Think about what you read

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Reading lots (and lots) of books has its advantages, but also comes with some very real challenges. When you read a lot, a great deal of content winds up washing over you, and it’s challenging to engage critically. That’s fine (sometimes) when you’re re-reading a book, or when you’re reading something light (ish). If you’re reading Amish vampire romance books, for example… (Okay, bad example. That definitely requires discussion.)

But if you’re not careful, if you don’t think about what you read, it can be disastrous.

It’s really easy to scan read a book, and say, “Yep, I’ve got it. Next!” I have to make the time for application. This is one of the reasons I love discussion questions. They encourage me to dwell on the content and chew on its implications (even if they’re not particularly well written questions). This is what I want when I read.

Some books do a great job of encouraging this kind of reflection, even if they don’t have discussion questions included. Francis Chan’s immediately come to mind as a great example. Every so often, he’ll stop midstream and write something like, “Okay, stop reading this book, read this passage of Scripture (or watch this video) and look at what it says about XYZ.” And even when a book doesn’t include discussion questions, I have a series of them already set:

  1. What is the main idea the author is trying to convey?
  2. How does the author support his/her idea(s)? Scripture, tradition, history, illustrations from real life examples…
  3. Do I agree with the author’s main idea? Why or why not? And can I support my position with appropriate Scripture?
  4. If these ideas are true, what is one practical way I can apply this truth today?

Asking even basic questions like these helps me get past a surface level understanding of the content and discern the application for my life. And every book has application for us:

  • A book like The Holiness of God‘s most natural application is grounding our faith in an accurate picture of the God of the Bible because what we think about God shapes how we live for God.
  • Rescuing Ambition (which I reviewed several years ago) challenged me to consider the source of my ambition and how it can be a fuel for godly purposes.
  • Even A Year of Biblical Womanhood, for all its considerable faults, gave me a chance look at how to look at how I approach male/female relationships and ask how I can better serve my wife out of love for her and for the Lord.

Maybe these don’t seem terribly revolutionary, but they’re helpful for me. In the end, though, my point is simple: A good reading experience shouldn’t just challenge the way you think, but challenges you to think. Regardless of it’s purpose, if it’s important enough for you to spend time reading a book, it’s important enough for you to think carefully about. Because if we don’t, what’s the point?


An earlier version of this post was first published in August, 2010.

The secret of the Christian’s power

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The ministry of prayer has been the peculiar distinction of all of God’s saints. This has been the secret of their power. The energy and the soul of their work has been the closet. The need of help outside of man being so great, man’s natural inability to always judge kindly, justly, and truly, and to act the Golden Rule, so prayer is enjoined by Christ to enable man to act in all these things according to the Divine will. By prayer, the ability is secured to feel the law of love, to speak according to the law of love, and to do everything in harmony with the law of love.

God can help us. God is a Father. We need God’s good things to help us to “do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly before God.” We need Divine aid to act brotherly, wisely, and nobly, and to judge truly, and charitably. God’s help to do all these things in God’s way is secured by prayer. “Ask, and ye shall receive; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.”

Edward M. Bounds, The Possibilities of Prayer, 4

Should every Christian be in a small group? Yep!

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Every fall at my local church, we talk about the importance of being in a small group and we invite people to participate in them. This type of thing is happening all across the country, maybe even the world: the call for Christians to participate in small groups. But why is it important for every Christian should be in a small group? Here are three reasons:

Firstly, we should be in a small group is because we need to grow in our faith. Small groups are the place where we take what we learn on Sundays and put our Christianity to practice. In my small group, we share openly and ask questions of the text we’re studying along with the prepared questions. We discuss—often intensely—what the passage means or what issues it raises that we deal with in everyday life. This leads us to discuss the intersection of the Bible and daily life. Our discussions are often passionate and opinions are made known on a wide variety of issues. We bring the mess of our lives in and deal with it together (even with people who we might not know all that well at first). We do all of this because we love one another and want to spur one another onto love and good deeds.

Second, we need to be in a small group because we need accountability and prayer. Once during small group, I got a text from my mom regarding my dad who has dementia. I was close to tears and we stopped our study so I could explain what was going on. I read, word for word, what my mom said and my response to her text message. While this hasn’t happened frequently, I have to say it meant a lot to me that the group stopped and prayed for me. This is what small groups are about, a place where we take seriously what the Bible teaches and apply it in practical ways by caring for one another.

