Why Our Church Offers Ministers Sabbaticals

Soon, a familiar face will be missing from our Sunday mornings for a while. Nathan Brown, our Associate Pastor of Worship, will be out on sabbatical leave for six weeks, from Labor Day Sunday to mid-October. This isn’t the first time this has happened at FBC. Our Associate Pastor, Alan Armstrong, took a sabbatical a few years ago, and Kathy Talbot, our Children’s Minister, took one last Fall. But since Nathan’s ministry includes a very public role every Sunday, there will perhaps be more questions this time. And since Robert Smart, our Music and Worship Pastor, and I both are eligible for sabbaticals in 2023, now is a great opportunity to talk about this. If you’re not a member of First Baptist, I hope this will persuade you to ask if your church offers its ministers the opportunity to take a sabbatical.

What is a Sabbatical?

A sabbatical is a paid, extended time away from work for the purpose of spiritual renewal and greater ministry effectiveness. At FBC, our employee handbook (which is voted on each year by the church body) stipulates that full-time ministers are eligible for a six-week sabbatical for every seven years of service.

A sabbatical is not a vacation. The purpose is to step away from normal responsibilities at the church to engage in activities that will restore the minister’s soul and help them grow in their skills. It’s also not a time to look for another job elsewhere. In fact, ministers at FBC must stay at least two years at the church after taking a sabbatical. On sabbatical, ministers rest and spend time with their families. But they also do things like:

–Take a seminary course to enhance their knowledge base.

–Visit other churches and get new ideas and inspiration.

–Go to a ministry conference.

–Take a prayer retreat to draw nearer to God.

–Visit the Holy Land, or other spiritually significant places.

–Start a writing project.

–Set personal, spiritual, and ministerial goals for the next stage of life.

–Learn new skills.

–Or anything else that breathes life back into their souls, so they can run the next stage of their race well.

I’ve Never Had a Sabbatical; Why Should My Pastor Get One?

I suspect many of you have never heard of this. You’re wondering why ministers get such a cushy perk. But sabbaticals aren’t a new thing. They have been part of the academic world for many years. Most universities offer their professors anywhere from a semester to a year off at periodic times, for research, writing, or further study. And in recent years, the business world is realizing that sabbaticals are a way to keep their top employees from burning out. (Here’s an article on that trend in Forbes, but there are tons of others on the internet; just search “Sabbaticals in the workplace”).

The idea of a sabbatical comes from the Sabbath concept in Scripture. God rested on the seventh day of creation. He wasn’t tired, of course. He was setting a pattern for us to follow: You need to take time away from the grind. The Sabbath wasn’t only meant to be a weekly event, either. God told the people to leave their farmland fallow (unplanted) once every seven years, so the ground could be restored. In the same way, people whose job is feeding others will end up empty if they don’t have a chance to replenish themselves. Jesus understood this, and often slipped away from the crowds seeking healing, just to spend time with His Father alone. This drove His disciples a little crazy, but Jesus knew that He needed refreshment. If that’s true of the Son of God, how much more true is it of weaker vessels like us?

I need to make two things clear before I go any further. First, I love being the pastor of First Baptist Church. It’s the best job I’ve ever had, and I hope I get to do it until I die, retire, or Jesus comes back. So what I am about to write doesn’t come out of any sense of grievance; I am very well-treated by my church. Second, I realize that many of you work long hours, and face enormous stress at work. I’m not trying to say being a pastor is harder than what you do. But I will say that pastoral stress is different. There’s a reason why the burnout rate among pastors is so high (To cite only one study, last year 38% of pastors told the Barna Group they were seriously thinking of quitting the ministry. Combine that with a lack of pastors overall, and we’re facing a church-wide crisis of leadership if we don’t do something fast.) What’s unique about pastoral stress? I think it’s a combination of two factors.

The first factor that makes ministry uniquely stressful is that spiritual warfare is real. As Paul famously warned us in Ephesians 6, our real enemy is not made of flesh and blood; it’s unseen powers of evil that war against us. Of course, that’s true for every believer, not just ordained clergy. But it stands to reason that the Devil would focus more of his limited resources on church leaders. When a pastor flames out, burns out, or fails morally, it’s a victory for the forces of darkness. It discourages God’s people and drives spiritual seekers away from the Gospel. From my vantage point, I see the result of this spiritual warfare, as many good men and women, who once had a passionate commitment to the Kingdom of God, fall by the wayside. A sabbatical is an opportunity to strengthen ourselves against this onslaught, so we can fight the good fight for years to come.

The second factor is that love hurts. And no, I am not quoting a classic rock song; I’m stating a fact. There are many professions that require caring for others: Medicine and education, for instance. But ministry can only be done well if you love the people you’re leading. I am sure many doctors love their patients, and teachers love their students. But a doctor can still be effective if he simply focuses on the scientific aspects of each patient’s case. And a professor can still be excellent if she is focused on teaching her subject, without ever getting to know her students. But any minister who is any good loves his people. And when you love someone, you make yourself vulnerable to being hurt.

Paul talks about this in 2 Corinthians 11:28-29. After listing the many hazards of being an apostle (what he ironically calls “boasting), including poverty, hunger, beatings, imprisonments, being betrayed by supposed friends, and other calamities, he says that the anxiety of his daily concern for the churches he leads is an equal source of stress: “Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant?” In ministry, you feel it deeply when your church members stumble, as if it was your own child rejecting the Lord. Their criticism cuts like a knife, and their complaints are often incredibly disappointing. When someone who you’ve prayed for late at night, visited in the hospital, and counseled through pain suddenly leaves your church without explanation, it can be devastating. When there is division within the church, and a minister finds himself arbitrating fights over petty squabbles, it can be especially discouraging. And worst of all is the grief. A good minister feels the pain of his people: Health troubles, financial struggles, family breakups, and the deaths of beloved church members all start to add up.

Over years of ministry, these wounds accumulate, and they can suck the life out of us. A sabbatical offers an opportunity to refresh our walk with the Lord, so we can love our people well again.

Good for the Church

Believe it or not, ministry sabbaticals are good for the church, not just the minister. Churches with long staff tenures tend to be healthier than those with a high turnover rate. That shouldn’t be surprising; a minister’s greatest effectiveness comes after he has been at a church for several years. So if a church helps keep its ministers spiritually and emotionally healthy, they will be better leaders, who help produce better disciples, which makes for a stronger church. Healthier ministers are also better spouses and parents. In giving a sabbatical to a pastor, you are not just blessing him; you are giving a gift of love to his wife and kids.

The benefit isn’t just in terms of longevity, either. Pastors need a chance to gain new skills and develop new ideas. Sad to say, few ministers have time for these things in their weekly schedule. There are programs to run, people to visit, meetings to attend, sermons and Bible studies to write, and the many unexpected little crises that pop up every week. I recently read something that made me laugh: “Seminary is like culinary school. I learned how to make a gourmet meal. But actual ministry is more like being on the TV show Chopped. Every week, I’m given a different basket of random foods and asked to prepare something good to eat. Then something explodes.” Just maintaining “business as usual” at a church is a full-time job, and then some. There simply isn’t time for anything new or extra. I suspect most pastors are like me, with a huge stack of books they know they should read, and that stack keeps getting taller. A pastor who gets a sabbatical should come back better at his job, with new skills or sharpened skills and fresh ideas that bless the entire congregation.

