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A non-denominational church in Livonia, Michigan with Biblical teaching, worship, and kid's ministries.

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The Secret to Strong Friendships

Thu, 03/28/2019 - 12:03am

What makes a friendship? Is it personalities? Or context? Or proximity? Yes. These areas where two people’s experiences overlap are usually good starting places for close friendship. But I’d argue that the strength of a friendship over the long haul depends not primarily on personality or context or proximity, but on prayer.

Personalities change because people do. Contexts change as people become interested in new hobbies and pursuits (and less interested in old ones). Proximity changes as people move, whether a town or state away, or across the ocean. But when all these factors change, we can still pray, trusting God to use the means he has given to strengthen our friendships with other Christians—and to change us.

Privilege of Prayer

My longest friendship has lasted 11 years through overseas moves, marriages and funerals, joys and sorrows. Another close friendship began in a season of shared suffering and has continued through many others. Yet another started on a casual neighborhood stroll and has become a deep and intentional sharing of hearts.

Friendships in Christ are unlike anything the world has to offer.

What has bonded such unlikely people, kept us going through changing times, and made it such a joy to be friends? The friendship of Christ that we share––the privilege of being united to one another because we’re first united to him.

Paul’s words to the Ephesian church apply to Christian friendship:

Walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Eph. 4:1–6)

Jesus died to purchase his people, bring us back to the Father, and set us apart from the world for himself. He also died to unite us to one another. Friendships in Christ are unlike anything the world has to offer. And we have the awesome privilege of boldly approaching God’s throne of grace––of praying––both with and for each other.

Power of Prayer

What’s our motivation to pray with our friends, especially in discouraging seasons of friendship? Through many years of walking with my close sisters in Christ, we’ve known friendship’s ebb and flow. There are seasons when one of us is able to give more than the other, when we might struggle with feeling distant or disappointed, and there are seasons when we feel particularly close through mutual love and service.

But we mustn’t forget that prayer is a powerful act of love and service in itself. In seasons when we feel stretched thin, we may not be able to serve our friends in the ways we’d like—but we can always pray for them. Prayer is one gift we can consistently give.

Prayer is one gift we can consistently give.

Friendship involves two saints-in-progress who struggle with sin and depend on Jesus. We pray to express this dependence, and because we know God works powerfully through our prayers. So often we don’t pray because we don’t think it does anything. But Scripture insists we’re wrong: “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working” (James 5:16). So we draw near to the throne of grace with confidence “that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16).

I’m convinced that my strongest friendships are that way––strong––because our souls are knit together through intercession. It’s especially in the “ebb” seasons, when I’m struggling to love and feel loved, that God uses sacrificial prayer to get the friendship “flowing” again, to make us freshly “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3). God uses the prayers of friends both to unify us and to accomplish his work in us.

Practice of Prayer

What does a praying friendship look like? I don’t pretend to know its full potential, but I have seen many wonderful evidences of it. Here are several practical ideas for prayer that have strengthened my friendships over the years:

  • Schedule intentional prayer time. Schedule (yes, schedule!) a time to talk and pray with your friend, either in person or on the phone. Not only does this guarantee the praying will happen, it’s a needed posture of pause and dependence before God in the rush of life.
  • Leverage technology. Our phones and computers are wonderful prayer tools, as they give us the immediate ability to reach out to our friends for prayer. Praying together doesn’t always need to take an hour over the phone; take two minutes to ask your friend to intercede for you, and then ask, “How can I pray for you today?”
  • Don’t wait. Pray right now. Have you ever told your friends you’d pray, and then forgot? I have, frequently. Don’t wait until later to pray; pray for them as you’re thinking about it. Write them a prayer through text or email, or leave a prayer on a voice text or voicemail.
  • Choose a day to pray for friends. With all the needs on our prayer lists, our friends’ concerns sometimes get dropped. Setting aside a particular day to use your time of intercession for friends ensures you don’t forget them. I typically pray for my friends on Fridays. I keep a running list of requests and praises, and then I let my friends know I prayed for them. This routine helps me remember to pray and to follow up.
  • Pray Scripture. It’s a great privilege to pray for our friends’ marriages, kids, and pressing circumstances. But are we praying for their souls in light of Scripture? Choose a verse or passage to guide your prayers for your friend’s holiness, for their fight against sin, for their love of God’s Word, and for a closer walk with Jesus. The epistles and psalms contain many wonderful prayers you can use to guide your time.
Press on in Prayer

It may sound cheesy, but it’s true: Friends who pray together stay together. It’s a sweet privilege to follow Jesus alongside treasured friends with whom we’ll share eternity when all our ebbs and flows have been swallowed up by perfection.

To that end, we press on in prayer, trusting our Father to use it to sustain and strengthen us—and to make us more like Jesus, the friend of sinners—until we see him face to face.

Is the Rich Man and Lazarus a Parable?

Thu, 03/28/2019 - 12:02am

It’s been used to rebuke the rich, defend salvation by poverty, teach about the afterlife, condemn antebellum slavery, even promote women’s suffrage. Jesus’s story in Luke 16:19–31 certainly raises a series of questions. Can heaven be seen from hell? Does wealth make the difference between the two? Are those in heaven aware of (and indifferent to) the suffering of those in hell? Is this a parable or a true story?

The account is unique to Luke’s Gospel and has several other exclusive features besides. How should we interpret it and what can it teach us today?

Parable or Not?

First, is it a parable or a tale of historical figures? Some in the medieval church and the Reformation believed it was an account of actual people rather than a parable. Calvin, for example, thought this because it has a named character (Lazarus)—something no parable has.

Calvin’s observation is right, but it’s hard to miss the fact that Luke introduces the story the same way he does the four parables that precede it, including the famed prodigal son. All are introduced with the generalizing formula “a certain (wo)man . . . ” (Luke 15:3, 15:8, 15:11; 16:1). Further, there’s a good reason why the poor man is named and why it’s Lazarus.

But does it matter whether or not this is a parable? I don’t think so and neither did Calvin. We agree that the main issue is comprehending “the doctrine which it contains.” The difficulty, of course, as Klyne Snodgrass points out, is that “no formula exists for determining whether an element [of the parable] is theologically significant.” The best approach is to use the immediate context of the parable and a theology derived from the whole Bible as our guide. The church father Tertullian wrote:

We, however, do not take the parables as sources of doctrine, but rather we take doctrine as a norm for interpreting the parables. Therefore, we make no effort to twist everything so that it fits our own explanation, striving to avoid every discrepancy. Why a “hundred” sheep? and why, indeed, “ten” drachmas? and what does that “broom” stand for? Well, when he [Jesus] wanted to show how pleased God is at the salvation of one sinner, he had to mention some numerical quantity from which one could be described as “lost.”


This parable ends without any summary explanation from Jesus like we find in, say, the Good Samaritan. But help is not far away. Just before this parable, Jesus tells another parable about wealth (Luke 16:1–13)—and the passage in between (16:14–18) finds Jesus rebuking the Pharisees for loving money, exalting themselves in self-justification, and ignoring the Old Testament’s authority. All three themes are woven into the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. We have the rich man’s love of money, his self-importance even in Hades, and his rejection of divine revelation. Other themes emerge in contrast to these.


The angels, five brothers, and Moses and the prophets play supporting roles, as does Abraham. The main characters, of course, are Lazarus and the rich man. Although tradition has called this man “Dives” (the Latin word for “rich man”), he has no name in the original. He’s introduced as one who literally wears his wealth on his sleeve (“clothed in purple and fine linen”) and feels not the least pain of hunger (he “feasted sumptuously every day”).

Next there is poor Lazarus, a man covered with sores who sits at the rich man’s gate, apparently close enough for him to see the food he can’t have but far enough that the rich man can safely ignore him.

The rich man clearly ignores the need on his doorstep. Only the dogs see the need. Their licks, which seem to provide relief, serve as a bitter contrast with the rich man whose own tongue will soon enough be the site of great need. Calvin asks:

What could be more monstrous than to see the dogs taking charge of a man, to whom his neighbor is paying no attention; and, what is more, to see the very crumbs of bread refused to a man perishing of hunger, while the dogs are giving him the service of their tongues for the purpose of healing his sores?


The contrasts don’t end there. Upon death, Lazarus finds himself at Abraham’s “bosom,” which is probably a reference to the heavenly banquet (cf. John 13:23). For any Jew at the time, this seating arrangement would have been a mark of the highest honor. And what about the rich man? Despite the blessing of his great wealth, he ends up in Hades where he’s in torment. It’s hard to tell whether this Hades is intended to be different from hell (or Gehenna). It’s certainly not where he wants to be.

From this surprising turn of events, some conclude the parable teaches that the poor go to heaven and the rich to hell. The problem with such a view, as Augustine noted long ago, is that poor Lazarus is carried to the side of wealthy Abraham. If wealth alone determines our fate, then Abraham should be in Hades right along with the rich man.

Instead, the reason for their fate is found elsewhere. The name “Lazarus” is probably the Hellenized version of an abbreviated form of Eliezer, which means “God helps” (cf. Gen. 15:2). The point is that Lazarus’s deep physical need made him much more sensitive to his deeper spiritual need. Meanwhile, the rich man unwittingly condemns himself to Hades by using Lazarus’s personal name (Luke 16:24). If he knows him now, he must have known him then.

Worse still, he continues to treat Lazarus as beneath him, refusing to address him directly and having the gall to ask that Lazarus quench his thirst—the very thing he wouldn’t do for Lazarus. Abraham’s response in Luke 16:25 mimics Jesus’s teaching elsewhere: the measure we use to judge others will be used on us (Matt. 7:2). Here, the first two themes converge: The rich man’s love of money has bloomed into a callous, self-justifying negligence of others’ needs. His lack of mercy finds its miserable echo in mercy not received.

But the story doesn’t end there. If the rich man won’t be relieved, perhaps his family can be spared. This seems altruistic, but the rich man is still asking for Lazarus to be sent. What’s more, he insists on determining the terms by which they are warned. Moses and the prophets aren’t enough; only a resurrection will do.

Abraham’s response only adds to his indictment. If they won’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they won’t listen to anything. This is the third theme, which connects back to Luke 16:16. God has given men the law and the prophets and these have more than testified to what God expects. The problem isn’t with the message; it’s with the audience.

This helps explain the reason for the fixed chasm (Luke 16:26). That gulf is not fixed because God is nursing a cosmic grudge; it’s fixed by the justice of God and the obstinacy of the ungraced human heart. The rich man is all too aware of his own suffering. What he cannot see—because he will not see it—is that he is the cause of it. He won’t admit that all his wealthy opulence brings him no closer to heaven’s doorstep than it brought him to his own doorstep to help poor Lazarus. His great need is to recognize his greatest need—and that he will not do. The suffering of Hades has done nothing to dull his sense of self-importance. In this profound sense we can speak of God’s divine judgment as self-imposed. Not because God is ashamed of it, but because we utterly deserve it.

God Who Helps

The most important lesson this parable teaches is a warning about money. Wealth calcified the rich man’s heart. Though wealth doesn’t always have this effect, who can deny that it often does? As many have realized, either we will own our money, or it will own us. You cannot serve God and money, as Jesus said a few verses before (Luke 16:13).

