“Church planting is hard work.”
I often heard this before we planted our church. I agreed and prepared for the challenge by reading books and talking with other pastors. But then we planted and I thought, Man, this is hard work. What the heck?
The reality of spiritual warfare, of more work than workers, and of never-ending needs such as money, space, leaders, and equipment make church planting grueling work. But there’s another reason why it’s so challenging. It took me a while to realize this, but my greatest obstacle in church planting is me.
If I’m unwilling to embrace my own need for Christ, I become the hindrance to his work in my local church. It’s easy to blur the line between exalting Christ so he’s seen and known, and exalting him so I’m seen and known.Jesus Provides
In Luke 9:1–17, Jesus launches his disciples into public ministry. He sends them out to proclaim the kingdom, heal the sick, and cast out demons. Surprisingly, Jesus tells them to “take nothing” for their journey—no money, staff, or food. He sends them out, sans resources, and when they return, they marvel at all the work they have done.
Immediately, a hungry crowd surrounds them. Jesus instructs the disciples to feed the crowd, but they can’t. So he feeds them. The people eat and are satisfied. The disciples were busy marveling at what they had done, but Jesus exposes their inability to do anything on their own (John 15:5).
Jesus meets my stubborn hold on my plans with his generous grace, inviting me to trust him.
Like the disciples, our greatest problem isn’t a resource problem. We can be sent out with scant resources and still see spectacular fruit. What if our lack of resources isn’t about problems, but about glory? What if our neediness is about glorifying God through desperate dependence on him to provide?
As we depend on God for spiritual provision, we honor him. Christ’s sufficiency is thereby exalted in our insufficiency.Jesus Changes
On our third Sunday as a new church plant, we grew from 22 to 64 people. I was ecstatic! Then a woman clearly under the influence of heavy narcotics walked into our gathering, and I was confronted with something seminary hadn’t prepared me for. Obviously we desired to love her, and hoped that she would see Christ through us. But she completely disrupted our worship that day.
She was likely using drugs in our bathroom. She banged on a steel door with a hammer and then went into the children’s classroom, prompting someone to shout in the middle of our gathering, “She’s in the children’s ministry; she’s with the kids!” Nothing serious occurred, but the following Sunday, only 23 people showed up.
That Sunday, I went home devastated. Why would God allow this to happen? The whole week’s planning was derailed by her erratic behavior. I sat on my bed and sulked, fearing that our core team might be the only ones returning the following week.
Our unexpected visitor, however, was the best thing that ever happened to our little church. In the midst of my suffering, God comforted me with these truths. Your worth is not found in how great of a church you plant. Your identity is not in being a great teacher. Your value doesn’t come from how successful you are. Your primary purpose is not to be a pastor, but a son.
Your primary purpose is not to be a pastor, but a son.
Through this experience, I learned that God’s plans, however unlikely, are better than mine. His work is done his way. We must release our grip on our expectations and instead embrace his.Jesus Sustains
Despite the many obstacles in church planting, God has blessed us tremendously. I was externally supported our first two and a half years. A church let us meet in their space, for free, the entire first year. Our sending church also provided a generous grant to help us launch. God gave us men and women ready and willing to sacrifice and lead for the sake of his name.
God gives and sustains every gift of grace. Apart from his grace, our church wouldn’t exist today. Again, of the many obstacles we’ve faced, our greatest was, and sometimes still is, me. I’m tempted to gain the church-planting world . . . and lose my soul. Jesus meets my stubborn hold on my plans with his generous grace, inviting me to trust him. And he sustains my trust.
Church planter, remember why you’re planting. Consider what’s at stake. Resist the temptation to rely on yourself. This is about God’s glory, not yours. It’s done through his ways, not yours. All your obstacles are opportunities to deepen your trust in him. And he is faithful to build his church.
When we were preparing to bring our first child into the world, my husband and I scoured books for parenting advice. We imagined a bright future for our child—one filled with joy and accomplishments. But the baby books failed to mention that our child’s life story might include a long, unpredictable battle against depression. This harsh reality blindsided our family, leaving us confused about how to disciple our precious child through such a complicated issue.
I’ve navigated my own seasons of depression as an adult, but I never thought I would have to watch my preteen endure a similar struggle. As my husband and I watched her struggle with constant feelings of self-doubt, grief, and apathy, we had to learn firsthand what 2 Corinthians 1:4 explains: “He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us” (NLT).
During that time, I repeatedly returned to certain truths God had used to comfort me during seasons of sorrow. Together, my daughter and I tried to navigate her fears about the future by faith, recalling those God-given consolations and clinging to them as a life-preserver amid stormy seas. Grounding ourselves—an imperfect mother and a depressed child—in the hope of the gospel was the only comfort I could offer when the despair became too much for her to bear.
Of this we can be sure: depression will not have the last word.
As parents, we can’t take the place of medical professionals, licensed counselors, or pastoral care. A child’s depressed feelings can indicate ordinary sadness or a more serious disorder, and we’ll typically need outside help to identify the nature of our child’s struggle. But parents do have something valuable to offer: love and encouragement.
When you sit together at the dinner table or ride in the car with your depressed child, these five talking points may remind you both of important gospel truth.1. Depression Is Not Abnormal
Your child may feel overwhelming sorrow that they haven’t experienced before. They (and you!) may think the experience is abnormal, further pressing them into hopelessness. Instead, caregivers should affirm that depression isn’t an unusual part of the human experience—let alone the Christian experience. Talk to your child about the lives of Moses, Elijah, Jonah, Job, and King David, and remind them that many of God’s people have felt overwhelming sorrow.2. There Are Sad Seasons in Life
Depression is one of many experiences that can be incredibly, even debilitatingly, difficult. But caregivers should help children to remember that life in a sin-cursed world results in all kinds of seasons—not just the pleasant ones. Ecclesiastes 3:4 cautions that there is “a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.” We shouldn’t be surprised, then, when the lights go dark for a period. This knowledge doesn’t make the pain of depression vanish, but it does offer us hope. Tears may come, but joy will be restored (Ps. 30:5).3. Sorrow Has a Language
Depression has a way of suffocating our ability to verbalize how we feel. If this is true for adults, who have decades of vocabulary at their disposal, it’s an even greater handicap for our suffering children. But God, in his immense kindness and tender care, has given us a biblical language for sorrow: lament. He knows we struggle to find words when we’re despondent, and he equips us to speak directly to him when we’re burdened.
By reading the psalms of lament (e.g., Psalms 13, 77, and 88) with our children, we can pass along the language God has given in order to grant their depression a voice. Using the words of Scripture, our children can express the anxiety, moaning, weariness, and restlessness they feel in their souls.4. Jesus Goes Before Us and with Us
Being sensitive to the spiritual condition of our kids is imperative, and depression may give us the opportunity to invite them into relationship with Christ. For every child, it’s important to introduce them to the humanity of the Man of Sorrows. Christ experienced immense sorrow and grief, and his righteous endurance through human trials makes him the perfect Savior for those who suffer. Jesus is not only our forerunner, but our fellow traveler, who loves us so much that he vows to always be with us—especially when we are sad (Ps. 34:18).5. We Set Our Eyes on Eternity
Depression is a time when we can long for a country we’ve never seen but know exists. Our children may keenly sense that this world and all its promises are ultimately insufficient. It’s our privilege as caregivers, then, to introduce the hope of heaven in such times—as a tangible reality for the believer in Christ.
Christ’s resurrection guarantees our wrongs will be one day be put right. In eternity, we will no longer experience crying or mourning or death (Rev. 21:3–4). We will live forever in a place where sorrows will be no more. Heaven is a place where the pains we can’t reconcile in this life finally find their recompense. Of this we can be sure: depression will not have the last word.
As caregivers, our encouragements will inevitably be imperfect, our patience will sometimes tire, and, try as we might, we won’t always be able to understand the perspective of our despondent children. But our loving ministry—alongside the medical supervision of licensed practitioners and the care of counseling professionals—is part of Christ’s care for them. And Christ will minister to our children in ways mere humans cannot. By turning to him together, we introduce unshakable hope into sorrowful seasons, leaning fully on divine grace while we wait for the dark clouds to part.
Peace with God is the ultimate aim of Christianity. That much can be deduced from Romans 5:1. It seems, though, that many Christians have shifted their focus away from seeking peace with God through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. They seek instead inner peace, and the aim of faith bends toward ourselves. It turns away from the problem of sin that separates us from God, and away from the commission to love others as we’ve been loved by God. No wonder so many unbelievers misunderstand faith as merely an internal feeling.
More than just means to inner peace, the gospel of Jesus Christ is actually the foundation of a worldview—according to The Gospel Coalition’s Theological Vision for Ministry, “a comprehensive interpretation of reality affecting all that we do.” No doubt that means the gospel affects our thoughts and feelings, and the work we do in and for a church. But our faith can never be confined to church walls. The gospel dictates how we live in the home as well as the workplace, where most of us spend more time than church.
My guest on today’s episode of The Gospel Coalition Podcast is Tom Nelson. He’s the senior pastor of Christ Community Church in Leawood, Kansas, the president of Made to Flourish, author of Work Matters and The Economics of Neighborly Love, and a Council member of The Gospel Coalition. He is also the writer and presenter of Gospel Shaped Work, a small-group video and book study published by TGC with The Good Book Company. It’s based on point four—the integration of faith and work—from TGC’s five points of gospel-centered ministry. And I asked him all the toughest questions we get from skeptical pastors and other readers when it comes to this aspect of TGC’s vision for gospel-centered churches.
First Corinthians 14:23–25 indicates that both groups were present in early church services. Most in the congregation were believers gathered for worship. Nevertheless, Paul proposes that the Christians conduct themselves such that nonbelievers aren’t unnecessarily put off (concluding Christians are “out of their minds,” v. 23) and can hear the good news and be convicted by it (saying “God is really among you,” v. 25).
This doesn’t mean all elements in worship have to be perfectly understandable to unbelievers. That would create a concert or a talk show, not a worship service. Songs and hymns praising the Trinity will be challenging to nonbelievers, and the Lord’s Supper will be mysterious as well.
Preaching that assumes the radical nature of sin and the free grace of Jesus will be most difficult of all, since the gospel is always offensive to “the natural man” (1 Cor. 2:14). The nonbeliever will find much of Christian worship foreign no matter how it’s presented. Paul is not, then, asking us to remove the necessarily scandalous aspects of the gospel. Rather, he is calling us to contextualize the worship service so all unnecessary confusion and offensiveness is removed.
Just as Jesus reminds the Pharisees not to elevate tradition to the level of sanctity (Mark 7:8–9), we too should be careful not idolize our favorite worship practices at the cost of excluding those who desperately need to hear the good news. Instead, in the words of Psalm 105 we, “Give thanks to the LORD; call upon his name; make known his deeds among the peoples!”
How should we do this? The verse continues, “Sing to him, sing praises to him; tell of all his wondrous works!” In other words, in observing our worship nonbelievers will see who God really is. Edmund Clowney called this “doxological evangelism.”General Practices, Not Rigid Rituals
The Bible does not give us a rigid model for our worship services, but it does give us general practices of praise, lament, confession, conviction, and convocation. We are, therefore, to create worship spaces where these practices can be performed to edify both believers and also nonbelievers.
To do this, we first must build our worship services assuming non-believers will be present. Christian congregants, who will be doing the inviting, can immediately tell if their friend or coworker will be at ease in the service.
Here are five values you should have, and some practices that may follow.Value 1: Our language must be understandable.
This might be the biggest hurdle for churches in a post-Christian context. For too long, Christian subcultures have been able to exist with “tribal language” and dialect without needing to explain their verbiage.
I remember bringing a non-Christian friend to church in college immediately after becoming a Christian myself. As we sat there, the speaker up front said: “The blood of the Lamb has been shed for you for the propitiation of your sins. It is now time to make a decision for Christ.” We looked at each other with bewildered faces. There was no explanation or follow-up.
Practice: Translate. Often when I’m writing my sermons I try to imagine individuals who have never been to church. I try to think of arguments and questions they might have with the passage or concepts being discussed. Avoid unnecessary jargon. If you do use an unfamiliar word, explain it.Value 2: The worship service must be understandable.
If worship is bestowing worth on something, then humans don’t have the option not to worship, for we always bestow worth on something. The concept of a worship service, however, is foreign to many people, so it’s our job to interpret it to a post-Christian culture. This is helpful for both Christians and non-Christians.
Practice: Redeemer Lincoln Square prints short margin notes that explain each item of the service. For instance, when it’s time for confession, there’s a side note that reads: “Confession is when we are honest about ourselves and each other with God. As we admit our misplaced affections, we are called to reorder our lives. Only by being honest about our flaws will the good news of grace be significant.”Value 3: You must be appropriately transparent.
As social media becomes more prevalent, the cultivated self presented online creates distrust. People crave authenticity. Though we know our lives are not all filled with happiness, that’s what we often see presented in church. It’s more important than ever before, then, to show fully authentic, broken-but-hopeful humans in our services.
Practice: Our services should always contain worship elements not just of hope, but also lament and confession. Without becoming too self-referential, I try to regularly reveal my own struggles in order to embody this value.Value 4: Assume nonbeliever participation.
One can do this by articulating their objections to the faith better than they can. The benefit is twofold: Christians have heard the same objections and wonder what the Christian answer is; and the non-Christian feels heard when you intelligently state their concerns.
Practice: Four things here. (1) Print prayers for those not taking communion so they have something to do during this time. (2) Welcome and address nonbelievers at the beginning of the service. (3) During the sermon, insert, “If you’re not a follower of Jesus, you might be thinking. . . .” This lets them and their Christian friends know you’re considering their issues. (4) Consider doing a Q&A time. At our church we call it Q&R—Question and Response time—because we promise to respond! We print a phone number in the bulletin, and we allow anyone to text us questions to be addressed after the service for about 15 to 20 minutes.Value 5: Present Word and deed clearly.
Both the non-Christian and the Christian need to hear the Word of grace embodied and preached clearly. Grace is not just having your record righted in the past; it’s also the assurance of future life with him. Many Christian doctrines are important and need discussing, but all of them are predicated on experiencing grace.
Only if it’s beautiful to you will you endeavor to live as a follower of Christ not out of obligation, but out of love. That motivates us through gratitude, instead of guilt-driven duty. Then the reasons for and power of our deeds become compelling.
Nonbelievers need to see Christian faith lived out, or it won’t seem true. Therefore, there should be times within the worship service to highlight various mercy and deed ministries, with both celebration reports and also opportunities to serve. This lets everyone see how grace drives us out into the world.
Practice: Four things here, too. (1) Consider quarterly prayers of lament that highlight a current ill in the world, asking for God’s wisdom about how we can alleviate needs. (2) Highlight various ministries within the service where congregants can serve and live out their beliefs. (3) Do a prayer walk in your neighborhood to identify potential unmet needs. (4) Ensure every sermon shows the main problem for both the Christian and the non-Christian is unbelief in the real grace offered in Jesus.
This is not an exhaustive list, but perhaps it can help you reimagine ways you can leverage your worship service and congregation into being a space for all peoples.
I am a scientist, researcher, politician, and educator. In all these fields, I’m not allowed to talk about my faith in Christ. And sometime it makes me upset. So how can I honor God through my works?
This is such a great question. Scripture summons us to speak about the good news of what God has done in Christ. So where does that leave you and many others who spend much of their waking hours in jobs that don’t allow for that?
In their helpful new book, The Symphony of Mission, Jim Mullins and Mike Goheen explain that God’s mission is like a great symphony with many instruments playing their notes in one accord. They propose three vital ways we join Jesus in his renewing work: through our spoken words (as your question suggests), our stewardship, and our service.1. Spoken Words
Peter’s epistles are full of wisdom for Christians in environments hostile to the gospel. After encouraging his readers to stand firm amid suffering, he adds: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Pet. 3:15).
Even when we aren’t allowed to speak publicly about Jesus, we can have an answer ready for anyone who asks why our work and life look different. “Always be prepared” implies readiness across different situations to share about our hope. This isn’t a passive process but takes intentional creativity.
Spend time framing the gospel in language specific to your fields. When fellow politicians raise an eyebrow over why you hold two seemingly contrary commitments, describe a vision for restorative justice motivated by Jesus, who rules with righteousness and mercy. Or when your research assistant notices how excited you get over the smallest discoveries, describe your awe and wonder at the intricate order of God’s world.
Service isn’t always doing more; it’s embodying the posture of Jesus.
As you pray for your coworkers and meditate on how the gospel permeates these different spheres, you may notice subtle opportunities to draw a connection between your work and your faith in Christ. For some of your colleagues, it may seem impossible to be both a Christian and also a scientist or educator. Seizing such moments could be powerful in changing that narrative. And through the Holy Spirit you can do this without fear, revering Christ as Lord (1 Pet. 3:15).
While spoken words are an essential way that we participate in God’s mission, they can sometimes eclipse the other two.2. Stewardship
Scripture’s opening scene drips with God’s creativity, wisdom, order, prudence, and love for beauty and goodness. Genesis 1–2 doesn’t list these attributes; it reveals them through the glory displayed in God’s works of creation. In the same way, we reflect his glory in how we rule and subdue in the specific domains he’s called us to (Gen. 1:26–28).
You deeply honor God as you search out his designs for education, politics, and science. He rejoices as your work pulls back the curtain that sin has drawn, revealing a bit of his radiance. As you educate with humility and patience, you reveal something about the God who doesn’t teach abstract principles from afar but came close in Christ to teach explicitly and through example. As you attend to the needs of the marginalized in your political work, you reflect the “God who sees” those who have been cast out and forgotten (Gen. 16:13). And your research embodies a response to the God who designed his creation to “proclaim the work of his hands,” “pour forth speech,” and “reveal knowledge” (Ps. 19:1–2).3. Sacrificial Service
Jesus’s life was marked by humble service, climaxing in the ultimate act of self-giving love on the cross. Our world is desperate for this kind of love, but it’s hard to give. For sin turns us inward. We need the Spirit, then, to bring the love of Christ to life in and through us, dramatizing the gospel.
For you, service may be caring for the needs of a sick colleague, praising someone from a different political party for creative policy, or purposely taking on a hard task to free up a new employee. It could also look like honoring Sabbath rest at the expense of getting ahead or even just “keeping up.” Service isn’t always doing more; it’s embodying the posture of Jesus, who didn’t cling to privilege but came in the form of a servant, considering our lives more significant than his own (Phil. 2:1–11).
Devote time to reimagining how your work already displays the glory of the Father. Ask Jesus to continue growing your love for those you serve and work alongside. And invite the Spirit to give you opportunities to share the good news of Christ’s kingdom.
Just be kind. It’s more than a phrase. It’s a movement. The slogan began with some kids in Central Indiana selling signs, T-shirts, and key chains, and now its influence is spreading throughout the world. The principle is basic, and its supporters insist the maxim would benefit us all.
The supporting phrase is just as pithy: “It’s easy.” In other words, maybe the problems, the stress, the conflict, and the pain in our world actually aren’t an irreducibly complex tangle of divergent opinions, identities, and values. Maybe the solution is easier and closer than you think.
Presumably what’s easy is the idea itself, not the actions required to carry out the solution. Admittedly, it’s hard to dialogue meaningfully with a slogan, but taken at its best, the people who wear those shirts or hoist those signs wouldn’t be so naive to think a lifestyle of perpetual kindness is an easy task with black-and-white applications.
Every civilization has asked, “What is our greatest good?” Philosophers have sought to lay out one concise maxim we can all appropriate and live by. Socrates claimed the pathway to happiness is virtue. Immanuel Kant boiled it down to the categorical imperative: “I ought never to act in such a way that I couldn’t also will that the maxim on which I act should be a universal law.” Kant merely put a fancy philosophical spin on the golden rule: “Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them” (Matt. 7:12).
The problem isn’t with a condensed imperative like “be kind.” The problem—on two levels—is with the word “just.”Philosophical and Practical Problem
The word “just” implies we can scrap the hard work of nuance and context—which are always necessary—to apply kindness to sentencing a criminal or giving someone a failing grade. The word implies we can bypass the need for elaborate constructions of religion and morality because, deep down, we all intuitively know what being kind looks like.
If that’s the case, though, we have a massive self-deception obstacle to overcome. Look at our two political parties in America. They differ strongly on virtually every policy, yet you could get every representative to swear up and down that all they do is in the service of “being kind.” So maybe we need more clarity than “just” be kind. Maybe the application of “just be kind,” even theoretically, is where the hard work comes in.
To borrow some Greek philosophy, we’re born into a culture that preaches a finis without a telos. No one is allowed to give a firm reason to be kind. But most of the time, being kind doesn’t directly help you; often it’s downright inconvenient.
So we need a compelling motive, which Jesus supplies in at least four ways.1. Jesus offers a stronger ‘just.’
Jesus gives us the same underlying principle: “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another.” The difference is, he doesn’t leave us there. He doesn’t brush off his hands and say: “And there you have it! What are you waiting for? Go and do it. It’s easy!” No, he follows up that command with his own “just,” one that draws our hope toward him: “Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (John 13:34–35).
Jesus shows his foundational love and kindness on the cross, which is both the motivation and also the power for us to be kind.2. Jesus helps you be kind even when it doesn’t look like kindness to others.
Being kind comes a lot easier when it looks obvious or fits the right mold—for example, when you put it on your college application, or you work for a company that demarcates a token percentage of their profits to fight animal abuse.
Kindness in his name should never be a self-righteous cover for shaming and finger-pointing.
But Jesus’s kindness toward us took the form of confronting sin, then bearing mockery, rejection, and death. Kindness in his name should never be a self-righteous cover for shaming and finger-pointing; still, when we practice kindness before an audience of One, it will matter less how others perceive it.3. Jesus enables you be kind when it doesn’t help.
When Jesus is your “why” for being kind, you can continue to be gracious to your neighbor, even when you’ve asked them to clean up after their dog and they’re still not doing it. Kindness based on Christ comes without an agenda. After all, he loved and pursued us “while we were still sinners” (Rom. 5:8).
We can be kind to others without insisting they do something for us, because Jesus has already done it all.4. Jesus helps you be kind to those who are ‘what’s wrong with the world.’
We all have that group about whom we think, They’re what’s wrong with this world; they’re the problem. How do you muster the strength to “just be kind” to them? Gazing at the grace of Christ. That alone changes how we look at those people, for it changes what we see as the chief problem.
The best thing we can do is show ‘those people’ the kindness we got, but didn’t deserve, from Jesus.
The ultimate solution to sin is not getting the right people in charge who will finally legislate right values. Nor is the solution getting everyone enough education. The solution is the internal transformation Christ brings about through his Spirit. So the best thing we can do is show “those people” the kindness we got, but didn’t deserve, from Jesus.
Being kind doesn’t just come naturally. That’s why we’re in this fallen mess. A lot of times you and I don’t want to be kind. That’s why we need a solution that starts with God’s undeserved kindness for us in Jesus, and then continues in his changing our hearts to want to be more like him.
Three of my grandchildren recently paid their annual summer visit to the sweltering Southeast. They brought their parents along as chaperones, which was nice enough.
Whenever two or three of my grandkids are gathered near me for more than 24 hours, I take the opportunity to do one of two things: practice and perform a play, or rev up “Dr. Pops’s Summer Bible School.” The oldest of the visiting grandkids turned 5 during her stay; her brothers are 2 and 9 months. They’re a bit young for King Lear, so Dr. Pops’s Summer Bible School it was.
Before they left, they knew the four faces of the cherubim (complete with hand motions), an outline of the creation account, the basic structures of creation, and a summary of the book of Genesis. Next time I’m with them, we’ll move into Exodus, and I’ll teach them how to offer each other as an animal sacrifice.
I’ve been teaching the Bible to small children—mostly my own—for more than 35 years, ever since my oldest son was a toddler. Over the years, I’ve learned a few tricks. Here are three.1. Tell Bible Stories
God spoke to Israel in many portions and many ways (Heb. 1:1–3). He spoke law from Sinai, wisdom through kings, burning and shattering words through the prophets, and finally spoke himself in his Son, the Word. The order of the canon is the order of Israel’s, and humanity’s, maturation, as we grow up from childhood slavery to adult freedom (cf. Gal. 4), from priest to king to prophet to full stature in Christ.
It’s not an accident that the biblical history of maturation starts with a long book of stories. It’s where we begin. Before we learn to talk or walk or do abstract reasoning, we learned stories. Yahweh is the best parent. Before Israel received Torah, the tabernacle, the complexities of the sacrificial system, a land or a monarchy, they got stories, dramatic family stories.
God gave stories because he wanted us to read, tell and retell, live out of and into the stories themselves. Start there. Tell the stories. They’ll remember.
When my children were young, we had family worship most nights after dinner. I opened my Bible on my lap and retold a story. We started at Genesis and kept going until we got through the end of Acts, then we started over at Genesis and repeated the process. I can’t recall how many cycles we went through, but I repeated myself often because fresh kids kept showing up. As my children got older, we covered the rest of the New Testament, and we read passages together. At the start, though, I tried to get them hooked on the Bible by telling stories.
We’re tempted to skim past the stories to get to the moral kernel. We’re tempted to ignore details to abstract doctrinal content. Scripture teaches moral lessons, and the Bible’s stories have doctrinal import. We should teach all that to our children. But God gave stories because he wanted us to read, tell and retell, live out of and into the stories themselves.
So start there. Tell the stories. They’ll remember.2. Show Them Jesus
During the 40 days between his resurrection and ascension, Jesus taught the Bible to his disciples (Luke 24). He taught two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and then the remaining 11. Luke tells us he taught the entire Old Testament—Moses, the prophets (former and latter), and the Psalms. He taught “everything concerning himself.” We know it from Jesus himself: the whole Bible is about him.
The Bible is a book of books, a grand story with lots of small stories in the middle. All the small stories are connected to the grand story, because all the small stories are part of the story of Jesus. The stories are pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Once we’ve put the pieces together, as Irenaeus said, we discover a portrait of a glorious, beautiful King.
All the small stories are connected to the grand story, because all the small stories are part of the story of Jesus.
What kinds of pieces should we be looking for? Characters, for starters. Show them how Jesus is a better Adam because he resists the Devil in the wilderness, when Adam couldn’t fight the Devil in a garden. Show them that Jesus is attacked by his brothers, as Abel was by Cain and Joseph by his brothers. Show them how Samson conquered in the moment of his death, as Jesus did on the cross. When you look at Jeremiah, the weeping prophet, they’ll be reminded that Jesus wept.
Look for recurring events, too. At the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus flees from a murderous king to the safety of Egypt, returns and grows up, is baptized in the Jordan, enters the wilderness to be tempted, and then teaches about the law on a mountaintop. He’s reliving the history of Israel again: slavery in Egypt, Pharaoh’s assault on Israelite babies, the exodus and wilderness, Sinai and the law. If you’re brave enough to slog through Leviticus, keep reminding them that Jesus offers the final, perfect sacrifice that brings us back to the Father.
The Bible doesn’t just connect everyone and everything to Jesus. It connects everyone and everything to everyone and everything else. Noah is a new Adam as well as a preview of Jesus. David fights like one of the judges, Hezekiah is a new David, and Jeremiah is like Moses.
I often said to my kids, “Wow! This is the first time in the Bible this has happened. This is the first time we’ve seen a character like this!” “Wow, this is the first time anyone has died of massive head trauma,” I said while telling the story of David and Goliath. “This is the first time anybody has drowned.” “This is the first time anyone has nearly died and come back to life.” “This is the first man to meet his wife at a well.” They knew it was a cue that meant the opposite. “No! Other people died from head wounds,” and they would rattle off Sisera and Abimelech, and remember the serpent’s crushed head. “Every man meets his wife at a well!”
Children are natural typologists, and only stop being typologists if we discourage them. They don’t know the word typology, but they know the game. Play it.3. Sing the Bible
Some years ago, while serving as a pastor in Idaho, I led a summer Bible school for the elementary-aged children at church. I wrote a set of songs to help them learn the patterns of biblical theology. I was late in coming to recognize the power of singing, but now I wouldn’t try to teach children any other way. Singing or chanting makes the Bible visceral and rhythmic. It impresses the Bible into a child’s brain and body.
I tried to make the songs fun. I didn’t want to make them cute. I wanted the songs to set the grooves for reading and thinking about the Bible that would guide the children as they grew up. I didn’t want them to dismiss the Bible as a childish thing.
Do not underestimate what a child can learn about Scripture. They can learn more than we realize, and they can have fun doing it.
Let me give an example. The book of Genesis begins with three falls that culminate in the great de-creation of the flood. After the flood and Babel, the story focuses on three patriarchs, who begin to renew the world by reversing the three falls. The whole thing goes like this (bold syllables are emphasized):
Adam, Cain, and the sons of God (the three falls)
WHOOSH! (flood; make a sweeping flood-like hand motion)
Abraham, Jacob, Joseph (the three patriarchs)
Adam sins by disobeying Yahweh, while Abraham obeys even when it will cost him his son. Cain kills Abel; Jacob is an Abel who escapes his murderous brother Esau. The sons of God intermarry and corrupt the world; Joseph resists seduction and feeds the world.
One of the best Bible singers around is the Canadian songwriter Jamie Soles. In his many albums, he’ll get your kids singing the Bible ABCs, odd tales like the Benjamites who need wives, and repetitive passages like Numbers 7, which lists the same items again and again and again. There are others, but few sing the nitty-gritty of Scripture as well as Soles does.Teach the Bible
Maybe this is the most important lesson: I learned early on not to underestimate what children can learn about Scripture. They can learn more than we realize, and they can have fun doing it.
I learned children respond readily to their Father’s voice, so long as I remembered to teach them the Bible instead of using the Bible to teach them something else.
“Well done, brother. Well done.”
It was a sultry summer day in the heart of our nation’s capital. Just outside the restaurant, laborers were setting up fences and hanging bunting in preparation for the July 4 celebration.
Inside, we were having a celebration of our own. Some 10 or 12 men had gathered together to celebrate the ministry of one of our own church planters. It was a wonderful occasion.
Dozens of people walked by without interest as the brothers laughed, prayed, and encouraged this precious man. One by one, they spoke words of heartfelt gratitude for how he had inspired and encouraged them in their own ministry.
One documented the brother’s biblical fidelity, another his eagerness for evangelism, still another his coffee snobbery, followed by another who testified to his love for the church. Our hearts were as full as our bellies as we rejoiced in how this man had helped us all.
Had you been in the neighboring booth and listened, I’m sure you would have testified to the success of this planter. And you’d have been right. Only, the occasion of the meal was to say goodbye to this brother and his family as they transitioned out of the city; his church hadn’t made it past the indomitable five-year mark of a church plant.
In the eyes of church-planting gurus, he had failed. But in the eyes of God, he had not.The Four S’s
For far too long in America, we’ve been led to believe a lie. While few will come right out and say it, we’ve been led to believe that church-planting success is defined by the accumulation of what I call the “four S’s:” size, speed, self-sufficiency, and spread.
Get a large size, get it quickly, so you might be financially self-sufficient to spread your plant to other sites of various sorts. If you attain all of these, then you will have “made it.” You get the merit badge of the fifth “S”—success.
As an added bonus, if you can accomplish these S’s in an urban setting, you’re deemed an even more successful church planter. Conferences and publishers will come running to invite you to address the masses on how to duplicate your success.
I’m a 100 percent confident the Lord has used this method for the spread of his infinite worth. I believe God has and will continue to cause people to be born again and discipled within these kinds of environments. I’d argue, however, that these markers for “success” are fatally flawed in the economy of God’s kingdom.Failure and Success
This brother and his co-laborers worked hard in the city. They tabled at festivals, did service projects, prayer walked, handed out materials, invited neighbors for meals, and facilitated services that dripped with gospel grace. Some came, but after five years he needed to move on to make a living for his family and avoid being the infidel Paul speaks of in 1 Timothy 5:8.
Did he fail?
Unequivocally, no. Oh, what joy and freedom there is in that answer! I’d even go so far as to say he succeeded more than some church-planting gurus who stand on high-profile platforms.
Ministry success should never be measured by the machinations of Wall Street, Silicon Valley, Hollywood, or Manhattan. We believe that the Lord in his infinite wisdom used a humble teenage girl from a place like Possumtrot, Kentucky, to bring the Redeemer. We believe Jesus won as the world laughed at his loss.
Successful church planters are like the successful farmer of Mark 4:26–29. He scatters the seed, then he goes to sleep: “The seed sprouts and grows, and he knows not how.”
Surely, if we’d asked, “How do plants grow?” the farmer would’ve known the answer. But Jesus’s point is to highlight the sufficiency of the seed—the Word. As it’s buried into the soil of the world, fruit springs up in the places where it’s preached.God Does It
There are no “proven strategies,” no books, no Enneagram numbers, that if you just plug into a city will produce success. Success is found in the faithful spreading of the seed.
How does it grow? We. Know. Not. How. We planters rest in the sufficiency of Christ and the Word that points to him as we lovingly and liberally scatter the gospel in our cities. Scattering seed and sleeping defines our success, beloved. How about that?
Success is found in the faithful spreading of the seed.
Feel the liberty, then, church planter, of descending on a city with the power of the gospel and the model of success that may result in two, 20, or 200 years. Feel the liberty of “succeeding” with a handful of messed-up people meeting in your home over some chili you threw together after working your part-time job.
Did you love those people in your home? Did you pray for them? Did you preach the gospel to them? Did you call them to respond? Did you offer to walk with them? Did you call them to walk with each other?
Then rest well. Go to sleep with joy in your hearts and hope for tomorrow. No matter what may come when the sun rises, you can rest assured you are succeeding. Come what may, you will see your Savior face to face and hear the words: “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your master” (Matt. 25:21).
Last week the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 296, a resolution “recognizing and condemning the Armenian Genocide, the killing of 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Empire from 1915 to 1923.” A total of 405 representatives voted for the bill, while only 11 voted against it and three voted “present.”
Here is what you should know about one of the most horrific atrocities against Christians in modern times.
1. The Armenian people have lived in the Caucasus region of Eurasia for thousands of years. The kingdom of Armenia was even the first nation in the world to make Christianity its official religion in the fourth century. But during the 15th century, Armenia was absorbed into the Ottoman Empire, which controlled much of Southeast Europe, Western Asia, and North Africa, and whose rulers were Muslim.
2. In 1914, the Ottoman Empire entered World War I on the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary. The Ottoman authorities began a propaganda campaign portraying the Christian Armenians as being “in league with the enemy.” On April 24, 1915, hundreds of Armenian community leaders and intellectuals suspected of being hostile to the Ottoman government were rounded up in Constantinople (present-day Istanbul). Many of them ended up deported or assassinated. That date is now known as Red Sunday, and is commemorated as Genocide Remembrance Day by Armenians around the world.
3. The next month the Ottoman authorities passed the Temporary Law of Deportation (“Tehcir Law”) authorizing the deportation of the Armenian population. The government forced the population to march to concentration camps in desert regions in what is today northern and eastern Syria, northern Saudi Arabia, and Iraq. Scholars estimate that 600,000 to more than 1,000,000 Armenians were slaughtered or died on the marches.
4. The Ottoman authorities implemented a plan to systematically remove and kill all Armenian men who could resist. As one U.S. ambassador to the Ottomans wrote, “[T]hroughout the Turkish Empire a systematic attempt was made to kill all able-bodied men, not only for the purpose of removing all males who might propagate a new generation of Armenians, but for the purpose of rendering the weaker part of the population an easy prey.” The government disarmed the Armenian soldiers in the Turkish army and transformed them into chain-gangs. “Those Armenian soldiers that did not perish from hard labor were murdered,” Jeremiah Harrelson says. “Then more young Armenian men were drafted into the Army and similarly executed.”
5. During the genocide, Armenian women were subjected to rape, kidnapping, sex slavery, and forced re-marriage. Reporting on the massacre, the British Consul recorded that “many other disgusting barbarities are said to have been committed, such as ripping open pregnant women, [and] tearing children to pieces by main force.” Additionally, “some sixty young women and girls were driven into a church, where the soldiers were ordered to do as they liked with them and afterwards kill them, which order was carried out.” At the concentration camps, guards were reported to have, “[v]ery often . . . violated eight or ten-year-old [Armenian] girls, and as a consequence many would be unable to walk, and were shot.” Historian Richard G. Hovannisian notes that the practice of rape was “more or less universal,” and that Armenians “were often killed in festivals of cruelty which involved rape and other forms of torture.”
6. The consensus among historians is that there were about 2 million Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire in 1915. However, the genocide also included some of the 1.8 million Armenians living in the Caucasus under Russian rule. The number of Armenians believed to have been killed between 1915 and 1917 is 1.5 million (Turkey claims that only 300,000 died during this period due to “war and disease”). By 1922 there were fewer than 400,000 Armenians remaining in the region.
7. The Armenian Genocide is considered the first genocide of the 20th century. The term “genocide” was coined in the 1940s by Raphael Lemkin as a combination of the root words genos (Greek for family, tribe, or race) and –cide (Latin for killing). Lemkin, a Polish lawyer who emigrated to the United States in 1941, developed the word, in part, to describe the atrocities suffered by the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. “I became interested in genocide because it happened so many times,” Lempkin said in 1949. “First to the Armenians, then after the Armenians, Hitler took action.”
8. In a speech to Nazi commanders of Germany’s armed forces, Adolf Hitler justified the order to invade Poland and slaughter the Polish people (he gave orders “to send to death mercilessly and without compassion, men, women, and children of Polish derivation and language”) by pointing out that there were few repercussions from the genocide of the Armenians. As Hitler rhetorically asked, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”
9. Despite the atrocities meeting the definition of a genocide (Article Two of the UN Convention on Genocide of December 1948 describes genocide as carrying out acts intended “to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group”) using the phrase “Armenian genocide” has been disputed. About 30 countries—including Canada, France, Italy, Russia, and Vatican City—recognize the genocide against the Armenians. Some countries, such as the UK and Israel, use different terminology to describe the events. Although several official U.S. documents describe the events as genocide, the U.S. government has not yet officially recognized the Armenian Genocide. The only modern U.S. president to specifically call it a genocide was Ronald Reagan.
The opening scene of Jojo Rabbit shows a 10-year-old boy (Jojo, played by Roman Griffin Davis) swearing allegiance to Hitler and practicing “Heil Hitler!” salutes. Less than two hours later, the film ends with a line from a Rilke poem: “No feeling is final.”
That line is a key to understanding this World War II satire/comedy (you heard that right, it’s a PG-13 comedy about Hilter and Nazis), which threads a fine needle between tasteful and insensitive. The audacious film is about a lot of things, including the tragedy of war destroying childhood innocence. But ultimately Jojo is a film about change: the possibility and process of it; how it happens; why it’s compelling to watch.
The film, directed by Taika Waititi (Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Thor: Ragnarok), is the story of Jojo’s transformation from an enthusiastic Nazi youth whose invisible best friend is Hilter himself (played by Waititi), to a boy who sees through Nazism’s propaganda and recognizes its evil.
How does he get there? What is the film’s answer for how an indoctrinated, hate-filled young boy might grow and change for the better, recognizing his error? It’s an urgent question in our internet age—where all manner of toxic ideology, propaganda, and deadly hate often flourish. But does Jojo offer a sufficient answer?Power of Proximity
The primary catalyst for Jojo’s change is relationships: tangible, proximate, in-person, loving human relationships. When we are alone in our heads—or so desperate for community that we’ll even join a brigade of fascist youth to simply belong—fear and hate will naturally fester. This is the case for Jojo early in the film; he’s susceptible to the allure of Nazism in part because he’s lonely. He’s the son of an absentee father (whom we never see in the film), and his mother (Scarlett Johansson)—though loving when she’s around—is often away. Smaller and clumsier than some other boys his age, Jojo is also bullied. It all adds up to a hunger for meaning and empowering purpose, which the war and Nazism tragically provides.
Jojo at first buys into Nazi ideology with little reservation, including its demonic rhetoric about Jews. He and his friend Yorki (the scene-stealing Archie Yates) discuss what they would do if they spotted a Jew, but they admit to not knowing what they look like. Despite hearing all sorts of wild tales about Jews (e.g., they have horns and smell of Brussels sprouts), the boys have never met one. Jews are thus easily imagined as monsters and menaces—as fanciful as the “friendly Hitler” of Jojo’s imagination. Without real, proximate relationships, our imaginations about people run amok, and we naturally think the worst of them.
Without real, proximate relationships, our imaginations about people run amok, and we naturally think the worst of them.
But early in the film, Jojo meets a Jew. His own mother, it turns out, is an anti-Nazi fighter in the German resistance, and she’s been hiding a young Jewish girl, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), in an attic. When Jojo first meets Elsa, he’s horrified and afraid of her, seeing her as a thing more than a human being. But that quickly changes. They get to know each other and become friends. Jojo’s propaganda-driven perceptions of Jews change. Elsa is not a monster. She’s a young person—lonely and fearful and longing for love. Just like Jojo.
His heart begins to soften, and his hate is largely dismantled. Rather than living in an abstract, embattled space where enemies are unknown and faceless, Jojo cultivates an in-person relationship that changes him. It’s a valuable reminder for our world today, prone as we are to dehumanizing each other in disembodied, impersonal digital spaces. Proximity has a funny knack for destroying prejudice.Greater Need
But is proximity enough? If enough Nazis and Jews had known each other, lived in each other’s houses, been friends, could the Holocaust have been prevented? If enough Democrats and Republicans golfed together, could partisan political stalemate be broken? If every race and ethnic group in America were represented in every neighborhood, would racism be eradicated?
Probably not. Proximate relationships are critically important for learning how to treat each other as humans rather than monsters. But it’s only part of our growth. Most Germans did not protect their Jewish friends and neighbors. Changes in our external social environment are one thing; we also need radical change in our internal spiritual state. One or two nice friends is not enough to heal people who are “dead in the trespasses and sins” and “by nature children of wrath” (Eph. 2:1, 3).
Changes in our external social environment are one thing; we also need radical change in our internal spiritual state.
Jojo Rabbit doesn’t claim relationships to be the one “silver bullet” either, and by film’s end Jojo’s prejudiced heart still has more growing to do. But the film does feel somewhat idealistic at times, subtly promoting a sort of “kumbaya” gospel in which John Lennon’s “Imagine” world—no countries, nothing to kill or die for, no religion too—is the pathway to peace. In addition to being too simple as a solution for sin, this approach runs the risk of relativizing truth by making diversity/empathy absolute values: if you just get to know someone, you’ll understand where they’re coming from, and what appears “wrong” or scary about them will be demystified. The film hints in this direction with a sympathetic gay Nazi character (Sam Rockwell) whose presence checks an unnecessary intersectionality box.
What this “imagine” vision misses is our individual culpability and need for spiritual regeneration—a supernatural intervention to remove our hearts of stone and give us hearts of flesh (Ezek. 36:26). Maybe God will initiate this by putting people into our lives who destroy our prejudices (as Elsa does for Jojo). Or maybe he will let us get to the lonely end of our materialistic, hedonistic, self-centered rope. There are a million methods God uses to catalyze our change. The point is, God initiates true, lasting, radical change. And it always includes our ownership of sin and repentance.
For all its insights and laudable efforts to show the stupidity of hate, Jojo Rabbit at times falls into the same trap Joker does. Both films frame bad behavior around situational factors to such an extent that they nearly absolve their central characters of any guilt. Are Jojo and Arthur Fleck powerless victims, on dark paths because of external circumstances? That these films open the door for such an explanation shows how much today’s world struggles to acknowledge the reality of original sin.
Stories of change like Jojo Rabbit may be incomplete, but they are still compelling to watch because they touch on a universal need—and desire. It isn’t just Hitler Touth white supremacists who need a radical, night-and-day change. We all do, and we know it.
“That’s life in a secular age. That’s belief under the conditions of doubt. That’s pastoring and leading the church under the conditions of doubt. Because even watching things happen—whether you’re watching people move from death to life, through salvation, or whether you’re watching people experience healing, physical or emotional or whatever—the reality of secularism is that there’s this nagging, needling condition of doubt.” — Mike Cosper
Date: April 2, 2019
Event: TGC 2019 National Conference, Indianapolis, Indiana
Listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition Podcast.
- Disruptive Witness for a Distracted Age
- Our Secular Age: Ten Years of Reading and Applying Charles Taylor
- How Stories Unsettle Our Secular Age
Find more audio and video from the 2019 National Conference on the conference media page.
My first job after college was at a residential ministry where my coworkers and I often weathered spiritual battles and weariness. We mentored adolescents struggling with past trauma and ongoing stressors, and the process of ministering faithfully frequently tested our own emotional and spiritual reserves. In this stormy context, our leaders exhorted us to rely on God. It sounded simple, like the popular phrase “Let go and let God.” I imagined it meant praying more and trying harder to lean on him in every moment. I thought if I could just focus on God enough, I would be relying on him.
But as I went about each day, I would inevitably forget. My mind would wander to fears and uncertainty. When I became aware of my distraction, I sometimes felt a twinge of shame. Must not be trying hard enough. Ugh. I never consistently remember to focus on God and ask him for strength.
My leaders’ reminders to rely on God were true and good. But at the time, I didn’t understand what they meant. As a result, I frequently relied on my own willpower while believing I was relying on God. I reduced trust in God to thoughts about God—and then I trusted in my own efforts to think about him hard enough.
Relying on God is not a matter of mental willpower; it’s a lifestyle. It’s a holistic shift in daily focus, and it involves mind, body, and soul.
But relying on God is not a matter of mental willpower; it’s a lifestyle. It’s a holistic shift in daily focus, and it involves mind, body, and soul.
When we find strength in God, we are not simply sending out requests to a distant deity who can solve our problems and make us feel stronger. Through faith in Christ, we can know God personally. And, by his Spirit, God himself empowers and encourages us. He knows us intimately and empathizes with our suffering. Dwelling in us, the Spirit is our ever-present counselor, comforter, companion, and advocate. We are not alone. God is with us (Isa. 41:10).
In the context of this relationship, we practice and express our reliance on him in several ways. Here are four.1. Heart Habits
We rely on God by trusting he will do what’s best, even when we experience suffering, loss, and sacrifice. Our anxiety is often rooted in trying to avoid suffering. Instead, Christ calls us to willingly take up our cross and follow him (Matt. 16:24). Rather than resenting difficult circumstances, we trust God even when we don’t understand his plans.
We also practice reliance by seeking God’s will and expressing our need for him in prayer. A habit of praying every morning, for example, can help set our minds on God throughout the day. When we begin a day by focusing on God’s promised presence and admitting our need, we prepare ourselves to notice his constant provision and presence (Ps. 5:3).2. Physical Habits
We have been “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Ps. 139:14), and God has appointed us as caretakers of Holy Spirit temples (1 Cor. 6:19). To faithfully live out this calling, we attend to our physical health by meeting our God-given needs and not devoting our bodies to sinful activities.
From Genesis 2 onward, Scripture points to the importance of rest. Without adequate rest (both sleep and Sabbath), we have far less ability to focus on God. During an Ask Pastor John podcast, John Piper stated, “It’s crystal clear that my sanctification level rises and falls with eight hours of sleep versus five hours of sleep.”
By setting aside the demands of daily life and resting, we choose to trust that God is in control, and we allow him to refresh us physically and spiritually. Likewise, nutrition and exercise are practices of reliance that can help us focus on God. By choosing to respect our physical needs, we accept the limitations God has designed in us.3. Mind Habits
We all struggle with discouraging thoughts and emotions, especially amid trials. While we may not be able to stop experiencing a specific thought or emotion, we can choose to define reality by the truth of God’s Word rather than by our own minds. We “take captive every thought” (2 Cor. 10:5) by bringing truth to mind and choosing to believe his promises, no matter how we feel in the moment.
We need a solid knowledge of truth to effectively take thoughts captive. By studying and meditating on Scripture, we build up a foundation that allows us to answer our thoughts and emotions with God’s Word. Regular devotional times, group Bible studies, and sermons contribute to this reservoir of truth.4. Communal Habits
Especially when our difficult circumstances involve betrayal or abandonment, it can be tempting to withdraw from others. But God demonstrates his own love and goodness through our love for each other in the church (1 John 4:12). When we commit to a church community, we live imperfectly together while rejoicing in Christ’s perfection. We can be vulnerable and acknowledge our need for grace, rather than clinging to a mask of perfection. There we find accountability, maturity, and fellowship (Heb. 10:24–25).
In the church, we rely on God by leaning on our brothers and sisters in Christ. We were designed for relationship, accountability, and discipleship; there’s no reason for shame in seeking help from a pastor, counselor, or mentor. Our relational God delights in the interdependence of his people.
All of this may seem daunting—more items to check off the “good Christian” list. Far from it! Even when we fail to rely on God, he never fails to extend grace to us through Christ (2 Cor. 12:9). As we gradually mature in these habits of reliance, every failure along the way brings another opportunity to rely on him. We will inevitably struggle in heart, body, mind, or community, and so our ultimate reliance on God is demonstrated through daily embracing his undeserved grace and never-failing love.
The book of Esther is begging to be optioned for streaming. It has everything our culture loves in a binge-worthy show: Gatsby-level opulence, rebellion, debauchery, plot twists, revenge, and a particularly stellar heroine.
It’s also a good time for the church to take a closer look at Esther. If one in four women in the United States has been the victim of sexual assault or abuse, we would do well to assume that number includes the women in our pews. While the #MeToo movement has brought heated and needed conversations within the evangelical church, it’s also an opportunity for us to share the powerful message that God’s Word offers to women.
If your last experience with Esther was from a felt board or VeggieTales, you probably remember the story along these lines: Esther wins a beauty contest and then uses her position as queen to save the Jews from an evil plot against them.
But re-reading as an adult uncovers some eyebrow-raising details, even without the meddling of Hollywood creative license. The account sets the stage for the “beauty pageant”—King Ahasuerus needs a new queen because he dismissed his first wife for refusing to parade herself for his drunk friends. So he issues an edict that all men are to be “masters” in their homes, and he rounds up the unmarried women in the country for his personal harem. This contest, it turns out, is about more than beauty—it’s a sexual audition. One night with the king to prove your worth before each losing contestant joins the harem, another concubine among many.
In the book of Esther, the degradation of women feels so commonplace that it can be difficult to read. When we don’t understand the redemption narrative God is weaving through the Bible, when we can’t relate to the culture in which a given story takes place, when we struggle to navigate the literary styles, parts of our Bible can elicit strong reactions and big questions.
But God gives more grace. By studying these passages closely, we find a gospel balm for many of our frustrations. The apostle Paul declares that “all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16)—and this includes biblical narrative, even the stories we have difficulty understanding.
Here are four principles from Esther’s story to encourage and challenge this generation of believers.1. God Does Not Condone Violence Against Women
Let’s start by getting this big one out of the way. While I sometimes long for a simple “thus saith the Lord,” offering direct condemnation of disturbing details, the Bible is more subtle. Our modern worldview can make it seem like these evils are glossed over, but much is going on below the surface.
It’s helpful to remember that biblical narrative is both history and literature. The text is carefully arranged by the author. In the book of Esther, the opening account of Vashti’s dismissal sets the tone for the inner workings of the Persian court so that we understand just how dire Esther’s situation will be. As the story unfolds, language in the passive voice offers the impression that characters are caught up in circumstances beyond their control. Biblical narrators rarely offer information about motives. Instead, we’re left to judge inner character by each person’s actions.
At the same time, it’s helpful to employ our God-given imagination to compassionately consider the experience of the people involved. As I try to imagine the scene in Mordecai’s home, I’m filled with heartbreak. The text simply offers, “Esther also was taken into the king’s palace” (2:8). But when did the rumors of royal edict first reach their ears? What was Esther doing when the guards knocked on her door? Was she weaving or grinding grain, listening to a story or laughing at a joke? Did she know they were coming for her? Was she prepared for the journey ahead? Did she see it as a welcome escape or did she fear imprisonment? I have so many questions, but all we get is one short sentence.
Let’s consider the details the narrator does include. Esther is an exiled Jew, displaced from her homeland. She is also an orphan, displaced from her first home. And now, for a third time, she will be displaced from her uncle’s home into the king’s palace. She will be collected as a foreign accessory. Gone are any dreams she may have held of carrying on the legacy of her people. Now, in the clutches of the king, she has no hope to fulfill her calling.
At the same time, we might wonder why Mordecai didn’t hide his cousin, why Esther seemed so willing to hide her nationality, or what sort of religious compromises she had to make in order to participate in the harem contest. What in the world is God doing here?
As any producer will tell you, the best stories have impossible conflict. And that’s what we see here in Esther. The writer wants us to see cruelty and violence in this foreign kingdom so that we see God’s kingdom in stark relief. He wants to show us the depths of despair from which God raises up Esther for his good work. He wants us to feel pained by injustice so that God’s final justice triumphs. And as we stare deeply into the eyes of Esther’s pain, perhaps even seeing the reflection of our own, the text points us forward to God’s final, sweet redemption through Christ.2. God Offers the Counsel We Need
Once inside the palace, Esther’s character is tested. She wins favor in the eyes of the officials, her peers, the king, and “all who saw her” (2:16). Shall we condemn her for working the system? For participating in an unholy union? Do we see her as a helpless victim oppressed by a power-hungry king? Or is she a wayward Jewess, dismissing the law of her people?
If we take a moment to suspend condemnation, we see a larger theme emerge for Esther. We must remember that all biblical characters are sinners who need God’s grace. Instead of guessing at her motivations, I’m drawn to a particular repetition in the text. Esther listens to Modecai’s advice about concealing her racial identity. She listens to the advice of Hegai about what to bring to the king. She listens again to Mordecai when he uncovers a plot against the king and when he challenges her to speak up for her people. The text tells us, “Esther obeyed Mordecai just as when she was brought up by him” (3:20). She seeks counsel amid the highly complex circumstances beyond her control, and God grows her into a woman of firm conviction.
Esther’s story invites us to ask whose team we are on. Will we follow the Lord or the way of this world?
King Ahasuerus provides a foil in this area. He behaves according to every whim, with a crowd of cronies cheering him on. Those in his inner circle begin their requests with phrases like “if I have found favor” or “if it pleases the king.” Ahasuerus listens to those who tell him what he wants to hear. He appears uninterested in wisdom or truth, for he only wants affirmation and praise.
Even as we wrestle with the advice Esther obeys, we see a clear divide between the people of God and the Persian court. We’re meant to see God’s way as the good way and God’s people lifted up, even when they follow him imperfectly. Esther’s story invites us to ask whose team we are on. Will we follow the Lord or the way of this world?
Our efforts to pursue wise counsel should begin with the Author of wisdom. Wise counsel can come from various sources—Christian friends, godly pastors, even legal professionals and law enforcement officials—but our ultimate resource is God himself.3. God Designed Men and Women to Work Together
In the climax of our narrative, a major contrast is established between Queen Esther and Queen Vashti. But it may not be what you think. Theirs is not the tale of the bad, unsubmissive wife versus the good, godly wife. This isn’t a contrast of wives at all. Instead, we see two different partnerships—Vashti and Ahasuerus compared with Esther and Mordecai.
King Ahasuerus and Vashti exemplify the sin-ridden conflict we expect between spouses after the fall. They operate separately. He orders Vashti to parade her beauty. She fights against his authority, and he claps back with legislation to control her. Their marriage is a partnership in name only, fraught with conflict, rebellion, and domination.
Esther poses a different way—not in her marriage to the king, which the text doesn’t describe, but in her partnership with Mordecai. Esther respects the wisdom of her cousin. He loyally checks on her at the gate every day during her 12-month beautification. Then, when Haman devises a plot to murder the Jews, Mordecai turns to Esther for help. He knows God may have intended her position “for such a time as this” (4:14). She accepts the challenge, even though petitioning the king might cost her life, and she makes a request to Mordecai in return: organize a fast among the Jews. Mordecai does “everything as Esther had ordered him” (3:17). In the end, God uses the faithful, collaborative efforts of Esther and Mordecai to save his people. Esther risks her life to expose Haman’s genocidal plot, and justice is served. Haman and his family hang on the very gallows he intended for Mordecai.
I’m struck by the great tragedy of certain feminist ideology that says men are the issue and that getting around or walking over them is the best solution. The problem of sin is much deeper and more insidious than the bad behavior of a few men or even the systemic inequalities perpetuated by generations. Where the serpent turns us against one another, the Bible’s narrative reveals incredible blessing when we work together for the sake of human flourishing. Ever since God named Eve the ezer—an aid in battle to complement Adam—his plan has been for men and women in his church to collaborate on the work he assigns.
Part of the curse in Eden was a rift in the holy way of relating male to female. The #MeToo movement has exposed ways in which men have leveraged social or physical power against the very women God designed to work alongside them. Sadly, this problem isn’t new. It’s been our trajectory since we left the garden.
Through Christ’s redemptive work, we’re now adopted into his family, and we relate to one another as brothers and sisters. And like a healthy family, we ought to each contribute according to our gifting and role. We lean in to support one another, and go out into the world to bring God’s good news.4. God Has Not Forgotten You
Esther is the only book in the Bible without explicit action from the Lord. While this omission may seem odd, the literary choice is brilliant. During this period of exile, Jews felt like God had abandoned them. Yet in the twists and turns of Esther’s story, the writer drops hints of God’s supernatural presence. So many “coincidences” would seem as unbelievable from an ancient perspective as they do to us today. Esther’s rise, Mordecai’s discovery of the coup, Haman’s ironic humiliation—who but the Most High could orchestrate such an elaborate web of subplots?
While we may wonder at Esther’s motivations to please, we aren’t offered a window into her heart. But in the end, God is the real hero, working behind the scenes to secure the safety of his people through the influence of the one in the story with the weakest social capital. There is no logical reason for Esther to prevail, but God loves to use the weak things in the world to shame the strong.
The book of Esther isn’t meant to show us how to behave in morally ambiguous situations. It shows us how God behaves in spite of them.
The book of Esther isn’t meant to show us how to behave in morally ambiguous situations. It shows us how God behaves in spite of them.
Women, the same is absolutely true for you. Those times you felt passed over unjustly at work, the depravity you experience in catcalls and wandering eyes, and even in the midst of violence and abuse, God has not forgotten you. I don’t say this lightly. Our God is working amid broken systems and despite cruel sinners. You might feel like you’ve been exiled in a strange land that doesn’t know his name, but God does not forsake his people.
We serve a God who is able to work all things for good for those called according to his purpose (Rom. 8:28). And while this verse may sound trite in a vacuum, Esther’s story allows us to sit in the gravity of it. It’s true for her, and it’s true for #MeToo. God can take my suffering—your suffering—and remake it into something good. Through Christ, God is in the business of making dead things come alive again, and that includes the parts of your heart and body that you feel are beyond repair.
We can trust that even when God seems absent in our own stories, he is always at work behind the scenes. He never abandons his people.Wrestle with the Text
As I consider my own history and the stories of women I know, my questions for Esther can be difficult to satisfy. What about the injustice done to Queen Vashti? What happens to Esther in the end? Why doesn’t God destroy King Ahasuerus for his abuse of power? Perhaps you have others.
Keep asking these difficult questions, women. They’re a blessing in our churches, a challenge for us all to dig deeper into the powerful redemption of the gospel. We can bring heavy questions to Scripture. And sometimes, even as our questions remain unanswered, God uses our faithful inquiry to illuminate attributes of his character that make us stand in awe.
The book of Esther presents us, as teachers, with an incredible opportunity to tell a dramatic and captivating story. But the narrative also presents challenges.
God is not mentioned once throughout the book. We tend to want to make judgments and draw conclusions about the motives and morality of the characters. But in this conversation, Christopher Ash—writer-in-residence at Tyndale House in Cambridge, and author of Teaching Ruth & Esther—warns us away from over-evaluating Esther morally, and from leading those we’re teaching to either cheer or boo at the actions of the characters, since many of the book’s actions are ambiguous.
Instead, he demonstrates how we can teach the book of Esther in a way that points to Christ, a greater mediator than Esther, a more righteous man than Mordecai, who brought about a greater reversal than the king’s edict.
Listen to this episode of Help Me Teach the Bible.
Recommended Audio Resources
- Sermon series on Esther by Christopher Ash
- Sermon series on Esther by Jon Dennis and Joseph Kim
- Sermon series on Esther by Alistair Begg
- Ruth and Esther: A 12-Week Study by Kathleen Nielson
- Esther and Ruth in the Reformed Expository Commentary series by Iain Duguid
- Ruth & Esther: There Is a Redeemer and Sudden Reversals by David Strain
All Christians in 2019 have access to the best preachers in America.
They have access to a treasure trove of content from some of the wisest and most powerful thinkers and speakers on the planet. As soon as you read this article, you can have them piped into your office or car.
If you were born 550 years ago in Europe, you probably wouldn’t have owned a Bible, and it’s likely your parish priest wouldn’t have owned a whole copy of the Latin Bible. He wouldn’t have known much Latin, so he wouldn’t have been able to read it anyway. The Reformation brought the Bible to the people in their own language.
Fast forward five centuries to today and not only do we, in the West, have unfettered access to Scripture, but we have virtually limitless access to some of the very best Bible teaching. What a gift!
But for an ordinary pastor like me, it raises a question: How am I supposed to compete? And why should you even bother attending your local church? Why settle for the best your no-name pastor can offer when you can watch the best that Tim Keller and John Piper and (fill in your favorite preacher) can offer?
I can’t compete. I’ll never be on an “America’s Best Preachers” list. And frankly, I have no aspirations for that.I’m Among You
But here’s what I can offer my church that those great preachers can’t: I’m here. I can shepherd you. I can (if you are patient with me) know your name and your story. I can pray for you. I probably thought about you or a friend of yours as I prepared this week’s sermon. If you have a question about the sermon, or are seeking wisdom in picking a college, dating, your marriage, parenting, I promise I’ll respond to your email.
I’ll be there when you get married, I’ll pray with you when your loved one dies, and I commit to pursue you if you go astray. I’m a flawed pastor, but if you commit yourself to Christ’s church, I promise to commit myself to you.
In 1 Peter 5:1–3, Peter commands the pastors in your local church:
So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.
I love that little word “among” in verse 2. That’s the word that separates me from all of the better preachers and teachers of God’s Word as it relates to you. I’m among you. I’m a fellow sheep in this local flock of God. And he’s gifted us with each other. You bless me with the many ways God has gifted you, and I promise to do my best to bless you with the best of how God has gifted me.We Have One Another
And because we are among one another, you’re invited to speak into my life, so I might live out Christ’s calling and exercise my compulsion humbly, in a God-honoring way. My best won’t win me any awards, but because of God’s purpose and design, it will affect you. And I’m grateful for this: I’m the pastor God intended for you.
In a shrinking world, it’s easy for a pastor to look past his own congregation to a larger context, a larger stage. We might daydream what it’d look like to pastor in a more important city or pastor more influential people. Ingratitude makes our hearts grumble. Ambition turns our eyes green. If only _______, we think. When my heart turns inward, when I allow my sin to go unchecked, I go to this place too.
But here is the reality: “among” is a two-way street. God has blessed me and my family by calling us among you! God has called us to Tucson. He’s called us to New Life Bible Fellowship. He has decided to use my gifts in and for this church. He has given me the privilege of shepherding his flock, of caring for his sheep.Best Church for Me
I’m not just the best pastor for you; you’re the best church for me.
Why are you the best church in the world for me? Because you know my warts, and you still love me. You’ve forgiven me for the times I’ve acted unwisely. You’ve forgiven me when I spoke harshly. You’ve been understanding about the many gifts I don’t possess.
Why are you the best church for me? Because you’ve invested in me. New Life has generously provided means for books, conferences, staff retreats, executive team retreats, coaching, and counseling. You’ve gifted my wife and me date nights, and our yard is adorned with several plants you gave me.
Why are you the best church for me? Because you’ve allowed me to steward my gifts. You’ve received what I can offer, and you’ve let me grow as a pastor and a leader.
Why are you the best church for me? Because you’ve trusted me when it wasn’t easy to. I came after a church split. You had every reason to distrust a strange new face, but you’ve invited me into your hospital rooms as your loved ones entered eternity; you’ve stepped into my office and shared your hardest struggles; you’ve sat under my preaching with eagerness and humility.
Why are you the best for me? Because you’ve partnered with our congregation in ministry. You’ve prayed for us. You’ve served alongside us. You’ve been compelled by the ministry of Christ and have given your time, energy, and gifting to make an impact in our neighborhood. You’ve been generous in your financial stewardship.
Why are you the best church for me? Because you’ve walked alongside our family in joy and hardship. Dear friends from New Life were with us when we received one of the foster children into our home. They surrounded us with prayers and tears when our hearts were broken after the state took her to another home, despite our concerns that it was a serious mistake.
Thank you, precious flock. You’re the best church in the world for me. And thank you for receiving me as the pastor God has for you.
“Enjoy every moment. These years fly by, and before you know it, you’re an empty-nester.”
Every moment? Do you remember the little years? The tantrums, the carseat battles, the poopy diapers, the 5:30 wake-ups? Not enjoyable moments. Sanctifying and rewarding, yes, but enjoyable?
The years may fly by, but the days typically crawl.
I have a 2-year-old. Many of you are also in the little years, and you’ve heard “Enjoy every moment,” and you––like me––have swallowed your objections and thought, Oh man. They’re right. My kids are great. What’s wrong with me that I’m struggling to enjoy these years?
Enter the cloud of shame that follows us around as we simply try to endure the moment at hand––diffusing the tantrum, winning the battle, changing the diaper.
And we wonder: How can I start enjoying my kids more?A Parent’s Aim
This question isn’t bad or wrong. To enjoy our children is a good aim––they’re gifts from God––and, generally speaking, we do enjoy them. There are plenty of wonderful moments when we’re tending to boo-boos, cheering them on as they graduate to the big-kid slide, or watching the fruit of our training as “please” and “thank you” come more naturally to them.
In these moments, our heads are not down, but up. We’re able to get a big-picture view. We’re not just getting through; we’re enjoying.
But life is made up of dozens of little moments, many of which are not enjoyable. This is true in marriage and work and church life, and even during supposedly idyllic times like holidays and vacations. It’s certainly true of parenting in the little years. And maybe that’s okay.
Maybe it’s okay that we don’t always enjoy each moment—each runny nose and muddy footprint and crustless peanut-butter sandwich. Maybe that’s only to be expected. Where we have fallen into sinful discontent, we ought to confess it, of course. But when we place on ourselves the unrealistic burden of constantly enjoying our kids, our goal is misdirected and our expectations are naïve.A Parent’s Expectations
Children will never be the most enjoyable part of our lives. Yes, they are a heritage and a reward from God (Ps. 127:3), but he is the heritage, the reward, the goal. He is our truest and highest joy—not our kids. So when we’re feeling like failures because we’re not constantly enjoying them, we can remember that enjoying their every moment was never the goal.
But when our ambition is to enjoy Christ, our expectations for parenthood will be put in the right place. We will no longer feel like failures for encountering the hardship and toil that Scripture tells us to expect:
- We should expect that our calling in parenthood has been cursed and frustrated by sin (Gen. 3:16–19) and that we are entirely dependent on God’s sustaining grace to persevere in this high but hard calling.
- We should expect to live in a sin-saturated world full of suffering (Rom. 8:20–22), meaning we’re not surprised by trials within the heart or from this world.
- We should expect that we, sinners-turned-saints who are saved by grace, will still fight a daily battle to put sin to death and put on the Holy Spirit (Rom. 7:21–25).
- We should expect that we are parenting lost sinners who are blind to God’s truth and wisdom apart from his intervening, saving grace (Ps. 51:5).
- We should expect to give Jesus all the glory and honor he deserves (Rev. 5:12) by not expecting our circumstances or children to be what only Jesus, our perfect Lord and all-satisfying Savior, can provide. We worship the one true God alone, not our kids.
When we find our supreme enjoyment in Christ—and not in our kids—something surprising happens. Our joy multiplies and spills over, becoming something we delight to share with them. As we seek Christ in his Word and behold his beautiful character and work, we will worship, and this will affect our little moments––especially the unenjoyable ones.When you are wronged:
When your 3-year-old smacks you in the face because she isn’t getting her way, and you’re tempted to explode in anger, you can remember that the Spirit of him who endured crucifixion—for the joy set before him (Heb. 12:2)—lives in you and will empower you to increasingly respond in compassion and truth, rather than malice or spite.When you are weary:
As you go into your crying baby’s room for the umpteenth time and weariness threatens to crush your soul, you can rest not in your circumstances, but in a person. His goodness extends to you in this moment: “Return, O my soul, to your rest; for the LORD has dealt bountifully with you” (Ps. 116:7). As Jesus faithfully, constantly serves you in heaven, so he gives you the desire and power to do everything––even repetitious comforting––in his name, for his honor. You are serving the Lord Christ (Col. 3:17, 24) even as you serve your child.When you are tested:
When your kid is seeking attention by being annoying, and you’re tempted to either blow up or shut down, you can rejoice that you are “being renewed in knowledge after the image of [your] Creator” (Col. 3:10). You can find joy in knowing that Jesus is at work, he is present, and he will supply what you need to parent right now. No temptation is unknown to him, and he sympathizes with your weakness (and your kid’s weakness), giving you strength to put off the flesh and put on the Spirit.When you are wrong:
As you yell at your kids and realize, by the Spirit’s conviction, that you’ve sinned against them and against God, you can revel in the unshakable confidence of forgiveness through Jesus Christ—that in his sight you are “justified by faith” and have “peace with God” (Rom. 5:1). You can enjoy the finished work of Christ that removes your sin and covers you in his spotless righteousness. Then you can say “I was wrong” to your child, share with them your own need for Jesus, and ask for their forgiveness.
True enjoyment isn’t loving every moment with our kids––that’s impossible for sinners parenting sinners in a broken and cursed world. Instead, true enjoyment is found in Christ and is then shared with our kids. Even in the most unenjoyable circumstances.
When I was young, my mother made my brother and me drink prune juice (for obvious reasons). I dreaded walking into the kitchen and seeing that glass full of thick, purple poison awaiting me. I held my nose and reluctantly drank, since I knew it was good for me. But it did not taste good.
I go through seasons when I view God’s Word like prune juice. In these moments my soul lethargically sits down to read, and my thoughts wander to my to-do list shortly after starting. Opening God’s Word sometimes feels more like a chore than a delight.
Yet this is not how David describes it. David describes God’s Word as “sweeter than honey” (Ps. 119:103). It should taste good to our souls, because it is good for our souls. When Scripture is sweeter to me than honey, I run to it as to living water, and I think about his words and the implications of them for my life throughout my day.
But what do we do—especially in bitter and busy seasons—when reading God’s Word seems less like honey and more like prune juice?Give Your Time
Meditation takes time, which many of us may protest we don’t have. And yet it’s hard to believe David could say that he loved God’s law (Ps. 119:97) without having given time to digging deep and memorizing, meditating on, and understanding it.
God’s Word is the psalmist’s meditation all day long (Ps. 119:97). The Hebrew word for “meditation” here refers to an object of “musing, study, or prayer.” In biblical meditation, we are filling our minds to think deeply on a verse, a passage, or a theme.
The difference between reading and meditating on it is the difference between raking and digging. As with raking leaves, you can read the Bible for breadth and consume large portions at a time. Raking over God’s word has a purpose, and some parts (such as Old Testament narratives) lend themselves to raking.
The difference between reading and meditating on it is the difference between raking and digging.
In digging, though, you read the Bible in depth. You focus deeply on every word and nuance and tone and emotion. Holes can be dug deep—and the same is true for God’s inexhaustible Word. Meditation takes time and energy, but our eventual grasp is deeper, fuller, and more robust.Give Your Ear
As you read, listen attentively to what God is saying. David’s insight came through humble submission to Scripture—to listening and obeying. David says that God’s Word has made him wiser than his enemies, and has yielded more insight than his teachers (Ps. 119:98–99).
Wisdom is not just the ability to discern right from wrong, but also the ability to know the best course of action in a given situation. For a king like David, divine wisdom could protect a nation from its enemies. David does not boast in his wisdom; he knows it was given by God through his “commandment” (Ps. 119:98). Because David had listened carefully to God’s Word, it was with him even when he wasn’t reading it.
When we give our ear to the Word, we both remember and live out of it. It is living and active, and through it God speaks to our particular times, circumstances, and struggles.Give Your Heart
Fight the temptation to memorize, meditate on, and understand God’s Word for the sake of merely gaining knowledge. For the Word is the way we know God.
There is a difference between knowledge that produces obedience, and knowledge that merely produces more knowledge. Many people know facts about God and his Word, yet fail to embody those truths. I had college professors who memorized more scriptures than I did, studied more biblical history than I did, and mastered Greek and Hebrew—yet they did not submit themselves to the words they read. True biblical knowledge works itself out in obedience.
If we are to truly give our heart to God’s Word, it mustn’t just enter our minds; we also must allow it to change our wills and actions. As Psalm 119 reminds us, we must look to it to hold back our feet from the evil way (v. 101), to lead us in obeying the rules the Lord has taught us (v. 102), and to equip us to hate every false way (v. 104).
When Bible reading tastes like prune juice, give it your time, your ear, and your heart. As you do, its sweetness will grow, and so will your love for the Author.
Stepping into a new church for the first time, even if you’re a churchgoing person, can be intimidating.
Where should I park? Which door is the front entrance? Is there a place to hang my coat? Where’s the bathroom?
For those who don’t regularly attend, the anxiety can be even more acute. Is this the right place for me? Will anyone talk to me? Are there going to be strange rituals I don’t understand? Should I even be here? Wouldn’t it be easier to turn around and leave?
Some of those concerns can be eased in simple, practical ways, according to Sara Joy Proppe. She’s the founder of Proximity Project, which helps North American churches think about creative ways to use their physical space to engage with neighbors.
TGC asked her how we can make opening the door to church—literally—a little bit easier.
We know many churches around the world don’t have the luxury of implementing this advice. However, if your church is located in a more affluent context, these tips may be helpful for making your guests feel welcome.1. Decorate outside.
In most places in America, the first impression of your church doesn’t come from your sanctuary, but from your landscaping. The ground around your church can be an important way to invite curiosity, Proppe said.
“Think about stores on main street that sometimes put merchandise outside,” she said. “Studies show that increases sales a lot because people don’t have to walk through the door to be able to browse. But then once you start browsing outside, you’re more likely to go inside.”A path or benches can invite people into the church space. / Courtesy of Sara Joy Proppe
Active edges make active interiors, she said. At a church, this can mean adding outdoor benches or art sculptures or a garden—anything that will invite activity on the property.
One caution: Don’t leave them unused and rusting. Give them life by moving some of your activities outdoors.
“Park your coffee cart outside after services on nice days,” she said. “Or have your vacation Bible school games outside.” This could even apply to meetings: “If it’s nice outside, why are you all crouched around a table in the basement?”
If you have a little space and a little more risk tolerance, playgrounds are also worth considering. Nature-based playgrounds aren’t as expensive as traditional swings and slides, and they “invite imagination and engagement,” Proppe said.
She also suggests putting visual cues—such as artwork, banners, or flags—to mark the liturgical calendar.
“We’re very rhythm-based as people,” she said. “People in the neighborhood may not know what it all means, but they could say, ‘Oh, yeah, the purple bunting is out. It’s Easter.’ That creates a rhythm for the neighborhood that is valuable. Children particularly are very aware of those rhythms, and it sparks that curiosity: ‘Hey, that purple thing is up again. What does that even mean?’”2. Mark a sidewalk in the parking lot.
Parking lots are designed for “the best and fastest path for cars,” Proppe said. Some churches even have welcoming committees to direct traffic.Lightstock
But after the car is stopped, people have to dodge drivers and skirt around vehicles to make it to the building. This can be tricky, especially if you’re walking with quick-moving children or slower-moving elderly adults.
Churches may want to create a clear pedestrian walkway, especially if the parking lot is sizable so the walk is long.
“You can have lines, or an alternate color on the pavement, or borders of flowers or planters,” Proppe said. Having a designated path “does mentally give you a sense of safety and that’s really important.”
Signs or arrows pointing the way are also helpful, she said. If possible, parking lots should be “human-friendly and self-explanatory.”3. Make the front door obvious.
As soon as people pull up to a new church, they’re “already mapping out how they’re going to get to that entrance,” Proppe said. They can feel a little anxious if they don’t see a door—or if they see multiple doors. Which one should they choose?
“It’s important to see the main entrance as soon as you see the building,” she said. “You’re already wondering where to park. Having to figure out the right entrance adds another layer of mental anxiety.”
With clear signs or an open door or some people standing outside, make the main entrance obvious.4. Think about the threshold transition.
“The experience of entering a building influences the way you feel inside the building,” Proppe said. “If the transition is too abrupt, then the inside fails to be an inner sanctum.”
It’s the reason the front door on your home doesn’t lead to your master bedroom. You need to first move through a public space like a living room or kitchen, then probably down a hallway or up some stairs, before getting to intimate spaces like bedrooms or private bathrooms.Consider creating ‘courts,’ perhaps signaled by changes in the sidewalk pavement, as you move toward the building. / Courtesy of Sara Joy Proppe
Moving into a church sanctuary is the same experience. “If you walk immediately into the most intimate space, that will feel uncomfortable,” she said. “Look at the way the temple was designed. You moved from the outer courts gradually into the holy of holies.”
Think about creating those “courts,” beginning outside. (To be clear, there is no theological significance to this; it’s simply an aesthetic analogy.) As the sidewalk approaches the church, perhaps the pattern could change or the gravel path could become concrete. If the way is long, consider placing visual cues along the way.
“Our minds set our sights on one point and then the next,” Proppe said. A planter with flowers, a piece of art, or a small fountain can be a smaller “goal,” signaling the transition to the next part of the journey.
Once inside, churches can signal different “courts” by paint color or by moving from tile to carpet—subtle cues that you’re getting closer to the inner sanctum.5. Put something obvious—a bench or a piece of art—right outside the door.
“Say you’re meeting somebody to go to an event together,” Proppe said. “There’s always the question, ‘Where am I meeting you?’”A distinctive landmark gives visitors a place to find their friends. / Courtesy of Sara Joy Proppe
Having a clear destination—the bench or the welcome desk or the front door—“takes away a layer of anxiety for the person coming for the first time,” she said.
It’s better if the identifier is something large and unique enough to be immediately obvious—a fountain or a sculpture or a bench that’s a different color from the rest. And it’s even better if that object is just outside the door.
“When you walk over the threshold, suddenly you’re committed to the space, and it feels like all eyes are on you,” Proppe said. “It’s the experience you have when you go to a neighborhood joint where only locals go and you’re the only outsider. When you walk in the door, everybody turns and looks at you. It can be super daunting.”
Meeting your friend first, then walking in together, can make that experience a lot more comfortable.6. Decorate for warmth and beauty.
Stepping into a church should be a beautiful experience.
“Windows help with that,” Proppe said. She tries to move churches away from just ceiling lighting in the lobby—”a string of white twinkle lights are trendy but so warming.” Even a few living room lamps can make the room appear softer and warmer.
She also likes little groupings of lamps and chairs.
“Movable seating anywhere is always better than benches or fixed seating,” she said. “People like to be able to shape their own space. Studies show people sitting down at a table in a café usually move their chairs. Even if it’s only an inch, something about situating it yourself is satisfying.”
Another benefit is that you can always drag another chair over for a newcomer.7. Offer something to do during the wait.
When you’re new, waiting for a service to start can be awkward.
“What do I do with myself?” Proppe asked. Especially if you don’t have a friend to talk to, “you get the sense that everybody is looking at you.”
It’s helpful to have things in the lobby that people can engage with during that time, she said. From interesting art to refreshments to creative games—make “places where people feel free to linger.”Lightstock
In fact, “have multiple things to do or experience in the same place,” she said. “Imagine if you’re waiting at a bus stop. You aren’t going to engage with the person standing next to you. You’ll both pull out your phones because it’s awkward and there’s nothing to talk about. But if there’s something to talk about or experience, suddenly that opens up conversations between people.”
Church leaders may also want to consider posting a “question of the week,” with chalkboards or a Twitter hashtag to capture answers, Proppe said. That requires regular attention from the staff, but offers members and visitors something to use to engage those near them.
“What you want,” Proppe said, “is to find ways to get people to talk and to stop only looking at their phones.”8. When in doubt, put up a sign.
“I work with so many churches that have terrible signage,” Proppe said. “If you’re new, you’re like, ‘Where do I go?’”
Erring on the side of making something too clear is better than not clear enough, she said.Lightstock
“I worked with a church recently that had a welcome desk, but the sign that said ‘welcome’ was too low—when people were standing there, you couldn’t see it,” she said. Having lots of clear signage—to the coat room, to the sanctuary, to the bathrooms—is even more important than having a person shaking hands at the door, she said.
“The first thing we do is orient ourselves to a space,” she said. “Having a person there can be a little intimidating. Many of us like to be anonymous until we figure things out.”
For larger churches, she also recommends putting a building map on the church’s website, at the welcome desk, or in the bulletin.
“And if you are a church that can be accessed by multiple modes of transit, put that on your website,” she said. People may come via car or train or bus or sidewalk. For those who may come by bike, consider bike racks for your property.
“We make a lot of assumptions that everybody drives, and at many churches, most people will,” she said. “But giving more information removes an extra layer for people trying to access the church.”9. Don’t worry if you’re on a budget.
“So often I’ve found that people immediately think they need to spend thousands of dollars on their space, and that immediately becomes a dealbreaker, since most churches most don’t have that capacity,” Proppe said. “So instead they assume, ‘We can’t do anything.’”
She tries to show them that incremental improvements can make a big difference.
For example, if your church wants to provide an outdoor option for music and gathering, instead of installing an amphitheater, hammer together some painted wood pallets for a makeshift stage and seating area. And if that goes well, maybe next summer you build a more permanent deck out of wood, she said.
Church leaders should recognize members and visitors as human beings, and care about their experience in the physical space.
Churches can also resist physical improvements because it seems the money would be better spent on programs.
There should be room for both, Proppe said. “Church leaders should recognize members and visitors as human beings, and care about their experience in the physical space. God create us a physical people and gave us senses for a reason.”
Creating a beautiful and welcoming space is worth doing, she said. And you don’t necessarily have to hire an interior designer for that to happen.
“Think about places you really like going,” Proppe said. “Try to identify the things that make you like them. Then take some of those elements and put them in your church.”
Especially if you’re not spending much, feel free to experiment, she said. “Try things out. Rearrange. Scrap some ideas. Don’t be afraid to do some test runs.”10. Stay on mission.
