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Discussion | Christian News | Chaplain's Office => Christian and Theological News => Topic started by: patrick jane on March 02, 2019, 06:50:59 pm

Title: Christianity Today Magazine - March 2019
Post by: patrick jane on March 02, 2019, 06:50:59 pm

Did Trump and Kim’s Summit Help North Korean Christians?

Experts analyze the impact on persecuted believers after the two polemic leaders walk away without a deal.

On Tuesday, US President Donald Trump referred to North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un as “his friend.”

At extreme odds a year ago, the two leaders met this week in Hanoi, Vietnam, with a new agreement possibly on the table. This time, Trump made friendly overtures to Kim—even going so far as to say he believed the leader had not been directly responsible for the death of an American student. But when the summit ended on Thursday, Trump walked away after the US refused to agree to North Korea’s demand that all sanctions be lifted off the country.

For years, North Korea has been one of the world’s worst countries to be a Christian; Open Doors has ranked it No. 1 for nearly the past two decades. Dozens of volunteers and employees from the many Christian nonprofits that serve North Koreans—believers and unbelievers alike—have had increasing difficulty serving the beleaguered population.

CT asked six experts from the Lausanne Movement’s North Korea Committee, which held consultations before and after the first Trump-Kim summit in Singapore, to weigh in. Did Trump and Kim’s summit help North Korean Christians? Their answers appear below, arranged from no to yes.

Ben Torrey, director, the Fourth River Project:

My hope is that, as a result of the Hanoi Summit, the existing regional travel restriction that is preventing US citizens from traveling to the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] will be lifted allowing Christian NGOs and humanitarian workers to enter the country. These workers are doing a great deal to help the ordinary people of the DPRK in the name of Jesus Christ. The US-imposed travel restriction interferes seriously with that mission.

I do not think the summit will have any direct benefit to North Korean Christians. In fact, it may make things more difficult as the North Korean authorities crack down even more in an effort to prevent people from using the summit as a basis for protests or other actions in the country. To the extent that it does take us one more small step further toward a permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula, it can be seen as possibly having a long-term positive effect.

It is important to keep engaging North Korea in whatever way is possible, never forgetting the severe human rights and religious liberty issues. This is a long-term process that must be bathed in prayer. Pray more than ever before for God to work in and through all these things as well as to protect his people and those who are innocent.

Joy Yoon, author of Discovering Joy: Ten Years in North Korea:
Any outcome of the summit between President Trump and Chairman Kim Jong Un and the impact it will have on Christians living and working in North Korea is yet to be seen. However, whenever two opposing parties have the willingness to turn and head toward one another, we believe it is a positive step toward reconciliation. This ministry of reconciliation has been given to us through Christ, who not counting men’s sins against them, has committed to us the message of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:19). Therefore, reconciliation between the US and North Korea is a significant step toward positive engagement, including Christian engagement, in North Korea. Our hope is that these efforts for reconciliation continue on the Korean Peninsula, and we believe this will open up new opportunities for more meaningful engagement in the future.

Justin V. Hastings, professor of international relations and comparative politics, University of Sydney:
I can see a scenario where, over the long term, the summit leads to a better US–North Korea relationship. In that situation, in bilateral dialogues, the US could take up the treatment of individual North Korean Christians.

North Korea is not engaging the US because it wants to open up. It is engaging because it wants at least some sanctions lifted so that it can keep from being forced to change and keep the regime in power. As a result, it’s unlikely that the summit will directly help with Christian engagement with North Korea, particularly since overt Christian influence in North Korea is one of the North Korean regime’s fears. However, if the US–North Korea relationship warms to the point that some sanctions are lifted, we could see a situation where North Korea welcomes in investment and humanitarian aid from Christian organizations, and the US government-associated red tape is relaxed. With enough relaxing of sanctions, there are certain areas of the economy where North Korea could be a better engagement partner.

Christians should be ready to engage with North Korea if and when change happens and should be preparing to do it from some country other than China. At some point, if the US government comes to a point where it wants to encourage North Korean non-nuclear economic development with the help of US humanitarian aid and investment, it will have to lift the US citizen travel ban. With enough progress, some sanctions could be lifted, and North Korea could turn toward the US rather than China.

A “Seoul-based researcher on North Korean affairs,” who requested anonymity:
Christians are persecuted mercilessly in North Korea, despite the presence of several state-sanctioned churches in the capital, Pyongyang. Underground churches in the North are known to have been subject to raids by the authorities and the members punished severely. The regime's control over its people depends heavily on its ability to incite fear and enforce the loyalty of the people to one “deity” only—the regime’s leader, Kim Jong Un. Any genuine transformation in the treatment of Christians in the country is unlikely to happen without a risky change in the regime’s approach to governance or, indeed, a complete change in the regime itself to a new government that allows freedom of religion.

It is important that dialogue between the US, North Korea, and South Korea remains open and positive. Only through dialogue can we improve the likelihood that certain engagement activities will resume. The US travel ban preventing citizens from traveling to North Korea has been detrimental to a range of important work being done by Christians in education and other humanitarian work on the ground. Seeing this ban lifted would be an important step forward. We don't want to return to the verbal hostilities of 2017.

Christians who have experience working inside North Korea hold some of the best knowledge and expertise on how to work with the regime effectively, in ways that deliver relief to ordinary people. The continuing positive mood between the US, North Korea, and South Korea is our best hope at ensuring this work can expand. Exposing the North Korean people to outsiders who are working to provide aid is a discreet but impactful means of transforming hearts and minds in ways that might lead to the country's opening in the future.

Jamie Kim, chair of the Lausanne Movement’s North Korea Committee:
A successful Trump-Kim summit will help with Christian engagement in North Korea. We must remember that a year ago, there were rumors of a preemptive strike against North Korea. As economic and cultural exchanges open the door to North Korea, Christian business people and entrepreneurs can go to empower the people with business, development, and social enterprise. As prejudice and ignorance are broken down with meaningful people-to-people contact, there is potential for forgiveness, reconciliation, and sharing of lives. With 70 years of name-calling and demonizing, it is important for Christians to lead the way toward bridge building.

Christians have led the way toward bridge building in the last 20-plus years, and the summit can potentially open the border between North and South Korea. While many of the Western NGOs and businesses have abandoned North Korea, it is the Christians who have stayed the ground. In spite of misunderstanding and even persecution by others in the West, Christians have persevered in building relationships with the people of North Korea.

On the other hand, we must remember that politics is not the complete story. Christians must seek the Lord’s mercy and justice to prevail on the Korean Peninsula. We must pray for justice to prevail so that the people of North Korea can have the freedom to worship God. We just pray for mercy so that the leadership of North Korea will have a change of heart.

What also needs to happen next is to train Christian professionals to prepare for the work inside North Korea. It is not easy living and working in North Korea. The regime and the leadership have not changed yet. Although the country desires to open and to allow foreign investment and people to open the market, it will not be easy for its leadership to change. As a result, there needs to be education and equipping of people to be effective inside North Korea. Not only professionally, but it will be important to train people culturally and spiritually to survive and thrive inside.

David Ro, the Lausanne Movement’s East Asia regional director:
President Trump is a tough, shrewd business negotiator, and for him to walk away is just a tactic to get a better deal later. I foresee a better deal coming with the US slowly lifting sanctions and North Korea dismantling their nuclear weapons. Most are expecting immediate results, but it will take many more rounds. The US and China are about to sign a trade deal, which would come first before any North Korea agreement.

In the long run, Trump’s North Korea strategy will affect the Christians in North Korea, but there will not be any results in the near future or the next few years. Most important is the trajectory has been set toward a direction of engagement and peace. Human rights abuses will continue to be addressed with advancement and retreats just as with China. It will be a long road ahead, but at least now there is more optimism of a US–North Korea deal than ever before.

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Title: Re: Christianity Today Magazine - March 2019
Post by: patrick jane on March 04, 2019, 08:48:38 pm

Saving Retirement

Growing old is not what it used to be. For millions of retirees, that may actually be good news.

Pat Poole felt a mix of relief and uncertainty once he decided to retire from his sales management job at Halliburton at the end of March. An Oklahoma Sooners football fan and an avid golfer, Poole looked forward to more leisure time after leaving the Houston-based global oil service company. But he also had questions. One morning, he put down the TV remote and asked his wife with complete sincerity, “What am I going to do?”

The world is undergoing a massive demographic shift. More than 70 million baby boomers will retire in the next 20 years in the United States alone. By 2035, Americans of retirement age will exceed the number of people under age 18 for the first time in US history. Globally, the number of people age 60 and over is projected to double to more than 2 billion by 2050.

But as retirement looms for baby boomers, a growing number of them—both Christians and their neighbors—are discontented with current cultural assumptions about it. They’re asking new questions about money, work, time, family, leisure, and a life of purpose.

As Americans live longer, “we do not know what we will be doing with all that time,” Joseph Coughlin, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s AgeLab, told the National Journal. Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott, authors of 100-Year Life: Living and Working in an Age of Longevity, point out that people are living longer than ever before, and the average retiree can expect to live another 20–30 years.

What retirees consistently say they want to do with their time in retirement is spend it with family. But what happens when the realities of caring for needy adult children, looking after aging parents, and spending newfound hours every day with a spouse conflict with desires for rest and leisure? And how much leisure is too much? One study found that inactivity in retirement can increase chances of clinical depression by 40 percent.

Anne Bell, a recently retired researcher at the University of Northern Colorado, spent a year early in her retirement volunteering with the 5280 Fellowship, a leadership development program in Denver. Bright and soft spoken, Bell was speaking one day to a group of early-career professionals when she found herself wiping away a tear. “I’m really searching for what I’m called to,” she confessed. “I just want to know what’s next.”

Bell is one of millions of baby boomers, the majority of whom are Christians, who are asking new questions about a new society. Yet considering retirement is one of the most widespread experiences of an aging world, the church has been almost silent on the topic.

Leaving Paradise
The idea of retirement as a never-ending vacation was popularized beginning in the 1950s by developers and the financial services industry. Indeed, the financial services industry—with an estimated total value of $27 trillion—is deeply dependent on the idea. A Google search for the word retirement returns a host of retirement calculators and articles on 401(k)s and IRAs—and images of gray-haired couples blissfully holding hands, walking white-sanded beaches. The message: Save enough and you too can have paradise.

It’s an ironic picture, given that at its founding in 1958 even AARP—the world’s largest nonprofit devoted to advocating for seniors—was encouraging retirees “to serve, not to be served.”

