It doesn’t get much better than living the life of an NFL player. Catered meals, private travel, throngs of fans, social media prominence; it’s the good life. You even get to play as yourself on the Madden video game, which just adds to the fact that millions are already watching you on TV every week. What more could a guy ask for?
Maybe this is why I became a church planter. It provided a life comparable to playing in the league. Basically the same thing, right? Wrong. Church planting and playing in the NFL are on opposite ends of the spectrum.Desire to Plant
When I entered the NFL, I already knew I wanted to plant a church one day. I met Jesus in college while reading the King James Version of the Bible, which I’d been given by a stranger. About eight months later, I sensed God perhaps calling me to ministry. I wasn’t ready to plant a church at 19 years old (despite what I thought at the time), so the best course of action was to continue through college and see where football would take me.Eddie (44) playing with the Cleveland Browns
In college, I was honored to be selected first team all-conference, as well as team MVP. The hype began to buzz in the coaching and scouting world. Not many players come out of the University of Idaho, so when one does, the entire state tends to get excited.
Despite all the personal attention I received, our team was horrendous. We finished 2–10 my senior year. To add insult to injury, our season ended in a huge loss, and I blew out my knee, which significantly hurt my chances of being drafted.
I didn’t expect God to use one of the most disappointing seasons of my life to prepare me to plant a church 10 years later.
I didn’t expect God to use one of the most disappointing seasons of my life to prepare me to plant a church 10 years later. With nothing to do but sit on the couch and read while I recovered, I devoured the Scriptures. I read the whole Bible on that couch, and my sense of calling began to solidify. I was gripped by the glory and majesty of God. More than ever I knew that, at some point, I wanted to plant a church.Confusion
Despite my injury, I was drafted by the Washington Redskins in the seventh round of the 2009 draft. It was a dream come true. I’d spent my entire life working for that moment. It was even a promise I made to my mother on her death bed. Yet somehow, as I flew to D.C. for training camp, I felt utter discontentment.
My time on the couch the previous 10 months had done something to me. Feasting on God’s Word had shaped me. I felt completely torn. It sounds crazy that someone could get to the NFL and not be happy, but there I was.
It sounds crazy that someone could get to the NFL and not be happy, but there I was.
On top of all this, I needed a few unexpected surgeries, which only compounded the uncertainty about my future in the NFL. One morning, I went for a walk to pray, asking God to give me insight about what to do. I was contemplating quitting football. But as I prayed, I realized I needed to embrace where God had placed me.
I also realized that my discontentment was not neutral; it was offensive to God. Discontentment in our circumstances is discontentment with God himself. So I settled in and gave myself to glorifying him in the league. My vocation as an NFL player was valuable to God and, if nothing else, was a platform to share the gospel.Transition
My football career of five years ended after I had back surgery while with the Cleveland Browns. Most players experience some sort of existential crisis once football is over. For many, football is all they’ve ever known. But I knew exactly what I desired to do.
In each city my wife and I moved to while I was in the league, we joined a church plant. When football finished, we kept doing the same. After serving in ministry in the Seattle area for nearly two years, we decided to move to Salt Lake City. We met a couple who was there to plant a church, so we jumped in.
We loved Salt Lake, and our family became comfortable there. I was working for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and helping to plant a church. We owned a nice home, and my kids liked the city. The dream of planting a church slipped to the back burner; we assumed we’d plant one day, but not for a while.From the Comfortable to the Unknown
But God determines where he places his people, and when (Acts 17:26). After three years in Salt Lake, the doors began to fly open to plant a church in my hometown of San Francisco. I met a guy at the Acts 29 US West conference who lived in the city and helped me think through logistics.Eddie preaching at Bay City Church
Everyone was supportive—including pastors, family, and mentors. The only thing stopping us was our comfort. We weren’t expecting to experience such comfort and stability in Utah. It was a stark contrast to life in the NFL, which was marked by uncertainty and instability; I could be fired at any moment, and we’d have to up and move to a new city or state. It was stressful. In Salt Lake—for the first time in our marriage—my family was able to take a deep breath and put down roots.
So even though the opportunity to plant a church in San Francisco seemed to fall into our lap, it wasn’t an easy decision. San Francisco is the most expensive city in America. Is God really asking us to sell most of what we have for something that might not work? We longed for clarity. Would this work? Would it be worth it?
God doesn’t promise perfect clarity. He promises to be faithful.
But God doesn’t promise perfect clarity. He promises to be faithful. He was simply asking us, “Come and see” (John 1:39, 46). Despite our lack of perfect clarity, the call was so palpable that we felt we’d be telling God “no” if we didn’t go. So we went.
So we moved back to San Francisco in March 2017 and launched a Bible study in our home in January 2018. Since then, we’ve had a front row seat to God’s faithfulness. We officially started Bay City Church in September 2018.
As a young church family, we’re learning that God is often going to ask us to jump before he hands us the parachute. He wants us to trust him. And because of God’s perfect track record of showing up when I need him, I’m learning to trust him in my weakness as I lean on his strength and labor for his fame.
Just 50 years ago Phoenix was barely in America’s top 30 most populous cities. Today it is the nation’s sixth-largest city, and its larger metropolitan area (which includes cities like Chandler, Glendale, Scottsdale, and Tempe) has a population of nearly 5 million.
Partly due its Sun Belt warmth and Sonoran Desert sun—more sunny days annually than any other U.S. metropolitan area—the rapid growth of Arizona’s capital has resulted in a city that may be full of older retirees but is young in its identity. People come to Phoenix from all over the place for different reasons. The city is increasingly diverse in both demographics and also politics.
Though two-thirds of Phoenix residents identify as Christian, Phoenix also ranks high (#12) on Barna’s list of America’s most unchurched cities. Pastors in Phoenix face a variety of challenges in reaching this metropolitan area with the gospel, from the idols of consumerism and comfort to the challenges of politics and issues like illegal immigration.
I asked three Phoenix-area pastors—Vermon Pierre of Roosevelt Community Church, Josh Vincent of Trinity Bible Church, and Chris Gonzalez of Missio Dei Communities—to reflect on the challenges and opportunities of gospel-centered ministry in Phoenix today.Briefly describe your churches.
Pierre: Roosevelt Community Church was planted out of Camelback Bible Church in Paradise Valley. In 2005, downtown Phoenix was full of empty buildings and dirt lots. People would come in for work or sports events but then immediately leave. Downtown Phoenix was often described as a ghost town after 5 p.m. Most church plants at the time were looking for up-and-coming areas with lots of new people moving in. Downtown Phoenix in 2005 didn’t fit that criteria. But we saw the potential of the area and, more importantly, we saw the need. There were few gospel-centered churches in that core. In fact, according to some studies, it was the least-churched urban core in the country. We strongly felt that even downtrodden areas like downtown Phoenix in 2005 needed a gospel witness. And so we moved forward and began Sunday morning services in a former Christian Science church building we were fortunate enough to acquire via a generous donation. We had many challenges in the first couple of years: coming close to running out of money at one point, being unable to repair a broken AC system for two years, having to scramble to find musicians for Sunday morning. But over and over again, the Lord provided the people and resources we needed at the times we needed them.
We were able to grow and slowly establish ourselves as a church, and downtown Phoenix also took a sharp upturn. A light-rail system was installed, Arizona State established a campus downtown, and new condos and restaurants soon followed. We’d thought we’d be a church ministering in a mostly depressed area. Today, we are in a growing city center projected to be the most densely populated part of the state within the next year or two. Our church, by God’s grace, well represents the growing diversity of our area: in age, race/ethnicity, education level, and economic status. We’ve been active in the local arts community through the monthly art event in downtown Phoenix called First Fridays. Early on we also became actively engaged in promoting foster care and adoption and continue to be involved through organizations like Foster Care Initiatives and AZ127.
Vincent: Bethany Bible Church planted Trinity Bible Church (TBC) on the northern edge of Phoenix in 1968. The church grew with the population of Phoenix to close to 1,000 people. As the city continued to grow and the neighborhood began to change, young families raced to the edge of the constantly expanding borders of the city for newer, larger homes. From 1998 to 2008, our church lost 50 to 100 people per year, our staff dwindled from seven full-time ministry staff to one, we struggled to meet payroll, and, theologically, our church taught Rob Bell, Joyce Meyer, and so on. TBC called me as only their third lead pastor in 2009, because I was the youngest guy to apply (I’m kind of kidding).
A number of faithful saints hoped to see God revitalize their church to reach the next generation. We made some difficult changes in the first year, like going to one service, preaching expositionally, focusing on community groups and discipleship, and changing the reading diet of our church to more gospel-centered materials. At that time, Tim Savage and Vermon Pierre invited me to help begin a TGC chapter in Phoenix. By God’s grace, and I can’t emphasize God’s grace enough, our church has become a much healthier, sweeter, gospel-centered, multi-ethnic, multi-generational, growing, evangelistic church bearing fruit locally and globally to the glory of God.
Gonzalez: We planted Missio Dei 10 years ago with missional communities. Our hope was to have a church that didn’t organize around a building or a weekly service, but rather around smaller communities committed to living their lives together and serving the city. These communities function like house churches, each with their own area of the city they are sent to bless. Our three communities gather in Peoria, Tempe, and Mesa, and each is led by a team of local pastors/elders. I am a pastor at the Tempe congregation.
Last year the city of Tempe did a Community Needs Assessment (CNA) to help identify the vulnerable populations in our city. Where are the gaps in service? Who are the people falling through the cracks? We realized our church should be asking these questions too, so our congregation invested money, prayed, and assisted throughout the CNA process. After the results came out we re-launched our missional communities around some of the gap areas determined by the CNA, including serving homebound seniors, homeless, refugees, international students, foster care, and in the high schools.What do you think makes ministry in the Phoenix context different from similarly sized cities in other parts of the country?
Pierre: Phoenix is spread out. It’s better than it has been—there is now a vibrant urban core that many are moving into—but it is still very much a car culture. This means the people in our local churches tend to be spread out over a wide area, which can make it hard to facilitate legit community throughout the week. Phoenix also reflects the demographic changes happening in places like California. It is right on the precipice of becoming a majority-minority population. Around 41 percent of Phoenix is Latino, for example. Another dynamic here is that it often feels like most people you meet are from somewhere else. I joke that finding a native Phoenician is like finding a unicorn. So ministering to people here can involve ministering to people from a lot of different backgrounds. Related to that, Phoenix still feels like a “new” city. It is still forming its own identity.
Vincent: Phoenix represents the epitome of the Wild Wild West. Most people have moved here from somewhere else to start a new life, run from the past, pursue education, quit shoveling snow, start a new business, and so on. Everybody’s from somewhere else. We have members in our church who remember when the population of Phoenix was 60,000, but the metropolitan area now approaches 5 million people. This has only enhanced the hyper-individualized and independent nature of our city. We delight in open-carry gun laws and the right to keep a goat in our backyard. We believe tall walls and remote-control garage doors make good neighbors.
The independence of our people, combined with the vastness of our city, leaves many feeling isolated and constantly in pursuit of the evasive experience of community that satisfies that deep desire for a richer life. As a result, the rate of church-hopping in Phoenix is above average. Phoenicians also struggle with commitment. I normally tell others that in the Southeast my hardest job was getting dead people off the membership roll, whereas my hardest job in the Southwest is getting living people on the membership roll. A second challenge flows from the reality that we regularly register as one of the least biblically literate large cities in the nation alongside places like Boston, New York, San Francisco, and Las Vegas. When the goal is to make disciples who make disciples and train up leaders competent to handle the Word, this means you are starting from zero with a lot of people. The upshot is you rarely need to undo false presuppositions associated with cultural Christianity, like you might need to in Dallas. Most of the people we lead to Christ are coming out of atheism, Mormonism, or Catholicism.
Phoenicians struggle with commitment. In the Southeast my hardest job was getting dead people off the membership role, whereas my hardest job in the Southwest is getting living people on the membership role.What are the most insidious idols that prove challenging for Christian discipleship in your region?
Gonzalez: Hardly anyone dared live here before air conditioning was invented, yet today it is one of the largest metropolitan areas in the United States. The exponential growth of Phoenix over the last 30 years has made it a massive city with shallow roots. Everyone is a transplant who has come here looking for something, often for consumeristic reasons. They move because there is something they can “get” from Phoenix like affordable housing, new homes, no snow, jobs. Subsequently, their discipleship tends to be rather consumeristic. They select congregations and community based on what it offers them. This is an unfortunate reality for much of the American church today, but the idolatrous force of consumerism seems especially strong here.
Vincent: If we agree that idols represent the perversion of some good to the point of it controlling you, and that there is something beautiful about the qualities that must be held in check lest they become idols, I would say individualism, affirmation, materialism, beauty, and community. The Phoenix metropolitan includes vastly different areas as well. For instance, Scottsdale employs the most plastic surgeons per capita in the nation. So, beauty or affirmation might be more dominant there than in Peoria, where individualism or community might prove more prevalent.
People move because there is something they can ‘get’ from Phoenix like affordable housing, new homes, no snow, jobs. Subsequently, their discipleship tends to be rather consumeristic.Are there contexts or demographics where the soil seems fertile for gospel advancement in the Phoenix area? Where do you see the most life and fruitfulness?
Vincent: We have a great opportunity with refugee communities (who often come from areas closed to the gospel) and Latinos (who are the largest minority group around our church, at 25 percent). We also have a large number of lower-income, middle-income, and single-parent families. When I arrived nine years ago, Phoenix had accepted thousands of Bhutanese refugees from a Nepalese refugee camp. In addition, the largest university in the United States, Arizona State University, and Grand Canyon University, which has exploded numerically over the last decade, along with numerous other schools, draw people from around the world—providing incalculable opportunities to reach the nations with the gospel.
Gonzalez: Over the last 20 years, the Spirit of God has been doing something unique in Phoenix by uniting the church together. There is a unity among the churches that is, unfortunately, rare in American cities. Surge Network has been a part of that, but by no means the center, the initiator, nor the totality of this work.What are the most pressing mercy and justice issues in the Phoenix metropolitan area, and how have you seen churches effectively address these issues?
Vincent: Issues related to immigration are especially pressing for our city and state, including issues like DACA. Children in need of adoption or foster care have presented another critical issue in our state. Most Phoenicians have friends and/or family members who are deeply affected by our nation’s immigration policies. Homelessness is another critical issue: 1 in 184 Arizonans is homeless, and 61 percent of them live in Maricopa County, where we live. Along with homelessness, our area faces a huge drug epidemic.
Churches have responded to these issues in various ways. Dennae Pierre, who currently serves as the director of Surge, and her husband, Vermon, have been major advocates of adoption and foster care, rallying other churches to encourage their members to adopt. Dennae has also helped create policies for larger churches to fund and promote adoption and foster care. Our church feeds the poor once a month and provides them with fresh groceries. Liz Beck of Sovereign Grace Church in Gilbert, Arizona, began a gospel-centered ministry aimed at people struggling with addictions. Our church began a chapter a couple of years ago, and many other churches throughout Arizona now have chapters as well. We have seen many saved out of addictions through this ministry who are now also vibrant members of local churches in our area.
