Tucked into Pulitzer Prize-winning author Colson Whitehead’s newest novel, Nickel Boys, is an absolutely Christian understanding of sin.
Whitehead creates a fictional yet all-too-real world in the Nickel Academy, a reform school for troubled youth in civil-rights–era Florida. He populates the terror-filled environment and diagnoses its malady:
You can change the law but you can’t change people and how they treat each other. Nickel was racist as hell—half the people who worked here probably dressed up like the Klan on weekends—but the way Turner saw it, wickedness went deeper than skin color. It was Spencer. It was Spencer and it was Griff and it was all the parents who let their children wind up here. It was people. (105)
The novel’s main character is a black teenager named Elwood. We see the school through his eyes, and through his wounds. Rapes, brutal physical punishments, and everyday racist offenses fill the narrative like a gas leak: potentially explosive, impossible to contain. Like Whitehead’s previous book The Underground Railroad [read TGC’s review], Nickel Boys shows us how narrative can unmask evil.
The white characters in Nickel Boys are not sympathetic. Caught up in a culture of evil, even most of those who seem dependable, who offer some glimmer of hope for dignity, eventually turn to betrayal. It takes many individuals, and many types, to hold together an unjust system, and this should trouble all of us.
As readers we know that Spencer—the white man who brutalized Elwood’s body upon his arrival at Nickel—is a racist monster. Whitehead makes it clear who is chiefly to blame: white people and white systems. And yet he refuses to be simplistic. As Elwood’s friend Turner observes, the evil at Nickel Academy couldn’t be contained by any one person or set of them. The gas leak was pervasive. “It was people.”
Sin is a vagabond, a vagrant, a squatter living wherever spaces opens up. It will take up residence in laws and systems, in governments and companies. But perhaps its favorite abode is the human heart, and it does not discriminate on the basis of race, creed, color, or anything else. The tragedy of Nickel Boys is the tragedy of the world: that we are not the solution, but part of the problem, because we are so thoroughly tainted by sin.Making the Leap to Love
What, then, is Whitehead’s answer? As Elwood sits in solitary confinement, punished for a righteous act of truth-telling and exposing evil, he reflects on his hero, Martin Luther King Jr. It was King who inspired Elwood’s courage, and King who, like Elwood, had been imprisoned for refusing to accept a wicked status quo. What would King say? What would he do?
In those long hours, he struggled over Reverend King’s equation. Throw us in jail and we will still love you. . . . But be assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves; we will so appeal to your heart and your conscience that we will win you in the process and our victory will be a double victory. No, [Elwood] could not make the leap to love. He understood neither the impulse of the proposition nor the will to execute it. (196, emphasis original)
Even for those of us who get the diagnosis of sin right, the radical remedy of loving enemies can only take root in a heart that has been confronted by Jesus Christ. Given the bleakness of racial oppression in Elwood’s world, how could he not in his flesh reject love? His human hero proclaimed it, but love made no sense. It makes no sense. After all, sinners never deserve it.
The human heart can resound for justice, and still stop short of love. We don’t need to love in order to know evil should be punished and things should be different. As image-bearers of God, enough of him lingers in each of us to stir up these impulses. Common grace is real. But it cannot save.
The radical remedy of loving enemies can only take root in a heart that has been confronted by Jesus Christ.Double Victory
The gospel alone is God’s omnipotent power for salvation. Only the triune God can win the double victory. In Whitehead’s world, the black “Nickel boys” do what they can to survive, to right wrongs, to live as normal adolescents—and we know they are the more just. But they cannot love their enemy on their own. They have, and more importantly we have, “neither the impulse of the proposition nor the will to execute it.”
Even as we stir for justice, as we’re pricked with wrongs that didn’t die in the ’60s but linger like zombies even now, we have to remember that common grace is all we have without Christ. It’s not nothing, but it’s not enough. Apart from Christ, we can tell some truth, we can sometimes stand, we can sometimes flee. But we cannot win the double victory of love, for our enemies and for our freedom.
Apart from Christ, we can tell some truth, we can sometimes stand, we can sometimes flee. But we cannot win the double victory of love, for our enemies and for our freedom.
This is not a love that calls evil good, nor a love that shills cheap forgiveness. It’s a love that creates justice. Anything less disfigures the work of Jesus Christ on our behalf. As Paul says in Ephesians 2, Jesus himself is our peace, but it was a bloody peace he won. He shattered the dividing wall of hostility, killing it by being killed, destroying it though being destroyed bodily on the tree.
In Nickel Boys, the beating of Elwood is unjust, and it mirrors millions of real-life injustices that demand restitution. But there is only one historical act of injustice from which true justice could flow. As we read works that expose us to the problem, let’s be sober-minded students, weeping with those who weep, willing to recognize wrong in whatever guise it wears. Let’s thoughtfully support the work of common grace. But let’s also insist on the necessity of Christ and him crucified as the only ultimate solution, and look to God alone for the impulse and will for justice-seeking love.
In the mid-20th century, some evangelical Christians believed we were on the cusp of fulfilling the Great Commission because there were Christians located in almost every geographical country in the world. But at the First International Congress on World Evangelization in July 1974 in Lausanne, Switzerland, Ralph Winters warned triumphant Christians about “people-blindness” and “hidden peoples.” He recognized that some geographic countries simultaneously contain both very evangelized and completely unevangelized groups of people (e.g., China).
Winters’s recognition prompted a significant paradigm shift in missions strategy that placed the focus on so-called “unreached people groups” (UPGs) around the world. More than 40 years after his strategy-altering address at Lausanne, the conversation continues today. I want to provide some historical context, express some caution, and highlight a corrective to the unreached-people-group strategy that dictates so much global-mission strategy today.Context
Winters emphasized unreached peoples because he believed they were being ignored and neglected. The overwhelming majority of Christian missionaries at that time were working in contexts where Christians and churches were already present. He contended, “Precisely where the cross-cultural task is the largest, the cross-cultural workers are the fewest.” So churches needed to rethink their global-mission strategy to ensure that the gospel would be proclaimed to these unreached people.
Winters’s address set in motion a missiological shift from targeting geographical regions to reaching people groups. His notion of unreached people groups took on more definition in the years following. Various Lausanne Working Committees in the 1970s and 1980s labored to define the people-group concept and then continued to define “reached” and “unreached.”
In the end, after much deliberation and discussion over the course of many years, the missiological community (Joshua Project, IMB, AD 2000, and others) decided that once 2 percent of a people group are Christians, that group is “reached.” The 2 percent dividing line wasn’t biblically derived, but it informed strategy.Caution
I’m grateful for Winters’s emphasis on unreached people and believe he provided a needed corrective to mission strategy. However, I want to share several drawbacks I’ve observed in the unreached-people-groups strategy in my time both on the mission field and also in working at a mission-sending organization.
First, we need to always remember that the 2 percent number is arbitrary. Originally, those defining an unreached people group proposed 20 percent as the dividing line (see Alan Johnson, “Major Concepts of the Frontier Mission Movement”). Other scales and numbers were proposed later. Evangelical Missions Quarterly published an article in July 1990 titled, “What Does ‘Reached’ Mean?” In that piece there is minimal agreement among the respondents. Some use “reached” to note engagement, whereas others use it to measure the number of believers. Either way, it’s critical that we hold this designation lightly and use it as a means to inform—but not dictate—mission strategy.
Missionary engagement doesn’t equal completion of the missionary task.
Second, missionary engagement doesn’t equal completion of the missionary task. In the race to accomplish the Great Commission and fulfill Jesus’s words in Matthew 24:14, some want to equate engaging people groups with completing the Great Commission. Slogans like “finish the task” can be helpful in communicating the urgency of the mission, but they can also contribute to the notion that engagement equals completion. The primary activity of the Great Commission isn’t engagement, but disciple-making.
Third, to use a football metaphor, the goalposts are often moved in people-group strategy. Missiologists and researchers readily admit new people groups are always being discovered. And with increased urbanization, people are relocating to global cites and assimilating into other near-culture peoples. All of this makes the people-group strategy difficult to accurately measure and complete.
Fourth, while people-group lists and charts can be helpful, anyone who’s lived overseas knows how messy things can be on the ground. People don’t always self-identify in ways consistent with the people-group lists. Migration, linguistic nuances, and cultural expressions can change the way people identify. Thus it’s imperative to use the lists as guides and tools, but to remember they are merely guides and tools.Corrective
In recent years there has been an effort to highlight the concept of “place” as well as people (see Zane Pratt and David Platt). I applaud this corrective and believe it helps bring a healthy balance to the unreached-people-groups strategy and conversation. The New Testament certainly speaks of geographic locations as the gospel advances. Further, in Romans 15:19 Paul frames his mission and effectiveness in geographical terms (Jerusalem to Illyricum). The effort, then, to refocus attention on place is biblical, and it needs more attention in the ongoing unreached-people-group discussion.
The effort to refocus attention on place is biblical, and it needs more attention in the ongoing unreached people group discussion.
As noted previously, increasing urbanization is creating a variety of challenges for the unreached-people-groups strategy. Therefore, the inclusion of place alongside peoples allows for churches and missions organizations to identify the state of the church in a given geographic location as well as in distinct people groups. The Great Commission compels us to focus our attention and efforts on both the Malay people and also the city of Kuala Lumpur.
Jesus commissions his disciples to go and make disciples of all nations. That command necessitates focus on both peoples and also places. There continues to be debate about what constitutes a people or place being “reached” with the gospel. Such debates and discussions should remind us to be flexible in our strategies and approaches, and ultimately to submit ourselves to Scripture as our primary guide. Our King has given us a task. May we all be faithful in our attempts to complete it.
Six years after their bestselling book, The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God, Tim and Kathy Keller have something new for us: a 365-day devotional for couples.
The Meaning of Marriage: A Couple’s Devotional contains a year’s worth of digestible devotions that draw from and expand on lessons introduced in the previous book. Tim and Kathy, who have been married for 43 years, offer stories, scriptures, and prayer prompts to enhance your relationship with both God and your current or future spouse. So whether you’re pursuing marriage, enjoying marriage, or struggling in marriage, get this devotional and let it help you—every day of the year.
I corresponded with Tim and Kathy about advice for dating couples, the beauty of complementarianism, counsel for parents in the little years, and more.What does the gospel have to do with dating? How do you evaluate someone else to know if they are “good enough” for you while keeping a perspective of grace?
Tim: Obviously “dating” is a cultural category with a shifting definition. If you mean “marriage-seeking” (which we don’t think all dating has to be), then the gospel influences that in several ways. One is that the “best” Christians are ultimately the “chief repenters.” That is, they are quick to see and admit their faults unbegrudgingly and to seek forgiveness from God and others. This readiness to repent and accept forgiveness is perhaps the key “virtue” (if you can call it that) that you should be looking for in yourself and any potential spouse. If you both have it, then the sins and incompatibilities any two sinners will have cannot overthrow you. You’ll be able to grow in love for each other despite them.Self-centeredness has existed since Genesis 3, but how does expressive individualism uniquely threaten Christian marriages today?
Tim: In the past every culture assumed that you found truth outside the self, either in God or tradition or some transcendent values, or in the good of your family and community. That meant we had some objective, external norms by which disputes between persons could be adjudicated. Now our culture says we find truth inside ourselves; we are told to “live our truth” and never sacrifice our happiness and inner desires for someone else. To do so is unhealthy at best—oppression at worst. Marriage, however, requires this kind of mutual sacrifice every single day. So it’s not surprising that both marriage and also child-bearing is in decline in our culture.What should a spouse do when the other spouse is quick to apologize, but there is no true repentance (they continue in the same behavior patterns year after year)?
Tim: Being too quick to apologize can be a way for you to shut down your spouse, who has been wronged. It can be a way to prevent him or her from explaining the painful effect of your behavior. Recognizing that behavior could help you develop more genuine repentance. And genuine repentance is, to paraphrase Richard Sibbes, “not a little hanging down of the head, but a working of the heart until the sin itself is more odious to you than the consequences.” Real repentance allows your heart to feel how the sin has grieved God and your spouse. And that always leads to some change. If such change is not forthcoming, consider going to a pastor or counselor who can help.What’s so beautiful about a complementarian marriage?
Kathy: All of God’s designs are beautiful—sometimes intricate, difficult to master, and affected by sin, but glorious nonetheless. In marriages that embrace God’s design, you both get to “play the Jesus role.” Husbands are told to imitate Jesus as the servant-leader, who will go to any length, even death, to serve and purify his bride (Eph. 5). Wives can look to Jesus as he was worshiped in Philippians 2—submissive to the role of ezer in full knowledge of her equality.
C. S. Lewis refers to this (without using the word “complementarian,” which wasn’t yet coined) as a dance. He acknowledged that, in order to avoid the oppression that sinners find so natural, it’s sometimes necessary to have unisex “employees,” “voters,” or “citizens.” But while it may be necessary at times to wearing the “uniform” of gender neutrality, it is necessary in the way medicine is necessary—it is not food. For the best place to find Lewis’s extended musings on the glories of gender roles, go to the coronation scene in Perelandra. And for more musing on that, see Christy Raj’s website.What advice would you give parents of young kids who are struggling to grow their marriage amid the chaos of the little years?