Of course, there must be guidelines and accountability. At First Baptist, we have very specific policies regarding sabbaticals. A minister seeking a sabbatical must first submit a written proposal to the Senior Pastor and the Personnel Committee. This proposal outlines the way the goals of the sabbatical (Eg: “To improve my prayer life” “To develop better ways to lead young adults in worship” “To learn about the Reformation by visiting Germany” “To grow in my skills as in counseling people struggling with mental health”), as well as the specific activities to achieve those goals. The church budget contains a small amount for minister’s sabbaticals, and so all costs must be accounted for as well. And of course, as part of the proposal, the minister must show how his responsibilities at the church will be covered while he is gone. During the sabbatical, the minister should stay away from contact with the church. It’s tempting to continue to read emails, watch the service online, and stay in touch with church members, but that would defeat the purpose. At the end of the sabbatical, the minister writes a report for the Senior Pastor and Personnel Committee recapping what he has learned, and how he will implement it in the years ahead.

If you’re a member of FBC, I hope you’ll be praying for Nathan as he takes his sabbatical, and for me and Robert if the Lord leads us to do the same thing next year. If you’re not, I hope you’ll encourage your church to offer a sabbatical to your ministry leaders. No matter what, remember that God made us for work and for rest. We live in such a high-energy age, we often tend to forget that. There’s an old story about two men sawing wood. One worked non-stop, while the other stopped once an hour and spent ten or fifteen minutes under the shade of a tree. At the end of the day, the man who rested had cut down much more wood than the man who never stopped. The non-stop worker asked his partner, “How did you beat me?” “Easy,” said the well-rested man. “Every time I sat down, I was sharpening my saw.”

Christians and Public Schools

My wife teaches at a small Christian school. My daughter teaches at a
huge public high school. This week they, along with many other teachers,
welcomed students back to their classrooms for a new academic year. I am
extremely proud of both of these women. They are investing in the next
generation, they are doing it as a way to serve God, and I know they are having
an impact far beyond what they can currently see.

I have tremendous respect for the teaching profession. I recall men and
women who didn’t just teach me; they inspired me. Teachers like Mrs. Rudolph,
my fifth grade teacher, who made me feel like God had created me to make a
difference in this world, Mr. Moseley, my Senior year Government teacher, who
helped prepare me for college, and so many more I could mention. After I
graduated high school, my own mom went back to school and finished the degree
she had put on hold when I was born. She then taught second grade in my
hometown for several years. Today, my sister-in-law teaches at the same campus
that mom once occupied. Of course, I know that not all teachers are as noble
and excellent as the ones I’ve mentioned. There are bad apples in any
profession, (including ministry!). And in the course of my education, I had a
handful of teachers who didn’t belong in a classroom. But the overwhelming
majority were there because they loved kids and wanted to make a difference. As
I talk to the many teachers in our church, and remember the many, many
educators I’ve pastored in previous churches, my respect for this profession
grows even greater.

So a few weeks ago, I was angered to see that a rumor had circulated on
social media about our local schools. The school district had to issue a
statement to rebut these rumors. No, they had NOT recently hired a
“diversity expert” to push the teaching of critical race theory in
our schools. I was angry as I thought, “What kind of person starts such a
rumor? What were they trying to accomplish, other than to stir up heartache,
anger, and fear?” But I must admit, I was also angry at the many people
who must have shared this rumor on their social media feed. Why are we so quick
to believe that something terrible must be happening in our local education
system? Why would we pass along information so inflammatory without at least
checking to see if it’s true? (For the record, I know our school district is
telling the truth about this. My daughter teaches high school history. If she
were being coerced into pushing CRT in her classroom, I would know it).

If you are my age or older and grew up in a town like Conroe, you probably
remember when the local school system was a source of civic pride. We watched
the marching band in the annual parade, cheered our teams together in the local
stadium and gym, and held up our teachers and administrators as community
pillars. Today, things are much more fragmented. In a way, that’s a good thing.
My daughter, aside from one year, spent her entire education (including her
college years) in public schools, and came out well-educated and prepared for
any number of careers. My son, on the other hand, asked us early in his
seventh-grade year if he could attend a local Christian school, where he stayed
until his graduation. That school was as perfect a fit for him as my daughter’s
public schools had been for her. We never homeschooled, but many of the best
Christians I know are either products of homeschooling, are homeschooling their
own kids, or both. I am thankful that parents today have options for their kids
that didn’t exist generations ago, because (as my own family proves) one size
does not fit all when it comes to children’s education. But in doing what’s
best for our own kids, let’s not forget the importance of the local school
system, and the men and women who work there.

Again, I am beyond grateful for the teachers who invested so well in my son
at his Christian school for the way they helped him grow, both academically and
spiritually. I am grateful as well for the parents who choose to educate their
kids at home, making the extra effort to prepare them to be good citizens and
(we pray) well-equipped representatives of Christ. But as I listen to public
school teachers, including my daughter, I gain a window into their world. Most
of us–let’s be honest–have managed to isolate ourselves from the hardest
problems of our community. We choose to live near people who share our values,
who make us feel safe. But a public school teacher must work with kids from
every sector of society, raised in every conceivable value system (and some you
and I probably couldn’t conceive of). A heartbreaking number of these kids are
experiencing ongoing trauma that would crush us. The parts of our community we
try our best to shield ourselves from, they must deal with every single day. In
many ways, a Christian educator on a public school campus is like a missionary.
They go where we either cannot or will not go, where the needs are the
greatest. Granted, they can’t preach or proselytize, but they are doing God’s
work nonetheless…working from the very ground up to make our communities
better places to live. If they succeed, we will live amongst well-equipped
fellow citizens. If they fail, there is no legislation we can write that will
fix the societal collapse that ensues.

I’m not saying it’s wrong for us to express disappointment or concerns with
the need for improvement in our schools. As members of the same community, we
should care enough to speak out when we see things that concern us. I am not
saying we must always agree with the local administration, approve every school
bond issue, never appeal our property tax. I am not saying parents should
blindly trust their students’ teachers. In fact, based on the teachers I know,
most would welcome parents who are heavily involved in their own child’s
education, who know what is being taught. Good teachers want to partner with
parents, not steer their kids away from them. If the day comes when you find a
teacher who doesn’t fit that model, speak up. Advocate for your child; your
first responsibility is as a parent.

But let’s approach those conversations from a place of grace. Let’s assume
we’re on the same team, working for the same goals, until proven otherwise.
Let’s support our local schools, even if we never have any kids enrolled there.
Pray for the campuses closest to you. Come after hours and prayer-walk the
campus, in fact, so you can get a feel for the place you’re praying for. Pray
for the teachers you know personally, by name…and check in with them
periodically to see how their prayer needs have changed. Attend sporting
events, concerts and plays. Consider volunteering on campus, or donating to
school supply drives and other initiatives that support kids and teachers. Our
schools should see God’s people as the best allies they have.

And when someone on social media makes accusations about our local schools, ask them where they got their information. For goodness’ sakes, don’t forward it without knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt that it’s true. To blindly believe and pass along such nonsense is no different than spreading gossip about a friend. In fact, here’s a handy tip: When you hear anything that makes you think negatively of your local school, ask a teacher if it’s true or not. Believe me, they are in your church, and would love to have that conversation with you.

Thoughts on the SBC Sexual Abuse Report

This past Sunday, a document nearly a year in the making was released to the public. Last summer at the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting, messengers commissioned a Sexual Abuse Task Force to address accusations of sexual abuse in the SBC. Sunday, the Task Force made public the findings of an investigation conducted by an independent, third-party firm.

You can read the entire report here. It’s nearly 300 pages long, so you may wish to read one of many summaries of the report, like this one. If you want some background history, here’s a timeline of events.

