Leading the Church in a Polarized Era

Yesterday, I published an essay on InfluenceMagazine.com entitled, “Leading the Church in a Polarized Era.” Here is the introduction:

Regardless of who wins the presidential election on November 8, you can be sure of one thing: Half of America will be disappointed with, if not outraged by, the results. In nearly 30 years of voting, I have never seen the electorate so polarized about candidates and issues. It has been said that war is the continuation of politics by other means. This year, reversing the terms of that statement seems truer: Politics is the continuation of war by other means.

I mention this not because I want to talk about politics per se but because I want to talk about leading a church in the current political environment. It would be naïve to think that we can avoid polarization entirely. After all, even Jesus said, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34). Sometimes, controversy is unavoidable.

By the same token, however, it would be presumptuous to think that we are always right in any given controversy. After all, when Jesus said, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns” (Matthew 16:23), He was speaking to neither the devil nor the Pharisees. He was speaking to Peter, His own disciple, chief among the Apostles. Sometimes, we meet the enemy only to discover that it is us.

So, as ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ, how do we lead our congregations—neither naively nor presumptuously—in this era of American polarization? Let me suggest that we need to pay attention to four things…

Read the whole thing at InfluenceMagazine.com.

Review of ‘The Art of Inspiration’ by Justina Chen

the-art-of-inspirationJustina Chen, The Art of Inspiration: Lead Your Best Story (Seattle, WA: Sparkline Creative, 2016).

Every year, I try to read the Bible through from cover to cover. Even though I’m a minister, I find that it’s not an easy task. I often get lost among the “Thou shalt nots” and “So-and-so begats” and “Woe is mes.” Perhaps you’ve had the same experience as a Bible reader.

What keeps me going when I get bogged down are the stories. Turn any page in the Bible and you’ll come across a well-told story. Some of the stories are historical, while others are proverbs, psalms, or parables. Some have to do with individuals, while others talk about groups. If you pay careful attention, you’ll notice that these little stories make up one big Story about God’s enduring love for the people He created, who have fallen, and whom He longs to save.

Given the prominent role stories play in the Bible, it’s a wonder that church leaders don’t make more effective use of stories. It’s not just that many sermons are made up of three to five dry, abstract propositions. It’s also that church leaders fail to inspire followers by giving them a narrative vision of where the community has been, where it’s going, and how to get there.

Which brings me to The Art of Inspiration by Justina Chen. Chen is an award-winning novelist, story strategist, and corporate communications advisor. She’s consulted for companies as diverse as Microsoft and the Mayo Clinic. In this book, she shows business leaders how to become the chief inspiration officers for the people they lead. Not surprisingly, given her background, inspiration requires leaders to tell good stories.

Specifically, leaders must learn to tell three stories. The “Heritage & Quest” story connects followers to their organization’s past and vision for the future. The “Defining Moment” story requires leaders to be authentic about themselves so that others can understand what makes the leaders tick and why they’re worth following. And the “One Big Idea” story communicates leaders’ unique visions, the thought-leadership they provide to their organizations.

As leaders tell these three stories, they need to make effective use of the tools in the storyteller’s toolkit: intentionality, voice, metaphor, wordplay, and a “magical object,” which is basically a thing or symbol that encapsulates an organization’s uniqueness.

Though The Art of Inspiration is written for business leaders, I found myself repeatedly thinking, Pastors need to know (and practice) this too! We Americans live in a period of time when increasing numbers of people find Christianity not so much false as passé and irrelevant. We can complain about the insidious role of education or the media or Hollywood play in telling falsehoods about the faith. Or we can tell a better story that attracts people and inspires them to put their faith in Jesus Christ.

I’ll close this review with the epigraph that begins the book: “Tell good stories; they have magic to stir people’s blood. Lead your best story, aim high in hope and heart.” Amen to that!

P.S. If you found this review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon review page.

P.P.S. This review is cross-posted at InfluenceMagazine.com.


Review of ‘What Does the Bible Say About Suffering?’ by Brian Han Gregg

what-does-the-bible-say-about-sufferingBrian Han Gregg, What Does the Bible Say About Suffering? (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2016).