Kathy: The best practice I’ve heard of I learned recently from a young couple with several preschool children. They set aside 9–9:30 p.m. every night (even by phone) as “Talk Time.” Not for argument or household business, but talk. “What are you thinking? How are you feeling? What’s going on with you and God? Tell me your heart.”
It has been, in their words, a game-changer. Focused attention is what we all crave. We know we should give it to our children, but sometimes it fails to register as just as important to give to our spouse.Life is busy, and our weeks are filled with activities. What daily and weekly habits do you two practice to ensure you are honoring God in your marriage?
Kathy: Years ago we began praying together as the last thing we did at night before sleep. Even if Tim is halfway around the world, he will call so we can pray. We don’t have a set agenda or length of time—sometimes it’s whatever is heavy on our hearts, or praise for mercies received, or whatever comes to mind. But we pray. You cannot come before God together with unrepented anger in your heart. In addition, we assist each other in our projects and ministries, counsel one another, and try to apply all the advice we give to others to ourselves!
A group of U.S. Naval Academy midshipmen who follow the religion of The Satanic Temple recently announced in an email that “Satanic services” would soon be offered on the campus. After the email was leaked on a popular Instagram account, the Navy clarified that a group of midshipmen “with beliefs aligned with those practiced by The Satanic Temple” had requested a space for a “study group” to discuss their Satanic beliefs and not for holding Aatanic religious services. “The USNA Command Religious Program provides for the exercise of diverse beliefs,” a spokesman for the Naval Academy said. “Arrangements were being made to provide the Midshipmen with a designated place to assemble as chaplains facilitate for the beliefs of all service members.”
This news, as well as other acts by Satanist groups, has sparked renewed interest and concern about this religion. Here are nine things you should know about the religious beliefs of modern Satanism.
1. Modern Satanism refers to the religious, philosophical, and ideological movements that self-identify using the term “Satan” or “Satanism” and associate themselves with Satan, whether as metaphor, a dark force, or an individual entity. The beginning of modern Satanism is generally attributed to the late-1960s. The three major trends within the movement are theistic or religious Satanism, atheistic or philosophical Satanism, and reactive or adolescent Satanism.
2. Theistic Satanists believe Satan is one of a group of supra-personal “dark forces” capable of having some control or influence over human beings, and who venerate, worship, or align with him. A prime example is the Order of Nine Angels, an occult group created in the 1960s in the UK, whose members strive to become “one” with Satan and other “dark forces” and seek “to create new, more highly evolved individuals.” Even within occultism, theistic Satanists are extremely rare. Researchers estimate their global numbers to be in the low thousands.
3. Atheistic Satanism does not acknowledge the existence of either God or Satan. What they identify with is Satan as symbolic adversary of religion and traditional morality. As Time magazine wrote in 1972, “They invoke Satan not as a supernatural being, but as a symbol of man’s self-gratifying ego, which is what they really worship.” The Church of Satan explains their view by saying, “We see the universe as being indifferent to us, and so all morals and values are subjective human constructions. Our position is to be self-centered, with ourselves being the most important person (the ‘God’) of our subjective universe, so we are sometimes said to worship ourselves.”
4. The German historian of religions Joachim Schmidt coined the term “reactive Satanism” to refer to groups who adopt the Satan portrayed in Judaism and Christianity as a figure of veneration to invert the values of those religions. As Catherine Beyer explains, “Satan is still an evil god as defined in Christianity, but one to be worshiped rather than shunned and feared. In the 1980s, adolescent gangs combined inverted Christianity with romantic ‘gnostic’ elements, inspired by black metal rock music and Christian scare propaganda, role-playing games and horror imagery, and engaging in petty crime.” These types of Satanists often adopt the self-identification of Satanism as an act of adolescent rebellion against parents or society. In The Psychology of Adolescent Satanism, Anthony Moriarty says these “dabblers” in Satanism tend to fall into three categories: psychopathic delinquents, angry misfits, and pseudo-intellectuals. This type is likely to be the largest group within modern Satanism.
5. The primary inventor of atheistic Satanism was former circus performer Anton LeVay, who created the Church of Satan in 1966. Because of growing interest in the occult in California during that era, LeVay attracted media attention to his new cult.
Among those to join his church were the actress Jane Mansfield, entertainer Sammy Davis Jr., and hairstylist and Manson Family murder victim Jay Sebring. In 1969, LaVey published The Satanic Bible, a quasi-scripture that outlined his religious beliefs. The essence of LaVeyan Satanism is captured in the “Nine Satanic Statements” made in the introductory chapters:
- Satan represents indulgence instead of abstinence.
- Satan represents vital existence instead of spiritual pipe dreams.
- Satan represents undefiled wisdom instead of hypocritical self-deceit.
- Satan represents kindness to those who deserve it, instead of love wasted on ingrates.
- Satan represents vengeance instead of turning the other cheek.
- Satan represents responsibility to the responsible instead of concern for psychic vampires.
- Satan represents man as just another animal who, because of his “divine spiritual and intellectual development,” has become the most vicious animal of all.
- Satan represents all of the so-called sins, as they all lead to physical, mental, or emotional gratification.
- Satan has been the best friend the [Christian] church has ever had, as he has kept it in business all these years.
6. The inspiration for LaVey’s brand of Satanism was the novelist and pop-philosopher Ayn Rand. “I give people Ayn Rand with trappings,” LaVey once told The Washington Post. On another occasion he acknowledged that his brand of Satanism was “just Ayn Rand’s philosophy with ceremony and ritual added.” Indeed, the influence is so apparent that LaVey has been accused of plagiarizing part of his “Nine Satanic Statements” from the John Galt speech in Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.
7. Prior to LaVey, the most common symbol associated with Satanism was the inverted cross. But after seeing a picture of a goat’s head in an upturned pentagram on the cover of the 1964 coffee table book A Pictorial History of Magic and the Supernatural, LaVey adopted the image as the symbol of his cult. LaVey first used the image in 1968 on his spoken-word album The Satanic Mass LP, and then in 1969 on The Satanic Bible. The image, copyrighted by the Church of Satan and known as the Sigil of Baphomet, quickly became associated in the public imagination as the primary symbol of Satanism.
8. Founded in 2013, The Satanic Temple has overtaken the Church of Satan as the most popular organization for Satanists in America. Although both share the ideology of atheistic Satanism, the two groups oppose the core activities of the other. (As The Satanic Temple claims, “The Church of Satan expresses vehement opposition to the campaigns and activities of The Satanic Temple, asserting themselves as the only ‘true’ arbiters of Satanism, while The Satanic Temple dismisses the Church of Satan as irrelevant and inactive.”) Since its founding, The Satanic Temple has primarily focused on reactionary attention-grabbing stunts, such as lobbying to put up Satanic displays alongside Nativity scenes and Ten Commandments on public property, starting “After School Satan Clubs” for elementary schools in response to the evangelical Christian Good News Clubs, and filing a lawsuit against Netflix and Warner Bros. over a depiction of their Baphomet statue on the television series “Sabrina the Teenage Witch.”
9. Despite their focus on political activism, The Satanic Temple claims they are an actual religion. “The idea that religion belongs to supernaturalists is ignorant, backward, and offensive,” they say on their website’s FAQ page, “The metaphorical Satanic construct is no more arbitrary to us than are the deeply held beliefs that we actively advocate.” Penny Lane, director of the documentary Hail Satan?, says The Satanic Temple is both serious and satirical. “Yes, they are internet trolls and pranksters, and they really are Satanists. Both of those things are true. Because the core of Satanism is to embrace joking and pranking and being mischievous and freaking people out. That’s the heart of the religious identity. It’s not evidence that they’re insincere. It’s actually part of it.” In May 2019 the group officially received tax-exempt status from the Internal Revenue Service, making them the first Satanic group that is both atheistic and adolescent to be recognized as an official house of worship.
So often when people come to Christ, they’re promised “victory in Jesus.” Shiny, smiling people tell about how they once were unhappy, but now they’re filled with buoyant exultation. Broken marriages are fixed, wayward children are returned to the straight and narrow, and depression is banished for good.
But what happens when Christianity doesn’t work like that?Exhibit A: Job
Job was deeply devoted to God and his Word. So zealous was Job for his family that he regularly offered sacrifices on their behalf, just in case they had sinned (Job 1:5). Satan chided God for Job’s faithfulness: “Why wouldn’t he be faithful?” After all, Job lived a charmed life. He was wealthy and happy, and his family had it all. So God allowed Satan to test him.
The next day, disaster followed disaster. Overnight, Job had lost nearly everything precious to him. Nevertheless, he responded, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised” (Job 1:21). Job refused to charge God with wrongdoing. So Satan approached God again: “But stretch out your hand and strike his flesh and bones, and he will surely curse you to your face.” Sure enough, Job’s body became wracked with sores and pain until his own wife begged, “Curse God and die!” But Job still replied, “Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?” (Job 2:9–10).
In walked Job’s famous counselors. At first, they responded well, spending a week simply sitting with him, refusing to say anything because they saw his pain. What he needed was friendship, not a steady flow of sermonizing. But after the week passed, they began to express their opinions about Job’s problems. It began with Job’s cry of despair, cursing the day of his birth. A deep, dark cloud of depression settled over Job, and he could only wish he’d never been born. Finally, God spoke up for himself:
Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me. Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. (Job 38:2)
God’s defense left Job without excuse. In spite of his superior theology, Job’s experience led him to question God’s sovereignty and goodness. Because he couldn’t comprehend how this experience could be reconciled with his view of God, he concluded there was no answer. But God reminded him, as he reminds us all, that just because we don’t have the answers doesn’t mean there are no answers.Fear of Life
The natural assumption in the face of such suffering is that God is punishing us for our sins. But we know from the prologue that this test had another source. Like Job, we make conclusions based on limited information, trying to figure out why things are happening to us. We don’t have access to God’s filing cabinet, to his inner chamber, and he doesn’t directly tell us why bad things are happening.
But that doesn’t keep us from drawing conclusions anyway. We strike out to rationalize the purpose behind it all. But God refuses to be “figured out” in these matters, and his counsel is hidden to mortals.
For those tied to the high masts of suffering, there’s often a fear greater than the fear of death. It’s the fear of life. It’s the fear of the next morning and the morning after that.
Even if we’re too weak to hang on to Christ, he’s strong enough to hang on to us.
In the face of deep despair, the temptation is great for a believer to either turn from God, assuming he’s acting wrathfully toward personal sin, or to turn toward him, knowing the believer is at peace with God. This is why Job said he would be able to turn toward God in this situation—if only he had an advocate. Gradually, though, he comes to a greater confidence in this mediator:
Even now my witness is in heaven; my advocate is on high. My intercessor is my friend as my eyes pour out tears to God; on behalf of a man he pleads with God as a man pleads for his friend. (Job 16:19–21)
Even if we’re too weak to hang on to Christ, he’s strong enough to hang on to us. Even though we may not be able to face tomorrow, Christ has already passed through death to the other side and has taken away death’s sting. Like Job, who knew that his Redeemer lives and would see him in the very body that was, at present, covered with bloody and painful sores, so Paul declared:
If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. . . . If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. (1 Cor. 15:14, 17)But What If It Doesn’t Work?
Christianity isn’t true because it works. In many cases, in fact, it doesn’t work. It doesn’t solve all of the problems we think it should solve. Those who became Christians because they were told it would fix their marriages, only to land in divorce court, might well give up on Christianity. Those who expected to be free of sinful habits and desires after a conversion in which “sudden victory” was promised may become disillusioned with God soon thereafter.
We’re not called to judge God. He didn’t promise any of us health, wealth, or comfort. Rather, he tells us that we who expect to share in Christ’s glory will also participate in his suffering. Christianity is true, not because it works for people but because nearly 2,000 years ago, outside of Jerusalem, the Son of God was crucified for our sins and raised for our justification.
This historical event may not fix our marriages, our relationships, or our messed-up lives the way—or in the timing—we would like, but it saves us from the wrath of God to come. And surely all else pales into secondary importance compared to that great issue. “For it is appointed for a man once to die, and then the judgment” (Heb. 9:27).Hope That Works
Christianity offers hope even when it doesn’t work.
Just as Job said that if only he had a mediator, he could lift his eyes to God in his suffering, so all of us can cry on our Father’s shoulder because we have nothing to fear. It’s not his wrath that has sent us pain and suffering if we belong to him, for he intercepts Satan’s designs and then fashions—even sin and evil—into messengers of grace.
And for all of us who are afraid of death, or of life, the good news is that this man is still at God’s right hand, this advocate who pleads our case. His name is Jesus Christ, and if your faith is in this Rock of Ages—this Mighty Fortress—then he will be your friend, both in this world and also in the world to come.
People often read the book of Acts to find out about the early church, but if that’s all we focus on, we miss Luke’s most important emphasis: Jesus himself. Though he ascends into heaven in the opening verses, this doesn’t mean he’s absent. Acts presents Jesus as the resurrected, ascended, and glorious King of Kings who is guiding his church, pouring out his Spirit, and granting forgiveness. Jesus is the focus of the apostolic preaching throughout Acts.
As messengers of the mission, the apostles must be eyewitnesses to the resurrection of Jesus (Acts 1:21–22). The apostles cover many aspects of Christ’s work, but if we had to identify the main fulcrum on which their arguments hinge, it would be the resurrection.