Or, if you want my summary, here it is: Over the years, hundreds of women and children have been victims of sexual abuse in Southern Baptist churches, perpetrated by volunteers and paid staff, including some pastors. Over the past twenty years, as the sexual abuse survivor community has gained a voice, they have sought justice from the leaders of our denomination. And over and over again, a small group of those leaders chose to keep the stories quiet because they cared more about protecting the SBC from financial liability than about getting justice for victims. Thanks to some good reporting (including from the Houston Chronicle) I knew most of this already. This report adds some new information, and confirms what we already believed to be true.

So what are my thoughts?

First, we should all grieve. It’s tempting to dismiss this entire story. In the days leading up to this, I have heard and read voices that say things like, “We’re only talking about a few hundred cases in a denomination of over 47,000 churches. What’s the big deal?” The big deal is that every one of those cases represents a person whose life is forever damaged. Every case was someone’s son or daughter…not to mention there are likely many more cases that were never reported.

Or, “This kind of thing happens anywhere that adults are working with kids. Look at the Boy Scouts, or youth sports.” Yes, but this happened in churches. This was at the hands of people who purported to represent God. And those who had the courage to speak up were silenced, shamed and ignored by those who could have–and SHOULD have, done something.

We need to feel the weight of this. We need to take responsibility. We may not individually be guilty, but we are responsible for what was done in the name of our God.

We should all pray. Pray for those who were victimized. They need our prayers for healing and for justice. Pray that those responsible would all be held accountable–we know they will face God’s judgment in the end, but it’s always so much more edifying to see it happen in this world. Pray for revival in the SBC. This entire sorry episode shows that there is a profound brokenness in us, and we need God’s Spirit to bring us to repentance, so we can represent Him well once again.

We should hold our convention and its officers accountable. The report lists a series of recommendations. There are clearly changes that must be made. Amazingly, some voices in our denomination want to simply express sympathy, then move on unchanged. In my opinion, that would be a travesty. This week, I booked a flight to Anaheim for the SBC annual meeting in a couple weeks. I am just one person among thousands, but I feel that I need to make my voice and vote heard. Please pray for that important meeting, June 13-15.

We should protect people. In the end, God will hold Christians like us accountable not for how we protected our financial bottom line, our reputation, or our own rights. We’ll be judged for how we treated people. They are the ones Christ died for. At FBC, all of our staff know that if we hear an accusation of any kind of abuse, it must be reported to the authorities immediately. That’s true no matter who is accused–including me. Our Children’s and Student Ministries revised their child protection policies last year. You are welcome to review them if you like. We employ police officers as security in our main area and children’s area every time we meet. There are cameras in every room of our kids’ building.

Still, we must do more. If you attend FBC and spot any way we are failing to keep people safe, please make it known to us. If you have questions, I or any of our staff will be happy to answer them. If you ever feel we are being less than completely transparent, call us on it. As a church family, we must all be vigilant. The enemy loves secrecy and complacency. We must be people of the truth, defenders of the vulnerable, and soldiers of the light.

We must not be discouraged. Between this story and so many other ongoing crises and tragedies, I am reminded how profoundly broken our world is. It’s easy to feel discouraged, to think that evil is winning. But this SBC story reminds me of something Jesus said: Therefore whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed on the housetops (Luke 12:3). In the end, no one ever “gets away” with sin. Even powerful people who try to cover up evil are eventually exposed, as this story shows.

More importantly, nothing can stop our God from ransoming this world, one soul at a time–not even our own failures. In churches (SBC and otherwise) around the world, people are coming to faith by the thousands. Missionaries are spreading the Gospel and improving communities in the poorest, most war-torn places on earth. Individual believers are loving their neighbors with courage and compassion, displaying the love of Christ that the world so desperately needs. And remember, He’s coming back to redeem and renew creation. I pray that it happens soon. In the meantime, we have work to do.

Thoughts about the fall of Roe v. Wade

The following excerpt from my book American Idols seems even more relevant in light of the recent news from the Supreme Court:  

How do we protect the life of the unborn? For most of my life, the answer from the pro-life side has focused on legislation and the courts: Capture statehouses, and urge representatives to pass laws that restrict abortion. Elect Presidents who will appoint Supreme Court justices who will then overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling that made abortion legal in the first place. In light of Scripture, a ruling that prioritizes a “right to privacy” over the life of a child is indeed evil, and therefore these political efforts are worthy. But overturning Roe v. Wade won’t end abortion in America. It will merely allow individual states to make their own abortion laws. One study found that if Roe v. Wade were overturned, it would only reduce abortions by 13%.[ii]  And even if the pro-life movement were able to ban abortion in all fifty states, thousands of abortions would still take place each year. So when the day comes that Roe v. Wade is overturned, we shouldn’t celebrate as if the battle is won. It’s only getting started.

How do I know this? The abortion rate has been declining in America for over forty years, and today it’s actually lower than it was in 1973, the year of Roe v. Wade.  That’s right, women were more likely to obtain abortions before the procedure was legal than they are today. In other words, changing the law won’t change the fact that many women who are pregnant do not feel they can bring their baby to term. If abortion is banned, many will still find a way to terminate their pregnancies. To truly be pro-life, we cannot simply ban abortion. We must seek to end it.            

How?  I think the answer requires asking other questions, such as: What factors have caused the abortion rate to decline? What factors drive women to seek abortions in the first place? Obviously, if we want to save unborn lives, we should work to accentuate the first set of factors, while addressing the second set. What about the men involved in these pregnancies? Could tougher laws against deadbeat dads reduce the number of abortions?

Of course, we know the answers to those questions will vary, depending on the source. Conservatives will say that the ultimate answer is to strengthen families, while maintaining a healthy overall economy. These should be supplemented by supporting adoption, foster families, and the work of crisis pregnancy centers. Progressives will point to initiatives such as more access to contraceptives, free child care, and an increase in the child tax credit. Thinking biblically instead of politically means being willing to try any solution–even those that don’t fit with our own political ideals—that saves lives. Are we as evangelicals willing to support all proposals that will reduce the number of abortions, even if some of those proposals seem “liberal”? If not, then we’re guided by political idolatry, not our Scriptural convictions.

You can find American Idols: Overcoming the False Gods that Keep Us From Abundant Life by clicking here, or by contacting me directly.

[ii] David French, “In a Post-Roe World, Pro-Lifers Would Still Have a Lot of Work to Do.” National Review, July 19, 2019.

Are You Ready for 2022?

May be an image of fire, outdoors and text
The image my friend Scott McMillan posted on his Facebook this morning.

Here in this last week of the year, most of us are thinking ahead, wondering what 2022 holds in store for us. I have no special insight into what will happen in our nation, our world, or in your own personal life over the next twelve months. But I would like to help you get ready for these days. Whatever they hold, there are things we can do to prepare ourselves, so that we can truly rejoice in the good things and grow through the storms. There are four questions I believe each of us needs to answer as we head into a new year:

  1. How will I feed my soul?
  2. How will I pray?
  3. Who will I invest in?
  4. How will I change?

Psalm 1 says that the person “whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night” will be like “a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither—whatever they do prospers.” When we feed our soul on the Word of God, we are like a tree planted by a stream; even when we go through droughts, we are fruitful. So let’s make a plan today to feed our souls daily on the Word of God.

The first decision is when and where will you read God’s Word? I find the best time is first thing in the morning. That way, my day is set, and I can think about what I’ve read the rest of the day. If I wait until later, inevitably, things come up that lead me to say, “I’ll get back to it tomorrow.” So set your alarm clock fifteen minutes earlier. If you are non-functional early in the morning, you might want to set your time later in the day. Perhaps on your lunch break, or at night, when everyone else has gone to bed. Some even find it’s best to listen to God’s Word on their morning commute. Just make sure you do this in a time and place where you can be completely alone with God and His Word.