“Suffering is one of the great universals of human life,” Brian Han Gregg writes in What Does the Bible Say About Suffering? For the Christian, the experience of suffering poses a difficult theological question: “Why has my God, who is both wholly good and completely powerful, allowed this to unfold?” To answer that question, Gregg turns to the Bible and outlines its response.

Or perhaps I should say responses (plural), for Gregg argues that “there is no single way forward,” as far as the Bible is concerned. Instead, it includes “a number of different responses to the problem of suffering, and we do ourselves and the Bible a great disservice by adopting a one-size-fits-all approach.” He compares the “biblical witness” to a “talented choir” that sings in a “complex harmony.”

According to the Bible,

  1. “[S]uffering may be punishment from God” (e.g., Deuteronomy 30:15–20).
  2. It may result “from the sinful choices of others” (e.g., Genesis 4:1–8).
  3. Regardless, “God’s redemptive power is stronger than the suffering that afflicts us” (Genesis 45:4–8).
  4. Suffering can be “the work of Satan…to cause [us] to fall away from Jesus” (Luke 22:31–34).
  5. Sometimes, we must humbly accept “the mystery of suffering,” which is beyond our power to comprehend (Job 40:8–14).
  6. Often, suffering takes place “within the context of God’s redemptive purposes” (Romans 8:18–25).
  7. Other times, it plays “an important role in our spiritual growth and development” (Hebrews 12:1–13).
  8. On occasion, God himself uses suffering “to test our faith” (Exodus 17:1–7).
  9. On other occasions, we experience “the power of God’s new life” only when “we embrace suffering in solidarity with Christ in his death” (2 Corinthians 4:7–12).
  10. At all times, “God is our comfort in the midst of suffering” (2 Corinthians 1:3–7).
  11. “We are invited to join [Christ] in emptying ourselves for the sake of others so that we might also share in his glory” (Philippians 2:5–11).
  12. Our suffering participates in “God’s own suffering as it unfolds in the already and not yet” of the kingdom of God (Colossians 1:24).

When we realize the “complex harmony” of the Bible’s message about suffering, we shy away from simplistic answers about suffering. For example, sin—whether ours or someone else’s—is sometimes the cause of our suffering (answers 1 and 2), but not always (answer 5). The temptation Satan uses to trip us up (answer 4) can be the test God uses to build us up (answer 8). The number of different responses to suffering requires that we use discernment when counseling the sufferer, lest we misdiagnose the cause of their suffering and prescribe the wrong treatment for it.

While these twelve responses differ among themselves, they have this in common: “Each…draws us back to God,” Gregg writes. “Together they encourage us to seek him in the midst of our suffering so that hope may be reborn.”

What Does the Bible Says About Suffering? is a short-but-wise book. Pastors will find it useful in their preaching and counseling ministries. Similarly, small groups and book clubs will find that it generates helpful conversations about the church’s response to suffering. I highly recommend it.

P.S. If you found this review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

P.P.S. This review was cross-posted at InfluenceMagazine.com.

Review of ‘Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?’ (revised edition) by John Fea

was-america-founded-as-a-christian-nation-revised-editionJohn Fea, Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? A Historical Introduction, rev. ed. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2016).

Few questions in American politics generate as much controversy as the relationship between church and state. On one side are Christian nationalists who contend that the nation was founded on religious principles. On the other side are secularists who argue it was founded on Enlightenment principles. The controversy between them is evident, most obviously, in the seemingly endless First Amendment cases brought before our nation’s courts to determine whether that amendment’s “establishment” and/or “free exercise” clauses have been violated. But behind the evident legal controversy lies the latent historical controversy, in which the same contending parties dispute the facts and significance of the Founding Era.

Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? by John Fea is an excellent introduction to that question and should be read by both Christian nationalists and secularists alike, for it corrects the historical errors both sides commit and draws a balanced portrait of the role religion did (and did not) play in the American Founding.

