The Gospel Coalition https://www.thegospelcoalition.org The Gospel Coalition Fri, 13 Jan 2023 08:27:36 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Sing the Word of God https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/podcasts/tgc-podcast/sing-word-god/ Fri, 13 Jan 2023 05:04:08 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=tgc-podcast&p=539178 Ligon Duncan describes what the book of Hebrews means by ‘acceptable worship’ in the life of the Christian.]]> “When we say that we should sing the Word, we mean that our singing ought to be biblical.” –– Ligon Duncan

In his message at TGC21, Ligon Duncan describes what the book of Hebrews means by “acceptable worship” in the life of the Christian. What does it practically look like? Duncan answers not only the “what” but also the “how.”

Worship is defined as “glorifying and enjoying God forever,” which is done in two ways: (1) gathering to worship with the body of Christ and (2) worshiping God in all of life with everything we have.

These two elements of worship work together, ensuring we’re not hypocrites with our hearts far from God as we enter the assembly of worship and encouraging us, while in the assembly, to also worship in private.

Most importantly, Duncan reminds us “acceptable worship” is worship according to the Scriptures—it’s filled by the Word and framed by the Word. Not only do we read God’s Word, but we pray it, preach it, and sing it. And we do it all with a heart of gratitude. This is acceptable worship.

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In ‘Matilda’ Musical, Miss Honey’s Song Points to Longing for Home https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/matilda-miss-honeys-song/ Fri, 13 Jan 2023 05:03:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=539744 In ‘Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical,’ Miss Honey’s song points us to God’s story of home.]]> I sang the song over the hot skillet as tears ran down my cheeks. There’s nothing particularly emotional about grilled cheese sandwiches, but the song on loop in my mind—“My House” from Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical (watch on Netflix)—had captured my imagination. When my kids and I watched Matilda over Christmas break, Lashana Lynch’s gentle but emotive performance as Miss Honey, coupled with Tim Minchin’s thoughtful lyrics, pressed on a tender spot within me. For days I pondered why.

“That song makes me cry,” said my 8-year-old daughter. “Me too,” my 7-year-old son added. The kids were hungry for the grilled cheese sandwiches, but I suspected soul hunger too: a longing for home. As a character, Roald Dahl’s Miss Honey is a commentary on humanity’s ache for home; and if we’re paying attention, elements of her song point us to God’s story of home.

By This Lamp, I Can Read, and I Am Set Free

The Christian life has many parallels to Miss Honey’s plight. Consider, for example, the freedom that words offer both Miss Honey and the musical’s young protagonist, Matilda (Alisha Weir). As they long for their lives to be made new, books open their minds to the possibility and motivate them to take action.

Miss Honey had been delivered from the horrible hell of her childhood home with her abusive and vindictive aunt, Miss Trunchbull (Emma Thompson), and now she lives in a small cottage where she feels safe. As she sings, she helps the visiting Matilda discover what revives her: reading. “By this lamp, I can read, and I am set free.” Her small cottage with the lamp and the books doesn’t look like much to her young guest, but it’s a place of freedom and rebirth for Miss Honey.

Recently I witnessed the influence of Proverbs 3:5–6 on my daughter. Through the work of the Holy Spirit, my girl gained a new understanding of what it means to “trust in the LORD with all your heart,” and it set her free. “I want to follow Christ!” she told me with conviction in her eyes. Every Christ follower can tell similar stories—of times when God’s Word brought freedom, when it suddenly made sense that the psalmist called God’s Word a “lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Ps. 119:105). Miss Honey is freed by words, and Christians are freed by the Word.

Small but Stubborn Fire

But even as Miss Honey sings with affection for the words that set her free and the home where she reads them, the listener senses a longing for something more. Outside Miss Honey’s cottage, Trunchbull continues to abuse. Though she doesn’t rule over Miss Honey’s life any longer, Miss Honey and the children she loves are still affected by her tyrannical reign.

Miss Honey is freed by words, and Christians are freed by the Word.

Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 5 come to mind: “For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life” (v. 4). We’re made alive in Christ, but oh, how we long to be swallowed up by life! The world is full of Trunchbulls, and we hunger for a truer home.

How can Miss Honey—and how can we—press on when the world around us feels so dark and the longings within us so sharp? 

Miss Honey sings, “And when it’s cold outside, I feel no fear / Even in the winter storms, I am warmed / By a small but stubborn fire.” 

Christians too are warmed by a “stubborn fire.” Paul’s letter continues this way, “He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee” (2 Cor. 5:5). The Holy Spirit within us is not small, and yet we experience only a flicker of the fullness that awaits us. Generations of God’s children have sung a similar tune to Miss Honey’s: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me” (Ps. 23:4).

Even as the Trunchbulls of the world exert their power, the flame within the Christian cannot be extinguished. Though the valley of the shadow of death tempts us to freeze in fear, God is with us and within us. As Paul put it, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed” (2 Cor. 4:8). In every storm we’re warmed by that stubborn fire: the Spirit, our guarantee.

Let Me Wipe Away Your Tears

The bridge of Miss Honey’s song is truly a bridge, helping the audience understand more about Miss Honey’s background. She’s a girl deeply loved by, but separated from, her father. Wrapping a years-younger Miss Honey in his embrace, her father briefly duets with her, “Let me wipe away your tears.” This is part of Miss Honey’s tragedy: her father loved her and longed to protect her from Trunchbull’s harm. But he was just a man. He could not. Though he promised to wipe away her tears, Miss Honey would cry many more in the years to come.

Even as the Trunchbulls of the world exert their power, the flame within the Christian cannot be extinguished.

Seeing the flashback of the young Miss Honey safe in her father’s loving arms, God’s sons and daughters recall our treasured promise. It’s why the song captured my heart, why I cried over the grilled cheese sandwiches weeks later. One day, our Father has promised: the tears will be wiped away (Rev. 21:4). Christ has come—he died and lives again—and Christ will come again. On that day, we will be fully and completely at home with him forever.

Miss Honey’s story was birthed in Roald Dahl’s imagination, but it echoes in every heart. In many ways, “My House” points to God’s story of home. It’s a story for all of God’s children, and it’s truer than true: As we wait for the promise ahead, we are made new by the promise written and warmed by the promise within. One day, we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Come, Lord Jesus.

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‘Manage His Household Well’: A Challenge for All Dads https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/manage-household-dads/ Fri, 13 Jan 2023 05:02:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=532466 It’s easy to skip over 1 Timothy 3 if you’re not a pastor or aspiring pastor. Yet these qualities are for everyone.]]> He was a smiling young pastor, fresh out of seminary with vision and ideas. His preaching was clear, true to Scripture, and practical. The church felt blessed to have him. There was one problem. His children were out of control, and everybody knew it. A few of the elders tried to say something, but he wouldn’t listen to any suggestions. “Kids will be kids,” he said. The church realized they’d never examined his home life. They regretted this oversight when other leadership issues inevitably came to light.  

In 1 Timothy 3, Paul lists qualities for church leaders. He doesn’t focus on talents but on character qualities. In the list, we find these words: “He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?” (1 Tim. 3:4–5). This same quality is necessary for deacons (1 Tim. 3:12), and when we look at the elder qualities in Titus 1, household management is prominent. 

However, when I survey young pastors and ask, “Do you manage your household well?” I hear answers like, “I don’t know” or “I hope so.” Why this disconnect between what Scripture clearly prescribes and our own understanding? Would we tolerate the same fuzziness on other qualities like being argumentative, a drunkard, or greedy? Recovering the importance of these passages will elevate our homes and our churches. 

Challenge from the Beginning 

It’s easy to skip over 1 Timothy 3 if you’re not a pastor or aspiring pastor. Yet these qualities are for everyone.

It’s easy to skip over the passage if you’re not a pastor. Yet these qualities are for everyone.

Every Christian should pursue each character quality Paul outlines. That includes managing our households well. Current leaders, aspiring leaders, and even young women (1 Tim. 5:14) are to keep a watchful eye over their families. Why would Paul make home leadership an aspect of godliness? 

The idea of ruling well was inaugurated at the beginning of time. Adam and Eve were created to manage and rule over creation (Gen. 1:28). We, as their offspring and God’s image-bearers, are also given that mandate. This ruling and oversight will not stop but continue for all eternity in the new creation: the redeemed “will reign forever and ever” (Rev. 22:5). From the first chapter of the Bible to the last, God made men and women to rule and manage. Part of our sanctification is growing in that ability.  

The first domain we’re to oversee is our homes.  

What Managing Well Doesn’t Mean 

Let’s be clear on what managing our households well doesn’t imply. 

This phrase doesn’t mean our homes are always serene and problem free. Anyone who manages people should expect complications. Sinners leading sinners always have issues.  

It also doesn’t mean a leader’s children must all be believers. Many have argued this based on a misunderstanding of Titus 1:6, but this wrong understanding adds salt to the wound of the parent with a prodigal, and it should be rejected. Titus 1:6 is a restatement of 1 Timothy 3:4–5; the best translation is not believing children but faithful children. The power to change hearts belongs to the Holy Spirit, and no parent can grant saving faith to their child.

What Managing Well Does Mean 

Now let’s turn our attention to what the qualification does mean. Paul focuses on one aspect of parenting: “With all dignity keeping his children submissive.” 

Keep your children submissive? That’s certainly offensive to 21st-century ears. Should we gloss over Paul’s unenlightened and backward view of parenting?  

On the contrary, it’s we who have it backward. In Ephesians 6:1–3, God commands children to obey and honor their parents. Training for obedience doesn’t suppress our children, rather it pleases the Lord (Col. 3:20) and will result in life going well with them. Titus 1:6 states the same principle in different words. The overseer is to have faithful children who aren’t wild and disobedient. Unlike Eli or David, he takes action to correct his children (1 Sam. 3:13; 1 Kings 1:6).    

But Paul states not only the result of leadership but also the manner: “with all dignity.” Perhaps this is better translated “without losing your dignity.” Or as the NIV translates it, “worthy of full respect.” In other words, the father-overseer has submissive children without losing his cool. He’s comfortable exercising his authority but isn’t an oppressive dictator using fear to control his children. He leads with authority and affection.

He isn’t an oppressive dictator using fear to control his children. He leads with authority and affection.

As John Stott writes, “Although pastoral ministry is a servant ministry characterized by gentleness, a certain authority is also attached to it. One cannot expect discipline in a local church if pastors have not learned to exercise discipline in their home.” 

A dad who leads this way is obvious. His children love being with him and he loves being with them. And yet he’s still their dad. Appropriate to his kids’ ages, he is mindful he’s been charged by God to train them and instruct them to maturity. He takes the lead to make sure they’re obedient to their parents’ directives.  

Grow Your Skills 

How can we grow in this aspect of our sanctification? 

1. Ask your wife. Start by bringing your colaborer into the picture. Does she think you’re leading well? Does she wish you’d be less passive? Or does she worry that you’re overbearing and micromanaging?

2. Ask your children. Older children can be brutally honest. They observe and have opinions. Ask them if there are ways you can grow. 

3. Don’t expect perfection. Instead, assess if your children are on a trajectory toward obedience. As the leaders, we’re responsible for the atmosphere of the home. We should expect our children to obey us because God commands it. But we aren’t surprised when our children disobey us because they’re sinful. Since there’s sin in every heart, a godly father will receive problems in the home as personal training assignments from the Lord.

If we recover the importance of this qualification, we’ll recover the priority of godly living in the home. But just as important, we’ll be developing ministry leaders with a vital quality that’s sorely missing—experiential wisdom. How many young pastors graduate from seminary with a load of biblical knowledge but only a little relational wisdom? Both are needed to lead God’s household. The home is where we learn relational leadership wisdom, and it’s the first place we display it to the glory of God. 

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Theology of Middle-Earth https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/reviews/tolkien-dogmatics/ Fri, 13 Jan 2023 05:00:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=book-review&p=536260 Tolkien’s theology is evident throughout his most popular works of fantasy. ]]> J. R. R. Tolkien attracts readers who share a personality trait with him—one he also shared with the medievals he so loved. In the first chapter of The Discarded Image, C. S. Lewis defines that trait with characteristic precision: “Medieval man was not a dreamer nor a wanderer. He was an organiser, a codifier, a builder of systems. He wanted ‘a place for everything and everything in the right place.’ Distinction, definition, tabulation were his delight.”

From Christopher Tolkien’s massive 12-volume History of Middle-Earth to Humphrey Carpenter’s lovingly, if frustratingly, expurgated Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, from Scull and Hammond’s encyclopedic, three-volume J. R. R. Tolkien Companion and Guide to Karen Fonstad’s magisterial Atlas of Middle-Earth, from Peter Kreeft’s comprehensive Philosophy of Tolkien to Holly Ordway’s meticulously documented Tolkien’s Modern Reading, Tolkien scholars imitate his thoroughness, his love of detail, and his passion for subcreating a secondary world that’s almost as rich and multilayered as the primary world.

In this spirit, Austin Freeman has given a gift to Tolkien scholars and aficionados alike in a work I didn’t think could be written. Tolkien Dogmatics: Theology Through Mythology with the Maker of Middle-Earth painstakingly assembles, collates, and cross-references Tolkien’s legendarium, academic essays, and letters to construct a systematic theology. Though informed by the copious secondary material on Tolkien, Freeman’s work is firmly and faithfully grounded in the depth and breadth of the primary material.

Broken into 12 chapters that explicate Tolkien’s views on God, revelation, creation, humanity, angels, the fall, evil and sin, Satan and demons, Christ and salvation, the church, the Christian life, and last things, Tolkien Dogmatics takes a deep dive into the theological convictions that grounded, inspired, and guided the maker of Middle-earth. In his aptly titled “Prolegomena,” Freeman makes clear his goal: “To set out as accurately as possible what Tolkien thought, without letting my or other people’s views intrude upon the matter” (17). He stays true to his promise.

Freeman is a lecturer at Houston Christian (formerly Houston Baptist) University and a classical school teacher who holds a PhD from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Though he writes as a Reformed evangelical, Freeman remains fair to Tolkien’s strong Catholic beliefs and practices, explaining and clarifying them without ever criticizing, parodying, or patronizing them.

Rather than try to provide an overview of all 12 chapters, I’ll focus on three of the chapters that expanded my own vision of Tolkien’s legendarium.

1. Humanity

In his chapter on humanity, Freeman offers a powerful meditation on the distinctions between Men and Elves that takes into account some of the changes Tolkien made to his legendarium over the years. For example, he explains that although the divine gift of human freedom was always a central theme for Tolkien,

the gift of death is not present in the earliest drafts of the story. It is only during his middle period that Tolkien begins to conceive of death as an escape from the world to eternity. Tolkien’s mature position is that death is a curse which can be transformed into a gift if accepted with faith. (101)

Men aren’t the central characters in The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, or The Lord of the Rings, yet they are essential to the storyline. Freeman reminds us at several points that it’s through Men that Arda (the earth) will be restored and renewed. Tolkien’s Elves are well aware of this. They’re perennially melancholy, for they know their “doom is to love and beautify the world, never leaving it, and yet to make way for Men, fading as Men increase and come to enjoy the world that the Elves have prepared” (106).

Though the Elves are free to create art and beauty in a mode that surpasses our own, their lives are yet tied to the fate of Arda. Freeman is at his best when demonstrating how Tolkien allows us to view the riddle that is Man through the eyes of the Elves. What the Elves perceive in Men, which Men themselves often fail to see, is a “world-weariness or a longing to depart from the world for somewhere else. They are guests and strangers. This is because the gift of Men is mortality, freedom not only from fate but from being bound to the world” (107).

Men aren’t the key players in Tolkien’s stories, yet all leads up to them. It’s through Men that Arda (the earth) will be restored and renewed.

To fill out his portrait of Tolkien’s theological views on the nature of humanity, Freeman includes a brief but incisive section on gender that’s blissfully free from condescension. He states clearly, without apology or qualification, that, for Tolkien, “gender is part of the soul and not of the body only” and “souls are both gendered and familially related” (116). In Tolkien’s legendarium as well as in his life, male and female “share in the image of God equally but play different roles” (116).

Freeman writes,

Tolkien abides by gender roles out of fashion in modern society but hardly objectionable to previous generations. He is a traditionalist and complementarian overall. But Tolkien also offers a refreshing dose of realism by insisting that woman is neither passive and unrealistic object of affection nor merely identical to man. She is another fallen human with a soul in peril, just like a man, and should be treated with respect and concern as such. (116)

I can think of no fairer or more concise summation of this truth than the proud, involved husband and father we meet in Tolkien’s letters.

2. The Fall

For Tolkien, there can be no story without the fall. “The fall is the primeval disruption of equilibrium that precipitates the plot of history,” and that fall “is not simply a single isolated event but a recurring pattern” (155). Men, Elves, and angels all fall multiple times in the legendarium. In Middle-earth, each time evil is defeated, it “reincarnates and reiterates the fall. While the destruction of Sauron at the end of the Third Age is the last time evil will be physically embodied, it will continue to rise again and bring down the peace that has grown up in its absence” (156).

Freeman argues that Tolkien long resisted including a fictional version of the fall in his legendarium “for fear of making his work into a parody of Christianity” (162). That he ultimately overcame his resistance wasn’t known to fans of Tolkien until Morgoth’s Ring, the 10th volume of The History of Middle-earth, was published in 1993. For those unfamiliar, Freeman includes a synopsis of an illuminating conversation between a wise woman named Andreth and Finrod, the Elf brother of Galadriel who would later lay down his life for the human Beren.

The Silmarillion includes a section on the Fall of Númenor (“Akallabêth”) that recounts how the Dark Lord Sauron allowed himself to be captured by the long-lived but mortal Númenóreans. He does so to have the opportunity to poison them against the angelic Valar and even against Eru (God), convincing them that Melkor (Satan) and not Eru is their true benefactor. Sauron incites them to rebel against the Valar and their own mortality, meant as a gift from Eru to free them from the cycles of this world.

In her conversation with Finrod, Andreth reveals to the Elf that Sauron’s corruption of the Númenóreans wasn’t the first time a fallen angelic being tempted the race of Men to forsake the true God. In the beginning, though God had promised the first generation of Men that he had “sent them to live in the earth and in time to inherit and rule it,” Melkor, playing on their impatience,

tells them they may have riches, splendor, and ease through the things they can make—if they take him as a teacher. . . . He awakens new desires but is slow to aid in their fulfillment. He gives great gifts but also slowly begins to lie about the Creator, portraying God as an enemy seeking their destruction. (163)

In both cases, though God gives Men a paradise to live in, they hearken to the lies of a rebellious angel, bringing about “the denial of Eru, Satan-worship, exile, and the repentance of a righteous remnant” (165). In most ways, Freeman shows, Tolkien follows an orthodox, biblical account of both the goodness and fallenness of nature and man and of the long and bitter results of the fall.

Only in one area does his fictional account of the fall part ways with the Bible. Whereas Genesis makes clear that the earth was in a state of perfection before Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, Tolkien suggests creation was marred from the moment of its making because of the discord that Melkor injected into the creation song of Eru and his faithful Valar: “Tolkien’s universe was already imperfect when the primal sin of humanity occurred” (157).

3. Christ and Salvation

As Freeman turns his attention to Christ and salvation, he continues to caution his readers against looking for direct parallels to the Christian story in Middle-earth. For C. S. Lewis, Aslan is what the second person of the Trinity, God the Son, might have been like had he also incarnated himself in a magical world of talking animals and walking trees. His death on the Stone Table and his resurrection the next morning replay the gospel of Good Friday and Easter Sunday. In sharp contrast, Tolkien avoids bringing Christ into his world or replaying the salvation story. Still, readers can make connections.

Tolkien offers something that partly sounds like the mystery of the incarnation, that most unique of Christian doctrines:

The Wizards, previously spiritual beings, take on true bodies as part of their mission to heal Middle-earth. As such, we can cautiously read Tolkien’s comments on the nature of this embodiment as also applying to Christ’s human nature. For instance, the Wizards are clad in real bodies able to feel pain, fear, weariness, and hunger. This is a true incarnation, not merely a sort of avatar as the Valar can assume. (238)

Given this connection, one might assume Freeman will hold up Gandalf—who quite literally dies and returns to an embodied life—as the chief messianic figure in The Lord of the Rings. Instead, he argues that Tolkien presents Aragorn as embodying “the ideal divine king of Anglo-Saxon theology” (240). Tolkien had already invested Arthur (in The Fall of Arthur) and Sigurd (in The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún) with something of that divine kingship, but he was able to go further with Aragorn since, in creating him, he was not “constrained by the beats of a preexisting plot” (241). Aragorn surpasses Arthur and Sigurd in his majesty, his spiritual power, and his ability to elicit absolute love, loyalty, and obedience from his followers. Like Christ, he commands, heals, and renews.

Tolkien avoids bringing Christ into his world or replaying the salvation story. Still, connections can be made.

Aragorn also points to Christ in the double victory he achieves. “At the time of the Anglo-Saxons,” Freeman explains, “and indeed for the first thousand years of the church, the most widespread and influential theory” of the atonement was not penal substitution but “Christus Victor, Christ’s victory over the devil. Significantly, Tolkien speaks of salvation virtually exclusively in this manner” (249). It’s true that Gandalf and Frodo participate in this victory over the evil of Sauron, but Aragorn embodies it with particular power when he leads the Men of the West against the Black Gates of Mordor.

Aragorn further embodies Christus Victor when he takes the Paths of the Dead to awaken and set free the Oathbreakers. Just as Christ, in the harrowing of hell, descended “into hell to rescue the saints born before his incarnation,” so “Aragorn offers the damned and forsaken dead men an opportunity for redemption” (251–52). In both cases, the act of leading captivity captive points to the messianic office of the one who sets free (cf., Eph. 4:8, KJV). Just as Aragorn, when he “emerges from the grave and from the hell where the cursed dead reside, . . . blows a horn and unfurls his royal banner,” so also “Jesus is frequently depicted holding a banner while leading the dead forth from hell, as he is in the carving above the chapel at All Souls College in Oxford” (252).

Tolkien Dogmatics overflows with insights like these and is a must-read for serious students of Tolkien. Those who don’t possess a firm grasp of Tolkien’s legendarium might get a bit lost at times, as Freeman shifts suddenly, usually without giving any context, from fiction to nonfiction to letters. But those who are strong of heart and who like their Tolkien, and their doctrine, served up systematic will want to join Freeman on his bracing theological journey through Middle-earth.

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Does Your Church Lack Gospel Clarity? https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/church-lack-gospel-clarity/ Thu, 12 Jan 2023 05:02:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=535270 The gospel is not just that Jesus died for your sins. It’s that the Jesus who died for sins also rose again as the Lord and Christ of the world.]]> At some point, most church leaders ask, Why is my congregation so complacent? There are many possible reasons for a lack of vitality in a church. It could be the structures or programs, preaching or prayerlessness, or a combination of these factors and many others.  

But I’ve got another factor to throw into the mix. Many churches languish because they don’t teach the gospel with clarity.

“Well, of course,” I hear you say. “Those liberal, heretical, and suborthodox churches don’t teach the gospel. That’s why most of them are declining and dying.” 

True enough, but I’m talking about solid, Bible-teaching, evangelical churches. Quite possibly yours. 

“Really?” you respond. “I can’t believe that. Every other sermon at our church mentions how Jesus died for our sins and that justification is by faith alone. We sing about the gospel, and we remember it in the Lord’s Supper. Surely if there’s something we all know, it’s the gospel!” 

While it’s certainly true and of prime importance that Jesus died a substitutionary death for our sins, to know and trust in this truth is not yet to have a clear grasp of the gospel in all its glory. In the New Testament, there’s another aspect of the gospel—one that remains fuzzy or out of focus for many Christians today. 

Gospel of the Risen Christ

The big news flash (or gospel) of the New Testament is not just that Jesus died on the cross for your sins. It’s that the Jesus who died on the cross for sins also rose again, affirmed as the Lord and Christ of the world.

The Jesus who died on the cross for sins also rose again, affirmed as the Lord and Christ of the world.

As the risen Ruler, he offers forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life to all who in faith repent and submit to him as Lord. That’s what the apostles went around proclaiming. 

Jesus has been Lord and King from before the beginning of the world (Col. 1:15–17), but the gospel speeches in Acts show the apostles’ big announcement: the crucified Jesus had been raised by God and was thus proven and declared to be the Christ, God’s promised worldwide Ruler and Judge in the line of David, the One who would reign forever over God’s kingdom. 

The gospel, then, isn’t merely Jesus crucified but “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). The One who was crucified has now risen as God’s worldwide King and Judge. He now calls all people everywhere to repent and receive the forgiveness of sins his atoning death secured. 

Would you say the members of your church have this understanding of the gospel clearly in their minds? Could they quickly explain to you how Jesus’s atoning death and his resurrection as Lord and Christ fit together? Could they tell you why the gospel calls not just for faith but for repentance that leads to obedience? 

In my experience of evangelical churches, I’d say disturbingly few Christians grasp these truths with clarity. When I begin Two Ways to Live training, I ask participants to explain their understanding of the gospel, and they rarely mention the resurrection. When they do, they have only a vague understanding of how the resurrection declares Jesus as the living Ruler of the world. 

Effects of Gospel Clarity

We must teach this gospel clearly and completely. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:1–5, this message about Christ’s atoning death and resurrection is the word of first importance; it’s the word in which we stand and by which we’re being saved. When we clearly grasp this gospel of the crucified and risen Christ, it penetrates our hearts, and the effects are life-changing.  

This gospel has power to save and to transform because it includes not only a forgiven past but also a new repentant future lived under the rule of the living Lord.

This gospel drives us to live new lives of obedience and holiness under Christ’s lordship. We’re now raised with him, so we put off everything that belongs to our old earthly selves and put on the new life of the resurrection age (Col. 3:1–17).

This gospel gives assurance and hope because we know that the One who died to justify us by his blood now lives and reigns as God’s Christ. He will surely save us from God’s wrath on that last day (Rom. 5:6–11).

This gospel motivates evangelism and missions because if the risen Christ is the Lord and Judge of every person in the world (Acts 17:30–31), then every person needs to hear his offer of salvation and turn to him in repentance and faith.

This gospel changes our hearts to serve one another gladly in love. It brings us into fellowship and communion with all who have been saved by the living Christ and now live to obey him. Our new life in him follows his example of laying down his life for others, knowing this is the path to glory.

The gospel of the crucified and risen Christ lights a fire that melts Christian complacency.

The gospel of the crucified and risen Christ lights a fire that melts Christian complacency.

This gospel fans into flame the various marks of a flourishing Christian disciple and of a healthy church—we grow in holiness, we persevere in joy and assurance, we’re driven to reach out to the world in mission and evangelism, and we love and serve one another and all people as God has served us in his Son. 

Could it be true? Could the significant factor in the lack of spiritual heat in our lives and churches be a lack of clarity about this gospel? 

I suspect so. 

However we do it—through sermons, seminars, small group material, or training materialwe must teach the New Testament gospel with clarity.

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I Was Preaching to My Twitter Feed https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/preaching-twitter-feed/ Thu, 12 Jan 2023 05:00:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=536034 The aim of preaching is the increase of love toward God and neighbor. That won’t happen if we focus on social media squabbles.]]> I noticed the problem when my joke didn’t land. I thought it was a witty take on a major cultural issue, but no one had any idea what I was talking about. My wife, who usually laughs politely at my humor, stared blankly. I was astonished, because this issue was all anyone had talked about for days . . . on Twitter. 

That was the problem. 

I shuddered to think how far out of touch I was. Inhabiting the insular, distorted world of the very online had affected my preaching. As I reviewed my sermons, I saw a shift in topics, my attitude, and my applications. I’d stopped preaching to my people and instead preached to the algorithm—to manufactured hate and misanthropic hot takes. 

It didn’t take much prayerful reflection to see the seriousness of my mistakes. Passion is no substitute for love of people. You can have the right politics and culture-war salvos, but if you don’t have love, your sermon won’t bear fruit. I saw that if I continued preaching to my Twitter feed, I’d (at best) quench unity and stir up controversy. But there’s a “still more excellent way” that accomplishes a far better goal (1 Cor. 12:31). 

Goal of Preaching 

In 1 Timothy 1, Paul counsels the young pastor to avoid controversial speculations. Why? Paul writes, “The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (v. 5). The aim of preaching is the increase of love toward God and neighbor. That won’t happen if we focus on social media squabbles. It’s only accomplished through personal presence. Jesus, after all, loved us by dwelling with us (John 1:14; 3:16). 

The aim of preaching is the increase of love toward God and neighbor. That won’t happen if we focus on social media squabbles.

Jesus had a single-minded focus on his mission of love, and it brought diverse people together rather than separating them. Jesus selected both Simon the Zealot and Matthew the tax collector for Rome to be his disciples. In contemporary terms, that’s like a pastor choosing a Bernie Bro to serve alongside the guy in the MAGA hat. Jesus saw beneath the politics.

What happened to Simon and Matthew? Did they nuance their views or change party affiliations? The Bible only tells us they followed the Savior. 

As I preach to the people in my congregation instead of my Twitter feed, I move myself and the congregation toward Jesus’s mission in three ways. 

1. From Fear to Love

Witnessing the vitriol Tweeters often hurl at those with whom they disagree, I started to assume the worst of people. I allowed my mind to be discipled by this virtual culture, and I grew preemptively cold-hearted toward congregants I knew would disagree with me. I foolishly assumed people I know and love would treat me the same way online strangers who hide behind anonymous handles treat others. So, I approached preaching to God’s people with fear—afraid they’d reject both me and the message.

Thankfully, “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). Knowing God loves me perfectly in Christ frees me from the performance trap. It frees me to approach the congregation I lead as the beloved, blood-bought flock of God—not as enemies on the wrong side of a fleeting issue. With this new perspective, I preach to love people rather than win arguments. That changes my tone, emphasis, and purpose.  

2. From Hot-Button Topics to a Fresh Encounter with the Gospel

One major problem with spending so much time online is that we let our sermons be driven by virtual world rather than by God’s Word and the needs of the flock entrusted to our care. It’s not just the jokes. It can be the topics too. This is dangerous for pastors. Being very online keeps preachers disconnected from their people’s needs.

It’s also dangerous for our congregations. Many church members enjoy online culture clashes as much as their leaders. Ask yourself, Are your most appreciated sermon moments the jeremiads you’ve directed at hot-button issues, or are they fresh rehearsals of the gospel?   

Pastor, be assured of this: if God’s Word is necessary, authoritative, and sufficient to equip God’s people for the work of ministry, then what Obadiah says about Edom is immeasurably more important for your church’s spiritual health than what a talking head said about the latest online debate.

There are certainly moments when we need to preach with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other—such as on September 11 or the first days of the pandemic—but I believe they are more rare. Ordinarily, what’s happening in the life of the widow who sits four seats to the right of you is immeasurably more important than what happened in that school board meeting four states to the east of you. We must preach the content our people need to hear: God’s Word as it relates to their souls today. 

3. From Dread and Outrage to Practical Obedience

Research shows the adverse effects social media has on mental health. People feel overwhelming anxiety when (doom)scrolling. God didn’t intend for us to be omnipresent—that’s one of his incommunicable attributes. God didn’t want us to know every sorrow on earth. It too quickly overwhelms because we feel desperate to help when we can’t.  

What Obadiah says about Edom is immeasurably more important for your church’s spiritual health than what a talking head said about the latest online debate.

When I preach primarily about issues happening a world away, I produce twin evils. First, I increase the dread of church members who are already drowning in anxiety. Second, I inadvertently train my people to practice faith without works. This is particularly the case when there’s no concrete application other than perpetual outrage. It’s much better to preach about personal and local issues that we can, with the Spirit’s help, tackle individually and corporately. Our church can’t change what’s being taught on college campuses across the country, but we can invite students from the local college into our homes.  

If pastors localize every sermon by showing our people the work that needs to be done right here in our hearts, homes, and communities, we can make a concrete difference. Preach the local application of universal truths, and then pray that congregants (who may otherwise be divided politically) will serve side by side to share the good news, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the sick. 

I want to be like Jesus. I want to shepherd like the Savior, and I know you do too. Jesus isn’t seated at the Father’s right hand scrolling through Twitter, ready to engage in bad-faith debates with trolls. He’s personally present to the church by his Spirit, interceding for us and speaking to us in the proclamation of his Word. May we be faithful ambassadors of his love, his message, and his ministry. 

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Damar Hamlin and Christian Witness in a Secular Age https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/damar-hamlin-witness-secular/ Wed, 11 Jan 2023 17:00:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=help-me-teach&p=539468 How do we respond when the curtain of our common humanity is pulled back and we’re brought to our knees?]]> Sports are supposed to be fun. They’re where we turn to distract ourselves from the harsh realities of life.

What happened to Damar Hamlin during Monday Night Football isn’t supposed to happen. As we watched the Bills star, a 24-year-old professional athlete in peak physical condition, suffer cardiac arrest and drop to the turf, we were reminded of our fragility. We could see how close all of us, even professional athletes, are to death.

How do we respond when the curtain of our common humanity is pulled back and we’re brought to our knees? In those times, we need Christian leaders in public spaces who are faithful to lead in both witness and prayer.

Suffering Brings Us to Our Knees

When it became evident how serious the situation was, players and coaches from both teams dropped to their knees on the field in tears, heads bowed and in prayer. Thousands—if not millions—offered prayers for Hamlin privately, on social media, and through their media platforms. Everywhere I looked I saw some variation of “Pray for Damar Hamlin.”

Talking about faith publicly isn’t always easy, even for those most secure in what they believe. Even in sensitive times like this, prayer can bring out vitriolic trolls. No matter how well intentioned they may be, Christians who pray publicly can become targets of nasty comments from people who are fatigued by “thoughts and prayers” or simply don’t think God is real.

Talking about faith publicly isn’t always easy, even for those most secure in what they believe.

Still, those who aren’t believers sometimes look to us to lead them through times of suffering, through moments they can’t understand. Take Fox Sports personality Nick Wright, for example, speaking about the Hamlin situation to his sports talk show cohost Chris Broussard, a believer:

Two of the closest people in the world to me, my wife and you—my [broadcast] partner for years—are deeply religious people, and I am not. And it made me a little envious in that moment and since then that I didn’t have that foundation of, I don’t want to say, a greater purpose or a higher power or something.

Because I feel like at times like this, when there’s an inexplicable tragedy, you’re almost flailing about, like, “Why? Why did it happen to this kid in this moment?”

Need for Public Witness

In tragedy, people are looking for answers. As Christians, we don’t always have them. We can’t fully explain why something like this happens. We know suffering, pain, and heartache are inevitable, but we don’t always know God’s specific purposes in our suffering.

What Christians can distinctively offer is hope and truth about our loving God.

It takes courage to share your faith publicly, though, and several people in sports media have been especially bold in the wake of this incident. Former NFL player Benjamin Watson, appearing on CNN with Anderson Cooper, was one. “The questions about what happens after this life, where you will spend eternity, are coming up for all of us, not just for the football players,” he said. “But thank God that he provides an answer through his Son Jesus Christ.”

Another was ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky, who offered an impromptu prayer during the studio show NFL Live. Fellow analyst Marcus Spears, also a believer, and host Laura Rutledge bowed their heads. Orlovsky was a guest on my podcast in 2020, and in that conversation he shared how he’s gone from a skeptic who viewed prayer as more of a “good luck charm” or something he did when life was bad to where he is now: a bold believer who isn’t afraid to share his faith on live TV.

We often hear people speak about God, say they’ll be praying for someone, or share Christian sentiments on television. In my role at Sports Spectrum, I cover the intersection of sports and faith. That includes a lot of these stories. But I can’t remember a time when someone prayed live for nearly a minute on a network like ESPN as Orlovsky did:

God, we come to you in these moments that we don’t understand, that are hard, because we believe that you’re God and coming to you and praying to you has impact. We’re sad, we’re angry, we want answers, but some things are unanswerable. We just want to pray, truly come to you and pray for strength for Damar, for healing for Damar, for comfort for Damar, to be with his family, to give them peace. If we didn’t believe that prayer . . . worked, we wouldn’t ask this of you, God. I believe in prayer, we believe in prayer, and we lift up Damar Hamlin’s name in your name. Amen.

The fact that ESPN—a network not known for its Christian sympathies—would broadcast a prayer is surprising. What’s not surprising is the fact that people everywhere know that God exists and that they are not God. They may seek to suppress this truth, but they cannot totally escape it (Rom. 1:18–20). And this creates an opportunity for each of us to testify to the truth of who God is and what he has done for sinners.

Influence for Eternity

Sports, particularly football, have a wide, captive audience. According to Sportico, 82 of the top 100 most-watched U.S. television programs in 2022 were NFL broadcasts. All but six were sporting events. For Christians in sports media, this audience is a gospel opportunity. In recent days, many people saw and heard the truth and hope of eternal life through Jesus Christ through various public declarations. Amid horrific situations like this, that’s a really good thing.

Sports have a wide, captive audience. For Christians in sports media, this audience is a gospel opportunity.

Horrific situations also occur in all our work environments, and though our words may not be broadcast publicly like Orlovsky and Watson’s, we can have an influence for eternity by following the example of people who are unashamed to testify to Christ.

When questions about the afterlife arise, you can point to the Savior. When no one knows what to say, you can ask, “Can I pray?” When suffering reveals our common humanity, you can be a public witness by getting on your knees.

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Why Confession Belongs in Youth Group https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/confession-youth-group/ Wed, 11 Jan 2023 05:03:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=536032 It’s far more dangerous for our ministries to be places where students hide sin than for them to be places where students confess sin.]]> Every Wednesday night, I confess my sins to a couple of the students in the youth group I lead. I share how I raised my voice with my 4-year-old or how I covet the house across the street. No one freaks out. No one laughs. No one throws out silver-bullet advice. A student next to me calmly asks if he can pray for me. I nod and he does, asking God to give me felt forgiveness, healing, and repentance. Then the student to my right jumps in and confesses his sins, and another friend volunteers to pray.

The load on our shoulders lightens. We don’t try to be impressive. We’re here to be honest and walk in the light.

Power of Confession

Recently, one of our youth ministry graduates, a leader at his campus ministry, thanked us for making confession a regular rhythm in the youth ministry. He told me, “Walking in the light has been the catalyst for all my deepest college friendships.” Another young man pulled me aside after a Bible study to confess a life-altering sin that had haunted him for over a year. Our tears of sadness turned to joy as the Lord met us in that moment.

The load on our shoulders lightens. We don’t try to be impressive. We’re here to be honest and walk in the light.

Why is practicing times of regular confession—especially in youth ministry—so powerful?

First, these times remind our students of the gospel. In Christ, we have “redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Col. 1:14). When we verbalize sins to a Christian friend who prays for us, this reminds us of our Savior.

Second, walking in the light is powerful because it’s countercultural for middle and high schoolers. Teens inhabit a performance-driven world. They navigate curated and dishonest spaces, and they can feel like every report card and Instagram post must be flawless. But when they’re walking in the light, they can stop being impressive and embrace being known.

Answers to Objections

When I’ve told other youth leaders about our walking-in-the-light practice, most are hesitant. They have a list of concerns: “That’s great, Vince, but it sounds unbelievably messy. I like my job. I don’t want to get fired this early in my tenure. What will parents say? What will immature kids do? Worst of all, what will they confess? What if one confesses to having suicidal thoughts, watching pornography, or sleeping with his girlfriend? Worse, what if a leader confesses one of those things?”

Here’s how I answer those concerns: it’s far more dangerous for our ministries to be places where students hide sin than for them to be places where students confess sin. After all, confession is a New Testament imperative.

It’s far more dangerous for our ministries to be places where students hide sin than for them to be places where students confess sin.

John doesn’t mince words with those who conceal their sin: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. . . . If we say we have not sinned, we make [God] a liar, and his word is not in us” (1 John 1:8–10). Often, our ministries implicitly teach students to hide their sins, not confess them, but this cultivates hypocrisy, not healing.

Having said this, leaders who raise objections about walking in the light ask good questions. Many have seen confession in accountability groups or other contexts go off the rails or become harmful. For this reason, our youth ministry has adopted a set pattern for times of honesty—a pattern we’ve adapted from what our leaders at Immanuel Church first cultivated for times of confession with adults.

Pattern

We set aside 15 minutes for groups of fewer than six students (and a leader) to practice confession, and we teach our leaders the following rhythm:

1. Leaders set the tone with Scripture. We read 1 John 1:7: “If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” Then we read James 5:16: “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.”

2. The leader models confession: “Here’s how I blew it this week.” The significance of this time won’t stick unless the youth see leaders lead by confessing real, specific ways they need Jesus and the Spirit’s renewing power. Leaders confess prayerlessness or bitterness toward their boss. We aim for brevity. Confession usually takes a minute or less.

3. We turn to prayer. After the leader shares, a student will jump in to pray for him, and then the pattern begins again as each student takes his turn confessing.

Parameters

There are two parameters we’ve put in place for our small group leaders. First, leaders must not confess their sins in a way that glorifies the sin or exposes students to new sins. Second, if a student confesses anything related (even partially) to self-harm or potential abuse, the youth minister must be notified immediately after the small group. The youth minister promptly brings the matter to authorities or parents as appropriate. These situations are rare but crucial for the care of students and the integrity of the ministry.

We also have ground rules for students. We go over these at the beginning of the ministry year then sprinkle in reminders intermittently.

  • Never joke or gossip about what’s shared.
  • Confession is never forced. Students can feel free to pass when it’s their turn.
  • We don’t commiserate with one another or downplay sin. We don’t say, “I do that too! It’s not a big deal.”
  • Walking in the light isn’t a time for advice. After a friend practices confession, we don’t try to “fix her,” clean her up, or set her straight on the spot. Instead, we simply go to God in prayer. He’s the One we most deeply need when we confess sin.

Nearly 500 years ago, Martin Luther wrote, “When I urge you to go to confession, I am doing nothing else than urging you to be a Christian.” The pattern and parameters we’ve adopted help us live out this essential Christian practice. It’s our way of embodying a gospel culture at youth group, and I’m convinced any youth ministry would benefit from carving out simple, repeatable rhythms of confession and prayer.

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Xi’s China, Christ’s Kingdom, and a Suffering Church https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/reviews/faithful-disobedience/ Wed, 11 Jan 2023 05:02:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=book-review&p=535585 If we think of the experiences of Chinese house church leaders are altogether different from ours, we may not recognize the perspective they offer us today.]]> At the end of 2022, the world watched the brutal government crackdown on protestors speaking out against China’s stringent “Zero-COVID” policy. These events confirm much of what we in the West assume about Xi Jinping’s authoritarian regime, its repression of dissent, and its intolerance of minority groups.

That intolerance is directed at unregistered churches in China, those outside the direct control of the Communist Party. Writing from his experience as a leader among such churches, Wang Yi’s Faithful Disobedience: Writings on Church and State from a Chinese House Church Movement reveals the discrimination facing those outside the state-approved churches in China. But if we stop there, we miss the point of this important book.

Hannah Nation, managing director of the Center for House Church Theology and the book’s editor, encourages readers to engage the Chinese church by “looking beyond the commonplace ‘persecuted Christian’ narratives that are so prevalent, and that limit our ability to actually hear from churches outside the West” (9). If we think of Wang Yi’s experiences as altogether different from ours, we may not recognize the perspective they offer us today.

Church-State Conflict

Faithful Disobedience brings together writings and speeches of Wang Yi, founder of Chengdu’s Early Rain Reformed Church (later renamed Early Rain Covenant Church), along with other leaders in the urban house church movement that emerged in China at the beginning of this century.

A well-known legal scholar and public intellectual, Wang was baptized in the mid-2000s. His rise to global notoriety came through a 2006 visit to the Bush White House and later as Wang and his church were profiled by journalist Ian Johnson in The Souls of China. As pressure on the church increased, Wang and Early Rain appeared frequently in the international media, which covered extensively his arrest in December 2018 and subsequent nine-year prison sentence for subversion of state power and illegal business practices.

The book opens with the “House Church Manifesto,” compiled by Wang Yi in 2010, which surveys the unique character and role of the urban house church movement—technically illegal but thriving since the early 2000s.

In part 2, “The Eschatological Church and the City,” Wang develops his ecclesiology of “the city set up by God” with a mission to “usher it into every city until the ends of the earth” (148). Persecution is evil because it hinders the fulfillment of the Great Commission.

Persecution is evil because it hinders the fulfillment of the Great Commission.

Part 3, “Arrest and the Way of the Cross,” chronicles Wang’s response to the 2018 religious regulations and contains “My Declaration of Faithful Disobedience,” the letter he wrote to his congregation in anticipation of his arrest, from which the book takes its title.

At the heart of the fraught relationship between China’s unregistered church and the state lies the question of why Wang Yi and others refuse to seek legal status under the government-sanctioned Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM).

Echoing the argument of Wang Mingdao, an indigenous church leader imprisoned in the 1950s for his refusal to cooperate with the TSPM, Wang stresses the question is ultimately not political but spiritual: Who is the head of the church—Christ or the state? Here Wang is joined by Jin Mingri, a Beijing pastor who served for 10 years in a TSPM church before starting his own independent congregation, and by leaders of Shouwang, another Beijing congregation that tried unsuccessfully for years to gain legal registration apart from the TSPM.

Testifying to Another World

While Wang’s pushback against state overreach may strike a familiar chord with Christians in the West who are concerned about their own governments’ illegitimate restrictions on religious expression, Wang’s eschatology suggests a fundamentally different approach to the role of the church in society.

Heavily influenced by the Reformed tradition of political and cultural engagement, Wang actively supports the church’s forays into publishing, Christian education, social service, advocacy, and other forms of outreach that have been hallmarks of the urban house church movement over the past two decades. But these, according to Wang, aren’t ends in themselves. He likens the church in society to master ballet dancers performing atop a landfill, which accentuates the beauty of their performance and thus becomes an image of the new heaven and the new earth.

Similarly, should the church need to disobey the government as a matter of conscience, “the goal of [civil] disobedience is not to change the world, but to testify about another world” (223). In contrast to an individualistic Western rights-based understanding of religious freedom, Wang argues that, while the church will not neglect to use political and legal means to defend itself, the end goal isn’t freedom but the communal proclamation of Christ. The church’s response to persecution “is an apologetic and missional act, not a human rights movement” (203).

The goal of [civil] disobedience is not to change the world, but to testify about another world.

Should this testimony involve suffering or even martyrdom, then believers should welcome these, for “the true mark that shows we truly belong to the kingdom of Christ is not our success, our wealth, or our reputation, but the mark of the cross of Jesus on our bodies” (189).

Perspective for Western Christians

With his legal background, political activism, and global persona, Wang Yi can hardly be considered a typical house church leader. To understand Wang Yi, we must acknowledge his concurrent role in the time-honored tradition, dating back to Confucius, of Chinese intellectuals as the “conscience of the nation,” remonstrating with the state and paying a tragic price for their efforts.

Neither can Wang’s experience be seen as representative of the entire house church movement. Some Chinese believers view his tactics, including public observances of politically sensitive anniversaries, mobilizing church members to pray in front of police stations, and organizing a national signature campaign, as unnecessarily confrontational and not helpful to the church. Their voices need to be heard as well, as do the voices of Christians who have chosen to remain within the TSPM, believing it’s possible to serve there faithfully even under tight government supervision.

The rich analysis of China’s house church and its theology contained in this collection offers precious insights into one of history’s most remarkable Christian movements. Wang’s reminder that the cross is the center of Christian identity, his faithful testimony to another world, and his conclusion that “the greatest benefit of the church-state conflict is our union with a Christ who himself was judged” (177) provide the Western church with a much-needed perspective on our witness in the face of opposition.

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9 Proofs You’re More Than Matter https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/proofs-more-than-matter/ Wed, 11 Jan 2023 05:00:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=536932 At this very moment, you’re doing at least nine things that prove you’re more than a hunk of mindless matter.]]> What’s going on in your head right now makes sense if you were thought up by a thinking God.

Consider one of the most recognized and parodied paintings of all time: Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam. God’s outstretched arm reaches down to Adam’s. Their fingertips are an inch apart. It’s Michelangelo’s creative rendering of the moment just a few seconds before Genesis 1:26: “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness . . .’”

A nonchalant Adam reaches out, listless and dim-witted. There’s no spark, inspiration, or determination like we see in God’s face. God is suspended in space by a maroon shroud painted with impressive anatomical precision to resemble a massive brain. God extends his finger to infuse the powers of thought into humanity.

There is theological truth in Michelangelo’s most famous fresco. God not only created a rationally structured cosmos—he also had the ingenious idea of populating that cosmos with image-bearers. He thought up (here I’m speaking anthropomorphically) a species gifted with something of his rational consciousness, the power to think meaningful thoughts.

To be an image-bearer of God is to be an image-bearer of the One who thought up the laws of gravity, thermodynamics, and the periodic table. We aren’t dead-eyed automatons. We’re post-fingertip-touch beings who exhibit the amazing gift of consciousness.

9 Proofs You Were Created by a Rational Creator

At this very moment, you’re doing at least nine things that prove you’re more than a hunk of mindless matter.

1. Choice Making

We make a thousand choices every day. If you were created in the image of a choice-making Mind, this comes as no surprise. Can meaningful choices be reduced to a natural world that operates by machine-like determinism (or random quantum indeterminism)? If we could so reduce freedom, then no one chooses to believe or disbelieve in God and the entire debate is itself reduced to the involuntary buzzing of biological machines.

2. Oughts

Consciousness deals not only with facts (what is) but also with values (what ought to be). Can normative values like good and evil come from the material world of mere descriptive facts? Can nonmaterial realities like ought-ness sprout into existence out of the soil of material is-ness? As Don Delillo asks in his novel, White Noise,

They can trace everything you say, do, and feel to the number of molecules in a certain region. . . . What happens to good and evil in this system? Passion, envy and hate? Do they become a tangle of neurons? . . . What about murderous rage? A murderer used to have a certain fearsome size to him. His crime was large. What happens when we reduce it to cells and molecules?

3. Nonphysical Laws

Physical stuff follows physical laws. Your mind, however, can operate by nonphysical laws of logic. Take, for example, the logical law of transitivity: If A = B and B = C then A = C. Is this law physical? If so, what’s its chemical makeup? What genetic mutation in our evolutionary past produced the law of transitivity or the law of noncontradiction or any other logical law?

4. Semantics

The physical world is a world of syntax. Take this post, for example. It’s loaded with physical syntax—black pixels arranged in certain squiggly shapes on a glowing screen, all with chemical composition and spatial location. Yet you’re looking at something more than mere syntax. This article is full of what philosophers call “semantics,” the meaning conveyed through but not reducible to the physical syntax.

5. Creativity

Whether it’s the dark beauty of Van Gogh’s Starry Night or a child’s Crayola orange sun, consciousness exhibits the power of creativity. Is every masterpiece on canvas or construction paper, every song, poem, play, dance, or dinner merely the mechanistic byproduct of matter in motion? Is the artist no more than a bundle of swirling chemicals?

6. Intentionality

Think again about the Sistine Chapel ceiling. You can do so without the excruciating headache of Michelangelo’s masterpiece materializing in your brain matter. You’re not thinking the Sistine but thinking about the Sistine. Consciousness has the power to be about things (what philosophers call “intentionality”). Could genetic mutations in the concrete world of matter produce something nonphysical like an abstract thought?

7. Owned Experiences

The physical world can be described in the “It” objective categories of science. But there’s not only an it-ness but also an irreducible I-ness to consciousness: a subjectivity, a first-person perspective.

Could genetic mutations in the concrete world of matter produce something nonphysical like an abstract thought?

Imagine, for example, a scientific tome about bats, explaining everything that can be known scientifically about these winged creatures. What’s one question such a scientific tome wouldn’t answer?

It wouldn’t answer Thomas Nagel’s famous question, “What is it like to be a bat?” What does it feel like to fly blind through the darkness, sending out sonar shrieks to swoop full speed at an unassuming insect dinner? How do we explore I-ness and what-it’s-like-ness from the unconscious “It” of the physical world?

8. Purpose

The “It” of the physical world is what philosophers call nonteleological. Physical stuff doesn’t think about underlying purposes. A beaker of mercury doesn’t think, My goal is to boil at 574 degrees. It just does it. Consciousness, however, is teleological. We think purposefully, toward goals, acting for some reason (even if it’s often for totally unreasonable reasons). Can purposeless it-ness of the physical world generate the teleological for-ness of the conscious world?

9. Significance

Consciousness can get in touch with and reflect real meaning. There’s something truly significant about people giving and receiving love, something of transcendent value that cannot be reduced to interacting particles or the biological quest for survival. How does the significance dimension of our conscious worlds—the why-ness of our existence—emerge from the physical world of mere is-ness? Is Dawkins right that “at bottom, [the universe has] no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference”?

Faith Leaps and Darwin’s Doubt

Many faith leaps are required to believe that humans are merely physical. Does it require too much faith to believe the unconscious “It” of the material world somehow spawned this-or-that-ness (choice-making power), ought-ness (moral values), therefore-ness (logical laws), what-ness (semantics), about-ness (intentionality), awe-ness (creativity), I-ness (indexicality), what-it’s-like-ness (qualia), for-ness (teleology), and why-ness (significance)?

Darwin himself seemed plagued by such problems when he wrote in a personal letter, “The horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?”

With the Bible’s essential Creator-creature distinction, our origin is not traced to unthinking matter but to a thinking Creator. Reason, therefore, isn’t eliminated as an untrustworthy, physical survival mechanism but embraced as a truth-knowing mechanism given to us by the transcendent God of truth.

Our origin is not traced to unthinking matter but to a thinking Creator.

In the otherness that separates the Maker from the material world he made, we find a reason to reason. Our freedom, morality, logic, meaning, creativity, individuality, experience, and purpose are no longer explained out of existence but nourished and expanded as we love God with all our minds (Deut. 6:4–9).

Your reasoning powers are not the product of dumb forces. They come from God.

Don’t waste them.

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How to Lead Others in a Digital Age https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/lead-others-digital-age/ Tue, 10 Jan 2023 05:03:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=538265 Three helpful truths for leaders—like pastors or parents—who worry about the digital habits of those in their care.]]> Nearly every week, I hear from pastors, ministry leaders, or parents about the ethical challenges they face as they encourage those under their care to love God and love neighbor (Matt. 22:37–39). Many of these questions center on the digital advances of our day—especially social media.

As we enter another year, here are three truths to equip yourself and your people to wisely follow Jesus in a digital age.

1. The Christian ethic is more than sufficient for our day.

We tend to believe we’re facing novel issues the writers of the Bible didn’t foresee and couldn’t address. While it’s true these writers never talked about social media, algorithms, or ChatGPT, the assumption that the Bible is insufficient for the challenges of our day is misplaced. It’s driven by thinking of the Christian ethic as a set of rules rather than as a rich framework for pursuing wisdom no matter what comes our way.

Many, if not all, of our current ethical issues are rooted in deeper questions of what it means to be human and from where we derive our ethical norms. For those underlying theological and philosophical questions, the Bible is more than sufficient. God’s Word is true and profitable (2 Tim. 3:16–17). It’s a steadfast guide to living in an increasingly digital society in light of who God is and what he’s accomplished through Christ on the cross.

2. Technology is connected to every part of our lives.

Many leaders feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of issues to address with our families or churches. But technology isn’t a separate issue—it’s connected to nearly everything we’re already seeking to address with the Christian ethic. How we think about biomedical advances, the rise of powerful artificial intelligence, and the latest social media platform is informed by our understanding of concepts like human identity, dignity, and justice.

God’s Word is true and profitable. It’s a steadfast guide to living in an increasingly digital society.

Technology doesn’t require asking new or novel questions but asking old questions in light of new opportunities. As the possibilities expand, there are new ways for our fundamental vices to be magnified. We’re always seeking to center the world around ourselves rather than around God our Creator.

So while you need to address the challenges of technology head-on, you don’t have to preach a whole series on technology or even add these issues to the ever-growing list of discipleship topics. Instead, address them through your regular teaching of God’s Word, making connections between biblical truth and the world your people inhabit. Over time, you’ll cultivate biblical wisdom in your people and help them develop lasting habits.

3. Technology is a big issue that should be addressed with small steps.

One of the most damaging myths about technology is that it’s simply a neutral tool we can use for good or ill. While this view reminds us we bear moral responsibility for how we develop and use technology, it fails to acknowledge that digital tools are created for specific purposes and with certain values—which may not always align with the Christian ethic.

We’re all discipled daily by something or someone (Rom. 12:1–2). The question isn’t whether you’re discipled by technology but how and for what purpose.

The question isn’t whether you’re discipled by technology but how and for what purpose.

Given how subtly technology shapes us and our view of the world—including the nature of truth, responsibility, and even our identities—we need to see that five easy steps or a neat little checklist aren’t going to fix our relationship with technology. The challenges we face are too deep and ingrained to be remedied overnight. A quick-fix mentality reveals we’re trying to wrestle down our technological temptations and sins with our own strength.

Yet taking steps is still helpful. It’s the small decisions we make each day that disciple our hearts and bring lasting change in our relationship with these tools. Commit to the daily work of asking the Holy Spirit to renew your mind as you seek to follow Jesus in a digital age. Out of that will grow convictions about which tools to use, when, and for what purpose.

Lead Them to Scripture

As a pastor, you should talk about the proper use of technology. As a parent, you should lay down rules for how your children use social media or video games. But more importantly, point your people to a daily diet of Scripture reading and prayer. Regularly emphasize God’s perfect standards for our digital behavior, our inability to meet them on our own, and the beautiful grace offered to us by Jesus on the cross. Pray with and for your people, encourage them to memorize Scripture, and openly delight in their everyday walking with the Lord.

As you do, remember that not a single technological development has ever surprised our God or caught him off guard. We need not be naive optimists or detached pessimists. Biblical wisdom calls us to be rooted in the reality of how technology is shaping us but also to live in light of Christ’s victory and the new life we have in him.

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Keller’s Formation: Behind the Book https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/podcasts/gospelbound/kellers-formation-behind-book/ Tue, 10 Jan 2023 05:02:25 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=gospelbound&p=538782 Jim Davis asks Collin Hansen about the most surprising things he discovered while researching and writing ‘Timothy Keller: His Spiritual and Intellectual Formation.’]]> In this unique episode of Gospelbound, pastor Jim Davis from Orlando Grace Church invites Collin Hansen into the interview spotlight to go behind the scenes of writing Timothy Keller: His Spiritual and Intellectual Formation.

Jim Davis says, “Five hundred years from now, maybe two pastors or theologians will be remembered. I believe that Tim Keller will be one of them.”

Keller’s influence comes from his sermons, books, and teaching as well as his founding of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, The Gospel Coalition, and Redeemer City to City. The book traces this influence back to the people and ideas that have shaped Keller. 

Jim Davis asked Collin Hansen how Tim Keller has influenced his life and ministry, the most surprising things Hansen discovered as he researched and wrote the book, Keller’s legacy 100 years from now, and more.

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Opposing Gay Marriage May Seem like a Lost Cause. History Suggests It Isn’t. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/opposing-gay-marriage-history/ Tue, 10 Jan 2023 05:00:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=538637 Most Americans now support same-sex marriage. That doesn’t mean Christians should stop arguing for the biblical definition of marriage.]]> A friend—a faithful Christian and a professor who specializes in political history—recently shared that after listening to Joe Rogan discuss gay marriage with Matt Walsh, he walked away discouraged. While Walsh articulated the biblical view of marriage as well as can be expected given the circumstances, Rogan “won” because his arguments, as silly as they were, resonate deeply with the cultural moment.

When our collective moral framework is built around two principles—personal freedom and not causing harm—it’s nearly impossible to convince people that the definition of marriage shouldn’t be expanded to include same-sex couples. To oppose including those couples is now indistinguishable from bigotry.

This partly explains why, in December, the Respect for Marriage Act passed both houses of the U.S. Congress with bipartisan support. Thirty-nine Republicans in the House and 12 in the Senate joined every Democrat to codify it into federal law. Support for gay marriage is so widespread that it’s easy to forget how recent it is. In 1996, President Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act, which banned same-sex marriage and limited the definition of marriage to the union of a man and a woman, after it had passed Congress with overwhelming majorities. A lot can change in 26 years.

According to Ryan Burge, as recently as 2010 most Americans didn’t support same-sex marriage. Today, the majority do—including 52 percent of self-identified evangelicals.

Support for gay marriage is so widespread that it’s easy to forget how recent it is.

Considering the swift, large-scale shift in opinion, my friend asked a question many faithful Christians are asking: Is it time to give up on gay marriage? This isn’t asking whether we should give up on our biblical conviction that marriage is between one man and one woman. That isn’t up for grabs. The question is whether we should keep trying to make a persuasive public argument for the biblical definition of marriage.

With the moral revolution moving so fast, why spend limited resources on a losing battle?

Before giving up, consider that another revolution—the sexual revolution—had every bit as much momentum as the current one, and yet it has run aground on the rocks of reality.

Lessons from the Past

In the 1960s, the sexual revolution promised liberation from the supposedly repressive moral codes imposed by tradition and religion. With the widespread availability of the birth control pill, research suggesting sexual restraint was unhealthy, and books like Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Single Woman selling 2 million copies in three weeks in 1962, the culture was primed for rapid change. It didn’t disappoint.

Between 1960 and 1975, Playboy sales went from 1.1 million to 5.6 million per issue. Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice—a film about wife swapping—received four Academy Award nominations in 1969. The divorce rate more than doubled between 1960 and 1980, going from 9.2 to 22.6 divorces per 1,000 married women.

It wasn’t that sexual mores changed immediately but that the culture’s growing celebration of sexual freedom (especially the decoupling of sex from procreation, which widespread birth control and legalized abortion made possible) gradually made it more difficult to make credible arguments for the Bible’s teaching that sex is only appropriate inside marriage.

By the mid-1970s, consent was the only legitimate moral boundary for sex between adults. Most faithful Christians assumed our culture would never again return to anything resembling the historic Christian sexual ethic.

But now in the 2020s, there are signs this may indeed happen. The sexual revolution’s logic is breaking down. It’s not that the culture has returned to the Christian sexual ethic, but it’s no longer crazy to suggest the sexual revolution did a lot of damage, especially to those it was supposed to liberate.

Reality-Fueled Revolt Against the Sexual Revolution

Two books published in 2022, The Case Against the Sexual Revolution by Louise Perry (read TGC’s review) and Rethinking Sex by Christine Emba (read TGC’s review), argue the sexual revolution largely failed to deliver on its promises—especially to women. In addition to exposing the widespread carnage left in the sexual revolution’s wake, Perry and Emba call for a return to something that resembles the Christian sexual ethic.

What makes the arguments in these books so surprising is that neither author identifies as an evangelical. Emba, a columnist for the Washington Post, and Perry, who writes for both the New Statesman and the Daily Mail, are critiquing modern, secular sexual morality from the inside.

The sexual revolution’s logic is breaking down.

The Christian in 1975 would’ve thought this impossible. How did the sexual revolution come to have critics among those whom it was purported to free from bondage? The short answer: reality.

Since we all live in the world God designed and since God’s commands provide for human flourishing, violating his commands results in pain, disappointment, and tragedy. In their books, Emba and Perry detail the painful consequences incurred as a result of the sexual revolution’s rejection of natural law and the biblical sexual ethic (listen to Perry make her case).

Don’t Retreat. Persuade.

Perhaps Christians shouldn’t be completely surprised by this turn of events. Perhaps there’s even room for hope that some supporters of marriage equality will eventually come to see its consequences too. Just as “women’s liberation” was promised by the sexual revolution but is now being questioned by feminist writers, perhaps, in time, the promises of “marriage equality” will also be reconsidered.

So maybe this isn’t the time to retreat from making a publicly persuasive case that the orthodox Christian view of marriage is best for everyone—whether gay or straight, Christians or not. In the short term, our pleas may land on deaf ears, but in the long term they may very well turn the tide.

We should make the case that any moral system that absolutizes personal autonomy harms the less privileged and results in further decay. We should persuade others that while the idea of legal marriage is relatively new, there’s a reason every society in history has protected and honored male and female unions that produce children and develop them into productive citizens. We should keep lovingly making the case that children who are raised in homes with their mom and dad have better outcomes. We should compellingly invoke natural law and the latest research to supplement our defense of the biblical sexual ethic. Finally, let’s never give up on creatively articulating God’s beautiful vision for sex.

Christians should stop trying to guess what will change in the future and simply speak as faithful witnesses to what hasn’t and won’t change: God’s vision of the common good.

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TGC Announces Melissa Kruger as Vice President of Discipleship Programming https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/tgc-announces-vice-president/ Mon, 09 Jan 2023 05:04:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=539132 We are pleased to announced Melissa Kruger as the vice president of discipleship programming and Courtney Doctor as director of women’s initiatives.]]> The Gospel Coalition is pleased to announce that Melissa Kruger, who has served TGC as director of women’s initiatives since 2019, will now serve as vice president of discipleship programming. In this new role, Melissa will join Collin Hansen (vice president of content) and Jeff Jue (vice president of operations) on the executive team, reporting to president Julius Kim. Kruger will oversee all TGC events and women’s initiatives, including the development of new online cohorts and discipleship materials.

Filling the role Kruger previously occupied—director of women’s initiatives—will be Courtney Doctor, who previously served TGC as coordinator of women’s initiatives. Doctor will serve on the senior leadership team and report to Kruger. Both Kruger and Doctor began their new roles on January 1, 2023.

“Melissa and Courtney have been tremendous leaders for TGC over the last several years,” said TGC president Julius Kim. “Together they have built out robust programming and effective discipleship materials for women, including our largest TGC women’s conferences ever, a series of new online learning cohorts, Bible studies, and more. I’m confident that in their new roles, Melissa and Courtney will expand these efforts in new and creative ways, helping TGC produce excellent resources that serve Christians and strengthen churches around the world.”

One of the world’s largest internet publishers of Christian content, TGC begins 2023 having reached more than 26 million people in 2022 across the ministry’s family of websites, as well as 4.3 million people reached through podcasts and 2.6 million people reached through YouTube videos. To learn more about TGC’s ongoing ministry priorities and current initiatives, read “8 Ways TGC Will Continue Serving You.”

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How to Handle a Difficult Small-Group Member https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/difficult-small-group-member/ Mon, 09 Jan 2023 05:03:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=533729 Extending grace doesn’t mean allowing inappropriate behavior to continue unchecked.]]> Small group Bible studies are a joy to lead. Any chance to study Scripture in community is a gift. But they can also be challenging to lead, particularly if you have a difficult group member.

Perhaps this person has a lot of strong opinions and she’s decided this group is the best place to air them all. Maybe she overshares personal information or always directs the conversation back to herself. She might gossip, revealing inappropriate information about others under the guise of a prayer request. Or perhaps she dominates the conversation, not leaving space for anyone else to speak. Am I making any leaders squirm yet?

As I’ve trained leaders to handle these challenging situations, I’ve found three principles helpful.

1. Set Firm Boundaries

Establishing standards and expectations from the beginning is loving. This gives something tangible to refer back to when boundaries are tested. And it creates an opportunity to clearly address problems like gossip, talking over one another, or disregarding Scripture.

Establishing standards and expectations from the beginning is loving.

Although boundaries are ideally established from the start, if you’re leading an existing small group, it’s never too late. Look for a natural place to introduce boundaries, like after a summer break, at the start of a new year, or when changing your topic of study.

One way to set boundaries is to create a written group agreement and have everyone sign it. Another option is to write it out in an email and ask all participants to reply to indicate they’ve read it. Or you might just have the conversation verbally. Consider the dynamics of your group and what would be most loving and effective in your situation.