But the vacation ideal of retirement has led to a number of unsatisfying options for older Christians across the developed world. First, the dream itself is showing cracks in the hull. “At first, I kind of enjoyed the novelty of it. I felt like I was playing hooky,” says Ben Whittaker, the 70-year-old widower in the 2015 film The Intern, written by fellow boomer Nancy Meyers. “I used all the miles I’d saved and traveled the globe. The problem was, no matter where I went, the ‘nowhere-to-be’ thing hit me like a ton of bricks.... I know there’s a hole in my life, and I need to fill it. Soon.”

Margaret Mark, former head of research at the advertising agency Young & Rubicam, interviewed retired Americans (ages 55–70) across socioeconomic spectra. They reported a love for their newfound freedom and lauded the glories of no longer having a commute. Yet when asked about their overall happiness in retirement, doubts crept in. They reported a powerful sense of loneliness. Even though they had more time for family and friends, they missed the bonds they experienced at work, or “relationships with a purpose.”

In short, retirement as a never-ending vacation is, for many, much more appealing before they actually try it.

Millions more Americans are realizing they could not afford that vacation even if they wanted it and are instead worried they may not be able to afford basic necessities. The Economist reported in 2015 the average retirement assets of those aged 50–59 in 2013 were just $110,000, yet they would need $250,000 just to sustain $10,000 a year in retirement income. According to The Wall Street Journal, more than 40 percent of households headed by people ages 55–70 (about 15 million people) lack the resources to maintain their standard of living in retirement. And just as traditional pensions are disappearing for younger workers, one-third of American adults have no retirement savings at all, according to

Mitch Anthony, author of The New Retirementality, put it this way: “Retirement is an illusion because those who can afford the illusion are disillusioned by it, and those who cannot afford the illusion are haunted by it.”

Quickly establishing itself as an alternative to the “let’s vacation” paradigm is a widespread movement toward “encore careers.” Promoted by leaders like Marc Freedman, president and CEO of, the story is that retirement isn’t about leisure as much as social entrepreneurship and civic engagement. “Our enormous and rapidly growing older population—commonly portrayed as a burden to the nation and a drain on future generations—is a vast, untapped social resource,” writes Freedman in his book Prime Time. “If we can engage these individuals in ways that fill urgent gaps in our society, the result would be a windfall for American civic life in the twenty-first century.”

In the past generation, many Christians have bought into the view of retirement as a time to change the world. Two decades ago, Nelson Malwitz was a 50-year-old corporate director at Sealed Air Corporation, the company that invented Bubble Wrap. Stuck in a mid-life crisis, he helped to start the finishing well movement, a gathering of early retirees in the late 1990s hoping to find significance in second-career overseas missions. Drawing from Bob Buford’s popular book Halftime, many older Americans hoped to go “from success to significance” after they retired from “secular work.”

There’s a lot to praise about the encore movement. It swaps a vision of consumption for service, acquiring for giving, and points out the obvious: Today we tell productive, bright, able citizens in their 60s to stop working and start collecting a pension—often during the prime of their career.

Yet some Christians are wary of promises of overabundant “significance” through encore careers. I asked Fred Smith, the recently retired president of The Gathering, an annual conference for Christian philanthropists, what he thought about the idea of significance. “It’s like drinking salt water,” he said. “Looking for significance from external things is still competing for somebody else’s ‘OK.’ It just leaves you thirsty.” Ironically, the same exhausting treadmill of a career can follow the recently retired into more “meaningful work.”

The most prominent Christian voices on retirement today point out that retirement isn’t “biblical”—which is, of course, true, since retirement is a modern construct. “Lord, spare me the curse of retirement!” says John Piper, former pastor of Bethlehem Baptist in Minneapolis and bestselling author. The late Ralph Winter, founder of the U.S. Center for World Mission, wrote in an article for Mission Frontiers: “Most men don’t die of old age, they die of retirement.... Where in the Bible do they see [retirement]? Did Moses retire? Did Paul retire? Peter? John? Do military officers retire in the middle of a war?”

The closest the Bible comes to retirement is Numbers 8:25: “At the age of fifty they [the Levites] must retire from their regular service and work no longer.” Hauling around the furniture of the tabernacle was hard physical labor. However, later in life, Levites were commanded to “minister to their brothers in the tent of the meeting”—a hint that God didn’t intend for our work to stop completely but to morph and mature with age.

Yet the main problem with the “resist retirement” view is that most people cannot imagine working nonstop for 40, 50, or even 60 years. In Habits of the Heart, sociologist Robert Bellah interviewed executives, government employees, school teachers, and small-businesspeople on how they felt about retirement. He found they were “sick of working,” hated “the pressure,” had “paid their dues,” and “wanted to get out of the rat race.” The appeal of the vacation paradigm for aging Americans is an under-recognized spiritual (and often physical) exhaustion and pain that can accompany a lifetime of work (Ecc. 2:17, Gen. 3:17–19).

So overwhelmingly, those who can retire do.

Redeeming Retirement
Yet many Christians today are choosing a contrarian path, eschewing both the never-ending vacation and the life of unbroken work. In an age where structures for older Americans lag behind their aspirations for a meaningful life, the church is beginning to experiment with new paradigms for living a fully human life in retirement.

From vacation to sabbatical
“Linda and I decided to take a purposeful pause to listen for God’s voice,” Barry Rowan says. In 2006, Rowan was the CFO of Nextel Partners, a wireless phone company. After years of high-pressure positions, he decided to take a sabbatical rather than to completely retire and cease from all work.

The word vacation derives from the Latine vacare, from which we get “to vacate, make empty, make void.” Many see retirement as a chance to “vacate” their lives, whether on the beaches of Mexico or the mountains of Colorado. But Rowan says, “I left my time off with a deeper level of surrender and a deeper appreciation that I had become less, and God had become more in me.”

Some are now seeing retirement as a social construct that allows them to take an intentional 3, 6, or 12 months of sabbatical rest to prepare the heart for a new season of fruitfulness (Lev. 25). Rhythms of preparation, worship, feasting, learning, simplicity, remembrance, and service are chosen over consumption, travel, or a premature jump into a new field.

Bradford Hewitt retired in November 2018 from his role leading Thrivent Financial, a faith-based Fortune 500 financial services organization. “After being in an executive leadership role for 25 years, I’m planning for the next stage of service,” Hewitt says. But before jumping into whatever that may be, Hewitt is pausing for discernment, taking a six-month sabbatical of prayer, solitude, rebuilding friendships, and eating healthier. “The pace of being a CEO is intense. My idea of a sabbatical is just the opposite. I know I need to slow down and listen to God’s voice.”

From success to surrender
“I am convinced that part of the essence of vocational identity during this period of our lives [the senior years] is that we let go of power and control,” says Gordon Smith, author and president of Ambrose University in Calgary, Alberta. “People listen to us because we are wise and because we bless, not because of our office or any formal structure of power.”

Releasing power allows older adults to freely give to the next generation, without the need to capture titles or wealth. “This season of life is like fly fishing,” said Fred Smith. “When I catch fish, I now don’t need to keep them. I delight in releasing them. Catch and release—this is what retirement means for me.” Ed Wekesser, a 67-year-old coach for Christian CEOs, also sees a deeper freedom in relinquishing power. I asked him what has changed about his developing sense of vocation in his 60s. “Ah, that’s simple,” he said. “It’s not about me anymore.” He says he’s now content to simply work for the success of others.

From “old” to eldership
Rather than buy into a culture that sees old age as a problem to be solved (think of “anti-aging cream”), a new generation of older Americans is embracing aging as a “crown of splendor,” wrinkles and all (Prov. 16:31).

Far from being an insult, the term elder was once associated with wisdom, character, and leadership ability, the assumed fruit of experience and age. “Stand up in the presence of the aged,” says Leviticus 19:32. The term elder (zaqen) is used in the Old Testament as an indication of one’s nobility. The elder taught wisdom at the city gate, the ancient place for public dialogue (Job 32:6–10). Cicero, the great Roman statesman, once wrote, “The crowning grace of old age is influence.”

In that spirit, rather than retreat to retirement communities, more boomers are seeing that retirement can be a season of unique influence. After a full career as a boutique hotelier, Chip Conley was tapped by the young founders of Airbnb to help grow the company into a hospitality giant. Though he didn’t know how to code and he was reporting to a CEO his son’s age, he embraced his role as a modern elder and blended curiosity with intergenerational friendship to shepherd the young company toward global growth.

Though flexible work arrangements for older Americans are often hard to come by, roles for mentoring are not. Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam, who has written eloquently about the growing opportunity gap in America, says, “If America’s religious communities were to become seized of the immorality of the opportunity gap, mentoring is one of the ways in which they could make an immediate impact.”

From independence to intergenerational living
Greg Gast is the vice president of human resources at Hudson River HealthCare, Inc., in Peekskill, New York. Greg and his wife, Nancy, decided to make a bold move and experiment with sharing a house with their oldest daughter, her husband, and their three children. Greg and Nancy take the second floor of the 5,000-square-foot house, while their children and grandchildren take the basement, leaving the main floor as a common area.

Gast says there are distinct advantages to sharing a home: They share the same cable bill, lawnmower, and coffeepot. Sharing a mortgage also helps everyone’s budget. But there are also challenges: Privacy concerns and occasional interpersonal clashes rise to the surface. “We’ve gotten better at communication,” Gast says about their relationship with their daughter and son-in-law. “It’s greatly helped to define our boundaries.”

Intergenerational living is not always easy. But it presents an opportunity for the American church to express love and honor toward retiring parents, many of whom are facing unexpected financial challenges.

From world-changers to simple servants
Susan Cole is a 56-year-old music educator who taught elementary students for more than two decades. But she suffered from fibromyalgia, and the long, high-energy days had taken their toll on her health. “It was a hard decision for me,” she said. “I felt like the job both tore me down and built me up.” She decided to continue working part-time as a piano teacher at a local music school.

Just after Cole’s retirement, her mother broke her femur and her son had a relapse with alcohol addiction. “My availability was totally a God thing,” she recalls. “He was calling me to both care for my students and my family in this season. I was needed here. But I don’t ever see myself giving up teaching.”

A new generation of boomers are opting less for civic heroism or overseas mission assignments and instead choosing for a lifetime of humble service, in both paid and unpaid roles, right where they are.