Finally, we need to be in a small group because we need one another’s insights and perspectives. Everyone benefits in a small group when all the members participate. The amount of education we have is not important, we can all learn from one another (I’m a seminary-educated Christian, and I’ve been a believer since I was a little kid, and I greatly benefit from the insights and perspectives of the other people in my small group). We might think we’ve made up our minds on a particular issue, but healthy small group discussion can help us realize we haven’t understood it from all sides (I’ve had that happen many times). We can open up and share what we really think about issues from the Bible, and then discover what the Word of God teaches. We can take what we learn and share it with others. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?

This is what small group is about: they help us grow together, the give us accountability, and they open us up to new perspectives. We desperately need this—we desperately need one another. So when your church invites you to participate, don’t wait—join a small group as soon as you can!


Today’s post is by Dave Jenkins. Dave is the Director of Servants of Grace Ministries. You can follow him on twitter@DaveJJenkins or read more of his work at servantsofgrace.org.


Photo credit: NBC

The gospel wore us down

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Sometimes I wonder if the apostle Paul would say if were to arrive in my city. I suspect it would be pretty similar to what he told the men of Athens, “I see that you are extremely religious in every respect” (Acts 17:22). But unlike the men of Athens, most hearers in London, Toronto, New York, or any number of North American cities would be shocked by these words. After all, we borderline pride ourselves on our irreligion.

Which may reveal just how religious we truly are.

The second commandment forbids God’s people from making idols for ourselves, “whether in the shape of anything in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the waters under the earth” (Exodus 20:4). Many of us read this command, and think, “Don’t worship angels. Don’t make statues or carvings of animals, bugs, birds, fish or anything like that.” Then we look around our houses, smile a bit and say, “Nailed it.”

Which may reveal just how self-deceived we truly are.

What we fail to realize—both in our culture in general and as Christians in particular—is that true and false worship surround us. Idols are everywhere. We are always worshipping something, but it’s rarely the right thing.

Maybe that seems grim, or a bit too broad brush, but hear me out: in our culture as a whole, what are our idols? Celebrity. Sports. Money. Sex. Success… We give ourselves to the pursuit of these things. We work ourselves to death in pursuit of money and power. We devote ourselves to keeping track of the most minute details of the lives of movie stars. We whore ourselves out before the world on “reality” TV.

Before we too quickly give a hearty “amen,” or “Boo to The Bachelor,” let’s also consider the more subtle idols we’ve created in the church. We spend inordinate amounts of time worrying about attendance numbers. And so when lots of people show up, we feel pretty great. When there’s a dip, we feel like something’s wrong in the church. We elevate marriage and children to a place where those who are single feel like they’re second-class Christians, or guilty of some secret sin that not even they’re aware of. And then, there’s the idol that nearly destroyed me and my family: home ownership.

Before our oldest daughter was born, my wife and I worked at decent paying jobs that allowed us to comfortably pay for all our basic needs, our mortgage, plus have a little left over for some fun. When my wife went on maternity leave, money became tighter, but life was pretty manageable. And then we made the decision that Emily should stay home full time. And our income dropped again, down to about $36,000 per year.

And it hurt.

A lot.

While we learned to stretch a dollar pretty far, as our family grew money only got tighter. And, finally, we hit a wall: either we sacrifice our values and Emily goes back to work in order to keep the house, or we sell the house.

We sold the house.

That might sound like it was pretty easy, but it was anything but. During the years between being super-broke and putting up the sold sign, God was at work powerfully, especially through our reading of Scripture. We read Jesus’ words to “be ready for service” in Luke 12:35, and realized we weren’t. Where He was calling us to, we weren’t prepared to follow. And so He continued to work on us, convicting us of our unhealthy attachment to the idea that being a responsible adult meant owning a house. And in the end, we obeyed. Not because we were so great or wise or anything like that. We obeyed because, over the course of several years, the gospel wore us down.

That tends to be how God works on our idols.

The Holy Spirit continually challenges us to apply this command to our hearts. He brings conviction about the things that demand too much of our attention, when we turn good things into ultimate things. But as He brings conviction, He reminds us of the One who is better than any idol, even the really good things we enjoy.

He points us self-deceived, weak and weary people to Jesus. Jesus, the perfect worshipper, the One who never once made something more important than the Father. Who was always prepared to serve, and always obeyed, even to the point of death. This is who we need to run to when we run from our idols, because He’s the only One worth running to.