So the true test can never be a simple dollar amount. It must be our sensitivity to the poverty and pain we find around us. A heart unwilling to help others—because it might be risky, or they might not deserve it, or it might cost us too much—is a heart unwilling to recognize the desperate help we ourselves need from God. And the stakes couldn’t be higher, since heaven and hell hang in the balance. As Ephrem the Syrian comments on this parable, “We cannot hope for pardon at the end unless the fruits of pardon can be seen in us.”

The only answer, then, is to help others out of a sense of our own desperate need before God. Bank balances aside, none of us is above helping others; we are all beggars helping beggars. When I see the homeless, the helpless, or the hurting, I should see myself, because this is what I am like before God. The good news is that God is “Lazarus,” the God who helps. And because he has so helped us, we are freed and fueled to help others.

A Proud Man and a Suffering Girl

Wed, 03/27/2019 - 12:04am

“Naaman in this story keeps trying to go to the top. God keeps sending him to the bottom. God will only speak to him through servants. He’s going to make Naaman bathe in a nasty creek. You see, the path to God is the path of humility, and you can’t get there any other way. The one thing that you absolutely need when you come to God is need.” — J. D. Greear

Text:  2 Kings 5:1–18

Preached: June 5, 2016

Location: The Summit Church, Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina

Listen to this episode of TGC Word of the Week. You can find a video version, along with sermon notes, on the Summit Church website.


TGC Launches Topical Newsletters

Wed, 03/27/2019 - 12:03am

Want to stay up to date on the newest and best resources from The Gospel Coalition? Consider subscribing to one of our regular email newsletters that takes the best from our website and delivers it to your inbox.

Our TGC Weekly email (subscribe) includes one featured resource from the previous week, a look behind the scenes on that resource from a TGC editor, and a listing of the top five most-read articles from the previous several days.

For those who prefer a daily update on TGC’s new content, consider subscribing to the TGC Daily email (subscribe), which shares all the latest articles, podcasts, and videos published on TGC’s website.

In addition to these general TGC newsletters, we’re pleased to launch four new topical newsletters geared toward specific interest-areas and audiences. Learn about them below and subscribe to the ones that best match your needs and interests.

TGC Ministry Newsletter

This monthly newsletter, put together by TGC senior editor Jeff Robinson, is designed to be a resource for pastors, church leaders, seminarians, and anyone else serving in church ministry. The newsletter includes links to recent TGC articles, books, and videos on various aspects of church ministry, as well as curated links to other helpful ministry resources from across the internet.


TGC Women’s Newsletter

This monthly newsletter is designed to be a resource for women who desire to be grounded in Scripture, centered on the gospel, and equipped to serve wherever God has called them. This newsletter is put together by Taylor Turkington (director of Women’s Training Network), Ann Westrate (coordinator of Women’s Training Network), Courtney Doctor (coordinator of women’s training and content), Melissa Kruger (director of women’s content), and Megan Hill (editor). Each month it includes featured articles and videos from TGC, listings of upcoming Women’s Training Network events, and curated links to other helpful resources from across the internet.


TGC Books Newsletter

This monthly newsletter, put together by TGC books editor Ivan Mesa, is designed to be a resource for a book lover’s reading life. The newsletter includes links to recent book reviews published on TGC’s website, as well as links to other noteworthy new books and interesting articles on books, reading, and thinking well.


TGC Arts and Culture Newsletter

This monthly newsletter, put together by TGC senior editor Brett McCracken, is designed to be a resource for Christians who want to appreciate the arts and engage culture in ways that enrich their faith. The newsletter includes links to recent TGC resources on arts and culture (movies, music, literature, and so on), as well as links to other recommended articles, noteworthy new release movies and music, and so forth from across the internet.


How to (Not) Overburden People in Your Church Plant

Wed, 03/27/2019 - 12:02am

Church planting requires tenacity. Ask anyone who’s done it, and they’ll tell you the responsibility of planting and leading a church is a heavy load. A joyful one, to be sure, but weighty too.

Because of this, church planters are prone to overburden their congregations. It’s easy to misjudge what level of involvement or responsibility members should have. With the sheer magnitude of things to be done, it’s hard to know how much to call members to do.

For some, being involved in a church-planting team will be attractive because of the obvious need. These early adopters can be wonderful supports. And yet, this same sense of urgency may repel others from what seems to be an overwhelming task.

I’ve had several friends tell me, “We could never attend a church plant. It’s just too much work.” At one level, I get it. Planting a church is costly, and it’s right that people feel that cost. Indeed, the costliness will likely root out those looking for an easy ride in the Christian life (as if there is such a thing; Mark 8:34–35).

But that doesn’t eliminate the danger of overloading members of church-planting teams with undue burdens. When there is so much to do, how do we develop and empower people without burning them out?

Vital to any church’s health is encouraging and developing God’s people for service. But it can prove harmful if the expectations given come (1) too fast, (2) are too much, or (3) are too heavy for them to carry.

Too Fast

It’s easy to overload people by expecting significant contributions too quickly. Developing disciples takes time. Note Paul’s instruction to Timothy about the qualifications of an elder: “If someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?” (1 Tim. 3:5). Intrinsic to the point Paul makes here is that spiritual leadership within the church is developed in the everyday rhythms of faithful discipleship, and is thus evidenced over time.

In the case of elders, we mustn’t make the mistake of loading the spiritual leadership of a church on unprepared shoulders. Having experienced the pain of placing good people into leadership positions too early has taught me the importance of investing in ongoing rhythms of development and incremental growth.

In short, many church planters would do well to slow down.

Many church planters would do well to slow down.

God gives believers the gifts of the Spirit to equip and edify, so that the works of ministry are shared as the Spirit has apportioned (1 Cor. 12:4–8). So as believers mature, they will grow in their capacity to contribute. Don’t expect the spiritual newborns in your church family to contribute like the spiritual parents and grandparents. This may delay some of your plans, but it will pay off in the future.

Too Much

But what happens when your people are doing too much? Luke 10:38–42 tells of two sisters who hosted Jesus in their home. Martha, who was “distracted with much serving,” grows frustrated with her sister Mary, who elects to remain with Jesus instead of doing chores. So Martha interrupts Jesus: “Tell her to help me!”

Similarly, it’s possible for some in church plants to view others as less committed due to their lack of activity. Jesus’s response to Martha addresses us all: “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:41–42). Far from an excuse to sit back and let others do the work for us, this story exhorts us to remember that the work is not the ultimate aim. Jesus is.

Consider the load your people are carrying. Is it drawing them away from Jesus? We don’t want our people to miss out on the best thing because they were overloaded with too many commitments and responsibilities.

Consider the load your people are carrying. Is it drawing them away from Jesus?

A friend and fellow church planter once told me to “pastor the church Jesus has given you.” As a young leader eager for rapid growth, this was timely advice. My church was neither a labor force for “my vision” nor mere bait to attract more people. My church was the people I was summoned to love.

If you’re overworked, reassess. Wearing an overloaded backpack seems fine until you’re required to climb a mountain with it. Can your church afford ministry staff for overloaded volunteers? Can you kill any programs, or streamline any ministries, to lessen the load? Think creatively: Are there ways you can partner with other churches or share resources to accomplish more together? If you’ve come from a mother church, guard your heart against stubborn angularity. Ask for help in areas of weakness. And don’t forget to assess your heart: Is this a mission-critical component of your ministry, or something you can surrender for the health of your church?

Too Heavy

The third danger for church planters is overloading our congregations in how we lead. We may exhibit machismo for our exemplary dedication, and overburden those in our care by implicitly suggesting that real faith demands crushing commitment. It doesn’t.

Sadly, my early experience of planting was marked by anxiety that this fledgling church may not make it or have any meaningful gospel influence. I took the full weight of the church on my shoulders—every success and failure became disproportionately personal. Needless to say, our church suffered as my unrealistic expectations stifled involvement. The load I carried was uninviting. It wasn’t until late 2017 that I embraced a simple truth: If Jesus brought us to this community to plant a church for his name’s sake, he will sustain it.

So we began to pray, “Lord, let our church’s reputation be that you are building it.”

If this prayer resonates with you, then stop carrying the load that was never yours to carry. Jesus is inviting you into his work to accomplish his purposes, not yours. Transfer your burdens to him, and find rest for your soul (Matt. 11:28–30).

How D.C. Pastors Navigate America’s Most Rapidly Gentrifying City

Wed, 03/27/2019 - 12:00am

Nearly 30 years ago, Capitol Hill Baptist Church (CHBC) was falling apart. Abandoned cars sat in a parking lot surrounded by a drooping chain link fence. Exterior signs were rotting and falling off. The pricker bushes around the property—planted to keep the homeless from sleeping in the yard—trapped beer bottles and trash.

The neighborhood—indeed, the city—hadn’t fared much better. As white flight drained the city of wealth and stability, drug use and crime rates rose. By 1991, The Washington Post headlines read, “Violent Gangs ‘All Over City,’ D.C. Chief Says” and “D.C. Sets Homicide Record.”

Capitol Hill Baptist Church in the 1980s / Courtesy of CHBC

And then, in 1999, Anthony Williams was elected mayor. Over eight years, he’d help bring billions in investments to the city. At the same time, the expanding administrations of presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama added jobs. People began crowding in—last year, the city’s population exceeded 700,000 for the first time since 1975.

Today, the average D.C. home is worth $581,000, up from $136,000 in 2000. Violent crime has dropped. Along with drug houses and abandoned lots in previously under-resourced neighborhoods, you’ll find new condos, Starbucks, and frozen yogurt shops.

Between 2000 and 2013, about 40 percent of the city gentrified, making D.C. the most “intensely gentrifying” city in the country. (San Diego was next with 29 percent.)

At CHBC, the garbage is gone—and so are the pricker bushes. More than 1,000 people a week show up to worship under the leadership of senior pastor Mark Dever. On the once-abandoned parking lot, the church plans to put up houses for pastoral interns.

But being a gospel-preaching church in a rapidly gentrifying city isn’t all yoga classes and espressos.

“It’s really hard,” said pastor Thabiti Anyabwile, who worked at CHBC before planting in an under-resourced—and now rapidly gentrifying—area a few miles away. More than 20,000 African Americans in D.C. were displaced from their homes between 2000 and 2013.

Anyabwile is wrestling with how accelerated economic change is affecting his neighborhood—and is trying to help others do the same. Because as more cities gentrify, more local churches are wondering how to respond.

That’s difficult enough for an established church like CHBC. It’s even trickier for those planting brand-new “center churches.”

Trouble with Gentrification

Over the past 50 years, gentrification—first named for the way “middle-class liberal arts intelligentsia” raised the financial and social status of parts of London in the 1950s and ’60s—has swept across the United States, especially in Portland, Minneapolis, Seattle, and Washington, D.C.

Those cities were identified by Governing magazine, which defines gentrifying areas by first finding a city’s tracts with the lowest median household income and home value, then figuring out the growth of median home values and number of adults with bachelor’s degrees. If your area moved from the bottom 40 percent to the top 33 percent, you’re officially gentrified.