A Scent of Resurrection
Dwight L. Moody once said, “Preparation for old age should not begin later than one’s teens. A life which is empty of purpose until 65 will not suddenly become filled on retirement.” Though that’s true, a new generation of older Americans see retirement as a contemporary social construct that affords them the opportunity to re-explore their God-given purpose for a new season of life.

Gary VanderArk is a not-so-retired physician living in south Denver. In his late 70s, he continues to teach medical students at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Center, serve on nearly a dozen nonprofit boards, and bike almost 20 miles a day. VanderArk was also the founder of Doctors Care, a nonprofit that has helped thousands of Colorado’s medically underserved.

With his white hair, slender fingers, and frail voice, VanderArk may seem “old.” But when you speak with him, he seems almost carefree, like a child on Christmas morning. He acknowledges human frailty and death, yet keeps serving others as if death is of no concern to him. He keeps teaching and sitting on nonprofit boards not because of social duty but instead out of sheer delight. He is quick to listen and slow to speak. His words hold genuine gravitas. He is like “the righteous [who] flourish like a palm tree [and] grow like a cedar of Lebanon.... They still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green” (Ps. 92:12–14).

Not all the questions about retirement have easy answers for the nearly 78 million baby boomers who are facing it. But many older Christians across the developed world are embracing not a vacation mentality, world-changer ethos, or grudging burden of working later in life. They are simply being ever renewed and continue to serve God and neighbor as elders in their spheres of influence (2 Cor. 4:16).

Retirement needs a new story. Or better yet, a very old story.

Jeff Haanen is the author of An Uncommon Guide to Retirement: Finding God’s Purpose for the Next Season of Life (Moody Publishers, May 2019) and the executive director of Denver Institute for Faith & Work.

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Title: Re: Christianity Today Magazine - March 2019
Post by: patrick jane on March 05, 2019, 10:31:16 am

If You Think You Have God Figured Out, You Definitely Don’t

Despite our best efforts to understand his ways, he won’t be bound by our tidy notions of divine etiquette.

About 25 years ago, while neck-deep in my seminary training, I set my sights on a rather high goal: I’d learn the Book of Psalms by heart. Not in a year. Not even in five years. But as long as it took. Inch by inch, I’d explore these ancient hymns, climbing every hill and sinking into every valley, immersing myself in their literary landscape until they became part of me. I settled on a translation, found a chart for working through all 150 psalms per month, and began the journey.

Now, a quarter-century later, I’m still on that journey, that “long obedience in the same direction,” as Eugene Peterson put it. But one thing I know for certain: The long, prayerful, exploring obedience has benefited me in ways I cannot even begin to put into words.

It has also, more than once, thoroughly unnerved me.

Alongside lofty praise and soaring hallelujahs is raw lament, bleeding with anguish. Next door to G-rated prayers are harrowing petitions laced with graphic scenes of violence. The full range of human emotions—good, bad, and ugly—undulate through these songs of Israel. As shocking as the human element is, however, it’s nothing compared with the God we encounter. The Lord is my shepherd (23:1), but he is also an arm-breaker (10:15) and a teeth-shatterer (3:7). The Lord is my light (27:1), but he’s also pushed me into the darkest depths of the pit (88:6).

In one arresting metaphor, after being full of wrath, jettisoning his rebellious people, and falling asleep, God finally wakes up like a drunken soldier overcome by wine (78:65). Such actions and images, staring out from the pages of the Bible itself, are unsettling to most of us. They don’t fit into our neat and tidy boxes of divine etiquette. One can understand why Sebastian Moore, a British Benedictine, once quipped, “God behaves in the psalms in ways he is not allowed to behave in systematic theology.”

Or does he? That, in essence, is the challenging question that forms the background of theologian Matthew Barrett’s new book, None Greater. But it’s the subtitle that really captured my attention: The Undomesticated Attributes of God. Whether we’re traveling through the wild landscape of the psalms, following the patriarchs through their interactions with the Lord in Genesis, or standing alongside Jesus as he heals, teaches, and flips over temple tables, we come face-to-face with the God who cannot be flattened down into something vanilla and predictable. He surprises. He upsets. He invigorates. And he saves. Most notably, in the words of Mr. Beaver regarding Aslan, “He isn’t safe. But he’s good.” He’s anything but a tame lion.

A Complete and Unified Portrait
So how do you write a book of systematic theology that unpacks the attributes of God without running the risk of domesticating him or demystifying his mysteries? In two ways. One, like a good archaeologist, you get dirty. You dig down into the aged layers of wisdom throughout church history. Two, you let Aslan roar biblically, not meow philosophically. Rather than speculating abstractly about who God is or might be, you plant your feet firmly in the soil of Scripture. You dip your quill into the ink of his own narrative.

Barrett, to his credit, avails himself of both approaches. Drawing heavily from what he calls the “A-team”—Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas—he reminds us that the theological questions we grapple with today are by no means novel. We aren’t the first generation to wonder what it means when God “repents” or “regrets” that he made humanity (Gen. 6:6), whether the Father suffers when his Son is crucified, or how Jesus could be fully God and yet shrug his shoulders as to the timing of his Second Coming (Matt. 24:36).

If anything, earlier generations of Christians wrestled with these questions even more profoundly. Intense debates among the church fathers led to deep, communal thinking, which led to ever clearer articulations of the biblical message like the Nicene Creed. Irenaeus arose in the 2nd century to combat Gnosticism. In the 4th century, Athanasius was dubbed contra mundum (“against the world”) because he spent a lifetime fighting Arianism, which taught that the Son was less than fully divine. The A-team joined their voices to this great cloud of witnesses.

Barrett’s book, far from striving for theological ingenuity, builds upon their wisdom, while at the same time applying their insights to more contemporary debates about divine attributes. But he knows, too, when to set these voices aside and let Aslan roar.

Years ago, I was teaching Hebrew and Old Testament courses in the exegetical department of a seminary faculty. A running joke between my department and our colleagues in systematic theology was that we explained the Bible to students while they explained the Bible away. It was all fraternal jest, of course, but it carried the slightest wink of truth. At least in my own experience, many books dealing with dogmatic theology don’t offer a map of the Bible so much as drive a philosophical bulldozer over the terrain itself, flattening hills, damming up rivers, clearing jungles, and basically making the landscape more comfortable for biblical tourists.

And, I must confess, that prejudice was firmly in place when I opened None Greater. But how pleasantly mistaken I was! Barrett’s book is not only saturated with Scripture, but he lets that same Scripture shape the argument, direct the conversation, and gradually form a complete and unified portrait of the God whose life, love, and light fill the pages.

Barrett is “convinced that we can only understand God’s attributes in all their glory if such attributes originate from one core conviction: God is someone than whom none greater can be conceived.” Borrowed from Anselm, that phrase—“than whom none greater can be conceived”—sets the tone from cover to cover, as Barrett discusses God’s incomprehensibility, aseity (or self-sufficient existence), simplicity, immutability, omnipresence, and a host of other attributes. And because he is the Lord “than whom none greater can be conceived,” the moment we speak of him as if we’ve exhausted all possible knowledge is the moment we know we’ve wandered from the path of truth into the brambles of deception.

Barrett also repeatedly calls us away from the all-too-familiar error of pretending that God can be reduced to individual parts, like a massive divine structure made up of cubicles housing the components of his personality. Here’s his mercy cubicle, his omnipotent cubicle, his goodness cubicle—all little parts of a great big God. Or, to use Barrett’s analogy, “the perfections of God are not like a pie, as if we sliced up the pie into different pieces, love being 10 percent, holiness 15 percent, omnipotence 7 percent, and so on.” Whatever he is, he is that wholly. He doesn’t have a series of attributes like love and holiness. He is his attributes: wholly love, wholly life, wholly righteousness.

The Greatest Picture
All of this might seem like pretty heady stuff, like just another volume penned by a professor holed up in an ivory tower. Thankfully, None Greater is anything but. Barrett has a rare gift: He can translate the highest, most profound theology into everyday language and earthy illustrations. Put this book into the hands of Sunday school teachers guiding students through the stories of the Old Testament. Give it to parents who struggle to teach their children about the Trinity, Jesus as God’s Son, and the strange but delightful depictions of God in the Psalms.

Will you and they be challenged theologically? Yes, by all means! But at least that challenge won’t come from having to Google three Latin phrases per paragraph. (Barrett, in fact, has provided a glossary for the toughest terms.) Rather, the challenge will be encountering a God who, as Barrett explains, is “not just a bigger, better version of ourselves.” He is the Creator, we the creatures. He is God, we are human. And to the extent that he acts and speaks like a human, he’s accommodating himself to us, like a parent to a child, that we might confess him as our Father.

For me, the book’s proverbial cherry on top is the way Barrett brings the discussion, again and again, to the one in whom “all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form” (Col. 2:9). We can talk till we’re blue in the face about God’s various attributes, but until we’ve focused on the scandal of particularity, the precise embodiment of God in Jesus Christ, we’ve not yet proclaimed the Good News. And that is where this book takes us. To Christ. To his incarnation. To his rugged cross and empty tomb.

That cross, writes Barrett, though it was the “greatest symbol of weakness up to that point in history . . . would now be the greatest sign of God’s power over sin and death. Through his Son’s death on a cross, the wrath of God was satisfied on behalf of sinners like you and me (Rom. 3:25–26). When Jesus cried out, ‘It is finished’ (John 19:30), our debt was paid, our forgiveness was won, for on that cross Jesus bore the penalty for every one of our trespasses. That the Father was satisfied with his Son’s payment for our sin was publicly declared by raising Jesus from the dead (Rom. 4:25). The cross and empty tomb are the greatest picture we will ever have of the wisdom of our all-powerful, all-knowing God.”

And when we look upon this “greatest picture,” the only right response is to declare, along with the psalmist, “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord” (Ps. 150:6).

Chad Bird is a writer and co-host of the podcast 40 Minutes in the Old Testament. He is the author of Upside-Down Spirituality: The 9 Essential Failures of a Faithful Life (Baker).

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Title: Re: Christianity Today Magazine - March 2019
Post by: patrick jane on March 07, 2019, 12:37:32 am

The Church Growth Gap: The Big Get Bigger While the Small Get Smaller

The US congregations most likely to grow are the 10 percent that already have more than 250 worshipers.

In many congregations in the United States, new faces in the pews have become rare.

A new study from Exponential by LifeWay Research found 6 in 10 Protestant churches are plateaued or declining in attendance and more than half saw fewer than 10 people become new Christians in the past 12 months.

“Growth is not absent from American churches,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research. “But rapid growth through conversions is uncommon.”

