Ray Ortlund Jr. is an honorable man of God. I’ve been hanging out with him for the last decade, and in all that time, I’ve seen no breach in his integrity. I have heard him confess many sins and watched him wrestle through many difficulties. But I’ve never seen him shy away from following God into the fray. The reason, I think, is simple. Ray fears and loves God.
My memories are filled with the evidence.
Rather than try to catalog the things I love about Ray or the many ways God has used him in my life, I’ll simply share three memories that are precious to me, on the occasion of his recent retirement as pastor of Immanuel Church in Nashville.1. “The Bible Is Right. I Was Wrong.”
In the early days of Immanuel Nashville, there was a group of 30 to 50 men who met on Tuesday nights in an old “fellowship hall” for theology, community, and honesty. We used to circle up the chairs in those days—no “head of the table.” So you never knew where Ray would sit. As a young man, I hoped it would not be next to me. We revered Ray. (We still do.) His stare was unsettling. (It still is.)
One night we were working our way through a passage of Scripture when Ray made a passing observation about a verse leading up to our main verse for the night. The observation was wrong, but it was clearly not the point Ray was driving at and not the verse we were focused on. But that didn’t stop one guy (that guy) from circling back to highlight Ray’s mistake.
Many of us, I’m sure, were indignant on Ray’s behalf. Ray was not. He replied on a dime, “Oh. That’s right. The Bible is right. I was wrong.” We moved on. But some of us never got over it.
As I reflect on the vibrancy of Ray’s ministry at Immanuel, this event stands out as an instance of his continual posture before the Word of God. The Bible is always right.2. “I Am a Sexual Sinner.”
One of the first sermons I heard Ray preach made a deep impression. It was in the early days of Immanuel, and there were about 200 people present. Ray began as he always does, with the text of Scripture—1 John 1:7: “If we walk in the light as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” He read verses 1 to 10. He paused. He didn’t look down at his notes. He looked us in the eye. “I am a sexual sinner.”
Another pause. I don’t know for how long. But in that interval of time, I wondered if perhaps I was witnessing the last day of Immanuel Nashville. Looking back now, I believe it was the first day of the new Immanuel. He continued. “I’m not cheating on my wife. I’m not looking at porn. But I am a sexual sinner. If all of the thoughts that went through my head this week were put up on the screens this morning, none of you would want to be my friend.”
I’d never heard a preacher say something like that. None of us had. We were disarmed—as if the Spirit had opened a portal into a new reality and Ray, stepping through, was inviting us to join him on the other side, in that place where the blood of Jesus flows freely for sins and the fellowship of the saints is more than skin-deep. God marked us with the reality of 1 John 1:7—and it is a flagship verse of Immanuel to this day. Many blessings have followed in its wake.3. “The Sheer There-ness of It All!”
There were only two hunters in the congregation when I began attending Immanuel. When I discovered that Ray was the other, I invited him to turkey-hunt with me on the property of a family friend. The property is picturesque—big, green, rolling Tennessee hills skirted roundabout by mature hardwoods. It was early morning. The view was stunning. When Ray stopped me mid-stride and looked me square in the eyes, I had no idea what was about to happen.
What he said next startled me: “T. J., I’m amazed by the sheer there-ness of it all!” I was turkey-hunting. But Ray was worshiping the Creator—in awe of the “there-ness” of creation as it really is but doesn’t have to be. In all the time I’ve known Ray, I’ve never seen him miss an opportunity to reflect joyfully on the glory of God or the glory to come when in the presence of natural beauty.
Ray is a determinedly joyful and thankful man, but it isn’t a shallow delight in God. Ray has suffered in the service of Jesus, and by God’s grace it has done a good work. I think that’s what makes him so “Jesusy.” The pain has produced a depth in his life and worship. Jesus feels nearer when Ray’s around, because Ray himself feels Jesus nearer.
Many church planters and established pastors wonder how they’re going to get started when they’re on their own or have few resources. Several folks have visited the church I pastor—Niddrie Community Church in Edinburgh, Scotland—and commented that it’s easier for us because we have a team. But no one else was working full-time when I began the work.
So I tell guys to start with the raw material you have and work from there. If you’re on your own and starting from scratch, then pray for others to join you. Don’t rush. Choose team members carefully and be sure they understand your vision and direction. If you’re an experienced pastor, offer an internship to existing members or recruit from seminaries or other local churches.
Maybe we don’t have because we haven’t consistently asked our heavenly Father. This is sure: change will not come if we are not willing to take steps of faith.Don’t Be Tied to One Model
Some people are passionate about one particular model for church planting and revitalizing, as if the job is best done the same way every time. But in my experience, there are a lot of good ways to go about it. For example:
- In Brazil, I started with a group of eight men and women. We met daily for a year, studying, praying, eating, and doing ministry on the streets together. When the time came to start a work in our favela, we knew each other well, and we hit the ground running. The church grew quickly.
- In Niddrie, Scotland, I inherited a group, so I had to go about re-educating them, largely from the pulpit. I invested more time with those who seemed like they resonated with the new vision for ministry. It’s been a different way of doing church, but it’s slowly becoming effective.
- In an Edinburgh scheme called Gracemount, we have a young couple who started a church from scratch. They began with contacts through a local parachurch ministry, and now there’s an established church shining gospel light in a spiritually dark place.
The point is that there is no one perfect way to do church planting and revitalizing. Every location is different and presents different opportunities. A trailer park might require a different strategy than an urban housing project, both of which might be different from a church plant in the suburbs.
There is no one perfect way to do church planting and revitalizing.
If you’re tied to one model, you may miss a good opportunity. And if you import your model into a different location without taking into account its culture and needs, you’re asking for trouble.Be Realistic About the Financial Cost
Two young men made an appointment to meet in my office to talk about their vision of working with gangs in South Africa. When I asked how much money they were hoping to raise, the answer was naively low. They’d apparently planned to live on a shoestring budget without factoring in rent, a car, fuel, a work fund, trips home, medical expenses, and a little luxury called food. They had absolutely no clue about the true costs associated with planting or revitalizing churches in poor areas.
The average Western church-planting strategy plans for financial independence in three to five years. That is extremely unrealistic in poor communities, where fiscal independence may take a decade or more. New ministries to the poor require long-term financing. Thinking carefully about finances can help protect the church planter from worry, preoccupation, and anxiety.
The difficulty of financing a church in poor areas is one reason why churches everywhere should join or develop a close network with other churches. Together they can financially and spiritually support the work of churches in poorer areas. If you’re part of an affluent church looking to help see the gospel spread among the poor, it may be that the most effective way for your congregation to participate is through financial support.
We also need to cultivate individual donors who understand and appreciate our ministry context. Sadly, such people are in short supply in a world that likes quick results and statistics-heavy newsletters with jaw-dropping stories. Our strategy has simply been to approach ministry among the poor as a long-term missionary endeavor. So we encourage our workers to raise financial support in order to create sustainability.Set Realistic Goals—and Expectations
I remember sitting in a meeting in New York and hearing a church planter say that if we aren’t seeing 200 people in our plant by the third year, then maybe we ought to question our call. Another planter told us he was “moving in faith” to a new area with a core team of 150 people.
Some American church planters once visited our service in Niddrie, where we had about 75 people in attendance. Afterward during lunch, one said he thought we’d be more successful if we had better musicians and brightened the place up a bit. I informed him that in housing-scheme terms, we are a megachurch!
A church in a poor community is far less likely to have a large reservoir of Christians to draw from. It is likely to grow more slowly because it will have to grow through conversions.
When I hear stories of churches attracting hundreds to their launch services, I assume most of the people in attendance are Christians who have been part of other churches in the area. A church in a poor community is far less likely to have a large reservoir of Christians to draw from. It is likely to grow more slowly because it will have to grow through conversions. Certainly, God could send revival and shower us with thousands of converts. But barring something extraordinary, I will be delighted if we see pockets of 20 to 40 believers in multiple schemes after 10 years of work. That would constitute great success—even if it seems like a core group to some! Frankly, we put far too much pressure on church planters and revitalizers with unrealistic goals and expectations.
And when our expectations are unrealistic, we risk doing more harm than good in our church-planting efforts.
But Costi’s transformation has been dramatic. He tells his story and writes against his former views in a new book, God, Greed, and the (Prosperity) Gospel: How Truth Overwhelms a Life Built on Lies [review].
Costi does not hold back in his intent for the book: “I want people to see that the prosperity gospel is damning and abusive. It exploits the poor and ruins the lives of some of the world’s most vulnerable people.” He goes on to describe the prosperity gospel as “arguably the most hateful and abusive kind of false teaching plaguing the church today” and says “all roads the prosperity gospel paves lead to hell.”
Listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition Podcast.
I am a social person employed in a job where I need to be social. It’s a wonderful gift from God. However, the temptation for me—as I spend my days connecting lots of different people—is to engage in gossip. Sometimes I’m genuinely unsure if I’m sharing necessary information or if I’m being untrustworthy with confidences given to me. (This is especially difficult when someone tells me something that seems private but doesn’t explicitly ask me to keep quiet about it.) How can I be warm and open and at the same time a trustworthy listener? And how can I know when I’ve crossed the line from legitimate information-sharing to gossip?
The first thing I’d say is that it’s healthy that you recognize your propensity and temptation toward gossip. You are certainly not alone in this temptation, especially if you’re a social person around social people. Praise God for shining the light of conviction on what can be dangerous and hurtful behavior.
Gossip is deconstruction. By nature it tears down the party being talked about. Sometimes it’s blatant, such as a group of office workers snickering about the irritating colleague or out-of-touch boss. Other times—and this is more sinister—gossip is surreptitious, such as a person bringing up a concern about someone else so they can bring their fault to light.
Gossip at work is especially tempting, since our minds equate putting others down with pulling ourselves up—and pulling ourselves up seems like it could lead to status and goodwill and maybe even a promotion or raise.
So what do we do about it? In the first part of Ephesians 4, Paul says this:
Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.
Two imperatives from these verses apply to office gossip:
1. Speak the truth. Only say what is true. This may seem obvious, but in our flesh we’re prone to alter the truth for self-glorification or people-pleasing—in other words, building our little kingdoms.
Sometimes, we are tempted to share too much truth—conversations had, failures witnessed, or motives suspected. Just because something is true does not mean we need to speak about it, at least broadly. Sometimes we may be able to cover over a colleague’s failure in love, never speaking of it again. Other times we may need to bring it to the attention of a boss; but even in those cases, there are still other people who don’t need to know.
We also run into problems when we share too little truth. If we can fill in a larger context that may give better understanding to a situation, or help people better sympathize with one another—and we can do so with permission—we should consider it. An office where no stories were told and no news shared would be lonely and isolating; in many ways, openly sharing information with each other fosters community.
2. Speak in love. Again, just because something is true doesn’t mean you should say it. There is certainly a time for a sharp rebuke or for calling a spade a spade, but the underlying motive must be love.
Before you pass on information about someone, consider honestly both your own motivation and the potential result of your sharing. Will this lead to greater understanding and empathy between people or will it separate them unnecessarily? If it’s a funny story, will it bring shared laugher or just embarrassment? If you’re concerned about someone, will sharing their situation enable someone to help them or will it simply spread the knowledge of their struggles?
Finally, if someone tells you something that should be private, even if they didn’t specifically mention confidentiality, protect their dignity by keeping it private. When in doubt, the Golden Rule can be your guide: would you want someone to share it if it were your story?
I sense from the way you phrased your question that you love the people you work with and that you care about them enough to consider how you use your gift of conversation and sociability.
We know that because we have sin remaining in our hearts, we will be tempted to tear others down so we can stand taller. This is especially true at work when we think appearing taller could result in more respect or more money. Thus we must be vigilant with ourselves to guard our words. Not only that, we must be vigilant to guard our motives in what we say and approve.
Just because something is true does not mean you should say it.
Thankfully, we have the gift of the Spirit in us. We can recognize him because he illuminates the glory of Christ, building up his body in unity and holiness. We can rely on him because the Spirit never tears down, mocks, or condescends.
Finally, remember that whatever you learn about others, you can bring every piece of it to God. Praying for those you work with is a wonderful way to use the information they give you.
“God doesn’t expect you to be perfect.”
Many Christians say this, but is it true? Their intentions are good. We want to encourage fellow saints who are waging war with sin. We want to acknowledge sin’s reality rather than hiding behind a carefully curated façade. We also want to defuse tension as we talk to unbelievers about our faith, nuancing our approach to avoid a legalistic message.
But when we lower God’s expectations for his people, and de-emphasize the seriousness of his command for holiness, we actually cheapen his grace and lose sight of his spectacular promise.Serious Command
In his first letter, Peter writes to believers suffering persecution for following Jesus. He addresses them as “elect exiles of the dispersion,” emphasizing how their temporary world, along with all its trials, will give way to an “to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you” (1 Pet. 1:4).