First published at The Gospel Project, May 2014. Photo credit: Sybren A. Stüvel via photopin cc

One of the books that most deeply affected my faith

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The last little while I’ve been talking a lot about the relationship between books and the Christian faith. A little while ago, I shared five books I believe new Christians should read as well as five four and a half that I shouldn’t have read as a new Christian. Clearly, I believe books and reading are really important to our growth as Christians. (And I think God does too, since He reveals Himself in a book and all…)

So a few days ago, I asked friends and followers on Twitter about what book, outside the Bible, had the most profound impact on their faith. There were some pretty terrific answers—The Pilgrim’s Progress, Valley of Vision, Christianity and Liberalism… Even a couple of newer books like Note to Self got a mention!

I’ve been thinking about this question since I asked it—partly because it’s one of those questions that you don’t really think about until you have a reason to. What, of the tens, hundreds, or thousands of books you’ve read in your lifetime, are the ones that made the biggest impact. Of all the books I’ve had the opportunity to read, only one really jumps out at me as being a true game-changer.

What’s interesting is it’s not a book about a theological concept or anything like that. It’s a book about a person, Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor by D.A. Carson. I read this book shortly after it was released (though I don’t recall why I wanted to read it in the first place!). It’s the story of Tom Carson, a pastor and church planter whose mission field was la belle province—Quebec. He wrote no books. He received few accolades. He was just an “ordinary” pastor, with the same insecurities and doubts about his own ministry that so many of us have.

But the image that still sticks in my head is his deep dependence upon the Lord:

I went looking for Dad after the morning service to entice him to come and play the piano while the rest of us sang or played instruments. He was not where he usually was. I found him in his study, the door not quite closed. He was on his knees in front of his big chair, tears streaming down his face, as he interceded with God for the handful of people to whom he had just preached. I remember some of their names to this day. (Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor, 80)

You get this sense that when Carson prayed, he prayed as though the Lord really is sovereign—that He must intervene for the lives of Carson’s hearers to be transformed. Because He must. That’s something that keeps coming back to me, again and again, particularly as one who often struggles in my own prayer life, feeble and half-hearted as it sometimes is. God is bigger than my weaknesses, but He is pleased to use me in my weakness.

Your turn: what’s a book that most profoundly impacted your faith?


photo credit: gioiadeantoniis via photopin cc

Where the Sermon on the Mount leads

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Strange indeed is the complacency with which modern men can say that the Golden Rule and the high ethical principles of Jesus are all that they need. In reality, if the requirements for entrance into the Kingdom of God are what Jesus declares them to be, we are all undone; we have not even attained to the external righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, and how shall we attain to that righteousness of the heart which Jesus demands? The Sermon on the Mount, rightly interpreted, then, makes man a seeker after some divine means of salvation by which entrance into the Kingdom can be obtained. Even Moses was too high for us; but before this higher law of Jesus who shall stand without being condemned? The Sermon on the Mount, like all the rest of the New Testament, really leads a man straight to the foot of the Cross.

J.Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism | Image source: Lightstock

Better to tell the truth than stories

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“You used to be awesome and tell funny stories about dumb things you did. You don’t do that anymore.”One of the fifth graders at our church shared this little bit of encouragement with me as he headed out the door the other week.

He meant it as an insult. I see it, oddly, as a compliment.

A few months back, I started sharing a few stories of really foolish things I did when I was between 8 and 10 years old. Things like: jumping off a roof to see if a man (or, in this case, boy) could fly. Defying my mother and getting an ATM card for my bank account after she explicitly told me not to. Or finding all the Christmas presents during a sick day, opening and playing with them all, and then attempting to cover my tracks by “rewrapping”all the presents.

Y’know, the typical idiotic stuff you can expect an eight-year-old boy to do.

The kids all enjoyed these stories, which is great, but then I ran into a couple of problems:

  1. The stories I could think of were inappropriate for kids (most of my childhood stories are PG-13 and up).
  2. The stories I could think of were inappropriate for the lesson being taught.

The second is far more significant an issue than the first. Although some of the stories I could share make me wonder how I’m not regularly in therapy, there are some I can clean up a little to make slightly more appropriate for little ears. But when a story doesn’t connect with the meat of the lesson, I don’t feel right about using it.

Telling stories that way—telling a story just to get a laugh—puts the focus on the wrong thing: me. While I obviously want to do all I can to make what I’m saying relatable and interesting, I don’t want to put me at the center of the teaching time for the sake of a quick laugh.