2. Extend Grace

When you have a difficult member in your group, it can be easy to focus on the challenges he or she creates for you as the leader. Take a deep breath and ask God to help you see the bigger picture. Let’s think through a few reasons someone may be a difficult group member:

  • She’s lonely, lacking other community, and expressing her desire for connection in unhealthy ways.
  • She’s an immature Christian (or not a Christian at all), lacking the fruit of the Spirit.
  • She’s struggling with a mental or emotional disorder which may inhibit her ability to function appropriately in the group.
  • She’s been hurt by a community in the past.

What do all these situations have in common? They describe people who need the grace and kindness of God as much as you do. If you discover your difficult group member has one of these deeper concerns, let it inform how you approach her. Exercise wisdom based on her particular circumstances, and seek to extend the same compassion and grace you’ve received from the Lord.

3. Have a Conversation

Extending grace doesn’t mean allowing inappropriate behavior to continue unchecked. When a boundary has been repeatedly crossed, it’s time to speak with the person and address the issue clearly.

Extending grace doesn’t mean allowing inappropriate behavior to continue unchecked.

Confronting others makes my palms sweat. Perhaps it makes you uncomfortable too. But lovingly correcting a brother or sister is a biblical call we must take seriously, particularly as leaders (2 Tim. 4:2; 2 Thess. 3:15).

Here’s how you might approach the conversation depending on the issue you need to address.

Conversation Dominators

If someone constantly dominates the conversation, you have the freedom and responsibility as the leader to redirect the discussion during group time: “Hey ____, thanks for your thoughts. Let’s take a moment to hear from ____ about this topic.”

In a private conversation with the group member, specifically describe her negative behavior. Encourage her to hone her gifts by looking out for those who are shy or not engaging and to use her voice to cheer on others whose voices aren’t being heard.

Toxic Sharers

Your group needs to be a refuge for sharing struggles, not a place for gossip to fester. Toxic Sharers may divulge too much information about themselves or others in the group, or they might share other members’ prayer requests with people outside the group. All of this must be snuffed out immediately. Don’t shy away from quickly redirecting the conversation during a group meeting, even if it feels awkward.

As with the Conversation Dominator, you should have a private conversation with the Toxic Sharer where you describe her negative behavior. Acknowledge her need to feel seen and heard, and give her examples of appropriate ways to handle sensitive information in the future.

One Who Needs to Leave

What if you’ve had multiple conversations with a difficult group member and brought another believer with you to confront her, yet she’s still unwilling to change? At this point, we’re talking about blatant disregard for the boundaries and well-being of the group. Set up a time to meet with the person in a public space, potentially with a mediator, and include the following in your conversation:

  • A specific description of the unrepentant sinful behavior
  • A clear request for the person to leave the group, effective immediately
  • A sincere commitment to pray for her

It’s important to remember that we as imperfect humans will never adhere to standards and expectations perfectly, whether as group members or as leaders. But by God’s grace, we can seek to maintain a healthy, God-honoring atmosphere in our small groups.

When you encounter a difficult member in your group, I encourage you to pray through your approach, seek the wisdom of your pastor or ministry leader, and avoid the pitfalls of inaction or anger. May our good and merciful God be glorified in how we handle the difficult group members in our care.

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Help! I’m Working Twice as Much for the Same Pay https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/working-twice-same-pay/ Mon, 09 Jan 2023 05:02:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=535160 Pay attention to the holy dissatisfaction you feel. There may be a purpose in it. ]]> A handful of my coworkers have recently left for greener pastures. As a result, my job responsibilities have doubled, though my position title and salary are the same. My boss says he intends to hire replacements, but I don’t think he’ll be very motivated to hire while I’m doing both jobs. I’m capable of doing all the work, yet it seems unfair for my boss to expect me to do two jobs for the same pay. I’m trying to obey Colossians 3:23 to work for the Lord and not for men. Does this mean I should just accept the situation and do the very best work I can?


“Do more with less.” I’ve heard this often throughout my work experience. And with the job turbulence due to COVID-19 over the past two years, I imagine this is happening in many places.

It doesn’t quite seem fair for one person to take on the responsibilities of someone else as well as her own work for the same pay, does it? Though we can understand the pressures your boss is under, hiring someone for one job and then changing the responsibilities with no change in compensation seems misleading at best.

And after a while, doing more with less isn’t realistic. Humans have limitations.

Let’s reflect on some truths that can set us free, then I’ll talk about strategies moving forward.

Biblical Principles

The truth is our work environment is affected by Adam’s sin (Rom. 8:19–21). It’s made worse by our own sins and those of our bosses, coworkers, and customers. Things aren’t always going to be fair or made right.

After a while, doing more with less isn’t realistic. Humans have limitations.

That doesn’t mean we should be content with unfairness. The Bible is full of references to right business practices (Lev. 19:35–36; 25:14; Prov. 20:23; Amos 8:4–5; Matt. 5:37; Col. 3:9–10; 1 Tim. 6:10). One way we push against sin is to winsomely advocate for fair treatment for ourselves and others.

Remember, we do this as people who live under authority. One of those authorities is our employer. Whether or not he or she is a believer, we’re to submit to our employer as the leader Christ has placed over us (Eph. 6:5–8; Col. 3:22–25). When we can no longer submit to that employer, perhaps we should consider moving on.

Practical Suggestions

So how can you graciously advocate for fairness? Before you talk with your employer, you’ll need to have all your facts in line. You’ll have to convince him your complaint is valid and it’s in his best interests to address it.

You assessed that your job responsibilities have doubled. Can you quantify what this means to your boss? Has your geographic territory or client list doubled in size? Are you having to write or edit twice as much? Are you teaching twice the number of classes or have your students increased by 100 percent? Are you supervising a team twice the size you used to have?

If the workload or your quotas haven’t objectively doubled, can you use a more subjective measure? Is your job now twice as stressful? Are the increased expectations at work taking a toll on your health or your family? For example, are you no longer able to go to the gym, cook dinners, or spend time with your spouse or children the way you used to?

Once you’re able to articulate the effects of your employer’s decision to delay hiring a replacement, you can then formulate a humble approach to asking for change. You should acknowledge his authority over you and at the same time ask him to consider either hiring a replacement or increasing your salary so you can be compensated for your additional hours. (The extra money, in turn, may allow you to hire a nanny or a house cleaner to cover some of the tasks you used to do at home.)

One way we push against sin is to winsomely advocate for fair treatment for ourselves and others.

You should also think about what it may cost you if your boss isn’t able or amenable to change. If he doesn’t agree to your proposal, are you prepared to leave? Or is there a temporary or partial solution you could suggest—for example, hiring temporary help or paying a one-time bonus?

“Adversity often becomes a spur for creative change and discovery of new places where God is calling us to serve,” Douglas Schuurman wrote. On the other hand, “Restless discontent with one’s present sphere . . . may not be a valid indicator of God’s call to a new sphere. It may indicate the need for renewed prayer and obedience within the existing sphere.”

How can you tell the difference? Remember, we serve a God who isn’t a God of confusion but of direction and leading (Prov. 3:6).

Focus on God

I challenge you to do something radical. Get your mind off the job for just a bit and focus on God. Worship him. Talk to him. Enjoy him. Remember his past faithfulness (Deut. 2:7). Remind yourself how much you depend on him and how good he is.

Then pay attention to the dissatisfaction you feel. There may be a purpose in it. God may be preparing you to begin another chapter in your life, either at this employer or another. Either way, God will give you wisdom to make the best decision in his time (James 1:5). He’ll provide for you and your family (Matt. 6:31–33). He’ll give you the strength for the challenges of each day (Isa. 41:10).

In everything, he is working for our good (Rom. 8:28).

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Chinese Pastors Can Teach You What John Calvin Can’t https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/chinese-pastors-john-calvin/ Mon, 09 Jan 2023 05:00:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=534983 The Western church should consider the perspectives of Christians outside our cultural heritage, from faithful believers in other contexts who face the same pressures we do.]]> Today, a Chinese pastor named Wang Yi sits in jail for subversion of the state. He won’t see his wife, son, and aging parents for close to a decade. But Wang Yi didn’t set out to be a hero. He’s just a man who’s come to understand how the grace of Jesus frees his heart to serve and worship the King of the universe. And his theological commitments have cost him everything.

In recent years, American churches have been asking questions very similar to those I hear from Chinese house churches facing persecution. What’s the church’s purpose in society? How do we understand state authority and religious liberty? Where do our ultimate allegiances lie?

But in these conversations, there’s a surprising lack of global perspective. Any contemporary discussion on the role of the church in secular America ought to include perspectives from outside our cultural heritage. We have much to learn from faithful believers in other contexts who face the same pressures we do.

Cultural Proximity

Often, Western Christians think the cultural differences between America and China are too significant to learn from each other. Both Confucianism and Buddhism, things we don’t understand well, form the cultural and religious backdrop for much Chinese theology. Since the 1950s, China has also been dominated by atheistic communism. And the average North American church doesn’t face the kind of persecution that house church leaders like Wang Yi have experienced.

At the same time, American Protestants—particularly conservative evangelicals—readily turn to theological writers who never spoke our language and lived centuries ago. American evangelicalism certainly has a shared heritage with Reformation Europe, but we have more cultural proximity to Christians around the world today than we do to Calvin or Luther.

The reformers were preindustrial and predigital. They knew nothing of our labor market and manufacturing processes, much less the internet, social media, and virtual reality. Their worlds were predemocratic and precapitalistic. They lived within systems of government that weren’t open to all men and women, and they didn’t experience free trade and enterprise like we do. Most importantly, Reformation Europe was presecular. They couldn’t have imagined a world where religion isn’t the primary identity marker for individuals and communities.

My point isn’t to discourage American Christians from reading the reformers but to encourage us to consider whether we might have more in common with believers from Beijing, Lagos, or Mexico City than we realize.

Shared Experience

Americans often think of the Muslim world as very different from our own. But who could look at Dubai and not see something of New York’s thirst for wealth, pleasure, and material status? I’d be curious to learn how the gospel reshapes a wealthy Emirates woman’s need to find identity through material possessions and how it could apply to similar struggles in North America’s glitziest communities.

We have more cultural proximity to Christians around the world today than we do to Calvin or Luther.

Seattle and Berlin thrive as centers of urban occultism and paganism that seek to interact with spirits in ways we haven’t seen in the West for a long time. Thankfully, we have brothers and sisters in parts of Africa and Latin America who could teach us about navigating and confronting “the excluded middle,” about common beliefs regarding the power of spirits, ancestors, and healing that Western modernity once denied yet now see reappearing.

This week, the average urban pastor in China will write his sermon on a laptop, taking breaks to check messages on his phone. He engages social media, finding it both a quagmire of evil and an evangelistic opportunity. In his congregation, the temptations of money and workaholism loom large. He struggles to keep the second generation in church in the face of cultural marginalization, and he watches the young in his cities fall prey to pornography, video game addictions, eating disorders, abuse, and confusion over sexual identity. Living in a secular society, he struggles to overcome apathy about life’s biggest questions.

In our interconnected, rapidly changing, and urbanized world, there’s no global city that isn’t wrestling with the same issues we do. But the good news is that, today, expressions of the church, along with indigenously theologizing leadership, can be found in every context. This means we don’t have to walk through our struggles alone.

Universal Christianity

One year before his arrest in December 2018, Wang Yi wrote a pastoral letter to his congregation, exhorting them to live sacrificially for the sake of the gospel, not just in their city of Chengdu but in all the world:

If the God you believe in is only the God of Chengdu, then he is a tribal god. As for Lhasa or Cape of Good Hope—places you will never visit—they exist outside the meaning of your life. If the God you believe in is only god of the construction industry, then he is an industry god. Only the construction industry and industries related to it are relevant to you.

However, the church does not worship tribal or industry gods, but rather “the fullness of him who fills all in all.” “Do I not fill heaven and earth?” declares the Lord.”

If your master is master of the whole universe, then the whole universe is related to your life’s meaning. The whole universe is your sphere of operation. Although you live, move, and exist in only one corner of the universe, unless every part is meaningful, your corner can never be meaningful.

In other words, our shared experience with the global church isn’t simply owing to globalization. It’s rooted in God’s very nature. History alone is too small a work for the God of all the world.

Therefore, Christians can look across the globe as well as across time to shape our faith and inform our lives. We should be able to learn from our brothers and sisters from around the world—not only because we have much in common through our modern, urban, and secular societies but because we worship the same God who fills heaven and earth as the King of the universe.

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FOBO: Gen Z’s FOMO https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/fobo-genz-fomo/ Sun, 08 Jan 2023 05:00:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=533935 We’ve shifted from ‘What if they have fun without me?’ to ‘What If I commit now and regret it later?’]]> In college I suffered from a condition called FOMO. It was probably responsible for a half-point drop in my GPA. It’s the reason I sometimes hung out with people until sunrise even though I had an early class. It’s why friends convinced me to drop everything and go on a last-minute road trip from Virginia to Louisiana.

What is FOMO? It’s the “fear of missing out,” a condition long suffered by young people. Following my graduation, as I worked with the next generation of college students, I began to notice a shift. “Sign up for Fall Retreat because all your friends are going” was a far less powerful recruiting tactic than it was in my college days. In recent years, students have become harder to schedule events around. They just spend less time hanging out.

The average young person’s inner dialogue seems to have shifted from What if I don’t go and they have fun without me? to What if I commit now and regret it later?

My experience is only one data point, of course, but my friends who are campus workers have made similar observations. One InterVarsity staffer described it perfectly: “It’s like we’ve moved from FOMO to FOBO.” What is FOBO? It’s the “fear of better options.” The average young person’s inner dialogue seems to have shifted from What if I don’t go and they have fun without me? to What if I commit now and regret it later?

FOBO may be the reason why, if you spend time with young people, you get texts like this: “I’d love to get lunch at that time as long as I don’t have something else going on,” or “I’ll plan on being there unless something changes.” Before you roll your eyes and lament the condition of “kids these days,” let me provide a little perspective.

Not Flaky, Just Anxious

Gen Z is probably the most anxious generation in history. One way this plays out is that many young people are more reticent to commit than previous generations were. Their internal calculus is different. What if I commit to those plans and it turns out I don’t feel ready for the test I’ve been worried about? Or even, how can I possibly make plans for next week when I can barely handle thinking about this afternoon?

There are real reasons why their experience of life is more anxiety-inducing than ours, and those reasons make commitment harder for them.

Nevertheless, for Gen Z and for the rest of us, love requires making and keeping commitments. There’s a reason traditional wedding vows state “until death do us part,” not “as long as something else doesn’t come up.”

There’s a reason traditional wedding vows state ‘until death do us part,’ not ‘as long as something else doesn’t come up.’

 

So, how can those of us in older generations encourage our Gen-Z brothers and sisters toward loving commitment?

First, we need to make sure that we consistently model faithfulness in our own commitments to them. Do you rub shoulders with young people in your church or place of work? Do you treat appointments and commitments to them with the same level of seriousness that you do others?

Second, we need to express encouragement when young people demonstrate loving commitment. Are there GenZers who volunteer regularly at your church? What would it look like for you to express your gratitude for their service? Has a young person reached out to you to get a cup of coffee? Make sure you tell them how grateful you are for their initiative and prioritize fitting it in.

Third, we need to lovingly share how we experience the effects of FOBO from young people. When I take the initiative to ask if a student would like to spend time together, it’s hurtful to get a noncommittal answer. It’s hard not to hear an unspoken subtext of “you’re not important enough to commit my time to.” I know it might sound uncomfortable to express these feelings to a young person, but it is important to do so. If you are willing to have this hard conversation (gently and lovingly), you may end up being the only person in their life who has loved them enough to do so.

Finally, be patient and empathetic. Again, there are real reasons for GenZ’s anxieties and struggles with commitment. Keep these in mind when you get noncommittal text messages from younger friends and family. They’re fighting a battle you and I may not fully understand.

Loving one another across generations comes at a cost to everyone. For Gen Z this may mean a willingness to commit in spite of the fear of better options. For older generations, it may mean practice in patience and empathy. For each of us, investing in these relationships despite our differences is another opportunity to love others the way Christ loved us; at great cost to himself.

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What to Say When You Don’t Have the Full Story https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/say-full-story/ Sat, 07 Jan 2023 05:00:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=528147 Frequently in Christian ministry, we’re told about a challenging situation and invited to make a response. And often we know only one small part of the story.]]> Recently, I got an email from a casual acquaintance. Among other things, he mentioned that he’d been terminated from his position with a Christian ministry. From such a distance—of both location and relationship—it was impossible for me to understand the issues that contributed to his situation. Was he wrongly terminated? Or was he the guilty one? I simply couldn’t know.

And yet our correspondence required me to reply. I could hardly ignore what was obviously an important and life-changing matter for him. What could I say?

Missing Pieces

Frequently in the church and maybe especially in ministry, we’re told about a challenging situation and invited to make a response. And often we know only one small part of the whole story. A person gives what seems to be an extended (and possibly biased) list of wrongs someone else has done. Another person only tells part of the story to avoid exposing someone else’s sin.

Proverbs warns against making a quick judgment without information:

The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him. (Prov. 18:17)

If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame. (Prov. 18:13)

Sometimes we’re able to pursue the subject and gain a fuller picture. If both parties are within our circles, we can get more information, assist them to pursue biblical conflict resolution, and offer help to everyone involved. But, as with my out-of-work acquaintance, some situations and relationships will never disclose the full story, perhaps rightly so. There are times when we shouldn’t be privy to all of the details.

So what can you say—over email or coffee or Sunday’s fellowship lunch—when you cannot have the whole story?

‘I’m Sorry’

Sin makes us sorrowful. If there’s sin in a situation, no matter whose sin it is, you can truthfully say you’re sorry. A church member loses his job because his Christian convictions are distasteful to his employer? Then say, “I’m sorry to hear that.” A church member loses his job because he failed to show up three shifts in a row? Then, too, you can say, “I’m sorry to hear that.” We can rightly express sorrow for sin and suffering even if we don’t fully understand how it came to be.

If there’s sin in a situation, no matter whose sin it is, you can truthfully say you’re sorry.

‘Thank You’

Maybe, as in the case of the email I received, the best reply is “Thank you for your years of service.” Maybe it’s “Thank you for being such a good friend to her in this hard time” or “Thank you for being concerned.” Sometimes, all you can say is “Thank you for being willing to share that with me.” Though we may not know enough to comment on the situation, we can find something about the person or relationship for which we can express gratitude.

‘Let’s Pray’

Our Lord knows the whole story even when we don’t, and we can pray with humility and confidence for him to work. Together, we can ask him to vindicate the righteous, convict the sinning, reconcile the estranged, and exalt his Son. Prayer is also a great equalizer—forcing each of us to admit our limitations and to cry out in dependence on our sovereign God. When we don’t know the whole story, we can together ask for help.

And that’s something to which we can all say, “Amen.”

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How to Be the Leader Your Church Really Needs https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/podcasts/tgc-podcast/leader-church-needs/ Fri, 06 Jan 2023 05:03:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=tgc-podcast&p=536699 Trevin Wax teaches on the importance of being a multi-directional leader. ]]> At TGC’s 2021 National Conference, Trevin Wax taught on the importance of being a multi-directional leader and how to have a heightened awareness of problems your flock may encounter.

Wax defines multi-directional leadership as “a manner of leadership grounded in the unshakable conviction that all the truth revealed in Scripture must be deployed for the good of God’s people.”

The pursuit of this type of leadership can be difficult as it requires dexterity and vision to protect the flock from all sides. Wax warns against being a one-directional leader who fights alone and allows the culture to set the agenda for what’s addressed to the flock, and he says healthy leadership is about “speaking the right word in the right moment to the right people.”

Wax gives four ways pastors and church leaders can apply a sensitivity to being multi-directional:

1. Delight in Scripture.

2. Listen carefully to people who sound various alarms, and discern if they’re valid.

3. Know yourself and the dangers to which you’re susceptible.

4. Know your people and their tendencies and leanings.

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3 Principles to Jump-Start Small Groups https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/jump-start-small-groups/ Fri, 06 Jan 2023 05:02:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=536021 You may have developed a mission statement and set big, audacious goals, but has that translated into clear direction for your small group leaders?]]> A few months ago, I got a call from my wife, Jill, who was at the tail end of a five-hour road trip with my daughter. Jill told me the truck was “acting funny” and then suddenly shut off, and she had to coast it to the shoulder. I was able to meet her and swap vehicles so I could limp the truck home. Turned out the battery had gone bad.

There was no warning, even though there’s a spot on the dashboard to indicate the problem. I’m handy with cars, but I rarely drive this truck, and it had been a while since I’d given it a checkup. I could have identified the problem and changed the battery long before it gave us trouble, but it took a disruption from the norm for me to focus on this important part of our family fleet and get it running again.

I see the last two years as a similar disruption. The pandemic came without warning and forced our church to think about how we call our people to participate in small groups. If you’re in a similar place and have discovered a need to jump-start your small group ministry (or if you’re about to start one for the first time), here are three principles I’ve found helpful.

1. Draw straight lines from theology to practice.

Most small group ministries suffer from a lack of clear vision. You may have developed a mission statement and set big, audacious goals, but has that translated into clear direction for your leaders? Can they see that what you’re asking them to do with their small groups is rooted in theological convictions?

You may have developed a mission statement and set big, audacious goals, but has that translated into clear direction for your leaders?

If you can draw a straight line from why we gather in groups (one reason is for gospel proclamation) to the outcome (making disciples), you can invite leaders to use their own creativity in determining how their group will live this out (e.g., by throwing a block party or meeting outside their small group time for a book club or seeker Bible studies).

I recommend the following resources to help you clarify the big theological whys of a small group ministry:

2. Be clear that life together is both joyous and challenging.

Cultivating a thriving experience of community in your church depends more on aligning our hearts with God than on executing a playbook. We shouldn’t frame participating in a small group as a mere Christian duty or coerce God’s people to participate through shame. Instead, we must follow Jesus’s example and invite our congregations into the challenging yet joyful life of community.

As God’s image-bearers, we can experience a shadow of the joy God has eternally shared within the Trinity (John 15:10–11). Within the community of the church, we participate in his cosmic plan for redemption (Eph. 3:10). We shouldn’t sell these benefits short.

But I’m also amazed at how comfortable Jesus was with people declining his invitation to discipleship (John 6:60–70). He didn’t soft-sell the Christian life but clearly communicated the challenges that come with the reward (John 10:9–11). He invites us to follow him while being frank about the demand.

Communal life requires sacrifice and will often force believers into discomfort. This might mean sitting with a friend who’s lost his job (even if it was his own fault) or showing up to the hospital while a group member gets chemo treatment. It may also just be the mundane awkward moments of sharing your doubts or confessing your sin. Yet within these uncomfortable moments, community also draws us closer to Christ and one another, producing a joy in us that can’t be found elsewhere.

3. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.

God’s people often flourish and grow through risks and missteps. Think about all the mistakes the Corinthians made. My instinct would’ve been to chastise the church for making me look bad or even to shut down this foolish church to avoid embarrassment. Paul’s response is different (1 Cor. 1:1–9). He corrects the Corinthian church’s mistakes and encourages them to continue in areas where they’re already growing.

Paul is secure enough in Christ to know the Corinthians’ failures don’t diminish his standing with Jesus. We must have the same security (Phil. 1:6). When a small group fails to launch, or an outreach program fails to gather interest, our standing isn’t diminished.

If we let fear of failure motivate our leadership, we’ll be controlling, and we’ll stifle creativity and passion. Such an attitude can hold groups back from the amazing work the Spirit wants to do through them. But if we lead without fear, we’ll inspire small group leaders to do the same.

If we let fear of failure motivate our leadership, we’ll be controlling, and we’ll stifle creativity and passion.

The small groups I’ve belonged to over the years haven’t been immune to the need for disruption and the occasional jump-start. In a recent group, I was getting a little too comfortable and saw our group growing in passivity. I proposed a few ideas such as a street clean-up to engage our neighbors, which were received lukewarmly. So we took a few weeks to talk through the whys of community and how outreach connects to the priorities of our group.

I was surprised at the effect. We saw a deeper commitment to one another and group members were empowered to serve. One member noticed the number of moms with strollers in the neighborhood and rallied the group to start a mom’s meetup at the neighborhood center. This act of outreach led to new relationships in the community and two new couples joining our group.

It was just the jump-start we needed.

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How to Hold On to Faith When 2023 Gets Tough https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/hold-faith-tough/ Fri, 06 Jan 2023 05:00:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=534435 Hold on to what you’ve received because Jesus Christ is holding on to you. ]]> Do you know what I find hard? Doing one thing and doing it with diligence and dedication—not just for days or weeks but for months, years, and decades. And yet that’s exactly what we’re called to do as Christians. 

In Paul’s second letter to Timothy, he calls Timothy—and us—to continue in the age-old faith and gives three reasons why. But he also warns us of two things that will make it difficult to do so.

On the one side, there’s persecution: “All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12). Some persecution is more severe, as it was for Paul, who was stoned and left for dead (Acts 14:19). Some persecution is less severe but still real. You may be ridiculed, be gossiped about, or even lose your job. The day-in-day-out pressure of persecution can wear us down and tempt us to downplay our beliefs to be less offensive to our culture.

On the other side, there’s false teaching: “Evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived” (2 Tim. 3:13). Such teachers hold out something exciting and new, threatening to lure us away (cf. 2 Tim. 3:7).

With both things tugging at us, we must continue on the same old path: “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed” (2 Tim. 3:14). Paul gives Timothy three reasons he should hold on to what he’s received.

Reason #1: You know from whom you learned it.

Would you seek financial advice from someone who received a big inheritance but lost it due to mismanagement? Of course not. We seek financial advice from those who’ve been good managers of their money. Their proven success gives us a reason to trust what they pass on. 

With persecution and false teaching tugging at us, we must continue on the same old path.

Likewise, Paul tells Timothy, “Continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it” (2 Tim. 3:14). Timothy learned the faith from his grandmother, his mother, and Paul himself (2 Tim. 1:5). The godly character of those from whom Timothy has learned attests to the trustworthiness of what they taught.

If you’ve learned the faith from godly men and women, let that give you confidence to continue in what they’ve taught you. 

Reason #2: From childhood you’ve been acquainted with the sacred writings.

When people ask who’s most influenced my faith, I point to my mother first. My father is a strong Christian today, but he wasn’t a believer when I was young. My mother took me and my siblings to church each Sunday, led us in Bible studies each morning, and showed us the love of Christ. Like Timothy’s mother, she instilled in me the truths of Scripture. Paul writes, “Continue in what you have learned . . . knowing . . . how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings” (2 Tim. 3:14–15). 

It’s similar to when you move into a new neighborhood. It takes a while to learn the most scenic route to the park, the best Chinese restaurant, and the quickest way home from work. But eventually, it becomes second nature. Similarly, thanks to my mom, I learned my way around the Bible. I experienced its goodness and truthfulness, which is one reason I continue in the faith. 

But even if the first two reasons don’t apply to you, the next one does. And it’s the most important of all.

Reason #3: All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable.

In the face of persecution and false teaching, we must continue in what we’ve learned because, most of all, it’s nothing less than the very words of God. Note four contrasts between the truth Timothy received and the false teachers:

  • It’s no mere human advice, but “breathed out by God.”
  • Unlike false teaching, God’s Word trains us in righteousness.
  • It’s totally sufficient. We don’t need to look elsewhere. “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable . . . that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16–17). God’s Word gives us everything we need for salvation and godly living.
  • Whereas false teachers deceive, God’s Word corrects our wrong beliefs and teaches us the truth. 

He Is Faithful

We still struggle to endure in the faith. At times, we buckle under the pressure of persecution. And to one degree or another, we’re all tempted by false teaching. Our sinful hearts are easily deceived into wrong beliefs about who God is and who he’s called us to be. 

Though we stumble and fall, he still keeps us.

But though we fail, Jesus Christ endured faithfully to the end. Amid the false teaching of the religious leaders, he stayed the course. He remained faithful through persecution, even as he was arrested and beaten, mocked and killed. And because he died for our sins and rose from the dead, nothing can separate us from his love. Though we stumble and fall, he still keeps us. By his Word and Spirit, he’ll guard our hearts and minds against being led astray by false teaching. He’ll be with us through persecution and, in the end, he’ll rescue us from death itself.

Hold on to what you’ve received, because Christ is holding on to you.

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9 Things You Should Know About Events and Discoveries in 2022 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/9-things-events-discoveries-2022/ Thu, 05 Jan 2023 05:03:21 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=538438 Here are nine events and discoveries from 2022 you may not have heard about.]]> We live in an era of 24-hour news in which we’re constantly bombarded by information from websites, social media, and television. Because of this deluge, there are fascinating news items you’re likely to have missed. Here are nine such events and discoveries from 2022 you may not have heard about.

1. The oldest known map of the stars was discovered in an ancient Christian manuscript.

The oldest known map of the constellations—the lost star catalog of Hipparchus—was discovered on parchment preserved at the Museum of the Bible. The map had been written in the fifth century on vellum leaves that were recycled half a millennium later to record the Christian manuscript “Codex Climaci Rescriptus” (Ladder of Divine Ascent) by John Climacus. “The newly-discovered text is a remarkable breakthrough that highlights the creative use of multispectral imaging technology to read previously lost texts,” said Brian Hyland, associate curator of medieval manuscripts at the Museum of the Bible. “It also attests to the accuracy of Hipparchus’s measurements.”

2. Lost ‘Tiny Book’ of Charlotte Brontë poems rediscovered.

A manuscript of unpublished poems by the novelist Charlotte Brontë, author of Jane Eyre, had been lost to public view for more than a century. But it was recently rediscovered inside a 19th-century schoolbook and sold for $1.25 million. As a 13-year-old, Charlotte created a 15-page book of poems in tiny text and sewed it into a miniature book with needle and thread. “A Book of Ryhmes [sic] by Charlotte Brontë, Sold by Nobody, and Printed by Herself” contains 10 never-before-seen poems written by the teenager. The book was purchased by the Friends of the National Libraries, a British nonprofit, and donated to the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth, England.

3. Scientists use fitness trackers and AI to detect depression.

Mental disorders can present a wide variety of different symptoms, which can make it difficult for physicians to diagnose them early and accurately. But scientists from Nanyang Technological University in Singapore are developing an AI-driven diagnostic tool kit that could help solve the problem of detecting mental health disorders, such as anxiety and depression. They use certain biological markers like heart rate and sleep patterns to make predictions about whether a person might be depressed. The tool’s accuracy is estimated to be around 80 percent.

4. Carvings found from a palace of an Assyrian king mentioned in the Bible.

Archaeologists working in northern Iraq discovered seven marble slabs, depicting Assyrian soldiers, palm trees, pomegranates, and figs, that were once part of the palace of King Sennacherib. Sennacherib was an Assyrian king who ruled from about 705 to 681 BC and conquered the fortified cities of Judah during the reign of King Hezekiah (2 Kings 18:13). The discovery offers exciting new opportunities for research, with archaeologists now returning to Mosul to dig deeper into the history of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, notes CNN.

5. Scientists revived organs in dead pigs.

Researchers were able to revive the cells and organs in pigs an hour after the animals’ deaths by cardiac arrest. The finding challenges the assumption that cardiac death is irreversible. The pigs weren’t reanimated after death (there was no restoration of brain activity), but their organs exhibited signs of cellular repair. If the process can be used in humans, it could potentially increase the number of human organs available for transplants.

6. The James Webb Space Telescope takes photos of distant parts of the universe.

The James Webb Space Telescope was launched on Christmas Day 2021. Since then, it has been dubbed the greatest scientific breakthrough of 2022. Among the discoveries are the first direct image of an exoplanet, a glimpse at the clouds of Saturn’s moon Titan, and observations of the most distant galaxies in the universe.

7. Christian monastery possibly predating Islam found in the UAE.

An ancient Christian monastery was discovered on an island off the coast of the United Arab Emirates that possibly dates as far back as the years before Islam spread through the area. The monastery on Siniyah Island, the second found on the peninsula, sheds new light on the history of early Christianity along the shores of the Persian Gulf. Archaeologists have found other similar churches and monasteries in Bahrain, Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia.

8. Wreck of Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance found in Antarctic sea.

A team of researchers discovered the wreck of Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance vessel on the Antarctic sea floor. Endurance was last seen on November 21, 1915, when the Irish-British explorer Shackleton and his 27 men watched the ship sink into the icy water. The crew’s mission was to reach the South Pole by traveling over the then-unmapped terrain of the East Antarctic. The leader of the expedition that found the sunken ship said, “We have made polar history with the discovery of Endurance, and successfully completed the world’s most challenging shipwreck search.”

9. Earliest complete sentence in Canaanite language found on a lice comb.

The earliest complete sentence that has been found written in the language of Canaanite was found on a lice comb. Based on the shape of the letters, it was written around 1700 BC, about 100 years after alphabetic writing first developed, says Christianity Today. “Prior to this time everything was written in either hieroglyphics in Egypt or in the cuneiform script by various languages in Mesopotamia,” says archaeologist Michael Hasel, “so to have this complete sentence found at this early stage is quite remarkable.” The inscription on the comb says, “May this tusk root out the lice of the hai[r and the] beard.”

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Russian Missiles Can’t Dim God’s Glory https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/russian-missiles-gods-glory/ Thu, 05 Jan 2023 05:02:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=537647 How the church’s hope in Christ and love for the hurting makes the gospel compelling in war-torn Ukraine.]]> The gym in my Kyiv neighborhood is abuzz with feverish discussion. Russia, for the eighth time in recent months, has flung a barrage of missiles at Ukrainian civilian targets. Seventy-six missiles this time. One man is talking so fast I can’t understand him. My friend, Sergei, tells me he’s upset because of the war. I sympathize. Of course he is. However, his racing words don’t produce much understanding, let alone hope.

As I leave the gym, I shake their hands and extend a blessing of peace in Christ. My mind turns to another Ukrainian friend, Pastor Bogdan, and my recent visit to his church. Pastor Bogdan serves a small church in a town northeast of the capital city, Kyiv. But I remember his words as hopeful. He faithfully repeats the good news of Jesus to those in his community, followed by actions that break down barriers to Christ’s gospel.

On the morning when we pulled into Pastor Bogdan’s town a few weeks back, my wife rolled down the window to ask a local man where the Baptist church was located. Without hesitation, he pointed to the west. When we still couldn’t find it, we asked several others before finally calling Pastor Bogdan to direct us. We were surprised that everyone we asked already knew about the church and seemed comfortable with its presence in their town. Normally, smaller towns are suspicious of Protestant evangelicals. Why isn’t it that way here? we wondered.

Care for Others

As we get out of our car, having followed Pastor Bogdan from the town center to his church, an older woman approaches. “My son, can you help my family with some blankets?” she asks him. “Yes, we can, after the worship service,” he assures her. She nods and smiles. Bogdan takes us into a building near the front of the church property. One room contains bags of groceries—humanitarian aid for the townspeople. Another is furnished with assorted old tables and chairs, set up as a makeshift Sunday school room.

“We’ve been meeting baptismal candidates here and catechizing about 10 of them,” he notes. The church has been conducting multiple weekly services to hundreds in the town for months, sharing the love of Christ, the gospel, and humanitarian aid. Some have started coming to the Sunday morning worship service and some to the baptismal classes.

The church has been conducting multiple weekly services to hundreds in the town for months, sharing the love of Christ, the gospel, and humanitarian aid.

Together with the older woman, we walk into the adjacent church building. It’s almost full, about 130 people, and bustling with conversation. A toddler walks down the center aisle and catches my eye. I crouch to talk with her for a moment, realizing how much I miss my grandchildren.

The room is warm, not only because of the kind people but also because of the wood-burning stove along a side wall. Bogdan explains that they make and sell them in his town, a necessity resulting from Russia’s attacks against the power grid and civilian infrastructure. In fact, Bogdan’s congregation is buying many stoves to give to the needy. The church also serves as a “warming center” for anyone looking to get out of the cold.

Hope in Christ

We find our seats and the service starts with prayer to the God who protects the defenseless. The songs, announcements, and prayers are a mixture of Russian and Ukrainian, the latter relatively new to the region. My time comes to preach. I open my Bible to Romans 5:1–11, describing the normal Christian life that’s founded on justification in Jesus Christ by faith.

We rejoice in this gracious standing with God, which gives us both peace with him and the hope of glory. But we also rejoice, knowing suffering results in growing conformity to Christ. This transformation is a sure sign that we’re truly his, which gives us still more hope of glory.

After the sermon, Pastor Bogdan leads in a time of communion. As the bread is passed, commotion ensues in the row in front of us because one more sister has repented and is receiving the bread and wine for the first time. We marvel at the simple preaching of the gospel and loving of neighbors that draws many to our Lord. Not at all flashy. But life-changing. Christ in us, the hope of glory.

Another Glory

Many Ukrainians want to see this country victorious over imperialistic Russia. We want this too. They cry “Slava Ukraini”(“Glory to Ukraine”). While we understand their sentiments, we want another glory for Ukrainians—and for all peoples, including Russians. We desire the glory God offers us. It’s the glory that the Son of God temporarily left, taking the form of a baby and lying in an animal feeding trough. And it’s the glory to which he’s returned, to prepare a home for us.

We marvel at the simple preaching of the gospel and loving of neighbors that draws many to our Lord.

In the meantime, we gather for worship to stir up one another to love and good deeds (Heb. 10:24). Why? Because we believe our good works glorify God the Father. Because Christ through his Spirit is nurturing us and preparing us for that eternal home. And because the Spirit’s love that’s overflowing in our hearts shows others we’re truly Christ’s disciples. Seeing this love encourages them to join us in the journey to that eternal dwelling—to share our hope of future glory.

If we realized what Christ’s gospel means for this suffering world, we too would be loving our neighbors and friends in tangible, meaningful ways. We might even talk so fast they wouldn’t understand us at first. But our reasons for doing so would be quite different from my Ukrainian friend at the gym. Because the news we have doesn’t overwhelm us with fear. It’s good news that fills us with hope.

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5 Surprising Books to Help Navigate the Gender Debates https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/5-books-gender-debates/ Thu, 05 Jan 2023 05:00:32 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=535214 None of these books is written to address the latest volleys of the evangelical gender debates, and that’s what makes them helpful.]]> Is there really anything new in the evangelical gender debates? That was my question recently as I prepared to teach a Sunday school class at church on a theology of gender. What I found, to my surprise, was the most helpful books I read were not the ones written directly to address the gender debates. By coming at the question of gender from wider lenses like natural law, biology, and history, they offered new insight when I returned to the key biblical texts. 

These five books may help fellow pastors or Sunday school teachers who are trying to faithfully navigate the Bible’s teaching on gender.    

1. Manliness by Harvey C. Mansfield (Yale University Press, 2007)

The title may give away its subject, but it’s not what you’re expecting. Harvey Mansfield is a Harvard professor who works on political theory. The latter part of the book is about politics, at which point I began to skim. But I still recommend this book because of how shrewdly Mansfield explains a masculine characteristic that’s an embarrassment to our “gender-neutral society.”

By coming at the question of gender from wider lenses like natural law, biology, and history, these books offered new insight when I returned to the key biblical texts.

Manliness can be defined briefly as confidence in the face of risk. His examples range from Teddy Roosevelt to Margaret Thatcher, Tarzan, and Plato. Mansfield’s simple definition allows him to discuss topics that often aren’t covered in evangelical debates about manhood.

For Mansfield, manliness comes in degrees, can be used for good or ill, and can be exercised by women too—yet it’s pursued far more by men. This last point is crucial because it runs counter to a gender-neutral society. Efforts to deny manliness or shame it out of existence won’t work long term. The question is how to best cultivate manliness and channel it to good ends.

Mansfield’s book isn’t simplistic. Don’t confuse it with popular-level “art of manliness” books or red-pill YouTuber content. Mansfield makes a subtle, informed case that ranges widely across disciplines.

2. On the Meaning of Sex by J. Budziszewski (Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2014)

If Mansfield’s book was unexpectedly helpful, Budziszewski’s book was expectedly helpful. The author is a Catholic philosopher and former atheist who’s best known for his work on natural law. This book is written for college students lost in a world that simultaneously says sex is everything and nothing. By “sex” he means the act and the biological category, with chapters that explain why we know sex matters, how the two sexes differ, why that’s good, and why we should pursue sexual purity as a result.

The book’s greatest strength is the crisp defense of how the Christian sexual ethic follows from the nature of men and women, and, along with that, how difficult it is to deny this in the long run. Wonderfully written, the book combines brevity and humor with accessibility and deep wisdom. 

3. Not Just Good, but Beautiful: The Complementary Relationship between Man and Woman by Steven Lopes and Helen Alvaré (eds.) (Plough Publishing House, 2015)

This short book contains 16 presentations from a 2014 conference called by Pope Francis. The presentations were given by a wide range of religious leaders (from Russell Moore to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks). And while the different religious views represented create some moments of dissonance, the larger harmony powerfully demonstrates the significance and beauty of sexual difference.  

Three essays worth highlighting are Prudence Allen’s summary of key points from her massive study of the Western conception of “woman,” N. T. Wright’s reflections on the way the coming together of male and female in marriage reflects the coming together of heaven and earth in redemption, and Rick Warren’s practical steps toward renewing appreciation for marriage.  

4. T: The Story of Testosterone, the Hormone that Dominates and Divides Us by Carole Hooven (Cassell, 2021)

This book is the oddball of the group. The author is an endocrinologist (an expert in hormones) at Harvard and has been in the news occasionally for her willingness to challenge core tenets of transgenderism. It’s clear from this book that she’s no social conservative, but she’s also committed to science regardless of whose ideology it serves. T is about that tiny chemical messenger, testosterone, that creates significant differences between male and female bodies.

Males, typically, have 10 to 20 times the testosterone of women, and it affects them from womb to tomb. Testosterone produces, as Hooven says, a clear binary. She shows how important testosterone is in understanding male aggression, male interests, male sexual attraction, and male bodies. Her chapter on sports is worth the price of the book.  

Hooven convinced me to abandon the term “intersex” because it lumps together widely differing medical conditions that are better described as sexual development disorders. People with these conditions are not between (inter-) male and female. These medical conditions, therefore, do nothing to disprove sex is a binary; if anything, they confirm it. 

5. When Fathers Ruled: Family Life in Reformation Europe by Steven Ozment (Harvard University Press, 1985)

The last book isn’t biological, philosophical, or theological but historical, and it’s the oldest of the bunch, published almost 40 years ago. Steven Ozment, who died in 2019, was a professor of European history at Harvard and wrote extensively on the Reformation. This book surveys family life during the period and was written to dispel “the commonly held notion of fathers as tyrannical and families as loveless.”  

The general impression one gets today is that the history of men stretches back across a long, dark line of increasing oppression of women followed by a final, if painful, dawning of the light that dispels the dreaded patriarchy. Ozment shows that while men ruled the home in the Reformation, their position came with responsibility for care and protection and with accountability for not abusing their power.

From examining a tiny hormone discovered in the last century to exploring the vibrant life of Reformation families, from philosophers to biologists (Christian and non-Christian), each book contributed something to my understanding of God’s design for the relationship of the sexes.

He writes, “The man of the house was expected to be steady, a model of self-control, and able to moderate his own appetites and drives” (50). A husband who hit his wife was the very definition of a bad husband. Wives were far more than maids and enjoyed a position of “high authority and equal respect” to husbands, who were told to use their authority in a way that benefits both and leaves them happy and content (54). If this is “the patriarchy,” maybe it isn’t so bad after all. 

None of these books is written to address the latest volleys of the evangelical gender debates, and that’s what makes them helpful. They shed light on our sexual differences and how we might honor them.

From examining a tiny hormone discovered in the last century to exploring the vibrant life of Reformation families, from philosophers to biologists (Christian and non-Christian), each contributed something to my understanding of God’s design for the relationship of the sexes. Each left me more confident that the Bible’s complementarian theology is not only right but good.

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Case for Mere Church in Missions https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/mere-church-missions/ Wed, 04 Jan 2023 05:03:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=533770 Mack Stiles calls on missionaries to order the church according to Scripture, not the cultural context.]]> I’ve seen it multiple times. An American on a short-term trip walks through our church doors in Iraq. He’s bright-eyed, brimming with excitement about cross-cultural ministry. Maybe he’s read a book or two on missions. Perhaps it’s even a book I’ve written about short-term missionaries—because I love their ministry!

But then comes the critique: “Your church is so Western.” I know I shouldn’t, but I always feel defensive in that moment. I wonder how anyone could look at a church with over 20 nationalities and say it’s Western. Our urban church may look globalized, but I don’t think it’s Western.

I suspect the short-term missionaries think we should sit on dirt floors and play sitars in a circle. They probably mean our church service doesn’t seem all that different from the church service back home.

In my better moments, I don’t make assumptions. Instead, I ask, “So, tell me, how does our church seem Western?” “Well,” they’ll say, “you preach in English. You sing Getty songs and hymns and have a band with drums.” Or they might say, “You have a PowerPoint and everyone sits in a row of chairs.”

In my worse moments, I’ll say, “You know, it’s patronizingly Western to decide that others shouldn’t do what appears to be Western.” That’s when Leeann, my wife, kicks me under the table. It’s unhelpful for me to be snippy. But I admit their words strike deep. After all, I hate PowerPoint with a holy hatred. We use it because the non-Westerners want it.

Basic Assumptions

If I’m going to be fair with my accusers, it’s helpful to acknowledge some basic assumptions that are increasingly common in missions today:

  • Colonialism in missions is bad.
  • Without knowing it, our very presence advances Western imperialism, and that’s bad too.
  • Therefore, in missionary work, we need to contextualize our church to look like the local culture. Missionaries should take a back seat in church leadership.
  • Paul said to become all things to all people (1 Cor. 9:19–23), so we should adapt to the culture rather than imposing our worship practices on others.

Yes, colonial missions were bad. Not distinguishing between the gospel and the Union Jack created many problems. But that was hundreds of years ago. No missionary I know now wants to advance his or her home country’s political or industrial purposes. Colonial missions largely died with colonialism, and thoughtful missions writers put a stake in the heart of colonial missions over half a century ago. Modern missionaries—at least the ones I know—desire to make disciples of Jesus, not disciples of America.

Of course, we can unwittingly advance our own culture. Some missionaries try to avoid this by giving locals a Bible and hopping on the next bus out of town, trusting the Holy Spirit to do the rest. Unfortunately, this is in direct opposition to the command of Jesus to teach (Matt. 28:20).

As we do so, we should work hard to make ourselves culturally sensitive. But in 1 Corinthians, Paul was speaking about his effort to contextualize himself, not the gathered church. Indeed, the Bible warns against looking crazy to outsiders, but the vast majority of commands to the Christian community, as John Stott says, instruct us not to be like those around us.

Mere Church

I propose a better—and I believe more biblical—way. I call it “mere church.”

It took me years to come to this, but in my experience, the most important thing to do on the mission field—the way that avoids cultural imposition and imperialism, the thing that’s most reproducible, most engaging, least culturally offensive, and most influential long-term—is to make sure the church is mere church.

To strip it down to the essentials. To scrupulously ensure the Christian assembly looks like what the Bible spells out for church. In my opinion, missionaries should spend less energy on the church’s cultural appearance and more energy aligning the church with explicit biblical norms.

Missionaries should spend less energy on the church’s cultural appearance and more energy aligning the church with explicit biblical norms.

I’m not saying cultural sensitivity is unimportant. But when missionaries focus on context first, they’re making a huge, subliminal, cross-cultural error. They’re saying culture is more important than the authority of the Bible. Worse, they’re eroding the courage to tell the hard truths of the gospel in a hostile environment, because the gospel will never, ever, be culturally sensitive.

As I would often say to our church in Iraq, we don’t want our church to reflect American culture, Arab culture, Kurdish culture, African culture, or Asian culture. Instead, we want a church with genuine biblical culture.

So missionaries should practice biblical principles found in 1 Corinthians 3–4, principles of sowing and watering, of wise building, humble service, and faithful stewardship of the gospel. This is our manifesto for church planting. And church services should look like Paul’s prescriptions in 1 Corinthians 11:17–34 and 1 Corinthians 14, including the celebration of communion and the practice of spiritual gifts in mutual fellowship to build up the body. This is our manifesto for a church service.

Since we were serving in an international church (in a globalized, international city), rather than focusing on local culture, we wanted our church service to be so ordered that it’d make sense to any genuine believer. We wanted a church where people could come from any culture—or any time in history—and basically understand what was happening in the service. Did we do this perfectly? Of course not. But at least we were headed in the right direction.

Starting Point

To head in the right direction, we have to start in the right place. For churches in any context, that starting place is Scripture. We center the church on the Word of God. We make sure the church membership is composed of genuine born-again believers, and we hold them accountable to live according to the Bible. We work for love and unity, and then we work on the biblical principles that make for a healthy church. Those simple concepts take time and herculean effort—and they’re the main reason I don’t give an Arab fig about the drums in our worship.

One practical way we sought to avoid Western imperialism was by striving for a plurality of elders who met the biblical requirements for pastors and who could represent the cultures of our church. I was grateful to Emmanuel from Jamaica, who would challenge my myopic cultural perspectives; Samuel from Eritrea, who would quietly and gently help me understand the mindset of the large local population from Ethiopia; and Iskander, who was fluent in both Arabic and Kurdish and could explain to us the local political situation of Iraq.

And, get this, these elders liked Getty songs. They picked those hymns because of their biblical lyrics. But they also picked other, non-Western aspects of our worship too. If you focus on being biblical, over time, you get a diversity of cultural flavors in your worship. Of course, there are numerous other ways mere church can take shape, but those are just some of the ways it happened in our context.

But what if you started with a different perspective? Directly pursuing a contextualized church service that looks like local culture is fraught with difficulty. This is especially true if a Westerner is trying to do it. Do you know how silly it looks when an older person tries to act hip? That’s what the contextualized service often looks like to a local.

Worse yet, if you’re working to make a church service look like the local culture, you’ll invariably incorporate the sins of the culture, because all cultures are fallen. And in a multiethnic, multicultural urban context like ours in Iraq, how do you choose which culture or practice to pick in the first place? Starting with culture or context is simply the wrong place to begin.

Regulative Principle

As we develop churches around the world, whether international or indigenous, the focus should be on the instructions set forward in the Bible for the weekly gathering. The reformers called this the “regulative principle.” In a missions context, the regulative principle guards against making cross-cultural mistakes while giving us a vision for mere church.

As we develop churches around the world, whether international or indigenous, the focus should be on the instructions set forward in the Bible for the weekly gathering.

In a Christian worship service, we read the Bible (1 Tim. 4:13), we preach the Bible (2 Tim. 4:2), we sing the Bible (Eph. 5:19; Col 3:16), we pray the Bible (Matt. 21:13), we see the Bible in the two sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper (Matt. 28:19; Acts 2:38–39; 1 Cor. 11:23–26; Col. 2:11–12). Occasionally, there are vows and thanksgivings that have biblical roots. That’s it.

Of course, there’s more to consider in these discussions. Should the congregation pray silently while kneeling, or should everyone pray aloud, in unison, while standing with arms raised? Thankfully, while the regulative principle guides Christian worship according to Scripture, it also accounts for the different elements, forms, and circumstances of worship.

For example, singing is commanded (element), but the specific songs we choose to sing (forms) aren’t set. They can be chosen by godly people who want to sing the truths of Scripture. Whether you sing them on the floor in a dirt hut or sitting on cushioned chairs (circumstances) is less important still. But we should make such decisions with practical considerations in mind.

So it is with all of the necessary elements of Christian worship. They can be done in a house or a church building, under a tree, in a pew, on the dirt floor, or while playing a Kurdish Tembûr or drums. But no matter the case, the Bible must be central in all we do, providing us the essential elements of Christian worship as we consider the best forms and circumstances within a given cultural situation.

Transcultural Gospel

Several years ago, I had an experience that illustrated for me the way that cultural differences aren’t as significant in urban centers and our globalized world. In fact, those cultural differences can often be cut through by a clear proclamation of truth.

In 1988, Saddam Hussein dropped bombs on residential homes in the Kurdish city of Halabja. In a matter of hours, more than 5,000 people died from a toxic cocktail of gases, including sarin and mustard gas. Thirty years later, in 2018, I was invited to attend a memorial service put on by the Kurdish government.

When Leeann and I arrived, there were 4,000 Kurds in the room, but no other Americans. We sat in rows of chairs. They used a PowerPoint projector. The talks came from what looked like a pulpit. We had headphones that translated the speeches into English. We sang songs that sounded like pop songs, with drums and a band. To any outsider, it probably looked “Western.”

But as the service continued, the room filled with an ever-increasing, oppressive, raw hatred of the perpetrators of violence—the kind of bitterness that engenders endless cycles of revenge and violence.

Then something happened that I can’t forget. The moderator invited a brave Arab man from Baghdad to the microphone as a representative of the Iraqi government. The Kurds saw him as the enemy. He took a breath, thanked those in charge, and said, “You must stop this constant repeating of the wrongs done to you and move on. This memorial service is hurting you.”

I don’t know the man’s motivation. But he said the main thing that needed to be said rather than what was culturally appropriate. He told the truth when it was hard to speak. And I thought to myself, These abused people, trapped in hate, desperately need to know the way of the gospel. They need churches in hard places that tell them hard biblical truths when doing so is hard.

We live in a complicated world, with complex cultural realities happening all around us. But this diverse world desperately needs the transcultural gospel of forgiveness and hope in Christ. And it needs the church as God ordered it, no matter the context.

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Mini-Theology of Fatherhood in Ephesians 6 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/theology-fatherhood-ephesians-6/ Wed, 04 Jan 2023 05:02:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=536177 What does gospel-shaped fatherhood look like? In Ephesians 6, Paul offers a compelling vision. ]]> In November 1919, Frans Kafka wrote a letter to his father, Hermann, explaining why he feared him. This letter concludes by comparing their father-child relationship to the fight of “vermin, which . . . suck your blood in order to sustain their own life.” Perhaps you have first-hand experience of such parasitic combat.

In contrast, Ephesians 6:1–4 offers a vision of the sort of redeemed and symbiotic father-child relationship made possible by the gospel. As a new dad myself, I’ve been swept up by this Christ-centered portrayal of dads, and from this passage I glean a mini theology of fatherhood.

Simply, Paul calls on a dad to maintain embodied, purposeful involvement in the lives of his children, for the glory of God.

Dad’s Involvement

Ephesians 5:22–6:9 is the household code section of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Some argue Paul wrote this section primarily to help churches express their faith in a culturally acceptable way (to aid evangelistic efforts), but this subordinates Paul’s moral imperatives to cultural expression and ignores Paul’s stark contrast between Christians (“children of light,” 5:8) and the surrounding culture (“children of wrath,” 2:3; cf. 5:7–8). In other words, Paul encourages Christians to be Christlike, not only in ways that culture is comfortable with but also in ways that challenge—or offend—culture.

Paul calls on a dad to maintain embodied, purposeful involvement in the lives of his children.

A better explanation is that this code details how God’s people everywhere can enjoy transformed relationships as Christ-redeemed children of light amid a world of disobedience. This order, these roles, are universal principles that provide essential pillars for gospel-aligned communities.

Some may be surprised, then, by Ephesians 6:4, which addresses dad (not mom) as the point person for child rearing. The message here is that kids need both parents—mom and dad. In addressing the husband, Paul’s command can be applied to the wife as well. But it would be silly to speculate that in pointing to dad Paul only means to talk to mom. Dad is given the command, and it’s his responsibility as head to determine how to best fulfill it.

So the first tenet of this mini theology is that dad must be involved. But what should this involvement look like?

Embodied

Ephesians 6:1–4 shows us that a biblical father is an embodied father. One way to see this comes from the Greek. The word for “bring . . . up” (ektrepho; Eph. 6:4) can be translated “nourish.” This word implies physicality; it’s the same word used for how a man “nourishes” (5:29) his own body (and thus how a husband nourishes his wife).

Part of what I mean by “embodied” is simply that a dad ought to be as physically present with his kids as possible. Paul’s quotation from the Ten Commandments (6:2–3) reminds us of the Deuteronomic father figure who teaches God’s law to his children continually, as occasions arise: “When you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (Deut. 6:7). The picture here is of a man who is physically present with his family throughout the various activities of the day—sitting, walking, lying, and rising.

The lesson: the more time you spend with your kids, the more activities (however normal) you do together, the more opportunities you’ll have to teach and nourish them in creative, practical ways.

I once saw a man with his two sons. These boys were trying to snatch candy out of a vending machine by sticking their arms through the bottom slot. To my surprise, the dad turned to them and told stories of how he used to steal items from vending machines, explaining in detail how it could be done. He followed this confession by saying he wished he had not done so—for it was unkind to others and disobedient to God’s Word—and by encouraging his boys to live in a caring and faithful way.

This lesson would never have happened unless the man was there at the vending machine, physically present with his sons.

Purposeful

More than simply being reactive to occasional teaching opportunities, Paul calls on fathers to be proactive in raising kids in the “discipline and instruction of the Lord.” Don’t merely wait for opportunities; establish a rhythm of family discipleship in your household.

For a dad to be an effective disciple maker, he must be a faithful disciple himself. So dad, study God’s Word, strengthen your prayer life, serve at church, and continue to walk with God in faith. Be purposeful in your own spiritual life with the intent of modeling that life for your kids.

For a dad to be an effective disciple maker, he must be a faithful disciple himself.

Be purposeful too in joy. Go out of your way to encourage your kids by showing them your favor, your love, and your pride in them. Rash and angry behavior will “provoke your children to anger” (Eph. 6:4), and so will a cold demeanor. Kafka experienced this neglect, writing, “Not every child has the endurance and fearlessness to go on searching until he comes to the kindness that lies beneath the surface.”

Dad, don’t hide your kindness beneath a cold exterior. Be purposeful in joy.

God Glorifying

The final and most important tenet of biblical fatherhood, as seen in Ephesians 6:1–4, is that this is all for the glory of God.

Biblical fatherhood is a faithful witness to God the Father. God the Father is involved in our ongoing maturation (John 15:1–2; Rom. 8:28), and therefore fathers glorify the Father as they imitate this behavior.

Biblical fatherhood also edifies Jesus’s bride—the church. First Timothy 3:4–5 shows that good dads make for good church leaders. Our culture looks for leaders with academic prestige, successful careers, and enticing charismas, but Paul asserts the church needs men who love their children and are great at nurturing them in the Lord (see Titus 1:6).

Dads, find joy and full life in being involved in an embodied, purposeful way in the lives of your children—all for the glory of God.

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Is Your Discipleship Model Missing Something? https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/discipleship-model-missing/ Wed, 04 Jan 2023 05:00:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=534369 The biblical pattern for making disciples includes instruction, investment, and imitation.]]> What does discipleship look like? For some, it might be a Bible study over coffee. It could include meeting for prayer and accountability. Or maybe it happens as someone takes greater responsibilities in ministry.

I’d say my time in seminary was especially formative—though not just in the classroom. I was discipled in the living rooms and dining rooms of others in our church who showed me how to be a better spouse and parent, demonstrating genuine humility, patience, service, and kindness.

As I look back on my life, I realize I’ve been discipled along the way not merely through education and experience but also through the example of mature believers. I believe the biblical pattern for all disciple making includes this kind of formation through imitation.

Common Approaches

Our perception of how discipleship happens is often influenced by the ways the Western church pursues Christian formation. In my observations, our disciple-making methods at home and abroad fit into two basic categories: one seeks to make disciples through instruction and the other through investment.

Those who prefer the instructional model often come from churches where discipleship happens through a select few teachers. It takes place primarily in Sunday morning classes, informal Bible studies, expositional preaching, and ultimately Bible schools or seminaries.

Since we tend to make disciples in the ways we’re trained, Western missionaries from these backgrounds often emphasize the importance of Christian education. They seek to make disciples who are taught all that Christ commands.

I’ve been discipled along the way not merely through education and experience but also through the example of mature believers.

In recent years, other disciple-making methods have emerged in response to this more cognitive approach. Rather than focusing on instruction, many missionaries now emphasize the importance of investment, in releasing new believers into immediate evangelism and church-planting work to prove their discipleship.

These methods have gained traction in response to colonialism, as Western missionaries try to avoid imposing outside ideas or exerting external influence on indigenous believers. Furthermore, a purely instructional model—especially one that terminates with seminary training—has proven slow, expensive, and unreproducible in the developing world.

Increasingly, missionaries who recognize these concerns have adopted methods that go beyond—and even critique—an instructional model. Since they’re eager to see new believers empowered for service and not simply gaining head knowledge, they seek to make disciples who obey all that Christ commands.

Pattern of Scripture

It’s important to acknowledge both approaches have biblical precedent. Discipleship requires instruction and investment. But these approaches are also incomplete, because the scriptural paradigm for disciple making also includes imitation.

Jesus spent much of his time intentionally teaching the Twelve and a broader community of his followers. He also entrusted his apostles with responsibility within a short period of time, giving them authority to carry on his mission even without his physical presence.

However, an initial component of becoming Jesus’s disciple was to “be with him” (Mark 3:14). Throughout the Gospels, Jesus models for his apostles what he expects of them, whether announcing the kingdom or casting out demons. Jesus also offers his service and suffering as an example for anyone who would come after him (Mark 8:34; 10:45). When Peter and John, uneducated Galileans, boldly gave testimony to Christ, it was clear to the Jewish leaders that “they had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13). Accordingly, Jesus says our discipleship will be evident to the world as we love others in the way he first showed (John 13:34–35).

This emphasis on shared experience and imitation isn’t limited to Jesus. Paul’s approach to disciple making relied heavily on his lived example (1 Cor. 4:17; Phil. 3:17). Yes, he taught the Scriptures wherever he went (instruction). And, yes, he empowered coworkers and locals to serve without him (investment). But Paul constantly gathered disciples to be with him and join his ministry (Acts 20:4). He expected church leaders and church members to become imitators of him (1 Cor. 11:1; 1 Thess. 1:6; 2 Tim. 3:10) so they could then become an example to others (1 Thess. 1:7; 1 Tim. 4:12; Titus 2:7).

Paul’s approach to disciple making relied heavily on his lived example.

One could argue that in every stage of Paul’s discipleship journey, whether authoritatively instructing new believers or eventually investing them with ministry responsibilities, he continued to employ a mentorship model. Imitation infused every aspect of his disciple-making process.

Formation Through Imitation

Of course, it’s not as if those committed to instruction have always failed to invest believers with responsibility. Nor is it true that those who emphasize ministry experience don’t care about Christian education. But if the biblical model for disciple making includes instruction, investment, and imitation, then it should lead all of us to take a more relational approach to Christian formation. We must know those we follow (Heb. 13:7).

Too often, Western missionary methods—following many Western churches—tend to treat ministry as primarily informational and transactional. But it’s not enough to teach content or to transfer responsibility. We also need to model, mentor, and be with each other. This happens most naturally in the context of the local church and through hospitality, where believers fulfill these responsibilities with one another.

Seeing the value of personal example within the church also undercuts the assumption that we can make faithful disciples through mediated presence or virtual gatherings. If imitation is central to formation, then the church can’t succeed at our central task apart from meaningful relationships and physical presence. In missions, this means we can’t make disciples sufficiently through short-term trips, virtual training sessions, or with missionaries serving from the sidelines as catalysts and consultants.

Lastly, this suggests that when a local congregation looks for a person to serve in the church or to send as a missionary, we can’t simply consider someone’s education (instruction) or experience (investment). We must also look for those who are an example to the believers (imitation). We should pursue candidates with proven character who can call others to follow their pattern of life.

From my study of Scripture and personal observations, I’m convinced the work of the Great Commission isn’t accomplished merely through instruction or investment. It happens when we leave an indelible mark of the living Christ through our observable conduct, exemplary service, and sacrificial love. We make disciples of all nations by showing them with our whole self what it looks like to follow Christ.

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Read Scripture for Compounding Interest in 2023 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/scripture-compounding-interest/ Tue, 03 Jan 2023 05:03:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=536979 God’s Word is like compounding interest: read consistently and your understanding will grow exponentially.]]> Reading the Bible is like compounding interest: invest in reading consistently and your understanding will grow exponentially. On one level, the Bible is very simple—a child can understand it. At the same time, it’s infinitely complex. One can read it for a lifetime and never plumb its depths.

My biggest regret in life is not devouring the Bible sooner. I’ve been in full-time ministry for 25 years, and only in the last eight have I read through the whole Bible each year. Sometimes I imagine how different I’d be if I’d been doing so for 25 years.

Putting in the Work

The Bible is kind of like the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Without any prior knowledge of the MCU, you can watch Avengers: Endgame and enjoy it. But if you watched all 21 Marvel movies leading up to Endgame—investing over 50 hours of your life—the end hits differently. After years of learning about the MCU, you would understand and enjoy the final battle on a deeper level.

That’s how the Bible works, but compounded a thousand times over. It features multiple themes pulled together with barely visible threads, woven into an unimaginable tapestry over the course of 6,000 years.

For example, the more time you’ve invested in reading Scripture, the more meaningful it is to hear Jesus say, “I am the good shepherd” (John 10:11). In Ezekiel 34, 600 years before Jesus’s words, God proclaimed he would come down to save his lost sheep: “I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep. . . . And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David.” In fact, God is presented as a shepherd in Genesis, Psalms, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, Micah, and Zechariah. Jesus’s claim to be the Good Shepherd, therefore, takes on incredible depth of meaning.

The New Testament makes more sense after you’ve read the Old a few times. To understand the words of Jesus and Luke and Paul and Peter, you need to understand the Scriptures they grew up with. Only then will the New Testament’s big themes crystallize in their full glory.

To understand the words of Jesus and Luke and Paul and Peter, you need to understand the Scriptures they grew up with.

Wealth doesn’t accumulate all at once. Warren Buffett is worth $107 billion—$106.7 billion of which was accumulated after his 50th birthday, and $103 billion after age 65. Buffett’s secret is time, since interest compounds over time. The key to building wealth is to start early.

The same is true for the Bible’s treasure. Want to build wisdom? Start reading early in life. I wish someone had told me to invest in regular Bible reading when I was younger. But just like investing your money, you can’t go back and do things differently. What you can do is start reading—and enjoying—the Bible today.

5 Reasons You’ll Grow to Enjoy Regular Bible Reading

1. Your brain will get better at reading.

If you’re like most people, you don’t read much at all. Thanks to years of device use, your brain has been programmed to be skittish and distracted. You’re not going to undo 10 years of fragmentation in a week or two. But as you read, your brain will rewire itself and you’ll be able to focus and think deeper. Don’t be surprised if you start to enjoy reading the Bible more as you go.

2. Connecting dots is thrilling.

As you read, doors of wisdom and knowledge will open. Avid reader Patrick O’Shaughnessy explains how this happens: “When you start out reading, you are collecting distant dots in a constellation with no apparent connection. . . . Ten years in, I now have an incomplete but dense set of interconnected dots. . . . Reading gets more and more enjoyable the more you do it.”

For many of us, the Bible can feel like a collection of dots with no apparent connection. And we don’t like feeling confused. But just keep going. My 12-year-old just started reading Scripture this summer. As he reads, he writes questions in the wide margins of his Bible: What does this mean? Where is that country? Why does he say that?

As you read, your brain will rewire itself and you’ll be able to focus and think deeper.