Anacostia / Photo by Abby Tseggai

“When we moved here, our community was 92 percent African American,” Anyabwile said. “We were known in D.C. as the community with all the bad statistics—high crime, low unemployment, high number of single-family homes, low educational attainment.”

History had pummeled Anacostia twice. First were the riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s, which “turned this community from being a working, middle-class, diverse community to an all-black community almost overnight,” Anyabwile said. The other was the crack epidemic of the ’90s.

“In some respects, the community hasn’t recovered from those,” he said. You can see it—the “no trespassing or dumping” signs taped on boarded-up storefront windows. The payday lending place on the corner. The bars on the doors and the broken blinds shoved up against the windows and the garbage caught in the fence.

But there’s also an enormous amount of new construction. Condos going up along the riverfront are draped with “Have It All” and “Now Leasing” banners. A Starbucks is moving in, and a Chase bank, and a Whole Foods. In December, the president of the Anacostia Economic Development Corporation told reporters that the area “is a gold mine.”

“If you talk to homeowners, they’re happy for redevelopment,” Anyabwile said. “They’re happy for new restaurants, happy for the amenities, happy to see property values go up.”

But higher rent also squeezes out those who can’t afford the rate hikes. Rising property values means rising property taxes, which sometimes push out longtime homeowners. And predatory practices sometimes mean a homeowner will sell for far less than the property is now worth.

Anacostia / Photo by Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra

Gentrification also changes the social fabric of a neighborhood, said Mike Kelsey, a campus pastor at McLean Bible Church. He lives outside the city limits, but his father and grandfather both pastored in D.C. proper.

His grandmother still owns a home in D.C., in the same neighborhood where she and her late husband raised their family. Her neighbors used to be her friends and their families; now they’re young white professionals who stay inside or wear earbuds on their commute. The network of people who borrow ingredients or watch each other’s children or mow the lawn for the elderly is disappearing.

Another problem is the power that comes with money. When newer residents wanted bike lanes and longtime residents opposed them, the bike lanes were put in. (Churches especially protested, worried about losing parking spaces.) Double parking on the street or in the alley during church was allowed until new residents objected. When gentrifiers pushed against the noise-restriction exemption for church bells and worship music, the city commissioner took it to the attorney general. (The attorney general sided with the churches.)

For the first time, a majority of black residents in D.C. told a Washington Post poll in 2015 that “redevelopment” was “mainly bad for people like [me].”

“What’s bad about gentrification isn’t change per se,” said pastor Duke Kwon, who moved to the gentrifying Columbia Heights neighborhood in 2004. “It’s when economic, social, and cultural change happens inequitably—when social change either produces or deepens injustice.”

Historic Black Churches

For many of D.C.’s historic black churches, the changes are worrisome.

“The black church history is so rich,” Kelsey said. “There is a very real skepticism and resistance [among pastors of those churches] toward the incoming population. And I think it’s legitimate and understandable. They’re like, ‘We’ve been here all this time, and you show up and there’s noise ordinances and parking restrictions and irresponsible development practices that displace a lot of our elderly.’ There’s a weariness when you talk to people like my dad and other African American leaders in the city—particularly pastors.”

Anacostia / Photo by Abby Tseggai

Some black churches have moved out to the suburbs, drawn by their moving congregants and the possibility of unrestricted parking. Others stay and watch their congregations shrink, pressed out by higher rent or a good price for their home. One study suggested that around 25 percent of D.C. congregations have closed between 2008 and 2018.

A few months ago, Kelsey asked a room full of African American pastors if they see a role for the black church in raising up leaders for multicultural churches.

“What surprised me most was the general consensus in the room was ‘probably not,’” he said. “[Black pastors] have tried to sing different songs and build partnerships with different organizations and gone on the street to meet new neighbors. But generally speaking, as Dr. Korie Edwards’s research shows, in order to have a multiracial church, people of color usually have to join predominately white churches. White people will not typically join black churches.”

It can feel like generations of gritty, gospel-preaching, prison-visiting, orphan-caring work is being pushed aside in favor of something newer, whiter, more expensive, Kelsey said. And that can be exacerbated by inadvertently insensitive messages from new pastors that “God is doing something new” in the city, or that the area is finally “coming to life” spiritually.

Because as the city draws new people, it also draws church plants.

Church Plants

Seven years ago, “there was really only one church [in D.C.] that considered itself in cooperation with the SBC,” Baltimore and D.C. city missionary Clint Clifton said. It was CHBC.

Since then, 13 new SBC churches have been planted.

“It’s a tough balance,” Anyabwile said. “We certainly feel the driving class tensions on which gentrification is based. So it means accounting for the way class quietly influences everything—from the language level of sermons to introductory questions like ‘What do you do for a living?’ to offering appeals to frameworks for leadership in the church. But that accounting has to be checked for sinful favoritism. We want to avoid dividing the body of Christ in a way the Lord does not, and we want to be intentionally inclusive in a way that considers the needs of all God’s people.”

In the last seven years, the Southern Baptist Convention has planted 13 churches in Washington D.C.

He emphasizes “teaching on preferring and considering others (Phil. 2:3–4) along with teaching on the proper use of freedom to serve others without violating conscience (Rom. 14–15).”

That’s important, because churches find all types of ways to address gentrification. Some advocate for public policy to protect residents—Washington D.C. offers assistance for first-time homebuyers and requires 10 percent of development (of 10 or more units) be reserved for affordable housing.

Other churches are buying properties and making them available for people in the community. (CHBC is building 10 units for pastoral interns and visiting missionaries who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford D.C. rent.) Still others offer job fairs or rent assistance.

“There are a myriad of ways to get involved,” Anyabwile said. “You just have to know what’s out there.”

What’s Out There

One of the best things a church planter can do—especially in a changing urban environment—is learn the area’s history.

Kwon came to D.C. a decade before Anyabwile planted ARC—first pastoring at Grace Downtown, then planting Grace Meridian Hill in Columbia Heights. Like Anacostia, the area was ravaged by riots in 1968 and the crack epidemic in the 1980s and ’90s.

During those challenging years, numerous African American families remained in Columbia Heights and called it home, Kwon said. The neighborhood “was socially and economically depressed for decades. The so-called ‘turnaround’ began with the city determining to open up a metro station in 1999 and planning a number of local economic development projects.” Today, million-dollar homes sit among low-income housing. The population is “quadrivial,” which means split among white, black, Asian, and Latinos.

Anacostia / Photo by Abby Tseggai

“As a new church plant, we’d chat with folks about what they love about the neighborhood, and one of the most common comments was its diversity,” said Kwon, who was attracted to Columbia Heights by the same thing. “Still, you can find yourself with a rich mix of folks but also increased tension and socially created segregation.”

Where Anyabwile focused on the native D.C. population, Kwon’s plant attracted mostly young professionals from a variety of racial backgrounds, especially at first.

“I’ll be the first to say this continues to be a challenge for us,” he said. “We are committed to being and becoming a reflection of the neighborhood. We know we have a long way to go in a lot of ways.”

As a Korean American, Kwon knows he looks like the gentrifier he technically is. “We always tried to grow in wisdom of how to be aware of that . . . to grow in our cross-cultural awareness and skills when it comes to building relationships with our black neighbors or in understanding why not everyone in the neighborhood is going to be excited to meet or see us.”

Anacostia / Photo by Abby Tseggai

He tries to balance serving the original residents with honoring their dignity. Grace Meridian Hill hosts a neighborhood festival every spring, “a way to gather the local community in a way that doesn’t draw attention to ourselves but provides space for neighbors to enjoy one another.”

The church has also formed ministries with “a high degree of emphasis on building relationships.” Members work with youth at a local rec center, tutor students, lead Bible studies, and coach sports.

“The goal is to equip people to see that ministry happens every time they walk down the block or have an encounter with a neighbor,” Kwon said. “It starts with whether you’re attentive to the practical needs of your neighbor next door. It’s even how you even carry yourself in regards to body language, which is an inevitable way you signal a sense of belonging and entitlement or a posture of learning and service.”

For example, Kwon always slows, makes eye contact with, and greets his elderly neighbors. He lingers with his family on the porch or front yard, making himself available for conversation. He asks for the stories of the neighborhood.

That’s the type of new neighbor Kelsey wants for his elderly grandmother.

But the effort can be difficult even if you’re a longtime resident. It’s harder if you’re new. And it’s even harder if you don’t plan to stay around.

Short-Term Roots

D.C. is an especially transient city—between 2014 and 2015, it ranked fourth out of 50 metro areas in people moving out. And they’re coming in just as quickly. At CHBC, 20 percent of the congregation left in the last year, while 50 percent are new in the last three years, CHBC associate pastor Jamie Dunlop wrote. “[I]t can feel like hugging a parade.”

Anacostia / Photo by Abby Tseggai

Part of being a disciple of Jesus means following him to the margins and encouraging your congregation to do the same, Kelsey said. “Even if we’re only here for a short period of time, we should put down roots. Put others’ interests ahead of our own. Look out for the most vulnerable.”

McLean Bible has sought to build partnerships with established D.C. churches as well as financially support D.C. church planters. At Grace Downtown, where the motto is “in and for the city,” history professor George Musgrove spoke recently on D.C.’s racial history to help the church understand its context. And CHBC created an entire Sunday school course on neighboring.

“Gentrification isn’t going to stop,” Kelsey said. “We can be a city set on a hill, where people say, ‘Man, the people that are discipled in this church live in a radically more countercultural way—even in transience—than other residents,’” he said. “We sacrifice because of a different mission and purpose.”

That’s true whether a church ministers to everyone in their neighborhood, actively wrestles with gentrification, or follows those leaving to their new location.

“The church is uniquely positioned to love both the gentrified and the gentrifier,” said CHBC pastor Isaac Adams, who helped lead the church’s neighboring class. “We’re oriented toward God and toward our neighbor. We’re here to be faithful.”

“With the gospel, there is always hope,” Kelsey said. No matter the church, and no matter the neighborhood, “God gives us the resources to do everything he calls us to do.”

Ask TGC: Is Anxiety a Sin?

Tue, 03/26/2019 - 12:04am

Editors’ note: We received the following question from a reader:

Is anxiety a sin? Does anxiety mean a person is doubting God?

You might be wondering why this is even a question worth considering. Some people may be thinking that since we can’t control it there cannot be anything sinful about anxiety. Some other people, though, will point to to Bible passages—such as when Jesus says “do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself” (Matt. 6:34) and Paul says “Do not be anxious about anything” (Phil. 4:6)—and say it’s obvious that to be anxious is sinful.

So which is it? Here’s my brief answer: Depending on the context, fear and anxiety may be one of four types: (1) a God-given emotional response for our benefit, (2) a disordered physiological response that is not sinful, (3) a natural consequence of sin, or (4) sinful responses to God’s providential care. Let’s consider how we can distinguish between the four types.

Four Types of Anxiety

We first need to start by clarifying what we mean by anxiety, for types #1 and #2 are related to each other as are types #3 and #4.

To understand type #1 it’s helpful to start by distinguishing it from the related concept of fear. Anxiety and fear are closely related because they are similar emotions working on different timeframes. Fear is an emotional response to a real or perceived immediate threat; anxiety is an emotional response to a real or perceived future threat. Fear is a physiological and/or emotional warning system that alerts us to danger right now, while anxiety is a warning system of impending danger.