He details the magnificence of God’s mercy in regenerating them (v. 3), and the protection of God’s power to guard them (v. 5). His words overflow with the reality of divine grace.
But then, rather than assuring us that this gracious God doesn’t expect us to be perfect, Peter challenges us:
As he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” (vv. 15–16)
This is serious. Peter allows no wiggle-room here. We can’t interpret the verse in a halfhearted way. Holiness defines God’s essence, and since God calls his people to be like him, holiness isn’t optional for us. The Holy One commands his chosen ones to be holy. No exceptions.
And if we have any doubts about the seriousness of Peter’s command, we should read Jesus’s equally serious words: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). Surely “perfect” means “Just try your best,” right? Not according to Paul: “For it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them’” (Gal. 3:10).
God actually does demand perfection. There is no room in these commands for snapping at your kids during the Monday-morning rush. There is no exception for grumbling about the weather. There is no loophole for a moment’s lustful glance. There is no leeway for failing to worship. We can’t get around God’s requirement; the command is serious.Spectacular Promise
Yet within the command itself is a spectacular promise: “You shall be holy.” God is saying, You will grow in holiness. You will be conformed into my image. I will see to it. The holy Lord who ransoms a people who were once slaves to sin now calls us “obedient children” (1 Pet. 1:14) and empowers us to be holy as we traverse the earth as exiles. He will do it, and his promise is as true as the blood of Jesus is precious (v. 19).
God commands holiness, and so he gave us Jesus.
Does this promise lessen the seriousness of the command? No, the promise upholds it. The seriousness of God’s command means it’s impossible for us to fulfill—but his promise means the impossible is now possible because of Jesus. In the words of Augustine, God gives us what he commands of us. What does he give, exactly? For believers in Christ, his spectacular promise is three-fold:
- You are holy. You are covered in Christ’s righteousness and declared righteous—justified—in God’s sight, now identified as holy and beloved children.
- You are being made holy. You are becoming more like Christ—sanctified—as his Spirit powerfully works obedience within you.
- You will be made holy. When you exit this earth and enter heaven, beholding Jesus’s glory, you will be made like him, fully and perfectly holy as he is—glorified.
God commands holiness, and so he gave us Jesus. He made good on his spectacular promise to send a Redeemer, to save his people from their sins (Isa. 53:11). He makes good on his promise to give his people new hearts and put his Spirit within them (Ezek. 36:26). And he will make good on his promise to complete the good work he began in us on the day of Christ (Phil. 1:6).
As we wait for that day, we wait as justified children of God. We wait with the sanctifying Spirit at work within us. We wait with a new power to obey.Spiritual Pursuit
Before God put new hearts within us, our desires were not for him but for ourselves. We loved our sin and were mastered by it. We didn’t want fellowship with our Creator or the holiness that brings him glory.
In our eyes, God’s commands revealed him as an uptight dictator holding out on us, just as Eve thought God was holding out on her. Even when we tried to obey, we found we couldn’t. Our failure to be holy caused us to throw up our hands in defeat.
But isn’t this the point? Grace is most beautiful to people who know they don’t deserve it and can’t earn it. Jesus came to our rescue through his perfect obedience, because we couldn’t possibly rescue ourselves.
And when he saved us by his grace—dying on the cross as the holy, sinless sacrifice for unholy, disobedient sinners—he freed us from sin’s grip and gave us new hearts. He renewed our desires. Now we love him, and now we love what he loves, so we pursue holiness through his Spirit, who upholds us with all the power we need.
When the temptation arises to snap at your spouse, or when a click of the mouse brings an opportunity for lust, remember God’s call to perfection. He isn’t indifferent to your sin. He doesn’t make an exception for it. Instead, he gives you everything you need to fight it.
God expects you to be perfect, yes. But not because you can be—because Jesus has been, is, and always will be perfect. He imputes his holiness to you as a beloved child of God. He gives you his Spirit, who works obedience within you to bring Christ glory. And he will see to it that you make it to heaven, where his spectacular promise of perfect holiness will be completed within you.
It’s difficult to imagine a more tangible sign of God’s favor than great wealth. Abraham had it. So did David and Solomon. Even Job, after his intense suffering, was restored to double his previous fortune. Conclusion? It’s God’s will that all Christians should enjoy both wealth and steady health during their earthly lives. Your present poverty and physical ailments are marks of unbelief and an unwillingness to claim what is already yours in Christ. Give (money) in abundance and you will receive (money) in greater abundance. Trust God and never get sick.
Or so the prosperity gospel tells us.
Costi Hinn, nephew of famous prosperity teacher and faith-healer Benny Hinn, used to embrace this line of thinking with passion. Having grown up in the prosperity-gospel movement and observing its power firsthand, the younger Hinn was ready to follow in his uncle’s footsteps and give himself to preaching the good news of guaranteed health and affluence to the sick and poor. He tells the amazing story in his new book, God, Greed, and the (Prosperity) Gospel: How Truth Overwhelms a Life Built on Lies.Coach, Girl, Sovereign God
In God’s providence, however, Hinn went to Dallas Baptist University with an opportunity to play college baseball, despite the objections of some family members. A Baptist school wasn’t exactly the place where the prosperity gospel or its proponents would be revered. Yet while he encountered biblical truth in the classroom, his coach’s personal godliness and dugout devotionals on topics like God’s sovereignty began to undermine Hinn’s theological framework.
The Bible teaches that God does what he pleases, gives freely to his creatures, and isn’t obligated to shower material wealth on those who meet certain conditions. Because the prosperity gospel is built on the notion that believers can effectively force God’s hand by giving money and believing they’ll receive what they want, the truth about God’s sovereignty dealt a devastating blow to Hinn’s faith. Already feeling some theological tremors, his wariness would only increase as he got to know a Christian girl named Christyne.
Initially, the fact that Christyne didn’t share Hinn’s views on faith-healing, speaking in tongues, or the idea that a lavish lifestyle is God’s will for Christians didn’t derail the relationship. It wasn’t until Hinn mentioned his girlfriend to his family that the trouble really started.
Taking issue with Christyne’s more biblical views and her inability to speak in tongues, Hinn’s parents and extended family voiced their disapproval of the match. One family member even claimed to have received revelation that Hinn wasn’t going to marry Christyne. Despite his commitment to Christyne and his plan to marry her, other family members scrambled to “fix” her by taking her to his uncle’s healing services, pressing the issue of tongues, and implicitly requiring that she never get sick. This latter requirement almost ended in tragedy as Christyne, in an attempt to hide a chronic illness, was found temporarily paralyzed in the basement of Hinn’s parents’ home after an asthma attack.Leaving the Prosperity-Gospel Lifestyle and Theology
Shortly after this incident, an old friend contacted Hinn and offered him a part-time position as a youth pastor in southern California. The move coincided with Costi and Christyne’s marriage and would signal a serious break with the prosperity gospel. Leaving the Hinn lifestyle and family circle was not easy, however. The newlyweds began their life together working multiple jobs to make ends meet and driving 120-mile roundtrips daily in and out of Orange County just to survive. God finally provided an apartment near the church, and the new couple starting selling Costi’s accumulated “prosperity-gospel treasures” to pay off wedding debt:
Next thing we knew, we were living two miles from church, and though it was no prosperity-gospel lifestyle, it was our life. I had gone from living in nearly 10,000 square feet to living in 600 square feet. From driving a Hummer, to driving a Chrysler, to driving a Kia Soul, to riding my bike because my wife needed the car to go to work. From shopping Versace to scouring Marshalls. (134)
Significant shifts, to be sure, but an even deeper change was on the horizon. While preparing to preach John 5:1–17, Hinn again came face-to-face with Scripture’s teaching on God’s sovereignty:
Coach Heefner’s words from my Dallas Baptist Baseball days came back to me: God is sovereign. This is what he meant all along. God is in control. He’s not some cosmic genie who exists to give me what I want and do what I command him to do. He is the majestic Creator of heaven and earth whom we exist to worship. . . . The gospel suddenly made sense. My life existed for the glory of God, not my own glory. God’s highest purpose was not to make me happy, healthy, and wealthy; it was to give him glory. (141)
More clearly than ever, Hinn recognized that the “gospel” his uncle and father had been broadcasting for decades is a paltry imitation of the real thing. Christ died and rose to give us the priceless treasure of sins forgiven and relationship with God, not to line our pockets with temporary riches. And faithfulness isn’t expressed by spiritually plundering the vulnerable to fund your luxury SUVs, opulent homes, and extravagant vacations. “Faithfulness was glorifying God, obeying him, and loving him above all and your neighbor as yourself. Faithfulness for a pastor meant giving your life to serve the church, not having the church serve you” (147).
Such newly discovered truths ignited in Hinn a passion to rescue those presently in the grip of the prosperity gospel. He began to study the history and theology of the movement, to speak with family members, and to reach out to friends who’d been hoodwinked by the false promise of health and wealth. Alongside his work as a pastor, Hinn presently labors to help believers better grasp the eternal dangers of the prosperity gospel.More Than Personal Testimony
God, Greed, and the (Prosperity) Gospel is more than a personal testimony, however. Intertwined throughout the book—especially the latter half—is forthright biblical commentary on wealth, the nature of false teachers, prosperity theology, and hard-earned wisdom on how to best engage those under its spell. Having learned from mistakes he made in harshly confronting family members over their involvement with the prosperity gospel, Hinn encourages us to pray for our friends and family, study the issues well, deal with our own sin first, speak the truth in love, and never give up sharing biblical doctrine with others. In the back of the book Hinn provides a list of several helpful resources for those who wish to pursue a deeper understanding of the prosperity movement and what Scripture teaches about wealth.
Overall, Hinn’s book is an engaging, easy-to-read, and well-balanced introduction to the prosperity gospel and serves as an excellent complement to his more academically rigorous work, Defining Deception. And in case you are wondering about royalties on a book about the prosperity gospel, Hinn is directing all proceeds to fund theological education that will equip Christian leaders to better reach those ensnared by the health-and-wealth gospel. For Benny Hinn’s nephew, it’s truly more blessed to give than to receive.
“My father often told me that if not for pornography, he’d have become a serial killer,” Chris Offutt once wrote in The New York Times.
On Offutt’s telling, his father was both an avid consumer and creator of the dark medium, who made his living as one of America’s most prolific pornographic novelists in the 1970s. But he also secretly drew a series of pornographic comics, which Offutt rather dispassionately reports “eventually ran 120 separate books, totaling 4,000 pages, depicting the torture of women.” Offutt rejects the story his father tried to sell him: “The idea that porn prevented him from killing women,” he muses, “was a self-serving delusion that justified his impulse to write and draw portrayals of torture.” Instead, Offutt thinks his father told himself he needed porn to save him because he couldn’t come to grips with the simple fact that he liked it.
Theorists and sociologists have tussled for the past 30 years over whether pornography’s easy availability makes violence more or less likely. The more pressing question, however, is why anyone became interested in the link in the first place. There is no need to take a stand on whether Offutt’s father was right about the powers of pornography to save him from a murderous path. That he felt some deep connection between pornography and murder—between the depiction of women in graphic sexual poses and the violent destruction of their bodies—should be enough to disturb us. Illicit sex and actual violence may be more closely connected than we might like to think.Pornography Lies
Pornography deceives. Its sexualized depiction of human persons promises the viewer what it cannot deliver. But how pornography lies is difficult to see, if only because our eyes have gone blind from our frequent exposure to the medium. Pervasive consumption of pornography dulls the mind: if we delightedly give ourselves over to falsehoods, we lose our ability to sort truth from fiction. Sin has a compounding effect. The twin wraiths of confusion and ignorance preserve the charm of its false pleasures. It is easier for those drowning in a whirlpool of deceits to embrace their situation as “normal” than it is to escape.
The inescapable availability of pornography, and the corrosive “pornification” of all other forms of media, means that the most pressing challenge for Christians is rediscovering what purity feels like. C. S. Lewis famously proposed that spiritual mediocrity is the equivalent of playing with mud pies instead of taking the seaside holiday God offers us. Our situation is more dire, though: we are in danger of forgetting what the sea even offers. The warmth of sunshine that lifts our eyes and our hearts to heaven has been hidden by the stale pollution of our passions. Pornography is the only atmosphere we know: it has clotted our lungs, and we cannot get enough of it.
Pervasive consumption of pornography dulls the mind: if we delightedly give ourselves over to falsehoods, we lose our ability to sort truth from fiction.
We have been told by our society to accept porn as the “new normal”—which is an extremely pernicious and effective lie. Offutt suggests that his father’s secrecy was “born of shame and guilt.” He avoids moralizing his story, but he subtly implies that his father is attracted to violent images in part because of the stigma attached to his “mainstream” pornographic work. Had he simply accepted that we liked pornography—that pornography is normal—all might have been well. The thought is common enough in our culture, at least, even if Offutt does not agree with it.