I’d rather be accused of being boring because I’m not telling funny stories, if it means the kids get to hear the gospel.

But the kid who was upset that I’m not telling as many funny stories doesn’t understand that. At least, he doesn’t understand it yet. He doesn’t get that it’s more important for him to know what God’s Word says than hear about something dumb I did when I was a kid. Someday he might. And if it ever happens, I hope he’ll be thankful that I sometimes sacrificed telling stories for the sake of telling him the truth about Jesus.


Originally posted at jtcochran.com. Photo credit: amanky via photopin cc

Does your slogan say what you think it does?

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Whether it’s on our signs, our websites or on the lips of our congregations, every church has a mission statement or slogan that people rally around—something that articulates the vision of what we’re all here to do.

At least, we think it does. But maybe it doesn’t.

One of the challenges of church marketing (yes, I used the “m” word) is seeing our mission statements and slogans from an outside perspective, carefully considering what they communicate, intentionally or otherwise, to people who aren’t us. We’re all blind to our own blind spots, and without good council and perspective, the message we’re sending may be the opposite of what we’re attempting to.

This is what we see in so many of our church slogans. Here’s one example:

“A church for people who aren’t into church.”

What does this actually communicate? Let’s think about it from a couple of perspectives.

This slogan is birthed out of the seeker sensitive mindset of the 1980s and 1990s; the idea most churches using a slogan like this is trying to get across is that it’s a place where non-Christians will feel safe to explore the Christian faith at their own pace.  They’re trying to say they’re welcoming and inviting.

But what does a Christian attending a slightly more theologically conservative church take away from it? In my town, it’s a safe bet a church using this type of slogan:

  • Has topical “talks” instead of expositional preaching
  • Has a low-level of commitment from congregation members
  • Has a low-level of biblical literacy
  • Has high attendance turnover

(I say this from experience, not to be a snarky, divisive jerkwad.)

At best, to this sort of believer, it comes across as trying to be “relevant” to the culture in the negative sense, and perhaps a few steps away from abandoning the gospel at worst. (This, again, is something I’ve seen from churches using this exact slogan.)

Just as importantly, what does this slogan say to its intended target—the non-Christian?

Not much.

The difficulty here is the idea of being a church for people who aren’t into church is those people aren’t into church. There is nothing you can do to be a church for them except to not be a church! It’s like saying a banana is a banana for people who aren’t into bananas—if someone doesn’t like bananas, there’s nothing you can do to make them want to eat one, even if you claim it’s not like any other banana they’ve tried.

The fact is, there are only a few things that lead a non-Christian into a church service:

  • The work of the Holy Spirit
  • alleviating familial pressure (Easter and Christmas visits)
  • baby dedications (sometimes)

Being a church for people who aren’t into church isn’t likely to do that.

Whether we like it or not, marketing is a part of ministry. We need to think carefully—from a theological and practical perspective—on what we’re saying, considering whether or not the message we’re conveying is true and clear and God-glorifying. If we don’t, our attempts at marketing might be doing us more harm than good.


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The Internet needs a cookie

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There’s blood in the water and the sharks are circling.

At least, that’s what it looks like based on the craziness in the Christian side of the Twitter- and blogospheres:

  • People are continuing to wrestle, with varying degrees of helpfulness (very little, for the most part) with the Nathan Morales trial and the question of who knew what when. People continue to (again with varying degrees of helpfulness) press for statements from TGC’s leadership.
  • Tullian Tchividjian officially left TGC, something he’d planned to do (but evidently several months earlier than he’d originally intended), leading some to get their rage on even more.
  • On the other end of the spectrum, Rachel Held Evans, in a ham-fisted effort to illustrate God being beyond gender (since He’s neither male nor female) wrote a post referring to God as “She,” and was declared a heretic for her trouble. She’s since been asking everyone on the Internet if they think she is one.

There’s a lot right and wrong with everything that’s happening at the moment. Those who are legitimately angry about a horrific crime not being reported to police are right to be angry. The crime itself should never happen, ever, nor should any concerned parent feel like silence is acceptable.

But is it right to start spiralling and getting all conspiracy theory-y? Honestly, I’m not sure.