In the Introduction to the book, Fea—an evangelical historian at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania—explains why the question the title of his book asks is so controversial, namely, because both sides to the controversy are seeking a “usable past” to buttress their side in contemporary political debates. Historians, he goes on to argue, should avoid such present-mindedness and seek to understand the past on its own, often complex terms.

Fea then unfolds his argument in three parts:

Part One examines the history of the idea of Christian nationalism from the ratification of the Constitution (1789) to the present day. Chapter 1 examines the dominance of evangelical Christianity in America from 1789 to the end of the Civil War. Chapter 2 surveys the different concepts of Christian nationalism at play in post-bellum society until the Scopes Monkey Trial (1925). Chapter 3 continues the story until 1980, focusing especially on how Christian nationalism affected mainline Protestantism, American Catholicism, Cold War religious unity, the Civil Rights Movement, and the emerging Religious Right. Chapter 4 looks closely at that last group, noting the resurgence of conservative, evangelical Christian nationalism since 1980.

Part Two answers a question: “Was the American Revolution a Christian event?” Chapter 5 shows that both Virginia and Massachusetts colonies were explicitly, legally, and institutionally Christian communities with established churches, but that the nature of their establishments varied widely and their actual practice often fell well short of Christian ethical norms (as, for example, the practice of African slavery and ill treatment of the aboriginal populations). Chapter 6 argues that the intellectual underpinnings of and justifications for the American Revolution were based more on secular Enlightenment ideas than biblical principles. Chapter 7 extends this argument by showing how pro-revolution clergy often read those Enlightenment ideas into their preaching of the Bible, rather than deriving their preachments from biblical principles.

Chapters 8, 9, and 10 examine the form of religion that influenced the Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, and Constitution, respectively, and note the controversies over religious freedom that gripped the colonies during these years. The God of the Declaration (“nature’s God”) is ambivalent, capable of being recognized by both Christians and Enlightenment theists alike. (For an excellent study of the common theological ground between these two groups during the Founding, see God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution by Thomas S. Kidd.) The Articles of Confederation left the establishment or disestablishment of religion in state hands, with Massachusetts retaining its established Congregationalism (until 1833) and Virginia disestablishing its Anglicanism through the yeoman efforts of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, against the contrary efforts of Christian nationalists such as Patrick Henry. Regarding the Constitution, Fea notes the irony that leading Christian nationalists—such as Patrick Henry, again—were anti-Federalists in the ratification debates precisely because the Constitution did not acknowledge the nation’s Christian heritage. And he concludes by discussing what Jefferson’s “wall of separation” did and did not mean at the time.

Part Three investigates the religious beliefs of George Washington (Chapter 11), John Adams (Chapter 12), Thomas Jefferson (Chapter 13), Benjamin Franklin (Chapter 14), and John Witherspoon, John Jay, and Samuel Adams (Chapter 15). Of these, only the last three can be considered “orthodox” in Christian doctrine and practice. Fea describes Washington as a latitudinarian Anglican more interested in religion’s social utility than in Christian doctrine or practice. Adams is a “devout Unitarian,” Jefferson a “follower of Jesus” who separated the supernatural husk from the moral kernel of Jesus’ life and teaching, and Franklin as an “ambitious moralist.” They disagreed on doctrine but agreed on one thing: “religion was necessary in order to sustain and ordered and virtuous republic” (a point which Kidd also argues in God of Liberty).

I highly recommend Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? to all readers, but especially to those interested in the debates surrounding the role of religion in our nation’s history and the contentious issues of church-state separation. It is clearly organized, well written, thorough in its research, and judicious in its conclusions. It will—or should!—complexify the simplistic historical interpretations of both Christian nationalists and their secularist opponents. Such complexification, I hope, will tamp down the fires of contention and lead to greater cooperation as both religious and secular Americans see their stake in our collaborative national experiment.

The revised edition of Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? features a new cover, corrects mistakes in the previous edition, updates the bibliographies at the end of each section, and includes an Epilogue that discusses new developments since the 2011 publication of the first edition. Otherwise, the text is the same as the first edition.


P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

P.P.S. Check out my Influence Podcast with John Fea on the book.