Recently he came across Psalm 66:5–6 (“Come and see what God has done. . . . He turned the sea into dry land”) and wrote in the margin, “Is this good or bad?” Great question! Usually dry land is a curse and punishment. If you’ve read through your Bible a few times, though, you’ll recognize the psalmist is referring to God’s mercy in the exodus, when the Israelites walked right through the Red Sea. Connections like these pop up all over the place as you grow more familiar with God’s Word.

3. Your knowledge base will expand.

“The wise lay up knowledge” (Prov. 10:14); stored-up knowledge and wisdom go hand-in-hand. As Maryanne Wolf explains in Reader Come Home, “Over the life span, everything we read adds to a reservoir of knowledge that is the basis of our ability to comprehend . . . whatever we read.” Whenever we read, we make deposits in our knowledge bank. The great truths of the Bible will shine as you withdraw riches you’ve stored up over the years.

4. Reading is an acquired skill.

Deep reading produces deep thinking, which produces deeper reading—a beautiful virtuous cycle. Don’t give two minutes a day to reading the Bible and expect much (although two minutes is certainly better than nothing!). Consistently reading hard things will make reading hard things easier and easier. Don’t grow discouraged if it’s difficult wrapping your brain around the Word. Give time to reading and watch the Word open up to you.

5. Scripture is the living and active Word of God.

The Bible isn’t any old book; it’s the very word of God. God wants to be known, and he wrote a book to make himself knowable. If you belong to Christ, his Spirit will help you understand the greatest wisdom in the universe (John 16:13). That’s solid encouragement as you form the habit of regular Bible reading.

Don’t worry if you haven’t read through the Bible before. Why not make 2023 the year you do? Your future self will thank you.

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Young Adult, Embrace the Art of Neighboring https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/young-adult-neighboring/ Tue, 03 Jan 2023 05:02:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=535048 Gen-Zers are often isolated, but the gospel makes us a people who have the courage and compassion to welcome our neighbors.]]> I observed it growing up, but it never became instinct. “Mom, are you sure Mrs. Derns will be OK with me asking for an egg?” “Should I chat with the Stanton family as I walk by, or is that weird? Hmm, this sidewalk in front of me is suddenly mesmerizing, maybe I’ll focus on that.”   

My parents’ generation seems to have an ease of connection with neighbors that’s absent from mine. My mom and dad will regularly chat with the neighbors while people my age will only offer a half-hearted wave. 

According to a Pew Research Center study conducted in 2018, 23 percent of young adults aged 18–29 know none of their neighbors. Can Jesus change this reality? How might the truth of the gospel change the way young adults interact with neighbors? It’s as simple as opening your heart, your home, and your hands. 

Hearts to Welcome 

One of the most basic outcomes of the gospel is that we’re changed. When we meet Jesus, we’re saved from the reign of sin. Our deformed, weary hearts begin to beat with new life, with a new Spirit. This mysterious and beautiful inner work of healing happens through the known reality of Christ crucified for us. His work changes our hearts—the deep seat of our desires and our energy for life—by drawing our ways and inclinations into his Spirit’s life.  

The gospel makes us a people who have the courage and compassion to welcome our neighbors.

The gospel makes us a people who have the courage and compassion to welcome our neighbors.

In John 10:14, Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me.” This profound truth that Jesus knows us gives us the confidence to move toward others and offer our embodied presence. The good news that we’re known warms our hearts to move toward others and ask their names.

Homes to Nurture  

The gospel inspires us to know and be known, to love, and to be loved. And the next step after learning a person’s name is to invite her into a relationship, to have her over to your home

Neighboring begins at home because that’s where we have the greatest security and openness. If our hearts have been opened to God, we can invite neighbors into our common spaces, our messy living rooms, and our disorganized kitchens. We can ask them to stay a while. If you’re a young adult, this may feel odd because you probably don’t own a house. But you don’t need to be a homeowner to nurture relationships with your neighbors.

Partner with your roommates (or even your parents) to invite someone over. Let him see your odd habits and imperfections, the ways you’re immature and need to grow. Practice hospitality with confidence that in this messy, beautiful, holy process, your neighbors will see Christ in you.

Hands to Tend 

As relationships form, you’ll be surprised at the beautiful opportunities that begin to surface. When Mrs. Derns gets snowed in, you may just think about dropping by to shovel the driveway. When the Stantons need a sitter, they may just call you. When our hearts and homes are open to others, our hands are moved to serve our neighbors in tangible and dependable ways.  

As young adults, we’re more accustomed to thinking of ourselves. But the truth is, we’re the people in the neighborhood whose hands are the most capable of work. In our youth, we still have stay-up-all-night-then-run-a-5K-in-the-morning energy. Also, as young people, we’re typically poorer in resources but rich in time.

As young people, we’re typically poorer in resources but rich in time.

The gospel urges us to redirect our energy and our extra hours in service and care of others. This may mean mowing a neighbor’s lawn or weeding his garden. It can mean showing up early for celebrations and staying late to help clean up.

There’s no time like the present. Embracing the art of neighboring is one way we can remember our Creator in the days of our youth (Eccl. 12:1). So let’s get to know the people who live next door. Let’s put down our phones, lace up our shoes, open our hearts, open the door, and see where love may take us.

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What Not to Expect from New Year’s Resolutions https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/not-expect-resolutions/ Tue, 03 Jan 2023 05:00:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=535522 Nothing is wrong with celebrating progress, but a steady diet of before-and-after pictures can skew our expectations and trickle down into our spiritual lives.]]> With New Year’s resolutions in full force, you may have noticed an uptick of before-and-after pictures flooding your newsfeeds. These dramatic transformations encompass everything from weight loss to home makeovers, the pictures broadcasting all we can attain: smaller bodies; higher energy; bigger muscles; more beauty, organization, or peace.

While nothing is wrong with celebrating progress, these juxtaposed images can influence us in subtle ways. A steady diet of before-and-after pictures can slowly skew our expectations and perspective on reality. They whisper lies that can trickle down even into our spiritual lives.

Here are four lies to watch out for as we scroll.

Lie #1: We should expect and prize dramatic results.

Before-and-after images thrive on shock and awe, whether it’s body changes or a refurbished desk. Yet dramatic change doesn’t represent the majority of day-to-day life. Most of the change in our lives comes slowly, and this is especially true for our spiritual lives. God routinely compares our growth in him to the practice of farming—a slow and patient toil. He beckons us to wait on him and not grow weary while waiting for the harvest (Gal. 6:9; Ps. 27:14). This hardly sounds like a life of dramatic reveals.

God routinely compares our growth in him to the practice of farming—a slow and patient toil.

Yet it’s easy to assume our battles with sin should be won quickly. We hope the Bible verse we read on Monday will cure our anger by Wednesday, but the Spirit works differently. He slowly changes us from one degree of glory to another (2 Cor. 3:18). Prioritizing shocking changes steals our opportunities to see the active grace of the Lord in our lives and may cause us to minimize the importance of small steps of growth.

Lie #2: We are the main force of change.

Images are influential. We glance at the before-and-after pictures and the lesson is clear: my effort will bring me from picture A to picture B. But this bootstrap mentality falls short when we carry it into our Christian lives. While the culture around us prizes personal action, God reminds us he is the author and perfecter of our faith (Heb. 12:2). We excel in good works because “God is able to make all grace abound” to his children (2 Cor. 9:8). We’re only able to work out our salvation because the Lord is working in our hearts to will and to work (Phil. 2:12–13).

We may rightly create goals, reading plans, and mission statements for the year, but we must remember that when December comes, every single bit of growth was accomplished through the power of the Spirit who enables us.

Lie #3: Easy formulas provide results.

As each makeover passes our eyes, we’re tempted to believe the same process will work for us. We print out the cleaning routine, add organizational products to our shopping cart, and wait for the promised idyllic home. Yet the images don’t tell the whole story. Did the redecorated room alone truly bring organization, or was it accompanied by decluttering and an overhaul in habits and mindset?

Unfortunately, we often sidestep the details in favor of tidy formulas in our Christian lives. But God isn’t a guru offering three-step guides to health and happiness. The wisdom literature of Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes routinely demonstrates that life doesn’t always work out in tidy ways. Sickness may continue even as we seek after the Lord; children we’ve brought up in the faith may turn away. The righteous often face hardship, while the wicked seem to flourish (Eccl. 7:15).

The unpredictability of life forces us to ditch the formulas and cling closer to our Lord. It pushes us to stop viewing our Bibles as a handbook and instead as the means to know our covenant-keeping Father, who loves and shepherds his people through each mountaintop and valley. Jesus is so much better than any formula. He knows the truths and help we need today might be different than the saint sitting next to us in the pew. God doesn’t deal in rigid formulas—he actively guides us by his Spirit each and every day.

Lie #4: Our ‘after’ will look better.

Perhaps the greatest lie before-and-after pictures preach is that our “after” should always look better. Tighter muscles, fewer wrinkles, and growing beauty represent progress in our culture. Yet Christians follow a Savior who walked toward suffering rather than beautification. Christ emptied himself to the point of death (Phil. 2:7–10).

God doesn’t deal in rigid formulas—he actively guides us by his Spirit each and every day.

We follow in the same manner. As we pour out our lives serving our children, friends, church, and community, our bodies will be broken. Our frames will grow weaker from the weight of burdens shared with other saints. The wrinkles on our faces will tell the story of toil, tears, and even joy in a lifetime of following Christ. Though God inwardly renews us as we grow in him, our outer body will continue to waste away as it makes its journey back to dust (2 Cor. 4:16). Caring for our bodies is good, but we must remember that ultimately our “after” picture is one that displays a life poured out for another (2 Tim. 4:6).

As we swipe through our news feeds this year and absorb each shocking reveal, may we do so discerningly. The Christian’s before-and-after picture may not go viral on social media, but it’s the picture that most closely resembles our Savior.

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Should I Prioritize Family or Work? Neither. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/prioritize-family-work/ Mon, 02 Jan 2023 05:03:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=533992 When God is in his rightful place in my life, my family and work are no longer in competition.]]> Should I prioritize family over work? My quality of work suffers, but my spouse and kids rely on me.


I understand the tension here. I’ve felt it myself. In fact, about 10 years ago, I got tired of the tension and finally landed on what I was certain would honor God the most: God first, family second, and work third. (These were even listed on our ministry website when we first launched.)

And while I wouldn’t say I disagree with that order now, here’s what I’ve learned: whenever I try to seek the Lord and anything else (family included!), chaos follows—and quickly.

If you try to prioritize loving God, being a good spouse and present parent, and finding fulfillment in your career, you’ll quickly find anxiety and discontentment.

My colleague Somer Phoebus and I shared what happens next in She Works His Way: A Practical Guide for Doing What Matters Most in a Get-Things-Done World: “To escape those feelings, you’ll try to work harder, do more, and be better in all the ways the world tells you to because that is the promise culture makes us: More self-care, self-study, ambition, and all the good vibes you can muster up will bring you the happiness you desire, the success you deserve, and the balance you’re desperate for.”

But the world never delivers what it promises, does it?

Jesus put it this way: “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matt. 6:33).

Simple, Not Easy

I get it if it sounds too simple. It is simple—but that shouldn’t be confused with easy.

Whenever I try to seek the Lord and anything else (family included!), chaos follows—and quickly.

I’ve seen it over and over: When I’m at my best as a wife, God is first. When I’m experiencing the most joy in motherhood, God is first. When I’m content in my work and seeing God do more than I can ask or imagine, God is first.

But anytime I try to strike just the right balance, I’ve overstepped God’s role in my life—because lordship means I’m not in charge anymore. Following Jesus means I’ve given him dominion over every area of my life. My faith should be activated even in the simple, everyday parts of life, like family and work.

And when I put him in his rightful place, my family and work are no longer in competition. Everything I do is an overflow of what God is doing in me—instead of me attempting to micromanage my every step.

You don’t have to figure out the juggle between family and work. You simply need to keep God first, and he’ll order everything else.

I love practical steps, though, so here are two to keep in mind.

1. Recognize the lifetime assignments God has given you.

Work is often defined in two categories: part-time and full-time. But there’s also a third category: lifetime. Family is a lifetime assignment, and the role you have is an exclusive one God has just for you.

When I’m at my best as a wife, God is first. When I’m experiencing the most joy in motherhood, God is first. When I’m content in my work and seeing God do more than I can ask or imagine, God is first.

I’m all for you capitalizing on the gospel opportunity at work. Go all in! But I also don’t want you to get entangled in the lie that climbing the corporate ladder is always the most meaningful way for you to increase the influence God has given you in your earthly life.

If you’re married, God chose you for your spouse. You’re the only one he entrusted with that assignment. Same for your kids. He chose you alone as their mom or dad. You don’t need a fancy corner office to be “chosen.” God has already given you an exclusive assignment at home. See it that way, and ask him for the wisdom and courage you need to obey him in those important roles.

2. God is the provider for you and your family.

To be clear, providing financially for your family is good—in fact, it’s a biblical imperative (1 Tim. 5:8). To that end, giving your best effort at work is not only a biblical command (Col. 3:23-24) but it is a crucial way you are loving your family, especially if you are the primary breadwinner.

In your situation, it would be wise for you to sit down with your spouse to pray and think together about the way you can best use your time. Are there other ways your spouse and kids can get the support they need? Are there ways you can be more efficient with your tasks? Could you seek help from your extended family, friends, or church community?

Through those conversations, remember this: You are not your provider. God is.

In Matthew, Jesus uses the examples of how God feeds the birds of the air and clothes the lilies of the field, acknowledging how God takes care of them, and he reminds his disciples, “Are you not of more value than they?” (Matt. 6:26–34).

In the same way, God delights to provide for you. It may be in the form of flexible work hours, increased stamina, or a mother’s helper. Or it may be a raise at work, a supportive church community, or multitasking. Trust that he knows what you need before you even ask (Matt. 6:8) and that he will supply every need “according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:19).

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How Do We Know and Feel God’s Love? https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/know-feel-gods-love/ Mon, 02 Jan 2023 05:02:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=534060 ‘How do I really know and feel God’s love for me?’ This is, almost always, the thing beneath the thing, what lies below the other struggles.]]> Whether I’m talking with a new Christian or a seasoned believer, I often have a similar conversation. Each of us confesses that we struggle to pray, to overcome some old habit, or to find joy and peace in the Christian life. Then we both ask a question that often lies behind our other struggles: How do I really know and feel God’s love for me? 

Comedian Brian Regan had a bit about Pop-Tarts. He asks, Have you ever noticed Pop-Tarts come with directions? Could there be a simpler food item? And if there weren’t directions, what would people do? Just stand there with the little foil packaging, asking, “How do I get this goodness in me?”  

That’s how I feel about God’s love. It can’t be that hard. He says he loves us. We know it. We believe it. But it’s all too possible to know the right doctrines, participate in a healthy church, and even lead others in a loving way yet remain spiritually cold, dry, and detached. I know from experience. I know God loves me and Jesus died for my sins, and I know the Spirit lives within me. But these powerful truths often remain intellectual. Perhaps you relate. The Ephesians could. 

Paul’s Prayer for an Experience of God

The Ephesians seem like the all-stars of the early church. There’s very little rebuke in Paul’s letter to them, and it seems like they’re ready for the “meat” of theology and spiritual formation. Yet even the Ephesians struggled to experience God’s love. This challenge is as old as Christianity itself. 

‘How do I really know and feel God’s love for me?’ This is, almost always, the thing beneath the the thing, what lies below the other struggles. 

At the end of Paul’s long theological treatise (chap.1–3) and before his practical instructions (chap. 4–6), he pauses in 3:14–21 to pray for the Ephesians. He falls to his knees, begging God for them to know and experience Christ’s love.

Our posture in prayer is often quite revealing. If I’m sitting at my desk with my Bible open and writing out prayers in a journal, that’s an appropriate posture for a prayer for understanding and wisdom. If I’m lying in bed praying as I drift off to sleep, that’s an appropriate act of submitting my life wholly to God. But if I’m on my knees praying aloud or in groans too deep for words, that’s a moment of profound struggle or passion. That’s where Paul is.  

But there’s something odd about the apostle’s prayer. He asks that Christ would dwell in our hearts, that we would know Christ’s love, and that we would be filled with all God’s fullness. It’s odd because he told us in chapters 1–3 that each of these three things is already true of us. Why would he pray so intently for what we already have in Christ? 

The Ephesians know these things, but their knowledge isn’t sufficient; there’s another level of knowledge and experience they lack.  

When Paul prays that we would “grasp” all God has for us (v. 18, NIV), this word can mean to “wrestle with,” “sack and plunder” a place, or “overpower” someone. What’s Paul wanting us to wrestle with? With ourselves, with our souls, with our flesh and our inner being?

No, he prays that we may grasp Christ’s love, wrestling it into our hearts.  

Knowing Christ’s Love Through the Spirit

Paul writes, “I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith” (Eph. 3:16–17 NIV). The source of our experience of God’s love is the Holy Spirit.

Tim Keller says Paul is praying for a “spiritual inner sensitivity to gospel truth”—that the Holy Spirit may prepare your inner being to grasp God’s love.

Sensitivity to the Holy Spirit is the primary difference between a dry, complacent believer and a warm, passionate one. The Spirit reveals God and his Word to us (Eph. 1:17; 3:5; 6:17), empowers us to live like Christ (Eph. 3:16; 5:18–19; 6:18), enlivens us with resurrection power (Rom. 8:9–11), and transforms us into Christ’s image with increasing glory (2 Cor. 3:18). It’s the Holy Spirit who enables us to taste and see that the Lord is good (Ps. 34:8).  

How Do We Get Christ’s Love in Our Hearts?

How does the Holy Spirit help us experience God?  

Paul’s prayer finds its pinnacle here: “I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:17–19, NIV).  

Not long ago, we finished our basement, turning an unformed concrete space into a quaint living room and office. As we remodeled, I became increasingly familiar with the basement’s dimensions. Previously, I spent little time down there, and I couldn’t tell you how many square feet it was or the length of any wall. But now, after spending hours measuring, working, and meeting with contractors, I can tell you how wide and long and high and deep it is. 

Paul describes a seamless combination of knowing and experiencing Christ’s love, and there are a few ways we can cultivate this combination.  

1. Slow down and make time.

Hurry is one of my great life struggles. Even when I do slow down and make time for God (what a phrase that is), I still struggle to turn off my racing thoughts. Hurry quenches the Holy Spirit, so we must cut it out and make time for sustained seeking-and-listening prayer to experience God’s love. 

2. Meditate on the Word.

Paul’s prayer is that God would strengthen us with power through his Spirit in our inner being. He’s praying with all his energy that we would learn to read the Bible, pray, and wrestle these truths into our hearts. This is the practice of biblical meditation.  

George Muller discovered the importance of this: 

I [saw] that the first great and primary business to which I ought to attend every day was to have my soul happy in the Lord. The first thing to be concerned about was not how much I might serve the Lord, how I might glorify the Lord; but how I might get my soul into a happy state, and how my inner man might be nourished. . . . Now what is the food for the inner man? Not prayer, but the word of God; and here again, not the simple reading of the word of God, so that it only passes through our minds, just as water runs through a pipe, but considering what we read, pondering over it, and applying it to our hearts.  

3. Meditate on the cross.

Paul’s prayer is that we’d grasp the love of Christ, not merely God’s love in general. Why does he emphasize Jesus’s love for us? To remind us to meditate on the cross.  

He prays that we might have the power of the Holy Spirit for experiencing God . . . so that we would grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ.  

Hurry quenches the Holy Spirit, so we must cut it out and make time for sustained seeking-and-listening prayer.

To paraphrase Keller: How wide? Wide enough to embrace us as we are.  

How long? “To the end of the age,” Jesus said (Matt. 28:20).  

How high? As high as the heavens where he reigns.  

How deep? It’s deeper than the grave, deeper than the pit of hell. Many readers throughout Christian history have seen in this phrase a reminder of Jesus’s body lifted up on the cross—stretched wide and long from hand to hand, pulled high and deep from head to toe. We cannot fathom the depth of God’s love for us in Christ. It’s always deeper still.  

There’s no better way to get his love into our hearts.  

Slow down and make time. Meditate on the Word. And grasp with all your energy, with the eternal power of the Holy Spirit, the great love of God in Christ demonstrated for you on the cross.

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In 2023, Anchor Your Plans with a God-Centered Perspective https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/plans-god-centered-perspective/ Mon, 02 Jan 2023 05:00:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=help-me-teach&p=536867 To grow in Christ and as a person, I need discipline, but it’s not raw discipline. It’s discipline fueled by faith.]]> “I’ve set goals. I’ve even mapped out habits and made a rule of life,” my colleague told me, “but my rule never seems to leave the binder where I put it after I print it off. I dream up this perfect life where I sleep, work, and pray the right amount, but I can’t seem to find the link between high-level dreaming and Wednesday afternoon.”

Maybe you’ve been there. You know the person you want to be, the books you want to read, and the habits you want to adopt, but you struggle to fit the contours of your big goals into the rough corners of daily life. You need principles to make your plans realistic, and you need motivation to keep going when you falter—instead of throwing it in the garbage and starting over next January.

I’ve found two helpful keys for goal setting and maintaining healthy habits in what Dutch theologian Herman Ridderbos called Paul’s “theocentric [or God-centered] point of view.”

1. God’s call motivates faith-filled discipline.

When we set goals, we tend to look to the future. We begin with the end in mind. Smart planners envision the kind of life they want then reverse engineer it, working backward to habits and commitments that support their vision.

As an editor, I want to honor authors by stewarding their words with excellence and care. So this year, I plan to grow my proofreading skills by doing weekly exercises from The Copyeditor’s Workbook. One learns a trade by practice, an instrument by playing the scales. When I look to the future, editing excellence is my goal, so I’ve planned to put in the proofreading reps to get there. This makes sense when we’re making plans.

You need principles to make your plans realistic, and you need motivation to keep going when you falter.

But from Ridderboss, I learned that the motivation to keep up with plans comes not from looking forward but from looking back at God’s promises and his redeeming work for us in the past. When Paul tells Christians to “not let sin reign” in our mortal bodies, he grounds his command in our union with Christ; he says our sinful way of life has already died with Jesus (Rom. 6:6, 12 NIV). When Paul calls Christians to be living sacrifices who use their gifts to build up the church, he looks back again. He gives his commands “in view of God’s mercy” (Rom. 12:1, NIV). 

To grow in Christ and as a person, I need discipline, but not raw discipline. I need discipline fueled by faith that “by the grace of God I am what I am” (1 Cor. 15:10). Because the Lord gave me daughters and called me to be their dad, I plan family worship and daddy-daughter dates. Even with my job—that area of all our lives where working to achieve an envisioned future is part of the fabric—I can look back, finding motivation in the truth that God placed me in my profession. My vocation, my calling, is the work he’s prepared in advance for me to do (Eph. 2:10). In this way, a look back at God’s call fuels a disciplined Christian life, but a God-centered perspective does more.

2. God’s providence constrains our ambition.

To have integrity with your plans, you must schedule your commitments. I type out an ideal weekly schedule spreadsheet at the beginning of each year. Then, each Monday morning, I look at it, consider any necessary adjustments, and write out my schedule for the new week in penciled columns on a legal pad. I’m also careful to block off times for regular habits and commitments on Google calendar where I keep up with meetings and appointments.

I’ve been a careful scheduler for years, but still, there never seems to be enough hours for my aspirations. Sometimes I run out of time because I need to repent from laziness; I need to get off Twitter and do my job or shut off Prime Video to pray with my girls before bed. Other times, a Godward frame of mind means crucifying not only sinful sloth but outsized ambition. It means remembering that the God who called me as a Christian, husband, father, and employee also knows my limited frame and numbers my days. 

Even if there were time in the week for all I want to do, things come up. Hard drives crash. Kids get sick. Traffic jams lengthen my commute. As a result, each February . . . and August . . . and whenever it becomes clear some things just won’t get done, I adjust my goals so they correspond with reality. I don’t see this as cheating or quitting. I still pick up a prayer book each morning, go to the gym, and read before bed. But when I don’t read all I hoped to, or miss a day of exercise, I can acknowledge that while I may have God-sized desires, I’m not God. 

Submitting to God’s call also means submitting to his providence and recognizing the commitments I adopt can only happen within the time he gives. After all, time and circumstances even forced Paul to change his plans, but that didn’t shake his confidence that God’s promises are still “Yes!” in Christ (2 Cor. 1:15–20).

To grow in Christ and as a person, I need discipline, but not raw discipline. I need discipline fueled by faith.

For Paul, pursuing godly discipline means to “hold true to what we have attained” (Phil. 2:16). It’s to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called” (Eph. 4:1). “‘Worthy’,” observes Ridderbos, “has nothing to do with meritoriousness, but the motive lying in it is entirely derived from the gracious activity of God, by which he sanctified [us] to himself and thus made [us] worthy of his calling.”

If you’ve received God’s call, if you’re part of his sanctified people, root your new year’s planning in God-centered faith. When you need motivation, look back at who he’s declared you to be. When you need to embrace your limits, look up with trust at his guiding hand.

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250 Years Ago Today: John Newton’s ‘Amazing Grace’ First Sung https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/amazing-grace-250-years-newton/ Sun, 01 Jan 2023 05:00:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=536916 On the 250-year anniversary of one of the world’s most famous songs, let’s reflect on some of its lesser-known facts. ]]> It was 250 years ago today, on the first of January, that a congregation in the market town of Olney in England first sang the hymn “Amazing Grace.”

It didn’t become popular right away. But gradually it spread among churches of all denominations in America. It became a revival song on the western frontier and an African American spiritual in black churches and a standard in 20th-century hymnbooks. Then it crossed over into the commercial marketplace in the age of radio with recording artists like Mahalia Jackson in 1947 and Judy Collins in 1970.

Since then, it has become the most popular and well-known hymn in the world. And it has gone not just wide but deep. It’s to this song that people turn when tragedy strikes. When all hope is lost, we sing “Amazing Grace.”

For all its familiarity, though, there are still many things you probably didn’t know about “Amazing Grace.”


1. The Library of Congress has an amazing ‘Amazing Grace’ collection.

The Library of Congress has a collection of more than 3,000 recorded performances of “Amazing Grace” by different musicians. The recordings were made on vinyl, cassette tape, CDs, and other media between the 1930s and 2000. The collection includes every imaginable genre from classical to country, and from gospel to rap to “world music.”

2. One of the verses of ‘Amazing Grace’ was stolen.

The original version of “Amazing Grace” had six verses, but in 1910 an enterprising hymnbook publisher named Edwin Othello Excell replaced the last three verses with the one that begins “When we’ve been there ten thousand years.” He took it from a hymn called “Jerusalem, Our Happy Home,” which had over 70 verses. Perhaps he thought no one would notice if he borrowed it. (There’s also a grammatical mistake in this verse, noticed by sticklers. It should be “We’ve no fewer days to sing God’s praise” rather than “less days.”)

3. Playing ‘Amazing Grace’ on bagpipes is a recent innovation.

Hearing a piper play “Amazing Grace” on solemn state occasions or at funerals might make you think this must be a time-honored tradition. But it was only in 1972 that the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards recorded the song on bagpipes and made this popular. Their version of “Amazing Grace” charted on the Billboard Top 40 for eight weeks.

4. The original title wasn’t ‘Amazing Grace.’

The first title was “Faith’s Review and Expectation,” since it was written for New Year’s Day as an exercise in looking back (review) and looking forward (expectation). The hymn looks back in faith at the many dangers, toils, and snares through which God’s grace has sustained us. It also looks forward with confidence, knowing God’s grace will be there as long as life endures.

5. We don’t know the original tune of ‘Amazing Grace.’

The tune to which the song is now universally sung is a shape-note tune called “New Britain” from the American South, first published in 1829. However, when the words were originally published 250 years ago, there were separate tune books and you could mix and match any tune that fit a “common meter” hymn like “Amazing Grace.” Some of the early tunes that were used for “Amazing Grace” have been discovered, and they have a very different feel from the tune we know today. “New Britain” is based on the popular pentatonic scale (the black notes on the piano) and this has contributed to its wide appeal.

6. ‘Amazing Grace’ became an African American spiritual though it was written by a former slave trader.

It’s to this song that people turn when tragedy strikes. When all hope is lost, we sing ‘Amazing Grace.’

“Amazing Grace” has long been cherished by African American churches as a black gospel song, and there have been powerful, popular performances by Mahalia Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Jessye Norman, Wintley Phipps, and many others. Yet the words were written by a former slave-ship captain named John Newton, two decades after he left the slave trade, when he was an Anglican minister in the English Midlands. He would later move to London and make a key contribution to the abolition of the slave trade. As Wintley Phipps said, “I believe God wanted that song written just the way it was written just so that we would be reminded that as Christians whether black or white . . . we are connected by God’s amazing grace.”

7. ‘Amazing Grace’ is a paraphrase of the words of King David.

When John Newton wrote “Amazing Grace” for a service on New Year’s Day 1773, it was to accompany a sermon on 1 Chronicles 17:16–17. It was published six years later under this same Scripture reference as a heading. In this passage, King David responds in amazement to the prophet Nathan’s announcement of God’s promise to maintain David’s line and his kingdom forever. David went before the Lord and said, “Who am I, O LORD God, and what is mine house, that thou hast brought me hitherto?” (KJV). In other words, David responded, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound! That saved a wretch like me.” He was a murderous, adulterous king who had found mercy and forgiveness, and now God promised he would extend his grace through David’s descendants. This grace would ultimately be fulfilled in Jesus Christ as the greater son of David.

8. ‘Amazing Grace’ is a spiritual practice.

When John Newton wrote the hymn, it was part of his regular practice of self-examination—he paused at key moments to consider his sins and God’s mercies in the past, to make his confession and receive forgiveness in the present, and to dedicate himself to God’s will for the future. He wrote in his diary on the first of January 1773, “I am now in the 49th year of my age, & may expect in the course of a few years at most to go whence I shall no more return. . . . May thy grace keep me always waiting till my appointed change shall come,” and he continued in prayer. This was “Amazing Grace” as a spiritual practice, considering in prayer how God’s grace has brought us safe thus far and how his grace will lead us home.

It’s a practice we may all continue today as we sing the hymn or reflect again on its words 250 years after it was first sung by Newton’s congregation.

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Pope Benedict XVI (1927–2022): His Life and Legacy https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/pope-benedict-xvi/ Sat, 31 Dec 2022 18:59:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=538135 In all things, Benedict was a champion of Roman Catholic orthodoxy.]]> Earlier today, at the age of 95, Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) died. His death was not unexpected. A few days ago, his successor, Pope Francis, asked Roman Catholics around the world to pray for Benedict as his life was coming to an end.

Benedict was one of the towering figures in twentieth-century Roman Catholic theology. Born in 1927, Benedict’s impressive life includes having been a theological expert at the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) and having held various professorships in Munich, Bonn, Münster, and Regensburg (1957–1977).

He was Archbishop of Munich (1977–1981) and Cardinal, then Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (1981–2005). Eventually, Benedict became Pope (2005–2013) and then Pope Emeritus, following his resignation in 2013 amid the sexual abuses scandals, opaque financial maneuvers, and appalling intrigues within the Vatican. His Opera Omnia consists of 16 volumes and covers virtually all aspects of theology and church life with scholarly depth.

Benedict’s work has had a huge influence on present-day Roman Catholicism.

Spiritual Life

What did Benedict’s spiritual life look like? In the interview he gave to the German journalist Peter Seewald, Light of the World: The Pope, the Church, and the Signs of the Times, we glimpse Benedict’s personal prayer life. About his daily spiritual disciplines, the Pope said he prayed to God and also invoked a selected group of saints. His special list mirrored his theological program: Augustine, Bonaventure, and Thomas Aquinas. To them he cried for help as well as to the Mother of God.

Benedict’s work has had a huge influence on present-day Roman Catholicism.

In another section, Seewald echoed the common assumption—even in evangelical circles—that Benedict (unlike his predecessor John Paul II) was more Christocentric than Marian. Yet Benedict told the interviewer that he was very close to Our Lady of Fatima (believing her alleged revelations) and deeply involved in Mary’s hyper-veneration. In a 2012 homily he said: “God is near and Mary is very near.”

View of Evangelicals and Scripture

What did he think of evangelicals? In his interview with Seewald, Benedict distinguished in Protestantism the “classic confessions” and the “new Protestantism.” In Benedict’s perception, evangelicals were modifying the religious landscape of the developing world. Benedict went on to say that this evangelical movement is not the church, nor can it be, on the account that it lacks some defining features of the church (i.e., the rightly transmitted sacrament of Order, the episcopal hierarchy under the papacy, the properly administered eucharist).

According to Benedict, the evangelical understanding of the church is a “new concept” whereby the church is only a community summoned by the Word. Benedict looked at evangelicals with a mixture of spiritual curiosity and Roman perplexity.

Benedict did have a high view of Scripture, and his last books were focused on the life of Jesus according to the historical accounts of the Gospels. Yet we must understand his true position. In his 2010 Exhortation Verbum Domini, he claimed that the Word of God “precedes and exceeds sacred Scripture; nonetheless Scripture, as inspired by God, contains the divine word” (17). According to him, the Bible is the Word of God in the sense that it contains the Word.

For Benedict, the Bible was the Word of God in some sense, but the Word of God was bigger than the Bible.

What is at stake is not the divine inspiration of the Bible (which Verbum Domini firmly affirms) but the sufficiency of the Bible and its finality. For Benedict, the Bible was the Word of God in some sense, but the Word of God was bigger than the Bible. According to his thought, the Bible must be supplemented by the Catechism of the Catholic Church which is “a significant expression of the living Tradition of the Church and a sure norm for teaching the faith.”

‘Orthodox’ Pope?

Benedict is frequently called an “orthodox” Pope, even garnering evangelical appreciation. Benedict’s was a Roman Catholic orthodoxy for sure.

In his theology the Bible was always read in the light of the authoritative magisterium. Nicene Christology was always intertwined with “objective” Roman Catholic ecclesiology. The Apostles’ Creed was confessed, as well as the canons of Trent and Vatican I. The cross of Christ was always related to the representation of the sacrifice of the eucharist. The Spirit was always linked to the hierarchical structure of the church. Ecumenism was always thought of in terms of other Christians being defective and the Church of Rome being the catholic church. The mission of the church was always pursued while having in mind the catholic project to embrace the whole world. The ecclesiastical outlook of the church was inherently combined with its political role. In all things, Benedict was a champion of Roman Catholic orthodoxy.

Since his days as theological expert at Vatican II, Benedict tried to renew the Roman Catholic Church “from within” with no intention to change any of the unbiblical—even anti-biblical—dogmatic commitments of his church (e.g., Trent, Marian dogmas, papal infallibility). He also made no effort to change the Roman church’s sacramental and hierarchical structure.

Benedict’s “catholicity” was always meant to be in the service of a Roman-centric system. He fought against secularizing trends in the world and liberal tendencies in his own church. His 2013 resignation was interpreted by many as a defeat. Certainly, it was a personal surrender. Benedict’s successor, Pope Francis, is far more “catholic” and much less “Roman” than Benedict, and is in many ways his opposite. Benedict wanted the Roman doctrines and structures always to the fore; Francis is pushing to have Rome become more “catholic” (i.e., inclusive), overlooking its Roman system.

Does this mean Rome has already rejected Benedict? It’s too early to say. Certainly, Roman Catholicism today is going through an identity crisis. While the system will always the same, Francis, unlike Benedict, is working hard to increase the emphasis on the “catholic” rather than on the “Roman.” The options (i.e., Benedict or Francis) create inner tensions within a system that is not open to biblical reformation.

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5 Constants for the New Year https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/constants-new-year/ Sat, 31 Dec 2022 05:00:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=537323 What does the new year have in store? Psalm 90 provides five truths that remain constant as we anticipate the coming months.]]> Since 2020, I’ve felt the gnawing dread that all the norms in life—all the things I’ve come to expect over the course of my life—could be overturned and reversed in an instant.

In the new year, will I be able to get a car loan? Is the buying power of my dollar going to erode further? Will the challenges with my kids get better or grow worse? Will I gain a new friendship, or will one of my friends stab me in the back? Will the political season stir deeper division in the church?

There’s much I don’t know about the new year. But as I turn to the Word, there’s much I can know. The Bible—and Psalm 90 in particular—gives a set of constants on the horizon as the calendar flips from December to January.

1. God will still be my refuge.

Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.
Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God. (Ps. 90:1–2)

The great constant in my life year after year is the unending fact of the presence of God. He has been there, and he will be there. No matter where I find myself this year, God will be there. No matter how strong the storms hit this year, God will always be there for me. I love how Moses prays this ancient psalm not just to the abstract God who is out there somewhere but to the God who is our dwelling place—the God at the center of my life, to whom I can run when my life is threatened.

2. This year—and all my life—will slip through my fingers.

You return man to dust and say, “Return, O children of man!”
For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night.
You sweep them away as with a flood;
they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning:
in the morning it flourishes and is renewed;
in the evening it fades and withers. (Ps. 90:3–6)

No matter where I find myself this year, God will be there. No matter how strong the storms hit this year, God will always be there for me.

The next great constant in life is bad news. The reason I need a safe place to dwell is because this life isn’t safe. Before we know it, November will be here, and we’ll be back in the holiday rush all over again. This year will bring a host of missed opportunities, unproductive weeks, and frustrated plans. This year people will die, far away and close to home. Just as the eternality of God is constant, so also is the mortality of humanity and the temporality of our efforts.

3. Sorrow and suffering will wreak havoc because of sin.

For we are brought to an end by your anger;
by your wrath we are dismayed.
You have set our iniquities before you,
our secret sins in the light of your presence.
For all our days pass away under your wrath;
we bring our years to an end like a sigh.
The years of our life are seventy,
or even by reason of strength eighty;
yet their span is but toil and trouble;
they are soon gone, and we fly away.
Who considers the power of your anger,
and your wrath according to the fear of you? (Ps. 90:7–11)

Another “bad news constant” is that this year won’t just move me one year closer to the end but it’ll also contain a measure of evil—pain and persecution, sickness and sorrow. I’ll sense the dust of Adam’s death on my body. It’ll be another year when I’ll feel the sting of the curse in my life, home, and workplace. I’ll send up the “sigh” of disappointment as creation offers its groans (Rom. 8:22–23). This year, I’ll see my own sin ever more clearly and see the wrath it deserves as all the greater.

4. God’s covenant mercies will satisfy me.

So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.
Return, O LORD! How long?
Have pity on your servants!
Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us,
and for as many years as we have seen evil. (Ps. 90:12–15)

The next constant is a ray of hope in the darkness of life. Into the dissatisfaction of this life, God will bring satisfaction. Into sorrow, rejoicing. Into the depths of pain, gladness. And in spite of lost years, eons of restoration.

Into the dissatisfaction of this life, God will bring satisfaction. Into sorrow, rejoicing.

Seen rightly, flipping the calendar isn’t a mere exercise in futility but an opportunity to take stock of our lives in light of the great constants in this life and the life to come. The new year ought to drive me deeper into the arms of God—enjoying his embrace and longing for his return. Another year, a more all-encompassing longing for his kingdom to come and his will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.

5. God will always smile on my efforts.

Let your work be shown to your servants, and your glorious power to their children.
Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands upon us;
yes, establish the work of our hands! (Ps. 90:16–17)

This final constant moves beyond encouraging my discouraged heart to strengthening my feeble hands. Those of us who know the favor of the Lord—the happiness of God with us because of the righteousness of Jesus—approach the tasks of the new year in our homes and businesses and churches with renewed energy as the power of God reaches into our lives.

We work under the sun of God’s grace, so this year’s toils and troubles, sufferings and setbacks aren’t cause for dismay. Instead, because Jesus has forever ensured God’s smile on my life, I can be certain God will advance his constant work through my inconstant fingers in this new year.

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You Can’t Manifest Your Life https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/cant-manifest-life/ Fri, 30 Dec 2022 05:03:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=532474 We are receiving our lives, not simply living and making them.]]> When a friend and I took a walk after church, she told me about the new job she’d just landed at a prestigious company. “I give all glory to God,” she said, with the zeal of a new believer. She was elegant in her wool coat and cashmere scarf, which she tightened in the wind. This friend had recently come to faith in Christ, and after she joined my small group in the fall of 2020, we began praying for a new job opportunity for her.

“I had nothing to do with manifesting it,” my friend added.

“What’s ‘manifesting’?” I asked.

“You’ve never heard of manifestation?” she said, a little astonished.

When I Google it later, to understand the origins, the first article appears on Oprah Daily. It tells me manifestation has to do with the wildly best-selling book of 2006 called The Secret. It has to do with the phenomenon of “making everything you want to feel and experience a reality . . . via your thoughts, actions, beliefs, and emotions.”

Presuming Godlike Powers

Manifestation, in other words, is the very opposite of receiving your life from God. It’s receiving your life from the universe in the measure that you’ve “attracted” it to yourself: by focus, by hard work, by intention. According to the article, you can embrace one method of “productive” manifestation popularized on TikTok in which you write down what you want in the following pattern: three times in the morning, six times in the afternoon, and nine times at night for 33 or 45 days.

Manifestation is the very opposite of receiving your life from God.

I can’t help but think how uniquely modern and privileged this impulse is, to “manifest” our lives rather than receive them. A serf in medieval Europe couldn’t have manifested a life beyond the manor and the protection afforded there. A slave in early America couldn’t have manifested a life beyond the plantation and the threat of death. Even a woman in the early 20th century couldn’t have manifested the kind of financial independence possible for women today.

Only in our modern, technological world can we presume godlike powers for achieving our ends. Surely a hundred years ago, before the invention of antibiotics and insulin and vaccines, we held fewer illusions about the realities we could and could not control. It’s in no way coincidental that time management, as an industry, grows up in the Industrial Revolution. The ethics of time management tell us we’re in control of time, not held captive to its limits and contingencies.

Seeing the Source

It’s an act of resistance today to consider not that we’re “manifesting” our lives but that we’re receiving them as a gift. This is, of course, the message of Genesis—and the heartbeat of the gospel. God makes. God gives. This world, ordered as it is by sun and moon, day and night, is our inheritance. God gave us his only Son, in time, that we might have life.

Stand under his sky—and open wide your mouths!

To think of all good things coming from the good hands of God, even time itself, is to see that the hours aren’t simply kept. They’re bestowed. They’re bequeathed. They’re like the goods distributed from another’s estate: the bone china, the heirloom wedding ring, the marble-topped table, the moments called today. Before we can make something of our lives, even before we can offer them to God, we must be given the raw materials of body and place, even time itself.

Receiving from God

We are given our lives like winter coats for wintry days. This is as staggering and as subversive an assertion as baptism, which is itself a ceremony to figure all we’re receiving from God: identity, life, blessing, beginning. “God is the actor in baptism, the giver of the gift. . . . Baptism is irrevocable. . . . The initiate freely responds to God receiving baptism,” wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Baptism figures God as benefactor, us as beneficiary; God as giver, us as recipient. Baptism signals that we don’t wield the power to manifest reality, only to enter it, at God’s bidding, and to receive it, at God’s giving.

The hours aren’t simply kept. They’re bestowed. They’re bequeathed.

We are receiving our lives, not simply living and making them. I think of W. H. Auden’s poem “Horae Canonicae,” which follows one person through the canonical hours, or a waking day. At the first hour, “Prime,” the speaker of the poem shakes off sleep. This awakening, however, is not an act of agency; it’s a summons. The speaker is “recalled from the shades to be a seeing being / From absence to be on display.” This first moment of drawing breath is occasion for remembering the nature of worship, that it’s an act of grateful response to God for all he’s given.

A gift is a thing to be received, not demanded and certainly not repaid. Imagine that we might, with God’s help, conceive of the hours in this way.

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Find Love in the New Year https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/find-love-new-year/ Fri, 30 Dec 2022 05:02:04 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=537228 Why would God pursue a rebel like you or like me? Why would the hero die for the villain?]]> Read

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ. (Eph. 2:4–5)

Reflect

In the dark void of eternity past, there was God, eternally existing as Father, Son, and Spirit. The apostle John tells us, “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16) so it’s safe to say love preexisted creation. Our Creator—even before he could be called Creator—has always existed in a unified community of love. The Father has always poured out delight in his Son, who is “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Heb. 1:3). Love has forever flowed between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Love has forever flowed between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

But love, by nature, spreads. It moves outward. When God said, “Let there be light,” it was his Word—his own Son—that accomplished the task (Gen. 1:3; cf. John 1:1–3). The love the Father has always had for his Son, in a sense, spilled over to make creation. By his great love, God made us in his image—his representatives sent to proclaim his glory and worth all over the world.

You know what happened, though. Our greatest-grandparents, Adam and Eve, turned against the loving heart of God. And since then, we’re all born, as our passage says, “dead in our trespasses”—dark as the pretemporal void and ripe for God’s judgment.

“But God” (that glorious phrase!) is rich in mercy. His rivers of kindness never run dry. This God, who is love, spoke again. He sent to us his Word, clothed in flesh—Jesus Christ. Jesus, the Son of God, showed us the very heart of the Father: he loves sinners. He loves you and me. Christ died in our place as the wrath-soaking substitute to make us beloved children of God.

Why would God pursue a rebel like you or like me? Why would the hero die for the villain?

But God spoke yet again. He called you—you who were dead in your sins—by the power of his Spirit to become alive with Christ. He said again, to you directly this time: “Let there be light!” (cf. 2 Cor. 4:6). Why would God pursue a rebel like you or like me? Why would the hero die for the villain? It’s “because of the great love with which he loved us” (Eph 2:4).

Just as God’s Trinitarian love spilled over to make creation, so his Trinitarian love burst forth to re-create a fallen humanity. Our God, dear friends, is love. And he’s got the résumé—scars and all—to prove it.

Respond

Do you find it hard to believe God loves you (as in, you specifically)? How does the fact that God is love give you confidence in his loving care for you today?

Rejoice

Divinely free his mercy flows,
Forgives my sins, allays my woes;
And bids approaching death remove,
And crowns me with a father’s love.

– Anne Steele, “Awake, My Soul, Awake”

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Give Your Kids Better Heroes https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/kids-better-heroes/ Fri, 30 Dec 2022 05:00:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=532117 Want to have meaningful conversations with your kids about how to respond to life’s challenges? Try reading missionary biographies together.]]> When a pair of hand-me-down flip-flops recently arrived in the mail, my 4-year-old son gleefully announced they had Spider-Man, Superman, Iron Man, and Captain America on them. I looked at him quizzically. How did he know the names of these characters—some I didn’t even know? We haven’t watched their movies, read their books, or purchased their toys. When I asked him where he learned about these superheroes, he shrugged and said, “Everybody knows about these guys, Mama!”

He’s not wrong. Superhero movies, comics, and clothes generate billions of dollars worldwide, year after year. It’s easy to understand why. Good guys defeating bad guys and normal people who end up with supernatural skills and abilities—this is the inherent message our hearts long for, placed in us by a loving Creator. But if comic book superheroes are the only ones we’re showing our kids, we’re missing a beautiful opportunity.

Godly Models

A year ago, after talking with a friend who grew up reading missionary stories, I decided to introduce them to my kids. I purchased a handful of missionary biographies that lined up with the geography my oldest was studying that year—Egypt and China to start. And then, over lunch most days of the week, I read these biographies aloud to my children.

The biographies are chapter books, and they don’t have pictures. I wondered how much my 4-year-old would grasp, but I’ve learned that when I put food in front of them, my children will listen to almost anything I read.

We started with the life of Lillian Trasher, a single American woman who founded the first orphanage in Egypt. I’d never heard of her, but over the course of the two months that it took us to read her story in 10- and 20-minute increments, Trasher became one of my most treasured heroes of the faith. With a simplicity and tenacity that shocked me, she cared for thousands of children without any money of her own—and saw generations of those children follow Christ.

As the year continued, we read the biographies of Hudson Taylor, Mary Slessor, George Müller, Amy Carmichael, Paul Brand, and William Wilberforce. Each of these men and women has a wildly different story of faith and faithfulness, but the underlying message of every life was the same: Christ is worthy, and worth any cost we must pay.

The underlying message of every life was the same: Christ is worthy, and worth any cost we must pay.

For my modern, suburban kids who live a relatively easy life (and have modern, suburban parents), the choices of these missionaries have been both challenging and encouraging (1 Thess. 5:11). They’ve given us new models to think about when we consider what faithfulness might mean in our own lives—and that it might come with a higher cost than we often expect.

Gospel-Centered Conversations

Many of the men and women who became world-changing missionaries had inauspicious beginnings. Lillian Trasher was headed toward work in the business world as an artist. Hudson Taylor was uninterested in the things of God. Mary Slessor was a poor Irish girl who worked in the mills and had an alcoholic father. George Müller was an unbelieving thief. Amy Carmichael and Paul Brand both lost their fathers early in life.

For some, their biggest hurdle was unbelief. For others, their circumstances seemed impossible to overcome. But as we read their stories, the sovereignty of God was overwhelmingly apparent. The kids and I made connections between what each person had to overcome and how God was preparing him or her for the future. We talked about how he had plans for them all even when they couldn’t see it for themselves; we saw how God can make good come out of even the most painful situations. We discovered they didn’t give in to self-pity or bitterness and saw how that made all the difference as they learned to trust the Lord.

Gospel-centered conversations like these may come up in day-to-day life—and as parents, we should grasp hold of opportunities for rich reflections whenever we can. But apart from Scripture, I’ve found nothing as valuable for consistent, meaningful reflections on how to respond to life’s challenges than reading about the lives of these saints. Their stories help me “bring [my children] up in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4, NIV) in a very practical way.

Real Power Team

My son, somewhat interested in Lillian Trasher’s biography, became immersed in Hudson Taylor’s. He often asked me to read more of the story long after lunch was over. One night before bed, he told me, “Mama, when I grow up I want to be a missionary to Egypt and to China, just like Lillian and Hudson.”

Apart from Scripture, I’ve found nothing as valuable for consistent, meaningful reflections on how to respond to life’s challenges than reading about the lives of these saints.

Months later, in the middle of George Müller’s biography, we read about how he received a visit from Hudson Taylor—and my son promptly lost his marbles at the lunch table.

He shouted, “What? Hudson Taylor and George Müller together?” My sweet boy dropped his sandwich and started pumping his fists as if he was ready to run a race or punch through a wall. “Are you joking, Mama? Hudson Taylor and George Müller were friends?” My son, not even 5 years old, had tears in his eyes. The thrill of it all rocketed through him because two of the most incredible people he’d ever heard about—who lived wildly different lives—got to meet and pray together. It was the meeting of worlds, as if Superman and Spider-Man had suddenly teamed up to become a power team.

But it was better than that. Because my son learned two of his heroes—men of faith—had teamed up more powerfully than any superheroes ever could: they supported and encouraged each other in gospel work. Although often half a world apart, they were united in spirit. They were partners in the gospel, comrades in the message of Christ.

Will my son become a missionary to an overseas country? I don’t know. But I do know these stories are shaping his heart, and he’s seeing in these men and women a commitment to Christ that’s worthy to be emulated and praised.

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Going to Church Makes You Generous https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/church-increases-generosity/ Thu, 29 Dec 2022 05:03:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=533545 When you aren’t in the building, it’s all too convenient to blow your budget on Amazon and promise you’ll tithe next month.]]> There was a time in my life when I stopped going to church regularly.

My battle with depression, alcohol, and a busy life in my 20s often left me feeling isolated and disinclined to go consistently. I can’t help but think about how my lack of church community during this time pushed me further from helping and loving others, a pursuit that’s often helpful in combating inward-focused, emotional struggles.

It also wasn’t great for my generosity.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Because churches are nonprofit entities that function almost exclusively on donations, I knew skipping services was a bad move on my part. But because I wasn’t in church regularly, receiving reminders of the worthy causes funded by the church, I missed the needs that required funding to survive. I put my blinders on and skimped everywhere else so I could afford the less important things I wanted. When you aren’t in the building, it’s all too convenient to blow your budget on Amazon and promise you’ll tithe next month.

You may be thinking, I don’t have to go to church to be a generous person. That’s true, but the data shows going to church makes a big difference. Most tithing comes from those who attend church regularly, and the ripple effect on society is unbelievable.

Data and personal stories reveal that church begins to change people for the better from the inside out even when they don’t realize it. It can transform individuals and communities in ways that aren’t immediately obvious. For example, just attending Sunday services makes us significantly more generous, kind, and compassionate toward our neighbors. It creates a stronger bond among members of the local community and turns newspaper headlines into human faces and prayer requests into tear-stained cheeks you witness in sacred vulnerability.

Rippling Out

Churchgoing families tithe to their home churches, but that’s merely the starting point of their generosity. They also give exponentially more to other religious and nonreligious causes. A 2017 study from the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy found that 62 percent of faithful religious families donate to charities outside the church, while only 46 percent of secular families do the same.

Just attending Sunday services makes us significantly more generous, kind, and compassionate toward our neighbors.

In the book American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, Robert Putnam and David Campbell share extensive research on how giving practices, from volunteering to donating money, are affected by a person’s faith.

They revealed 88 percent of people who give to religious causes also give to secular causes like the American Cancer Society, humanitarian aid missions, or even things like the arts or local education initiatives. Someone who attends church weekly has an 81 percent likelihood of donating to secular causes, while someone who doesn’t only has a 60 percent likelihood of donating to any cause at all.

Imagine how donations to both secular and faith-based causes will continue to decline as people leave faith communities en masse. Imagine how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected these things—extraordinarily.

People don’t decrease their giving on purpose when they aren’t in church. It’s not a conscious choice. They’re no less compassionate or caring; they’re simply less aware of being in the vicinity of need, and they lose the opportunity to easily expand their generosity.

Beyond Money

Volunteerism and the “good neighbor” landscape follow the same trend. A Gallup survey found religious Americans are far more likely to have volunteered their time and helped a stranger in the past month than the nonreligious. A Pew Research Center study on the civic and community engagement of religious Americans reported higher rates of volunteerism, giving, and civic participation among the faithful.

For those who regularly attend church, personal philanthropy and volunteerism skyrocket and empathy for people who are different increases. If there’s anything we need in our families, communities, and society right now, that’s it. We’re called to live, love, and serve here on earth to the best of our abilities, and church plays a part in that.

Going to church isn’t just about us and our personal spirituality. The church is how God works through his people and provides for the vulnerable. It’s how he moves heaven and earth to bring peace and freedom—and also maybe diapers, breakfast, and Christmas presents for children in impoverished families.

The church is where God inspires hearts and minds to go out and do good, where his Spirit starts planting seeds in our minds, reminders of what we’re here for: to love him and others.

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You’ve Got (Less) Talent https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/less-talent/ Thu, 29 Dec 2022 05:02:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=533296 Does being entrusted with less gifting or opportunity mean our work for the Lord is less valuable? ]]> They asked her, not me.

As I stared at the email announcing my friend as the speaker for an upcoming event, disappointment flooded my heart. I have to admit, she’s more gifted than I am in several ways, and she has a high capacity for serving the Lord. But even though she was an obvious choice, her honor felt like my dishonor.

The world naturally rewards those who are most gifted, who have the highest capacities and the largest social media followings. But what about in the kingdom of God? Does being entrusted with less gifting or opportunity mean our work for the Lord is less valuable?

I imagine Thaddeus had the same question.

Entrusted with Less

You remember Thaddeus, right?

No? He’s one of the 12 disciples mentioned further down the list—or not at all. When Jesus told the parable of the talents (Matt. 25:14–30), I picture Thaddaeus wondering to himself, Well, we all know the five-talent guy is Peter. Does that make me the guy with two?

If Jesus’s purpose was simply to contrast investing versus burying, he could have told a simpler two-person parable. Instead, Jesus told a three-person story, where—true to life—the servants are given mismatched amounts. And while the story certainly issues a warning against burying our talents, the story also offers a lesson for disciples like Thaddeus (and perhaps you and me) who have been entrusted with significantly less.

Less resources. Less giftedness. Less influence. Less opportunity.

Those of us with less often think of our opportunities to serve the Lord as less significant—but that’s exactly what this story corrects.

Reasons to Invest Our Less

Here are three encouragements for the servant with less.

1. Less doesn’t equal little.

In today’s dollars, a talent would be worth about $600,000, so please don’t feel sorry for the one-talent guy. Just because he was entrusted with less, doesn’t mean he was entrusted with little. The same is true for us.

No matter how little our resources, influence, or responsibilities seem compared to some nearby “Peter,” God doesn’t count our less as little. Think of the woman who gave her two copper coins; Jesus said she had given more than all the others (Mark 12:41–44)—which means he measures differently than people do.

2. God knows your capacity.

The master divvied up the talents (which was a measurement of about 70 pounds) according to each servant’s ability or capacity. Since the servants received varying amounts, we can infer they had differing capacities—and the master knew it.

Does the Lord not also know our individual capacities? If we’re wringing our hands, hanging our heads, or burning the midnight oil because of what we haven’t been able to accomplish, perhaps we need to take an honest look at our God-given gifts—and limitations.

The Lord already knows about the chronic pain, the caregiving demands, the disability, or the financial strain we bear. All he asks is that we invest what we’ve been entrusted with—even if it’s less than others around us.

3. Faithfulness matters more than results.

The one-talent guy is the obvious bad example in the story. But look at the two-talent guy. He, too, was given far less than the five-talent guy. And isn’t that when we’re most often tempted to become complacent? Yet the two-talent guy kept diligently investing and—like the five-talent guy—doubled what he’d received.

All God asks is that we invest what we’ve been entrusted with—even if it’s less than others around us.

So one servant produced more than twice the other. But remarkably, they’re given the same word-for-word commendation: “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master” (Matt. 25:21, 23).

In the kingdom, apparently our rewards aren’t simply a product of our results. These servants aren’t being rewarded for being good and prosperous or good and productive; they’re rewarded for being good and faithful.

Different Capacity, Same Opportunity

Unlike the world, the kingdom of God doesn’t measure success by followers, titles, or net worth. Whether we have the capacity to take our entrusted lot and produce four talents or 10, we each have the opportunity to be faithful.

  • One of us can raise two kids and another can raise five—and we can both be good and faithful parents who hear, “Well done.”
  • One of us can serve a church of 200 and another a church of 500—and we can both be good and faithful ministry workers who hear, “Well done.”
  • One of us can give $2,000 in tithes and offerings and another $50,000—and we can both be good and faithful givers who hear, “Well done.”

We can be outdone by the world’s measures and still hear that commendation from our Father. Doesn’t that change everything between us as fellow servants of the Lord? It allows us to turn even to the one (like my friend) who’s been given greater capacity and opportunities and say, “I hope you’ll be faithful. I hope you’ll hear, ‘Well done.’”

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‘Love Thinks No Evil’: Jeremiah Burroughs on God’s Gracious Interpretations https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/love-thinks-no-evil/ Thu, 29 Dec 2022 05:00:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=533050 Just as God chooses to make good interpretations of our lives, we should trust that God is acting with love and wisdom toward us, even amid hardships.]]> In Genesis 18:12, Sarah experienced the lowest point of her life. God promised that Abraham would bear a son by her, and, overhearing this promise, she “laughed to herself, saying, ‘After I am worn out, and my lord is old, shall I have pleasure?’” The Lord rebuked her faithlessness, asking why Sarah had laughed (Gen. 18:13–14). Sarah lied out of fear: “I did not laugh” (Gen. 18:15). God, of course, wasn’t fooled.

Sarah’s reaction to God’s promise couldn’t have been worse. But as Puritan Jeremiah Burroughs (1599–1646) observed at the end of his book The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, when God remembered this story, he commended Sarah rather than condemning her. 

Burroughs on 1 Peter 3:6 

Burroughs saw how in 1 Peter 3:5–6, the Holy Spirit holds Sarah up as an example for wives to follow: “For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord.” The only time in the Genesis narrative Sarah called Abraham by the respectful title “lord” was in Genesis 18:12, in the middle of her admission of doubt. Notice that the Holy Spirit only cited this one good word and passed over the rest of Sarah’s sinful speech.  

Burroughs comments, “If there is an abundance of evil and a little good, God rather passes by the evil and takes notice of the good. . . . Thus, how graciously God deals with us! If there is but one good word among a great many ill, what an interpretation God makes!” (225).

The reason for this, according to Burroughs, is found in 1 Corinthians 13:5. God is love, and love thinketh no evil” (1 Cor. 13:5, KJV). He further explains, “Love is of that nature that if ten interpretations may be made of a thing, nine of them bad and one good, love will take that which is good and leave the other nine” (224).  

Sarah spoke 14 words, 13 bad and one good. God passed over the 13 and emphasized the one. When God retells the story, he mentions her faith and leaves out her doubt. What an interpretation God makes, indeed! 

Burroughs’s Practical Takeaways 

What should we glean from these texts as we read them with Burroughs?  

1. Burroughs wants his readers to celebrate God’s grace.

When God retells the story, he mentions Sarah’s faith and leaves out her doubt.

The prophet Isaiah tells us that even our good works are tainted by sin (Isa. 64:6). However, as those who have received God’s grace in Christ, we need not fear: God’s memory toward us is just as gracious as it was toward Sarah.

As proof, Burroughs cites the New Testament epistles: “When we look into our hearts, we can see nothing but uncleanness; [yet] God calls you his saints, the meanest Christian who has the least grace under the greatest corruption is [God’s] saint” (224). Burroughs—like every great Puritan—was eager to impress upon his readers God’s gracious heart for sinners.  

2. Burroughs wants to push his readers toward contentment.

He argued that when hardship strikes, Christians should make good interpretations of God’s ways just as God makes good interpretations of our ways. Burroughs was no stranger to suffering: Living under England’s Laudian regime, he was forced to leave for the Netherlands to worship according to his conscience. He lived in exile for four years.

Burroughs knew firsthand that when suffering comes, it’s easy to doubt the Lord. He challenged his readers to make good interpretations of God’s works instead: “It may be that . . . God saw that if my wealth did continue, I should fall into sin, that the better my position were the worse my soul would be” (223–24).  

Israel sinned in the wilderness by misinterpreting God’s works. They cried, “God hath brought us hither to slay us” (224). But Burroughs implores, “Oh, my brethren, retain good thoughts of God . . . [and] make good interpretations of his ways” (225). Just as God chooses to make good interpretations of our lives, we should, in some sense, return the favor by trusting that God is acting with love and wisdom toward us, even amid hardships.

We are called to love God, and, as we have seen, “love thinketh no evil.” 

3. Burroughs wants his readers to take the principles given here and apply them to human relationships as well.

While he doesn’t make this explicit in The Rare Jewel, it was surely on his mind. Burroughs was intensely concerned with the unity of the church throughout his life. In his Irenicum, he lamented that minor doctrinal differences were causing divisions throughout England, concluding the reason wasn’t theological positions so much as it was selfishness and pride.

Just as God chooses to make good interpretations of our lives, we should trust that God is acting with love and wisdom toward us, even amid hardships.

But what if the church showed the same graciousness that God showed Sarah? If Christians obeyed 1 Corinthians 13:5 by thinking no evil against one another, wouldn’t petty divisions in the church be healed?

Burroughs challenges us to think deeply about God’s grace. If God has loved us enough to make good interpretations of our lives, shouldn’t we assume he has our best in mind, even when trouble comes? And, if we’ve been shown such grace by God, how can we withhold it from other members of God’s family who have been cleansed by Christ? As Burroughs says, “If there is only one good interpretation that we can make of a thing, we should rather make use of the good one than the bad” (225).

Reflecting with Burroughs on God’s gracious memory toward us should produce a gracious memory within us, leading us to pursue unity, contentment, and, most of all, love. 

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Learn the Stories Behind the Suffering https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/stories-behind-suffering/ Wed, 28 Dec 2022 05:03:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=532251 To solely blame individuals or systemic forces for suffering is reductionistic, impersonal, and thoughtless.]]> In John 9:2, the disciples ask Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Their inquiry wasn’t unusual. In that ancient world, most people believed that people got what they deserved. Wealth, success, and power were given to righteous individuals who earned God’s favor. The poor, diseased, or disabled suffered God’s wrath due to their foolishness or sin. Here, the disciples assumed this man’s unfortunate circumstances were preventable if he or his family had lived differently or made better decisions. 

In the 21st century, we aren’t much different. Rather than learning the stories of people who suffer, we prefer to make up our own.  

Learn the Stories  

When we see a homeless man begging for money at the end of a freeway ramp, we notice if he’s smoking cigarettes. As he approaches our vehicle, we note if there’s alcohol on his breath or track marks on his arm. From these observations, we quickly surmise why he’s homeless and how he spends his money. Our conclusion often affects whether we choose to help.  

Many of us conclude people like this man are homeless due to bad individual decisions. Laziness. Addiction. Dropping out of school. If this person would get a job, enter a rehab facility, and take control of his life he’d be so much better off. We assume helping such people just funds their addictions and perhaps even validates their victim narratives, their beliefs that the world is against them. In other words, we assume a person is homeless because of his own sin and failure. 

We assume a person is homeless because of his own sin and failure. 

Would our opinion change if we found out this man was passed around multiple foster homes as a child and horribly abused in some of them? What if we also learned he attended a failing school characterized by shoddy instruction, violence, and drugs? To get away from his abusive foster parents and this chaotic educational environment, he ran away and never finished high school. With no home address or references, he never secured a driver’s license or anything necessary to land a job. In other words, this man was sinned against by caretakers and failed by systems.

Each homeless person’s life is filled with great complexities. Their stories are entangled in poverty, addiction, and pain due both to what they’ve done and what’s been done to them.

Open Your Eyes to Complexity  

The complexities grow exponentially when we turn our attention to communities wracked by destitution, death, and drama. The vitality and flourishing of any living thing are intricately connected to the overall health of the surrounding ecosystem.  

Many conclude the residents of poor neighborhoods are lazy, uneducated, sexually promiscuous, prone to violence, and dependent on government services for their food and healthcare. They’re getting what they deserve. There are some people like this in poor communities (and any other community). Some able-bodied individuals refuse to get a job. Some men father babies out of wedlock and abandon them. Other people take government resources and don’t contribute to society. There are individuals who make bad decisions that harm themselves and those around them.  

With that said, there’s probably not a grocery store that sells healthy produce within five miles of this neighborhood. There are no good jobs within 15 miles. Moreover, most of the residents don’t own a car. Nearly everyone is a renter. Their landlords, who may live in another state, don’t maintain the property. Property value is so depreciated that there’s no tax revenue for the local schools. These schools are underresourced and can’t maintain a steady faculty. The overall ecosystem suffers from the absence of life-giving resources.

When we consider why individuals suffer and communities fail, we must admit the reasons are extraordinarily complex. To solely blame individuals or systemic forces is reductionistic, impersonal, and thoughtless.

To solely blame individuals or systemic forces is reductionistic, impersonal, and thoughtless.

We should interrogate our own hearts to see if our search for who’s to blame is a ruse that covers a deeper desire to excuse ourselves from participating in works of mercy and justice. Perhaps the disciples were doing just that when they asked their question in John 9. 

But notice how Jesus responds:

It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world. (John 9:3–5) 

The Savior’s response doesn’t dismiss potential causes behind the man’s blindness. But he does indicate the disciples were asking the wrong question. Causes for brokenness matter, but the remedy for brokenness matters more.  

Scripture is rife with instructions to individuals on how foolishness and selfishness hurt them and others (Prov. 6:9–11;14:23; 22:29). The Bible also rebukes the privileged and powerful for creating systems that abuse and oppress the marginalized (Prov. 11:1; 14:31; Is. 10:1–4.).