Because I’m friendly with a lot of TGC folks, I’m inclined to think the best of them. That’s what we all do with people we like, though (which is sometimes what gets some of these things happening). But, of course, thinking the best of someone doesn’t mean they’re exempt from criticism, as we all also know…

Tchividjian, likewise, is a guy who has taken a lot of heat—and been called a lot of nasty names—because of his views on sanctification. Again, he’s a guy I’m on good terms with, and I tend to agree with a lot of where he’s coming from (even if I’d nuance some of it differently). But does that mean he’s the right horse to bet on in the sanctification debate? Probably no more than Mark Jones is (I’m one of the few who didn’t find his book Antinomianism terribly compelling or helpful).

And then there’s Evans. Is it fair to call her a heretic for her attempt to say God is beyond gender? I don’t know; at a minimum, I’d think it’s more accurate to say she’s a sloppy lay theologian who lets her desire to win the Internets get the better of her and cries foul whenever her bluff is called. (Full disclosure: this opinion is based on her public persona as I have no personal relationship or connection with her.)

When a perfect storm of crazy comes together like it did this week, it’s easy for people to get their rage on. But we should also remember something really important: We don’t do anger well. Paul (and the Psalmist) encourage us to “be angry and do not sin” (Eph. 4:26; Psalm 4:4). James warns that our tongues are “a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell” (James 3:6). 

We should take this seriously. If even our righteous anger yields unrighteous results, particularly because of our hasty, harsh, mean-spirited words, it means we’ve got a problem. We should all be very cautious about how we use our words—especially when we’re angry! We say things we’ll regret. We say things we mean in the wrong way. And worst, we don’t take our words and redirect them to the Lord.

We don’t pray. We don’t ask for God’s wisdom. We don’t ask for God to reveal to us the state of our hearts.

That’s the danger we’re all in in this latest hullabaloo—and it’s the thing we, individually, need to protect ourselves against the most.

And sometimes the best way to do that is to just chill out, have a cookie and ask God for wisdom. You might feel better if you do.


photo credit: Bob.Fornal via photopin cc

Four and a half books I shouldn’t have read as a new Christian

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Last week, I shared five books I would encourage every new Christian read. In that post, I mentioned that in my first years as a believer, I read a lot of books I simply should not have. At all. Which ones were they? Here are five… well, four and a half:

1. Velvet Elvis by Rob Bell. I picked this up because Bell was the hip teacher at the time. Lots of folks at our church were into the NOOMA videos, and we were all gaga over them. And kinda dumb for it. This book really messed with my head at a time when I was trying to begin figuring out what it meant to be a Christian. In the end, it seems I’ve come out better for it. But would I recommend anyone follow my path? Gosh no.

2. Just like Jesus by Max Lucado. This was the beginning of my life-long whatever the opposite of a bromance is with Lucado. As a new believer, I found this book to be sappy, sentimental pap, an opinion that’s carried over into pretty much anything I’ve read of his. While I’m sure he’s a lovely man, I can’t help but hate myself a little when I read something by him.

2.5. Wild at Heart by John Eldridge. This one’s the half book because I never finished reading it. I made it about halfway before I gave up. Terrible writing combined with a weird “frontier man meets mystic” idea of what it means to be a Christian man.

3. The Irresistible Revolution by Shane Claiborne. This, again, was one of the super-hot books of 2006, and easily one of the most pretentious. For a book advocating a “simple way,” it came across incredibly arrogant and condescending. Basically it read like, “If you’re not driving a van running on vegetable oil, living in a monastic community and not bathing, you’re doing it wrong.” It also didn’t help my wife with her ongoing issue of mocking authors in a sing-songy voice.

4. The Future of Justification by John Piper. This was actually the first John Piper book I ever read, and it’s a really good one. So why’d it make this list? Because I understood it and, as a believer for only a couple of years at the time, I didn’t have the emotional and theological maturity to handle that well. I already had some pretty serious pride issues by that point, and that only served to make them worse.

There were others, of course. I read a Brian McLaren book around the time I was gaining doctrinal convictions and threw it against a wall (it was either The Story We Find Ourselves In or The Last Word and the Word After That) because of its irritating hypothetical anecdotes about hypothetical people becoming hypothetical Christians. I read  memoirs by Mark Driscoll and Craig Groeschel that did nothing to help me get a clear picture of the challenges of pastoral ministry (or, in hindsight, the character of an elder for that matter). I remember really enjoying a lot of Don Miller’s books, but failed to see some of the significant theological problems in them (particularly Searching for God Knows What).

