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Author Topic: Christianity Today Magazine - April 2020  (Read 2404 times)

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patrick jane

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Christianity Today Magazine - April 2020
« on: April 02, 2020, 12:03:44 pm »


Have Yourself a Bittersweet Easter

A typical Holy Week is out of reach this year. That's cause for lament—and celebration.

A pastor friend lamented this week, “All our Easter plans are shot. We are gutted—our entire vision and hard work are down the drain!” Another colleague said to me that he openly wept on a staff Zoom call when he finally gave in to the realization that there was no way, given social distancing rules, to pull off the normal joys of Holy Week. He said, “This is unthinkable; it’s worse than the Cubs not playing baseball!” Many leaders I am talking to fear that Easter 2020 will whimper into a non-event, into an anticlimax that does not seem at all like Easter.

This year we face a reality check. Kids standing shoulder to shoulder waving palms on Palm Sunday? That could get you arrested. Maundy Thursday foot washing? Are you kidding? Walking the stations of the cross or pinning a note of one’s sin to a cross on Good Friday? Nope. Saturday Vigil or Holy Saturday activities? No way. And then there is Easter, where the lament comes to its deepest, most profound level.

This year we are something like our ancient exiled relatives who, with lovely memories of Jerusalem in mind, exclaimed, “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. … How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137:1, 4). Today, the lamenting refrain from working pastors goes something like this: “On Slack we sat and wept when we remembered Easter last year. … How can we sing the classic songs of resurrection and preach the classic Easter passages in a foreign place called ‘online’?”

The songs of Zion glorified Yahweh’s presence in the city of Jerusalem. But those songs seemed emotionally and spiritually distant and disconnected from the point of view of exile. In a similar way, a normal Easter is out of reach this year. On Easter Sunday morning, most of us will be housebound, sheltering in place when everything in our being will yearn to break free from our tight confinement and isolation to join Jesus in his freedom. Our hearts will cry for accustomed sanctuaries, familiar people, and family dinners. Leaders and our people will wonder, even if we can’t put precise words to it, How does loss, pain, confusion, and lament work on the one day of the year when we focus sharply on celebration?

Here are four ideas for how to navigate an Easter in exile.

Practice Both/And
What story are we in: the pain of virus and economic catastrophe or the Easter one? Must we choose? Christians do not privilege the spiritual over the material so much that the material does not matter. Two things are simultaneously true. First, Jesus has risen from the dead and it changes everything about the material world: its origin, how it is superintended, and how it will come to fulfill God’s purposes. Second, America now has the highest numbers of COVID-19 victims in the world. This is a stark, undeniable fact regarding physical bodies. This year we celebrate in the context of deep lament.

You can do it. You can walk and chew gum at the same time. Perhaps you have never had to lament-celebrate on Easter before, so it feels foreign. It is foreign. Embrace that truth. God is in liminal, foreign times.

Don’t just celebrate resurrection; practice it. Pull the eschatological power of resurrection into the pain of pandemic. Work with your team so that with emotional, spiritual, and intellectual honesty you can “keep it real” Easter morning. Process real pain within the promise Easter guarantees: “I saw ‘a new heaven and a new earth’ … [in which God] ‘will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away’” (Rev. 21:1–4).

Find Perspective
In Northern Italy, 60 priests have died from Coronavirus. How do their churches celebrate Easter? What if 60 pastors had died the last few weeks in your city or state? Historically, Easter in wartime meant that loved ones were not just sheltering in place but were far away with lethal danger nearby. There has often been fighting and killing on Easter day. We get to celebrate Easter this year because, through the hardest things humanity has to ever had to experience, the church finds a way to keep the chain of Easter unbroken.

I am hearing from clergy that last Sunday more people tuned in online than usually attend church in person. Easter 2020 may not have your hoped-for aesthetics, but it can be a gospel moment that keeps the Easter message intact for the generations to come. By keeping Easter alive this year amid all our disappointments, you will accomplish something you can cherish forever.

Pass Easter Peace
“The peace of the Lord be with you.”

“And also with you .”

Those common words used in liturgical worship are challenged when we pastors are working ourselves into exhaustion while our phones anxiously scream the latest dire predictions. Who knows what is going to happen in the next few weeks? But it doesn’t feel like a stretch to say that we could have many dazed or stunned people in our online congregations this Easter. I interact with loads of pastors, and those conversations lead me to bet on something: You are thinking your best thoughts, summoning the best creativity from your team, and praying your most fervent prayers in the hopes of staving off anticlimax while channeling the victory of God over the dark gloom and sorrow that overshadow your city in this pandemic.

As you should. There is nothing wrong with diligent, focused, passionate work. But along with effort, I want to invite you, as citizens of God’s kingdom, to relax. See if you can cultivate some times where you are less tense, moments that are less dense, softer. Create wider margins. Shoot for simplicity. As The Message has Jesus saying,

What I’m trying to do here is get you to relax, not be so preoccupied with getting so you can respond to God’s giving. People who don’t know God and the way he works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how he works. Steep yourself in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met. (Luke 12:29–31)

What if this Easter there is an invitation from God to focus on the peace that marked some of the first words of the resurrected Jesus: “Peace be with you” (Luke 24:36). Peace is an attribute of God, seen in the risen Christ. It is woven into God’s intention for humanity and is therefore possible and powerful—a potent way to live and lead for the good of others.

A difference-making aspect of practicing resurrection is to practice peace. When you cultivate peace in your heart and help others do the same, you are leading well. You are giving God’s people an amplified appreciation for the peace implicit in resurrection. Can you find peace in the coming weeks in order to embody and pass peace on Easter?

Communicate a Missional Imagination
In recent days, many of you have heard the story of 72-year-old Don Giuseppe Berardelli. We can safely bet that he, as a senior Roman Catholic priest, spent his life in mediation of, and seeking alignment to, the sacred heart of Jesus. In Holy Week, we focus especially on the heart of Jesus, who in his death lived out the truth that “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21). And in his resurrection he defeated sin, the Devil, the principalities and powers, and death itself.

Giuseppe so cherished the other-focused heart of Jesus—and so prized the reformation of his own life into Christlikeness—that when the moment came, desperately sick with COVID-19, Giuseppe overflowed with Christlikeness by giving up his ventilator so a younger person could live. Giuseppe’s act is an evocative and imaginative model for the missional moment provided to us during Easter this year. Acts of selfless generosity and sacrifice are popping up by the millions across America. In your congregation, breathe life into that hope. Fan it into flame. Celebrate how such acts are proof of the living Jesus in the church.

Pastors and preachers are always aware of audience and context. When you can’t have the special sermon, decorations, music, and musicians, when you can’t flower the cross or tease about the people who only come on Easter, the normal Easter story seems overshadowed. In actuality, the historical fact and ongoing power of the Resurrection overshadow everything and give every person, place, and time its true meaning. Even Easter 2020.

As you think about how to work on those four ideas for Easter in exile, I have a final idea for you: Jesus is alive! He is leading the most substantive, interesting, and consequential life imaginable. Even through pandemic, Jesus is superintending all creation to its intended telos. Be confident in that. Lead from that. You will deliver Easter 2020 from mere banishment of our cherished routines to freeing people to find their life, amid tragedy, in Jesus’ now-life, shepherding them into an experience of the with-God life.

Todd Hunter is a bishop of Churches for the Sake of Others (C4SO) in the Anglican Church in North America.
« Last Edit: May 02, 2020, 12:44:08 pm by patrick jane »

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patrick jane

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Re: Christianity Today Magazine - April 2020
« Reply #1 on: April 02, 2020, 11:36:38 pm »


Most Churches Have Stopped Gathering, Few Plan to Meet on Easter

While nearly all pastors say their church held in-person worship services at the beginning of March, the situation had changed radically by the end of the month.

NASHVILLE, Tenn.—The coronavirus outbreak has had ripple effects across the country, including in U.S. churches, according to a new study of pastors.

Nashville-based LifeWay Research asked Protestant pastors how the pandemic has impacted their congregations and what their plans are for the near future.

While nearly all pastors say their church held in-person worship services at the beginning of March, the situation had changed radically by the end of the month.

On the weekend of March 1, 99% say they gathered, while 95% held services the next weekend. By March 15, that number dropped to 64%. And by March 22, 11% of pastors say their churches gathered in person. On March 29, only 7% of pastors say their congregations met in person.

“Gathering for worship as a local church is a fundamental expression of the body of Christ, but so are valuing life and loving others,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research. “As mitigation guidance first impacted large churches, the majority of churches with 200 or more attendees were not meeting by March 15, and only 1% of them met March 22 as guidance continued to shift.”

Almost half of churches (47%) say they have already decided they will not meet in person for Easter. A small number (3%) say they will have an in-person gathering no matter what.

A significant number say they are in a wait-and-see situation. Close to 1 in 5 (18%) say they will have an in-person gathering if authorities allow gatherings of that size. Another 15% say they will do so if local authorities do not recommend against it. Fewer (7%) say they will have an in-person Easter gathering if in their own judgement they feel it is safe. One in 10 say they’re not sure.

Online services and groups

As churches have moved away from in-person gatherings during the crisis, most were able to transition to some form of an online video replacement.

Fewer than 1 in 10 Protestant pastors (8%) say they did not provide any video sermons or worship services this past month. By contrast, a fall 2019 survey of Protestant pastors found 41% of pastors at that time did not provide any video content for their congregation.

Around 1 in 5 pastors (22%) say their churches were already livestreaming worship services before the coronavirus pandemic hit, and they continued doing so. More than 2 in 5 (43%) say they don’t typically livestream their sermon or worship service, but they did so in the last month because of the coronavirus. Another 27% say they didn’t livestream their service but did post a video sermon online for their congregation to view anytime.

More than half of congregations (55%) say they’ve also moved their adult groups online, while 6% say they’ve continued to meet in person. Meanwhile, 40% say their groups have not met in any capacity during the coronavirus disruption.

“The rapid adoption of providing video content has been just as abrupt as ceasing in-person meetings,” said McConnell. “Churches who never would have considered offering a streaming or video option, have quickly done so. Their pastors were compelled to stay connected and to continue to provide spiritual guidance during this trying time.”