Luke also teases out the resurrection’s implications. On one hand, everything changes when Christ is raised from the dead. At the same time, the Scriptures are fulfilled, which means the resurrection isn’t fundamentally new, but a goal anticipated for thousands of years.
Let’s look now at five implications of the resurrection in Acts.1. Resurrection and Age of the Spirit
Acts shows us how the resurrection is the key turning point in the history of redemption. More than 100 ago, biblical theologian Geerhardus Vos said the age of the resurrection is the age of the Spirit; the two go hand in hand. This means that the age of the resurrection—which begins with Christ’s own resurrection—corresponds to the age of the outpouring of the Spirit. Acts narrates this transition to the age of the Spirit more fully than any other biblical book. Though we await its final fulfillment, the resurrection age has broken into history in Christ himself, the first to get up from the dead.
Acts shows us how the resurrection is the key turning point in the history of redemption.
At the same time, though we now live in the age of the Spirit’s outpouring, the Spirit was active before Jesus was raised. The Spirit was active among God’s people before Jesus was born (e.g., Mary, Elizabeth, Zechariah, Simeon), in the days of the prophets (cf. Acts 7:51), in the days of Moses (Num. 11:17, 25; cf. Deut. 32:11), and even from the beginning of the world (Gen. 1:2). But something different came with the resurrection: the Spirit is now poured out more fully, and he is now experienced more fully by all peoples.2. Resurrection and a Worldwide Movement
The age of the resurrection is also the age of the ingathering of the nations into the people of God. Christ is the risen and ascended Lord of all peoples (Acts 10:36).
God’s covenantal blessings aren’t only for the Jewish people, but for all who believe in Christ. This is first evident in Acts with the Roman centurion Cornelius (Acts 10–11; cf. Gal. 3.13–14), though the influx of the Gentiles among God’s people raised many questions for the first generation of Christians.
For example, what was to be done about circumcision, which for thousands of years had been a defining mark of God’s covenant people? This is addressed at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15. Here the early church wrestles with how Jewish and Gentile believers are to coexist and thrive in the same community. Must Gentiles be circumcised? Must they follow traditional food laws?
Key for the Jerusalem Council is the realization that Christ has poured out his Spirit on Jews and Gentiles alike; there’s no distinction in that regard (Acts 15:8–9). Therefore, circumcision is no longer necessary—the apostolic letter that flowed out of the Jerusalem Council doesn’t even mention circumcision! There’s some debate about the best way to understand the prohibitions against certain foods in the council’s letter, but any ambiguity is cleared up by Paul’s letters, which make clear there’s no distinction in foods or in people who eat certain foods. This was Peter’s conclusion as well (Acts 10:34–35; 15:9–11).
That said, it’s not as though everything changes when the Gentiles are enfolded into the early community. The apostles confirm that the Old Testament law is still binding with respect to sexual immorality, which remains unacceptable for any of God’s people. The apostles don’t reject the Old Testament law altogether, but they do help us recalibrate how the Old Testament law applies in light of Christ’s work—especially in light of his resurrection.3. Resurrection and Justification
Though Christ’s resurrection is often the logical key to the apostolic speeches, their speeches typically end with a call to repentance. But such calls aren’t merely tacked on; they are closely tied to the resurrection. All people should repent because Jesus of Nazareth, who had been crucified, lives now as the risen one, and he has been appointed judge over all people (cf. 2:36–39; 13:38–41; 17:30–31).
Indeed, in Acts the resurrection is closely related to justification and the forgiveness of sins. Jesus is the righteous one who has overcome sin and death (cf. 3:14–15, 20–23, 26; 5:30–31; 13:38–39). Justification is offered because Christ has risen.
Justification is offered because Christ has risen.
But as with these other themes, justification isn’t entirely new; justification and forgiveness of sins were already realities in the Old Testament. This is why Paul can use David and Abraham as models of justification by faith (Rom. 4). Even so, the justification of all believers—whether Old Testament or New Testament—is based on the work of Christ.4. Resurrection and the Scriptures
One of the most intriguing passages in the Bible is the road to Emmaus, where the risen Christ opens up the Scriptures to his disciples. Beginning with Moses and all the prophets, Jesus explains to how the Scriptures in their entirety point to him (Luke 24:25–27). Later he explains that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer, die, rise, and for the message to go forth in his name (Luke 24:44–47). Who wouldn’t have wanted to hear these expositions?! We often lament that we simply don’t know what Jesus covered with his disciples. Luke seems to leave us hanging.
But what if Luke doesn’t leave us hanging? What if he fills in the details of these Scriptures that had to be fulfilled in his second volume (i.e., Acts)? This is indeed what we find. The early apostolic sermons show us in more detail some of the ways Jesus fulfills the Old Testament, especially with respect to his resurrection. Though the accounts of the apostolic preaching in Acts aren’t exhaustive, they’re sufficient to show how the Scriptures point to Jesus—and his resurrection.
To understand Acts, we must grasp the centrality of Christ, particularly his resurrection.
There’s something else to consider here: I’ve argued that one of Luke’s reasons for writing Acts is to provide a defense not simply of the early Christians, or of Paul, but specifically a defense of the Scriptures. When Paul is on trial, he consistently denies doing anything to contravene his ancestral traditions or the Scriptures (24:14; 26:6). He even tells King Agrippa that if his majesty believed the Scriptures, he ought to believe in the resurrection of the dead (26:22, 27).
In Acts the apostles consistently appeal to the resurrection to demonstrate that the Scriptures are true. And to believe in the scriptural contours of the resurrection is to interpret the Bible rightly.5. Resurrection and Early Christian Theology
Early Christian theology was distinctive for its belief in Jesus’s bodily resurrection. Jesus wasn’t an apparition, nor did he only appear to suffer. He truly suffered in the flesh, and likewise was raised in the flesh.
The practical implications of the resurrection were also crucial for the early church. The church father Cyril of Jerusalem said that the resurrection is the root of every good work. In light of the resurrection, what we do in and with our bodies really matters.
Christianity is a public message about a public person: Jesus of Nazareth who was dead and now lives.
The resurrection also underscores the public nature of Christianity. The resurrection was a public event, not a private revelation given to a few people. Christianity isn’t first of all a set of philosophical ideas that one can hold to in private via specialized knowledge. It’s a public message about a public person: Jesus of Nazareth who was dead and now lives.
If the resurrection is central in Acts, and if it’s central in the apostolic preaching in Acts, then the resurrection ought also to be central when we articulate the Christian message.Distinctive Message
The centrality of Christ’s resurrection was pressed home to me years ago when a stranger challenged a friend and me about what ultimately makes Christianity distinct from all other religions. His answer? The resurrection of Christ. One might reach this conclusion from a close reading of Acts.
In Acts, the resurrection isn’t simply a message about the past; it’s freighted with relevance for today. It’s not a message unforeseen; it’s the fulfillment of the Scriptures with relevance for all people, everywhere.
For decades now, Andrew Peterson has combined the rare ability to write moving music that is at once thoroughly steeped in Scripture, personally honest with the weakness and sin that plague us all, and in awe of the gift we have in Christ. I can’t listen to Peterson’s music and not be freshly amazed that Jesus loves me—that even amid suffering, doubt, and sin, I’m part of a redeemed people who belong to him by faith, and he we will bring us home. If you’re unfamiliar with Peterson’s music, just take a listen to “Is He Worthy?” to get a sense of this:
Does the Father truly love us? (He does)
Does the Spirit move among us? (He does)
And does Jesus, our Messiah hold forever those he loves? (He does)
Does our God intend to dwell again with us? (He does)
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Behold the Lamb of God tour—where the redemptive storyline of Scripture, from the promise of a deliverer to the coming of Jesus, is set to music. Trevin Wax calls it Peterson’s “masterpiece,” which isn’t exaggeration, since for 20 years now thousands of people have made the concert tour part of their Advent ritual. And to mark this anniversary, Peterson will release a new recording of Behold the Lamb of God on October 25.
In Peterson’s newest and first non-fiction book, Adorning the Dark: Thoughts on Community, Calling, and the Mystery of Making (B&H), he reflects on his life making music, the community that has nourished art, the nuts and bolts of writing, and more. In this memoir of sorts, we see Peterson at his vulnerable best—honest with his shortcomings and anchored to the good news that the gospel of Christ is really true.
I corresponded with Peterson about how we’re all creative, the most helpful writing advice he’s received, what he wishes every Christian knew about artists, how the annual Behold of Lamb of God tour has affected him, and more.You argue that every Christian is a creative, not just those who make music and art. For the Christian who doesn’t view him or herself as a creative, why do you stress this point so much? What difference does it make?
Well, for starters, I don’t like calling anyone “a creative”—but yes, I believe everyone is creative. It makes a difference, since that language implies there’s a special class of person who’s somehow more creative than everyone else. That’s just not true. Mathematicians are profoundly creative, as are architects and pastors and homemakers. It’s just not helpful to draw that line. Yes, there are artists, but as my friend Jonathan Rogers says, the arts only make up one slice of the pie of human creativity—and not the most important slice, either.
What if a pastor thought of his sermon writing through the lens of creativity? What if whoever cooks at home for the family considered Tuesday night dinner an expression of his or her God-given, Spirit-led creative life? There’s something highfalutin about referring to oneself as “a creative,” and I’d be fine if we stopped doing that altogether. We sometimes refer to the annual Rabbit Room conference as “a conference for everyone.” Part of the point is to remind people of that soul-deep impulse we all have, as image-bearers, to make the world around us more beautiful.You write that “community—especially Christ-centered community—nourishes art and art nourishes community.” How have you seen this at work in your life?
When I moved to Nashville 20 years ago, I had no idea what I was in for. I hoped I would grow as a songwriter. What I didn’t foresee was the community that sprang up around those of us fighting to follow our vocations. I looked around a few years after we moved here and realized that I had made lifelong friends, co-laborers for Christ, and those friendships far outshone whatever artistic augmentation I experienced. But the cool thing was that, on the other side of the coin, being a part of a community really did make us all better at the craft.
So there’s a symbiotic relationship between community and art. The fact that it was a Christian community brought a kingdom-hearted flourishing to both.
There’s a symbiotic relationship between community and art. The fact that it was a Christian community brought a kingdom-hearted flourishing to both.What’s the most helpful advice on writing you’ve received? And what’s the most common advice you give?
The most freeing thing I ever read was in Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. When I encountered her chapter on writing bad first drafts, the realization that the work always starts bad and is then improved, shaped into something better by the small community of editors, proofreaders, and friends, was tremendously helpful.
What I usually tell people is similar: Just get busy writing. The only way to learn to write is to write.You call honesty, truth, and beauty the “trifecta of good Christian art.” How so?
This idea came from trying to understand what it was about Rich Mullins’s best songs that moved me so. They were honest and earthy, and when he sang, I believed him. But they were also crafted with excellence, and it was clear he had a rare genius for poetry. In addition to his honesty and craftsmanship, because he knew and employed Scripture, his songs carried the weight of truth; they weren’t just his ideas—his songs were dripping with Scripture. If you remove just one of those three ingredients, you get something different.
For example, if you have art that’s honest and true, but isn’t beautiful or well-crafted, you get a lot of mediocre Christian art (we all know what I’m talking about).
If you have art that’s honest and beautiful, but isn’t necessarily biblical, you end up with a lot of mainstream art (and to be clear, I’m not saying there’s not plenty of truth in that kind of art—I’m only saying it wouldn’t be defined as “Christian,” because it isn’t articulating the gospel in the way, say, a hymn might).
And finally, if you had art that was beautifully crafted and dripping with Scripture, you’d have hymns. Hymns can be great, but it’s the ones that crack open the heart because of the vulnerability of the writer that I think are the most effective. I think of the line “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it / prone to leave the God I love” as a prime example. The hymn writer got down to the marrow with that line, and it took some guts to write it. This rule isn’t hard and fast, but it at least describes the kind of art that has moved and edified me the most.What do you wish every Christian knew about artists? And how can the church serve artists in our midst?
Artists aren’t any better than anybody else. I wouldn’t want to tip the scales so that the arts were held to be somehow more important than any other gift a Christian brings to their community. But if it’s true that heaven and earth are full of God’s glory, then it’s good and proper that we support those in the church who give us new eyes to see that glory brimming over in every corner of creation.
The church is the garden where all our gifts grow best.
I hope the local church is always looking for ways to welcome the gifting of every member—even the ones like me who happen to geek out over movies and novels and poetry. I remember Eugene Peterson saying he thinks writers and poets should be commissioned and sent by churches. I don’t know how all that works, but it would be nice if the church found a way, for example, to keep her traveling musicians in their prayers, to integrate the artisans’ work into the weekly service, to show the novelists that they’re seen and supported. But I want to reiterate that you could say the same for the architects and doctors and teachers. The church, as I’ve said, is the garden where all our gifts grow best.This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Behold the Lamb of God tour, which focuses on the story of the coming Christ and the salvation he offers. You’ve said elsewhere, “There is no story I’d rather be true, no story I’d rather tell.” Twenty years now later, how has this annual artistic ritual affected you? And what’s your goal for those attending one of the shows?