Pierre: Some of the most pressing justice issues in Phoenix are: how people treat the immigrant (both legal and undocumented), how law enforcement treats minority groups, how we care for and advocate for the poor, and abortion. Churches in our area have taught on treating all people as image-bearers and have also worked together to advocate for immigration reform. (Adam Estle of the National Immigration Forum has been a key leader in that locally.) I know of some who have worked on various initiatives to build positive relationships between law enforcement and local communities. I personally have had minority policemen come and speak to different minorities in my home about what they do. Churches have also teamed up together to work against inequities in the payday loan system (this particular initiative was facilitated by the Surge Network). Other churches have partnered together with organizations like Voices for the Voiceless and ProGrace as ways to better engage the issue of abortion.In these intensely partisan, politically charged days, how have you navigated issues like race, justice, and sexuality in your congregation?
Gonzalez: We have navigated the highly charged issues of the day in our congregation by being hyper-vigilant to disciple our people in the biblical story. We’ve found that when you place the issues within the biblical story, they become less abstract and black and white. They become living issues about real people, our neighbors on the margins of society in Phoenix, and we find our place in that story with a role to play.
Vincent: We’ve preached expositionally and addressed issues head-on as they have arisen. We have also held special equipping classes to train lay leaders in how to think through these issues and serve others. We have held conferences for local pastors and their churches through TGC Arizona, with folks like Sam Allberry, Thabiti Anyabwile, Vermon Pierre, Al Mohler, Mark Dever, Russell Moore, Don Carson, and others to help us think through these issues. We also regularly recommend, give away, and sell books on these issues to help expose our people to helpful voices on these topics.
Pierre: It’s not been easy. In a church as diverse as ours, people come from many different perspectives. And it has led to some leaving our church, most especially in the wake of the 2016 election. In some cases it was because they were unsettled by some of the big differences between people in our church on political issues and racial issues (it was as if the church were too diverse for them). Others left because they were offended by the specific positions some held on certain political and racial issues. Some left because they felt the church wasn’t doing enough to confront current issues, while others left because they felt the church was doing too much, on the border of “abandoning the gospel” for the sake of social justice.
We are still learning how to navigate through this in our church. We have talked recently about how we don’t want to settle for a superficial unity, one that either papers over differences or forces everyone into a certain cultural expression. We want to work at the more difficult unity, one united around the gospel but aware that this is a unity that has to be constantly worked on and worked out. It is a unity that believes the gospel is strong enough to deal openly and directly with issues like race, justice, and sexuality. It is a unity that is strong enough and has space enough to allow people to express their differences in these areas and wrestle with one another over these differences.
We want to work at the more difficult unity . . . a unity that believes the gospel is strong enough to deal openly and directly with issues like race, justice, and sexuality.
We have hosted a number of forums and panel discussions in our church where we have discussed things like race, illegal immigration, homosexuality, and the #MeToo movement. In the wake of the election we held several dinners at the homes of the elders, where space was given for people to express how they felt and also where we prayed together. At different points over the last few years I’ve also given small talks before the sermon where I’ve addressed recent events that we felt warranted comment (like a police shooting). Several months ago I led my elder team through a discussion of the important book Divided by Faith. In the future we plan to do more forums along with creating some short “explainer” videos and podcasts on these issues.
Also in this series:
“We trust God, knowing he’s at work, even though Josephs and Jacobs and generations go. The Billy Graham generations and John Piper generations and Matt Chandler generations will all be gone, but God will continue the work of his glory spreading across the earth like waters cover the sea.” — J. A. Medders
Text: Exodus 1:1–14
Preached: May 6, 2018
Location: Redeemer Church, Tomball, Texas
You can listen to this episode of TGC Word of the Week here.
On an island off the coast of India live the Sentinelese, a tribe of indigenous people who have managed—with the aid of the Indian government—to seal themselves off from the modern world for hundreds of years. Earlier this month, John Allen Chau, a 26-year-old American missionary, attempted to make contact with them so he could “declare Jesus to these people.”
According to The New York Times, Chau arranged for a local fisherman to take him close to the island, where he hoped to give out gifts of scissors, safety pins, fishing line, and a soccer ball. After landing on the island and being confronted by guards he yelled out, “My name is John, I love you and Jesus loves you.”
When he tried to hand over the gifts, though, a boy shot an arrow into the Bible he was holding. Chau escaped without injury, and debated whether to return. On November 16 he told the fishermen he would be fine staying on the island overnight. When they passed by the island the next morning, they saw the islanders dragging Chau’s body on the beach with a rope. Police believe the young American was likely murdered.
Reports of the tragedy have sparked a range of debates. Some critics of Christianity—both external and internal—are using Chau’s death to condemn all missionary activities as “imperialism” and “colonization.” In response, some Christians are uncritically praising the young man’s courage in attempting to tell one of the world’s most remote tribes about Jesus.
There is no reason to take either approach, nor is it necessary to directly condemn or champion Chau’s actions. But we can and should use this tragic death to examine how we think about our own role in sending missionaries. Would you have commissioned Chau to be a missionary to the Sentinelese? In considering that question, you can gain a better understanding of both the role of missionaries and also the role you have in sending them.
If you are a church member, you will (or at least should) have the opportunity to determine who will be sent to the mission field.
Missionaries, as Kevin DeYoung explains, are those unique persons called by God and sent by the church to go out and further the mission where it has not yet been established. By this definition, if you are a church member, you will (or at least should) have the opportunity to determine who will be sent to the mission field.
Here are examples of the types of questions you should consider asking when evaluating the qualifications of a missionary candidate.
Are they willing to be sent by a local church?
Let’s start with what some might consider a controversial claim: No one should be on the mission field unless they are sent by a healthy, gospel-centered church. This means the candidate should already be a member of a local church and submitting to the authority of the church leaders.
I agree with Mack Stiles. “Baptizing yourself is silly,” Stiles says. “And going to the nations without the support of a local church is a little like baptizing yourself. Being a self-proclaimed lone-ranger missionary is as ridiculous and arrogant as baptizing yourself.”
Currently, it is unknown whether Chau was a sent by any church. Although he joined All Nations in 2017, it’s also unclear whether the missionary organization sanctioned his trip to the Sentinelese people.
Can they communicate the gospel to the target group?
This question has three elements, each of which should be nonnegotiable.
The first is whether the candidate has an adequate understanding of the gospel. We should never assume that simply because someone has a heart for missions that they understand, much less can communicate, the message of the gospel. Have them explain it to you before they explain it to a lost people group.
The second consideration is whether they can explain the gospel in the context of the target people group. Cross-cultural contextualization is a complicated topic, and fraught with many pitfalls. But at a minimum a missionary should be able to communicate the gospel within a cultural context in way that ensures what the people are hearing actually is the gospel.
Third, and most importantly, is whether they can communicate in the language of the target people group. If they cannot speak the language they cannot carry out the purpose of the missionary. They may embed themselves within a people to study the language and gain the skills necessary for communication. But until they are able to communicate the gospel to the target group, they are not functioning as missionaries.
This would be a particularly acute problem with the Sentinelese, since no one even knows what language they speak. Chau’s plan, according to friends, was to “use body language” to communicate with the Sentinelese. Since the gospel can’t be communicated through hand gestures, it would have been years—maybe even decades—before Chau was able to tell the people about Christ.
Who will be part of their team?
Christianity isn’t for loners. As believers we are called to be a part of and submit to a local church. The same model is true for missionaries. Except in rare and extraordinary circumstances, we should follow the example and model we see in the New Testament of missionaries being part of teams.
As Paul Akin notes, “Jesus and his disciples lived and did ministry together. Paul and Barnabas—set apart by the Holy Spirit and the church in Antioch—went out together on the first missionary journey . . . at least 55 men and 17 women were associated with Paul on his missionary journeys. All this to say, there are biblical, practical, and pastoral reasons why we encourage the formation and sending of missionary teams.”
Would we have them on staff at our church?
Would you consider the missionary candidate “good enough” for a primitive people but not someone you would trust to be a Bible teacher or elder in your own congregation? If so, you should consider why you believe God has a lower standard for the leadership of lost people groups than you do for your own church. As Stiles says, “Churches should send out those they’d be willing to hire as staff, the ones who’d sting a bit to lose to overseas work.”
Have they counted the costs?
In the letter he wrote before his death, Chau said, “I think I could be more useful alive . . . but to you, God, I give all the glory of whatever happens.” He also asked God to forgive “any of the people on this island who try to kill me, and especially if they succeed.”
Whatever his flaws in methodology, Chau had the requisite courage, commitment, and willingness to give his all for the mission. We should hold our candidates to the same standard, for no missionary is truly prepared until they are ready to lose their life for the sake of the gospel.
More than 20 years ago, Olan Stubbs was trying to share his faith with two guys in his freshman class at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. It wasn’t working.
One sat on the dorm steps outside and smoked weed. When Stubbs attempted to explain verses to him, he said he didn’t believe the Bible. The other was a football player “who could articulate the gospel better than I could. But he was often coming in late at night, drunk. Obviously there was some kind of disconnect.”
Stubbs didn’t know what to say or do. Then he heard about two RAs on the second floor who were leading a Bible study. They’d led someone he knew to Christ.
“I’d love to learn how to share my faith like you guys are doing,” he told them. They handed him a booklet by Navigators founder Dawson Trotman and told him to “get involved in Campus Outreach.”
Campus Outreach was famous for its evangelism, founded by a church famous for its evangelism, planted by a man famous for his evangelism.
Stubbs was hooked. Today, he’s one of nearly 750 Campus Outreach staff serving on 122 campuses in 11 countries. In its 40 years, Campus Outreach has seen 55,000 students at evangelistic events. Staff and volunteers have discipled 15,000 students over weekly Bible studies and worship times—1,447 of them have gone on to serve in ministry or missions. Over the last 12 months alone, 712 students have professed their faith in Christ.
Campus Outreach staff and volunteers have discipled 15,000 students over weekly Bible studies and worship times—1,447 of them have gone on to serve in ministry or missions.
Stubbs works at Briarwood Presbyterian Church, where Campus Outreach began. The church was planted in 1960 and grew to 4,000 members largely on the strength of personal evangelism. “The Great Commission has been our heartbeat,” the website says, and it’s not kidding: Briarwood partners with more than 100 mission boards and organizations and more than 300 ministry staff.
Briarwood got that heartbeat from its founder.
“If you meet a Christian in Birmingham who is 60 or older, and you ask them how they came to Christ, I’d bet my money that at some point they’ll mention Frank Barker,” Stubbs said.
The 86-year-old Barker has led many thousands to Christ—his daughter Peggy Townes estimated 10,000 personally and hundreds of thousands through his ministries. But it wasn’t because he loved talking to people. He’s not a gregarious personality or even a compelling speaker.
“I’d like to just settle in and read a book,” he said. “But the Bible tells us to reach out to others, so I had to discipline myself to do that.”
Turns out, that was catching.Later to Faith than to Ministry
Barker came to ministry late, and to faith even later.
Beginning in high school, “I was living a pretty wild life morally,” Barker told TGC. From lying to his parents to throwing eggs at people to drinking too much (and then driving), Barker knew he wasn’t living a good life, but couldn’t pull himself out of it.
Playing tennis restricted his rowdiness, but not a lot and not for long. He went to college on an ROTC scholarship, then became a jet pilot in the United States Navy.
One weekend, while in flight training school, “I came back up to Birmingham and had a wild weekend,” Barker said.Barker spent four years as a jet pilot in the United States Navy. / Courtesy of Peggy Townes
On his way back to Pensacola, he fell asleep at the wheel, and when the road curved, his car sped onto a rutted-out dirt road. When he finally got the car stopped, the headlights picked up a sign nailed to a tree: “The wages of sin is death.”
“I thought, You know what? I think God is trying to tell me something,” he said. “I started trying to straighten up. I felt I’d been so bad that if I was going to get to heaven, I was going to need to be a preacher.”
Barker kept swinging between resolving to do better and partying until one night, when he felt God was actually listening to the rote prayer he tossed up. He told God he wanted to follow him.
Barker began to stay home from the wild nights with his friends; after his tour of duty, he enrolled at Columbia Theological Seminary. A month in, he inherited from his roommate a preaching gig at an Alabama church.
“The first year, nothing particularly good happened,” he said. “At the end of that year, I thought, Something’s wrong. I wonder if I’m really a Christian.”
It was an awkward question to ask his professors or congregants, but he knew an Air Force chaplain, and asked him. (“Joe, how can I make sure I’m a Christian?”)
The chaplain gave Barker a tract and told him to put his trust in Jesus and receive salvation as a gift.
“That’s wrong,” Barker told him. “God’s not going to just give this thing away! You’ve got to work for it.”
The chaplain insisted, and Barker began to realize “I had totally missed that salvation was about grace. I surrendered my will and transferred my trust from me to Christ. When I did that, life began to change dramatically.”Storefront Church
Among the first people Barker tried to evangelize were his parents, who were already saved. Then he told his sister, who accepted Christ. He told the handyman. He told his friends. He told his congregation, which began to grow.
After seminary, the Birmingham presbytery of the Presbyterian Church in the United States asked Barker if he’d organize a new church in the rapidly developing area of Cahaba Heights.
Intent on a PhD, he told them no.
They asked for the summer.
Just the summer, he agreed.
Barker knocked on doors and found so much interest in a new congregation that he skipped the Bible study stage of church planting and went right to the rented building, setting up in an old barber shop in a strip mall. That first Sunday, 70 people showed up. Three months in, Briarwood Presbyterian Church was chartered with 90 members.
Barker packed out the storefront church. Three years in, with 290 members, Briarwood moved into its own facility that could fit 400. A few years later, a 1,000-seat sanctuary was added. In 1988, Briarwood moved into a facility that could fit 4,000. By the time Barker retired in 1998, membership had grown that large.
But they weren’t necessarily drawn in by the preaching.‘Kind of Boring’
“My father was not a dynamic orator by any means,” Townes said. “He’d shuffle up to the pulpit and say, ‘Uh, turn in your Bibles to 1 John 3,’ and then quietly read it and start preaching. There was nothing dynamic or big about it.”
“When I first visited Briarwood as a freshman in college, I was like, ‘This guy’s kind of boring,’” Stubbs said.
But Barker had the zeal of a new convert and the discipline of a Navy pilot.
“I had to train myself” to evangelize, Barker said. “You know, you get on an airplane thinking about the person you’re going to be sitting next to.”
At first, he didn’t know how to share his faith—“I didn’t learn it in seminary”—so he just kept telling the story of his own conversion.