The second decision is what you will read. It’s key to have a plan. Here are some options:

Through the Bible in a Year This plan includes daily readings from the Old and New Testaments.

Through the Bible in two years A more realistic goal for most people.

Through the New Testament in a Year This is what I recommend for first-time Bible readers.

If you’d like some commentary with your Scripture reading, Tim Keller has written excellent one-year studies of Psalms and Proverbs.  And if you’d like to spend a year focusing on the life and ministry of Jesus, here’s a link to my book Finding Jesus.  I also have some copies in my office if you want to pick them up there.

I highly recommend the Youversion app for your smartphone. It has virtually every Bible translation, multiple reading plans, and other great resources…and it’s free. Biblegateway.com is also a great site to use. 

Question #2: How will I pray?

At first blush, this one seems like a no-brainer. Prayer isn’t complicated. We simply talk to God, sharing with Him our fears, desires, hopes and concerns. Hebrews 4:16 contains an extraordinary promise. It says that because Jesus is both our Great High Priest and our ultimate sacrificial Lamb, we have access that would have been unthinkable before: “Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”

For a child of God, prayer is simple. So why don’t we pray more often? Why do so many of us feel like our prayer lives are fruitless? I believe it’s because we don’t have a plan. If you were invited to visit the White House, wouldn’t you think ahead of time about what you were going to say to the man in the Oval Office? God is infinitely more powerful and important than any earthly ruler. Yet how often do we plan how we will approach Him? Prayer is simple and free, but that doesn’t mean God should be taken lightly!

How do we plan our prayer lives? Here is a suggestion that has been helpful to me: At least once a day, listen to God before you pray. 1 Thessalonians 5:17 tells us to pray without ceasing, which implies a constant contact with the Lord, praying over every situation you face. But I believe that sort of life is easier when we start the day in focused prayer. And the best way to focus is to listen first. Here’s how I do it: As I do my daily Bible reading, I identify some truth, some promise, some command that I want to apply to my life. Then I pray it back to God: “Lord, thank you for sending Jesus to be my Great High Priest,” for instance. Sometimes, that thought becomes the essence of my entire prayer. I set aside my prayer list, and just pray over that one thought, asking God to help me live it out more effectively. Often, it’s just the beginning of my prayers. But either way, it’s a reminder that the purpose of prayer is not to change God’s mind or plans, but to shape us to His will. You don’t have to use my plan, but you need to make a plan that works for you. Whatever you must to do slow down and focus on Him as you pray–remembering this isn’t a going-through-the-motions, it’s talking to the King of the Universe—start doing that.

Question #3: “Who will I invest in?”

Ask the average churchgoer what is distinct about the Christian life, and they will likely say some version of: “We avoid certain vices and go to church on Sundays.” Yet when Jesus was asked to sum up the Christian life by naming the most important command of God, He said it all comes down to loving the Lord and loving our neighbor. By “love,” he didn’t mean a warm, sentimental feeling. He meant action. We know this, because He illustrated the point by telling the story of the Good Samaritan. The hero in that story went out of his way to help someone in need, and it was someone that society didn’t expect for him to care about. Ask yourself: If you interviewed non-Christians in this country and asked them the question above—“What is distinct about the Christian life?”—do you think the predominant answer would be, “Going out of your way to help people no one expects you to care about?” No, I don’t think so either. If we ever become known for that, there won’t be room in our churches for all the people who will want the Jesus they see in us. 

At First Baptist, our goal is to invest in others, especially the people no one expects us to care about. We call those Transforming Relationships. So in your prayer time today, ask the Lord to show you who He wants you to invest in this year. It might be a friend who is walking through a difficult time. Or perhaps a neighbor you’ve never really gotten to know. It may be a co-worker who isn’t a believer. It might even be someone who has been openly hostile to you in the past. Whoever they are, start praying for them today. Ask God to show you how to meet some need in their life. And wait for Him to open a door—create a divine appointment—to show love to this person. Please tell us about it, too, by filling out one of our Transforming Relationship cards: click here. When our lives become about loving others, that’s when we’re truly following in the footsteps of Jesus.  

Question #4: “How will I grow?”

Every year, millions of Americans make New Year’s resolutions. Most are health-related, and I endorse that. Getting healthy physically is a very good thing. But it pales in comparison to the need to grow spiritually. Remember, your baptism was not a finish line; it was a starting line. You are supposed to be on a journey with Jesus that ends with you becoming like Him. Philippians 2:12-13 commands us to “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God who works in you…” It’s telling us that only God can change us, but He will only change us if we’re willing to work alongside Him in this great renovation project. Our part in that project consists of repentance. And repentance is more than acknowledging our sin. It’s more even than feeling sorry. It’s doing a U-turn. It’s taking tangible steps to change.

So what should you repent of in order for 2022 to be different from all the years in the past? And what steps will you take in order to ensure—by the grace of God—you are closer to the character of Jesus Christ, more loving toward your family and friends, more winsome to unbelievers—this time next year than you are right now?

Some of you already know the answer to those questions. You know what to do; you just haven’t done it yet. You need to have that difficult conversation with that person you hurt. You need to take practical steps to stop that bad habit. You need to start treating that loved one differently.

Others of you don’t know what to do. Perhaps the idea of discipleship as a continual life of repentance is new to you. You need to pray that God would show you the areas of your character He wants to transform first. Or perhaps you know what needs to change, but you don’t know how. Make an appointment with a pastor. Go see a Christian counselor. Take real steps to address that part of yourself that stands in the way of full commitment to Christ. Don’t ignore this. Don’t close this email and walk away unchanged. Now is the time to obey, and see what God can do.

None of us knows what will happen over the next twelve months. Some of us will make new friends. Others will have to say goodbye to loved ones. Some will experience personal triumphs, while others will feel the sting of bitter disappointment. Some will be healed, and others will be blindsided by unexpected health issues. We can’t control most of what happens in the world around us. But we can commit ourselves to God, no matter what comes our way. I hope you’ll answer the four questions I’ve outlined here. I think it’s a good idea to write these things down: Get a slip of paper or type it out. You can use any words you want, but here is my suggestion:

In Ephesians 4:22-24, we’re told to “put off your old self,which belongs to your former manner of life…and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” Imagine a man who works a hard, blue collar job, then comes home every night in his sweaty, dirty clothes. Now imagine he gets married. He begins a new habit: Every night, when he comes home from work, he sheds those dirty, smelly garments, takes a shower, and then sits with his bride in the evenings, clean and fresh. That’s the life of a disciple. We continually acknowledge our dirt, and by the power of Jesus, we cleanse ourselves whenever it’s needed. We do this not because He’ll be disgusted with us otherwise; we do it, like that newlywed, because it brings us joy to please Him. So pray right now that God would help you in 2022 to continually put off the things associated with your old self, the “2021 you” and put on a new you, which is a little more like Jesus every day. I am praying for you today, too, that the coming year would bring you closer to Christ than you’ve ever been. I can’t wait to see what He’ll do!

The best books I read in 2021

I love to read, but I have a rather eclectic taste in books. Hopefully you can decide based on my brief description of each book whether or not you’d find it interesting. Please leave your comments/questions/alternate recommendations below. Happy reading in the New Year!