Impact to the church

Protestant pastors say the outbreak has brought both difficulties and opportunities to their congregations.

Most say they’ve seen church attendees help each other with tangible needs (87%) or meet coronavirus-related needs within the community (59%). More than half (55%) say an attendee at their church has been able to share the gospel through this time, with 4% seeing someone make a commitment to follow Christ. Many (44%) say an attendee has counseled someone crippled with fear.

Three in 4 pastors (75%) say someone within their church has had their income impacted by reduced hours at work. Around 2 in 5 (42%) say one of their church attendees has lost their job. And 5% of pastors say they have someone at their church who has been diagnosed with COVID-19.

Pastors in the West (16%) and Northeast (13%) are more likely than those in the South (2%) or Midwest (1%) to say an attendee has been diagnosed with COVID-19. Pastors in the Northeast (69%) are also most likely to say someone at their church has lost their job.

As members have lost income, churches are struggling as a result. Half of pastors (52%) say giving has decreased compared to earlier this year. One in 5 (18%) say giving has continued at similar levels, while 2% say it has increased. Around a quarter of pastors (28%) aren’t sure.

Among those who say giving is down at their church, 60% say it has decreased by 25% or more, including 30% who say it has dropped by at least 50%.

This may be due in part to many churches’ hesitancy to adopt online giving. A 2017 LifeWay Research survey found 30% of churches used a website to facilitate online giving, while more than half of Americans said they paid bills online.

“Churchgoers can still mail in a check,” said McConnell, “but this crisis has driven churches to technology. Many are now adding online giving capabilities when they’ve been reluctant to do so in the past.”

Pastoral pressure points

When asked for areas in which they are under the most pressure or ways in which they could use some support, more Protestant pastors say staying connected with their congregation is a concern (30%).

Pastors also say they worry about finances (26%), the technological challenges of the current situation (16%), offering pastoral care from a distance (12%) and members without access to technology to help keep them connected (11%).

Other concerns pastors say are weighing on them include figuring out how to be strategic (9%), the pressure around deciding not to meet (7%), the well-being of their members (7%), needing prayer (6%), being personally exhausted or stressed (6%), the time-consuming nature of the changes (6%), meeting tangible needs while socially distanced (5%), helping with the fears and hurts of others (5%), how to counsel from a distance (5%) and helping to find gospel opportunities (5%).

Few pastors (6%) say they are doing well and don’t have any current pressure points.

“Social distancing is not normal. Humans are relational by nature, and churches are a community of Christ followers,” said McConnell. “The lack of presence pains many pastors and their congregations, but they are utilizing technology like never before to stay connected until they can meet again.”

Aaron Earls is a writer for LifeWay Christian Resources.


The online survey of 400 Protestant pastors was conducted March 30-31, 2020. Invitations were emailed to the LifeWay Research Pastor Panel followed by two reminders. The probability sample of Protestant churches was created by phone recruiting by LifeWay Research using random samples selected from all Protestant churches. Pastors who agree to be contacted by email for future surveys make up this LifeWay Research Pastor Panel.

Each survey was completed by the senior or sole pastor or a minister at the church. Responses were weighted by church attendance, region, ethnicity of pastor and whether the pastor self-identified as evangelical or mainline to more accurately reflect the population. The final sample is 400 useable surveys. The sample provides 95% confidence that the sampling error does not exceed plus or minus 5.5%. Margins of error are higher in sub-groups.

The Exchange is a part of CT's Blog Forum. Support the work of CT. Subscribe and get one year free.
The views of the blogger do not necessarily reflect those of Christianity Today

patrick jane

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Re: Christianity Today Magazine - April 2020
« Reply #2 on: April 03, 2020, 07:13:07 pm »


To Truly Live, I Needed to Die

If the old me stays alive, I never escape hell. Instead, I live it.

“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).

We’re dead either way. The grace is that we get to choose which death we die.

Lent, the season of solemnity and contemplation, has become this year a global grappling with sickness, loss, and death not seen in generations. There is no spiritualizing away this novel coronavirus, tying it up in neat religious packaging. Yet there remains opportunity to be confronted not just by headlines and disease, but by God’s Word and the depths of mortality.

Scripture is clear: Before Christ comes into our lives, we’re dead in our trespasses, even while we live (Eph. 2:1–3). We’re not injured, not dirty, but dead. It’s offensive, for we can be so proud of the lives we construct. I know I was.

Yet even without the Bible telling us so, sometimes we can suspect that what we’re experiencing is death-life—that there must be more. Desperate activity and disappointment creep into the corners of our lives like clouds of mustard gas, reeking of mortality. We exhaust ourselves trying to gain or prove or establish, sometimes finally giving up.

Perhaps some of us are indeed chasing righteousness, hoping it will bring life. More likely, we’re addicted to something else that promises the same: CrossFit, essential oils, or something garden variety like money, sex, or a particular relationship that’s captured our attention. We 21st-century Westerners love self-improvement, ever seeking the next upgrade for our lives and selves. We believe in it; we deeply believe in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Before knowing Christ, I wanted to live—the verb’s meaning emphatic, hard to pin down, something more than merely existing. Perhaps I could sense the death I was living in without being bold enough to name it. Passionately, purposefully, I sought to grab life by the shoulders. Yet I was only half right (that most seductive kind of wrong). I did need to live. But to get there, I needed to die.

Jesus knew we needed to die before we were ever born, and he provided the means for that in dying for us. That’s the gift. Look at how Paul framed it in Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Paul spoke here in metaphor that isn’t really metaphor. Paul was not literally on Jesus’ cross with him that Good Friday. But Jesus’ death in literal history was just as much Paul’s crucifixion as it was the Lord’s.

In an inverted way, it mimics how Eve and Adam didn’t physically drop dead when the fruit hit their tongues, though they died all the same. And not only that, but we died too in Adam’s death (Rom. 5:12–18; 1 Cor. 15:22)! This is the source of our death-life. We weren’t there when our first parents ate the fruit. Yet our continued pattern is to act just as they did, eagerly, with the same deadly results. We’ve got their moral DNA, their terminal disease.

But Jesus came to offer a death to undo that death. For us, as for him, the only way forward is through. Because Adam’s death has claimed us, we must, like Paul, fully abandon ourselves to Christ’s death as well. Paul could have hardly been more emphatic: He was crucified, and he no longer lived. A crucified man can languish for hours, but his fate is sure. Nailed in place, it’s done.

We, too, need to fully identify with this death to self. If we posture ourselves as if all we need is a little scrubbing up, we’re deluded. We need so much more than an upgrade. Programs to make us smarter, fitter, or even more morally excellent all ultimately fail to bring us the life we need. We’re simply too corrupted, image-bearers though we are.

If the old me stays alive, awaiting a cosmic self-improvement project, I never escape hell. Instead, I live it. Jesus came to give us more.

Right after Galatians 2:20, Paul declares in verse 21, “if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” He was writing to a people who thought they could get to life through the law, walking again that minefield of half right. God’s law is perfect, such that to keep it would bring someone life! But the other half of the truth falls like a guillotine’s blade: We can’t.

Today we console ourselves with “Nobody’s perfect.” Yet we still live as if we can achieve life ourselves—yes, even as Christians. Friends, if this were possible without Christ’s death, he wouldn’t have had to come to die. We must remember how he pleaded in the garden, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Matt. 26:39, ESV).

It was not possible, and Christ drank the bitter fullness of that cup until it was as dry as the bones that filled Ezekiel’s visionary valley. But if we allow ourselves to die with Christ, to be crucified with him, we will, like that army, find sinews, flesh, and the breath of life added to us.

Isn’t this just what Jesus preached as he wound his path slowly toward Gethsemane, toward Calvary? In the chapter after Christ called Lazarus out of his tomb, he spoke this to his disciples: “Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (John 12:24–25).

If we know him, we know these words. But see how John leads us into them: “Jesus replied, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified’ ” (v. 23). There is always a direct connection between his death and ours.

Christian, what joy that his death secures yours! Now no failure can condemn you, for all is forgiven through that death. Now no temptation can own you “because anyone who has died has been set free from sin” (Rom. 6:7). Now no accusation can stick to you—even the true ones—for “we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Rom. 8:37).

Lord, teach us how to die

Rachel Gilson serves on Cru’s leadership team for theological development and culture. She recently completed her MDiv (Gordon-Conwell) and is the author of Born Again This Way: Coming Out, Coming to Faith, and What Comes Next.

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Re: Christianity Today Magazine - April 2020
« Reply #3 on: April 06, 2020, 11:18:12 am »


Not Even the Gates of a Hellish Pandemic Will Prevail Over God’s Church

Scripture doesn’t promise wealth or health or even life. What, then, does it promise?

My grandfather was a preacher at Beaverdam, a black Baptist church in Alabama. Periodically, when his ministry would take him from the pulpit, the associate pastor would step in. The joke that went around my family was that every time the associate preached, he chose the same text: Ezekiel and the valley of dry bones (Ezek. 37:1–14). In the passage, the Spirit takes the prophet to a place where the remains of the dead are strewn about. God commands Ezekiel to preach to them, and when he does, the bones are re-enfleshed and resurrected.

According to my mother, the associate pastor preached on this passage for seven consecutive years. Every time he started in on “them bones,” she and I would give each other a knowing smile and chuckle. Looking back on it now, however, his decision to revisit this story over and over doesn’t seem unreflective or humorous. It seems wise. Maybe Ezekiel’s vision is the answer to the most important question we can ask, especially in this present moment. What will God do in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles? What will he do in a world surrounded by death?

By now, the entire globe is convulsing with death, illness, and economic collapse. COVID-19 has taken the lives of too many, and a certain dread lingers as we wait for the virus to make its way to our communities. There’s not much for us to do but take the advice of professionals, pray for and give to those in need, refresh our news and social media feeds, and wait for test results along with our friends, family members, and neighbors.

The somber season of Lent seems perfectly suited to the moment. This is a time of national lament. But as we turn the corner toward Easter, dare we say more? Dare we speak of joy and resurrection in a world that feels like it’s in the shadow of death?

