Thinking Out Loud

January 15, 2022

Skye Jethani on Pastors Creating “Mini Me” Parishioners

Over the years, dinnertime conversations at our house have had a recurring theme. When pastors do a series of teachings on discovering and using your spiritual gifts, the conclusion is often self-serving, inasmuch as the deployment of those gifts always involves serving the church’s own agenda, its own programs, and activities limited to its own physical building.

So the end appeal is, ‘Volunteer for our church clean-up day, volunteer to teach Sunday School, sing in our choir.’ Sadly, we’ve also known people who stepped up to the plate, only to be rejected in the particular area of service where they felt they could help.

In a recent Twitter thread, Skye Jethani (author of the three What if Jesus Was Serious books) pushes this one degree further. He suggests that the pastor has a vision and calling on his life, and thinks that everyone else should have that same vision and calling, forgetting that God has planted them within their own context, consisting of a unique neighborhood, extended family, workplace (or school), and network of friends.

by Skye Jethani

posted to Twitter by @SkyeJethani on 1.14.22 [link] in response to an article at Christianity Today on 1.13.22 [link]

I have so many thoughts about this. It bugs me beyond words when I hear church leaders say people are “apathetic.” No they’re not! The people rightly care more about their own callings and too many pastors want them to care more about the pastor’s calling.

A pastor’s effort should not be to convince more people to give more time and treasure to the pastor’s ministry activity. It should be to shepherd people to live with God in the places and vocations he’s called them to in the world.

The problem isn’t that people are apathetic about what church leaders are called to do. It’s that church leaders are too often apathetic about what God has called his people to do Monday thru Saturday. Get outside the church, pastor. Genuinely seek to understand the lives and vocations of your people. Seek to equip them for the works of service they are called to in the world (Ephesians 4:12). It will transform you and your people and you’ll discover they are not suffering from apathy; it’s pastors who are suffering from myopia.

Few will admit it, but too many pastors believe their calling matters more than others’. I know, I was a pastor and I had this same delusional arrogance. I tried to convince non-pastors to abandon their callings in order to do more activities that looked like my calling all in the name of “mission” or “purpose” or “significance.” But I gave little thought to the value of what God had called them to do 40+ hours each week. And I had little vision for the true scope of God’s redemption of “all things” (1 Corinthians 15). I ministered as if God only cared about the institutional church. I preached “In the beginning, God created the heavens and earth” but I pastored as if “God then retired into full-time ministry.” If this is the vision church leaders have, it’s no wonder we give so little energy to what happens beyond the church.

It wasn’t always this way. In the past, most pastors spent the week outside the church ministering to the sheep where they were—homes, hospitals, fields, factories, prisons and schools.

Today, we’ve reversed that. Pastors stay inside the church and people must come to them for care. This professionalization of pastoring means few pastors really know what life looks like for their people outside church walls. Few know the dignity and difficulty of vocations of their sheep and therefore few know how to truly minister and equip them.

What they see are passive, tired people on Sunday morning reluctant to sign up for yet another commitment or another church program and interpret this as “apathy.” It’s not apathy. It’s exhaustion. And rather than alleviating this burden, too many churches make it worse. Rather than offering rest for the sheep, too many churches want to extract more work from them in order to validate the pastor’s calling by growing the church or expanding its influence.

Pastor, spend one year outside your office with the sheep and then tell me if they’re “apathetic.” If you still think so, I’ll repent.


Skye Jethani is the author of several books including Futureville, With, and Immeasurable; is the co-host of the Phil Vischer podcast; and is the creator of the With God daily devotional.

December 29, 2021

The Philip Yancey I Never Knew

This was not the book I was expecting. It was also the book I almost set aside without finishing. Where the Light Fell: A Memoir (Convergent Books, 2021) is the sometimes gut-wrenching story of the early life of one of today’s most popular Christian authors. It is not a pretty story.

Raised in an ultra-conservative Bible Belt family by a single mother, it’s a story of hardship on every level. Having read nearly half of Yancey’s two dozen books, I thought I knew some of the backstory, but nothing prepared for me for these revelations.

After reading the first forty pages just before turning out the lights for the evening, I set the book down and that night, sleep just didn’t come. It would be a week before I would pick up my copy and continue, and with some of the worst of the timeline behind me, I more eagerly continued to the end.

But the end was not what I expected. I knew of Yancey’s work with Campus Life magazine and co-editing The Student Bible, and co-authoring three books with leprosy doctor Paul Brand. But only two of those three surface for a fleeting mention toward the end. The focus here is on earlier times; younger days.

I’m sure he would agree with me that the memoir is a story of family dynamics, and from the outset it appears that the mother-son relationship will dominate. However, in later chapters — and this isn’t really a spoiler — it becomes more about the relationship with his brother Marshall Yancey, and the contrast between two boys who share so many things in common at the beginning, and then arriving at entirely opposite places. In a different world, it might be Marshall’s autobiography people were reading.

Over the years I’ve introduced dozens of people to the writing of Philip Yancey. If pressed, I often say that the draw for me is that as journalist and not a pastor, I am struck by the way he wrestles with scripture and theology.

Now I understand why. I understand why it’s necessary, why it’s imperative for him to fully work out anything he’s going espouse in print. He places a high value on raw honesty and transparency. He’s not always interested in providing the right answers as he is in the process it takes to arrive there. Only then will the answers suffice.

Living one country removed from the U.S., there’s so much of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s America that never touched my own experience. Still, our family’s yearly car trips to Florida meant driving through the southern states, and particularly in the years before the interstate highway system was completed, there were snapshots in the book — especially those portraying extreme poverty — that brought flashbacks to things I’d seen from the backseat of my parents’ car.

