Fleshing out the gospel

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A terribly puzzled look swept across the faces of those who had just heard me spill the title of our upcoming teaching series. “Fleshing—not flushing—out the gospel,” I emphasized in case they missed it. I thought it would help. But, they were confused nonetheless.

“Fleshing out” was meant in a figurative sense. Just as we might flesh out a deep doctrine of Scripture, like the mysterious nature of God’s unity or the marginless end of God’s sovereignty, we must also flesh out the wondrous realities of the gospel. It’s not an option for believers. It’s necessary.

My father used to say to me, “Boy, you need to put some meat on dem bones” (best if slurred in a Cajun tongue). It was his way of telling me that I needed to eat. I needed substance. I was too lean.

Christians today are looking more lean than ever. But it is not because we lack the spiritual protein needed for strong faith. Scripture is a mealhouse of necessities and useful for godly growth (2 Tim. 3:16). Rather, it is because we’ve lost sight of who the gospel is what the gospel does.

When we flesh out the gospel, we put meat on dem bones, body to skeleton, substance to form, content to outline, mass to framework. It means to pack on, add to, fill up, increase, deepen, compound, reinforce. It is the process of feeding on the gospel in order to fill your soul and mind with the things of God.

Why the gospel? Why not marriage tips, parenting points, or business advice?

The gospel—contrary to popular belief—is more than an evangelistic message. It is the single thread woven into the fabric of Scripture that binds it all together. It is the main message—the foremoremost focus—of the Bible.

The New Testament writers affirm this. To them, the gospel included all revealed truth about Christ (cf: Rom. 1:1-6; 1 Cor. 15:3-11) and covered all aspects of salvation—from conversion to glorification. Since Christ is all over Scripture (Lk. 24:27), then all of Scripture contains the gospel. When you preach the gospel, you preach Christ—God’s living Word (Jn. 1:14).

Why else would Paul be so eager to “preach the gospel” to a community of Christians (Rom. 1:15)? To preach the gospel is to preach the Word. Hearing and learning the gospel brings biblical vision and changes us from the inside outward. In doing so, all aspects of our life are affected—even the mundane.

This is why we must flesh out the gospel. It helps us see Christ and see like Christ.

It Helps us See Christ

Since the gospel includes all revealed truth about Christ, then a deeper understanding of the gospel brings about a deeper understanding of Christ. He is the manifestation of the gospel (2 Tim. 1:9), and there is no gospel without Jesus. If the gospel is the main message of Scripture, Jesus is the main subject of the gospel. The two are inseparable.

When we put meat on dem bones and add substance to our understanding of the gospel, we see more clearly the subject of the gospel. We see more comprehensibly the flesh of God—the incarnate Word, the living Gospel—Jesus Christ. In other words, to sink ourselves into the depths of the gospel is to submerge ourselves in the person and work of Jesus Christ. The gospel helps us see Christ.

It Helps us See Like Christ

Additionally, the gospel transforms our mind (Rom. 12:2). It brings to us renewed vision so that we might see through the lens of Christ. He is our corrective eyewear. He helps us observe ourselves and the world with godly perspective. The more we douse ourselves in the Word of God, the more we are able to see as Christ sees.

Such perspective enables us to live holy lives before His holy gaze. This is what He had in mind while praying that we be “sanctified in the truth,” acknowledging Scripture as truth (Jn. 17:17). The gospel helps us see like Christ.

Conclusion

Just as the body becomes frail when deprived of food, the soul becomes frail when deprived of the gospel. Conversely, a soul who has probed the depths of the gospel is a soul who has been immersed in Jesus. It is a soul of tender mercies and courageous faithfulness—a soul solidified and shaped by Christ Himself. Fleshing out the gospel isn’t optional for followers of Jesus Christ. It’s necessary.


Jacob Abshire is the author of Forgiveness: A Commentary on Philemon and Faith: A Commentary on James, and co-founder of Resolute Creative. You can find him online at jacobabshire.com and follow him on Twitter @aliasbdi. Photo via Lightstock.

Beyond measuring the inseam (a theology of fashion, part 2)

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Hopefully I was able to convince some yesterday that fashion can be an expression of God-given creativity. That if you are someone like me who just plain loves clothes, that’s okay. Creativity in dress and an appreciation for aesthetic beauty are God-given. But the Bible also has a lot of warnings surrounding our clothing.

Many of the topics have been exhaustively discussed. (Cough, cough, modesty.) But here are a few points to consider, beyond the length of the inseam of a pair of shorts.

In our love of clothes, don’t neglect the poor. Isaiah 3 has some fightin’ words for the haughty women of Zion. The Lord says he is going to “snatch away” their bangles, headbands, linen garments and tiaras. He says instead he will make them bald and smelly (v. 24). (As a side note, God was the first one to ever threaten, “I’m gonna snatch you bald-headed,” but I digress.) Many read Isaiah 3:16-24 as a warning against haughtiness, pride and vanity, and certainly it is. But I think there is more to it.

In the two verses immediately before this passage it says, “The plunder from the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing my people and grinding the faces of the poor?” (v. 14, 15). The haughty women of Zion are very concerned about themselves and not at all concerned about the poor. I think there is a purposeful juxtaposition between the over-attention to personal appearance and neglect of the poor. In our own lives, our attention to outward appearance should never trump caring for the poor. If you aren’t able to be openhanded to the poor (Deuteronomy 15:11) because of the Coach bag you’re gripping, God might just snatch you bald-headed. (Okay, not really—we’re under grace, not the old covenant—but I just couldn’t resist.)

Don’t take advantage of hired workers. The Bible has much to say on the oppression of workers. Deuteronomy 24:14 says, “Do not take advantage of a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether that worker is a fellow Israelite or a foreigner residing in one of your towns.” So many of the garments we wear were made in factories where the workers aren’t paid fairly and often work in unsafe conditions. And even if those in factories were treated fairly, the cotton itself might have been picked by children or slaves. The problem of oppression in the garment industry is so ubiquitous it’s hard to even know what to do, short of making our own homemade hippie felt dresses.