If the prophets of the Old Testament have anything to teach us, it’s that precisely in the darkest moments of our history, we need divinely inspired and freshly articulated hope.

We find this in the book of Ezekiel. The prophet is among the first group that departs Jerusalem after the Babylonians take the city. He lives with people who have experienced deep trauma and lost loved ones to the siege. Now their future lies in the hands of the same foreign rulers who destroyed their lives. Much of Ezekiel is a lament over Israel’s sin, which led to the exile, but the book also contains passages that look to God’s future restoration of Israel after the season of trial is over.

The most famous of these restoration passages is the dry bones narrative in chapter 37. The point of the story is plain enough: Just as it seemed impossible for dead things to be resurrected, it also seemed impossible for Israel to be restored. But God fulfilled his promise to the Israelites.

Of course, we have to be careful not to misapply the story of Israel to our own experience. Nonetheless, we as Christians know that the dry bones vision isn’t merely metaphorical and that God’s faithfulness does indeed call dead things to life. The Israelites knew that God’s ability to save them had no limits, no matter how dire the situation. The deeper the problem, the greater the glory of God’s redemptive work. For Ezekiel, then, deep human suffering collided with God’s promises, and the result was a vision of the future—dry bones coming to life—that remains with us today.

Similarly, in the black church tradition, the spirituals and hymns that look to a greater future have power precisely because they were written when we weren’t yet free. Those songs were a prophecy, written in the blood of our foremothers and forefathers, declaring that God had a better future for us. Maybe not now, but someday.

It seems, then, that the height of the COVID-19 pandemic is precisely the time to speak about hope rooted in God’s promises. These promises are not about the American economy. God has made no guarantees in that regard. He has also not guaranteed that all of us will survive. We will not. What, then, has he promised? That not even the gates of hell will prevail over the church (Matt. 16:18).

I don’t know what the future of Christianity holds in the weeks and months to come. I do know, however, that the church will not be overcome by a virus. I know this is not the end, and I know that we will in fact worship together again.

But is it possible to say even more? Is it possible to say, like Ezekiel, that the intense pain of this season can lead to a grander vision for a reinvigorated people of God? Is it possible to say that at the end of all this, we won’t simply resume our work but expand and grow the church with fresh confidence in God’s providence? I for one am anxious to see what kind of church emerges from this trial. I pray that it will be glorious.

This hope for the transformation of the church is critical to the kingdom, but the more central promise for Christians is God’s defeat of death. Jesus’ words in the upper room came during a dark time in the lives of his disciples. He knew that the time for his passion drew near and that things would get worse before they got better. He told them, “You will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy” (John 16:20). He wasn’t promising that they wouldn’t weep and mourn. He was promising joy on the other side of their mourning.

What was the source of this coming joy? His own resurrection. What is it, then, that gives hope to the church in the midst of this pandemic? The resurrection of the dead and the life everlasting. It is God’s promise, written in the blood of his son, that he loves us with a love stronger than death and that at the last, he will call us from the grave to see him as a friend and not an enemy.

The celebration of Easter tells us what lies on the other side of COVID-19 and on the other side of all our trials: life with God. This message is necessary not because we are stumbling toward Easter Sunday as a scattered and beleaguered people of God. It is necessary because the truth of the gospel shines most brightly in dark times. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).

This Easter, it doesn’t matter if we can’t be together in our local churches. We can still shout as one people, “Alleluia, Christ is risen.” God hears our triumphant cries, no matter how hampered they are by fears of unemployment, sickness, and death. Satan and the powers of evil hear them, too, and tremble.

Even if we are chained to our homes, the gospel remains free and continues to do its work. Nothing—not even a pandemic—can change that.

Esau McCaulley is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America and an assistant professor of New Testament at Wheaton College. He is the author the forthcoming book Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope (IVP Academic).

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Re: Christianity Today Magazine - April 2020
« Reply #4 on: April 06, 2020, 09:15:58 pm »


Peace and Goodwill? 'Bah, Humbug,' Says the Holy Spirit

'The Comforter' sometimes acts more like 'the Great Discomforter'

Back in the day, Mary of Nazareth set out "with haste," Luke tells us, rushing to a Judean town in the hills where her relative Elizabeth lived with her husband, Zechariah. She was anxious to tell Elizabeth, who was pregnant with the one to be named John, that she herself was also expecting. Mary's greeting was so over the top, apparently, that Elizabeth's "baby leaped in her womb." Luke continues: "And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit" (1:41).

Elizabeth is the first person in Luke's gospel to be filled with the Holy Spirit—although earlier the angel had said that John would be filled with the Holy Spirit (1:15). The Holy Spirit, in fact, shows up quite a bit in the Nativity. Zechariah is filled with the Spirit after his tongue is released. Simeon is said to have the Holy Spirit rest on him and guide him to the temple to see the infant Jesus. And, of course, there is the key moment of the drama: "Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit" (Matt. 1:18, NRSV).

It's said prosaically, as if this sort of thing happens all the time. But no matter how it is announced, the careful reader of the Bible will know that something momentous is afoot. Because when the Holy Spirit gets involved, trouble lies ahead.

Peace and goodwill are the twin wishes of Christmas, echoing the angel's announcement about the birth of Jesus. And while our worlds—global, national, and even personal—may remain cauldrons of chaos, hope springs anew during Christmas.

Unfortunately, even if we enjoy this for a few weeks in December or a few hours on Christmas morning, we are soon plunged back into the chaos. It could be a dead-end job or a dead-end marriage. Perhaps just a dead end, such as a life-threatening disease. Maybe it's your kids, or your parents, who make life so confusing right now. Maybe it's finances. Maybe it's your church. (Come to think of it, what church doesn't know some chaos?)

The chaos of our lives could easily lead to despair—unless we remember that not all chaos is bad and that some, in fact, is the work of the Holy Spirit.

In the Beginning, Chaos
When God created the heavens and the earth, the Bible says, "The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep" (Gen. 1:2, ESV). Scholars debate the exact meaning of the opening line—is it a thesis for what follows? Or is it the first act of creation? I like a simple reading: God created in rudimentary form the sky and the earth. But the earth was formless. That is, it didn't have any land, lacking mountains and valleys, canyons and deserts. No shapes or form. No property with a view.

It was also "void" of plants, animals, and people. No roses or thorn trees. No eagles or mosquitoes. No giraffes or black widow spiders. No pesky neighbors with barking dogs or beautiful people with shimmering hair.

Not that one could have seen anything anyway, for the narrative assumes that there was darkness everywhere.

And water was ubiquitous. No oceanfront property—just ocean. No tides or waves, because there was no moon to pull the water to and fro. The water that covered the earth is pictured as a placid lake at dawn.

Except that there was no dawn, no rising sun, no crowing rooster, no sparrows chirping to welcome the new day. Just darkness, and silence in the darkness. Not a scary darkness or unnerving silence—for there was nothing yet to fear. No, this darkness and silence were utterly calm, like the peace of a deep, restful sleep. In the beginning, there was utter and complete order and tranquility.

The author of Genesis says that over this order and tranquility, the Spirit of God "brooded." Not a good sign, it turns out.

What follows is usually and rightly interpreted as the unfolding of the divine order of Creation. Six days, six distinct acts of creation. Everything in its place. There is indeed something steady and solid about the created order, for which we are grateful. But look a little closer, and we see something else going on.

What God first created was light. So now there was darkness and light. The creation became dynamic. Light and darkness opposed one another. So different were they, they received distinct names: day and night. And this was only day one.

Next God made sky, and so a new dynamic was introduced. Now there were "the waters" and "the heavens."

The next day land was formed, with another new dynamic: "seas" and "earth." So now there was night and day, sky and waters, earth and sea. God was up to something.

In the middle of the third day, God really got going. He created plants and trees and all manner of vegetation. Chrysanthemums bursting with color, stately redwoods stretching to the heavens, and prairie grass waving elegantly in the wind. And, we must assume, poison oak and thorn bushes and toxic mushrooms. And he gave this resplendent variety of plants and trees the ability to reproduce, to be fruitful and multiply by propagating their seed. As we know, this ability tends to wildness—the lush and verdant chaos of life.

The camera pans out, and we see the creation of the sun, a bright and warm energy that penetrates deeply into the skin of the planet. Then, by way of contrast, came the moon—a beautiful but distant orb that hung in the sky like a shiny earring. And then came an extravagant flourish: stars. Billions of them. This was variety gone to seed, variety without number, a chaos of the heavens.

A Troublemaker God
That was already quite a day's work. But unfazed, God turned his attention back to this planet and really set things on edge. Any vegetation is resplendent enough, but it's pretty much stuck in place, confined to spending its life in one spot. What if there were a life form that could travel the planet, that could crawl and run and jump and fly?

And what if these creatures didn't merely exist side by side but also interacted with one another? What if they absolutely depended on one another, so that, in a paradoxical dynamic, they had to both pursue and be pursued, devour and be devoured by their fellow creatures, in order for life to continue to explode?

So God created living creatures, swarms of them. Creatures in the ocean. Creatures on the land. Creatures in the skies. Trout and sharks, deer and wolves, robins and vultures, among others. And the living creatures would number at least millions upon millions. As he did with the plants, God gave these creatures the ability to self-propagate. And just to make himself clear, God said, "Be fruitful and multiply." As if instinct would not have taken over soon enough.

The planet was now one fine mess. From a state of perfect peace and harmony, it had been transformed in a few short days into a lush, rich, infinitely varied cacophony of color and sound and life.

This is the sort of thing that happens when the Spirit of God hovers over things.

You'd think God had caused enough trouble for a workweek. Five days of activity that had left the planet in a state of holy confusion. But he had one more idea to put on the table before he took a break. What he did next suggests that one's best ideas are not necessarily those that come at the end of a hard week of work. But God went ahead anyway, unaffected by the consequences.

He created people. And he created them in his image and likeness: mischief-makers. Creatures who cannot leave well enough alone. Creatures like animals, restless and on the move. Creatures who pursue and are pursued. Creatures never satisfied with the status quo, born to create something new again and again. Creatures who plan and build and paint and weave and cook and carve and hunt and fish and play.