The guest speakers at Yancey’s summer camp were not entirely unfamiliar names, and the names of the Christian magazines his mother subscribed to also resonated. But my contact was fleeting whereas he was immersed in that milieu, and it had repercussions on every choice with which he was confronted and how he and his brother saw the world.

For those for whom this is a foreign experience, the book is a necessary tool for processing Evangelical history in the post-war, mid-20th century. No wonder that on book tours, he had said, “I truly believe this is the one book I was put on earth to write.”

It was on such a book tour years ago that I got to meet my favorite writer. I shook his hand and thanked him for all that his books have meant. He had just released What Good Is God? and the publicist had handed me a complimentary copy and I waited until all the purchasers of the book had left and then asked him if he would autograph mine. Being last in line, if I had known things about him that I now know, I might have extended our conversation by a few extra minutes discussing the Christian world which I got to see from a bit of a distance, and that he lived in every waking moment.

I also find now, I’m longing for a part two. How that upbringing shaped those experiences working for a mainstream Evangelical magazine like Campus Life or a publisher like Zondervan, with whom his books were released. Perhaps part two consists of re-reading some of those classics — What’s So Amazing About Grace, or The Jesus I Never Knew or even Soul Survivor — through the lens of what’s been revealed here in Where the Light Fell.

For those familiar with Philip Yancey’s previous works, this is a must-read. For those who have completed other recent books which deal with the history of Evangelical Protestantism in the United States in the past century, again a must-read.

Just be prepared to recognize this as the story not just of one person, but of a mother and two sons, because that’s the essence of what you’ll find.


Thanks to Martin Smith of Parasource, Canadian distributor for Convergent for providing a chance to read this when I’d given up hope of getting a review copy!

December 8, 2021

Jesus Taught 12 Students for 3 Years: What Was the Curriculum?

Filed under: Christianity — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 9:24 am

This drawing first appeared at my devotional blog, C201, a year-and-a-half ago. I find it amusing looking back that the related article I wrote specifically mentions Matthias and Justus, the two nominees to replace Judas after the betrayal, but in the drawing it’s Matthias and “?.” (There’s a pun here somewhere about how sometimes there’s just no Justus.)

The two were mentioned toward the end of the article as an example of people who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus was living among us beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. (Acts 1: 21b – 22a) in order to show that while “the twelve” were the “official” disciples, there were others such as the siblings Mary, Martha and Lazarus; Mary the mother of Jesus, two other Marys (a popular name; they must have been Catholic) and people like Nicodemus who appears at both the beginning and end of John’s Gospel, and John Mark, who might have been too young to be counted at the outset but is definitely part of the inner circle in the Garden of Gethsemane.

When I say, “official” disciples, I realize some are confused by the use of the term “the twelve apostles” and then there is the matter that we are all, today, disciples. And if we want to throw out numbers, let’s not forget the 72 (or as some prefer, 70) who Jesus sent out two-by-two. Casual adherents and visitors wouldn’t have been allowed on that missions trip.

The point of all this is to bring us to this verse:

Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written. – John 21:25 NIV

Want an example?

In Luke 24:13-35, we have the story of Jesus appearing to Clopas and the other unnamed person on the road to Emmaus. The crucifixion has left them shattered, and they describe their sadness to Jesus and then Jesus responds.

And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself. – v27

Of all the “other things” that John was referring to, most people I know would give their eye teeth to have a transcription of that small group discussion. The entire, big-picture story-arc of the Bible as taught by Jesus himself. Nobody knew it was happening, but for a brief span of time, it was the hottest ticket in town.

So how does this connect with “the twelve?”

The thing that separates those young men from the additional disciples is a rabbinical relationship between teacher and student. He was their rabbi, and for three years they followed him (literally, as he was itinerant, always on the move) as he did whatever might be expected of a rabbi, plus a few extras that probably weren’t.

So what was on the curriculum? What was in the syllabus?

I haven’t seen much written about this, but I would expect there would be teaching on ethics, on philosophy, on Israel’s history, and perhaps even a lecture or two about dealing with pesky parishioners or doing fundraising to support their ministry. Things that rabbis taught their pupils, necessary for advancement on the day they themselves became teachers, plus some of whatever elements would distinguish one rabbi’s teaching from another.

The point is, we don’t know.

Most of what we see and hear of his teaching happened in a public setting, leaving us with enough in terms of the “red letter” quotable quotes to advance the kingdom and change the world; but also leave us hungering for more, such as Clopas and the other person got to hear while walking from Emmaus.

At the site BibleRef.com, the point is made that because of the writing style in John, this observation about the volume of unrecorded actions and teachings of Jesus, is the only time the writer uses the pronoun, “I.”

Throughout the gospel of John, there have been overtly anonymous references to a particular disciple (John 1:37; 13:23; 18:15–16; 19:26; 21:23). The prior verse seems to confirm this person is John, the author of the entire work (John 21:24). John may have used a secretary to write down his words as he spoke, partly explaining why this writing ends with a specific claim to authorship. There appears to be an additional stamp of approval, possibly from a local church, attached to that statement as well.

Here, the “signature” concludes with the gospel of John’s only explicit use of a first-person perspective. It’s not entirely clear if this is still John speaking, or if this continues the note of approval which began with the phrase “and we know…” from the prior verse. Either way, it makes the point that Jesus’ earthly ministry could not be fully detailed in a single book. Further, to explain or understand those words would require immense effort. The existence of Bible commentaries—such as this very ministry—which are many times longer than the text itself is further proof of this.

