Opinion

 

Feb

18

2014

Matt Smethurst|12:05 AM CT

What Not to Say to Someone Who's Suffering

"Job's friends were great counselors," Tullian Tchividjian observes, "until they opened their mouth."

Tchividjian sat down with Paul Tripp and Dave Furman to discuss things you shouldn't to say to a person in pain—many of which they've learned the hard way.

"I've made the mistake of comparing one person's pain to someone else's," recalls Furman, pastor of Redeemer Church of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. Though perhaps well intentioned, this approach diminishes the real struggle before your eyes and leaves the person to conclude you "have no idea what I'm going through." Along similar lines, Tripp adds that it's remarkably unhelpful to tell someone, "You will never suffer as much as Jesus did." To the person who suffers this comment sounds like Jesus set the bar so high that no one else's pain matters.

"The mandatory happiness we require inside the church often perpetuates the pain people feel," says Tchividjian, pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. "But we have a faith that actually embraces suffering, that looks it square in the face and is realistic about it. The idea that God suffers for us and with us is what sets Christianity apart."

Watch the full seven-minute video to see these pastors discuss blunders they've made, comforting their kids, awkward silence, and more.

Loss from The Gospel Coalition on Vimeo.

 
 

Feb

14

2014

Rosaria Butterfield|12:05 AM CT

You Are What—and How—You Read

I just returned from a well-known (and well-heeled) Christian college, where roughly 100 demonstrators gathered on the chapel steps to protest my address on the grounds that my testimony was dangerous. Later that day, I sat down with these beloved students, to listen, to learn, and to grieve. Homosexuality is a sin, but so is homophobia; the snarled composition of our own sin and the sin of others weighs heavily on us all. I came away from that meeting realizing—again—how decisively our reading practices shape our worldview. This may seem a quirky observation, but I know too well the world these students inhabit. I recall its contours and crevices, risks and perils, reading lists and hermeneutical allegiances. You see, I'm culpable. The blood is on my hands. The world of LGBTQ activism on college campuses is the world that I helped create. I was unfaltering in fidelity: the umbrella of equality stretching to embrace my lesbian identity, and the world that emerged from it held salvific potential. I bet my life on it, and I lost.

Rosaria ButterfieldWhen I started to read the Bible it was to critique it, embarking on a research project on the Religious Right and their hatred against queers, or, at the time, people like me. A neighbor and pastor, Ken Smith, became my friend. He executed the art of dying: turning over the pages of your heart in the shadow of Scripture, giving me a living testimony of the fruit of repentance. He was a good reader—thorough, broad, and committed. Ken taught me that repentance was done unto life, and that abandoning the religion of self-righteousness was step number one. The Holy Spirit equipped me to practice what Ken preached, and one day, my heart started to beat to the tempo of my Lord's heart. A supernatural imposition, to be sure, but it didn't stop there.

I'd believed gender and sexuality were socially constructed and that I was the mistress of my own destiny and desire. Through the lens of experience, this was self-evident. I'd built my whole house on the foundation of "gender trouble" (the title of Judith Butler's book), and then stood by, helpless, as it burned to the ground. But the Bible was getting under my skin. Hours each day I poured over this text, arguing at first, then contemplating, and eventually surrendering. Three principles became insurmountable on my own terms: the trinitarian God's goodness, the trinitarian God's holiness, and the authority of Scripture. And then, Romans 1 nailed me to the cross: "claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man. . . . Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts . . . because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie. . . . For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions" (Rom. 1:22-26).

Homosexuality, then, is not the unpardonable sin, I noticed. It is not the worst of all sins, not for God. It's listed here in the middle of the passage, as one of many parts of this journey that departs from recognizing God as our author. Homosexuality isn't causal, it's consequential. From God's point of view, homosexuality is an identity-rooted ethical outworking of a worldview transgression inherited by all through original sin. It's so original to the identity of she who bears it that it feels like it precedes you; and as a vestige of original sin, it does. We are born this way. But the bottom line hit me between the eyes: homosexuality, whether it feels natural or not, is a sin. God's challenge was clear: do I accept his verdict of my sin at the cross of Christ, or do I argue with him? Do I repent, even of a sin that doesn't feel like a sin but normal, not-bothering-another-soul kind of life, or do I take up Satan's question to Eve ("Did God really say?") and hurl it back in the face of God?

I had taught, studied, read, and lived a different notion of homosexuality, and for the first time in my life, I wondered if I was wrong.

Three Unbiblical Points

As I write and speak today, 14 years have elapsed since my queer activist days. I'm a new creature in Christ, and my testimony is still like iodine on starch. I'm sensitive to three unbiblical points of view Christian communities harbor when they address the issue of Christianity and homosexuality. Everywhere I go, I confront all three.