Every Moment Holy, Douglas McKelvey’s wonderful book of liturgies for everyday moments, includes “A Liturgy Before Taking the Stage.” We pray it on that tour almost every night. One of my favorite parts of the prayer says, “Let these humble elements, in your hands, become a true nourishment for those who hunger for you. And for those who have not yet wakened to their deepest hungers, let this brief service to them be like the opening of a window through which the breezes of a far country might blow, stirring eternal longings to life.” That’s my best hope for both Behold the Lamb of God (at Christmas) and Resurrection Letters (at Easter): that the songs would awaken a longing in those who don’t yet know Jesus, and that it would pique the longing in those who do.
How can giving away our best people possibly be good for us?
This is precisely what many congregations wonder when they encounter the idea of church planting. I understand the question and concern, but I want to challenge the underlying mindset.Send the Best
The we-can’t-send-off-our-best-people mentality is more like a baseball general manager not wanting to trade his best players than it’s like the New Testament ministry model. Paul and Barnabas were sent out from the church in Antioch (Acts 13:1–3); and when it came to our salvation, the Father sent heaven’s best for us (John 17:18).
Churches not on mission will be anemic in their discipleship and will lack healthy growth. Not only are we sanctified for mission; we’re sanctified through it.
So how does church planting bless the sending church? Here are six ways.1. It keeps people’s focus on the Great Commission.
Consumerism is a big problem in America (and many other parts of the world). But when this reality seeps into the church, the problem is huge. Focusing on church planting helps to fight consumerism in the body.
Real church membership is not like going to the movies. It’s more like joining the military.
By being involved in church planting, you remind people that real church membership is not like going to the movies. It’s more like joining the military. The church is not a place to “eat popcorn” while the pastor preaches. Rather, it’s where we gather to worship God and get sent out together on mission. When churches stop focusing on the Great Commission, death is coming. The church that is not sending is ending.2. It causes people to live as citizens of heaven.
Church planting causes people to say lots of “gospel goodbyes”—these are painful farewells driven by gospel purposes.
This is a hard one. We don’t want to lose our best people. It hurts. But we do it because of what’s at stake, and because Christ is worthy. As Christians, we know that we have trillions of years to spend together in glory, so a goodbye for a few decades now is worth it. This is part of what it looks like to live in light of our heavenly citizenship (Phil. 3:20). There’s no pain we suffer now in service to Christ that will not be worth it when we see him face to face.3. It sets a high bar for discipleship.
Discipleship must not be reduced to mere information transfer (as important as that is). Rather, we teach people the truths of God’s Word that they might be changed and live on mission as God’s people. We must disciple people in view of mission. Church planting emphasizes mission as a part of the discipleship process.4. It fosters a culture of generosity and unity.
When a church keeps the gospel and mission central, then (generally speaking) a lot of the little squabbles won’t be such a big deal, because you’re focused on what is central. Unity is cultivated where people are focused on the main things.
Church planting also encourages generosity. In our church, a 74-year-old business owner gives regularly to the mission, including direct gifts to one of our young church planters in France. I love seeing the two interact with each other when our planter visits. It’s a beautiful picture of generosity and gospel partnership across generational lines.5. It causes people to think about contextualization.
When churches send people to plant churches in various parts of the world, those church planters come back with all kinds of crazy—and sad—stories of the idolatry of the nations. Now, it can be easy to sit in judgment over such people, until we realize that we’re a nation too, and we have all kinds of our own idols (we’re often just blind to them).
Being in a church culture that constantly thinks about how to apply the gospel ‘among the nations,’ we’ll inevitably consider how to apply that same gospel ‘among our neighbors.’
But the positive side of being exposed to others’ idolatry is that it can cause people in the sending church to ask, What are my idols? What about my neighbors? What are they hoping in? By virtue of being in a church culture that constantly thinks about how to apply the gospel “among the nations,” we’ll inevitably consider how to apply that same gospel “among our neighbors.”6. It emphasizes prayer.
Sending a church-planting team can intensely focus a church’s prayer life, since it heightens everyone’s sense of desperation. It’s common to hear church-planting teams say that when they set out to plant a church, their prayer life broke open like never before (something Tim Keller also said happened to him when deciding to plant Redeemer).
But it’s not just the planting team that experiences a revived prayer life; it’s usually true of the sending church, too. As church-planting updates are received, the church prays. As pastors lead corporate prayer times, the church prays for these new works.
Do you want your church to pray? Get serious about church planting.
And it’s amazing to witness how praying for gospel-advance around the world fuels further prayer among God’s people. So, do you want your church to pray? Get serious about church planting.Immense Blessing
Planting churches will immensely bless your church. Will it be costly? Yes. Will the gospel goodbyes be hard? Absolutely. Will there be challenges? Certainly. Is this a “guaranteed recipe for church growth”? No. But we need to scatter communities of light among the darkness of the world. So let’s give ourselves to it.
And in giving ourselves to church planting, may we not forget that God will use it to sanctify and bless the sending church, too.
Like many other believers, I’ve always sought to have a time of devotion and prayer each morning. And like most other believers, I have found it a struggle to be consistent.
Imagine my surprise when I came across a place in John Calvin’s Institutes where he argues that, when it comes to daily prayer, once is not enough.
Calvin points to the exhortation to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17) and says that, of course, every Christian should aspire to pray to God constantly through the day. But, he adds: “Since our weakness is such that it has to be supported by many aids, and our sluggishness such that it needs to be goaded, it is fitting each one of us should set apart certain hours for this exercise.”
Calvin taught that we should designate set times, though brief, during which “all the devotion of the heart should be completely engaged.” He proposed five times:
- when we wake in the morning
- before we begin work
- at midday meal
- after the meal (or after the day’s work)
- when we are getting ready for bed at night
He immediately adds, “This must not be any superstitious observance of hours—as “paying our debt to God” and forcing him to hear us (3.20.50).Compose Daily Prayers
Though I knew about this exhortation years ago, only recently did I learn that Calvin actually prepared five prayers for these various times of day—and included them in his 1542/45 Geneva Catechism. They were meant to be examples for individuals and families to use. This encouraged me to use his prayers as a foundation for composing my own.
I would encourage others to do the same thing I did with Calvin: take these as examples and use them to compose your own. Having something written, which I can read and use as a basis for prayer to God—and taking only one minute for each—has been extremely helpful for remembering the presence of God and the truths I learned that morning in Bible reading. It “frames” the entire day with God and the gospel.
Below are the prayers I use. Again, use them simply as the basis for crafting your own.Upon Rising: For Love
Father, thank you for the grace that has preserved my life to this moment. Now give me enough love for this day—a sense of love from you (so I’m not scared or driven), a welling up of love for you (so I’m not proud or selfish), and a resulting love for others (so I am not cold or distracted). Let your Spirit illumine my mind and enlarge my heart for that. And because it means nothing to begin well if one does not persevere, I ask that you would continue and increase your grace in me until you have led me into full communion with your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, that I may see his beautiful and great glory. And as I laid down in sleep and rose this morning only by your grace, keep me in a joyful, lively remembrance that whatever happens, I will someday know my final rising—the resurrection—because Jesus Christ laid down in death for me, and rose for my justification. In Jesus’s name.Before Workday: For Perseverance
Lord, all day may you give me an awareness of your presence, fruitfulness yet patience with your appointments, wisdom and compassion in my dealings, and Fatherly protection against dangers and adversities. Let me accept whatever degree of success or difficulty in my work you give me this day, and especially make me compassionate and ready to be interrupted in order to do good to others. In Jesus’s name.Midday: For Presence and Recollection
O Lord God, thank you for sustaining my physical life through food and shelter; for giving me new life through the gospel; for the assurance that my bad things will turn out for good, and that my good things cannot be taken from me; and for the certainty of the best and perfect life, which is yet to come. Now give me a joyful sense of your presence, and freedom from my characteristic sins of perfectionistic works-righteousness, fear of criticism, and self-comfort. Don’t allow my affections to be tangled in inordinate desires for the things of this world, but let me set my heart on things above, where Christ, my life, is seated at your right hand. In Jesus’s name. (Recollect morning Bible insights.)End of Workday: For People I’ve Met or Dealt with Today
Lord, send down your blessings, temporal and spiritual, on my family, friends, and neighbors. Bless those who have done us good today, and pardon all those who have done or wished us ill, and give them repentance and better minds. Be merciful to those who are in any trouble or suffering, and minister to them according to their needs. Do this for the sake of the One who went about doing good, the Man of Sorrows, your Son and our Savior, Jesus Christ. In his name.Upon Sleep: For Rest
O Lord, defend us from all dangers and also from the fear of them tonight. Grant us grace, not only to rest our bodies, but to have spiritual repose, in soul and conscience, in your grace and love, so we might be comforted and eased in all ways. And since no day passes that I do not sin in so many ways, please bury all my offenses in your mercy, that I might not lose your presence. Forgive me for Jesus’s sake. Finally, grant us grace always to live in such a state that we may never be afraid to die; so that, living and dying, we may be yours, through the merits and satisfaction of your Son Christ Jesus, in whose name we offer up these our imperfect prayers. Amen.
What’s the reaction to salvation, to believing the good news of Jesus’s death and resurrection for sinners? Worship! Especially when gathered together with others who have been transferred from darkness into light. Once we were hostile to God, enslaved by our sin. Now we know God intimately and delight in his character! We pray as those who know God is near. We read his Word as written for us and for our salvation, now with eyes enlightened by the Holy Spirit.
This process I’ve just described doesn’t change from believer to believer. But how we express this transformation and truth looks quite different from place to place around the world and sometimes within the same city. So is there any right or wrong way to worship? Is any particular musical style more empowered than the other? Should churches mainly seek to attract nonbelievers or to teach believers?
Continuing our series on The Gospel Coalition’s Theological Vision for Ministry, I asked these question of Jared Wilson, my guest on today’s episode of The Gospel Coalition Podcast. Wilson is a professor at Spurgeon College in Kansas City, author in residence at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and a blogger for The Gospel Coalition. He is also the writer and presenter of Gospel Shaped Worship, a small-group video and book study published by TGC with The Good Book Company. It’s based on point one—empowered corporate worship—from TGC’s five points of gospel-centered ministry.
When Ellen Hilliard was in college, she knew one thing for sure: she was not going to do a fellows program after she graduated.
“My older sister Laura did it four years before me,” Ellen said. “Because she had done it, I was not going to. I was going to forge my own path.”
But her path didn’t seem to be going anywhere. She loved mentoring youth, but not enough to go into ministry. She loved learning, but not enough to consider graduate school. She loved her major of American studies, but didn’t know what job it could secure.
Ellen Hilliard (back row, fourth from left) at the 2013 regional fellows retreat / Courtesy of Ellen Hilliard
“I decided to pretend that Laura hadn’t done the fellows program and to critically look at what it entailed,” she said. “I realized I could get a flavor of all three of these—mentoring, learning, and working—for a brief amount of time.”
So Hilliard applied for the nine-month program at The Falls Church Anglican in Washington, D.C. She worked as an administrative assistant for a trade association (“My boss was a believer, and that relationship was really pivotal.”), lived with a host family (“It was the highlight of the program for me and widened my perspective on different ways families work.”), and studied faith-and-work questions through books and speakers and discussions (“You slow down to ask questions. I was able to have a slower and more thoughtful pace, even in my prayer life, regarding my vocation.”).
Six years later, “I’m continuing to see the ripple effects of that year,” said Hilliard, who earned a master’s degree in counseling and now works as a counselor at a public school. “It changed how I view work, how I view hospitality. It gave me the ability to slow down and intentionally think through vocation and what would be a good fit for me.”
The Falls Church Anglican is feeling the ripples, too.
“You’ll find former fellows on the worship team, on the welcome team, on the [elder board],” Fellows Initiative program development director Morna Comeau said. “They’re leading Bible studies, because they know how to do it. They’re leaving with church plants, because they’ve been taught and want to do what their mentors have done. They’re invested, and that’s what changes the church.”
The Fellows Program has been so effective that former rector John Yates—who led the church through a split with the Episcopal Church, helped found the Anglican Church in North America, and sent out eight church plants while looking for his own permanent building—calls it his best legacy.
The Fellows Program has been so effective that former rector John Yates—who led the church through a split with the Episcopal Church, helped found the Anglican Church in North America, and sent out eight church plants while looking for his own permanent building—calls it his best legacy.
“It has had a huge impact on our church,” he said. Other churches saw what was happening and asked how they could do it too. One of them was Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, which created their own version for professionals and named it the Gotham Fellowship.
This year, there were 29 churches—and more than 2,000 graduates—in The Fellows Initiative network. The Gotham Network ran another 15 programs, with a different demographic and content, in 15 cities.
“It’s really quite exciting,” Yates, a TGC Council member, said. “When you get all the fellows together, it feels like a movement.”Mentoring Youth
John Yates has loved youth ministry since he was part of Young Life at the University of North Carolina, sharing a house with his close friend Doug Holladay. When he came to The Falls Church in 1979, youth ministry was a major priority.
Along with running his own growing programs, “I was thinking about training young adults, so that they would either go into youth ministry or, as they went into other vocations and ended up at local churches, they would be committed to helping those churches develop strong youth ministries,” he said.