Despite all this, Jesus says brokenness and injustice, whether individualized or corporate, are precious opportunities for the “works of God [to] be displayed.” His instruction to all his disciples (including us) is to “work the works.” This begins with learning the stories behind the brokenness, and then it involves responding by lamenting brokenness, praying for and working to produce healing and justice wherever it’s missing, and celebrating unity, wholeness, and peace wherever we find it. 

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Why I’m Staying on Social Media https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/staying-social-media/ Wed, 28 Dec 2022 05:02:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=536789 Despite all the dangers and flaws, here are the reasons why I’m still on social media.]]> I have vivid memories of sitting at the family desktop computer in middle school. I waited through the familiar tune of dial-up internet, double-clicked Internet Explorer, and navigated to MySpace. I often sat at that desk for hours checking my ranking on my friends’ top 8, learning just enough HTML to embed the perfect profile song, and refreshing my browser over and over for the repeated dopamine hit of that little red notification.

Social media has evolved significantly since the early 2000s. It’s still just as addictive but significantly more complex. Nasty Twitter battles and heated comment sections highlight our depravity as we degrade fellow image-bearers without a second thought. Filters and fitspo present impossible standards that fill us with anxiety and discontent.

And yet I’ve chosen to stay. Why? Because I believe God can redeem even social media for his glory and our good. Despite all the dangers and flaws, here are a few reasons why I still log on.

Place to Form Connections

Online relationships are not a replacement for in-person community. Sadly, they can give the illusion of meaningful friendship when we aren’t connected with people who know us deeply.

God can redeem even social media for his glory and our good.

However, many of the connections I’ve made are nevertheless meaningful. Some of the people I’ve connected with I’ve later met at conferences or coffee shops and are now part of my in-person community. Others work in my field and have become a type of virtual support system. Social media has even been the avenue through which I’ve found several jobs.

I’ve connected to ministries and people who’ve provided resources to help me grow in my walk with Christ. In fact, I first discovered The Gospel Coalition through social media.

Opportunity for Growth

From recipes and life hacks to parenting and spiritual growth, many accounts I choose to follow post things that encourage me, edify me, and equip me. Curating a feed that encourages positive growth takes work, but the resources I’ve gained have been remarkably helpful.

With intentionality and discernment, social media allows me to be challenged by viewpoints I hadn’t previously considered. By following people whose convictions differ from mine, I’m constantly reminded to test everything against God’s Word, including the claims of people I trust, and my awareness and empathy grow for those whose experiences are different from my own.

Avenue to Share the Gospel

Tik Tok isn’t necessary for evangelism, nor is an Instagram post a replacement for in-person ministry. However, billions of people use these apps, and they’re listening.

Online platforms offer another opportunity to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ, to share Bible study tools and practical ways to implement spiritual disciplines, and to encourage others toward local church community.

Setting Guardrails

Social media has many potential benefits but it also comes with significant dangers. It’s important to navigate it with biblical wisdom. When I don’t set boundaries or carefully consider the implications for my life and spiritual health, I’ve suffered the consequences—wasted time, heightened anxiety, and covetousness, just to name a few.

In order to engage in a healthy way, I set up guardrails to protect myself and others. Here are a few to consider implementing yourself.

1. Set time limits.

Sometimes I surprise myself with how quickly I navigate to a social media app on my phone without even realizing what I’m doing. They’re addictive, and it’s far too easy to waste hours scrolling. Ephesians 5:15–16 exhorts us to “look carefully then how [we] walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time because the days are evil.” In an effort to follow this command, I set time limits for these apps on my phone. If you’re too tempted to push the “add 15 minutes” button, consider having someone set a passcode to lock you out when your time is up.

2. Take regular breaks.

I typically delete social media apps entirely from my phone for the weekend and take extended breaks throughout the year. My mind is freed for prayer, Scripture meditation, and meeting the needs of others—and removing the apps even for a couple of days helps me reach for my phone less frequently when I reinstall them.

3. Curate your feed.

Does scrolling make you want to buy more things, increase your focus on physical appearance, lead you into temptation, or leave you bitter and anxious? Take some time to work through your “following” list. Do the accounts you follow lead you to think about what’s true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and praiseworthy (Phil. 4:8)? If the answer is no, it’s time to click the “unfollow” button.

4. Think before you post.

What we post affects and reveals our hearts just as much as what we consume. Before you post, ask yourself, What am I hoping this post will accomplish? Am I loving God and others by posting? Am I posting out of selfish ambition and vain conceit or in humility? Does my post glorify God or myself?

5. Reevaluate regularly.

I’ve chosen to stay on social media, but I can’t promise that will always be the case, nor am I confident the way I use it will remain the same. Take time regularly to ask yourself some important questions: How is social media affecting my heart? Is it still a good use of my time? Does anything need to change?

When I joined MySpace, I didn’t give any thought to what it would look like to use it wisely, aside from not sharing endangering personal information with strangers. I only saw it as a fun way to connect with friends.

Years later, by God’s grace, I’ve become increasingly aware of social media’s potential for evil as well as good. My prayer is that I’ll walk wisely through the world of social media for God’s glory and the good of others. That’s my prayer for you too.

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Why I Left Social Media—and Won’t Go Back https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/left-social-media/ Wed, 28 Dec 2022 05:00:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=535170 Despite all the good that can happen, here are the reasons I left social media.]]> Nine months ago, right in the middle of recording a podcast about social media, I quit social media.

Before I deleted my accounts, I didn’t know what to expect. I wasn’t sure if I’d feel sad or lonely or out of touch. I wondered if I’d be able to stay off. Professionally, it can be helpful to see what your sources are up to online. And there are some beautiful things happening there—connections made, Scripture explained, joy shared, help asked for and received. Did I want to permanently cut myself off from all that?

But here’s the honest truth—not once in 40 weeks have I wished I was back on. I’ve lived through summer vacations, my birthday, and now the holidays without posting pictures or reading messages or watching old friends make life changes.

For sure, I’m missing stuff. But I have no plans or desire to ever go back—because my life is so much better than I remembered it being before I joined social media.

Why I Got On

I created my Facebook account when I was 27 years old. As a young mom, and then as a homeschooling mom, social media was a way to (virtually) be with my friends, to share what my family was doing, and to celebrate or commiserate with others who were doing the same thing. It felt like I was rejoicing with those who rejoice and weeping with those who weep (Rom. 12:15).

My life is so much better than I remembered it being before I joined social media.

It was years before I noticed social media wasn’t as great as I thought it was. The older my kids got, the weirder it felt to share things about them, so I largely stopped. It seemed self-promotional to share the work I was doing, so I slowed down (Prov. 27:2). And nobody wanted to know what I thought about hot topics, so I never wrote about them (Prov. 17:28).

At this point, I was down to lurking, which meant I didn’t get any fun dopamine hits from interactions with my posts. Even then, I couldn’t quit. Because what if something happened and I couldn’t see it?

Why I Got Off

In my research, I’ve learned it usually takes a momentous event for someone to shut down a social media account—we need a kick to get us over our internal objections. My first small kick came from reading Emily Jensen’s insightful chapter in Social Sanity in an Insta World. She listed symptoms I recognized—including reaching for social media to fill any time gaps, having trouble focusing on longer reading, and feeling persistent low-level anxiety.

My bigger kick came as I was talking with insightful, godly Gen Z girls about the ways they were tangled in social media. In them, I could see how little social media was giving and how much it was taking. And I knew it was doing the same thing to me.

It was humbling to leave—I had to admit I wasn’t strong enough to go up against the algorithm. I couldn’t resist the dopamine hits I got from the anticipation of checking in. I kept trying to update my page or keep up with others but could never fully succeed; social media is, in David Allen’s terms, a loop that can’t be closed.

It was humbling to leave—I had to admit I wasn’t strong enough to go up against the algorithm.

I wanted to handle social media well. But I couldn’t.

Finally, it dawned on me that maybe I wasn’t supposed to be there at all. Maybe there were people equipped for social media in a way I was not. My friend Laura can go days without checking. Her emotions aren’t tied to it the way mine are or whatever she writes. And God is blessing her ministry there in a beautiful way.

But that wasn’t true of me. Even if I tried to log on with a generous and gracious spirit, I would feel impatient or bored with the other posts. The ones that were interesting didn’t leave me feeling the fruits of the Spirit but rather sharp anger or frustration that led to ill-informed judgments of others. When I got off, I wasn’t ever kinder, smarter, wiser, or more enamored of the Lord than I’d been before.

So I got rid of everything—Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Why I’m Staying Off

Emily was right. Social media was affecting her—and me—in negative ways. I know because since I’ve gotten off, I’ve had more time and more energy. I’ve been able to think more clearly, organize myself more effectively, and do a noticeably better job at home and at work. I’ve been able to read the Bible, and other books, without getting bored. I pay more attention to my family, and I enjoy them more. My persistent low-level anxiety has disappeared. I’m more relaxed and more patient. I’m far more intentional with my choices, and not once have I prioritized what would look good on social media over what’s actually good. (I could go on and on. If you want to hear more, I told Collin Hansen all about it on the Gospelbound podcast.)

Now I’m not worried about what somebody is saying on social media. I’m not stressed about things I can’t do anything about. I’ve been able to miss hundreds of Twitter fights and avoid dozens of gossipy conversations. And I’ve skipped comparing my real life to someone else’s Insta life.

I love living like this. Certainly, I’m missing out on a few things. But what I’ve gained—in sheer joy, in improved concentration, in sensitivity to the Lord’s leading—tips the scale so far it’s falling over.

For me, this was the right choice. It might not be the right decision for you. But given the average American spends two hours a day on social media, it’s worth at least thinking about why you’re there—and whether you should be.

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Easy Schedule for Bible-in-a-Year Rookies https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/schedule-bible-year-rookies/ Tue, 27 Dec 2022 05:02:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=537194 Could 2023 be the year you read through the whole Bible? This plan makes it simpler.]]> If you’ve never read the whole Bible, what are you waiting for? The Bible has been described as God’s love letter to the people he’s created, and each and every part of it contributes to the full revelation of his love.

Many people have managed to read through the whole Bible by setting themselves the target of reading it all in one year. If you think 2023 might be the year for you to give that a shot, I’d advise using a Bible-in-a-year schedule. It acts like a pace-setting runner who helps another runner maintain a steady speed on the way to achieving a targeted time. You’ll be unlikely to get through the whole Bible in a year without the help of a schedule giving you manageable daily portions.

Psalms–Ezekiel Plan

The reading schedule I’ve used for the past few years is the Psalms–Ezekiel Plan. Like several other plans, it has two tracks, which means each day you read two separate portions of Scripture. In this plan, track 1 is the Old Testament minus Psalms and Ezekiel; track 2 is Psalms and Ezekiel plus the New Testament—no prizes for guessing why it’s called the Psalms–Ezekiel Plan.

Track 1 is two chapters a day, all the way from Genesis to Malachi. Track 2 is also two chapters a day for Psalms and Ezekiel, but when you reach the New Testament, it’s just one chapter a day.

Why I Like This Plan

1. No Extras

If you’ve never read the whole Bible, what are you waiting for?

There are many Bible-in-a-year reading schedules, but some of them are more suitable for veterans than first-timers. For example, the much-loved M’Cheyne Bible Reading Plan calls for the New Testament and the Psalms to be read twice, with the rest of the Old Testament read once. It may not be the best pick for a Bible-in-a-year rookie because of the additional quantity of reading required.

Other plans include devotional thoughts, which—however helpful they may be—add to the overall word count. This plan includes only the Old and New Testaments.

2. Variety

As my mother likes to say, “Variety is the spice of life.” This plan, like other two-track schedules, provides two daily portions taken from different parts of the Bible. That has the effect of spicing things up. If one portion is slow going, the other portion will hopefully be more of a page-turner.

3. Simplicity

I first read the whole Bible when a friend recommended a wonderfully simple daily schedule: “Three chapters from the Old Testament, one from the New.” The simplicity of the plan meant I could immediately visualize what the task would involve, which made it seem more doable.

It was also helpful not to have to keep consulting a calendar list of readings—printed lists can get lost, and online lists make it impossible to have a phone-free quiet time. I just had to remember where I’d got to, and then I read the next three chapters from the Old and one from the New. (That particular schedule, however, has the disadvantage of not spreading out the reading over a whole year—it only takes 10 months—so the daily quantity of reading is heavier than it needs to be.)

The Psalms–Ezekiel Plan is similarly simple. You don’t have to consult a calendar list of passages. But if you’re someone who never remembers where you finished on the previous day, you can download the list and keep it handy. As you can see from the list, the New Testament track finishes about a week before the end of the year, which gives you the chance to catch up on anything in the Old Testament you might have missed.

Other Bible-in-a-year plans have their strengths, but this one has a claim to be the easiest to accomplish.

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Best Movies of 2022 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/best-movies-2022/ Tue, 27 Dec 2022 05:00:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=531995 Brett McCracken’s picks for the best films and documentaries released in 2022—and where to watch them.]]> Are movies still relevant? In recent years, the question has been asked frequently. With streaming and mobile entertainment devices rising, and the pandemic’s devastating blow still lingering, the question is valid. Even as Hollywood rebounds a bit at the box office (up 21 percent in 2022), critics rightly observe that innovation is suffering. Sequels, reboots, and franchises rule the day and artsy “prestige films” can’t find audiences. Part of the problem: audiences have a growing (and justifiable) sense that Hollywood is increasingly less interested in entertaining them than in force-feeding them progressive ideals.

As I put together my list, I focused on films that didn’t pit entertainment against artistry or confuse the difference between having something to say and telling audiences what to think. The best movies captivate audiences because they’re artistically excellent. And the best movies provoke audiences to wrestle with ideas rather than be bludgeoned with arguments.

As a reminder, don’t take my commendations as wholesale endorsements of the content. Just because I loved a film doesn’t mean I loved everything in it, and a “best” movie doesn’t mean an appropriate movie for all audiences. Though the films highlighted below are all in some way edifying—depicting goodness, truth, or beauty in ways Christian viewers can celebrate—a few are rated R and should especially be viewed with caution and discernment.

Here are my 10 favorites, 10 honorable mentions, and 10 excellent documentaries released in 2022.


Top 10

1. TÁR

Todd Field’s TÁR doesn’t spoon-feed a “message” to audiences. That’s why it’s great. The film’s rise-and-fall narrative centers on orchestra conductor Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett in one of the most interesting acting performances I’ve seen in years), a ruthless character who feels more robot-like than human as she follows a hypercalculated script. One mark of a great film is how many topics of theological import it might spark in a discussion. As I wrote in my lengthy review of the film in October, TÁR provides fodder for thinking about contemporary confusion about gender and human anthropology, social media’s revealing nature, cancel culture’s relationship with sin and forgiveness, life’s fundamental uncontrollability, the tragedy of the autonomous self, and more. To be sure, Lydia Tár isn’t a sympathetic character and the film never justifies her behavior. But I do think Field wants us to reflect on how Tár is an archetype of the modern self, with all its fragile premises and false promises. In that way, we see in Tár a picture of our cold, secular, strange new world—and wonder where we go from here. Available to stream at home. Rated R.

2. Devotion

In some ways, Devotion is the anti-TÁR. If TÁR exposes the flawed logic that says achieving greatness must come at the cost of relational commitments and selfless love, Devotion shows greatness is achieved because of relational commitments and selfless love. As one character says in the film, “The real battle in all of life is being someone people can count on.” Based on the 2015 book Devotion: An Epic Story of Heroism, Friendship, and Sacrifice, the Korean War–era film tells the true story of the first African American naval aviator Jesse Brown (Jonathan Majors) and his friendship with fellow aviator Tom Hudner (Glen Powell). In a contemporary Hollywood landscape where expressive individualism and woke narratives dominate, Devotion foregrounds the virtue of devoted relationships: faithfully showing up for one another and following through on duty, whether in marriage or friendship or war. Though quieter and less thrilling than the similar Top Gun: Maverick (which also stars Glen Powell), Devotion is no less inspiring and arguably has a clearer moral vision. In theaters now. Rated PG-13.

3. Top Gun: Maverick

Something uncommon: when the most popular movie of the year ($1.5 billion in the global box office) is also one of the best. In this case, the blockbuster sequel fires on all the right cylinders to capture the zeitgeist. It entertains in a time when people feel preached at. It honors the past and celebrates things like received wisdom and institutional duty in a time when all of this is daily undermined in pop culture. As I wrote in my review (contrasting Maverick with Lightyear), Maverick is radical in its refusal to preach some Important Social Message. “More radical still is Maverick’s conviction that the best way forward involves backward-looking retrieval: honoring the past rather than discarding it; seeing value in some measure of traditionalism rather than constant iconoclasm.” Rent on Amazon or watch on Paramount+. Rated PG-13.

4. Apollo 10 ½: A Space Age Childhood

Richard Linklater’s rotoscope memoir is more than meets the eye. At first glance, it’s a quaint assemblage of snapshots from Linklater’s childhood in 1960s Texas. But if you know Linklater, you know he’s a director very interested in memory, time, epistemology, and how cinema as a form interacts with these things. By replicating specific memories (which will ring true for any American born between WWII and the internet age) only loosely tied together by a “plot” about the 1969 Apollo 11 Moon landing (seen through a kid’s eyes), Linklater shows how movies mirror the mind. We process and remember reality—whether our own lives or distant images of men on the moon—through imperfect filters of memory and imagination. Does that mean reality only “exists” in the subjective mind? No. But it does mean the mind is a miraculous creation, and the movies are a miraculous mirror. Watch on Netflix. Rated PG-13.

5. Nope

Jordan Peele’s third film is the best sort of sci-fi thriller. It keeps you guessing—not only in the “what will happen next” sense but in the “what does this all mean” sense. Peele has proven himself a top-notch entertainer and a prophetic provocateur. His movies are fun to watch but also get us thinking about unsettling questions. In Nope’s case, Peele prompts us to think about sin, spectacle, and the idea of divine wrath. The alien monster here (spoiler alert!) has serious Angel of Death vibes, evoking a biblical agent of wrath who has come to judge an unholy people. The film’s opening quote of Nahum 3:6 (“I will cast abominable filth upon you, make you vile, and make you a spectacle”) reinforces the film’s atmosphere of divine wrath. Has there ever been a summer blockbuster that takes sin, judgment, and wrath as seriously as this film does? Nope. Rent on Amazon or watch on Peacock. Rated R.

6. Marcel the Shell with Shoes On

I wouldn’t have believed you if you’d told me in January that a movie about a precocious, stop-motion-animated, one-inch talking shell (voiced by Jenny Slate), costarring Leslie Stahl of 60 Minutes, would be one of my favorite films of the year. But here we are. Marcel is perhaps the sweetest and most smile-inducing movie of 2022, even as it ponders death, grief, and life’s fragility. On top of the existential truths it captures, Marcel also contains insightful commentary on the nature of viral celebrity and media in the age of YouTube. More than anything, it’s a film about joy: joy in family, joy in friendship, and joy in the many wonders of life we often miss. Rent on Amazon. Rated PG.

7. The Worst Person in the World

Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World may be the best film ever made about millennial angst. The Norwegian filmmaker sets the film in circles of affluence in Oslo, following a millennial woman, Julie (Renate Reinsve), whose commitment-averse meandering in her 20s leaves her cold and alone in her 30s. As Matthew Schmitz observes in his review for The American Conservative, Julie “avoids every choice that can narrow her future.” Few films have more potently exposed the empty romance of the autonomous self, “empowered” to live free of the sacrifices requisite in things like marriage, parenthood, and rootedness. But as Julie finds out by the end of the film, radical autonomy isn’t freeing. The final scenes find her looking at others through windows and computer screens, herself a distant spectator gazing flatly into a mediated void. Rent on Amazon or watch on Hulu. Rated R.

8. After Yang

What’s the meaning of human connection when one part of that connection isn’t human? This is one of the questions raised by Kogonada’s quiet yet potent family drama, which stars Colin Farrell as a tea shop owner whose family of four includes a “son” named Yang (Justin Min) who looks and acts like a human but is actually a robot. Like Kogonada’s previous film, Columbus (which I also highly recommend), After Yang is less about a propulsive plot than powerful moments. From the fun opening dance scene to a lovely dialogue scene about tea (in which Farrell impressively impersonates German filmmaker Werner Herzog), After Yang stitches together a tapestry of reflections on memory, time, beauty, and humanity. Rent on Amazon or watch on Showtime. Rated PG.

9. Avatar: The Way of Water

I disliked James Cameron’s 2009 Avatar, and I literally groaned when I first saw the trailer for the sequel (especially the ghastly, and rightly lampooned, Papyrus-esque title font). But unexpectedly, the three hours I spent watching this big-screen spectacle were enthralling. The film’s immersive world-building reminded me of Tolkien’s concept of subcreation, done on a grand, movie-magic scale. On top of that, some of the story’s themes are compelling. Yes, there’s weird nature-worship pagan spirituality here. But The Way of Water is surprisingly conservative in its celebration of family and especially fatherhood (“A father protects,” Jake Sully says near the film’s end. “It’s what gives him meaning.”). At a time when Hollywood’s treatment of gender is as fluid as Pandora’s pristine water, I’ll take a film that isn’t afraid of letting males and females be different. In theaters now. Rated PG-13.

10. Montana Story

A deconstructed Western of sorts, Montana Story tells a simple yet potent story about one family forever changed by a father’s sin. Set in the changing landscape and culture of the contemporary Western U.S., the quiet film follows estranged half-siblings Cal (Owen Teague) and Erin (Haley Lu Richardson) as they reunite and inch toward reconciliation against the backdrop of their father being on life support. Though not an easy film to watch, Montana Story finds hope in the beauty of hardy landscapes and growth that comes when we confront and work through trauma. Rather than relegating its traumatized characters to a boring arc of unending pain, Montana Story sets the stage for what’s ultimately more interesting: renewal, redemption, and moving on in health. Rent on Amazon. Rated R.

10 Honorable Mentions

Aftersun (TGC review), All Quiet on the Western Front, The Banshees of Inisherin, The Batman (TGC review), Elvis (TGC review), The Fabelmans (TGC review), Hustle, KIMI (TGC review), Thirteen Lives (TGC review), Triangle of Sadness.

10 Excellent Documentaries

Here are 10 of the best documentaries released in 2022 (listed in alphabetical order).

Facing Nolan

You don’t have to be a baseball fan to love this film about Nolan Ryan’s rise from being a lanky high school pitcher in rural Texas to a hall-of-fame legend. Perhaps the best thing about the film is the centrality of Ryan’s family. Though star athletes don’t always succeed in the home as much as they do on the field, Ryan did—and it’s inspiring to watch. Watch on Netflix. Rated TV-14.

Fire of Love

This quirky film—about French volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft—is the sort of documentary I love. It foregrounds the odd wonders of the world, including the wonderful eccentricity of humans who are captivated by it. Watch on Disney+. Rated PG.

Louis Armstrong’s Black and Blues

I learned so much in this documentary—not only about jazz pioneer and cultural icon Louis Armstrong himself but about the mid-20th-century world in which he rose to prominence and made a lasting mark. Watch on AppleTV+. Rated R.

Lucy and Desi

Amy Poehler’s documentary about Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz is a must-see for those interested in television history. Avoiding politics or didactic “messages,” the biographical narrative simply presents the story of a Hollywood power couple in a consistently compelling way. Watch on Amazon. Rated PG.

Sidney

Though it occasionally borders on hagiography, this portrait of iconic actor Sidney Poitier is informative and helpful, reminding us of the power of entertainment to change minds—and cultures—over time. Watch on AppleTV+. Rated PG-13.

Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist

“Jaw-dropping” is an overused descriptor, but for this film, it applies. Nothing I watched this year caused my jaw to drop as many times as this did. Among other things, the film connects some dots for me about how digital technology has paved the way for transgender ideology. Watch on Netflix. Rated TV-MA.

The Volcano: Rescue from Whakaari

This harrowing, survivor-told account of the 2019 White Island volcano disaster is both a cautionary tale (nature is sublimely beautiful but deadly; see Fire and Love) and an inspiring account of heroism. The story stuck with me perhaps because I was a tourist in New Zealand a few weeks after the calamity took place. Watch on Netflix. Rated PG-13.

What Is a Woman?

I doubt Matt Walsh’s film (my review) will be on many critics’ “best of 2022” lists. That’s because most critics refused to even see it. The refusal of so many to even engage with the film’s arguments against prevailing gender ideology is a clue that Walsh is onto something. Watch on DailyWire+. Unrated.

What We Leave Behind

The Spanish saying Hay más tiempo que vida (“There’s more time than life”) stands out as the central line of Iliana Sosa’s quiet portrait of her aging grandfather. As we walk with our loved ones in their final days, the pain of life’s brevity is achingly clear. Through a very specific story, this film captures universal truth. Watch on Netflix. Rated PG.

Wildcat

Ostensibly a wildlife documentary about rescuing and rehabilitating wild ocelots in the Peruvian Amazon, Wildcat turns out to be as much (or more) about the healing and redemption of traumatized people. Watch on Amazon starting December 30. Rated R.

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King Charles’s Christmas Message Reflects a Post-Christian United Kingdom https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/king-charles-christmas-message/ Mon, 26 Dec 2022 19:00:36 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=537841 King Charles intends to serve as self-consciously Christian monarch, but he values other religions.]]> For 90 years it has been the tradition for the British monarch to address the nation and Commonwealth on Christmas Day. Only three times has there been no Christmas message—in 1936 after the abdication of King Edward VIII, in 1938 because King George VI struggled with public speaking, and in 1969 because Queen Elizabeth II felt that the monarchy had been too exposed already that year in a documentary film.

For seventy of those years the Christmas message was given by Queen Elizabeth, but, due to her death in September, it was delivered by King Charles III. His message was akin to the first sermon preached by a new pastor who has succeeded a long-serving and much loved predecessor. Charles’s message shed light on the spiritual state of contemporary Britain and on the faith of the King himself.

Unique Personal Moment

Given that Britain is a constitutional monarchy, and the King has no executive power but is merely a symbolic Head of State, there are very few occasions on which the monarch can speak personally to the nation. Almost all other speeches are written for the King by the government, or at least approved by the government.

The Christmas message is an opportunity for the monarch to share his or her heart with the nation, and it has invariably provided an opportunity to urge national unity and bring comfort in times of crisis. While the monarch can speak personally, the late Queen was always careful to avoid making any kind of overt political comment, although commentators were alert for subtext.

King Charles’s message was akin to the first sermon preached by a new pastor who has succeeded a long-serving and much loved predecessor.

King Charles’s first Christmas message was thus eagerly anticipated. As Prince of Wales, he was outspoken on many politically sensitive issues, such as the environment, and he has shown a lifelong concern for underprivileged Britons, founding the Prince’s Trust to help young people.

The Christmas message this year was given against the backdrop of a painful cost-of-living crisis caused by inflation, especially rising energy prices following the war in Ukraine, and industrial action in several public services including the National Health Service. The controversy generated by the recent Netflix series, Harry & Meghan, was also on people’s minds.

‘Defender of Faith’

The British people were also curious what King Charles would say about his faith. Not only is he monarch, but also Supreme Governor of the Church Of England. The late Queen had been increasingly open and direct about her personal Christian faith in recent years, pointing to Jesus as the Savior. But as Prince of Wales, King Charles had expressed his intention to be “defender of faith” not “defender of the faith.”

The King’s message focused on the image of light coming into the world at Christmas, and he sought to convey continuity but also to signal subtle changes. The speech was filmed in St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle, where the Queen is buried, and he paid tribute to her and to her faith in God. He made the usual references to the invaluable work of the Armed Forces, Emergency Services, Health Services Teachers, public servants and charities caring for those in need.

He declared his own Christian faith, referring to a deeply moving visit he had made to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, where, he said, “the Lord Jesus Christ” had been born. However, it would be hard to say that his message reflected a clear grasp of the gospel. While he mentioned the late Queen’s faith, he also referred to her “faith in humanity,” and the main focus of his message was the potential of all human beings to do good and help to build a society which practices love of neighbor.

In essence this message was an expression of the Christian-influenced humanism characteristic of liberal religion. The King did not say that hope was to be found in the person and promises of Christmas but rather in faith-inspired human solidarity.

The message made clear that King Charles intends to serve as a self-consciously Christian monarch but also emphasized that he values other religions.

The message made clear that King Charles intends to serve as a self-consciously Christian monarch but also emphasized that he values other religions. He specifically mentioned the five main faiths in Britain—Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Sikhism—and highlighted their unity in seeking to care for people during the cost-of-living crisis. He also included those who have no faith, which a recent census revealed to be the most rapidly growing group in British society.

King for a Post-Christian Nation

The King’s message was a well-judged and well-received representation of contemporary Britain. His tone was more empathetic than that of the late Queen, reflecting the baby-boomer generation to which he belongs. He expressed sympathy with those grieving loved ones at Christmas and spoke more readily of his own emotions and feelings.

He also represented the multi-faith and increasingly secular nature of the country. The U.K. is no longer a Christian nation in any meaningful sense. Less than 50 percent of the population identified as Christian in the recent census, whereas 37.5 percent claim no religion. Only 845,000 out of 64 million people regularly attend the Church of England. Evangelicals of all kinds are estimated to be only 2–3 percent of the population.

Like many Western nations, Britain is navigating the challenge of a post-Christian context, in which only a tiny minority are committed believers in the Lord Jesus, and the state balances the rights and interests of multiple faith communities, alongside a majority who have no religion.

Reason for Joy

The King’s message may not have communicated the gospel, but we don’t despair. The constitutional role of the King, as well as his Christian commitment—whether cultural or regenerate we can’t know at this distance—at least ensures some legitimate place for religious faith in public life, and the King’s commitment to religious freedom for all is something for which we should be thankful.

The New Testament commands us to pray for kings and all those in authority, so that we will be free to live quiet lives of godliness and to share the good news of the Savior who is the one mediator between God and man (1 Tim. 2:1–3). We can be thankful that in this regard our prayers are being answered.

British Christians should continue to pray for King Charles and his government that our long-established constitutional rights to freedom of worship will be upheld. At the same time, the lack of gospel clarity and comprehension in his message will cause us to pray even more fervently, in the words of our national anthem, “God save the King!”

God, the sovereign ruler of the universe, has revealed himself to us in his Word so we can know him as he truly is.

Ultimately, the monarch’s Christmas message is an opportunity for evangelicals to reflect on the glory of our salvation through Christ, and to recommit to proclaiming the saving message of the gospel. God, the sovereign ruler of the universe, has revealed himself to us in his Word so we can know him as he truly is. He has spoken to us and shown that he empathizes with our sufferings and griefs. We know that true hope is not found in our human capacity for goodness, because he has revealed the awful reality of our sin. We do not put our faith in humanity to bring salvation and a better world, but only in the Son of God who took on human nature to deal with our sin by his death on the cross.

We must not expect the state, including the monarchy, to do the work of the church. It is the church’s task to shine the true light into the darkness of a fallen world by proclaiming the gospel, and as we do this in faith, God will shed his light into the hearts of men and women and grant them new life.

The Christmas message that truly matters is the message of King Jesus.

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How to Give More Without Depleting Your Cash https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/depleting-cash/ Mon, 26 Dec 2022 05:03:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=535532 Giving noncash assets can expand your giving capacity and earn significant tax savings.]]> Every giving decision is an opportunity to join God in the story he’s writing through your generosity—this year and beyond. As we enter the holiday season, there are many ways you can fulfill your goals to be generous.

I’ve learned from working alongside my colleagues at the National Christian Foundation (NCF) that most people do their giving from cash, even though as much as 90 percent of their wealth may be tied up in their assets—such as business interests, stocks, or real estate.

Most charities accept donations of publicly traded stocks that have appreciated in value. In addition, some public charities, like NCF, are also able to accept other assets, such as real estate or business interests, which, upon liquidation, can fund a donor-advised fund (DAF).

What is a DAF? At NCF, we call it a Giving Fund, a simple, flexible solution for personal giving. Specifically, a DAF is a giving account established at a public charity that allows givers to qualify for an immediate tax deduction and support charitable organizations of their choosing.  After your tax-deductible donations are made available in your DAF, you can go online to recommend grants to your favorite causes. (Note that once the money is in a DAF, it can only be used to fund giving to public charities in good standing.)

In this season, learning how to give assets, instead of cash, may be helpful. We often come alongside givers and their advisors who are exploring ways to give more through assets like the ones below.

1. Stocks

The last two years have been volatile for the stock market. But if you still have appreciated publicly traded securities or mutual funds (that you’ve held for more than one year) in a taxable investment portfolio, you likely have a significant opportunity to donate more and simplify your giving.

Most people do their giving from cash, even though as much as 90 percent of their wealth may be tied up in their assets—such as business interests, stocks, or real estate.

The key is to donate these appreciated securities before a sale, which means you’ll potentially reduce or eliminate capital gains taxes on the donated securities. You can donate stocks directly to your favorite charity or you can donate them to a DAF and support several charities.

2. Real Estate

If you’re looking for a way to meet a giving goal, you may be able to give commercial, residential, or undeveloped property. When it produces rental income, or when it sells, the net proceeds go into your DAF, so you can help provide food for the hungry, care for orphans, funding for Christian media, support for missionaries bringing the gospel to the ends of the earth, or donations to any other charitable cause you sense God calling you to support.

Giving interests in appreciated real estate prior to any potential future sale is a strategy that may potentially reduce capital gains taxes on the gifted portion. You’ll also likely receive an income tax deduction for the fair market value of the gift, freeing up additional cash flow for more giving.

3. Business Interests

Many business owners have a heart to give more to charity but feel their ability to donate is hindered by their limited cash. If you own a company, you may want to consider donating some interest in your business so future net income can flow through to charity from the business income.

Business owners who are considering selling may also be able to maximize their giving by contributing some of their business interest to charity before pursuing a sale of the company. When business units or shares are contributed to a DAF or other public charity, the fair market value of the gift is usually deductible. Contrasted with a gift of proceeds after liquidation, a gift of appreciated business interest can maximize the amount you’re able to give. Since each situation is unique, business owners should always consult with their tax and financial advisors prior to making this type of gift.

4. Retirement Assets

An IRA owner who turned 70½ before January 1, 2020, or who turns 72 after that date is required to distribute a certain portion of his or her IRA every year. This is known as a required minimum distribution. You can satisfy this requirement by making regular distributions, or you can make a qualified charitable distribution (or QCD), which means using your IRA for giving directly to charity.

If you have more than you need in your IRA, you may choose to make a QCD, which lets you give to charity without having to include the distribution in your adjusted gross income (AGI). This means there are fewer ramifications for other taxes. A QCD is not a deductible gift, so it isn’t limited to 60 percent of your AGI, and you don’t have to itemize your deductions in order to get the tax benefit of the gift. Depending on your goals, you can even make both a QCD and a regular distribution, followed by a deductible gift, in the same year.

Not 70½ yet? Learn how it works, according to your age, and check with your advisors before making a decision to give from your retirement.

5. Testamentary Giving

You can continue to give to your charities after your death. Naming your charity as the beneficiary of all or a portion of your estate through a will, trust, insurance policy, or retirement plan is a strategic way for you to give beyond your lifetime. Testamentary charitable giving allows you to continue funding your giving goals while also potentially reducing the burden of estate tax.

Giving with Joy

Giving noncash assets is a powerful way to expand your giving capacity, enjoy potentially significant tax savings, and provide more support to the causes you care about. It’s also a way to honor the Lord (Prov. 3:9), reflecting his generosity to us (1 Chron. 29:14) and obeying his command to provide for the needy (Prov. 19:17).

It’s a delight to be able to do these things (2 Cor. 9:7). So make the most of what you have to give by leveraging your noncash assets for God’s purposes.

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Christian Truth Is a Rousing Call to Faith https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/reviews/thrill-orthodoxy-trevin-wax/ Mon, 26 Dec 2022 05:02:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=book-review&p=532886 Rather than restrictive and boring, the constraints of historic Christian orthodoxy are paradoxically freeing and beautiful.]]> In the climactic scene of Henry V (1989), Kenneth Branagh gives Shakespeare’s famous St. Crispin’s Day speech with as much conviction as any actor ever delivered his lines. I love the effect Henry’s speech has on his embattled men at Agincourt. One moment they’re like a huddle of mice, cowed by a superior French force. The next, they’re a pride of lions, rejoicing that “not one man more” fights beside them, lest he share their glory. Their king knew it wasn’t enough to have swords at his command. He needed men’s hearts.

I thought of this scene while reading Trevin Wax’s The Thrill of Orthodoxy: Rediscovering the Adventure of Christian Faith, not only because I finished the book on St. Crispin’s Day but also because Wax’s call to delight in Christian truth, not merely to recite it, left me ready for battle.

Orthodoxy vs. Apathy

Rich Mullins sang of orthodoxy, “I did not make it, no, it is making me / It is the very truth of God and not the invention of any man.” There’s a remarkable, even miraculous, unity of Christian belief across time and space that confounds critics who see it as a manmade religion. Christianity’s three ancient statements of faith (the Nicene, Athanasian, and Apostles’ Creeds) are still confessed in most churches and bind together believers worldwide in affirming one God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and one Lord, Jesus Christ.

But “familiarity is the enemy of wonder” (2). Merely reciting core doctrines, especially when they seem esoteric and out of touch with the concerns of secular culture, can breed something more dangerous than unbelief: apathy. Wax argues that the church today is in danger of drifting from orthodoxy not because of new errors (though there are many) but because Christians are bored with old truths.

The church today is in danger of drifting from orthodoxy not because of new errors (though there are many) but because Christians are bored with old truths.

His solution is to see the faith once more for what it is: “A mission that requires obedience to a King, a rollicking adventure that brings us face to face with opposition, as we proclaim something bigger and more satisfying than personal preference” (6). Part of what makes Christianity thrilling is how strange it is. But those accustomed to hearing its claims can grow deaf to them. Those accustomed to reading them can grow blind.

Paradox of Orthodoxy

To remedy this blindness, Wax follows G. K. Chesterton’s advice that people must learn to see orthodoxy again “as if for the first time.” In The Everlasting Man, Chesterton famously illustrates this principle by describing what a horse must have looked like to the first human ever to behold one:

Out of some dark forest under some ancient dawn there must come towards us, with lumbering yet dancing motions, one of the very queerest of the prehistoric creatures. We must see for the first time the strangely small head set on a neck not only longer but thicker than itself, as the face of a gargoyle is thrust out upon a gutter-spout, the one disproportionate crest of hair running along the ridge of that heavy neck like a beard in the wrong place; the feet, each like a solid club of horn, alone amid the feet of so many cattle; so that the true fear is to be found in showing, not the cloven, but the uncloven hoof. Nor is it mere verbal fancy to see him thus as a unique monster; for in a sense a monster means what is unique, and he is really unique.

Like a horse, Christian orthodoxy seems strange, magnificent, and maybe a little monstrous when seen for the first time: one God who is also three persons; one Christ who is both God and man; the Maker of the stars taking the form of a servant; a righteous Lord dying for sinners, rising to inaugurate an upside-down kingdom of sheep who will conquer a world of wolves, until he sets a feast at which the first will be last and the least greatest.

C. S. Lewis put it well when he wrote that Christianity “has just that queer twist about it that real things have.” It’s not the sort of religion you’d make up. It’s packed with paradox, affirming “in their fiery fullness” (89) doctrines that appear at first blush to contradict one another. How, after all, is the church both saved and awaiting her redemption? How can we overcome the world with otherworldly weapons? How can the Scriptures be written by men yet authored by God? How can the gospel be narrower than a needle’s eye yet wide enough for the whole world? How can a Son be eternally begotten? How can the Creator of the universe have a mother?

“The paradox of orthodoxy,” writes Wax, “lies in its simplicity and complexity. The gospel is simple enough for a child to grasp, yet so complex that the greatest of scholars can only scratch the surface of its glory” (77).

Heresy Is Simple

Here lies another paradox: our inability to fully describe the God we worship is precisely why the details of orthodoxy matter—why a single Greek vowel once threatened to break the church (76) and why the Athanasian Creed roots out misunderstandings about Christ’s humanity and divinity with almost obsessive precision. We’re not free to be indifferent toward these truths, precisely because they’re not our truths. They’re God’s description of himself.

Wax thinks that in contrast to orthodoxy, heresy has a telltale “narrowness.” Heresy is always small and sensible, seizing on a single truth and weaponizing it against all other truths (85). False doctrine thrives on false dilemmas, insisting God can’t be both one and three, his Son can’t be both begotten and eternal, the Messiah can’t be both divine and human, and the material world can’t be both fallen and worth saving.

Heresy is always small and sensible, seizing on a single truth and weaponizing it against all other truths.

Ancient heresies from Arianism to Gnosticism fall prey to this reductive tendency. But modern heresies do too. One of the most pernicious errors shows up in churches and Christian social circles influenced by our dominant culture. Wanting to affirm the identities and choices of their neighbors and avoid contention, some Christians propose a doctrinal minimalism that demotes sexual morality and anything else not explicitly mentioned in the creeds to debatable matters. As long as we all affirm the basics of the Trinity and the incarnation, their reasoning goes, good Christians can “agree to disagree” about things like sex, gender, and marriage.

Wax forcefully rejects this proposal, insisting that a kind of “moral orthodoxy” undergirds the wording of the creeds and was in some sense assumed by their authors:

It’s beside the point to argue that marriage and sexuality are not explicitly spelled out in the creeds. Neither is infanticide. Neither is theft. Neither is the command to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Neither is a whole host of issues connected to Christianity’s moral vision. (101)

Failing to affirm any of the pieces of Christ’s moral vision strikes at the creeds’ opening affirmation that God the Father is Maker of heaven and earth, including our bodies. If basic truths about right and wrong evolve from generation to generation, and if the Scriptures are mere expressions of cultural prejudice, then what are we saved from and what will we be judged for? Reducing orthodoxy to a list of context-free statements about the triune God leaves those statements content free. It reduces them, tames them, and robs them of their thrill. And it sends the message that Christianity is something we make and remake rather than something that’s making and remaking us.

Stepping into Reality

Not everyone will like this. Encountering a truth you can’t change is uncomfortable, yet it’s still the truth. Wax compares a person who wants a customized faith to someone who prefers to always stay indoors, setting the thermostat to his or her preferred temperature and never venturing outdoors. Orthodoxy calls us into sunlight and blue sky, “away from the domesticated doctrines and palatable heresies of our time, and into a wild and glorious world of wonders” (39).

Reducing orthodoxy to a list of context-free statements about the triune God leaves those statements content free.

Yes, the truth about God whom heaven cannot contain (1 Kings 8:27) can be unsettling. There’s a reason people carved and sculpted their personal, fun-sized gods out of wood and stone for thousands of years. But deep down, we all know better. Lewis wrote that in our hearts we understand that “nothing which is at all times and in every way agreeable to us can have objective reality.” Real things, by nature, have “sharp corners and rough edges.”

When we recite the creeds and preach the Bible, Christians aren’t merely parroting propositions but confessing truths about a person. “Every statement we utter about him in faith,” writes Wax, “intends to describe the awe-inspiring being at the blazing center of the universe” (67). We grasp each biblical paradox in its fullness and hold on tightly because we refuse to settle for less. We wrestle with God and believe until he blesses our faith that seeks understanding. And we refuse to retreat before overwhelming opposition because our King promises undying glory.

The Thrill of Orthodoxy reads like a St. Crispin’s Day speech on behalf of the church’s ancient and miraculous doctrinal unity. But more than that, it’s a reminder that Christian truth is a mystery that should perpetually excite us. By helping readers to see that unity and mystery as if for the first time, Wax opens Christians’ eyes to our common allegiance and hope—one that has endured for 2,000 years despite its many enemies. Just as importantly, he makes it exciting again, not only as a creed but as a battle cry for faith.

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Help! I Failed My Year-Long Bible Reading Plan https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/failed-bible-reading-plan/ Mon, 26 Dec 2022 05:00:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=535022 Discover four ways to redefine your yearly Bible study that will restore your joy in and practice of Bible reading.]]> On my office shelf sits a blue leather-bound, red-letter KJV that was given to me when I was 7. This Bible is one of my treasures because it’s the one my grandmother urged me to read. She challenged me to underline all the times the word “believe” and its variations occurred in the book. If I came up with the right number, she would give me a prize. My grandmother has since passed away, but those carefully circled words still remain.

At age 10, I embarked on my first New Testament read-through. And at age 11, much to my parents’ mixed feelings—because they knew the content rating of the material—I started the Old Testament.

Year after year, I worked through the text. My Adventure Bible, a gift from my beloved and deceased Sunday-school teacher, is in shambles after my early teenage forays through Scripture. But sometime in college, my motivation to read the Bible for a prize or to make God smile down on me ended. My spiritual life, my view of God, and even my view of the gospel itself were in complete upheaval. And I didn’t have the motivational tools to get back on the yearly-Bible-reading horse.

Time and again, I’d attempt the one-year journey only to find my bookmark stuck at the beginning of Leviticus when the Christmas tree was coming back out again. For a few years, I battled discouragement and frustration.

But thankfully, the past decade has been a process of reengaging with Scripture and the God of Scripture—and meeting a lot of dear friends who are on the same journey. Here are four redefining elements of my Bible study over the past decade that have restored both my joy in and practice of yearly Bible reading.

1. Redefine Expectations

One of the great blessings of reading church history is that you’ll encounter 2,000 years of faithful, God-glorifying Christians who were far more sanctified than you or me—many of whom never read their Bibles in a year. I found in my Bible-less and sometimes illiterate superiors in the faith the freedom to use their resources—meditation, memorization, listening, and fellowship—to free me from the guilt of missing my daily Bible reading. I needed the encouragement of my forebearers to tell me that failure in daily Bible reading wasn’t a failure in the faith.

Failure in daily Bible reading wasn’t a failure in the faith.

It’s said Martyn Lloyd-Jones was speaking to a group of medical students who complained about not having time to read Scripture. After dismissing their excuse, Lloyd-Jones said, “I make only one exception: the mother of preschool-aged children does not have time and emotional resources.” Since encountering this quip, I’ve used it to encourage several moms who are in a similar situation.

Change your view of the expectations surrounding whole-Bible reading, and you’ll walk away more, not less, motivated to read about Jesus who delights to encounter us in his Word.

2. Redefine Scope

Instead of aiming for the entire Bible, why not allow yourself to adjust to reading a single book of the Bible? Sometimes less is more. Give yourself a year to become your church’s expert in a particular book. Instead of going wide, go deep.

Use a single-book Scripture journal as you work. Write prayers inspired by the text and send them to an accountability partner each day. Use a commentary to help you consider alternative interpretations of the text. Do word studies across the book to get a better sense of its themes. Memorize a portion of the book or an entire shorter book. If you are a church leader, set a goal to produce a study guide for your church at the end of the year. But ultimately, allow your soul to rest in a slower-paced reading of Scripture.

3. Redefine Duration

30-day Bible reading plan
My 30-day Bible reading plan

Over time, my attention span has narrowed significantly. As my vocational and domestic demands have multiplied, I find I don’t have the discipline to repeat a task every day in the same way for an entire year.

There’s a reason why most diet and exercise plans only last 90 days, so I read the entire Bible in 90 days instead. It’s a short enough span for me to keep focused. It’s labor-intensive, but I can usually stay on track with just about any task for a few months at a time. The goal is visible and attainable at the beginning of the year.

Is your attention span too narrow for three months? I’ve even done a 30-day plan. You’ll get a birds-eye view of Scripture and still have 11 more months to do a book study!

4. Redefine Method

Allow yourself to use crutches. I know some reading purists who rule out audiobooks, but don’t forget Scripture was originally an audiobook—it was read aloud to the people of Israel and in the early New Testament churches (Neh. 8:1–3; 1 Tim. 4:13).

This path to engaging with Scripture can be a huge blessing, particularly in narrative portions of Scripture (Genesis–Job, Matthew–Acts). Keep your print Bible close by to note portions from the audio version where you want to invest more time and engage in closer study. Finding a narrator you like for an audio version of the Bible is also important, and the ESV app provides an expanding list of narrators.

You can also introduce variety into your yearly reading by using different versions each year. Try the NASB one year for a more literalistic rendering of the text. Try the NLT the next for a more periphrastic approach. The CSB or ESV provides a wonderful middle ground that renders narrative in a way that sounds much more like spoken English. Hearing or reading the text in a new way can help break up the “sameness” of the process.

The whole Bible is written to point us to Jesus (John 5:39). Redefine your assumptions about yearly Bible reading and see him afresh.

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Blessing of Not Seeing https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/blessing-not-seeing/ Sun, 25 Dec 2022 05:00:25 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=536869 We haven’t seen our Savior face-to-face. But Jesus says we are blessed.]]> Read

Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:29)

Reflect

The Advent story is filled with people who got to see Jesus face-to-face. Mary and Joseph, of course, were the first to set eyes on God in human flesh, to hold his hands, to kiss his feet. They were quickly joined by others. The shepherds arrived next: “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see,” they told one another (Luke 2:15). Simeon also saw the child—even held him in his arms (Luke 2:28). Anna saw him (Luke 2:36–38). The wise men saw him (Matt. 2:10–11). And those initial visitors were just a small fraction of the multitudes who would soon come to sit at the incarnate Savior’s feet.

I confess to feeling a little jealous.

I’d like to see Jesus too. I’d like to gaze on his face—to learn the contour of his chin and the color of his eyes. I’d like to hear his voice with physical ears. I’d like to touch his hands and worship at his feet. Thankfully, today’s verse speaks to everyone born too late to be at either the manger or the tomb. We haven’t seen our Savior face-to-face. But Jesus says we are blessed.

We haven’t seen our Savior face-to-face. But Jesus says we are blessed.

We are those of whom Peter says, “Though you have not seen him, you love him” (1 Pet. 1:8), and who Paul says “walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7). While the crowds in Jesus’s earthly lifetime often sought him for the dazzle of a miracle or the spectacle of a sign, we seek our unseen Savior by faith—a faith that could only come from his Spirit. If we haven’t seen and yet still believe, we can have confidence that he lives with us and is at work in us (cf. John 14:17). Truly, we are blessed.

The manger is empty, and the tomb is empty too. Ultimately, it would be foolish to look for Christ in either of those places. Instead, we turn the eyes of faith heavenward, “[seeking] the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God” (Col. 3:1). Do we want to see Jesus? We must seek him where he is. We approach him in worship, we seek him in prayer, and we gaze on him in his Word. We may not have made it to Bethlehem on that starry night, but Christ is nevertheless present with us by his Word and Spirit—particularly in the gathering of his church.

The manger is empty, and the tomb is empty too. Ultimately, it would be foolish to look for Christ in either of those places.

We may not have touched his swaddling cloths or heard his newborn cries, but we have everything we need to experience him. His sensible signs are bread and wine, his voice resounds from a pulpit and a page, his eyes and ears and hands are on display in the weekly assembly of his beloved body.

And one day, just as he ascended, he will return. Writing from his lonely exile on Patmos, John encourages our hearts: “Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him” (Rev. 1:7).

“Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev. 22:20).

Respond

Would you like to see Jesus? In what ways is walking by faith a blessing? How do you experience Christ by faith?

Rejoice

Not in that poor lowly stable, with the oxen standing by,
We shall see him, but in heaven, set at God’s right hand on high;
When like stars his children crowned all in white shall wait around.

– Cecil Frances Alexander, “Once in Royal David’s City”

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You Can’t Have Christmas Without Labor Pains https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/christmas-labor-pains/ Sat, 24 Dec 2022 05:00:09 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=536877 Mary was giving birth to the Savior who would save her from her sins. What did that experience feel like? It felt like pain.]]> Read

This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. (1 John 4:9, NIV)

Reflect

Fear. Abandonment. Shame. Surely Mary felt these emotions as she and her betrothed, far from home, looked for a place to stay. Every time a door closed and they were turned away, the situation seemed more desperate. Did she know she was ready to deliver when they made their bed in the stable, or did the realization come upon her suddenly in the night?

Straw needling her back. Sweat behind her neck. Nausea. Labor pains. These are just a few sensations Mary may have felt in the lead-up to the first Christmas. Childbirth is wonderful, but nothing about it is comfortable.

On our hardest days, it’s not easy to feel God’s love. We may feel pain, doubt, confusion, or despair because we cannot understand what God is doing. When our circumstances get worse instead of better, we may question whether God loves us.

I don’t know if Mary questioned God that night in Bethlehem as she pushed through contractions, but I do know she was experiencing God’s love in a way exponentially deeper than anything that could ever be felt. She was giving birth to the Savior who would save her from her sins. What did that experience feel like? It felt like pain.

Mary was giving birth to the Savior who would save her from her sins. What did that experience feel like? It felt like pain.

The Bible is full of stories of believers who looked like they’d been forgotten by God when, in reality, they were living through a crucial part of his salvation plan. Consider the stories of Joseph, Hannah, David, Daniel, Esther, and Elijah, just for a start. The very circumstances that might have made them feel abandoned by God were orchestrated by him to show his covenant-keeping love to the people of Israel.

We expect love to feel warm, comforting, and reassuring . . . and one day it will. As Mary gave birth to Jesus, she was feeling the labor pains that came into the world through the curse of sin (Gen. 3:16). But the baby she bore would reverse the curse so that one day there will be no more tears of pain.

When we feel pain, sorrow, bewilderment, or helplessness, we haven’t been forgotten by God. God’s love for you isn’t based on your feelings or your circumstances. It’s based on his unchanging character, which is always good. The evidence of that love is the gift of his beloved Son—the baby Mary cradled in her arms.

Respond

How have you seen God’s love in your life recently? Think beyond the obvious blessings to the experiences that have shown you the tangible love of God in your life.

Rejoice

Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, Love Divine,
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and Angels gave the sign.

– Christina Rossetti, “Love Came Down at Christmas

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Grieving People Need More than Your Thoughts https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/grieving-people-thoughts/ Fri, 23 Dec 2022 05:03:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=534392 We can do more than just ‘think of’ those who are grieving this Christmas. We can seek to comfort them like Christ comforts us.]]> Happily going about an ordinary November day, I felt the weight of my grief materialize as the first Christmas songs hit my ears. The holidays are here, but my mother is not. The sharp ache of missing Mom ailed me again as I dread her absence at upcoming gatherings.

Though it’s been over two years since Mom went home, there are moments that make our loss feel like it was yesterday. Remembering the time that’s passed underscores God’s faithfulness through his people who have shouldered our family’s pain. It makes me want to do likewise. As the body of Christ, we can do more than just “think of” those who are grieving this Christmas. We can seek to comfort them like Christ comforts us. Here are five practical ways.

1. Ask about their grief.

The Bible explicitly tells us to “weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15). If we’re to take that instruction seriously, we’ll seek to anticipate the times our brothers and sisters are weeping. We know weeping is likely as the holidays approach and traditions highlight gaping absences in our homes.

But what should we do if our grieving friends or family members never bring up their loss? Keep in mind that talking or not talking about grief is an unreliable indicator of pain; some of the people in the greatest pain may be quiet about it. Grieving people may lack the words, strength, or headspace to initiate discussing their loss, but they likely hope you’ll remember.

Keep in mind that talking or not talking about grief is an unreliable indicator of pain.

Prayerfully letting the Spirit lead, you can gently acknowledge you’re sorry for how much she’s missing a loved one. You can send a card saying so or providing a memory of the person she lost. Or you can simply ask “How are you doing with grief as the holidays approach?” Her response can help you navigate your next step. At the very least, you reminded her she’s seen. And if a grieving person begins to share, we should be honored to linger and listen.

2. Remember for the long haul.

Notice that Romans 12:15 doesn’t put time limits on our weeping with others. Mere verses earlier, Paul reminds us to be patient in affliction (Rom. 12:12). It would be myopic to assume this only applies to our personal afflictions and not the afflictions of our brothers and sisters. Just as the Spirit makes us patient in our personal afflictions, he helps us also to be patient in loving others who are afflicted.

While the outpouring of love and support around the date of loss is indescribably beautiful and helpful, the marathon of grief that takes place long after the shock subsides demands our weeping with others be long-suffering. God never grows weary or faint, and he can renew our strength as comforters—even many years and holiday seasons into a dear one’s loss (Isa. 40:28).

3. Stop by.

One of the most meaningful comforts during my first Christmas after losing Mom was a group of family and friends who unexpectedly showed up on my lawn and sang to me. I still weep at the memory of how incredibly low I felt and how overwhelmingly loved I felt. This is the comfort of Christ in our sorrow! His unfailing love supports us (Ps. 94:18).

God never grows weary or faint, and he can renew our strength as comforters.

If showing up unannounced seems impolite, we can make ourselves available to those grieving through repeated offerings. With the offer of coffee dates. With an invitation to dinner at our house. With a text that says, “I’m going to drop some food on your porch at this time and if you want to chat, that’s great. If not, no pressure.” You’d be surprised how many times the grieving recipient opens the door and wants a hug.

Even if there’s little or no response to our offerings, Christ can still comfort through us by the sheer pursuit of another in pain. And we need not be offended if our offers are rebuffed, because we aren’t doing it for ourselves (Phil. 2:4).

4. Stay flexible.

One of the greatest mercies I’ve received in my grief is flexibility from others. We can’t avoid making plans for holiday gatherings—how else would they come about? And yet, we can’t avoid the unpredictability of grief—how can we know how sad we’ll feel when it comes time for the family gathering? Holding plans loosely for those grieving is one of the kindest responses to another’s pain. Letting him know there are no expectations also keeps us humble, tender, compassionate, and submitting to the One who has the ultimate plan anyway.

5. Pray for them.

It’s not enough to be “thinking” of a grieving person during the holidays. Our greatest work on his or her behalf is intercession to the ultimate Comforter whose peace guards hearts and minds and transcends all understanding (Phil. 4:7).

Set a daily reminder in your phone. Scribble a prayer for her and set it by your kitchen sink. Write his name on a bookmark in your Bible. Loss can be particularly glaring during the holidays. But the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort cares for those who are grieving—and invites us to participate in this care.

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Christmas Under the Sun https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/christmas-under-sun/ Fri, 23 Dec 2022 05:02:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=537112 A cancer patient asks: How might we better hold in tension light and darkness in this ‘wonderful’ season? What hath Christmas to do with crookedness?]]> Despite the Paul McCartney jingle echoing through our department stores this season, many of us will not be “simply having a wonderful Christmastime.” Much of our Christmas joy will be met, and made to sing, shoulder to shoulder with dissonant sorrows.

I’ve had cancer since 2018. I received my Stage 4 diagnosis in December 2020—just in time for Christmas to be included in all the crookedness of that year. This blow came just a month before our third child, Jane Ridley Wright, was born. We soon learned our “baby Jane” had been born with a regressive and rare gene mutation.

I bear witness that the hope and joy of Christmas are not easily held in hand with the harshness of life under the sun. It’s a weary task trying to unify it all: birth and disability, sacred and profane, transfiguration and tragedy, cancer and Christmas. But, as Leo Tolstoy observes, “All the beauty of life is made up of light and shadow.” Samwise Gamgee agrees: “It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were.”

It’s a weary task trying to unify it all: birth and disability, sacred and profane, transfiguration and tragedy, cancer and Christmas.

Maybe you’re not grappling with a cancer diagnosis or a suffering child; maybe you are. But all of us will one day meet something so off in our world that we ask, Does any of it matter? We’ll be tempted by nihilism because sometimes constructing a beautiful narrative to straighten what’s crooked is harder than just letting it all burn.

How might we better hold in tension light and darkness in this “wonderful” season? What hath Christmas to do with crookedness?

All Is Vanity

Ecclesiastes begins with this conclusion:

Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What does man gain by all the toil
at which he toils under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains forever. (Eccl. 1:2–4)

The Preacher’s oft-repeated phrase “under the sun” evokes a limited, disadvantaged view; it’s paradoxically hard to see under the sun. Think of it as Charles Taylor’s “immanent frame”—a closed system with nothing transcendent to orient us. We look for orientation in an array of things the Preacher goes on to explore: wealth, pleasure, folly, legacy, identity, popularity, influence, morality, vice, and more. Some of these have the potential to be good, but they all shrivel under the sun.

Meanwhile, “a generation goes, and a generation comes.” Everyone dies. We toil in search of “gain,” but to what end? All is death—vanity. No point. George Orwell sums up the Preacher’s sentiment: “Sometimes I think we’re all corpses. Just rotting upright.” What an uplifting sentiment for your Christmas! Be merry and bright, you’re rotting upright!

The Preacher serves us as a prophet of lack. He tells us that this desert world presents itself like a mirage, charged with the enticing grandeur of gain. But it’s an optical illusion; the world is naked, barren, and empty.

Yet the Preacher doesn’t subject us to this bleak vision of “under the sun” life for despair’s sake. Rather, he hopes to spark in us a longing for truly imperishable gain, for Someone beyond the immanent frame, a true Transcendent who offers real orientation and purpose.

Bell and Berry

As loudly as the off-key notes ring in the ears of all who experience suffering and its dissonance with Christmas hope, there remains a bright Bell that makes glad the people of God. Beyond the noise of our secular age, we can hear faint whispers of people who have dwelled in darkness but now have seen a great light (Isa. 9:2).

It’s only after coming to see the darkness that the light of Christmas truly shines. It’s only in the deafening dissonance that the faint, enrapturing, resonant bells of Christmas can really be heard. True life is savored best in the shadow of death.

True life is savored best in the shadow of death.

The Preacher’s grim picture of life provides us with the photonegative image of what we miss and truly desire, what Christmas beckons us toward. Darkness, in a way, vivifies the light. Shadow proves the sunshine. Hunger implies the existence of a supremely satisfying banquet. As Marilynne Robinson writes in Housekeeping,

To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savors of ripeness and earth, and when do our senses know anything so utterly as when we lack it?

What is the Bell our ears long to hear? What Berry will break upon the tongue and finally satisfy? It’s the Logos (Word) made flesh—a true Transcendent. This incarnate Logos is not an “it” but a personal “he,” born in a manger. As John declares the glory of Christmas, Jesus is a person who took on flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14). In his light, we finally see; in his life, we are finally free of death.

Hear the Bells

Darkness and death met Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the author of the classic “I Heard the Bells of Christmas Day.” His wife was killed when her dress caught fire, and his son ran away from home only to be severely injured in the Civil War. Hence Longfellow’s poem:

In despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then comes Longfellow’s breakthrough into Christmas hope:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail, The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

Francis Bacon observed, “A little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism, but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion.” To this we may add: A little suffering inclines man’s mind to despair, but depth in suffering brings men’s minds to the manger. For Longfellow, it was not joy that made the berry sweeter; it was pain. Pain secured for him a deeper joy than wife or child could ever secure or loss of them could ever touch. He found imperishable gain in Christ and so met beauty amid shadow.

A little suffering inclines man’s mind to despair, but depth in suffering brings men’s minds to the manger.

I’ve trembled at the hardships my family and I have had to endure, and the light and song of Christmas does wane in these tragedies. But to my fellow mourners: Take heart this Christmas. Though the wrong often seems so strong, the bells are still ringing for those who have ears to hear. “My beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:58). And neither are the hardships you endure.

My beautiful baby Jane was given the middle name Ridley, after one of my favorite poets, Frances Ridley Havergal. I leave you with lines from her poem Disappointment:

We mourned the lamp declining,
That glimmered at our side;
The glorious starlight shining
Has proved a better guide.
The discord that involveth
Some startling change of key,
The Master’s hand resolveth
In richest harmony.

Don’t buckle under the pressure to be “simply having a wonderful Christmastime.” Instead, have a very merry and complex Christmas, knowing now there is reason in the season, for “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).

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Move Beyond Exvangelicalism https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/moving-beyond-exvangelicalism/ Fri, 23 Dec 2022 05:00:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=531913 The exvangelical temptation is to forever fixate on what’s in the rearview mirror, giving little attention to the destination ahead.]]> Many today who identify as “exvangelicals” are deconstructing their faith. What’s keeping them from reconstructing that faith in a new tradition? Exvangelicalism.

An exvangelical is a sojourner, a person who came from one place and headed to another—a place, he hopes, more true, good, and beautiful than the one of his youth. The danger for deconstructing exvangelicals is that they make their home in a way station called exvangelicalism rather than settling into a new ecclesial home in which they might spiritually grow. The exvangelical temptation is to forever fixate, with great resentment, on what’s in the rearview mirror, giving little attention to the destination ahead.

Reactionary Identity

As the name suggests, the identity of exvangelicalism is inherently reactionary. What is it? It’s not evangelical. When I talk with my exvangelical friends about what they believe, it typically revolves around what they no longer believe: evangelicalism.

At this point, I should put my theological cards on the table: I’m neither a liberal nor a fundamentalist—I’m an evangelical. I believe the Bible is true truth. I believe the Spirit transforms hearts of stone to hearts of flesh through the miracle of the new birth. I believe in the good news that Jesus has come to save sinners like me from judgment and for glory; and I believe we’re to bear witness to this evangel in both word and deed.
To be clear, one may have very good reasons to leave a particular institution birthed out of the post-war evangelical movement, but doing so ought not require a repudiation of the theological tenets and emphases of evangelicalism. I’m confident that evangelicalism as a theological project will outlive evangelicalism as a sociological configuration. To that end, I’ve long served on the board of the Evangelical Fellowship in the Anglican Communion (EFAC-USA), a ministry founded by John Stott in 1961 to support evangelical renewal in Anglican contexts. All in all, I’m a content evangelical in the Cranmerian stream of Latimer and Ridley, Wilberforce and Simeon, McIlvaine and Ryle, Stott, and Packer.

The identity of exvangelicalism is inherently reactionary. What is it? It’s not evangelical.

While I’m proud of my evangelical bona fides, I know evangelicalism isn’t above criticism. Moving out of a tradition isn’t sinful; we all develop and change. But change should never be an end in itself, it should be a means to an end—namely, maturity. And nothing breeds immaturity like reactionism.

Appreciate the Tradition You Leave

Moving from one faith tradition to another need not follow the path of reactionary resentment. It’s possible to appreciate much of the goodness of our past even while we pursue a different future.

We have plenty of examples of people who reconstructed their faith in this sort of healthy, positive way. Read the empathy with which Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft interacts with the Reformed tradition of his youth or the affection with which the Reformed theologian Richard Mouw engages his fundamentalist upbringing. Does their charity make either Kreeft or Mouw somehow less in their respective traditions? To the contrary.

It’s possible to simultaneously appreciate much of the goodness of our past even while we pursue a different future.

It’s actually hard to embrace a new tradition without first naming and appreciating the charism of one’s former tradition. Why? Because sin is everywhere.

I had a friend in fourth grade who received regular beatings from his atheist dad. I had another friend who was abused by her fundamentalist parents. Sure, these people would justify their abuse in different ways, but that’s all it was: post hoc justification.

Ideas have consequences, to be sure, but more often than not people aren’t really motivated to abuse others by ideology. Abusers grab the nearest idea at hand to justify their sin after the fact.

Of course, this doesn’t make the sin of evangelicals less egregious. Insofar as evangelicals emphasize the self-giving love of Christ, their selfishness is worse than that of their unbelieving counterparts. There’s no question that some evangelicals have turned their backs on the sacred commands passed on to them. On the last day, it would have been better for them to have never known the way of righteousness (2 Pet. 2:21).

No Tradition Escapes Sin

Evangelicalism hasn’t cornered the market on sin and abuse. This mistaken notion might keep exvangelicals in exvangelicalism: they think by rejecting evangelicalism they can reject sin once and for all. But there are megalomaniac priests in the Eastern Orthodox Church. There are domineering fathers in the United Methodist Church. In the coming years, we’ll read more and more stories of those who were manipulated and repressed by “woke” curriculum, just as we’ve read of those harmed by the worst examples of anti-intellectual “Christian” textbooks.