But we can take small steps forward, voting with our dollars. Research companies that produce ethical clothing. No companies are perfect, but as consumers we can help move them in the right direction.

Broaden our understanding of modesty. We so often quantify modesty in terms of inches of flesh. But modesty is more than that. Modesty is being free from vanity and pretentions. It’s having a humble estimate of ourselves. In 1 Timothy 2:9-10, Paul addresses what we first think of when we hear “modesty,” exhorting us to dress “with decency and propriety.” But he also warns against adorning ourselves with “elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes. Rather, we should clothe ourselves “with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.”

Does this mean we must abandon fashion? Not necessarily. When Paul exhorted us not to clothe ourselves with expensive clothing, there was no Walmart. Today, the cheapest option for clothing might also be the most unethical option for clothing in terms of the treatment of workers.

But beyond the matter of the expense of our clothes, what God looks at is the heart. Is our heart aimed at worshipping God or is it aimed at worshipping ourselves? Very often in fashion, the aim is self-worship. It’s about elevating ourselves—often above others. It might be creative expression, but it is also mixed with the idolatry of self.

So how can we navigate such a dangerous area? I think Exodus 28 gives us a good hint.

Bring dignity and honor as we serve God. In Exodus 28, the Lord says, “Make sacred garments for your brother Aaron to give him dignity and honor…make these sacred garments for your brother Aaron and his sons, so they may serve me as priests.” Exodus 28:2, 4

The explicit point of the garments was so that the priests could serve God—said another way, the focus of the clothes was worship. What is the purpose of our clothes? If you don’t particularly care about clothing or fashion, the point of your clothes might simply be so that you’re not naked. And that’s okay. But for those of us who do care, I think we should ask ourselves what the point of our clothes is. Are we seeking to elevate ourselves through beauty? Or are we expressing our God-given creativity and love for aesthetic beauty? I think it’s often probably a bit of both.

But it’s a question we should continually ask ourselves and ask God to help move us toward worship of God in our clothing rather than the worship of self.

Exodus 28 also gives what I think is a great guideline for our clothing. The original command for fashion was “to give [Aaron] dignity and honor.” Now, not all of our clothing serves the same purpose, obviously, as the high priest’s. But, looking at fashion, I’m pretty sure a lot of it was not intended to bring dignity and honor to the women wearing it. Sadly, it often strips women of dignity instead. When looking at our clothes, we can ask ourselves, “Is this bringing me dignity or is it stripping it away from me?”

Keeping these two things in tension—worshipping God rather than ourselves, and seeking dignity rather than stripping it away—can help us navigate the perilous but potentially worshipful area of fashion.


Amber Van Schooneveld is a writer, editor, wife, mom, nature lover, world traveler and follower of Jesus Christ. She is the author of Hope Lives: A Journey of Restoration and can be found online at ambervanschooneveld.com.

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God, the original fashion designer (a theology of fashion, part 1)

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In my vanity, I’ve always liked to think of myself as a serious-minded woman. In high school, I didn’t go to parties; I stayed home and did my German homework. And although I like to consider myself an intellectual, I can’t help one thing:

I love clothes.

My favorite recurring dream is one in which I find my closet stuffed full of dresses I didn’t know I owned. I watch Downton Abbey episodes twice: the first time for the plot and the second time to stare at the costumes.

But I’ve always dismissed my love of fashion as flighty and shallow. The weak underbelly to my otherwise oh-so-wise self.

As I’ve grown older, my delight for clothing has only grown stronger, although my main accessories these days are spit-up and a diaper bag. What I’ve only begun to accept recently is that my love for fashion might not simply be a vain pursuit of youth—as I so snobbishly supposed—but a genuine, God- given love for creativity and beauty.

“See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.” (Matthew 6:28)

I often think of this verse as I hike in the mountains near my home in Colorado. The tiniest wildflower of the tundra will have the most extravagant and intricate design. Looking at nature and the animal world, it’s clear that God has a flair for design. A God who creates the peacock is not a purely utilitarian God.

Recognizing the God-given creative spirit, Christendom has often embraced the arts, from music to sculpture to painting.

But many of us still eschew the realm of fashion.

So often fashion is fraught with vice. Whether vanity, excess, immodesty or the backbiting world we envision in The Devil Wears Prada, clothing hardly seems like an arena for worship.

But zoom back from our own culture and picture the dress of past times and other places. The intricate beaded collars of the Maasai tribe in Tanzania and Kenya. The stately headdresses of Native Americans. The scarlet pomegranate tassels on the Israelite High Priest’s garments.

God is the original fashion designer. He specifically enumerated how Aaron’s garments should be made, from the turban to the tassels. He also gifted certain individuals in clothes making:

“Tell all the skilled workers to whom I have given wisdom in such matters that they are to make garments for Aaron, for his consecration, so he may serve me as priest.” (Exodus 28:3)

Just as God gifted some to be wood cutters for His glory, He created others to be clothing makers. If we look at almost any culture, we see the inevitable desire to adorn the beautiful form God created with beautiful attire. Even the noble woman of Proverbs 31 is clothed in fine linen and purple.

But often, in an attempt to dodge the many moral trapdoors, we Christians have turned to asceticism when it comes to fashion. The Bible certainly does give guidelines and warnings when it comes to dress (more on that in the next post). But this doesn’t mean the wholesale abandonment of this expression of creativity.

My point is not that we should all run to the Banana Republic for some dangly earrings. But I think we should reclaim creativity—in all of its forms—for God. He is the one who put the seed of fashion within us.

If you aren’t the fashionable type—as I suspect some who read theology blogs might not be—that’s fine. But encourage the people around you whom God has gifted in creativity to embrace it for God’s glory. This might look different for different people.

In my own life, I’ve found an outlet in making paper dresses with my preschooler (whose current passion in life is twirling in circles wearing dresses). She loves it as a way to spend time with mommy and play with scissors. I love it as a way to infuse some creativity into my daily life with two kids.

God created us in His image and that implicitly means we are creative beings. When we allow ourselves to express that creativity in its various forms, we are paying homage and honoring His original design.