P.P.S. This review is cross-posted at InfluenceMagazine.com.

Review of ‘Growing Young’ by Kara Powell, Jake Mulder, and Brad Griffin

growing-youngKara Powell, Jake Mulder, and Brad Griffin, Growing Young: 6 Essential Strategies to Help Young People Discover and Love Your Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2016).

“Multiple studies highlight that 40 to 50 percent of youth group seniors—like the young people in your church—drift from God and the faith community after they graduate from high school.”

Kara Powell, Jake Mulder, and Brad Griffin cite this statistic at the outset of their new book, Growing Young. The statistic alarmed me both because I am a minister concerned about trends that affect the church and also because I am a father concerned about the faith journeys of my own children. If you share my concerns, I encourage you to read this book, which outlines “6 essential strategies to help young people discover and love your church,” as the book’s subtitle puts it.

Those strategies emerged out of an intensive four-year research project led by Powell, Mulder, and Griffin under the auspices of the Fuller Youth Institute in Pasadena, California. The authors all work for FYI. If you’re interested in research methodology, make sure to read the Appendix.

What the research did not reveal was as interesting to me as what it did reveal. In the first chapter, the authors briefly outline “10 Qualities Your Church Doesn’t Need in Order to Grow Young.” That list includes:

  1. A precise size
  2. A trendy location or region
  3. An exact age
  4. A popular denomination…or lack of denomination
  5. An off-the-charts cool quotient
  6. A big, modern building
  7. A big budget
  8. A “contemporary” worship service
  9. A watered-down teaching style
  10. A hyper-entertaining ministry program

Some churches effectively engaging young people had these ten qualities, others didn’t. In other words, they weren’t necessary or sufficient for engaging young people.

So, what did the research reveal? It showed that churches that are “growing young” make six “core commitments”:

  1. Unlock keychain leadership. Instead of centralizing authority, empower others—especially young people.
  2. Empathize with today’s young people. Instead of judging or criticizing, step into the shoes of this generation.
  3. Take Jesus’ message seriously. Instead of asserting formulaic gospel claims, welcome young people into a Jesus-centered way of life.
  4. Fuel a warm community. Instead of focusing on cool worship or programs, aim for warm peer and intergenerational friendships.
  5. Prioritize young people (and families) everywhere. Instead of giving lip service to how much young people matter, look for creative ways to tangibly support, resource, and involve them in all facets of your congregation.
  6. Be the best neighbors. Instead of condemning the world outside your walls, enable young people to neighbor well locally and globally.

As a middle-aged man with three young children at home, I felt especially challenged by the second and third commitments.

Empathize with today’s young people. All people—me included—struggle with questions of identity (“Who am I?”), belonging (“Where do I fit?”), and purpose (“What difference do I make?”). But for a variety of reasons, today’s young people wrestle with these questions earlier, longer, and more intensely than previous generations. Churches who effectively engage today’s young people don’t make fun of or get exasperated with their struggles. Neither do they alleviate the wrestling with fluff or entertainment. Instead, they empathetically listen and respond with “grace, love, and mission.”

Take Jesus’ message seriously. The authors note that sociologists of religion have “identified the de facto religious belief system of teenagers today as moralistic therapeutic deism.” Basically, many of today’s young people think that God exists (deism) and wants people to be nice (moralistic) and happy (therapeutic). Beyond that, God isn’t much involved with or concerned about people. Unfortunately, many churches reinforce moralistic therapeutic deism by reducing Christianity to a behavioral code.

By contrast, churches that are growing young are making three key shifts:

  1. Less talk about abstract beliefs and more talk about Jesus.
  2. Less tied to formulas and more focused on a redemptive narrative.
  3. Less about heaven later and more about life here and now.

This doesn’t mean that growing-young churches have ditched abstractions, formulas, or heaven, by the way. However, their emphasis is on who Christ is, what He has done for us, and how He wants us to act now in light of that. This is a biblically rooted, orthodox, and active faith.