And if that were not enough, he created people in two varieties, male and female. Of the same flesh and blood, yet as different as night is from day, as the seas are from the sky, as the waters are from the land. Of the same being and substance, but as different as Mars is from Venus.

And here comes a most mysterious thing. To the man and the woman he gave the wild and unruly gift of sex. And without a warning label. Without instructions. Well, except this one: "Be fruitful and multiply." Have lots of unprotected sex. Not exactly family planning. No concerns about the woman's career or the man's freedom. No precise formula for 1.8 children. No questions about carbon footprints or affordability or spending quality time with each child. Just the command to create little communities of chaos and love called families.

The Spirit of God was finally through. The calm, orderly, and peaceful creation had been turned into a variety of form, a chaos of color and sound. And it was eucatastrophe—a good catastrophe—of life, exploding in all corners, spewing forth with the volcanic heat and energy of creativity and love and new life. If the Spirit had been brooding when he started, he must have been smiling by the end of day six. The scene was anything but peaceful. But it was wonderful. It was a holy chaos.

The Great Discomforter
When the Holy Spirit starts something new, things get a little crazy. It happens again at the Nativity. At one level, the Messiah came to save us from evil chaos—the chaos brought about by sin: injustice, guilt, suffering, and despair. But he's not going to save us from holy chaos, because that would thwart the work of the Spirit, who fills him.

So what we see in Jesus' ministry is one chaos-inducing moment after another, from the Virgin Birth ("How will this be . . . since I am a virgin?" Mary exclaims) to the boy Jesus confounding teachers in the temple, to the Spirit driving Jesus into the wilderness to be harassed by Satan, to onlookers being astounded at his miracles, to the overturning of the tables in the temple, to the startled and frightened witnesses of the Resurrection. Time and again, Jesus under the power of the Spirit creates holy chaos. Roofs come off houses, cripples cast away their crutches, pigs hurl themselves off cliffs, dead people sit up, the religious are confused, sinners are freed, and disciples are astonished when they find his grave empty.

And the Holy Spirit was just getting started. Luke tells us this was what Jesus "began to do and to teach" (Acts 1:1, emphasis mine). We see more holy chaos in Peter's crazy food dream, which leaves him confused about what to do with Gentiles. Then there's Paul, shocked into blindness at meeting the one he'd been persecuting. And, of course, there's the wild gift of tongues falling on the crowd in Jerusalem. Bystanders were so alarmed that they thought they had stumbled upon a drunken party.

When the Holy Spirit starts hovering, watch your back. Yes, the Spirit comes to assure us that our sins are forgiven (peace!) and that we are joined to Christ (love!) and that we have a blessed future with God our Father (hope!). But if the Spirit has started a new work in our lives—whether we call it a new creation or a new birth—we can be sure we'll know holy chaos.

Many people become religious because they want to get their act together. They are tired of living in confusion. They want commandments to follow, rituals to perform, spiritual disciplines to practice. They hope all this will bring them transcendent order. And it will.

But it will also bring something else, something alarming. The Bible describes it as trials, other times as suffering. Sometimes you'll be asked to take great risks. Some are called out of a life of suburban safety into an exotic land or job. Most are simply called to live into the radical freedom of grace wherever they are. Whatever it is, it isn't order. It's grounded on order, founded on the Rock of our salvation. But sometimes our lives will feel out of control. Like getting pregnant at the most inopportune time. Like life exploding uncontrolled in the wild. Like the joy of God falling on you so powerfully, you wonder if you are drunk.

That's holy chaos--the word of the Great Discomforter. Few things are more unexpected, shocking, even troublesome—ah, but also more glorious. As much as we wish each other peace and goodwill this Christmas season, if we have any sense of the way things really work, we'll wish each other a little holy chaos as well.

Mark Galli is editor of Christianity Today. Parts of this article come from his book Chaos and Grace: Discovering the Liberating Work of the Holy Spirit (Baker Books).

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Re: Christianity Today Magazine - April 2020
« Reply #5 on: April 06, 2020, 09:18:49 pm »


Ministering to Teens While They Shelter at Home

Teenagers are at home, activities are shut down, and many of those “lasts” are lost.

It’s the final stretch for the 2020 school year, and in a normal year it would be filled with several “lasts” that help bring closure for teenagers as they move from one grade to another and enter their summer break. Of course, this year is far from normal.

Teenagers are at home, activities are shut down, and many of those “lasts” are lost.

Schools and churches are launching digital programming to deliver content to the generation of our country that is the most digitally native among us. Other generations are learning and exploring this great new digital land where our teenagers have already built settlements and cities. In many ways, it’s their land, and we are invading it.

And, it’s about time.

The teenagers in your church and community need you in this moment to embrace the awkwardness of discovering a new land in order to reach them. They probably won’t say that to you, and you probably won’t get a welcome party, but they need you there with them, and they are worth it.

This generation of teenagers is the most connected generation we’ve seen, and yet the most disconnected at the same time. They have thousands of surface level relationships and conversations while few people in their lives truly know them. Anxiety, loneliness, and depression are serious challenges they were already facing before COVID-19 and sheltering in place gained the potential to morph into isolation.

The message of hope found in Jesus is the conversation your teenagers need right now. They need to hear it from you, and they need to be equipped to have that conversation with their friends. In many ways, student ministry has an opportunity in this moment to equip teenagers to talk about their faith in Jesus more than any other time. They are ready to hear it, and they are ready to pass it on to their friends.

I’ve been so encouraged by the work of student ministry leaders to move programming online in the first few weeks of this pandemic. It has been an incredible effort fueled by a desire to continue ministering to teenagers. Now, my challenge to student ministry leaders is to move beyond online programming to content that will specifically address the need and opportunity of the moment.

In 2 Corinthians 3:18, we see that as we stare at Jesus we will be transformed into His image. We know that we stare at His image through the Bible. The reality is that your teenagers are going to stare at something in their life and their identity will be transformed around that image: hurt, depression, religiosity, relationships, fear, COVID-19, and so on.

One of the main tasks of student ministry then is to help teenagers learn how to fix their eyes on Jesus rather than the abundance of other options we have to stare at in our world.

“Unprecedented” is a word that’s been used many times to describe this moment. I believe, because of the abundance of time that teenagers now have coupled with a posture of readiness to hear from God, you as a student ministry leader have an unprecedented moment to help students engage with God’s Word in a new and more consistent way.

Dream with me for a moment on what this could look like. What if there were thousands of teenagers who began reading the Bible consistently while we are sheltering at home?

What would families, churches, and communities begin to look like as the lives of teenagers are transformed by God’s Word and what would these same things look like a decade from now? What if sheltering at home became the spark of revival that has been so often led by young people in our nation’s history?

I believe these things can happen, but it will take you, student ministry leader, continuing to forge ahead settling in a new already inhabited digital land, and it will take you being willing to stay there when we are no longer sheltering at home.

Ben Trueblood is director of LifeWay Students.

The LifeWay Students team is offering help to student ministers during the COVID-19 crisis. If you’re looking for free digital Bible studies, need help troubleshooting Zoom or Google hangouts, or you’re just looking for community and support from other student ministers, check out https://studentministry.lifeway.com/hub/.

The Exchange is a part of CT's Blog Forum. Support the work of CT. Subscribe and get one year free.
The views of the blogger do not necessarily reflect those of Christianity Today.

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Re: Christianity Today Magazine - April 2020
« Reply #6 on: April 06, 2020, 09:22:13 pm »


What Passion Week Means

Because of Christ's darkest week, he can be with us in ours.

For today’s musical pairing, listen to “Agnus Dei,” Samuel Barber’s own choral arrangement of his “Adagio for Strings.” Note that all the songs for this series have been gathered into a Spotify playlist here.

“From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.’”
Matthew 16:21

Meditation 13. 1,324,907 confirmed cases, 73,703 deaths globally.

The chapters of the Gospels describing the suffering, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ are often called “passion” narratives. Medieval dramatizations are called “passion plays,” and the most famous rendering of those stories in film is called The Passion of the Christ.

As we enter into Passion Week, it’s worth pausing and asking why this is so. Why do we call these gospel accounts the “passion” of Jesus?

Words have histories, and the history of the word passion is long and illuminating. Passio is the Latin version of the Greek word pathos. For Aristotle and his followers, pathos referred to an affliction or disease. It was something endured passively, and morally it was neither praiseworthy nor blameworthy. Later, for the Stoics, the passiones were more associated with longing. We are not afflicted with disease but with desire. Whereas the Aristotelian school opposed passio to actio (passivity to action), the Stoics opposed passio to ratio (desire to reason). The intent of the Stoic was not to endure afflictions patiently but to rise above our desires and yearnings into the higher tranquility of reason.

In other words, suffering and longing weave together in passion. You can hear the echoes of that history in words that derive from pathos and passio, such as sympathy and compassion, apathy and impassibility, pathological and impassioned.

As the philologist Erich Auerbach explains in Literary Language and Its Public, Christian thought goes further when it speaks of bonae passiones or good passions. The Christian does not seek to retreat from the longings and sufferings of the world, but to shape her worldly longings into longings for God, and her worldly sufferings into sufferings for Christ. By entering into her own sufferings, and the sufferings of others, particularly those who suffer unjustly, she takes up her cross, follows Jesus, and joins in the fellowship of his sufferings.

These concepts were fashioned centuries ago and are reflected in art and literature and the devotional texts of the mystics and monastics. But they touch on something—the duality of suffering and yearning—we can easily understand. When we desire something in the depths of our being, do we not suffer for its absence? Or when we suffer something deeply, do we not long for another world, a better world, a world there all things are made right? Is this not why we undertake the privations of Lent, so that even these minor sufferings will summon and deepen our desire for the deliverance of God?

It was the passionate love of God that moved him to enter into the sufferings of humankind and begin the redemption and restoration of the world. Countless times throughout the history of the church, it has been the passionate love of the Christian that moves her to suffer with those who suffer from injustice or want and to bring hope and healing into places of pain.

There is suffering in longing and longing in suffering, and sometimes it takes suffering to awaken or reawaken our desire for justice, community, and the final triumph of good.