The research gives a clear picture of the state of Protestant churches in America today. Most have fewer than 100 people attending services each Sunday (57%), including 21 percent who average fewer than 50. Around 1 in 10 churches (11%) average 250 or more for their worship services.

Three in five (61%) pastors say their churches faced a decline in worship attendance or growth of 5 percent or less in the last three years. Almost half (46%) say their giving decreased or stayed the same from 2017 to 2018.

More than 2 in 5 churches (44%) only have one or fewer full-time staff members. Close to 9 in 10 pastors (87%) say their church had the same or fewer number of full-time staff in 2018 as they had in 2017, including 7 percent who cut staff.

In 2018, few churches added new multi-site campuses (3%) or were involved in some form of planting a new church (32%). Sixty-eight percent say they had no involvement in church planting. Around 1 in 10 (12%) say they were directly or substantially involved in opening a new church in 2018, including 7 percent who were a primary financial sponsor or provided ongoing financial support to a church plant.

“The primary purpose of this study was to obtain a set of objective measures on churches’ reproduction and multiplication behaviors today as well as to understand their core context of growth,” said Todd Wilson, chief executive officer of Exponential. “By combining these measures, we can help churches think about multiplication.”

Declining, plateaued, or growing?
Twenty-eight percent of Protestant pastors say their church has seen worship service attendance shrink by 6 percent or more compared to three years ago.


Another 33 percent say their church has remained within 5 percent, while 39 percent say their congregation has grown by at least 6 percent since the first quarter of 2016.

More than half of 18- to 44-year old pastors (55 percent) say their church is growing, while 33 percent of pastors 45 and older say the same.

Evangelical churches are more likely to be growing (42 percent) than their mainline counterparts (34 percent).

Less than a quarter (23 percent) of churches with an average worship attendance of fewer than 50 say they are growing, while most churches with 250 or more in attendance (59 percent) are growing.

Among denominations, Holiness (56 percent) and Baptist (45 percent) pastors are more likely to say their churches are growing than Methodists (33 percent) and Lutherans (25 percent).

Church conversions
The lack of growth in worship attendance in most churches is matched by a lack of new commitments to Christ last year.

Fifty-four percent of pastors say fewer than 10 people indicated a new commitment to Jesus Christ as Savior in 2018, including 8 percent who had none.


In some ways, however, those numbers mask deeper evangelistic issues. When evaluating churches based on the number of conversions per 100 attendees, 67 percent had fewer than 10 per 100 people attending their church. Around a third (35%) had fewer than five new commitments for every 100 people attending their worship services.

Forty-six percent of smaller churches (fewer than 50 in worship services) say they had 10 conversions or more for every 100 in attendance, while only 18 percent of churches 250 and above meet that benchmark.

While there are no major differences between evangelical and mainline churches in terms of new converts, denominational differences do exist.

A majority of Pentecostal pastors (57%) say they saw 10 or more new commitments to Christ in their church last year per 100 attendees. The next closest denominations are Lutherans (39%), Holiness (38%), and Baptists (35%).

A quarter of Methodist (25%) and Presbyterian or Reformed pastors (23%) say they had 10 or more new commitments to Jesus in 2018 per 100 attendees. Half of Methodist pastors (50%) had fewer than five new commitments last year.

“Much work has been done to go deeper on measuring church health,” said McConnell. “But it is still helpful to look at the observable factors of ‘noses, nickels, and new commitments.’ Strategies, programs and rules-of-thumb work differently depending on the trajectory of a church.”

Aaron Earls is a writer for LifeWay Christian Resources.

Methodology: A phone survey of 1,000 Protestant pastors was conducted by LifeWay Research January 14 – 30, 2019. The calling list used a random sample stratified by church size, drawn from a list of all Protestant churches. Quotas were used to maintain the correct proportion of each church size. Responses were weighted by region to more accurately reflect the population. Each interview was conducted with the senior pastor, minister or priest of the church called. The sample provides 95 percent confidence that the sampling error does not exceed plus or minus 3.2 percent. Margins of error are higher in sub-groups.

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Title: Re: Christianity Today Magazine - March 2019
Post by: patrick jane on March 13, 2019, 11:54:46 pm

How Universalism, ‘the Opiate of the Theologians,’ Went Mainstream

Michael McClymond decries the rising popularity of an idea Christians have rejected for most of church history.

Rob Bell made a splash in 2011 with the release of Love Wins, a book that challenged settled Christian understandings of heaven, hell, and divine judgment. But as many critics pointed out in response, Bell’s musings about universal salvation relied on arguments that have been advanced—and mostly condemned—throughout church history. What explains the recent resurgence in self-described Christians affirming (or at least flirting with) universalism? In The Devil’s Redemption: A New History and Interpretation of Christian Universalism, scholar Michael McClymond sets out to answer this question by following the roots of universalist thought all the way back to the second century. His comprehensive, two-volume account maps out universalism’s development down through the centuries and critiques it on theological and philosophical grounds. Paul Copan, professor of philosophy and ethics at Palm Beach Atlantic University, spoke with McClymond about his book.

How do you understand the term universalism?

In theological usage, universalism is the doctrine that all human beings—and perhaps all intelligent or volitional beings—will come to final salvation and spend an eternity with heaven in God. This is a theory about a final outcome, and it leaves open the way that this outcome might be attained. One reason my book is so lengthy is that there have been many different kinds of arguments for universal salvation over the last 1,800 years. At certain points, these arguments conflict with one another, so that if someone claims to be a universalist, you might ask: “What sort of universalist are you?”

One division is between the belief that everyone goes immediately to heaven at the moment of death (called “ultra-universalism”) and the belief that many or most people first undergo postmortem suffering (a view I call “purgationism”). This issue was fiercely debated in America during the 19th century, and universalists have never been able to resolve it.

The more robust arguments for universalism hold that God’s purposes in creating the world will fail if even one intelligent creature should finally be separated from God. This line of reasoning implies that not only human sinners but also fallen angels will finally be saved. The title of my book, The Devil’s Redemption, is an allusion to that idea.

What prompted you to write on the topic of universalism?

There were several stages in the process. As an undergraduate at Northwestern University, I had a religious studies professor—the late Dr. Edmund Perry—who insisted that Paul taught universal salvation in Romans and 1 Corinthians. I was taking Greek at the time, and the professor’s claim did not seem credible to me. When I attended Yale Divinity School, I wrote a comparative essay on the eschatologies of Origen and Karl Barth—a short piece that I now recognize as the tiny seed from which The Devil’s Redemption later sprang.

Another factor is a dream that I had about a dozen years ago. Without going into too much detail, this was an unnerving encounter in which I saw God’s coming judgment arriving in the form of an overpowering storm; people in the path of the storm were pleasantly chit-chatting when they ought to have been seeking cover. The dream left a lasting impression. It suggested to me that we’re unprepared—both inside and outside of the church—for the return of Christ.

When Rob Bell came out with Love Wins in 2011, what struck me was not so much the book itself, with its well-worn arguments, but rather the widespread approval the book elicited, together with the collective yawn of indifference on the part of most who didn’t approve. I came to the conclusion that Karl Barth’s affirmation of universal election in the 1940s (in the second volume of his massive Church Dogmatics) had inaugurated a widespread turn toward universalism in mainstream theological circles, that this trend had gained momentum over the last half-century, and that the time was overdue for a wide-ranging appraisal of this teaching.

Given longstanding Christian opposition to universalism, how has it gained so many adherents in recent times?

The change was a long time coming. As I show in my book, from the time of Origen onward there were individual Christian thinkers who held to some version of Origenist universalism. In Orthodox Christianity, however, universalism was never affirmed as an official or public teaching of the church. One might call it instead a tolerated private opinion. I found that Orthodox attitudes toward Origen through the centuries were double-sided and ambivalent (as my own attitude is), acknowledging Origen’s undoubted contributions to Christian theology and spirituality but finding fault with his speculative excesses. Western esotericists, who were outside of traditional churches or hovering about its fringes, maintained a robust universalism from around 1700 up to the mid-1900s.

Yet until that point, few official church teachers in Protestant Germany, Britain, or North America publicly affirmed universal salvation—even though privately some may have been universalists. Something changed in the 1950s, and I believe it was Barth’s affirmation of universal election that allowed universalism to come out of the shadows. From the 1950s through the 1970s, universalism was most closely associated with modernist Protestantism. Prior to Vatican II, one finds some private musings on the possibility of salvation for all among certain Catholic intellectuals, even though no official Catholic spokespersons affirm universalism.

The next step in the process occurred in the 1970s and 1980s, as Catholics discussed “the unchurched” and evangelicals debated “the unevangelized.” A book from the Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, Dare We Hope?, initiated a turn toward “hopeful universalism” among Catholics, leading into more overt affirmations of universalism later on. Similarly, the tentative suggestions by the British evangelical John Stott regarding conditionalism or annihilationism triggered intra-evangelical debates over the final scope of salvation.

Even though we tend to shy away from the term heresy these days, it is correct to describe universalism as heretical?

Universalism isn’t just a theological mistake. It’s also a symptom of deeper problems. In a culture characterized by moralistic therapeutic deism, universalism fits the age we inhabit. As I argue in the book, universalism is the opiate of the theologians. It’s the way we would want the world to be. Some imagine that a more loving and less judgmental church would be better positioned to win new adherents. Yet perfect love appeared in history—and he was crucified.

Universalism seems, then, to be fundamentally out of sync with the New Testament narrative of God’s loving initiative in Christ provoking some to faith and others to offense and even hatred. Because of its incongruence with the gospel narrative, universalism is, to my mind, not the first step off the path of orthodoxy, but perhaps—in Kevin DeYoung’s words—“the last rung for evangelicals falling off the ladder.”

Every definition of heresy implies some correlative definition of orthodoxy—of which there are many. I’m not particularly concerned with whether universalism is termed a heresy, because to me the labeling question diverts attention from the main issue, which is showing why universalism is theologically untrue and pastorally unhelpful.

In an interview on the public television series Closer to Truth, the Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga said, “I don't myself quite believe [universalism] but I don't disbelieve it either. I think it's something that a Christian should at least hope for.” How would you assess such a statement?

Plantinga is a dexterous reasoner, and so I might not grasp all the nuances of his position. For the sake of argument, then, I’m going to presume that Plantinga’s outlook approximates the “hopeful universalism” of Balthasar. Essentially, my argument is that there are well-defined positions of universal salvation and particular salvation, and Balthasar’s effort to forge an intermediate view does not hang together conceptually.