In fact, we have pressed the bounds of sexuality so far that “sex negativity” is our only sin left: Any attempt to find a moral basis for sexuality beyond pleasure and consent is simply too prudish, too retrograde to be taken seriously in our enlightened age. Pornography is inescapable; therefore, it must be permissible. There is no other way for us, much less a “more excellent” one.
Imagining a world that has not so cheapened human sexuality, then, is the first act of resistance to the many lies pornography tells. A porn-saturated world or life is not inevitable: there is nothing in the cosmos that says it must be a permanent feature of our experience. To confess this, and to acknowledge our own responsibility in making the world we have, is to take the first steps toward freedom. By the grace of God, we can live in a world other than that which we now know. That such a thought is so foreign to most of our society betrays how weak the pornography regime is: the moment we begin contemplating the prospect of living otherwise, the whole shoddy artifice that makes it seem attractive collapses into rubble. Finding a “more excellent way” begins with remembering that another way is possible—a thought that the pornography industry does not want anyone to truly believe.
A porn-saturated world or life is not inevitable: there is nothing in the cosmos that says it must be a permanent feature of our experience.
Pornography may represent a less vicious deviance than that which murder depends on, but it trades on the same destructive, dehumanizing impulses. And comparing the two disturbs our complacent, lazy acceptance of pornography as a benign and harmless form of amusement. It shocks us because the widespread use of pornography seems so natural, so inevitable. It horrifies us because the world of pornography is our world. The parallel cannot be, must not be true. But it is.The Death of Wonder and the Trivialization of What Matters
“Let wonder seem familiar,” Shakespeare has written, “and to the chapel let us presently.” The line is from his play Much Ado about Nothing, which is nothing if not a wondrous tale. A young man mistakenly accuses his fiancée of infidelity, and she faints upon the unjust slander. He believes her dead, and sorrowfully repents on learning his error. All is made well at a wedding, where he is stunned by the vision of his fiancée alive and is chastened by her offer of forgiveness. The friar is the one who instructs us all to become friends with wonder, provided that we make our way off to the chapel for its formalization in due order. The advice is worth following.
The path toward seeing how pornography dehumanizes begins here, in thinking about the death of wonder in our hearts and our lives. But I do not speak of wonder about sex—not yet, anyway. The death of mystery in that realm is only one manifestation of a more general disease, a pornification of our eyes and our minds that extends well beyond the realm of sexual stimulation. Whether pornography is to blame for this more general problem, or vice versa, may remain subject to debate; my only interest is in arguing that what happens in pornography is not limited to sex.
What happens in pornography is not limited to sex.
Consider, for a moment, our practices of reading or watching other entertaining or informational “content.” Our minds are often hurried and frantic, which keeps our attention strictly on the surface of things. Any pleasures that come from reading must be had quickly (especially when reading online), or we give up on the task. We skim articles and book chapters, hastily moving on to consume the next bit of information. Our eyes jump from photo to photo while scrolling our phones in line at the store. We flit about from channel to channel, awaiting the next spectacle that can seize our attention. Ours is a life in the shallows, to use Nicholar Carr’s fine phrase. We rarely expend the effort required to contemplate any farther than what appears in our direct line of sight, gorging ourselves on surfaces and images until we finally grow weary and eventually fall asleep.
This ravenous lust of vision is classically known as curiositas, curiosity. Curiositas is a restlessness of the spirit and mind, an unsettled anxiety that pursues new spectacles to consume. Such pleasurable novelties provide cheap mental stimulation with little to no work. The momentary Facebook check “just to see” gives us a brief respite from the responsibilities before us. We may not care about what we find; what matters is that we have found something new, and that we are entertained. Curiosity fixes our attention on the “things below,” the things that are seen, the things that we can dispense with the moment we are done. But because such visions lack depth they will never satisfy. And because they are ubiquitous they must become more outlandish. The only way to arrest the attention of the curious is by making a scene, and then attempting to outdo yourself the next time around.
The Christian objection to porn is not motivated by a fear of sexuality or by ‘sex negativity,’ but by a sanctified sense of wonder at the beauty of the human being, fully alive and fully revealed.
A society animated by this kind of curiosity will have two compatible, paradoxical sentiments.
First, it will attempt to peel back the curtain and lay bare sordid and dirty secrets. Curiosity aims to expose what ought not be known. Our society’s rampant fascination with the inner workings of the lives of celebrities—lives we will never have—may seem benign. But the voyeurism that moves someone to gaze lustfully through a window operates according to the same logic, only in a sexual key. We will have our spectacles wherever we can find them—and the more secret, the better.
Second, curiosity undercuts our stomach for more serious ventures. “Cat videos don’t really matter,” we say—and that is why our interest in them is damning. Curiosity is attentive only to the surface. It cannot abide the matter, the substance, or the depths before us. Curiosity is content with the image; but loving attention needs bodies. The curious has not the patience required for sustained consideration, much less the openness to the consuming immersiveness of wondrous rapture.
It is easy to see the spirit of curiositas at work in pornography. Porn offers the most alluring sort of spectacle. Depictions of individuals engaged in secret acts of grave importance can be viewed, enjoyed, and discarded with no investment or pain on the viewer’s part. The rapid-fire, disposable quality of pornography suits and fosters the restlessness of those who view it. It leads them to continue scrolling and hunting for the look or scene that might momentarily awaken their imaginations. All that matters are the surfaces, and the more and more provocative, the better.
It is easier for those drowning in a whirlpool of deceits to embrace their situation as ‘normal’ than it is to escape.
There is no room within curiositas for reverential awe, for a sense that there are some mysteries that are not ours to unveil. The Christian objection to porn is not motivated by a fear of sexuality or by “sex negativity,” but by a sanctified sense of wonder at the beauty of the human being, fully alive and fully revealed. And such wondrous treasures desire secrecy: hiddenness is the native habitat of glory. But our curious society has long shed its reluctance to profane the most holy places: the body in its sexual presentation is now merely one more trivial amusement meant for the satisfaction of momentary and passing interests, leaving no permanent mark on the soul or the society. Sex no longer matters—which is why it will no longer be fun. For the comedy, the ordinariness, and the mundane weirdness of sex draw energy and life from the enchanted awe that tempts us to kneel in chaste humility before the glory of another human being. No longer sacred, sex has become nothing at all.Obscenities and the Modesty of Desire
Reflect for a moment on an obscenity. We know the options well enough. Such words have power because they violently expose what is normally hidden. Ephesians 5:12 suggests that it is “shameful even to speak of the things that [the pagans] do in secret.” The obscenity takes such matters and makes a scene of them, forcing our mind’s eye into the darkness of holy places. When reverence dies, such words lose their force. Our culture’s widespread acceptance of certain words can be explained this way.
The restriction of Ephesians 5:12, though, poses a problem for writing about pornography, a problem that also helps explain how pornography lies. As Christians, we are tasked with critiquing pornography without awakening illicit desires ourselves. If we are too explicit, we engage in the kind of obscenities we are denouncing—a problem shock-jock pastors have sometimes fallen into.
Strategic ambiguity about matters of sexuality is essential for protecting love. Those in love are sometimes so swept up in their games that they do not realize the passions forming beneath them. But once love arises, it delights in preserving a hidden core known by the couple alone. The first time couples tell their engagement stories is a paradigmatic example. There is often a gap in the tale somewhere after she says “yes” that is filled by the highly suggestive “and then we said some stuff.” They mean, of course, that they kissed madly and furiously. And appropriately so. But lovers delight in speaking elusively about their most intimate expressions. Naming them directly spoils a good deal of the fun. Song of Solomon is an erotically charged book precisely because it is not a sex manual; it hides the physical intimacy where it belongs, behind the veil of metaphors, allusions, and analogies.
Pornography betrays love’s natural inclination toward privacy. But in doing so, it can only depict distortions of the real thing. Pornography is an exemplary instance of the “observer’s paradox,” which says that the subject under observation is unwittingly influenced by the presence of a third party. The observer’s paradox means that publicity changes the event: performing before an audience is a different kind of act than practicing in private. Love’s true character can be known only by those experiencing it firsthand. Viewing an act of love from the outside does not allow us to see what we think we are viewing: if love is really present, it can only be felt and known within the faces and bodies of those engaging in it. Even pornographers understand this, which is why virtual-reality porn and sex-bots are in our society’s (near) future: they promise to simulate the face-to-face character of sexual desire better than a computer screen can.
Romance and marriage are too much work when sex and pornography are a swipe or click away.
And we can go farther down this path: what happens within an unobserved room is necessarily different for the couple itself when a camera is present. The face-to-face character of desire is not meant to be displayed, but enjoyed. Lovers who film their own sexual activity for their own private enjoyment later allow the structure and logic of pornography to determine their own union—even if they are married. And they do not record their own love, but a subtly distorted imitation of it, as they introduce a willingness on their part to be viewed from the outside—even if they are the only ones watching. Such mimicry may appear, on the surface, to be the pure display of marital intimacy. But when we go beneath the surface it becomes clear that marital unions can surrender to the pornographic, even if they do not produce or watch commercial pornography.
Pornography lies, then, by imitating the pleasures and the sacrifices of love, and destroys them in the process. But death can mimic life persuasively for only so long. We are hurtling fast toward pornography’s triumphal destruction of the romance that once guarded and preserved our relationships. By turning the central mystery of human sexuality into a public display, pornography undermines the rules and conventions that both honored sex and made sin possible. When sexual pleasure assumed the throne of our hearts, romance was the inevitable victim. Romance and marriage are too much work when sex and pornography are a swipe or click away. Hollywood’s happy endings may have made us believe too easily that marriage is effortless and simple—but they were also one of our last bulwarks against the banal degradation of sex. The pornified mind cannot be bothered with the adornment of foreplay, much less the patient and constant pursuit of one’s spouse. Though such burdens give the act more meaning and significance, they take time and energy to happily sustain. Why bother as long as the easy pleasures of porn are at hand?Objectification and Porn
Industrialized sex profits from orgasms, which means that they need to be had on the cheap. And so the industry manufactures pleasures with as few costs to the producer or consumer as possible. Time is money: Offutt’s dad “wrote” his “novels” in as few as three days. And labor is plentiful. Women in porn are shockingly dispensable; they have “shelf-lives” of only a few short years, if they survive past first exposure at all. And real women will soon be irrelevant to the process, anyway. Digitally created, CGI porn will be cheap and easy to produce, making “victimless” porn a real possibility.
But it is the orgasms of the audience—not the performers—that make pornographers money. The man who watches pornography is himself the product: it is his pleasure that the industry aims at, his satisfaction that matters most of all. The women and men who perform before an audience become objects of their audience’s gratification; but the bitter, brutal irony of the pornography industry is that by aiming at such pleasure the audience objectifies itself by becoming a product in a commercial transaction. Porn degrades everyone involved in it, but its customers most of all—for they are the unwitting dupes who do not realize the game that is being played against them.
Porn degrades everyone involved, but its customers most of all—for they are the unwitting dupes who do not realize the game that is being played against them.
Where is the viewer of pornography when they watch a scene, and why does it arouse them? In its central case, sexual desire aims at reciprocity: arousal happens when we are drawn not simply to a beautiful person, but when we notice that person welcoming and returning our interest. We want to be wanted, and sexual desire is our bodily recognition that we are desired in a similar, bodily way. Pornography trades on the hope that we will be desired: we believe that the woman looking back at us wants us, that she is “ours” in the way a spouse might one day become (many of these claims are developed in full in Roger Scruton’s Sexual Desire).
Viewers of pornography, then, place themselves imaginatively within the scene. There is a kind of “empathy” at work in such viewership, a self-identification that happens between ourselves and the subjects being depicted. The audience at King Lear feels all of his sorrow by seeing themselves manifested in Lear’s mistakes, and his own decline as illuminating their own challenges. But this empathetic identification means that viewing is never neutral: watching entangles our wills by presenting us with a point of view and requiring that we accept or reject it. If we delight when characters in novels do wrong, we really are doing something wrong. The self-identification between the viewer and the subject is what makes pornography attractive, and what makes it bad: imagining ourselves in such scenarios is a morally potent act, in that our wills affirm the acts as they are happening. Pornography, if it is anything, cannot be morally trivial.
But this identification of the self with what we are viewing betrays the expansive and unrestrained narcissistic greed at the heart of the pornographic world. The women who look out from the screen do not merely want us, but our most fantastic and delusional portraits of our selves. In order for the fiction that they desire us to have any sense, we must (momentarily, at least) think ourselves desirable. Such an irrational, unfounded wishfulness only survives by feeding itself on more lies—so the depiction of one woman goes up to two, and so the harem is born.