If confronted with an immediate threat to our life—such as encountering a wild, dangerous animal—we should be respectfully fearful enough to flee for our own safety and survival. An immediate feeling of anxiety or fear may trigger a natural, God-given emotional response for survival. That sort of anxiety is rarely what we’d consider sinful.

Next we have type #2, which is what we normally think of as clinical anxiety. For some people, anxiety manifest as a physiological malfunction that has become both disordered and debilitating. Some symptoms include persistent anxious thoughts on most days of the week for six months, when the anxiety interferes with daily functioning, or when you have anxiety-related symptoms (such as trouble sleeping). These are often symptoms of a medical condition such as Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder, or Social Anxiety. In such cases a person should seek help from a counselor or physician. This sort of anxiety is also not the type we’d consider sinful.

The third type is a natural consequence of sinful behavior. A prime example is if someone takes recreational drugs and develops an anxiety disorder. Similarly, someone cheating on their spouse may become anxious about their marriage falling apart and someone who gambles away all their money may become anxious about how they’re going to pay their bills. In these cases the anxiety is the result of sin.

Finally, we have the fourth type, sinful responses to God’s providential care. This is anxiety that results because we have a lack of trust in God. This is the type Jesus and Paul were referring to in the passages I quoted earlier. In Luke 12:22-30 Jesus tells his disciples:

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds! Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life? Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest?

“Consider how the wild flowers grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! And do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it. For the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them. But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.

Do we believe this? If so, we should not be anxious. But if we are anxious it might be a sign that we are doubting God, and thus falling into sin.

Which Type Are We Dealing With?

How then do we determine which of the four types of anxiety we’re dealing with? Here’s where we need to be careful, especially when attempting to “diagnosis” other people. It could be the case that we see obvious sin in a person’s life and recognize that their anxiety is a consequence of their sin. But it could also be the case that the person is engaging in sinful behavior and that their anxiety is a result of type #2— a disordered physiological response.

Because we can’t always know which it is, we must be careful about how we approach it. This doesn’t mean, of course, we can’t call people out for their sin. We can and we should. We should just be cautious about telling them their anxiety is a direct result of the sin we’re aware of because we may not know the whole situation.

However, we do tend to have more information about our own circumstances. We need to search our hearts and examine our emotions to determine whether our own anxiety is something we can’t control or if it is connected to sinful behavior.

How Christians in Christchurch Are Responding to Tragedy

Tue, 03/26/2019 - 12:04am

New Zealand is a country saturated in God’s common grace. I sometimes feel these islands are about as close to heaven on earth as you’ll find. Christchurch, my home, is as friendly and tranquil as any other small city on earth, and New Zealanders are a people of quiet strength—not brash and self-seeking, but resolute and generous.

Maybe above all, we’re a peaceful nation. Aotearoa has been a place of almost unparalleled safety. We are, by any human measure, uncommonly blessed.

But heaven on earth is an illusion, as we were reminded in a shocking and horrendous way on March 15. In a moment, we experienced a flash of unrestrained evil when a white nationalist entered two mosques and killed 50 people.

It has left us shell-shocked, angry, confused, exhausted, and fearful. But most of all, it’s left us grief-stricken. We are a nation in mourning—for the dead, but also for our shattered sense of peace and tranquility. In a place of such abundant blessings, it’s rare to be confronted with such unfettered evil.

Distinctive Reaction

In our grief and anger, New Zealanders have now spent more than a week searching for an appropriate answer. Christians in New Zealand have responded in many ways, yet we know we’re only scratching the surface. We know this attack has left a deep wound in our national psyche that will be with us for years, and will require many multi-layered responses.

Through the fog of our emotions, we know the distinctive Christian reaction must be gospel-centred and Christ-glorifying. That’s easier said than done. At such a time, it could be easy for Christians to go with the flow and be swept along with the tide of public response.

Will we as a nation find not just the relief that we want, but the hope that we need?

In many ways, that wouldn’t be a disaster, because the collective responses so far have been everything you’d hope for. But as disciples of Jesus Christ in Aotearoa, we must go further; we must respond in ways only we can.

That should begin, of course, with fervent prayer. We’ve prayed for the victims’ family members and loved ones, for first responders, for our prime minister, for our government, and for each other. We’ve prayed God would ease the fears of our Muslim friends, and that there would be no desire for “revenge attacks” of any sort, either here or abroad. We’ve prayed, more earnestly and genuinely than usual, “Come, Lord Jesus.” And yes, we’ve prayed for the terrorist.

I’ll admit I’ve found this last prayer almost impossibly hard. At a prayer meeting I attended last week, someone bravely volunteered, “We should pray for the shooter.” Of course we all knew it was right. But it still felt counterintuitive.

I’ve never felt the weight of Jesus’s words—“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”—more than I have since the attack (even though it was Muslims, not Christians, who were targeted). The late atheist Christopher Hitchens felt the weight of these words and utterly rejected them. “That I will not do,” he vowed, calling it “perhaps the most immoral [injunction] of all.”

I know who my enemies are . . . I’m not going to love them. You go love them if you want; don’t love them on my behalf. I’ll get on with killing them and destroying them, erasing them, and you can love them. But the idea that you ought to love them is not a moral idea at all. It’s a wicked idea and I hope it doesn’t take hold . . . What a disgusting order.

Of course, Hitchens was right . . . if there isn’t a loving God at the heart of the universe. But if God saved a rebel like me, and if God saved a committed persecutor like the apostle Paul, who am I to decide who’s beyond the bounds of his mercy?

How Do You Love a Terrorist?

It’s time for Christians in New Zealand to ask whether we’re willing to take Jesus at his word and love our enemy. How could we love this individual? How could we love a person who’s so filled with hate, who sought to inspire hatred in others, who has committed such evil and caused so much pain? Only by remembering that while we were still sinners—while we were God’s enemies—Christ died for us. Will we let this evil man be to us as the Ninevites were to Jonah? Or will we take the chance to reflect deeply on the gospel of God’s grace, allowing it to drive us to prayer even for this man and his salvation? The hardness of his heart must be unimaginable—but we believe in a God who brings life from death and can break even the hardest hearts (Jer. 23:29).

And if this man’s heart remains hard, we can be thankful for a God of perfect justice, a God who is far angrier at this man than I will ever be. Be thankful that the Bible says, “Be angry and do not sin”—not “Never get angry.”

As we reflect deeply on the gospel of God’s grace, our thoughts also turn to our Muslim friends. And make no mistake—they are our friends. They have been targeted in a truly horrific way, and Christians should be the first to stand up against any form of hatred that would target a person or a group because of their religious beliefs. The victims weren’t just Muslims; they were also fellow human beings, made in the image of God and precious to him. We long for freedom of religion and safety for all people. We long for friendship with Muslims.

Of course, Christians and Muslims disagree about ultimate truth, and we long for opportunities to discuss those differences and proclaim the truth about Jesus and the grace he offers. We pray that God would use even tragic events to draw people from all walks of life—including the Muslim community—to a saving knowledge of his Son. But none of this means that we hate each other, that we want to hurt each other, or that we need to fear each other.

Now is a time for Christians to revere Christ as Lord, to honor him as holy (1 Pet. 3:15a). As we fix our eyes on Jesus, we’ll be equipped to make a meaningful defense of our faith and share the unique reason for our hope (1 Pet. 3:15b). As we revere Christ as Lord, we’ll be grief-stricken but not crushed as we confront the suffering of this life—remembering the hope kept it heaven for us and experiencing God’s sustaining grace. As we remember the grace and truth found in Jesus, we’ll be moved to step forth in his name, perhaps acting as modern-day Good Samaritans toward those around us, in hopes that others might see our good deeds and praise our Father in heaven (Matt. 5:16; 1 Pet. 2:11–12).

Will we as a nation soften our hearts toward our Creator? Will we find not just the relief that we want, but the hope that we need? Will we, as the people of God, add to the physical outpourings of love with the most loving acts possible—our prayers to a mighty God and our words of gospel hope for our lost neighbors?

How God Found Christopher Yuan

Tue, 03/26/2019 - 12:02am

Jesus said many things that are hard to hear. He issued many commands that are hard to obey. He taught many parables that are hard to understand. But maybe the most powerful, the most counterintuitive word he has for us today comes in Matthew 10:39: “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

When we’re lost, we’re found. It only makes sense in the gospel.

That’s the theme of a new book I’ve edited for The Gospel Coalition. It’s called Lost and Found: How Jesus Helped Us Discover Our True Selves. It’s a collection of testimonial essays from authors such as Joni Eareckson Tada, Sam Allberry, Quina Aragon, Jason Cook, Bernard Howard, and many others.

And it includes the testimony of my guest on The Gospel Coalition Podcast. Christopher Yuan is probably best known for his book Out of a Far Country [review]. But he’s also written a new book called Holy Sexuality and the Gospel. He joined me on The Gospel Coalition Podcast to talk about the mystery of life, the apologetic of love, the challenge of parenting, and more.

Listen to this interview with Christopher Yuan.

Why Pro-Choice Movies Are So Rare

Tue, 03/26/2019 - 12:00am

It’s not hard to find pro-life movies. As much as Hollywood progressives don’t want them to be made or seen, films like Gosnell (2018), October Baby (2011), Bella (2006), and the soon-to-release Unplanned (in theaters March 28)—to name just a few—are pretty common. Even more common are more mainstream, better-quality films that contain subtler but undeniably powerful pro-life themes: Children of Men (2006), Juno (2007), Knocked Up (2007), Waitress (2007), or last year’s Creed II, Roma, and A Quiet Place.

It’s much harder to find pro-choice movies. Why? Given the politically liberal hegemony that is Hollywood—where films advocating other progressive causes like LGBTQ rights are a dime a dozen—why is advocacy for abortion rights so little seen in mainstream movies? As central as abortion is in the political left’s political program, you’d think it would show up often in Hollywood movies.

But it doesn’t. Why not?

Framing Abortion Rights as Justice Issue

Almost all the examples of pro-choice themes in movies concern depictions of the harrowing nature of “underground” abortions in contexts and eras where legal (and “safer,” at least for the mother) abortion is not possible.

Probably the most popular film in this category is Dirty Dancing (1987). Set in 1963—a decade before abortion became legalized nationally following Roe v. Wade—the film includes a subplot where Penny (Cynthia Rhodes) has to borrow money from Baby (Jennifer Grey) to pay for an illegal abortion that almost kills her. Other films in this vein include HBO’s If These Walls Could Talk (1996), Revolutionary Road (2008)—a bleak drama depicting a self-performed abortion that ends up killing Kate Winslet’s character—and the Romanian film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007), which follows college roommates as they try to arrange a secret, illegal abortion in communist-era Romania.

Other pro-choice films have valorized abortion-performing doctors who operated covertly in contexts where the practice was illegal and stigmatized. Michael Caine won an Oscar for his portrayal, in The Cider House Rules (1999), of a lovable old doctor who performs abortions out of the World War II-era Maine orphanage he operates. Similarly, Imelda Staunton was nominated for an Oscar for her portrayal, in Vera Drake (2004), of a sweet woman who secretly performs abortions in 1950s London.