“A lot of people in the 1960s could really identify with that, because they had a religious worldview: ‘There is a God, and I’m supposed to be a good person,’” Stubbs said.After Briarwood packed out the storefront, the church moved to its own facility. / Courtesy of Peggy Townes
“Religion was very accepted, but such a private thing,” Townes said. “And then all of a sudden there were people who had grown up in religious homes and religious society saying they’d become Christians. . . . Adults who’d always thought they were Christians because they were moral people were suddenly being transformed by the gospel. It was an explosion.”
Though some who came to Briarwood were already Christians, most “joined because Frank led them to Christ,” said National Christian Foundation Alabama president Tom Bradford, who has been friends with Barker for 50 years. (They still play tennis together three days a week.)
“He was not only evangelistic, but real strong in Bible teaching and small groups,” Bradford said. “He was teaching probably five or six Bible classes a week himself.” (At one of those Bible studies, Barker led Bradford to Christ.)
Two nights a week, the Bible studies were at Barker’s house. “I’m talking anywhere from 15 to 60 people,” Townes said. “People were everywhere—sitting on the floor.”
Barker would lead the Bible study; his wife, Barbara, would sing; and someone would share their testimony. “We trained people to do that using Campus Crusade and Evangelism Explosion,” Barker said. “Every Wednesday night we would have evangelism training, and then go out and call on people.”
The conversions built on each other—as nonbelievers came to Christ, excitement grew. “I was 29 when I came to Christ, and so excited about my newfound faith that it was easy for me to talk to people about it,” Bradford said.
As he and others watched Barker—and then each other—share testimonies and talk about the gospel, they began to do it too.
“There was just a culture at Briarwood that if you came to Christ, you started sharing your faith,” Stubbs said.
Barker’s testimony, in particular, kept growing.50-50 Rule
Barker grew up in an influential Birmingham home, but decided before he was married that he’d make “what any financial adviser would say were very foolish financial decisions,” Townes said. “He decided he would give in such a way that he had to live by faith. We grew up knowing we didn’t go to Mom or Dad for our needs. We went to the Lord.”
Every year, Barker increased the percent of his salary he was giving to God. His stories of financial providence—the gift of a car when his broke down, checks arriving in the nick of time—sound like those of George Müller, who cared for thousands of orphans in 19th-century England without ever asking for money or going into debt.Frank and Barbara Barker / Courtesy of Peggy Townes
Barker told those stories to Briarwood, which thrilled to God’s providence and followed Barker into radical giving. The church set up a 50–50 rule, where every dollar spent on Briarwood would be matched by another spent on outside ministries.
It took them seven years to get there. But since then, Briarwood has hit that goal almost every year. Some years, it even exceeds it. (“We don’t do a savings-and-loan thing and carry money over to the next year,” current Briarwood senior pastor and TGC Council member Harry Reeder said. “Instead, we take any excess giving and do special outreach projects.”)
In addition, Barker began taking an annual global mission offering. Last year at Briarwood, that $2.7 million offering funded about 250 missionary families and agencies in 68 countries. Those missionaries shared the gospel more than 182,000 times, led almost 40,000 people to Christ, and planted or worked to revitalize almost 700 churches.
The global missions offering is on top of the regular tithing, which supports local, regional, and national missions.
Staff used to joke that “the strength and weakness of Barker is that anybody could walk into his office with any vision to reach lost people—say, to reach left-handed people—and Rev. Barker would say, ‘Great. Let’s get you some money and try it,’” Stubbs said.
That’s how Briarwood ended up with more than 120 ministries, Stubbs said. “Some exceeded expectations, some didn’t.”
And Campus Outreach.40 Years Old
Campus Outreach was born out of answered prayer—but not Barker’s. Uncharacteristically, he had no faith that God would save Tom Caradine.
“I was disgusted with [Tom],” Barker said with a small, self-deprecating smile. “But my wife really cared for him.”
Barbara would buy handkerchiefs once a month from the clothing store where the teen worked; he’d call her to talk about girlfriend problems.
“Only problem was, it would be 2 a.m. in the morning and he’d be drunk,” Barker remembered.
“When are you going to quit wasting time with that no-good bum?” Barker asked his wife.
“He’s going to become a Christian,” she told him.
“No, he’s not.”
“I’m praying for him.”
“That one will not be answered,” Barker recalled saying, chuckling at himself. “How’s that for spiritual attitude?”
Caradine did become a Christian—and let the Barkers know with a late-night phone call. His senior year, he began reaching out to his classmates at Samford. After graduation, he and classmate Curtis Tanner came on staff at Briarwood as pastors to the campus. They called it Campus Outreach.
The two branched out to other schools in Alabama; in 1988, they left the state and started a franchise in Georgia. Now Campus Outreach is as far north as Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis and as far east as Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C.; its 18 international campuses stretch from New Zealand to Peru.Campus Outreach Diversity Summit 2016 / Courtesy of Campus Outreach
“Personal evangelism is what made Rev. Barker so effective, and by God’s grace we’ve been able to maintain that in Campus Outreach,” Stubbs said. He ran into that as a freshman, when he got on the bus for his first Campus Outreach conference and the student next to him immediately began sharing his faith.
“I was like, ‘Hey, that’s great. The whole reason I’m here is to learn how to share my faith,’” Stubbs said. He and the other student spent their free time at the conference practicing sharing their faith with strangers.
Another way Campus Outreach looks like Barker is its commitment to the local church. The chapters of Campus Outreach aren’t formally connected; each does its own work completely under the authority of a local church near a university. Campus Outreach Birmingham starts new chapters with seed money and staff, then backs itself out as the church gradually takes over.
Barker did the same thing, but with people.
“Mrs. Barker used to get frustrated because Rev. Barker would lead people to Christ, and then they’d go to a different church,” Stubbs said. Barker told her, “I’m not trying to build my church. I’m trying to build the kingdom.”
Barker was also generous with finances and access to donors. Often, when parachurch organizations approach pastors for help, most “don’t want to lose the time and money of their leaders,” Bradford said. “Frank would say, ‘Oh, man, that’s great. Let me give you some names.’”Harry Reeder took over at Briarwood in 1999. / Courtesy of Peggy Townes
Barker was even open-handed with Briarwood itself.
“He stepped down at 68 years old, when he was at the height of his ministry,” Townes said. “He saw other large churches where the senior pastor stayed a little too long. He said, ‘I don’t want to do that to Briarwood.’ A transition team was formed, and he completely submitted to them.”
Briarwood called Reeder, who had planted Christ Covenant Church in Charlotte out of Briarwood in 1983. Happy where he was, Reeder said no seven times before he said yes.
“Frank called me and said, ‘We want you to know that Barbara and I would be willing to move away from Birmingham’” if it would make the transition easier, Reeder remembers. Instead, Reeder asked him to stay as pastor emeritus.
“I’ve always told everyone, ‘If the Lord did not bless the transition, it would not be Frank’s fault,’” Reeder said. “Frank’s character and humility are such that I had no doubt he’d be supportive and encouraging. Not only has his presence not been a liability—it’s been an asset. I’ve always been grateful for that.”Meat and Potatoes
Barker has “a genuine gospel-driven humility that is combined with an unrelenting trust in Jesus Christ to do the work,” TGC Council member emeritus Sandy Willson said. Willson discovered the secret to Barker’s ministry when rooming with him in a hotel once.
“When you’re his roommate, you see he’s a man of prayer,” Willson said. “If you want to know how a person who puts everything on the lower shelf, a person who doesn’t seem to be a sizzling orator, is used to grow a 4,000-member church—it’s God. It’s a man who knows God.”Barker now leads Bible studies in his retirement home. / Courtesy of Peggy Townes
When pastor Randy Pope was heading to Atlanta to plant Perimeter Church in 1977, Barker pulled him aside.
“He gave me some strong marching orders: ‘Don’t ever let a year in the life of your church go by that you are not personally equipping the people of your church to share their faith,'” Pope said. “It is the greatest advice I could have ever received.”
Willson also remembers getting counsel from Barker decades ago.
“The advice he gave me was basically: ‘Just have people over to your house for a covered-dish dinner and share the gospel with them and teach them the Bible,’” said Willson, chuckling at the simplicity. “A covered-dish dinner!”
It’s the advice Barker still gives.
“I would tell [young pastors] to begin to train [their congregations] in personal evangelism,” Barker told TGC this fall. “You can start small groups and meet in homes for Bible study, that type of thing. . . . Have everybody invite somebody. We did that for many years, and it worked pretty well.”
“There’s nothing exotic about Briarwood,” Reeder said. “We’re just meat-and-potatoes.”
And yet—there is a little bit of secret sauce.
Reformed Theological Seminary chancellor emeritus Ric Cannada has been watching Barker since Cannada first entered the ministry.
“I think it’s his example,” Cannada said. “You can teach evangelism, but it’s largely caught. When you’re around Frank and seeing how he does it naturally and easily—it’s catching.”
In her longform article “How to Grow Newer When You’re Not Growing Younger,” Abigail Dodds writes thoughtfully about the familiar experience of feeling young on the inside while watching your body age, of feeling slightly estranged from the person you see in the mirror, and of pursuing newness in Christ rather than running after youth. We asked Dodds to record herself reading her essay for listeners of The Gospel Coalition Podcast.
We enter into a church plant or pastoral ministry with a dream in mind. A prayerful set of God-honoring goals for what the church will give itself to and gradually become. But do we have an equally clear set of goals for who we are to become as we stare down the barrel of a new gospel work?
In Philippians 3:10, Paul articulates a threefold prayer that ought to shape the heart of every pastor and church planter: “My goal is to know him and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings.” Since planting our church, this verse has been an inner compass—constantly realigning my heart to what truly matters. I’ve used it to identify three goals:
- Know Christ.
- Walk daily in resurrection power.
- Gladly embrace gospel pain.
But, as is the case with all noble goals and worthy quests, we shouldn’t expect smooth sailing. On the road to each of these Spirit-powered pursuits lies a formidable, fleshly enemy. A demonic distraction. A believable lie. Here are three such enemies:
- Ministry busyness.
- Worldly comfort.
The common denominator of all three enemies is subtlety. On the surface they seem harmless enough, perhaps even virtuous. But like the sirens to Odysseus, they are nothing more than monsters posing as beauties, under whom lie countless ministry shipwrecks who thought they were sailing toward success.
Whether we’re preparing to plant or preparing to send, whether we’re just beginning the race or have the finish line in sight, may being aware of these three enemies focus our eyes—and appropriating these three goals power our stride—as we press on toward the goal.Know Him
In his book True Spirituality, Francis Schaeffer described the Christian life as being “cast up into moment-by-moment communion, personal communion, with God himself.” This sense of longing marked the life of David:
O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you;
my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you. (Ps. 63:1)
That is what Paul is getting at when he says, “My goal is to know him” (Phil. 3:10). And yet it is disastrously possible to be busy doing things for Jesus, in close proximity to Jesus, and yet never really know Jesus (Matt. 7:23). Such was the tragedy of Judas Iscariot.
It is disastrously possible to be busy doing things for Jesus, in close proximity to Jesus, and yet never really know Jesus.
So as you plant your church, be wary of a spiritual busyness that works and sweats and serves but does not abide. Luke 10:40, in which Jesus tenderly rebukes Martha for “being distracted with much serving,” should be blazoned on the eyeballs of all of us who have a knack for “getting things done for Jesus.”
This is particularly important for us who regularly preach and teach God’s Word. One of the most common (albeit concealed) tragedies of our time is the countless number of pastors who labor in the kitchen of God’s Word, preparing spiritual meals for others, while slowly starving their own souls.
As a fellow church planter recently said to me, “I want to preach as a man who has not merely been to seminary, but who has sat still in the presence of Jesus.“Walk Daily in Resurrection Power
Paul constantly prayed for power. The New Testament is clear that normal, non-weird, non-optional Christianity is marked not by mere talk, but by power (1 Cor. 4:20). Paul needed power
- to share the gospel (Acts 4:33),
- for ministry (Col. 1:28),
- to abound in hope (Rom. 15:13),
- for spiritual growth (2 Cor. 3:18),
- to press on in endurance (Col. 1:11),
- to share in suffering for the gospel (2 Tim. 1:8),
- to deal with demonic spirits (Luke 10:17),
- to face any circumstance in life (Phil. 4:11–13),
- to comprehend the atomic reality of union with Christ (Eph. 3:16–17).
Given the scope of our need, self-reliance—that great virtue of Western individualism—makes no sense at all. It is a deadly and subtle form of pride that flows from either delusions about our talent or impatience with God’s timing.
For many Christian leaders, the greatest indicator of pride in our hearts is not the presence of boasting, but the absence of prayer. When we rely on our giftedness, we may as well be trying to circle the globe in a glider. It might fly for a while. But it will crash and burn.
For many Christian leaders, the greatest indicator of pride in our hearts is not the presence of boasting, but the absence of prayer.
As we planted our church, I learned how prone I was to drifting into ministry rhythms shaped by my own gifting, rather than a posture of spiritual poverty into which Jesus loves to pour his strength (2 Cor. 12:9). How easy it is to plan and execute a ministry strategy that assumes God’s blessing, instead of ministering from a place of prayerful reliance. So I constantly ask myself: Does the way I’m approaching this week reveal a prayerful awareness of, and dependence on, the miraculous power of the Holy Spirit?
Prayer is God’s sovereignly appointed means of connecting our never-ending neediness to his never-ending power. Corrie ten Boom put it well: “Trying to do the Lord’s work in your own strength is the most confusing, exhausting, and tedious of all work. But when you are filled with the Holy Spirit, the ministry of Jesus just flows out of you.”Gladly Embrace Gospel Pain
One of the most admirable things about Paul is that he never seemed surprised by suffering. Likewise, every church planter must know that pain is as normal to ministry as gravity is to our earthly reality; it keeps our feet on the ground.
When comfort and success abound, we’re prone to forget the cost of discipleship (Mark 8:34–36). It only takes a little success to be seduced by it. To stop taking risks and to start looking inward. To become satisfied with a regular pay check and to settle for playing it safe.
One of the most admirable things about Paul is that he never seems to be surprised by suffering.
By the Spirit’s power, let’s say no to a decision-making framework driven by our surrounding culture’s idolatry of comfort instead of the cross. What if we weren’t shocked by discomfort in ministry? What if we embraced our low position of being “the scum of the world, the refuse of all things” (1 Cor. 4:13)—because we were totally secure in our eternal position (Eph. 2:6)?
If the gospel is true; if Christ is on the throne; if the same Spirit that raised him from the grave is really with you and in you and empowering you; then your resources for ministry supremely outnumber your problems. In Christ, you are loaded. You have more spiritual power available to you than you have spiritual problems coming at you, no matter how dark the day.
As Abraham lifts the knife above Isaac, many Christians reach for the scissors, at least mentally. We want to pull a Thomas Jefferson and snip out the story from our Bibles.