Apparently John himself (or if you prefer, the writer of the Gospel of John*) is most emphatic on this; grammatically, it’s the crescendo in what has been, after all, a first-person account.

As Knowing-Jesus.com states,

John only related a fraction of the inexhaustible fullness of all Christ did during His 33 years on earth, which was spent going about doing good. He humbled Himself and only did those things He heard from His Father in heaven and He worked the works of God, through the mighty power of the indwelling Holy Spirit.

…John’s gospel only touches on the fringe of inexhaustible fullness of all that Jesus did – for words are insufficient to capture the infinite riches of His unparalled life.

The site Heartlight.org sums up the passage well:

Jesus did many great deeds when he was here. He also is continuing to do those great deeds through his people and for the people of the world. But even though the world could not contain a book that recorded all the good things that Jesus did, Jesus did walk on our planet, look up at our stars, and face our mortal frailties so we could see God. Why? Three reasons are especially important to John:

  1. Jesus loves us, as does his Father.
  2. We need Jesus’ love, mercy, grace, example, message, and truth.
  3. The Father wanted Jesus to come and reveal himself to us.

We don’t know every single word that was spoken by Jesus on this earth, but we’re given enough that, if we can process and assimilate that, we can indeed transform our world.


Some of the teaching of Jesus that we do have recorded were indeed asides to the twelve. The public, including seekers, scribes and spiritual leaders were not present. But most of what we read is part of what is termed his “public ministry.”

If you want to delve further into Christ’s teaching, The Gospel of Matthew is your best bet, containing five (count ’em, five) of Christ’s discourses. Much attention is given to the first one, which we call The Sermon on the Mount, but if you want to read what we covered at C201 a year ago about the others, here are the links:

The Teachings of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew: Mission

The Teachings of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew: Parables

The Teachings of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew: The Church

The Teachings of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew: End Times


* I included this phrase as a concession to those who believe and teach that the Gospels weren’t necessarily authored by the person whose name they bear. I’m all for advances in research and textual criticism, but the phrase, “the writer of the Gospel of John” is just an awkward sentence construction.


Warning: Speculation as to what all is contained in the things that Jesus may have said or done which are not recorded is a dangerous pursuit. To say it differently, this is how cults get started. We have enough solid content from the common canon of scripture without having to elaborate or focus on things which are pure conjecture.

December 4, 2021

Rachel Held Evans’ Wholehearted Faith

Filed under: Christianity — Tags: , , , , , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 1:55 pm

There might have been moments as you’ve read this pages when you’ve felt frustration and even despair, because it has seemed as if I am asking you to do more, try something different, think in a way you’ve never thought before… (pp 173-4)

Fifty years from now, all things being equal, I can envision a world where the words of Rachel Held Evans are being studied, long after the works of many of today’s popular authors are no longer considered. In the face of criticism for her approach to Christian belief, she was always gracious, and to those for whom her writing fully resonated, it was as though she sparked an entire movement.

Wholehearted Faith (HarperOne, 2021, no subtitle) is in part the next book Rachel Held Evans was working on before her untimely death in 2019, and excerpts from her blog posts. That being said, I was expecting a rather disjointed collection of chapters, but honestly I have to confess I didn’t know where the book manuscript ended and the other material began. Her writing is just … so her.

Some of that continuity is owing to longtime friend Jeff Chu, also pictured, who assembled the final manuscript.

Sometimes in reviewing a book, unless you make notes, your final impressions are tied to later chapters, not unlike the situation where your most vivid memories of a loved one are those final days of old age and not the vitality of their youth. That’s how I was impacted when, toward the end of the book (pp 163-6) there is a detailed description of Rachel taking the hate mail she received electronically, printing out the worst of it, and then folding those printed pages into origami “swans and then sailboats, flowers and then foxes.”

You have to either laugh or cry as you read that.

Earlier in the chapter (p 159) she remembers her own words posted to Twitter on hearing of the death of Osama bin Laden; “Trying to keep in mind that how I respond to the death of my enemies says as much about me as it does about my enemies.” Forget the adage about lemons and lemonade; when the world seems full of hate, you make paper “birds and ships, flowers and kites.”

But why would anyone send Rachel hate mail?

I suppose there is simply something unsettling about someone who challenges our conventional lenses for looking at spiritual life; who states truths without falling back on the familiar words and phrases that have become clichés.

Or if they openly wrestle with doubts and misgivings.

…Most people live with some uncertainty in life, even with — especially with — complex religious and moral questions. Indeed, as I began writing about my experiences on my blog and in my books, a whole community of kindred spirits emerged. Many of them felt as lonely in their questioning as I at times have. They expressed through their letters, emails, and social media posts the affirmation that every spiritual wanderer and religious misfit deeply craves — that I was not alone in this. (p 37)

Later she writes that

…certainty isn’t faith. And faith is marked by the humility to let yourself question — which is not a shortcoming but an acknowledgement of one’s humanity. (p 56)

And that simply, is where some of the hate mail possibly originated. Many people in our churches simply crave a doctrinal system of belief that dots every ‘i’ and crosses every ‘t’ and ties a bow together on top. A faith that leaves no room for mystery; that doesn’t allow that, as Paul said in his famous ‘love chapter,’ presently “we see in part.”

But Rachel knew that need for theological tidiness all too well from personal experience.