1. The Freudian position. This position states same-sex attraction is a morally neutral and fixed part of the personal makeup and identity of some, that some are "gay Christians" and others are not. It's true that temptation isn't sin (though what you do with it may be); but that doesn't give us biblical license to create an identity out of a temptation pattern. To do so is a recipe for disaster. This position comes directly from Sigmund Freud, who effectually replaced the soul with sexual identity as the singular defining characteristic of humanity. God wants our whole identities, not partitioned ones.

2. The revisionist heresy. This position declares that the Bible's witness against homosexuality, replete throughout the Old and New Testaments, results from misreadings, mistranslations, and misapplications, and that Scripture doesn't prohibit monogamous homosexual sexual relations, thereby embracing antinomianism and affirming gay marriage.

3. The reparative therapy heresy. This position contends a primary goal of Christianity is to resolve homosexuality through heterosexuality, thus failing to see that repentance and victory over sin are God's gifts and failing to remember that sons and daughters of the King can be full members of Christ's body and still struggle with sexual temptation. This heresy is a modern version of the prosperity gospel. Name it. Claim it. Pray the gay away.

Indeed, if you only read modern (post 19th-century) texts, it would rightly seem these are three viable options, not heresies. But I beg to differ.

Worldview matters. And if we don't reach back before the 19th century, back to the Bible itself, the Westminster divines, and the Puritans, we will limp along, defeated. Yes, the Holy Spirit gives you a heart of flesh and the mind to understand and love the Lord and his Word. But without good reading practices even this redeemed heart grows flabby, weak, shaky, and ill. You cannot lose your salvation, but you can lose everything else.

Enter John Owen. Thomas Watson. Richard Baxter. Thomas Brooks. Jeremiah Burroughs. William Gurnall. The Puritans. They didn't live in a world more pure than ours, but they helped create one that valued biblical literacy. Owen's work on indwelling sin is the most liberating balm to someone who feels owned by sexual sin. You are what (and how) you read. J. C. Ryle said it takes the whole Bible to make a whole Christian. Why does sin lurk in the minds of believers as a law, demanding to be obeyed? How do we have victory if sin's tentacles go so deep, if Satan knows our names and addresses? We stand on the ordinary means of grace: Scripture reading, prayer, worship, and the sacraments. We embrace the covenant of church membership for real accountability and community, knowing that left to our own devices we'll either be led astray or become a danger to those we love most. We read our Bibles daily and in great chunks. We surround ourselves with a great cloud of witnesses who don't fall prey to the same worldview snares we and our post-19th century cohorts do.

In short, we honor God with our reading diligence. We honor God with our reading sacrifice. If you watch two hours of TV and surf the internet for three, what would happen if you abandoned these habits for reading the Bible and the Puritans? For real. Could the best solution to the sin that enslaves us be just that simple and difficult all at the same time? We create Christian communities that are safe places to struggle because we know sin is also "lurking at [our] door." God tells us that sin's "desire is for you, but you shall have mastery over it" (Gen. 4:7). Sin isn't a matter of knowing better, it isn't (only) a series of bad choices—and if it were, we wouldn't need a Savior, just need a new app on our iPhone.

We also take heart, remembering the identity of our soul and thus rejecting the Freudian ideal that sexual identity competes with the soul. And we encourage other image-bearers to reflect the Original in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness, not in the vapid reductionism that claims image-of-God theology means he loves you just way you are, just the way your sin manifests itself. Long hours traveling the road paved by Bible reading, theological study, and a solid grasp on hermeneutical fallacies gets you to a place where as sons and daughters of the King, people tempted in all manner of sin, we echo Owen: "The law grace writes in our hearts must answer to the law written in God's Word." We also take heart, remembering that God faithfully walks this journey with us, that victory over sin comes in two forms: liberty from it and humility regarding its stronghold. But it comes, truly, just as he will.

* * * * *

Editors' note: During The Gospel Coalition Women's Conference, June 27 to 29 in Orlando, Rosaria Butterfield will lead two workshops: "You Are What You Read" and "Homosexuality and the Christian Faith." Visit TGC.org/2014 to find more information on the conference and register.

TGCW14 FacebookCoverPhoto

 
 

Feb

11

2014

Matt Smethurst|12:05 AM CT

The Grueling Glory of Pastoral Ministry

After TGC Arizona's recent regional conference, Paul Tripp sat down with Josh Vincent, pastor of Trinity Bible Church in Phoenix, to discuss themes related to his book Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry (Crossway) [review | interview]. "Of all the books I've written, I think it's accurate to say I wept my way through this one," Tripp reflects. "To recognize that you actually need the gospel you preach is a wonderfully healthy thing."

Tripp also observes how perilously lonely leadership can be. Since "every pastor is in need of pastoring," it's imperative for leadership teams to cultivate environments of candor and grace. "An elder board can so easily become the logistical board of a religious institution rather than a spiritual community," he says. Carving out time to pray together, then, is one small yet vital way to promote unity and health.