Amber Van Schooneveld is a writer, editor, wife, mom, nature lover, world traveler and follower of Jesus Christ. She is the author of Hope Lives: A Journey of Restoration and can be found online at ambervanschooneveld.com.

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How to share the Gospel with someone who thinks all Christians are hypocrites

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I’ve heard it before and I’m sure you have too–the common skeptic complaint that all Christians are hypocrites. To back up this claim, many point to being burned by a Christian in the past, abuse that has taken place in the church, or media portrayals of Christians and come to the conclusion that because of that failure, Christianity must be a hoax.

I hope to encourage you and equip you to not only respond, but be able to steer these types of conversations into great opportunities to share the gospel. There is no one-sized-fits all approach to any evangelistic endeavor, but here are a few steps you could take to steer this type of conversation somewhere eternally productive.

A quick reminder: just like in any other evangelistic conversation, your speech needs to be gracious and Christ-like (Colossians 4:6). Our message of grace needs to be said in a tone of grace–we don’t want to be hypocrites!

1. When someone complains that all Christians are hypocrites, tell the person that they are right.

Thinking that all Christians are hypocrites is in line with Scripture and what Jesus taught. Jesus spoke against hypocrisy and railed the Pharisees for putting on an outwardly religious show but forsaking a deeper spiritual life (Luke 11:42). Because we are all sinners (including Christians), we all are hypocritical in one way or another.

Responding this way might catch them off guard by giving them a compliment. Most people won’t mind having something good in common with Jesus–in fact they’ll like it. Tell them that the Bible says all people have sinned and that hypocritical Christians are what you would expect in a world tainted by sin.

You could also share that when a Christian doesn’t live up to God’s standard, that doesn’t make God’s standard false, but rather shows the value of God’s standard. When the world sees a hypocritical Christians who cheats, neglects the poor, and hates others, this shows the value of the Christian virtues of honesty, charity, and love.

2. Explain sin and how nobody measures up to God’s perfect standard.

People will be glad to hear that Jesus agrees with them–but probably won’t be too thrilled to find out that they don’t measure up to God’s standard either. But everyone who comes to believe the good news has to believe the bad news first. You may want to say something like,

The Bible also teaches that we are all sinners and have been hypocrites. You, me, the hypocrites you just mentioned–everyone. We’ve all failed to love God above everything (something due Him as creator) and we’ve failed to love others by lying, stealing, hating, and living for ourselves.

Before moving on from step two, it is wise to gauge how the person you are speaking with takes this news. It may not be wise to continue to step three if they reject the fact that they are a sinner. Giving the riches of the gospel to people who will not acknowledge their sin could be like throwing pearls to swine to pigs to trample them. Humble hearts that acknowledge their sin are ripe to hear about the solution to their sin in Jesus Christ.

3. Present Christ.

Now is the time to proclaim the greatest news ever imagined: God saves sinners through the death and resurrection of His Son Jesus Christ–and that offer of salvation is available to all. Your words could be the most important words this person has ever heard. This is also a good time to remind yourself of God’s grace to you in saving you from the domain of darkness and bringing you into the Kingdom of His Son.

4. Ask for a response.

After presenting the gospel, ask people if what you shared makes sense and call them to believe in Jesus Christ. Even if they are currently 100 miles away from trusting Christ, asking them penetrating questions about how the gospel affects them will spur deeper reflection and show them the natural response to the gospel is trusting Christ by faith.

5. Pray.

Entrust this person to God and pray that your conversation would bear fruit in their lives. God is the one who saves–and can use the seeds you planted to bring that person to faith and repentance many years in the future.

May the Lord stir in the hearts of the people you talk to by His grace to show them their sin and need for a Savior so that they can proclaim what one hypocrite realized, “Salvation comes from the Lord!” (Jonah 2:9).


Kevin Halloran is a lover of Christ, drinker of coffee, and reader of books who has no real reason to continue being a Chicago Cubs fan (but is anyway). He serves with Leadership Resources International training pastors to preach God’s Word with God’s heart. Follow Kevin on Twitter or visit his blog.

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First impressions

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I’m a big believer in first impressions. Whether it’s meeting with an important client or interviewing for a job, my clothes are wrinkle free, my hair is neatly brushed, and my breath is minty fresh. This tendency was heightened as I drove with my family into a new town for a new position as Senior Pastor. We were to live with the chairman of the deacons and his wife for a month while work on our home wrapped up. Their generosity saved us a few thousand dollars, and I wanted to show our gratitude from the very beginning.

A little ways into the seven-hour drive, the chairman called, inviting us to dinner with he and other extended family members he was sure we’d enjoy meeting. We eagerly agreed. Yet when we arrived at the restaurant, we were not in the best shape. We neither looked good, smelled good, or felt good after being in the car for seven hours with two preschoolers, especially not after having said teary “goodbyes” to our closest friends over the last five years. We were utterly exhausted physically, mentally and emotionally.

Nevertheless, dinner went fine until dessert. Our two year-old son was not yet fully potty-trained, and clearly did something in his diaper at the table. I was on the outside of the semi-circular booth, and I was happy to serve my wife in the presence of our deacon chairman. In the restroom, I discovered my son was wearing underwear instead of a diaper, and I had no underwear or diapers to put on him. I managed to clean him up, but he returned to the table “commando,” wearing nothing under his blue jeans.

A few minutes later, as we all stood up to leave, my son froze in his tracks and began to whimper. Fortunately, the smell hit me before the sight. I wrapped my arms around both of his thighs like a tourniquet and whisked him into the parking lot, leaving a putrescent trail of methane in our wake. I don’t typically have a gag reflex when it comes to strong, horrid odors, but I nearly vomited a few times in the van during the 15-minute drive to my deacon chairman’s home.

Fortunately for our host family (did I mention he was the chairman of the deacons?), their guest quarters were in the basement. We pulled around back to the entrance, and I carefully carried my pitiful son inside. While I cleaned him up in the bathroom (there is never enough water pressure when you need it), what he left in his jeans continued to wreak havoc on the 1000 square foot apartment. My deacon chairman’s wife came downstairs, armed with some sort of masking aerosol, leaving the room to smell like methane and roses.