This system was comforting in the way that math can be comforting, or the perfect creases, or a row of books neatly arranged. The quintessence of Enlightenment rationalism, the system had its own tidy, self-reinforcing, seemingly airtight and therefore undoubtedly divinely inspired logic. (p 70)

This up-ending of the theological apple cart will definitely produce some unfriendly mail, but the consideration of other possibilities is also what drew a greater number of people to Rachel’s writing and later conferences she helped organize.

She then modeled for her readers a more grace-filled approach to responding to the people who are theologically different.

After Christ’s departure, the first apostles allowed themselves to be changed by the goodness they encountered in the world. When law-abiding, kosher-eating, Roman -hating Peter encountered a centurion who feared God and gave to the poor, Peter, to his own astonishment, said, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.” Then Peter even went so far as to share a meal, as Jesus might have, with his new friend. “You are well aware that it is against are law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile,” he said to Cornelius. “But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean.” (p 115)

As Jesus might have. Indeed.

If Peter had been closed to such God-shaped possibilities, we wouldn’t have Acts chapter 10. Early on in the book she allows for the possibility of cultivating a faith which occasionally, like the GPS on your car when you’ve turned two blocks too soon simply says, “Recalculating.” Those are my words, but I think Rachel would concur. Her description is,

…But like so many things, faith is best held with an open hand, nurtured by both boundaries and improvisation, tradition and innovation. What a gift my parents gave my sister and me in their blessing of holy exploration. (p 38)

concluding that

…as she [Anne Lamott] had chronicled the meanderings of the heart as well as anyone, and as she famously puts it, “The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.”

When I read that I found it reassuring. If uncertainty is a marker of faith, then I must be pretty darn faithful… (p 40)

She adds,

I believe not in spite of all my questions but because of them. I believe not in spite of all the theological points that I undoubtedly have gotten wrong — and the ones I’ve gotten right — but because of them. I believe not in spite of my sins but because of them, just as I am — and just as all those saints and sinners who came before me. (p 47)

This is a long review, and I’ve excerpted far more quotations than reviewers are usually permitted, but I wanted you to get of taste of why Rachel’s words are so enduring and so transformational for so many. She’s all-in. Wholeheartedly.


Thanks again to Mark at HarperCollins Christian Publications Canada (HCCP) for the opportunity to read and own a copy of Wholehearted Faith.

 

November 29, 2021

Mixed Ministry Motives

This material appeared this weekend at Christianity 201 as a two-part article. The content has been combined here to a single article.

Last week, tongue-in-cheek, I posted two mis-quoted passages on social media:

Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds … to be seen on Instagram. Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

and

And He said to them, ‘Why did you seek Me? Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s branding?’

As one gets older, it becomes more apparent when people are doing ministry for the purpose of promoting themselves and their church or organization. The blurred ministry motives become so blatantly obvious, that you have to ask yourself why the people are not more spiritually self-aware to realize the pride which drives much of their activity is staring them in the face.

First, let’s look at the verses as they actually appear:

And He said to them, “Why is it that you were looking for Me? Did you not know that I had to be in My Father’s house?” – Luke 2:49 NASB

The context is the short snapshot we have of Jesus at 12-years of age when he gets separated from his parents. They retrace their route and find him back “in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.” vs. 45

The phrase in vs. 49 that Jesus is “being about my Father’s business is unique to the KJV. We’ve never discussed it here before, but the phrase ‘kingdom business’ gets used to describe all manner of church activity (and busy-ness), but it’s important to notice that Jesus was discussing theology, not planning a building program, or starting an organization, or discussing a stewardship campaign.

Our satirical ‘my Father’s branding‘ is seen so frequently these days. It’s about lifting up the name and tag line of a single congregation or organization, not the name of Jesus who ought to be the central focus of the worldwide church referenced in The Apostle’s Creed.  (‘Catholic’ in that context meaning universal.)

The other verse alluded to is

“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. – Matthew 6:1 NIV

which is echoed a few verses later:

“When you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites who love to pray publicly on street corners and in the synagogues where everyone can see them. I tell you the truth, that is all the reward they will ever get. – 6:16 NLT

Practicing good works to be seen on Instagram is more common than you might think. It’s all about optics.

Back in 2014, I looked at this writing

I Samuel 16 offers us a verse we know but tend not to practice:

7bI do not judge as people judge. They look at the outward appearance, but I look at the heart.

The Louis Segund translation renders it this way:

…l’homme regarde à ce qui frappe les yeux, mais l’Éternel regarde au coeur.

In English, it would read that man looks at what “strikes the eyes;” in other words first impressions and superficial indicators.

Creating Instragram moments in ministry is more commonplace than you might think. Perhaps in some small way it can be justified in that it models or encourages others to think about their own Christian service or lack thereof.

But it’s often a thing in and of itself.

And therefore it’s not about Jesus.

The last part of Matt. 6:5 reads,

I assure you and most solemnly say to you, they [already] have their reward in full. – AMP

This self-promotion mentality goes all the way back to Babel.

Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” – Genesis 11:14

They wanted to make a name for themselves; “…This will make us famous…” (NLT) This is so backward and the polar opposite to the upside-down kingdom of Christ which is characterized by humility. Philippians 2: 3 begins

Don’t do anything for selfish purposes…

Four times at Thinking Out Loud, you’ll find this quotation which we heard in a sermon and it has stuck with us.

“There is no limit on what can be done for God, as long as it doesn’t matter who is getting the earthly credit.”

If that’s true, then if a church or organization is always consciously aware of building their own brand, logically, there are going to be limits on what they will be able to accomplish…

…The next “Evangelical obsession” I want to touch on quickly here is a preoccupation with numbers.