What if Jesus Was Serious? Skye Jethani

Even before I became a pastor, I was bothered by how Christians seemed to dismiss the Sermon on the Mount (Jesus’ longest continuous message, found in Matthew 5-7). The attitude about such radical teachings as “love your enemies”, “turn the other cheek” and “do not look at a woman with lust in your heart” seemed to be, “That’s too high a standard for ordinary people to meet.” Some even openly declared that Jesus was intentionally setting us up to fail so that we would know we needed grace. To me, that didn’t seem like Jesus at all. Skye Jethani obviously agrees. As his title indicates, it’s about what it would like to take the Sermon on the Mount seriously. This is a great book for all ages of Christians, including people who aren’t big readers. It’s short, broken up into two-three page readings. Jethani includes humorous “doodles” that make the teachings more memorable. But it’s also extremely challenging. Jesus WAS serious, and if we begin to take His words more seriously, we’ll become the kinds of people who draw others to Him.

Broken Signposts, NT Wright.

Wright is one of my favorite Christian writers and an excellent Bible scholar. This is his study of the Gospel of John. Instead of a straightforward, verse-by-verse Bible study, Wright structures the book around seven “signposts” that he says humanity has been struggling to find since history began: Justice, love, spirituality, beauty, freedom, truth and power. The Gospel of John, Wright says, shows us the only way to truly find these signposts and experience life as it was meant to be lived.

The Wisdom Pyramid: Feeding Your Soul in a Post-Truth World, by Brett McCracken

Are our smart phones killing us? Maybe not, but they seem to be driving us insane. Multiple studies have shown that levels of depression, anxiety and rage began to spike when these devices became widespread. But it’s now nearly impossible to function without them. So what should we do? McCracken offers a good answer: Instead of unplugging completely, we treat the internet and smartphones the way dieticians want us to treat foods that are high in sugar and fat: We consume them sparingly, strategically. Using the metaphor of the old food pyramid we learned as kids, McCracken suggests changing the media we consume: Scripture, our local church, good books, nature and enriching entertainments should (in descending order) fill our minds more so than social media and the 24-hour news cycle. This is a very practical, challenging book that I recommend to everyone.

Dominion, Tom Holland

If you love history, you should read this one. It’s long, but Holland is a skilled, entertaining writer. What he has done here is remarkable: He’s written a history of Christianity that shows how the values that we treasure in Western culture–human rights, the inherent dignity and worth of all people, etc–come from the Gospel. What makes this even more remarkable is that Holland, although raised in the Church of England, is not a believer. Yet he offers us a powerful reminder of the unstoppable, advancing Kingdom of God, and how those who trust in Christ are the light of the world.

So Brave, Young and Handsome, Leif Enger

Enger’s “Peace Like a River” is one of my favorite books of all time, so this one had a lot to live up to in my eyes. It’s narrated by an author who had one successful novel, long ago, and has struggled to finish another book since. He lives in Minnesota with his wife and young son (Enger does a great job of making the family environment vivid and compelling) in the mid-twentieth century. Then he meets an older man who is a fugitive from the law. The outlaw and the author become friends, and together begin a cross-country journey to find the woman the older man left when he fled from justice all those years ago. Along the way, they are pursued by a relentless lawman who reminded me of Les Miserables’ Javert. This is a story of adventure and hard-won redemption. I enjoyed it tremendously.

The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert: An English Professor’s Journey Into Christian Faith, Rosaria Champagne Butterfield

I love reading stories of how people came to faith, and this one is particularly relevant in our highly divisive times. Rosaria Champagne was, by her own description, a lesbian radical feminist college professor who often wrote editorials in the local paper about the damage caused by Christianity. This led to receiving stacks of hate mail. But then she got a different sort of letter, from a local pastor and his wife. That led to a friendship that ultimately led Rosaria to Christ. Not only is this book very well-written, it’s honest. Things in her life didn’t immediately get better, and in fact, were in many ways more complicated after she was saved. Christians in her story haven’t all behaved well. But it’s a story that will inspire us to invest in our neighbors–including the ones we assume have no interest in friendship with us.

Embodied: Transgender Identities, the Church, and What the Bible Has to Say, by Preston Sprinkle.

The messages from our popular culture about gender have changed so rapidly over the past ten years, it’s hard to know how Christians should respond when their neighbors, co-workers, and family members suddenly announce they are gender-fluid or trans. Sprinkle writes as a Christian academic who has many friends who are at various points on the gender spectrum. He helps us understand how to communicate in a loving, respectful way without compromising biblical truth.

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, Jonathan Haidt

Don’t let the title fool you. This is not a Christian book. Haidt is a well known social psychologist who is very good at communicating with ordinary non-psychologists like us. The main takeaway from this book is Haidt’s image of the Elephant and the Rider. Here’s my short version: When we’re talking to someone (in person or online) about politics or religion, we make what we think are fool-proof arguments, and cannot understand why they stubbornly hold onto their beliefs. Haidt’s theory is that the rational part of our brain (the part that carefully weighs arguments according to the evidence) is like a man riding an elephant. He has some influence over the direction he travels, but in the end, that elephant is going to go where he wants. So what is the elephant? Our intuition–the stuff inside us we don’t ever think about, and may not even be aware of–like our hidden prejudices and presuppositions, our loyalties to the groups we belong to, experiences we’ve had (“The Christians at my high school were judgmental jerks, therefore Christianity is a lie”). There’s a lot more in the book (and I certainly don’t agree with Haidt’s theory of how religion began). But Haidt helped me see that changing someone’s mind is more about building a relationship with them than it is about arguing, debating, and sending them internet memes.

The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill (podcast), Mike Cosper

Yes, this is a podcast, not a book, but I wanted to recommend it here anyway. Mars Hill was a church planted in Seattle in the late 90s, which quickly became a megachurch and made its teaching pastor, Mark Driscoll, an evangelical superstar. Then, it all collapsed seemingly overnight. Driscoll could be crude at times (I first heard about him as “the preacher who cusses sometimes”–how I wish that was his biggest flaw), but evangelicals celebrated him, buying his books, downloading his sermons, inviting him to countless conferences, because of his meteoric success. He was a mesmerizing, entertaining speaker who preached solidly biblical messages. And his church was reaching young people by the thousands in one of the least-churched cities in America. We were willing to ignore Driscoll’s flaws because the results seemed so “anointed” by God. The podcast is excellent first because it pulls back the curtain on the toxic things that were really happening at Mars Hill (including interviews with many former staff and church members), but also doesn’t overlook the genuine good that happened there. It’s a cautionary tale about the dangers of assuming that someone who is gifted and dynamic should be given leadership responsibilities, even if he/she hasn’t shown the character necessary to lead. Along the way, it helps us understand where the “Christian celebrity culture” came from, and why we need to wean ourselves from it.

A Church Called Tov: Forming a Goodness Culture that Resists Abuses of Power and Promotes Healing, by Scot McKnight and Laura Berringer

This book is timely, considering the phenomenon that was The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill (see above). However, McKnight and Berringer (McKnight’s daughter), were inspired to write this book not by that church’s collapse, but by the disgraceful end of Bill Hybels’ ministry at Willow Creek Church in Chicago, where the authors are members. If you’ve ever been puzzled by why pastors so often stumble, and churches so often split (or drive away once-faithful members who swear “I’m never going back to a church again”), and what can be done to stop it all, McKnight and Berringer have some interesting ideas. I certainly didn’t agree with all of them, but this book reminded me that a church should be about producing truly good people, not just growing larger.