God gave me a gracious and down-to-earth deacon chairman who did not judge us by our first impression, but I fretted over the experience. “If I can’t even drive into town correctly, how could I ever pastor the church?” God had me exactly where He wanted me to be: helpless. He was teaching me before I even got in the pulpit that the best pastors are those that constantly acknowledge they are utterly helpless to be great pastors. The same is true regardless of your calling or profession. The key to being a happy, joyful follower of Jesus is to be constantly aware of your helplessness to be righteous and his graciousness to give you His Son’s righteousness.


Rob Tims is a Christ-follower, husband, and father of three and lives in Nashville, TN. With more than 20 years of ministry experience in the local church, Rob now works at Lifeway Christian Resources on a team that provides trustworthy, customized Bible studies for individual churches. He also is an Associate Professor for Liberty University Online and enjoys preaching and teaching in various venues throughout the year. His first book, Southern Fried Faith: Confusing Christ and Culture in the Bible Belt, is available exclusively on Amazon for Kindle or in print. Rob blogs at SouthernFriedFaith.com and you can follow him on Twitter @robertltjr.

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Sola boot strapa

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Everyone is born with limits, but we are seemingly born hating those limits. My oldest son modeled this well at an early age playing with “Zoob.” “Zoob” is the name of the “moving, mind-building system” of colorful plastic pieces that snap, click, and pop together twenty different ways, allowing my then five-year-old son to build some pretty amazing things, either by looking at the picture instructions or using his imagination. Dinosaurs, airplanes, 18-wheelers, crowns fit for a queen: the possibilities seemed limited only by my child’s imagination, level of concentration, and propensity for patience. And while his imagination would run wild with delight for hours, he did eventually lose focus. At the peak of his frustration, he would sweat profusely, viciously destroy his projects, and loudly whimper: “I can NEVER make these work! These are ALWAYS doing wrong ALL the time!”

Have you been there? Have you made six trips to the local hardware store in order to install a new ceiling fan? Have you tried to do the P90X work out program for a few days? Have you changed your child’s bed sheets yet again, only to have him vomit for the 7th time at 3 AM? Have you washed your hands religiously and still gotten the virus? Have you emptied a box of Calgon into your bathtub and cried out for deliverance? Have you been completely helpless?

If so, you probably pushed against back against your helplessness. In your own strength, you finished that home improvement project. With all the resolve you could muster, you finished that workout routine. You held back your daughter’s hair over the toilet with a Mona Lisa smile. Your Latin life motto in those moments was Sola Boot Strapa: You picked yourself up by your bootstraps.

Now, I’m all for pushing myself beyond my current limits, but at some point I have to come to the humbling realization that I can’t be all, do all, or have all. Those life experiences that lead us to finally throw up our hands and shout “OK … enough! I can’t do it all!” are God’s gracious gifts meant to show us exactly what’s required if we want to be right with Him and be used by Him. It’s helplessness, not self-determination, that Jesus requires for us to come to Him. That’s where Peter, Andrew, Matthew and all of the disciples were when Jesus chose them, and it’s where you must be if you want to follow Him and be used by Him. You have to come to the end of yourself. You have to be helpless.

Jesus highlighted this truth from the very beginning of his teaching ministry. Among His earliest words to His disciples at the Sermon on the Mount was the mandate to be helpless. “The poor in spirit are blessed, for the kingdom of heaven is theirs” (Matthew 5:3).

By teaching us to be poor in spirit, Jesus encouraged the kind of helplessness exhibited by many people throughout the gospels. People like the man with leprosy who desperately cried out to Jesus, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean” (Luke 5:12). People like Jairus, who pleaded with Jesus to heal his dying twelve year-old daughter (Luke 8:41). People like the rich, squatty, social outcast named Zacchaeus who put aside all pretense and personal dignity by climbing a tree to merely get a glimpse of Jesus. These were people who, for one reason or another, came to the end of their rope and ran to Jesus. And in so doing, they became happy.

It’s an un-American, even inhuman, idea that happiness is tied to helplessness. In our culture, happy people are strong. Happy people have the resources and reputation to make things happen. But Jesus turns these American ideals on their heads. The things that we love most about ourselves are the things we must reject, and the things we hate the most about ourselves are the very things we must embrace, because doing so puts us into a position to be filled with Christ, who is every spiritual blessing (Ephesians 1:3).

But Jesus did not say, “Blessed are those who initially experience a sense of helplessness, run to Jesus, and then live proving to Jesus how grateful they are.” He said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Our sense of helplessness is not merely a once-in-a-lifetime experience we must have in order to be saved, but a way of life we must embrace as his followers. Helplessness is not something we initially grasp then move on from, but something we realize and grow deeper in. This is why God gives us multiple life experiences to teach us to accept the fact we are helpless people and He is a strong and gracious God. I’ll elaborate on this truth in my next post.


Rob Tims is a Christ-follower, husband, and father of three and lives in Nashville, TN. With more than 20 years of ministry experience in the local church, Rob now works at Lifeway Christian Resources on a team that provides trustworthy, customized Bible studies for individual churches. He also is an Associate Professor for Liberty University Online and enjoys preaching and teaching in various venues throughout the year. His first book, Southern Fried Faith: Confusing Christ and Culture in the Bible Belt, is available exclusively on Amazon for Kindle or in print. Rob blogs at SouthernFriedFaith.com and you can follow him on Twitter @robertltjr.

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Raising kids to be readers

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When I read that Aaron and Emily are going to be homeschooling their children, I was excited for them, and little envious. I was excited because I think homeschooling is a great educational choice, and envious because they are going to have the fun of teaching kids to read. Teaching reading was one of my favourite parts of homeschooling. Teaching a child to read is like giving him them the keys to the kingdom.

This post does not presume to suggest that only children who are homeschooled can become good readers. My oldest daughter was taught to read—and read well—in public school. That being said, the flexibility of the homeschool environment is a great way to raise children who are readers. And we want them to read, don’t we?