"There's also an underplayed devotional aspect to preaching," Tripp adds. "One of the most powerful things is when your people get to watch you worship your way through your own sermon."

And what about the minister's marriage? "Think about how many ministry wives are dealing with two men—the public man and the private man," he says. "And they know the public man isn't the one they get to have at home." This sad state of affairs may be common, Tripp says, but it's not hopeless.

Watch the full 20-minute video to learn from Tripp about mentoring, delegating, sermon prep, pulpit humor, and more.

Paul Tripp on Ministry from Thomas Daniel Media on Vimeo.

 
 

Feb

10

2014

Hugh Whelchel|12:01 AM CT

The Biblical Meaning of Success

Two great lies have been promoted in our culture during the past 20 years.

1. "If you work hard enough, you can be anything you want to be."

2. "You can be the best in the world."

These lies have been accepted and promoted by many Christians as well as non-Christians. Success, defined as being the master of one's own destiny, has become an idol. Tim Keller in his book Counterfeit Gods describes the idol in these words:

More than other idols, personal success and achievement lead to a sense that we ourselves are God. . . . To be the very best at what you do, to be at the top of the heap, means no one is like you. You are supreme.

20111211Thankfully, Scripture gives us a strong antidote to misguided ideas of success. Through Jesus' Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30) we learn that the kingdom of heaven is like a man going on a long journey. Before he leaves, he gives his three servants different amounts of money, denominated by talents. To the first servant, the man gives five talents; to the second, two talents; and to the last, one talent—each according to his ability.

Upon his return, the master asks what they did with the money. The first and second servants have doubled their investments and receive their master's praise. The third servant, however, has safeguarded the money but done nothing to increase it. As a result, he is condemned by the master for his inactivity.

The Parable of the Talents teaches us five important things about the biblical meaning of success.

First, this parable teaches us that success is a product of our work.

In the opening chapter of Genesis, we find the cultural mandate in which God commands Adam to work by stewarding and growing the resources he has been given. This mandate was meant not only for Adam and Eve, but also for us.

As Christians, we have a mission that our Lord expects us to accomplish right now. We are called to steward all we have been given while we wait for our Savior's return.

John Calvin defined the talents as gifts from God in the form of a person's calling and natural ability. Alister McGrath, in an article on the topic of calling, suggests that for Calvin:

The idea of a calling or vocation is first and foremost about being called by God, to serve him within his world. Work was thus seen as an activity by which Christians could deepen their faith. . . . To do anything for God, and to do it well, was the fundamental hallmark of authentic Christian faith.

The Parable of the Talents teaches that biblical success is working diligently here and now. The servant with five talents was industrious, for he "went at once and traded with them, and he made five talents more" (Matthew 25:16). He used all the talents that his master gave him—without hesitation—to produce the expected return.

Second, the Parable of the Talents teaches that God gives us everything we need to do what he has called us to do.

The New Testament talent is likely a large sum of money, maybe even as much as a million dollars in today's currency. We are tempted to feel sorry for the servant who received only one talent, but in reality, he received as much as a million dollars from the master and buried it in his backyard. Is it any wonder the master was so upset?

The master in the Parable of the Talents expected his servants to do more than passively preserve what had been entrusted to them, for he told the lazy servant, "You ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest" (Matthew 25:27). Similarly, God expects us to generate a return by using our talents toward productive ends. Like the servants in the parable, God has given us more than enough to accomplish this charge. It's up to us to use the talents wisely.

Third, the Parable of the Talents teaches that we are not all created equal.

The most overlooked part of the story is the second half of verse 15: "each according to his ability." The master understood that the one-talent servant was not capable of producing as much as the five-talent servant. We want to protest the unfairness. Yet we know this differing ability is true from experience. Diversity is woven into the fabric of creation.

But even though we're not created equal in regard to talents, we still see equality in the Parable of the Talents and in God's economy. It takes just as much work for the five-talent servant to produce five more talents as it does for the two-talent servant to produce two more talents. This is why the reward given to each by the master is the same. He tells each of his faithful servants the same thing: "Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much" (Matthew 25:23). The master measures success by degree of effort, as should we.

Fourth, the Parable of the Talents teaches that we work for the master, not our own selfish purposes.

The money given to the servants does not belong to them. They do not keep the money they earn with the master's capital. The servants only steward the master's investment, and the master measures the quality of their stewardship.

We should maximize the use of our talents not for our own selfish purposes, but to honor God. He cares about our attitude, the motivation in our hearts.

Finally, the Parable of the Talents shows that we will be held accountable.

The Parable of the Talents is not about salvation or works-righteousness, but about how we use our work to fulfill our earthly calling.

The unfaithful steward in this parable didn't so much waste the master's money; he wasted an opportunity. As a result, he was judged wicked and lazy. One day we will be held responsible for what we do for God with what he has given us.