John and Susan Yates / Courtesy of The Falls Church Anglican
Yates told all this to Holladay, who had gone into business when Yates went to seminary. (“Holladay has always had an anticlerical streak,” Yates said with a laugh. “He’s always giving me grief about being a pastor when I could be out doing really good ministry.”)
“What makes you think youth pastors are the most important people in the world?” Holladay asked him. “I come up against more unbelievers in a week than you do in six months.”
Think bigger, Holladay advised. Don’t just mentor youth pastors—mentor youth. Give them a vision for serving Christ in their vocations.
Yates wasn’t hard to convince. “I pulled together a couple other key leaders, and we developed the idea of recruiting a small number of young men and women just out of college,” he said. “We’d give them a year that would impact their lives forever.”
Yates figured the young people would need jobs, so The Falls Church pulled together part-time work for them in hospitals or law firms or businesses or congressional offices. They needed theological education, so The Falls Church members—and later Reformed Theological Seminary professors—taught one morning a week. They needed somewhere to stay, so The Falls Church families opened up their homes. They needed to disciple somebody else, so The Falls Church youth group connected each of them with a younger student.
We developed the idea of recruiting a small number of young men and women just out of college. We’d give them a year that would impact their lives forever.
“It was as well organized as it could be for something we’d never done before,” said Steve Skancke, who has been involved since Yates first proposed the idea. “When you think about it, to have a dozen young men and women you don’t know well show up to work with employers and live with your families and disciple your youth—it’s a bit of a gamble.”
But the whole thing felt like it was from God. For one thing, church members were eager to help and host. For another, about a dozen kids—mostly friends of Yates’s kids—signed up to come.
“We kept it bathed in prayer and surrendered it to God, figuring he’d show us how to make it happen,” Skancke said. “It’s been absolutely amazing how well it works.”Adjustments
But it wasn’t perfect, especially in the beginning.
“First of all, we way overprogrammed with coursework,” Comeau said. “They each took several courses a semester. We realized after the first year we wanted this to be more of a holistic, transformative Christian program, and that the courses weren’t bad—they were just too much.”
The Falls Church Anglican Fellows, class of 2019-2020 / Courtesy of The Falls Church Anglican
So The Falls Church lopped off a few classes, dropping down to one master’s-level course per semester, designed especially for the fellows.
“Another thing was, in the beginning, we didn’t have a Bible study,” Comeau said. “We had courses on the Bible, but there is a difference between learning about the Bible and learning how to study the Bible.”
So The Falls Church added a weekly Bible study, taught with the goal of helping the fellows encounter Jesus and, eventually, learn how to be Bible study leaders themselves.
“Another big thing they didn’t do in the beginning was to have regular community dinners,” Comeau said. The fellows’ time together was often transactional—learning in class or working with the youth group.
So The Falls Church added a weekly dinner—they call it “round table”—where the fellows and their director cook and eat and clean up together. They can talk and worship and pray and “work out all they’ve been learning together,” Comeau said.
The goal was for the church to serve the fellows—“to get a dozen kids a place to live, pour into them, get them some teaching, get them some jobs, and see what happens,” Yates said.What Happened
Right away, The Falls Church benefited from the infusion of a dozen young, thoughtful fellows into the congregation.
The Falls Church Anglican Fellows, class of 2018-2019 / Courtesy of The Falls Church Anglican
The members who came each week to tell their stories—engineers and government employees and stay-at-home moms and pediatricians—loved the chance to think deeply about their work. The families hosting the fellows, for the most part, loved having someone at the dinner table who was sharing what he or she was learning. The youth leaders loved the extra hands. And the parents loved the godly influence.
“When my children were in middle school, they always had a fellow who worked with their small group,” Comeau said. “So when we were asked if we would host a fellow in our home, we were so grateful for what the fellows had done for our own kids that we said, ‘Of course.’”
The Comeau family hosted fellows for five years in a row. “It was a great way to raise teenagers, having a 22-year-old living with you. We felt the fellow was on our side as parents, but my kids thought they were the coolest things—way cooler than we were.”
The longer The Falls Church ran the fellows program, the better they liked it.
“If you came to The Falls Church on a Sunday morning and looked out in the room, you’d see several hundred people that are there because they are current fellows, or former fellows, or married to a fellow, or a friend of the fellow from college,” Skancke said. “A remarkable side effect is the renewal of the relevance of the local church to millennials.”
Fellows are leading Bible studies. They’re teaching Sunday school. They’re overseas on the mission field. They’re heading out with church plants. They’re leading the next generations of fellows.
A remarkable side effect is the renewal of the relevance of the local church to millennials.
“It’s had a huge impact on our church,” Yates said. “There are now hundreds of people in our church who have been either host families or mentors or workplace hosts. What that’s done is given our church a vision for pouring into the lives of young generations, and it’s given them a sense of community around a common purpose. There are tons of relationships between church members that have come out of their involvement in the program.”
The program was working. And people were talking. (“Within a few years, word of mouth was spreading among young adults, and people began to write and apply,” Yates said.)
After a while, other churches started calling.Spreading Out
Starting a fellows program like the one at The Falls Church requires an enormous amount of time, energy, and resources. The recommended class size is 12, which means you need a dozen host families, a dozen mentors, and a dozen part-time jobs that hopefully match the fields your fellows are interested in.
You need someone to interview and admit the fellows, to coordinate their schedules, to line up speakers and teachers. You need someone who can teach a graduate-level class in theology, someone who can mediate occasional disputes between fellows and their employers or families, and someone who can find leadership and service opportunities for them.
Trinity Fellows at the annual ultimate frisbee tournament / Courtesy of The Fellows Initiative
“It’s a huge amount of work,” said Regent University professor of marketplace theology and leadership Steve Garber, who helped dream up the fellows curriculum at The Falls Church.
Some churches are better positioned to do it. One that is “appealing to young people,” in a city “where young people love to live,” and “has a group of people who would really be committed to the vision,” has a better shot, Yates said.
It also helps to have at least 1,000 members, though a few smaller churches combining resources works just as well, Comeau said. Originally, Yates hoped the fellows program would pay for itself, and it nearly does. The Falls Church pays the director’s salary, and asks each fellow to raise $7,500 to pay for the classes, books, and occasional retreat.
By 2003, Trinity Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville, Virginia, was ready to start its version of The Falls Church Fellows. Three years later, McLean Presbyterian Church started one called Capital Fellows. By then, enough churches were interested that it made sense to start a network of them. (Today, students use a common application and indicate their top three locations—anywhere from Pittsburgh to Dallas to Colorado Springs.)
In New York City, Redeemer Presbyterian Church was taking notes.Gotham Fellows
“I went down and visited The Falls Church and some of its other offshoots when we were creating the Gotham Fellowship,” said Katherine Leary Alsdorf, who had started Redeemer Presbyterian Church’s Center for Faith and Work in 2002.
At the time, the average age of a Redeemer member was 32. Many had moved to New York to pursue careers in areas like finance, performing arts, law, or education.
Gotham Fellows, class of 2013 / Courtesy of the Center for Faith & Work
“Their vocational education was serving them well, but their knowledge of God and the foundations of their faith were insufficient for navigating the challenges of life in a post-Christian world,” Alsdorf said. “So a fellows program, with a focus on strong theological grounding, spiritual transformation, and community-based learning, seemed like the best possible solution.”
She “learned a lot from The Falls Church program,” but knew the model had to be different. New Yorkers live in apartments, so it’s hard for them to host a long-time guest. The city is expensive, so it’s hard to live off a part-time income. And if you’re working full-time, you can’t take off every Monday for a theology class.
Alsdorf designed a program for older, working adults—two or three classes of 12 meeting one night a week, one Saturday a month, and one weekend a quarter. They read 100 pages a week, commit to daily devotionals, and do special projects.
“We work them hard,” she said. “It’s like getting an executive MBA on nights and weekends.”
The church also works hard on the program—enough to require a full-time pastor. “That investment is often a hard sell,” Alsdorf said. “Initially, you have one pastor working all year with just 24 people. How can you justify this?”
Gotham Fellows in Orlando listen to alumnus P.J. Wehry explain the gospel’s influence on art / Courtesy of The Collective
But you need that long for “the very interactive, holistic learning model” to help the theological concepts “to really, fully sink in,” she said. “It couldn’t happen in a five-week class.”
Within a few years, as Gotham alumni piled up from 24 to 48 to several hundred, the benefits to the church and community became obvious.
“In some ways, this program embodies everything Redeemer has been about from the beginning,” founding pastor Tim Keller said. “In the very beginning, we talked about how the gospel changes the heart; [it’s not about] just trying harder. We talked about the fact that the gospel shapes every area of your life—not just your private life, but your public life. In some ways Gotham Fellows is realizing this vision and finding a way to encode and distill that gospel DNA . . . in people in a very deliberate and systematic way. And I’m grateful for that.”
The Gotham alums have “really benefited the rest of the church and the city,” said Alsdorf, who co-authored Every Good Endeavor with Keller. “Honestly, it felt worth it from the very first class—to see transformation in people’s lives. Everything after that has been wonderful icing on the cake.”
“Everything after that” includes that steady output of fellows—now more than 350—from Redeemer. It also includes the expansion of the program to other churches. This year, fellows programs based on the Gotham Fellowship are operating in 15 churches in 15 cities.
“My husband and I ‘retired’ into a dream job of starting another fellows program with Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Raleigh, North Carolina,” Alsdorf said. “We turned over the leadership of that program to Josh Chatraw last summer and it’s thriving. Leading programs like this is the best job ever.”Working ‘Flat Out’ for God
Over the last 25 years, faith-and-work fellows programs have grown so popular that Damein Schitter did his Trinity Evangelical Divinity School dissertation on how they affected participants. He interviewed 23 graduates from across the country.
Capital Fellows working in youth ministry at the Annual Dye War / Courtesy of The Fellowship Initiative
“People started saying the exact same thing, which was crazy, because they weren’t even in the same program,” Schitter said. “Did the program help them? Yes. Unequivocally.”
Even if they had graduated years ago, even if they were frustrated that they hadn’t implemented all they’d learned, former fellows told Schitter “it changed them forever in a positive way.”
“Basically, they were changed by coming out with the conviction that God is restoring all things through Christ, and Christian discipleship is a participation in that restoration,” Schitter said. “It called them from passivity to participation. . . . It also changed them to work from—and not for—an identity in their work.”
After a while, “I started knowing what they were going to say,” Schitter said.
Missy Wallace, who leads a Gotham program in Nashville, says part of what makes it stick is doing hard things together. “Done well, faith-and-work ends up simultaneously fulfilling the Great Commandment, the Great Commission, and the Cultural Mandate.”
That’s what Holladay and Yates were aiming at—giving fellows “an intense community in the local church” and the understanding “that Christian ministry is not narrowly defined as being ordained or working for Young Life or Cru,” Yates said. “It’s doing whatever God has equipped you to do, and doing it flat out for him.”
What’s a pastor to do? It’s a simple question, but it’s surprising how different pastors answer it. Some say they’re here to shepherd. Others say they’re here to teach. None would say they’re here to entertain, but a steady diet of their teaching leaves the listener wondering. I once saw a pastor begin his service with guests using golf clubs to chip candy into the audience. He wanted to warm up the crowd.
There’s a better way, and it’s outlined in Kevin Vanhoozer’s Hearers and Doers: A Pastor’s Guide to Making Disciples Through Scripture and Doctrine. Above all, pastors shape the hearts and minds of God’s people with his holy Word. It’s a simple, but all-too-neglected, fact.
Vanhoozer, professor of systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, exhorts pastors to disciple their church members with Scripture. The evangelical yard is littered with rusty cans of pragmatism and empty bottles of consumerism, and Vanhoozer pleads with pastors to clean up the mess by returning to a theological, biblically rich, church-centered form of pastoral ministry.Culture’s Influence
What stands out first is Vanhoozer’s assertion that the culture is discipling us, whether we know it or not. Everyone is being discipled by something; Vanhoozer singles out diet, fitness, and exercise fads as examples (23–42). These movements shape our thoughts about who we are and who we should be. They compose our “social imaginary”—”the net of background assumptions, often implicit, that lead people to feel things as right or wrong, correct or incorrect. It is another name for the root metaphor (or root narrative) that shapes a person’s perception of the world” (8).
Pastors may think that, in the absence of their influence, the people in their churches are blank slates. Not true. The issue is not if people will be discipled, but by whom or what. For good or ill, our culture is constantly shaping us.
Pastors may think that, in the absence of their influence, the people in their churches are blank slates. Not true. The issue is not if people will be discipled but by whom or what.
Vanhoozer would have our social imaginary shaped by the Bible. Only a theological reading of Scripture can mold the believer into the man or woman of God designed him or her to be. According to Vanhoozer, “Theology serves the church by helping to shape its collective imagination so that its image of its body life, and everything else, is governed by the gospel message at the heart of the master story that unifies Scripture” (10).Scripture’s Power
But how does this work? How is the Bible a disciple-making tool in the hands (or mouth) of a pastor? Vanhoozer doesn’t provide a step-by-step guide to making disciples. Rather, he urges pastors to have more confidence that Scripture—carefully taught and applied—is our only hope of making disciples.