The flexibility offered by homeschooling helps meet the individual needs of children while they learn. The student who learns quickly can move ahead at his own pace, and a child who needs more time can have it. It is frustrating to be the child always waiting, or the child for whom everyone must wait. Or worse, to be the child who is totally lost. I spoke to a homeschool mom whose children had reading challenges, and she said the freedom of the homeschool environment prevented her children from hating school. In those first few years of reading, a child who has success has incentive to read. If it’s frustrating or difficult, it might be something he hates.

There is also flexibility with regard to content. In addition to being able to use books that will challenge and develop a reader, there is a lot of room for a child pursuing her own particular interests. If she wants to read ten books about spiders, she can do that. If she wants to read about the Amazon rain forest for an entire month, she can. Homeschool days are generally shorter than public school, and there is more time to pursue independent interests after the required work is done. It’s an opportunity for a child to pursue the things he is really excited about, and that makes reading fun. Our daughter went through a phase where she read historical fiction extensively, and today, she has a very solid grasp of English history she may have not had otherwise.

The flexibility of homeschooling feeds into family time, through reading aloud. I cannot endorse reading aloud enough. Not only does it show the kids that mom and dad like reading, but it promotes discussion. Being able to talk about a book is a good way to make sure children understand what they’re hearing. Reading out loud provides a safe environment to read that book everyone’s talking about, but that you’re not really sure about. Parents can also introduce classic literature through reading aloud, and acquaint them with books they may meet again in the future. When we studied ancient history, we read a lot of Greek mythology. My son, in a first year university course in Classical Studies, knew those stories intimately already.

Often, the most closely held habits in life begin in the home. Make reading one of those habits you foster, regardless of your schooling choice. We don’t have to homeschool to read aloud with our family. Building kids who are readers actually starts right from the time they are old enough to sit in your lap with a chubby board book for a few minutes.

Of course, homeschooling is not a guarantee that every child will grow to be a voracious reader. Of our three children, one is not as much of a reader as the other two. However, he is a good reader, and reads with discernment. Ultimately, that is the goal: to read well, and with discernment. There are many benefits to homeschooling. If you’re going to do it, use the time to encourage good reading habits. You will be encouraging something that will benefit them their entire lives.


Kim Shay lives in southern Ontario, Canada. She has been married to Neil for 27 years, and has three adult children and is a former homeschool mom. Now an empty nester, she fills her time teaching ladies the Bible, reading, blogging, and taking pictures. She blogs regularly at The Upward Call and Out of the Ordinary.

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What might Jesus say if He visited your small group?

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I wonder what would happen if Jesus stepped into your small group this week.

  • Would he cry? Laugh? Yell? Flip over tables?
  • Would he sit down and eat some nachos with you?
  • Would he grab a cup of coffee and stay late?

If Jesus came to your small group, I think there are a few things he’d say:

You’re too easy on church people.

Jesus was never easy on people that claimed a relationship with God. He was much tougher on them than he was people outside of the Church. He held them to a much higher standard, and called them to be living, breathing examples of the Gospel. And when they weren’t, he let em have it.

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”- Matthew 23:27-28

You’re too tough on lost people.

Groups should be the place where “outsiders”feel comfortable exploring, disagreeing, and bringing the full weight of themselves into the conversation. And when they sin, we should expect it. Don’t be surprised when lost people act lost.

Speaking to a woman caught in adultery, Jesus said:

“Woman, where are they (your accusers)? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.”And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more. – John 8:10-11

You’re too stingy.

Groups should be the place where our combined resources make a dent in the Kingdom. Our generosity should shape neighborhoods, shake families, and leave people shaking their heads at our love.

Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. – Luke 6:30

Generosity is costly and formative. The strongest small groups are marked by lavish generosity in various forms. All too often, we in small groups just think, “What’s in this for me? How am I going to grow? How should I change?”It’s not all about us.

Why so serious?

People take spiritual growth too seriously. Too heavily. Too ominously. Spiritual growth happens in the serious moments, but it also happens in the laughter and the fun.

Jesus didn’t say this, but I can only imagine he obeyed it:

Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy. Then it was said among the nations, “The LORD has done great things for them.” The LORD has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy. –Psalm 126:2-3

When they heard the people’s mouths filled with laughter and their tongues singing songs of joy, they said, “They must serve a great God!”Laughter and joy became attractional for the church. Outsiders began to notice the community of God-followers because they were laughing.

Just 1.5 hours?

Spiritual growth is much more all-encompassing than 1.5 hours. In no way can you expect to grow if you just spend 1.5 hours together in a week. Small groups build relationships with one another. Phone calls, cups of coffee, texts, lunches, and other relationship-building times are a must.

Throughout the gospels, we see Jesus not just teaching, but spending time with, his disciples.

What are you producing?

So many small groups have no idea where they’re headed. They think that small group is about the curriculum. Or about the meeting. Or about the project. The reality is that all of those are just the backdrop for the real mission: creating disciples.

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…”- Matthew 28:18-19

Let’s eat!

Eating together is such a vital part of the success of a small group. It gives depth to relationship as you meet one another’s physical needs, it gives a natural reason to congregate together (everyone’s got to eat), and through providing food for one another you inadvertently put a bit of yourself into your meal.

We see multiple examples of Jesus eating with his disciples, both before and after the resurrection.

What do you think Jesus would say to your small group?


Ben Reed is the author of Starting Small: The Ultimate Small Group Blueprint. He is the small groups pastor at Long Hollow Baptist Church in Nashville, TN. Ben is also an avid Cross-Fitter and coffee drinker. But not at the same time.

Photo credit: Sathish J (CC)

Lapel clipper or boy bander?

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Most preachers I know are pretty particular about their microphone preferences.

They know their options – the lapel clip, the pulpit stand, the handheld, boy band-left ear, boy band-right ear, etc… and they’ve made their choice.

As a boy band lefty myself, I even have a routine for how the cable is run down my shirt, paper-clipped to my collar, and tucked the appropriate way into the appropriate pocket of my pants. It’s odd, I’m aware, but preachers want to know they’ve done as much as they can to ensure the message is delivered well.