In Genesis 22, God commands Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son. Many conclude that this, surely, is an embarrassment to modern sensibilities, an affront to our common humanity. It’s an unbridgeable barrier to faith for any right-minded enquirer, isn’t it?
Bob Dylan retells the story like this:
Oh God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”
Abe says, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on”
God say, “No.” Abe say, “What?” (“Highway 61 Revisited“)
“What?” isn’t Abraham’s response in the Bible, but Dylan is putting words to our alarm: You must be puttin’ me on! Child sacrifice? In a holy book? What should we make of such a story?
I love Genesis 22. It is perhaps my favorite chapter in all the Bible. I don’t want to get out the scissors; I want to get out the magnifying glass. Because if we train our eyes to see what’s there, this chapter becomes not a barrier to faith but an almighty boost.
But we need to begin with some basics.What Is the Bible?
Sometimes Christians are the worst at answering that question. Some will reply, “The Maker’s Instruction Manual,” or “God’s Road Map.” Creative types have even given us an acronym: BIBLE stands for “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.” Most often people, whether Christian or not, see it essentially as a moral guidebook.
But if we read Genesis 22 through that lens, we’re in for a shock. When God says, “Sacrifice your son,” how should we react? Go and do likewise? No. If we copied or endorsed each practice in the Bible, we’d be in a terrible mess (not to mention jail).
Genesis 22 should be read the way the whole Bible should be read.
Genesis 22 should be read the way the whole Bible should be read. First and foremost it’s a biography—the Spirit’s testimony to the Son. And when we see it this way, the entirety of Scripture comes into focus.Testimony to Jesus
The key to the passage is to ask this question: Who is Isaac? Answer: Abraham’s offspring. He’s the immediate fulfillment of the cosmic promises God has been making since Genesis 12. The offspring of Abraham will save and bless the world (Gen. 12:2–3, 7; 15:5; 17:4–8). In the meantime, the “offspring” of Abraham will be the nation of Israel. In the long run, the “offspring” is Christ (Gal. 3:16). But in the first instance—before the Abrahamic people and before their Messiah—we get Isaac.
Picture baby Isaac lying in Abraham’s arms. What do you have? You have the hope of the world. No Isaac, no Israel. No Israel, no Christ. No Christ, no salvation. So whatever you do, Abraham, don’t drop him!
And then we read Genesis 22: “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.”
Everyone is shocked by this verse, but to the attentive reader it’s actually more shocking, not less, because we know who Isaac is. He’s the offspring of Abraham, the hope of the world! Through Isaac will come all God’s blessings to the nations. And now God wants him slain as a burnt offering (i.e., a sacrifice of atonement, Lev. 1:4). Apparently this is the way God will save the world—through the beloved son offered up on a mountain.
Notice that this mountain is in “the region of Moriah.” Mount Moriah will become temple mount in Jerusalem (2 Chron. 3:1). At some point the penny may just drop.Getting It
I was once teaching this story to teenagers, sketching the picture layer by layer: “Isaac is the only beloved son, the hope of the world, the source of all blessing. He’s trudging up the hill with wood on his back (Gen. 22:6); remind you of anything? It’s a hill near Jerusalem; ring any bells?” Suddenly, it was as if someone electrocuted a girl in the front row. In a good way. She started thumping her friend next to her—really thumping her—with the kind of violence born of pure joy: “Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, oh my gosh. It’s Jesus! It’s Jesus! It’s totally Jesus!”
Instead of Genesis 22 being an insurmountable barrier to faith, with Jesus at the center it becomes an incredible boost to faith.
That, essentially, is why the Bible was written. It was written to make us say, “It’s Jesus, it’s Jesus, it’s totally Jesus!” When we read the Scriptures like this, they start to make sense. Instead of Genesis 22 being an insurmountable barrier to faith, with Jesus at the center it becomes an incredible boost to faith. Remember that Genesis 22 records an event two millennia before Christ was crucified. But from the beginning, the Bible has always been testifying to history’s central event.He Will Provide
Abraham’s faith shines through the chapter. He reassures Isaac, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering” (v. 8). Somehow a substitute will be provided. Somehow God will offer a lamb and everything will be okay. Abraham knows that Isaac is the promised one, the hope of the world. So whatever happens, Isaac will make it through—Abraham has this resurrection-shaped faith (Heb. 11:17–19).
On this occasion a ram is provided. Which means the “lamb” is yet future. So the whole episode concludes: “Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide. And to this day it is said, On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided” (Gen. 22:14).
Notice the future tense. God will provide. What will he provide? The Lamb of God, the Offspring of Abraham, the Beloved Son, the Hope of the World.
One day, on that very mountain, God would provide the ultimate atonement. And many knew it. For centuries afterward they would point to that hill and say: “The true sacrifice is coming, and that’s where he’ll be provided.”What’s It All About?
God didn’t ask Abraham to go through with the sacrifice. But one dark Friday, God would provide. The beloved Son of the Father would walk willingly up that hill, carrying the wood on his back. And there he would be slain to save and bless the world.
If we attempt to read the Bible primarily as a rulebook, it crumbles between our fingers. With such a mindset, Genesis 22 is a scandal and a barrier to faith. Yet when Scripture is read as intended, we see it as a testimony to Christ. Suddenly we realize that all the Bible, and all believers in every age, are fixed on the one truth that towers above all others: “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).
- 20 Quotes from Glen Scrivener on the Whole Bible Story (Matt Smethurst)
Pastor, are you satisfied with the evangelism in your congregation? Me neither.
I’m sure every pastor wants to see more evangelism—and not just by the professional staff and unusually gifted. We want to see ordinary church people—stay-at-home parents and students, executives and retirees, mechanics and musicians, talking to their friends, co-workers, and family members about Jesus. So why aren’t they? Could it be that some of them simply don’t know how? They talk to non-Christians every day, but they have no idea how to turn daily conversations into gospel conversations.
And pastors, that’s where we can help. We need to do more than encourage and exhort our people to have gospel conversations. We need to teach them how. Below are six ways I do this in my own congregation. None of them requires elaborate programs, specialized staff, or additional meetings. Each simply requires you, as pastor or leader, to be intentional.1. Teach Them the Gospel
Your church members already know the gospel, right? Not necessarily. Christians have trusted in the gospel, but that doesn’t mean they know how to explain it or connect it to daily life. If we want our people to have gospel conversations, we need to explicitly teach them the gospel. Every sermon I preach explains the content of the gospel as well as its significance.
There are many ways we can summarize the good news. One of the simplest is to use the four categories of God, man, Christ, and response. The gospel tells us something about each of those, so in every sermon I connect the passage to all four. Don’t assume your people know the gospel. Teach it to them.2. Ask Them to Explain the Gospel to You
If there’s one thing preachers think they’re good at, it’s preaching. But you might be surprised at what’s not getting through. And the only way to know is to ask. My first chance to do this is the membership interview. I ask each prospective member to explain the gospel to me in about a minute. I’m not looking for a treatise, just a summary of the good news. Inside those four categories (God, man, Christ, response) I’m especially alert for things often left out, like substitutionary atonement, the resurrection, and repentance. Sometimes what I hear surprises me.
I once sat in on the first interview a pastor-friend was conducting. He is without doubt the best communicator of the gospel I’ve ever heard. But when he asked the prospective member to explain the gospel, which he’d been explaining to her for months, she couldn’t. Not even close! My friend was so surprised and flustered he hastily ended the interview and said they’d have to complete it later.
Don’t take it personally when potential members can’t explain the gospel, even though they are clearly trusting in it. See it as an opportunity to gently teach. This is when I explicitly introduce “God, man, Christ, response” as a way of organizing their thoughts. If it seems they don’t even recognize the gospel and might not be converted, I invite them to spend a few weeks studying the Gospel of Mark with me.
But it’s not just membership interviews. As I interact with church members I look for opportunities to ask the same question. Most of the time I’m really encouraged. But sometimes the conversation allows me to help organize their thoughts, or fill in some gaps. Asking them to explain the gospel in a friendly context takes it to a new level. They have a chance to articulate what they believe. You simply don’t know what they know and believe until you ask.3. Give Away Books
Some of my favorites on the gospel are: What Is the Gospel? and Who Is Jesus? by Greg Gilbert; Speaking of Jesus, Marks of the Messenger, and Evangelism by Mack Stiles; The Reason for God and Making Sense of God by Tim Keller; and The Gospel and Personal Evangelism by Mark Dever.
When I put a good book in someone’s hands, it’s like giving them a new, mature Christian friend who’s always around and happy to talk.
When I put a good book in someone’s hands, it’s like giving them a new, mature Christian friend who’s always around and happy to talk.4. Tell Them about Your Gospel Conversations
As pastors we should be reticent to talk about ourselves, lest we succumb to boasting. But this time it’s okay you should talk about your own evangelism. Recently I told my congregation a story about a gospel conversation I had with my allergy nurse, who I see every week, and another conversation I had with a Lyft driver, who I’ll probably never see again. As far as I know, neither has become a Christian. But the point wasn’t to show off another notch in my belt. It was to model how I got into such conversations in the first place. The Lyft driver asked me what I did for a living. Rather than assume he knew what it meant to be a pastor, I used that opportunity to explain the gospel to him. My allergy nurse told me she was engaged and wanted this marriage to go better than the last one. I asked what she thought would help, and before you know it we were talking about what it means to have God at the center of your marriage. I wanted people to see the difference between conversations with strangers and conversations with people who are a regular part of your life.
I’ve also shared about frustrating conversations with family members, and conversations I cowardly ducked altogether. But good or bad, when they hear about my gospel conversations, it encourages them in theirs. Don’t be afraid to be an imperfect model. Tell them about your own evangelism.5. Encourage Them to Talk about Their Gospel Conversations
It’s one thing for the pastor to do evangelism. It’s another thing when a regular church member does. So create opportunities for them to tell each other about it. We do this at our Sunday evening prayer meeting. Every few weeks we’ll ask if anyone has an evangelistic relationship or opportunity we can pray for. One Sunday a teamster who works for a shipping company talked about how he invites some guys to a Bible study when they go on break at 3 a.m. A young mom shared about a gospel conversation she began with another mom at her kid’s school. Two college students shared about conversations with some international students. Then we prayed for them specifically.
Gospel conversations seem increasingly normal, and increasingly corporate, as we pray for each other.
My goal is not to put anyone on a pedestal. I simply want people thinking, Wow, if they could do that, so could I. Along the way, gospel conversations seem increasingly normal, and increasingly corporate, as we pray for each other.6. Talk to Non-Christians in Your Sermons
On any given Sunday there are non-Christians in my church—and they’re at yours, too. Some are teenagers, or a member’s visiting family, or friends who’ve been invited to church. I speak to them directly in every sermon. Usually I try to honestly raise the questions or objections they might have about the Scripture we’re studying. Sometimes I ask them questions meant to encourage self-reflection. I almost always ask questions that speak to their longings as well as their objections. I avoid answering every question I raise. I never try to score points or win the argument, but engage them with genuine respect. I am taking the opportunity to share the gospel, and as my congregation listens to me speak to non-Christians, they are learning to do the same thing. You should do this even if you don’t know of a single non-Christian in the room.
So don’t just make gospel appeals; model how to have gospel conversations in your sermons.
The most important thing, of course, is what the Holy Spirit does. Unless the Holy Spirit gives us a heart for the lost and a conviction of the gospel’s power, none of us will open our mouths. We need to pray for our people as well as teach them. But if we teach them by word and example how to have gospel conversations, I have no doubt the Holy Spirit will answer those prayers.
Since the beginning, God has blessed his people by speaking to them. Humanity was only moments out of the dust of the earth when our Creator communicated with us: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them . . .” (Gen. 1:27–28).
Immediately after creating us, God came near to us. Near enough that we could hear him speak, learn his voice.
We often read those words in Genesis without blinking an eye. We read the conversations God had with Abraham, Jacob, and Moses, fully believing the Lord personally spoke to each of them. But often our faith begins to waver when it comes to us. He spoke to them, but do we believe he speaks to us?
Answering that question requires gut-level honesty from each of us. Amid all the trials and troubles this life brings, we can begin to believe God is far-off, distant, unconcerned, or silent. Yet this is far from true.
God is speaking. To you. Right now. The only question is: Are you listening?
God speaks through the Scriptures. Knowing his Word is a necessary component to hearing his voice. As you read, here are five ways to posture and position yourself to better hear God’s voice.1. Read with Humility
Humility opens our ears to hear God speak. As we read his Word, we humble ourselves in submission under his authority. We allow it to shape us, not demanding it change to fit cultural norms or our own perceived needs and desires. We approach God’s Word with plenty of room to ask questions and seek understanding. As we do, though, we must not be arrogant, critical, or casual. We must acknowledge our own need to “receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls” (James 1:21).2. Read with Diligence
Each of us is capable of reading and understanding Scripture, but it requires considerable effort. We learn to hear God’s voice as we gain insight into his will through consistent and careful examination of his Word. The learning curve is steep, but there’s a cumulative effect to the study of God’s Word.
The learning curve is steep, but there’s a cumulative effect to the study of God’s Word.
So keep at it. Patiently persist. Don’t “grow weary of doing good,” because “in due season we will reap” (Gal. 6:9). The more you read and study, the more you will understand and hopefully love.3. Read with Expectation
When we read the Bible, our first assumption must be that it speaks. More pointedly, we must assume God speaks to us exactly where we are. Through the determined study of his Word, expect God to teach, comfort, confront, strengthen, and transform you.
“Without faith it is impossible to please him,” the author of Hebrews writes, “for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Heb. 11:6). We faithfully read God’s Word when we expect him to speak.4. Read to Listen
You can’t hear if you don’t listen. Listening is required in the formation and maintenance of every human relationship. It’s equally important in forming and maintaining our relationship with God. When he created us as relational beings, he opened communication between us and himself as a mutual endeavor.
Like any worthy pursuit, listening to God requires time, intentionality, and purpose. We must tune our ears to hear his voice in the pages of his Word (Mark 4:9).5. Read with Prayer
Hearing God speak is a spiritual endeavor. Any difficulty we have in hearing God’s voice, then, is much more a spiritual matter than an intellectual one. As we open our Bibles, we should pray over our time and efforts, knowing we can only hear by him by his grace and mercy.
Like the Ephesian Christians, we need the help of the Holy Spirit: “I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him” (Eph. 1:16–17).
In the Bible, God makes himself known, presently speaking to each of us. Open his Word with humility and diligence, eagerly listening to his voice. Pray for a willing, pliable, attentive heart—and then expect to hear him speak.
The most significant threat to healthy Christian spirituality isn’t the threat of government persecution or even the cultural acceptance of unhealthy ethics, but incorrect understandings about God. Several common misunderstandings have flourished throughout church history. These paths toward error seem perfectly reasonable; the problem is they’re insufficiently considered in light of the whole Bible. Thus, groups like Docetists and Gnostics arose early in Christian history. More recently Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses have recycled historical errors.