As I read these chapters in particular, I kept asking myself: Do I empathize with young people in my church? With my own kids? Am I taking Jesus’ message seriously myself? Is this reflected in how I interact with young people in my church? With my own kids? When you read Growing Young, you may be challenged by a different set of the core commitments. I have highlighted the two that challenged me in order to give you a taste of how the details the authors provide for each commitment.

So, who should read Growing Young? Frankly, whoever cares about young people—clergy or laity, paid staff or volunteer, young or old. I’d especially encourage senior pastors to read it, however. They’re a church’s primary vision caster, mission bearer, and values leader. Engaging young people today can’t be delegated (or relegated) to the junior high, high school, college, and young adults ministries. Growing young must become part of the church’s culture.

P.S. If you found this review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

P.P.S. You might also want to check out my Influence Podcast with Kara Powell. We talk in greater depth about the book.

Review of ‘Does God Love Everyone?’ by Jerry L. Walls

CASCADE_TemplateJerry L. Walls, Does God Love Everyone? The Heart of What Is Wrong with Calvinism (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2016). 

The past two decades have witnessed a resurgence of Calvinism among American evangelicals. This resurgence is especially evident within the Southern Baptist Convention, which historically has been and still is divided over the issue. However, it has also made its presence felt in Pentecostal denominations such as the Assemblies of God, which do not have historic ties to Calvinism.

By Calvinism, I mean specifically the doctrine of salvation that is commonly explained by means of the acronym, TULIP:

  • T = Total depravity
  • U = Unconditional election
  • L = Limited atonement
  • I = Irresistible grace
  • P = Perseverance of the saints

In the seventeenth century, Jacob Arminius—a Dutch Reformed theologian—set forth a different understanding of salvation that has been called Arminianism after him. It is sometimes explained by means of the acronym, FACTS:

  • F = Freed by grace to believe
  • A = Atonement for all
  • C = Conditional election
  • T = Total depravity
  • S = Security in Christ

In Does God Love Everyone? Jerry L. Walls—an evangelical philosopher—outlines an argument against Calvinism and for Arminianism. Its strength is that it focuses on the central point of the disagreement between them. Walls writes:

The deepest issue that divides Arminians and Calvinists is not the sovereignty of God, predestination, or the authority of the Bible. The deepest difference pertains to how we understand the character of God. Is God good in the sense that he deeply and sincerely loves all people?

According to Walls, the answer of Arminianism is “Yes.” The answer of Calvinism is “No.” As Calvinist author Arthur W. Pink put it in The Sovereignty of God: “When we say that God is sovereign in the exercise of His love, we mean that He loves whom he chooses. God does not love everybody…” Walls argues that Pink’s statement is characteristic of Calvinism, even if it’s stated with a bluntness uncharacteristic of most Calvinists.

To see why this is so, consider the argument Walls makes:

  1. God truly loves all persons.
  2. Not all persons will be saved.
  3. Truly to love someone is to desire their well-being and to promote their true flourishing as much as you properly can.
  4. The well-being and true flourishing of all persons is to be found in a right relationship with God, a saving relationship in which we love and obey him.
  5. God could give all persons “irresistible grace” and thereby determine all persons to freely accept a right relationship with himself and be saved.
  6. Therefore, all persons will be saved.

Clearly, this set of propositions contains a contradiction between 2 and 6. Both Calvinists and Arminians affirm 2, however. They’re not universalists, in other words. Similarly, both affirm 4.

So, how do they resolve the contradiction? Arminians do so by denying 5. They deny, in other words, that grace is irresistible.

Irresistible grace is part and parcel of Calvinism, however. It’s the I in TULIP. That means Calvinists must deny either 1 or 3. That is, they must deny either that “God truly loves all persons” or that “Truly to love someone is to desire their well-being and to promote their true flourishing as much as you properly can.” As noted above, Arthur W. Pink clearly denied 1. (Walls quotes Calvin himself to similar effect.)