We should distinguish between wishing for something and expecting it. There are any number of things I might wish for that I would not expect to occur—for instance, that there might be no violence on earth in the coming year. Yet the biblical virtue of hope involves not only wishing but expecting something—even confidently expecting something—on the basis of God’s promise.

When we turn to universalist “hope” or “hopefulness,” my question is this: Does this “hope” involve confident expectation that all will be saved? If so, then I would not call this “hopeful” universalism but “assertive” or “affirmative” universalism. I would ask further: On what divine promise is this confident expectation based? Is there such a promise by God to save everyone? Conversely, if universalist “hope” does not involve confident expectation that all will be saved, then the phenomenon falls short of biblical “hope” and might be thought of as a form of mere “wishfulness” or “wishful thinking.”

Another problem in Balthasar’s position is that he asserts that a Christian is obliged to “hope” for the salvation of all but also to reckon with the possibility of hell for oneself. That makes little sense: Why would anyone not be included in a supposed hope for all? In the final pages of The Devil’s Redemption, I suggest that Christianity is a religion of hope—and that the proper kind of hope is a “hope for each” rather than a “hope for all.”

Your book is an academic tome that cites historical sources and other scholarly works. Does it have more down-to-earth implications for Christian believers?

While I believe that The Devil’s Redemption can stand as a work of historical scholarship, there are pastoral considerations underneath my research. In my view, New Testament teaching in multiple contexts combines eschatological expectation with missional urgency and self-denying discipline. When one scrutinizes the scriptural accounts of Christ’s return and God’s judgment of individual persons, then the question of universalism takes on a different hue.

When Jesus spoke to his disciples on the Mount of Olives (Matt. 24), he combined discussion of the End Times with a call to “keep watch” and a warning regarding the unfaithful servant who is caught off guard by the master’s return (Matt. 24:42–51). This chapter links Jesus’ return not only to the theme of moral and spiritual preparation but also to the theme of evangelism: “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached to the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (v. 14). Likewise, the parable of the wise and foolish virgins (Matt. 25:1–13) likewise stresses the need to be prepared for Jesus’ return. When the apostles ask Jesus after the Resurrection whether he will “restore the kingdom,” he directs them to evangelize, once again linking his return to the present mission of the church (Acts 1:6–8).

The Book of Revelation represents God’s people as the “bride” to be joined to Christ as the “bridegroom.” It states that “his bride has made herself ready” with “fine linen, bright and clean,” which is “the righteous acts of God’s holy people” (Rev. 19:7–8). The Book of 1 John connects eschatological hope with moral and spiritual purification: “But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure” (1 John 3:2–3). In light of the world’s coming dissolution, 2 Peter exclaims, “You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming” (3:11–12). And Paul’s letter to Titus connects our “blessed hope” (2:13) with a summons “to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age” (2:12).

From a pastoral standpoint, the passages surveyed suggest that one might evaluate eschatological teachings in terms of their practical effects. And it is exceedingly difficult to see how the biblical call to self-denial and godly living can flourish on the basis of universalist theology. Who would need to work at being alert or prepared if a universalist outcome were already known in advance? (Some Christian universalists, including Origen, acknowledged this problem and suggested that universalism should be kept secret from the masses and disseminated among only a select few.)

And while some argue that universalism does not logically exclude the need for evangelism, I would ask: Where are the universalist evangelists, going to the ends of the earth, painstakingly learning and transcribing hitherto unknown languages and suffering opposition, up to and including the prospect of martyrdom, so that they can deliver their message of final salvation for all? Among the non-universalists, there are tens of thousands of such laborers.

The Protestant spiritual awakenings of the 1700s and 1800s were marked by a heightened expectation of Christ’s impending return, and this was true also of the Bible prophecy movement, early Pentecostalism, the neo-evangelical resurgence of the 1940s, and the Jesus Movement of the 1970s. In light of past history and experience, I wonder whether the evangelical church of the 21st century will truly recover its spiritual, ethical, and missional urgency without first renewing its preaching (and awareness) of Christ’s return and the awesome reality of God’s final judgment of each individual. Our beliefs about eschatology carry profound importance as an incentive to (or disincentive from) the difficult tasks to be undertaken in our difficult times.

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Title: Re: Christianity Today Magazine - March 2019
Post by: patrick jane on March 14, 2019, 12:08:34 pm

Churches That Play Together Stay Together

Pastors report the congregational gains of letting loose as a body.

In its new Households of Faith report, Barna researchers claim that one of the many reasons “vibrant households” stand out from others is because they engage in “meaningful, fun, quality time with both their housemates and extended household members.” That includes playing games together (32%), sharing meals (63% eat breakfast as a family and 75% eat dinner as a family), and enjoying other leisure activities. “These are practicing Christians who know the meaning of play—and indeed, half call their home life ‘playful,’” according to the report.

In other words, the old adage still rings true: Families that play together stay together, and more than that, exhibit signs of strong spiritual health.

The same can be said of the church family.

From softball leagues to book clubs, jazz ensembles to craft nights, churches that play together seem to stay together and grow together, too, adapting more easily to upheaval and building up the camaraderie, compassion, and collective resilience that are essential to a robust church body.

“Our congregation is experiencing some growing edges as younger families begin to assume leadership roles,” said Katie Nix, lead pastor at Trinity United Methodist Church in Moberly, Missouri. “Usually the generations become divided between gatekeepers and new people, but kickball helped to break down some of the walls of fear and create relationships. I believe we avoided several potential turf wars because the two groups experienced an opportunity to play together.”

Other pastors, too, report the unique gains of “letting loose” as the body of Christ.

Jackson Clelland, head of staff at Presbyterian Church of the Master in Mission Viejo, California, often provides opportunities for his church staff and board members to play together as a way to lay the foundation for their collaborative work as the people of God.

“My mentor, the late Chuck Miller, taught that we need a proper order to our relationships within the church. [We need to view our colleagues as] brothers or sisters and then fellow workers,” said Clelland, quoting from Philemon 1–2. Staff meetings at Church of the Master are commonly held in a conference room—except when they’re not.

“We went to an escape room a month ago,” said Clelland. “We play so that we can learn to enjoy each other beyond the tasks we need each other for.”

In the earliest Scriptures, the people of God are called to a regular rhythm of work and worship, rest and play. In addition to the weekly Sabbath celebration, the Pentateuch mentions seven feast days. After the Exile, three more were added. Wedding celebrations commonly lasted a week or more. While some contemporary congregations find play by practicing these feasts of the ancient church and other traditional “holy day” celebrations, others are discovering it in even simpler, almost child-like forms.

Antoine Lassiter, pastor of Think Kingdom, a multiracial congregation in Kannapolis, North Carolina, extols the power of play to bring diverse groups of people into deeper relationship.

“This church was the result of two churches merging—a predominantly black church with a white church. Play was a way to get folks who didn’t normally interact to talk. We’d encourage them at the doors—‘Find someone you don’t know and sit with them!’—and they wouldn’t do it.”

So Lassiter and his team came up with a creative solution in Sunday worship. “I’d say, ‘Grab all your belongings!’ Then the musicians would play some happy music, and we’d play musical chairs.”

As Lassiter helped shepherd his congregation through the change, he learned that play was essential for him as a leader, as well.

“For the first three months [after the churches merged] I was a politician,” said Lassiter. “I had stopped having fun and the ministry became dark. It became stressful. Then I realized that it wasn’t for me to make it work. It needed to be a Holy Spirit–led thing.

“We have a church full of young men who play basketball, so I started walking with them and having fun with them. And that’s where I think the church turned.”

Pastors in international churches, too, notice the benefits of church play in developing a community spirit and practicing creative mission.

“One of the signs of healthy community is laughter and the ability to have fun together,” said Ondřej Szturc, preacher at Evangelical Christian Fellowship in Hairov, Czech Republic. “It also attracts people and speeds ministry up, making it easier and more pleasant. Hospitality is one of the big priorities for us.”

Two other Europeans, Andrej and Nina Lovse, helped plant their church in Maribor, Slovenia. “We do yearly church retreats where we intentionally build in play time—bonfires and s’mores, hikes and swimming time,” said Andrej Lovze. “We had to push ourselves once a month just to play games together as a leadership team.”

Lovse finds that occasionally replacing traditional worship with play can strengthen bonds of friendship and fellowship, especially in the group of young adults who comprise the bulk of his congregation.

“There have been times when we canceled our church service and all went out for coffee,” said Lovse. “When we grew distant and needed to reconnect with one another, through play we got to know and appreciate each other.”

Agaba Moses, an ordained minister in the Anglican Church in Uganda, noted that play hasn’t traditionally been part of his church culture, but that is starting to change. “Churches in Africa commonly do not go beyond pulpit preaching to engage Christians in play activities like football, swimming, or drama, calling them ‘secular.’ But playing well is of great importance in navigating conflict and developing a united and focused church.”

“Towards the end of last year, we invited the bishop as the chief guest” of a soccer event, Moses said. “The bishop knew how to play, and he demonstrated it by kicking a penalty. This helped people change their attitudes toward the entire church.”

Research suggests that organizations whose members fail to play often descend into unhealthy seriousness, leading to increasing anxiety and resistance to change. By contrast, study after study show that play begets creativity, innovation, relationship, rejuvenation, and joy—all qualities found in healthy congregations and their time together both outside and inside of worship.

“If a fundamental purpose of corporate worship is to proclaim and to enact the gospel,” writes David Taylor, “then surely, I would like to believe, our practices of proclamation and enactment would somehow point to the astonishing, gratuitous, even hilarious nature of the good news.”

For pastors whose plates are often filled to overflowing with the traditional work of the church—preaching, visitation, committee work, administration—enabling play in any form can feel like an additional burden. But when congregations engage in recreation, laughter, and creative pursuits together, they are building bonds that strengthen mission, deepen fellowship, and create a relational foundation for discipleship.

“As leaders, we have to teach people to flow with the rhythms of life,” says Lassiter. “Sometimes the music is happy. Sometimes the music is somber. We can dance to both.”

Courtney Ellis is a pastor and speaker and the author of Uncluttered (Feb. 2019, Rose Publishing). She lives in Southern California with her husband, Daryl, and their three kids. Find her on Twitter, Facebook, or her blog.

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Title: Re: Christianity Today Magazine - March 2019
Post by: patrick jane on March 16, 2019, 11:25:27 am

Court Overturns Atheist Victory Against Pastors’ Best Benefit

Seventh Circuit rules the Clergy Housing Allowance is constitutional, despite challenge by Freedom from Religion Foundation.