More movies like this appear to be on the horizon, with no less than three (!) films in the works about the Jane Collective—an underground abortion service that operated in Chicago from 1969 to 1973. Call Jane will star Elisabeth Moss and Susan Sarandon, Amazon Studios’ This Is Jane will star Michelle Williams, and Ask for Jane stars Planned Parenthood activist Cait Cortelyou.

Because “safe, legal, and rare” has been a common talking point for the pro-choice cause, it makes sense that pro-choice films would focus on depicting the bleak circumstances surrounding abortion when it was forced underground. Films like these want to convince audiences that the post-Roe era is much better than pre-Roe in terms of women’s health, and that outlawing abortion again would take us back to the self-mutilating horrors of Revolutionary Road. It frames the abortion issue as a justice cause within a victim-oppressor paradigm, where dissenters like Vera Drake and the Jane Collective are positioned as righteous advocates for the marginalized, on par with the heroes of the American civil-rights movement.

Shout Your Abortion?

But is this the only possible tactic for pro-choice cinema? Why aren’t there more films about abortions that take place in the post-Roe era, when it is legal? Where are the “shout your abortion!” movies celebrating stories of present-day women who choose to get an abortion? Why are films like this so conspicuously rare?

Because few people want to see such films. When recent movies have attempted to celebrate abortion stories through lighthearted comedy, they have been awkward and little seen. In Obvious Child (2014), Jenny Slate stars as a 20-something who has an abortion on Valentine’s Day, followed by a cosy evening watching Gone with the Wind with the aborted baby’s father. How romantic. In Grandma (2015), Lily Tomlin plays an aging lesbian poet who happily helps her teenage granddaughter collect money to pay for an abortion. Both films were critically acclaimed (91 percent and 92 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, respectively) but commercially underwhelming ($3.1 million and $6.9 million at the box office, respectively).

Just this month a new TV show, Hulu’s Shrill—based on the memoir by #ShoutYourAbortion co-founder Lindy West—attempted another relaxed, lighthearted abortion depiction. In the first episode, lead character Annie (Saturday Night Live’s Aidy Bryant) is shown having an abortion at Planned Parenthood (which served as a script consultant on the episode). Following the abortion, Annie is shown with her lesbian roommate Fran (Lolly Adefope), who asks her how she’s feeling. Annie responds, “Really, really good . . . I made a decision, only for me, for myself . . . I feel very f*****g powerful right now.”

However desirable it may be for the pro-choice cause to see more indie comedies like these being made—portraying abortion as an easy and empowering thing—it seems unlikely to happen. Why? Because making light of abortion just doesn’t work. There’s no getting around the heaviness and cruelty of it, both for the child who will never get a chance at life and also the mother (and father) who cannot undo and must live with the decision. It simply doesn’t work to make a “feel good” film or TV show about abortion. When attempts are made, it’s just disturbing.

Making light of abortion just doesn’t work. There’s no getting around the heaviness and cruelty of it.

You cannot celebrate the pro-choice cause without celebrating the harm of another. In a culture where “don’t harm others” is the lowest common denominator of moral imperatives, abortion advocates cannot even clear that low moral bar. Abortion advocates cannot even appeal to the base principle of various progressive sexual ethics—that anything is permissible as long as it is consensual and does no harm. Abortion by nature inflicts harm by one party on another, without their consent.

Even a liberal, pro-abortion feminist like Camille Paglia has admitted that the pro-life movement “has the moral high ground” over the pro-choice cause. Writing for Salon, Paglia said, “Although I am an atheist who worships only great nature, I recognize the superior moral beauty of religious doctrine that defends the sanctity of life.”

Nothing to See Here!

In the same article, Paglia describes the “abundant contradictions” of a liberal feminism that opposes capital punishment and fights to protect endangered species like the sage grouse or spotted owl, and yet supports the killing of unborn children.

“The violence intrinsic to abortion cannot be wished away by magical thinking,” she writes.

Indeed. The intrinsic, fundamental nature of violence in the abortive act is a big reason why pro-choice films are so rare. There is no way to depict abortion on screen, or even suggest it as something that happened offscreen, without reminding audiences of the ugly, “doing harm to another” violence of the practice. That’s why attempts at “feel good” abortion movies are so outrageous. No matter how you try to spin an abortion, there is no getting around its moral ugliness.

There is no way to depict or even suggest abortion on screen without reminding audiences of the ugly, ‘doing harm to another’ violence of the practice.

This is why the pro-choice movement’s main tactics involve diverting attention away from abortion itself. They want us to focus on the mother exclusively (her rights, her body, her health, her “I feel very powerful!” autonomy), but not the baby (his or her rights, his or her body, his or her health, his or her lack of power). They call supporters to fight the patriarchy and defend against a supposed “war on women,” but there is little mention of the actual thing being defended (killing babies by sucking them out of their mother’s womb). The rhetoric itself shifts away from the truth of abortion in a “nothing to see here!” sort of way: It’s “pro-choice” (a term Paglia calls “a cowardly euphemism”) instead of “pro-abortion.” It’s about planning a better future for the parents (“Planned Parenthood”) rather than removing the future, and all its possibility, from an innocent living human.

If abortion were a morally neutral thing, there would be no need to divert attention away from it. There would be no need to swap “pro-choice” for “pro-abortion.” There would be no fear of vivid, visual depictions of what abortion is and does. There would be no curious lack of abortion in mainstream Hollywood films. But abortion is not morally neutral, and abortion-rights proponents know it. That’s why—aside from occasional indie films and fringe shows like Shrill—abortion will probably remain a rarity on screen. To shine any light on abortion—even the softest and most rosy-colored light—is to remind people of its inherent moral ugliness and draw attention to its unavoidably disturbing reality. And that’s the last thing abortion defenders want.

Don’t Underestimate Small-Town Ministry

Mon, 03/25/2019 - 12:04am

When evangelicals think of gospel ministry in New England, they may think of Jonathan Edwards or the Great Awakenings. They may think of the least religious states in the United States. They may think of a region many have labeled “the preacher’s graveyard.” But what may not come to mind is what happened recently: hundreds of pastors and ministry leaders gathering with eager expectation, learning how to better advance gospel work in the small places of New England.

On March 18, Small Town Summits, in partnership with The Gospel Coalition New England, held a New England regional Summit at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary with the goal of developing a theological vision for small-place ministry. Previous Small Town Summits have been hosted in New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine, in towns even people in those states have never heard of. And that’s the point. Our typical summits are intentionally smaller and local, as a way of embodying our message. But it felt like a good time to gather rural laypeople and pastors from around the New England region, and many responded. (The summit was sold out.)

Small-town pastors often tell us that they struggle not only with the normal stresses of pastoral ministry, but also with the extra discouragement of ministry in a small town. Ministry in small places is often slow and not regarded highly in the world’s eyes—whether the unbelieving world or the evangelical world. But on March 18, hundreds of ministry leaders were affirmed in their callings to go to the ends of the earth, including often-forgotten small towns. Rural churches need skilled, solid, vibrant gospel ministry just as much as suburbs and cities do.

Can’t Serve What You Don’t See

Stephen Witmer, a member of the Small Town Summits leadership team and author of the forthcoming A Big Gospel in Small Places, encouraged the packed chapel: “We need to develop a theological vision for small-place ministry so we can see small towns as God sees them. You can’t serve what you don’t see.”

The plenary speakers and workshops helped us to see small-town ministry the way God does, and also to see that understanding our context enables us to be better ministers of the gospel. Richard Lints, professor of theology at Gordon-Conwell, helped us develop a theological vision for small-town ministry (just as he has helped Tim Keller cultivate a theological vision for ministry to the city). Brad Roth, author of God’s Country, explained how the doctrine of God sends us to the small places, and Donnie Griggs, author of Small Town Jesus, clarified what gospel-shaped small-town ministry looks like in practice. The workshops focused on discipling women, soul care, church planting, church revitalization, community ministry, the pastor as public theologian, and building a healthy ministry marriage. All gave careful attention to the nuances that ministering in small places brings to each of these areas.

If small-town pastors, laypeople, and ministry leaders are to serve well, we must see that God has sovereignly positioned us in our small places and sovereignly granted us a big gospel. We must see that we’re not alone, and that there are unique privileges, not just difficulties, in our ministries. We must cultivate a vision of shepherding well no matter the size of our flock, and of evangelizing well no matter the size of our town.

Collaboration Rarely Seen

One Vermont church-planting leader commented that in more than a decade of ministry in New England, he’s never seen a movement of so many gospel-centered leaders, outside of their own tribes, working together to advance God’s kingdom. There were even some city and suburban pastors who attended the March 18 summit to know how to better encourage ministry and plant churches in New England’s small towns.

David Pinckney and Ben Ruhl, who serve on the Small Town Summits leadership team, both prayed for ministry in larger places as well during the plenary sessions. We’re not anti-city or anti-suburb or anti-large church. Rather, we’re pro-big gospel.

Large-Scale Revaluation

We want to make sure that small-town pastors, laypeople, and church leaders know and are reminded that God sees and values their ministry. It’s rare for them to hear that preaching a gospel-rich, Bible-centered sermon to 60 or 16 people in a forgotten place is important—but it is.

When a currency is revalued, its value is calculated again, often with a higher value than before. The Small Town Summits team wants to be a part of a large-scale revaluation of small-town ministry. We’re grateful for the palpable excitement in the Gordon-Conwell chapel on March 18. It indicates what we’ve already seen in our state-specific summits: God isn’t the only one who values the souls in the small towns.

For future summits and other events sponsored by Small Town Summits, visit

Is It Morally Okay to Keep Updating My Things?

Mon, 03/25/2019 - 12:03am

I’m not that old, but it seems like a lifetime ago that it was acceptable to keep things until they were broken. Now if my phone is more than a year old or if I haven’t remodeled my kitchen in the past decade, I’m out of date. Is there a moral right or wrong to this consuming of new and updated models of stuff?

What a crucial question for being intentional about building a Christian way of life! I sure wish it had a simple answer.

We have to keep our gospel balance here. There are two sides of the balance beam on this question, and you can fall off on either side. I recognize my own tendency to buy new things sometimes when I shouldn’t, especially when it comes to some of my hobbies. On the other hand, at the moment your question arrived in my inbox, my wife had just finished pointing out to me that my favorite shoes have several visible holes in them, and if I don’t want to get sick on rainy days, I really need to overcome my sentimentalism (and sloth) and get new ones!

Let’s see if we can find a way to walk down this balance beam without falling off on the side of complacency about squandering money on frivolous luxuries and conspicuous consumption, or on the side of legalism that invents ethical rules without a clear basis in Scripture.

On the one hand, God did make creation for us to appreciate and enjoy. We should not simply identify our fidelity to God with the extent to which we withdraw ourselves from enjoying his creation. In the Institutes, John Calvin recounts a tale of monks who compete to see who can survive on less bread and water. The monk who can survive on one piece of bread a day turns up his nose at the prodigality of the gluttonous wastrel in the cell next door, who scandalously indulges himself with two pieces a day. This story may be apocryphal, but the spiritual danger it points to is real.