Beneath pornography is the supposition that the mere fact of our desire for a woman makes us worthy of her. And so, not being bound by any kind of norm, desire must proceed endlessly. It is no surprise that the industrialized, cheap-and-easy sex of pornography has answered and evoked an almost unrestrained sexual greed, which allows us to be gods and goddesses within the safety of our own fantasies. It is for deep and important reasons that the Ten Commandments use the economic language of “coveting” to describe the badness of errant sexual desires.
Marriage is a union of only two, and no others: pornography replaces one member, reducing them from equal partner to instrument for personal gratification.
The empathetic imagining of themselves in a pornography scene, though, does turn the other participants into objects and instruments for our own satisfaction. What are all the other characters in the scene for? Nothing save our self-indulgence. Pornography reduces conversation and relationship from an intimate disclosure of our personhood to an irritating waystation on the quick path to sexual pleasure. Elaborate and sophisticated stories function as little more than extended foreplay for the pornographic. And all the participants disappear when our payoff arrives. We click to a new page, we turn off the sex-bot so we can go get lunch, we furtively flee the the prostitute and return to our “real” lives. The scenarios are different; the logic is the same. In each case, the woman is nothing more than an instrument to our fantastical pleasures: she is a tool that we discard the moment we find a more satisfactory widget. The people of pornography are no more irreplaceable than salad forks: If one gets tired or boring, swap it for another and no harm is (ostensibly) done.
Pornography is not bad because it causes adultery. Instead, it is bad because the user acts as if committing adultery. Pornography is stimulating because we imagine ourselves in sexual acts not involving our spouses. Pornography use means that one’s spouse is fungible or replaceable with respect to sexual activity, an activity central to the shape and meaning of marriage. And this is so even if we do not realize that is what we are doing. It is possible to do great wrongs without knowing, or even intending them. Marriage is a union of only two, and no others: pornography replaces one member, reducing them from equal partner to instrument for personal gratification.Peopling of the World
Pornography is a murder from the heart. Is this too strong? Or must we use such language to wake us from the slumbering injustice in which we live? Perhaps, if our eyes were able to break through the smoggy haze of our pornified society, we would see the slow, steady hand of Death at work all around us. Perhaps we would awake into the terror of those who once knew how holiness felt. Perhaps if we would recognize the desecration of the temple of the living God that we are all every day complicit in, we would pray to the same Lord for mercy.
Reducing the human person to an instrument for our pleasure is to wish in our hearts that they simply did not exist as persons. If we believe human beings can be replaced by sex-bots or virtual-reality pornography, what good are they, precisely? Persons are independent centers of agency, with their own wills and minds and reason. They cannot be traded, like baseball cards, on the basis that one brings us more sexual pleasure than another. To do so violates the nature of their humanity. Pornography, I say again, is a form of murder within the heart.
The world must be peopled—we must be people within the world, serving one another. Porn stands in the way of this.
Which is why, eventually, pornography obscures or violates the faces of the women who are drawn into it. From the eyes and the mouth flow forth speech and song and poetry and all the marks that make humans mysteries. But as pornography progresses, the person is effaced. The locus of their personal presence is reduced to a receptacle of our own projective fantasies. “In pornography the face has no role to play,” Scruton has written, “other than to be subjected to the empire of the body.”
Against such violence we can only respond as Shakespeare did: “The world must be peopled!” Pornography de-peoples the world. I have mentioned that it hangs on the pretense that the human beings around us are instruments for our pleasure. But making people tools allows us to pretend that we have no obligations toward them, that they cannot make a claim on us. There is no sharper contrast with such a life than babies, who show a delightfully flagrant disregard for the pleasures of their parents. Parents love their little humans in part because they are tiny, adorable bundles of obligations. A sexuality ordered appropriately will bear fruit—in children, yes, but also in being empowered by the Spirit to joyfully welcome the other human bundles of needs into our lives, even if we are not ourselves married. The world must be peopled—we must be people within the world, serving one another. Pornography stands in the way.
“Let wonder seem familiar, and to the chapel let us presently.” For confession and repentance, for renewal and forgiveness, for the manner of our treatment of one another—a manner we are all participants in—and for, above all, the hope of the gospel. We are restored as people in the word of grace, set free from the bondage of “inevitability” for our sins. At the cross of Christ, every human life finds a worth that is inestimable. Christ has died for all (2 Cor. 5:14–15)! How then shall we not meet each other with a chaste and holy reverence, with a sanctified fear and trembling that is a mark of our salvation? The lives of those who make and consume pornography bear the stamp, the image of Jesus Christ. When we finally see them as they are, with the clear eyes of purity, we will know either awe for their majesty or sorrow for its marring. Let such wonder be familiar: within it lies the wellspring of hope.
One of the most basic functions of leadership is the power of choice. Like pebbles tossed in a lake, leaders daily make choices that ripple in every direction. The choices leaders make, through action or inaction, will likely change more lives than they can possibly imagine.
Here are three important choices leaders face on a regular basis.1. The Choice to Build Bridges
Barnabas’s choice to bring Saul to the fearful apostolic leadership team, skeptical of his conversion, may have been one of the most influential actions in all of church history (Acts 9). His choice to advocate for Saul, much like he would later advocate for John Mark, furthered the reach of the gospel and deepened Christian relationships.
Leaders have unique power to build bridges between believers. This side of glory there will always be a need for leaders to do the hard work of bringing fractured believers together. Stroll through the hallways of your church on a Sunday morning and you will rub shoulders with believers who are separated from other believers due to sin, disagreement, misunderstanding, or hurt.
Paul pleads with the Philippian church to help build a bridge between Euodia and Syntyche, “these women who have labored side by side with me in the gospel” (Phil. 4:3). Even godly servants will sometimes find their fellowship fractured. Being an agent of reconciliation is a messy task, but it provides a glorious opportunity to answer Christ’s prayer:
I do not ask for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you Father, are in me, and I in you, that they may also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. (John 17:20–21)
The choice to seek unity—or not—reverberates with spiritual power. What choice will you make?2. The Choice to Pursue Humility or Embrace Pride
Pride comes naturally. Seeking positions of influence and power is the natural desire of the sinful nature (Mark 10:35–45). Ride on the highway during heavy traffic and you’re reminded that the natural disposition of humanity is not to “count other as more significant than yourselves” (Phil. 2:3). Humility is a choice. How much gospel ministry has been hindered because we choose to embrace pride rather than humility?
Jonathan Edwards wrote a powerful essay titled “Undetected Spiritual Pride: One Cause of Failure in Times of Great Revival.” The ease with which we slip into the pride he describes is frightening. Edwards cautions that “the spiritually proud person shows it in his finding fault with other saints. . . . The eminently humble Christian has so much to do at home and sees so much evil in his own that he is not apt to be very busy with other hearts.” Church leaders need to regularly evaluate curriculum, popular preachers, candidates for leadership positions, marriages, and much more. It’s impossible to lead well without evaluating, but we must seek to humbly guard our hearts in the process, lest we fall into a fault-finding spirit.
Faithful shepherding requires confronting sin and having “hard conversations.” For some, however, this becomes a mask for a harsh spirit rooted in pride rather than humble love. Certain leaders seem to revel in bold, in-your-face confrontation, but Edwards cautions us that “Christians who are but fellow worms ought to at least treat one another with as much humility and gentleness as Christ treats them.” The choice to seek humility reflects the glory of God in Christ. Which will you choose?3. The Choice to Obey the Lord
The leader’s choice to obey Christ—or not—causes ripples in the lives of everyone around. Consider the life of Jonah. His choice to go to Tarshish rather than Nineveh prompted the Lord to send a great storm, which led the entire unbelieving crew to throw their goods overboard in fear for their lives. Jonah’s disobedience cost them their livelihood. Disobedience in the life of a leader always ripples beyond their personal life to their family, church, and community.
On the other hand, reflexive obedience to the call and command of God yields ripples of blessing in lives all around. Paul’s choice to follow God’s command to go to Macedonia rather than Asia was a vehicle to bring people from death to life (Acts 16:6–10). The apostle’s choice to obey God rather than the Jewish religious establishment laid a vision for allegiance to Christ above government that has inspired faithful Christians from Eric Liddell to Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Acts 4:19–20). Obedience and disobedience are never simply personal matters; in the life of a leader they become actions which affect a community.
Leaders, your power to choose is one of the greatest gifts God has given you for his glory and the good of those you serve. Avoid the danger of making decisions rashly, bereft of prayer and counsel, without concern for the many who will be affected by your action or inaction. Guard against the tendency to settle into a hyper-Calvinism that erroneously places so much weight on God’s sovereignty that it undercuts your responsibility to properly shepherd the people God has set you over. Rather than allowing the weight of choice to crush you, let it move you to pray, seek wise counsel, and grow in your walk with Christ—that your choices may reflect his light and love to a world that needs it.
Every choice of a leader leaves a ripple. What choices will we make?
The Story: American churches don’t just have a deficit of men—they have a shortage of unmarried young men. This trend makes it harder for young women to find mates who are spiritually compatible.
The Background: In a new analysis of demographic data, Lyman Stone looks at the balance of young, unmarried Christians in American churches. Rather than focusing simply on the ratio of men to women, he looks at the ratio of young men and women under the age of 50 who have never been married, or who are widowed. He finds that in every major Protestant group there are less than 100 prime-age, unmarried men per 100 prime-age, unmarried women.
Among historically black churches, the situation is especially severe: there are less than 50 men for every 100 women. Among evangelicals the imbalance is slightly less dire: there are about 93 men per 100 women.
Stone also finds that when looking at religious attendance the gender ratios get more severe. Unmarried women are unlikely to find eligible men in their churches—or even in their local area. “Even expanding this scenario to assume that same-denomination churches in a region are a single dating market,” says Stone, “you can expand to five or 10 churches and still end up with a single-digit number of men who meet the basic demographic criteria and aren’t currently in a relationship with someone else.”
The odds are even worse for both men and women who want to marry a similarly devout partner. “For every 100 eligible women, there are 85 eligible men,” notes Stone. “In other words, large shares of devout Christian women will have great difficulty finding a similarly, or even passably, devout Christian romantic partner.”
Why It Matters: “If there are large gender imbalances, with far more men or far more women, then young people may have difficulties forming families,” says Stone.
“What makes American churches bad places to meet a spouse is that American churches just don’t have many unmarried young people at all,” he adds. “Finding a good spouse requires a considerable volume of options, which is why online dating and other digital options are so popular.
Finding a suitable marriage partner should not be a primary reason to belong to a church, of course. And at least for the past hundred years, the church has not been a prime spot for finding a mate. As Stone points out, only four percent of people today meet their spouse in church, down from a peak of 12 percent in 1940. But there are numerous reasons why may want to reverse this trend in our secular age.
A number of social maladies in American could be alleviated if there were more families with devout Christian men serving as spiritual leaders within their home and communities. If men who will become such leaders cannot be found in our churches, where will they be found?
Some congregations, as Stone notes, are constrained by sex ratios while most are simply constrained by economies of scale. Churches, especially smaller churches, could work together to find creative ways for young people to find like-minded partners. One way would be to host special joint singles events with other gospel-centered local churches. (This approach would also prevent church functions such as community groups from being turned into “dating markets.”) We must also find ways to ensure that young men are brought into the church and discipled in such a way that they have a biblical view of sexual ethics.
Over the past decade, churches in America have begun to better recognize and appreciate that many Christian are called to singleness. But we must not overlook that marriage remains the cultural norm (by age 45, 81 percent of men and 86 percent of women have married at least once). If we want spiritually healthy Christians families in our churches we should do more to help create the pool of marriageable disciples that make such families possible.
When I was a freshman in college, committing to a church didn’t feel like a big deal. I figured I could always just leave or stop going whenever I wanted. After all, it’s normal for people to bounce around to different churches in college, right? (I’m so grateful that, despite my noncommittal attitude, I never left the church I initially joined; my wife and I still are still actively involved more than four years later.)
What I now realize, however, is that my faith wouldn’t have grown nearly as much if I’d church-hopped during my college experience. Committing to a church changed my life. God used regular, mundane, and unglamorous commitment to a church to grow and strengthen my faith in significant ways. And promises to do the same for you through your regular commitment to a church.You Need a Church
You are a freshman. Chances are it’s the first time you’re completely on your own. No more parents telling you what to do or monitoring your every action. You’re now breathing the fresh air of self-reliance. You make your own choices—and one is whether to wake up for church on Sunday morning. No matter how hard Mom and Dad push you or how many times Grandma asks you on the phone, when the Sunday-morning alarm rings on your phone, the choice is yours. In this moment, consider this:
You drastically need the church, and Satan wants you to think you don’t.