This mentality of course impacts sermon development also. I know pastors, whose primary responsibility is to preach, who give 40+ hours of prep to each message. Others with less time are no less consumed with finding the best angle, the memorable phrase, or the knifing illustration. Preachers feel the weight of ministering the Word and work accordingly.

This is how it should be. 1 Corinthians 12 informs us that God’s purpose, His primary calling for some men, is to be His mouthpiece for His people. “God has arranged members in the body, each one of them, as He chose. (v.18)” “He has appointed in the church… teachers. (v.28)”

Preachers are designed to deliver sermons to the church. They love to talk and their people love to listen because that is the way God wants it. That is the way the body needs it. So, preachers take seriously their God-given mandate to teach, even if that means spending 30 hours studying and learning the ins and outs of sound equipment.

But, how many give similar effort to helping their people process the truth after it has been taught?

We have a tendency to work-work-work to get the Word delivered, and then chalk up everything that follows to “God’s Word doesn’t return void” and “It’s God who gives the increase.” It doesn’t and He does, but are we really putting our people in a position to powerfully respond to the message of God?

If we do nothing, if we don’t prepare on the backend like we do on the front, people will sit in their chairs, with hearts full and affections stirred, and nothing will happen. Sure, they will commit to themselves to do something about what they’ve heard. To remember it. To meditate on it. To act on it. But instead of following through, they will get together with other similarly moved brothers and sisters to watch a DVD or listen to a lecture about something else from someone else, somewhere else.

Through the Spirit-led, carefully crafted messages of His preachers, God is already speaking powerfully into the hearts of His people, but when pastors fail to intentionally shepherd the flock to respond to that work, much of the fruit is missed. I’m convinced that thousands of beautiful supernatural intentions die every week because the planning stops with the sermon. It is as though we spend several days of our lives preparing a delicious dinner only to fail to provide a fork with which to eat it.

It matters little how much you plan to get your sermon out well if you don’t give your people a chance to work it out well.

Such preparation doesn’t even take as much work as the sermon itself. Providing people the opportunity to process what God is doing in their hearts through the preaching falls somewhere on the difficulty scale between crafting the message and donning the microphone.

The most obvious way for a pastor to provide that opportunity is to create a brief discussion guide designed to help the body share their conviction, clarify their concerns, and respond to the challenges of the sermon. Someone from the pastor’s team can do it. Someone from this team can do it. But somehow, the moments to which the work of the week has led must not pass without consequence. If the church is gathering at other times throughout the week, one of the centerpieces of those gatherings should be sermon-based, heart-exposing, response-generating discussion. If we don’t create such an opportunity, we shoot the foot of our own function in the body.

When God crushes hearts through the work of His preachers, His people need to huddle together to process and respond to what He is doing. The men, be they lapel clippers or boy banders, who give so much care to ensuring the message gets out in powerful ways, must also create the opportunity for that message to be thought out and lived out in powerful ways.


Brandon Hiltibidal is a husband to Scarlet, a daddy to Ever, an owner of the Green Bay Packers, and a strategist for discipleshipincontext.com. Connect with him on Twitter @bmhiltibidal.

Photo credit: Sergiu Bacioiu via photopin cc

Life and death in marriage

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From a very young age my mother has told me that I should aspire to become a litigator. I am not well versed in legal definitions, and perhaps trial lawyer is what she means to say. But terminology aside, her point is this: I have long had the ability to wear others out with my words.

I am analytical, logical, and competitive by nature, and so debate is an understandable love. I recently confessed, however, that this strength has not served me well in marriage. Being competitive at its core, the art of debate is a fight for intellectual victory. It is arguing at its finest, and at some point your persuasive arguments will, without fail, become personal. They will be a front for the art of self-defense.

And so the idea that a rapid-fire tongue has not served me well in marriage is an understatement. My ability to defend myself verbally in our relationship is in reality a restless evil, a deadly poison (James 3:8). It is more than a desire to debate; it is a desire to be right. And more than a desire to be right, it is a desire to rule and control. It is a desire to be my own god.

The antidote to this pride is found in Matthew 16:24-25:

Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.”

The great paradox of the Christian life is one that we understand. Christ took on our sin, in all its poisonous forms, and released us from its hold. Unshackled, we are freed to not only leave behind our past self, but to die to it. And in this death we are given a new life that pursues righteousness and a glory that is not found in us, but in God alone.

And yet despite this knowledge, we sin. While writing this essay, I had the opportunity to put my message into practice, and I failed. My husband committed what I perceived to be a small offense against me, and I argued my way to moral victory, leaving little room for loving discussion.

My desire to be right is the visible evidence of a deep-rooted lie that I can’t trust God to be good. I continue to come back to behaviour that tries to preserve my name, even though I know that self-preservation only leads to death. And why? Because my desire often strays, and I end up wanting to be more than the bridegroom, rather than having a desire for the bridegroom (John 3:29).

Through sanctification, we learn to desire correctly. In an interview with The Gospel Coalition, James K. A. Smith says that God’s goal in sanctification is “to set apart for himself a ‘peculiar people’ who are marked by their love for God and a desire for his kingdom – a people who show that as much as they tell it. The Lord wants us to be a people who are a living foretaste of his coming kingdom.”

What we are to desire is God himself, and marriage was designed to fuel this desire as it shapes and molds us into a greater likeness of Christ. The desire to be right is antithetical to this aim. And so we continue to flesh out the paradox of Matthew 16, as we are formed into the peculiar people who shed the habits that come so naturally.

And the result of our loss is pure gain.


Sarah Van Beveren is a thirty something mom to three little girls with boundless energy, wife to a suit wearing husband who keeps the coffee brewing, and the best kind of legalist– one in recovery and rocked by grace. She blogs at sarahvanbeveren.com, or you can connect with her on Twitter @sarahvanbeveren.

Photo credit: Brian Wolfe (CC).

Every open door isn’t meant to be walked through

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Imagine that you are visiting a friend who lives in apartment complex. You Mapquest your way to the complex, but your friend didn’t give you the specific number of his apartment, so you start walking up and down the hallways where every door looks the same. You’re not sure exactly what you’re looking for – maybe that welcome mat he used to have years ago? Perhaps a door knocker emblazoned with his family crest (cause that’s always there)? But not this time. There are no marks of identification to let you know which door is the right one. But finally, after walking down two or three hallways you finally come to a door that looks like all the other ones… except it’s open.