The Hope and The Glory, Herman Wouk

I became a little obsessed with the history and culture of Israel this year. I even got addicted to an odd little show on Netflix–Shtisel, shot in Hebrew, about a family of ultra-orthodox Jews in Jerusalem (which I recommend). I also watched CNN’s series on the history of Jerusalem (which was not great). These two books, by the author better known for The Caine Mutiny, The Winds of War, and War and Remembrance, take us through the history of modern-day Israel, starting with the nation’s founding in 1948. It centers on three extended families that helped defend the territory granted to Israel by the UN against the Arabs who were incensed at losing land on which they had lived for generations. The books then move forward through various crises to come, like the Six-Day War, the Yom Kippur War, and the hunting of the Munich terrorists. The battle scenes are exciting, but Wouk even manages to make the political details (like conversations between a main Israeli character and various CIA and military contacts in the US) interesting. Along the way, there are plenty of cameos from famous historical figures. These characters seem very real, and I found myself very invested in them. But the book also was a great reminder of what an unlikely miracle the modern-day state of Israel is.

The Source, James Michener

To continue my obsession with Israel, I found this book, written in the sixties, about the entire Israel story, from pre-historic times, through the biblical era, to modern day. Michener’s format here is like the one he used in Texas (the only other book of his I’ve read): Use a modern-day story as a framing device to walk through the history of a region. In this case, the modern-day story is about three archaeologists (an American, an Israeli, and an Arab) who are working on a dig in Israel. With every artifact they find, the story switches to the past, and shows us what was happening in that town in that era. Like with Texas, I thought the modern-day portion was much less interesting than the stories in the past. On the good side, it helps frame the arguments about the Holy Land in a way I found enlightening and relevant, even though it was written fifty years ago. But the stories of Israel’s past are fascinating. Michener has an economical way of writing, which enables him to bring hundreds of characters and dozens of eras to vivid life in a very short span of writing. Don’t get me wrong…this book is really, really long. But it’s extremely interesting, and I learned a great deal about Israeli history.

A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving

This is another book I’ve been meaning to read for years, ever since it was on some Christian writer’s list of “Great non-Christian novels with Christian themes.” I thoroughly enjoyed it, but I know it’s not going to appeal to everyone. The narrator grows up in a New England town, raised by his aristocratic grandmother after his beautiful mother is killed by a foul ball at a little league game. That ill-fated ball was hit by Owen Meany, a dwarf with a genius intellect and some strong theological beliefs, who is the narrator’s best friend. From that point forward, Owen believes he is chosen by God to do some BIG thing. It’s not a spoiler to reveal that Owen is right, but how his destiny ultimately gets fulfilled is something I certainly didn’t see coming. This is definitely NOT a Christian novel. But the narrator starts the story by telling us, “Owen Meany is the reason I am a Christian today,” and by the end of the book, I believed him. PS: I listened to the audio book, and the reader did an excellent job of capturing Owen’s unique voice, which added to my enjoyment of the story.

Where the Light Fell, Philip Yancey

I saved my absolute favorite for last. That seems odd to say, since this is such a disturbing book at times. Yancey is my favorite writer; Books like The Jesus I Never Knew, What’s So Amazing About Grace, Soul Survivor and many others have challenged and inspired me for the past twenty years. In this, the memoir of his childhood and family, we see why he is so determined to ask uncomfortable questions of Christians like me. Yancey grew up in a devout Southern Baptist home, raised by a single mother after his father (who planned to be a missionary to Africa) died of polio. Yancey’s mom promised the Lord her two boys would take their father’s place on the mission field, and her determination to fulfill that promise eventually drove both sons away from faith. Philip ultimately found his way back to Jesus, but his conversion story is only a small part of the book. Mostly, it’s the story of the fine line between genuine, committed Christianity and toxic fundamentalism, and how bad we tend to be at knowing the difference (and how tragic the results can be). I know that doesn’t make the book sound like fun, and its not. But it is a very involving read, and in a time when so many of our young adults and teenagers are walking away from faith, I think it offers us some lessons on why…and what can be done to change that. For that reason alone, this is the book I read this year that I most highly recommend.

“Are we leaving the Southern Baptist Convention?”

I won’t lie to you. It’s a rough time to be a Southern Baptist. It started a few years ago when a church member asked me the question in the title. He had heard a radio show that said the SBC was becoming “liberal,” based on some statements made by the President of the SBC, JD Grear, and the head of SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, Russell Moore. In the coming weeks, I heard similar questions from two other church members (who apparently listened to the same radio show). I answered them all by pointing out that the radio host had taken some quotes out of context and made some assumptions that weren’t true. And, even if these men had said things which were unbiblical–which they hadn’t–the way the SBC is structured means they have no authority over me or our church (more on that later).

This past November, the presidents of the six SBC seminaries released a statement condemning Critical Race Theory (CRT) as “incompatible with the Gospel.” In response, several prominent black pastors announced they were pulling their churches out of the SBC. Interestingly, none of them endorsed CRT, an academic theory that (whatever else you think of it) has dubious origins. Ralph West, pastor of Church Without Walls in Houston, explained his decision this way: “Instead of reaching out to fellow brothers and sisters who have lived with the reality of racism in formulating their view, these six men took it upon themselves to dictate how we should think about racism.” West called the decision “Tone deaf.” In the aftermath, plenty of talking heads and blog writers piled on, reminding the world that the SBC started out as a pro-slavery denomination (unfortunately, that part is true), and using these recent events to allege that we had never really left those hateful roots behind. As a lifelong Southern Baptist, I felt a bit like a ping-pong ball. My denomination was being called liberal by some and racist by others.

In between those two moments, there was an even more heartbreaking event. In February of 2019, the Houston Chronicle released a series of three articles entitled Abuse of Faith, which detailed 380 cases of sexual abuse in SBC churches over the past 20 years. Many of the instances were tragic cases of churches simply being too trusting, unknowingly allowing predators to volunteer in children or youth ministries because they hadn’t set up adequate screening processes. Other groups that work with children, such as the Boy Scouts, are facing a similar reckoning. But some of the cases in the Chronicle’s series were even darker: Ministers who abused young women or men, then simply moved to another church, escaping any consequences while continuing to serve as spiritual leaders. It was a truly heartbreaking read.

In the past month, we’ve had two more very different bombshells. The first came March 9, when Bible teacher Beth Moore told Religion News Service that she is “no longer a Southern Baptist.” Moore grew up in an SBC church in Arkansas, rose to prominence at Houston’s First Baptist, and has long supported historic Baptist doctrine and celebrated SBC mission efforts. But, as she explained, “I am still a Baptist, but I can no longer identify with Southern Baptists. I love so many Southern Baptist people, so many Southern Baptist churches, but I don’t identify with some of the things in our heritage that haven’t remained in the past.” She hasn’t offered any other details about her decision, so I won’t speculate as to her exact reasons. I just know I’m sad that a woman whose writing and speaking ministry has drawn millions of women (and–I suspect–plenty of men, too) closer to Christ no longer feels welcome in my denomination.

And then two weeks ago came the news that a young man in Atlanta had shot and killed 8 people at three different massage parlors. Not long afterward, we found out that this man was an active member of an SBC Church, whose video testimony was on the church’s website until the shooting. Authorities said the man told them he had been in treatment for sex addiction, and that he shot those women “to eliminate temptation.” This has lead numerous people to blame evangelical “purity culture” for these awful events.

So, back to the question at hand. Are we leaving the SBC? Absolutely not. I say that for a number of reasons. First, because this denomination is bigger than one person. For instance, most people don’t seem to understand that the president of the Southern Baptist Convention is nothing like the Pope, or even bishops in other denominations. The SBC president serves a term of two years, during which time his main functions are to chair meetings, sit for media interviews, and appoint people to the boards of various seminaries, hospitals and missions agencies. He has no authority over me or my church; therefore his public statements are completely his own. If the day comes when an SBC official–the president, or someone whose position is more impactful, such as the leader of a seminary or missions board–says something that amounts to rank heresy, I will speak out against it. But even if that happens, it won’t change the mission, preaching and purpose of First Baptist, Conroe. We are truly autonomous. Our membership in the SBC simply means that we are able to cooperate with other churches in ministry. Together with other congregations, we can do more than we could separately.