For the second time, a popular tax break for pastors has been judged permissible under the US Constitution, despite efforts by an atheist legal group to prove otherwise.

Today the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a lower court’s ruling that the Clergy Housing Allowance violates the First Amendment. The October 2017 decision by Wisconsin district judge Judge Barbara Crabb had been a victory for the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF), which “jeopardized the benefit for clergy in Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin—the three states covered by the Seventh Circuit—and many predicted similar consequences nationwide,” wrote CT’s sister publication, Church Law & Tax (CLT) in an analysis.

In today’s ruling, a panel of three judges again refuted the claims of FFRF attorneys.

“FFRF claims Section 107(2) renders unto God that which is Caesar’s,” wrote circuit judge Michael Brennan. “But this tax provision falls into the play between the joints of the Free Exercise Clause and the Establishment Clause: neither commanded by the former, nor proscribed by the latter.”

CT previously reported how the FFRF challenged the same tax break in 2012 with the same initial success, but ultimately lost on appeal in November 2014. Today’s ruling was essentially a rematch over whether the tax benefit—used by clergy to the tune of $800 million a year—unfairly benefits religious Americans.

“This ruling is a victory not just for my church but for the needy South Side Chicago community we serve,” said Chicago Embassy Church pastor Chris Butler in a Becket press release. He intervened in the case because his church “can’t afford to pay him a full salary, but it offers him a small housing allowance, so he can afford to live near his church and the community he serves,” noted Becket, which represented a group of pastors appealing the FFRF’s initial victory.

“I am grateful that I can continue serving them and living side by side with them,” said Butler.

CLT offers some initial reactions, including from editorial advisor and CPA Michael Batts. “This news comes as a relief to churches and clergy across America,” he said. “Of course, given the possibility of further consideration and appeals, we’re not quite to the point in the story where we can say ‘and they all lived happily ever after.’”

CT previously examined debate over whether or not Congress should change the rules on pastor housing allowances.

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Title: Re: Christianity Today Magazine - March 2019
Post by: patrick jane on March 20, 2019, 08:04:54 pm

LifeWay to Close All 170 Christian Stores

The nation’s biggest Christian retail chain ends its brick-and-mortar operations.

LifeWay Christian Resources, the largest Christian retail chain in America, plans to close all 170 stores this year and shift its offerings entirely online.

“The decision to close our local stores is a difficult one,” said acting president and CEO Brad Waggoner, who is succeeding longtime LifeWay president Thom Rainer.

“LifeWay has developed close connections with the communities where our stores are located, and we have been honored to serve those communities. We will continue serving local congregations as they meet the spiritual needs of their neighbors.”

The Southern Baptist affiliate announced in January plans to reduce its locations this year due to declining sales and financial pressures, but ended up deciding it wasn’t viable to keep any stores open past 2019. Rainer said they did all they could to save the stores.

“Our retail strategy for the future will be a greater focus on digital channels, which are experiencing strong growth,” Waggoner said. “LifeWay is moving into a new era with a strategic digital focus that will prepare us for the future and allow us to better serve our customers.”

LifeWay’s closing of brick-and-mortar comes two years after its competitor, Family Christian Resources, closed all 240 locations in the midst of mounting debt and bankruptcy restructuring. Cokesbury Bookstores closed all 38 retail stores in 2013.

“As someone who spent 20 years working in Christian retail, I am sad that there will be 170 fewer physical stores where people can find and purchase Christian books, Bibles, and resources,” said Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA) president and CEO Stan Jantz in response to LifeWay’s news.

“Certainly in the short run, adjusting to this new reality will be a challenge … LifeWay stores have been an important channel for Christian publishers, but the life-changing content produced by ECPA members will continue to find and engage readers in ever more creative and effective ways.”

For over a decade, Christians have been asking how to save the Christian bookstore (the title of a 2008 Christianity Today cover story) as shoppers increasingly turned to the internet, megachurch bookstores, and mainstream stores for top titles.

Overall, sales at Christian retailers declined 3 percent in 2018, according to research by The Parable Group. Even though the dips aren’t as dramatic as a few years before, it doesn’t make up for year after year of losses. Nearly two-thirds of Christian retailers said the future of their industry was a top concern—second only to their own declining margins.

The ministry just opened a stylish downtown Nashville location a year and a half ago at its new corporate headquarters. In an ironic twist, LifeWay’s former location will now house incoming Amazon offices.

A few years ago, Rainer suggested LifeWay would focus on local church partnerships and shift toward becoming a community gathering place to offer an experience beyond the products themselves.

“Anybody in any church can go to Amazon and have this incredible breadth and incredible service,” he told CT in 2017. “But here’s what we’re finding: Church leaders—whether staff or lay persons—are asking questions like, ‘How do I know this resource is best?’ We have a contextualized answer because we know the church, and we know the resources.”

But the trend away from brick-and-mortar shopping only grew worse. LifeWay hadn’t had sales exceed its operating expenses in more than a decade, Baptist Press reported, and the margin between the two grew from $2.3 million in 2010 to $35.5 million in 2017.

At last year’s SBC annual meeting, LifeWay reported serving “millions of individuals and tens of thousands of churches” with its offerings.

The chain is run by the denomination, whose doctrinal guidelines set content standards (no prosperity gospel books, accounts of visiting heaven, and in recent years, titles by authors such as Jen Hatmaker, Mark Driscoll, and James MacDonald). But LifeWay draws in a broader Christian customer base, especially as its competition has shuttered over the years. Many Southern Baptists, Christian authors, and loyal shoppers offered tribute to the chain in the wake of the news.

“Given industry trends this shouldn’t be as shocking as it is, but this also means I can’t wait till the day before our new bible study starts to pick up the book anymore,” tweeted Kathryn Freeman, director at Texas Baptists’ Christian Life Commission. “The women at my local LifeWay have been a great resource over the last few years. I’m sad to lose them!”

“Since I began in the publishing industry in 2002, some 2,000 bookstores in America have closed their doors forever, including the 400 stores of the WaldenBooks chain. And now this. I’m very grateful for the ⁦@LifeWay⁩ team and will miss their stores,” tweeted author Joel Rosenberg, who has five books sold by LifeWay.

Books remain the top item purchased at Christian stores, making up over a third of sales. The big chains have taken for carrying so-called Jesus junk, whose sales were used to bolster more serious products.

Many of the breakout Christian titles over the past several years—books like The 5 Love Languages by Gary Chapman and Jesus Calling by Sarah Young, and releases from celebrities like Fixer Upper’s Joanna Gaines and Duck Dynasty’s Sadie Robertson—were big enough that buyers didn’t need to seek out a Christian store to find them; they were on sale at Wal-Mart Target, airports, and yes, Amazon, NBC News recently noted.

Parable Group reported that such “frontline” titles made up three times as much of the Christian products sold everywhere as they did in Christian stores in particular.

More information about the store closings is available at

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Title: Re: Christianity Today Magazine - March 2019
Post by: patrick jane on March 22, 2019, 11:00:27 am

US Catholics Now as Concerned About Persecution as Climate Change or Refugees

But 2 in 3 incorrectly believe Christians suffer less than half of world’s religious freedom violations.

American Catholics are growing more concerned about the fate of the world—and with it, Christian persecution.

More than 9 in 10 now identify persecution as either “very” or “somewhat” severe. This is roughly the same percentage as an identical poll last year, both sponsored by the US branch of Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN). But over the last 12 months, the share choosing the “very severe” category rose from 40 percent to 46 percent.

And their level of concern went with it, rising 9 percentage points. Last year, 49 percent of Catholics described themselves as “very concerned.” This year, 58 percent.

The poll surveys 1,000 American Catholics across the spectrums of age, politics, and piety, conducted by McLaughlin & Associates.

It showed that intense Catholic concern is growing on several global issues. Those “very concerned” about human trafficking rose from 72 percent to 82 percent. Poverty climbed from 68 percent to 74 percent. The refugee issue jumped from 50 percent to 60 percent. And climate change nudged forward from 55 percent to 57 percent.

So while those unconcerned about Christian persecution fell by half (from 18% to 9%), overall the “church in need” only ranked No. 4 among the list of issues.

But last year, it was No. 5.

Following the 2018 poll, George Marlin, chair of ACN-USA, said it “reveals quite clearly” the need for more emphasis.

It seems to have worked.

“It is heartening to see that US Catholics have a growing awareness of and concern about the persecution of Christians,” he said following the 2019 survey.

“[But] it is telling that [these other issues] get more attention.”

Without belittling their importance, the other issues receive ample coverage in the news, Marlin said. But Christian persecution “mostly fails to make headlines in the mainstream media.”

And the result is 65 percent of Catholics believing that Christians suffer less than half of persecution worldwide.

They are incorrect: Researchers with Under Caesar’s Sword, a $1 million study funded by the Templeton Religion Trust, found that Christians experience between 60 percent to 80 percent of the world’s religious discrimination. (More of it is experienced by evangelicals/Pentecostals than by Catholics.)

And the surveyed Catholics are more wrong than before. Last year’s poll found 60 percent of Catholics believing that other religions are more widely persecuted.

“It suggests a disconnect—a lack of full awareness of how pervasive and extreme the persecution of Christians is around the world,” said Joop Koopman, ACN-USA communications director.

“The church has a job to do, along with mainstream media, to pay more attention to persecution of Christians.”

Pope Francis is a champion, the poll suggests. It found that 51 percent of Catholics believe he is “very concerned” about the issue, up from 49 percent last year. And coincidentally, the release of the survey corresponds to the pope’s selected prayer intention for the month of March: new Christian martyrs.

“It might be hard for us to believe, but there are more martyrs today than in the first centuries,” Francis said. “They speak the truth and proclaim Jesus Christ … in countries where, in theory and on paper, they protect freedom and human rights.”

According to the pope’s statement, 40 Catholic missionaries were murdered in 2018; 35 of whom were priests. ACN counts 38 countries where religious freedom is gravely threatened. The papal agency supports suffering Christians in 140 nations worldwide.

And according to a 2018 report by Open Doors USA, there are more than 215 million Christians persecuted worldwide, with 1 in 12 living in countries where Christianity is “illegal, forbidden, or punished.”

ACN has followed up its awareness efforts with a $1.3 million aid package for Christians in the Middle East. Disbursed over the first two months of 2019, two-thirds went to Syria and the rest to Iraq, for emergency services and the rebuilding of homes and churches.