The enormous productivity of the modern economy has introduced two new conditions that legitimately loosen the ethics of frugality. One is that products really do get better much faster than they used to. I keep my phones for more than a year, because I think it’s important for Christians to be frugal. But if I resolved to keep my current phone for the next 10 years, I’d miss out on a lot! The other is that the cost of basic goods and services has dropped, while opportunities to do new kinds of work have increased. It really doesn’t make sense for me to spend my time darning the holes in all my old socks, when I could buy new ones and instead spend that time doing things I’m better gifted to do for God and his world. It’s a matter of setting priorities.

It’s a matter of setting priorities.

On the other hand, frugality, self-control, and generosity are as essential to spiritual formation as chastity is. The way we manage our resources sets the tone for the kind of life we choose to live (“Where your treasure is . . .”). No serious Christian doubts that what you choose to do sexually has a profound, far-reaching formative influence on what kind of person you are. Yet somehow it’s difficult to get most Christians to appreciate that what you do with your money and possessions has the same kind of profound influence on your character.

In the chapter on charitable giving in Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis suggests a guideline for frugality that I recommend: A Christian household’s standard of living should be noticeably lower than that of other households in the same culture with similar incomes, because the Christian household strives to indulge its own desires less and share with others more. What I appreciate about this approach is that it takes seriously the culturally contextual nature of economic life, while having a biblically solid basis in the idea that Christians, as Christians, are called to be visibly different from the surrounding world in the way they live.

You can read previous installments in the Thorns & Thistles series.

A Book That Will Transform Your Evangelism

Mon, 03/25/2019 - 12:02am

A rising number of Christians in the West are coming to grips with the reality that the Judeo-Christian worldview no longer holds sway.

Of course, we’ve always known that there are parts of the world where missionaries undertake their work in the teeth of opposition—opposition that is sometimes cultural, sometimes judicial.

At home, however, we didn’t deploy missionaries; we deployed pastors and evangelists. But as the folk song puts it, “The times they are a-changin’.”

New Culture

In the Bible Belt, especially in the population that is 35 or older, it’s still perfectly acceptable to be a nominal Christian: the subculture reinforces us as we lurk in our pious comfort zones. Elsewhere in the country, however, and just about everywhere for young people, nominal Christianity is becoming obsolete: It costs too much, with no real advantages. Decidedly non-Christian and anti-Christian agendas, riding the digital waves, increasingly prevail.

Stop living your life in fear, and wear the cultural dissonance as a badge of honor. Fear no one but God.

It turns out that’s not entirely a bad thing. As the number of nominal Christians thins out, it’s becoming a little clearer who is a Christian and who is not. Christians are encouraged not to be like the culture, but to be countercultural. Pastors and others enjoin us to be like the people the apostle Peter addresses: sojourners, aliens, exiles. Instead of whining and feeling sorry for ourselves because the culture is becoming unrecognizable, Christians should align their vision with that of the most mature first-century Christians.

If opposition mounts to the place where it can be rightly called persecution, well, then we’re called to follow the apostles, who “left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name” (Acts 5:41). After all, hadn’t the Master, only a short while earlier, told his followers that if people oppose Christ they will oppose Christians (John 15:18–25)?

So stop living your life in fear, and wear the cultural dissonance as a badge of honor.

Fear no one but God.

Evangelism as Exiles

Elliot Clark takes the argument one step farther. The shifts in our culture, he argues, ought to modify our expectations as to what evangelism is, as to what evangelists do. Many of us think of Billy Graham as the archetypal evangelist. He sometimes went abroad, but primarily he ministered here: He was our guy, and he was feted in many contexts, sometimes labeled “America’s Pastor.”

Now, however, the changes in the culture mean that, just as Christians face skepticism and mild opprobrium, so do evangelists. As Christians in general are thought to be too exclusive and narrow in their claims, too right-wing and old fashioned in their moral perceptions, and too out-of-touch when it comes to the freedom our culture hungers for in the domain of personal identity, so Christian evangelists fall under the same condemnation. Christian evangelists aren’t being celebrated in dinner meetings with the local mayor, but are quietly engaging in a one-on-one Bible study with an unbeliever, meeting in a Starbucks.

What does evangelism look like once we see ourselves as exiles and sojourners?

In short, Clark asks, what does evangelism look like once we see ourselves as exiles and sojourners? Where can we find our cues and learn some lessons? Clark draws from his experience living and serving in a Central Asian country, a country that is overwhelmingly Muslim. The West still enjoys more freedoms than Christians in that country do, but the question to ask is obvious: What should we learn about evangelism when we see ourselves as exiles and sojourners?

In one extended introduction and six crisp chapters, Clark lays out the answer he learns from Scripture—Scripture that is read when one is living in a cultural and religious minority. The clichés of our faith take on new and life-changing significance: what it means to live with the hope of glory shaping our priorities, what it means to offer respect to all (whether Nero in the first century or an imam in ours), what it means to declare God’s praise to the nations, and so forth. None of these priorities is unknown or new, but they are configured with great freshness in the context of living as exiles.

Read with care: this book may change your views on evangelism.

Why Self-Confidence Is Lethal

Mon, 03/25/2019 - 12:00am

I have a teenage son who plays basketball. Recently, his coach recommended that he start going to the gym and lifting some light weights. So occasionally my son has been accompanying me to the gym where I’m a member and doing workouts with me. But here’s the thing: My son isn’t a member of the gym. When we walk up to the desk, I’m the one who calls up the membership information on my smartphone and buzzes us into the gym. And when I do, I point to my son and explain that he’s with me, and the attendant nods and waves us through.

Once that’s done, though, my son is free to do anything I’m free to do in the gym. Whatever equipment I’m authorized to use by virtue of my paid membership, he’s authorized to use because he’s there with me. Whatever privileges I have—to use the locker room, the pool, the weights, the basketball court—he shares them all because he’s with me. I have access to the gym by right of a paid membership; he has access to it not at all by right but by virtue of his relationship with me.

What does all this have to do with your assurance of salvation? Everything in the world.

Confidence in Christ

Take a look at Hebrews 10:19–22:

Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.

This passage is all about having access to God’s presence—that is, having a right to stand before him. Thus, the author of Hebrews writes that we as Christians should “have confidence” to enter into God’s presence, and we should “draw near” to him, not with an “evil conscience”—that is, with fear that we don’t belong or that we’ll be cast out—but “in full assurance of faith.” That’s the goal—to stand in the presence of God and enjoy his blessings with full assurance and confidence that we belong there.

Our confidence and assurance that we can enter God’s presence . . . are actually created by recognizing that our access to him is based not at all on anything in us or about us.

But did you see how that kind of assurance and confidence is created? It would’ve been easy enough for the author to write, “We draw near with the confidence of a paid membership, with the full assurance that we’ve done what’s necessary to earn access to the presence of God.” But he didn’t write that. Instead the author mentions three reasons why we can have this kind of confident assurance to stand in God’s presence without fear. First, we have this confidence “by the blood of Jesus”; second, “by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain”; and third, because “we have a great high priest over the house of God.”

All three of those reasons for confidence—Christ’s blood, the torn curtain of the temple, and Christ’s role as great high priest—have to do with Jesus’s death in the place of his people. Do you see the point the author of Hebrews is making? Our confidence and assurance that we can enter God’s presence—that we can in fact stand before him with no fear of being thrown out—are actually created by recognizing that our access to him is based not at all on anything in us or about us, but rather on Jesus Christ’s work for us.

Full Assurance

This is a critical point to grasp in our fight for assurance. Most Christians would readily affirm that our right to enter the presence of God, to draw near to him, was won for us by Christ in his life, death, and resurrection. That’s not what causes our problems.

Our trouble begins when we ask, “Well, okay, but how can I draw near to God in confidence, with full assurance?” And for many of us, the answer that lurks in the back of our minds is that even if Jesus has brought us into the presence of God, we dare not enjoy being there, or have any assurance of the appropriateness of our being there, or have any sense of the safety and rightness of our being there unless we now earn it ourselves.

Jesus may have gotten us here, we think, but now we need to prove we belong.

But do you see how these verses from Hebrews 10 cut hard against that way of thinking? Jesus doesn’t barely sneak us into the presence of God; it actually gives us every right in the universe to be there—and to be there with confidence and joy. And therefore the work of Christ on our behalf actually creates confidence and assurance; it is a source of assurance. The more we understand it, embrace it, and cherish it, the greater our sense of confidence and assurance will be.

Our confidence that we belong in the presence of God is not self-confidence; it’s Christ-confidence.

The fact is, our minds and hearts will always look for a way to find self-assurance. More than anything else, we desperately want to justify our presence before God’s throne, to show the universe and maybe even God himself that even if we’re saved by grace, God ultimately made a good choice. We want to make it clear that we belong, and then we’ll stand in God’s presence with confidence. But the author of Hebrews rules that kind of thinking right out of bounds.

We should stand in God’s presence with confidence and assurance, he says, but not because we’ve paid our own dues or proved our own mettle.

We stand there with confidence solely because of what Jesus has done for us. Our confidence that we belong in the presence of God is not self-confidence; it’s Christ-confidence.

#Blessed May Not Mean What You Think

Sun, 03/24/2019 - 12:03am

Search #blessed on Instagram, and you will find more than 100 million posts. The hashtag highlights pictures of beautiful places, toned bodies, new babies, graduations, successes, and abundance. Scrolling down, you’ll see recent business startups, wonderful technology, new marriages, and fancy cars.

All of these are good things, gifts given to humanity by a loving God. But the hashtag seems to say this is the only way God blesses us—by giving us obviously good things. Have we defined the blessed life as one of abundance and power, popularity and success?

Imagine, instead, opening your Instagram feed and reading a story about a woman who has just lost her job. In her post she wonders how she’ll cover her next mortgage payment, how she’ll get school supplies for her children, and how she’ll pay for the repair her car desperately needs.

What should her hashtag be? #notblessed?

Or what about a post by a mother whose child lives with a myriad of birth-related problems? Her most recent status talks about physical suffering, learning disabilities, and the independent life her child will never have.

Her hashtag? #cursed?

#Blessed According to Jesus

In Luke 6:20–22, Jesus describes a life of blessing that is, at the very least, countercultural:

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.

Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied.

Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.

Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man!

As we read Jesus’s description, we notice several things. First, the blessing he describes isn’t shallow, passing, or temporary. It’s a deep, enduring sense of satisfaction. This isn’t the good feeling that warms us for a moment and then fades. This is a rooted, deep-in-your-gut joy that doesn’t shift with circumstances.

A picture of the blessed life is also found in Psalm 1. Here, the psalmist describes the blessed person as one who delights in the law of the Lord, meditating on it consistently. He is like a tree near water whose leaves don’t wither in drought. His blessing endures despite circumstances. And Ephesians 1:3 tells us that God “has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms.”

True blessings are anything but temporary.

Upside-Down Blessing

So who are the recipients of this kind of blessing? According to Jesus, this kind of blessing comes not to those who are rich, powerful, successful, and popular. Rather, it comes to those who endure suffering.