But you get the idea. Reading books is good for new Christians, but our reading is only as profitable as the books we’re reading are helpful. When the content is beneficial and we’ve got the maturity to embrace it humbly, it’s a good thing. When the content is awful and we have the acumen to critique it thoughtfully, it’s a blessed thing. But when we’re reading anything and lack either the maturity or discernment to appropriately process it, it can lead to disaster.

Your turn: What are a few books you shouldn’t have read as a new Christian?


photo credit: gioiadeantoniis via photopin cc

How to talk when we talk about God

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What kind of pronouns should we use when we talk about God?

We typically default to the masculine “He,” but should we?

Is there anything wrong with referring to God as “she”?

While the answer might seem obvious, it is worth considering. After all, as Christians, we want to speak of God in a way that is pleasing to Him. So, here are a few things to keep in mind when considering how to to talk when we talk about God:

1. God is not a man but is spirit (Numbers 23:19a; John 4:24). Simply, human gender does not apply to God. God is neither male nor female. God is spirit and we are wise to remember this, even as we hold to the necessary tension of things like the eternal sonship of Jesus as the second member of the Trinity.1

2. God uses masculine and feminine terms and attributes when describing Himself. God is likened to a “dread warrior” (Jer. 20:11) and a faithful and long-suffering husband (Hosea—all of it!), a “mighty man” and a “woman in labor” (Isaiah 42:13-14). Wisdom is personified in female form (Proverbs 1:20-21). Jesus even emphasizes the feminine when He laments over Jerusalem, “How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Matt. 23:27; Luke 13:34) Without being too reductionistic, God is quite comfortable referring to Himself using or inspiring the use of both feminine and masculine characteristics, even if it makes some of us uncomfortable.2

3. God reveals Himself as “our Father.” But regardless of God’s comfort with taking on feminine attributes, how does God reveal Himself? As our Father. When Jesus teaches us to pray, He tell us to pray like this, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name” (Matthew 6:9). Seven times in Matthew and Luke, Jesus calls God our “heavenly Father” (Matthew 5:48; 6:14; 6:26; 6:32; 15:13; 18:35; Luke 11:13), and another 17 times in Matthew, Mark and Luke “our Father in heaven” or “our Father who is in heaven.” This is something that’s continued into the epistles, with God being called “Father” at least nine times by Paul and Peter.

This should tell us something very important: While God is very comfortable attributing feminine characteristics to Himself, when He does so, it is typically in the form of a simile—God’s love and longing for His people is like that of a mother hen’s for her chicks. His anguish over sin is like that of a woman in labor. But when God chooses to reveal Himself, and when He gives us context for our relationship with Him, He does so in the masculine—as Father.

So, how should we talk when we talk about God? We should talk about Him the way God Himself does. Embrace both masculine and feminine characteristics as He does, but pay close attention to how God speaks of Himself. He is our Father, and He wants to be referred to as such. Let’s make sure we honor His wishes.

Jesus’ authority engenders terror in the merely religious

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Not everyone recognizes Jesus’ authority; others sense the power but do not respond with faith. Even some who naturally belong to the kingdom, that is, the Jews who had lived under the old covenant and had been the heirs of the promises, turn out to be rejected. They too approach the great hall of the messianic banquet, lit up with a thousand lamps in joyous festivity; but they are refused admission, they are thrown outside into the blackness of night, “where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (8:12). The idea is not that there will be no Jews at the messianic banquet. After all, the patriarchs themselves are Jews, and all of Jesus’ earliest followers were Jews. But Jesus insists that there is no automatic advantage to being a Jew. As he later says to those of his own race, “Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit” (21:43). An individual’s faith, his or her response to the authority claims of Jesus, will prove decisive. The alternative to entrance into the kingdom is painted in horrible colors: literally the weeping and the gnashing of teeth, to emphasize the horror of the scene, the former suggesting suffering and the latter despair. The same authority of Jesus that proves such a great comfort to the eyes of faith now engenders terror in the merely religious.

This is not a teaching that is very acceptable to vast numbers in western Christendom today. It flies in the face of the great god Pluralism who holds much more of our allegiance than we are prone to admit. The test for religious validity in this environment is no longer truth but sincerity—as if sincerity were a virtue even when the beliefs underlying it are entirely mistaken.