So how should we define the biblical meaning of success?

The answer is almost counterintuitive; when we work for God in everything we do, including our vocational callings, we truly find the purpose, fulfillment, and satisfaction that we all desperately seek.

We work at the pleasure of the Lord, driven by our love of God. Our only desire should be to hear him say, "Well done my good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of the Master."

 
 

Feb

06

2014

Matt Smethurst|12:05 AM CT

When Staff and Lay Elders Collide

When it comes to church leadership, the New Testament pattern is clear: a plurality of elders shepherding a flock entrusted to their care. Some of them, such as the senior pastor, often serve as paid, full-time staff at the church. But many others may not. They have "regular" full-time jobs outside the church.

Senior ministers Ryan Kelly and Rick Phillips talked with lay leader Bob Doll about the conflicts that sometimes arise between staff and lay elders. "Some tension is inevitable," admits Kelly, pastor of Desert Springs Church in Albuquerque. "It requires patience on the part of the staff elders to bring the others up to speed and understanding on the part of lay elders that much has gone on."

Doll, chief equity strategist and senior portfolio manager at Nuveen Asset Management, points to inadequate vision-casting, poor communication, murky lines of responsibility, and conflict avoidance as factors that typically yield problems. Additionally, according to Phillips, pastor of Second Presbyterian Church in Greenville, South Carolina, "It's important to ensure non-staff elders aren't viewed or treated as mere rubber stampers, an applause audience for the staff."

Watch the full eight-minute video to see these leaders discuss lay elders with demanding jobs, the cesspool of sinners, losing votes, and more. Next month Phillips will be speaking at TGC's southwest regional conference, Clarus, hosted at Kelly's church in Albuquerque.

When Staff Elders and Lay Elders Collide from The Gospel Coalition on Vimeo.

 
 

Feb

05

2014

Jonathan Leeman|12:05 AM CT

Dear Donald Miller

You don't know me, but I've been a fan of your book Blue Like Jazz since I read it a few years ago. It draws from a worldview perspective I do not share, but taken on its own terms, it's a work of art. I mean that.

I don't have the exact quote, but Emerson said somewhere that great writers hold up a mirror to the world around them and say, "Here you are." Blue Like Jazz holds up this mirror for the Gen X segment of 1980s and 90s evangelicalism—my own peer group. We grew up with one foot in the world of seeker-sensitive worship services and another foot in the world of MTV, shopping malls, and sitcom laugh tracks. We eventually discovered how much the first world borrowed from the second to keep us coming back. This realization in turn led us to be skeptical toward the whole Christian program, as if Jesus were just one more product. Many of us therefore left the faith, while those of us who remained insisted on something more real, more authentic, from our Christian spirituality. Often, this search led us outside the boundaries of conventional churches.

Article_DonaldMiller

All that to say, reading your book was like walking up to a painting that captures the spirit of the age, only this painting captured my own. Thank you.

From that shared starting point, my life and spirituality traveled down a road—a way out of the inauthenticity—that's very different from yours. And here is where I have wanted to strike up a conversation with you ever since reading the book. Yes, that means pushing back a bit, but perhaps you can do the same with me.

Your recent blog post, "I Don't Worship God by Singing. I Connect With Him Elsewhere.," reminded me of all this background. In addition to saying you "don't connect with God by singing," you also say "I don't learn much about God hearing a sermon" since "a traditional lecture is not for everybody." And you admit that you don't attend church often since "church is all around us."

The worldview and spirituality here resembles what I found in Blue Like Jazz. But now we're not talking about a piece of art. We're talking about how a Christian chooses to live. And, as I said, the path I've taken from those early days of angst and displacement, neither at home in the world nor in the American evangelical church, has turned in a very different direction. Instead of moving away from the traditional forms of institutional Christianity, I've moved toward them. My way out was deeper in.

I'm now an elder in a church with hour-long sermons, several long prayers, lots of singing, membership classes and interviews and meetings. We talk about repentance, practice church discipline, and use phrases like "submitting to the elders." In fact, Don, it gets worse. I've written about these things. I've advocated for them. I've drunk the Kool-Aid and then filled a tray of Dixie cups to hand out.

No, we must not mistake these structures for authentic Christian living and love. But I do believe they are both the food that gives life to the body, as well as the skeleton that holds the organs and muscles in place. And I believe they are biblical, by which I mean prescriptive for all Christians in all times and places, albeit with circumstantial adjustments.

Spiritual life comes by hearing, seeing, and submitting, typically in that order. We hear God's Word preached, sung, prayed, and counseled. We see it lived out in the lives of fellow Christians and leaders. And we submit ourselves to the Word and these fellow sinners, with all their faults and eccentricities, in a local congregation. As my own pastor has put it, we admit that we are not the world expert on ourselves, but need one another and his Word in order to see ourselves clearly and to follow Christ. Life in the midst of Word-centered, accountability-giving fellowship, he has said, is like throwing paint on the invisible man. Wow! I didn't know I looked like that.