If you’re joining a tradition with the hope of escaping sin, you’ll only stay in that tradition as long as it takes to get to know the people who inhabit it. The bad you’re deconstructing is likely present, albeit in another form, in the tradition you’re embracing. But to see the sin present in the tradition you’re entering, you have to be honest about the good that existed in the one you’re leaving.

If you’re joining a tradition with the hope of escaping sin, you’ll only stay in that tradition as long as it takes to get to know the people who inhabit it.

Compare the best and worst of both traditions and make your choice accordingly. Be charitably appreciative of the good parts of your faith upbringing, not just brutally critical of its bad parts. Then, be honest about the failings of the new tradition you’ve discovered, not just infatuated with its novelty.

Don’t stay in exvangelicalism. Find your way to a stronger, healthier expression of faith in which forward-moving growth looms larger than backward-looking angst.

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Rethink Female Bravery https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/rethinking-female-bravery/ Thu, 22 Dec 2022 05:03:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=532647 I don’t mean to downplay the importance of strong role models for young girls. But leading armies and defying supervillains isn’t a complete picture of bravery. ]]> I love a strong female lead as much as the next gal. But I confess that lately I’ve started to zone out whenever the elf queen, secret agent, or hero assassin begins kicking down doors and taking names. Incredible fight choreographers and highly specialized stunt women make scenes like this possible. Strong role models are valuable for young girls. It’s just that leading armies and defying supervillains isn’t a complete picture of bravery.

Alastair Roberts first caused me to consider this idea, and now the question keeps buzzing around in different forms. Why is physical dominance our measure for brave women? Why is heroism reserved for the person in charge—or the person with the weapon? Why aren’t there more stories that honor daring in the ordinary?

As modern leading ladies lose their luster, women in the Bible keep me on the edge of my seat. They’re ordinary and flawed, blessed and suffering. Many are tasked with difficult choices that change the course of nations and generations. Participating in the work God calls them to often looks backward and upside down from their cultural vantage point. It requires these women to take a leap of faith. God calls them to be brave, and it can look different than we might expect.

Defining Moments

I’m no cinematographer, but if I had to frame the scenes in the book of Judges with Deborah and Jael, they would be complex and conversational. The action doesn’t center on sweeping battle scenes but instead unfolds under trees and inside tents. Without downplaying the ferocity of assassination by tent peg, I’d argue that feats of strength are not their only—or even most impressive—acts of courage.

Deborah’s leadership over the nation of Israel is wonderfully collaborative (Judg. 4:4–10). When she sees Barak stalling in response to the Lord’s command to go into battle, she doesn’t push him aside and take over amid his failure. Instead, she offers a game plan and encourages him to do the job she knows he’s qualified to do.

But her counsel is more than just giving her two cents before she turns back to her loom. At Barak’s request, Deborah goes out with the troops into battle, putting her life at risk to be available for ongoing support. Her military strategy is to let Barak do what he does well as a soldier and commander, while she also brings her expertise to the table. It makes sense, then, why Deborah calls herself a “mother in Israel” (Judg. 5:7) Just like a biological mother, her significant influence is not without the risk of bodily harm (I’m willing to bet she even carried a sword), but her bravery isn’t the self-glorification of a lone ranger. Deborah works together with Barak, courageously following God to care for her people, to preserve the family.

Her bravery isn’t the self-glorification of a lone ranger.

Esther is another powerful woman in the family of God. Her battle takes place not in fields or tents but in the king’s court (Est. 5–7). While Deborah may have carried a sword, Esther’s weapon of choice was a banquet. When she learned of Haman’s genocidal plot against the Jews, Esther did not storm the throne room. Understanding the precariousness of her social situation and her own physical vulnerability, Esther flexed her relational muscles and shrewdly reasoned with Ahasuerus. Her brave confrontation was carefully measured and saved countless lives.

Day-to-Day Battles

As much as I admire the work God did through Deborah and Esther in these dramatic political moments—hoping I’d show the same fortitude with a blade against my own neck—other women in Scripture, like Ruth and Naomi, reveal that bravery on a small scale is no less important. These women show us what it looks like to trust in the Lord’s provision, rely on the support of our communities, and boldly advocate for those in need. And they remind me of my favorite unsuspecting warrior, the bleeding woman in Mark 5.

This unnamed woman waged a 12-year fight for healing that drained her entire savings and led her in desperation to the hem of Jesus’s robe. Her battles are perhaps the most intimate and relatable, echoing our God-given desire for wellness and relationships and the war we wage inside our minds to believe in truth.

When I read how Jesus told the bleeding woman her faith had made her well, I’m reminded that our Savior isn’t soiled by sin or swallowed up in our suffering. He sees us fighting against doubt and helps us get back up when our legs are knocked out from under us. He knows when we struggle to be taken seriously or to believe our worth as his children. He draws near as we combat cynicism after being hurt by those we turned to for help. In acknowledging this woman’s faith, Jesus affirms the bravery of those willing to trust in him through the day-to-day battles of life.

True Bravery

These women’s stories invite us to consider the connection between wisdom and bravery. Each of them must navigate complex circumstances that require wise, nuanced action. What makes them brave isn’t their radical choices in a vacuum but the delicate interplay between their faith in God’s promises and their commitment to living by God’s good instruction. Bravery is a step of faith on the path of wisdom. These women align with their sister, the personified Lady Wisdom of Proverbs, and discover that seeking the source of all wisdom is better than taking charge.

Bravery is a step of faith on the path of wisdom.

As Christians, we regularly believe in things unseen. We hope in what God has assured us. We don’t think of this as bravery. We call it faith (Heb. 11:1). We know it takes faith to believe God will provide for our family when our husband unexpectedly loses his job. We pray in faith when a dear friend becomes ill. We cling to faith when the right choice means risking reputation or relationships.

And then comes the test of our bravery—what will our faith actually compel us to do? When we’re guided by the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, faithful hearts are moved to acts of courage. Wisdom calls out to us, and she’s joined by a chorus of women in the Bible, pointing us to the way of the Lord. If we follow their lead, we will truly be brave.

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How Not to Gossip During the Holidays https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/not-gossip-holidays/ Thu, 22 Dec 2022 05:02:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=536185 How do you know when you’ve crossed the line from storytelling to gossip? And what can you do about it?]]> I always look forward to visiting with my husband’s uncle around the holidays. He tells the best stories. Whether it was an odd encounter on the subway or a recipe gone wrong, his tales get me laughing so hard it hurts.

There’s something about sharing stories that connects us to others. We tell stories to laugh together. We tell stories to help others know us. And we tell stories to preserve history.

But sometimes as we sit around telling stories, we get a little uncomfortable. What started as a lighthearted recounting of experience may turn into a critical review of someone’s motives and actions. What started as laughing together may turn into laughing at the expense of someone not present. There can be a fine line between storytelling and gossip. How do we know when we or someone we’re listening to has crossed it?

What Is Gossip?

Gossip can be hard to neatly define. It takes many forms and relates not only to what we say but also to our motives for saying it. As a starting point, Jeff Robinson explains that gossip involves “telling a story . . . that communicates bad news about another person behind that person’s back.” Gossip usually fits into one of two categories: (1) sharing false information or rumors or (2) sharing true information that paints someone in a negative light.

There can be a fine line between storytelling and gossip.

Ephesians 4:29 exhorts us, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.”

Gossip may build up the one who shares it, but it tears down another person. And to those who hear it, gossip gives strife and creates division (Prov. 16:28).

Why Am I Gossiping?

Gossip is usually motivated by self-love and self-promotion, Robinson says. So we’re wise to examine our hearts as well as the content of our stories. Even if the bad news is true, why do I want to share it?

  • Am I trying to impress others with my insider information?
  • Am I trying to make myself look good by comparison?
  • Am I harboring resentment or jealousy toward the other person?
  • Do I simply find the person annoying?

It can be hard to do a careful examination of your own heart while sitting at a crowded kitchen table. So it’s critical to stay tethered to your quiet times and to keep clinging to what is good (Rom. 12:9).

How Can I Avoid Gossip?

Since our words are the overflow of our hearts (Matt. 12:34), we should begin by coming before the Lord in repentance, asking him to give us hearts that love him and others above ourselves. We can pray for the people we’re tempted to gossip about, that God would bless them and redeem their bad news. We can pray about situations—particular settings or relationships—where we’re most tempted to gossip, asking the Lord to set a guard over our mouths (Ps. 141:3).

I’ve also found a three-tiered filter for my words helpful in avoiding gossip. As we consider stories or information we might want to share this Christmas, or as we reflect on things we hear, we can ask the following questions.

1. Is it true?

If you’ve ever played the telephone game, you know just how significantly information can change when it passes from one person to another. So just because you heard something from a source you consider reliable doesn’t mean the information is true. Before you share a story about someone else, stop and evaluate whether you have confidence that you know the truth of the matter. But even if you witnessed it with your own eyes, we must go on to the second filter.

2. Is it necessary?

Just because something is true, doesn’t mean it needs to be shared. It may be true that your sister’s husband was fired from his job for misconduct, but is it necessary to give your extended family a detailed account of what he did and how his boss found out? Wouldn’t it suffice to say that he lost his job and is seeking new employment? Or maybe it’s not necessary to bring up at all.

Sometimes there may be a good reason to share bad news. Perhaps you’re visiting your hometown for the holidays and before you head to the Christmas Eve service, your mother mentions that your beloved childhood Sunday school teacher was recently divorced. That information might be necessary for you to know so you don’t unknowingly cause this woman pain by asking about her husband. And that leads us to the final question.

3. Is it kind?

As with the divorce situation, it may be kind to share information that allows others to be sensitive as they interact with someone who is suffering or grieving. But this filter not only asks us to consider what we share but how we share it.

Even if something is true and we deem it necessary to say, we should consider how we can share it kindly. This might mean pulling someone aside for a private conversation rather than sharing in front of a large group. It might mean telling a story in a way that presents someone in the best possible light rather than telling it in a way that will get the most laughs. It might mean sharing with an attitude of humility and compassion rather than arrogance and sarcasm.

How Can I Stop Someone Else’s Gossip?

What should we do when we’re in a conversation and realize someone else is gossiping? First, pray and ask the Lord for wisdom. Depending on the situation and your relationship with the person sharing gossip, there may be a range of appropriate responses.

Even if something is true and we deem it necessary to say, we should consider how we can share it kindly.

You might look for an opportunity to gently turn the conversation toward a different, more appropriate topic. Or you might humbly offer a different perspective on the person being gossiped about. I’ve found it helpful in situations where someone is being criticized or made fun of to respond with a story about the person that presents her in a positive light. Or I might directly compliment the person: “I’ve always appreciated how thoughtful Bob is to remember what my kids are interested in and ask them about it.”

If you don’t think those tactics will work, you might choose to discretely step away and join another conversation. You might even lovingly confront the gossiper in private later, especially if you’ve noticed a pattern.

But perhaps the best way to stop gossip is to tell stories of beauty and redemption. My husband and I host a New Year’s Eve feast for six other couples each year, and we ask them to reflect on the year and come to the table prepared to share how they’ve seen God at work, great books they’ve read, new curiosities they’ve explored, and other people who have blessed them. The result is an evening of conversation where we point each other to “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable” (Phil. 4:8).

If you’re concerned about gossip at holiday gatherings, you don’t necessarily need to agonize over every word you’ll speak or gear yourself up for an awkward confrontation. Consider “if there is anything worthy of praise” (Phil. 4:8)—and talk about that.

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Is America Doomed to a Post-Christian Future? https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/america-post-christian-future/ Thu, 22 Dec 2022 05:00:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=532620 The trajectories of revivalist America and high-church Europe are likely different, though we have enough in common to learn from each other.]]> A common idea expressed by American pastors and politicians alike is that secular European countries offer a case study on America’s future. In 20 years, it’s thought, the U.S. will become increasingly like the countries of Europe.

As a Swede living in Denmark, I was repeatedly drawn into discussions on this topic while visiting pastors in the U.S. this summer. Is America demonstrating similar patterns as the Nordics—notorious for their secularity and liberalism? Is it only a matter of time before gospel-believing Christians become the extreme minority?

Increasingly, American Christians look to Europeans for advice, to extend their wisdom and expertise on how to reach a “post-Christian culture.” While these questions are based on an intuitive premise, is it true that America will follow in the footsteps of Europe? It’s my view that the trajectory of revivalist America and high-church Europe are different, though we have enough in common to learn from each other.

Different Nations

I see two significant differences between the U.S. and the path of Nordic nations.

First, the U.S. was founded on religious freedom through the nonmagisterial Reformation—the Protestant Reformation that wasn’t integrated by nation-states or dictated by royal courts. In many ways, the U.S. was a place of refuge for Anabaptists and Puritans who lacked religious freedom in their European homelands. Religious freedom seems to have been written into the foundation of America in ways that are decidedly not the case in the Nordics. Of course, a country founded on religious liberty can still end up equally post-Christian, but the path to get there will look different than in those with national churches.

A country founded on religious liberty can still end up equally post-Christian, but the path to get there will look different than in those with national churches.

Second, the U.S. remains more integrated and diverse than many European countries. It’s common for those in the Nordics to look at persistent racial tensions in the U.S. as chronic and out of line with modern times. However, as Nordic societies confront the challenges of immigration from the Global South and the Middle East, it’s become apparent that leading a compassionate and inclusive society without having a strong base of homogeneity to count on is complicated. Thus it’s possible the U.S. could be better equipped to handle the multiculturalism that threatens the Christendom mindset of Europe. These sociocultural realities also put the U.S. on a different path toward a post-Christian destination.

Same Destination?

To be clear, the intuition of American Christians may not be entirely unfounded. Looking around, it’s easy to note similarities between the Nordics and the U.S., particularly on the coasts and in densely populated cities.

First, there seems to be a critical mass of cynicism toward religious institutions throughout the West. This has long been the case within established Anglican, Catholic, and Lutheran churches in Europe, as increasing numbers reject participation and membership in state-sponsored religious activities. As this trend spills into the U.S., American churches need to draw clear distinctions between the dominating religious systems, traditions, and hierarchies and true gospel Christianity, demonstrating the falseness of “cultural Christianity” or even so-called Christian nations.

Second, financial stability and cultural wealth in America have reached unprecedented levels in recent history, increasingly competing with the satisfaction offered in the gospel. One of the biggest challenges to ministry in the Nordics is that the “good life” seems to be offered freely and easily by the secular welfare state, lulling people to sleep through indulged forgetfulness of their deepest needs (Hos. 13.6). The strength of the American financial machine and technological innovations offer ease and comfort on a godless platter.

Taken together, the increasing distrust of religious institutions and the pursuit of satisfaction through materialism represent a significant challenge to Christian witness in both Europe and America.

Become Otherworldly

How does the church respond in such a situation? The letter of 1 Peter is written to Christians dealing with limited cultural power, to those feeling sidelined and resisted by mainstream society. When we lack cultural power, we’re tempted to seek relevance with the world to become more effective. But Peter counsels the church in exile to lean into their call to be otherworldly and different, to embrace their identity as a unique and holy nation (1 Pet. 2:9–10).

Increasing distrust of religious institutions and the pursuit of satisfaction through materialism together represent a significant challenge to Christian witness in both Europe and America.

My Danish seminary classmates have sought to build such a community of saints through their book Kristen I Grænselandet (Christian in the borderlands). In a section on “Holy Life in Practice,” they discuss topics such as the Christian’s foreignness in the world, the genius of God’s design in sex and marriage, the goodness of moral boundaries, and how to shepherd and serve the church. These young Christians in the Nordics are calling for holiness, not relevance.

Recently, I had a call with several ladies who shared similar sentiments. They’re planning the first TGC Nordic women’s conference, which will address biblical priorities related to home, marriage, and family. Rather than striving to make friends with the culture, they want to focus on the much-maligned topics of biblical sexuality and complementarity. This wasn’t my idea, but it seems young Christians in the Nordics are calling for distinctiveness, not relevance, as the priority for gospel-believing Christians who find themselves on the margins of society. Like Peter, they believe exiles should be marked by goodness and holy living to make the gospel attractive to others (1 Pet. 2:11–12).

What the Future Holds

The Nordics didn’t become post-Christian overnight. And while we shouldn’t oversimplify the relationship between the U.S. and post-Christian Europe, there are warning signs we can heed. Based on my experience in the Nordics, I believe there are some things the American church should avoid at this time and others it should pursue.

I believe the challenges of our day call for less time bickering over policy and polity and more time locking arms with true gospel-centered churches. Less time pursuing entertainment and luxury, and more time loving and serving our neighbors. Less time defending the church’s diminishing territory, and more time working with other Christians in our shared mission. In short, we should be different.

The American church may be looking for a way to predict where it’s heading. But more than just looking to Europe, we should look to Christ, to believers who’ve gone before, and to our scriptural call to be a holy people on mission.

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Don’t Forget Missionaries at Christmas https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/forget-missionaries-christmas/ Wed, 21 Dec 2022 05:03:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=536160 Since holidays are hard for cross-cultural workers and missionaries, it’s pretty easy to encourage us during these seasons. Here are some ways you can help.]]> Frank Sinatra crooned the words of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” Twinkle lights sparkled red and green in the darkness. The scent of woodsmoke swirled around me. Home. I savored the sound, the look, the smell, the feel of home around the holidays.

Then a motorbike swerved in front of me, and the spell was broken.

Sinatra was just playing through my headphones. The faux woodsmoke was the scent of burning joss paper (an offering to departed ancestors). The twinkle lights were real—a Taiwanese appropriation of the American custom. I was nowhere near home. Instead, I was 7,665 miles away from my family because I serve as a cross-cultural worker.

Far from Home for the Holidays

In Christmas stories, it’s a common trope that a person is away from home for the holidays. And yet, he or she magically finds light, love, and community in a place that instantly becomes a home away from home. Anyone who has actually spent a holiday away from his or her family knows it doesn’t feel like a rom-com. There are typically tears at inopportune moments. Homesickness can be triggered by an image, a smell, or a memory, which means that imagery-rich holidays are minefields.

There are typically tears at inopportune moments. Homesickness can be triggered by an image, a smell, or a memory.

In addition to missing our families, it can be hard to celebrate Western traditions when living abroad. This year, we celebrated Thanksgiving without turkey because it couldn’t be imported. During my first year in Asia, four of us ladies piled into three and a half taxi seats to find a store that had Christmas decorations. When we found the shop, most of the merchandise was too ugly to buy. I have a lot of friends who are tentmakers and have to work during Western holidays. Holidays overseas are challenging.

How to Help

Since holidays are hard for cross-cultural workers and missionaries, it’s pretty easy to encourage us during these seasons. Here are some ways you can help.

1. Pray for missionaries.

We serve a loving God who knows us intimately. Pray for us to see God’s love in personal ways. Pray for him to provide little touches of home on a foreign field.

2. Share your holiday events with them.

Is there a Christmas program your church is recording or streaming? Are you doing an Advent reading as a church? Share links with us.

3. Send a Christmas card.

It’s a delight to receive mail overseas. Even if you’re not close friends with a missionary, she’ll be thrilled to receive mail from you. International mail can take longer than domestic mail, but that doesn’t minimize the joy of receiving a Christmas card. I once received a Christmas card around Valentine’s Day and was so excited.

4. Send a box.

International shipping is pricey, but there’s nothing quite as magical as receiving a box of surprises. Common Western grocery store items like candy canes, Reese’s Cups, and taco seasoning are worth their weight in gold when you can’t get them on the field. Holiday decorations are also a blessing. Check with the missionaries about which items are worth sending and what shipping option works best where they are. You may want to collaborate with other families at your church to split the expense.

5. Arrange a Zoom prayer call.

Last year, my prayer team from my sending church surprised me by having the elders and their families join our call. I got to share with them about my ministry and feel a part of their homes for those 45 minutes. That call brought me immeasurable renewal in a hard season of ministry. You can arrange a group from your church or use social media to pull together a group of the missionary’s friends.

6. Bless families financially.

Missionaries typically have very tight budgets which can make holidays hard, especially for missionary kids. You may already be supporting them financially, but that money is allotted for ministry and necessities. Sending missionaries a little extra money via a cash transfer app can allow them to take their kids on a trip, buy a special gift, or go out to eat at a restaurant that tastes like home.

7. Bless singles relationally.

Missionary families tend to create new traditions on the field, but singles can struggle to make holidays special because there’s a lack of continuity from year to year. Reach out to those who are single and let them know you remember them. Even a quick message on Christmas Day can be a delightful blessing. You can also record a video of your kids telling them “Merry Christmas!” or schedule a time for a video chat.

8. Pray for gospel conversations.

Nationals are often curious about Western holidays, which means these challenging seasons are gospel opportunities. Pray for grace and alertness to make the most of invitations to share the reason for the season.

It doesn’t take a lot to remind us of the familiarity, safety, and coziness of home. By encouraging us, you can help us stay faithful to our callings and give us a little more joy to share with people who have never heard of Christ. We may only be home for Christmas in our dreams, but at least we’ll be reminded we’re part of God’s family as we reach out across cultures.

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How Not to Dread the Holidays https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/before-foundation/ Wed, 21 Dec 2022 05:02:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=533398 Paul didn’t intend a debate when he wrote these words to the Ephesians. He wanted to assure them that belonging to God doesn’t happen by a random stroke of luck.]]> When we look ahead to Christmas and the New Year, it’s easy to feel both happy anticipation and nervous dread. But the good news is that we face whatever is ahead with God’s loving presence. God wants us to know this reality.

Before you read another word, look up from this page and spend some time reflecting on these origin words from the book of Genesis: “In the beginning, God.”

Usually, we’d have already wandered ahead without contemplating why Scripture begins with these particular, and even peculiar, words. What thoughts spring to mind as you consider them? Images of a darkened, murky, uncreated world without landscapes, architecture, animals, or humans? Does the word “beginning” recall the opening scenes of a memorable film or the first pages of a favorite novel? Perhaps it’s difficult for you to imagine what a beginning looked like before God spoke our world into being. What’s important for us isn’t what it was like before God formed the world but that God was there. Before he supernaturally declared the world into existence from unimaginable nothingness, God was.

When we imagine the beginning of our world, the most significant detail to note is that Scripture doesn’t allow us to think of it without God’s presence. Before anything, there was something: God. Even more astonishingly, Ephesians 1 tells us that before the beginning, God had already chosen you.  

Chosen 

He chose us in him before the foundation of the world. (Eph. 1:4a)

As a songwriter, I get ideas for lyrics and melodies in abstract and unique ways that seem to defy any objective formula or rational explanation. As much as I wish my inspiration would come prepackaged in a monthly subscription, it insists on being ghostlike. Before I conceive or compose a lyric or melody in my consciousness, a mere image will materialize, the grain of a song that will someday be realized in recorded fruition.

Before the beginning, God had already chosen you.

Of course, my method for songwriting is a woefully incomplete illustration of how God chose us. God’s creation process could not have begun with an incomplete idea. Before he composed the opening notes that would constitute his creation song, in his unfathomably infinite foreknowledge, he had already chosen a people to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Gen. 1:28). Equally as thought-provoking is this stunning realization: not only did God have a purpose for all humanity, he also planned what our purpose would be as his chosen people.

Holy 

. . . that we should be holy and blameless before him. (Eph. 1:4b)

To be a chosen son or daughter of God is to become holy and blameless, or, to say it another way, to be set apart before him and for him. The reason God can only make his home with those who are set apart and righteous like himself, so he chose to make you holy. 

Of course, when God set us apart, he knew another decision must be made as well.  

Predestined 

In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will. (Eph. 1:4b–5)

There it is. That troublesome word “predestine” in all its glory. 

The idea of predestination makes some mildly, or wildly, uncomfortable, but the apostle Paul didn’t intend a debate when he wrote these words to the Ephesians. He wanted to assure them that belonging to God doesn’t happen by a random stroke of luck. No, God loved us before he made us, and he planned to adopt us.  The sinful status we were born into meant God wasn’t our Father at birth. But God meant for you to be his, so he created you, loved you, chose you, planned for you, and purposed to be with you.  

Paul didn’t intend a debate when he wrote these words to the Ephesians. He wanted to assure them that belonging to God doesn’t happen by a random stroke of luck.

Forever.  

As you look ahead toward the holidays, remember that none of your beginnings will begin in the absence of God’s presence. In the same way God was present before he created the world, he will continue to go before you in all things.

This reminds you that all those beginning things that cause so much fear, unrest, and anxiety will not be entered into alone or carried out in isolation. Before your beginning, God had already begun planning your creation and salvation. And he has plans for this new beginning as well. 

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Introducing ‘The Gospel Coalition Bible Commentary’ https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/introducing-tgc-bible-commentary/ Wed, 21 Dec 2022 05:00:28 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=535545 Announcing The Gospel Coalition Bible Commentary: modern, understandable, legally available, trustworthy, polished, and useful to the global church.]]> My office resembles a Don Carson quip: “Some people have a filing system; I have a piling system.” Pick any passage of Scripture or theological issue, and I have a handful of books at my fingertips to provide additional insights. But as I’ve taught in Latin America, Asia, and Africa, I regularly encounter pastors whose library is either nonexistent or merely a shared bookshelf at a central training site. I encounter leaders whose appetite for biblical study often exceeds what I see in the U.S. but whose resources pale in comparison.

And this is all the more true when it comes to the staple biblical study resource for pastors and teachers—the commentary. I’ve wished for a commentary that’s modern, understandable, legally available, trustworthy, polished, and useful to the global church.

Solution to the Empty Bookshelf

Today, I’m excited to announce this wish for the global church has come true. The Gospel Coalition Bible Commentary is now available in English to fulfill this need, with translations already started in other languages. Even though a handful of books and enhancements are still awaiting publication in early 2023, I couldn’t wait to begin making our readers aware of this valuable resource for the global church right away. Here’s a glimpse into what’s already available:

And this isn’t TGC’s first foray into serving the global church with high-value staple content for Christian leaders. We’ve provided an easily deployable catechism, free courses, a daily Bible reading plan with a free devotional, a complete modular systematic theology resource, and much more.

Help Build the Bookshelf

The reality of projects of this quality and scope is that—even though they’re free or cheap for the pastor in Peru or India or Nigeria—they’re incredibly expensive to produce. Even with care on our part to steward resources well, this project cost TGC around $500,000. But we’re producing resources like these because we believe God has called us to this mission. We’re trusting he’ll send us partners who believe in the same mission and will help us continue to build the standard bookshelf of resources for pastors around the world.

Would you consider partnering with us in this mission? One simple way is to subscribe to our ministry resources newsletter and help spread the word about these new resources to your friends in ministry around the world. Another incredible way to partner with us is to become a regular supporter of the ministry of TGC.

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Top Theology Stories of 2022 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/podcasts/gospelbound/top-theology-stories-2022/ Tue, 20 Dec 2022 05:03:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=gospelbound&p=536027 Collin Hansen and Melissa Kruger look back on the major stories and trends of 2022 and preview big releases of 2023. ]]> In this special edition episode of Gospelbound, I’m joined by my good friend and colleague Melissa Kruger. We look back on the big stories and trends of 2022, discuss how God has moved in and through our ministries, and share books that have stuck with us. We also take some time to thank you, our listeners, for encouraging us in the work of Gospelbound and Let’s Talk.

We discuss:

  • Timothy Keller: His Spiritual and Intellectual Formation by Collin Hansen, and the idea of self-forgetfulness (5:36)
  • His Grace Is Enough by Melissa Kruger, written for kids and young adults alike (10:05)
  • The internet revolution and exposing abuse in the church (15:40)
  • How we can love the church unabashedly and with awareness (19:02)
  • Gospel advancement amid world conflict (20:11)
  • 2022, the year that history began again (21:55)
  • The state of the church in Russia and Ukraine (23:26)
  • The state of the church in China (24:20)
  • How culture tries to answer the reason for hopelessness and lostness (31:27)
  • How the church can positively affect kids and teens (36:33)
  • How do parents discuss biblical sexual ethics with their teens? (40:00)
  • The overturning of Roe v. Wade (48:19)
  • The most memorable Gospelbound interviews of 2022 (54:52)
  • Upcoming Gospelbound interviews for 2023 (1:01:00)
  • Why this episode of Let’s Talk was the most downloaded (1:02:36)
  • Books that have stuck with us (1:06:49)
  • How the internet can help you grow your ministry (1:23:40)
  • A few of our favorite things (1:28:55)

Mentioned in this episode:

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Your Church Needs Women to Teach the Bible https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/reviews/empowered-equipped-higgins/ Tue, 20 Dec 2022 05:02:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=book-review&p=536312 The church needs gifted women who not only speak on a short list of ‘female-friendly’ topics but who teach the whole counsel of God.]]> I remember the first time I stood up to teach the Bible to a group of women in my local church. I was terrified. Yes, I studied the passage diligently and spent hours preparing pages of notes, but I wasn’t sure if my preparation was effective. Is my teaching structured well? Will the women be interested or learn anything new? Have I interpreted this passage correctly?

Many women who are asked to teach a Sunday School class, speak at a Bible study, or lead a small group experience similar fears. They often have little or no training specific to teaching Scripture and feel unequipped and insecure in their preparation. Even so, the abundance of resources available on the subject of teaching Scripture can be paralyzing for a new Bible teacher.

That’s why we need books like Empowered and Equipped: Bible Exposition for Women Who Teach the Scriptures. Julia Higgins, assistant professor of ministry to women at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, seeks to provide women with the tools they need to faithfully and effectively teach the Word of God to other women.

Should Women Teach the Bible?

First we must ask, Is a book that encourages and equips women to teach Scripture necessary or even appropriate? There’s much discussion today about whether the Bible permits women to teach at all.

In an effort to submit to Scripture’s teaching, many have unfortunately moved beyond what God’s Word prescribes to impose unbiblical restrictions on women. To argue that women shouldn’t teach Scripture in any formal setting misunderstands God’s design for discipleship. Higgins argues that all followers of Christ, including women, are included in the Great Commission and its call to teach other disciples everything Christ commanded.

Furthermore, as Higgins explains, “Some may conflate the spiritual gift of teaching with the office of pastor/elder and draw a false conclusion that only men are to exercise the gift of teaching. While qualified men are responsible to teach and oversee the local church, that does not negate the fact that both men and women are given the spiritual gift of teaching.”

All followers of Christ, including women, are included in the Great Commission and its call to teach other disciples everything Christ commanded.

Spiritual gifts, including the gift of teaching, are given for the common good (1 Cor. 12:7) and for building up the church (1 Cor. 14:12). It follows that women are not only permitted to teach in appropriate settings but are needed for the growth and maturity of the body of Christ. This pattern is exemplified in the women in Scripture who are called to teach and commended for their teaching ministries, many of which Higgins references.

In light of the biblical call for women to teach, Higgins writes,

The end of the matter is this: women should be given a context where they can teach the Word in the local church. Why? Because Christ’s church will grow and others will be discipled in the faith.

Her book, therefore, provides “a pathway for women to exercise teaching gifts in the local church,” and specifically focuses on training women to teach women.

Helpful Foundation

Higgins provides an accessible yet substantial foundation for teaching Scripture. She incorporates principles and strategies from some of the most highly respected Bible teachers of our day, giving readers a well-rounded introduction to teaching Scripture without information overload.

Higgins has a high view of God’s Word and a Christ-centered approach that highlights the overarching storyline of the Bible. Readers will gain essential tools for expository teaching, learning to base the central teaching focus, supporting points, and application on the main point and structure of the text itself. Higgins even encourages this kind of verse-by-verse teaching for topical messages, so that the teacher is always communicating the text’s intended purpose rather than taking passages out of context as proof texts.

Empowered and Equipped walks teachers through the process of creating a Bible exposition, from understanding the nature of Scripture all the way to writing an expositional outline. Higgins covers a wide range of content from theoretical to practical, including information on biblical genres, basic doctrinal issues, and hermeneutics.

She spends a large portion of the book giving instruction on studying the Bible inductively, including specific strategies for observation, interpretation, generalization, and application and for how that study translates into instruction. The scope of the book makes it suitable for beginners—although they may want to work through it more slowly—as well as for those who have been studying and teaching Scripture for some time but are looking for a process to follow.

While Empowered and Equipped covers an impressive amount of ground in a surprisingly manageable page count, readers may leave with unanswered questions. For example, the book includes almost no discussion of incorporating meaningful illustrations or transitions. On other topics, such as the discussion of genre or the overview of theological doctrines, Higgins gives only brief introductions. Anything more, however, would make the book overwhelmingly dense, and readers can continue to explore these topics in more depth as they see fit.

Empowered and Equipped to Teach God’s Word

The church needs gifted women who not only speak on a short list of “female-friendly” topics stereotypical of women’s conferences or retreats but who teach the whole counsel of God for the good of the body.

The church needs gifted women who not only speak on a short list of ‘female-friendly’ topics but who teach the whole counsel of God for the good of the body.

Higgins appeals, “This call for women to be teachers of the Word arises from a place of care and concern for over half of the body, so that the church might grow in love for God and his Word, passing it along to others, so that they too might go and make disciples of all nations to the end that Christ’s commands are observed.”

As this book makes its way into the hands of more and more women who treasure the Bible and long to see it elevated and proclaimed, I pray the church will be edified and God’s glory made known. I pray the teachers it equips will grow in their love for Christ even as the women they teach develop new excitement for God’s Word. I pray that instead of feeling insecure and unprepared, women will be empowered and equipped to teach the Scriptures.

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Best Christian Music of 2022 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/best-christian-music-2022/ Tue, 20 Dec 2022 05:00:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=531992 Brett McCracken shares his picks for the best Christian songs, albums, and EPs released in 2022.]]> As a subject, Christianity is everywhere in pop music today. Whether in Kendrick Lamar’s new album, Eminem’s rapping about Jesus, Gang of Youth’s expletive-heavy faith reflections, or the growing number of LGBT+ folk singers who grew up in the church and now critique it through music (e.g., Julien Baker, Semler’s Preacher’s Kid, or Ethel Cain’s Preacher’s Daughter), the world’s largest religion is an unsurprisingly frequent inspiration in musical art.

But music that engages or references Christianity isn’t “Christian music,” just as movies that include Christian themes (though welcome!) aren’t “Christian movies.” And while it’s unhelpful to draw fixed borders around a definition of what Christian music is or can be, some sort of categorical boundaries are helpful. For me, those boundaries have a lot to do with worshipful intent: Is the music coming from an earnest desire to glorify Christ and an authentic, unapologetic love for God’s Word? Even if it’s not in the “worship genre” (whatever that is), does the music cultivate in listeners greater love for the Christian God? If yes, we can call it Christian music.

Given that broad definition, what follows is my assessment of the best Christian music released in 2022: best songs, best albums, and best EPs. Undoubtedly these picks reflect my personal tastes and shouldn’t be construed in an objective, “best out of every possible musical style” sense. But as someone who loves celebrating and sharing quality Christian music, I heartily commend these to you as works that are musically rich and devotionally edifying.

100 Best Christian Songs

You can find my picks for the best Christian songs of the year in a 100-song playlist on either Spotify or Apple Music.

7 Best Christian Albums

Here are my picks for the seven best overall album releases under the broad umbrella of “Christian music” (plus 10 honorable mentions).

1. John Van Deusen, (I Am) Origami Pt. 4 – Marathon Daze

The epic conclusion to Van Deusen’s four-part, five-year (I Am) Origami project, Marathon Daze is a prayerful collection that wrestles with the frailty of life and faith amid the hopeful assurance of God’s unchanging reality. As Van Deusen writes of the project’s title, “I am origami because I am a substance folded to become something greater than my makeup. But I am not the hand folding the paper, I am only the paper; a created thing that owes all glory and honor and power to my Maker.” The 15 songs on this album, along with the six songs on the accompanying EP, Content, represent the sort of lyrical depth and musical creativity that gives me hope for the future of Christian music.

2. Colorvault, Faint

In July, I described Colorvault as a “worship supergroup of sorts,” with a “spellbinding sound that blends techno beats, up-tempo electronica, and lyrics that sound like psalms.” Their debut album really is a stunner and unlike anything else in Christian music. Outside of Poor Bishop Hooper’s EveryPsalm Project (see next), Colorvault was the worship music that most nourished my soul this year.

3. Poor Bishop Hooper, Psalm 119

During the third and final year of their EveryPsalm Project—which I’ve called “one of the most impressive musical achievements ever in contemporary Christian music”—Poor Bishop Hooper released songs for Psalms 106 through 150. When they came to Psalm 119 in April, they went big (naturally!) and released not just one song for the psalm but a 22-song album featuring one song for every stanza, corresponding to the characters of the Hebrew alphabet. The result is impressive on its own, but it’s even more so in the context of the whole EveryPsalm project.

4. The Welcome Wagon, Esther

The fourth album from “pastoral folk” duo The Welcome Wagon (pastor Vito Aiuto and wife Monique Aiuto) is their best since their Asthmatic Kitty debut 14 years ago. Subdued, laid back, but bursting with musical joy, Esther is a feel-good album that doesn’t feel cheesy. A celebration of marital love, family, home, and the faith that envelopes it all, Esther (named after Monique’s grandmother) is like one family’s musical scrapbook that we can all flip through.

5. CityAlight, There Is One Gospel

CityAlight’s latest album of modern hymns for congregational worship is such a gift. For months this year, my 4-year-old requested “This Is the Day” as I drove him to preschool, and he and his brother delight to watch the Sydney-based band’s videos on YouTube. We at TGC are thrilled that CityAlight will be our featured worship band at our upcoming TGC23 conference, leading the thousands gathered in singing God’s praises together in Indianapolis.

6. Jonathan Ogden, Future Forever

Jonathan Ogden (formerly of Rivers & Robots), based in Manchester, U.K., is one of the brightest lights in contemporary Christian music, so it’s unsurprising that his debut album, Future Forever, is spectacular. He’s mastered a low-fi worship vibe that’s casually reverent and manages to be cool without being self-conscious. Featuring collaborations with John Mark Pantana, Darla Baltazar, Molly Parden, and Taylor Armstrong, Future Forever is utterly God-focused music to put on in your headphones, car, and household to center your heart on hope.

7. Mr. and Mrs. Garrett Soucy, From the River to the Ends of the Earth

Another pastor-and-wife folk duo (Garrett and Siiri Soucy) like The Welcome Wagon, Mr. and Mrs. Garrett Soucy describe themselves variously on their website as “honest-to-God local music” and a “lyrical rescue boat pulling souls from the meta-modern wreckage.” Their latest album’s title comes from Psalm 72:8: “May he have dominion from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth!” Check out the album liner notes (published at Modern Reformation), where Garrett unpacks the album’s three main themes: (1) man and nature, (2) gospel and politics, and (3) God, repentance, and smallness.

Honorable Mentions: Elias Dummer, The Work, Vol. 2; Jess Ray, Born Again; Joshua Leventhal, All Ye Lepers; Kings Kaleidoscope, Baptized Imagination; LOVKN, Home Called Heaven; The Porter’s Gate, Climate Vigil Songs; Providence, Renovate Our Hearts; TEMITOPE, Marun; Will Carlisle, Hummingbird; Young Oceans, Subjects in Motion

10 Best Christian EPs

One of the ways streaming has revolutionized music is by making EPs the new normal for artistic output. These shorter song collections can be created and released more frequently, and at a lower cost, than full-blown albums. Here are the best Christian EPs I’ve heard this year.

1. John Van Deusen, Content

2. Garden Friend, Beulah

3. Tekoa, Hymns + Disparity

4. Tenielle Neda, Love ’Cause We’re Loved

5. Will Carlisle, SHEMA vol. 1

6. Nick Chambers, Great Cloud

7. Skye Peterson, Not So Sure

8. The Riverside, The Riverside Hymnal

9. Shadowlands, November Songs

10. Leslie Perez, When Will We Learn to Let Go?

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Canadians Must Not Assist a Culture of Death https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/assist-death-canada-maid/ Mon, 19 Dec 2022 05:03:52 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=536852 By speaking out, we may provoke the ire of the world around us. But we cannot falter. Lives depend on it.]]> In March 2023, Canada will begin assisting the mentally ill by terminating their lives. Canada first legalized medical assistance in dying (MAiD) in 2016. Bill C-7 in 2021 expanded the criteria for MAiD beyond those who had a foreseeable death. Now, a further expansion will allow those with mental illness to receive a prescription for death.

The slope is not only slippery—the ground below MAiD collapsed into the pit of the earth. We should expect the requests of parents to end their children’s lives to soon be granted. We will not have post-birth abortion; we will have parents requesting to have their children receive the care given by medical assistance in dying. Lest I be accused of exaggeration, Quebec’s college of physicians has already (in 2021) recommended euthanizing infants and teenagers.

The euphemism “medical assistance in dying” means a medical professional will administer drugs that end the life of a patient. In traditional language, MAiD is euthanasia. And it’s the new normal in Canada.

The stories of people applying for MAiD in combination with the sympathetic reception of MAiD among Canadians will force Canadian Christians into conflict because any attempt to save someone’s life will invoke the ire of those who call death good and preserving life wrong.

Stories of MAiD

In a Toronto, a woman with an incurable sensitivity to chemicals used in housing has applied for MAiD. The woman, Denise, cannot afford to find housing without the chemicals that destroy her life. She may qualify for MAiD due to this incurable sensitivity, but her poverty means she has yet to find long-term affordable housing to preserve her health.

MAiD will force Canadian Christians into conflict because any attempt to save someone’s life will invoke the ire of those who call death good and preserving life wrong.

Denise has found “a temporary home” in a hotel, CTV News reports. Yet she has “not cancelled the MAID application.” Denise can’t live there forever; she may have to return to her apartment where she struggles to breathe.

A man in St. Catharines, Ontario, has also applied for MAiD because he suffers from depression, anxiety, and the real fear he might become homeless. Amir Farsoud explains, “I do nothing other than manage pain.” The fear of living with such mental anguish without affordable housing has driven him to the edge. “I don’t want to die but I don’t want to be homeless more than I don’t want to die.”

Homelessness doesn’t qualify someone for MAiD. But Farsoud may soon qualify on mental health grounds due to his ongoing anguish. Erin Anderssen explains, “On March 17, assisted dying will become legal for Canadians with a mental disorder as their sole condition.” Yet Farsoud doesn’t necessarily need the March update to MAiD. One of his doctors has already approved his application to MAiD due to his physical suffering, which is “intolerable and cannot be relieved.”

Julie Leblanc suffers from near-lifelong mental illness. She has an 8-year old son who plays a role in her will to live. Yet she “wavers between wanting to die and trying to live. . . . She feels trapped in despair and anxiety, while carrying the deepest sorrow of all—her illness prevents her from being a good mother to her son.”

Leblanc fears taking her own life because of the pain and the consequences of a failed attempt. MAiD tempts her since it promises a peaceful end. Soon, “Canada will have one of the most liberal euthanasia laws in the world” and Leblanc may be able to receive a death prescription.

Will someone who calls this desire wrong and encourages another person to choose life become a cultural evil? I suspect so.

Culture of MAiD

MAiD has already become culturally normalized and lionized. In 2016, about 1,000 people died by MAiD. In 2021, that number was over 10,000. Death is becoming mainstream.

Social media continues to popularize death. One TikTok user’s viral lip sync video says in a caption, “When you have such severe treatment resistant d3pression, that even your doctors suggest MAID.” Gino Florio laments, “There are almost 2,500 comments and the scary part is, many people are either agreeing with her or encouraging her to participate in MAiD.”

Florio continues:

One user commented, “I’m applying for maid as soon as I turn 18” and another person replied, “me 2.” Another person wrote, “wish I had access to this tbh” and someone else said, “It’s okay to want to consider it. It’s okay to have all manner of thoughts. This is purely about you. Sending you support whichever path you choose.”

Moral norms and expectations flow downstream of law, and now they flow downstream of the digital swarm.

The Canadian retailer Simons has created an “inspirational” short film that associates its brand with the freedom of death. Its CEO, Peter Simons speaks of the film All Is Beauty as a celebration of “hard beauty.” That a big-name retailer assumes advocating for death will be a good use of what Simons calls its “privilege” is telling.

What might be even more telling is that the woman featured in the Simons short film didn’t want to die. Jennyfer Hatch suffered immensely in life. British Columbia’s healthcare system failed to provide palliative care. Rather than a beautiful exit, as Simons had described it, Hatch suffered immensely, was unable to get the care she needed, and felt forced to die.

Hatch, using a pseudonym, explained, “I thought, ‘Goodness, I feel like I’m falling through the cracks so if I’m not able to access health care am I then able to access death care?’ And that’s what led me to look into MAID and I applied last year.”

Death by MAiD is good for the organ business. One newspaper reported on the “boon to organ donation” due to the success of MAiD. Those who advocate against MAiD will now be seen as depriving patients who need organ transplants.

On March 17, assisted dying will become legal for Canadians with a mental disorder as their sole condition.

Recently, The United Church even released a prayer for those who choose to die by prescription. The prayer encouragers the one who will die to admit, “I am afraid to die. I do not know what lies beyond the barrier of death. I am afraid to release myself to the great unknown.” But this liturgical prayer which speaks of “the great unknown” also says, “I hope they will be proud of my decision and will understand that MAID is consistent with the love and compassion of Jesus.”

To claim the United Church here errs (an understatement in my estimation) will place Christians in the middle of the culture war of TikTok, Simons ads, organ donation, and the euphemistic language of medical assistance in dying. The bioethics of euthanasia will be extremely important for Christians in the years to come as any kind of suffering may qualify the sufferer for MAiD.

Saving Lives Makes Enemies

The world will say to Christians, “Why are you so cruel to keep this person from medical care? Has she not suffered enough? Is your God so cruel as to let someone suffer unbearably?”

And we’ll have to say something. We’ll have to say our God took on flesh and blood in order to taste death for everyone (Heb. 2:9, 14). It was his suffering that made him perfect (Heb. 2:10), and it was his death that destroyed the Devil’s power, which is the fear of death (Heb. 2:15). The last enemy, death, has been defeated.

But death is still the enemy (1 Cor. 15:26). Death has yet to be cast deep into the lake of fire at the end of all things (Rev. 20:14). As Christians, we hate death’s far-reaching effects because God is the Creator of life. And Christ is our life.

The proclamation of the gospel challenges aspects of MAiD. So does basic truth telling. MAiD ends lives. MAiD is euthanasia. MAiD preys on the suffering and weak. MAiD exploits the poor who apply for death on the basis of acute suffering to which their neighbors have turned a blind eye.

The moral consensus that Canadians—both Christian and non-Christian—once shared has slowly eroded. In its place, Christians stand on morals and ethics that are offensive to a world that celebrates death.

By speaking out, we may provoke the ire of the world around us. But we cannot falter. Lives depend on it.

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How to Maintain Devotional Habits During Christmas Break https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/devotional-habits-christmas/ Mon, 19 Dec 2022 05:02:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=535511 Habits of praying and reading the Bible sometimes get squeezed out in the holiday bustle. These five tips can help you stay on track.]]> The first thought that goes through your mind is that it’s surely too early for anyone to be playing a drum, even an overexcited toddler. The second is that you’ve never slept on anything as uncomfortable as this sofa bed, including on that hiking trip when your tent flooded. The third is that there’s a dog in bed with you. Licking your ear.

Once in royal David’s city, on a silent night while shepherds watched and angels heralded, the incredible majesty that is God with us unfolded in a humble manger. And often that scene of glory to God and peace on earth is nowhere near our thoughts at Christmas. We know Christ’s birth should be the heartbeat of our Christmas, yet simple habits of praying and reading the Bible get squeezed out. All too easily, we go through Christmas without much of Christ.

Part of the problem is busyness—wrapping presents, traveling to in-laws, making up guest beds, desperately finishing off work. It’s easy to get distracted from our need for Jesus. Life is busy the rest of the year, and if we’re honest, we are often distracted from the Bible and prayer. Yet it does seem even harder at Christmas.

Temptations

Christmas brings particular temptations, like indulgence. We gobble down another three chocolates or pour another glass of eggnog. We find ultimate joy in a shiny toy that beeps (the toddler’s play steering wheel and the grown-up tech both inspire near-worship).

We know Christ’s birth should be the heartbeat of our Christmas, yet simple habits of praying and reading the Bible get squeezed out.

Of course, it could be anxiety. Just once you want a Christmas Day with no tears in the bathroom or snarls over the turkey. And the way you work hard to control your unfathomable family is to make sure everything is perfect. Is the Bible going to peel sprouts? Is prayer going to get presents wrapped?

Then there’s the hurt and bitterness. Grief over those who are no longer with you crowds everything. Resentment over past hurts or anger at the ways your family still treats you grow until you’re consumed.

Or maybe, like me, you’re a mix of all three. We know that up against these temptations we desperately need to see Christ in the Bible and hold fast to our Father in prayer. The Holy Spirit will give us all we need to do so.

Habits

Here are some tips my wife and I have found helpful.

1. Pray now.

Ask God to help you read your Bible and pray. He is a kind Father and delights to answer our prayers. God has used this prayer to change my life. So join me in praying now that the Holy Spirit will keep you in step with himself this Christmas.

2. Pray continually.

Ask God to show you how to pray continually. As you go about your day, develop an inner crying out. Give thanks, ask for help, express your confusion. When you’re away over Christmas, pray for the sister you’re struggling with, give thanks for the shiny beeping toy (then it will become a means of worship of Christ), and ask for help to talk about Jesus with that niece with the drum.

3. Read something different (and put it by your bed).

It might be a good time to stop your regular devotional study or notes and do something different over Christmas. One idea is to keep it simple and spend a few days reading the accounts of Jesus’s birth.

When I’m tired and life is busy, it’s been immensely helpful to put my Bible by my bed (and leave my phone downstairs). I’m not a morning person, so I wake up groggy. This might mean I take in less, but it also keeps the mental to-do list at bay. I flick on the light, reach for my Bible, open at the bookmark, and read. I’ve found Scripture journals particularly helpful for this and now keep a pencil by my bed. Even though the notes don’t always make sense when I’m fully awake, writing them helps!

4. Coordinate your space.

If you’re away with your spouse or family, work out who needs some physical space to be with the Lord. Could you watch the children for 20 minutes so your wife can read her Bible? If you really need the space, ask for help to get it. Work as a team to keep your eyes on Jesus together.

5. Be creative.

Bible reading and prayer are at the heart of following Christ, but there are other means of grace. Give thanks often. Listen to things that point your heart to Christ. For me, it’s Narnia audiobooks in the car (for the children, obviously!) and Christmas carols. Go for a walk (offer to take that bed-jumping dog) and let creation remind you of the Creator.

Finally, don’t worry. That holy baby wasn’t born to make sure we pray and read the Bible. That Son was given because we were in darkness and he is the Light. You may lose sight of Jesus as your Bible sits at the bottom of your unpacked suitcase, but he hasn’t lost sight of you. He loves you, saves you, draws you, and wins you. Happy Christmas.

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Editor’s Choice: The Best of 2022 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/editors-choice-best-2022/ Mon, 19 Dec 2022 05:00:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=534883 TGC published around 1,000 new articles, videos, reviews, and podcast episodes in 2022. Our editor in chief lists his favorites.]]> In many American pulpits, you could preach the Arian heresy and no one would notice. But if you preached in favor of gun control, you’d be looking for a new job by Monday.

That’s not to say our pastors should be preaching a particular position on gun control. It’s to say many Christians carry their political and cultural convictions much more firmly than their theological views. The way to change that problem is to openly debate those political and cultural convictions from a theological perspective inside the church.

That’s the goal behind The Gospel Coalition’s Good Faith Debates, which we hope will help churches navigate tough topics together. We launched this year with five episodes and hopes for more in future years. We might think that if our churches only preach the gospel, Christians will prioritize the gospel. Instead, other media like Twitter, cable news, and talk radio stir our affections and anger toward whatever latest controversies will promote their bottom line. Sadly, in our era of ubiquitous media, silence in applying the gospel to all of life sidelines the gospel from any of life.

When we show how the gospel applies to all of life, including how we live here and now, then we worship God “who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:6). We see that the cross and resurrection inaugurate a new way of living in this world but not for this world. Jesus is the Lord of salvation. And he reconciles all things, “whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:20).

When we debate cultural and political issues in the church, when we refuse to confine our faith inside the sanctuary, the world’s hold on us weakens. We’re less likely to be swayed by outside, partisan voices. And the power of the gospel strengthens, because the resurrected, ascendant Christ intercedes for his church as his living apologetic: “That they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21). We don’t divide the way the world does, over temporal matters. We cling to each other and above all to our Savior, looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth amid this fallen world full of dangers, toils, and snares.

So if you’re looking for help in applying the gospel to all of life, and you’re longing to experience the unity of the church, then TGC is eager to help through initiatives such as our Good Faith Debates. Would you consider a year-end gift so we can produce more debates as well as articles, books, and videos?

The following list compiles our best resources from 2022, at least in my estimation as the editor in chief. Without your generosity, none of this work would be possible. So thank you for reading, watching, listening, sharing, and giving in 2022.


Escape from Kabul

By Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra

Probably nothing TGC has published since 2010 is more important. How easy for all of us to miss the real story of God’s work in the world. Marvel at the miracle of the underground church in Afghanistan and their divine deliverance from destruction in 2021.


The Gospel Coalition Bible Commentary

It’s easy to think of biblical commentaries as dense volumes collecting dust on the shelves of seminary graduates. But I love what the internet allows us to do with them today. For example, interspersed with the text, we can view the very places where Jesus walked and talked. That’s why we’re so excited for the release of The Gospel Coalition Bible Commentary, featuring the best insights of world-class scholars such as Christopher Ash on Job and Douglas O’Donnell on Matthew. Imagine what the Lord will do with these commentaries, available for free to anyone connected to the internet. It’s ideal for anyone preparing a sermon, leading a Bible study, or facilitating a small group. Nothing is more relevant, more needed, in any era than God’s Word. This year, after I talked with Bill and Will Kynes about their new book on Job, a recent widower reached out to them for counsel. The Bible never fails to give us what we need.


Let’s Talk: When Others Fall Away

By Jackie Hill Perry, Jasmine Holmes, and Melissa Kruger

This year we concluded Let’s Talk, a tremendously popular podcast hosted since 2020 by Jackie Hill Perry, Jasmine Holmes, and Melissa Kruger. It’s a sign of the times that this episode on friends and leaders falling away from the faith became one of the most popular podcast episodes in TGC history, with more than 175,000 downloads so far.


Augustine Could’ve Written ‘City of God’ in 2022

By Christopher Watkin

If you don’t want to tackle his new Biblical Critical Theory, Watkin offers a preview in this ode to Augustine’s classic work. In this article, Watkin also hints at an exciting new venture coming from TGC in 2023. We’re praying that God will make such deep analysis the norm and not an exception for a Western church in decline.


‘I Lost My Mom to Facebook’

By Patrick Miller

The title alone deserves mention as the best of 2022. Too many readers can relate. The content of our media diet will remain a consistent focus for TGC in future years. It doesn’t much matter what we say from the pulpit when smartphones and their social media algorithms have already captured the imaginations—especially of older Christians.


Keeping Your Children’s Ministry on Mission

By Jared Kennedy

TGC published 12 books in 2022, the most for us in one year. The titles covered everything from social media to screen time to decision-making to contentment to children in church to the Jesus we see through the eyes of women. This new book by Jared Kennedy, one of TGC’s newest editors, helps churches in planning children’s ministries that stay focused on the gospel. I’m hopeful that it will have the same kind of long-term influence as our earlier work on youth ministry.


Transformation of a Transgender Teen

By Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra

Parents and their pastors are desperate for guidance amid the social contagion of rapid-onset gender dysphoria. Now we’re beginning to hear the stories of young people who can testify to the cult-like grip of this cresting trend. Next year look for a short work by Sam Ferguson that will help church leaders navigate these complex dynamics with compassion and conviction.


Does My Son Know You?

Interview with Jonathan Tjarks by Collin Hansen

This spring, professional basketball writer Jonathan Tjarks wrote one of the most compelling testimonies to Christian faith that I’ve ever read in mainstream media. When we talked one month later, he didn’t tell me until after the interview that he had just received grim news about his cancer’s spread. Just 34 years old, he died on September 10, 2022, and left behind a wife and young son. Though dead, he still speaks to us about the only hope that endures forever. Praise God that his faith is now sight.


In Praise of the Boring, Uncool Church

By Brett McCracken

As a published expert on hipster religion, Brett McCracken warns us that “relevance-focused Christianity sows the seeds of its own obsolescence.” Don’t forsake long obedience in quiet humility. And make sure your church sometimes makes you uncomfortable in its demands of holiness. Brett has it right: “Maybe a Christianity that doesn’t appeal to my consumer preferences and take its cues from Twitter is exactly the sort of faith I need.”


How One Uncool Youth Pastor Reached the World for Christ

By Brad Buser

Speaking of the uncool, sometimes God uses them to change the world. Such is the story of E. G. Von Trutzschler, who won kids to Christ because he wouldn’t pander to their immature desires. The formula for faithfulness isn’t complicated.


Sexual Liberation Has Failed Women

Review by Andrew Wilson

Signs suggest the tide may be turning on at least some aspects of the sexual revolution. Wilson describes this feminist critique as “brave, excoriating, and magnificent.” Since the promises of sexual liberation can’t be kept, we should expect more wounded and betrayed women to turn up looking to Christians for help. We could be seeing biblical morality become a benefit rather than a perceived liability in the West.


What Affect Theory Teaches Us About Christian Growth

By N. Gray Sutanto

Information transfer alone doesn’t equate to discipleship. Sutanto describes affects as “those unconscious ways the body is moved and influenced by social relations and the embodied embeddedness of everyday life.” He wisely commends the means of grace for spiritual transformation: singing, eating, exhorting, and imitating. As we follow Christ we do not merely change our confession and profession. We practice a different way of life.


Choosing God over College Basketball

Interview with Leah Church by Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra

We can expect more such stories of Christian consciences clashing with progressive demands. Leah Church walked away from her dream as a basketball player for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “Life’s not supposed to be easy for Christians,” Church said. “Before you go in [to a secular environment], decide what matters, which is the Word and your witness.” Wise words from a courageous young woman.


Strength in Weakness

By Sam Allberry and Ray Ortlund

The most popular episode of You’re Not Crazy in 2022 covered one of Ray Ortlund’s most compelling themes. The Lord comforts us the way he did Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:9: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” So let us boast in our weaknesses if they force us to depend on God alone.


Bill Kynes’s Long Obedience in the Same Direction

By Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra

Bill Kynes retired in 2022 after 36 years as the pastor of his church in northern Virginia. His career didn’t follow a traditional path, at least for someone who quarterbacked in the Southeastern Conference and studied with a Rhodes scholarship at Oxford. You might have expected him to helm a Fortune 500 company. Instead, he shepherded his flock without much fanfare. With a shortage of pastors today, I hope many young men will look to Kynes’s example and follow in his steps.


The Abolitionist Hero You’ve Never Heard Of

By Steve Bateman

Guilty as charged: I had never heard of Granville Sharp. But what a life he led! You know we’ll like the article at TGC when you can weave antislavery activism with composing Remarks on the Use of the Definitive Article in the Greek New Testament. Bateman offers a worthy tribute by introducing the other Granville Sharp Rule: “When asking God for protection from the injustice that comes to you, repent of all the injustice that comes from you.”


Everything Sad Is Untrue

Interview with Daniel Nayeri by Collin Hansen

I still can’t believe it took so long for me to discover this book. The interview might’ve veered at times into publisher insider baseball, especially when we discussed Harper Lee as an inspiration. But Nayeri has written a story of hope and perseverance for everyone. I can’t think of any explicit Christianity testimony, at least in recent years, that has more deeply penetrated secular circles such as library reading groups and public schools.


Remember Your Joy

The Gospel Coalition 2022 Women’s Conference

I’m cheating by including a whole conference. But this was our first “normal” national conference since 2019. I loved sharing three days with friends around the world as we searched for salvation in the Old Testament. Melissa Kruger has assembled the best team I know. They help me remember my joy in the Lord.


‘Jesus Has Left the Building’: Scotland’s Secular Slide—and Signs of Hope

By Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra

This story covers so much of what we’re trying to do at TGC. It’s a story about the power of the gospel, about the secular decline of the West, about the strength of the church, and about an esteemed theologian who headed home to help. I’m rooting and praying for Sinclair Ferguson, David Gibson, and all the other saints at Trinity Church in downtown Aberdeen, Scotland. You can also listen to the Recorded podcast account of Ferguson’s story.


How Should Christians Think About Gun Control?

By Bob Thune and Andrew Wilson

I admire Andrew Wilson for sticking with his pacifist convictions and Bob Thune for pressing him to face the consequences of those views. We released this debate amid yet another round of mass shootings. I don’t know the answers. But I know we need to be seeking the Lord together for any solutions available.

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Feast of Dedication: How Jesus Fulfills Hanukkah https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/feast-dedication-jesus-hanukkah/ Sun, 18 Dec 2022 05:00:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=535769 The temple that meant so much to the Jewish people was merely a temporary fixture until the coming of the true temple.]]> Is Hanukkah the Jewish Christmas? Most certainly not. Modern Christmas celebrations and Hanukkah are commemorated at similar times each year, but the Jewish festival’s background isn’t related to Jesus’s birth.

However, that doesn’t mean Hanukkah can’t teach us about Jesus. In John 10:22–42, the apostle shows us how Jesus fulfills three key elements of this Jewish feast—the hero, the temple, and the lights. Let’s look at what John wants to teach us by first exploring the festival’s background.

Origins of the Festival

Hanukkah is known as the Feast of Dedication (John 10:22) or the Festival of Lights. Hanukkah isn’t mentioned in the Old Testament. Its origin is in the intertestamental period, during one of the most courageous episodes in Israel’s history (167–164 BC; see 1 Macc. 3–4; 2 Macc. 8:1–10:18). Antiochus Epiphanes, meaning “god manifest,” one of Alexander the Great’s successors, sought to unify his empire by establishing a single religion. Consequently, Judaism and its practices—Sabbath observance, Scripture reading, and the circumcision of baby boys—were outlawed. The temple was also desecrated when a pig was sacrificed to Zeus there.

Under the leadership of Judas Maccabeus, a nickname meaning “hammer”, the Jewish people fought a guerrilla-style war against Antiochus’s forces. Though greatly outnumbered, the Jewish rebels won an amazing victory and retook the temple. On the 25th of Kislev 164 BC, the defiled temple was reconsecrated and sacrifices were offered to God in accordance with the Mosaic law.

The people joyfully celebrated the rededication of the temple for eight days. At the conclusion of the festivities, it was decreed that a similar festival be held each year beginning on the 25th of Kislev (1 Macc. 4:36–39). It wasn’t one of the required pilgrimage festivals mandated in Exodus 23, but those who attended found the days filled with great rejoicing. Hanukkah continues to be celebrated today in the homes of Jewish people.

Jesus and Hanukkah

John 10:22–42 concludes a festival cycle in John 5:1–10:42: Sabbath (chap. 5), Passover (chap. 6), Tabernacles (7:1–10:21), and Dedication (10:22–42). John shows how Jesus fulfills these great Jewish celebrations and how each feast reveals more fully Jesus’s person and work. What did John want us to learn about Jesus from his account of Jesus attending the Feast of Dedication?

1. Jesus as Hanukkah’s Hero

The Festival of Lights would’ve reminded the people of the heroic leadership of Judas Maccabeus. Yet, in John 10, one greater than Judas stood among them. Jesus’s identity looms large in this passage and throughout John’s Gospel. John’s purpose statement, found in 20:31, reads, “But these [things] are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” The two titles John highlights in this purpose statement, “Christ” [Messiah] and “Son of God,” help us understand Jesus’s visit to the feast.

The festival was not one of the required pilgrimage festivals mandated in Exodus, but those who attended found the days filled with great rejoicing.

While Judas was a heroic military figure, he was merely a man. At the feast, Jesus declared himself to be both Messiah and Son of God. The Jews asked Jesus to tell them “plainly” if he was the Messiah (10:24). If they weren’t sure who Jesus believed himself to be, it was clear when he confessed, “I and the Father are one” (v. 30).

While Judas lost many men in his battles with the Syrians, Jesus’s sheep are eternally secure. The sheep hear his voice and follow him (vv. 26–27). They remain in the twofold grip of the Son and the Father (vv. 28–29).

2. Jesus as Hanukkah’s Temple

While the people rejoiced and celebrated the cleansing and rededication of the temple, one greater than the temple stood in their midst (Matt. 12:6). The temple in which the Jewish people took such great pride would be destroyed by the Romans in AD 70. And from the point of view of Jesus’s first followers, the temple was replaced in AD 30, decades before the Romans destroyed it. God’s glory had once resided in the tabernacle and then the temple, but God’s shekinah glory now resided in his Son. As John states so beautifully, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

Early in Jesus’s ministry, he identified himself as the new temple. In John 2:19, he told the religious leaders in Jerusalem, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” John tells us Jesus was speaking about the temple of his body (2:21). The temple which meant so much to the Jewish people, especially during the Feast of Dedication, was merely a temporary fixture until the coming of this true temple.

By his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus replaces the temple and becomes the place we meet with God and experience his glory.

3. Jesus and Hanukkah’s Lights

The imagery of light plays an important role in Hanukkah because the light of the temple was extinguished during the Syrian desecration and then was restored by Judas Maccabeus. But John wants us to see that Jesus is the light who shines brighter than Hanukkah’s lights. In John 8:12, Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

The temple which meant so much to the Jewish people was merely a temporary fixture until the coming of this true temple.

This is something Judas Maccabeus could never say. The darkness that engulfed the Jewish nation under the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes wasn’t fully removed by the victory of Judas, but only by the victory of Jesus. And Jesus continues to shine in the darkness, and the forces of darkness will never overpower him (1:5). A day is coming when the new Jerusalem will have no need of heavenly or earthly luminaries, “for  the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb” (Rev. 21:23).

Jesus is our greater hero. Jesus is our greater temple. Jesus is our greater light. Jesus fulfills Hanukkah!

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What Muslim Women See in Jesus https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/jesus-muslim-women/ Sat, 17 Dec 2022 05:00:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=532611 Four truths about Jesus that Muslim women long to hear. ]]> I’ll never forget sitting across from a dear friend who tried to communicate what life was like for Muslim women. She held up two fingers and said, “You don’t understand. Women are number two—we’re number two!” She recognized that in my youth and naïveté, I simply didn’t understand some of the things she experienced. She felt my confusion, so she tried to communicate more gently, “This is just how things will be here.”

Our family had moved to a country with a population that was 99 percent Muslim. I was trying to learn a new language, adapt to a different culture, and somehow show these beautiful women that, by God’s design, they were most certainly not number two. Yet I realized their greatest need wasn’t for me or anyone else to convince them—they needed to see Jesus. They needed to truly see the Messiah who loves them unconditionally and offers them the abundant life for which they were created.

Over the next decade of walking through life with these women, I learned that they longed to hear four important truths.

1. Jesus sees and honors women.

When women covered by a burka or hijab first hear the story of the bleeding woman in the Gospels, they often immediately relate to her. She was a woman who felt unseen, unclean, and alone. Then they hear that Jesus saw her, reached out to her, and called her “daughter” (Luke 8:43–48).

Someone once told me that in the country where we lived, 9 out of 10 husbands were cheating on their spouses. While I can’t verify that statistic, I do know infidelity was rampant. Many of my friends felt alone and unloved. So we would introduce them to the story of Hagar in the book of Genesis. Their hearts would soften when they read that Hagar, alone, mistreated, and afraid, was never truly alone. God saw Hagar. In fact, God sent an angel to deliver his hope-filled words directly to this husbandless woman in need.