Satan wants to turn the fresh air of self-reliance into poisonous carbon monoxide. The last thing he wants you to do is to get up and go to church. As your bed starts to feel strangely more cozy, the thoughts start to creep in: What harm is it to sleep in for this one Sunday? You were out late last night with new friends, and they aren’t going to church today. You could use the extra sleep. And what about all the homework you haven’t started? It would be more productive to spend the morning studying.
Committing to a church in college changed my life.
Satan wants you to think that committing to a church is a waste of time, that there are far more beneficial things you could be doing. In reality, however, you need the church more than you need any extra sleep, study, sorority, fraternity, or student organization. The church is where the gospel is found, and Sunday morning is the time when the gospel gets preached to you. To quit attending church in college would be like Noah jumping out of the ark, forsaking the chief means God was using to preserve him.
You need the church because you need to hear God’s Word. You need the church because you need wise and godly mentors. You need the church because you need accountability for your profession of faith. You need the church because you need reminders that your identity rests in Christ crucified. By his death he purchased for you all the power, energy, and motivation you need to invest your life in a local church.Five Quick Tips for Committing to a Church
- Use TGC’s Church Directory to find a gospel-centered church near your campus.
- Attend with friends. You are more likely to commit to a local church if you have friends who also desire to commit.
- Try different denominations. The universal body of Christ is larger than the denomination you grew up in. I grew up in a Southern Baptist church, and it wasn’t until college that I attended a non-Baptist church. Of course, be wise and do your research before attending a church of an unfamiliar denomination—above all, ensure that it preaches the gospel. Even if you don’t enjoy everything about the church, at the least you will have a broader perspective on the church universal.
- Commit early. Once you have found a gospel-centered church, go ahead and commit. Join it. Submit your life to the oversight of its leaders and to the care and accountability of its members. Committing early will allow you enough time to really invest and get involved in the community of the church while in college.
- No church is perfect. Inevitably, the church you join will be deeply flawed even on its best day. Changing churches will not solve the problem. Every church is filled with imperfect redeemed people, including you.
“When Christian parents say to me, ‘I don’t know how in the world we’re supposed to raise children in a time like this,’ I say, ‘Well, how about when you had to take them into Canaan?’ As you see the experience of Israel taking its children into Canaan, they were taking them into a land marked by child sacrifice and a land in which the idolatry was so blatantly sexualized that it would make Hollywood—if this is imaginable—look tame by comparison. Or imagine saying that to Christians in first-century Rome, or in the several centuries that followed. What would it be like to have to send your 15-year-old into a city where he’d have to pass cult prostitutes and other things just on the way?” — Al Mohler
Date: March 31, 2019
Event: TGC 2019 National Pre-Conference, Indianapolis, Indiana
- Jen Wilkin on Training a Child in the Way He Should Speak
- Parenting for Eternity amid 21st-Century Challenges
- Raising an Alien Child
Find more audio and video from the 2019 National Conference on the conference media page.
Soon I will be retiring from my position as senior pastor of the Boston Chinese Evangelical Church. I have served in this church for 42 years, the last 19 as its senior pastor. I have seen the Lord bless the church mightily over the years. It was about 150 people in one bilingual service when I started in 1977 as the youth director. Today the church has more than 1,100 adults in seven congregations using three languages.
Pastoring this church has had its challenges. As is the case in many ethnic churches in America, the first-generation immigrants use their mother tongue, while the second generation is much more fluent in English. I am a second-generation immigrant who isn’t fluent in Chinese, and such ministers don’t usually last long in churches with a large first-generation immigrant population. The language, culture, and generational differences make it difficult for young ministers who don’t understand the Chinese language and culture to survive, much less thrive. In fact, after I “survived” for only two years in the church, I was asked to write an article for a national publication for Chinese churches to share my secrets for lasting so long.Model of Christ
As I reflect on how the Lord brought me through this incredible journey, I thank him for giving me a model of Christ before I entered ministry. Humanly speaking, I wouldn’t be a pastor, much less have served in the same church for all these years, without his influence. Let me share with you about him and how he affected my life.
When I went to college at New York University, I eventually found my way to Chinese Evangel Mission (CEM). It was a small storefront church in Chinatown. But it had an English-speaking congregation composed of 30 to 40 second-generation young people like me.
This small English congregation was led by Lee. Though he has a Chinese-sounding name, Lee was German. (His full name is Alfred Lee Hearn.) From rural eastern Pennsylvania, Lee came to the church through an internship with Nyack Missionary College and served at CEM for more than 38 years. Though he was faithful to the Word of God, Lee wouldn’t be considered an eloquent preacher. He didn’t have advanced theological degrees. He certainly wasn’t the pastor of a large, famous church. Lee was an ordinary person whom God used to profoundly affect me and many others. He showed me the beauty of Christ in three ways.1. Servant Leadership
Lee showed me what it meant to be a servant leader. I’d grown up thinking that a leader, even a Christian leader, had to be bossy to get things done. To me, ideal leaders were like the heroes I idolized in movies, such as John Wayne.
But Lee was a humble man. He didn’t draw attention to himself; rather, he downplayed his importance. We called him “Lee” because that’s what he preferred—not “Reverend” or “Pastor,” just “Lee.” Lee thought of himself like John the Baptist who, speaking of Jesus said: “He must increase, I must decrease” (John 3:30). It wasn’t about Lee. It was about Jesus.
As a servant leader, Lee served the church in whatever capacity was required. CEM’s storefront church building was old. The boiler frequently broke down. I have seen Lee covered in soot from working on the boiler in the dark, dingy basement, trying to save the building a big repair bill.
Lee was single. He never married or had children. But he used his singleness to spend more time serving others. He lived on the fifth floor of the storefront church building and, rather than guarding his privacy, he allowed the teen boys to hang out at his apartment. Many of the boys had fathers who spent little time with them, since they had to work long hours in restaurants. Lee became like a father to many of them, listening to their problems and giving wise counsel even late into the night.2. Endurance
Lee also showed me the beauty of Christ through his endurance. Hebrews 12 tells us that Jesus endured the shame and hostility of the cross. He is our ultimate model for running life’s race with endurance. But Lee reflected the endurance and patience of Christ in a way I could personally observe.
The other half of CEM was Chinese-speaking and Chinese-thinking. They were also older, so many held positions of leadership in the church. Acts 6 tells of conflict that came from different language groups even in the first-century church. Yet Lee was able to navigate the minefield of potential conflicts and misunderstanding for 38 years. It takes extraordinary patience to be a peacemaker.3. Incarnational Ministry
Finally, Lee showed me the beauty of Christ through his incarnational ministry. Jesus, though he was God, became a human being. He suffered the limitations and pain of having a physical body and living in our world. Lee came from a rural, white environment and chose to live in New York’s Chinatown. His parents weren’t former missionaries in China. Lee had to adapt his whole life for the people God called him to serve. Though he learned to like Chinese food, he never was able to learn to use chopsticks.Obscure Hero
After retirement, Lee left New York City and returned to the rural life of eastern Pennsylvania. He bought a small farm, where he continues to live in relative obscurity. He is now 87 with great memories of a fruitful life.
In the parable of the wedding feast (Luke 14), Jesus warned people not to clamor for seats of honor at a wedding. Rather, let the host invite you to sit in the place of honor. I think Jesus will invite Lee to move up closer.
You can read previous installments in this series.
I once heard a well-known Christian pastor say, “The business of the church is not the business of the church.” Since the mission of local churches isn’t to generate profits, congregations shouldn’t be distracted by the details of church finances.
Sadly, time revealed the leader’s refusal to share information about church finances was more about covering his irresponsible use of the Lord’s resources than it was about encouraging the flock to stay on mission. Eventually, the pastor was dismissed, the church was mired in financial controversy, and Christ’s reputation in the community was damaged.
This story is one reason church leaders should carefully read Jamie Dunlop’s excellent new book, Budgeting for a Healthy Church: Aligning Finances with Biblical Priorities for Ministry [20 quotes]. The business of the church—that is, the responsible stewardship of resources entrusted to a local congregation—is very much a responsibility of God’s people. Hence, local churches must make it a goal to align financial practices with biblical priorities, such that when Christ returns people are thankful for every dollar they entrusted to that congregation (33).Biblical Principles for . . . Parking Lots
Most churches don’t hide financial statements. More often they themselves are unsure how biblical principles should inform the budgeting process. Picture, for example, elders meeting about whether or not to invest in additional parking spaces. (By the way, if you haven’t priced a parking lot recently, pouring asphalt is not cheap.)
Elder 1: How can we justify spending $75,000 for 25 parking spaces? Do you know how far $75,000 can go in Myanmar?
Elder 2: Yes, $75,000 is a lot of money. But our average giving per attendee is about $2,000. If God uses the parking lot to eventually allow 60 more people to become part of our church, the parking lot would be a great investment of God’s resources.
Elder 1: I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m not comfortable turning the stewardship of God’s resources into a “business.” We’re about gospel proclamation, not business propositions. And I’m not comfortable with estimating that the next 2-year-old who begins to come to our church with his parents is going to put $2,000 in the offering plate.
Elder 2: Of course, deciding whether or not to put in an additional parking lot at church isn’t simply a business decision. And we could choose to immediately give the money to missions. But the Lord Jesus directed us to leverage the assets given so as to multiply what has been entrusted to us.
Elder 3: Our people should just be willing to walk farther. And I have a hard time believing that adding a parking lot is that important. God, not parking lots, is the one who saves. We should leave this all up to the deacons anyway. We’re in charge of spiritual matters; they’re the ones responsible for church business.
Why does a parking-lot discussion so quickly become tense? Because church leaders are unsure who should lead and in what way. And of course, parking-lot arguments are tame compared to matters such as staff compensation.
Dunlop’s book ably shows how biblical truth is brought to bear on such budgetary decisions.Financial Is Spiritual
Dunlop, an associate pastor at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., begins with the clear point that the administration of a church’s finances shouldn’t be seen as distinct from the spiritual life of the church. On the contrary, a church budget should be seen as a spiritual document (17). Indeed, “what a church treasures—how it spends money—reveals its heart, its values, and its priorities” (15). A focus on being found faithful with the use of its assets should inform every aspect of a church’s budget (33).
Given that the budget is a spiritual document, Dunlop rightly argues it’s the responsibility of a church’s elders to oversee the budgeting process. Indeed, elders should make a goal to plan for a more spiritually valuable budget over time (45). For instance, elders should take the lead in selecting outreach opportunities (116–17).
Budgeting for a Healthy Church also includes chapters on compensating staff, budgeting for programs, missions and outreach, and operations. Each chapter surveys the relevant biblical material and then applies clearly developed principles to church budgeting.
Even as Dunlop makes his case biblically, he offers practical worksheets and resources that church leaders can adapt for their own budgeting processes. (These resources are also offered for free at 9Marks.) Likewise, the budgeting checklist included in the final chapter is a useful tool to help churches be sure that they’re implementing what Dunlop’s book teaches (148–53).
Those who have worked in local-church leadership know it’s common for members to make a false distinction between spiritual and financial matters. Correcting that mindset isn’t an easy task. Budgeting for a Healthy Church is a wonderful resource that will meet this need. I’m asking our leaders to invest the time to read this short book. And I encourage other churches to do the same.
Ten years ago, Becket Cook was a gay man in Hollywood who had achieved great success as a set designer in the fashion industry. He worked with stars and supermodels, from Natalie Portman to Claudia Schiffer, traveling the world to design photo shoots for the likes of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. He attended award shows and parties at the homes of Paris Hilton and Prince. He spent summers swimming in Drew Barrymore’s pool.
A decade later, Cook has moved on from that life—and he doesn’t miss it.
What changed for Cook? He met Jesus. On a momentous day in September 2009, while drinking coffee with a friend at Intelligentsia in L.A.’s Silver Lake neighborhood, Cook started chatting with a group of young people sitting at a nearby table—physical Bibles opened in front of them (remember, this was 2009). They were from a church called Reality L.A. (where TGC Council member Jeremy Treat serves as lead pastor), and they invited Cook to visit the church.
Cook took them up on the invitation and visited Reality L.A. the next Sunday, where he heard the gospel and gave his life to Jesus. He never looked back, trading his gay identity for a new identity in Christ. In the years since, Cook completed a degree at Talbot School of Theology and wrote a memoir of his conversion, A Change of Affection: A Gay Man’s Incredible Story of Redemption, which just released.
I recently met up with Cook at Intelligentsia—the place where his encounter with coffee-drinking, Bible-studying Christians set his conversion in motion. Here is an edited transcript of our conversation.Take me back to that day, in this very coffee shop, 10 years ago. What was going on in your life that made the soil, so to speak, ready to receive the gospel seed?