But theological error doesn’t just come in the form of nicely dressed people knocking on your door to hand out pamphlets. It comes in the form of half-completed discipleship, often with a healthy emphasis on Scripture but without reference to the way Christians have previously fit the data of Scripture together. Theological error is committed by well-meaning people who pick up a few bits of doctrine and try to put them together without understanding the whole picture.
Good theology is important, but it can be hard to get people interested or know where to start. Careful theological work is sometimes dry and dusty business. When the pastor pounds the pulpit to proclaim the importance of a careful logical argument, it’s likely to cause eyes to glaze over. The problem is often not the significance of the issue, but the lack of a vocabulary to explain the problem.Vocabulary for Heresy
Coming in to save the day is Superheroes Can’t Save You: Epic Examples of Historic Heresies, a recent book by Western Seminary theology professor Todd Miles. The book offers a creative presentation of a robust orthodox theology by showing how historical errors about the nature of God lead away from saving faith. It connects the church’s thinking about specific theological heresies to beliefs that are commonly held today.
Miles offers a culturally accessible vocabulary to explain seven theological errors that continue to pop up in church history. Each chapter briefly describes a popular comic-book hero, illustrates how a common heresy is embodied in that hero, identifies where the error is present in our time, uses Scripture to debunk the error, and concludes by explaining why avoiding it is so important.
Theological error doesn’t just come in the form of nicely dressed people knocking on your door. It comes in the form of half-completed discipleship.
For example, chapter one connects Docetism to Superman. Although the world around him sees mild-mannered Clark Kent, who seems merely a frail human, the reality is that the Man of Steel is an entirely different sort of being. The heart of Docetism is that Jesus was God in disguise, much like Clark Kent was an alien with superpowers disguised as an ordinary person; Docetists believed in Christ’s divinity while minimizing his humanity. The Superman heresy is problematic because it undermines the common humanity we share with Christ. Thus, when we see Christ’s moral example in Scripture, our response may well be apathy and disappointment, rather than obedience. After all, if Jesus wasn’t human, then he couldn’t have experienced temptation in the same way we do. But that is not the case (e.g., Heb. 4:15). Miles then outlines a biblical doctrine of the true humanity of Christ, showing that if Jesus wasn’t truly human, his sacrificial death couldn’t have reconciled us to God.
In this way Miles uses Batman, Ant-Man, Thor, Green Lantern, the Hulk, and Spider-man to illustrate common heresies and show why they’re significant. In doing so, he combats theological liberalism, Modalism, Arianism, Adoptionism, Apolliniarianism, and Eutychianism. Simply getting some people to read a book that defines and refutes these errors, particularly using the terms themselves, requires something like a superpower, which makes me wonder what Miles’s origin story is.Rousing Success
Any book that depends heavily on a cultural meme to engage audiences is likely to be either a catastrophic failure––falling into gimmickry and labored analogies––or a rousing success. The opportunities for the former are wide, varied, and easy. Miles, however, successfully navigates the pitfalls of his approach to produce an important and helpful volume that offers both clear theology and practical application. Superheroes Can’t Save You is a success that makes sound theology culturally relatable.
Superheroes Can’t Save You is a success that makes sound theology culturally relatable.
This is the sort of book that’s useful for individual or group study. Each chapter includes questions for personal reflection and for group discussion. It’s clear this book is an exercise in pursuing truth for the sake of holiness, rather than a theological exercise for its own sake. Miles has done a lot of the legwork to connect right belief to proper living, which increases the usefulness of this volume.
Getting people to read theology can be a challenge. A great deal of theology tends to fall into extremes: the most engaging presentations are often the most harmful, while some of the most important theology is difficult to read. There are wonderful exceptions, but those exceptions are altogether too infrequent. When an author combines an engaging approach with sound, practical theology, his or her work should be celebrated. Superheroes Can’t Save You is such a book.
The Christmas season brings a heightened feeling that something wonderful is coming. Can you sense it?
Like a faint sound in the distance drawing nearer. Like the waiting at the airport to be reunited with loved ones as they emerge from the terminal. Like the moment right before the sun peeks out from below the horizon. Like a promise about to come true. Something wonderful is coming. Frederick Buechner writes:
For a second you catch a whiff in the air of some fragrance that reminds you of a place you’ve never been and a time you have no words for. You are aware of the beating of your heart. The extraordinary thing that is about to happen is matched only by the extraordinary moment just before it happens. Advent is the name of that moment.
Advent. It means something wonderful is coming.Time to Slow Down
This Sunday marks the beginning of Advent, a season in the liturgical calendar that starts every year on the fourth Sunday before Christmas. It’s a time for priming our hearts to treasure Christ. Yet amid all the frenetic end-of-year chaos, it’s so easy to squander these precious moments of waiting. Many of us know all too well what it’s like for December to blur by—what it’s like to arrive on the doorstep of Christmas as another exhausted casualty of our consumeristic age.
Reacting. Organizing. Shopping. Planning. Wrapping. Budgeting. Stressing. Eating. Stress-eating.
So I am writing to those who, like me, need to slow down and embrace the oft-missed words of the famous carol, “Let every heart prepare him room.”Season of Remembering
As we remember God’s promises fulfilled at Christmas, we are reminded of just how intensely the incarnation of Christ shook the world. The meaning of Christmas goes miles deeper than family traditions, pretty lights, and a chance to refresh your depleted stockpile of socks.
For families, observing Advent together could be the perfect time to rekindle the fire of family devotions, or light them up for the first time.
Christmas means revolution. Christmas means miracle. Christmas means that God has come for us.
The King of heaven exchanged his throne for a cradle.
The Almighty swaddled himself with vulnerability.
The Creator entered into his own creation.
The Author put himself on the page.
The Infinite became an infant.
The Giver became the gift.
Jesus arrived as Immanuel—God with us. As Augustine said long ago, “He was created of a mother whom he created. He was carried by hands that he had formed.” Pondering how God has drawn near will deepen an appetite to pursue him.Season of Anticipating
There’s something in observing Advent that awakens not only joyful remembrance over Christ’s first coming, but also deep eagerness for his second coming (Rev. 22:20). In many ways, the church in this age is in similar position to God’s people toward the end of the Old Testament—marginalized in exile, hoping in darkness, waiting in stillness for the Day when Christ returns to, in Tolkien’s words, make “every sad thing come untrue.”
We are living between the Hallelujah of Christ’s resurrection and the Maranatha of Christ’s return.
Like a child on Christmas Eve caught between joyful memories of the Christmas that was, while waiting with breathless anticipation for the Christmas about to be, so it is with God’s people. We are living between the Hallelujah of Christ’s resurrection and the Maranatha of Christ’s return. And here—in the waiting of Advent—God’s people discover a unique species of joy that can only be glimpsed through the lens of worshipful anticipation. Timothy Paul Jones puts it well:
In Advent, Christians embrace the groaning, recognizing it not as hopeless whimpering over the paucity of the present moment but as expectant yearning for the divine banquet Jesus is preparing for us. . . . Just as the ancient Israelites awaited the coming of the Messiah in flesh, we await the coming of the Messiah in glory. In Advent, believers confess that the infant who drew his first ragged breath between a virgin’s knees has yet to speak his final word.
Advent is a way of reminding us that we are pilgrims passing through; that the brokenness of this world isn’t how it’s always going to be; that the true King is indeed coming soon.Let Every Heart Prepare Him Room
As with most things, knowing where to begin is usually the most difficult part. Below are some resources that will help readers slow down each day and cultivate worshipful anticipation through the Advent season. For families, observing Advent together could be the perfect time to rekindle the fire of family devotions, or light them up for the first time.
December will be busy. But it doesn’t have to be a blur. Let’s begin preparing room in our hearts this Advent for Immanuel—God with us.Advent Resources
- Individuals: Come Let Us Adore Him: A Daily Advent Devotional by Paul Tripp
- Families: A Jesus Christmas: Explore God’s Amazing Plan for Christmas by Barbara Reaoch.
- Free: Austin Stone Church have put out a brilliant advent devotional the past few years that can be accessed here.
Counseling student Jamie Pillow was sitting at a library table at Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS) in Jackson, Mississippi, when the student next to her made a sound she can still remember more than 20 years later.
The student—an older man, a ThM candidate from Africa—“moaned a moan that gives me chills to this day,” Pillow said. “Then he whispered under his breath, ‘I think that’s my son.’”
Pillow followed his gaze to the table. “There were Time and Newsweek magazines, but one had—as far as you could see—bodies piled up.”
The bodies belonged to Rwandan refugees who were trampled as they raced to escape the continent’s largest genocide. (Between April and June 1994, about 800,000 people—mostly Tutsis—were killed.)
Pillow took her fellow student to the student administrator’s office, and they called the Red Cross. Six weeks later, confirmation: The boy in the photo was his.
Horrified and livid, Pillow called one of her favorite professors. Richard Pratt spent most summers on mission trips to other countries, and often stayed late after class to tutor international seminary students.
“She said, ‘We have to stop doing this,’” Pratt remembers. “I said, ‘Doing what?’”
“Sending international students to the States for theological education,” she replied. She’d been worrying about this for a while, having spent the last year in a prayer group with lonely and anxious international students.
“I was praying that my oldest son wouldn’t get hurt in a football game,” Pillow said. “They were praying that God would be with their wife who had just been raped, or praying for those whose homes had been burned down, or for their children who had had their hands cut off.”
Pratt asked what she wanted to do.
“I want to put seminary in a box and mail it to them,” she told him. “If I can get the money, can you get the box?”
“That’s easy,” he said. “I can get the box.”
But it wasn’t easy. At times, the endeavor seemed ridiculous—too expensive, too hard to translate, too difficult to transport.
“Richard quit a million times,” Pillow said. “I quit a million times.”
But neither ever did. Pratt taught himself a video program and made VHS tapes in his bedroom. Pillow juggled seminary homework, her six kids, and asking strangers for funding.
And over the past 20 years, Third Mill has created 119 lessons for 27 seminary courses in five core languages. The lessons have made their way into every country in the world. Numbers aren’t easy to track, especially in countries hostile to Christianity. But over the past five years, nearly 700,000 confirmed supervised students have taken Third Mill classes.
Over the past 20 years, Third Mill has created 119 lessons for 27 seminary courses in five core languages.
This summer, Third Mill finished creating enough courses that a pastor anywhere in the world could earn a master’s degree in Bible and theology. From a solid Reformed perspective. For free.
“The biggest joy for me has been knowing that people I will never see until I get to heaven have had this wonderful opportunity to learn the true gospel, instead of a paganized version of it,” Pillow said. “To know that good theology is being taught about the true God and his works and his laws and his love thrills me better than anything else in the whole world.”Spreading Seminaries
In past decades, if you wanted a solid theological education (and had enough money), you went to school in Europe or North America. Of course, if you lived in a developing country, that was far easier said than done.
Denominations tried to solve this problem a few ways: by sending missionaries, by building seminaries, and by bringing pastors to study in the United States.
“Traditional strategies are important and should continue, but the need is far too great to be met with these strategies alone,” Third Mill’s website states. That’s hard to argue against—the number of Christians is predicted to grow from 2.2 billion in 2010 to 2.9 billion in 2050, according to Pew Research Center.
Most of that growth is happening in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, where the fewest opportunities for theological education exist, Pratt said. In 1950, some estimate there were just 70 to 80 pastoral-education or theological schools in the entire continent of Asia.Richard Pratt (left) and Greg Perry / Courtesy of Third Mill
That number has grown—thousands now attend evangelical seminaries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. But even in 2010, there were at least five times as many seminaries per 10 million Christians in North America as there were in Africa, according to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. More than half (58 percent in Africa, 62 percent in Latin America) of respondents said there were not enough theological schools to meet the need in their region.
“In the vast majority of where the church is growing really fast—parts of Asia and Africa—many get their teaching by watching American Christian television or God TV from the UK,” said Pratt, who began traveling every summer to teach and preach after a mission trip with Cru in 1985. “Where the church is growing the fastest in the world, there is the least opportunity for Christian leaders to learn the Bible and sound theology.”
When Pillow suggested boxing up seminary, he immediately saw the advantage. Before Third Mill even got going, he was already expanding the scope.Video Animation
In 1998, the Prince of Egypt film was released in theaters. Val Kilmer voiced Moses, Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey sang the theme song, and Pratt gave religious advice. (He was one of about 600 advisers, but Pratt is the reason the film ends at the Sinai instead of the Red Sea. “The story isn’t just about freedom from something, but to something,” he told filmmakers.)
When one of the donors found out, he told Pratt, “I want you to do something like you did with [filmmaker Steven] Spielberg—make a movie.”
Pratt counter-offered. He wanted to make videos that showed illustrations—that was how he liked to teach—and dropped in short interviews with experts. He wanted a host, photographs, charts, and maps. Less DreamWorks animation, more History Channel documentary.Third Mill “is indeed a very resourceful incredible material to help equip the preachers in this part of world where theological training is very challenging for many,” said Kole Community Presbyterian Church pastor Solomon. He’s in Lira, Uganda. / Courtesy of Third Mill
“I went to a low-end studio in Orlando and told them what I wanted,” Pratt said. “They said it would cost $6,000 to $10,000 a minute. That was before mobile phones, so I had to go home and find a calculator. My goal was a two-year program, and I discovered it would take about half a billion to do it.”
Nope, he thought. He called the donor and asked for the money to buy a computer instead.
“I spent a year and a half in my back bedroom, learning how to make digital video and animations,” he said. “Then I made a demo to show people how it could be done—how effective it could be. By God’s mercy, people began to support it.”
But not everyone. Some said it was too expensive, or that it couldn’t be translated well, or that transporting bulky VHS tapes would be impossible.
On top of the practical objections, there were theoretical ones: “Leftover from the 1960s and 1970s missiology in America was the belief that even if you can make it, and translate it, and deliver it, [the students] will not want it because it’s from America,” Pratt said.
But the way he saw it, somebody was going to take the gospel to the global South and East—“either prosperity gospel doctrine or worse. . . . It’s not a question of whether the West is going to influence Eastern Christianity, but what kind of influence they’ll have.”Robust
The influence Third Mill is aiming for is “soft-touch Calvinism,” Pratt said. He’s an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America, and Third Mill “has a commitment to the Westminster standards.”
But Third Mill also likes to include as many theological experts as possible. The classes feature video interviews with 370 different professors and Christian leaders from around the world, who speak on their areas of expertise.Pastor Amgad Habib (third from left) uses Third Mill curriculum to teach at a Baptist seminary in Egypt / Courtesy of Third Mill
Featuring academic experts from different ethnicities and nationalities lends Third Mill credibility with students and helps to keep the curriculum from feeling overly Western, he said.