Hearers and Doers is, above all else, a call to read the Bible theologically. We’re to see it as one unified story, a message of redemption, and a powerful counterpunch to the world’s attempt to capture our mind and heart. As Vanhoozer explains, “Reading the Bible theologically . . . is our best hope for breaking free of the pictures that hold us captive: consumerism, humanism, transhumanism, nihilism, existentialism, moralism, scientism, and so on—idols all, of heart and mind” (85).
Modern reading practices are lacking, according to Vanhoozer. Believers surf across the pages of Scripture instead of diving in. (At this point, Hearers and Doers would’ve been strengthened by an appeal to the tremendous practice of meditative reading, modeled by the English Puritans).
The church in every age needs to be reminded of sola Scriptura. Recovering this precious doctrine is our greatest need. Sadly, many believers have lost confidence in the power of the Bible to transform their minds, their consciences, and their actions. Perhaps this is because, as Vanhoozer notes, “Pictures of success disseminated by business schools and television shows have not trickled but slammed into our collective unconscious” (105).Centrality of the Church
The centrality of the local church is a pleasant and recurring theme in Hearers and Doers. Vanhoozer paints a fresh and compelling picture of the church’s role in the life of a Christian. Believers “tired” of the church will be challenged to reconsider their antagonism toward this imperfect but divinely mandated “company of the gospel” (125).
Pastors have a crucial role to play in recovering a biblical sense of the church’s vitality. Not only should they labor to teach and apply the Bible well, but they’re to shepherd those who hear the Word by ensuring that believers find their place in the congregation in accordance with their spiritual gifts.
The more that churches focus on theologically rich and hospitality-driven spiritual formation, the less they will be shaped by the cultural currents of the day. Again, Vanhoozer explains: “The church is not an institution invested in maintaining or increasing its own power (though sadly it sometimes acts like it), but a company of the gospel intent on communicating the truth and love of God poured out in Jesus Christ, which is its service to God on behalf of the world” (164).
The more that churches focus on theologically rich and hospitality-driven spiritual formation, the less they will be shaped by the cultural currents of the day.
The most fascinating (and helpful) section of the book is chapter 7 on the “communion of saints.” Here, Vanhoozer addresses the reality that countless gospel-centered believers come to the same text only to walk away with a different interpretation—interpretations that divide us. This can be problematic for the Protestant tradition, which has no Supreme Court (or pope) to give a final word on disputed readings of the Bible.
Vanhoozer’s answer (which is worth reading in full) is to lean into both one’s local church and denomination. Individual Bible readers shouldn’t read the Bible individually. It’s not just that we stand on the shoulders of giants; we stand amid a congregation filled with God’s Spirit and therefore equipped to interpret God’s Word for the glory of God’s name and the good of God’s people. Further, we stand in a world with many churches, and those congregations should be listened to carefully, even if one walks away disagreeing.
By leaning into both what the church has said in the past as well as the leadership God has given the church today, believers can humbly draw biblical conclusions by which they can rightly live. “Sola Scriptura is not a blank check individuals can cash in to fund their own idiosyncratic interpretations of the Bible,” Vanhoozer argues, “but a call to attend to a broader pattern of Protestant authority and to listen for the Spirit speaking in the history of the church’s interpretation of Scripture” (183). In light of so much disunity over interpretation of texts, Vanhoozer appropriately calls us to “see one’s one church or denomination as a local expression of the church universal” (171).
Hearers and Doers is a book for pastors. The shepherds of the sheep have a unique responsibility to shape the “social imaginary” embedded in the soul of every Christian. Pastors wield God’s Word, and the more they trust its power to change hearts and minds, the less they’ll lean into the foolish and futile fads of the day.
Peter once of wrote of Paul’s letters: “There are some things in them that are hard to understand” (2 Pet. 3:16). We might say the same of Peter’s letters! Here’s one statement that has long perplexed readers:
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. (1 Pet. 3:18–20)
In verse 18, Peter is speaking of the death and resurrection of Christ. Jesus was “put to death in the flesh”—that is, he died in his humanity. And he was raised, “made alive in the spirit.” But what is “the spirit” here? Some interpreters take it to mean Jesus’s human soul. Others say it’s the location where the risen Jesus is now alive. But the pairing of Jesus’s resurrection with “the spirit” indicates that Peter is referring to the Holy Spirit (see Rom. 8:4–11). Jesus, Peter says, was raised in the power of the Spirit.Proclaimed to the Spirits in Prison
If Peter is saying in verse 18 that Jesus was raised from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit, then he’s saying at the beginning of verse 19 that “in [the Spirit], [Jesus] went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison.” Many interpreters have taken Peter to be saying that, either between Jesus’s death and resurrection or after it, Jesus undertook a preaching campaign.
Who are said to be the objects of Jesus’s preaching? “The spirits in prison” who “formerly did not obey.” But who are these “spirits”? According to some, they’re the souls of Old Testament believers, whom Jesus liberated from captivity and brought with him to heaven. The message that Jesus proclaims—his death and resurrection—is therefore good news to them.
Others have taken these “spirits” to be condemned souls who rejected Noah millennia earlier. For such individuals, Jesus is confirming their condemnation by proclaiming his victory over them and all his enemies in his death and resurrection. (Some interpreters have seen Jesus offering a postmortem opportunity for faith and repentance to these “spirits in prison.”)What Did Jesus Do?
These interpretations have at least one thing in common. They see Jesus doing something—locally, if not bodily—after his death and burial but before his ascension and session in heaven. One problem with such interpretations, though, is they affirm an activity of Jesus that appears nowhere else in Scripture. We should be cautious about advancing such a claim without clearer biblical testimony.
A further problem with such interpretations stems from Peter’s description of these “spirits” as those who “formerly did not obey . . . in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared” (v. 20). Why would Jesus liberate only some Old Testament saints from captivity? (And why would Peter describe Old Testament saints in this fashion?) Or, why would Jesus proclaim condemnation to only a single generation of souls in hell, and not others? Each of these interpretations also carries its own liabilities. There is no clear testimony in Scripture that Old Testament believers, at their deaths, were confined to limbus patrum (“the limbo of the fathers”) until such time as Christ released them at his resurrection.
Jesus’s teaching in the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man points in a contrary direction. At their deaths, the souls of Old Testament believers went immediately into the presence of God (Luke 16:22). There isn’t any clear reason why Christ would travel to hell to proclaim his victory to any condemned human soul. And there certainly is no biblical warrant for an offer of salvation to those who’ve already died. The final judgment, after all, will take into account only what one has done in this life, not anything done in the hereafter (1 Pet. 1:17; 2 Cor. 5:10; Heb. 9:27).
Still others have taken these “spirits” to be wicked angels over whom Christ triumphed at his resurrection. Jesus is said to announce his resurrection conquest over the spiritual powers and authorities, who are bound in infernal captivity. This view may involve a proclamation of victory in hell, but it need not. While it’s true that Jesus’s resurrection declared victory over his spiritual, demonic enemies (see verse 22), it’s doubtful Peter had that victory in mind in verse 19. Peter appears to understand the “spirits” of verse 19 to be human beings when he says they were disobedient “in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared” (v. 20).Better Interpretation
There’s another way to interpret Peter’s words that avoids these difficulties and accounts for the context of these verses within Peter’s argument. The one who does the proclaiming of verse 19 is not the risen Jesus. It’s Jesus who preaches, to be sure, but he preaches in the Holy Spirit. The timing of this proclamation is not the window between the death and ascension of Jesus Christ. It’s during the lifetime of Noah.
What, then, is Peter saying? He’s saying that Noah, in the course of building the ark, bore testimony to the coming judgment of God. He was the “herald of righteousness,” as Peter says in his second letter (2 Pet. 2:5). Noah preached in the power of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit whom Peter has earlier called “the Spirit of Christ” (1 Pet. 1:10). But the men and women of Noah’s generation, notwithstanding “God’s patience” in delaying judgment, spurned that proclamation. Because of their “former” disobedience, they are presently “in prison.” That is, their souls, upon their deaths, were justly committed to hell to be punished for their sins.Be Ready to Give an Account
These words would have brought tremendous pastoral encouragement to Peter’s first readers. Many of them were Gentiles, who’d been redeemed from worthless and wicked lives (1 Pet. 1:18, compare 4:3–4; cf. Eph. 2:12). These believers were being persecuted for their faith, a reality explicitly addressed in 1 Peter 3:8–17. Notwithstanding this persecution, they were always to be “prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet. 3:15–16).
How can believers do this hard work? In 1 Peter 3:18–20, Peter again points us to Christ’s death and resurrection for sinners. Believers today, like Noah of old, are called to testify to the hope of the gospel before a world that mocks and scorns us in unbelief. We do so in the power of the Holy Spirit—the Spirit of Christ at work in Noah’s proclamation ministry, and the Spirit by whom Christ was raised from the dead. Our task is not futile. The risen Jesus has won the victory (1 Pet. 3:21–22). We must neither fear nor despair (1 Pet. 3:14). Rather, we should “in [our] hearts regard Christ the Lord as holy” by telling others about him (1 Pet. 3:15).
How good to know our Savior has won the victory! Peter reminds us not to live in view of what our senses tell us, but by what we know to be true by faith. Jesus is on his throne and at work among us by his Spirit. Let us be faithful and serve him in our generation.
This past year, fertility rates in the United States fell to a historic low, with the Total Fertility Rate (TFR) standing at 1.7 (that statistic refers to the number of children a typical woman will bear during her lifetime). Technically, the present U.S. figure is known as a sub-replacement rate, as it is well below the number needed for a population to replace and maintain itself indefinitely, which is 2.1. Such a precipitous fertility drop has sweeping implications, especially as it has occurred in such a short period—just in the past decade or so—and recent changes have attracted intense attention from economists, planners, and politicians.
As yet, however, observers of U.S. religion have shown little concern or interest—which is curious since, worldwide, a move to very low fertility has been an excellent predictor of secularization and the decline of institutional religion. Fertility and faith travel closely together. Present demographic trends in the United States are the best indicator yet of an impending secular shift of historic proportions, even a transition to West European conditions. This is, or should be, one of the most significant and newsworthy developments in modern American religion.European Precedent
That European precedent demands our attention. In the 1950s, European rates ran at high baby-boom rates, around 3.0 children per woman, or more. From the mid-1960s, sharp falls became evident, first in Protestant countries—notably in Scandinavia—and then in Catholic lands. By the 1980s, some European countries were pushing rates to unprecedented lows of 1.3 or lower, although they have subsequently rebounded somewhat. A typical European country today has a TFR around 1.7 to 1.8—roughly equal to the United States.
That fertility drop coincided perfectly with a well-known and much-studied move away from institutional religion, which in some countries amounted to something like evaporation. That drop also coincided with a tectonic shift in public morality, as referenda resulted in the legalization of once unthinkable innovations: the legalization of contraception, abortion, same-sex marriage, and euthanasia.
Present demographic trends in the United States are the best indicator yet of an impending secular shift of historic proportions.
Reeling from repeated defeats, the churches suffered a disastrous fall in their prestige and popularity. By all standard measures—church attendance, clerical vocations, even a willingness to identify as Christian—many European countries became radically secularized.Understanding the Connection
To say two trends coincided doesn’t necessarily imply they’re connected; anyone who’s ever taken an introductory statistics course knows about the problems of distinguishing between correlation and causation. Still, the European experience does strongly suggest an intimate linkage between fertility and faith, although we can argue about the direction of change.
One path of explanation suggests that first religiosity decline, which then leads to declining fertility and smaller families. As is commonly noted, larger families tend to be more connected to religious institutions, and more committed to religious practice. Perhaps conservative and traditionalist believers tend to be more family-oriented, more committed to continuity and posterity, and thus they have more children; or else people in large families tend to be more conservative, more vested in traditional religious faith.
Multiple long-term studies point to such a correlation. Indeed, the association between conservative or traditionalist religion and high fertility is often used to explain the relative success of conservative denominations in modern U.S. history, at the expense of liberal mainliners. What separates the winners and losers in the religious economy, some say, isn’t the soundness of their theology, but their fertility rates. But now let us imagine conditions changing so that levels of religious belief decline, and the number of people with no religion grows—then we would expect a consequent fall in fertility.
This is, or should be, one of the most significant and newsworthy developments in modern American religion.
Alternatively, we might suggest that fertility declines first, and that this decline affects religiosity. Smaller families reduce their ties to organized religious institutions, as there are simply fewer children to put through religious school and First Communion classes, or the equivalent training and socialization in other religions. As religious ties diminish, ordinary people increasingly define their values in individualistic and secular terms, and are more willing to oppose churches or religious institutions on social and political issues of gender and morality. In part, this opposition results from the growing separation between sexuality and reproduction.
But it’s scarcely necessary to determine an exact sequence of change, since the two factors—fertility and religiosity—work so closely together and developments occur within a short time span. We might imagine a community that becomes increasingly detached from traditional religious-based concepts of gender roles. That reduces the ideological pressure to define one’s role in terms of family, parenthood, and posterity. As women become emancipated from familiar roles, they become more deeply involved in the workforce, and don’t have time for the large families of their mothers’ generation. That change in turn reduces ties to religious institutions. A shift to lower fertility encourages declining religiosity, which in turn discourages religious enthusiasm, and so on, in a kind of feedback loop. These two factors—family size and religiosity—work intimately together in ways difficult to disentangle.