This week may be the darkest week of the pandemic for those of us in the United States. Perhaps it’s entirely appropriate, then, that it should also be the week of Christ’s passion, a week in which the love of God and the suffering of God redeemed the children of God and began the restoration of the world.

We ask you, O Lord, that you would help us in our suffering to sense the deeper yearning of our souls for you—and in our yearning to reach out to the suffering world as you do.

Sign up for CT Direct and receive these daily meditations—written specifically for those struggling through the coronavirus pandemic—delivered to your inbox daily.

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Re: Christianity Today Magazine - April 2020
« Reply #7 on: April 07, 2020, 11:00:50 am »


Love in the Desert of Lent

This season’s greatest gift has nothing to do with discipline.

When I hit a desert season in my spiritual life some years ago, I felt haunted by the abundance I had left behind. I missed about 10 years of sermons due to pregnancy nausea, crying babies, toddler tantrums, dirty diapers that needed changing right in the middle of the service, or my own human sin. (At least I thought it was sin, but it was more likely total and complete exhaustion.) I was a frazzled mother who brought my children to church in their pajamas and often felt disconnected from Christ there and everywhere else.

At the time, I thought my spiritual dry spell simply reflected how poorly I was doing and how undisciplined I felt in the chaos of parenting young kids. I believed that my faith could only grow in abundance—the abundance of felt worship, prayerful focus, and passionate commitment. But I was wrong. It took me years to learn that the Lord speaks in silence. And years again to learn that he holds onto me more tightly than I hold onto him. And still more years to realize that grace is best understood in periods of apparent failure, absence, and desolation.

As I look back on those desert years, I see that hard-won truth for what it is—a Lenten lesson. Although we often think of Lent as a time of strict discipline and self-denial, it requires something much more: a deep understanding of our belovedness.

The life of Christ bears this out. In the story of his encounter with Satan in the desert, we often think Jesus had victory over temptation simply because of his divinity. But the early church had a different perspective. They believed the secret to Jesus’ strength in the desert came from the event right before: his baptism in the Jordan River. Christ’s endurance lay not in the abstract power of “being divine” but rather in the human experience of being cherished by a Father who opened the heavens and said, “This is my Son, whom I love” (Matt. 3:17). That love was the secret of his ability to resist temptation. (In fact, this view was so important to early believers that they celebrated Jesus’ baptism long before they celebrated Christmas Day.)

This same love carries over to our practice of Lent. In the dry, arid season before Easter, we encounter the satiety of God’s care for us. When we turn to him, our disordered loves are exposed. And when we embrace the biblical promise that we’re cherished and known by him, we begin to put those disordered loves in proper order. That is the life-giving message I received from my wilderness experience. The Lenten desert does indeed expose us, yes, but it exposes us not for the sake of being exposed but rather for the sake of being healed.

We see this “desert love story” play out in the history of the early church. In A.D. 313, the Roman emperor Constantine made Christianity fashionable, and the church was flooded with new Christians (often with dubious motives) banging down the doors, wanting to be baptized. Priests were faced with a crisis.

Overnight, the requirements for all Christian initiates—three years of training and 40 hours of strict fasting—suddenly became impossible to enforce. So the church charged all new believers with 40 days of study and partial fasting before their baptism on the Saturday night before Easter. By A.D. 339, a mere 25 years later, the church father Athanasius reported that the 40-day fast was practiced the world over.

This baptizing of thousands of people might make some of us uncomfortable, and for good reason. Christianity as an empire religion should never sit comfortably with us. Nonetheless, the age of Constantine set in motion an innovation that radically changed the church: The original 40-hour fast became part of the ecclesial calendar in the 40-day form of Lent. It invited believers to eschew a “spectator faith” by participating in Christ’s wilderness trial.

The third-century desert fathers took this call literally and went and lived in the barren landscapes of the Middle East. One of them was Saint Anthony of Egypt. After hearing the gospel call to “sell your possessions and give to the poor” (Matt. 19:21), he sold everything and went into the Nitrian Desert.

In this inhospitable space, Anthony discovered that, even though he’d given up wealth, security, honor, relationships, and comfort, these very things followed him into the desert. He couldn’t pray. He couldn’t focus. He was tortured by thoughts of what he had given up—possibilities left unfulfilled, relationships left behind. He was in the desert, but his mind was back home.

So Anthony had to take an even deeper plunge into what the desert fathers later called the “full desert,” or what I call the “interior desert.” He did this “to give heed to himself,” as his biographer Athanasius later put it. He realized that simply giving up bad habits didn’t break their power. That was only the first step. In the interior desert, changing habits for good required replacing them with other rightly oriented affections and desires. He had to survey the spiritual chaos and then realign those disordered loves by the power of God’s love.

“I sang the Psalms against Satan, and he vanished away,” Anthony reported to younger monks (whom he called his “children”) toward the end of his life. “Often his devils would beat me, and I repeated again and again, ‘Nothing shall separate me from the love of Christ’ and at this, they rather fell to beating one another.”

When he was living in the desert, Anthony went so far as to move into a tomb to declare that his bad habits and thoughts were dead and had no hold on him, but he did so wrapped in the Spirit of Christ. He understood this fundamental truth: You can only confront your dark side in the presence of someone who loves you.

During the years of my spiritual desert, I told my husband that I couldn’t possibly give up anything else for Lent, because I felt as if everything had already been taken from me. I couldn’t give up coffee, because I could no longer drink a cup without being interrupted ten times. I couldn’t give up alcohol, because I wasn’t at liberty to drink while nursing. I couldn’t give up sleeping in, because I was already sleep deprived. None of my usual creature comforts were available to me, so I had to give up giving something up. And in that barren place, I began to understand that “feeling” close to God—my metric of spiritual success—was much less important than simply receiving the word beloved.

When he was a Yale professor, Henri Nouwen spent a six-month sabbatical with a monastic community in New York and arrived at a similar conclusion. He recognized that a monk’s journey into holiness is a journey into receiving God’s love to greater and greater depths. In October 1976, Nouwen wrote in his journal:

To respond to God’s love was a great act of faith. . . . This is the great adventure of the monk: to really believe that God loves you, to really give yourself to God in trust, even while you are aware of your sinfulness, weaknesses, and miseries. I suddenly saw much better than before that one of the greatest temptations of a monk is to doubt God’s love.

If we’re being honest, most of us dwell on our flaws before we dwell on God’s love. But the story of Jesus’ baptism in Scripture—located right before the desert temptation—reminds us that we need to listen first to God’s message of care before we try to know ourselves and our temptations. We must hear the call of Christ above our own voice of self-condemnation.

Fundamentally, Lent is an invitation to return to that wonderful and awful moment in the history of the universe when Jesus faced the Tempter. We participate in that experience by saying in so many words, “Christ has walked this dark path, and it is in him that I live and move and have my being” (Acts 17:28). We once again embrace a new identity and an entirely different way of looking at the self: It is not I but Christ who lives in me (Gal. 2:20).

In Christ, we receive the words “You are my beloved child.” In Christ, we’re led into wilderness areas—some of our own making, some imposed upon us—where we fight the Tempter with those same words of love. And in Christ, we ask ourselves, “What would it be like to hear ‘You are my beloved’ in the midst of this specific wilderness in my life?” Or, if we’re already vulnerable, we might wonder, “How can I not resent this pain but choose it again and again?”

As the years go by, I become more and more convinced that receiving God’s love from a place of weakness is absolutely essential to spiritual health. I want this experience for my kids as they grow (and sometimes flounder) in faith. I want it for myself. I want it for my theology students and the congregants in my husband’s small Anglican church in eastern Washington. And I want it for the global church as we participate in the life of Christ day in and day out. Together, we ask the loving Lord to help us know him and know ourselves.

That’s what Lent is all about. When we fast, give up social media, or relinquish other habits, we place ourselves in the wilderness. There in that barren space, we’re better able to hear the simplicity and power of the gospel message: We are loved by God and loved to the death. Only by staying grounded in this love does sin break its hold on us. Only by his affection do our temptations wither. And only through declaring ourselves beloved can we look ahead to what comes out of the desert—the resurrection of Christ, through whom all things are made new.

Julie Canlis is the author of A Theology of the Ordinary (Godspeed Press) and Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension (Eerdmans), which won a Templeton Prize and a Christianity Today Award of Merit.

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Re: Christianity Today Magazine - April 2020
« Reply #8 on: April 07, 2020, 11:04:41 am »


Coronavirus Searches Lead Millions to Hear About Jesus

Tens of thousands have clicked to pray for salvation since the outbreak. Is the increase temporary or a harbinger of greater gospel witness online?

Millions of worried people who have turned to Google with their anxiety over COVID-19 have ended up connecting with Christian evangelists in their search results—leading to a spike in online conversions in March.

In the Philippines, a woman named Grace found herself on a website about coronavirus fear hosted by the internet evangelism organization Global Media Outreach (GMO). “Please help me not to worry about everything,” she wrote in a chat with a volunteer counselor. “What’s happening now is very confusing.” The counselor explained that only Jesus can bring lasting peace, and Grace received Jesus as her Savior.

Back in the US, a volunteer at the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) chatted online with a young mother named Brittany who worried that COVID-19 would take her life and her children’s lives. The volunteer offered hope and peace, and Brittany too accepted Christ.

Three of the largest online evangelism ministries—GMO, BGEA, and Cru—account cumulatively for at least 200 million gospel presentations on the internet each year. All three say the number of people seeking online information about knowing Jesus has increased since the COVID-19 outbreak was declared a pandemic in early March.

Between mid-March and late March, GMO saw a 170 percent increase in clicks on search engine ads about finding hope. Clicks on ads about fear increased 57 percent, and about worry 39 percent. The ministry’s 12.4 million gospel presentations in March represented a 16 percent increase over the average month in 2019.

This recent surge corresponds with a broader finding by a University of Copenhagen professor: Internet searches related to prayer in 75 countries skyrocketed to their highest levels in five years in March.

“We are seeing millions of people open to talking about faith in the face of fear,” said Michelle Diedrich, GMO’s seeker journey director, “and we’re ramping up to be available for them.”