It was a moment in Paris six months earlier. I was at a fashion party and just felt empty: I had done everything in Hollywood, met everyone, traveled everywhere. Yet I was overwhelmed with emptiness at this party. It was one of the most intense “is that all there is?” moments in my life. I had already been wrestling with questions about the meaning of life, searching for it in all sorts of ways. But I knew God was never an option, because I was gay. It was off the table. I wasn’t confused about what the Bible had to say about homosexuality. I knew it was clear. But I was still searching for meaning.
So when I came to this coffee shop six months later and saw that group of young people with their Bibles open, I started asking them questions. They explained the gospel, what they believed. I asked what their church believed about homosexuality and they explained that they believed it was a sin. I appreciated their honesty and that they didn’t beat around the bush. But the reason I was able to accept their answer was because I had that moment in Paris. Five years earlier I would have been like, You guys are insane. You’re in the dark ages. But instead I was like, Maybe I could be wrong. Maybe this actually is a sin. So I was open to it in the moment. And then they invited me to church.When you showed up to church that first Sunday at Reality, you ended up becoming a Christian. What happened?
Tim Chaddick preached the sermon that day, and everything he was saying basically turned what I knew about religion upside down. I grew up in Catholic schools and I honestly thought religion was just being a good person, doing good things. I don’t think the priests in my high school once explained what the gospel was. Not once. So when Tim was preaching all these things that were the exact opposite of what I thought religion was, I was like, Whoa. It all really resonated, and it prompted me to go forward at the end of the service to receive prayer. It was shocking and unexpected to me, a Road to Damascus moment. It was so powerful, so all-consuming. I was all-in.What did discipleship look like for you after you got saved?
Tim and I would meet for coffee each week, and though I didn’t know why, he was discipling me. That was vital. There were so many others at the church who came around me and supported me, recommending books and sermons and praying for me. I would get random “I’m praying for you today!” texts all the time. I joined a community group right away. I listened to all of Tim Keller’s sermons, as well as John Stott and Dick Lucas. It was a process of people discipling me at my church and God discipling me through these other voices. During that time right after I got saved, I had a three-month period of no work, which was very unusual. So I had all this time to spend with God, to pray and read the Bible. I couldn’t stop reading the Bible. Every time I’d listen to a sermon or read the Bible I’d end up in tears: “Oh my gosh, this is true! I can’t believe I know God and know the meaning of life finally!”There are conversations today about whether one can be a “gay Christian.” Is there a way to reconcile following Jesus with having a gay identity?
They are irreconcilable. It’s strange to me to see these attempts. I had such a clean break from it, and it was entirely God’s grace upon me to see that it was necessary. Would you call yourself a greedy Christian? Would you call yourself a tax-collector Christian? It seems strange to identify yourself with sin. It’s a square circle. Defining yourself as a “gay Christian,” even if you are celibate and not active in a homosexual relationship, is wildly misleading. And it’s almost like you’re stewing in your old sin, hanging onto your old self in a weird way. It’s not helpful to have that moniker over you and to continually identify as such. Why would you identify with your old self that has been crucified with Christ? So I flee from that term as far as I can. It’s not who I am at all. If people ask me how I identify, I’m just like, “I don’t identify by my sexuality. I’m a follower of Christ who has a lot of struggles, including same-sex attraction.”
Would you call yourself a greedy Christian? Would you call yourself a tax-collector Christian? It seems strange to identify yourself with sin.The LGBT movement has gained so much ground by framing homosexuality as an immutable, personhood-level identity. What are your thoughts on the state of how Western culture sees “gay” today?
In the last 20 years or so there has been such a huge push to make it sacred. It went from a sin to a sacrament. The book Making Gay Okay does a really good job showing how that happened. Media, movies, TV—it’s all been pushing towards this. When I was coming of age as a gay kid, it wasn’t like this. It was still taboo. There were gay-pride parades, but they weren’t at Macy’s. Every store in the world didn’t have a rainbow on it. But now it’s everywhere, it’s so dominant, and to say anything against the narrative is seen as crazy if not downright harmful.
Everything is inside out and upside down. The idea of the rainbow, for example, is so odd to me now—using this biblical symbol as the icon of the LGBT movement. When I was gay, I felt shame. Instinctively I knew it was wrong. But though I felt shame, over the years you harden your heart to it. I think the driving force behind these choices, like the rainbow flag and pride parades—the word pride, even—is to convince yourself that there’s nothing wrong with it, nothing to be ashamed of. You have to constantly tell yourself that and let the culture tell you that. Because there is shame attached to it, so hyper-emphasizing the “rightness” of it helps people embrace their “identity” more.
The driving force behind these choices, like the rainbow flag and pride parades—the word pride, even—is to convince yourself that there’s nothing wrong with it, nothing to be ashamed of. You have to constantly tell yourself that and let the culture tell you that.What is it like watching the “de-conversion” stories of Christians who grow up in the faith but then abandon it because of the LGBT issue? In the book you compare it to Esau selling his birthright for a pot of stew.
I see this happen all the time, especially kids who grew up in Christian families and went to Christian colleges. You can see it coming from a mile away. It’s so common, and the culture is so powerful. I’m always like, “Look, if you’re going to be on social media or Netflix for an hour, you need to read the Bible for an hour because you’ve just been lied to and now you need the truth.” So yeah, it’s very sad. Your life is a vapor. You’re here for two seconds. What do you want your life to be at the end, when you’re on your deathbed? Do you want it to be, “Oh, I got to satisfy all those urges and got the things I wanted”? Or do you want to be told, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You spent your life on mission for the kingdom of God”? I often think about Paul, who was single and didn’t whine about it. He cared about planting churches and getting the gospel out. He was shipwrecked, beaten, jailed, but he didn’t care—he just wanted the gospel out.
To the people who give up, I first and foremost pray, particularly for those I know. It’s so sad to me because you’re literally giving up your birthright for a single meal. Do you understand what you are doing?It seems for many Christians who move from holding traditional biblical views on sexuality to being LBGT-“affirming,” the thing that moves them over the edge is having someone close to them—a parent, a sibling, a close friend—come out. How should a Christian respond when people close to them come out?
I’ve seen this happen to several of my friends and I understand the motivation behind the phenomenon. But the Word of God doesn’t change based on our feelings. In terms of responding to those close to us who come out as gay or lesbian, it’s important to love them unconditionally without compromising your convictions. As Christians, we are in exile. And just as Shadrach and friends refused to bow down to the golden statue in Babylon (Daniel 3), even though the consequences were potentially dire, we have to resist the temptation to bow down to the culture we are in—no matter the cost. I’m not saying this is easy. Some who come out will be super offended when you hold to your traditional biblical views. The issue is now so deeply tied to identity that it can feel like you are rejecting them. I certainly felt that way whenever I remembered that my family, even though they loved me, believed homosexual behavior was a sin. Though it wasn’t their intent, I felt alienated by them. So I think the key is to love your friend unconditionally no matter what, and to pray for them. That’s what my sister-in-law did with me. She was an evangelical Christian and knew that I knew what her beliefs were on sexuality (she held the orthodox view). But I never felt an ounce of judgment from her over the years. She just loved me and prayed for me . . . for 20 long years. And it worked!
The Word of God doesn’t change based on our feelings.A new California legislative resolution (ACR 99) is the latest progressive attempt in our state to enforce universal affirmation of LGBTQ sexuality and to condemn any suggestion that it’s something one should want to change about themselves. Books like yours may well be banned one day, since they say homosexuality is sinful and must be left behind in following Christ. Your book hints at the notion of change in its very title. What does change look like for the gay person who becomes a Christian?
When we are regenerated, our affections change. Not just in the area of sexuality, but in everything else: our attitude toward money, success, relationships. In terms of so-called conversion therapy, I don’t think it’s something we should force. I still struggle with same-sex attraction (even though it has greatly diminished and no longer dominates my thought life like it did before God saved me). But he can do anything. He created the universe, so he can reorient our attractions. Sometimes I pray that God would heal the sexual brokenness in me, especially given that I was molested when I was a child by a friend’s father (which I think had a larger impact on my sexual development than I used to admit). Who knows—God may change my desires one day. We’ll see. But for now, I’m happy to just be single and celibate for the rest of my life. I’m happy to deny myself and take up my cross and follow Jesus.What have been the biggest costs to you in choosing to follow Jesus? What’s been the biggest gain?
God had a lot of grace on me the day he saved me. Giving up the gay life wasn’t that difficult; it was actually quite easy. I had just met Jesus and the relationship with him was so overwhelming and wonderful and all-consuming. Oddly enough, I was relieved I didn’t have to date anymore. When you’re in that life, you’re constantly pressured to date. My friends were always trying to set me up. If you’re not in a relationship, people think something’s wrong with you. So I was really relieved to not do that anymore. Like I say in the book, all my ex-boyfriends cheated on me, which is common; it’s like de rigueur for this world. But in my relationship with Christ I felt so safe. I didn’t have to perform. It was all quid pro quo with my ex-boyfriends. They were all artists. One was in a band that was super successful. One was a major writer in New York. It was always this thing where, if you’re not achieving enough or at this certain level, then you might be out. You also had to be in shape all the time! You couldn’t be out of shape for two seconds; otherwise you were kicked out of the club, or had to move to Palm Springs.
In my relationship with Christ I felt so safe. I didn’t have to perform.
It was such a relief to be in this relationship with Christ. It didn’t feel costly because I was so full of joy. But it did cost me some friends, some really deep, lifelong relationships. A lot of my friends were semi-supportive, but some of my closest friends were not. That was painful, but at the time I was so euphoric I didn’t care. Once the book came out, some of the friendships that were lingering and semi-alive vanished for good. I was cut off from several people, some of the closest friends of my life.
The gain is like Paul said: “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil. 3:8). Malcolm Muggeridge has that famous quote about how all the fame and money and success of the world is nothing, less than nothing, compared to knowing Christ. The gain is this relationship with God through Christ. Eternal life. It’s this impenetrable joy because of not only knowing Christ, but knowing the meaning of life—where I came from, what I’m doing, where I’m going. It gives me such peace.
On My Shelf helps you get to know various writers through a behind-the-scenes glimpse into their lives as readers.
I asked Costi Hinn—a pastor at Redeemer Bible Church in Gilbert, Arizona, and the author of God, Greed, and the (Prosperity) Gospel—about what’s on his nightstand, books he re-reads, books that have most influenced his thinking about ministry, and more.What’s on your nightstand right now?
- My Bible
- The Elder and His Work by David Dickson (edited by George Kennedy McFarland and Philip Graham Ryken)
- Soul Winner by Charles Spurgeon
- Run to Win by Tim Challies
- No Silver Bullets by Daniel Im
I haven’t read fiction in years but really need to mix it up. One that sticks out, of course, is Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan.What biographies or autobiographies have most influenced you and why?
I love missionary biographies but don’t want to write too much here, so I will pick one. Adoniram Judson’s sacrifice as a missionary to the Burmese affected my life and our home deeply. It sparked numerous conversations and triggered my heart to pray something I had never prayed before: that if it be the Lord’s will, my children would be called to the mission field for the glory of God. As painful and sacrificial as the life of a missionary may be, the eternal effect is far beyond anything this world can offer.
To the Golden Shore by Courtney Anderson is a powerful biography of Judson’s life, along with his three wives, Ann, Sarah, and Emily. Ann died, then he married Sarah who also died, before he married Emily just a short time before his own death. Each of his wives played an integral role in furthering the mission of God to the Burmese and beyond. His life was one of immense sacrifice, but the Judsons are the reason the Burmese people were reached with the gospel and provided with biblical texts in their own language. Judson’s biography is also available on Amazon Prime Video. I highly recommend it.What are some books you regularly re-read and why?
Shepherding a Child’s Heart by Tedd Tripp is a parenting lifeline for us. With three young children, it’s easy to get caught up in the day to day and start to go through the motions as a parent. Tripp’s book is a splash of cold water to the face when I need it most. The book highlights the importance of heart transformation through the gospel, not merely behavior modification by getting kids to follow the rules. Tripp’s book is a sobering reminder of how tempting it is to simply “hang fruit on trees,” so to speak, with our kids and manufacture their obedience. But are their hearts being won to Christ and do they know why we live the way we do? Parenting never takes a day off.
Pastoral Ministry by John MacArthur serves as a constant “heart check” for me when it comes to pastoral ministry. Again, it’s easy (and human nature) to go through the motions and lose perspective on what it means to be a pastor. This book covers numerous areas that exhort and encourage pastors in their ministry role. I’ll dig into various chapters or sections from time to time and it feels like getting a good pep talk from a coach, then being told, “Now get out there and give it all you got!”
Preaching and Preachers by Martyn Lloyd-Jones brings me back to the foundational elements of preaching time and time again. Lloyd-Jones is from another era and will come across as narrow-minded to many in our world today, but I strongly believe we need to wrestle with his dogmatic views on preaching and let them blow the fluff off some of our methods. Of course, much of what is in this book is biblical and essential.