“We present different perspectives on non-salvific issues that Christians sometimes disagree about,” director of curriculum Cindy Sawyer said. “We also offer companion lessons that include interviews with several professors answering questions on topics related to the lessons—topics that will help students better understand the content of the lessons.”
Even then, Third Mill is careful with what it presents as legitimate areas for disagreement. “We get to pick and choose,” Sawyer said. “We aren’t putting anything in there that is heresy, or that we strongly disagree with.”
Explaining those viewpoints is part of Third Mill’s commitment to a robust theological education.
“Sometimes people jump into making it easy for [international students], so they say something like, ‘Noah was a good man who went on the ark with the animals,’” Sawyer said.
That’s not what Third Mill wants. They’re aiming for clear and simple language—“easily translatable”—but not easy concepts.
“We have a really good process of taking difficult theological concepts and not dumbing them down,” Sawyer said.
The result is material sharp enough to be used in Western seminary classrooms, but clear enough that “it’s understandable by someone with an eighth-grade education in the fields of Argentina,” she said.
Third Mill is aiming for clear and simple language—’easily translatable’—but not easy concepts.
If you just thought, “Hey, maybe that’s something I could use,” you aren’t the only one. Third Mill has started hearing from high-school teachers, prison chaplains, and Bible study leaders who wanted to use the curriculum.
The courses weren’t exactly designed for that—the videos are usually an hour or longer—but Third Mill is “available to anyone who desires to study the Bible and theology more deeply,” director of communications services Darlene Perry said. Third Mill is in the process of creating application guides to help group leaders work more effectively with their materials.
“It’s exciting what God does,” Sawyer said. “You set off to do one thing, and he says, ‘Great, but let’s also go here and here and here.”For The World
When Pratt first started, he was still employed by RTS—essentially, earning a salary from one seminary while compiling course content for students who could never enroll in a seminary graduate program.
“We are very positive, very supportive,” said RTS chancellor emeritus Ric Cannada, who headed up the RTS system from 2002 to 2012. “The quality and content of his stuff is great. We promote it, talk about it, encourage people to use it. There are just a lot of settings where people would like a [seminary] degree, but can’t for one reason or another. And Third Mill is an excellent alternative.”Paul Kondepudi wanted to become a pastor when he saw God’s Word being misrepresented in India. He found Third Mill online. After graduating, he gave his first paycheck as a pastor to Third Mill to show his gratitude. / Courtesy of Third Mill
One of those settings is Zimbabwe, where a Presbyterian church went online a few years ago, looking for “evangelical, reformed, biblically-based and theologically sound resources” for its leaders and members, City Presbyterian Church teaching elder Joram Mugari said.
“We needed a resource that would not require us to spend a lot of time preparing notes before actually engaging the students,” Mugari said. “We also needed a resource that would not cost the church an arm and a leg. Above it all, we needed a resource that was totally committed to the Bible and the Christ of the Bible, and yet flexible to the needs and context of Africa. . . . Third Millennium was an above-the-rest resource which suited us best.”
City Presbyterian began using Third Mill to train its own pastors. But “many pastors in Zimbabwe lead churches without any theological education,” Mugari said. “We began attracting other leaders from different denominations.”
Mugari, who is a professor at the Theological College of Zimbabwe (TCZ), is “keen on” this.
Third Mill “gets me to train pastors who have no money to qualify to enter TCZ’s formal ministerial training,” he said. “Also, most of the pastors who take classes with me on Saturday mornings do not have enough qualifications or high school education to be at TCZ, where I teach on a daily basis.”Garry Todd from Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Athens, GA, leads a “how to” class for 25 students at African Bible University. Students told him, “This is what we needed, but we had no idea it was out there.” / Courtesy of Third Mill
City Presbyterian paired up with Birmingham Theological Seminary to offer a certificate in Christian ministry using Third Mill. Today, close to 60 students are taking Third Mill courses through the church, which plans to start 10 more cohorts in the spring.
A St. Louis church is also using Third Mill to train African leaders. New City Fellowship worked through ministry partnerships to enroll about 20 students in the Congo and another 20 in Togo, with plans to begin training in Rwanda in January.
But executive pastor Barry Henning is also using it in St. Louis. About 15 church members—doctors, lawyers, ministry leaders, carpenters, repairmen, and college-age students—watch the videos during the week and then attend a weekly two-hour class. Henning levels it up—”a bit more intense study, more one-on-one time for discussion, and additional readings”—when he uses Third Mill to train two Congolese immigrants for pastoral ministry.
“I love it,” Henning said. “The breadth of teachers from across the world who are all biblically sound and well-trained, offering their resources in a highly accessible fashion—both in terms of the substance of the lectures and the format of video, audio and written formats—is a blessing from God for the next generation of leaders across the world.”Available Everywhere
One of Coca-Cola’s earliest slogans was “around the corner from everywhere,” and “that’s what we want—utter ubiquity,” Pratt said. “Our model is like electricity—everybody wants it and needs it. Let’s put it out there.”
But it’s going to take some time before Third Mill’s capacity can catch up to its vision.
“One of the biggest challenges is that we can’t say yes to every opportunity,” vice president of strategic projects Greg Perry said. The going can be slow—Third Mill distributes its resources through local pastors’ councils, church-planting networks, or mission organizations, and it takes time to learn the peculiarities of each one. Not only that, but Third Mill’s staff has been built around content production. Adding distribution capacity will require more people with different skills.
“It’s growing pains,” Perry said. “It’s the kind you want, but it is painful.”Flipped Classroom
Before Perry came on staff at Third Mill, he used the curriculum to help train resettled Congolese refugees he was working with in St. Louis. But he also used it at Covenant Seminary, where he was teaching both online and traditional classes.
“What was so important for me as a professor was to connect the great heritage of the church and the Holy Spirit’s work with what’s happening on the streets,” he said. That meant Perry’s greatest role wasn’t to deliver content, but to “be a bridge.”Pratt and Third Mill VP of global opportunities Andrew Lamb teach an ongoing training for pastors at Cornhill Scotland in Glasgow / Courtesy of Third Mill
“I used the flipped-classroom approach,” he said. “They could watch the videos [on their own], and then I could use classroom time to focus more on formation of ministry skills, the ‘So what?’ questions.”
One example is the imagery of heavenly worship in Revelation 4–5. Perry asked students to view the Third Mill course on Revelation, then led a classroom discussion about intercultural worship in the city. He also drew on Third Mill images of the renewal of earth as a global temple in Revelation 21–22 to talk about “the importance of cultural and community development work as a penultimate expression of kingdom mission.”
Perry sees resources like Third Mill as a way for seminaries to pop out of their “academic bubble” and to get students into real-life ministry, while still under the guidance of a professor.Some of the 171 graduates from Los Pinos Nuevos Seminary in Cuba who completed Third Mill curriculum in Spanish under seminary supervision / Courtesy of Third Mill
That’s what Calvin did in Geneva, Pratt pointed out. “Calvin made students serve in hospitals and work with refugees and live with elders. It was remarkable.”
Whether or not other professors are following Perry’s approach, Third Mill has seen a few Western seminaries interested in using their curriculum to offer off-campus degrees.
“Schools are realizing the need is so great that they need to partner with us to reach people they never could have before,” Pratt said. “So far God has blessed us in that we aren’t seeing a spirit of competitiveness [between Third Mill and brick-and-mortar seminaries].
“I remind people that the need is much greater than you’ll ever fulfill. We aren’t competing for anything here. If we are going to bring good, sound, gospel education to every leader of the church, then we need to work together.”
Cannada agrees. “I don’t see it as an either-or, but both-and,” he said. “The need is so big out there. We need more and more good Reformed theological education, not less.”Engaging
“We get letters every day,” Pillow said. Her favorite was “one from a man in solitary confinement serving a life sentence. His writing was hardly legible. He wrote and thanked us—he had been converted, his life had been changed, and he felt that rather than serving a life sentence, he was free.”
The task hasn’t been easy—it’s difficult to find good animation artists. Writers need to have theological understanding, the skills to contextualize concepts globally (no American illustrations like comparisons to baseball or football), and the ability to engage both those with an eighth-grade education and those with a post-secondary degree. And funding is always a challenge.
But the rewards are enormous.
“God is definitely working here, because we look around and there’s a lot of stuff that should not have worked out that did,” Sawyer said. “I love what I do. I love what we’re doing.”
The world’s need for gospel-centered theological education is too big and complex for any one organization to carry. But Third Mill is lending a hand.
“By God’s grace,” Pratt said, “we are making enormous strides in meeting one of the greatest needs in the kingdom today—teaching the Scriptures and sound theology to Christian leaders everywhere.”
Cal Ripken Jr. became an extraordinary baseball player by doing an ordinary thing: he showed up for work. He did it again and again and again, a record 2,632 consecutive times. The Hall of Fame third baseman first appeared in the Baltimore Orioles starting lineup on May 30, 1982. His name wouldn’t be absent until September 20, 1998.
Barry Bonds became baseball’s Benedict Arnold by attempting something extraordinary: bending baseball’s rules. One of the most feared sluggers of the 1990s and 2000s, Bonds broke a most hallowed record—Hank Aaron’s 755 career home runs. But Bonds did it by cheating. For the last several years of his career, he took drugs that artificially enhanced his performance—and inflated his home-run totals—enabling him to pass Aaron.
These two baseball players illustrate two different approaches to ministry—God’s way and ours. In the Reformed tradition, preaching, prayer and the ordinances—baptism and the Lord’s Supper—are often called the “ordinary means of grace,” since they form the heart of worship and the core of local church ministry.
But in our good desire to see disciples made, I fear we get thrown by the term “ordinary.”Grace Is Not Ordinary
The phrase “ordinary means of grace” does not imply God’s work is dull and unspectacular. There is nothing ordinary about God’s grace. His Spirit uses the public proclamation of an ancient book to convince an enemy army to love him and want to join his family.
A few months ago, a pastor from my hometown told me he’d recently planted a new church. I asked him to tell me more about it. As only a mountain man from north Georgia could put it, he said, “Well, it ain’t much to look at. Just preachin’, prayin’, and sangin.’ But we figure that’s plenty.”
Plenty, indeed.When We Use Extraordinary Means
It’s plenty, because bad things happen when we exchange God’s means of grace for our own—or when we misuse his. Ask Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu. While handling the sacred things in worship, they offered strange fire on God’s altar—a means of worship he did not command. The result? God vaporized them.
Ask Old Testament Israel, who embraced the pantheon of deities worshiped by the nations around them. So God used Assyria and Babylon—wicked nations—as instruments of judgment. (Of course, in his holiness God poured out judgment on those nations for their sin as well.)
One of the under-discussed principles of the Reformation is simplicity. Worship, ministry, and all the things that go with it (including church architecture) should be simple. My north Georgia friend was on to something that we—even in our good desire to see Christians edified and sinners embrace Christ—often forget: God performs his extraordinary work of spiritual awakening through ordinary people and ordinary things.When We Use Ordinary Means
In Acts 2:23, Peter preached “this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, [whom] you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” And then we read, “There were added that day (to the church) about three thousand souls” (v. 41). The “foolishness of preaching” has power that confounds our wisdom, for what the world sees as weak is strong in heaven’s sight—and vice-versa (cf. 1 Cor. 1:18–2:5; 2 Cor. 12:1–10).
Acts 2:42 recounts church-wide devotion to God’s ordinary means: “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Moreover, Paul and Barnabas preached the gospel boldly to the Gentiles—and God brought awakening: “And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed. And the word of the Lord was spreading throughout the whole region” (Acts 13:48).
The conversion of Charles Spurgeon is a remarkable illustration of the Word’s power. As a 15-year-old he ducked into a Primitive Methodist Church to escape a snowstorm. The regular preacher was away, and a substitute stepped into the pulpit and read Isaiah 45:22—“Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is none else.” God cut Spurgeon to the heart. Spurgeon’s kingdom influence defies imagination. It began with the bare reading of Scripture.
When we use God’s ordinary means, we get his power with them. There are so many reasons to build our churches around a ministry of God’s ordinary means of grace, but here are five.1. They are timeless.
God never changes, nor does his Word. Protestant liberalism argued that Christianity must change or die. Today, most churches who bought into that message are dying. Many churches that preach the genuine gospel are growing.2. They may be deployed by any faithful church.
I pastor an obscure church of approximately 60 people. We certainly desire to grow in both grace and number, but we don’t have to wait until we have bricks and mortar or a top-notch sound system to be a valid church doing valid, Word-centered ministry. We take no pride in being small—that’s a different heart issue—but our elders and members are simply trusting God to honor his Word.3. They do not require extraordinary innovation.
In God’s economy the weak is strong and the strong is weak (2 Cor. 12:1–10). The bar for ministry success, then, is persevering faithfulness.
The bar for ministry success is persevering faithfulness.
The ordinary means of grace may appear pathetic and insignificant, with little potential to accomplish anything of deep effect. But God works this way. He used a rebellious prophet to reach Nineveh with the good news. He turned a weak, cowardly, Jesus-denying disciple into one of the boldest preachers the world has known. Though we are deeply flawed and desperately feeble, he uses us.4. They promote humility and reverential worship.
When God sets the agenda and we follow, we are admitting that he is sovereign, and we are not. When we deploy his means, we are saying, “You are God, and I am not. You have revealed yourself in Scripture, and I joyfully submit to your wisdom.” That’s humility. When we humble ourselves, we are positioned to worship God with grateful awe, because he has done it.5. Using them rightly is an act of faith.
Jesus promised, “I will build my church and the gates of hades will not overcome it” (Matt. 16:18). God builds his church on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, which means his Word, with Christ as the chief cornerstone (Eph. 2:20). The ordinary means of grace are the divinely appointed, Spirit-driven carpenter of the church.
The means of grace are the carpenter of the church.
The Word of God and the Spirit of God conspire to form the engine that pulls the cars down the tracks of salvation and sanctification. We must unleash them faithfully, with all the energy God gives us, trusting he will use them to perform the miracle of remaking sinners into saints.
On a purely human level, our task as church leaders is simple. Like Cal Ripken, we must show up every Lord’s Day and at every evangelism outreach, day after day, week after week, year after year, faithfully unleashing his ordinary means of grace. Then we watch, as God builds his church in a way the world, with all its extraordinary things, will never be able to explain.
The Story: A 216-ton artwork on display in Qatar is drawing controversy because it shows 14 different stages of human development—from conception to a fully-fledged newborn baby.
The Background: Over the past thirty years, Britain’s Damien Hirst has become one of the most famous—and wealthiest—artists of the modern era. Much of his art has tended to focus on death. Some of his most famous sculptures include dead animals (a cow and calf, a shark, a sheep, etc.) preserved in formaldehyde and displayed in clear tanks. And his 2007 work, “For the Love of God,” was a platinum replica of a real human skull, encrusted all over with thousands of small diamonds.