Pick just one word out of the Bible—say, patience. I will not know how wonderfully patient God is, and how impatient I am, until I close my mouth and listen to a fellow believer open the Bible and say, "God is patient." And then ask, "How patient were you this week with your wife and kids?" And finally tell me, "Consider God's patience for you in Christ!"

Even then, this word patient will remain a little abstract. So on Sunday morning I look across the pew at Tom, who I know is being treated unfairly at work. But there he is, belting out at the top of his lungs, "When through fiery trials, thy pathway shall lie, my grace all sufficient, shall be thy supply." The next day I ask Tom how he's doing, and he tells me how he's praying for his colleagues and inviting them to dinner. That's what Jesus' patience looks like: Tom waiting on the Lord—forgiving, praying, and singing with joy.

I need Tom, and I need every other member. I need the honorable parts of the body and the dishonorable parts. I can't say to the hand or foot, "I don't need you." I need all of them, the weak and strong, the winsome and irksome. And we all need the Word—in sermon, song, and prayer—guiding us. So we gather weekly to listen. Then we scatter to look, love, and help each other live.

I'm glad you connect with God in your work, as you wrote. Your comment reminded me to be more prayerful in my work. But shouldn't connecting with God in work be the "output"? Don't we need the "input" of Word-centered fellowship, so that we truly "connect" with him and not subtly spiritualized regurgitations of the world's influence on us?

Speaking of connection, the main thing that struck me about your article were the words connect and intimacy. They occur over and over, and seem to be the measure and goal of your spirituality. And how life-giving both are!

But if we're brainstorming on a whiteboard, we need to jot down a few more words to get the full biblical picture, words like submission, obedience, love, and worship. Jesus says that anyone who loves him will obey his teaching (John 14:23). He says that claiming to love God but failing to love our brothers makes us liars (1 John 4:20). He says the world will know we are Christians if we lay down our lives for other Christians just like Jesus laid down his life for us (John 13:34-45).

And here's where the rubber meets the road: I don't know how we can say we love and belong to the church without loving and belonging to a church. Or saying we want to connect with God, but we won't listen to God's Word for only 45 minutes out of all the minutes in a week. Ultimately, it's like claiming we're righteous in Christ, but not bothering to "put on" that righteousness with how we live.

Let me say it again: Our love and unity with the church should manifest itself in a church. Our listening to God means listening to his Word—spoken and sung.

Bottom line, Don, I've always appreciated much about your diagnosis of the contemporary evangelical church. But I don't understand your prescription. Since you're obviously a thoughtful person, I hope you will receive my challenge as a sign of respect, which I mean it to be.

Best regards to you.

********

P.S. Just saw your reply to a number of critics, posted around the same time as my letter. Again, some diagnoses I agree with, like, churches over-programatize. But you keep saying no one's church looks like the church in Acts?! Many churches I know do. People gather to hear the teaching of the apostles. And they scatter to enjoy fellowship and hospitality and care for one another's needs. They baptize as a way of declaring who belongs to "their number." And they exercise discipline when a professor lives falsely (okay, here I'm borrowing from the epistles, unless you count Peter's responses to Ananias, Sephira, or Simon as discipline).

In other words, Don, the main thing I want to highlight in response to both of your posts is the difference between what you call "community" and what the Bible calls the "church." Jesus actually gave authority to those local assemblies called churches (Matt. 16:13-20; 18:15-20). The assembly is not just a fellowship, but an accountability fellowship. It's not just a group of believers at the park; it preaches the gospel and possesses the keys of the kingdom for binding and loosing through the ordinances. It declares who does and does not belong to the kingdom. It exercises oversight. And exercising such affirmation and oversight meaningfully means gathering regularly and getting involved in one another's lives.

Your idea of community, to my ears, honestly, sounds more American and Romantic (as in the -ism of the 19th century) than biblical. All authority remains with the individual to pick and choose, come and go, owing some of the obligations of love, perhaps, but always on one's own terms, happy to stay as long as the experience "completes me" and my sense of self.

Last thought, friend: I do think you're overplaying the "people have different learning styles" card. You've read Hebrews. Talk about tough trudging, right? But it's a sermon! And you know the original hearers didn't have as much education as most Americans. But for some reason the Holy Spirit thought it was adequate for everyone.

Best to you.

 
 

Feb

04

2014

Matt Smethurst|12:05 AM CT

Returning Home to Ex-Cannibals

The Sawi were headhunters and cannibals when Don and Carol Richardson arrived in their Indonesian village carrying their seven-month-old boy, Steve—and a message that would change the tribe forever. The year was 1962, and Steve and his siblings would spend their youth among the Sawi, learning the language and embracing the culture in ways that would shape the rest of their lives. The Richardsons' story was immortalized in Don's bestselling book, Peace Child: An Unforgettable Story of Primitive Jungle Treachery in the 20th Century and a feature film of the same name, inspiring a new generation to take the gospel to the remaining isolated tribes of the earth.