Muslim women long to be known and loved by a God who sees them deeply and understands them intimately.

Muslims are taught God is transcendent but many never learn he’s also personal and near. Muslim women long to be known and loved by a God who sees them deeply and understands them intimately. Their hearts find hope when they learn that Jesus not only sees women—he looks upon them with dignity and honor.

2. Jesus offers women the good portion.

In some parts of the world, Muslim girls and women aren’t offered the same opportunities as boys and men in their communities. One of my dearest friends was a trained engineer, yet she still had to receive signed permission from her husband or father to work in the field in which she’d been granted a degree. She felt discouraged and unvalued.

On Fridays, many of the men in our city would crowd into the local mosque. Women either weren’t included or would be invited into a small, separate room away from the main community of worshipers so they wouldn’t be a distraction to the men’s ritual prayers. In Islam, even “paradise” for the Muslim woman is husband-centered; it’s a place for Muslim men to enjoy their many wives for eternity.

By contrast, Jesus’s relationship with women isn’t mediated by a husband or father. Muslim women are offered direct access to the Lord, and he invites them into a personal relationship with him. Jesus told a distracted Martha that when her sister Mary wanted to sit and hear his teaching, Mary had “chosen the good portion” (Luke 10:38–42). Every Muslim woman is offered this good portion. Not only is she welcomed to the teaching of Jesus, but she’s also offered fellowship with Jesus himself.

3. Jesus provides women purpose and meaning.

Muslim women desire purpose and meaningful work. Their work inside the home is valued, but life can be difficult for those who don’t marry or who aren’t able to have children. They long to hear that God has a plan and purpose for their lives—that they were created to do good work.

Jesus’s relationship with women isn’t mediated by a husband or father.

In God’s design and through Christ, women have indispensable roles in both the church and the world (Eph. 2:10). In Jesus’s final words to his disciples, he calls them to make disciples of all nations and to teach others to do the same. This means Christ-following women play a vital part in the most important work given to God’s people. They’re commissioned to be fruitful and multiply—even if they don’t have children.

The Holy Spirit empowers women who follow Jesus to be witnesses; he equips them with spiritual gifts to build up and serve the church (Acts 1:8; 1 Cor. 12). They use their gifts, as spiritual sisters and spiritual mothers, to share the gospel, disciple others, and help raise up mighty multitudes of Christ followers. Muslim women were created for important, meaningful work.

4. Jesus gives women eternal hope.

According to tradition, Muhammad taught that the vast majority of those who end up in hell will be women. But the Bible teaches that God loves the world and sent his Son to die for all people—people of every sex, age, ethnicity, and culture. Whoever believes in Jesus will have eternal life (John 3:16). Jesus offers women hope, a future, and their own inheritance kept in heaven (1 Pet. 1:4).

In fact, Jesus is attractive to Muslim women—often more than to Muslim men—because he uniquely offers them honor, worth, dignity, and hope. They were created to be seen and known: to love him with their whole heart. They were created to learn from Jesus and to know him: to love him with all their mind. They were created for meaningful work: to love him with all their strength.

In Christ, women are freed and unleashed to glorify God just as he designed them. Muslim women are drawn to Jesus because knowing him and making him known is the abundant life for which they were created.

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What Historical Revival Teaches Us https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/podcasts/tgc-podcast/historical-revival-teaches/ Fri, 16 Dec 2022 05:03:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=tgc-podcast&p=536025 John Yates explores five things that made the ministry and revival of the early awakeners so effective.]]> In his message at TGC’s 2021 National Conference, John Yates teaches on the successes of The Great Awakening of the 1700s to1800s and what this historical revival can show us.

Yates explains five things that made the ministry and revival of the early awakeners so effective:

1. Their message always started with man’s lostness and inability to live up to the standard of God. It always ended with the atonement of Christ and a call to new birth and true faith that brings assurance of salvation.

2. Their delivery was filled with a great sense of duty and responsibility to bring others to Christ.

3. Their community was set up from the beginning to have small groups with high commitment where honesty and accountability for Christian living were the focus.

4. Their emotions, flowing from their devotion to Christ, had a place, and the awakeners used them in their music and writings.

5. Their leaders were well trained and educated.

Yates closes with encouragement and urges us to pray for revival now as we rely on the Holy Spirit to move.

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How Tim Keller Made Me a Better Teacher https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/called-to-teach/ Fri, 16 Dec 2022 05:02:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=533854 God’s calling on my life, I slowly realized, is not just to teach but to learn.]]> I feel blessed to have spent the last 31 years teaching English at a Christian university. I say “blessed” because my profession has allowed me not only to make full use of the skills I learned during my nine-year sojourn in secular undergraduate and graduate universities but also to disciple and witness to students from all (and no) faith backgrounds. Not once in the last three decades have I had to choose between training and mentoring students academically and guiding and challenging them spiritually.

A few months ago, my school changed its name from Houston Baptist to Houston Christian University (HCU), allowing us to widen our mission and reach. Providentially, at the same time as my colleagues and I are journeying together through this transition, a generous donor has given us a unique opportunity to think and pray through what it means to be professors at a university committed to the lordship of Christ in all areas of life.

The donor has provided funds so that, over the next several years, all members of the faculty will be granted a one-course release to join a semester-long cohort led by a senior faculty member. We’ll study the Scriptures and essential theological doctrines of the faith while discussing two key areas of the Christian life: spiritual formation and vocation.

Most people today use the words “vocation” and “career” interchangeably, but their etymology couldn’t be more different. The latter connotes a road or path that one races along, while the former means, literally, a “calling” (think of the words “vocal” and “vocative”). To help us wrestle with the full depth and breadth of our callings, the cohort I’m part of (fall 2022) has taken a deep dive into Tim Keller’s Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work.

Though published a decade ago, Keller’s book has lost none of its relevance; indeed, it has furnished me with a helpful vocabulary for thinking through the profession to which the Lord has called me. I’ll share three things I’ve learned over three decades of teaching that studying Keller’s book has helped me to clarify.

Free to Teach Within Limits

While putting the finishing touches on my dissertation, I began applying to teach at schools across the country. I told the Lord I’d be willing to go wherever he called me, but as a Yankee who grew up in the suburbs and attended all secular schools, I was quite sure he wouldn’t send me down South or to a big city or to a Christian school. The Lord listened carefully and then, in his gracious providence, sent me to a southern Christian school in the fourth-largest city in America.

Aside from offering proof that God has a sense of humor, my calling to HCU taught me God had something for me to do in a place that was outside my comfort zone but for which he had prepared and equipped me. While an undergrad at Colgate University, I felt led to take classes on India, though I’d never met a person from India before. While a grad at the University of Michigan, I worked with International Students Incorporated (ISI) and led Bible studies for a Korean and a Chinese Fellowship. Little did I know that God would send me to one of the most diverse universities in the country to teach students from across Asia (especially India and Pakistan), Africa, and Latin America.

“Something can be a vocation or calling,” Keller argues, “only if some other party calls you to do it, and you do it for their sake rather than for your own” (55). This doesn’t mean you’ll dislike or resent the work. On the contrary, the work becomes more fulfilling precisely because you were called to it—not as a form of works righteousness or as a means of proving your value but as an act of love and trust to the One who created and redeemed you.

Martin Luther, as Keller helpfully explains, broke down the artificial barrier between Christian ministry and secular work by reclaiming the biblical doctrine of salvation by grace through faith: “If religious work did absolutely nothing to earn favor with God, it could no longer be seen as superior to other forms of labor” (63). He thus freed Christians from overpraising spiritual and intellectual jobs and undervaluing secular and physical jobs.

Luther further freed us to see work as a joyous outpouring of love rather than an onerous means of justifying our own existence:

The gospel frees us from the relentless pressure of having to prove ourselves and secure our identity through work, for we are already proven and secure. . . . Since we already have in Christ the things other people work for—salvation, self-worth, a good conscience, and peace—now we may work simply to love God and our neighbors. It is a sacrifice of joy, a limitation that offers freedom. (63–64)

Every profession, including teaching, has its limits, but those limits have both made my work more meaningful and helped shape me into the type of change and cultivation agent that God created me to be. It’s true that the learning skills my students arrive in college with are much lower than they were 30, or even five, years ago; it’s also true that their anxiety levels are higher than they’ve ever been. But that has only released me to minister more directly to them as a mentor who desires to see them grow and thrive and gain the confidence they need to excel.

Teaching to Learn

Among the increasing number of students that need direct mentoring, I’ve most appreciated my interactions with first-generation students—students who are the first people in their families to attend college. Interacting closely with these students (the majority of whom come from traditional Latino families) has forced me to examine and reassess my own views of the nature and value of work. It’s also brought me back in touch with my own roots as the grandson of four Greek immigrants who came to America around 1930.

Whereas my years in modern secular schools and universities have ingrained in me a view of work that celebrates autonomy and self-expression, my first-generation students have reconnected me with a more traditional, communal view of work as service to one’s family, ethnicity, and culture. Keller describes well the difference between these two approaches to the meaning of life, the role of labor, and the definition of success:

Traditional cultures of the past and present understand the world to contain moral absolutes that are known mainly through tradition and religion. Wisdom is passed down from one generation to the next through figures of authority such as parents, priests, and rulers. Such cultures teach their members that their lives have meaning if they assume and are faithful to their duties and roles within the community—as sons and daughters, as fathers and mothers, and as members of their tribe and nation. (134–35)

Although Keller goes on to expose the specific kinds of idols to which traditional cultures can fall prey, he encourages his readers to consider how greatly the West has parted from these older values since the triumph of the Enlightenment:

Modern society dethroned the idols of religion, tribe, and tradition—replacing them with reason, empiricism, and individual freedom as the ultimate values that overrule all others. . . . Modern societies no longer saw the world as containing binding moral norms of truth to which all people must submit. Rather, they insisted that there was no standard higher than the right of the individual to choose the life he or she wanted to live. (137–38)

Like most college professors, I’ve been trained, largely unconsciously, by the pervasive worldview of reason, choice, and individual freedom to encourage my students to use their education to redefine themselves and their purpose. I vividly remember having a conversation with a colleague who championed the need for professors to push their students to shake off constrictive family ties that would prevent them from excelling in college and landing meaningful jobs. Though I agreed at the time, my first-generation students have helped wake me up to the spiritual dangers of such a view.

God’s calling on my life, I slowly realized, isn’t just to teach but also to learn. Modern notions of work have led to great advances and innovations and have freed women, minorities, and economically disadvantaged groups to pursue a wider variety of career paths. But they’ve done so at a cost, and my work with first-generation students, as well as with Indian, Vietnamese, Nigerian, Filipino, Egyptian, and Colombian students from traditional homes, has educated me in the nature of that cost.

I no longer consider it my mission to turn traditional students into modern ones. I strive, instead, to help my first-generation students, and others with strong family and ethnic ties, to succeed in modern America without sacrificing their roots and their sense of vocation.

Teaching the Right Story

Of course, to do that, I’ve had to rethink more than just my definition of vocation but also what greater story (or metanarrative) my individual calling is a part of. That story, Keller explains, “must have an account of how life should be, an explanation of how it got thrown off balance, and some proposed solution as to what will put life right again” (155). It would be nice if the culprit that threw humanity off balance was ignorance. Were that the case, teachers like myself would be the true heroes, for we’d possess the superpower to bring about utopia simply by educating everyone.

But the problem with man isn’t ignorance but rather sin, rebellion, and disobedience. As such, the role of the teacher is more modest—not savior and redeemer, but guide and mentor. With that reality check in mind, Keller offers further advice on the connection between the stories we tell and the vocations we accept: “Our worldview places our work in the context of a history, a cause, a quest, and a set of protagonists and antagonists, and in so doing it frames the strategy of our work at a high level. At a day-to-day level, our worldview will shape our individual interactions and decisions” (158).

If the culprit was ignorance, teachers like myself would be the true heroes, for we would possess the superpower to bring about utopia by simply educating everyone. But the problem is sin, rebellion, and disobedience.

The university has a long history, with roots in the Academy and Lyceum of Plato and Aristotle and in the Catholic universities of the Middle Ages. Though its pre-Christian and Christian phases differed in some ways, both phases identified (1) the cause of education as freeing the mind from the delusions and temptations of this world and (2) the quest of education as enabling the student to perceive that which is good, true, and beautiful. The antagonist was ignorance, but it was a willful ignorance that was closely allied to sin in its stubborn refusal to see, to understand, and to change.

My vocation is not to heal or redeem ignorance but to break through it to wake in the student a desire to throw off the shackles of confusion and sloth and pride and release a sense of awe, humility, and gratitude. When I work with an entire class of students, my goal is to draw them into the text we’re reading, into the Great Conversation that’s been going on since Moses and Homer. When I work with students individually, my goal is to fan their self-confidence and convince them they have the skills, and the right, to join that conversation.

I reject the worldview of the post-Christian university, with its equating of knowledge with skepticism and of wisdom with the critical ability to see through the beliefs and traditions—they would say superstitions and institutions—of the past. Instead, I do all I can to foster the wonder that Socrates believed was the beginning of knowledge and the fear of the Lord that the church believes is the beginning of wisdom.

The universities of Plato and the medievals were elitist, catering to the wealthy few and the prodigiously gifted, but my role at HCU is to extend the blessings of education to students who wouldn’t have had the chance to pursue college in the past. They’re the new neighbor I’ve been called to serve.

The first generation of Jesus’s followers were mostly poor and uneducated, living on the margins of the mighty Roman Empire. Another first generation is now sitting in my classroom, and I feel blessed to be able to disciple them.

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What Corporate Leadership Books Can’t Teach Pastors https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/reviews/gospel-shaped-leader/ Fri, 16 Dec 2022 05:00:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=book-review&p=531388 The world teaches that leaders must ascend, whereas Jesus teaches that leaders descend. Leaders sacrifice for a cause.]]> A seismic shift took place in my ministry recently. I changed roles, and I felt like I was no longer on solid ground. After years of preaching and teaching, I realized I needed additional skills to be able to effectively communicate, manage people, handle conflict, and assess missional alignment. I know God has called me to these new challenges, but the struggle of developing new skills after years in ministry has left me with insecurities and self-doubt that have affected my walk with God and my ability to rest.  

To address these struggles, I’ve sought help by interviewing leaders, listening to podcasts, reading, and pursuing coaching. Scott Thomas’s The Gospel Shaped Leader: Leaning on Jesus to Shepherd His People was a catalyst for change.

Thomas outlines how a leader grows in humility and skill to the extent that he or she depends on Jesus and the truth of the gospel. Leadership books are often strong on corporate leadership principles or strong on biblical principles, but few integrate both and see the gospel at the core of leadership. Thomas’s book is different. He doesn’t lay a light gospel veneer over common leadership principles. No, with character and humility, he outlines a practical vision for character-centered shepherd leadership that embraces humility over celebrity.   

Character-Centered but Practical 

Many church leaders turn to secular models of leadership because they’re ravenously consumed with finding the next quick fix. Though these corporate models of leadership can provide some help, their value is limited because they’re bound by time and culture. What might work in a Western corporation isn’t necessarily going to work in the church—and definitely won’t help a missionary serving in a developing country.

More important is the question of whether corporate models of leadership are even biblical. Thomas writes, “The world teaches that leaders must ascend, whereas Jesus teaches that leaders descend” (26). Leaders sacrifice for a cause.

The world teaches that leaders must ascend, whereas Jesus teaches that leaders descend. Leaders sacrifice for a cause.

This is a character-centered leadership book, and emphasizing this fact is important given the crises of leadership we see in the evangelical church—instances where incredibly gifted leaders have fallen because their popularity and influence surpassed their character.   

In chapter 5, Thomas writes about the pursuit of integrity. He tells of scars he incurred when he failed to pursue integrity in his decision making and took the easy way out of conflict. These decisions made leadership more comfortable for him in the short run but were damaging to his flock over the long run. Thomas’s vulnerability helps us see the necessity of pursuing integrity in private before leading publicly.  

Since the gospel results in a changed life from the inside out, integrity must be pursued. Thomas writes, “Church leadership is not a position nor is it a picnic. It is a spiritual war zone, and gospel-shaped leaders must come prepared with Christ’s mind (Phil. 2:1–5) and the power of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:3–11)” (3). The book makes this spiritual pursuit practical. Thomas works through a gospel grid that helps leaders grow in self-awareness, self-management, relational awareness, and relational management. Every area is tested by love: “Love is the verifiable characteristic that demonstrates our connection to Christ, the one who loves us (John 13:34–35)” (15). 

Humility over Celebrity and Timidity 

A gospel-shaped leader is marked by humility: “Whereas pride is self-centered, humility is others-centered, and helping others is ostensibly the aim of leadership” (106). With wisdom that’s been marinating over years, Thomas points out that a lack of humility can take different forms.

Sometimes it appears as arrogance that seeks celebrity and revels in prestige and worldly greatness. By contrast, gospel-shaped leaders are earthen vessels who strive through brokenness to reveal the treasure, which is Christ (107–8, see 2 Cor. 4). 

A lack of humility can take different forms. Sometimes it appears as arrogance that seeks celebrity and revels in worldly greatness. At other times, a lack of humility appears as timidity.

At other times, a lack of humility appears as timidity. This too is a product of selfishness; seeking to avoid rejection or failure is merely pride cloaked in cowardice. Such leadership may come off as humility on the surface, but it’s like an overcooked steak that shows its true colors when cut.  

Gospel Shaped Leader ends with a powerful left hook that exposes one timid deficiency in many Christian leaders. Thomas reports that 70 percent of U.S. pastors claim to have no friends. He then tells the story of how a close friend misused a confidential conversation as ammunition against him. Betrayals like this one can tempt leaders to avoid close friendships, but Thomas makes clear that this should not be the case (151). We must not let our vulnerable positions as leaders, or even our hectic schedules, excuse us from pursuing friends. Rather, we must see friendship as the fruit that gospel leadership bears. 

Unlike many popular leadership books written for Christian audiences, Gospel Shaped Leader doesn’t read like talking points from a leadership conference but instead like a front-porch conversation with a seasoned shepherd. With great wisdom, Thomas makes clear that giftedness and followers aren’t enough to be a gospel leader. We don’t need corporate and celebrity models. To be ready for seasons in ministry when it feels like the ground is shifting, we need integrity and humility that bears fruit in missional alignment and deep relationships.  

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Pushing Back Darkness in the Beautiful Game https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/darkness-beautiful-game/ Thu, 15 Dec 2022 05:03:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=536130 Under the glitter of international soccer is a dark practice of trafficking young African players. Here’s what one Christian organization is doing about it.]]> Whether you know it as “soccer” or “football,” the “beautiful game” is  so called because of its ability to bring diverse people groups together. Barriers that exist in other spheres of life suddenly disappear among like-minded fans.

We can see this in the 2022 FIFA Men’s World Cup in Qatar—an expected global audience of over 5 billion will make it the most-watched tournament in its history.

But among all the beauty of the world’s game, there exists an ugly, dark side. Every year thousands of children, primarily from African countries, are recruited by unlicensed scouts and agents and promised the opportunity to travel to Europe to play for major soccer clubs like Chelsea, Manchester United, Barcelona, and Juventus. Families often leverage everything they own to help their sons pursue soccer stardom.

However, most of these teenagers don’t make it onto a top professional team, leaving them to fend for themselves in a foreign country with little to no money.

“They come to Europe to play for AC Milan or Paris St-Germain, but the reality for many talented young African footballers, children not much older than nine, is that they will find themselves selling fake handbags on the streets,” reported the Guardian.

Ben Boycott / Courtesy of Trivela Group

Ben Boycott is the last person you might expect to be pushing back the darkness of African soccer player exploitation.

Ben grew up in Canada and Alaska playing ice hockey, not soccer. After college, he completed an MBA and a Masters in Financial Risk Strategy from the University of Alabama and went on to a successful career in corporate finance. But in a major about-face, Ben left corporate America in 2014 to join Vapor Ministries, located in the small Alabama town of Sylacauga. As the president and chief operations officer of Vapor Ministries, he was inadvertently propelled into the midst of the exploitation and trafficking of African soccer players. But that is just the beginning of the story!

I asked Boycott—now the founder of Sovereign Football Club, managing director of Trivela Group, and director of the Walsall Football Club—about the innovative strategies he and others are using to bring about meaningful change for thousands of young African soccer players and their families.


How did you get involved in the world of soccer in the first place?

Vapor Ministries uses football as a platform for Christian evangelical and humanitarian work in impoverished environments around the globe. Founder Micah McElveen and the team at Vapor do phenomenal work—life-changing transformation of entire communities in the poorest places on the planet. And football is a means to that end.

By providing thousands of kids with the opportunity to play high-level football, we were thrust into the world of professional football, as we saw very talented players come out of Vapor centers.

As you were exposed to professional soccer, what did you find?

Vapor Ministries in Haiti / Courtesy of Vapor Ministries

Vapor has seen the best of it—and the absolute worst of it. The truth is that football can, at times, be a very exploitative and corrupt industry. So while we saw some of our players achieve the highest levels of football in the world, we also saw players faced with tremendous barriers, horrible exploitation by agents and scouts, and, at times, even human trafficking into foreign countries.

Human trafficking?

It isn’t an uncommon thing. A player, often underage, can be enticed by an agent to travel to a foreign country to start a professional career—which is not allowable under FIFA regulations when the player is under 18. If that career works out, the agent gets paid, potentially a lot of money. If it doesn’t, players can be abandoned by these agents in foreign countries with no way home. As a nonprofit with a huge football footprint, we realized that we had to address the professional aspect of the game—otherwise, we were setting our best players up for harm.

How did you go about finding a solution?

This became a huge passion for me as I began to deeply study the economics and politics of the world of pro football, from top to bottom, for years. The entire mindset around talent in the developing world is one of extraction: “Let’s find the talented players and get them out.”

In this way, these players’ footballing talent is a value detractor from their communities instead of a value-add.

Sovereign Football Club in Haiti / Courtesy of Sovereign FC

Slowly, we began to gain a vision for a development mindset to replace the extraction mindset. We wanted to create a professional football mechanism that develops young men in these nations athletically, academically, and personally—where those who “make it” are benefited, but where those who don’t make it are benefited as well.

So I launched a company called Sovereign Football Club, which now operates hand-in-hand with Vapor Ministries, as the professional football outlet for the top talent from Vapor’s sports leagues. Today we are running a full professional team in Kenya, a full professional team in Haiti, and a preprofessional community team in Togo.

How does this tie into the larger world of European soccer?

As we were developing Sovereign, we began to shift our focus to the development of safe, clear pathways for these players to advance through professional football. We wanted to develop a way for our top player at Sovereign to be able to progress to established and reputable European clubs. In the process, we began to explore investment in professional teams in Europe and quickly realized that there was not only a great financial investment opportunity but a great social opportunity as well.

As a result, my partner and I launched a company called Trivela Group, aimed at acquiring professional football clubs in Europe. We’re deploying capital for profit, for a return, while doing so with a very long-term, community-minded view.

Can you give me an example?

Boycott with previous Walsall Football Club owner Leigh Pomlett / Courtesy of Trivela Group

Yes, earlier this year we invested in Walsall FC, which participates in League 2 in England. Walsall is a town of about 300,000 in central England, and the club is a key focal point of the community. We’re investing time, energy, and capital—blood, sweat, and tears, I guess you could say—into the club.

We want to make the club better on and off the pitch—to win more matches and move up the leagues and so on. But more than that, my partners and I are investing in the town, the people of Walsall, and the players. It’s not strictly about making money, or even making the club better—it’s about the future of the entire town.

Over the long term, how does all of this work together?

Football can often be a nasty, exploitative industry—from World Cup bribes amongst billionaires all the way down to an agent taking advantage of an impoverished 10-year-old in West Africa, and everything in between. The industry has hurt so many people. But it’s the most popular sport in the world, and one of the most powerful social forces in the world. Its potential to do good is nearly limitless.

I believe in a future where our clubs at Sovereign are creating jobs, developing world-changing leaders out of the players in our academies who don’t make the football cut, and developing high-profile forces for good in the players who do, while feeding back into the life-changing work that Vapor Ministries is doing in the poorest places on earth. I want to see those players advance in part through our network of Trivela clubs, which are investing heavily in communities and bringing about a brighter future across Europe.

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TGC Editorial Staff: Books We Enjoyed in 2022 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/editorial-staff-books-enjoyed-2022/ Thu, 15 Dec 2022 05:02:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=535972 TGC editors share books they especially enjoyed this year.]]> It shouldn’t be surprising that the editorial staff at The Gospel Coalition enjoys reading. While our team worked diligently to evaluate the Christian market for our annual book awards, we also read an eclectic array of titles for professional development, historical awareness, encouragement, and just plain fun.

To share in that bibliographic joy with our readers, every year I ask our team to select a few books off the beaten path that they enjoyed reading over the past year and would commend to others.


Winfree Brisley

Kate Quinn, The Rose Code (William Morrow, 2021)

I enjoy historical fiction but often pass over books about WWII because after I’d read a few they all started to sound the same. That is until I found Kate Quinn’s book about three British women who worked as codebreakers during WWII. Quinn crafts a fascinating story set in an English country estate that housed a secret operation to break German military codes. Characters face the pressures of daunting work that has the potential to save the lives of their countrymen while trying to navigate their personal relationships with friends and family who aren’t allowed to know what they’re doing. Moral dilemmas and competing loyalties expose the complexities of war for the everyday people who fight them—whether with their bodies or their minds.

Seth Lewis, Dream Small: The Secret Power of the Ordinary Christian Life (The Good Book Company, 2022)

In a world that equates success with riches, fame, and followers, I sometimes wonder if I’m really doing anything with my life. Even in church culture, there are calls to build a platform and do big things for the kingdom. Reading Seth Lewis’s book was a breath of fresh air. With simple but true encouragements from Scripture and examples from the lives of ordinary people, he reminded me I don’t need to be famous—God just calls me to be faithful.

Charles Spurgeon, The Promises of God: A New Edition of the Classic Devotional Based on the English Standard Version (Crossway, 2019)

I enjoy reading books and sermons by faithful saints throughout church history, but some of them can be a slog. So I’m grateful for Tim Chester’s work to update this classic from Charles Spurgeon. I used these daily devotions to begin my quiet times over the last year and found them both accessible and rich. Whether it was his insight into a promise I hadn’t previously noted or a reminder of one I’ve long held dear, I was encouraged by Spurgeon’s insights each morning.


Collin Hansen

Matthew Continetti, The Right: The Hundred-Year War for American Conservatism (Basic Books, 2022)

My political world has turned upside down in the last seven years. Continetti gave me the historical context I lacked for understanding the ever-changing priorities of American political conservatives. I learned I’ve never been conservative by the standards of nativists, for example. Movements and coalitions never stand still. But as Christians, we hold fixed beliefs we can’t dismiss just because they aren’t popular at any given time.

Christopher Watkin, Biblical Critical Theory: How the Bible’s Unfolding Story Makes Sense of Modern Life and Culture (Zondervan, 2022)

I’ve never seen this depth of social criticism delivered through the lens of biblical theology. This is one of the best books I’ve ever read. For years I’ve heard about Watkin and this project. Praise God it’s finally in the hands of church leaders around the world—and not a minute too soon. We need not only heightened confidence in God’s Word but also the hope of God’s unfolding redemption to help us discern these disconcerting times. Perhaps the Western church is in decline. But that’s sometimes when theologians (such as Augustine with City of God) produce the best work.

Hilary Mantel, The Mirror and the Light (Picador, 2021)

We lost Hilary Mantel in 2022. But what a legacy she left behind with her Wolf Hall trilogy. Thomas Cromwell is not only one of the most significant figures of the English Reformation—thanks to Mantel, he’s also one of the greatest characters in English literature. Politics and theology intertwine as much in our day as they did in the momentous 16th century. Maybe the mix is less obvious when we’re not executing heretics. But leaders today can still learn much from Cromwell’s brilliant, tortured life and the perils of power.


Megan Hill

Kate Albus, A Place to Hang the Moon (Margaret Ferguson Books, 2021)

My husband and I enjoy audiobooks together in the car, but our sporadic opportunities to listen mean we’re always looking for books that don’t require us to remember long lists of characters or complex plot lines (sorry, Tolstoy). Albus’s book is actually a middle-grade novel (perfect for the times when our kids are also in the car) about three orphaned siblings displaced from their London home by WWII. The writing is simple and the characters are loveably consistent, but their realistic emotions and conflicts left us middle-aged listeners both laughing and crying as we rooted for the three children to find a home.

Jim VandeHei, Mike Allen, and Roy Schwartz, Smart Brevity: The Power of Saying More with Less (Workman Publishing, 2022)

It’s become a running joke on our editorial team that I once excused a mediocre article by saying, “It’s not going to win a Pulitzer, but . . .” Smart Brevity’s authors, by contrast, don’t think you should apologize for writing that’s not Pulitzer-caliber. In fact, they think short bullet points and quick takeaways are often more valuable than poetic literary prose. I’m not giving up my Pulitzer aims anytime soon, but reading this book challenged me to consider whether beautiful writing always fulfills the second great commandment. At times, I fear, those lovely sentences may be more about serving the writer’s (or editor’s!) ego than the reader’s need.

Jacqueline Winspear, Birds of a Feather (reprint, Soho Crime, 2015)

I love a good mystery novel. It’s a genre that vividly illustrates biblical themes: the wickedness and guilt in all our hearts, the existence of moral absolutes, our longing for justice, and the honorable quest to discover truth. Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs novels have long been among my favorites, but somehow I’d never read Birds of Feather, the second in the series. Earlier this year, I remedied that lack and accompanied Maisie on her mission to find a missing woman. Along the way, Maisie (and her readers) must reckon with what it means to be courageous—and where courage can cross a moral line, even when it’s in the service of something good. Set between the world wars, Maisie’s story has much to tell us today.


Betsy Childs Howard

Ross Douthat, The Deep Places: A Memoir of Illness and Discovery (Convergent, 2021)

Though I (thankfully) don’t suffer from chronic illness, this memoir by a New York Times columnist gave me new insight into so many things. Douthat writes with deeply personal candor about how chronic Lyme disease humbled him professionally, tested his marriage, sent him (against his wishes) seeking answers in the world of alternative medicine, and drove him to his knees. As Stephen Witmer wrote in his review of The Deep Places, “As an exploration of embodied life, and of the losses and gains of physical suffering, and of the strengths and limitations of the scientific and medical establishments, it speaks to all of us.”

Faith Cook, Troubled Journey: A Missionary Childhood in War-Torn China (Banner of Truth, 2004)

​​Christian biographer Faith Cook tells her own family story in this memoir. Cook’s parents were missionaries to China during the Second World War and were part of a movement that believed in sacrificing all for the cause. In practice, this meant that they sent their children to boarding school and sometimes didn’t see them for several years. Cook writes frankly of the physical and emotional toll this took on her family and criticizes her parents’ choices. At the same time, she writes with great love and respect for them and anyone else who lays down their lives for the sake of the gospel. Cook’s example of appreciating the good while honestly acknowledging the bad provides an excellent alternative to the popular path of deconstruction.


Jared Kennedy

​​Channing L. Crisler and Robert L. Plummer, eds., Always Reforming: Reflections on Martin Luther and Biblical Studies (Lexham Press, 2021)

A festschrift published in a scholar’s honor sometimes gives his friends one last opportunity to disagree with him. That’s not the case with this volume dedicated to Mark Seifrid. Each essay reflects Seifrid’s deep love for the Scriptures and the reformer’s teaching, and it includes at least two essays by scholars—Thomas R. Schreiner (on Romans 7) and Brian Vickers (on recentering justification around Christ’s person)—who have changed or nuanced their views in recent years to move closer to Seifrid and the “Lutheran” Paul. The volume’s inclusion of Reformed, Baptist, and Lutheran scholars is a testimony to Seifrid’s theological journey and his Christian love for his colleagues at each stage of his ministry.

Marilynne Robinson, Lila (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014)

When I read this book, I reflected on the differing ways John Ames and Lila relate to the Scriptures. Their pace and rhythms are worlds apart. She resonates with the hardest parts of Ezekiel and Job. He thinks through the lens of Calvin’s Institutes. One participant in our church book club described it beautifully: “He could speak theologically; she could relate to that baby weltering in its own blood” (Ezek. 16:6–8). Their difference reminds me just how much we need a community of people with different backgrounds and personalities to help us hear God’s Word in its fullness.

Cara Wall, The Dearly Beloved (Simon and Schuster, 2019)

Some books teach us how to have empathy for characters with whom it’s difficult to relate. Reading other books is like looking in a mirror. This book, for me, was the latter. Wall’s two ministry couples—Charles and Lily, James and Nan—face a culture in turmoil, various doubts and griefs, and their own conflicting temperaments. Charles and Lily meet the sorrow of raising a child with severe autism while serving a church. Wall describes the emotions involved in these struggles in ways that made me feel seen and known. The book is fiction, but pastoral counselors working with the parents of a child facing a disability diagnosis would benefit greatly from reading it. I’m thankful for a novel that doesn’t hide life’s pain but encourages hope and faith.


Brett McCracken

Abigail Favale, The Genesis of Gender: A Christian Theory (Ignatius Press, 2022)

There was no book this year I underlined more voraciously than this one. Favale’s work is part of an emerging trend of female-authored books exposing the bad fruit of the sexual revolution and gender ideology. I’ve read a lot in recent years on theological readings of sex and gender, and this is up there among the best. For classroom, small group, or personal study, this is an indispensable new resource offering a refreshing “Christian theory” of gender as a reality-based, hopeful alternative to the dominating secular critical theories.

Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005; originally 1951)

I read this early in the year and it blew my mind. We’re familiar with the concept of sacred space, but what about sacred time? Written from a Jewish theological perspective, Heschel beautifully unpacks the “architecture of time” that is the concept of Sabbath. Infused with reverent joy, the book has much to offer Christian readers looking to ponder the mystery of God’s intentions for time and Sabbath.


Brian McKanna

Jhumpa Lahiri, In Other Words (reprint, Vintage, 2017)

Perhaps nothing dislocates a person more than losing the ability to understand and communicate through words. In this memoir, Jhumpa Lahiri poignantly describes what it’s like to live in a different country and learn a new language while writing in it. The outcome of such a project—first composed in Italian and then translated into English—is a writing style that’s deep and compelling in its simplicity. Lahiri’s reflections beautifully portray the complex emotions and questions that plague a cultural outsider as she embraces the limitations of trying to describe it all in a foreign tongue. Anyone who’s ever moved to another country will easily relate.

Garrett M. Graff, The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of September 11, 2001 (Simon & Schuster, 2019)

I’m not sure what makes this book—best enjoyed in audio format—so captivating. Of course, the world-altering events of September 11 account for its historical significance. Then there’s the story of George Bush, occupant of the solitary airborne plane that fateful afternoon. This book offers a small window into the burden of responsibility, fear of the unknown, and eerie loneliness the president must have felt as he zigzagged the country in Air Force One. But what makes this book truly unique is the opportunity to hear from everyday Americans, those whose lives were forever changed in a single day through the terror of death and the triumph of bravery.

Daniel Nayeri, Everything Sad Is Untrue (Levine Querido, 2020)

I love the title of this book from Daniel Nayeri, in part because it’s counterintuitive. For the reader, what’s clearly true is the incredible sadness, shame, and loneliness he felt as a prepubescent refugee from Iran attending grade school in Oklahoma. On many occasions throughout the book, I nodded and smiled at Nayeri’s vivid descriptions and childlike candor about the challenges of being an outsider. For him, as for the reader, laughter is a coping mechanism. You laugh so you don’t cry; the sadness is too strong. But as Nayeri deftly reveals—amid potty humor, no less—is that those tears can also lead to joy when you meet the One who bears all our sorrows.


Ivan Mesa

Carolyn Weber, Surprised by Oxford: A Memoir (Thomas Nelson, 2013)

What can I say about this lovely, poignant book? It has it all: romance, theological musings, Oxford backdrop, conversion narrative, Christian apologetic, and more. It’s beautifully written and an exquisite model for Christian writers. Weber’s book has recently been adapted into film, but make sure to read the book first.

Anthony Doerr, Cloud Cuckoo Land (Scribner, 2022)

I’m not sure quite how to describe this book, since on paper it seems like a mishmash of stories across time (15th, 20th, 21st, and 22nd centuries) and space (also literally?) that seemingly don’t connect. But if you stick with it, you’ll find a lovely work that the author describes as a “paean to books.” As a friend put it, Doerr is at his best in providing “beautifully descriptive writing; an intricate, intersecting plot (plots, actually); and characters I cared about deeply.” If you appreciated Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See (another entrancing story), you won’t be disappointed here.

Ryan Holiday, Discipline Is Destiny: The Power of Self-Control (Portfolio, 2022)

Self-control is a fruit of the Spirit, so it’s always fascinating to see how non-Christians consider these moral virtues. Ryan Holiday has quickly become the best popularizer of the new Stoic movement. While I’m no disciple of the Stoics, it’s always fascinating to see many common-grace insights that confirm the Christian worldview. Because Holiday is a broad reader, his book is peppered with accounts from history that beautifully illustrate this ancient virtue. As with most of Holiday’s books, there’s always more I’d want to say but not less.


Matt Smethurst

Patrick Radden Keefe, Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty (Doubleday, 2021)

Engrossing and infuriating. Don’t tell me systemic injustice doesn’t exist today.

Glen Scrivener, The Air We Breathe: How We All Came to Believe in Freedom, Kindness, Progress, and Equality (The Good Book Company, 2022)

Secular Westerners reject Christian belief while feasting on its fruit. Whether the subject is enlightenment or equality, compassion or consent, science or freedom or progress, our neighbors have Christianity to thank for the values they cherish. This argument is provocative and demonstrably true. Building on groundbreaking historical scholarship, Glen Scrivener has made a case that cannot be ignored. This is one of the most important books I’ve read in a long time.

Isaac Adams, Talking About Race: Gospel Hope for Hard Conversations (Zondervan, 2022)

Isaac Adams wades into the race conversation not as a pundit or self-styled prophet but as a pastor. If Christians in droves began reading and applying the insights contained in this book, our churches—and nation—would be in a much better place. It’s possible my church members will grow tired of me recommending this book. So be it. They—and their pastor—need its truth and wisdom, over and over again.


Phil Thompson

Charles Spurgeon, We Endeavor (Pilgrim Publications, 1897)

Although difficult to find in print, this tiny 160-page book is a collection of Spurgeon’s sermons to a group of young leaders who desired to serve as foreign missionaries. I usually read this book once a year and distribute it to next-generation leaders in our church. The book is mercifully shorter than Lectures to My Students, and it gives readers a glimpse into the preacher’s heart behind those lectures. I’m convicted and challenged every time I have the opportunity to interact with this little-known gem.

Malcolm Gladwell, Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know (Back Bay Books, 2021)

How did we fail to discern a leader’s double life? Why do abusers go undetected for so long in our churches and institutions? Why do those who report abuse often get ignored or attacked? Gladwell provides data and stories that help provide answers to these questions. Given the subject matter, a trigger warning is appropriate with this book, and Gladwell’s conclusions aren’t all equally helpful. But the categories provided by Talking to Strangers are thought-provoking and insightful.

Mary Beard, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome (Liveright, 2016)

I enjoyed SPQR as a supplement to Tom Holland’s Dominion. Holland focuses primarily on the rise of Christianity and secondarily on the decline of the Roman worldview. In contrast, Beard provides deep insights into the Roman worldview and way of life, providing little interaction with the rise of Christianity. For preachers and teachers tasked with connecting New Testament passages—written to those who were swept up in the great Roman Empire—to modern Christians, SPQR is a wonderful resource to understand the original context of the text. I’d recommend pairing The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius with SPQR in order to explore more of the primary source material behind the book.


Cassie Watson

L. M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables (Hachette Childrens Books, 2019; originally 1908)

I’d never read the Anne series before picking it up in January at the urging of a friend. I haven’t been the same since. Anne Shirley taught me to appreciate the beauty of the natural world, to serve people in small and quiet ways with love, and to trust God with every “bend in the road” ahead. I loved watching her grow up and retain her joyful spirit through every season of her life. I’m currently on my second read-through of the whole eight-book series, and I plan to revisit at least a few of the books every spring.

Ray Rhodes Jr., Susie: The Life and Legacy of Susannah Spurgeon (Moody Publishers, 2021)

I included Susie in our “What We’re Reading This Summer” list this year, but I can’t resist recommending it here too. I couldn’t put it down, and thankfully I didn’t have to—I read it for seven hours straight while stuck on my couch with COVID-19. I’m so glad to be acquainted with both the Spurgeons now. Through the many trials Susie faced, her steadfast faith in the goodness of God encouraged me to also trust in his perfect timing, even when being sick meant disrupted travel plans. She, not unlike Anne Shirley, sought to joyfully accept the gifts God gave her rather than wasting her life wishing she had different gifts. Susie’s faithfulness will long stay with me.

Dennis Duncan, Index, a History of the (Allen Lane, 2021)

If you love words as much as I do, you probably won’t be able to make it past reading the clever title of this book without ordering it. I was thrilled to find it under the Christmas tree last year. Duncan lays out the fascinating history of sorting tools, revealing how features we take for granted like alphabetical order and page numbers were far from inevitable. He takes us on a journey from the serene 13th-century monasteries of Europe all the way to the modern-day index—as we go, we learn about the diverse ways humans have sought to bring order to the world’s ever-multiplying mass of information.


Sarah Zylstra

Lucy Worsley, Agatha Christie: An Elusive Woman (Pegasus Crime, 2022)

My family has been on a Hercule Poirot kick for months now, listening to audio versions of the murder mysteries while we drive to school and work and church. It’s been delightful to read Lucy Worsley’s biography of author Agatha Christie at the same time. Christie’s own life—falling from riches into poverty then back into riches, a mysterious disappearance, a tragic love story with a happy ending—is just as riveting as her clever fiction.

Jen Pollock Michel, In Good Time: 8 Habits for Reimagining Productivity, Resisting Hurry, and Practicing Peace (Baker Books, 2022)

There are no quick hints or practical tips in Jen Pollock Michel’s newest book—instead, she uses the pandemic as a springboard for thinking deeply about how we view time. This is a treat for anyone who loves beautiful prose—and it’s the best example I’ve seen of someone bringing beauty out of the ashes of the coronavirus.

Brian Chapell, Grace at Work: Redeeming the Grind and the Glory of Your Job (Crossway, 2022)

I read a lot of books on faith and work, and this is one of my favorites. Smart and readable, it addresses a pile of issues—from integrity to success to what to do if you don’t like your job or your boss. I liked it so much that I pulled two excerpts—and 20 quotes—to post at TGC. Even then, I left a lot of good stuff on the ground. It’s worth picking up.

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Today’s Secular College Campus Is More Open to Faith Than You Think https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/secular-college-campus-open-faith/ Thu, 15 Dec 2022 05:00:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=534140 Instead of facing opposition and closed doors on secular campuses, what if today’s Christian college students are met with curiosity and open doors?]]> When I pictured starting college at my secular university as a conservative Christian girl, the image in my head was akin to the angry, pitchfork-wielding village mob in Beauty and the Beast. I had low expectations for how my classmates would react to me as a Christian and how my professors would take my beliefs. I had little hope of making true friends.

Growing up in a private Christian school for a decent chunk of my educational career, I’d been prepared for the worst. My friends and I had been taught to defend our beliefs as teenage apologists. We expected to enter college either as battle-ready soldiers or covert spies, hiding our beliefs in order to survive.

What we weren’t prepared for was a best-case scenario where students on our secular campus would actually listen to and be curious about our Christian faith, wanting to learn more. Yet that scenario happened to me, and it changed my approach to sharing my faith in college.

My Experience

I was taking a philosophy seminar required for my honors college track, and we were studying everything from Plato to Gandhi. I made friends with the girl sitting next to me, and we began talking often. Multiple times throughout the course, I had the opportunity to talk about my personal beliefs, and I did.

One afternoon we opted to get lunch together, and as we stood in line debating the merits of quesadillas over ribs, she said, “Did Cain really marry his sister?” It wasn’t exactly the question I would have chosen to start a discussion, but it opened a door that led to a series of lunches where we discussed the Bible, the Trinity, historical and scientific evidence, and most importantly, the truth of the gospel.

I started to realize my college friends were more curious about my beliefs than I thought.

Imagine my friend’s surprise when I started explaining that Christianity wasn’t just one interesting part of my life but the whole of my identity.

My generation is obsessed with identity labels, and my friend saw Christianity as just another part of what made me me. “Live your truth” has become this generation’s most loudly proclaimed motto, and religion and spirituality are seen as aspects of some people’s specific experiences. Imagine my friend’s surprise when I started explaining that Christianity wasn’t just one interesting part of my life but the whole of my identity. My decisions, my behavior, my voting practices—everything stems from my relationship with Christ and my understanding of the gospel.

She found it fascinating. She asked me to explain more about the Bible, she asked to read through it, and she even came to church with me. Each time she had another question, I was surprised. This wasn’t the kind of conversation I expected to have with a self-proclaimed atheist or agnostic at my secular, liberal school.

Season of Learning and Openness

College students are there to learn, and sometimes they want to learn about Christ. Learning doesn’t always lead to immediate salvation. My friend, as far as I know, has yet to trust in Christ. But I had the chance to speak to her about the gospel, explaining Christianity and why we believe what we believe. And she listened with true interest.

Our calling as Christians is to scatter gospel seeds everywhere: even on the secular college campus, even in classes where we’re the only Christian out of 50 students, and even when we’re worried we’ll be shunned, harassed, or silenced. It’s possible we will be silenced. It’s also possible we’ll be invited to speak. Are we ready for that? We have to be.

College students are in a stage of life where their minds are open to new things. Take advantage of this and speak openly about Christianity as it relates to various topics. From biology to history to literature, every course you take is an opportunity to mention your beliefs. Beyond the classroom, everything from music to moviegoing to processing world events can facilitate faith discussions.

Don’t just be ready for the conversation to begin. Be ready for the complex questions. We don’t want to fall into the vague chasm of “I believe it but I don’t know why” faith. We want to be as intellectually curious—as eager to wrap our minds around the tough questions—as our secular peers are, because truth matters. Questions will invariably arise about scientific and historical evidence. Brush up on your understanding and do some research on the current arguments against Christianity.

It’s possible we will be silenced. It’s also possible we’ll be invited to speak. Are we ready for that? We have to be.

If you don’t have answers to a classmate’s or friend’s questions, don’t be afraid to say “I’m not sure about that one, let me get back to you.” Helpful resources on these topics abound online. Try gotquestions.org or The Gospel Coalition’s own archives on the various topics your friends may ask about.

Social media and the internet can be helpful in your ongoing conversations. Send links that address the theological question you’ve discussed. Share an Instagram story your church posted about an event for young adults and invite your classmate to join you. Text a link to a YouTube video or podcast your friend should listen to. While our short attention spans aren’t this generation’s best feature, our ability to quickly and easily share information can be an asset.

Be Ready for the Open Door

Before I started my first college semester, I took some time to pray for a chance to evangelize. I wasn’t entirely sure what I was expecting to happen, but a few weeks later my friend asked me about Cain and his wife. God answers our prayers.

Evangelism on campus isn’t just something for youth pastors, church outreach groups, or parachurch ministries. It’s a practical, in-class, everyday thing. Help your peers see Christianity isn’t just a trendy accessory to your identity; it’s more than just another label. It’s an all-encompassing framework of truth and an anchor for our hope, in every situation.

Let it be known that you’re a Christian, and then be willing to engage in any conversation that follows. Will you sometimes be met with pitchforks and fire? Maybe. Sometimes the door will be slammed in your face. But sometimes, you’ll be met with an invitation to lunch, an obscure question from Genesis, or just the slightest creak of an opening door. Don’t hesitate to walk through it, trusting God to guide you—and the curious unbeliever—from there.

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The Gospel Is Big Enough for the Sexual Revolution https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/hope-mass-derangement/ Wed, 14 Dec 2022 05:03:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=536384 Alistair Begg: ‘The hope for the greedy, for the immoral, for all of us is the same hope. And the answer is the same answer: the cross of Jesus Christ.’]]> Writing on the state of Western civilization a little more than a decade ago, English journalist Melanie Phillips observed, “Society seems to be in the grip of a mass derangement.” There’s a “sense that the world has slipped off the axis of reason,” causing many to wonder, “How is anyone to work out who is right in such a babble of ‘experts’ and with so much conflicting information?”

As I started to reread this book recently, I was struck by what’s missing. Phillips writes as an agnostic but observant Jew, and many of her points are profoundly helpful. Noticeably absent from her analysis, though, is any biblical recognition of how the world could’ve gone so haywire (à la Gen. 3)—in the realm of human sexuality.

The subject of sexuality as described and prescribed by Scripture is not just difficult—to address it is also unpopular and in large measure offensive. I come to it with caution and, I hope, with a measure of compassion, but also with the conviction that God’s Word and way are absolutely perfect—and that he knew exactly what he was doing when he put humanity together. Thankfully, one of the passages that speaks most pointedly to how God’s wrath is revealed against sin (Rom. 1:16–28) is both preceded and followed by the amazing offer of God’s grace.

Living in a Runaway World

Paul’s argument in Romans 1 unfolds from his great declaration in verse 16: “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” Why is the gospel for everyone? Because everyone needs the gospel. Each of us is born in the same hopeless and helpless situation: “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (v. 18).

Simply put, mankind lives in a runaway world. Some of us like to suggest God is hiding, but we have been the hiders since nearly the beginning of time (Gen. 3:8–10). We “suppress the truth” he’s shown us about himself (Rom. 1:18). We deny he’s made himself clearly known in the universe we inhabit—that “his eternal power and divine nature” (v. 20) are evident all around—and, as a result, we’re utterly “without excuse” (v. 20) when we refuse to worship him or thank him. When we refuse to know God as he’s revealed himself, we don’t give up on worship—we just worship something or someone else.

When we refuse to know God as he’s revealed himself, we don’t give up on worship—we just worship something or someone else.

Which brings us to the matter of human sexuality—not because it’s a hobbyhorse or because we get some (perverse) sense of satisfaction out of being controversial but because that’s what comes next in God’s Word. If we simply choose the parts of the Bible we like and reject the parts we don’t, we don’t really believe the Bible; we believe ourselves. Why would we ever want to consider a passage like Romans 1 unless we believed Scripture is God’s Word, it’s unerring, and it speaks life-giving truth—even in our 21st-century Western world? We’re not at liberty to rewrite the Bible to accommodate godless perspectives on abortion, euthanasia, same-sex marriage, transgenderism, and the like. We’re not free to tamper with God’s Word.

As we continue reading Paul’s inspired words, it’s clear that having broken our connection with the Creator—who made us purposefully for himself—we struggle to know who we are. As the apostle goes on to explain, when men turned from God toward idols, including the idol of self, God

gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves. . . . God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error. (vv. 24, 26–27)

The exchange of the normal, natural function of human sexuality for that which is contrary isn’t the first “exchange.” Paul has already described mankind as exchanging “the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things” (v. 23)—the exchange of the Creator God for created idols. We have also “exchanged the truth about God for a lie” (v. 25)—the exchange of knowledge for ignorance. And because we refuse to trust and worship him, God gives men and women up to their “dishonorable passions.” He gives them up to something contemporary society regards as an alternative lifestyle but that the Bible pronounces to be an abominable perversion. Idolatry thus leads to immorality—and the immorality gets deeper as it goes.

From Idolatry to Immorality

Such is the state of our society today. How did we get here? Reflecting on the past several decades of Western culture reveals a strategy at play among those driving the revolution.

First, there have been efforts to make sure the broader society sympathizes with their struggles—both of a personal and societal nature. (And Christians surely ought to lead the world in sympathy, but only of the Christlike sort.) Second, there was and is a clear desire to normalize homosexuality and transgenderism through media and individuals’ platforms. And third, there has been and continues to be a concerted effort to demonize those who oppose the revolution. Dissenters will be canceled at a high cost.

The West as a whole and America in particular aren’t in the mess Phillips describes because we’re immoral—not ultimately. We’re in such a mess because we worship modern-day Baals rather than the living God. The moral squalor and brokenness of our culture is merely the clearest evidence of “the wrath of God” being “revealed from heaven” (v. 18). The actual immorality isn’t the cause; it’s the evidence. It’s what happens when we turn in upon ourselves.

The evidence is all around us. When Paul describes both men and women giving up “natural relations” in favor of those “contrary to nature” (vv. 26–27), he uses the word “natural” to describe the material order as God intended it. (In fact, the words he uses for “women” and “men” are actually “female” and “male” in Greek—a deliberate echo, I think, of Gen. 1:27: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”) Anatomy, physiology, biology—all of them, even without theology—testify to God’s perfect plan, the violation of which leads to chaos, sadness, and despair.

Anatomy, physiology, biology—all of them, even without theology—testify to God’s perfect plan, the violation of which leads to chaos, sadness, and despair.

Homosexual practice, then, isn’t simply an alternative lifestyle. It’s rebellion against God: I will decide who I am, what I am, what I’m doing, and with whom I’m doing it. It’s not the greatest sin, but it’s clear evidence of a society’s defiance of God. When a culture reaches the place where even manhood and womanhood—gender itself—are deconstructed and reconstructed according to individual agendas, that culture is in deep trouble.

We also see this disintegration on a personal level. When longings are no longer filled by God, who has made us for himself, the longings don’t go away. We still have to answer the yearnings of our hearts for peace, fulfillment, joy, satisfaction, and sexual gratification.

When we read Paul’s words about men and women “receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error” (v. 27), we can easily jump to conclusions about what he meant. I find William G. T. Shedd’s observation helpful: “The recompense is the gnawing unsatisfied lust itself, together with the dreadful physical and moral consequences of debauchery.” When we reject God as the answer to our longings, we don’t stand on morally neutral ground. We become, in Paul’s words, “consumed with passion.”

Gospel for the Whole World

For the Christian, all of this presents quite a challenge. We must, as John Stott did so masterfully, have one foot firmly planted in the world of the Bible and the other planted in our own context. On the one hand, we’re called to refute false ideas—remembering Jesus’s warning that “if the world hates you, know that it has hated [him] before it hated you” (John 15:18)—even as we treat those who hate us with honor. On the other hand, we have this good news to share: Jesus was delivered up to the cross so men and women might be delivered from sin and born again to life everlasting. In him, broken lives are made new.

So how do you honor God, obey his Word, and love your neighbors, friends, and family members who have decided to embrace this path? Some people have decided the way to respond to our culture’s broken understanding of human sexuality is by admonition—to simply stand up and keep declaring, “This is terrible, this is terrible, this is terrible.” Others have decided they won’t say anything at all. Neither is a possibility for a Bible-believing Christian.

In my experience, those who reject God’s plan for their sexuality are either reviled or affirmed by those around them. By contrast, Christians ought to say, “We will not treat you in either of those ways. We will not revile you, but we cannot affirm you. And the reason we won’t revile you is the same reason we can’t affirm you: because of God’s Word, because of his love, because of his grace, because of his goodness.” It’s not easy to speak about his wrath. But I’m glad that when I do address it, I know it’s wrapped in the amazing news of his grace.

It’s not easy to speak about his wrath. But I’m glad that when I do address it, I know it’s wrapped in the amazing news of his grace.

Writing to the Corinthians, Paul urged them, “Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:9–10). If we’re clear-eyed and honest, we’re all described somewhere in this list. What’s the answer? The next sentence: “Such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (v. 11).

The hope for the greedy, for the immoral, for all of us is the same hope. And the answer is the same answer: the cross of Jesus Christ. He was given up on our behalf so we might enjoy all the beauty and goodness found in him.

This is what we mean when we say the gospel is for everyone. It’s a gospel for atheists and agnostics, for Jews and Gentiles, for Hindus and Muslims, for the lost and the lonely, for the happy and the successful, for the homosexual or transgender person, for those who experience gender dysphoria and those who don’t—ultimately, for anyone who humbly casts aside any other identity and loses his or her life for Christ’s sake (Matt. 16:25). It’s a big gospel for a big world.

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How Comfort Culture and Hustle Ideology Fill the Meaning Gap https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/comfort-culture-hustle-ideology/ Wed, 14 Dec 2022 05:02:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=532088 Comfort idolatry and work idolatry are both consolation prizes in a world seeking meaning apart from God.]]> When Nietzsche famously declared, “God is dead,” we often assume the atheist philosopher said it triumphally. Yet Nietzsche didn’t really pronounce the death of God—by which he meant the idea of God and religion had died following the triumph of reason and science—as a wholesale victory.

While on the one hand, it was a triumph (as he understood it), on the other hand, Nietzsche saw the cost: “our entire European morality.” Nietzsche prophesied a dark time to follow, a process of crumbling and terror when there would be no reason to be “moral.” He predicted a post-God world would result not only in the loss of “Christian” morality but also in a descent into meaninglessness and the breakdown of a unified sense of self, identity, and purpose.

In the post-Christian West, we’re seeing Nietzsche’s predictions play out. Something else must take the place of God if there’s any hope of navigable meaning. God’s absence must be filled by some presence—and many candidates are vying to fill the void. In particular, we’ve noticed two maps of meaning that have grabbed the hearts of many: comfort culture and hustle ideology. In one sense, they’re opposites. In another, they’re fraternal twins: different features, same parents.

Comfort Culture

By comfort culture, we mean Netflix bingeing, online gaming, hours of Candy Crush, scrolling Instagram reels, fantasy sports, self-indulgent Amazon sprees, foodie culture addiction—all comfy couch consolations to fill the meaning gap. Essentially, this is consumerism in late modernity as a form of spiritual transcendence. It’s not that these activities are bad in themselves. But they can become a problem when they create a “comfort culture” that idolizes rest to the point of finding meaning in slothfulness, consumption to ameliorate ennui. It’s the mindset of working merely to make play possible.

Critics of comfort culture are right to point out that idolizing rest is poor stewardship of the time God gives us. While that’s true, the opposite extreme—a hyperproductive lifestyle of optimizing the self—can be just as erroneous and disappointing.

In our experience with young people, especially at the beginning of their professional lives—or perhaps seeking to rebound from years wasted in comfort culture—hustle ideology can feel like a more fulfilling path to finding meaning.

Hustle Ideology

If you doubt the prevalence of hustle-and-grind ideology in today’s world, consider how many people listen to The Joe Rogan Experience. The show has over 13 million subscribers and billions of views. Billions. Although Rogan covers an extremely wide range of topics (from martial arts to alternative medicine to alien spacecraft), there’s a strong thread that runs through the show about working hard, challenging yourself, never giving up, and grinding until you win. Rogan’s massive influence (particularly among young men) speaks to the appeal of this increasingly popular map of meaning.

By hustle-and-grind ideology, we don’t simply mean hard-working lifestyles. Rather, it’s the ideology of pursuing a future version of the self—tougher, harder, more successful, more complete—through relentless self-improvement.

This sort of attitude is expressed, for example, in the proliferation of productivity books and, perhaps most viscerally, in the fitness world’s ubiquity of jujitsu studios and Crossfit boxes.

Hustle-and-Grind Gurus

One exemplar of hustle ideology is David Goggins, a former Navy SEAL. His book Can’t Hurt Me: Master Your Mind and Defy the Odds is a bestseller. Goggins offers inspirational quotes ranging from aphorisms such as “I don’t stop when I’m tired, I stop when I’m done” to “It’s so easy to be great nowadays, because everyone else is weak.” This mindset evokes the idea of apotheosis (the ascension to deity): be great and then be god. And there’s a sense that if the greatest end is the greatest version of you, then the greatest version of you, whoever that is, is divine. It’s idolatry of the optimized self.

There’s a sense that if the greatest end is the greatest version of you, then the greatest version of you, whoever that is, is divine. It’s idolatry of the optimized self.

Statements such as those above have become more culturally acceptable through the addition of a modernized Stoicism. This ancient philosophy as understood by modern thinkers like Ryan Holiday and Donald Robertson combines the credibility of the Greco-Roman worldview with the modern hustle mentality as a way to bridge the meaning gap. Stoicism provides a secular framework for processing experiences such as grief, pain, tragedy, failure, and even death—a difficult exercise in the absence of God.

Christian Critique

Hustle culture idolizes work and gainz (let the reader understand). But comfort idolatry and work idolatry are both consolation prizes in a world seeking meaning apart from God. Christians must be aware of how these ubiquitous temptations might be gripping their hearts.

We recognize God’s good gifts in things like quality films and gaming, working hard and working out. And yet our daily patterns—if Christ hasn’t conquered our schedule—will naturally drift toward the norms of the subculture near us: for some, what’s easy (chasing comfort), and for others, what’s hard (optimizing the ideal self). Binge streaming and binge lifting might seem like opposites, but they’re both examples of how good gifts can become idols.

False religions are hard to pinpoint when they’re wrapped up in some of the most obvious common-grace gifts of God. That’s why Christians must be especially sensitive to the hold these idols can have on their hearts and those of their brothers and sisters in faith. Enjoy the common graces of God, but don’t idolize the entertained self or the optimized self. Both gods end in meaninglessness.

Binge streaming and binge lifting might seem like opposites, but they’re both examples of how good gifts can become idols.

In theory, Christians know Nietzsche was wrong to pronounce God “dead.” And yet when we live as though our comfort or self-optimization are the ultimate sources of meaning, we inadvertently prove Nietzsche’s point. Even if our secular neighbors seek to fill the meaning void in these unsatisfying places, Christians should double down on committing themselves to the truly satisfying sources of meaning: Scripture, church community, worship, prayer, and an outward-focused posture of loving God and neighbor—the rhythms of the Christian life.

When the false promises of consumer comfort leave our neighbors wanting and hustle culture leaves them weary, we should be ready to welcome them in. Let’s embrace the pilgrims of a Nietzschean world, pointing them to the One who offers freeing truth (John 8:31–32), lifted burdens (Matt. 11:28–30), and life everlasting (John 5:24).

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Gaming Alone: Helping the Generation of Young Men Captivated and Isolated by Video Games https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/gaming-alone/ Wed, 14 Dec 2022 05:00:13 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=536061 How can we play video games under the lordship of Christ and before the face of God?]]> Over the past year or so, the Washington Post has been running headlines like “The Boys Are Not All Right” and “Why Aren’t Men Going to College Anymore?” The New York Times called it a “Crisis of Men and Boys.” Most sources simply refer to it as “the boy crisis.”

The statistics are genuinely alarming: it sounds like boys are all going to drop out of school, quit going to work, and spend the rest of their lives watching porn, doing drugs, and playing video games in their basements while their moms do their laundry.

In 1982, men and women were attending colleges in equal numbers. Since then, women have outpaced men not only in college enrollment but in college completion and graduate school enrollment. For every four boys in college, there are six girls. In grad schools, women are outpacing men even in traditionally male-heavy programs like law school and medical school. Where are all the boys?

Here’s what I found out: Young men are actually going to college more than they used to. In 1970, about 20 percent of young men had a bachelor’s degree. By 2021, that was up to 36 percent.

It’s just hard to see the boys because there are so many more girls. In 1970, about 12 percent of young women had graduated from college. By 2021, that was close to 46 percent.

I know what you’re going to ask next: Why? Across the world, even across history, when girls gain access to the classroom, they tend to be more successful than their male peers. Girls do more homework and get higher grades than boys. They’re less likely to get into trouble, repeat grades, be diagnosed with learning disorders, or be expelled—even in preschool.

So that’s a problem, but not a new problem.

In the job market, fewer young men are working, even though there are now 5 million more job openings than unemployed people in our country. The percentage of men in the workforce dropped from 97 percent in 1967 to 88 percent today.

This trend has continued steadily for 50 years, regardless of changing market conditions or economic recessions or unemployment rates. The men who aren’t employed are more likely to have dropped out of high school and to have a criminal history, to be young, unmarried, and childless—or not living with their children.

So what do they do all day? National surveys show they’re spending most of their time—eight hours a day—on “socializing, relaxing, and leisure.”

That means lots of watching television. But it also means lots of video games. In 2017, the National Bureau of Economic Research released a working paper connecting the lower rates of working young men to the improvement in video game technology.

I’m not saying all male problems stem back to video games. But it is true that gaming has changed drastically over the past few decades. In 1999, about 50 percent of teen boys played video games for about 34 minutes a day. Today, 97 percent of boys play for an average of 2 hours and 20 minutes a day.

From Scrolling Alone to Gaming Alone

My first clue to what was going on with boys came from studying girls.

A few months ago, I did a podcast episode called “Scrolling Alone.” It was about how social media promises to be about connection and friendship but instead largely makes Gen Z women feel anxious and alone. Instagram and other platforms tangle young women in a cycle of digital comparison and competition, divorced from the in-person laughing and crying and hugging that enriches relationships. Social media isn’t wrong, exactly, but judging by the way it’s affecting young girls, we need to be a lot more careful with it than we have been.

Even before we published “Scrolling Alone,” I could see parallels with the world of video games. In both, you create and maintain an online identity in an online world. In both, you can meet and become friends with people across the world you haven’t met—and might never meet —in real life.

In both, you might aspire to be an influencer or a top gamer, which looks easy, like gaining fame and fortune by doing something super fun. But it’s actually a lot harder on you than it looks. In both, there are quantifiable markers—a score or a number of reshares or double taps—for how well you’re succeeding. In both, you can spend hours in front of a screen without much difficulty.

With the advance of technology, both forms of entertainment have grown really, really popular. Globally, social networking sites made $153 billion in 2021, more than twice as much as Hollywood, Starbucks, and the NFL combined.

The video game industry is bigger yet, raking in $180 billion last year. More than 40 percent of the 7.8 billion people on the planet play. In America, among teen boys, 97 percent play.

I’m not willing to write off either social media or video games completely. I’m a Reformed Christian, and I believe in God’s sovereignty over every square inch. So how can we think well—for ourselves and for our boys—about video games?

Meet the Players

“The first video game I ever played was Minecraft,” said Jacob Toole, a college junior. “I was 11 or 12 at the time. I remember very vividly getting my first laptop—buying it with my money that I’d saved up from working over the summer.”

Jacob is enrolled at Dordt University, where I got my undergraduate degree and where I now sit on the board. And yes, this is a school that’s so Reformed it’s named after the Synod of Dort, held by the Dutch Reformed Church in the 1600s.

To get there, I fly from Chicago to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and then drive about an hour southeast into the top corner of Iowa. The university sits in a little rural town surrounded by cornfields and big blue skies. It’s the kind of place where kids still walk to school by themselves, where grandpas gather in the mornings for coffee, and where 19 churches—12 of them with Reformed in the name—serve a population of about 8,000.

I’m here because while I was sitting in a board meeting last year, I heard about a gaming club that’s doing something no one else is—thinking with students about a Reformed theology of video games. More on that in a minute.

For now, I sit across the table from Jacob in a library conference room and ask what motivated him enough to work all summer mowing lawns to buy a laptop and Minecraft.

“Because I watched YouTube videos about it,” he told me. “Yeah, I knew that’s what I wanted from watching YouTube videos.”

Jacob loved Minecraft.

“[I] like the building, the exploring, the experience of having an entire world at your fingertips to do whatever you wanted with,” he said. “It was basically: get up, go to school, and then as soon as I got home, as soon as I got time—Minecraft.”

As he got older, Jacob built his own desktop PC. He got an account on Steam, which is a site where players can buy games, log their scores, or post reviews.