But his latest work has sparked controversy because of its focus on life.
“The Miraculous Journey” is a series of fourteen monumental bronze sculptures that chronicle the gestation of a fetus inside a uterus, from conception to birth. It ends with a statue of a 46-foot-tall anatomically correct baby boy. To highlight the theme, the sculptures are displayed outside Sidra Medical Centre, a hospital in Qatar dedicated to women and children’s health.
According to The Guardian, the sculptures were originally unveiled in October 2013 but then reportedly covered from public view until recent weeks following an outcry on social media.
“We are not expecting everyone to like them,” says Qatar art specialist Layla Ibrahim Bacha, “We are not expecting everyone to understand them. This is why they are there to actually create this element of debate, this element of thinking.”
“We believe it reflects very much the mission of Sidra, taking care of the healthcare of woman and babies,” added Bacha.
What It Means: In the 1970s and 1980s it was common to see pro-life activists standing outside abortion clinics holding placards with graphic pictures of dismembered fetuses. Many thought at the time that images of death would be the best way to shock the conscience about the reality of abortion.
But in the 1990s, pro-lifers began to realize that displaying life-affirming images could be more effective. Ian Donald, an obstetrician and devout Anglican who helped develop diagnostic ultrasound technology, was the first to recognize how sonogram images of babies in the womb could change the abortion debate. Sonograms give us a window into the womb, showing us the beauty of human development and invoking the natural love for children that most of us feel.
Hirst’s sculptures of the earliest stages for human development appear to be having a similar pro-life effect. While Hirst is not a Christian, his latest work echoes the biblical reality, as the psalmist said to God, “you knit me together in my mother’s womb” (Psalm 139:13).
“Ultimately, the journey a baby goes through before birth is bigger than anything it will experience in its human life,” Hirst told artnet News. “I hope the sculpture will instill in the viewer a sense of awe and wonder at this extraordinary human process, which occurs every second all across the globe.”
It’s devastating for a wife to discover her husband pursuing sexual experiences outside of their marriage. Pornography, and the sexual fantasies that fuel its use, are unfaithful behaviors that break the sacred promise: I am devoted and faithful to you alone.
How should a wife respond when her husband continues to struggle with pornography, confessing yet another slip or fall? Should she keep forgiving when he keeps failing to kill this sin? Should she resign herself to live with it, because, well, isn’t this just what men do, even Christian men? Or should she separate, even consider divorce, to end the pain of her troubled marriage?Three Godly Responses
Let me suggest three ways to address your pain.1. Grieve
God invites you to grieve the hurt, the broken trust, and the deep disappointment caused by your husband’s pursuit of pornography. Grieving acknowledges the damage of sin and is a pathway toward the profound comfort God gives: “The LORD is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit” (Ps. 34:18).
Again and again in Scripture, God reminds you that you matter deeply to him.2. Be Angry
It is not wrong to experience anger in the face of sins and temptations that remain this side of heaven. Sexual immorality in marriage robs both spouses of Christ-centered oneness and the joy of marital intimacy.3. Seek Community
You need a trusted friend or spiritual leader walking with you. Many wives wrongly believe that submission and respect mean keeping their husband’s sin private. Though it would be dishonoring to broadcast your husband’s sins to everyone in earshot, a small group of godly and trustworthy friends are a precious comfort and help to your soul. A healthy church will look at you and say, “I am my sister’s keeper.”Two Ways Forward
As you address your pain, the Lord calls you to seek out avenues of further redemption, not just for yourself but also for your marriage. Here are two additional responses to your husband’s sin.1. Learn
If your husband continues to struggle, learn more about this particular issue. Two trustworthy websites regarding sex addiction (including the effect on spouses) are the blogs of Harvest USA and Covenant Eyes.2. Discern
As you learn more about his struggle with porn, do you see a positive trajectory of overcoming this sin, even if there are failures at points? Or is he stuck? Worse, is he giving up? Discerning whether he is really trying, with humility, to overcome his sin—or is just playing around with it—will help you know if you need to reach out to a pastor or elder who can come alongside you in confronting your husband, as Matthew 18:15–20 instructs.
This, my sister, is not betrayal of trust but a demonstration of courageous love.
This, my sister, is not betrayal of trust but a demonstration of courageous love.One Primary Goal
Jesus-enabled love gives courage in marriage. You need boldness to address sin, helping your husband to ruthlessly engage the battle to starve the flesh and feed the Spirit (Gal. 6:7–9).
What might active love for Christ and your husband look like? Here are a few ideas.
- Consistently pray for him and your marriage.
- Communicate honestly about how he can best confess to you. What helps build trust without triggering fear in your heart or images in your mind?
- Pursue holiness in your own life. Pain and fear might be tempting occasions to gossip, to be bitter, or even to pursue your own idols of sinful comfort. Beware of those sins and plead for the Holy Spirit’s help to continue walking in godliness, even amid this excruciating trial.
- Expect your husband to find, and maintain, effective accountability. Who are the men with whom he is completely honest? Who exhorts and encourages him in his battle with lust? Accountability enables you to rest, knowing others will take the more ugly hits of his confessions but will also hold him to being honest with you. It’s his responsibility to establish accountability, not yours. If he refuses, remember that a godly response is for you to seek the guidance and oversight of trusted church community.
- Ask your husband how you can assist him to flee temptation. We’re told in 1 Corinthians 10:14 to flee idolatry, and that means no secret windows to climb through toward sin. Have you set up roadblocks with technology (filters on devices and TVs)? Smartphones and other devices may seem necessary, but they aren’t. “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off” entails a radical commitment to eradicate all inroads to sin (Matt. 5:30).
Sister, hoping in your trustworthy God, your Rock, will steady you in the weariness and pain of your situation. Jesus Christ has power to bring radical transformation to anyone mired in sin.
Through robust accountability and Spirit-enabled self-control, husbands can battle wisely, doing whatever it takes to starve out this sin. Brains can be rewired at the level of neural pathways. Behavioral habits can be retrained. Miracles can occur.
So don’t lose heart or give up. The wounds you’re experiencing are real, but they are not in vain, and they don’t have to ultimately end in tragedy. Your hope-infused dependence on Christ’s love and strength—and on a healthy church—can shape the way you move forward alongside your husband.
The local church is a marvel. Members and elders serve beside each other, learn from each other, and stand together for the gospel.
But all of us have been in churches where some members were displeased with one of the elders. It might be issues related to his interpersonal skills—he’s too aloof or too casual. It might be issues with the tone of his teaching—he’s too cerebral or too dry. It might be questions about his family—his children are rowdy, or his wife doesn’t participate in church events. These kinds of objections do not disqualify him from ministry, but they hinder his ability to minister well and can become the occasion of discord—and gossip—in the church.
Paul instructs the Ephesian church through Timothy: “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching” (1 Tim. 5:17). But Paul doesn’t think of generous compensation as the only way to respect elders. Following Deuteronomy 17:6, he adds: “Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses” (1 Tim. 5:19).
Why does he add this admonition? Because he knows that, as saved sinners, accusations will arise against elders from members of the congregation. How should we deal with them?
Leaders are visible, and visibility attracts slander.
Leaders are visible, and visibility attracts slander. To “admit” in 1 Timothy 5:19 means to “acknowledge something to be correct.” We must refuse to countenance false accusations that spread through the church—against anyone, especially undershepherds of God’s flock.How to Handle Legitimate Accusations
What happens when accusations against an elder are legitimate? The accusations I have in mind here are not concerning illegal matters, such as sexual or physical abuse. Those are beyond the scope of this article.
Maybe an elder consistently speaks harshly or uses questionable language. Maybe he reacts with anger, or seeks revenge on those who disagree with him, or harbors a pattern of sinful behavior. Elders are sinners—like the rest of the congregation. Yet because of the unique responsibilities entrusted to them, they must vigilantly guard against allowing sins to entrap and tarnish their character. They’re to be exemplary in repentance as a lifestyle. They must seek to be “above reproach” (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:6).
If an elder persists in sinful practice, however, church members have a responsibility to guard the church’s unity and witness by following the threefold practice Paul outlines in 1 Timothy 5:19–21.1. Verify the Accusation
If the accusation proves to be false, fellow members—not just other elders—should reprove the one making the meritless accusation. We often misunderstand each other. Things we say get mistaken, as does a glance or nod or gesture or tone of voice. We mustn’t be quick to take offense or to create a crisis that doesn’t exist.
That said, elders sometimes fall into patterns of sin that need correction. Paul borrows the sobering template of Deuteronomy 17:6, where Moses gave instructions concerning the evidence necessary in order to apply the death penalty in Israel. So Paul echoes Moses: “Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses” (1 Tim. 5:19).
Why does Paul call for more than one witness? Suppose someone bears a grudge against a particular elder. Or maybe someone not appointed as an elder grows jealous and decides to pick off an elder out of revenge. One witness didn’t suffice in a capital trial in Israel, so Paul takes the principle into the church. Two or more must corroborate the sinful pattern before it’s addressed. Once confirmed, it must be addressed with the aim toward correction.
Though each church will likely have its specific approach, it seems two or three witnesses, along with some elders, will confront the erring elder. Assuming the sin does not immediately disqualify him from office (e.g., embezzlement, sexual immorality, or one that demands intervention by authorities such as physical or sexual abuse), plans must be established for restoration. The confrontation may be a simple matter of correction. Or it may be more detailed, with his elders’ responsibilities suspended while working through a remedial process.
But what if the elder refuses to respond to this small group—similar to the pattern in Matthew 18:15–20? Then move to step two.2. Publicly Reprove the Unrepentant Elder
Paul’s language is uncompromising: “As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear” (1 Tim. 5:20). “Persistence in sin” emphasizes willful continuance. Public rebuke comes only when the sinning elder refuses to repent after private confrontation. “The presence of all” implies that the church hears the rebuke, so “the rest may stand in fear.” The latter may point primarily toward the rest of the elders, but certainly affects the sin-consciousness of the entire congregation.
Paul doesn’t specify the elder’s removal upon public rebuke. Bill Mounce suggests that “rebuke” or “reprove” implies a remedial confrontation. Certainly, the goal would be his restoration to full fellowship with Christ and the church. But we must assume his unrepentant spirit blurs the lines of being “above reproach” (1 Tim. 3:2) and, so long as this is the case, disqualifies him. The elder must be removed from office.
Of course, feelings and friendships may get in the way of properly handling an elder who refuses to repent. Thus the third insight is vitally important.3. Play No Favorites
“In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of the elect angels, I charge you to keep these rules without prejudging, doing nothing from partiality” (1 Tim. 5:21). Here is a twofold application: Don’t short-circuit the process by “taking a side beforehand,” and do nothing partisan.
When a church ignores Paul’s threefold practice—verify the accusation, reprove publicly if he’s unrepentant, and play no favorites—it reveals softness toward sin and preference for personal ease at the expense of Christ’s reputation and glory.True Love Corrects
Every elder is a sinner who needs divine grace and gospel application. His words and actions might offend at times—without malicious intent, perhaps, but offend nonetheless. If the pattern persists, however, he may have a blind spot. He may need the body to love him enough to deal directly with his sin—and thereby set a godly example to the gathered church and the watching world. Otherwise, the congregation gets careless, and sinful patterns gain a foothold. That’s too high a price to pay at the expense of those redeemed by Christ’s blood.
An elder’s office does not put him above correction. Yet the congregation must show such respect to those appointed to lead, so that only with much humility, verification, and care will they reprove an elder. Members and elders will faithfully serve one another with this kind of accountability.
- 4 Ways Elders Should Seek Accountability (Dave Harvey)
- 5 Ways Elders Can Shepherd Elders (Phil Newton)
- How Staff Should Disagree with the Senior Pastor (Colin Smith, Ryan Kelly, and Danny Akin)
- Dear New Elder: 5 Encouragements as You Begin (Jeff Robinson)
- Does an Unbelieving Child Disqualify an Elder? (Justin Taylor)
- Is Church Discipline Really Necessary? (Thabiti Anyabwile, Kent Hughes, and Philip Ryken)
- When Church Discipline Really Goes Public (Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra)
Ethnic diversity isn’t something that should be begrudgingly tolerated, but enthusiastically celebrated.
Passages like Revelation 5:9–10 speak loudly to God’s ultimate purpose in the gospel—a redeemed, ethnically diverse people worshiping him together for all eternity. Like the facets of a jewel, the glory of God shines all the more brightly as the light of his gospel is reflected through different vessels. Without ethnic diversity, we lose the ability to see God shine in particular ways (Eph. 2:14–19).
Sadly, the sins of racism, bigotry, and ethnic pride have manifested themselves in many ways in our racially charged culture, both historically and also in the present day. But the gospel offers us a new way. Not just for us, but also for our children. When the Lord Jesus stretched out his hands on the cross, he did so not only with particular people in mind, but particular people groups (Rev. 7:9). The Son of God is so glorious that nothing less than the nations would suffice as his chosen community of worshipers.
As Christians, we have the privilege of participating in what God is doing in redemptive history. We also have the responsibility to teach our children this kingdom perspective. Countercultural, biblical views don’t just happen. They must be taught.
Countercultural, biblical views don’t just happen. They must be taught.
Here are six ways to help your children appreciate God’s design for ethnic diversity.1. Teach them what the Bible says about ethnic diversity.
Scripture isn’t silent when it comes to God’s design for ethnic diversity. Embedded in the gospel is God’s plan to reconcile to himself a people from every ethnic group in the world. Christ’s bride is a beautiful, multicolored bride. It’s vital to teach our kids these truths.
One familiar passage that speaks to the glorious multiethnic future of the church is Revelation 5:9:
And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.”
Every nation (ethnos in Greek).
God’s purpose is crystal clear: a diverse people, ransomed for the sake of his praise and glory. We must teach this vision to our children.
The goal of multiethnic worship isn’t only for heaven; we must pursue it now.
And we must stress that the goal of multiethnic worship isn’t only for heaven; we must pursue it now. Here are some passages that will help reinforce this truth. Use them as you talk to your children about how the Spirit draws people from every tribe and nation to worship God: Genesis 17:4; Numbers 12:1–8; Psalms 22:27–28; 72:11; Daniel 7:14; John 4:9; Acts 10:34–35; 13:47; Romans 15:8–12; Galatians 3:28; Ephesians 2:13–16; James 2:8–9; and Revelation 7:9.2. Correct common errors regarding the Bible and ethnicity.
In Western cultures, it’s common for literature and films to present biblical characters (including Jesus) as Caucasian. This portrayal reinforces the notion that white is normal and non-white is “other.” This is particularly dangerous in spiritual matters, where ethnic identity can be mistakenly connected with favor before God.
Parents can help their children by pointing out that these illustrations aren’t accurate depictions of people in the Middle East, where darker features are the norm. Correcting these errors will provide opportunities for further dialogue.3. Educate yourself and your children about cultures other than your own.