In the village of Bashiqa in Iraq’s Nineveh Plains, 50 percent of displaced Christians have now returned home.

Yet despite Pope Francis’ high-level engagement and the delivery of massive aid, Catholics perceive the level of concern shown by their bishops and parish priests to be declining—the latter from 24 percent to 19 percent.

Only 19 percent are recognized as being “very concerned” about the persecuted church, while perception of bishops fell from 27 percent to 24 percent, the survey found. Respondents said 14 percent of bishops and 19 percent of priests register no concern at all.

However, the personal response of the faithful is increasing anyway. Today, 68 percent are praying for the persecuted, up from 64 percent; 62 percent wish to raise awareness in their local church, up from 56 percent; and 55 percent believe donating money is helpful, up slightly from 53 percent. About 1 in 2 (52%) actually did donate, with giving positively correlated to those who regularly attend Mass.

“Their awareness and concern have increased, which arguably has made them more sensitive to the fact that they don’t hear enough about the issue from their parish priest and local bishop,” said Koopman.

“The survey measures their perception of the engagement of the institutional church, in which the pope stands out.”

So while ACN is encouraged, the agency finds much work still to be done.

“This poll is a definite plus—a sign of greater awareness at the grassroots level,” said Koopman. “But US Catholics are still not as aware of the extent and severity of the persecution of Christians as they could be.”

“Even after eight years of a brutal war and terror in the region, US Catholics are still not fully aware of the magnitude of the suffering of Christians targeted with brutal repression and even genocide,” stated Marlin.

“There is an obligation to keep the spotlight on the seriousness and pervasiveness of Christian communities being persecuted around the world.”

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Title: Re: Christianity Today Magazine - March 2019
Post by: patrick jane on March 22, 2019, 11:28:23 am

Has Academic Theology Lost Its Way?

Two theologians ask how their discipline can start mattering to ordinary believers again.

Something is rotten in the state of academic theology.

That, at least, is the bold claim that Miroslav Volf and Matthew Croasmun advance in their compelling new book, For the Life of the World: Theology That Makes a Difference. Volf and Croasmun fear that academic theology has lost its way, in part by positioning itself in opposition or even hostility to the church and its ordinary believers. Rigorous research and scholarly writing may not lead inevitably toward an unhealthy detachment, but the reality of that detachment both from church life and the most fundamental questions of human existence is all too common.

As a result, regular churchgoers have grown skeptical of academic theology, and non-Christians simply dismiss it as a relic of the past with no legitimate space in the public square. Theology, the authors argue, used to be about the “Big Questions,” but now it contents itself pursuing in-house debates about obscure historical figures and formulations, all while neglecting to make connections with contemporary audiences.

While Volf and Croasmun are certainly not the first to worry that the discipline of theology has moved much closer to the margins over the last century, they describe the situation with new urgency. Academic theology, they argue, has been too willing to seek legitimacy by operating within the “great edifice of science,” which entails submitting to a foreign set of expectations and methodologies. Because of this surrender, they fear it will lose the very thing that makes it unique and meaningful: its capacity to point to the living triune God and articulate the kind of life we should live in response to his revelation.

The authors argue that theology, rather than playing by a set of imposed rules from the outside, should instead stand on its own two feet, confident that it has answers to life’s most pressing questions. The purpose of theology, they argue, is “to discern, articulate, and commend visions and paths to flourishing life in light of the self-revelation of God in the life, death, resurrection, exaltation, and coming in glory of Jesus Christ, with this entire story, its lows and its highs, bearing witness to a truly flourishing life.” There is plenty of talk about human “flourishing” these days, but Volf and Croasmun offer something better than generic self-help schemes, pointing instead toward a distinctly Christ-centered vision.

Six Pillars
How can academic theology reverse course and start making a difference again? The first and most important step, say Volf and Croasman, is to resume asking fundamental questions. Who are we, and how should we live in relation to God, our neighbors, and the surrounding world? What does a “flourishing life” actually look like? Christian theology is uniquely placed to discern and articulate genuinely helpful answers, but it forfeits this authority when it simply repeats secondhand insights from fields like psychology or biology, without any effort to fit them into a broader theological framework.

Christian theology makes clear and strong statements about who the Creator God is, what it means to be human, how goodness and sin relate to our present experience, and how human beings should therefore live. If we define the “flourishing life,” with Volf and Croasmun, as “the good toward which humans are meant to strive,” then a theology that responds to divine revelation should shape and govern our proposals about what this life might look like. The Christian account of faith, they write, “centered as it is on the divine Word become flesh in Jesus Christ,” gives us a framework to guide us toward genuine human flourishing. In fact, as the authors point out, rather than merely giving us a simple set of rules to follow mechanically, this faith includes many and varied witnesses to the action of God in the world. These “family disagreements,” carried out and refined over two millennia, offer an unrivaled starting point for discerning wisdom.

Unfortunately, the North American mindset is dominated by individualistic assumptions. In particular, it assumes that you—in your own internal world, based on your own private instincts—have all you need to decide what is good, both for the world and for yourself. Under this way of thinking, no one should presume to tell me what is good for my body, my relationships, or my vision of the happy life. Instead, I should be free to collect as many resources as possible—educational, financial, and otherwise—and use them in service of my own goals and ambitions, so long as I don’t interfere with anyone else’s personally chosen goals and ambitions. All outside authorities and moral codes are seen as illegitimate intrusions into this realm of private freedom.

In real life, of course, an ethic of extreme self-determination never really produces a life of love, community, and purpose. Volf and Croasmun propose six theological pillars that can stand in a pluralistic world to help shape Christian vision of genuine flourishing. These, they believe, strike an appropriate balance between conviction and individual freedom, between Christian confidence and openness to alternative sources of truth. The pillars are (1) a commitment to Trinitarian monotheism; (2) a belief in a God of unconditional love (and not just unlimited power); (3) the centrality of Jesus to all theology; (4) maintaining a distinction between God’s rule and human rule, which allows for the possibility of flourishing in different cultures; (5) upholding the moral equality of all human beings, recognizing that all sin and fall short of God’s righteous standard; and (6) valuing religious freedom—including the freedom to reject religion—because faith by nature requires it.

In everything they propose, Volf and Croasmun maintain a balance between hope and realism, avoiding both an over- and under-realized eschatology. They reckon honestly with sinful conditions of this world while also expressing confidence in the power of Christ’s work for us, especially as that work manifests itself in the common life of God’s people.

Far too often we are tempted to pit God against his creation, either by advocating a retreat from life in the world or a triumph through some program of cultural conquest. But each extreme undermines the Christian affirmation that the God who has created and redeemed us is good and active, even amid the complexity of this fallen creation. This is why we must return, again and again, to the central image of the kingdom of God: It reminds us that the Christian vision of an abundant life must always include both God and the world.

We must avoid placing God and his creation in opposition—a potential danger Volf and Croasmun see in Thomas Aquinas (or at least in some of his later disciples), who appears to make God alone the object of the human fullness. Yet Christianity proclaims a King and his kingdom, a Creator Lord who fashioned this world for a purpose and has not abandoned it. As the authors argue, “Human beings and the world come to fulfillment when they become in actuality what they have always been in intention: when God rules the world in such a way that God and the world are ‘at home’ with each other—more precisely, when God comes to dwell in the world and when the world has become and experiences itself as being God’s home.” But again, any proposal not grounded in a robust doctrine of Christ can too quickly go sideways and distort the Christian understanding of real human flourishing.

A Basic Need
As someone who lives and works within a tradition that highly values an educated clergy, I have often found myself pointing out that our elevation of the mind often overshadows our need for emotional intelligence. One can be an academic wiz and a terrible pastor. Reading For the Life of the World reminds us that the church in North America (and beyond) has a dual problem with its academic theology: The academics are increasingly spending their time and energy on pursuits that do not enable the laity to see and understand more deeply the gospel of Christ and his power for their daily lives; and the laity, faced with such irrelevant output, are increasingly convinced that theology has no place in their lives. Instead of calling each other to account, the two sides have let the situation worsen.

But theology and its relevance for an abundant life are not concerns merely for the academic world or the clergy. Volf and Croasmun are correct to say that a theological vision of the full life is a “basic need” that all humans long for, including those facing material poverty. Such a vision can be as important to our lives as food and drink, and the fact that we find this difficult to believe shows just how dire our present situation might be.

Most importantly, this book calls contemporary theologians to return to the big questions of life—to show genuine concern for the church, the world, and the good news centered on Christ himself. There is plenty of room for debating specific positions Volf and Croasmun take or theological assumptions on which they operate. But the authors have performed a real service in reminding us that no other discipline can offer what Christian theology does. Let all of us who write or preach heed their invitation to renew our focus on the things that matter most.

Kelly M. Kapic is professor of theological studies at Covenant College. He is the author of The God Who Gives: How the Trinity Shapes the Christian Story (Zondervan) and co-author, with Brian Fikkert, of Becoming Whole: Why the Opposite of Poverty Isn’t the American Dream (Moody).

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Title: Re: Christianity Today Magazine - March 2019
Post by: patrick jane on March 22, 2019, 12:55:25 pm

America’s Farming Crisis, Laid Bare by Midwest Floods

A deeper problem lies beneath recent stories of swelling rivers, soggy small towns, and feel-good relief efforts.

The fields where my grandfather and his brothers once played football are currently covered by several feet of water.

My grandpa Bert was born in a small Nebraska town called Oakland, a couple hours north of Lincoln, just down the road from Senator Ben Sasse in Fremont. Like much of northeastern Nebraska, these towns are now in crisis, battling the historic flooding that has devastated the state’s farms and ranches, killed three people, and dislocated thousands.

Currently the state estimates $439 million in damages to infrastructure, $85 million in damages to homes and businesses, $400 million worth of cattle lost, and $440 million of crops destroyed, placing the total damages, by my count, at around $1.3 billion.

Floods lay bare that which was already true. This is what the Genesis Flood does, of course, and it is also how Peter describes the coming judgment at the end of all things. He likens it Noah’s flood, going on to say, “the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare” (2 Peter 3:10).

Athanasius argues that miracles are often a kind of supernaturally accomplished acceleration of natural events: Nature will, given enough time, turn water into wine—rains will fall and nourish grape vines, the grapes will be harvested, and then eventually ferment to become wine. Jesus simply sped the process up at the wedding in Cana. Events like a flood, then, might be read as an inversion of a miracle—a rapid acceleration of the unmaking of the cosmos following the events of Genesis 3.