Contemporary Calvinists rarely deny 1, however. Instead, they affirm that God truly loves all persons. For example, D. A. Carson affirms that God loves everyone in the sense that He exercises “providential love over all that he has made” and adopts a “salvific stance toward his fallen world.” However, Carson denies that God gives everyone the “particular, effective, selecting love toward his elect.” It’s hard to square this “love” for “all persons” with the definition of love in 3. A God who could but chooses not to bestow “particular, effective, selecting love” on everyone does not “truly” love them because He does not seek their eternal “well-being” and “true flourishing.”

Walls suggests one further wrinkle when he discusses John Piper, probably the best known Baptist Calvinist. Walls argues that Piper denies 5, not by ditching “irresistible grace” but by suggesting that God has a “greater value” than salvation. Such as what? Piper writes, “The answer the Reformed give is that the greater value is the manifestation of the full range of God’s glory in wrath and mercy (Rom. 9:21–23) and the humbling of man so he enjoys giving all credit to God for his salvation (1 Cor. 1:29).” Because of this “greater value,” it seems that Piper denies God “could give all persons ‘irresistible grace’ [to be saved].” Some evidently must be condemned for God’s glory.

In order to maintain God’s sovereignty in election then, or to promote God’s glory, Calvinism denies that God loves everyone in the truest sense. Like Walls, I find this denial difficult to swallow. A god who can save all but chooses not to is not the God whom the Bible reveals, a God who is love (1 John 4:8).

Walls’ book is a brief outline of a much larger argument. Those looking for a more detailed argument should pick up his Why I Am Not a Calvinist, coauthored with Joseph R. Dingell. But that argument, even in outline form here, is difficult to rebut, as far as I am concerned.

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

P.P.S. This review is cross-posted at InfluenceMagazine.com.

What I’m Reading Today

American Views on Terrorism: 15 Years after 9/11

“When asked how likely they think they would be the victim of a terrorist attack, most Americans believe they are either “not really” (52%) or “not at all likely” (20%) to be victims. However, almost a quarter believe it is “somewhat likely” (23%). This is a relatively large number…”

‘Consensus Statement’ to Force MDs to Kill/Abort

With Wesley J. Smith, I’m flabbergasted by a recent bioethicists’ statement that suggests physicians should not be given a conscientious exemption from participating in euthanasia and abortion, where those practices are legal.

Massachusetts: Churches may be covered by transgender discrimination bans, as to ‘secular events’

When it comes to banning discrimination against transgender persons, Eugene Volokh points out “where these rules are headed.” Hint: Some church events will be treated as public accommodations.

Free Webinar Links Pornography and Sex Trafficking

“The Religious Alliance Against Pornography (RAAP) and guest presenter, Dr. Sandie Morgan, will host a free webinar at 12 p.m. (EDT) Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2016, and 9 p.m. (EDT) Thursday, Sept. 22, 2016, to present the link between pornography and sex trafficking. Designed to empower faith communities to integrate strategic action plans to educate and protect children and families, Morgan will take an in-depth look at the fantasies of pornography that drive purchasers and lure victims into sex trafficking.”

Choosing a New Church or House of Worship

What do Americans look for when searching for a new church? According to latest report from the Pew Forum: “Americans look first and foremost for a place where they like the preaching and the tone set by the congregation’s leaders.” That’s news you can use.

The New Stealth Translation: ESV

Scot McKnight detects unwarranted complementarian-friendly translation in the new ESV Permanent Text Edition (2016).

Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church Ranked America’s Largest Megachurch With 52,000 Weekly Attendance

And it’s not the only megachurch that’s gotten mega-er. There’s a downside, however: “With the rapid growth of megachurches in the United States, a negative relationship between size and frequency of attendance could serve to accelerate aggregate declines in attendance,” according to Socius, the journal of the American Sociological Association.

The Secret Jews of The Hobbit

Meir Soloveichik argues, “The dwarves of Middle Earth, the central characters of one of the most beloved books of all time, are indeed based on the Jews.”

Inside the World’s Only Surviving Tattoo Shop For Medieval Pilgrims

I don’t have any tattoos (and don’t really want one anyway), but that 300-year-old stencil of St. George killing the dragon is pretty cool…

The Vatican unseen: inside the secret world of the workers – a photo essay

Because even the floors of St. Peter’s Basilica need an occasional waxing…