What do you do?

I can tell you what you DON’T do – you don’t just walk right through it, assuming that it’s the right one just because it’s open. You’re smarter than that, and depending on which state you’re in, you know about things like concealed handgun laws. You still knock. You still examine. You still use your powers of deduction and wisdom to know whether or not that open door is the right one to enter in.

Every open door isn’t meant to be walked through. But that’s precisely the way many of us treat God’s will in our lives. We glimpse an opportunity, we have a feeling, we see the seemingly greener grasses through that open door, and because the door is open, we conclude that surely this is what God intends for us. Here’s what it looks like practically:

  • God wouldn’t let me have these feelings if he didn’t want me to pursue this lifestyle.
  • God wouldn’t have given me this opportunity at work if He didn’t want me to go after it.
  • God would stop me from feeling bored in my current relationship if He didn’t want me to leave.

Just because the door is open doesn’t mean it’s the right one. Let me give you a case study from the Bible that helps us see this.

Though Saul was the king of Israel, his popularity had been surpassed greatly by David. David, the handsome young general. David, the champion over Goliath. David, of whom it was said had already been anointed by Samuel as the next king. And Saul would have none of us. In an obsessive rage, he launched out in a no-holds-barred manhunt for his once valued comrade. He chased him ruthlessly, and he chased him endlessly.

This went on not for days; not for weeks; but for years. All the while David ran, knowing that he was indeed the next chosen king. Knowing that as soon as something happened to Saul he would rise to the throne. Knowing at least at some level what God’s will was for his life. And then we come to the text in 1 Samuel 24:

When Saul returned from pursuing the Philistines, he was told, “David is in the wilderness near En-gedi.” So Saul took 3,000 of Israel’s choice men and went to look for David and his men in front of the Rocks of the Wild Goats. When Saul came to the sheep pens along the road, a cave was there, and he went in to relieve himself. David and his men were staying in the back of the cave, so they said to him, “Look, this is the day the Lord told you about: ‘I will hand your enemy over to you so you can do to him whatever you desire.'” Then David got up and secretly cut off the corner of Saul’s robe.

Afterward, David’s conscience bothered him because he had cut off the corner of Saul’s robe.He said to his men, “I swear before the Lord: I would never do such a thing to my lord, the Lord’s anointed. I will never lift my hand against him, since he is the Lord’s anointed.” With these words David persuaded his men, and he did not let them rise up against Saul. (1 Samuel 24:1-7)

Talk about your open doors. The king was there, oblivious to David’s presence. And David was there, no doubt tired of running for the last four or so years. And his men were there, telling him that this was not only a golden opportunity, but that clearly this was from the Lord. After all, they knew God wanted David as king; and they knew that God had provided this choice circumstance; and they knew that it would be clean, quick, and easy. No more running and finally the chance to see what they all knew would eventually happen come to fruition. So up he snuck – quietly. Stealthily. Like the warrior he was, stalking his victim. The voices in his head were loud and clear: “This is going to be so easy. He’s completely unaware. The promises of God are true, you just have to take hold of them. Just reach out and…”

And then David blew it. I’ve got a feeling the text cleans up the conversation a little bit when David came back to the camp with a piece of a robe instead of the king’s head in his hand. So why didn’t he do it?

It’s because every open door isn’t meant to be walked through.

But that leaves us with a huge question, doesn’t it? How do you know? How do you know when to talk through the door and when not to? The text gives us at least part of the answer in David’s response: “I swear before the Lord: I would never do such a thing to my lord, the Lord’s anointed. I will never lift my hand against him, since he is the Lord’s anointed.”

The way you know if the open door is the right door is by comparing what you think God might be saying with what you know He has already said. David no doubt wanted to stop running, and he no doubt was tired of being pursued when he had done nothing wrong. He had all kinds of feelings telling him that this was the door for him to walk through, and yet even in the emotional tumult of those feelings, he had the ability to step back and evaluate the door before him not based on what he perceived in the moment but what he knew to be true.

God is the same now as He was then as He will be tomorrow. And if He said it then, He means it now. So how do you know if the door that’s open is the door for you?

Look to what God has already said. And then go with what you know rather than what you think.


Michael Kelley (M.Div.) and his wife, Jana, have three children. He’s the Director of at LifeWay Christian Resources. His works include Boring and Wednesdays Were Pretty Normal. Keep up with Michael on his blog at michaelkelleyministries.com or on Twitter @_MichaelKelley.

Originally published at michaelkelleyministries.com. Photo credit: dbz885 via photopin cc

I want a patriotic church

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One of the things I love about being Canadian is we’re not a terribly patriotic bunch. Don’t get me wrong; we don’t hate our country, and we’re more or less quite happy to be here. But even at the best of times, like on Canada Day1, we shoot some fireworks, have some concerts… but it’s pretty unusual for churches to share a message like “What’s right about Canada,” whereas in America, this is apparently pretty common.

There are good things and bad things to this, of course. Our lack of a patriotic attitude might be a lack of conviction. We don’t seem to feel too strongly about most anything, except possibly government-run healthcare and how we’re “better than” or “fat, but not as fat as” Americans.2 And this would be a shame, as (despite our passive-aggressive goofiness) Canada’s a pretty decent place to be. After all, look what we’ve contributed to the world: poutine, The Barenaked Ladies, Nathan Fillion, Tim Challies, William Shatner… How bad can we be?

But there’s a danger here, too. Our lack of conviction about the nation in which we live can easily morph into a lack of conviction about our true citizenship. So we sing songs, we go through the motions, we give lip-service to being exiles and sojourners, citizens of some other place.3 But really, we’re just pretty… okay.

We’re glad to be Christians, but we can be a little “meh” about the whole thing.

But you know what? I don’t want that for me or my church.