Discipling by Mark Dever is a short and easy read that, if put into practice, will affect anyone’s discipleship efforts. It’s loaded with application and covers the vital theological foundation of why we make disciples. I have more tabs and markings in this little book than most others on my shelf.
If God Is Good by Randy Alcorn was a gift from my friend and first pastor, Anthony Wood. He gave it to us after our son Timothy was diagnosed with cancer at 3 months old. For obvious reasons, this book has become a “life textbook” for us in the school of suffering and trial. Many others have it far tougher than we do, but we’re thankful for this book being a constant resource of wisdom on tough days.What books have most profoundly shaped how you serve and lead others for the sake of the gospel?
- On Being a Servant of God by Warren Wiersbe
- Evangelism by J. Mack Stiles
- Ashamed of the Gospel by John MacArthur
- Brothers, We Are Not Professionals by John Piper
- Warnings to the Churches by J. C. Ryle
Obviously, the Bible. But aside from that, in today’s world we could all benefit from Dangerous Calling by Paul David Tripp.What are you learning about life and following Jesus?
Three lessons come to mind.
First, I’m constantly learning and re-learning about just how incapable I am of doing anything without Christ. Like a loving Father, God is so patient with me when I try to accomplish things by relying on my own strength, then he graciously allows me to realize that I can’t carry the weight on my own. I don’t ever want to stop learning this lesson.
A second lesson is a constant mantra in the Hinn home that goes like this: “There is no ‘there’ there.” This plays off the idea of “arrival.” In other words, there are things in life and ministry that are always tempting us to feel like we’ve arrived, as if there was some special thing awaiting us if we just do “this” or get “there.” The only “there” that matters is eternity with Christ and him being pleased with our motives and efforts for his glory, not our own. It doesn’t matter how many books you write, how many people hear you preach, or how many good things you do. There is no “there” there.
A third lesson is that so much rises and falls within the church because of leadership. It’s really important to be a healthy and humble leader—which is really hard without relying on Christ. Christ entrusts his bride to leaders who must serve as stewards. I’m often convicted regarding how important it is to be a humble servant to the people of God. It’s not our agenda we move people on to; it’s God’s agenda. My church is mine in the sense that I’m part of it, but it’s not mine in the sense that it belongs to me. Jesus is the head of the church. I answer to him, and must point his people to him in every way, shape, and form possible. The minute we treat the church like a baby that is ours to never let go of, we begin to act like the controlling parent who needs to lighten their grip. Worse still, when we treat the church like a corporate business and ourselves as the CEO, we’re on a dangerous path toward autocratic rule.
Planting healthy churches that will go on to plant other healthy churches is an immense task. It will require far more of us than we have in ourselves.
As church planters, we have a propensity to function as though we can do it on our own. We tend to be highly driven—focused intently on the goal ahead. It’s right that the glory of Jesus Christ be our motivation for planting healthy churches—churches where his gospel is proclaimed and embodied before a watching world.
But our tendency to take matters into our own hands—attempting to shoulder the many burdens that come with planting a church—can be detrimental.
In short, church planters need to embrace limitations and walk with humility. But how can we do this? I’m joined by my friend Kyllum Lewis to discuss these things on the podcast today.
Confronted by the persecution, force, and cruelty of this world, Peter Martyr Vermigli (1499–1542, pronounced Vayr-MEEL-yee) urged Christians to recognize two realities: their identity in Christ and the sure hope of one day seeing God face to face. This, he contends, is “man’s ultimate happiness,” the delight that surpasses all worldly pleasure—to be accepted by the eternal Father in Christ.
In his earliest surviving work, an exposition of the Apostles’ Creed, Vermigli strikes this note, taking up the problem of ignorance among Christians concerning their salvation in Christ. The solution, he contends, is a diligent study of Scripture, applying its redemptive insight to a range of theological, moral, and political challenges. Herein lies Vermigli’s genius. As a biblical exegete and first-rate philosopher, he was able to connect divine truth to the most vexing questions of his day. And as a theologian, he offered this reflection with an abiding concern for the church’s calling in the world.
Some have noted how Vermigli’s life journey illustrates many highlights of the Protestant Reformation. Beginning with his strategic implementation of reform in the bosom of Roman Catholic Italy, he then fled north of the Alps to Zurich (the Reformed tradition’s birthplace) as a Protestant theologian in exile, collaborated with Martin Bucer in Strasbourg, went to Oxford during the reign of Edward VI to assist Thomas Cranmer in shaping the Church of England, went back to Strasbourg, and eventually to Zurich again to teach theology with Heinrich Bullinger for the remainder of his days.
These movements, it turns out, also portray the requisite qualities of a gospel minister—values as critical now as they were in the 16th century. Let’s briefly retrace Vermigli’s footsteps to observe some of these inspiring qualities.Miracle of Italy
From childhood, Peter Martyr (as he became known) desired to teach God’s Word. At age 15 he entered the Augustinian order near his native Florence. After eight years of theological training, he underwent priestly ordination and received a doctorate in theology. Soon he was elected to the office of public preacher, an illustrious position in that day. As his name grew famous in the largest Italian cities, he eventually moved southward to lead the great San Pietro ad Aram in Naples. Here his life changed forever.
During Vermigli’s sojourn at San Pietro (1537–1540), according to his disciple and biographer Josiah Simler, “the greater light of God’s truth” began to shine on him. This truth, in Vermigli’s words, was that “Christ’s righteousness imputed to us by God totally restores what was lacking in this weak and mutilated righteousness of ours.” It was a gospel awakening that amounted to conversion, and it became his animating impulse: Christ has risen according to the Scriptures, a reality that reconciles us to God and dignifies life with eternal significance.
With this new gospel orientation, Vermigli moved north in May 1541 to become prior of the prestigious monastery of San Frediano in the Republic of Lucca. He initiated a series of educational and ecclesiastical reforms that have been likened to Calvin’s work in Geneva. But after a mere 15 months, Pope Paul III reversed these reforms by reinstituting the Roman Inquisition, a defining moment in which Vermigli renounced his vows and made the arduous decision to flee his homeland.
Martin Bucer arranged for Vermigli’s academic appointment to the College of Saint Thomas in Strasbourg. The Italian exile taught sacred letters from the Old Testament.
After five fruitful years there, Vermigli received an invitation from Archbishop Thomas Cranmer in 1547 to fortify the newly independent Church of England with Reformed theology as Regius Chair of Divinity at Oxford. According to S. L. Greenslade, “Peter Martyr was unquestionably the most learned” of the early holders of the Regius Chair position.
With the accession of the Roman Catholic Queen Mary in 1553, Vermigli was forced to flee England. Returning to Strasbourg, he was immediately restored to his position at the Senior School. In addition to teaching and writing theological works, he gathered with other Marian exiles in his home to study and pray. This practice illustrates another theme in Vermigli’s life: warmhearted friendships and mentoring of younger Christians, an enduring and intimate bond to which his personal letters testify.
Vermigli died in Zurich on November 12, 1562, in the presence of his wife and friends. According to Simler, who was present along with Bullinger and a small group of others: “[Martyr] was silent in deep personal reflection; then he turned to us and stated with a rather clear voice that he acknowledged life and salvation in Christ alone, who had been given by the Father to the human race as its only Savior.” This catch phrase, “salvation in Christ alone,” is an apt summary of Vermigli’s legacy, a life that John Calvin called “the miracle of Italy.”Take Up and Read
The life of Peter Martyr provides poignant lessons to inspire and instruct the contemporary church, some of which we’ve noted: the necessity of submitting oneself to the authority of Scripture, the providential care of God over his children, the animating power of gospel proclamation, the need for theological precision and thoroughness, and the importance of warmhearted friendship that edifies the church and equips young leaders.
Thankfully, Peter Martyr continues to provide these lessons. Since the early 1990s an international range of Vermigli scholars has been working to publish his sermons, commentaries, orations, letters, prayers, and theological treatises in The Peter Martyr Library, an extensive work of English translation. In 2017, this project was acquired by the Davenant Institute, which has already reprinted several of these texts in affordable paperbacks: The Oxford Treatise and Disputation on the Eucharist, The Dialogue on the Two Natures in Christ, Philosophical Works, and Predestination and Justification. Davenant recently partnered with Faithlife to offer digitized editions of these invaluable texts, and perhaps most excitingly, published the first installment of the first modern English translation of Vermigli’s magnum opus, his Common Places.
Above all, Vermigli will be remembered for his passion to teach Scripture with the gospel at the forefront. Even the painting of Peter Martyr hanging in the National Portrait Gallery in London testifies to this focus. In it, Martyr’s penetrating eyes look to the distance beyond the gilded frame as he points to the book in his hand: the Bible. If we were to place a statement on Vermigli’s lips, it would perhaps be his exhortation to youth: “Let us immerse ourselves constantly in the sacred Scriptures, let us work at reading them, and by the gift of Christ’s Spirit the things that are necessary for salvation will be for us clear, direct, and completely open.”
Some 500 years later, Peter Martyr’s ministry continues to speak, imparting illumination to those who follow the example of his ancient mentor, Augustine: “tolle lege, tolle lege” (“take up and read, take up and read”).
Preaching is God’s ordained method to convey his Word and build his church. As such, preaching is every pastor’s principal responsibility and every church’s primary need. Therefore, every pastor must preach, and preach well, every Lord’s day.
However, good sermons, like good meals, do not just happen. They are intentionally crafted by bringing together essential elements. In the case of preaching, one essential element is key words. Determining which words to add and which to subtract is an indispensable component of sermon preparation.
Certain words will strengthen most any sermon. Conversely, some words weaken the sermon. If used at all, they should be used knowingly and sparingly.
Here are five words that almost always weaken sermons.1. Thing
“Thing” has long been a pet peeve of mine. That is why I was so pleased to see H. B. Charles address this issue in his helpful book On Preaching: “Get ‘things’ out of your sermon. . . . The word is nonspecific. The more specific you are, the more compelling your ideas will be. So try other key words instead.
- Give four reasons why believers should pray.
- State three requirements for Christian discipleship.
- Share five benefits of forgiving people who have wronged you.
- Describe the dynamics of a healthy church.
- Explain the signs of true conversion.
- Present three principles to practice for loving your spouse.
- Warn of the dangers of living selfishly.
Charles is right. What makes “things” helpful—its flexibility—also makes it weak. It has so much versatility it lacks clarity and force. A word that can mean so much usually means very little.2. Opinion
Preaching is to be text-based, derived from the Word of God. Thus, by definition it is objective and authoritative, and arrives as a certain, sure word. The instinct to stipulate “This is just my opinion,” therefore, should send off alarm sirens in the preacher’s mind.
This need to clarify, “This is just my opinion,” is likely due to one of two factors. Either the preacher is spending too much time away from the text, thus forfeiting authority and undermining biblical preaching; or, when on occasion, you are intentionally (and justifiably) offering your opinion, you may be underestimating your crowd. They can probably sense you are moving to a word of application not specifically stated in the text, and there is no need to overly clarify that you are opining.
On other occasions, when you come to a debatable interpretation of a passage—one in which credible evangelical scholars differ—and you feel the need to make your congregation aware the text’s meaning is debatable—consider using the phrase “I believe” as opposed to “My opinion is.”
For example, stating, “Evangelical Bible scholars are of mixed opinion on the meaning of this phrase, and after careful study, I’ve come to believe it means . . .” is stronger than “Evangelical Bible scholars are of mixed opinion on the meaning of this phrase, but my opinion is . . .” The former implies careful study and reflection, with a measure of confidence. The latter sounds more whimsical, less grounded and less certain.
The bottom line is, if you feel the need to offer a naked “This is just my opinion,” what follows probably is not worth offering anyway.3. Sorry
Nothing kills a sermon like beginning it with an apology. As a general rule, if the sermon merits an apology, it doesn’t merit preaching. When it comes to apologies, I’ve heard them all:
- “I’m sorry, but I’m just not as prepared as I’d like to be today.”
- “It’s been a crazy-busy week, so bear with me this morning.”
- “I’m sorry, I’m not exactly sure what our passage means, but I’m going to do my best.”
- “I’m not a theologian, but I’ll try to do this text justice.”
- “Allow me to apologize in advance: the sermon this morning contains nothing novel, nothing new.”
Typically, apologies enter a sermon for two reasons. The first is due to some providential hindrance: illness, an unforeseen crisis, or some other uncontrollable circumstance. If this is the case, don’t apologize. Instead, embrace it as God’s providence in your life, and depend on his strength during the sermon.
The other reason to apologize is due to some avoidable setback: laziness, sloppiness, or poor prioritization. If you feel the impulse to apologize in this scenario, channel it into repentance to the Lord. Resolve to be a better steward of your time and not to get into that situation again.4. Concluding
Announcing “in conclusion” or “as I conclude” is a request for your listeners to close their Bibles and begin thinking about lunch. That’s why it is best not to announce your intent to begin your conclusion; just begin your conclusion. Sermons should end with punch. Foreshadowing your conclusion almost ensures it fizzles out.