Sadly, I cannot help but see this quickening destruction happening in my home state. The flood has soaked thousands of homes and hundreds of businesses to ruin in places that already struggled with a trajectory of economic decline and despair brought about by forces outside their control.

To understand the impact of these catastrophic floods in Nebraska—what they will mean for the communities in the weeks, months, and years after the rivers recede and the roads clear—we have to look at the state of the farmers, the men and women who have loved this place even when no one else did.

Whether they can recover will depend not only on how the “bomb cyclone” runoff hit their land over the past week, but how they have been hit by the pressures of the agriculture industry over the past several decades. Their devastation brings a loss to all of us, no matter where in the country we live.

One fifth-generation farmer from northeastern Nebraska told The New York Times, “There’s not many farms left like this, and it’s probably over for us too, now.” His family has been on their land since the homesteading days of the 19th century.

This is the rotten fruit yielded by post-war agriculture in America and, more generally, a growing disdain for small, rural places. For decades, people have referred to my home state and its neighbors as “flyover country,” an ugly term for a forgettable patchwork of green and brown stretching across the Midwest.

That it is beautiful is something they will never know. They will never stand on a country road early in the morning and watch the sun come up over open fields, never know the pleasure of talking to someone in town whose family has been there for generations and who knows the entire history of the people and the place for at least the past century. And so the people who live in these places remain afterthoughts.

Because of this indifference, we have been blind to how big ag executives and politicians have made themselves rich on the backs of America’s farmers and ranchers. They have told farmers to get big or get out; to take on more and more debt; to spend more and more on simply putting a crop in the ground.

This regime may be working for Monsanto and the various politicians their lobbying dollars have bought. But for farmers, people tasked with caring for the land and feeding the nation, it has been ruinous. In the past five years, farm incomes in the United States have fallen by half. Last year the number of farms filing for bankruptcy spiked by 19 percent. Most farms are losing money; median farm income was negative $1,325.

These economic realities transformed rural communities like the ones now underwater in Nebraska and neighboring states. Along with financial despair came an uptick in farmer suicides, drug-related deaths, and the dispiriting awareness that the rest of America didn’t understand or appreciate their way of life.

In the aftermath of this year’s flooding, many Nebraskans will show the generosity and persistence that defines this place and many others like it. And, no doubt, many media outlets will focus on these stories as a way of featuring hope in the midst of despair. This is not a bad instinct, even if it often collapses down to a vapid sentimentalism that doesn’t actually help America’s farmers. But rural America needs more than the occasional profile highlighting its ordinary decency.

Rural America needs churches and pastors that will make long-term commitments to the small places of our nation. A good friend of mine is a rural pastor in the Midwest. He tells me that around 90 percent of the people within an hour’s drive of where he lives are not in evangelical churches on Sunday. We don’t typically think of rural America when we think of unchurched places, but we should.

Rural places need urban and suburban neighbors who recognize that the life of the land is the life of the nation. The lives and livelihoods of those who care for the land are good and beautiful and deserving of our protection.

Good intention and sentiment will not be sufficient to address the problems facing my home state. They demand an economy that recognizes the dignity of farming and reveres those who care for the land. Without that, these natural disasters come not as a disruption of an otherwise thriving society, but as a cruel blow to places that have been pushed to the brink by the indifference and even malice of the wealthy and the powerful.

That we are seeing the danger is good. That it took a flood to draw our attention to the decline of these places is sad.

While rural America needs things from urban and suburban America, its decline hurts city-dwellers too. The ancient Greek thinker Xenophon said that, “Farming, more than any other calling, seems to produce a generous disposition in its followers.” When we lose those who care for land and animals, we lose people who could teach us about generosity, attentiveness, and how to affectionately tend the life of the world.

My grandfather was the son of an immigrant farmer named C. G. Fredstrom and his wife Elise. C. G. battled depression and economic uncertainty for 40 years on a rented farm, yet still managed to raise eight children who walked with God all their days. That I am a Christian today is partly due to the fidelity of a good Nebraska farmer and his even more remarkable wife who held the household together during C. G.’s darkest spells.

People like my ancestors and like those still farming in Nebraska today, who see and value their place, who weave their lives together with the land and the animals under their care, can teach all of us something about how to see and value one another.

It is often true that the first step toward loving one’s neighbor is simply noticing them, and good farmers are nothing if not attentive. That we have made it harder to be a good farmer is tragic in itself. That we will not benefit from the tutelage of good farmers like C. G. Fredstrom going forward is a possibility. And that possibility may be the greater tragedy.

Jake Meador is a fourth-generation Nebraskan and lives in Lincoln with his wife and three children. His forthcoming book In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured Worldwill be released on June 25. Follow him on Twitter @jake_meador.

Speaking Out is Christianity Today’s guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the magazine.

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Title: Re: Christianity Today Magazine - March 2019
Post by: patrick jane on March 27, 2019, 12:01:43 pm

Why the Admissions Scandal Is Every Parent’s Problem

College bribery cases point to a common idol.

The recent college admissions scandal has all the elements of a sensational, headline-grabbing story: Rich and famous parents paying bribes. Coaches encouraging fabricated athletic success. Prestigious colleges caught in the crosshairs. And now the potential of class action lawsuits brought against some of our nation’s most elite universities.

While it’s easy to criticize the parents implicated in the scandal, my hunch is that most of us with kids under 30 have taken at least a few steps down the trail of overparenting. Our excessive parenting may not be as obvious and hopefully isn’t illegal. But a recent national study of over 1,100 parents of 18–28 year-olds showcases the common parental tendency to step in to improve our kids’ options.

According to the study, over three-fourths (76%) of parents remind their adult children of upcoming deadlines. Almost that many (74%) are scheduling doctor’s appointments for their 20-somethings, 15% have called or texted their child to make sure they don’t sleep through a class or test, and 8% have contacted a professor or administrator to discuss their child’s college performance or grades. No wonder colleges today are allocating personnel and developing policies to help extricate parents from their students’ daily rhythms and routines.

Over-involved parents of every stripe tend to focus on two outcomes—academic success and economic success, presuming the former leads to the latter. “Getting ahead” easily becomes an idol. For Christian parents, however, success is not the end goal (even if it is the outcome). Instead, we’re called to a simple-but-challenging counter-narrative: to help our kids grow in Christ, grow in character, and serve God’s kingdom above all else. In other words, our fundamental job is to help them follow and be formed by Jesus.

Even by a secular metric, the data suggests more and more that who our kids are is significantly more important than where they study or work. The psychologist Carol Dweck (who incidentally is a faculty member at Stanford University, one of the schools involved in the scandal) made waves over a decade ago by arguing that a young person’s commitment to hard work is vastly more important than inherent talent. Her research championed the importance of teaching young people a “growth mindset”—the conviction that with ongoing practice and perseverance, you can improve your skills.

Angela Duckworth, the CEO of Character Lab and a faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania, also finds that when it comes to achievement, effort counts twice as much as inherent ability. Why? Because effort develops grit, and grit is a better predictor of success in a whole host of outcomes than either grades or talent. As Duckworth notes, “Enthusiasm is common. Endurance is rare.”

Any parental shortcut (like those in recent headlines) that robs our kids of the chance to grow and build grit is reducing their ability to thrive later. But what does it look like in daily practice to focus on character, endurance, and growth?

While conducting research for a recent book, our team at the Fuller Youth Institute interviewed 75 ethnically diverse parents nominated by their churches for their skill at parenting teenagers and young adults. One of the wise moms we surveyed offered a compelling vision for how to step back from her kids’ choices and increase their sense of agency.

“As my kids turn 18, I tell them, ‘You are an adult, you can start making your own decisions,’” she said. “‘I am here as support. I am here for feedback. I am here for direction. I am here as your library. That is what I am here for, but I want you to start making the decisions on your own.’”

Her 20-something children have sought her library-like advice in moments when they needed it—for example, when learning to navigate a new tax situation or trying to find their first long-term, post-college job. But she’s not regularly intervening or peppering them with advice. In fact, this mom usually makes a choice that’s difficult for even the most loving and well-intentioned parent. She waits for her kids to come to her. She stands by until they ask for the support they need, at which point she helps them identify and evaluate the options ahead.

Embedded in this mom’s parenting posture is a key to effective parenting: shifting away from giving kids answers—an approach that grows out of a success mindset—and instead asking them questions, which in theory grows out of a character-and-growth mindset. As their kids move from adolescence into young adulthood, healthy parents (like those from our study) consistently replace “how to” and “I think” statements with “How would you” and “I wonder” questions.

The same “growth approach” applies to faith development. Our prior Sticky Faith study of youth group graduates revealed the similarity between their conception of faith and what Dallas Willard calls the “gospel of sin management.” In other words, young adults often operate from a success-or-failure framework and think they’re supposed to do the “right things” to make God love or like them more. By contrast, we’re called to point young people to a grace-based faith in which our obedience is a reflection of our gratitude to God. Or as I like to say to my own teenagers, “We live our lives as great big ‘thank you notes’ to God.”

Although my interest in this topic is professional, the admissions scandal also hits home at a personal level. My 18-year-old, Nathan, was recently accepted to one of the schools that made headlines. For the last year, my husband, Dave, and I have been praying for God’s will to be done in his college choice (and it is Nathan’s choice, not ours). While it’s tempting to run our own lap in the race of “whose child gets into the more prestigious school,” Dave and I have different priorities and prayers.

Our top prayer for our son’s college experience is that he grows in his faith. Our second most fervent prayer is that college will catalyze relationships—with friends, mentors, and a faith community—that shape him into the man God intends for him to be.

In the end, what matters most for our son is not our effort as parents or even his effort as a student but rather the work of Christ in his life.

Kara Powell, PhD, is the executive director of the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI) and a faculty member at Fuller Theological Seminary. She is the co-author, along with Steven Argue, of Growing With: Every Parent's Guide to Helping Teenagers and Young Adults Thrive in Their Faith, Family, and Future.

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Title: Re: Christianity Today Magazine - March 2019
Post by: patrick jane on September 25, 2020, 10:44:58 am
Trump for the Nobel Prize
Title: Re: Christianity Today Magazine - March 2019
Post by: patrick jane on October 10, 2020, 08:58:02 am
Trump for the Nobel Prize
Yes !!!
Title: Re: Christianity Today Magazine - March 2019
Post by: patrick jane on January 19, 2021, 05:32:54 pm
Trump for the Nobel Prize
Yes !!!