Earlier this week we listened to a podcast where a pastor was clearly boasting about all that his church has accomplished in the last several years and it came out in phrases (which I’ve altered slightly here) like,

  • We have 150 people serving in this department of our ministry
  • We’ve prayed for a thousand people in this area alone
  • We want to be a church of 12,000 people

The numbers I’ve changed, but the substance was real. It was about building a brand, promoting a book, and, inevitably, hosting a conference.

Sadly, it somewhat undermined the good things he shared. Let me clear on that, there were some excellent takeaways that I will remember, but I’ll also remember the attitude and how reminiscent it was of another pastor we’ve been examining on another podcast who eventually crashed spectacularly.

Instead, we should be looking at partnerships where we work in cooperation with other ministries to build the Kingdom.

The one who plants and the one who waters work together with the same purpose. And both will be rewarded for their own hard work. – 1 Cor. 3:8 NLT

The passage that comes to mind here is one where John expresses concern to Jesus that a group that is outside their circle of disciples is ministering in the name of Jesus. Mark chapter 9 (CEB) reads,

38 John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone throwing demons out in your name, and we tried to stop him because he wasn’t following us.”

39 Jesus replied, “Don’t stop him. No one who does powerful acts in my name can quickly turn around and curse me. 40 Whoever isn’t against us is for us. 41 I assure you that whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will certainly be rewarded.

I once heard someone’s unique interpretation of the “mark” in Revelation represented by “666.” They said the mark was simply numbers. It was an interesting take, and one that fits our data-driven society.

We in the church can indeed be easily obsessed with likes, website stats, church growth, average attendance, yearly budgets, numbers of people baptized.

Numerics are simply not the name of the game.

Later, I felt there were a few more things that could be said about pursuing church growth at all costs, and doing ministry for the sake of having good optics online. This verse definitely should have been part of the discussion:

Proverbs 16:2

All a person’s ways seem pure to them,
but motives are weighed by the Lord. (NIV)

Because we just spent time in this verse two years ago in a piece titled Motivation Matters, I don’t want to spend a lot of time except to note that God is concerned with the why we do things as much as the what we do.

The apostle Paul saw this happening even back in his day. In Philippians 1 he wrote,

15 It’s true that some are preaching out of jealousy and rivalry. But others preach about Christ with pure motives. 16 They preach because they love me, for they know I have been appointed to defend the Good News. 17 Those others do not have pure motives as they preach about Christ. They preach with selfish ambition, not sincerely, intending to make my chains more painful to me. 18 But that doesn’t matter. Whether their motives are false or genuine, the message about Christ is being preached either way, so I rejoice. And I will continue to rejoice.

I think this is an important passage in our time because ministries do compete with each other, so let’s visit the same verses in The Message:

15-18 It’s true that some here preach Christ because with me out of the way, they think they’ll step right into the spotlight. But the others do it with the best heart in the world. One group is motivated by pure love, knowing that I am here defending the Message, wanting to help. The others, now that I’m out of the picture, are merely greedy, hoping to get something out of it for themselves. Their motives are bad. They see me as their competition, and so the worse it goes for me, the better—they think—for them. So how am I to respond? I’ve decided that I really don’t care about their motives, whether mixed, bad, or indifferent. Every time one of them opens his mouth, Christ is proclaimed, so I just cheer them on!

Paul was able to see the good that could come out of such proclamation, even when the motives were suspect. The grace he shows in this situation is remarkable. In I Cor. 4:4-5 he again says,

My conscience is clear, but that doesn’t prove I’m right. It is the Lord himself who will examine me and decide.  So don’t make judgments about anyone ahead of time—before the Lord returns. For he will bring our darkest secrets to light and will reveal our private motives. Then God will give to each one whatever praise is due. (NLT)

The last two sentences suggest that are reward will be based on the motives which drove our activities. (Someone has quipped, ‘There will be a lot of surprises in heaven,’ for reasons such as this.)

Although I don’t have a copy, earlier in the year I was intrigued by this book title: Rooting for Rivals: How Collaboration and Generosity Increase the Impact of Leaders, Charities, and Churches (Bethany House, 2018).

When the church growth movement is analyzed, it’s said that much of the growth that takes place is transfer growth, in other words, people moving from one church to another. (This isn’t always true of fresh church plants however, in which genuine overall growth can be measured.) Transfer growth means that church leaders are competing for the same people, the same bodies if I can use that term.

But rivalry can also get to the point of bad-mouthing another organization without justification. The blurb for the book says,

Faith-based organizations are sometimes known for what we’re against—and all too often that includes being against each other. But amid growing distrust of religious institutions, Christ-centered nonprofits have a unique opportunity to link arms and collectively pursue a calling higher than any one organization’s agenda.

In today’s polarized world this comes as no surprise…

…Although I’ve looked at our opening verse many times, it was only today that I caught that it’s repeated at 21:2. Taking one last look, I noticed something at BibleHub.com that I’d also not seen before, the inclusion of the Brenton Septuagint Translation. Its rendering of 21:2 is:

Every man seems to himself righteous; but the Lord directs the hearts.

We can genuinely deceive ourselves sometimes or decide that the end justifies the means. But God’s concern is always deeper.

November 27, 2021

Boldly Going Where No Baptist Has Gone Before

Filed under: Christianity — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 12:11 pm

by Ruth Wilkinson

Some churches seem to specialize in “ministries” that make for good Instagram posts. I mostly don’t.