I must draw one critical distinction. We often talk loosely about “secularization,” but in fact that word covers two distinct trends or currents. Scholar Grace Davie wrote acutely of the two patterns of religious believing and belonging, which are often associated but not inevitably. What has changed most spectacularly in modern Europe is the declining willingness to belong to religious institutions and to participate in their life. At the same time, many Europeans who no longer attend churches still show every sign of believing and of following private kinds of religion with some enthusiasm. Christian pilgrimage, especially, remains as popular as ever before. With that caveat, organizational and institutional religion are in crisis.Global Change
For some years, social scientists noted the twin revolutions underway in Europe—the demographic and the secularizing—and assumed that these were specific to European conditions. But it soon became apparent that Europe was a pioneer of a much wider global change, which since the 1970s has transformed much of the globe. Since 1970, Mexico’s TFR has fallen from almost 7 children per woman to 2.2—in other words, to just above replacement. In the same years, Vietnam’s rate fell from 6.4 to 1.9, Indonesia’s from 5.4 to 2.3, India’s from 5.5 to 2.3. South Korea’s fell quite sensationally from 4.5 to less than 1.0, which is one of the lowest figures on the planet. The change is still more marked in some regions within countries. Around half the states of India presently have TFRs below replacement, and such populous and influential states as Punjab and West Bengal have fertility rates below Denmark’s.
Most observers think these recent plunges will continue over the next decade or two, to spread something like what are presently German or Italian demographic conditions around much of the non-European world. In a recent book, John Ibbitson and Darrell Bricker imaginatively surveyed the long-term effects of demographic decline and population contraction. The chilling title of their work: Empty Planet.
But if European-style demographic patterns have reached so much of the world, surely the religious picture can’t have changed so much? Actually, that correlation appears in many countries separated by thousands of miles. As fertility rates have collapsed across much of Latin America, so has the level of religious involvement and participation—of belonging. Meanwhile, surveys show significant shares of the population reporting membership in no denomination or religion, and who are thus counted as “Nones.” As in Europe, the declining power of churches, whether Protestant or Catholic, is reflected in the spread of liberal legislation in sexual morality; and again, same-sex marriage offers a valuable barometer. Until recently, several Latin American countries were actually much more liberal in these matters than the United States.
East Asian countries present a similar picture, which has affected non-Christian faiths. Witness the calamitous situation of Buddhism in most of its low-fertility Asian heartlands, such as Japan, Korea, or Thailand. Look at Japan, where so many temples face closure in the next decade or two. Even among those who identify as Buddhist, the degree of involvement in formal religious activities has plummeted in recent decades, so that few Japanese Buddhists ever have contact with a temple. Buddhist priests are well aware they are largely of the older generation, offering little appeal to the young, although some younger clerics try to repackage their message in trendy contemporary forms. Japan simply no longer has the cohorts of young men who might once have flocked into the monasteries. At every stage of this story, analogies to Europe’s Catholics or Anglicans or Lutherans are obvious.
By 2050, people of African origin could constitute a third of the world’s Christians, perhaps more. By that year also, for the first time in history, a single continent—namely Africa—will have a Christian population exceeding 1 billion.
The proportion of South Koreans who identify as Buddhist has been in freefall since the start of this century. Korea’s Christian pastors are scarcely more optimistic about their chances of holding on to the country’s youth. Besides Korea, the other Asian land of ultra-low fertility is Taiwan, which this past year became the first Asian country to legalize same-sex marriage.
Some of the most startling fertility drops have occurred in the Islamic world, in nations like Iran. As recently as 1982, Iran’s TFR was around 6.5 children per woman, but today it stands below 1.7—again below that of Denmark. And not surprisingly, institutional religion is in deep trouble. By some estimates, Iran’s rates of mosque attendance run at perhaps 1 percent or 2 percent of the population, and barely 3,000 of the country’s 57,000 mosques are fully operational. Fertility rates have also plunged in North Africa, in the Arab Maghrib, and in states like Tunisia and Morocco.American Situation
Wherever we go in the world, that fertility/faith nexus seems secure, and that equation obviously raises intriguing questions for the United States. Until recently, the United States was a nightmare for social scientists, as an advanced society with high levels of gender equality that nevertheless retained high levels of fertility and was notoriously religious. At first sight, that seemed to make nonsense of many social theories about the social roots of religion. Over the past 15 years or so, that picture has utterly changed. As recently as 2008, the U.S. fertility rate was still around replacement, at almost 2.1, but that dizzying slide then began, at least partly as a consequence of the economic devastation caused by the crash of that year. The fertility rate is now 1.7, and almost certainly it will fall farther in the coming decade.
In the same years, another trend pointed to a drift away from organized faith, in the shape of the country’s rapidly ascending population of Nones. As I suggested earlier, we must be careful about not confusing these people with atheists. A “None” is a person who tells a pollster she or he has no religious affiliation. That may or may not mean anything about their degree of religious belief or practice: the none category tells us about belonging, not believing.
But those non-belongers are proliferating mightily. A common estimate suggests that America’s three largest constituencies today are Catholics, evangelical Protestants, and Nones, each holding around 23 percent of market share. In each successive survey, the proportion of Nones is significantly larger among young adults and millennials, presumably indicating that the proportion of Nones is destined to grow significantly in coming decades. One study in 2016 found that almost 40 percent of those aged 18–29 were religiously unaffiliated non-belongers, and even among those aged 30–49, the figure was 29 percent. The Nones, moreover, have grown in precisely the years of the demographic realignment, and the fall in fertility rates. That neatly fits the model of an emerging low-fertility and low-faith society. A European model, in fact.Larger Context
Is this a fire alarm in the night for American religion, and more specifically for Christianity? Before despairing, we might consider some other aspects of the demographic picture. A low-fertility society is an aging community, one that needs plenty of young and hardworking people to do the jobs and pay the taxes, and that means foreign immigrants from poorer, high-fertility countries. Such immigrants bring their religions with them and lay new foundations in their host countries. We hear so much about the new Islamic presence that immigration has created in Europe, but far less about the reshaping of Christianity by migrants from Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Such Christian immigrants are already strengthening and transforming church life in Europe and North America, and even in the Arabian Peninsula. Christianity might be changing its ethnic character, but it has often undergone such transitions in the past.
Further, that global fertility shift is by no means uniform, and is far from having any serious effect on such vital regions as sub-Saharan Africa. Here, Christian churches are growing almost too fast to count, and these communities are abundant sources of migrants for areas such as Europe. By 2050, people of African origin could constitute a third of the world’s Christians, perhaps more. By that year also, for the first time in history, a single continent—namely Africa—will have a Christian population exceeding 1 billion.
Finally, my argument isn’t that Euro-American religion is dying, but that it’s changing. Many millions believe without belonging, and that number will grow. The challenge for churches, then—for all churches—is to decide how to respond to this new world, so hostile to institutions and hierarchies, so resentful of intrusions into what’s so widely seen as private space and private morality. How do you speak to those who wish to believe, but dread belonging?
How do you speak to those who wish to believe, but dread belonging?
And above all, churches have to think about those demographic trends, and why they are happening. Centrally, that means addressing the needs and concerns of women, whose shift from the home to the workplace and the college has been a driving force of this social tumult. What does this mean for presenting the Christian message?
The demographic revolution subverts or renders irrelevant so many features and activities that religions have long been viewed as essential to their existence and work. As those features fade, so religions of all kinds are forced to revisit and reconsider their core purpose. That exercise in rethinking and refocusing could be prolonged and even painful, even for religions that hold fast to historic beliefs. But the potential opportunities are rich indeed, and at a time of special human need. An empty planet needs far more than empty faith.
It’s not often that a single tweet explodes into an enormous movement. But on October 15, 2017, Hollywood actress Alyssa Milano posted a tweet in response to the growing awareness of sexual abuse in the movie industry:
If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.
Milano wasn’t the only person speaking to this issue and encouraging others to share their own stories. But this tweet gained instant traction. The hashtag quickly became viral. The original tweet was posted around midday; by the end of the day the phrase “Me too” had been used on Twitter more than 200,000 times. Within a year, it had been used 19 million times—more than 55,000 times each day.
Many celebrities shared their stories, immediately raising the profile of the hashtag. Hollywood was quickly engulfed. Other parts of the entertainment industry soon followed. Stories of harassment and abuse spread in realms of politics, media, academia, and religion. A parallel #ChurchToo hashtag also emerged, as survivors of assault in churches or by church leaders shared their horrific experiences.
The #MeToo movement has shone a spotlight on the prevalence of sexual assault. Around 20 percent of American women have been sexually assaulted. Exact figures are hard to come by, of course, since these are extremely difficult stories for people to share, for a host of reasons. But as many are opening up for the first time, we are gaining a truer understanding of the prevalence of these brutalities. Men, too, are opening up about experiences of being sexual assaulted and harassed. Some men are also acknowledging failures in their own past behavior toward women.Command That Convicts Us All
In this context, we can see Jesus’s challenging teaching with fresh beauty: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:27–28).
Adultery happens in the heart long before it ever happens in the bed.
We’re used to hearing this verse applied to our attitude to others, and rightly so. Jesus is targeting those who might assume that this, of all the commandments, is one where they can be confident of obedience. Not so fast, he’s saying. Adultery happens in the heart long before it ever happens in the bed. It is not just about what we do with our genitals, but what we do with our eyes and our minds. It concerns our attitude and thought life, not just our physical actions. By Jesus’s reckoning, none of us is innocent. The commandment convicts us all.Value of Our Sexuality
But while Jesus is targeting the person doing the looking, it’s worth noticing what he’s saying by implication about the person being seen. She is not to be looked at or even thought about lustfully. Again, Jesus is not solely concerned with physical boundaries, but mental ones. Clearly this warning applies to both sexes. But, given the prevalence of sexual assault by men against women, it is significant that the scenario describes a man looking lustfully at a woman. Jesus is saying that she is precious and valuable; she has sexual dignity, which should be honored by everyone else. This sexual dignity is so precious to Jesus that it must not be violated, even in the privacy of someone else’s mind.
This is staggering. We tend to think that someone’s thought life is their business alone, that what they think about in their own head has nothing to do with anyone else. Jesus disagrees. Looking with lustful intent is so serious precisely because the other person is worth so much. Love honors (1 Pet. 2:17), but lust degrades and objectifies. We forsake lust not because sexuality is so cheap, but because it is so valuable.
We see this value consistently reflected throughout the whole Bible. Following his violation of Bathsheba and the arranged killing of her husband, Uriah, David confesses his wickedness to God: “Against you, you only, have I sinned” (Ps. 51:4). We might think David conveniently overlooks the human cost of his sin and writes it off as a “spiritual matter.” But the opposite is true. David is recognizing that his violation of Bathsheba’s sexuality, and the cruel termination of the marriage in which that sexuality had been rightfully expressed, is ultimately high treason against God himself—precisely because God places such high value on our sexual dignity.
The rise of the #MeToo movement gives us an opportunity to commend the sexual ethics Jesus gave to us. Our culture hasn’t always agreed with Jesus that what we do with (or to) someone sexually is not just physical. A physical violation of someone is wicked and damaging enough; a sexual violation often leaves even deeper wounds. Sexual injury is not the same thing as a grazed knee. Our sexuality gets to the very heart of our personhood. It’s why Jesus is so protective of it.
Something so glorious as our sexuality has the capacity to be so profoundly damaged (and damaging to others) precisely because God has designed it with the capacity to do something so significant. The one-flesh union between and a man and a woman has the potential not only of producing new life, but also—if framed by and honoring of the covenant of marriage—to reflect something far greater: our union with Christ.
No wonder we’re discovering how much our sexuality matters to us. It matters profoundly to God.
Most of us knows the story of the Trojan horse. For 10 years the warriors of ancient Greece besieged the city of Troy, but the stalwart defenders withstood their advances. Finally, Greece gave up frontal assaults and resorted to deception. They made a great wooden horse, inserted a band of commandos into its belly, and withdrew.
Convinced their besiegers had given up, and curious about the horse, the men of Troy dragged the great statue into their city and went to sleep. That night, the Greeks emerged from the belly of the horse and vanquished Troy from within.
Satan has inserted a Trojan horse within our marriages. What he cannot accomplish with the frontal assaults of adultery, financial stress, or bickering over in-laws, he achieves with this insidious, hidden weapon. And, like the citizens of Troy, most of us don’t take it seriously until it has done its deadly work.
The writer of Hebrews names this hidden weapon: the “root of bitterness.”
See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled. (Heb. 12:15)
The root of bitterness is powerful. It will defile both your marriage and also your relationship with God.Defiling Our Relationships
Wise couples fear the power of bitterness to wither affection, strangle intimacy, and smother joy. When you hear, “I just don’t love my spouse anymore,” unresolved bitterness is often the culprit.
In the hectic years when our five children were young, my wife and I attended a couple’s retreat. We needed time alone. Judy was so stirred up by the pressures of raising our kids that she had little emotional energy for me. I came home nursing resentment. After a few days, I recognized the problem, decided to forgive, and began looking for ways to serve her. Resentment had temporarily driven two lovers apart, but God graciously intervened.