Fifty years later, Steve joins his father and brothers to visit the Sawi village where they grew up. Does a gospel church remain? Are their childhood friends alive? Will anyone remember their family? Thanks to this short film produced by Pioneers, we can journey with the Richardsons to the Sawi swamps and explore the gospel's effect among a once-unreached people.

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The Storyframes Collective is a collaborative effort between The Gospel Coalition and the Austin Stone Church for the purpose of celebrating the extraordinary work of God in the lives of ordinary people. Through excellence in the art of storytelling (film, photojournalism, spoken word, and writing), this project aims to recount God's redemptive, transforming work in the lives of our brothers and sisters. In form, this website collects encouraging stories about God's grace. In function, we want these stories to inspire you to praise God.

As a collective, we hope that people from around the world will join us in collecting and telling the amazing stories of God's grace and the power of the gospel. We hope this project will increase your faith, encourage your spirit, and open your eyes to the extraordinary work of God every day in your life and in the lives of others around you.

While these stories differ in characters, formats, and locations, they share the same hero: God. Whether highlighting addiction recovery, healing, renewal, transformation, or any other form of good news, they testify to God's power and grace, made available to us through the person and work of Jesus Christ.

We hope you not only enjoy reading, hearing, and seeing these stories, but also take time to observe the stories of those around you. Tell others the story of what God has done for the world in Jesus Christ, and tell us your story—what God has done in you.

 
 

Feb

04

2014

Melissa Huff|12:01 AM CT

Where Would Jesus Live?

Where would Jesus live? WWJL? While we may not have the rubber bracelet to prove it, many of us are asking ourselves whether or not we should relocate in order to strategically pursue ministry. Living where you serve has proven to be an effective missions model, particularly for ministry among the poor. By sharing similar circumstances with your neighbors, you gain credibility and better relate to their concerns and needs.

Flickr via Christopher Sessums

Flickr via Christopher Sessums

But in recent years, stalwarts of urban ministry have created a stir over their urgent calls for Christians to move to city centers, sometimes seeming to critique suburbanites and rural folk. While some have flocked to the city, others have held their ground in affirming the value of ministry outside of the urban context. This contentious issue of "place" has led Stephen Um, senior minister of Citylife Presbyterian Church in Boston and co-author of Why Cities Matter, to plead for a truce and urge evangelicals to come together for the sake of advancing the gospel.

While we as Christians argue over which places need Jesus most, material poverty endures in all our communities and countless souls remain hungry for the Good News. The fields are white for harvest while we debate over which field will bear the most fruit. Meanwhile the Lord of the harvest seeks more laborers.

True Poverty in America

In our rapidly changing 21st century society, the city/suburbs dichotomy does not explain our nation's complex social and cultural milieu. Stereotypes of the inner city as poor, blighted, fast-paced, multi-ethnic, unsafe, crowded, and lacking basic resources has often been contrasted with an image of the suburbs as wealthy, new, slower-paced, ethnically homogenous, safe, spacious, and filled with resources and opportunity. While poverty remains more concentrated in urban centers where socioeconomic status can differ dramatically from one block to the next (literally the "other side of the tracks"), this scene no longer tells the whole story.

Today, sociologists explain that lower-income groups are leaving the city for the suburbs in a steady trickle to find more affordable neighborhoods, resulting in large pockets of suburban poverty. In their book Confronting Suburban Poverty in America authors Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube of The Brookings Institution found that the rate of household poverty in the suburbs grew by 53 percent, compared to 23 percent in the cities, from 2000 to 2010. And this trend began before the recent recession hit.

Furthermore, since the 1960s poverty has been more prevalent in rural areas than in the city. Professors Curtis and Tigges at the University of Wisconsin-Madison point out that people mistakenly perceive the inner city as poorer because poverty is more concentrated in urban neighborhoods with the visible evidence of graffiti, abandoned buildings, and littered sidewalks. Rural poverty, more evenly dispersed and sparsely settled, is therefore concealed.

So how should this tangled web of sociological data inform our response as Christians to our nation's poor and how we fulfill the Great Commission?

Am I Called?