In Jesus’s upside-down kingdom, these people know an enduring joy and blessing that doesn’t dwindle as their situation changes. There is blessing that comes when you are powerless, for only then can you know the wealth and power of the coming kingdom. There is blessing when you are needy, for only then will you be satisfied with Jesus himself. There is blessing when you grieve about the brokenness and sin in the world, for only then will you laugh later when Jesus sets it right. Blessed are you now if you are excluded because of your connection to Jesus. That exclusion will lead to greater reward.

Unlike the fleeting happiness brought by sparkling circumstances and popularity, the conditions of neediness and dependency on God are the real places of blessing in his kingdom. Why? Because these things don’t change with our circumstances. In fact, when we are weak, needy, grieving, or excluded because of Christ, the joy we have in Jesus somehow grows stronger.

You Are #Blessed

And this is good news for everyone who belongs to Christ. Though we may never get tickets to that concert or a reservation for dinner at that restaurant, we have a place in Christ’s kingdom. Yes, our place at his table will inevitably come with suffering of many kinds (Rom. 8:17), but it will also come with greater blessing than we can imagine.

As believers, we should rethink our metaphorical and literal hashtags. Instead of just pushing through or trying to ignore suffering, Jesus is encouraging us to cherish it—not because grieving is easy or because powerlessness is pleasant, but because these conditions make us more aware of our need for him. As Corrie ten Boom wrote, “You can never learn that Christ is all you need, until Christ is all you have.”

Are you in a place of weakness, grief, or exclusion because of Christ? Hear his words of blessing over you: Yours is the kingdom of God, you will be satisfied, you will laugh, and great is your reward in heaven. You will be #blessed.

The Goldilocks Principle and Church Size

Sat, 03/23/2019 - 12:04am

The Story: A new study finds that many American churches are plateaued or declining in attendance. But can we understand growth and decline if we don’t know what size a church should be?

The Background: A new study from Exponential by LifeWay Research found 6 in 10 Protestant churches are plateaued or declining in attendance and more than half saw fewer than 10 people become new Christians in the past 12 months.

According to the study, most congregations have fewer than 100 people attending services each Sunday (57 percent), including 21 percent who average fewer than 50. Around 1 in 10 churches (11 percent) average 250 or more for their worship services. Three in 5 (61 percent) pastors say their churches faced a decline in worship attendance or growth of 5 percent or less in the last three years, while almost half (46 percent) say their giving decreased or stayed the same from 2017 to 2018.

More than 2 in 5 churches (44 percent) only have one or fewer full-time staff members. Close to 9 in 10 pastors (87 percent) say their church had the same or fewer number of full-time staff in 2018 as they had in 2017, including 7 percent who cut staff.

In 2018, few churches added new multi-site campuses (3 percent) or were involved in some form of planting a new church (32 percent). Sixty-eight percent say they had no involvement in church planting. Around 1 in 10 (12 percent) say they were directly or substantially involved in opening a new church in 2018, including 7 percent who were a primary financial sponsor or provided ongoing financial support to a church plant.

What It Means: There is something peculiar about the way we focus on numbers within the church. For instance, if we say a church has “grown” or “declined” the automatic assumption is that the congregation has gained or lost members or attenders. While there is nothing inherently wrong in using the terms in this way, it reflects our numeric bias. There is no reason, for example, that terms like growth and decline wouldn’t be used as qualitative (e.g., changes in discipleship) rather than quantitative descriptors.

Nevertheless, the numbers reflect people, and because people matter the numbers matter too.

Still, I suspect we could do a better job in thinking about how we think about numbers. For example, before we can understand what it means to say a church has plateaued or declined in attendance, we should be able to answer the question, “What size should a church be?”

For most pastors the answer is “A little bigger than my current congregation.” More people often means more “success” in the form of increased finances, baptisms, conversions, etc. But as a whole, evangelicals have not given much thought into what would be the optimal size for an average congregation, much less considered what factors should be driving church size. Instead, we allow our unexamined assumptions about church to determine size for us.

To see what I mean, imagine you’re called to plant a new church. How would you decide whether your new church plant should adopt the model of a house church or a multi-site church? The choice may appear to be a false dichotomy, since while it might be possible for new congregation to meet in houses a multisite model would requires a particular combination of leadership, money, etc., that many congregations do not have—and may never be able to obtain.

Yet considering the question about structure can reveal how churches assume a particular model, which in America is often based on a small business start-up. Almost every church plant I’ve encountered (including my own) is based on an entrepreneurial model where a visionary leader (a church planter) recruits a team of like-minded staffers and members to help raise funding, develop and promote core functions (such as the worship service), and “launch” the branded product (the new church plant) into a specific geographical “market” (usually an area considered unchurched or underchurched). Often, other congregations outside the local area serve as “investors” that help provide financing until the church plant can be self-sustaining.

Embedded in this model is the assumption that local congregations should start (relatively) small and, if possible, grow into larger organizational structures, such as megachurch or a multisite church, after they’ve established themselves. Where does this idea come from? Why have we not developed a model in which churches are planted as multisite or megachurches? Rather than distributing resources broadly to a smaller number of small, individual church plants, why don’t we pool our funding and talent for large-scale church plants?

My point is not to critique the current church planting model—which I believe has been helpful—but to force us to realize there are numerous unexamined assumptions and preferences that may have more to do with the size of churches that we realize.

For example, it’s no secret that many churches are planted because young men have the noble desire to preach on a regular schedule. Rather than being the fourth associate pastor on staff who gets to preach once a year, they want to be the one to lead from the pulpit. How much could motives like a desire to preach be affecting the ultimate size of our congregations? And how much should they drive our thinking?

If every year God is calling thousands of young men to be both preachers and pastors, then we might expect the number of congregations to be large while the average congregation size to remain small. But if we start with the assumption that most churches should be large (or at least larger), then we have to give serious consideration to the question of what number of preachers are needed to pastor faithful churches.

And this is but one of hundreds of unexamined factors that could be influencing the sizes of churches in America.

In the children’s story The Three Bears, a little girl named Goldilocks tastes three different bowls of porridge and finds that she prefers porridge that is neither too hot nor too cold, but has just the right temperature. The term Goldilocks principle is an analogy used to understand the concept of “just the right amount” in a wide range of disciplines, including economics and engineering.  It’s a useful concept that could be helpful in understanding what would be the “right size” for our churches.

But before we can know if our churches are too small, too big, or just right, we should give more thought to whether our congregation size is being determined by biases and preferences that need to be reconsidered.

May SSA Christians Have Non-Sexual Romantic Relationships?

Sat, 03/23/2019 - 12:00am

When it comes to same-sex relationships and the church, I’ve heard more and more people propose some sort of committed, same-sex, non-sexual romantic friendships for those who want to uphold the Christian sexual ethic.

This, they say, avoids the supposed loneliness of singleness while upholding biblical standards of sexual behavior.

Friendship versus Marriage

The trouble with this kind of suggestion is it assumes sex is the only thing that separates marriage from other kinds of close friendship. On this view, there is a sort of relational continuum, with regular friendship at one end and marriage at the other. Marriage is the most intense expression of relational intimacy, and friendship is a less intense expression. By this reckoning, there’s a point somewhere along the spectrum where two friends can enjoy romantic intimacy without transgressing into the sort of sexual intimacy reserved for marriage.

But this is to misunderstand both friendship and marriage. They aren’t merely less intense and more intense expressions of the same underlying reality, such that you can keep adding units of intimacy to friendship until it eventually becomes marriage. The architecture of both marriage and friendship are necessarily different.

Marriage isn’t just close friendship with added sex. Nor is close friendship marriage without sex. Marriage by definition and necessity must be exclusive. It is covenantal. If it isn’t exclusive, its very essence is violated. This isn’t the case with friendship. Friendship doesn’t require exclusivity. My friendship with even my closest friend isn’t threatened by the growth of a similar friendship with someone else. It’s not a zero-sum game.

Friendship Isn’t Exclusive

In fact, the opposite is often the case. A couple of years ago, a close friend and I were planning a hiking trip to Scotland. I was really looking forward to it: one of my favorite people in one of my favorite places doing one of my favorite activities. As the trip approached he suggested that another friend of his join us. I was initially disappointed, having been looking forward to some time with just my friend and me. But having his other friend with us added so much. They’d been college roommates together, and this friend knew a whole side to my friend that I didn’t, and brought out a whole side of him I hadn’t seen before. The trip was better than it would’ve been if it were just the two of us.

C. S. Lewis would not have been surprised:

In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out. By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets . . . . Hence true friendship is the least jealous of loves. (The Four Loves)

Friendship often flourishes precisely because it isn’t meant to be exclusive. So when we try to turn it into something exclusive, which is certainly the case when we conceive of it in romantic terms, we’re actually turning from friendship to something else. It becomes quasi-marital. That it might be non-sexual is beside the point: The moment it becomes romantic, we’re confusing two different categories of relationship, attempting to pursue friendship in a framework designed ultimately for something covenantal. The result (marriage without benefits?) becomes an unstable compound—something that will struggle to remain non-physical, or else won’t remain romantic and exclusive. Something will likely give.

But we mustn’t think that keeping things firmly in the category of friendship relegates the same-sex-attracted to a life without intimacy. That a relationship is non-sexual and also non-romantic doesn’t mean it lacks healthy biblical intimacy. Scripture shows us that such friendships don’t need exclusivity or improper physicality in order to become genuine and deep. Jesus testifies to this in how he describes his disciples as his friends (John 15:15): They know what is really going on in his heart. Indeed, such friendship is the stuff of real life.

How to Live Your Faith at Work

Fri, 03/22/2019 - 12:04am

“Let’s talk about identity in work. This is where so much of the tension is for so many of us. This is how our culture and the default nature of our hearts tends to find our identity, tends to build an identity based on achievement. Even that old question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”—that’s an identity question. We have a cabinet maker in the back, but that’s not his identity, right? He’s a son of God; he’s a beloved child of God whether he made a great series of cabinets last week or not.” — Justin Buzzard

Date: October 17, 2018

Event: TGC 2018 West Coast Conference

Listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition podcast.


Find more audio and video from the 2018 West Coast Conference on the conference media page.

Jesus Did Not Pray Just to Set an Example

Fri, 03/22/2019 - 12:03am

We all know that Jesus prayed. You could read the Gospels while half-asleep and not miss this fact. But why did Jesus pray? This question requires greater care. I recall once hearing a pastor say that Jesus only prayed to set an example for us. He was God, after all, so he didn’t need to pray.

But is that true?

Mark Jones doesn’t think so. And he deals with this question and many more in his new release, The Prayers of Jesus: Listening to and Learning from our Savior.

Jones is the teaching pastor of Faith Reformed Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, holds a PhD from the University of Leiden, and serves on the board of directors for The Davenant Institute.

Rooted in Reformed Christology

Anyone who has read much of Jones knows that he loves Christology, he loves the Puritans, and his books usually feature a healthy dose of both. (His doctoral dissertation was on the Christology of Thomas Goodwin.) He has already given us excellent Christological works like A Christian’s Pocket Guide to Jesus Christ and the Packer-like Knowing Christ. Even the book that put him on the popular map, Antinomianism: Reformed Theology’s Unwelcome Guest?, focuses heavily on the person of Christ as the solution to imbalanced views of law and gospel.