Pastors, evangelists, and online ministries tend to tell a similar story: COVID-19 escalated an already significant trend toward internet evangelism. As the virus’s spread eventually wanes, they will seek to determine whether the uptick in online witness can be sustained—and how they might improve discipleship for these new believers. Only a fraction of those who come to faith online engage in follow-up discussions or report joining a local church.

Evangelism via ‘electrons and avatars’
In March, BGEA launched landing pages with coronavirus resources in six languages (English, Spanish, Portuguese, Korean, Mandarin Chinese, and Arabic). The association also launched social media campaigns themed around fear.

In the first four weeks, 173,000 people visited the websites and more than 10,000 clicked a button indicating they made decisions for Christ, said Mark Appleton, BGEA’s director of internet evangelism. That was in addition to traffic on BGEA’s standard family of evangelistic websites, which includes SearchForJesus.net and PeaceWithGod.net and sees nearly 30,000 visitors per day. (CT reported in 2015 that online gospel presentations through BGEA were equivalent to a daily Billy Graham crusade.)

One visitor to the coronavirus page, a 17-year-old named Donmere, told a chat volunteer, “I’m not really a religious person, but I don’t know who else to turn to but God.” Forty-five minutes later, Donmere was a follower of Christ and had been pointed to discipleship resources.

Donmere’s conversion fits the profile of typical internet salvation experiences.

Pastor Mark Penick, in his 2013 doctoral dissertation at Dallas Baptist University, studied converts who came to Christ through the evangelistic website IAmSecond.com. Through in-depth interviews with 37 individuals in 17 states, Penick determined all his subjects “experienced an impassible quandary” like a divorce, job loss, or financial crisis that left them searching and questioning. Eighty-six percent said finding a Christian website was unplanned but “of their own initiative” (through actions like clicking on an ad or a search engine result). About 75 percent had “personal dysfunction and addiction issues” prior to their online conversions.

Few scholarly analyses of internet evangelism have been attempted—mostly dissertations and doctoral projects on specific evangelistic initiatives—but in 2014, the Pew Research Center found that informal online witnessing was relatively common. One in five Americans said they shared their faith online at least weekly, and 60 percent said they saw religion shared online at least weekly.

In 2018, Barna Research reported that most Christians agree technology is making it easier to evangelize and that 58 percent of non-Christians said someone had shared their faith with them on Facebook, with another 14 percent hearing a testimony through other social media channels.

Ed Stetzer, director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism at Wheaton College, said missiologists generally have a favorable view of internet evangelism.

“Historically, we’ve always thought of evangelism being done with our feet and our faces,” he said. “We go and we tell. But people feel okay that it might involve electrons and avatars” in the 21st century.

At Cru, witnessing also involves emojis. Among Cru’s digital evangelism tools for college campuses is a survey to be answered with emojis to start a spiritual conversation. Cru’s online presence also includes evangelistic mobile apps, gospel presentations in various languages, and online articles using felt needs as bridges to the gospel. One of the ministry’s most effective evangelistic websites, EveryStudent.com, received 56 million hits last year and registered 657,000 decisions for Christ.

In response to COVID-19, Cru has added 52 new resources to its websites. A corresponding bump in traffic has the ministry on pace to eclipse last year’s total number of visitors to EveryStudent.com by 20 million in 2020 and the site’s total decisions for Christ by more than 300,000.

The college-focused ministry InterVarsity USA reported a similar increase in spiritual interest amid COVID-19. In an online fundraising ad running the first week in April, the ministry stated, “We’ve seen more first-time decisions to follow Jesus in the last week than at any other time in the past year.”

A study by the American Enterprise Institute suggested the young adults targeted by ministries like Cru and InterVarsity may be more worried about the coronavirus—at least in some respects—than their counterparts in older generations.

The survey found that 53 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds are concerned about being able to afford basic housing costs amid the pandemic. Fifty-nine percent of 30- to 49-year-olds expressed the same concern, compared with just 29 percent of Americans age 65 and older. Across all generations, people said the coronavirus outbreak has caused them to feel closer to God, including 14 percent of the religiously unaffiliated.

Despite the documented rise in religious interest as COVID-19 sweeps the world, it remains unclear how much of the increase in religious internet traffic is due to the heightened interest and how much is simply a temporary replacement for in-person religious activity. Cru, for instance, has taken all of its evangelism and discipleship groups online via the video conferencing software Zoom. On a single day in late March, Cru held 746 Zoom calls, compared with 474 for the entire month of February before social distancing began in earnest for the US.

By March 29, only 7 percent of American churches were still holding physical gatherings and most had moved online, according to a survey by LifeWay Research. Just 8 percent of Protestant pastors said they had not provided any online sermons or worship services for their congregations during the month of March.

Great Commission goes digital
Regardless of whether the bump in internet traffic is permanent or temporary, it’s clear that online evangelism’s reach is global. During one week in March, Cru’s digital resources were accessed from every country in the world, Cru vice president Mark Gauthier said.

Thanks to online tools, the body of Christ “has the ability to plant churches in every unreached people group” with less expenditure of resources than ever, he said. “This is one of the greatest moments in the history of the church for the fulfillment of the Great Commission.”

COVID-19 hot spots have received particular online evangelistic focus. BGEA launched a Spanish social media campaign aimed at Spain, where about 120,000 have tested positive for the coronavirus and nearly 11,000 have died. During the campaign’s first week, 93,000 people viewed targeted Facebook posts for at least 10 seconds. More than 10,000 people had social messaging conversations in a single week with BGEA volunteers in English and Spanish.

Southern Baptist evangelist Sammy Tippit has plans for gospel witnessing during the coming months in Iran, where 45,000 COVID-19 cases have been reported. At age 72, Tippit has experienced the power of internet evangelism only in the past four years. His journey online began by preaching evangelistic sermons to villages in India via Skype. That led to a Skype event where 10,000 Indians gathered to watch Tippit preach via video, and 5,000 indicated a desire to commit their lives to Christ.

To follow up with those new believers, Tippit began making three-minute discipleship videos and distributing them on social media. The videos took off, and now a global network of his ministry partners is preparing to distribute videos of two Tippit sermons to their non-Christian friends on May 30 and 31. The sermons will be translated into 10 languages and distributed via the messaging application WhatsApp in nearly 70 countries, with an anticipated audience of 10 million

A television station in Iran got wind of the emphasis and is partnering with Tippit to distribute the evangelistic sermons to an additional 6 million people.

Only a “handful” of evangelists are doing online ministry on that scale, said Tippit, president of the Conference of Southern Baptist Evangelists. But “a lot of people I know” are “doing something on Facebook” and reaching hundreds. Tippit plans to train other evangelists in expanding their reach through the internet.

Mass evangelism’s weak point
The greatest difficulty with online evangelism is follow-up. While 60,000 people per day last year indicated on GMO’s websites that they had made decisions for Christ (either first-time commitments or rededications), the ministry was only able to track 5,244 people all year who connected with a local church after beginning their journey with Christ. “This has been our biggest challenge,” Diedrich said.

Now, with the coronavirus keeping church doors closed for the time being, new believers will need to rely even more on web resources for discipleship.

Of the 10,000 people indicating salvation decisions during BGEA’s COVID-19 campaign, about 2,030 requested follow-up. For BGEA, funneling new converts into online discipleship courses is a major part of the follow-up process, along with encouraging new believers to plug into a local church. In March, the ministry saw 3,043 people enroll in discipleship courses, up 37 percent from the average monthly enrollment. Cru sees about 40 percent of the individuals who register salvation decisions through EveryStudent.com proceed to online follow-up. This includes working through a series of discipleship lessons and being offered an opportunity to interact with someone over chat to discuss what they’re learning.

Yet the difficulty of following up with those who profess faith isn’t unique to internet evangelism. The same trouble has dogged crusades and other forms of mass evangelism, Stetzer said.

“This has been everybody’s weak point for the last hundred years,” he said. However, “we shouldn’t pull away because this is the challenge. We should try to address it” with “stronger bonds to local churches.”

Despite the follow-up challenge, the benefits of online evangelism seem to outweigh its drawbacks. Missiologists note seekers’ willingness to discuss spiritual matters in greater depth because of the anonymity afforded online. People also generally will trust the biblical counsel on websites that look reputable and professional. Internet witnessing additionally creates a lower-stress opportunity for initial evangelism attempts by Christians who may feel hesitant to share their faith in person.

A BGEA online volunteer reported, “I have lived across the street from my neighbor for 10 years, and I just went and shared the gospel with him for the first time ever because I started to do this internet evangelism, and I learned how to actually have conversations with people,” Appleton said.

Among the next frontiers in online gospel sharing is Global Outreach Day 2020. Set for May 30, the day has largely been driven online by COVID-19 and the increasingly digital nature of the world. An international coalition of organizers has set a goal of mobilizing 100 million believers to share the gospel with 1 billion people worldwide in May.

Among the main evangelistic methods will be posting personal testimonies online and then sharing them with friends via text or social media. (The Southern Baptist Convention has launched a similar campaign as the pandemic forced adjustments to its Who’s Your One? evangelistic push.)

If every Christian would send a gospel presentation to one person online and ask that person’s opinion of it, Gauthier said, “you would see a lot of people having a chance to know Christ and a lot of fruit.”

David Roach is a writer in Nashville.

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Re: Christianity Today Magazine - April 2020
« Reply #9 on: April 08, 2020, 04:43:07 pm »


What Did the Pope Really Say About Confession During COVID-19?

Unpacking Pope Francis's remarks about 'taking your sorrows directly to God.'

The rapid advance of COVID-19 has produced angst among the faithful, as with the rest of society. It has also generated a surge of religious innovation. Many of us pastors have suddenly become iPhone evangelists, streaming gospel messages to our people and anyone else who will listen. My own church, for example, has been increasing its use of technology and just shared its third Sunday service on the web.

The Roman Catholic Church, known in recent years for its dynamic development of doctrine and religious modernization, has also been required to pivot in unforeseen ways. Because of the severe impact of COVID-19 on Italy, Pope Francis has canceled his main public appearances to prevent crowds from forming. The pontiff is instead livestreaming various events—much like the growing ranks of innovative pastors here in the US. He has replaced the mandatory Mass with a “virtual parish.” He also offered the possibility of a plenary indulgence, the forgiveness of sins, because of the pandemic.