What I love best about my job (after teaching) is the conversations I get to have with people, which for sooooo many reasons don’t get Instagrammed. Partly because it’s none of your business. Partly because they’re real-life unscripted conversations, with friends old and new. Partly because sometimes I’m reminded of the fact that I don’t know everything.

This week, tho…

Our church building stands on the corner of a little street in a small town. Up the block is another heritage building that has been home to many retail and service businesses over the years. The most recent, as of September, is a family owned endeavour featuring reiki, tarot, crystals, and smudging supplies. They host workshops, do readings and provide massages.

I’m Baptist.

So…

Of course…

Every time I walked past the windows for the last month, I felt the Holy Spirit say, “Go in and say hi.”

Just that.

It took me a while (I’m a socio-phobic introvert and the Holy Spirit thinks he’s funny) but this week I popped in. I’m so glad I did. Because I think I made a friend.

I introduced myself (“I work at the church on the corner, and I don’t know anything about crystals”) and the beautiful woman whose passion and dream this store is took time to explain them to me. She talked about the energy that resides in the earth and how crystals harness and carry those energies. How tarot connects people to their chosen sources of wisdom, like angels or ancestors. We talked about our faiths–hers and mine–and where they are the same and where different. She talked about growing up Catholic, and later discovering the “holistic” nature of where hope and healing can be found. I described my faith as being more specific.

Then (and, seriously, this never happens. Ever. Want to end a conversation? Tell people you work at a church) she asked me what it’s like to work at the church. I told her how much I love my job, and tried to explain what Evangelicals shorthand as “worship leading.” About choosing songs for us to sing together, about asking God what it is about these songs that we should pay attention to, and about introducing them to the congregation with thoughts on why we are singing them and why it matters.

She beamed a huge smile at me, clapped her hands and said, “You channel! I was going to say that, and now I see why. You channel!”

I sort of wish I had a picture of my face at that moment. It would have been an expression of combined defensiveness, surprise, and revelation. Oh. My. Word.

Baptists don’t channel. Channeling is ‘new age.’ Right?

It took a split-second for the penny to drop. For me to remember that, every time I lead worship, I silently pray, “Sing through me.”

Channeling the Holy Spirit? How could I not want to do that? How could I possibly think that’s a bad idea? To be so connected to the Comforter, the Counselor, the Advocate, the Wisdom of God that his power flows through me without my even having to try. How amazing would that be? So in the end, I was smiling, too.

Life as a Christ-follower in Canada these days is life as a minority. Long gone is Christendom (good riddance, I say) and we have to do the work of knowing what we believe and why. Of being able to explain it without using Evangelical code. Of hearing, actually listening, to the people around us and to the Spirit. Of being willing to be surprised in wonderful ways.

As I was leaving that morning, she said that next time, if the store’s not busy, maybe we could have a tea or a coffee. Turns out we’re both coffee people. So I’m looking forward to that. Conversation, surprise, chewing the metaphysical fat.

Instagram be darned.

 

November 23, 2021

The Gideons in Canada Charts Its Own Course

Organization is now officially ShareWord Global

For ten years now, the ministry organization formerly known as The Gideons has been on a path to carve out its own identity; one separate from its U.S. counterpart. Recently, they completed that process with the official change to a new brand identity: ShareWord Global.

Recently, the Guelph, Ontario (about 45 minutes west of Toronto) based ministry celebrated the changes with a publication bearing a timeline of the changes which make it unrecognizable from its shape and form a decade ago. It’s an amazing tribute to innovative thinking, and how a Christian organization can reinvent itself to meet current needs and the challenges of a new century.

There were too many high points in that timeline to list them all, and I considered simply listing some in bullet point form to avoid a TL:DR situation, but I really wanted to embellish some, and therefore offer the list which follows. This is my own take, and it’s subjective, but the changes are all good, and having a positive story like this to share is something we need right now.

International Missions – In 2011, while the ministry was celebrating its 100th anniversary, the Canadian branch adopted changes further distinguishing it from the U.S. parent, under the name The Gideons International in Canada. At the same time it was busy forming ministry partnerships and that year sent its first international team to Peru.

New Living Translation (NLT) – Gideon print runs of the Bible were using the New American Standard Bible (NASB) when the decision was made to switch over to the NLT as the default scripture text.

Full Participation of Women – Up to 2012, in a situation analogous to the Roman Catholic Church where only a man can be priest, only a man could be a Gideon. The women served as part of an “auxiliary.” That changed.

Biblezines – While publisher Thomas Nelson had pioneered the format previously with a dozen different publications which were half magazine, half Bible; The Gideons in Canada updated the concept in 2012 with the release of Hope and the next year Redemption. With scripture portions paired with beautiful photography, and a full text copy of John’s gospel in the back, these had broad appeal, but were especially targeted for use in hospitals, prisons. In 2014, Light would follow.

Digital Bible – Ultimately, 2012 would prove to be a pivotal year, as it was also this year that saw the launch of the NewLife Bible smart phone Bible app, made available for free download. (In the picture at the top, from 2014, the app is represented by the pocket cards for giveaway to introduce the app to friends.)

ShareWord – In 2015, what would become the organization’s sole brand name was introduced, with both identities being used simultaneously. (The situation was similar at Wycliffe Bible Translators, with the addition of the OneBook brand; one division denoting the various translation projects; the other the support of the missionaries doing the actual work.)

Outreach to Children – In 2017, Spark, another smaller-format Biblezine was introduced. By this point, Spark included, the Biblezines were translated or being translated into multiple languages.