Unrepentant bitterness can be a spiritual snowball, growing larger and larger as it rolls downhill. If not resisted, it will eventually become an avalanche, crushing everything in its path. A wife criticizes her husband; instead of listening, he nurses resentment. He doesn’t forgive, other resentments accumulate, and the alienation gets broader and wider. A husband repeatedly fails to call his wife before coming home late; she harbors resentment. Other grievances pile on, and three years later they’re sleeping in separate rooms.
Unwillingness to forgive will defile our relationship with God, too. Jesus gives a strong warning:
If you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But, if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. (Matt. 6:14–15)
Couples led by God’s Spirit take this teaching seriously. There are times when Judy and I have forgiven each other through clenched teeth—not because we wanted to in the moment, but because we feared God’s displeasure.
There are three ways we can fight bitterness in our marriages.1. Develop an ability to see your own sin through God’s eyes.
The primary weapon in this fight is an ability to see my own sin, not my spouse’s. Your willingness to forgive will be in direct proportion to your capacity to see the mountain of sin for which Christ has forgiven you—at infinite expense to himself.
For many years I took my sins against God lightly, but my wife’s sins against me seriously. I didn’t see my sin as God saw it, so I didn’t see why I should forgive. Then, 14 years into our marriage, I began reading the sermons of Jonathan Edwards. Edwards helped me to see the holiness of God and the enormity of my personal sin. When I saw the Mount Everest of sin for which God had forgiven me, I understood that even if my wife rejected me completely, her sin would be a hill by comparison. How could I deliberately resent my wife when her offenses against me were so small by comparison? Blindness to the enormity of my sin was responsible for my unwillingness to forgive.
Blindness to the enormity of my sin was responsible for my unwillingness to forgive.
Pride is the root of most bitterness. Pride makes me see my own sin with 20/300 fuzziness and my spouse’s with 20/20 clarity. This kind of self-righteousness is deadly to marriage. It demotivates forgiveness.
“You don’t understand what my spouse did to me.” I don’t. But if God exacted the same standard of justice from you that you demand from your mate, you’d spend eternity in hell. Christians forgive because God first forgave them. Ultimately, Christ’s forgiveness, secured for us at the cross—at infinite expense to himself—enables us to forgive. Forgiveness is a supernatural act, and we’re never acting more like God than when we’re forgiving another person from the heart.2. Realize that forgiveness is a decision.
This second weapon may be more difficult. Those who forgive understand the place of feelings. Too often we forgive and forgive, but the hurt doesn’t go away. The nerves are still raw, the wound still open, the pain still fresh.
But forgiveness is a decision, not a feeling. We can’t control our feelings, but we can control our decisions. All God asks is that we repeatedly and persistently will to forgive.3. Be willing to persist until feelings follow.
The final weapon against bitterness requires grace-driven perseverance.
When Peter asked Jesus if he should forgive his enemy seven times, Jesus responded, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven” (Matt. 18:2). “Seventy times seven” is biblical symbolism for never-ending persistence. In other words, forgive, forgive, and never stop. There are many times in every godly marriage when two spouses must forgive each other repeatedly, until the solvent of God’s mercy dissolves the hurt that’s ruined their intimacy.For His Sake
Don’t be like the citizens of ancient Troy. The victory Greece couldn’t get by frontal assault, they acquired through deception. The evil one will attempt the same with us. He will assassinate your marital intimacy with the secret weapon of bitterness.
So keep short accounts. Lay down your right to revenge. Above all, keep your eye on the cross. Forgive aggressively for Jesus’s sake. Forgive repeatedly, and the root of bitterness will not defile your marital joy
On Monday a trio of American economists—Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo, and Michael Kremer—won the Nobel Prize in economics for “their experimental approach to alleviating global poverty.” As the Nobel Committee says, “The research conducted by this year’s Laureates has considerably improved our ability to fight global poverty. In just two decades, their new experiment-based approach has transformed development economics, which is now a flourishing field of research.” The Committee also claims the work of these economists has “great potential to further improve the lives of the worst-off people around the world.”
In honor of their achievement, which has, as the Committee claims, “great potential to further improve the lives of the worst-off people around the world,” here are nine things you should know about global poverty.
1. Poverty is most commonly defined by economic standards, based on income levels and access to basic human necessities, such as food, water, and shelter. Global poverty refers to the various levels of poverty across the globe. Because poverty differs significantly between poor and wealthier countries, it is often broken down into the two main classifications of absolute and relative.
2. Absolute poverty is a condition characterized by severe deprivation of basic human needs, including food, safe drinking water, sanitation facilities, health, shelter, education, and information. It depends not only on income but also on access to services. Most countries in the world measure their poverty using an absolute threshold. Absolute poverty is often described with a scale, ranging from extreme to moderate levels. Extreme poverty was defined in 1991 as the “dollar-a-day line.” In 1993, the line changed to $1.08 per day, and was revised again in 2005 to $1.25. Currently, since 2015, the international poverty line has been set at $1.90 a day. The increase reflects the purchasing power at a specific time and makes it easier to compare levels of poverty across years or decades.
3. Relative poverty is condition where household income is a certain percentage below median incomes. For example, the threshold for relative poverty could be set at 60 percent of national median incomes. The poverty threshold in the United States and in many European countries is based on a relative standard. Compared to absolute poverty, relative poverty is less likely to decline and more likely to remain persistent, since it is based on median income, which tends to increase with economic growth.
4. In 1820, the vast majority of the global population of 1.1 billion lived in extreme poverty, and only a tiny elite enjoyed higher standards of living. As Max Roser and Esteban Ortiz-Ospina explain, over the next 150 years poverty declined due largely to economic growth. Yet that growth was not fast enough to offset the rapid rise of the world population. The result is that both the number of non-poor and poor people increased. Since around 1970, though, the number of non-poor people has been rising, while the number of extremely poor people is falling.
5. In 1990, the UN’s Millennium Development Goals included a target of halving poverty by 2015. That goal was achieved five years early. In 1990, more than one-third (36 percent) of the world’s population lived in abject poverty; by 2010 the number had been cut in half (18 percent). According to the most recent estimates, in 2015, the number had dropped to 10 percent. Since 1990, nearly 1.1 billion fewer people are living in extreme poverty. In 2015, 736 million people lived on less than $1.90 a day, down from 1.85 billion in 1990. “On every day in the last 25 years,” Roser and Ortiz-Ospina say, “there could have been a newspaper headline reading, ‘The number of people in extreme poverty fell by 128,000 since yesterday.’”
6. While poverty rates have declined in all regions, according to the World Bank, progress has been uneven. Two regions, East Asia and Pacific (47 million extreme poor) and Europe and Central Asia (7 million) have already achieved the 2030 goal by reducing extreme poverty to below 3 percent. More than half of the extreme poor currently live in Sub-Saharan Africa. Rather than declining, the number of poor in that region increased by 9 million, with 413 million people living on less than $1.90 a day in 2015, more than all the other regions combined. If the trend continues, says the World Bank, by 2030 nearly 9 out of 10 extreme poor will be in Sub-Saharan Africa.
7. Even if the UN and World Bank target of “eradicating extreme poverty” is reached it won’t mean that no one on earth is living in living in extreme poverty. Just as “frictional unemployment” (about 4 percent) exists when there is “full” employment, “frictional poverty” (around 3 percent to 8 percent) will continue even when extreme poverty has been “ended.” That works out to be about 664 million people still living in poverty—approximately double the current population of the United States—out of an estimated 8.3 billion people on the planet.
8. A Barna Group survey in 2014 found that more than 8 in 10 Americans (84 percent) are unaware global poverty has reduced so drastically, and more than two-thirds (67 percent) say they thought global poverty had risen since the mid-1980s. Additionally, more than two-thirds of U.S. adults (68 percent) say they do not believe it’s possible to end extreme global poverty within the next 25 years. One exception to this pessimism is practicing Christians. Defined by Barna as people who have attended a church service in the past month and say their religious faith is very important in their life, practicing Christians younger than 40 are the most optimistic at nearly half (48 percent), with practicing Christians older than 40 slightly higher than the general population (37 percent compared to 32 percent of all adults).
9. Another Barna Group survey found that a strong majority of the American public (88 percent), including 92 percent of practicing Christians, trust the opinion of a pastor when it comes to the issue of global poverty. The perspective of pastors on the issue is as trusted as the opinions of individuals who have worked or lived in poverty and ranks above the opinions of reporters, academics, and politicians. As Barna concludes, “pastors have incredible potential to lead the charge and position the U.S. church as a powerful force in anti-poverty endeavors—whether they like it or not.”
It’s been a tough year for me. While 2018 was filled with creative, financial, and relational blessing, 2019 has been much more difficult.
My wife, Quina, and I have dealt with her ministry burnout and discouraging health issues, along with her grandmother’s death, relational strains with people we love, deferred hopes to conceive another child, and the deportation of my aunt and uncle.
After experiencing so much answered prayer in 2018, this year’s unanswered prayers and unmet desires have done a number on our hearts. You pray and fast and act for something—something as good as justice or reconciliation or healing or a child—but the answer is still “No” or “Not yet.” I’ve discovered that my heart can be so easily filled with bitterness against God as I struggle to reconcile his goodness with the suffering happening all around me.
If God is the God of justice, of reconciliation, of deliverance, of life, then what does it look like to trust him when injustice comes, division remains, and death mocks? How can we still confidently proclaim, “Our God is faithful”—and actually mean it?Deliverance In, Not From
First, we must acknowledge the ways God is delivering us in our trials, even when he hasn’t delivered us from our trials. Or as Elihu put it, “He delivers the afflicted by their affliction and opens their ear by adversity” (Job 36:15).
God is delivering us in our trials, even when he hasn’t delivered us from our trials.
I would be lying if I said God hasn’t been delivering me in the midst of these trials. I have felt my compassion deepen for the oppressed as my family and I have tasted the injustice of a broken immigration system. I’ve learned to better serve my wife in her health limitations and grief. I’ve grown more honest in my prayer life, which has only drawn me closer to God rather than driven me from him.
Perhaps the sweetest balm of grace in my trials this year has been the steady presence, prayers, and support of my friends and church family. They have shared in my trials in such a way that even when I don’t want to believe it, I can’t help but admit that God sees me and cares for me.Our Wounded Healer
Second, we must know that our God isn’t just a healer, but a wounded healer, as Henri Nouwen put it. How did Jesus heal our wounds of sin? With his own wounds (Isa. 53:5).
We serve the only God with scars (Luke 24:39–40; John 20:20, 27; Rev. 5:12). The only God willing to take on human flesh and the human experience of pain and limitations, who then took on the full weight of human sin and lived to tell the tale.
Do you know this God? He is the wounded healer who sympathizes with your weaknesses and afflictions. He is the God who gave himself as his greatest gift. Even in the darkness, as the pain settles in, we can proclaim, “Our God is faithful”—and truly mean it.Proclaim Him in Lament
Last, we can use the voice and the gifts God has given us to proclaim his faithfulness. How do we do this? The psalmists knew it well: we lament.
In his book Prophetic Lament, Soong Chan-Rah states, “Lament challenges the church to acknowledge real suffering and plead with God for his intervention.” What would it look like if your family gatherings, your small group, and your church were consistently marked with Godward lament over injustices and suffering? Perhaps it would look a bit more like Christ himself.
Biblical lament calls us to passionately express our grief, our complaints, our questions, even our anger to God. It calls for messy, inarticulate, snot-filled prayers. It calls for honesty when someone asks, “How can I pray for you?” And it demands that our triumphal assumptions about the Christian life be confronted by the Savior who was “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isa. 53:3).
As I’m learning soul honesty with God and others, lament has been a challenging yet refreshing opportunity to lean more deeply into the arms of my faithful Father. I pour out my heart to God in lament, and I rise with much greater conviction that he is, indeed, faithful.More Faithful Representation
It’s easy for us to only see the highlight reel of people’s lives on social media. But I hope that through our various callings, we can more honestly portray the Christian walk.
That walk that includes both mountaintops and valleys. Lots of valleys. The walk acknowledges the deliverance of our wounded healer, even when the darkness hasn’t fully lifted. And the walk is marked by the kind of lament that exalts God’s faithfulness over and above our own.
This is how we’ll be able to say, “God is faithful”—and truly mean it.
“Most people haven’t a clue what Jesus was like. And so we invite them to take a look. They can decide for themselves. And when they begin to see Jesus, the way he loved the marginalized and the hopeless, the way he speaks to the proud and the arrogant who were usually the religious, they see his healings, even though they don’t believe miracles. But they watch him do these things and hear his astonishing claims. And above all, they’re usually so moved by his love. So it’s effective because you have the power of the Holy Spirit illuminating the power of the Word of God.” — Becky Pippert
Date: April 2, 2019
Event: TGC 2019 National Conference, Indianapolis, Indiana
Listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition Podcast.
Mentioned in this podcast:
- Uncovering the Life of Jesus by Rebecca Manley Pippert
- Discovering the Real Jesus by Rebecca Manley Pippert
Find more audio and video from the 2019 National Conference on the conference media page.