But some of us Vatican observers are wondering if the changes go beyond form to the very substance of Roman religion. And if they do, how should Protestant believers respond?

Given the inability of most Catholics to leave their homes right now, confessing one’s sins to a priest—mandated by Roman Catholicism for the forgiveness of sins at Fourth Lateran Council (1215)—is out of the question. So what should Roman Catholics do with their unconfessed sin?

Speak Directly to God

A headline in the Catholic-sponsored Our Sunday Visitor answers, “If you can’t go to confession, , pope says.” This sounds startlingly like a sentiment a sin-tormented Martin Luther would agree with.

Here’s what Pope Francis stated last week: “If you cannot find a priest to confess to, speak directly with God, your father, and tell him the truth. Say, ‘Lord, I did this, this, this. Forgive me,’ and ask for pardon with all your heart.” But the pope made this statement flanked by an image of Mary and a crucifix thought to have miraculous powers. He prayed for the world at this crucial juncture in the presence of two relics that have accompanied the people of Rome for centuries: the ancient icon of Mary Salus Populi Romani and the miraculous crucifix of San Marcello. Some, however, have noticed the mixed message. His words implied that direct access to God is available through Christ, but the symbols suggested otherwise.

Even so, the pope’s recommendation for the faithful to pray directly to God was couched in language much like that of the late Billy Graham, exalting God’s tender mercy toward His flock. “Return to your father who is waiting for you,” Francis said. “The God of tenderness will heal us; he will heal us of the many, many wounds of life and the many ugly things we have done. Each of us has our own!”

God stands ready and “welcomes every repentant sinner with open arms,” Our Sunday Visitor also reported Francis as saying, adding his words: “It’s like going home.”

Not a ‘Reformation’ for Rome
Though the requirement to confess to a priest was temporarily removed, the pope didn’t remove every obstacle to direct access with God. He said Catholics must still perform an act of contrition and promise to go to confession later. “And immediately you will return to a state of grace with God.”

“As the catechism teaches,” the pope counseled, “you can draw near to God’s forgiveness without having a priest at hand. Think about it. This is the moment.”

The Catechism (CCC N. 1452) speaks of contrition prompted by “a love by which God is loved above all else. …” Well and good. But this raises Martin Luther’s question of how the faithful are to be sure they love God “above all else” to the extent that they are safe in bypassing priestly mediation. Luther himself tried mightily to love God and obsessively confessed his sins, strictly following this standard, and—as he later confessed—he ended up hating God. The task, without the gift of faith, was beyond him. It is beyond each of us. The oft-vacillating love with which we approach God is insufficient.

And if we somehow can go directly to our tenderhearted and welcoming Father to receive forgiveness at this time, during this pandemic, why can’t the faithful do it all the time? It raises the question of whether God’s welcoming, no-strings-attached embrace of prodigals is always available or an option only during emergencies. Innovations such as this might suggest to some that Catholicism’s regulatory religion is less than practical, maybe even unlivable.

There is, of course, a full-orbed body of theology informing the Catholic practice of confession and prayer, a sacramental system that involves particular understandings of the authority and the ministry of Christ through the Roman Church. Nevertheless, the practical question continues to assert itself of how Christian men and women can enter God’s presence and come “home,” in Pope Francis’ words, to the Father’s compassionate embrace.

Talking with Catholic Friends
Rather than seeing the pope’s innovation as an opportunity to score debating points for the Reformation—which clearly isn’t over—we would do well to talk with our Roman Catholic friends and loved ones about why God accepts us.

Divine acceptance is not grounded in the love or inner righteousness that proceeds from our hearts, but in what Christ has done for us. Our Catholic friends have been taught that we must continually cooperate with Christ’s gracious work on the cross to be forgiven, and when we fail to live up to this standard—as all humans will—we are to seek divine absolution as mediated by a priest. Such a thorough system, though well meaning, gives us no assurance, even when it gets modified during a plague.

During this anxious time of sheltering at home, often with loneliness and isolation, we need to be reminded of how the father of the prodigal son noticed his repentant child returning home from a long distance away and with deep compassion ran to him with outstretched arms. This is our heavenly Father, and it’s the direct, unmediated forgiveness that he offers through the “one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus,” who died and rose so that our forgiveness would be certain and permanent (1 Tim. 2:5). As Paul stated so gloriously, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (Rom. 5:1–2).

The coronavirus pandemic and the Lenten season provide a wonderful opportunity to embody and explain this grace. And our Catholic friends may be more willing to listen. According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, a Catholic nonprofit affiliated with Georgetown University, only 2 percent of Catholics regularly go to confession—and three-fourths never go or only go less than once a year. Many in the Roman Catholic fold apparently find their religion to be unlivable.

Let’s show them a better, more hopeful way. It won’t take much innovation—just a bit of faith.

Chris Castaldo is lead pastor of New Covenant Church, Naperville, Illinois, and is the author of The Unfinished Reformation: What Unites and Divides Catholics and Protestants after 500 Years (co-written with Gregg Allison), Talking with Catholics about the Gospel: A Guide for Evangelicals, and Holy Ground: Walking with Jesus as a Former Catholic.

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Re: Christianity Today Magazine - April 2020
« Reply #10 on: April 08, 2020, 04:47:53 pm »


How to Prepare Your Heart for Holy Week This Year

No plague has ever altered the truth of redemption, and this novel virus doesn’t change the reality that Holy Week and Easter reveal.

On a warm June day in 1956, a boat sped across a lake in upstate New York. Striking a rogue wave, the impact threw a man and a young girl out of the boat into the water. The man held the girl up above the water as the boat circled back. But while the girl was being pulled to safety, the man sank into the waters. On that day, Dawson Trotman, founder of The Navigators, drowned while rescuing a girl whose name he did not know.

Evangelicals still recall this act of unselfish heroism.

On 9/11 in New York City, the heroes were the first responders. Today in New York City—and in towns and urban centers across our world—the heroic healthcare workers serve the masses infected from COVID-19, often at great risk and selfless sacrifice.

In uncertain times, acts of heroism bolster our faith and give us hope.

Holy Week comes just in time this year— we need this week and the message it brings. This week, Christians around the globe remember the sacrifice of Jesus. The stories of heroism inspire us, but the truth of Easter does even more: it transforms.

Holy Week is different this year because of the aggressive spread of a global pandemic. No plague has ever altered the truth of redemption, and this novel virus doesn’t change the reality that Holy Week and Easter reveal.

The practical ways we observe this season will be different—video venues, in-home communion for some, cancelled Easter egg hunts—but the unchanging truth of Easter remains unaffected by the virus. In fact, maybe even more this year it offers us renewed hope in the middle of this pandemic.

Holy Week reveals contrasts: crucifixion and resurrection, death and life, sin and salvation, sorrow and hope. How can we best prepare to remember the Paschal lamb in the middle of a lingering pandemic? We can renew our minds as Paul told us in Romans 12:2. Here are some specific ways you can do this during Holy Week.

Focus on Jesus and his timeless work on the cross, not temporary issues like social distancing.

While almost all of us are in some way affected by the novel coronavirus, we are not alone. God is in our midst. Easter reminds us of this.

We miss our gatherings of corporate worship; Easter Sunday will make that especially real. We miss the intimacy and proximity social distancing prevents. During Holy Week, think of a different distancing: not of church members from their church home, but of Jesus from his heavenly home; not of a pastor from his people, but of the Son from his Father.

This Easter remember what Paul wrote:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Phil. 2:5-8)

Focus on the gospel, not secondary issues.

The gospel is of first importance (1 Cor. 15:3). People are searching right now in ways we haven’t seen in our lifetime. If you are a church leader, don’t make the mistake of assuming people watching your services or being touched by your community work know what it means to be a Christian.

Churched and unchurched people realize Easter is different this year; it’s an opportunity for us to remind ourselves and others of the gospel. Let our focus be laser sharp on Jesus.

The gospel is the declaration of the victory we have in Christ because of his substitutionary death for our sin on the cross and his glorious resurrection over death. George Whitefield once said someone may preach the gospel better than him, but they won’t preach a better gospel.

There’s no better time than Easter, and especially this Easter, to tell this good news.

Focus on real suffering, not temporary discomfort.

At Easter, it is appropriate for us to lament the death and suffering caused by this pandemic: COVID-19 patients dying alone isolated from family; burials without ceremonies to grieve over the dead; the numbers of healthcare workers and others who will fall ill and die from this dreaded virus; the loss of jobs; and the mental health issues from the unsettledness of life.

It’s not okay to harp constantly about our boredom from being cooped up in our comfortable homes. Maybe this year more than others we can understand anew the paradox of Good Friday. It is good because of a blessed cataclysm: Christ’s death bringing us salvation.

As we lament, let our sorrow turn to the sinless Savior of the world, who suffered for us, and like Psalm 13, let our sorrow turn to praise.

Focus on hope, not despair.

This unprecedented season we are in, like a perpetual grey Saturday between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, seem to cover our world just now. But we are a people of hope, not despair. This is a season to remember the blessed hope we have in Christ (I Peter 1:3-9).

We treasure stories of heroism, whether a single act on a lake or a myriad of deeds by medical staff in a pandemic. As we prepare for Easter, let us lift our eyes to the One who died for us so we could have life, and let that focus bring us to worship our unchanging Lord in the middle of uncertain times.

Ed Stetzer is executive director of the Billy Graham Center, serves as a dean at Wheaton College, and publishes church leadership resources through Mission Group. The Exchange Team contributed to this article.

The Exchange is a part of CT's Blog Forum. Support the work of CT. Subscribe and get one year free.
The views of the blogger do not necessarily reflect those of Christianity Today.

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Re: Christianity Today Magazine - April 2020
« Reply #11 on: April 09, 2020, 01:14:22 pm »


Venal Dogmata: A Parable of the Future Church.

An Interview with Jeff Christopherson

Lots of people are asking if this moment will have long term implications—will it dismantle the consumer-driven church? Will this lead to some church changes that many of us have always wanted?

