentally incompatible with ethnic identity.

Because Christianity came to Singapore through foreign missionaries of colonial powers, Christianity can still be perceived as a Western religion that is fundamentally incompatible with ethnic identity.

Tan: Singapore is the third-most-densely populated country in the world. It is a highly educated, sophisticated, and pluralistic society, strategically located on the crossroads between East and West. Its world-class airport provides access to key cities in the Asia Pacific (e.g., Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Taiwan, New Delhi, Perth, Shanghai, and Tokyo) and to 2.8 billion people within a seven-hour flight radius.

If there were three words that could summarize Singapore culture it would be pluralistic, pragmatic, and secular. Pluralistic because of the nation’s multiculturalism. Pragmatic because the founding father of modern Singapore, Cambridge-educated lawyer Lee Kuan Yew, was not given to ideals but rather built a society based on what was practical. And although all major religions are represented here, statistics show a growing trend of secularism in Singapore, with a sizable 18.5 percent of the population identifying as having “no religion.” The reasons noted for shunning religion included a perception that religion did not connect with their lifestyle and needs, and that religious institutions were ideologically regressive and slow to engage young people. Notably, respondents also cited how high-profile scandals involving religious leaders had compromised the credibility of religious groups as a moral voice.

If there were three words that could summarize Singapore culture it would be pluralistic, pragmatic, and secular.

Although this is painting in broad strokes, Christian attitudes here tend to be more pragmatic than doctrinal. Oftentimes, it is what works, rather than what is true, that is of greatest concern. Also, because of our multi-religious society and sensitivities toward proselytizing, churches tend to go for the “lowest common denominator” and are wary of emphasizing doctrinal distinctives.

What are the biggest discipleship challenges you face in the Singapore context?

Murphy: Meritocracy is a deeply held and revered value, long considered integral to its success and development. Singaporeans constantly feel assessed by their performance, and there is a prevailing mindset that people deserve the outcomes they’ve been dealt. Further, the society is incredibly competitive, and the cost of living is high. It’s easy for Christianity to be received only insofar as it does not impinge on these mundane realities in people’s lives. Faith becomes a challenge as people feel God is irrelevant or inconvenient when the pressures of life become real. 

Tan: People work incredibly hard and are incredibly busy. Hence, many struggle to make time for church. Christians also sense a disconnect between what they hear in church and how it connects to their daily lives: family, work, relationships, and so on.

Raman: Singaporeans are very busy. Many travel globally in their jobs. Kids face tremendous pressure at school from a young age. Many Christians do not have the time needed for discipleship. Many do not have a regular devotional life (leading us at Agape to run a closely monitored daily Bible reading program), and they tend to pray on the run.

What idols are most insidious in the Singapore context?

Tan: Pragmatism. It is built into our education system and into the general approach we take. It is a self-confidence in being able to work things out by ourselves. Another is materialism, where people have little time and space to reflect on meaning, purpose, and existence, and are much more preoccupied with the here and now.

Murphy: First, the idol of material affluence, rooted in the need to build and maintain a certain image/reputation/lifestyle and not fall behind in a high-pressure society that assesses worth based on achievements. The implication is that the prosperity gospel is appealing to many. Second, legalism is also deeply rooted in Singapore given the practice of meritocracy, as described above. Receiving grace and extending it therefore becomes extremely counterintuitive, countercultural, and even offensive in a culture that places so much emphasis on the idea that only the deserving are rewarded. Accordingly, Christianity has been widely understood to be moralistic. While the gospel may be expressed and understood at the point of salvation, it can often become redundant thereafter. As there is a weak grasp on how the gospel applies to the rest of the Christian life, sanctification and discipleship tend to slip into legalism, where one becomes acceptable to God by works/service/behavior. 

Raman: First, comfort. Singaporeans are not prepared to suffer, and Singaporean Christians are not prepared to suffer persecution. Many want a faith that is comfortable, a life that is easy, and a God who only brings good into their lives. Second, approval. In Singapore there is a desire to be the best in everything, from our seaport to airport to education system to smart-city pride. Singaporeans often crave recognition and success at all cost (for them and their children) and often feel great shame when they fail. Christians, then, can feel like God is punishing them when tragedy hits their lives.

What aspect of the gospel have you found most connects with Singaporeans?

Raman: The truth that we are accepted by God not on the basis of what we have done right, but on what Christ has done right, is liberating. The message of grace is empowering. Christians here need to find rest in Christ and not strive harder and harder to win God’s approval and blessing. The gospel provides that rest.

Christians here need to find rest in Christ and not strive harder and harder to win God’s approval and blessing. The gospel provides that rest.

Tan: There is a yearning and hunger for deep and meaningful relationships, and for family. Because of Singapore’s pragmatism, many are left existentially and relationally cold. The gospel’s promise that God makes us his own children and puts us into families, we have found to be appealing to non-Christians.

Murphy: In the context of a high-pressure society, love and affirmation can often seem to be tied to performance. In light of this, when the gospel is presented in a way that the unconditional love and tenderness of the Father is made manifest, it is often received well, as it taps into a yearning for affirmation that is not performance-based. So while salvation by grace alone may seem like an “obstacle” due to the prevailing culture, the fact that it’s countercultural can work to its advantage. It is a radically refreshing message in a society prone to assessing people’s worth based on their résumé.

Also in this series: