What makes a friendship? Is it personalities? Or context? Or proximity? Yes. These areas where two people’s experiences overlap are usually good starting places for close friendship. But I’d argue that the strength of a friendship over the long haul depends not primarily on personality or context or proximity, but on prayer.
Personalities change because people do. Contexts change as people become interested in new hobbies and pursuits (and less interested in old ones). Proximity changes as people move, whether a town or state away, or across the ocean. But when all these factors change, we can still pray, trusting God to use the means he has given to strengthen our friendships with other Christians—and to change us.Privilege of Prayer
My longest friendship has lasted 11 years through overseas moves, marriages and funerals, joys and sorrows. Another close friendship began in a season of shared suffering and has continued through many others. Yet another started on a casual neighborhood stroll and has become a deep and intentional sharing of hearts.
Friendships in Christ are unlike anything the world has to offer.
What has bonded such unlikely people, kept us going through changing times, and made it such a joy to be friends? The friendship of Christ that we share––the privilege of being united to one another because we’re first united to him.
Paul’s words to the Ephesian church apply to Christian friendship:
Walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Eph. 4:1–6)
Jesus died to purchase his people, bring us back to the Father, and set us apart from the world for himself. He also died to unite us to one another. Friendships in Christ are unlike anything the world has to offer. And we have the awesome privilege of boldly approaching God’s throne of grace––of praying––both with and for each other.Power of Prayer
What’s our motivation to pray with our friends, especially in discouraging seasons of friendship? Through many years of walking with my close sisters in Christ, we’ve known friendship’s ebb and flow. There are seasons when one of us is able to give more than the other, when we might struggle with feeling distant or disappointed, and there are seasons when we feel particularly close through mutual love and service.
But we mustn’t forget that prayer is a powerful act of love and service in itself. In seasons when we feel stretched thin, we may not be able to serve our friends in the ways we’d like—but we can always pray for them. Prayer is one gift we can consistently give.
Prayer is one gift we can consistently give.
Friendship involves two saints-in-progress who struggle with sin and depend on Jesus. We pray to express this dependence, and because we know God works powerfully through our prayers. So often we don’t pray because we don’t think it does anything. But Scripture insists we’re wrong: “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working” (James 5:16). So we draw near to the throne of grace with confidence “that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16).
I’m convinced that my strongest friendships are that way––strong––because our souls are knit together through intercession. It’s especially in the “ebb” seasons, when I’m struggling to love and feel loved, that God uses sacrificial prayer to get the friendship “flowing” again, to make us freshly “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3). God uses the prayers of friends both to unify us and to accomplish his work in us.Practice of Prayer
What does a praying friendship look like? I don’t pretend to know its full potential, but I have seen many wonderful evidences of it. Here are several practical ideas for prayer that have strengthened my friendships over the years:
- Schedule intentional prayer time. Schedule (yes, schedule!) a time to talk and pray with your friend, either in person or on the phone. Not only does this guarantee the praying will happen, it’s a needed posture of pause and dependence before God in the rush of life.
- Leverage technology. Our phones and computers are wonderful prayer tools, as they give us the immediate ability to reach out to our friends for prayer. Praying together doesn’t always need to take an hour over the phone; take two minutes to ask your friend to intercede for you, and then ask, “How can I pray for you today?”
- Don’t wait. Pray right now. Have you ever told your friends you’d pray, and then forgot? I have, frequently. Don’t wait until later to pray; pray for them as you’re thinking about it. Write them a prayer through text or email, or leave a prayer on a voice text or voicemail.
- Choose a day to pray for friends. With all the needs on our prayer lists, our friends’ concerns sometimes get dropped. Setting aside a particular day to use your time of intercession for friends ensures you don’t forget them. I typically pray for my friends on Fridays. I keep a running list of requests and praises, and then I let my friends know I prayed for them. This routine helps me remember to pray and to follow up.
- Pray Scripture. It’s a great privilege to pray for our friends’ marriages, kids, and pressing circumstances. But are we praying for their souls in light of Scripture? Choose a verse or passage to guide your prayers for your friend’s holiness, for their fight against sin, for their love of God’s Word, and for a closer walk with Jesus. The epistles and psalms contain many wonderful prayers you can use to guide your time.
It may sound cheesy, but it’s true: Friends who pray together stay together. It’s a sweet privilege to follow Jesus alongside treasured friends with whom we’ll share eternity when all our ebbs and flows have been swallowed up by perfection.
To that end, we press on in prayer, trusting our Father to use it to sustain and strengthen us—and to make us more like Jesus, the friend of sinners—until we see him face to face.
It’s been used to rebuke the rich, defend salvation by poverty, teach about the afterlife, condemn antebellum slavery, even promote women’s suffrage. Jesus’s story in Luke 16:19–31 certainly raises a series of questions. Can heaven be seen from hell? Does wealth make the difference between the two? Are those in heaven aware of (and indifferent to) the suffering of those in hell? Is this a parable or a true story?
The account is unique to Luke’s Gospel and has several other exclusive features besides. How should we interpret it and what can it teach us today?Parable or Not?
First, is it a parable or a tale of historical figures? Some in the medieval church and the Reformation believed it was an account of actual people rather than a parable. Calvin, for example, thought this because it has a named character (Lazarus)—something no parable has.
Calvin’s observation is right, but it’s hard to miss the fact that Luke introduces the story the same way he does the four parables that precede it, including the famed prodigal son. All are introduced with the generalizing formula “a certain (wo)man . . . ” (Luke 15:3, 15:8, 15:11; 16:1). Further, there’s a good reason why the poor man is named and why it’s Lazarus.
But does it matter whether or not this is a parable? I don’t think so and neither did Calvin. We agree that the main issue is comprehending “the doctrine which it contains.” The difficulty, of course, as Klyne Snodgrass points out, is that “no formula exists for determining whether an element [of the parable] is theologically significant.” The best approach is to use the immediate context of the parable and a theology derived from the whole Bible as our guide. The church father Tertullian wrote:
We, however, do not take the parables as sources of doctrine, but rather we take doctrine as a norm for interpreting the parables. Therefore, we make no effort to twist everything so that it fits our own explanation, striving to avoid every discrepancy. Why a “hundred” sheep? and why, indeed, “ten” drachmas? and what does that “broom” stand for? Well, when he [Jesus] wanted to show how pleased God is at the salvation of one sinner, he had to mention some numerical quantity from which one could be described as “lost.”Context
This parable ends without any summary explanation from Jesus like we find in, say, the Good Samaritan. But help is not far away. Just before this parable, Jesus tells another parable about wealth (Luke 16:1–13)—and the passage in between (16:14–18) finds Jesus rebuking the Pharisees for loving money, exalting themselves in self-justification, and ignoring the Old Testament’s authority. All three themes are woven into the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. We have the rich man’s love of money, his self-importance even in Hades, and his rejection of divine revelation. Other themes emerge in contrast to these.Characters
The angels, five brothers, and Moses and the prophets play supporting roles, as does Abraham. The main characters, of course, are Lazarus and the rich man. Although tradition has called this man “Dives” (the Latin word for “rich man”), he has no name in the original. He’s introduced as one who literally wears his wealth on his sleeve (“clothed in purple and fine linen”) and feels not the least pain of hunger (he “feasted sumptuously every day”).
Next there is poor Lazarus, a man covered with sores who sits at the rich man’s gate, apparently close enough for him to see the food he can’t have but far enough that the rich man can safely ignore him.
The rich man clearly ignores the need on his doorstep. Only the dogs see the need. Their licks, which seem to provide relief, serve as a bitter contrast with the rich man whose own tongue will soon enough be the site of great need. Calvin asks:
What could be more monstrous than to see the dogs taking charge of a man, to whom his neighbor is paying no attention; and, what is more, to see the very crumbs of bread refused to a man perishing of hunger, while the dogs are giving him the service of their tongues for the purpose of healing his sores?Consequences
The contrasts don’t end there. Upon death, Lazarus finds himself at Abraham’s “bosom,” which is probably a reference to the heavenly banquet (cf. John 13:23). For any Jew at the time, this seating arrangement would have been a mark of the highest honor. And what about the rich man? Despite the blessing of his great wealth, he ends up in Hades where he’s in torment. It’s hard to tell whether this Hades is intended to be different from hell (or Gehenna). It’s certainly not where he wants to be.
From this surprising turn of events, some conclude the parable teaches that the poor go to heaven and the rich to hell. The problem with such a view, as Augustine noted long ago, is that poor Lazarus is carried to the side of wealthy Abraham. If wealth alone determines our fate, then Abraham should be in Hades right along with the rich man.
Instead, the reason for their fate is found elsewhere. The name “Lazarus” is probably the Hellenized version of an abbreviated form of Eliezer, which means “God helps” (cf. Gen. 15:2). The point is that Lazarus’s deep physical need made him much more sensitive to his deeper spiritual need. Meanwhile, the rich man unwittingly condemns himself to Hades by using Lazarus’s personal name (Luke 16:24). If he knows him now, he must have known him then.
Worse still, he continues to treat Lazarus as beneath him, refusing to address him directly and having the gall to ask that Lazarus quench his thirst—the very thing he wouldn’t do for Lazarus. Abraham’s response in Luke 16:25 mimics Jesus’s teaching elsewhere: the measure we use to judge others will be used on us (Matt. 7:2). Here, the first two themes converge: The rich man’s love of money has bloomed into a callous, self-justifying negligence of others’ needs. His lack of mercy finds its miserable echo in mercy not received.
But the story doesn’t end there. If the rich man won’t be relieved, perhaps his family can be spared. This seems altruistic, but the rich man is still asking for Lazarus to be sent. What’s more, he insists on determining the terms by which they are warned. Moses and the prophets aren’t enough; only a resurrection will do.
Abraham’s response only adds to his indictment. If they won’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they won’t listen to anything. This is the third theme, which connects back to Luke 16:16. God has given men the law and the prophets and these have more than testified to what God expects. The problem isn’t with the message; it’s with the audience.
This helps explain the reason for the fixed chasm (Luke 16:26). That gulf is not fixed because God is nursing a cosmic grudge; it’s fixed by the justice of God and the obstinacy of the ungraced human heart. The rich man is all too aware of his own suffering. What he cannot see—because he will not see it—is that he is the cause of it. He won’t admit that all his wealthy opulence brings him no closer to heaven’s doorstep than it brought him to his own doorstep to help poor Lazarus. His great need is to recognize his greatest need—and that he will not do. The suffering of Hades has done nothing to dull his sense of self-importance. In this profound sense we can speak of God’s divine judgment as self-imposed. Not because God is ashamed of it, but because we utterly deserve it.God Who Helps
The most important lesson this parable teaches is a warning about money. Wealth calcified the rich man’s heart. Though wealth doesn’t always have this effect, who can deny that it often does? As many have realized, either we will own our money, or it will own us. You cannot serve God and money, as Jesus said a few verses before (Luke 16:13).
So the true test can never be a simple dollar amount. It must be our sensitivity to the poverty and pain we find around us. A heart unwilling to help others—because it might be risky, or they might not deserve it, or it might cost us too much—is a heart unwilling to recognize the desperate help we ourselves need from God. And the stakes couldn’t be higher, since heaven and hell hang in the balance. As Ephrem the Syrian comments on this parable, “We cannot hope for pardon at the end unless the fruits of pardon can be seen in us.”
The only answer, then, is to help others out of a sense of our own desperate need before God. Bank balances aside, none of us is above helping others; we are all beggars helping beggars. When I see the homeless, the helpless, or the hurting, I should see myself, because this is what I am like before God. The good news is that God is “Lazarus,” the God who helps. And because he has so helped us, we are freed and fueled to help others.
“Naaman in this story keeps trying to go to the top. God keeps sending him to the bottom. God will only speak to him through servants. He’s going to make Naaman bathe in a nasty creek. You see, the path to God is the path of humility, and you can’t get there any other way. The one thing that you absolutely need when you come to God is need.” — J. D. Greear
Text: 2 Kings 5:1–18
Preached: June 5, 2016
Location: The Summit Church, Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina
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Church planting requires tenacity. Ask anyone who’s done it, and they’ll tell you the responsibility of planting and leading a church is a heavy load. A joyful one, to be sure, but weighty too.
Because of this, church planters are prone to overburden their congregations. It’s easy to misjudge what level of involvement or responsibility members should have. With the sheer magnitude of things to be done, it’s hard to know how much to call members to do.
For some, being involved in a church-planting team will be attractive because of the obvious need. These early adopters can be wonderful supports. And yet, this same sense of urgency may repel others from what seems to be an overwhelming task.
I’ve had several friends tell me, “We could never attend a church plant. It’s just too much work.” At one level, I get it. Planting a church is costly, and it’s right that people feel that cost. Indeed, the costliness will likely root out those looking for an easy ride in the Christian life (as if there is such a thing; Mark 8:34–35).
But that doesn’t eliminate the danger of overloading members of church-planting teams with undue burdens. When there is so much to do, how do we develop and empower people without burning them out?
Vital to any church’s health is encouraging and developing God’s people for service. But it can prove harmful if the expectations given come (1) too fast, (2) are too much, or (3) are too heavy for them to carry.Too Fast
It’s easy to overload people by expecting significant contributions too quickly. Developing disciples takes time. Note Paul’s instruction to Timothy about the qualifications of an elder: “If someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?” (1 Tim. 3:5). Intrinsic to the point Paul makes here is that spiritual leadership within the church is developed in the everyday rhythms of faithful discipleship, and is thus evidenced over time.
In the case of elders, we mustn’t make the mistake of loading the spiritual leadership of a church on unprepared shoulders. Having experienced the pain of placing good people into leadership positions too early has taught me the importance of investing in ongoing rhythms of development and incremental growth.
In short, many church planters would do well to slow down.
Many church planters would do well to slow down.
God gives believers the gifts of the Spirit to equip and edify, so that the works of ministry are shared as the Spirit has apportioned (1 Cor. 12:4–8). So as believers mature, they will grow in their capacity to contribute. Don’t expect the spiritual newborns in your church family to contribute like the spiritual parents and grandparents. This may delay some of your plans, but it will pay off in the future.Too Much
But what happens when your people are doing too much? Luke 10:38–42 tells of two sisters who hosted Jesus in their home. Martha, who was “distracted with much serving,” grows frustrated with her sister Mary, who elects to remain with Jesus instead of doing chores. So Martha interrupts Jesus: “Tell her to help me!”
Similarly, it’s possible for some in church plants to view others as less committed due to their lack of activity. Jesus’s response to Martha addresses us all: “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:41–42). Far from an excuse to sit back and let others do the work for us, this story exhorts us to remember that the work is not the ultimate aim. Jesus is.
Consider the load your people are carrying. Is it drawing them away from Jesus? We don’t want our people to miss out on the best thing because they were overloaded with too many commitments and responsibilities.
Consider the load your people are carrying. Is it drawing them away from Jesus?
A friend and fellow church planter once told me to “pastor the church Jesus has given you.” As a young leader eager for rapid growth, this was timely advice. My church was neither a labor force for “my vision” nor mere bait to attract more people. My church was the people I was summoned to love.
If you’re overworked, reassess. Wearing an overloaded backpack seems fine until you’re required to climb a mountain with it. Can your church afford ministry staff for overloaded volunteers? Can you kill any programs, or streamline any ministries, to lessen the load? Think creatively: Are there ways you can partner with other churches or share resources to accomplish more together? If you’ve come from a mother church, guard your heart against stubborn angularity. Ask for help in areas of weakness. And don’t forget to assess your heart: Is this a mission-critical component of your ministry, or something you can surrender for the health of your church?Too Heavy
The third danger for church planters is overloading our congregations in how we lead. We may exhibit machismo for our exemplary dedication, and overburden those in our care by implicitly suggesting that real faith demands crushing commitment. It doesn’t.
Sadly, my early experience of planting was marked by anxiety that this fledgling church may not make it or have any meaningful gospel influence. I took the full weight of the church on my shoulders—every success and failure became disproportionately personal. Needless to say, our church suffered as my unrealistic expectations stifled involvement. The load I carried was uninviting. It wasn’t until late 2017 that I embraced a simple truth: If Jesus brought us to this community to plant a church for his name’s sake, he will sustain it.
So we began to pray, “Lord, let our church’s reputation be that you are building it.”
If this prayer resonates with you, then stop carrying the load that was never yours to carry. Jesus is inviting you into his work to accomplish his purposes, not yours. Transfer your burdens to him, and find rest for your soul (Matt. 11:28–30).
Nearly 30 years ago, Capitol Hill Baptist Church (CHBC) was falling apart. Abandoned cars sat in a parking lot surrounded by a drooping chain link fence. Exterior signs were rotting and falling off. The pricker bushes around the property—planted to keep the homeless from sleeping in the yard—trapped beer bottles and trash.
The neighborhood—indeed, the city—hadn’t fared much better. As white flight drained the city of wealth and stability, drug use and crime rates rose. By 1991, The Washington Post headlines read, “Violent Gangs ‘All Over City,’ D.C. Chief Says” and “D.C. Sets Homicide Record.”
Capitol Hill Baptist Church in the 1980s / Courtesy of CHBC
And then, in 1999, Anthony Williams was elected mayor. Over eight years, he’d help bring billions in investments to the city. At the same time, the expanding administrations of presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama added jobs. People began crowding in—last year, the city’s population exceeded 700,000 for the first time since 1975.
Today, the average D.C. home is worth $581,000, up from $136,000 in 2000. Violent crime has dropped. Along with drug houses and abandoned lots in previously under-resourced neighborhoods, you’ll find new condos, Starbucks, and frozen yogurt shops.
Between 2000 and 2013, about 40 percent of the city gentrified, making D.C. the most “intensely gentrifying” city in the country. (San Diego was next with 29 percent.)
At CHBC, the garbage is gone—and so are the pricker bushes. More than 1,000 people a week show up to worship under the leadership of senior pastor Mark Dever. On the once-abandoned parking lot, the church plans to put up houses for pastoral interns.
But being a gospel-preaching church in a rapidly gentrifying city isn’t all yoga classes and espressos.
“It’s really hard,” said pastor Thabiti Anyabwile, who worked at CHBC before planting in an under-resourced—and now rapidly gentrifying—area a few miles away. More than 20,000 African Americans in D.C. were displaced from their homes between 2000 and 2013.
Anyabwile is wrestling with how accelerated economic change is affecting his neighborhood—and is trying to help others do the same. Because as more cities gentrify, more local churches are wondering how to respond.
That’s difficult enough for an established church like CHBC. It’s even trickier for those planting brand-new “center churches.”Trouble with Gentrification
Over the past 50 years, gentrification—first named for the way “middle-class liberal arts intelligentsia” raised the financial and social status of parts of London in the 1950s and ’60s—has swept across the United States, especially in Portland, Minneapolis, Seattle, and Washington, D.C.
Those cities were identified by Governing magazine, which defines gentrifying areas by first finding a city’s tracts with the lowest median household income and home value, then figuring out the growth of median home values and number of adults with bachelor’s degrees. If your area moved from the bottom 40 percent to the top 33 percent, you’re officially gentrified.
Anacostia / Photo by Abby Tseggai
“When we moved here, our community was 92 percent African American,” Anyabwile said. “We were known in D.C. as the community with all the bad statistics—high crime, low unemployment, high number of single-family homes, low educational attainment.”
History had pummeled Anacostia twice. First were the riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s, which “turned this community from being a working, middle-class, diverse community to an all-black community almost overnight,” Anyabwile said. The other was the crack epidemic of the ’90s.
“In some respects, the community hasn’t recovered from those,” he said. You can see it—the “no trespassing or dumping” signs taped on boarded-up storefront windows. The payday lending place on the corner. The bars on the doors and the broken blinds shoved up against the windows and the garbage caught in the fence.
But there’s also an enormous amount of new construction. Condos going up along the riverfront are draped with “Have It All” and “Now Leasing” banners. A Starbucks is moving in, and a Chase bank, and a Whole Foods. In December, the president of the Anacostia Economic Development Corporation told reporters that the area “is a gold mine.”
“If you talk to homeowners, they’re happy for redevelopment,” Anyabwile said. “They’re happy for new restaurants, happy for the amenities, happy to see property values go up.”
But higher rent also squeezes out those who can’t afford the rate hikes. Rising property values means rising property taxes, which sometimes push out longtime homeowners. And predatory practices sometimes mean a homeowner will sell for far less than the property is now worth.
Anacostia / Photo by Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra
Gentrification also changes the social fabric of a neighborhood, said Mike Kelsey, a campus pastor at McLean Bible Church. He lives outside the city limits, but his father and grandfather both pastored in D.C. proper.
His grandmother still owns a home in D.C., in the same neighborhood where she and her late husband raised their family. Her neighbors used to be her friends and their families; now they’re young white professionals who stay inside or wear earbuds on their commute. The network of people who borrow ingredients or watch each other’s children or mow the lawn for the elderly is disappearing.
Another problem is the power that comes with money. When newer residents wanted bike lanes and longtime residents opposed them, the bike lanes were put in. (Churches especially protested, worried about losing parking spaces.) Double parking on the street or in the alley during church was allowed until new residents objected. When gentrifiers pushed against the noise-restriction exemption for church bells and worship music, the city commissioner took it to the attorney general. (The attorney general sided with the churches.)
For the first time, a majority of black residents in D.C. told a Washington Post poll in 2015 that “redevelopment” was “mainly bad for people like [me].”
“What’s bad about gentrification isn’t change per se,” said pastor Duke Kwon, who moved to the gentrifying Columbia Heights neighborhood in 2004. “It’s when economic, social, and cultural change happens inequitably—when social change either produces or deepens injustice.”Historic Black Churches
For many of D.C.’s historic black churches, the changes are worrisome.
“The black church history is so rich,” Kelsey said. “There is a very real skepticism and resistance [among pastors of those churches] toward the incoming population. And I think it’s legitimate and understandable. They’re like, ‘We’ve been here all this time, and you show up and there’s noise ordinances and parking restrictions and irresponsible development practices that displace a lot of our elderly.’ There’s a weariness when you talk to people like my dad and other African American leaders in the city—particularly pastors.”
Anacostia / Photo by Abby Tseggai
Some black churches have moved out to the suburbs, drawn by their moving congregants and the possibility of unrestricted parking. Others stay and watch their congregations shrink, pressed out by higher rent or a good price for their home. One study suggested that around 25 percent of D.C. congregations have closed between 2008 and 2018.
A few months ago, Kelsey asked a room full of African American pastors if they see a role for the black church in raising up leaders for multicultural churches.
“What surprised me most was the general consensus in the room was ‘probably not,’” he said. “[Black pastors] have tried to sing different songs and build partnerships with different organizations and gone on the street to meet new neighbors. But generally speaking, as Dr. Korie Edwards’s research shows, in order to have a multiracial church, people of color usually have to join predominately white churches. White people will not typically join black churches.”
It can feel like generations of gritty, gospel-preaching, prison-visiting, orphan-caring work is being pushed aside in favor of something newer, whiter, more expensive, Kelsey said. And that can be exacerbated by inadvertently insensitive messages from new pastors that “God is doing something new” in the city, or that the area is finally “coming to life” spiritually.
Because as the city draws new people, it also draws church plants.Church Plants
Seven years ago, “there was really only one church [in D.C.] that considered itself in cooperation with the SBC,” Baltimore and D.C. city missionary Clint Clifton said. It was CHBC.
Since then, 13 new SBC churches have been planted.
“It’s a tough balance,” Anyabwile said. “We certainly feel the driving class tensions on which gentrification is based. So it means accounting for the way class quietly influences everything—from the language level of sermons to introductory questions like ‘What do you do for a living?’ to offering appeals to frameworks for leadership in the church. But that accounting has to be checked for sinful favoritism. We want to avoid dividing the body of Christ in a way the Lord does not, and we want to be intentionally inclusive in a way that considers the needs of all God’s people.”
In the last seven years, the Southern Baptist Convention has planted 13 churches in Washington D.C.
He emphasizes “teaching on preferring and considering others (Phil. 2:3–4) along with teaching on the proper use of freedom to serve others without violating conscience (Rom. 14–15).”
That’s important, because churches find all types of ways to address gentrification. Some advocate for public policy to protect residents—Washington D.C. offers assistance for first-time homebuyers and requires 10 percent of development (of 10 or more units) be reserved for affordable housing.
Other churches are buying properties and making them available for people in the community. (CHBC is building 10 units for pastoral interns and visiting missionaries who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford D.C. rent.) Still others offer job fairs or rent assistance.
“There are a myriad of ways to get involved,” Anyabwile said. “You just have to know what’s out there.”What’s Out There
One of the best things a church planter can do—especially in a changing urban environment—is learn the area’s history.
Kwon came to D.C. a decade before Anyabwile planted ARC—first pastoring at Grace Downtown, then planting Grace Meridian Hill in Columbia Heights. Like Anacostia, the area was ravaged by riots in 1968 and the crack epidemic in the 1980s and ’90s.
During those challenging years, numerous African American families remained in Columbia Heights and called it home, Kwon said. The neighborhood “was socially and economically depressed for decades. The so-called ‘turnaround’ began with the city determining to open up a metro station in 1999 and planning a number of local economic development projects.” Today, million-dollar homes sit among low-income housing. The population is “quadrivial,” which means split among white, black, Asian, and Latinos.
Anacostia / Photo by Abby Tseggai
“As a new church plant, we’d chat with folks about what they love about the neighborhood, and one of the most common comments was its diversity,” said Kwon, who was attracted to Columbia Heights by the same thing. “Still, you can find yourself with a rich mix of folks but also increased tension and socially created segregation.”
Where Anyabwile focused on the native D.C. population, Kwon’s plant attracted mostly young professionals from a variety of racial backgrounds, especially at first.
“I’ll be the first to say this continues to be a challenge for us,” he said. “We are committed to being and becoming a reflection of the neighborhood. We know we have a long way to go in a lot of ways.”
As a Korean American, Kwon knows he looks like the gentrifier he technically is. “We always tried to grow in wisdom of how to be aware of that . . . to grow in our cross-cultural awareness and skills when it comes to building relationships with our black neighbors or in understanding why not everyone in the neighborhood is going to be excited to meet or see us.”
Anacostia / Photo by Abby Tseggai
He tries to balance serving the original residents with honoring their dignity. Grace Meridian Hill hosts a neighborhood festival every spring, “a way to gather the local community in a way that doesn’t draw attention to ourselves but provides space for neighbors to enjoy one another.”
The church has also formed ministries with “a high degree of emphasis on building relationships.” Members work with youth at a local rec center, tutor students, lead Bible studies, and coach sports.
“The goal is to equip people to see that ministry happens every time they walk down the block or have an encounter with a neighbor,” Kwon said. “It starts with whether you’re attentive to the practical needs of your neighbor next door. It’s even how you even carry yourself in regards to body language, which is an inevitable way you signal a sense of belonging and entitlement or a posture of learning and service.”
For example, Kwon always slows, makes eye contact with, and greets his elderly neighbors. He lingers with his family on the porch or front yard, making himself available for conversation. He asks for the stories of the neighborhood.
That’s the type of new neighbor Kelsey wants for his elderly grandmother.
But the effort can be difficult even if you’re a longtime resident. It’s harder if you’re new. And it’s even harder if you don’t plan to stay around.Short-Term Roots
D.C. is an especially transient city—between 2014 and 2015, it ranked fourth out of 50 metro areas in people moving out. And they’re coming in just as quickly. At CHBC, 20 percent of the congregation left in the last year, while 50 percent are new in the last three years, CHBC associate pastor Jamie Dunlop wrote. “[I]t can feel like hugging a parade.”
Anacostia / Photo by Abby Tseggai
Part of being a disciple of Jesus means following him to the margins and encouraging your congregation to do the same, Kelsey said. “Even if we’re only here for a short period of time, we should put down roots. Put others’ interests ahead of our own. Look out for the most vulnerable.”
McLean Bible has sought to build partnerships with established D.C. churches as well as financially support D.C. church planters. At Grace Downtown, where the motto is “in and for the city,” history professor George Musgrove spoke recently on D.C.’s racial history to help the church understand its context. And CHBC created an entire Sunday school course on neighboring.
“Gentrification isn’t going to stop,” Kelsey said. “We can be a city set on a hill, where people say, ‘Man, the people that are discipled in this church live in a radically more countercultural way—even in transience—than other residents,’” he said. “We sacrifice because of a different mission and purpose.”
That’s true whether a church ministers to everyone in their neighborhood, actively wrestles with gentrification, or follows those leaving to their new location.
“The church is uniquely positioned to love both the gentrified and the gentrifier,” said CHBC pastor Isaac Adams, who helped lead the church’s neighboring class. “We’re oriented toward God and toward our neighbor. We’re here to be faithful.”
“With the gospel, there is always hope,” Kelsey said. No matter the church, and no matter the neighborhood, “God gives us the resources to do everything he calls us to do.”
Editors’ note: We received the following question from a reader:
Is anxiety a sin? Does anxiety mean a person is doubting God?
You might be wondering why this is even a question worth considering. Some people may be thinking that since we can’t control it there cannot be anything sinful about anxiety. Some other people, though, will point to to Bible passages—such as when Jesus says “do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself” (Matt. 6:34) and Paul says “Do not be anxious about anything” (Phil. 4:6)—and say it’s obvious that to be anxious is sinful.
So which is it? Here’s my brief answer: Depending on the context, fear and anxiety may be one of four types: (1) a God-given emotional response for our benefit, (2) a disordered physiological response that is not sinful, (3) a natural consequence of sin, or (4) sinful responses to God’s providential care. Let’s consider how we can distinguish between the four types.Four Types of Anxiety
We first need to start by clarifying what we mean by anxiety, for types #1 and #2 are related to each other as are types #3 and #4.
To understand type #1 it’s helpful to start by distinguishing it from the related concept of fear. Anxiety and fear are closely related because they are similar emotions working on different timeframes. Fear is an emotional response to a real or perceived immediate threat; anxiety is an emotional response to a real or perceived future threat. Fear is a physiological and/or emotional warning system that alerts us to danger right now, while anxiety is a warning system of impending danger.
If confronted with an immediate threat to our life—such as encountering a wild, dangerous animal—we should be respectfully fearful enough to flee for our own safety and survival. An immediate feeling of anxiety or fear may trigger a natural, God-given emotional response for survival. That sort of anxiety is rarely what we’d consider sinful.
Next we have type #2, which is what we normally think of as clinical anxiety. For some people, anxiety manifest as a physiological malfunction that has become both disordered and debilitating. Some symptoms include persistent anxious thoughts on most days of the week for six months, when the anxiety interferes with daily functioning, or when you have anxiety-related symptoms (such as trouble sleeping). These are often symptoms of a medical condition such as Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder, or Social Anxiety. In such cases a person should seek help from a counselor or physician. This sort of anxiety is also not the type we’d consider sinful.
The third type is a natural consequence of sinful behavior. A prime example is if someone takes recreational drugs and develops an anxiety disorder. Similarly, someone cheating on their spouse may become anxious about their marriage falling apart and someone who gambles away all their money may become anxious about how they’re going to pay their bills. In these cases the anxiety is the result of sin.
Finally, we have the fourth type, sinful responses to God’s providential care. This is anxiety that results because we have a lack of trust in God. This is the type Jesus and Paul were referring to in the passages I quoted earlier. In Luke 12:22-30 Jesus tells his disciples:
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds! Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life? Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest?
“Consider how the wild flowers grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! And do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it. For the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them. But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.
Do we believe this? If so, we should not be anxious. But if we are anxious it might be a sign that we are doubting God, and thus falling into sin.Which Type Are We Dealing With?
How then do we determine which of the four types of anxiety we’re dealing with? Here’s where we need to be careful, especially when attempting to “diagnosis” other people. It could be the case that we see obvious sin in a person’s life and recognize that their anxiety is a consequence of their sin. But it could also be the case that the person is engaging in sinful behavior and that their anxiety is a result of type #2— a disordered physiological response.
Because we can’t always know which it is, we must be careful about how we approach it. This doesn’t mean, of course, we can’t call people out for their sin. We can and we should. We should just be cautious about telling them their anxiety is a direct result of the sin we’re aware of because we may not know the whole situation.
However, we do tend to have more information about our own circumstances. We need to search our hearts and examine our emotions to determine whether our own anxiety is something we can’t control or if it is connected to sinful behavior.
New Zealand is a country saturated in God’s common grace. I sometimes feel these islands are about as close to heaven on earth as you’ll find. Christchurch, my home, is as friendly and tranquil as any other small city on earth, and New Zealanders are a people of quiet strength—not brash and self-seeking, but resolute and generous.
Maybe above all, we’re a peaceful nation. Aotearoa has been a place of almost unparalleled safety. We are, by any human measure, uncommonly blessed.
But heaven on earth is an illusion, as we were reminded in a shocking and horrendous way on March 15. In a moment, we experienced a flash of unrestrained evil when a white nationalist entered two mosques and killed 50 people.
It has left us shell-shocked, angry, confused, exhausted, and fearful. But most of all, it’s left us grief-stricken. We are a nation in mourning—for the dead, but also for our shattered sense of peace and tranquility. In a place of such abundant blessings, it’s rare to be confronted with such unfettered evil.Distinctive Reaction
In our grief and anger, New Zealanders have now spent more than a week searching for an appropriate answer. Christians in New Zealand have responded in many ways, yet we know we’re only scratching the surface. We know this attack has left a deep wound in our national psyche that will be with us for years, and will require many multi-layered responses.
Through the fog of our emotions, we know the distinctive Christian reaction must be gospel-centred and Christ-glorifying. That’s easier said than done. At such a time, it could be easy for Christians to go with the flow and be swept along with the tide of public response.
Will we as a nation find not just the relief that we want, but the hope that we need?
In many ways, that wouldn’t be a disaster, because the collective responses so far have been everything you’d hope for. But as disciples of Jesus Christ in Aotearoa, we must go further; we must respond in ways only we can.
That should begin, of course, with fervent prayer. We’ve prayed for the victims’ family members and loved ones, for first responders, for our prime minister, for our government, and for each other. We’ve prayed God would ease the fears of our Muslim friends, and that there would be no desire for “revenge attacks” of any sort, either here or abroad. We’ve prayed, more earnestly and genuinely than usual, “Come, Lord Jesus.” And yes, we’ve prayed for the terrorist.
I’ll admit I’ve found this last prayer almost impossibly hard. At a prayer meeting I attended last week, someone bravely volunteered, “We should pray for the shooter.” Of course we all knew it was right. But it still felt counterintuitive.
I’ve never felt the weight of Jesus’s words—“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”—more than I have since the attack (even though it was Muslims, not Christians, who were targeted). The late atheist Christopher Hitchens felt the weight of these words and utterly rejected them. “That I will not do,” he vowed, calling it “perhaps the most immoral [injunction] of all.”
I know who my enemies are . . . I’m not going to love them. You go love them if you want; don’t love them on my behalf. I’ll get on with killing them and destroying them, erasing them, and you can love them. But the idea that you ought to love them is not a moral idea at all. It’s a wicked idea and I hope it doesn’t take hold . . . What a disgusting order.
Of course, Hitchens was right . . . if there isn’t a loving God at the heart of the universe. But if God saved a rebel like me, and if God saved a committed persecutor like the apostle Paul, who am I to decide who’s beyond the bounds of his mercy?How Do You Love a Terrorist?
It’s time for Christians in New Zealand to ask whether we’re willing to take Jesus at his word and love our enemy. How could we love this individual? How could we love a person who’s so filled with hate, who sought to inspire hatred in others, who has committed such evil and caused so much pain? Only by remembering that while we were still sinners—while we were God’s enemies—Christ died for us. Will we let this evil man be to us as the Ninevites were to Jonah? Or will we take the chance to reflect deeply on the gospel of God’s grace, allowing it to drive us to prayer even for this man and his salvation? The hardness of his heart must be unimaginable—but we believe in a God who brings life from death and can break even the hardest hearts (Jer. 23:29).
And if this man’s heart remains hard, we can be thankful for a God of perfect justice, a God who is far angrier at this man than I will ever be. Be thankful that the Bible says, “Be angry and do not sin”—not “Never get angry.”
As we reflect deeply on the gospel of God’s grace, our thoughts also turn to our Muslim friends. And make no mistake—they are our friends. They have been targeted in a truly horrific way, and Christians should be the first to stand up against any form of hatred that would target a person or a group because of their religious beliefs. The victims weren’t just Muslims; they were also fellow human beings, made in the image of God and precious to him. We long for freedom of religion and safety for all people. We long for friendship with Muslims.
Of course, Christians and Muslims disagree about ultimate truth, and we long for opportunities to discuss those differences and proclaim the truth about Jesus and the grace he offers. We pray that God would use even tragic events to draw people from all walks of life—including the Muslim community—to a saving knowledge of his Son. But none of this means that we hate each other, that we want to hurt each other, or that we need to fear each other.
Now is a time for Christians to revere Christ as Lord, to honor him as holy (1 Pet. 3:15a). As we fix our eyes on Jesus, we’ll be equipped to make a meaningful defense of our faith and share the unique reason for our hope (1 Pet. 3:15b). As we revere Christ as Lord, we’ll be grief-stricken but not crushed as we confront the suffering of this life—remembering the hope kept it heaven for us and experiencing God’s sustaining grace. As we remember the grace and truth found in Jesus, we’ll be moved to step forth in his name, perhaps acting as modern-day Good Samaritans toward those around us, in hopes that others might see our good deeds and praise our Father in heaven (Matt. 5:16; 1 Pet. 2:11–12).
Will we as a nation soften our hearts toward our Creator? Will we find not just the relief that we want, but the hope that we need? Will we, as the people of God, add to the physical outpourings of love with the most loving acts possible—our prayers to a mighty God and our words of gospel hope for our lost neighbors?
Jesus said many things that are hard to hear. He issued many commands that are hard to obey. He taught many parables that are hard to understand. But maybe the most powerful, the most counterintuitive word he has for us today comes in Matthew 10:39: “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
When we’re lost, we’re found. It only makes sense in the gospel.
That’s the theme of a new book I’ve edited for The Gospel Coalition. It’s called Lost and Found: How Jesus Helped Us Discover Our True Selves. It’s a collection of testimonial essays from authors such as Joni Eareckson Tada, Sam Allberry, Quina Aragon, Jason Cook, Bernard Howard, and many others.
And it includes the testimony of my guest on The Gospel Coalition Podcast. Christopher Yuan is probably best known for his book Out of a Far Country [review]. But he’s also written a new book called Holy Sexuality and the Gospel. He joined me on The Gospel Coalition Podcast to talk about the mystery of life, the apologetic of love, the challenge of parenting, and more.
It’s not hard to find pro-life movies. As much as Hollywood progressives don’t want them to be made or seen, films like Gosnell (2018), October Baby (2011), Bella (2006), and the soon-to-release Unplanned (in theaters March 28)—to name just a few—are pretty common. Even more common are more mainstream, better-quality films that contain subtler but undeniably powerful pro-life themes: Children of Men (2006), Juno (2007), Knocked Up (2007), Waitress (2007), or last year’s Creed II, Roma, and A Quiet Place.
It’s much harder to find pro-choice movies. Why? Given the politically liberal hegemony that is Hollywood—where films advocating other progressive causes like LGBTQ rights are a dime a dozen—why is advocacy for abortion rights so little seen in mainstream movies? As central as abortion is in the political left’s political program, you’d think it would show up often in Hollywood movies.
But it doesn’t. Why not?Framing Abortion Rights as Justice Issue
Almost all the examples of pro-choice themes in movies concern depictions of the harrowing nature of “underground” abortions in contexts and eras where legal (and “safer,” at least for the mother) abortion is not possible.
Probably the most popular film in this category is Dirty Dancing (1987). Set in 1963—a decade before abortion became legalized nationally following Roe v. Wade—the film includes a subplot where Penny (Cynthia Rhodes) has to borrow money from Baby (Jennifer Grey) to pay for an illegal abortion that almost kills her. Other films in this vein include HBO’s If These Walls Could Talk (1996), Revolutionary Road (2008)—a bleak drama depicting a self-performed abortion that ends up killing Kate Winslet’s character—and the Romanian film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007), which follows college roommates as they try to arrange a secret, illegal abortion in communist-era Romania.
Other pro-choice films have valorized abortion-performing doctors who operated covertly in contexts where the practice was illegal and stigmatized. Michael Caine won an Oscar for his portrayal, in The Cider House Rules (1999), of a lovable old doctor who performs abortions out of the World War II-era Maine orphanage he operates. Similarly, Imelda Staunton was nominated for an Oscar for her portrayal, in Vera Drake (2004), of a sweet woman who secretly performs abortions in 1950s London.
More movies like this appear to be on the horizon, with no less than three (!) films in the works about the Jane Collective—an underground abortion service that operated in Chicago from 1969 to 1973. Call Jane will star Elisabeth Moss and Susan Sarandon, Amazon Studios’ This Is Jane will star Michelle Williams, and Ask for Jane stars Planned Parenthood activist Cait Cortelyou.
Because “safe, legal, and rare” has been a common talking point for the pro-choice cause, it makes sense that pro-choice films would focus on depicting the bleak circumstances surrounding abortion when it was forced underground. Films like these want to convince audiences that the post-Roe era is much better than pre-Roe in terms of women’s health, and that outlawing abortion again would take us back to the self-mutilating horrors of Revolutionary Road. It frames the abortion issue as a justice cause within a victim-oppressor paradigm, where dissenters like Vera Drake and the Jane Collective are positioned as righteous advocates for the marginalized, on par with the heroes of the American civil-rights movement.Shout Your Abortion?
But is this the only possible tactic for pro-choice cinema? Why aren’t there more films about abortions that take place in the post-Roe era, when it is legal? Where are the “shout your abortion!” movies celebrating stories of present-day women who choose to get an abortion? Why are films like this so conspicuously rare?
Because few people want to see such films. When recent movies have attempted to celebrate abortion stories through lighthearted comedy, they have been awkward and little seen. In Obvious Child (2014), Jenny Slate stars as a 20-something who has an abortion on Valentine’s Day, followed by a cosy evening watching Gone with the Wind with the aborted baby’s father. How romantic. In Grandma (2015), Lily Tomlin plays an aging lesbian poet who happily helps her teenage granddaughter collect money to pay for an abortion. Both films were critically acclaimed (91 percent and 92 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, respectively) but commercially underwhelming ($3.1 million and $6.9 million at the box office, respectively).
Just this month a new TV show, Hulu’s Shrill—based on the memoir by #ShoutYourAbortion co-founder Lindy West—attempted another relaxed, lighthearted abortion depiction. In the first episode, lead character Annie (Saturday Night Live’s Aidy Bryant) is shown having an abortion at Planned Parenthood (which served as a script consultant on the episode). Following the abortion, Annie is shown with her lesbian roommate Fran (Lolly Adefope), who asks her how she’s feeling. Annie responds, “Really, really good . . . I made a decision, only for me, for myself . . . I feel very f*****g powerful right now.”
However desirable it may be for the pro-choice cause to see more indie comedies like these being made—portraying abortion as an easy and empowering thing—it seems unlikely to happen. Why? Because making light of abortion just doesn’t work. There’s no getting around the heaviness and cruelty of it, both for the child who will never get a chance at life and also the mother (and father) who cannot undo and must live with the decision. It simply doesn’t work to make a “feel good” film or TV show about abortion. When attempts are made, it’s just disturbing.
Making light of abortion just doesn’t work. There’s no getting around the heaviness and cruelty of it.
You cannot celebrate the pro-choice cause without celebrating the harm of another. In a culture where “don’t harm others” is the lowest common denominator of moral imperatives, abortion advocates cannot even clear that low moral bar. Abortion advocates cannot even appeal to the base principle of various progressive sexual ethics—that anything is permissible as long as it is consensual and does no harm. Abortion by nature inflicts harm by one party on another, without their consent.
Even a liberal, pro-abortion feminist like Camille Paglia has admitted that the pro-life movement “has the moral high ground” over the pro-choice cause. Writing for Salon, Paglia said, “Although I am an atheist who worships only great nature, I recognize the superior moral beauty of religious doctrine that defends the sanctity of life.”Nothing to See Here!
In the same article, Paglia describes the “abundant contradictions” of a liberal feminism that opposes capital punishment and fights to protect endangered species like the sage grouse or spotted owl, and yet supports the killing of unborn children.
“The violence intrinsic to abortion cannot be wished away by magical thinking,” she writes.
Indeed. The intrinsic, fundamental nature of violence in the abortive act is a big reason why pro-choice films are so rare. There is no way to depict abortion on screen, or even suggest it as something that happened offscreen, without reminding audiences of the ugly, “doing harm to another” violence of the practice. That’s why attempts at “feel good” abortion movies are so outrageous. No matter how you try to spin an abortion, there is no getting around its moral ugliness.
There is no way to depict or even suggest abortion on screen without reminding audiences of the ugly, ‘doing harm to another’ violence of the practice.
This is why the pro-choice movement’s main tactics involve diverting attention away from abortion itself. They want us to focus on the mother exclusively (her rights, her body, her health, her “I feel very powerful!” autonomy), but not the baby (his or her rights, his or her body, his or her health, his or her lack of power). They call supporters to fight the patriarchy and defend against a supposed “war on women,” but there is little mention of the actual thing being defended (killing babies by sucking them out of their mother’s womb). The rhetoric itself shifts away from the truth of abortion in a “nothing to see here!” sort of way: It’s “pro-choice” (a term Paglia calls “a cowardly euphemism”) instead of “pro-abortion.” It’s about planning a better future for the parents (“Planned Parenthood”) rather than removing the future, and all its possibility, from an innocent living human.
If abortion were a morally neutral thing, there would be no need to divert attention away from it. There would be no need to swap “pro-choice” for “pro-abortion.” There would be no fear of vivid, visual depictions of what abortion is and does. There would be no curious lack of abortion in mainstream Hollywood films. But abortion is not morally neutral, and abortion-rights proponents know it. That’s why—aside from occasional indie films and fringe shows like Shrill—abortion will probably remain a rarity on screen. To shine any light on abortion—even the softest and most rosy-colored light—is to remind people of its inherent moral ugliness and draw attention to its unavoidably disturbing reality. And that’s the last thing abortion defenders want.