Second, because of what that cooperation produces. This denomination is missionaries around the globe doing God’s work in difficult places; it’s schools training up the next generation of leaders; it’s church planters starting new work in cities where there is little Gospel witness; it’s men and women serving people in need in a thousand ways in the name of Jesus, and if I pull out my support of the SBC, I am failing to support them.

Third, because when the Church is struggling, the proper response is NOT to leave. I have plenty of criticisms of the Southern Baptist Convention, but I would rather stay and work for change than try to find greener pastures. I don’t mean that as a criticism of Beth Moore, Ralph West, or anyone else who has left the SBC. I cannot judge them without knowing all the ideas, experiences and emotions that went into their decisions. I just know what I will do. And I will stay. Not only that, I am thrilled to stay and to serve God alongside people who trust in Jesus alone for salvation, who have the Bible as their sole authority, and who believe in taking the Gospel to the ends of the earth. Certainly, we Baptists aren’t the only ones who have those values, but as long as we do, I plan to be a Southern Baptist. Besides, I actually LIKE these people. Despite what you may have heard, the people I am pleased to serve alongside are some of the humblest, most gracious, generous, joyful people on earth.

So, what do I hope Southern Baptists will do in this crucial time? First, I hope we will reject sources of division. I’m not saying we should put our heads in the sand and ignore the problems in our midst (I’ll address that in my next point). But let’s be careful who we’re listening to, which sources we allow to shape our thoughts. This might seem like a tangent, but go with me: Recently, Tucker Carlson, the popular right-wing talk show host, was sued for defamation. The suit was dismissed because Carlson’s lawyer successfully argued that “given Mr. Carlson’s reputation, any reasonable viewer ‘arrive[s] with an appropriate amount of skepticism’ about the statements he makes.” In other words, “Who cares if he said things that hurt someone’s reputation? No one thinks he’s sharing facts, anyway.” In case you think I’m picking on conservative media. the same thing happened to liberal talk show host Rachel Maddow, and her case came down to a similar argument: “The point of Maddow’s show is for her to provide the news but also to offer her opinions as to that news,” a judge wrote. “Therefore, the Court finds that the medium of the alleged defamatory statement makes it more likely that a reasonable viewer would not conclude that the contested statement implies an assertion of objective fact.” So legally speaking, these sorts of shows aren’t even considered factual. They are entertainment, period. Carlson, Maddow and the many others like them realize that they won’t get viewers by telling the whole truth about an issue. Instead, they get viewers (and make money from sponsors) by skewing the truth in order to ramp up our fear and anger. It’s why I think that these sorts of shows, along with political opinion blogs and social media sites, are one of the tools the Devil is using most effectively against the Lord’s people today. He is able to distract us from the centrality of the Gospel by focusing our fear and anger against the very people we should be seeking to reach for Christ. Here’s how all that relates to the SBC: The same tactics are at play with religious bloggers and talk show hosts who accuse the SBC of “turning liberal,” being “captive to racism,” or any number of other issues. There is legitimate criticism that our denomination must face. But most of the rhetoric I am hearing and reading is not meant to hold leaders accountable or produce actual repentance; it’s simply meant to inflame fear and anger, making its authors more famous, and dividing the flock. Reject it, unequivocally.

Second, and more importantly, pray for renewal. Make no mistake, our denomination is failing right now on multiple levels. Over the past several years, the SBC has seen declines in virtually every statistic, including overall membership, weekly attendance, and most importantly, baptisms. In 2020, there was only one baptism per sixty-two Southern Baptists. That’s an unacceptable number that indicates we aren’t reaching our neighbors with the Gospel. We’re failing black leaders and their churches, by making them feel as though we don’t care about their struggles. We certainly failed the hundreds of victims of sexual abuse over the past few decades. And, let’s be clear: We failed that young man in Atlanta, and the people whose lives he took. I was relieved to read this article, written by an Asian former member of the church where this young man was a member, defending the church against allegations of racism or toxic purity culture. But one of two things is true: Either he somehow internalized a demonically warped version of what it takes to be a follower of Christ, or he was profoundly mentally ill, and didn’t get the help he needed. Either way, it’s the job of His fellow Christians to answer that call, and we didn’t. How often is that happening at churches across our country? How many times are we failing to be the Body of Christ, instead of simply a place that puts on a religious show once a week, and competes with other churches for market share? Pray, my friends. Pray with all your hearts, that God would send His Holy Spirit to renew and remake us. We need revival. Nothing less will be sufficient.

Third, we put our hands to the plow and serve the Lord by loving others. Some might be saying, “Our denomination is under attack!” That’s nothing new. When I was in seminary, the larger political machinations of our denomination came home to roost, as our school president was fired by the trustees. The trustee chairman, who was praising and joking with the president in chapel the day before, was the one who led the charge to fire him. That same chairman subsequently had to resign his church a few years later because of sexual misconduct. At the time, I was upset at the hypocrisy I saw. But I didn’t quit the school in protest. I did what I came to do: I finished my education and focused on preparing my mind, heart and soul for a lifetime of ministry. I’ve never regretted that decision. Friends, we have important work to do. You have neighbors, co-workers and friends who are struggling. They don’t care about our inter-denominational controversies; chances are, they haven’t even heard of them. They need to experience the love of a saving God, and that won’t happen until they see it embodied in the life of an ordinary person. Be that person. Answer that call.

On Internet Conspiracies and Doomsday Prophets

THE END IS NEAR - pennlive.com

Last summer, a couple of friends sent me a video made by a pastor in another state. In this viral video, recorded on a smartphone, he talked about a dream he had recently had, in which the nation was in turmoil. He wasn’t specific about details, but made it sound like he was expecting a total breakdown in our society: Unchecked violence, limited resources. He said that he had previously had a dream about the pandemic in 2019, months before any of us had heard about COVID 19. This made him believe that perhaps God was using him to warn us of the coming devastation in our country. According to his dream, all of this was going to happen in November of 2020. He urged us all to make sure we had provisions, weapons, and an escape plan.

Yesterday, another friend sent me another video, made by a completely different pastor, two days ago. This pastor, unlike the previous one, didn’t claim that God had spoken to him through any supernatural means. Instead, he said that he had contacts in the military who had insider knowledge of government workings. These contacts were telling him beyond a doubt that martial law in this country is “imminent.” There would be a complete government takeover of our nation’s transportation, businesses, and communications network that would last for about a month. He didn’t say when this would begin, only that we needed to be ready. By “ready,” he meant we needed to have enough food for at least two weeks, enough medications to last a month, and to make sure our cars were full of fuel.

What are we to make of these things? Although the first preacher’s predictions were clearly wrong, what if this second guy is right? Should we be stocking up for a government siege? Keep in mind, there have always been people eager to shout their predictions of upcoming woes. Some have been preachers; Baptist clergyman William Miller published tracts that predicted the exact date the world would end…in October 1843. When that didn’t happen, he revised his doomsday date to October, 1844. Followers gathered on hilltops and in church buildings, waiting to hear the Lord’s trumpet. When it didn’t happen, many abandoned Christianity entirely. Others continued to follow the teachings of Miller and his successors, despite The Great Disappointment of 1844. In addition to would-be prophets, there have always been conspiracy theories. Remember the theory that spread throughout Israel after Jesus rose from the dead? They said the body had been stolen by His disciples, and the soldiers had been paid to keep quiet. Conspiracy theories are attractive to us because the sense of “insider knowledge” makes us feel better about ourselves. We feel smarter than those other people, those naïve “sheep” who buy into the party line. But there is another, deeper reason: It helps us make sense of an uncertain world. For people who didn’t want to believe the man who they crucified was actually Lord of all, it was comforting to think that there was another explanation, one involving dark, sinister forces and secret corruption. It’s the same reason some still believe that the 9-11 attacks were orchestrated by the Bush administration; it’s more comforting than accepting the reality that there are evil forces in the world capable of creating mayhem in our nation. It has the added benefit of pointing a finger of accusation at “the other side.”