Obviously, the Bible does not mandate that every Christian live among the poor. But God's Word calls us to follow Jesus in caring for the needs of others wherever he might lead us. For those led to minister to a specific people group in a specific place, it may be necessary to relocate. Most of the time, however, God is calling you to further his kingdom in your own backyard, even in your own household. For some, the more demanding call is to stay or go back home. Although it may be trendy to move to the big city, you may be most effective as an ambassador for Christ right where you are or in some place as unlikely and un-hip as Nazareth was for Jesus. John Perkins, father of the Christian Community Development Association, whose model includes a strong emphasis on relocation, began his ministry not in Chicago where CCDA is now headquartered but in the small rural town of Mendenhall, Mississippi. The missional mandate is not primarily relocation but bringing a holistic gospel message of mercy and truth to the spiritually lost and vulnerable among us, though it will cost you everything. Jesus said, "And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name's sake, will receive a hundred fold and will inherit eternal life" (Matthew 19:29).

As my family approaches the end of our first year living and working in inner-city Chicago, I still wrestle with whether or not we are "called" to the city when faced with the trials of raising a family in a neighborhood notorious for crime, gangs, failing schools, and many more social problems. It is difficult and can be extremely isolating, particularly as a family in the racial and socioeconomic minority. Although some days I am filled with doubts and worries over whether our decision will be long-term, I know that God is concerned with the attitude of my heart and my obedience to him, not my vain attempts to justify where I live in order to gain the approval of other Christians.

While the Holy Spirit has given me the desire to serve, the places and people he has led me to have drastically changed over the years depending on my circumstances and life season. As a single woman I became involved in ministry at a multi-ethnic church in a low-income neighborhood in Birmingham, Alabama. I had opportunities to counsel people in crisis, advocate for parolees in court, direct a tutoring program for students attending under-performing public schools, and navigate people through social services. But as a 20-something I was only caring for my own needs. Even though my husband and I made an intentional move to the city, now that I have two young children and a husband in full-time ministry (which includes raising financial support) my responsibilities and interactions look quite different than when I was single—more dirty diapers and baby dolls than dirty-South rap and drug dealers. Does this mean that my work as a Christian is less valuable now than it was back then?

We all tend to deny or minimize the grace of the cross in favor of ranking our good works. Those called to the mission field or ministry as the church narrowly defines it are seen as spiritual giants while the rest of us are relegated to the sidelines of Christian service. But ministry is life, and life is ministry. As A. W. Tozer said, "Let every man abide in the calling wherein he is called and his work will be as sacred as the work of the ministry. It is not what a man does that determines whether his work is sacred or secular, it is why he does it." Rather than getting caught up in where you should live or what you should be doing, simply ask the Lord to examine and weigh the thoughts and intentions of your heart; then pray for the courage to follow him.

Just Tell Me What to Do, Lord

Like the lawyer of the Pharisees who asked, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" we are guilty of wanting to know just what we must do to earn our salvation. Jesus responds by putting the question back to the lawyer by asking what the Scriptures teach. The man replies, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself." Unless we're willing to follow Christ wherever he leads, asking "Where should I live?" resembles the next question the lawyer asks Jesus: "Who is my neighbor?" In response, Jesus tells a scandalous story about radical love that crossed all social and religious boundaries: the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).

Rather than completely submitting his life to Jesus, the man foolishly thought he could sidestep the real cost of discipleship by trying to follow the letter of the law. His response revealed the hardened heart of a legalist trying to justify himself on the basis of good works, not evidence of a sinner who has accepted the righteousness of Christ as his only means of justification. Instead of praising his moral effort, Jesus uses the parable to reveal that the living Word compels the man to love not only his fellow Jew but also the Samaritan he passes by on the road: the one for whom he likely held deep-seated contempt and religiously cloaked prejudice.

The truth is, we are all like the lawyer trying desperately to win Jesus over with our so-called righteousness while he offers his greatest gift—his eternal mercy. If we attempt to fulfill the greatest commandment based on our prideful moralism and social activism rather than in humble response to Jesus' perfect atonement for our sins, we "deceive ourselves and his truth is not in us" (1 John 1:8). The Christian who moves to the city believing that his own efforts will "make a difference" may find that it has the opposite effect. Living among the poor may instead harden his heart toward them if he isn't willing to have his heart continually broken by Christ mercifully reminding him of his own spiritual depravity.

On the other hand, Lord forbid that we should cling to a veneer of safety and security in the suburbs while our brothers and sisters suffer on the other side of town. Are those of us who live among the relatively privileged doing so because it is comfortable or because it provides the best opportunity to evangelize our neighbors and influence secular culture? To be sure, those who have achieved worldly success are some of the most spiritually needy among us; they just wear more convincing social masks than the homeless man on the street corner.

Breaking Down Barriers

If we ask, "Where would Jesus live?" the answer is "Everywhere he is welcomed!" (see Matthew 25:35-46). He demonstrated remarkable love and service for the poor, the orphan, and the widow, but also for the religious elite, the intellectual, the wealthy, and corrupt tax collectors and politicians. Beware: If you harbor bitterness or contempt for the poor, Jesus may just call you to live among them, whether by conviction or by circumstances beyond your control. And to the proud who loathe the rich man, don't be surprised if Jesus causes you to befriend the wealthy attorney in the ivory tower.