Expansion of Worldwide Ministry – Although we began our list with International Partnerships, it’s worth saying twice; by 2019 publications were being placed in Ukraine, China, Zambia, India, Kenya and countries in the Middle East. More recent inroads have been made in Cuba and Chile. (Pictured below are Spanish resources.)

Name Change – In the Fall of 2021, The Gideons International in Canada (TGiC) ceased as an operating name, and the ministry was fully branded as ShareWord Global.

At the outset, I stated that this is a positive story. If the organization was locked in to its original paradigm — such as handing out New Testaments to Grade 5 students, or placing Bibles in motel nightstands — it could have walked away defeated as it found itself shut out of schools or sharing (or pushed out of) hotel drawers by The Qur’an or The Book of Mormon.

Instead, some rather forward-thinking leaders decided to take the original goals and apply them the way the original founders, over a century ago, would apply them in our day.

At times like this I’m reminded of a sidebar in Acts 13 which references King David, “after David had done the will of God in his own generation…” (36a NLT) or “David had served God’s purpose in his own generation…” (NIV). While the Great Commission has never changed, the means by which is carried out will be chronologically and contextually specific to those times.

This is a great example of an organization understanding that and applying it.

This article was written independently of ShareWord Global and without their input. All these glowing reviews are entirely my own! Canadian readers: With year-end giving in view for tax purposes, consider a one time or (as we do) a monthly gift to ShareWord Global.

November 20, 2021

Building a Personal Christian Library

This material was written for another audience, but although it may seem rather basic, deserves sharing here as well…

A Library for Christian Growth

The internet is great … for some things. But have you ever wished you could pick up an actual book and see the information you want displayed in a different form?

Lots of people do. Print books — both in general and in the Christian marketplace in particular — have had a strong year. Print is making a serious comeback. But if you wanted to have a shelf containing the best of the best, where would you start?  Here are some ideas:

The Bible – Everyone reading this should have a text copy of the Bible in their home.

A Study Bible – While no single study edition will tell you everything you want to know about every Bible passage, one good one will at least get you started in the right direction and demonstrate the depth of what’s available to learn when you’re prepared to dig a little deeper.

Concordance – People still ask for these, but honestly, this is one area where I think Christian publishers and booksellers are prepared to concede a point to computers. They’re fast and they’re geared to whichever translation is your favourite. Furthermore, stores no longer sell Bible software as much, as the online equivalents — such as BibleGateway.com are free!

Bible Handbook – This is a book which has one chapter for each of the 66 core Biblical books, presented in the same order. It’s an overview of all the major people, places and activities in the Bible’s big-picture narrative.

Reader’s Version – This is a more recent product genre which can eliminate the need for a Bible handbook (though not entirely.) It presents the Bible as one continuous story without books, chapters and verses. The best-known is The Story which uses either NIV or NKJV text.

One Volume Commentary – This is like a Bible handbook on steroids. It gets you into verse-by-verse explanations and connects you with other related passages. Always hardcover, and about the size of the New York City Telephone Directory, circa 1980.

Individual Commentary – Got a particular book of the Bible you’d like to explore in great depth? For lay-people (non-academics or people not in vocational ministry) there are a number of series worth checking out including the Tyndale Commentary series (IVP), The Bible Speaks Today series (IVP), The Life Application series (Tyndale) and the Daily Study Bible series (William Barclay, John Knox Press). (For pastors and scholars we also keep two books on the shelf describing the best academic titles in detail.)

Bible Atlas – I can remember as a kid not having much interest in those maps of Paul’s missionary journeys or the location of the ten tribes of Israel, but now I see the need for these to a greater degree.

Bible Dictionary – Usually a larger hardcover book, Bible dictionaries let you look up words that are in the Bible and tells you what they mean. Obvious, maybe, but remember you won’t find the word trinity inside because it’s not a Biblical word.

Theological Dictionary – For those who want to have an entry for trinity and don’t mind missing out on the entries in a Bible dictionary. Not as popular. If you want to keep going down this road, there are also Philosophical Dictionaries and Dictionaries of Religion.

Devotional – At a certain point a lot of the study books listed here become all about information whereas the spiritual formation process should be all about transformation. Dictionaries and study Bibles provide all the head knowledge you need, but the message of Jesus is also meant to touch hearts.

Book of Customs in Biblical Times – I’ve added this toward the bottom because I see it is used in the chart (below) I wanted to include. However, these now take many different forms as people grow increasingly interested in the overall situation (politically, culturally, and in the understanding of key words and phrases) during the life and ministry of Jesus, in a category called “Hebraic Roots.”

Biographies – Every Christian should at some point read about the life of William and Catherine Booth, founders of The Salvation Army. Then there are 20th Century people like Corrie Ten Boom (The Hiding Place), Nicky Cruz and David Wilkerson (The Cross and the Switchblade), Don Richardson (Peace Child); but also older stories of people like Johann Sebastian Bach, John Wesley, Dorothy Sayers, or William Wilberforce.

Christian Living – Finally, here at the bottom of the list, is the catch-all category that Christian publishers use to describe the general books by today’s top authors as well as some classic writers. This list is already longer than I intended, but in the future we’ll recommend some key authors and books which should be part of your library.

Footnote: In the article, I made a very general statement about Study Bibles. Please note that in the case of the Life Application Study Bible (available in five different translations) the approach is quite different. Application notes are more devotional, and whereas a typical study Bible takes us into Bible times to understand context and meaning, the Life Application approach brings the Bible into our times and helps us apply it to our modern context and challenges.

The image at the top is from NavPress, a Christian publisher. I believe the lower image was created by Thomas Nelson, another Christian publisher.