I don’t want us to be silly and sad and kind of pathetic. I don’t want complacency about our citizenship. I want us to be a patriotic church—not one that’s consumed with what’s great about Canada or America, but what’s great about our true home, the kingdom of God.

  • To be people who “await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself” (Phil 3:20-21).
  • To be people who are looking forward to the day when Jesus guides us “to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from [our] eyes” (Rev. 7:17).
  • To be people who, along with Peter and John, declare, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19-20).

That’s the kind of patriotism I want in my church and in every church in this world: an unabashed commitment to the Lord Jesus, and an unquenchable desire to see Him glorified. Anything less just isn’t worth it.

“Just believe” & other nonsense you hear in the movies

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I’m a sucker for cult TV shows—y’know, the ones constantly living on the bubble, that no matter how great they are can’t seem to find an audience, either because of network interference or… well, network interference is probably the majority of the reason.

Chuck was one of those shows that took Emily and me by surprise when we discovered it on DVD. But years before that, we found a show called Firefly. The brainchild of Joss Whedon, this show was set in the far-off future mashing up Star Wars, westerns and a touch of Star Trek, with one of the central conceits being, “What if the Federation were the bad guys?”

Not surprisingly, the show didn’t last long on TV, but eventually developed such a rabid fanbase that a movie was released in 2005, Serenity. Last night, Emily and I were watching the movie on Netflix, and I was surprised at how well it holds up in terms of its aesthetic and overall storytelling… but there’s this one scene that absolutely ruins the movie for me.

At a pivotal moment in the film, the lead character, Mal (played by the perpetually-smarmy Nathan Fillion) is with Shepherd Book, a Christian (ish) preacher, who is moments away from death due to the machinations of the film’s villain, The Operative—a devout believer in “a better world, a world without sin.” And so, Book, with his final breath, tells Mal, “I don’t care what you believe—just believe.”1

This is the key to defeating The Operative.

It’s intense. It’s dramatic. And it’s complete nonsense.

But, of course, you likely already know that.

The problem, obviously, is not with the idea of belief, but it’s what are we being asked to believe in. This is the common problem we see in so many movies and TV shows, including those where an apparently “Christian” preacher appears. Either he’s a proxy for a belief in morality as the key to happiness, or the spread of ‘murican values, or he’s some sort of pathetic Oprah-in-disguise-wannabe-hippie.2

We’re told to look to ourselves, to listen to our hearts, to follow our instincts. We are constantly encouraged to look inward, but fail to realize that it’s looking inward that’s the cause of so many of our problems. As Rob Gordon famously said, “I’ve been listening to my gut since I was 14 years old, and frankly speaking, I’ve come to the conclusion that my guts have [expletive] for brains.”

This is why “just believe” or believing in belief or listening to our hearts and all the other nonsense we hear is just that—nonsense. And secretly, I think we all know it. We’ve seen it not work time and again, but we keep running back to it, hoping that this time it might be different.

This vain hope isn’t what the Bible calls us to. This false belief isn’t what Christianity is rooted in. We don’t belief in believe, as though that were somehow possible. We don’t believe in being good, despite what some preachers might tell you. We don’t believe in listening to our hearts, because we know how prone to wander they are. Instead, we believe in something sure and trustworthy.

We believe that God created all that is. We believe God is so far above us and yet so intimately near us. We believe in the promises of God and we believe He keeps His Word. We believe Christ truly rescues us from our sin through His death and resurrection. We believe that a day is coming when God will transform this world into a new and better one, one free from sin and death forevermore. And we believe this really does change everything in a person’s life.

That’s what Christians believe in. That’s what everyone needs to believe in.

But we don’t believe in belief, and neither should you. That’s just a road to nowhere.

Why am I thinking about getting an education (again)?

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“Why don’t you just go to seminary? You’ve got the mind for it, and you could probably get it done without too much difficulty.”

I’ve had that conversation a lot over the last few years. And I’ve had it at least a couple of times over the last few months.

As some friends know, I’ve long had a love/hate relationship with the idea of seminary. I love learning, I love the Bible, and I love learning about theology from older, wiser people. Years ago, thanks to iTunes U, I listened to a number of courses from RTS and loved it. To this day, I’m still feeling the influence of those lectures.

But there are other things that make me nervous about going to seminary. The potential for crushing amounts of debt is absolutely terrifying to me. On top of that, I have the added problem of only having a 3-year diploma, rather than a bachelor’s degree. This, as you can imagine, has the potential to limit my options pretty drastically. And then there’s also my need to maintain my job in order to provide for the needs of my family…

So why am I here once again thinking about this?

Am I foolish? Maybe. Probably.

But there are a few really practical reasons for it, but the biggest is simply this:

There are real limits to what I can do without a formal education.

I’m not an education snob by any means. I don’t believe a degree makes one person more qualified than another. I know of many journalism majors who are actually pretty terrible writers. I know of graphic design grads who have no visual sensibility. And I know of men with PhDs in theology who most assuredly don’t know Jesus.

But the fact is, I do run up against barriers because I don’t have a formal education. Sometimes it’s a knowledge gap issue for me (which I usually resolve by reading more books). There are also the limitations on where I could go in terms of service in a church, depending on the leadership’s position on whether or not an M.Div is required for pastoral ministry (that’s not me saying I’m planning to move in that direction, by the way).

But I also have the challenge that sometimes my position—no matter how well reasoned it may be—essentially amounts to being just my opinion in the eyes of some. It’s not that this happens often (by and large, I tend to deal with people who are very humble and open on these matters), but it does happen. And, as you can imagine, it can be incredibly frustrating, especially in those times when it really matters.

From a positive perspective, though, I’d be interested to see what kind of doors a formal education could open for me. Would it be beneficial to me in my current job or in a future one? How would it shape my ministry within my local church and beyond? Would it allow me to help people know and love Jesus to a greater degree than I can now?

These are some of the questions I’m wrestling with right now, even as I send off emails to various schools (including RTS and Covenant Theological Seminary, which seem to have the best online/distance programs available) to see what possibilities exist for a guy in my position.

What do you think: Does a degree matter? Have you thought about going to seminary? What factors played a part in your decision?


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