When Proppe works with a church, she first asks leaders to explain their vision.Urban churches may want to offer a community garden. / Courtesy of Sara Joy Proppe
“I like to think through how the built space reflects the vision,” she said. “I try to help them home in on the geographic context of where they’re located, the types of programs they house, what is driving them.”
An urban church might engage its neighborhood with a community garden or a shelter for those waiting for public transportation. A rural church may celebrate creation by creating a walking path with signs explaining the plants and wildlife.
“Think about what is important to you as a church and listen to neighborhood needs,” she said. “Then explore how to reflect and meet those things with your property.”
Books don’t merely tell stories; they have stories. This book’s story began with Mike Bird suggesting that someone should put N. T. Wright’s voluminous writings into a single volume, forming an introduction to the New Testament. That “someone” became Mike Bird, and the two have produced a unique New Testament introduction, The New Testament in Its World: An Introduction to the History, Literature, and Theology of the First Christians.
The book is divided into nine parts, and the breadth of material in its 900 pages is astounding. It ends up being part introduction, part survey of the whole New Testament, and part “reader” on Wright’s works. No review will be able to touch on each part, so I’ll largely restrict my comments to the strengths and weaknesses of this volume and the way it was put together. Before I do, though, here’s a brief survey of its contents.
Part 1 instructs readers how to read the New Testament, speaking to hermeneutics, history, literature, and theology. Part 2 contains background material covering the history of the Jews between the Persian and Roman Empire, the Jewish context of Jesus and the early church, and the Greco-Roman context. Parts 3 and 4 give an overview of Jesus, examining his identity, death, and resurrection. Part 5 introduces Paul and then goes into each individual book of the Pauline corpus. Part 6 and 7 covers the Gospels and the Catholic Epistles, and then the final two parts explain how we got the New Testament and how we make the New Testament matter for today.
For a New Testament introduction, the breadth of material covered is quite impressive: everything from text criticism, source criticism, hermeneutics, views on Paul and Jesus, and book overviews.Strengths
Style and Readability. Both Wright and Bird have a breezy, jaunty, tumbling style. While some might find this distracting for an introduction, their voices give a lightness to the rigor of the work. This is what has always made both of them (and Wright in particular) so fun to read. They take difficult concepts, write about them in a conversational way, and then connect them with modern concepts overturning typical thought patterns. The book is an enjoyable read for this fact alone.
Historical Overviews. Another strength is the thorough historical study combined with reflections on how the New Testament is still relevant today. Summaries of the historical periods and Jewish and Greco-Roman background were some of the most digestible but judicious overviews I’ve read on these topics. So many historical overviews get lost in the details or assume knowledge from readers, but this introduction explained the Seleucids and Ptolemies, and even showed a map of the territory they controlled, but didn’t get lost in the details. For its readability and comprehensiveness, this book may be considered one of the best historical New Testament introductions available.
Individual Book Chapters. I enjoyed how they cover each individual book of the New Testament. Each book begins with an introduction that sets the stage. Only then is debated or background material discussed, followed by an outline of the book with paragraphs summarizing what is found in each section. Finally, the book is put into the larger picture connecting it to real life. This way of introducing a book is much better than typical New Testament introductions.
Good Summary of Wright’s Corpus. Of course, the other strength of this book is a condensed version of Wright’s sizable works. Wright’s influence over scholarship is hard to estimate, but when students see the length of his works it’s daunting. This book provides a brief (yes, brief for Wright!) overview of his work on Jesus and Paul. What one thinks of Wright’s larger theological program will determine how one judges this part of the book.
Extras. My review copy didn’t include the study guide or videos, but the charts, maps, and pictures in the book are a nice addition. I didn’t like all the extras, but for the most part the summaries, quotes, maps, and charts are helpful information. It’s clear the book wasn’t just thrown together, but carefully supplemented.Weaknesses
Organization and Length. The biggest weakness of the book is the organization and length. The length will deter its classroom use. I also questioned the placement of sections. For example, Part 1 on reading the New Testament made a lot of sense as a beginning, but it seems that the making of the New Testament (Part 8) would have fit well into that section and was a little out of place at the end.
Ny biggest disorientation, however, is how the book begins with Jesus (Parts 3 and 4), then jumps to Paul (Part 5), and then back to the Gospels (Part 6). Paul’s canon is included in the Pauline section, but the Gospels are separated from the Jesus section. I understand their purpose: they want to keep the “historical order” rather than following a more canonical view. But if one were to strictly follow the “historical composition” order, then Paul would come first and not Jesus.
Short-Shrifting the Catholic Epistles. The nature of including Wright’s corpus means the Catholic Epistles (1–2 Peter, James, 1–3 John, Jude) get shortchanged. This is something that happens a lot in New Testament introductions, because the studies on Jesus and Paul proliferate, but there are fewer books and debates on Peter, James, and John. So while Jesus and Paul get hundreds of pages of introduction, the Catholic Epistles seem like an afterthought.
Wright-Bird Corpus. I realize this review has done little with the “theology” of the book. Part of the reason is because if you’ve read Wright and Bird, you know what to expect: an emphasis on story, exile, Jewishness, monotheism, election, the corporate people of God, and an embodied and concrete future. From a Pauline perspective, Wright sits in one of the many New Perspective camps and Bird straddles the many perspectives on Paul, but leans toward a mediating position on New and Old Perspectives.
The emphasis on Paul’s theology tends more toward sociology and ecclesiology (new united family) than soteriology (getting right with God), but the latter is included.
The more problematic views of Wright are downplayed (especially on atonement), but one still finds Wright speaking of Jesus’s death more as a victory and not emphasizing penal substitutionary atonement. Readers also find his views on righteousness and justification throughout. The emphasis on Paul’s theology tends more toward sociology and ecclesiology (new united family) than soteriology (getting right with God), though the latter is included.
Historical Emphasis. The nature of condensing Wright’s corpus is helpful, but it also shows the “age” of Wright’s scholarship. Wright came along and largely took a page out of the historian’s book and argued for a more conservative (and biblical) view of Jesus than the Jesus Seminar school took. But Wright’s work now speaks to a wider audience than his initial one. This means that Wright’s historical leg is consistently longer than his theological leg. Though there is “theology” in this book, the emphasis is certainly on the world of the New Testament (the title should cue readers in). The negative side of this equation, however, is that some of the debates he addresses are passé, though thankfully updated with new clothes. This makes the book both a nice summary of Wright’s work, but also somewhat dated.Conclusion
For a more historically bent introduction to the New Testament and a summary of Wright’s works, The New Testament in Its World is a great addition. I’ll use a few of the sections in my classes to introduce students to the history behind the New Testament.
I’d also want to supplement this type of introduction, however, with a more biblical-theological viewpoint. This suggestion might reveal more of my leanings than the weaknesses of the volume, but I’m inclined to think scholarship has also turned more in this direction, and the strength of the volume (a summary of Wright’s corpus) ends up also being its weakness, especially in regard to emphasis and organization.
Overall, readers can be thankful to both scholars for their work and how they’ve moved many conversations in a helpful direction.
Small-town pastor, you’ve just stepped into the pulpit. Bibles are open, eyes are up, people are waiting—and it strikes you once again how few of them there are. Just 40 souls (not all of whom are guaranteed to remain awake while you preach). There’s no sound equipment to record your sermon, and no website to post it to anyway. Your congregation doesn’t know what a podcast is, and no one beyond your congregation knows who you are. You will speak for 30 minutes, and your sermon will never again be heard in this mortal life. It will live on only in the memories of those assembled. You’ve labored all week on it. Was it a waste?
As with countless other moments in small-town ministry, this one presents you with a choice. You can pine for something greater than God has given, perhaps even eventually leaving for a larger congregation in a bigger place. Or you can open yourself to the possibility that the greater opportunity you’re seeking lies right in front of you. Rather than ditching your people, perhaps you should dive deeper in.Gifts of Less
Most pastors I know aren’t yearning for leaner budgets, smaller buildings, sparser congregations, and less influence. So when God gives these things to us, we may miss the promise they bear and the opportunities they provide. In both broader contemporary culture and also Christian subculture, big, fast-growing things are usually considered more desirable than what is small. But Scripture is often surprisingly positive about small things. After all, God’s kingdom comes like a seed buried in the ground, and the world is saved by the faithfulness and sacrifice of just one man. Gospel logic, then, gives us permission to appreciate and explore the possibilities and advantages of what is small. And I’m convinced this is true for preaching.
The vast majority of sermons preached around the world on any given Sunday are preached by no-name pastors to no-name people and will never be heard again.
Preaching that goes big—reaching many thousands in person and through radio, television, or podcasts—has clear benefits. When biblically rich, theologically faithful preaching finds a big audience, more people hear urgently needed truth. I’ve benefited from the ministry of gifted preachers whose sermons are heard around the world. I’ll never meet these men, shake their hands, or call them pastor. But the truth they’ve proclaimed has met me, sometimes shaken me, often pastored me. Solid truth from a big platform is a great thing.
But most preaching isn’t like that. The vast majority of sermons preached around the world on any given Sunday are preached by no-name pastors to no-name people and will never be heard again. And there are big advantages to preaching that stays small.Preach Small
Small-town pastor, you have the privilege of preaching bespoke sermons. “Bespoke” is a word often used to describe clothing or furniture carefully crafted for a particular customer or user. It’s not mass-produced. It’s not off-the-rack. It’s made with a particular someone in mind. It fits that person perfectly. You can preach like that.
Good sermons that stay small can go where a big sermon never could. If your congregation has 85 people and you’re an even reasonably faithful pastor, you’ll know every one of them with a significant degree of familiarity. You’ll know their histories, griefs, struggles, insecurities, weaknesses, joys, and aspirations. You’ll also be attuned to how they relate to one another—where the tensions and stress points lie, what the relationships are like. You’ll have the kind of granular and overall understanding of your congregation that a big-church pastor never could. And you can preach to that. Your sermons can fit.
You can preach a sermon that would never work as a podcast. It wouldn’t fit someone living on the other side of the country, working a job that doesn’t exist in your small town. It wouldn’t fit someone with a different educational level from the people sitting in front of you. You can preach a sermon that will only fully serve these particular people in your life and in your church. In Love Big, Be Well, Winn Collier’s fictional small-town pastor Jonas McAnn says he wants to preach sermons that fit only in his town, to live a life that wouldn’t make much sense except in his own place. That’s a bespoke ministry.
Small-town pastor, don’t squander the enormous opportunity God has given you. Serve a few people well for a long time. Give them truth that fits their lives.
Bespoke preaching will entail some loss, but not all of that loss will be bad. Along with the loss of influence that results from not having a broadcast or podcast will come the loss of time pressure to squeeze your sermon into a restrictive broadcast’s length. Your sermon will breathe. You’ll also lose the self-imposed restrictions you feel when you know you’re being recorded. You’ll be free to say some important things to your people that you wouldn’t say to the whole world (or whichever few of them happened to click onto your website). You’ll lose the temptations to pride that come from seeing the worldwide reach of your sermons—and the temptations to despair when people you don’t know savage what you’ve said.Love Particular People
In her novel Home, Marilynne Robinson describes preaching as “parsing the broken heart of humankind and praising the loving heart of Christ.” If we’re serious about parsing humankind’s heart, we’ll start with particular humans—the ones in front of us. We’ll preach specific truth, from a specific text, to a specific people. And even though our words won’t be heard again, they will be seen in human lives. They’ll shape our people over time, and others will witness the transformation (folks in small towns are always watching, after all).
Can you imagine a bespoke tailor feeling perpetually jealous of the thousands of suits sold every week at Brooks Brothers? Can you imagine a bespoke furniture-maker wandering the aisles of IKEA bemoaning her own lack of productivity? Of course not. Small-town pastor, don’t squander the enormous opportunity God has given you. Serve a few people well for a long time. Give them truth that fits their lives. Speak to them in all their brokenness, glory, and normality. Preach to people you can see and know and touch and love. Preach bespoke sermons.