November 3, 2021

Jesus as History’s Ultimate Person of Interest

Filed under: Christianity — Tags: , , , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:41 am

Book Review: Person of Interest by J. Warner Wallace.

This is the fourth time it’s been my privilege to review one of J. Warner Wallace’s books, and while each one makes a compelling case for Christianity, I would propose that the set of four, taken together, provides an almost irrefutable, undeniable case for Jesus being all he claimed to be.

As in his previous titles, the skills of Wallace’s work as a cold case detective provide a motif for the spiritual issues under discussion. This time around it’s a single case: the disappearance and probable murder of a woman named Tammy. In this situation, a body was never located, which makes it the most difficult type of cold case to investigate.

This time around however, on the other side of the analogy is the author’s own faith journey, from atheist to believer. The very personal aspect of this makes it very similar to Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ.

In Person of Interest: Why Jesus Still Matters in a World That Rejects the Bible (Zondervan, 2021) Wallace explains that there are two critical sets of factors at play in a potential murder investigation, and in a critical look at the life of Christ.

He sorts these things using the imagery of a bomb exploding. The first type of these factors includes noteworthy things leading up to the “event,” which he calls the fuse. Then, everything that happens after, he terms the fallout. A longer fuse and  greater fallout lead more clearly to the establishing of a person of interest.

What therefore sets this book apart from other apologetic resources is the emphasis on the particular time and place in history that Jesus occupied, and the spinoff effects including influences in diverse things like art, architecture, literature, sculpture, etc.

Included on the fallout side is the thorny issue of the capital-C Church’s relationship with science, and the influence Christianity has had on other religions, including religions which were founded before the birth of Jesus. It’s a courageous, outside-the-box perspective, and while one might argue that the reverberations from Christ’s life aren’t any more significant than the cultural echoes from, for example, The Beatles, added together, his documentation of such effects make Person of Interest a unique resource.

The book is also peppered with the usual illustrations provided by the author himself which are a hallmark of all of his titles. It does make for faster reading, especially if you process things visually. Some of these however are a bit repetitive, and most require a visit to the website to view more clearly, as the reproduction in the book is rather fuzzy. Several of the footnotes — 54 pages of them in a 312 page paperback — direct the reader to examine these images in detail online, along with selected case notes.

Wallace paints with broad strokes and a few times, I thought the finished work could have been tightened up a little. In the section on architecture he stated that the early followers of Jesus “lacked financial patronage,” (p131) but in fact, this was exactly Theophilus’ role in underwriting the research for the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts.

In a section concerned with the early church’s role in fostering education, he mentioned The Didache and referred to it having a “question and answer” format (p160) when in fact it does not follow that catechism method. These are things I’m willing to overlook, however.

I’m not sure that I would use Person of Interest as an initial reading suggestion for someone interested in Christian believe — though a week from now I might do that with one particular person I am meeting — but as a supplement to Wallace’s first book, Cold Case Christianity, it would prove to be a good complementary resource.

A free preview excerpt of Person of Interest, consisting of the introduction and first chapter is available at this link.

If you appreciate the study of Christian apologetics and already own a handful of resources, consider this. I guarantee you don’t have anything like it in your library.

October 11, 2021

Review: Searching for Enough by Tyler Staton

Filed under: Christianity — Tags: , , , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:01 am

Thomas didn’t really show up until page 149.

Despite being tipped off on page 10 as to the overall direction of the book Searching for Enough: The High-Wire Walk Between Doubt and Faith, I was expecting him earlier because the apostle Thomas is the centerpiece of Tyler Staton’s signature sermon.

I’ve heard him preach it all the way through twice, and almost three times to different audiences, and I’ve continued to be captivated by his teaching style. I was introduced to him though Bridgetown, on a Sunday that John Mark Comer was away, and tracked down some sermons to Oaks Church Brooklyn in the heart of New York.

If you preach at Bridgetown it means you’ve done your homework. The teaching part of the service runs the better part of an hour, and during that time you’d better have something to say, including the necessary research and an equal balance of references to things academic and scholarly, and the stuff of everyday life.

In the past few weeks, Tyler Staton formally took the teaching reins at Bridgetown, moving his family from one side of the country to another, as John Mark Comer moves on to some new projects.

At the time the book was completed New York City was very much in his blood. That city is a mix of all types of people, each carrying all manner of stories and so is Tyler. He has no problem finding connection points with his audience through references to the basic challenges of life; the challenges we face in our search for enough.

John Mark wrote the foreword to Searching for Enough, including the advice to read slowly. At this point I’m thankful to have finished the book — and the review — in the same year the book was written. There’s a lot of rich content here, and as I considered some brief words here, I found myself back at the beginning and drawn into the story all over again.

This is very much a look at the life of Jesus, and especially the final week — what we call the passion week — when “all four accounts slow way down;” and merge, falling into “perfect harmony with one another, suddenly documenting each precise detail when they had been a sweeping survey up to that point.”

And then, post-resurrection, Thomas, aka Didymus (the twin) comes into view. The book dares us to see Thomas as our twin, and recognize that his doubts are not that far from removed from where we often find ourselves; along with anecdotes from the lives of people similar to us, and those who walk a very different road.

Searching for Enough passes my personal litmus test for what a book on the Christian life should be. It’s one I would recommend reading, but is especially good when paired with some background familiarity with Tyler’s teaching style as found on video at YouTube, Oaks Church and Bridgetown.

Available in paperback from Zondervan wherever you buy quality books. Thanks to Mark H. at HarperCollins Christian Products.


Read an excerpt from Searching for Enough at this link.

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