Well, my friend (and partner in the SEND Institute) Jeff Christopherson actually had a book in the works that asks, “What is the future of the church in North America?”

I asked Jeff, who many of you know authors the pieces for our Missio Mondays, if he’d jump in for a quick interview on the book.

Ed: Jeff, I know this is not a book written knowing that there was a crisis coming, but many of the things you talk about in the book are on the minds of a lot of Christian leaders—particularly church practices. What do you think about the timing of this?

Jeff: You know that many of us have been watching the downward “bending of the curve” among evangelicals for a while now—so, no, I didn’t write this with a pandemic in mind—I actually wrote it with a different crisis in mind—the upcoming cultural whiplash against evangelicals.

Ed: Explain more of what you mean by upcoming cultural whiplash?

Jeff: Jesus said in Matthew 26:52 that “If you live by the sword, you’ll die by the sword” as Peter tried to create some kind of Kingdom advancement for Jesus through his own personal strength.

It was an instinct that Jesus immediately rebuked, but it seems to be an instinct with which we struggle. In our attempts to regain or retain some semblance of Christendom we seem to instinctively go the route of Peter. But God’s Kingdom in never advanced through strength—only through weakness. And weakness is the dominating biblical metanarrative throughout Scripture. Inappropriate political attachments as the solution to Kingdom advance seems to me to be the contemporary corollary of Peter’s error.

Ed: So, the upcoming cultural whiplash—the live by the sword, die by the sword moment— is the cultural reaction to evangelicals when we lose our lobbying power and our political influence?

Jeff: I think so. Our weapon of choice, an inappropriate reliance on politics, will be used against us in full measure. You don’t have to be a prophet, or a son of a prophet to see where this is going. We drew our sword and took our best swing—but it wasn’t a kill.

It couldn’t have been a kill. Darkness can only be overcome by light. God’s Kingdom can’t be voted in, it can only be revealed through the weakness of selfless Jesus followers. We poked the bear, and we should expect the bear to respond as bears do.

Ed: So, you wrote Venal Dogmata as a prophetic call for political disengagement? Are you saying that we should not be involved in our community, politics, and the advocacy for positions that matter to us?

Jeff: Actually, not at all. The setting of my parable assumes the conditions of the future—one where we as evangelicals had overplayed our hand, and now, we are experiencing the social consequences. The new reality of ministry now no longer includes tax advantages, societal standing, or even neutrality. Open cultural hostility is the environment Christ-followers must navigate.

Ed: Well that seems kind of depressing.

Jeff: I sure hope not. Because historically, this is the type of environment where the most Jesus-y stuff happens. Whenever the church has been in power, it’s pretty tough to see Jesus. Darkness is what most often emanates. But when she has been pushed to the margins, watch out! Venal Dogmata paints a picture of how an African American church in Philadelphia loses everything—and then transforms into a global gospel movement.

Ed: Intriguing. Can you explain the title? It doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.

Jeff: Sure, it comes from two Latin words. Venal, which means, ‘open for corruption—bribable,’ and Dogmata, which is the plural of dogma—or a belief. So, it’s an overarching system of beliefs that are up for sale.

Ed: I’ve read your books, even wrote the foreword in a couple, I read what you write weekly in Christianity Today, but this narrative style seems like a divergence. Why did you choose this medium to communicate your message?

Jeff: I actually stumbled on it. Matt Rogers and I are writing a textbook for B&H Academic on North American missiology. In it, we describe the ten factors that are keeping evangelical churches in North America from gospel movement.

In each of these ten factors, we dig into our past and look at cultural decisions that we have made to cause us to think and act like we do. Then we move into the future and look at biblical adjustments that we must make in these ten areas in order to thrive as a missionary people.

As we were finishing the book, I thought that I needed to write a story that encapsulates these ten ideas in a parabolic form. Something that would help a student to have some handles for application and stick with them. The idea was originally to be something contained in an appendix.

But I got so caught up in the story, the characters, and the ideas that it became way too much for a textbook appendix. I sent a draft over to Todd Wilson and my friends at Exponential— and they saw the potential to take the approachable ideas that were imbedded in solid missiological thought and expose them to a much wider audience than just seminary students.

Ed: So, this is a book that anyone could read and get something from it?

Jeff: I believe so. We’ve included three sets of group discussion questions for small groups to dive into.

Ed: Interesting timing as many churches, because of this virus, have put much emphasis into their small group ministry. This could be a tool to help many churches explore their own futures.

Jeff: God’s timing is astonishing to me. Yes, perhaps this little parable is one small facet of the amazing reordering that God is doing in his church through this pandemic.

Ed: Do you think that, coming from this crisis, evangelical churches in North America will make the profound adjustments required to re-center everything on the mission of Christ?

Jeff: Some will. Many won’t. Those that were already leaning in this direction but couldn’t figure out how to get from here to there; now they have their moment. The status quo has been smashed, and now they have the opportunity to let their people taste something different. And once you’ve personally experienced the body of Christ engaged in the mission of Christ, no light and fog show will ever come close to satisfying again.

Ed: But many won’t?

Jeff: I am afraid not. It’s easy to see that already many churches are craving homeostasis. When “it’s all about the weekend,” that DNA tends to stick around. Unfortunately.

Pick up a copy of Venal Dogmata or download the e-book.

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Re: Christianity Today Magazine - April 2020
« Reply #12 on: April 09, 2020, 01:31:18 pm »


If Easter Is Only a Symbol, Then to Hell with It

The empty tomb is evidence that God’s love triumphs over death. That truth endures with or without us.

Practicing the liturgical calendar is like participating in immersive theater. Through fasting, feasting, rites, and rituals, we walk into the story of Jesus. In Advent, we lean into longing and wait together for the coming King. At Christmas, we lay babies in makeshift mangers and enter into the Incarnation. During Lent, we smear ashes on our foreheads and remember sin and death. All of it builds to the big moment: Easter Sunday.

For Christians, this is the World Series, the crescendo of the symphony, the climax of the play. This is what we’ve been sitting on the edge of our seats waiting for all year. But this year: nothing. The game is canceled in its final inning. The horn section left in the middle of the concerto. The theater caught fire in the third act.

As a priest, this feels incredibly unsatisfying. Sure, we’ll livestream services. The Word will be proclaimed. But it isn't the same. Something is clearly lost.

And yet, the solid fact remains that Christians do not make Easter through our worship and our calendar. Jesus rose from the dead, and even if it were never acknowledged en masse, it would remain the fixed point around which time itself turns. The truth of the Resurrection is wild and free. It possesses us more than we could ever possess it and rolls on happily with no need of us, never bending to our opinions of it. If the claims of Christianity are true, they are true with or without me. On any given day, my ardent belief or deep skepticism doesn’t alter reality one hair’s breadth.

Believers and skeptics alike often approach the Christian story as if its chief value is personal, subjective, and self-expressive. We come to faith primarily for how it comforts us or helps us cope or lends a sense of belonging. However subtly, we reduce the Resurrection to a symbol or a metaphor. Easter is merely an inspirational tradition, a celebration of rebirth and new life that calls us to the best version of ourselves and helps give meaning to our lives.

But the actualities that we now face in a global pandemic—the overwhelmed hospitals and morgues, the collapsing global economy, and the terrifying fragility of our lives—ought to put an end to any sentimentality about the Resurrection. To borrow the words of Flannery O’Connor, “If it’s a symbol, to hell with it.”

The stakes could not be higher. As a deadly virus speeds its way around the world bringing chaos, destruction, and death, it’s painfully clear that the Resurrection is either the whole hope of the world—the very center of reality—or Christianity is not worth our time.

“Let us not mock God with metaphor, analogy, sidestepping, transcendence; making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded credulity of earlier ages,” writes John Updike in his poem “Seven Stanzas at Easter.” If Jesus’ “cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules reknit, the amino acids rekindle, the Church will fall.”

I am a Christian today not because it answers all my questions about the world or about our current suffering. It does not. And not because I think it is a nice, coherent moral order by which to live my life. And not because I grew up this way or have fond feelings about felt boards and hymn sings. And not because it motivates justice or helps me to know how to vote. I am a Christian because I believe in the Resurrection. If it isn’t true, to hell with it.

On the other hand, if Jesus did in fact come back from the dead on a quiet Sunday morning some 2,000 years ago, then everything is changed—our beliefs, our ethics, our politics, our time, our relationships. If it is true, then the resurrection of Jesus is the most determinative fact of the universe, the center point of history. The Resurrection is ultimately truer and more lasting than death or destruction, violence or viruses. It’s truer, too, than our celebration of it, however beautiful, however meager.

That morning in history when Jesus rose, there was no expectation of a resurrection. There was no fanfare. No churches gathering with songs of triumph, no bells ringing, nothing. A few women went out to tend to Jesus’ dead body. His “nobody” disciples were laying low, lost in grief and feeling afraid. The rest of Jerusalem and the wider world had moved on. The sun rose. People went about their business gathering grain and water from wells. They started breakfast.

All of the cosmos was changed, and it was almost entirely overlooked.

This coming Sunday will be quiet too. Nearly 80 percent of Americans are under stay-at-home orders and will continue to be for most of the 50 days of Eastertide. But, in the end, what made Easter morning matter was never the packed sanctuaries, never the hymns or celebrations, rituals or rites. Just as the quietness of that first Easter did not determine if the stone rolled away or not, the locked doors of our local churches don’t determine it either.

The truest fact of the universe this Eastertide is not death tolls, emptied sanctuaries, or overcrowded hospitals. The truest fact of the universe is an empty tomb. The Resurrection is the only evidence that love triumphs over death, weakness prevails over strength, and beauty outlives ashes. If Jesus is risen in actual history, with all the palpability of flesh, fingers, bone, and blood, there is hope that our mourning will be comforted and that death will not have the final word.

Tish Harrison Warren is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America, a member of The Pelican Project, and a writer in residence at Church of the Ascension in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She is the author of Liturgy of the Ordinary and a contributor to the forthcoming book Uncommon Ground: Living Faithfully in a World of Difference.


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