God has a way of exposing our prejudice and breaking down social barriers to show us how much we need his forgiveness and grace. Rather than judging the lifestyle choices of other Christians, we should ask God to expose our hearts to see whether we are truly loving our neighbors as we love ourselves. Only then can we bury the city versus suburbs debate and reach our world with the gospel of mercy.

 
 

Jan

30

2014

Matt Smethurst|12:05 AM CT

Christian, You Are Crazy

What does it mean to be an ambassador for Christ? Among other things, it means being considered crazy. And is that such a bad thing?

"We represent the foreign power of the kingdom of God," Mack Stiles explains in an interview with Mark Mellinger. "There's a chain that stretches from the throne of God through us to our friend when we're sharing the gospel." Sometimes, Stiles has seen, perceived craziness is precisely what it takes for unbelievers to stop, wonder, and explore.

"As a young Christian I had to learn evangelism isn't some sort of 'raid' on people," says Stiles, general secretary for the Fellowship of Christian UAE Students (FOCUS) in the United Arab Emirates. "I came to realize what matters most is living my whole life in line with the gospel."

And what about the tricky issue of calling to missions? "There are three things to understand about calling," he explains. "You must be inspired by Scripture, informed by the gospel, and confirmed by a church."

Watch the full 12-minute video to see Stiles, author of the forthcoming Evangelism: How the Whole Church Speaks of Jesus (Crossway, 2014), talk street preachers, spousal skirmishes, why he packed his bags for the Middle East, and more. You can also listen to Stiles's message from our 2013 Missions Conference, "Being Ambassadors for Christ: The Ministry of Reconciliation" (2 Cor. 5:11-21).

Mack Stiles from The Gospel Coalition on Vimeo.

 
 

Jan

30

2014

Trip Lee|12:01 AM CT

Why I Married a White Girl

Whenever I post pictures of my family on social media, the responses are fun. Most common are "Your son is so handsome!" or "What a beautiful family!" But one of the other frequent responses is "Is your wife white?" People ask me at concerts sometimes too. The answer is yes. My wife is a mix of Hungarian, Italian, and Polish—which to most people just means she's white. This is irrelevant to some, but shocking or even disappointing to others. I don't think anyone should be shocked or disappointed by interracial marriages, but I still wanted to address why I married outside my race.

The decision to marry someone from a different ethnic background wasn't tough for me. I never sat down and wrote out a pro-con list. (Though, if I did, the fact my wife has never seen an episode of Martin would be in the con category.) I didn't agonize over it or seek counsel about whether it was okay. I was convinced she was the woman for me to marry, even though she wasn't black.

Some would never consider marrying someone who didn't share their ethnicity, so let me tell you why I did.

Expectations

I always expected to marry a black woman. I found women of all backgrounds beautiful, but black girls were my "preference." When I arrived on my college campus in 2006, though, I wasn't looking for a wife at all. I just wanted to grow in my faith and get a good education. My first album had just come out, so I had plenty of other things to focus on. But as I met people at the school, a sophomore named Jessica really caught my attention, and we became friends.

We ran in the same circles and ended up joining the same church, so we saw each other a lot. And the more I got to know her, the more I was drawn to her. She really loved Jesus, and she had this childlike willingness to do whatever he asked. Her compassion for needy people challenged me, and she had a humble heart that responded to the Word. Over that first year I watched her sacrifice countless hours of her time serving at our church. On top of all of that, I loved being around her. Our conversation, whether serious or silly, always flowed with ease. So I eventually started to ask myself, Should I marry this girl?

Preferences

Jessica didn't look like I expected my future wife to look, but that didn't matter to me. Don't get me wrong, I thought she was beautiful from the first time I met her. And I was never opposed to marrying a white girl. I just didn't think I would. But as I grew in my faith and my heart began to change, my preferences started changing too. My main preference was that my wife be godly, and Jessica was. So I wifed her.

Never for a moment did I feel like I was settling. It feels more like settling to overlook a godly woman merely because of her ethnicity. I never wanted to value my preferences for a wife over what I needed in a wife.

There's nothing necessarily wrong with having preferences, but we have to hold them with an open hand. I know certain people who overlook a potential godly spouse because they don't fit some random preference. Some of our preferences really don't matter that much. Some may even be foolish. Needless to say, we have to submit all of them to Scripture.

When you and your spouse are in the middle of conflict, skin tone doesn't matter. Body type and social status seem insignificant. You want your spouse to be godly and humble. And as my wife and I begin to raise our first child, I couldn't be more grateful for her. She's an amazing mom and godly influence on my son—neither of which has anything to do with her ethnic background. It's okay to prefer certain things in a spouse, but we have to submit our desires to what God wants for us in a spouse. What I wanted and needed most was a godly partner, and that's exactly what he provided.