D.A. Carson, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and His Confrontation with the World, 166 (photo: iStock)

One more reason why Sunday evening services are disappearing

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Recently, Thom Rainer shared a few reasons for the possible demise of the Sunday evening service. Yesterday, Tim Challies chimed in from his perspective, suggesting that it could be linked to a diminished view of preaching, our amusement culture and the growth of amateur and professional sports, among others. But there’s one other reason I’d like to suggest:

A diminished view of discipleship and leadership development.

This has been a growing problem not only in the church but in the culture at large, despite it being one of the most oft-cited practices of good leaders (and all who’ve read a book on leadership said, “Amen”). Younger potential leaders need guidance from seasoned leaders—to learn from their experience (both positive and negative). And seasoned leaders do their most important work when they’re investing in those coming up behind them and ensuring that there are strong leaders to take the reins after they’ve retired or moved on to another opportunity.

Yet, despite the common knowledge that developing leaders is a good thing, this is missing in the cultures of many organizations—including churches.

This should never be. After all, we see a pretty strong emphasis on this kind of development in the New Testament. Although, you’re not going to find a verse saying, “older leaders, thou shalt raise up younger ones,” what you will find is Paul exhorting older men and women to invest in younger ones (Titus 2:1-6), Paul shepherding younger men like Timothy, whom he calls his “true child in the faith” (1 Tim. 1:2), appointing elders (Acts 14:23) and tasking his protégés to do likewise (Titus 1:5).

Going a little more broadly, this kind of investing in others is part and parcel with the great commission itself—we are to go and make disciples, teaching them to obey all that Christ has commanded. This necessarily requires the older (or more mature) to train and teach the younger.

Factoring all that in, rather than think of it as leadership development, maybe it’s more helpful to see it as discipleship.

Back to Sunday evening services for a moment: what both Rainer and Challies mentioned is that many pastors simply don’t have time to prepare two different sermons for each Sunday. This is very true. The responsibilities pastors carry are great, and one of the most important is their proclaiming and teaching of the Bible. But no one says senior pastors have to be the ones preaching on Sunday evening.

Sunday night services are a prime opportunity for the training of younger preachers—men who have shown some aptitude, but need experience to both identify their strengths and confirm whether or not a calling to pastoral ministry exists. It’s also a positive way to disciple the congregation as a whole. By having someone else preach, even someone who isn’t super-experienced (and may preach a lemon or ten), the congregation is protected from developing a cult of personality (you don’t need to have a big church for this to happen). They’re learning to be discerning, as well as being reminded that they’re trust is to be in the Word, not in the words of a messenger.

These are just some of the practical values a Sunday evening service brings. While I don’t attend a church that has one (we meet in a public high school and it’s not included in our lease agreement), I have been invited to preach at other churches for their evening services. And every time, it’s been a really positive learning experience and (thankfully) the congregation leaves encouraged. The more I do it, the more I am grateful for the churches that continue to hold these services.

Now, obviously, the solution to the leadership development and discipleship issue isn’t just “bring back Sunday night services;” that would be far too simplistic a thing to suggest. But what it should make all of us consider is how are we intentionally investing in and discipling younger potential leaders—and, honestly, whether or not we’re doing it at all.

What is an evangelical?

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The term “evangelical” is colored with different shadings in various parts of the world. In North America until very recently, it was used to refer to Christians who are loyal to both a formal principle and a material principle. The formal principle is the truth, authority, and finality of the Bible. The material principle is the gospel as understood in historic evangelical Protestantism. While not wanting to minimize the theological and ecclesiastical differences in that heritage, we might summarize that heritage in terms such as these: We insist that salvation is gained exclusively through personal faith in the finished cross-work of Jesus Christ, who is both God and man. His atoning death, planned and brought about by his heavenly Father, expiates our sin, vanquishes Satan, propitiates the Father, and inaugurates the promised kingdom. In the ministry, death, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus, God himself is supremely revealed, such that rejection of Jesus, or denials of what the Scriptures tell us about Jesus, constitute nothing less than rejection of God himself. In consequence of his triumphant cross-work, Christ has bequeathed the Holy Spirit, himself God, as the downpayment of the final inheritance that will come to Christ’s people when he himself returns. The saving and transforming power of the Spirit displayed in the lives of Christ’s people is the product of divine grace, grace alone—grace that is apprehended by faith alone. The knowledge of God that we enjoy becomes for us an impetus to missionary outreach characterized by urgency and compassion.


D.A. Carson, The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism, 445 | Photo: Lightstock