“I’ve put close to 500 hours on Age of Wonders III,” he said. “I’ve put many hours into Hearts of Iron IV, Stellaris—you know, all these different grand strategy type games. I put many, lot, hundreds of hours into these games.”

I asked what his mom thought about that.

“There were many times where she tried to institute something along the lines of, ‘You have X amount of hours per day,’” he told me. “That didn’t go too well.”

Addiction

Here we are, already at the heart of the problem. I can’t claim video games are the only thing that’s wrong with men in America—but I do know half of American gamers report missing sleep in order to play. A third have missed meals, and a quarter have skipped showers. More than 10 percent have missed work because of games.

The young men I talked to at Dordt looked clean to me. They played sports, sang in the choir, and had girlfriends. They went to class, got good grades, and were leaders on campus. But they could all get lost in digital worlds, and it could be hard to make their way back.

Johnny Sullivan is a senior engineering major. He attended a private Christian high school that wasn’t close to his house. I asked how much time he spent he playing when he was younger.

“If I’m honest, sometimes too much,” he said. “It definitely got to a point—like, it started out with the whole thing of my mom didn’t restrict too much of my time, because that was how I hung out with my friends, because I lived away from my friends. Then, that lack of restriction on the time, it wasn’t the greatest thing. Because I had trouble, and I still sometimes have trouble, budgeting my time. So yeah, that’s one thing me and my mom both wish that had been done differently.”

And here’s Ethan Haeder, who grew up connecting with his dad over video games. It was a great way for them to bond. But it was also hard to turn off, especially when he got to college.

“Second semester, freshman year, you could definitely make an argument that it was it was becoming an addictive problem for me,” he said. “I didn’t adjust to college life super well. So my first two semesters were tough because of video games. There was one Saturday when I realized that I had been at the computer playing for 15 hours straight—not straight, I got up to eat meals and to go the bathroom. But otherwise, I’d been playing for 15 hours. They were an enjoyable 15 hours—[but] probably not healthy. Definitely not healthy. . . . That’s too much of anything.”

He’s right, of course. Fifteen hours of anything is too much. But it’s rare that you can physically do much else for that long. If you tried to play sports for 15 hours straight, you’d collapse. If you tried to work for that long, you’d give out. If you ate for that long, you’d explode your stomach.

The unique thing about video games is that you can play them for a long time. They require very little physical energy, and the blue light from the screen keeps your mind from recognizing your body is growing tired.

This works for video game companies, who make money not just on the sales of their games but also by what’s called “in-app purchases” or “microtransactions.” That’s when you can buy something small—say, Fortnite skins or a specific weapon or extra lives—to make the game more enjoyable or to help you progress. I cannot emphasize enough how important this is. The average League of Legends player spent $92 on these game upgrades in 2019; the average Fortnite player spent $82. In 2020, players spent a combined $93 billion on microtransactions—that’s eight times more money than they spent on the games themselves. For comparison, that was more revenue just in microtransactions than Target made that year.

This is a massive economic incentive to keep players online. Over the years, through trial and error, video game companies have spent a lot of time and money figuring out ways to engage the human brain. One is to present someone with an achievable task and a clear path to success. Our brains release dopamine when that happens—we feel competent and happy. When it fades, we want to feel competent and happy again.

Another strategy is to offer someone an uncertain reward. In social media, that’s the question of how many likes or reshares a post will get. In video games, that’s a loot box you buy though you’re not sure what’s in it. Or it’s earning an arbitrary reward for completing a test—say, a random number between 1 and 10 coins instead of a stable, consistent 5 coins.

There are a bunch of other strategies as well, such as leveling up or tracking streaks, like playing every day for eight days. Or getting daily rewards. Or being penalized for taking a break—for example, your supplies might go bad or you don’t get any upgrades.

No wonder boys are having a hard time logging off.

Why Are Boys More Addicted than Girls?

“I’ve rationalized it as that’s what guys love to do,” junior Kayla Vande Zande said. “Where girls love to go shopping or we love to go on social media, guys love to video game.”

For a while, Kayla dated a boy who couldn’t put down the controller.

“He was putting off schoolwork to play video games,” she said. “And anytime I would go in [his dorm room] or any time I would talk to him, he was playing video games. Or that’s what I felt like, at least. I rarely saw him doing schoolwork.”

This is important. Because while about an even number of boys and girls play video games, those who are addicted are overwhelmingly male.

It seems like video games tap into something about the way God made men. When males conquer territory in a video game, a Stanford study showed the parts of their brain associated with reward and pleasure light up with dopamine. The female brain lights up too, but not nearly as much. Another study showed that males feel better about gaming wins, and not as badly about losses, as females. Their incentive is to keep reaching for those wins.

No surprise, then, that a sizable minority (some say up to 20 percent) of males really struggle to put the games down, especially in younger years while their brains are developing. The executive control center, which weighs risks and rewards, isn’t fully matured until around age 25, meaning kids and teens are more likely to favor the immediate gratification of a game than the delayed gratification of going for a run or finishing a paper. Studies bear this out.

In 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) identified “gaming disorder” in part as the escalation of gaming over negative consequences—in other words, even though you’re failing the class or losing the job or alienating the friends, you still keep playing. If this continues for at least a year, the WHO said, then you’ve got a gaming disorder.

“What makes anything addictive?” Jacob said. “It’s a stimulus that triggers a dopamine response. And then because of how our bodies are made, we want more of the stimulus. And especially with video games, that’s a pretty easy dopamine hit to get. So then you can just press the button over and over again, and you get there and all of a sudden, you’re trapped, and you’ve wired your brain in such a way so that is one of the few ways you can actually get the dopamine hit. You can’t like, get it normally anymore. And then you end up with problems.”

Jacob’s right. And when boys choose games over and over, they’re reinforcing neural pathways in their brains. They learn how to respond rapidly to large amounts of incoming information, which is good training for anyone who wants to be an air traffic controller. But it’s not great training for boys who need to practice focusing their attention on a single purpose, like reading a textbook, focusing on a task, or listening to a teacher.

And it’s not great for learning offscreen skills like navigating face-to-face conversations, finishing a boring job, or shooting a ball into a basketball hoop. While video games do hone digital hand-eye coordination, that doesn’t translate offscreen—in other words, playing video games doesn’t help you catch a ball or spot a moving target in real life.

Unfortunately, when those neural pathways become too entrenched, they’re almost impossible to resist.

None of these things is a secret. While not everyone has studied the research, anyone who has experience with a boy and a video game knows there’s potential for trouble. I’ve yet to meet a mother who is really happy with the way her son interacts with video games. My husband and I were so unimpressed with the effect video games were having on our 12-year-old we banned them altogether.

Robert Taylor, the vice president for student success at Dordt, felt the same way.

“We were starting to hear from students that they had interest in esports,” he said. “And I thought to myself, ‘That is the last thing that I even want to explore.’ Because I couldn’t see the value in it. And I had watched so many of our students struggle because of addictions to gaming.”

Confession: I talked to students and faculty at Dordt for three days before figuring out that esports has nothing to do with actual sports. It doesn’t mean playing Madden or NBA 2K against someone else. It means playing any video game—Street Fighter or Super Smash Bros. or League of Legends—in an organized competition.

Over the last four years, more than 200 esports programs have popped up at colleges all over the country. The main selling point for colleges is that they draw male students, which is important since nearly 60 percent of college students are now female. The selling point for students is you can earn scholarships for being particularly good. Plus, you get to play video games in school.

Robert wasn’t interested in esports at all; really, no one in Dordt’s administration was. But Robert’s boss had met a guy named Brad Hickey, who was at Fuller Seminary working on the world’s only PhD on video games and Reformed theology.

“Call this guy,” Robert’s boss said.

“This is a giant waste of time,” Robert thought. But he did it.

That phone call changed everything.

Redeeming Video Games

“I came from an extremely difficult background,” Brad Hickey told me. “Honestly, I went to a school for kids who are [troubled]. It’s the last stop before you’re out of the system.”

Brad’s first experiences with transcendence, with otherworldly beauty, with longing for something better, came through video games.

“God uses so many of the different spheres to reach people,” he said. “We think typically that it’s the church, this Augustine moment. That wasn’t the way it was with me. . . . I remember the first time I saw Super Mario Brothers or other games down the line, it did something inside me—wow, this music! This art!”

Back then, Brad had a massive stutter. “I couldn’t even order at a restaurant,” he said. “I had never really [found a place in] traditional places like church and family. I found a group online and we did all these amazing things together. They were people from around the world who had known each other for a while. It was an embodied friendship. I felt family and solidarity. They cared about me. If people got sick, they would go fly and visit them. They would go to each other’s weddings.”

It’s not an exaggeration to say God used video games to reach Brad, even to heal him a little, and to connect him to healthier human relationships. He’d grown up in an Assemblies of God church, but when he got to Fuller Seminary and Richard Mouw he started reading theologians like Abraham Kuyper, Herman Bavinck, and Josef Pieper.

“Then I started to push the church a little bit,” he said. “We say that every square inch [is under God’s sovereignty]. But we break off this one piece of culture as if it’s somehow inherently just evil—when in reality, God is active in those spaces, and God is calling us to redeem those spaces.”

That’s what he told Robert on the phone.

“It really hit me in that phone call that I had not been thinking about it in a very Reformed way,” Robert said. “And I pride myself in seeing all of creation has been God’s, and that we’re to be stewards of it, and that through the work of his Holy Spirit, we can be vessels of redemption. And so I felt pretty convicted about that.”

I felt convicted too, especially after reading these sentences from Brad’s dissertation: “Our role as God’s stewards requires us to make a genuine effort to understand what video games are and to speak authoritatively about them. To do otherwise would be to miss out on an opportunity to influence and enjoy a significant cultural space as well as to ignore new ways in which God is working in the world.”

OK, Brad, you got me. So tell me—how can we understand video games in a Christian way?

Theology of Play

Hang with me here. We’re going to get theological. Here’s what I learned from Brad’s dissertation.

First off, it seems clear we’re meant to play. In creation, God appears to play with color and light and sound. He plays through the creation of planets—from the expansion of the universe, we understand he’s playing still. Through the Old Testament, we see him playing in serious ways, offering tests to Job and Abraham and Jacob. And he plays in lighter ways—through the stories and parables Jesus tells his disciples, even in the hard questions that to them seem like riddles.

It’s almost impossible to define play. But we know it when we see it. We know it brings joy. We know it connects people. And we know it takes us out of ourselves—a girl with a dollhouse or a boy in the woods is in another world. A family around a board game, friends on a basketball court, or a teen with a book are all transported away. C. S. Lewis calls play “a pointer to something other and outer.”

Play can point us to eternity, to heaven. But it also teaches us how to live here and now. Play is one of the first things we look for in human development. Children play to practice adult roles; to develop physical, emotional, and social abilities; to discover their own talents and interests. Adults play to connect with family and friends or to relax their brains from the stress of labor. In a testament to how fun and generous God is, those breaks sometimes spark ideas or connections that help us in our work.

Without question, play is woven into the fabric of God’s good creation.

Playing to Connect with Others

“If you think about a good game of chess, what it’s really doing is teaching us how to have character, to have virtue, how to think about the person across from me,” Brad said. “If you think about the Scottish games, as they were originally, it was a way of diffusing anger between tribes through the use of play.”

Like the Scottish competitions, and like modern sports, video games can give players a safe way to be aggressive. They can bring delight. And they can connect people. I heard that over and over. Here’s Zach Brenner, a junior history major:

Every weekend in middle school in high school, or every day, really, we’d sit and we’d play. We’d get done with football practice, and then we’d go home and play video games. So that was always a lot of fun. Eventually, going into my junior year of high school, I moved to North Carolina, where I met a friend who he played a lot of Destiny 2. And so I played that with him. Through that I have made friends all across the country. It’s a lot of fun.

And Johnny:

I didn’t live near any of my friends from school, so I couldn’t really, like, easily go hang out with them. So video games was one of the ways that I would hang out with my friends, playing Minecraft with them online. That was the way that I would get to connect with them and get to hang out with them and keep those friendships.

And Jacob:

It’s a good avenue for shared interest in community and building relationships. And it’s, you know . . . a very good thing because it’s a lot easier to make friends with someone if you have some kind of shared interest.

So that sounds great to me, because I love friendships. And because I know friendships in America are fewer and thinner than they used to be, especially for men. In 1990, just 3 percent of men reported they had no close friends. Last year, that jumped to 15 percent.

For men under 30, it was 28 percent.

At first I blamed this on transience, because a lot of my friends don’t live anywhere near where they grew up. But the numbers don’t bear that out. Before the pandemic, Americans were an at all-time high of staying put. Back in the 50s and 60s, about 20 percent of the population moved each year. In 2019, that was down to less than 10 percent. Even young people—those from 20 to 30—aren’t moving as much as they used to.

So we’ve got a population that’s fairly geographically stable. And we’ve got huge social platforms on which guys can connect and play games together. Why aren’t men overloaded with friends? Why are they, instead, losing friends?

Brad Hickey teaching “Engaging the World of Gaming” / Courtesy of Dordt University

Gaming Alone

“We invited Brad to campus, and I just threw out to our men’s underclassmen buildings—about 400 men—if any of you have any interest in esports, we have someone working on a PhD who’s here, we’d like to do a little presentation and also a little Q&A and hear from you,” Robert said. “I sent it out the night before. And we had about 40 to 50 students come. And what shocked me was that I didn’t know those students—and I work pretty hard at knowing students on our campus. It’s getting to be bigger, so it’s harder. But still, in a group of 40, I felt like I didn’t know very many of them at all.”

That was concerning. But there was an even bigger problem.

“As we engaged with them, we began to understand that they didn’t know each other either,” Robert said. “This was truly a group of students that was highly engaged in their activity of gaming, with people all over the world, but they didn’t know the people that were living next to them or in their building. And that’s when I had a deep pit in my heart. I was grieving it, realizing we’re not impacting these students in the way that we strive to as a university.”

Oh. That’s not good.

It reminds me of social media, which promises to connect you with your friends and family but leaves young women feeling more isolated and lonely than they’ve ever been before.

Maybe video games promise adventures with friends but, in reality, isolate you in your room. But aren’t you literally playing with people? Aren’t they your friends?

Sometimes they are—guys you know from school or church or baseball. And sometimes they’re online-only friends. More than half of boys play video games with people they’ve never met—and probably never will meet—in real life.

I got more insight into this from Ethan.

“Probably the [person] that I’ve played with the most that I’ve never met is a guy—I have no idea what his real name is,” he said. “We all we call him Dirty Dan, because his username is Dirty Dan. And the most I know about him is he’s 16 and lives in Arizona. That is the extent of the information I have about him. Because all the rest I need to know is that he plays Destiny with us. And he’s funny, he’s nice. He’s really, really, really good at the game.”

OK, part of this I’m going to chalk up to differences between males and females. When my husband hangs out with his friends, he’s not asking nearly as many personal questions as I would. And when my sons were younger, they could play all day with a friend at the park or preschool and come home not knowing that child’s name.

But another part of me knows this can be a problem. If I hadn’t seen Ethan say hi to lots of other people on campus, if I hadn’t heard lots of other students tell me they know him, if I hadn’t met his wife, I would be really concerned. Because if you don’t know someone’s name, are they really your friend?

And if most of your social interaction is anonymous or online, is it really social interaction? Or are you really just gaming alone, next to other boys who are gaming alone?

I honestly do think video games can be a way for boys to enjoy friendships together. But if it’s all you do together, that’s a pretty shallow friendship. If most of your friends live in other cities, they can’t help you when your car breaks down, or come over for pizza on a Friday night, or join your church small group. In 1990, 45 percent of young men said they’d turn to friends first when wrestling through a personal problem. Today, that’s down to 22 percent.

Studies on video games and loneliness show that the motive for playing matters. If you play to be with friends, video games don’t make you feel lonely. But if you’re playing to escape from hard real-life circumstances, you feel more isolated. You’re also more likely to become addicted.

So it makes sense that boys who are fine in high school can struggle with gaming when they get out on their own or go to college, which are hard and scary things to do. Social anxiety can push a gamer to spend more time online, which in turn heightens his real-life social anxiety.

That’s what Robert was worrying about with his 40 students in that meeting.

“We probably had about 15 stay after,” he said. “There were tears as they shared their stories and feeling like they hadn’t been seen ever in their life. And there was this hope that seemed to generate from this idea that Dordt would even bring this guy here for that evening.”

Robert and Brad started talking about what it would look like for Brad to come and work at Dordt. At first, they were thinking he’d run something like an esports program. But the main point of esports is to be really good at gaming. The way you do that is by gaming all the time. Neither Robert nor Brad was up for that.

Instead, they wanted a program that would be Christian, that would be Reformed. They wanted something that looked different from the way the world did video gaming.

It was hard to find a pattern for that. Other Christian colleges have student-led gaming clubs or esports, and a few Christian professors have taught and written on video games. But Robert and Brad wanted to implement a program that would intentionally connect students to each other and to God, that would consider video gaming through a Kuyperian worldview. Nobody had done that before.

Turns out, they didn’t need to look to other colleges. They just had to walk across campus, where they found a model for what they wanted in the gym.

Video Games and Athletics

“In 2018, there were a number of us in the athletic department, along with campus leaders, who believed that there was a different and better way to do athletics than what society was telling us was appropriate,” said Ross Douma, the athletic director at Dordt.

Like Robert and Brad, he was in a field where it could be hard to identify the Christians.

“Even amongst Christian colleges and universities, athletics has sometimes been a bit of a one-off in that, yes, they’re connected to a Christian institution, but what’s transpired in athletics doesn’t always mimic what’s going on with the rest of the campus,” he said. “We wanted to have an athletic program that internally was really mentoring and witnessing and challenging our student athletes. And then externally, we wanted to be a department that was stepping into a space that was very polluted, very tainted. . . . We wanted to try to redeem and reclaim that as best we could.”

The sin Ross could see in athletics was a cousin to the sin in video games—basically, idol worship. Pursuit of your own glory. Winning at any cost. Chasing accomplishments. An unspoken rule that, really, this part of your life doesn’t have to come under the headship of Christ, because what would that even look like?

“The NFL plays on Sunday for a reason,” Ross told me. “And Saturdays is college football. So for four months, just using that sport alone, our entire week as a society is pretty much centered around—if college football is your idol, Saturday, and if the NFL is your idol, Sunday. And both of those sports creep into the worship of God, creep into family time.”

Like video games, sports appeal more to boys, and weirdly, for some of the same reasons. Athletics also offers a chance to compete, to conquer, to accomplish. It also offers instant validation. And if you didn’t win this time, sports also offers another chance to try again. That’s probably why, across cultures, males are more likely to play sports as kids, more likely to play as adults, and more likely to coach kids’ teams, college teams, and professional teams. (As a side note, they’re also more likely to skip church to watch sports.)

Like video games, youth sports were made possible by the incredible rise of technology, affluence, and leisure time in American society over the past 50 years. Like video games, organized sports seem safe to modern American parents. Tom Sawyer, Timmy and Lassie, or even Kevin from Home Alone were rough and tumble and free to roam, but their adventures seem downright dangerous to parents today, who’d prefer to have their boys where they can see them.

Like video games, sports seasons can become all-consuming. There’s a reason we call some wives “football widows” or “golf widows.” There’s a reason universities make allowances for the coursework of students who have heavy practice and performance schedules. And there’s a reason pastors point to youth sports as a main cause for families to skip church on Sundays.

I know that comparing football to Madden isn’t a perfect analogy. But they share enough commonalities that Brad could learn from what Ross was doing.

Redeeming Sports

“Athletics is a vehicle to helping you become a better servant of God and a better lover of mankind,” Ross told me.

Ross and his team believed that. So they wrote down four principles and called them the Defender Way. Basically, they want their student athletes to first be committed Christians, then servant leaders in their communities, then excellent students, and then winners of championships.

It’s not rocket science, just a written-down list of priorities. But it’s made a big difference.

Dordt coaches pray and lead devotions, but they also form discipleship groups with their teams. They talk about competition as worship. They’re serious about service, and athletes rake leaves and move boxes for community members. They’re also serious about academics, which means some teams meet during the season to plan their time so athletes can schedule in papers and study groups. It means coaches know in real time how their students are doing on assignments. Last year, for the first time, the 3.47 average GPA of Dordt’s student athletes was higher than the average GPA of the general population.

A few years ago, Dordt hired a football coach with a master’s in theology from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. I was intrigued—first, because I love it when coaches go to seminary. But also because Joel Penner is tasked with training young men to be adult men. I asked him if that was harder than it used to be.

“I’m looking over 22 years, even back to when I was a high school and college athlete,” Joel said. “I don’t ever remember feeling like my aggression, or my competitiveness, was wrong. And I think that’s one of the biggest shifts now in culture. We are—I hate to say castrating men, because that sounds bold, but maybe that’s appropriate. Culture is funneling men into a really confusing predicament. Your aggressive and your competitive impulses are part of your depravity—I think that’s the message.”

Joel is all for testosterone and aggressive play, as long as it’s self-controlled.

“One of the things I love about football is the way that it teaches discipline,” he said. “Self-control is a fruit of the Spirit. And imagine the self-control it takes to put four to six seconds of absolute passionate, competitive, aggressive energy into a play—to block, tackle, run, throw, catch, take somebody down. You get four to six seconds. Then the whistle blows, and it’s over. I mean, it’s not just slowly over. The whistle blows—stop. And then guess what? You do that 60 to 80 times a game. Think of it like a light switch—on, off, on, off—with this full aggression. The training for self-control is remarkable.”

It strikes me that this isn’t just true for football. It’s also true for basketball, baseball, soccer—every sport features aggressive play within boundaries. Honestly, so does war. In general, even when the fighting is fierce, neither side wants to hit hospitals or civilians. When they do, the other side—and the watching world—cries foul.

Those same principles hold true for video games. You can play wild and angry, or you can play with focus and control. You can play for a limited number of minutes, or you can let video games take away your sleep or meals or family time.

And then Joel gives me the money quote, which breaks it all open for me.

Lion and the Lamb

“God gave us two very helpful images when we’re to think about Jesus,” he said. “We have a lion, and we have a lamb. For millennia now, Christians have been picking which one better fits their narrative. You don’t get to do that. You have to understand—he’s both. We would be better served if we opened up to this idea that Christians—not just men, but for sure men—need to model his behavior. He’s a warrior. And he’s a prince of peace.”

I can’t stop thinking about this. “Stop being so weak,” our culture told men 50 years ago. Now they’re hearing, “Stop being so strong.”

It’s hard to know what to do, how to be.

But nobody looks at an athlete and thinks he’s confused or has a split personality for being both aggressive and submissive. Those two things work together to create something so lovely we pay to watch him do it.

If we’re following Jesus, we should look like that too. An all-in, full-blown, fierce rush onto the field God has set before us—all our energy bent into the work. And at the same time, complete submission to God’s will, his Word, his leadership of us. We are fierce warriors under a captain, brilliant scholars under a teacher, faithful and able servants under a king.

That’s beautiful.

But I’ll tell you what’s even more beautiful—to hear that come out of the mouth of a college football player.

“Like the dual nature of Christ, he was the Lion and the Lamb,” offensive lineman Alex Huisman said. “He was humble man, but he was also a dominant man. So approaching your life, there’s that stance of reverence, but also that determination. It is not conflicting. It’s something that is in line with who you are, who you’re called to be.”

So how can you pull that same idea from the football field to the game room?

From the Football Field to the Game Room

Brad got to work, experimenting with ways video games could help students better love God, be servant leaders, and be good students. He started a class called “Engaging the World of Gaming.” In it, he talked about the history of video games, including Christian developers. He talked about God’s sovereignty over every aspect of creation. And he talked about sin.

Here’s one interesting question Brad asks his students: Can you sin in a video game? He means, Can your avatar sin? When you kill a noncombatant or hoard wealth or fight for your own glory, are you doing that? What is that doing to your soul? Do you need to repent?

And anyway, what does it mean to be a Christian avatar? Could someone else, by watching you play, see something different about you? If they asked, could you share Christ with them?

Brad would love to explore, and then offer, an organized approach to video game missiology.

“We would love to have gaming ethnographers to be able to go and, as if we’re going to a different tribe, to watch and observe and compile data so that we can be online missionaries,” Brad said.

That’s a huge mission field – 3.24 billion people.

“We want it to be the sort of education where we’re training [students] and preparing them well, to go into these spaces to be able to do as this coram Deo gaming,” he said.

‘Coram Deo’ Gaming

Gaming coram Deo—before the face of God.

Brad decided to start a gaming club to help students live within limits online for God’s glory. To begin, he created an application process, convinced that putting up boundaries lets students know they’re on a team and they’re living under authority.

Then he limited the game selection. Dordt’s club has no glorification of any exploitation, no games where it’s hard to find a redeeming quality. The gamers use top-of-the-line equipment in a basement room with lots of space and cool lighting. But it isn’t open all the time.

“The hours that it’s available are probably far less than what anyone would ever guess,” Robert said. “We’re cutting people off, so they get good sleep at night, or at least we’re not in the way of them getting good sleep. We’re making sure that we’re not in the prime study times of the day, distracting students from their studies. We’re having a lot of our big events on weekends, but not filling up both weekend nights, because we’re also hopeful that while they’re engaging in the guild community, we’re hoping that through all of this process that they’re also engaging in the rest of the community too.”

Brad built a leadership structure for the gaming club, with a president and vice presidents. Dordt added even more accountability—if a member of the club starts skipping class or missing too many assignments, the professors can contact Brad who, like an athletic coach, has the authority to talk with a student about her behavior. If it continues, or if her GPA dips too low, she can lose her club membership.

By the time Brad finished, the video game club was so far from an esports program he had to change the name. Instead, he called it a gaming guild.

That might seem like a lamer version of an esports team. But when they opened the guild last year, 54 students signed up even before the official launch. Soon, numbers jumped to 80, then rose to 96 this year, with another 20 on the email list. On a campus that houses just over 1,300, that’s about 9 percent of the student population.

Students in the Gaming Guild room / Courtesy of Dordt University

“It’s been a lot of fun,” Johnny said. “It’s nice to just be a part of something like this, getting to build something. Most of the effects that I see on the campus as a whole happen in the events that we do on Fridays. We’ll have a bunch of people playing Smash Bros.—we had Smash Bros. tournament earlier this semester. We have tons of board games that people can get together and play. And then sometimes we’ll just have, like, five people on all the computers playing on a competitive match together as a team. And it’s so much fun.”

“Before the guild, guys would just video game in their apartment,” Kayla said. “And I think one of the biggest benefits is that now this is reaching a whole new audience of people—guys and girls alike—who didn’t necessarily feel like they had a home or somewhere they could just be themselves. And now they have that outlet. And they have that space to be themselves and to do something that they love.”

Kayla dates Johnny now, and she appreciates the way he’s working at setting boundaries to prioritize his schoolwork. She plays too, for the sheer joy of it. She loves the VR headset that lets her slash beats of music as they fly through the air. To her, it feels like directing. She also enjoys role-playing games, which let her pretend to be a character for an hour or two.

Johnny (head of table) leads students through a role-playing scenario / Courtesy of Dordt University

Carolyn, who is a senior music major, loves that too. Here’s her favorite thing about the guild:

It’s a huge community, and there are so many different games that the guild has that you can play. So there’s something for everyone. It’s really casual. You just come and there’s food and there’s games, build friendships. It’s a really great outlet for like people like me who wanted to get into something but didn’t really know how. . . . I think there are quite a few people that I don’t think I would have met if I didn’t go to the gaming guild stuff. Or maybe I knew who they were, but I didn’t talk to them.

“Perhaps one of the most meaningful developments for me personally is to have watched students grow and mature,” Brad said. “For example, I’ve seen students such as Abigail and Bri and Jacob Toole, who I think were quite hesitant to buy in initially, and who I now see at every event. They’re laughing, they’re part of deepening and maturing friendships, and it’s all so wonderful to see. Even my guild president, Ethan—growing, maturing, learning how to lead, host events, and be there for the members of the guild. It’s all so deeply satisfying as the guild director.”

Maybe you’re noticing that Brad and the students aren’t talking about how much they love the equipment, or the internet connection, or the cool basement space—though they tell me they like those things too.

What they love most is being together.

“As I’ve had a chance to go to their activities, I see beautiful health,” Robert said. “And I see so many people that I know without the guild would be in their rooms at that very moment by themselves on a Friday night. Instead, I hear laughter, I hear conversation, I hear teasing one another. And I see people together. It’s so beautiful. Because you know what the exact opposite of that always was. That’s what’s so exciting about it. It just feels like we can’t take credit for this. The Holy Spirit’s doing something here. And we get to be a part of it. And that’s so exciting.”

Courtesy of Dordt University

Wisdom and Grace

I don’t want to leave you with the impression Dordt is doing things perfectly. While lots of kids come to the gaming events, some are still in their rooms, gaming alone. And there are still tons of questions to be asked and answered about a Reformed view of video games.

But I can feel myself shifting on this. Maybe video games could be a way to relax into delighting in the goodness of God, the creativity he gave a game designer, and the joy of connecting with people who are physically far from us. Maybe they could help boys be aggressive within limits, a way to point to and practice living under Christ’s headship.

That said, I’m wondering if I need my own version of the Defender Way—rules of life to give perspective and limits to both youth sports and online gaming.  More than anything, I want my boys to love God and neighbor. I want them to serve joyfully, to work diligently, to submit humbly to authority.

To that end, I want to challenge them to be Christ-followers at school and at home, on the court and on the screen. But I also want to push a little further, to ask, “Do sports or video games cause you to stumble into sin in real life?”

To be honest, I have a kid who was struggling with video games. When he was playing, he was easily frustrated. When he wasn’t playing, he was thinking and talking a lot about when and what he was going to play next. He complained when we told him to turn off the game. And he was never more patient, kind, or joyful when he was done.

So a few months ago, we turned them off altogether.

For this kid, that was exactly the right move.

Since then, he’s built his own go-kart with wood and wheels. We got him a bow and arrow, and he shoots cardboard targets in the backyard. He roller blades and runs and reads and built a website where you can look at pictures of his go-kart. He’s more interested in conversation, more eager to help empty the dishwasher or set the table. His spirit seems more joyful, more gentle, more patient.

I’m not telling you this so you’ll throw away all your—or your kids’—video games. That might not be the right choice for you. But I do want to encourage you to pay attention. Ask yourself, your friends, your spouse, your kids the hard questions.

The video game industry needs Christian thinkers who can figure out how to game coram Deo.

There are three aspects to that, Brad said. “First, the joy of it—if you’re not doing it in joy and delight and honor for God, then you’re not going to do a good job. Second, if you don’t do with responsibility, it’s just going to be secular. And third, there is the historic part of asking how we take into account the voices of the past. We want to allow the voices of the past to speak, whether it’s Kuyper, or whether it’s gaming designers, because there are a lot of people that have been Christians who have paved the way for gaming.”

At the Gaming Guild / Courtesy of Dordt University

Young men—and women—if video games delight you, draw your soul to worship God, or genuinely connect you with others, lean into that. Be the type of player who asks how someone is doing, who make choices with noticeable integrity, who plays in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Model the beautiful paradox of Christianity—be the player who conquers new worlds and wins strategic battles but who also can cheerfully log off to eat dinner with your family or put away laundry or finish your work.

And as you look for worlds to conquer and enemies to vanquish, remember this—that character you are online is nowhere near as smart or complex or gritty as the real you. The world you enter online can’t come close to the breathtaking, exhilarating world God has created for you to explore in real life. The digital adventures you have aren’t as exciting, the enemies you face aren’t as formidable, the opportunities aren’t as incredible, the twists aren’t as unexpected, the stakes aren’t as high, the friendships aren’t as fun or as tight as those in your real life.

Let’s play games—just like we strive to do everything else—under the lordship of Christ and before the face of God.

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Gaming Alone: Helping the Generation of Young Men Captivated and Isolated by Video Games https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/podcasts/recorded/gaming-alone/ Wed, 14 Dec 2022 05:00:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=recorded&p=536180 Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra examines what it looks like to bring video games under the lordship of Jesus Christ.]]> Nearly all American teenage boys—97 percent of them—play video games. On average, they spend more than two hours a day maneuvering in digital worlds.

For two out of five teen boys, that feels like too much time.

They’re probably right. Though it’s impossible to draw a direct link, it’s hard not to notice that as gaming grows, males are falling farther behind girls in school, in joining the workforce, and in starting families.

As Reformed Christians, we aren’t ready to give up on video games yet. In this episode of Recorded, Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra examines why boys are more likely than girls to be addicted to video games, why playing with people online doesn’t mean you have more friends, and what it looks like to bring video games under the lordship of Jesus Christ.

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Why We Need Silence https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/need-silence/ Tue, 13 Dec 2022 05:04:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=531674 It’s easy to fill every moment or numb every uncomfortable feeling with some form of noise. But sometimes what our minds and souls really need is to be silent before God.]]> My house is rarely quiet. So when I can sneak away from the four kids and barking dog to run an errand alone, I sometimes sit in a parking lot for an extra five minutes. But too often, instead of savoring the silence, I add noise. I check messages, finish listening to a podcast episode, or answer emails.

Silence can be awkward. And it feels painfully unproductive. I don’t want to miss out on the chance to catch up with people or check something off my to-do list. I certainly don’t want to deal with the underlying worries and fears plaguing my own soul, so I shove those down, using digital content like a Whac-A-Mole hammer to keep my angst from rising to the surface.

Taking in information isn’t bad. But in our content-saturated culture, it’s too easy to fill every moment or numb every uncomfortable feeling with some form of noise. As the prophet Habakkuk demonstrates, though, sometimes what our minds and souls really need is to practice being silent before God. Here are three reasons why.

1. Silence can be an act of worship.

In the book of Habakkuk, we find the prophet distraught over the wickedness and violence he witnessed. Judah and its leaders were corrupt, and Habakkuk cried out to God, complaining that God wasn’t doing anything about it. The prophet went back and forth with God, bringing questions and complaints about God’s apparent silence. Then in Habakkuk 2:20 God said, “But the LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him.”

We can be quick to give God a piece of our minds, and sometimes it’s OK to bring our uncensored thoughts to him. Habakkuk’s story demonstrates that God can take our frustration and grief, our anger and questions. But there comes a point when we have to recognize that God is God and we are not. Silence before him acknowledges our rightful place. He gets the last word, and he gets our worship.

God is God and we are not. Silence before him acknowledges our rightful place.

Time and again, the Old Testament prophets called the people to be silent in God’s presence (Hab. 2:20; Zeph. 1:7; Zech. 2:13), and the Preacher in Ecclesiastes put it this way: “Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few” (Eccles. 5:2).

We can worship God in silence when we look out at creation and contemplate the grandeur of our Creator. We can take a walk outside, choosing to forgo headphones once in a while so we can lift our eyes and tune our ears to the One who made all we see and hear. We can build silence into our worship services and corporate prayer times, letting our words be few as we revere our good and sovereign God.

2. Silence can reveal our idolatry.

Habakkuk declares “woes” on those who carve images of wood and stone. Right before the command for the earth to be silent before God, Habakkuk 2:18–19 says,

What profit is an idol when its maker has shaped it, a metal image, a teacher of lies? For its maker trusts in his own creation when he makes speechless idols! Woe to him who says to a wooden thing, Awake; to a silent stone, Arise! Can this teach? Behold, it is overlaid with gold and silver, and there is no breath at all in it.

Maybe we don’t carve images of wood and stone. Yet too many of us (including me) are prone to worship the god of the glowing rectangle. We seek answers to our apprehension and solace in our sorrow from the plastic and metal devices displayed like graven images around our homes. The comfort of screens requires only a click, and Alexa and Siri offer answers now, so it can be all too easy for us to make idols of technology. The idols in Habakkuk’s day didn’t talk back (2:18–19). I wonder if ours can be even more dangerous because they do.

The idols in Habakkuk’s day didn’t talk back. I wonder if ours can be even more dangerous because they do.

Our idols, whatever their shape and size, can’t teach us what we most need to know. They don’t have in them the very breath of God (2:19), and they can’t respond to the deepest cries of our souls. Regularly practicing silence with our technology and putting our digital tools in their proper place can reveal our tendency to idolize them and help us reorient our attention to the true God.

3. Silence can be an act of trust.

After Habakkuk offered his complaints to God in chapter 1, he declared, “I will take my stand at my watchpost and station myself on the tower, and look out to see what he will say to me” (Hab. 2:1). It can be easy to complain to God. But it’s often much more difficult to wait patiently for his answer.

Many times, we can be quick to seek solutions from friends, experts, and search engines. And they can be helpful and necessary resources. But before we run to someone else, have we first run to God? Before we attempt whatever solution we’ve devised for our problems, what would it look like to calm and quiet ourselves before the Lord?

Silent waiting can look like spending extended time meditating on God’s Word, listening for the guidance of the Holy Spirit. We can sit in God’s presence in prayer, practicing the posture of David when he wrote,

O LORD, my heart is not lifted up; my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me. But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother. (Ps. 131:1–2)

Waiting silently before God is an act of trust, requiring us to surrender our will to him. At the end of chapter 3, Habakkuk finally utters the words familiar to many of us: “Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, . . . yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation” (Hab. 3:17–18). Habakkuk likely wouldn’t have come to this place of trust without first waiting before God in silence.

So let us be quiet. Let us wait and listen for the LORD, the only true God, the One who hears and answers and offers the very salvation and rest we desperately need.

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Why Our Church Canceled Christmas Day Services https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/cancel-christmas-day-service/ Tue, 13 Dec 2022 05:03:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=help-me-teach&p=535899 Whether your church decides to worship together on Christmas or not, honor the Lord in your decision.]]> I’m not normally one to refuse the advice of Kevin DeYoung.

Last time Christmas fell on a Sunday, DeYoung wrote an article titled “A Plea to Pastors: Don’t Cancel Church on Christmas.” He states many reasons why churches might be tempted to cancel services on Christmas Day, and he pleads with pastors to stay the course and plan a Christmas Sunday service. While we respect DeYoung and the argument he made, the pastors at our church ultimately decided to refuse his plea.

Why?

Our context makes a Christmas Day service uniquely difficult. And though we won’t be having service on Christmas, we participate with sister congregations in a joint Christmas Eve service that allows us to gather and create a space for nonbelievers in our city. We believe there’s biblical freedom to cancel a church service under these conditions.

Context Is Key

Context is the primary reason we canceled our Christmas Day service. I serve as the lead pastor of a church plant of about 100 people just outside Boston in the urban city of Somerville, Massachusetts. Somerville is an extremely transient and secular city.

Like many church plants, we meet in a shared space. We can’t just roll up on Sunday, flip a few switches, and be ready for a church service. We need to put out chairs, set up sound equipment, and place signs outside. While we have less work to do than many church plants, there’s still a considerable amount of setup required. Many churches in our context meet in public spaces where meeting on Christmas Day is just not an option.

Like many church plants, we meet in a shared space. We can’t just roll up on Sunday, flip a few switches, and be ready for a church service.

The transient nature of our city also means many of our most committed members are traveling around the country or world for Christmas and are unable to set up chairs and run sound. It’s not simply that people wouldn’t come to a Christmas Day service because they’re staying home for their family traditions. If our people were in town, they’d almost certainly come to any service we put together! The problem is around 80 percent of our church travels for Christmas.

The secular nature of the city also means our neighbors are uninterested in visiting our church on Christmas morning. Our area is so far post-Christian that it’s exceedingly unlikely a sudden influx of non-Christians will wake up to visit our church on Christmas Day.

While we won’t have a service on Christmas Day, we’ll meet for our traditional joint Christmas Eve service with our sister congregations. We’re a part of a small network of four independent churches in the Boston area. Over the years, this Christmas Eve gathering has allowed us to reconnect with friends and family across the four churches, and it’s also served as an opportunity to invite non-believing friends to a church service.

Our Christmas Eve service isn’t a pageant or show. It’s a gathering. With candles and congregational singing and the preaching of God’s Word. It’s a joyous occasion to experience the joy and love of Christ.

There’s Scriptural Freedom

Lastly, we have freedom to meet or not on special Sundays like this. We don’t think canceling one Sunday worship gathering puts us in danger of violating the Hebrews 10:25 command to not forsake gathering together. In this passage, the author of Hebrews addresses a group of people in the church who have made it a habit of forsaking the gathering. One Sunday does not a habit make. Let him who has never missed a church service throw the first stone!

This decision made sense for us, but it won’t necessarily make sense for others. I’d never critique another church’s decision to meet on Christmas Day. I’m reminded of Paul’s words in Romans 14:5–7:

One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God. For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself.

We all agree Christmas Day is a special day. It’s not “just another Sunday.” But whether your church decides to worship together on Christmas or not, honor the Lord in your decision.

Whether your church decides to worship together on Christmas or not, honor the Lord in your decision.

It was a difficult one for our church leaders. So let me end with a plea to church members: support your pastors and make their leadership of you a joy. If your leaders decide to have a service on Christmas Day, make every effort to be there. If they cancel the service on Christmas Day, assume the best of them. Church leaders need your grace, support, and love even when you may disagree.

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Why Our Church Is Having Christmas Day Services https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/church-services-christmas/ Tue, 13 Dec 2022 05:02:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=help-me-teach&p=536290 Christ’s voice pierces through the cacophony of holiday activity. His words reshape and reorient the festivities.]]> “Why do we have to go to church today?” I whined the question to my mom and dad as I laced up my new rollerblades and eyed the freshly unwrapped hockey stick in the corner. As it will this year, Christmas fell on a Sunday when I was seven. Against my protests, we went to church that morning. In retrospect, I’m thankful we did.

To be clear, I’m not here to rail against churches who will cancel their services on Christmas Sunday. Some churches can count their families on two hands and know for a fact everyone will be out of town on Christmas. Others want to give their volunteers and employees the morning to recover from the previous night’s candlelight service. My words are only meant to explain our church’s rationale and offer parents some helpful thoughts as they explain to their kids why they’re going to church on Christmas Day.

The Point of Church

To understand why we go to church on Christmas, we have to understand why we go to church in the first place. The answer to this question cuts against the grain of our consumer culture, which is especially on display this time of year. As we wander through the mall, see ads pop up on our screens, and browse the aisles of Target, we’re sold a bill of goods. Marketers tell us what this product or that service can do for us—how it will make our lives easier, more fun, and more comfortable.

Sellers don’t just hawk products, they sell us an anthropology. If we come to understand ourselves as homo consumens, “man as consumer,” our souls will be empty, but so will be the shelves at the store, and that’s a trade the advertisers are willing to make. With such a view of humanity constantly reinforced, it’s easy to see the church service as just another service being offered to us, a religious product meant to better our lives. But what happens at church isn’t centered on us, it’s centered on God. Going to church when it’s inconvenient is a good reminder of that fact.

To understand why we go to church on Christmas, we have to understand why we go to church in the first place.

In our weekly worship service, we do just that: we worship—giving God his worth, offering to him sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving. To be sure, we get things out of church—comfort, teaching, fellowship—but the audience for worship is God, not us. Why do we go to church? It’s hard to improve upon the Book of Common Prayer here:

We have come together in the presence of Almighty God our heavenly Father, to set forth his praise, to hear his holy Word, and to ask, for ourselves and on behalf of others, those things that are necessary for our life and our salvation.

Will I feel like waking up early on Christmas this year to go over my sermon? I like to think so, but perhaps not. Did I feel like going to church on Christmas Day as a child? Not really. Neither may you, and neither may your kids. But at Christmastime, above all seasons, it’s important to remind ourselves of who we are: homo adorans, “man as worshiper.” When we understand ourselves rightly, we understand church rightly, and vice versa.

The Point of Christmas

Going to church on Christmas reminds us not only of the point of church but also of the point of Christmas. It’s easy to get distracted this time of year. The parties, the decorations, the presents: sensory overload can numb us to the occasion for the festivities.

The accoutrements themselves are not the problem. To the contrary, if seen in the right light, the pomp of Christmas serves as a joyous pointer to the birth of Christ. The problem isn’t with the pointers but with us. I love C. S. Lewis’s illustration:

You will have noticed that most dogs cannot understand pointing. You point to a bit of food on the floor; the dog, instead of looking at the floor, sniffs at your finger. A finger is a finger to him, and that is all. His world is all fact and no meaning.

How often we can be like Lewis’s dog at Christmas—marveling at the new TV, savoring the homemade eggnog, and yet failing to revel in the present behind the presents: the incarnation of the Son of God. Going to church on Christmas contextualizes the season for us.

If seen in the right light, the pomp of Christmas serves as a joyous pointer to the birth of Christ. The problem isn’t with the pointers but with us.

Each Sunday in my church, a deacon reads the appointed Gospel lesson from the center of the sanctuary. It’s a tactile reminder of exactly what we’re celebrating at Christmas. Jesus announced the good news of the kingdom not from a distance but on the ground, in flesh, among his people. Not counting equality with God a thing to be grasped, Jesus stepped down from his rightful throne in heaven. He came among us, eating with tax collectors and sinners. He came not to be served but to serve—Jesus, the true deacon. We go to church to hear the voice of Christ announce good news. Christ’s voice pierces through the cacophony of holiday activity. His words reshape and reorient the festivities, giving new definition and meaning to our mirth.

When I got home from church in 1994, I found my hockey stick right where I left it. I have no memory of connecting that particular present with the gift of the gospel. And yet, I have no doubt that the year-in-year-out faithfulness of my parents, taking me to church even when I didn’t feel like it, helped me understand the meaning of both church and Christmas. That’s why our church is having Christmas Day services.

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8 Ways TGC Will Continue Serving You https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/8-ways-tgc-serving-you/ Tue, 13 Dec 2022 05:00:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=536049 At TGC, we delight in serving Christians and strengthening churches. Here are eight ways we do that.]]> As another year winds down, we at The Gospel Coalition are grateful for the opportunity we’ve had to serve you—and 24 million others who have accessed our content in 2022. On behalf of the whole TGC team, thank you for reading, watching, or listening to our content this year.

God has blessed TGC’s ministry in our 17-year history. Our ability to serve churches, leaders, and individual Christians like you has been significant, even as our annual budget has been small relative to similar ministries.

How does TGC serve you? Here are eight ways.

1. Helping You Love and Strengthen the Local Church

TGC is a resource for, but never a replacement for, the local church. We exist to serve and strengthen local churches in part by spurring on individual believers to make local church life not only a priority in their life but a priceless treasure.

Last year we published (in partnership with Crossway) the book Rediscover Church, by Collin Hansen and Jonathan Leeman, in an effort to do just this. In 2022, we’ve published articles by college students calling other students to prioritize church, articles calling parents to prioritize church attendance for their families, articles defending “uncool church,” podcasts on teaching kids to love the local church, and calls for social media warriors to “Stop Throwing Pastors Under the Bus.”

We exist to serve and strengthen local churches in part by spurring on individual believers to make local church life not only a priority in their life but a priceless treasure.

TGC advocates for faithful pastors and church leaders, helping them connect with like-minded, gospel-centered leaders and equipping them to lead healthy, gospel-centered churches. In 2022, the second season of TGC’s You’re Not Crazy podcast helped pastors and church leaders think through everything from sermon prep to friendship to the value of rest. Dozens of articles in our ministry section helped church leaders with topics like navigating political division in congregations, cultivating a praying church, and multilevel marketing in the church. Our free online theological essays, commentaries, and courses continue to be an invaluable treasure trove for pastors seeking help with a topic or Bible passage.

You get the idea. At TGC—where most staff members are local church deacons, elders, or ministry leaders themselves—we’re for the local church. We will continue to fight for her health and flourishing as long as God grants us a platform to do it.

2. Training You to Know the Bible and Help Others Know It

When biblical literacy is low and Scripture’s authority undermined, the church wanes and faith falters. When Scripture is known, loved, and authoritative, churches thrive and faith flourishes. Because knowing the Bible is so foundational, we have and will continue to produce resources that help you understand and apply God’s Word to all areas of life.

Our Read the Bible program is one way we do this. Our theological essay collection and recently launched commentaries library are other ways. Our conferences and events are also places where we model expositional teaching—like our 2022 Women’s Conference this past June, where over 8,000 women heard “Salvation stories in the Old Testament” skillfully unpacked. Our newly launched women’s “How to Teach the Bible” virtual cohort brought together 200 women this fall to learn how to better teach the Bible.

When Scripture is known, loved, and authoritative, churches thrive and faith flourishes.

Whether addressing specific questions about Bible passages (“Is Numbers 5 Unjust to Women?”) or applying biblical wisdom to questions about gender roles (“What Exactly Does 1 Timothy 2:12 Teach?”) or politics (“Can I Vote for a Sinful Political Candidate?”), TGC is about bringing the Bible to bear on all aspects of life—and we always will be. One reader observed in response to our year-end survey, “TGC articles act as a booster during the day to point me to the truths of God’s Word.”

3. Helping You Navigate the News and Pop Culture

A common sentiment we hear regarding TGC’s value is that we provide trusted and timely, biblically sound commentary on the dizzying array of issues and narratives swirling around our fast-paced culture.

In our year-end survey, one respondent said, “TGC is a great resource for issues I don’t have time to research myself but want to understand better.” Another said, “TGC brings me the words of experts, people who have time and knowledge to explain issues that I don’t have the wisdom to interpret myself.”

We’re committed to helping you sort through the complexities of contemporary culture, from articles on transgenderism to reviews of problematic Disney movies, from Supreme Court explainers to reports on church abuse scandals. Also this year, the launch of our Good Faith Debates video series has helped thousands of viewers think Christianly—and not just politically—about divisive partisan issues like gun control and racial injustice.

In addition to helping you think critically about the unhelpful messages in pop culture, we also want to point you to what’s good, true, and beautiful. Whether through curated “quality Christian music” lists, Advent resources, tips about great upcoming movies, or celebrations of Bluey, we want to be a reliable curator and guide, helping you sort through the glut.

4. Giving You a Global Perspective

We believe the gospel is for all of life and for all the world—as true and transformative for the teenager in Tehran as it is for the grandmother in Glasgow. We also believe there’s helpful perspective and encouragement in being connected to believers around the world and aware of what God is doing far beyond our backyard.

TGC has long been a global coalition (46 percent of our total web traffic comes from outside the U.S.), and our network of international affiliates has grown to 17 in 2022. This includes nine geographical chapters (Africa, Australia, Brazil, Canada, India, Italy, Netherlands, Albania, and Slovakia) and eight language chapters (Spanish, Chinese, Arabic, Farsi, French, Korean, Russian and Ukrainian). This year we launched TGC India as well as our Ukrainian and Russian websites, which have received more than 9,000 visits and have helped connect Ukrainian and Russian pastors and church leaders amid a difficult war. Through our Share the Joy fundraising campaign, we were able to translate 1,000 crucial questions about Christianity into 11 languages (Arabic, Chinese, Dutch, Farsi, French, Italian, Korean, Portuguese, Spanish, Russian, and Ukrainian). We will continue to invest in this area of translating resources to strengthen believers around the world in the gospel.

We’ve also continued telling encouraging stories of God’s work around the world, including Recorded podcast episodes about Christians in Afghanistan and Scotland and encouraging reports about believers in Ukraine, China, Peru, and more. We hope you read or listen to these dispatches and are encouraged about what God is doing among our brothers and sisters throughout the globe.

5. Pointing You to Good Books (and Books to Avoid)

If you’re an intellectually curious, theologically conservative Christian who needs guidance on what to read (or what to avoid), we want to be your most trusted resource.

This is why TGC prioritizes book reviews in our regular editorial output. Whether it’s Kevin DeYoung reviewing The Case for Christian Nationalism, Maria Baer reviewing Rethinking Sex, or Steven Bateman reviewing Letter to the American Church, our timely reviews engage books we know are on your radar (or should be). In addition to our reviews (and reviews in Themelios), we regularly curate lists to help you prioritize books on your reading list. This year we shared lists like “50 Short Books Packed with Wisdom,” “What We’re Reading This Summer,” and “Recent Books to Gift Kids (and Teens) This Christmas,” not to mention our just-published annual TGC Book Awards, in which judges award the best new-release Christian books across 12 categories.

TGC is also a book publisher. In 2022, we published 12 books, including Rebecca McLaughlin’s Jesus through the Eyes of Women and Social Sanity in an Insta World, edited by Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra. In 2023, we’re excited to publish The Gospel and the Modern World: A Theological Vision for the Church by D. A. Carson, You’re Not Crazy: Gospel Sanity for Weary Churches by Ray Ortlund and Sam Allberry, and more.

6. Strengthening the Faith of the Next Generation

One of TGC’s focuses in recent years has been addressing the deconstruction trend happening across Western culture—especially among younger people. Through books like Before You Lose Your Faith and Rebecca McLaughlin’s The Secular Creed, as well as through countless resources on deconstruction, LGBT+ issues, abuse, race, hell, and other topics contributing to growing skepticism toward Christianity, we’ve been diligent in seeking to shore up the faith of the next generation and equip the pastors, parents, and teachers who disciple them.

Data shows TGC’s reach among young people is significant. The largest age group of TGC’s website audience—representing 22 percent of our total audience—is users between the ages of 25 and 34. A close second is the age group between 18 and 24 (20 percent of TGC’s total audience). We saw 6 percent year-over-year growth in this youngest audience segment in 2022—an encouraging sign that while many faith institutions are losing relevance with young people today, TGC is gaining some ground.

While many faith institutions are losing relevance with young people today, TGC is gaining some ground.

In addition to producing content to serve Gen Z (and Gen Alpha), we also asked them to produce content for us in their own words. Our Essay Contest for Young Adults received nearly 200 submissions, and we’ve enjoyed publishing the winners this year, as well as working with talented young writers who emerged in the process. In 2023 and beyond, we’re committed to developing young writers who bring their perspectives to TGC readers and help their generation grow in articulating and defending the Christian faith in a secular age.

7. Helping You Stay Faithful in the Digital Chaos

Even though—or perhaps because—we’re a mostly online ministry, TGC editors like me are highly attuned to the internet’s inherent dangers. Mindful of this, we remain committed to providing you wise, biblical perspectives on the challenges emerging with new technologies. In 2022 we published the book Social Sanity in an Insta World, accompanied by a “book club” video series on YouTube, to help you think Christianly about social media. We’ve also helped you think through everything from memes and misinformation to stats about teen digital media habits and screen time for kids—a topic we also addressed in a new children’s book by Betsy Childs Howard, Polly and the Screen Time Overload, released earlier this year.

The internet search bar is a spiritual battleground, and the inertia of secular influences online pulls many believers off track. TGC exists to be a beacon of light and truth in the landscape of digital media. We want to equip you to have a ballast in the wobbly online world, traction in the quicksand of secularism, hope in the wilderness. One survey respondent said, “I attended the 2022 Women’s Conference and was introduced to TGC’s resources and was profoundly helped. I was losing my footing and drifting into liberalism, but the clear, intelligent, faithful teaching I received [has] restored the joy of my salvation.”

In years to come, we hope this woman’s testimony will be echoed by many.

8. Serving You in Multimedia Formats

Even as there are plenty of challenges with digital technology, there are also ample opportunities. One of TGC’s core values has always been leveraging emerging communications platforms to spread gospel-centered resources. And we’ll continue serving you resources in formats and on platforms that work for you.

In addition to written articles, we uploaded more than 200 videos on our YouTube channel in 2022, gaining over 25,000 new subscribers and amassing 4.7 million views and 650,000 hours of footage viewed—up 10 percent over 2021. Some video highlights this year include a popular Holy Week devotional video series and the Good Faith Debates. Watch for five more Good Faith Debates to be released starting in February 2023.

For podcast lovers, this year we released stellar narrative podcasts from Sarah Zylstra’s Recorded podcast, as well as 31 new episodes of Collin Hansen’s Gospelbound, featuring guests like Daniel Nayeri, Tim Keller, and the late Jonathan Tjarks. In early 2023 we’re looking forward to debuting a brand-new pastor’s wives podcast and a podcast featuring perspectives from the global church.

Support The Gospel Coalition

Whether you listen to TGC podcasts on your commute to work, read our books in a small group, or scroll through our articles on an Instagram carousel, we are honored to serve you.

As a nonprofit, however, we rely in large part on generous supporters who benefit from our resources and want others to benefit too. If you’ve been blessed by any of our content in 2022, would you consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation? We want to continue serving the church in 2023 and beyond, but we need your support.

MAKE A GIFT

Thanks for being part of The Gospel Coalition. May the Lord bless you and keep you—and your local church—as we begin a new year and continue the old mission.

Soli Deo gloria.

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15 Things Your Church Staff Wants You to Know https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/16-tips-staff/ Mon, 12 Dec 2022 05:03:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=532893 Staff from five churches share the best practices of their boss-pastors.]]> Among the things you didn’t learn in seminary—including what to do when your church is dying, how to shepherd your wife, and when you know it’s time to take a call elsewhere—was how to manage a staff.

Unless you run a megachurch, you probably don’t have hundreds of full-time and part-time employees. But even if you have a church of fewer than 100—which is far more likely—you probably have a part-time secretary or musician.

You already know that being a good preacher isn’t the same thing as being a good leader of the congregation, which is different again from being a good boss.

“I have had the joy to work alongside pastors who see support staff and those working behind the scenes in the local church as valuable partners in ministry,” said Grace Sullivan, who worked for seven years as support staff for a church in the Chicago suburbs. “I have also experienced working with pastors who cared well for people in the congregation but who didn’t see those coming day after day as worth their time.”

The Gospel Coalition asked Sullivan and a handful of other church staff about the best practices of their boss-pastors.

1. Pray daily.

“Daily staff prayer not only reminds us of our need for and dependency upon the Lord for everything we do, but it also gives us a daily opportunity to gather as a staff, an understanding of the challenges and joys we are experiencing, and unity in our efforts. The timing is 9:15–9:45 every day, and we learn to prioritize that time. I would say it’s the most unifying, edifying, encouraging, and important thing we do together.” – Andy Winn, associate pastor at First Baptist Church in Durham, North Carolina

I would say daily prayer is the most unifying, edifying, encouraging, and important thing we do together.

2. Pray for your staff by name.

“This is powerful! [Lead pastor] Brad Wetherell—and other pastors at our church—don’t only see the value of the sheep in the congregation but also view the staff as members of the same body.” – Grace Sullivan, former director of campus ministries at The Orchard in Arlington Heights, Illinois

3. Sing.

“The best part of our staff meeting is that we start by singing two worship songs, hearing a devotional from one of the staff members, and praying together. This reminds us not to be too task-oriented but instead to focus first on Jesus and to support one another.” – Allison Van Egmond, women’s ministry coordinator at New Life Presbyterian Church in Escondido, California

4. Be intentional about your time together.

“Set meetings that are worthwhile; cancel meetings that have stopped being effective or necessary. Some pastors are hesitant to reevaluate the weekly schedule of a church staff. Reevaluate! Reset the timings of meetings if they’re growing mundane. We’ve often changed the spacing of meetings when weekly becomes too much, switching it to every other week or even monthly.” – Grace Sullivan

Set meetings that are worthwhile; cancel meetings that have stopped being effective or necessary.

5. Be present, both physically and mentally.

“Brad is always present in the meetings he attends! I have been with him in very different types of meetings from one to the next, and he always makes the current hour the most important. Wherever he is gets his full attention! He isn’t on his phone texting; he isn’t checking other emails; he isn’t getting up to leave because someone else may walk by. If the meeting is on the calendar, then it’s worthwhile, and he proves that with his attention.” – Grace Sullivan

6. Eat together.

“We eat lunch together as a staff every Tuesday. After lunch, while we’re still sitting around the table, we have a staff meeting where we talk through all kinds of things—both related to our church and to the church at large. These can be praises, prayer concerns, or matters of daily operation at OPCRC. These meetings ensure we’re all on the same page for current church happenings.” – Dori Summers, discipleship and outreach coordinator at Orland Park Christian Reformed Church in Orland Park, Illinois

7. Pay attention to the small things.

“Know the names of our spouses and our children! And say ‘hello’ when you see us! (Yes—I’ve had to give this advice to pastors before!) In one-on-one meetings with administrative or support staff, take five minutes to ask how he or she is doing personally. A person cared for is often encouraged and fueled to work more effectively and joyfully. And as you discuss so many details and work that needs to get done, end the meeting by praying for your staff member. Staff often don’t hear prayers for themselves; encourage them this way!” – Grace Sullivan

Know the names of our spouses, and our children! And say ‘hello’ when you see us!

8. Pay attention to the big things too.

“Most of the pastoral staff will meet with [lead pastor] Andy Davis at least twice a month (with a couple that meet weekly). These meetings aren’t long (an hour or less), but they are consistent. Those meetings focus less on the daily and weekly responsibilities and more on the person’s own family or spiritual growth. A staff member can certainly bring up a ministry challenge or logistic, but generally the time is reserved for growing as a father, husband, or pastor or simply in his love for the Word of God.” – Andy Winn

9. Be available.

“Both our pastors, Derek [Buikema] and Dan [Roeda], have what I call an open-door policy when it comes to the staff. When we have something to discuss—a concern that has to do with our work, or even something personal—their doors are always open. I think that with some pastors, there can be a sense of ‘I shouldn’t bother him.’ But I’ve never felt that I can’t approach either of them, which is key to creating trust in our relationship.” – Denise Vander Plaats, communications coordinator at Orland Park Christian Reformed Church in Orland Park, Illinois

10. Hang out.

“I really appreciate that Pastor Derek comes out to our desks every so often during the day just to shoot the breeze. He sits down at one of the open chairs in our working area and we just talk. Sometimes it’s about an issue that’s weighing heavily on him, which he shares with us and invites our input. Sometimes it’s just a little trash-talking about our OPCRC staff Fantasy Football league. He’s not above hanging out with us and he treats us as equals, which creates a sense of trust. And every Friday morning, we all put in our Dunkin’ orders on our apps, we go pick it up, and then we sit together and talk and enjoy our coffee and goodies together. It’s one of my favorite times of the week.” – Denise Vander Plaats

Every Friday morning, we all put in our Dunkin order on our apps, we go pick it up, and then we sit together and talk and enjoy our coffee and goodies together. It’s one of my favorite times of the week.

11. Loosen the reins.

“One thing that I see as a real benefit to the work environment is autonomy. I believe Pastor Darryl [Williamson] does a fantastic job at allowing us employees to fulfill tasks without heavy demands but also at granting time for those items to develop and blossom over time. That creates opportunities to build trust within the workplace and strengthens the idea that responsibility is not driven out of pressure or mere duty but out of individual character.” – Fenol Dera, next gen ministry leader at Living Faith Bible Fellowship in Tampa, Florida

12. Give some room for flourishing and failure.

Very seldom will Andy [Davis] tell another pastoral staff how to do something or to do something differently. There is room to flourish in the areas of giftedness or interest that an individual staff desires to explore. In fact, as long as the daily ministry needs are covered, how staff members use their time, gifts, or ministries is largely determined by their interests. With that said, there are times when ideas and initiatives fail. When that happens, we may discuss what led to a less-than-stellar result, but rarely is it done in such a way as to discourage creative ministry endeavors in the future. The ‘freedom to fail’ has been key to the joy and creativity of the staff to flourish in their ministries.” – Andy Winn

13. Jump into the work, even if it’s not technically your job.

“People are often motivated by the task of the ministry initiative rather than the task of the job description. When staff members see Andy’s willingness to serve, it motivates them to do the same. We all try to avoid the ‘that’s not my job’ mentality and replace that with an attitude of ‘how can I serve?’ The benefit over time is that everyone feels he or she has an active role in the ministry here.” – Andy Winn

The ‘freedom to fail’ has been a key to the joy and creativity of the staff to flourish in their ministry.

14. Open communication between the staff and the leadership.

“Each month our ministry staff fill out a report that gets sent to the elders, and each year the staff attend one elders’ meeting. Bridging the gap between the staff and elders is so important. As a staff member, it’s encouraging to know the elders are aware of what I’m doing and what’s going on with the ministry.” – Allison Van Egmond

15. Make sure they rest.

“Early in his ministry, Andy [Davis] established family as a priority, which is most often displayed by the understanding that Fridays are reserved for family time. In fact, there have been times that Andy will ask another staff member, ‘Now, why were you here last Friday?’ Over time, this has had a significant effect on the families of the pastoral staff. Though this may go unsaid, there are funerals, weddings, and emergencies that will take precedence, but the pattern is to prioritize ministry to church while in the office and ministry to family while away.” – Andy Winn

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How to Gain an Audience and Lose Your Soul https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/gain-audience-lose-soul/ Mon, 12 Dec 2022 05:02:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=532103 Christians with online platforms should be cautious of ‘audience capture’—the Faustian bargain that trades celebrity for integrity and ‘persona’ for personhood.]]> In a recent newsletter, Gurwinder Bhogal shares the story of Nicholas Perry, a violin-playing vegan who aspired to become YouTube famous. After a year of failed attempts, he left behind his violin and veganism and tried a new strategy: recording himself eating meals while holding a conversation with a camera. Nikocado Avocado (his YouTube handle) was a digital lunch buddy for the lonely.

These new videos got traction, and Nikocado’s digital dinner mates began to ask him to try more expansive fare. The bigger the meals, the bigger the view count. Before Nikocado knew it, he was recording himself devouring entire McDonald’s menus in a single video.

Eventually, his audience grew to 6 million subscribers, but that wasn’t the only thing to expand.

Top: Nicholas Perry before he began eating fast food menus. Bottom: Nikocado today. Photo credit: Gurwinder Bhogal’s newsletter, “The Peril of Audience Capture,” in The Prism.

The transformation was complete. A soft-spoken, thin-framed vegan named Nicholas Perry had evolved into Nikocado, a brash, dangerously overweight, dauntless devourer of calories who requires breathing apparatus. Bhogal writes, “The rampant appetite for attention caused the person [Nicholas Perry] to be subsumed by the persona [Nikocado].”

Nikocado’s tragic story illustrates a problem too rarely considered by Christians in today’s online media landscape: audience capture—when someone begins to mirror her audience’s demands, posture, beliefs, and interests. Audience capture is a Faustian trade: fame for personhood, celebrity for integrity, and public attention for public decency.

When Persona Replaces Person

The Nikocados of Christian discourse are a bit more challenging to spot. Their transformations are more psychological (posture and rhetoric) than physical (waistlines).

A few years ago, a relatively unknown pastor began writing about cultural issues on Twitter. He was typically irenic, nonanxious, and nuanced, avoiding extreme rhetoric. But in April of last year, he wrote a long thread challenging the inclusion of radical gender ideology in public education. His follower count began to rapidly tick up.

Audience capture is a Faustian trade: fame for personhood, celebrity for integrity, and public attention for public decency.

His new followers didn’t share his peaceful posture. They were culture warriors who rewarded—with likes and retweets—only his most bombastic posts. So he began to give them more of what they wanted. Over the next three months, his follower count doubled, culminating in an invite to speak on trans education on a Christian TV network, where he stoked fear and cast aspersions on his enemies with muscular rhetoric.

In a period of months, his followers transformed him from winsome to one of the fastest-growing antiwinsome personalities on the social internet. The transformation was complete. The persona devoured the person.

If you asked him, “Why did you change so dramatically?” I doubt he would say, “I do anything it takes for more followers!” Instead, he’d probably say, “I’m just trying to help people.” He probably sees his transformation as an act of honesty, and authenticity, not a bald grab for attention. The truth, of course, is more complex: virtuous desires intermingle with less salubrious aims, and anyone growing an audience will keep virtue in their conscious foreground, relegating desires for celebrity to the subconscious. It’s the sort of thing that’s easy to see from the outside, but (apart from self-reflection and accountability) almost impossible to see from the inside.