So it’s not surprising to find a similar Christological focus in The Prayers of Jesus. Indeed, the book would be worth buying for the introduction alone, “Introducing Our Praying Lord.” Here Jones gives a brief historical theology of how differing traditions have interpreted the Council of Chalcedon, which defined Christ as one person with two natures (divine and human). He distinguishes the Reformed Orthodox interpretation from that of Roman Catholicism and Lutheranism, both of which, he argues, “elevate the human nature [of Christ] above the boundaries set for it in Christ’s life of humiliation” (18).

If even Jesus needed to pray, what does that say of us, his younger, non-divine siblings? How arrogant must we be to think we can survive without prayer?

Roman theologians often argue that because of his divine nature, Jesus possessed beatific vision from birth, enabling him to walk by sight, not by faith. And Lutheran theologians often argue that Christ’s divine attributes are communicated to his human nature. The result of both, however, is that “they cannot adequately account for development in Christ’s human nature. In fact, the reality of Christ’s state of humiliation comes into question: Did Christ really need to learn and be taught?” (18).

This will influence how you answer various questions, the most important for this book being “Why did Jesus pray?” According to the Reformed (and I believe, biblical) Christology put forth by Jones, the answer is because as a man he needed to (15). Jesus was fully human, with a true body and a sensible soul. His divine nature did not somehow take the place of his soul (in a kind of modern-day Apollinarianism), giving him immediate access to his divine attributes like omniscience and omnipotence (19, 24). Had this been true, it’s hard to see how Jesus could’ve increased in wisdom as he grew older (Luke 2:52), claimed ignorance of the day of his return (Mark 13:32), or learned obedience through what he suffered (Heb. 5:8). It’s also hard to see why he would’ve needed to “offer up supplications with loud cries and tears to him who was able to save him from death” (Heb. 5:7).

Instead, following the groundbreaking work of John Owen, Jones argues that Jesus prayed and obeyed and worked miracles through the power of the Holy Spirit, who was given to him without measure (22–25). This makes Jesus’s prayers all the more relevant for us as Christians—for while we don’t share his deity, we do share his Spirit (Mark 1:8; Gal. 4:6). And “in this way, we aim to pray as our Lord prayed: in the Spirit” (24).

This Christological basis makes the rest of the book so practical. Yes, in one sense Jesus prayed in order to set an example for us. But part of that example was to show us how to depend on the Holy Spirit and trust God’s Word. He prayed as one who was bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh, and “his prayers were at the heart of his obedient and dependent life before the Father” (16). And “If Jesus did not pray out of necessity, then something has gone wrong with our understanding of who he is” (16).

Geared toward Scriptural Devotion

Anyone who has read much of Jones also knows that with all his love for the Puritans (and perhaps because of it) he also takes great pains to be biblical, making careful theological distinctions. This book is no exception, and the Scripture index is lengthy.

The Prayers of Jesus consists of 26 chapters, all of which begin with “Jesus Prayed . . .” The chapter topics follow Jesus’s life chronologically, beginning with “Jesus Prayed from His Mother’s Breast” (Ps. 22:9–10) and ending with “Jesus Prayed His Final Prayer” (Luke 23:46). Jones begins each chapter with a relevant verse, and then unpacks its theological and practical implications. Along the way, we learn about the manner in which Jesus prayed (secretly, joyfully, confidently, and so on) as well as the kinds of things he prayed for (his Father’s glory, his church’s unity, his enemies’ salvation, and so on).

Because this is a book dealing with Jesus’s own prayers, it makes sense that the vast bulk (14 chapters) would be dedicated to his lengthiest recorded prayer, the High Priestly Prayer in John 17 (79–172). These chapters should serve as a useful resource for anyone preaching through that passage. On the flipside, the Lord’s Prayer receives only one chapter (51–60), in which Jones focuses on how Jesus himself was able to pray it himself, including (believe it or not) the fifth petition “forgive us our debts” (57–58).

As usual, Jones writes for a popular audience without being afraid to deal with complicated issues. His heart is pastoral, but he doesn’t insult his readers by demanding too little from them. In addition to the introduction (which he admits is “more difficult than the rest of the book”), readers will encounter the trinitarian doctrine of appropriations (94), the distinction between God’s absolute power and ordained power (182), the distinction between God’s love of benevolence and love of complaisance (157), and a discussion of how Jesus could be forsaken on the cross without the Godhead being divided (195–98). Though challenging, these discussions are biblically grounded and geared toward greater appreciation for who Jesus is and what he has done.

Ultimately, Jones is pushing us toward the imitation of Christ. Though obviously unique in some ways, Jesus’s prayer life—like his life in general—provides a pattern we’re meant to follow (Matt. 11:29; Mark 8:34).

Why did Jesus pray? Because he needed to. And if even Jesus needed to pray, what does that say of us, his younger, non-divine siblings? How arrogant must we be to think we can survive without prayer?

Of course, besides being necessary, prayer is also difficult. I’m ashamed to admit how much effort prayer requires for me. Perhaps you could say the same. But three truths should strengthen us: Jesus has died for our sin of lukewarmness in prayer. Jesus is alive and praying for us right now. And Jesus has given us the same Holy Spirit who rested on him. The Spirit not only helps us in our weakness when we don’t know what to pray, but he also helps us to read our elder Brother’s prayers and learn to pray like him. And that’s an encouraging thought. It’s why this book is worth reading.

The Legacy of the Lamb in Bahrain

Fri, 03/22/2019 - 12:02am

Samuel Zwemer was challenged to give his life in service to Christ and the nations while a student at Hope College in his hometown of Holland, Michigan. And Zwemer set his compass for one of the hardest, most neglected places on the planet: Arabia, the epicenter of Islam, a hostile place both physically and spiritually.

After language study in Beirut, Zwemer reached the Arabian Peninsula in 1890. Maps and demographic information were sketchy, but Zwemer was aided by the help of Major General F. T. Haig, whose expeditions into the interior and love for missions gave him special insight into the situation on the ground.

In 1896 Zwemer married the equally intrepid Amy Elizabeth Wilkes, an English nurse serving in Baghdad. The two made Bahrain, an island on the eastern shores of Arabia, their mission base and home. Together they were a gospel force: speaking of Christ at every opportunity, distributing Bibles, starting the first school for girls, providing orphan care, and, with a growing team, opening the island’s first hospital. They also co-authored a book written especially for children; it’s an extensive pictorial introduction to Arabia’s geography, culture, and gospel needs. It was remarkable for the times and, I believe, a reflection of their partnership in the work that their names are side by side on the cover of Topsy-Turvy World: Arabia Pictured for Children.

But Bahrain was also where Samuel and Amy suffered the deepest loss of their lives. In July 1904, dysentery swept through the community. In the space of a week, they buried their firstborn, a 7-year-old daughter named Amy, and their youngest daughter, 3-year-old Ruth. Years later Zwemer pulled back the curtain on their grief, and in doing so, showed the depths of their sorrow and their worship as they buried their precious ones. Zwemer said his wife wrote their daughters’ epitaph, which said simply: “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive riches.”

A few years ago I was traveling in the Middle East, bound for Jerusalem. Along the way I made a brief stop in Bahrain to find the graves of the little Zwemer girls. I wanted to see the place where the claims of the cross and the hope of the resurrection met for Samuel and Amy Zwemer.

I also wanted to see glimpses of gospel work there today.

Bahrain, March 9, 2015

As the sun sinks into the western wastelands of Arabia, the silhouetted cityscape could pass for a sci-fi movie set—the rocketship-shaped skyscraper across from my hotel looks ready to launch, and nearby glass-and-steel high-rises designed like sailboats lean into the sea breeze as night falls over Bahrain.

Bahrain, like a docking station on the Death Star, is tethered on the west to Saudi Arabia by a 16-mile-long causeway. Across the gulf to the east is Iran. So Bahrain is positioned between the two heavyweights of Islam: the Saudis and the Iranians—Sunni and Shia. Geography is destiny. The majority of Bahraini Muslims are Shia, but they are ruled by Sunni Arabs. Being a long-time seafaring trading stop on the Persian Gulf and one of the oil-rich city-states along eastern Arabia, Bahrain is a destination for workers and students from the region and from across south Asia. This diverse society is packed on a cluster of desert islands collectively the size of Austin’s city limits.

Today Bahrain is positioned between the two heavyweights of Islam: the Saudis and the Iranians—Sunni and Shia.

Through a friend of a friend, I met with Bill and Jeana, veteran missionaries who have spent nearly 30 years serving in Bahrain. They gave good insight to help me understand the situation on the ground. All of Arabia is hard. Some places are violently hostile to the gospel, but among the nations of the peninsula, Bahrain is one of the freest. The ethnic diversity and religious divide between Shia and Sunni have forced a bit more tolerance, which has opened the door a bit wider for Christians. Plus, there’s a still recognition of the role that Christians had in providing the first schools and hospitals more than a century ago. In fact, Bill and his wife came to Bahrain to serve in connection with the American Mission Hospital, which is the hospital started by Samuel and Amy Zwemer.

I was delighted that Bill and Jeana could show me around the hospital. Of course, a lot has changed since 1903. The one photograph I’ve seen of the original structure shows a simple, serviceable two-story hospital building, complete with a camel in the barren background. Today, the hospital is a modern, multistory facility that straddles a busy highway choked with cars instead of camels. A sky bridge connects the two sides of the hospital. Bill showed me the chapel, and a display that highlights the hospital’s history and Zwemer’s work. To me, the most striking feature was a window formed in the shape of a cross, which is clearly seen by all on the outside—and light-giving to all on the inside.

Afterward, with Bill’s help, we found the keeper of the key to the Old Christian Cemetery. The dusty half-acre is enclosed with a high wall, although several years ago a fanatic got in and smashed crosses and headstones. The damage was patched, and the place is well kept. In fact, after opening the gate, the caretaker went over the sandy ground with a broom, sweeping fallen palm fronds and seagull droppings off the graves. Crosses stood stark against the brown, barren ground. Buried here are sailors, soldiers, diplomats—mostly British—who died in service here. But there are also many small graves of children, who were most vulnerable to the epidemics that swept through the island with fearful unpredictability.

Their sorrow upon sorrow was also hope upon hope, for in Christ there is grace upon grace.

Some of the gospel pioneers are buried here, too, including Dr. Marion Thoms, the first female medical doctor in Bahrain; she died while saving others. Near her grave, I found the graves of Amy and Ruth Zwemer, who died within days of each other and were buried together. It’s a lonely spot. Zwemer wrote little about this suffering in his memoirs beyond recording the words of worship his wife wrote for their daughters’ epitaph, as they entrusted their little lambs into the strong, scarred hands of the worthy Lamb. When Zwemer was in his 80s, the old veteran returned here for the last time. In looking at his daughter’s graves he said, “If we should hold our peace, these very stones would cry out for the evangelization of Arabia.”

Because of the cross and empty tomb, their sorrow upon sorrow was also hope upon hope, for in Christ there is grace upon grace. Like the hospital window I saw today, the cross-shaped gospel brought light to their darkest days—and it brings life to all who put their trust in the Lamb.

Editors’ note: This excerpt is adapted from A Company of Heroes: Portraits from the Gospel’s Global Advance (Crossway, 2019).