However, there is one thing worse than announcing your intent to conclude the sermon. It is announcing your intent to conclude then not concluding. If you do, then in addition to your hearers tuning out the rest of your sermon, you will also (if done often) lose credibility with them.5. God
This final word of concern may seem peculiar, if not controversial. Yet, throwing around a generic, unbiblical “God” will weaken your sermon and may confuse your audience.
Non-Christian “God talk” plagues society. From the athlete who decides to “Thank God my curveball worked tonight,” to the syncretistic, pluralistic, and mystical God references so common in everyday parlance, America’s god is a generic, nondescript one. Such opaque references are often sub-biblical.
Speaking specifically about God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit—in their biblical context and in light of their biblical character—gives the sermon a distinctly Christian ring.Leverage Words
Successful sermons optimally leverage words to explain the meaning of the text and to bring it to bear in the listeners’ lives. Strategically deploying words can strengthen a preaching event, but carelessly letting words clutter the sermon will weaken it.
So surgically prune unclear and unhelpful words. This will add energy and punch, leading to a sharper and more powerful message.
Despite the clear instruction in the Bible, sex outside of marriage has become increasingly morally acceptable among young evangelicals. That’s one of the findings in a new research brief for the Institute of Family Studies produced by sociologist David J. Ayers, the interim provost and vice president for academic affairs, and professor of sociology, at Grove City College. He uses data from the National Survey of Family Growth to gauge trends in sexual activity among never-married evangelical young people.
Ayers has taught college-level courses on Marriage and Family for about 30 years, and his most recent book is Christian Marriage: A Comprehensive Introduction (Lexham Press, 2019). I asked him to discuss what the church needs to know about his recent findings.Based on your findings, what would most evangelical parents and leaders be shocked to learn about current sexual practices of evangelical teens and young adults?
Well, just how high the percentages engaging in sex is shocking to a lot of older evangelicals. Interestingly, in my experience, younger folk are typically less surprised. They know better what is going on around them.
Also, I think the degree to which evangelical teens and young adults practice oral and anal sex, often at an early age, would especially shock a lot of evangelical parents and leaders. The data I draw on from the National Survey of Family Growth gets into specifics even more detailed than I present in my research brief, and the picture is not a pleasing one. Parents of daughters would almost certainly be especially horrified at some of what these teen and young adult women are doing for males or allowing to be done to them. For example, when one of five evangelical Protestant females between the ages of 18 and 22 admit to allowing young men to have anal sex with them, and even more evangelical males of that age group say they have done so with women, this is disturbing and something I do not believe most older folk even imagine is happening.
I believe that most evangelical parents and leaders would also be shocked by how many evangelical teens and young adults, once they do become sexually active, are quite promiscuous. For example, among young unmarried evangelical women ages 18 through 22 who have ever had sex, over a quarter have had two or three partners, and over 40 percent have had four or more. That’s a lot of sex partners very early in life. Not only are we looking at incredible risk for pregnancy and STDs, but this type of sexual history dramatically elevates their risk of getting divorced once they do get married. It also suggests a serious lack of repentance.What factors seem to affect whether young evangelicals engage in premarital sexual activity?
That’s a huge and critically important question that I can’t fully answer in this much space. I get into this more in my book Christian Marriage, and plan on a more extensive treatment of this issue in the future.
One that we have clear statistical evidence on is family breakdown. Children from divorced homes are much more likely to be sexually active, and then in turn are more likely to become divorced themselves, which in turn affects their kids. It is a vicious cycle.
Adding to that is negative peer influence. This is particularly problematic when we reduce the direct involvement of parents and other older saints.
Serial, steady recreational dating, especially when begun too early, is a huge issue. The statistical evidence for this is quite substantial. I am not anti-dating, but 14- and 15-year-old kids with steady boyfriends or girlfriends, full of emotional intensity but without maturity or any clear connection with marital preparation, is a bad idea from beginning to end.
We are living in a sex-saturated culture in which the overwhelming majority of citizens at almost every age think sex outside of marriage is not morally wrong so long as the people are mature enough—whatever that is—consensual, and supposedly, with the right precautions. Many if not most of the single adults in our culture attach more shame to virginity than to “healthy” sexual activity. They actually defame those who morally reject sex outside marriage. Holding the Biblical stance is really socially hard today in ways it wasn’t when I grew up in the Baby Boom era. We older saints have to be aware of this.
Those who are not fully committed to living out their faith daily, and who are not regularly part of public worship and the other ministries of the church are especially vulnerable to these cultural pressures and allure. The statistical evidence, which I present in my research and that appears in a lot of social scientific studies, overwhelmingly shows that lax religious commitment and church involvement are both associated with dramatically higher levels of sexual activity out of wedlock as well as liberalization of beliefs about this. Without commitment and involvement, it is hard for pastors and other Christian leaders to train and disciple young people in these matters, and young people are disconnected from that regular, day-in-and-out, support from fellow believers that the Bible clearly tells us we all need.
Next, I think the larger theological framework has become more man-centered and less God-centered, to say the least. “Sin” is more about what we think hurts ourselves and others, as we define that, than about what offends a holy God who rightly demands we love and serve Him with all we have, and whose wisdom is vastly beyond our own natural understanding. Within that, we have failed to communicate a full-bodied, Biblically and theologically grounded understanding of marriage—what it is, what its purposes are, how it flows from and reflects the very nature of God, how God has given it a central place in the human social order for His glory and our good at every level and placed legitimate sex within that context. We cannot reduce our sexual ethic to a set of rules: do this, don’t do that. Rather, our sexual ethic is to be understood within a larger theological framework and a biblical anthropology including understanding that sex is uniquely designed for marriage, and why this is so.
Similarly, character, or ethical, traits cannot be acquired and taught in isolation from each other but rather are part of a larger system with a God-oriented focus within which our own greatest good is realized. For example, how can we disconnect our sexual ethics from those having to do with honesty, with truly loving our neighbors and seeking their highest good, with respect of property, and so on? They are all tied together. A young man seducing a young woman, for example, is not just violating a “sex rule”. He is failing to love, care for and protect her, he is taking something away from her, and he is often making dishonest vows to get what he wants.What are the most common reasons young evangelicals refrain from premarital sex?
According to the National Survey of Family Growth, for those who have refrained from intercourse ages 15 to 22 combined, almost 60 percent of females cited their moral or religious beliefs, but only 42 percent of males did. For the rest, the big ones were avoiding negative consequences (pregnancy or STD), or just waiting for the right time or person. Some who had sex (and thus were not asked this question) also believed it to be morally wrong to do so and were struggling with it, had even repented for it, or were otherwise dealing with it at some level. But we also know from major, reputable surveys such as the General Social Survey that the clear majority of evangelical young people say that they do not believe that sex outside marriage is always morally wrong. So, quite sadly, most evangelical young people are not motivated by a desire to be faithful to Biblical teaching on sex, and even among abstainers, it is less important than we wish it was or than it ought to be.What can churches and Christian leaders do to help reverse this trend and reestablish a biblical view of sexual ethics?
First, churches or parents need to have the courage to find out what their young people actually believe and are really doing. We all need to own up to what we are thinking and doing and, when it is outside God’s moral order, we need to be willing to be adjusted by loving brethren including accepting teaching, training, and accountability.
Second, every church should actively disciple everyone, young and old, single and married, in areas related to sexual activity, orientation and identity. This needs to be based on factually accurate knowledge of reality but grounded firmly in the Word.
Third, churches need to get back to really making sure that their members are actively involved, including simply being there on Sunday! If they are not there, we can’t teach them.
Fourth, pastors have to have the courage to deal with these issues in the various teaching avenues they have, including from the pulpit. Too many of our pastors are afraid to offend folk, while we find their church member telling us that they desperately want their pastors to address these very same issues. This was laid out clearly and painfully in an important study on this released by Barna Research earlier this year. The Apostle Paul encouraged the Ephesian elders, using his own ministry as a model, to preach the “whole counsel of God,” to not refrain from instructing the flock in anything that could profit them, and in this way to protect them from the external pressures and temptations and internal deceivers that could destroy them (Acts 20: 17-32). We need to be equipping parents to teach their children about these things. In my experience, a lot of heads of households in the church desperately want guidance in tackling these tough issues with their kids and are not getting it.
We need to reject formulas, sure-fire methods, and judgmentalism. I would personally rather plead with folk as one sinner to another than try to roast them. Truthful admonition that is forcefully delivered but in kindness, gentleness and humility—that is what we need.
Finally, the one thing I am guilty of neglecting the most is what I also need the most. Prayer. If your church is not committed to regularly and specifically praying for the young people they have in their homes, or are sending into the workplace and colleges, it is not providing adequately for them. We should be praying for our pastors about this specifically, too, knowing that tackling these issues is often thankless and opens them up to a lot of criticism.
In a world of all-you-can-eat buffets of entertainment, the ability to limit and curate one’s life has become difficult, if not nearly impossible. We’ve been conditioned to believe that with unlimited options comes unlimited freedom. Limitless choices, however, lead to constant wandering and endless fatigue.
Numerous studies demonstrate a correlation between social-media consumption and negative effects on mental and emotional health. Justin Earley—a mergers and acquisitions lawyer in Richmond, Virginia—has experience with this correlation, and I suspect many of us do as well. We feel pulled in a million different directions and are tempted to forsake mental, emotional, and spiritual health for the sake of producing or achieving more. Hence, Earley’s The Common Rule: Habits of Purpose for an Age of Distraction is both timely and welcomed.Life-Giving Habits
The book is divided into two parts. The first offers a short explanation of a “rule of life,” both historically and practically. Earley then proposes eight habits—four daily and four weekly that make up The Common Rule. The daily habits include kneeling prayer three times a day, one meal with others, one hour with your phone off, and Scripture reading before unlocking your phone. These habits are tailor-made for our technologically crowded and media-saturated culture.
Earley leans heavily on thinkers like James K. A. Smith and Andy Crouch to inform the spiritual importance of habit formation. This is evident as he refers to habits as “liturgies.” For example, when he prescribes kneeling prayer, he means we should get on our knees at least three times each day. For those who may smart at the idea of kneeling because it feels too high-church, Earley reminds us that the physicality of this habit relates to its spiritual foundation; it communicates dependence on the Lord, rather than on our work or abilities. Kneeling is more than a prayer preference; it’s an act of recognizing that Jesus is Lord and we are not.
Earley’s weekly habits build on the daily habits. The weekly habits include one hour of conversation with a friend, curating one’s media to four hours, fasting from something for 24 hours, and having an established Sabbath rest. The emphasis on the weekly habits, just as with the daily ones, is to cultivate a life focused on God and others.
Earley never promises that The Common Rule will produce a “balanced” life. Our experience affords us no such illusions. Rather, he urges us on to greater levels of freedom—to love God and others. In the regular turbulence of life, The Common Rule seeks to keep us anchored to what is most important—to keep the main thing the main thing.Thin Foundation
For all the book’s practical benefits, and there are many, my one concern is that the gospel foundation seems more assumed than explicit. Except for introductory quotes and occasional reflections, deeper biblical and theological reflection is minimal. Such thinness is the book’s greatest weakness, and it could unintentionally lead some readers toward the desert of legalism rather than the oasis of Jesus.
Earley reminds us of the “true story” that should inform every believer’s life, and he relieves the tension for readers who fail in the disciplines, likening failures to pottery with “cracks inlaid with the gold of grace” (166). He concludes the book affirming that Jesus should be the “life we want . . . the life given for us . . . the one redeeming ours” (167). But Earley’s whole enterprise would be strengthened if the golden thread of the gospel had been more explicit throughout. Those who wish to use this book in churches, classrooms, and small groups should consider providing the necessary gospel buttress to support the book’s more practical benefits.Insightful Diagnosis
Earley rightly puts his finger on the spiritual pulse of (specifically) American culture and provides a spot-on diagnosis. We are tired, burned-out, and brain-fried. We are habitual creatures, and Earley wants to give us habits that bring life rather than deplete it. In an age when we’re encouraged to gratify our needs first and to build our brand or platform, Earley steps in to redirect us toward a more life-giving and soul-gratifying path.
The unique value of this book is that it’s significantly other-focused. Perhaps the most radical thing Christians can do in our world is to rest, open our homes, put down our devices, and recognize the person across from us. To those ensnared by the false “freedom” of technology, media, and productivity, Earley shines brilliant light on how our culture subtly places these shackles on us. Ministers and lay readers alike, take notice. Burnout is coming if you don’t find rest in Christ. To that end, The Common Rule offers a better way—a heart made alive, in Christian community, empowered by the Spirit, and guided by the Word.