How Social Media Creates Christian Nikocados

Social media has revolutionized the feedback loop. Before Facebook, Nielsen ratings and focus groups were the best way for a media personality to gauge audience feedback. In the social media era, four things changed:

  • The threshold for notoriety decreased. In former media eras, a national audience of 2,000 would have been nothing. In niche social media subcultures, a follower count exceeding 2,000 constitutes a bona fide platform, putting you in the top 2–12 percent of social media users. But this is the important part: users with over 2,000 followers receive enough engagement to be affected by it.
  • Celebrity became achievable. Gatekeepers—like publishers, conference organizers, newspaper editors, and radio and TV producers—once kept most aspiring celebrities outside the gates. But today there are no gatekeepers (aside from AI running social media platforms). Now, fame feels accessible for everyone. This heightens the temptation to mirror audiences for plaudits, feeding the narcissistic shadow self. If I do what they like, I get more followers, and if I get more followers, I get more notoriety, and if I get more notoriety, I feel better about myself.
  • Audience feedback became measurable. Someone seeking applause can immediately see which posts elicit the most likes and shares—and which are ignored. Platforms offer users analytic tools that tell them, in real time, how many people have viewed a post and engaged with it. Creators repeat what went viral in the past, hoping for another dopamine rush of engagement. This feedback loop trains people to become the personas their audiences demand.
  • Audience feedback became specific. There’s no need for a focus group when your followers will happily share what they like and dislike via comments.

Unfortunately, online audiences rarely want sane, reasonable, decent, thoughtful, and kind content. They get high off the extremes. This is why audience capture is such a danger for leaders with online platforms. For Christians, resisting audience capture means naming the problem biblically, repenting when we fail, and seeking proper formation in the body of Christ.

Social Media Is a Mirror Machine

In Genesis 1, humans were created in the image of God, suggesting we’re designed to reflect his glory and character in the created world. After the fall, however, our ability to mirror God became dysfunctional. Instead of reflecting God’s love, justice, and mercy, we reflect the greed, hatred, vanity, and lust of the broken humans around us.

The French philosopher René Girard called the human tendency to reflect the desires of others “mimesis.” Drawing wisdom from Scripture, he observed that we only want what we see other people want. A person’s inner longings don’t spring up ex nihilo from his heart. They come from the outside in. We learn what to love by watching what other people love. Mimetic desire is the die in which “I” is cast.

Social media is best understood as a massive mimetic machine. It shapes our desires by showing us the desires of others in the form of likes, shares, and comments. Every engagement is a mimetic dopamine hit. YouTube was the mimetic cocoon in which Nicholas Perry became Nikocado. He turned his heart’s mirror toward his audience, transforming into a living parody of their desires. When we turn our hearts’ mirrors toward the Twitter mobs, TikTok junkies, and Instagram superfans, we suffer the same metamorphic fate.

Bhogal writes,

This is the ultimate trapdoor in the hall of fame; to become a prisoner of one’s own persona. The desire for recognition in an increasingly atomized world lures us to be who strangers wish us to be. And with personal development so arduous and lonely, there is ease and comfort in crowdsourcing your identity.

When a mimetic creature steps into a mimetic machine, she takes a great risk. If she does so blindly—believing that whatever she thinks or feels afterward will be an expression of her true self or her honest thoughts—she’ll inevitably offer herself as a living sacrifice to the machine.

How to Resist Mimetic Machines

For all these reasons, Christians on social media should actively seek to live our online lives coram deo, before the face of God, not coram auditorium, before the face of the audience.

The practices by which we do this aren’t revolutionary: sacraments, worship, prayer, Scripture, repentance, and community. These means of grace bring us into the presence of the living God—you cannot mirror a being you never encounter, after all—and do so through embodied means. They offer a potent means of recalibration in a world where digital malformation is hard to resist.

Christians on social media should actively seek to live our online lives coram deo, before the face of God, not coram auditorium before the face of the audience.

Christian community is an especially vital buffer against the distorting lure of social media mimesis. We too easily replace the gaze of the Christian community—which sanctifies us through correction and uplifts us by encouragement—with the gaze of online audiences. What your Christian spouse sees in you and wants from you differ radically from what your online audience desires. She wants you to wash the dishes as an act of sacrificial love. The crowd wants you to own the libs. Likewise, your Christian friends want your faithful presence, a listening ear, accountability, and encouragement, whereas your audience just wants you to dunk on the MAGA fascists.

In my own experience, I’m healthiest when I care far less about the opinions of online admirers than I care about the people who know my kids’ names, personalities, quirks, and problems. Those are the people who see me as I am, and by the grace of God shape me into a real person—not a persona. My local community is the best at telling me when I’m on the verge of becoming a rhetorically monstrous, mimetic caricature of my audience—so I can repent.

Indeed, repentance is the last and final key. All of us should make a practice of repenting any time our audience takes us captive. Repentance is the only medicine strong enough to reverse a digital transmutation. Though it may never give you the world, repentance does secure your soul—and protects you from becoming a Christian Nikocado.

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My Top 10 Theology Stories of 2022 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/top-10-theology-stories-2022/ Mon, 12 Dec 2022 05:00:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=535034 TGC editor in chief Collin Hansen’s annual list of the top theology stories that defined evangelical life, thought, and mission in 2022. ]]> Back on April 2, 2020, I ventured five predictions for the COVID-19 aftermath. (That’s almost as foolish as writing an annual list of the top 10 theology stories.) My third prediction, at least, continues to reverberate in 2022: “We’ll gain global perspective with national protections.”

Several of this year’s top theology stories negotiate that difference between citizenship in a nation versus responsibility to the world. The COVID-19 pandemic continues to destabilize many nations, most obviously China, whose authoritarian crackdowns finally provoked protesters who watched maskless global throngs at the World Cup. Russia has appealed to national interests, including the protection of its Orthodox Church, when unleashing global chaos with the largest land war in Europe since World War II. The death of Queen Elizabeth II marks both the passing of a global empire and an uncertain future for her national church. And in the United States, it’s no coincidence that debates over “Christian nationalism” erupted as Americans suffered from a pandemic that originated with a global rival.

The internet doesn’t allow us to retreat behind national lines, even the Great Firewall of China. But the economic system may need to nationalize. Otherwise, we face the looming catastrophe of a Taiwan invasion that would devastate our global market, which depends on semiconductors. The poor will still benefit most from trade, however, not only in jobs but also in the price of goods. And global stability is not a given—as we know from a history of nationalism gone wrong.

Though we can only observe from our corner of the world, we see most clearly when we look for what God’s doing in the other corners.

Christians have a command to love our neighbors (Lev. 19:18), and we have a commission to spread the gospel to the ends of the earth (Matt. 28:19). We can do both, because take our citizenship from heaven (Phil. 3:20). We’re uniquely positioned, then, to help our neighbors near and far to navigate global perspective with national protections. We love our countries, we love our world, and we love the Creator most of all. These loves do not compete when they flow from God.

As always, when I attempt to discern the top theology stories of the year, I write from the vantage point of an American who subscribes to The Gospel Coalition’s confessional statement. Though we can only observe from our corner of the world, we see most clearly when we look for what God’s doing in the other corners.


10. What’s next after liberalism?

Who would’ve thought drag queens could bring about the end of the liberal political order? Trans momentum seemed to slow this year as the moral foundations shifted on fairness (with women’s sports threatened) and harm (with women endangered by biological men in prisons and domestic violence shelters). Even so, given how trans arguments threaten the building blocks of life, it’s no coincidence that political debates now challenge the assumption that liberalism preserves social stability. If society can no longer distinguish male from female, how can we reorient public life toward truth?

9. No slack seen in onslaught of mass shootings.

Nowhere in the United States is safe. You could be watching a popular parade on the Fourth of July. Or walking with your friend to church. Or eating with your friends while welcoming a stranger. Or, of course, just sitting in school. But you better prepare your church for how to respond to an active shooter. And talk to your kids about mass shootings. So far Christians haven’t mustered any unified response to the epidemic of violence. Debates over gun control may help, but the spiritual problems seem to run deeper than the American political system can reach.

8. SBC report reveals top-level abuse cover-up.

It’s bad news when top church leaders spent nearly two decades covering up reports of child molesters and other abusers. It’s better that we know about the cover-up because other leaders and scores of other Christians demanded accountability. Anyone can profess to believe in the authority and sufficiency of Scripture. The truest test is obeying the commands in that Word from the Lord.

7. Queen Elizabeth II dies.

While Queen Elizabeth II died on September 8, 2022, grief may grow later this month when she’s not available to deliver the customary Christmas message. True to her character as monarch since 1952, Queen Elizabeth II offered calm, clear testimony to the miracle of the incarnation. The absence of her leadership reminds us of the weakening of Christianity in the United Kingdom and affiliated nations in the last 70 years. Her pious example didn’t arrest that decline, of course. We’ve yet to discover the breakthrough for reaching the post-Christian world that emerged during her lifetime.

6. Pastors blamed in the ongoing reckoning for 2020.

Two years later we’re still sifting through the political, racial, and scientific wreckage of 2020. Among Christians, pastors are taking more than their fair share of the blame from politically motivated pundits. It doesn’t help that too many high-profile pastors earned that disrepute with their spiritual abuse. We know how to train pastors in exegesis and systematic theology. We need to ensure they know how to lead with conviction amid opposition and shepherd their flocks without domineering.

5. Two Christian colleges abandon biblical ethics.

Calvin University and Eastern University didn’t surprise many when they decided in late 2022 to abandon biblical ethics in favor of sexual revolution. Some faculty and alumni at these schools have worked for years to undermine historic, orthodox teaching. Some political pundits and church leaders will continue to make peace with the newly ascendant progressive powers. The story at Calvin, at least, might not be finished, as younger leaders in the Christian Reformed Church reaffirmed biblical ethics this summer. The United Methodist Church’s sluggish splintering offers a warning case of waiting too long to reform the schools.

4. Dobbs decision allows abortion bans for first time in nearly 50 years.

Regardless of the political backlash, the Dobbs decision that overturned Roe v. Wade deserves to be celebrated. It’s a day that many doubted would ever come. In response to the shocking but just decision, several states with the most abortions have doubled down on their murderous intentions. Crisis pregnancy centers have been firebombed with little effort from unsympathetic authorities to apprehend the perpetrators. The question now is whether pro-life activists will negotiate political compromises that ban some or even many abortions or if they’ll go for everything and end up with nothing outside a few conservative states. Especially in states that ban most surgical abortions, churches will have many opportunities to put their theology of life to work. Early reports show a 6 percent decrease in abortions nationwide.

3. Iran erupts in revolution.

The world’s most populous theocracy is no stranger to revolution. Perhaps, like in earlier revolts, the Islamic government will prevail over protestors demanding freedom. But today’s Iran has changed in one significant way: no evangelical movement has been growing faster in recent years. Even though these Christians don’t know whether they should join the protests, they pray for justice and better government. We probably won’t know until 2023 or beyond whether the church in Iran will enjoy greater religious freedom. Regardless, God hasn’t been hindered thus far by even this repressive regime.

2. China reverts to authoritarianism on brink of war with Taiwan.

The Beijing Winter Olympics gave us an ominous preview of the year ahead when Russia’s Vladimir Putin watched the opening ceremonies on February 4 with China’s Xi Jinping. Russia’s faltering invasion of Ukraine may have tempered China’s ambitions in neighboring Taiwan. Regardless, China’s Zero-COVID policy has already strengthened an authoritarian government determined to rule every aspect of life. Recent protests indicate, however, that the government may have finally overreached. While the Chinese church has grown and matured, Xi’s regime has taken a heavy toll. Xi’s further consolidation of power, on display at October’s Communist Party Congress, suggests we’ll continue to learn from Chinese pastors and their theology of suffering.

1. Russia invades Ukraine in first major land war in Europe since World War II.

Theological implications emerged immediately when Russia invaded neighboring Ukraine on February 24. Seminary presidents in other post-Soviet states joined their Ukrainian brothers in denouncing the Russian attack. Some church leaders who stayed to serve paid the highest price. Russian President Vladimir Putin justified the invasion in part by appealing to the supposed destruction of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. But that church body has since disaffiliated from Moscow after Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill blessed the war. Western support for Ukraine so far has been strong, wavering only somewhat as energy-driven inflation imperils the global economy. As is so often the case in Eastern Europe, winter will be a war of wills.


Previous Top 10 Theology Stories:
2008200920102011201220132014201520162017201820192020, 2021.

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4 Ways to ‘Be Still and Know’ This Christmas https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/be-still-know-christmas/ Sun, 11 Dec 2022 05:00:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=535741 The baby in Bethlehem is the Lord of hosts. Be still and know.]]> Google the first four words of Psalm 46:10 and you’ll find hundreds of Christian knickknacks. You can buy wall art, mugs, magnets, throw pillows, and hand towels reminding you and yours to “Be still and know.” Some people will know the rest of the verse: “that I am God.” Fewer will know the reference.

But what do these eight words mean? Ripped from their context, they’re elastic enough to mean whatever we want.

We’re rarely still during the holidays. These are the gift-buying, debt-growing, family-tripping, cookie-baking, party-attending days of December. What do we need? To “be still and know,” we need a quiet nook, a cup of coffee, an open Bible, and photographic proof for social media.

But what if that’s not what the verse means?

Missions Psalm

Psalm 46 begins with the comforting confession that “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (v. 1). Though tempted to trust our own devices, God’s people must trust God alone. He is sovereign over raging nations, raising them up and setting them down for his purposes. Armies win or lose by his decreed will. He cannot be delayed, distracted, denied, or destroyed. Israel will survive because “the LORD of hosts” is with them (v. 7).

That’s the context. In verse 10, it’s God’s turn to speak: “Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!”

Stop arguing. Quit complaining. This is a summons to unconditional surrender. Is it directed to God’s people? If so, it’s a summons to repent, not merely an invitation to take a break from the holiday hustle and bustle. But it’s also a warning to the nations. The bad news: you don’t know God, so resist and be ruined. The good news: you can know God, so surrender and be saved. Only then will the “nations be glad” (Ps. 67:4) as God is exalted among them (46:10). In other words, Psalm 46 is a missions text.

The gospel will launch from Jerusalem, land among the nations, and lead multitudes to turn from idols to the only true God. Representatives of every nation will stand before the risen Christ and praise him for their salvation (Rev. 7:9). The success of the missionary endeavor is guaranteed. “Reader,” wrote Charles Spurgeon about Psalm 46:10, “the prospects of missions are bright—as bright as the promises of God.”

What, then, does it look like to “be still and know” this holiday season? Here are four practical suggestions.

1. Study the stats.

When Jesus was born, an estimated 170 million to 200 million people populated our planet. This Christmas, for the first time in history, the world’s population surpasses 8 billion people. Here’s a breakdown from the Joshua Project:

  • 32 percent identify as Christians (includes Christ-followers and nominal Christians).
  • 42 percent have heard, or could hear, the gospel—but haven’t responded.
  • 26 percent haven’t heard and have virtually no exposure to the gospel.

Organizations like the Joshua Project and Operation World provide a wealth of information and specific prayer requests for the nations, keeping us mindful that there are more people on the earth today who don’t know Jesus “than at any other time in history.”

2. Work for unity in your church.

Pandemics and politics are the Devil’s playground, dividing churches and distracting them from their mission of exalting Christ among the nations. Meanwhile, 183,671 people die every day—47,754 of whom perish without ever meeting a Christian or hearing the gospel. Our sense of urgency rises with the awareness that in Jesus, God has not provided the best way to be saved, but the only way to be saved.

We have work to do and a world to reach. The more we share God’s concern for the nations, the less we bicker over third-rank doctrine and First World problems. Become a thick-skinned peacemaker in your local church for the glory of God and the good of the nations.

The more we share God’s concern for the nations, the less we bicker over third-rank doctrine and First World problems.

3. Care for your church’s missionaries.

Read their prayer letters and pray over their requests—and then let them know you prayed for them. In Operation World, find the nation they serve and pray for that nation. Send care packages stuffed with things they can’t get where they live. (Be sure to ask what they’d like and what shipping option makes the most sense for their location.) Support them financially so they have one less thing to worry about. If appropriate, visit them on the field. Let them go to work tomorrow knowing they’re loved and not forgotten.

4. Make ‘A Mighty Fortress’ a Christmas song.

Psalm 46 inspired Martin Luther to write his famous hymn. Surrounded by enemies who wished to kill him, he resolved to guard the gospel given to the nations. Read Psalm 46, then read the lyrics to Luther’s hymn. Linger over “Lord Sabaoth”—the Lord of hosts, supreme commander of angel armies.

Legions of angels stand ready to serve him—from the cradle to the cross to the crown. On that first Christmas night, a multitude of these fearsome messengers brought the good news: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace” (Luke 2:14). As Jesus anticipated the agony of the peace-making cross, an angel was there “strengthening him” (Luke 22:43). The Prince of Peace will return “with his mighty angels” (2 Thess. 1:7). One day, hundreds of millions of these heavenly hosts will declare, in the company of blood-bought people from every nation, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain” (Rev. 5:12).

The baby in Bethlehem is the Lord of hosts. He must win the battle. He will make all wars cease. He will be exalted among the nations. Be still and know.

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Get Your Kids Ready for Church in 5, 15, or 30 Minutes https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/kids-ready-church-minutes/ Sat, 10 Dec 2022 05:00:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=535098 They may walk out the door with mismatched socks, but their hearts will be prepared to worship.]]> There’s no chaos like Sunday morning chaos. Where are your shoes? Did anyone knock on her door? Did you eat breakfast? Those pants are way too small! Has anyone seen the car keys?

If the alarm is going to fail, it will fail on a Sunday morning. If the water heater is going to malfunction, if there’s going to be unexpected overnight snowfall, if we’re going to run out of milk, it will happen on a Sunday morning. Or at least it seems that way.

And that’s to say nothing of the state of our hearts. I’ve long thought that the psalmist on his way to the temple had his children in mind: “I am for peace, but when I speak, they are for war!” (Ps. 120:7).

Many Sundays, our family has tumbled into the minivan minutes late before we’ve even started. At a glance, everyone is present and most of our shoes are on the correct feet. We’re ready for church. But we don’t feel ready.

Ready for Church?

I’m sure many of the 151 men who assembled in England in the 17th century to draft the Westminster Standards knew how hard it was to get their kids to church too. Has anyone milked the cow? Did you bank the fire? Those breeches are way too small!

Everyone is present and most of our shoes are on the correct feet. We’re ready for church. But we don’t feel ready.

Even those theologians and their kids probably showed up to church sometimes with hair unbrushed and hearts unfocused. Thankfully, as they wrote, preaching is designed for sinners: “Driving them out of themselves, and drawing them unto Christ” (Larger Catechism, 155). On Sunday morning, the Lord welcomes the weak and gives grace to the unready.

But the men also knew that simply having everyone dressed and accounted for didn’t mean they’d succeeded at getting ready for church. Those who listen to preaching, they wrote, should “attend upon it with diligence, preparation, and prayer” (Larger Catechism, 160). As much as we prepare our bodies, we should also prepare our hearts.

Even if you just have a few minutes at the breakfast table or in the car, consider these ways to focus your heart and the hearts of your children on worship. If you do, they may walk out with mismatched socks, but they’ll be ready for church.

5 Minutes: Pray

In the five minutes it takes to eat a bowl of cereal or drive to church, you can pray together. Ask the Lord to forgive your sin, remind you of his grace, make you eager to praise him, and enable you to worship with your whole heart. Ask him to help your children listen well and sing heartily. Ask him to work in the hearts of everyone in the congregation, saving any who might be apart from Christ.

When we pray with our children before church, we remind them of two things: First, we depend on the Spirit for everything, even for the ability to worship. Second, we all depend on the Spirit, even grown-ups. Prayer is a great equalizer, and praying with our children on Sunday mornings affirms that we parents need the same help to worship God that they do.

10–15 Minutes: Pray and Sing

If you have a little longer, you can add song to your Sunday morning. Give young children a chance to suggest a favorite hymn and sing it together as you zip up your coats and head out the door. Your family chorus may be more joyful noise than skillful music, but it’ll stretch your vocal cords and stir your hearts.

Every choir spends time before a performance warming up, familiarizing themselves with the music and readying their voices. In our families, a hymn or two sung on the way to church is a set of scales for our souls, making sure even the smallest members are ready to take their place in the congregational choir.

20–30 Minutes: Pray, Sing, and Read

With just a few minutes more, you can also read Scripture together. You may want to do this on Saturday night. Find out what Scripture text your pastor plans to read and preach the next morning (it’s often on the church website or in the email newsletter), and read the passage together as a family. If you have time, discuss it. Define any hard words for young kids and give everyone a sense of what to expect when the sermon begins.

Your family chorus may be more joyful noise than skillful music, but it will stretch your vocal cords and stir your hearts.

Young children take great delight in recognizing the text read from the pulpit as the same one your family read the night before. When they hear the familiar sentences in church, they’ll be primed to listen.

It should be no surprise that the Evil One would be extra busy on Sunday mornings, sowing frustration and confusion before we even step into church. Missing hairbows and grumpy responses are the weekly work of the Devil. But by inviting praise from our children, we encourage them to prepare their hearts for meeting with Jesus. Their loud hosannas, ordained by God himself, “silence the foe and the avenger” (Ps. 8:2, NIV; cf. Matt. 21:15–16). When children get ready for church, Satan shuts his mouth and Christ is exalted.

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Pursuing Godliness? You Need Both Law and Grace. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/podcasts/tgc-podcast/pursuing-godliness-need-law-grace/ Fri, 09 Dec 2022 05:04:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=tgc-podcast&p=535271 At TGC21, Mike Kruger and Jen Wilkin discuss the importance of finding the balance between law and grace. ]]> At TGC21, Mike Kruger and Jen Wilkin discuss how to understand the relationship between law and grace.

A few years ago, Jen Wilkin coined the term “celebratory failurism” to describe an acceptance of the thought that Christians will never be able to fully obey because of total depravity. Wilkin pushes back on that idea, and she and Mike Kruger discuss why there seems to be a misunderstanding on total depravity, legalism, and obedience to the law. They discuss the struggle between antinomianism (lawlessness) and pharisaical tendencies (lawfulness) and find that the relationship between law and grace is: obedience that pleases God has right motive combined with right action.

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How the Black Intellectual Tradition Promotes Dignity in Classical Education https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/education-image-bearers/ Fri, 09 Dec 2022 05:03:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=532109 The biblical and classical world introduces us to another time when diverse voices were heard with equal respect because there was no color line. ]]> Christianity is the most culturally and ethnically diverse belief system in the world, as our God is building a church for the praise of his glory from “every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Rev. 7:9–10).

But in North America, millions of children go to schools where they may be encouraged to make secondary identities—whether political, cultural, racial, or sexual—more essential than their primary identity as God’s image-bearers. In these confusing times, Christians from all ethnic backgrounds are looking for wise educational guides grounded in the ancient wisdom of the Christian faith.

I (Dan) corresponded recently with two such guides who have particular expertise in the black intellectual tradition: Anika Prather and Angel Adams Parham. They recently coauthored The Black Intellectual Tradition: Reading Freedom in Classical Literature (Classical Academic Press, July 2022) (read my TGC review).

In this interview, we learn about the relationship between Christian faith and classical education, how black writers have engaged the Western canon, and other book recommendations they have on the black intellectual tradition.


What has been the most meaningful experience that has shaped your approach to education?

Angel Adams Parham: There have been two experiences that have profoundly shaped my approach to education. The first occurred in 2013 as I reread Robert Bellah’s appendix to Habits of the Heart. It’s titled “Social Science as Public Philosophy,” and there Bellah provides historical background on changes in the education landscape that have transformed the way social science is done.

It used to be, in the 19th century, that social science combined aspects of history and philosophy with the gathering of social data. Many universities were organized so that the president of the university offered a capstone seminar in moral philosophy meant to help students synthesize all they had learned. During this time, social science wasn’t so rigidly separated from ethical reflection on the common good. The work of W. E. B. Du Bois is an excellent example here. He worked in a variety of modes: literary, philosophical, historical, and social scientific, including the gathering of statistical data. He was well read in the classics as well as in American, African, and world history.

As the modern research university took hold, however, this kind of work receded to the margins as scholarly work became increasingly specialized and the mainstream of social science disciplines like sociology became less and less connected to philosophical thinking and historical inquiry. Bellah’s appendix was a call for social science as public philosophy to be reinvigorated. This has very much shaped the approach I currently take to my research and teaching.

The second experience that profoundly shaped me was classically homeschooling my daughters. We homeschooled for 11 years, eight of them classically, and it was during this time that I read, for the first time, such classics as The Odyssey. This was all happening about the same time as I reread the Bellah appendix, and it inspired me to read more widely, beginning with works by Plato and Aristotle—whom I had never read before—and moving on to other classic texts that continued to shape my thinking and teaching. I’m incredibly grateful for both formative experiences.

Anika Prather: For me, the most meaningful experience was when my parents started a classical school. I was introduced to an entirely new way of thinking about equitable education through studying the canon and its connection to the human story of liberation.

What is the relationship between the Christian faith and a classical model of education?

Anika Prather: The Bible is a wonderful source for understanding the relationship of Africa to the classical world. In the stories of the Bible, you learn how people from different continents and ethnic groups often interacted. In the Bible, you learn about African kingdoms like Cush (Ethiopia) and Egypt and why they were so respected in the ancient world as Herodotus and Plutarch would sometimes allude to. Using the Bible’s representation of Africa and the Middle East helps us to free ourselves from a whitewashed perspective on Christianity and the ancient world.

The Bible’s representation of Africa and the Middle East helps us to free ourselves from a whitewashed perspective on Christianity and the ancient world.

Frank Snowden’s book Blacks in Antiquity expounds on this greatly. The Bible was also how many enslaved people came to see how God valued them, because of how openly the Bible and other ancient texts talked about the value of black people.

Angel Adams Parham: Many classical educators speak of classical education as the coming together of Athens and Jerusalem, and I think this expresses the approach well. Writers such as Augustine thought carefully about how to relate to the learning of Greece and Rome. In On Christian Doctrine, Augustine likens good learning—wherever it’s found—to gold and silver. These can be mined and enjoyed by anyone, even nonbelievers. In this sense, knowledge found by non-Christians is still valuable and should be used for our edification. For Augustine, such knowledge becomes even more valuable in the hands of Christians who will, it’s expected, use it well.

Which authors have most influenced your thinking about education, and how?

Angel Adams Parham: My favorites are Aristotle, especially The Nicomachean Ethics, and Plato’s Republic. In Ethics, Aristotle writes about the importance of shaping habits and affections early on in a young person’s life so he or she desires and is attuned to what’s good and right and is, conversely, turned away by what isn’t good. This focus on habit, and how it’s related to the cultivation of virtue, is so important for thinking about what we teach as well as about how to live in a way that shows students what it looks like to pursue what’s good.

The Republic is just a feast of a book which I find endlessly fascinating as a sociologist who has always loved thinking about what makes for a good society. Plato is a bit too authoritarian to take as any kind of blueprint for society, but I like thinking with him through his stories and allegories, and these are very valuable to work through with students.

Anika Prather: My favorites here are Anna Julia Cooper, Marva Collins, and W. E. B. Du Bois. Collins provides a guide for bringing classical education to diverse communities through her book Marva Collins’ Way. Cooper provides a clear history of how classical education came into the black community and its relevance to us even today. Du Bois discusses a theoretical understanding of classical education that explains why it’s not just for one people group but can effectively develop our critical thinking and broaden our worldview so we can all participate in America’s democracy.

What do Christians miss when they don’t engage the black intellectual tradition?

Anika Prather: When Christians choose not to engage with the black intellectual tradition, they also miss learning about the black biblical heritage, which is something we all need to know. Learning about this tradition has led me to look more closely at African civilizations and their influence on the classical world.

When Christians choose not to engage with the black intellectual tradition, they miss learning about the black biblical heritage, which is something we all need to know.

Christians also miss out on how black people have been able to choose the Christian faith—despite the racist history connected to American Christianity—because of how the biblical and classical world shows another world where there’s no color line, and that there was a time when diverse voices were heard with equal respect. Du Bois says that when he reads the canon, he finds himself in a world where there’s no scorn or condescension and where he dwells above the Veil (or color line).

The black intellectual tradition welcomes us to that world, and it’s there that we can live out God’s promise that he’s no respecter of persons. Reading the works of the black intellectual tradition shows us a living example of how the black community has been engaging in the great philosophical, theological, historical, and literary conversations, and that’s healing and liberating to discover.

Angel Adams Parham: In much of my thinking about classical education, I take Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler’s approach of inviting students to take part in the “Great Conversation” that has stretched across millennia. Two key questions that have driven this conversation are “What does it mean to be human?” and “What is the essence of freedom?” These two questions continue to come to the fore in many classical circles today. Writers of the black intellectual tradition have often endured the most trying, unjust circumstances where the essence of their humanity is questioned or denied and where their freedom is severely curtailed. They have, therefore, devoted a good deal of careful, well-considered attention to these questions.

Our black writers also have much to teach all of us about how to survive, and even thrive, under extremely adverse circumstances. For those of us in the black community, living through adversity of one kind or another has long been a way of life. But rather than caving in, or ceding to bitterness and cynicism, most of us have found beautiful ways of overcoming and of fighting for a better, more just world. We’ve expressed the highs and lows of our lives in poetry, song, visual art, dance, great writing, and political protest and engagement. These are all important modes for dealing with injustice as well as for envisioning the good society where we can all flourish.

What do you see as the strongest case for classical education’s connection to racial reconciliation?

Anika Prather: It’s important to trace classical education’s history from ancient times up through the civil rights movement. It has been influential to this day, but to understand its importance we have to start at the beginning.

Beginning with Terence the African playwright, who was enslaved in ancient Rome, you can trace a consistent connection between Africa and the tradition. Terence’s plays eventually made it into early American classical education, which is when Phillis Wheatley discovered him. John Adams was quoted as sharing an admiration for the Latin writing of Terence and felt it was necessary to learn the best form of Latin. From there we continue to see how classical education shaped the activist work of many black Americans and is such an integral part of black history in particular and the history of the church in general.

What are your top five books that you’d recommend for readers interested in the black intellectual tradition’s engagement with the classics?

Angel Adams Parham:

1. The Collected Works of Phillis Wheatley by John Shields (ed.). This collection brings together all Wheatley’s poetry as well as her letters. She is often seen as launching the black intellectual tradition in America. It’s so important to read Wheatley’s work within the context of her whole life and times. Too often, she’s read as accepting slavery, and this is not at all true. She strongly criticized slavery and had no patience for those who called themselves Christians but who were viciously oppressing others even as they loudly proclaimed the love of Jesus. This becomes clear when reading her poetry and letters together.

2. The Souls of Black Folk by W. E. B. Du Bois. This is a masterpiece that’s written beautifully while also being filled with difficult and profound truths about the United States and its history. It provides an excellent window into the period immediately following emancipation, so it’s wonderful for teaching this history. It is also filled with sophisticated classical allusions, so it’s perfect for classical educators and students.

3. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass. This work contains the life story of the internationally known man who was perhaps the best speaker of the 19th century. This is where you see the experiences that forged this formidable intellect. It provides an entrée to reading his speeches, which are also essential.

4. The Voice of Anna Julia Cooper by Charles Lemert and Esme Bhan (eds.). This book combines Cooper’s major book A Voice from the South with her speeches and letters on a variety of important issues. Along with Du Bois, she provides invaluable insight into the period following emancipation, and she deals with issues concerning education as well as the place of women in society.

5. A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. by James M. Washington (ed.). This collection brings together King’s major speeches and is a perfect way of becoming immersed in his thought. King was an incomparable orator and rhetorician who was widely read in the classics. The influence of the classics comes through again and again in his writing.

Anika Prather:

1. Blacks in Antiquity and Before Color Prejudice by Frank M. Snowden Jr. These two works offer a very clear explanation of the intersection of African civilizations with the Ancient Greek and Roman world—dispelling myths about race. These works help us to free ourselves from the ways racism in America can affect how we see the ancient world. It also shows black people the richness of their ancient past and how it has contributed to Western thought.

2. Marva Collins’ Way by Marva Collins. This is a memoir and guidebook about a woman who brought classical education to the challenged areas of Chicago. She just passed away a few years ago, so it’s a more contemporary book about the relevance of classical education for the black community.

3. The Souls of Black Folk and The Education of Black People by W. E. B. Du Bois. Both books show a very clear and theoretical picture of why classical education is relevant to black people, looking at its history from ancient times through slavery. It also shows how classical education can help black Americans address their racist experiences in America.

4. The Voice of Anna Julia Cooper by Charles Lemert and Esme Bahn (eds.). This book includes Anna Julia Cooper’s book A Voice from the South along with other letters and writings and a thorough biography of Cooper. Anna was very private about her life and it’s hard to obtain all the clear details about her, but when you read this text and each of her writings you learn so much about her and her belief in the importance of classical education for all people, especially black people.

5. There Was a Country and Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. These books show the universal power of reading the canon. There Was a Country tells about Achebe’s life. While he was from Nigeria and Igbo was his mother tongue, he was very inspired by reading the Western canon. Things Fall Apart is an embodiment of that inspiration as his understanding of Greek tragedy inspired the tragedy of the main character. Achebe’s reading of the canon empowered him to become a storyteller of the African experience instead of having an outsider translate the African experience. The canon provides humanity with the literacy needed to tell stories in a universal tongue. This is why black Americans read the canon.

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The FAQs: How an AI Chatbot May Affect Gospel-Centered Ministry https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/faqs-chatbot-gospel-centered-ministry/ Fri, 09 Dec 2022 05:02:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=535781 The best artificial intelligence chatbot in history was released earlier this week. How will it affect pastors, churches, and ministry?]]> What just happened?

The best artificial intelligence chatbot in history was released earlier this week. But unless you were on Twitter, you probably haven’t heard about it. ChatGPT (the GPT stands for “generative pre-trained transformer”) acquired 1 million users within the first five days of launch, making it one of the fastest-adopted technology services in the modern age. (In comparison, Facebook took 10 months, Spotify took 5 months, and Instagram took 2.5 months to reach that level of engagement.) Over the next few months, ChatGPT could be a ubiquitous presence in your online life.

What is ChatGPT and why does it matter?

ChatGPT is a conversational language model developed by OpenAI. It is a variant of the GPT-3 language model that is specifically designed to handle a wide range of conversational tasks, such as generating responses to user input in a chat-like environment.

ChatGPT is an important development in the field of natural language processing because it represents a significant advance in the ability of language models to understand and respond to human conversational inputs. This has the potential to enable a wide range of applications, such as chatbots and virtual assistants, that can help people to communicate more effectively and efficiently.

Overall, ChatGPT is an exciting development in the field of artificial intelligence and natural language processing, and it has the potential to greatly improve our ability to interact with machines and each other.

Why do ChatGPT and other AI matter for pastors, churches, and gospel-centered ministry?

AI will affect gospel-centered ministry by providing new tools and methods for sharing the gospel and reaching people with the message of Jesus. For example, AI algorithms can be used to personalize and target digital evangelism efforts, reaching people with tailored messages and resources based on their specific interests and needs. AI can also help analyze and interpret data from evangelism efforts, providing insights and feedback to help improve the effectiveness of gospel-centered ministry. Additionally, AI can assist with tasks such as managing volunteers, organizing events, and facilitating communication within a ministry organization. Overall, AI has the potential to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of gospel-centered ministry efforts.

This new technology may also have important ramifications for churches and pastors. In the near future AI will provide greater access to religious content and resources, as well as aiding in pastoral activities. AI can parse religious texts and identify trends, allowing pastors to target their sermons for maximum impact. AI may also be useful in gathering insights from sermons or helping prepare homilies, as well as providing personalized advice and counseling to churchgoers. As AI becomes more sophisticated, churches will be able to take advantage of new technologies and resources in order to better engage members and create a more effective spiritual experience. Churches will be able to use AI by automating day-to-day tasks, streamlining communication, and helping churches save time and money.

Overall, the use of AI in gospel-centered ministry will likely depend on the specific needs and goals of each individual church. While AI may be able to assist with certain tasks and activities, it’s important to remember that it can never replace the human element of ministry. Only people can truly provide the personal connection and spiritual guidance that is at the heart of gospel-centered ministry.

How much of this article was written by an AI?

Of the 541 words in this article so far, 455 were written by ChatGPT. (All but the “What just happened?” section.) You may not have noticed since my colleagues often say I write and act like a robot (I prefer the term “Android American”). The text generated by the AI isn’t stylish (though neither is my own), but it’s functional and relatively informative. The ideas for how it will be used in gospel-centered ministry are also rather sophomoric in the literal sense of being something the average college sophomore might include in an essay. But to borrow from Samuel Johnson, an AI writing an article is like a dog walking on his hind legs. It’s not done well, but you’re surprised to find it done at all.

We soon may be in an era where it’ll be difficult—if not impossible—to know whether our online interactions are with a human or an AI-enhanced bot.

What else can ChatGPT do?

While ChatGPT may not be able to replace the work of Christian journalists for a few more years, it can already do the work of such services as Google and Wikipedia in providing relatively helpful answers to questions.

For instance, I asked ChatGP to explain the apostle Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. It responded,

The letter to the Ephesians, also known as Epistle to the Ephesians, is a book of the New Testament of the Bible. It is attributed to the apostle Paul and addressed to the Christian community in Ephesus, a city in modern-day Turkey. In the letter, Paul writes about the importance of unity and humility within the Christian community, and he encourages the believers to lead lives characterized by love, forgiveness, and obedience to God. He also emphasizes the significance of Christ’s death and resurrection, and the role of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers. Overall, the letter to the Ephesians is a powerful reminder of the transformative power of the Christian faith and the importance of living according to God’s will.

Next, I asked the AI to explain the difference between Arminianism and Calvinism:

Arminianism and Calvinism are two competing systems of theology that attempt to explain the relationship between God’s sovereignty and human free will. Arminianism emphasizes the idea that humans have free will and are able to choose whether to follow God or not, while Calvinism emphasizes the sovereignty of God and the idea that God has already chosen who will be saved and who will not. Arminianism is named after the Dutch theologian Jacobus Arminius, who rejected the teachings of John Calvin, the French theologian who is the namesake of Calvinism. The main difference between the two systems is their understanding of how human free will and God’s sovereignty work together.

Finally, I asked ChatGPT to “explain the gospel”:

The Gospel is the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ. God loves us so much that He sent His only Son, Jesus, to come down to earth and die on a cross for our sins. Through faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection, we can be forgiven of our sins and receive eternal life. This is the hope that we have when we accept Him as Lord and Savior—an eternity with Him in Heaven!

ChatGPT’s answer is clear, succinct, biblical, and enthusiastic. As the chatbot itself noted, it’s too soon to know exactly how transformative this technology will be on our culture. But if these are the type of answers it can provide, the AI may soon become an effective tool for gospel-centered ministry.


Note: The image in this article was also created by a related AI called DALL-E.

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Classical Education Should Make No Room for Racism https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/classical-education-racism/ Fri, 09 Dec 2022 05:00:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=535766 Done right, classical education is not only incompatible with racism, it actively works against it.]]> Over the past 40 years, the renewal of classical Christian education in the United States has grown to 800 or so schools and about 3,000 classical homeschool co-ops. It has educated thousands of children in classical literature, taught them how to think logically, and shaped their souls to love goodness, beauty, and truth—the things of God.

It has also faced some resistance from those who think it looks elitist. It can seem as if only kids who are rich enough, white enough, and smart enough get to do classical education.

Sure enough, the recent news about Thomas Achord seems to affirm this. Achord is the former classical school headmaster from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, who admitted last week that he was the anonymous person behind a Twitter account that featured many racist and anti-Semitic posts. He resigned two weeks ago amid the controversy that began to swirl around him.

Having visited over 50 classical Christian schools in my career, and knowing probably 100 classical school headmasters, I can assure you Achord is an outlier, and I hope the only one. His racist posts couldn’t be further from what classical education is about.

Instead, classical Christian education aims to give the best, most interesting, and most beautiful education possible to as many children as possible. It aims to teach the history of the entire world, not just a single state or country. It celebrates the heritage, literature, and contributions of all people, not just those of Americans.

Done right, classical education is not only incompatible with racism, it actively works against it.

African Americans and Classical Education

I’m honored to be the CEO of Classical Academic Press, which recently published The Black Intellectual Tradition: Reading Freedom in Classical Literature by two African American professors, Angel Adams Parham (University of Virginia) and Anika Prather (formerly at Howard University). Both know African American experience and history in the United States. Both know the classical Christian tradition (read TGC’s interview with them).

These professors have shown how traditional classical curriculum and education formed and equipped great African American leaders from Phillis Wheatley to Anna Julia Cooper to Frederick Douglass to W. E. B. Du Bois to Martin Luther King Jr.

Traditional classical curriculum and education formed and equipped great African American leaders from Phillis Wheatley to Martin Luther King Jr.

This is because the tradition of classical Christian education is at least 1,500 years old. For centuries, it has been the educational approach favored by the church and has blessed people of all kinds. Right now, there’s a resurgence among African Americans in embracing homeschooling (16 percent according to the 2020 census) and classical education as well.

Prather has started a classical school (The Living Water School) for African Americans (and everyone else) in Alexandria, Virginia. Parham has created a classical and Christian after-school program for minority students, called Nyansa Classical Community. The Spreading Hope Network, patterned after Hope Academy in Minneapolis, is starting classical Christian schools for minority communities in several cities.

There’s ample evidence historically and in our present time that classical Christian education is a human education.

International Classical Christian Education

Classical education isn’t just for Americans. The education renewal is also growing internationally.

Chinese Christians are recovering it—and at great cost, enduring persecution and oppression for doing so. The Rafiki Foundation has started 10 classical Christian schools in Africa—and hundreds, if not thousands, of existing African Christian schools are moving to adopt the classical Rafiki curriculum.

Those Christians don’t regard classical education as Western or elitist but rather as historical, traditional, and ecclesial. They note that one of the great progenitors of Christian classical education was Augustine, the fifth-century bishop from North Africa.

In fact, many Chinese Christians call it simply “the education of the church.”

Classical Education for Everyone

Is classical education elitist? Is it only for privileged, white, Western, smart people?

Classical Christian education is a human education for people of every nation, race, and tongue.

The answer is no. Classical Christian education is for all races, people, and languages. It seeks to shape all souls to love the things of God. It asks every student to aspire to excellence. It aims for every student to understand history, to read great books, to see the God-honoring beauty in math.

I believe, with those Chinese educators and with the other leaders I know in the renewal, that classical Christian education is the education of the church. It’s the formative curriculum and study of Scripture, the liberal arts, the natural sciences, and the great books of humanity. Its goal is the cultivation of wisdom, virtue, and holiness among all peoples.

And the more it does that, the less space there is for racism.

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Churchless Liturgy in ‘The Midnight Club’ https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/churchless-liturgy-midnight-club/ Thu, 08 Dec 2022 05:04:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=534910 The secular liturgy in Netflix’s ‘The Midnight Club’ fails to provide true hope for bodies doomed to decay. ]]> The horror of Mike Flanagan’s newest series isn’t a serial killer or a haunted house—it’s a diagnosis.

The main characters of The Midnight Club are eight terminally ill young adults. At midnight, the adolescents gather in the library of their hospice facility to tell scary stories. In many ways, their gathering is the opposite of a church service. The kids meet at night instead of Sunday morning. They wear pajamas instead of their Sunday best. But in a very real sense, their gatherings are a liturgy—repetitive movements and phrases that affirm and ingrain beliefs.

Before the storytelling commences, the sick kids recite, “To those before and those after. To us now and to those beyond. Seen or unseen. Here but not here.” Just as a Christian liturgy might include repeated phrases like “Thanks be to God” or “Peace be with you,” alongside ancient creeds or the Lord’s Prayer, the Midnight Club employs liturgical language to articulate its own creedal truths.

Whereas Flanagan’s 2021 Netflix series, Midnight Mass, raged against institutional Christianity as a parasitic source of evil, The Midnight Club ostensibly bypasses organized religion altogether, yet it cannot escape its own form of church-like liturgy.

Those Before and After

“To those before.” This phrase roots its reciters in the past. These teens’ lives are hopelessly ephemeral. Calling out “those before” reminds them that, while their lives are brief, they’re connected to a community that predates them. The phrase also pays respect to the previous members who passed away. Though the teens’ situation is awful, it’s not unprecedented. They find comfort that others have experienced what they’re experiencing. Most members of the Midnight Club want nothing to do with church, yet they want the historical rootedness that liturgy and tradition bring. But they need more than that. They need hope.

“And those after.” The members of the Midnight Club also invoke liturgy as an anchor to the future. The repetition of the phrase acknowledges new members who will populate the club after the current members pass away. The reciters of the liturgy take comfort that though their deaths are imminent, the group will live on. The phrase reinforces the assumption that the sick kids will keep on living, and it acknowledges that if they don’t, it’ll be OK because someone else will. Faced with the terror of the cessation of their own existence, the group finds hope in the thought that their legacy and community will live on after they’re gone.

Is It Enough?

Through liturgy, the members of the Midnight Club root themselves in the past. They also console themselves by looking to the future. These comforts are substantial. But they’re not enough.

The Midnight Club has only existed for a few decades, after all; it’s a shallow place to drop an anchor. And while their liturgy creates a comfort that sustains them at least until their next meeting, it’s powerless in the face of their imminent deaths. The hope of a pseudo-life after death through the continuation of the group is also flawed; there’s no guarantee the group will continue.

We instinctively know there is more than just our own fleeting wisp of life. There has to be. And so we search for a liturgy that helps resolve this tension.

Don’t we long for a liturgy that gives meaning to our lives, beyond whatever we accomplish in the brief time we’re alive? Don’t we need hope beyond next week and the next generation? God has set eternity in our hearts (Eccles. 3:11), yet fragility and ephemerality mark our bodies. This tension is what makes humans liturgical creatures. We instinctively know there is more than just our own fleeting wisp of life. There has to be. And so we search for a liturgy that helps resolve this tension.

The Midnight Club’s liturgy fails to provide true hope for bodies doomed to decay, but Christian liturgy does.

Saints Before and After

Though most of us don’t face the horror of a terminal diagnosis, we still feel our fleeting nature. Even if we live into old age, the psalmist compares us to grass that’s here one day and gone the next (Ps. 103:15–16). Yet our Christian liturgy reminds us we belong to a community that has existed for over 2,000 years and will exist forever.

Don’t you relish the antiquity of our faith when you sing the doxology? When you respond to a call to worship and receive a benediction, do you consider how incredible it is that generations of Christians have kept this weekly rhythm for so many unbroken centuries? When you hear “I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” followed by a wonderful, soaking splash, do you marvel at how many gallons of water Christians have used for baptisms since receiving our commission? This is the ancient rootedness the members of the Midnight Club looked for. Our historical inheritance through liturgy is a beautiful thing—and exactly the sort of temporal connectedness so many in today’s fast-paced world are seeking.

Catechisms teach us new (to us) truths. Liturgy reminds us of what we already believe. Christian liturgy reminds us we’ll go to an eternal place Jesus prepares for us even now (John 14:2–3). It also reminds us that in that place we’ll see our brothers and sisters again (1 Thess 4:13–14).

The liturgy of the Midnight Club could never make such promises. The Christian hope is not like the “hope” of The Midnight Club—that others will carry on our faith tradition after us, but we won’t be with them tangibly. No, the Christian hope is that we’ll one day be in real, tangible, eternal community with all the saints before and after us, together with Christ (1 Thess. 4:16–17).

Liturgy That Leads to Life Eternal

We are all liturgical creatures. The difference between Christians reciting creeds on Sunday morning in church and terminally ill kids reciting liturgy in the Midnight Club is that the former offers a sturdy hope that will sustain us in life and death, while the latter provides only a flimsy reassurance to get through a day. Yet in both cases, humans are intuitively seeking meaning and purpose in the face of finitude.

Christian liturgy reminds us that we belong to a community that has existed for over 2,000 years and will exist forever.

This represents a natural “bridge” for Christians to engage their secular neighbors. How is your non-Christian friend channeling her liturgical ache? What rhythms is she using to fill the meaning void? How might you draw her into the bigger, more satisfying story of Christian liturgy?

As The Midnight Club demonstrates, people all around us are looking for a hope beyond their lives. Christians should invite these people into a liturgy that truly lasts. After all, one day we’ll be reciting liturgy with angels. For ages upon ages we will say, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come” (Rev. 4:8). And it’ll never get old.

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The FAQs: Supreme Court Hears Oral Arguments in Religious Speech Case https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/faqs-supreme-court-religious-speech/ Thu, 08 Dec 2022 05:03:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=535668 The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in an important religious liberty and free speech case involving a wedding website designer who refused to use her skills to create a site for a same-sex wedding.]]> What just happened?

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in 303 Creative v. Elenis, an important free speech case that involves a wedding website designer and has important religious liberty implications.

What is the case about?

According to Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) (the law firm defending the plaintiff), Lorie Smith is an artist who runs her own design studio, 303 Creative, which specializes in graphic and website design. A Colorado law is censoring what Smith wants to say and requiring her to create designs that violate her beliefs about marriage. Although she’s willing to serve LGBT+ customers in other areas, she doesn’t believe in promoting the message of same-sex marriages.

When Smith challenged Colorado’s law, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit ruled against her, holding that Colorado can force her to create websites promoting messages that contradict her beliefs about marriage.

The defense argued that if the government can compel this type of speech it ‘can do so for any speech, whether religious or political.’

During the oral arguments, the solicitor general for Colorado argued the law targets the commercial conduct of discriminatory sales and its effect on expression is at most incidental.” On the other side, the representative for Smith argued that if the government can compel this type of speech it “can do so for any speech, whether religious or political.”

What are the legal questions being considered in this case?

The questions presented before the Supreme court are as follows:

1. Whether applying a public-accommodation law to compel an artist to speak or stay silent, contrary to the artist’s sincerely held religious beliefs, violates the Free Speech or Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment.

2. Whether a public-accommodation law that authorizes secular but not religious exemptions is generally applicable under Employment Division v. Smith (1990), and if so, whether this Court should overrule that previous ruling. (In the case of Employment Division v. Smith, the Court ruled that an individual’s religious beliefs do not excuse them from compliance with an otherwise valid law prohibiting conduct that the government is free to regulate.)

What was the reaction of the justices during the oral arguments?

Many observers of the Court’s proceeding noted that the conservative majority seems sympathetic to the arguments in favor of the web designer.

“One can view these websites—or, last time around we had cakes—as either expressing the maker’s point of view or the couple’s point of view,” said Justice Gorsuch during the oral arguments. “And that’s really at the heart of a lot of this.”

Justice Kavanaugh had a similar response, saying, “How do you characterize website designers? Are they more like the restaurants and the jewelers and the tailors, or are they more like, you know, the publishing houses and other free speech analogues?”

As Robert Barnes notes, several of the justices appeared to be “looking for ways to narrow their decision, saying both sides in the dispute agreed, for example, that not all wedding vendors should be allowed to deny service to same-sex couples.”

Why is this case important?

If this case seems familiar, it’s because the Court is being asked once again to adjudicate between LGBT+ interests and the free speech rights of religious artists. The most prominent example came in 2018. In the case of Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, the Court ruled in a favor of an expert baker and devout Christian named Jack Phillips who told a same-sex couple that he couldn’t create a custom cake for their wedding celebration because of his religious opposition to same-sex marriage.

While the ruling was an important win for religious liberty, it didn’t address the underlying issue of whether in the future Christians will be forced by the government to “bake the cake” (i.e., use their artistic talents in a way that violates their consciences). Justice Kennedy, who wrote the opinion of the majority, made it clear that “the adjudication concerned a context that may well be different going forward.”

That was a signal the problem wasn’t going away, as Justice Thomas also made clear. “Because the Court’s decision vindicates Phillips’ right to free exercise, it seems that religious liberty has lived to fight another day,” wrote Thomas. “But, in future cases, the freedom of speech could be essential to preventing Obergefell from being used to ‘stamp out every vestige of dissent’ and ‘vilify Americans who are unwilling to assent to the new orthodoxy.”’

Should the government have the power to force an LGBT+ designer to create a website promoting the Catholic Church’s beliefs about marriage? Or a Democratic artist made to design posters promoting the Republican Party?

Thomas’s claim is being tested in this case, as a decision about free speech could determine how Christians can practice our freedom of religion. But this ruling could have major implications for the freedom of expression for all artists. ADF asks whether the government should have the power to force an LGBT+ designer to create a website promoting the Catholic Church’s beliefs about marriage. Or whether a Jewish designer should be forced to create another faith’s promotional flyers because he’d design one for a synagogue? Or a Democratic artist made to design posters promoting the Republican Party?

And as David French asks in an amicus brief in favor of Smith, “If rights of conscience attach to corporations worth trillions, shouldn’t they also attach to a single artist whose alleged ‘monopoly’ is merely in the sweat of her own brow?”

When will the case be decided?

A decision is expected by the end of June 2023.

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Does Sexual Self-Gratification Glorify God? https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/does-masturbation-glorify-god/ Thu, 08 Dec 2022 05:02:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=532580 The best rubric isn’t merely ‘Does the Bible forbid it?’ but rather ‘Does the act fulfill the explicit purposes for which God created sex?’]]> With prevailing cultural narratives defining pleasure as the ultimate good, sexual activity as essential to identity, and the self as the locus of authority, it’s no surprise we encounter individuals in our local church ministries and other Christian contexts who are confused about what are good sexual desires and acts. In marital and premarital counseling contexts, questions about sexuality and the permissibility of various sexual acts recur.

Perhaps the issue that causes the greatest confusion for both single and married people centers on the permissibility or impermissibility of masturbation, by which we mean a personal sexual act for the purpose of self-pleasure, or what’s sometimes referred to as self-stimulation.

God’s Purpose for Sex

The biblical-ethical framework of sex begins with the triune God who, in his goodness, creates the good physical world. Humans, by God’s created design, are sexual beings who are commissioned to use their sexuality for the glory of God.

But humans aren’t merely sexual beings, and their identity isn’t centered on their sexual expression. Moreover, their sexual desires on this side of Genesis 3 aren’t inherently rightly ordered. The new-creation Christian joyfully lives in the freedom of Christ, led by the Spirit, pursuing the goodness of God’s design. This freedom and being led by the Spirit entails passionate pursuit of God’s good physical gifts and joy-preserving restraint from deviations from his created goodness.

Being led by the Spirit entails passionate pursuit of God’s good physical gifts and joy-preserving restraint from deviations from his created goodness.

Christians experience constant pressure from prevailing cultural narratives that argue all sexual expression, so long as it doesn’t harm another, is inherently good and that sexual expression is the foundation of one’s personhood. Christians, thinking through the ethics of sexual acts such as masturbation, are sometimes confused when cultural narratives collide with biblical ethics.

Essential Rubric

Our intent is to provide a compelling biblical and pastoral argument that the best rubric for Christian ethical decisions about sex isn’t merely “Does the Bible forbid it?” but rather “Does the act fulfill the explicit purposes for which God created sex?” When the biblical evidence is considered, we argue that masturbation is never a God-honoring act.

In contrast to those who evaluate the morality of masturbation within the context of psychology and human development, we approach the question within the framework of how God in his wisdom designed sex.

Consider three diagnostic questions and their answers.

1. How does masturbation fit within the covenantal nature of marriage?

God created sex as a means for individuals within the marriage relationship to relate to one another. Masturbation, in contrast, is an overtly nonrelational sexual act. Moreover, where sex within the marriage relationship is altruistic and other-focused, masturbation by nature focuses only on the self. Scripture repeatedly warns against having a selfish heart. Paul commands believers to “do nothing from selfish ambition” (Phil. 2:3), while James warns that the presence of selfishness in one’s heart leads to “disorder and every vile practice” (James 3:16).

With such a negative view of acting from selfish motives presented in Scripture, it’s impossible to imagine how masturbation doesn’t fall short of God’s design for marriage. Because masturbation focuses sexual desire for a self-benefit, rather than the benefit of one’s spouse, one might rightly argue it’s a form of adultery—giving to another what should only be given to one’s spouse. For these reasons, masturbation cannot fit within God’s design for covenantal marriage.

2. How does masturbation fulfill the purposes for which God created sex?

In addition, masturbation doesn’t fulfill any of the three main purposes of sex. First, masturbation obviously isn’t procreative. The inclination to legitimize masturbation is part of a larger cultural denial of the purpose of sex. Todd Wilson comments, “Our culture has separated the act of sex from the purpose of sex. We have severed the connection between sex and its power to unite lives and create life, so that now, virtually everywhere we look, sex is separated from its uniting and procreating purposes.”

Furthermore, masturbation isn’t unitive because it privatizes sexual activity that’s designed to be shared. Matthew Anderson notes the inability of masturbation to fulfill God’s good design: “Human sexuality is inherently social, and masturbation is not. In that sense, it represents a failure to fulfill the nature of Christian sexuality as God designed it.”

Finally, while it’s true that self-stimulation may bring intense physical pleasure, it doesn’t achieve moral sexual pleasure. Sexual stimulation practiced in isolation from one’s spouse was never God’s design.

3. How does masturbation relate to God’s command to be holy as he is holy?

Lastly, masturbation falls short of God’s call for believers to “be holy, for [God is] holy” (Lev. 19:2; 1 Pet. 1:16). God calls believers to be certain kinds of people—individuals formed according to the image of Jesus Christ. As we become new creations in Christ through the work of the Spirit, we reorder our disordered loves. Before our loves are completely reordered, however, we find that at times our flesh is driving our conduct.

As we become new creations in Christ through the work of the Spirit, we reorder our disordered loves.

Paul captures this idea in his letter to the church at Philippi when he describes the “enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly” (Phil. 3:18–19). Apart from Christ and the power of the gospel, people are controlled by physical desires. In contrast, there’s a repeated call for Christians to be characterized by self-control, regardless of one’s marital status: single, married, or widowed. Paul similarly exhorts his readers to be imitators of God (Eph. 5:1).

Those who attempt to make “Christian” arguments for the permissibility of masturbation do so on the grounds that it’s possible to separate masturbation from activities that are clearly prohibited, such as lust and pornography. But even if the activities are divisible, masturbation is still categorically impermissible because it runs contrary to the moral purity of God’s holy nature.

It’s impossible to imitate God’s self-giving nature while focusing solely on oneself. And in the vast majority of cases, masturbation involves lustful thoughts. Moreover, masturbation creates ungodly sexual tendencies and expectations in which a person assumes sexual fulfillment should be on demand to meet his or her own immediate needs. Consequently, masturbation also falls short of the character and holiness to which God calls everyone to walk.

For these reasons, it cannot meet any of God’s purposes for sex or for marriage, and it runs contrary to God’s moral character—so we conclude masturbation can never be a God-honoring behavior.

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Meet the Christians in Ukraine’s Humanitarian Resistance https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/christians-ukraine-humanitarian-resistance/ Thu, 08 Dec 2022 05:00:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=534866 Believers are reaching out with food, medicine, and the gospel—and finding encouragement in the faith of those they’re helping.]]> It has been 287 days since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, kicking off a war that has left villages destroyed, families separated, and more than 14,000 civilians dead or injured. Recently, Russian forces have withdrawn from the city of Kherson, a move that could represent a turning point in the war. As the residents of liberated cities greet Ukrainian soldiers, hundreds of villages lie in disarray. Help is coming through physical supplies funded by humanitarian organizations. But it’s not just food and medicine—it’s also the gospel message and worship services that are bringing Ukrainians together in the wake of tragedy.

In early September, Russian troops left Kharkiv, a city of almost 1.5 million that sits near Ukraine’s northeastern border. One of its suburbs, Korotych, was once home to more than 5,000 people. Most have fled. A local church that once welcomed 400 Christians now gathers 150.

Julia Vostriakova and Maria Taranova / Courtesy of Maria Taranova

Two of them are young university students—Maria Taranova, 24, and Julia Vostriakova, 18. Both were born in Kharkiv and have been Christians all their lives. Maria also works as a doctor at a local hospital. When Russia invaded on February 24, Maria first found out on social media like many other Ukrainians.

“We were in shock,” she said, noting how many of Korotych’s residents fled almost overnight. Julia heard the news from her parents, who had left for a different part of the region.

“In the beginning we were angry,” she said. “We just heard [about it on] the TV. When the rockets hit, we didn’t know how big they were at first.”

As the artillery started raining down on Ukrainian soil, Julia’s college classes transitioned into virtual learning as many in her village congregated in the remaining undamaged buildings. It would be the first change of many.

Bringing Food and Worship

As villages go, Korotych has suffered less than other areas of Kharkiv. “Parts of the village have been hit by only five rockets,” Julia said, noting how her best friend lived in the center of Kharkiv and was forced to evacuate. Some villages go without electricity and water for days.

Food aid / Courtesy of Julia Vostriakova

Concerned, Julia and Maria gathered with a few others from their church. Along with international workers from Romania and Germany, they started traveling to the villages. They bring food and medicine, hold worship services, and sing religious songs with the villagers. Some of these worship meetings attract hundreds—120 in Kulynychi, 160 in Staryi Saltiv, and more than 400 in Kharkiv.

In many cases, villagers are receptive to this religious element.

“When we arrived in one village, we started asking, ‘Do you believe in God?’” Maria said. One woman answered, “There is no one here who does not believe in God.” Although 78 percent of Ukrainians are considered Christians, Julia and Maria said the people they help seem to have grown more spiritually receptive since the war began nine months ago.

“People don’t say ‘Army, help us,’” said Julia. “They say ‘God help us.’”

Helping the Helpers

The aid Julia, Maria, and their fellow humanitarians provide doesn’t just come from the undamaged villages. A great deal of it comes through the work of humanitarian NGOs like the Ukraine Freedom Project (UFP). UFP founder Steven Moore was in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on February 24 when texts from friends in Ukraine began streaming in: “There’s bombs going off in Kyiv, what do we do?”

Distributing aid / Courtesy of Julia Vostriakova

Moore, a former Congressional staffer, had done research in Ukraine in 2018 and 2019. He realized it was time to go back and see what could be done. After assisting with the initial refugee swells in Kyiv and Kharkiv, Moore settled into Kharkiv in July and began helping the humanitarian efforts.

In the beginning, Moore would buy groceries from nearby stores, load them onto Sprinter vans, and drive hours to where aid was most needed, including cities like Kyiv and Bucha. As time went on, these missions turned into partnerships with NGOs. Moore’s UFP has delivered more than 200 tons of food and 25 tons of medicine to resettled Ukrainians.

“We’re not good at getting the food into the country, but we’re really good at getting it to the people in the country who need it the most,” Moore said. To coordinate aid within the country, he connected with local workers and volunteer groups. In July, Moore visited the Kharkiv church and met Julia and Maria. Soon, he was working alongside them, helping deliver food and supplies to at-risk or damaged villages.

Seeing It Through

Although Russia has exited Kherson, the danger hasn’t disappeared for Ukraine’s humanitarians. Russian missiles still strike buildings in Korotych—one landed within 500 feet of Moore’s house, and another leveled part of a local playground. Still, Moore is committed to staying.

“I’ve come this far,” he said. “I’d like to see it through.” While the movement to coordinate aid inside Ukraine is more humanitarian than religious, he makes no secret as to the source of the movement’s success. “I’ve been to 60 countries and five war zones. This is the most stark example of good vs. evil I’ve seen. The things that have happened couldn’t have happened without God guiding me.”

The playground near Moore’s home / Courtesy of Steven Moore

Even as Maria and Julia help fellow Ukrainians, the burden of the situation is an arduous one for them. “We struggle not to think of Russia, but of our own people,” Maria said. “I’m really sad. I don’t understand why all of this has happened.”

Despite this, Maria and Julia face the future with optimism, holding worship outside ruined buildings and helping to rebuild a shelled school. The building once offered language classes for almost 300 students; Maria said she still finds English and German language materials under the rubble.

“We help them as we can,” said Maria, noting how the rebuilding efforts are emblematic of the sense of hope building in Ukraine. “If we can do something, give hugs, be something that God can work through, then we know what we have to do. When the rockets come, pray.”

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What’s the Future of Evangelicalism? Let J. I. Packer Show the Way. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/future-evangelicalism-packer/ Wed, 07 Dec 2022 05:04:00 +0000 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/?post_type=article&p=533803 Packer has left us four foundation stones. Each one is biblical. Each one is often overlooked.]]> When J. I. Packer died in 2020, post-war evangelicalism was left with very few remaining representatives of its early days. He lived through three waves of evangelical ecclesiology and scholarship and also helped launch a fourth. Can his life and ministry show us the way forward?

If there’s to be a healthy next wave of evangelicalism, foundation stones will need to be set in place, or perhaps simply cleared and used again. Packer has left at least four of these stones. Each one is biblical. Each one is often overlooked.

1. Strong Family

Packer left the foundation stone of a strong family. Packer was married for 65 years to Kit. They raised three children. They made a home in Vancouver, following their sense of God’s call at a time in life when many people won’t make such a change. Having earned little money in England, they trusted God to provide in a new and expensive setting. Kit managed the household alone during Jim’s many absences. Their partnership honored God and served his people.

2. Humble Service

He modeled the foundation stone of humble service. He taught in small colleges that boasted no international scholarly reputation. Every one of those colleges needed building up or rebuilding. He and his colleagues shared a vision of evangelical theology, formation of shepherds for God’s people, and high-quality scholarly and popular writing. Many of his colleagues are remembered but most are not. Packer’s willingness to serve in such places and in such ways shows a commitment to doing what he believed God asked, no matter the circumstances.

3. Faithful Writing

Packer wrote the books and articles that came his way. He didn’t calculate, scheme, or dream about what was “strategic” for his career or “the evangelical cause.” Rather, he stressed sound theology and its pastoral implications. He wrote because he believed God had extended to him a “call to authorship.” While he eventually had a favorable teaching load, he still wrote in odd hours taken from sleep and companionship. Packer knew his writing wasn’t ultimately his own. The same was true of his sales. He once told me that he understood that the extraordinary sales numbers of Knowing God were a once-in-a-lifetime gift from God.

Packer knew his writing wasn’t ultimately his own.

4. Broad Relationships

He imitated the English Reformers he admired. He believed that they planted seeds of renewal that he ought to cultivate. William Tyndale translated the Bible into English. Thomas Cranmer, Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley, and others left the Book of Common Prayer and the Book of Homilies. Packer wanted to be like them, and he was. Moreover, he tried to develop fellowship with liberal Anglicans, a wide swath of Protestants, and Roman Catholics, and he accepted the heat that came with trying to rebuild these long-broken relationships.

Building on the Past to Reach the Future

Evangelicalism’s first wave (1944–54) proved that the seeds of a renewed evangelicalism don’t lie in achieving large numbers, building impressive institutions, controlling perceived centers of influence, or holding political power. They don’t lie in book sales, internet notoriety, prestigious speaking engagements, or new educational delivery systems. Some of these things have their place, but they aren’t primary.

Evangelicalism’s second (1954–79) and third (1979–99) waves showed that renewal lies in the seeds of absolute commitment to Christ the Lord, to the Word of God, to the people of God, to the ministry of God, for the glory of God and the benefit of those created in God’s image. It lies in a life of worship with others that forms people for service of God and others.

Renewal lies in a life of worship with others that forms people for service of God and others.

Evangelicalism’s fourth wave (1999–2020) demonstrated there can be faithful work done amid circumstances that should humble evangelicalism.

Commitment to the Bible and to sound