I’m speaking particularly to white readers. For many white people, especially in the United States, it’s possible to go one’s entire life without ever having meaningful interactions with people of color. Additionally, it’s all too common for curricula in our schools to focus only on Western civilization and accomplishments, again reinforcing the notion that “whiteness” is normative. When people of color are mentioned, it’s often limited to depictions of slavery and subservience.
For many white people, especially in the United States, it’s possible to go one’s entire life without ever having meaningful interactions with people of color.
Gaining a better understanding of other cultures will take intentionality. The good news is that we’re in the information age, with volumes of resources available within seconds of internet searching.4. Seek out interactions and relationships with people of different ethnicities.
One of the greatest barriers to pursuing God’s design for diversity is the lack of proximity many have with people from different ethnic backgrounds. Depending on where you live, it may take more intentionality to develop these relationships. The local church is an ideal context for this pursuit. Unfortunately, there’s too much truth in the old saying that “11 a.m. on Sundays is the most segregated hour of the week.” If there’s ethnic diversity in your church, be intentional about having dinner/family outings/activities with people of different ethnicities so that these interactions would be the norm, rather than the exception, for your child.
Outside of church, this may mean signing your child up for extracurricular activities where they can develop diverse friendships with other children. Sports clubs, choirs, and summer camps can provide such opportunities. Some will have to be more creative than others in this regard.5. Model loving confrontation of prejudiced words and behavior.
Ethnic bigotry certainly spreads from parents who transfer these mindsets to their children. But often it comes not from the parents directly, but from other family members who say racially insensitive or even directly racist things in front of the children—while the parents do nothing. It may not even be a family member. Perhaps it’s something said on television.
Whatever the case, these are opportunities for parents to jump in and say things like, “That joke was not funny. We’re all made in God’s image, and we shouldn’t say things like that about other people.” Or, “We love Uncle Bob, but what he said tonight at dinner about other races was unacceptable and sinful. We’re to love and accept everyone, regardless of their ethnicity, because that’s how God loves us.”
It will require courage to do this, as you may risk alienating a family member. But whatever it may cost relationally, it’s worth it for your child to see you honoring God in this way. And it’s the kind of act children don’t forget.6. Be hopeful for a future where the Spirit will break down barriers between people of different ethnic backgrounds.
Let your children know through your words, attitudes, and actions that you believe God is at work in our world, drawing his people to himself and making us one in answer to his prayer (John 17:20–26).
One of the greatest barriers to pursuing God’s design for diversity is the lack of proximity many have with people from different ethnic backgrounds.
Yes, there’s work to do, but the Spirit of the living God is our partner, our helper, and our power. What we can’t do in our own strength, God can and will do in his.
Pray with your children through John 17, and then talk with them about how your family can live out Jesus’s prayer in your church, school, and neighborhood.
- Shai Linne Talks About His New Children’s Album—and Book (Matt Smethurst)
Twenty-five years ago this week, President Bill Clinton signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA). At the time of the law’s signing, President Clinton said,
What (RFRA) basically says is that the government should be held to a very high level of proof before it interferes with someone’s free exercise of religion. This judgment is shared by the people of the United States as well as by the Congress. We believe strongly that we can never, we can never be too vigilant in this work.
Here is what you should know about this landmark religious liberty law:
1. RFRA began as a reaction to an unexpected U.S. Supreme Court ruling handed down in 1990. In Employment Division v. Smith, the Court claimed the First Amendment is not violated when neutral, generally applicable laws conflict with religious practices. Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the majority, said the Court had never held that an individual’s religious beliefs excuse him from compliance with an otherwise valid law prohibiting conduct that government is free to regulate. Allowing exceptions to every state law or regulation affecting religion, he wrote, “would open the prospect of constitutionally required exemptions from civic obligations of almost every conceivable kind.”
2. Many Americans feared the new standard in the Smith case was a broad threat to religious liberty. In response, as the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty notes, an “extraordinary coalition of organizations coalesced to push for federal legislation that would ‘restore’ the pre-Smith compelling interest standard.” A group called the Coalition for the Free Exercise of Religion formed to lobby Congress to change the law. The coalition consisted of a broad spectrum of secular and religious groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Concerned Women for America, the American Humanist Association, Justice Fellowship, and the Christian Life Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention (now the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission).
3. On March 11, 1993, Rep. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) introduced the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a federal law intended to prevent other federal laws from substantially burdening a person’s free exercise of religion. The bill was approved by unanimous voice vote in the House of Representatives, and passed the Senate 97-3. The three “Nays” in the Senate were Robert Byrd (D-WV), Jesse Helms (R-NC), and Harlan Mathews (D-TN). The bill was signed into law by President Clinton on November 16.
4. According to the text of the law, the purposes of the RFRA are: (1) to restore the compelling interest test as set forth in Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U.S. 398 (1963) and Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205 (1972) and to guarantee its application in all cases where free exercise of religion is substantially burdened; and (2) to provide a claim or defense to persons whose religious exercise is substantially burdened by government.
5. RFRA restored a prior standard of religious exemptions that existed from 1963 to 1990. In the 1963 case Sherbert v. Verner the Supreme Court expressly adopted the constitutional exemption model, under which sincere religious objectors had a presumptive constitutional right to an exemption because of the Free Exercise clause. This decision was reaffirmed in the 1972 case Wisconsin v. Yoder. During this period the Court used what is called “strict scrutiny” when the law imposed a “substantial burden” on people’s religious beliefs. Under this strict scrutiny, religious objectors were to be given an exemption, unless denying the exemption was the least restrictive means of serving a compelling government interest. But during this period, as legal scholar Eugene Volokh notes, “The government usually won, and religious objectors won only rarely.”
6. In 2014, RFRA was used as the foundation in the case of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, a challenge to the Affordable Care Act’s Health and Human Services (HHS) contraceptive mandate that required all for-profit companies to cover abortion-inducing drugs. The Court found that the HHS mandate violated RFRA by imposing a substantial burden on companies and by failing to satisfy least restrictive-means standard. The ruling was considered a significant win for the religious liberty of companies and business owners.
7. RFRA was intended to apply to all branches of government, and both to federal and state law. But in 1997 in the case of City of Boerne v. Flores, the Supreme Court ruled the RFRA exceeded federal power when applied to state laws. In response to this ruling, some individual states passed state-level Religious Freedom Restoration Acts that apply to state governments and local municipalities.
8. Many states began passing their own religious freedom laws in 1993. Currently, 21 states have a Religious Freedom Restoration Act (Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia). Ten other states have religious liberty protections that state courts have interpreted to provide a similar (i.e., strict scrutiny) level of protection (Alaska, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, North Carolina, Ohio, Washington, and Wisconsin). With some exceptions (such as Mississippi), the state versions are almost exactly the same as the federal version.
9. In the years since the passage of RFRA, many of it previous supporters (including Hillary Clinton and the ACLU) have expressed concerns about its application and how it might be applied in the future. Last year a bill was entered in Congress to make RFRA inapplicable to federal laws or implementations of laws when religious beliefs conflict with a variety of issues, such as abortion or gender identity. The House bill has been sponsored by 171 Democrats. The companion Senate bill (S. 2918) has 28 Democrat senators as cosponsors. If the bill were to pass it could be used to overturn previous Supreme Court decisions, such as Hobby Lobby, that relied on RFRA.
Other posts in this series:
Jim Jones and the Jonestown Massacre • Out-of-Wedlock Births • Bethel Church Movement • Christian Hymns • Hurricanes • Infertility • The STD Crisis • Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) • Russian President Vladimir Putin • Supreme Court Nominee Brett Kavanaugh • MS-13 • Wicca and Modern Witchcraft • Jerusalem • Christianity in Korea • Creation of Modern Israel • David Koresh and the Branch Davidians • Rajneeshees • Football • The Opioid Epidemic (Part II) • The Unification Church • Billy Graham • Frederick Douglass • Memphis Sanitation Strike of 1968 • Winter Olympics • The ‘Mississippi Burning’ Murders • Events and Discoveries in 2017 • Christmas Traditions • Sexual Misconduct • Lutheranism • Jewish High Holy Days • Nation of Islam • Slave Trade • Solar Eclipses • Alcohol Abuse in America • History of the Homeschooling Movement • Eugenics • North Korea • Ramadan • Black Hebrew Israelites • Neil Gorsuch and Supreme Court Confirmations • International Women’s Day • Health Effects of Marijuana • J. R. R. Tolkien • Aleppo and the Syrian Crisis • Fidel Castro • C.S. Lewis • ESV Bible • Alzheimer’s Disease • Mother Teresa • The Opioid Epidemic • The Olympic Games • Physician-Assisted Suicide • Nuclear Weapons • China’s Cultural Revolution • Jehovah’s Witnesses • Harriet Tubman • Autism • Seventh-day Adventism • Justice Antonin Scalia (1936–2016) • Female Genital Mutilation • Orphans • Pastors • Global Persecution of Christians (2015 Edition) • Global Hunger • National Hispanic Heritage Month • Pope Francis • Refugees in America • Confederate Flag Controversy • Elisabeth Elliot • Animal Fighting • Mental Health • Prayer in the Bible • Same-sex Marriage • Genocide • Church Architecture • Auschwitz and Nazi Extermination Camps • Boko Haram • Adoption • Military Chaplains • Atheism • Intimate Partner Violence • Rabbinic Judaism • Hamas • Male Body Image Issues • Mormonism • Islam • Independence Day and the Declaration of Independence • Anglicanism • Transgenderism • Southern Baptist Convention • Surrogacy • John Calvin • The Rwandan Genocide • The Chronicles of Narnia • The Story of Noah • Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist Church • Pimps and Sex Traffickers • Marriage in America • Black History Month • The Holocaust • Roe v. Wade • Poverty in America • Christmas • The Hobbit • Council of Trent • Halloween and Reformation Day • Casinos and Gambling • Prison Rape • 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing • Chemical Weapons • March on Washington • Duck Dynasty • Child Brides • Human Trafficking • Scopes Monkey Trial • Social Media • Supreme Court’s Same-Sex Marriage Cases • The Bible • Human Cloning • Pornography and the Brain • Planned Parenthood • Boston Marathon Bombing • Female Body Image Issues • Islamic State
It’s tempting to adopt a mindset that it’s good to live “on mission” as long as it doesn’t come at a cost to our children.
We’ll give, as long as we’ve already covered their needs and wants. We’ll serve, as long as we make time for their recreational activities first. We’ll enter uncomfortable situations for the sake of the gospel, as long as they can remain at ease. We’ll help shoulder someone else’s burden, as long as they don’t have to.
It’s good to embrace our God-given responsibility to love and provide for our kids, as long as we remember that the primary purpose of parenting—the best execution of love—is to nurture their souls.
If we’re serious about discipling our children, we must teach the cost of following Christ. After all, he said: “Whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 10:38–39).
If we protect our kids from carrying crosses, we are stumbling blocks to them finding life in Christ.
If we protect our kids from carrying crosses, we are stumbling blocks to them finding life in Christ.
I’m stirred by the many parents in my church who shepherd their children to embrace sacrifice. I’ve seen God comfort grieving kids when their foster siblings left the home. I’ve seen him make bold witnesses of children involved in ministry to the homeless. I’ve seen him kindle joy in those who gave generously from their piggy banks and babysitting money.
Witnessing this fruit builds my confidence that God will also care for my children as they learn the cost of following him.Learning Patience, Finding Joy
When my sons were 2 and 4, we began serving refugees through a local charity. We made weekly visits to a Syrian family so I could practice English with the mother, while they played with her 2-year-old son.
Language barriers often triggered provoking situations, so my children began to learn the cost of patience. It’s easy to love the idea of reaching out to a refugee boy with no friends; it’s difficult when he breaks the toy you brought.
But as my children grew in extending patience, God blessed them with a sweet friendship. It wasn’t long before all the kids started greeting each other with tackling hugs. They played tag, jumped on beds, and had dance parties. They couldn’t have a conversation, but they had joy.
We also assisted the Syrian family with various errands, which created a different set of challenges. My children had to trudge through grocery stores while I helped the mother learn to use WIC. They spent hours at the DMV while the parents tried, repeatedly, to pass the permit test.
During one visit, the boredom incited a passionate fistfight between our 2-year-olds. Adults can lose it at the DMV; it’s no wonder our little guys did too.
Through these times, my children were learning that costly love isn’t glamourous. It includes boring visits to the grocery store and DMV. Outreach isn’t about gaining a sense of fulfillment; it’s about ministering to others’ needs so they can turn and glorify God (Matt. 5:16).
Outreach isn’t about gaining a sense of fulfillment; it’s about ministering to others’ needs.
But even though it’s not about us, God graciously blesses us through our service. We empty ourselves so that we can be filled with him. My sons learned that lesson in a literal way: errands ended with treats. They regularly enjoyed Middle Eastern hospitality at its finest, finding favorites in sweet baklava and savory kibbeh.
When I began visiting a Kurdish refugee family, I was told the oldest son, who was diagnosed with autism, often displayed aggressive physical behaviors. I wanted to gain a handle on the situation before bringing my kids into it. Counting the cost doesn’t mean being reckless!
Eventually, I resumed bringing my children, since there were two younger siblings longing for playmates while I worked with their brother. It’s been hard. There’s more chaos, more fighting, more provocation. Past trauma and some difficult diagnoses have taken a toll on the family and, by extension, have affected my kids.
But they’re learning the cost of loving people they wouldn’t naturally like. They’re learning to graciously accept behaviors that stem from disability rather than sin. They’re learning to identify and leverage our gifts to bless people facing trials we can’t understand.
And they continue to experience God’s tangible goodness through the struggle—each visit brings more juice and lollipops than they’d ever receive at home!Worth It?
I often ask, Is it worth it? My children are young, and I’m not confident any of them yet have saving faith. Why teach them the hardship of following Jesus when I’m still seeking to enamor them with him?
But then I remember this is an essential part of my mission to them. Jesus never shied away from discussing the hard facets of discipleship. He told us to expect persecution, opposition, trials, temptation, and rejection for following him. And he did so unapologetically, since he knew that nothing compares to his surpassing worth.
I don’t want my kids to grow up thinking they love God, when all they really love is the comfort he provides in their lives. They need to know up front that saving faith transforms us into living sacrifices, and that through sacrifice they’ll find satisfaction in Christ.
So, even though it costs them, we keep going.
And during our time in the car there and back, we often talk about Jesus. I remind them how Jesus made the greatest sacrifice of all time, so our sins could be forgiven. I remind them how he demonstrated the costliest love, so we could be adopted into his family. I remind them that because God pursued us when we were his enemies, we can pursue those who are difficult to love.
I remind them that though it’s often hard to obey Jesus, we find greater happiness in him than we’d ever find elsewhere. He is worth every cost.