Today, would-be-prophets and conspiracy theories flourish like never before, thanks to the internet. If the preacher I mentioned in the first paragraph would have had his dream thirty years ago, he would have shared it with his church, and that would have been the extent of it. But thanks to smartphones and social media, thousands of people heard his prediction. Online conspiracy chatter is far from harmless; in December of 2016, a devout Christian and father of two entered a Washington DC pizzeria armed with an AR-15. Edgar Welch believed the restaurant was a haven for child sex slaves being held by operatives from the Democratic party. He fired his weapon three times. Thankfully, no one was injured, but Welch received a four-year jail sentence. The lore behind “Pizzagate,” as it came to be known, eventually became part of the larger Q-anon conspiracy theory. This theory, spread online by an anonymous source who claims to have inside government knowledge, is followed by millions of Americans. Lately, “Q” has co-opted language from prophetic passages in the Bible, hoping to draw more evangelical followers.

Some of you may be thinking, “Okay, but what’s the big deal? What’s wrong with sharing these kinds of articles and videos on social media? After all, what if one turns out to be true?” I’ve had friends say to me, “I’m not trying to tell anyone what to think. I’m just passing along information, and letting people make up their own minds.” What you don’t seem to realize is that when we share things on the internet, our endorsement of them is implied. People who see that we posted an article speculating that Senator X is actually a Russian asset assume that is what we actually believe. We all know this, by the way. Otherwise, we would post conspiracy theories and wild accusations against even the politicians and causes we agree with, and “let people make up their own minds.” But we don’t. We don’t want to take the chance that anyone who reads it would think we agree.

This is important because we represent Christ. People look to us to judge what Jesus is all about. Sadly, thanks to our behavior on social media, some in our culture assume that Jesus is about paranoia and hysteria. We’re known as the fools who rush to HEB and buy up all the toilet paper and bottled water because we believe The End is Near. Or worse, we’re the ones who inspire mentally unstable people like Edgar Welch to acts of violence. Yet there’s an even greater danger…yes, greater even than random, senseless acts of violence. Our calling as Jesus-followers is to spread a message known as the Gospel, a word that literally means Good News. Throughout history, this message has been one that is so countercultural, people have a difficult time embracing it at first. “How could it be that a God I don’t even believe in loves me enough to die for me? How could embracing and following a crucified carpenter who lived 2000 years ago be the actual answer to the deepest longings of my soul?” Anyone who is paying attention would agree that it’s never been harder to convince Americans of the truth of that message than it is today. We have to work hard to establish credibility in the eyes of unbelievers, or they will never give the Gospel a chance. However, if our social media feeds feature wild conspiracy theories and hysterical rants along with Scripture passages, why should any unbeliever listen to us?

(By the way, the friends who sent me the videos I mentioned in the first two paragraphs did not post them to their social media feeds. They sent them, asking what I thought. That’s a completely different matter. That’s the Body of Christ coming together to seek discernment, which is a very biblical thing.)

Back to my original question: What do we do with scary viral videos like the ones I mentioned in the first two paragraphs? I would advise you to do three things:

First, Consider the source. I didn’t know either of the preachers in the videos. I had never heard of them. In other words, I had no way of knowing the character of either man. I am not in the habit of criticizing fellow preachers, by the way. I like to give them the benefit of the doubt. And in both cases, they seemed sincere. What they were saying wasn’t hateful in any way. If I had to guess, they really believed that what they were saying was true. But I don’t know that. Perhaps they were simply hoping to gain a bigger following. If so, it certainly worked…at least for a time. My point is, if you don’t know the heart of a preacher who is sending out a dire warning, why believe him? Especially when you consider the hundreds of William Millers, preachers who became famous by predicting doom, only to end up wrong.

By the way, it’s very popular today to bash the Mainstream Media. I do it myself, for their tendency to focus on the worst in the world, their rush to judgment in order to be the first to issue “Breaking News,” and for essentially flooding our lives with negativity. But at least professional journalists have a reason to be as accurate as possible. They get stories wrong, of course, and they sometimes let their biases creep into their reporting. But professional journalists know that being caught in an outright lie would end their career. See Brian Williams. See Dan Rather. But your anonymous internet conspiracy monger, your so-called “expert,” or your preacher who has a “revelation,” they have nothing to lose. When they are wrong, they face no consequences at all. And they never apologize. In fact, they find ways to show that, actually, they were right…just not in the way we first interpreted their “predictions.” People go on believing them, in spite of everything, because to admit they were wrong would be to admit we’re wrong. Our pride won’t allow it. Christians, pray for discernment. Be careful who you choose to believe. Just because someone is a pastor, or uses biblical language, or says something that agrees with your own thinking, it doesn’t mean their message is true. And if you don’t KNOW that it’s true, don’t share it with others.

Second, Know the Word. In both of the videos my friends sent me, the advice was the same: Take care of yourself. Get ready for hard times by buying lots of supplies and stocking up on weapons. That’s a huge contrast to what we see in the prophets of Scripture. When they predicted hard times for God’s people, their message was always the same: Repent. They weren’t blaming the pagans for their problems. They were saying, “We as God’s people have wandered away from Him. As a result, we’re going to experience the consequences of life outside of God’s protection and guidance. He’s giving us a chance to get right with Him. Don’t waste it.” Sometimes the people listened, often they did not. IF you hear one of these videos and believe that it’s God’s warning of difficult times, don’t rush to the grocery store. Get down on your knees and allow God’s Spirit to show you how we have failed to represent Him well. Pray for a revival of the love of Christ in our churches.

When we move on to the New Testament, we see another biblical way to confront hard times: By thinking of others first. The Gospel spread throughout the Roman Empire against all odds, because those early Christians lived like no one else. They were mostly poor, yet they shared their goods with one another, so that no one went without. They even took care of the pagan poor. When epidemics raged, they stayed in the plague-ridden cities, taking care of the sick. Why should they be afraid of death, after all? What they looked forward to was better than anything this world offered. Why hoard wealth down here, when there was treasure waiting for them in the next life? Again, that’s a long way from what I hear in these internet prophets. I can’t imagine Jesus or any of the apostles saying, “Trouble is coming. Better head to the grocery store!” Instead, they would say, “Now is the time to love your neighbors like never before. They will be seeking for hope, and we have it!” Let me put it to you this way: If the preacher in that second video is right (which I highly doubt), and martial law in our country really is imminent, we’d better respond by loving our neighbor even more fervently than we did before, not by locking ourselves in our homes, safe with our supplies and stockpiles of ammo.

Third, Trust the Lord. As I said earlier, these sorts of articles and videos are so appealing because they help us make sense of a chaotic world. We feel like we know why things went so wrong, what’s going to happen next, and what needs to occur to fix things. Yet as Christians, we already have that information. We don’t need some viral video or written rant to make things plain. The message of Scripture tells us what went wrong: Humanity has rebelled against God. Not “them,” but “us.” All we like sheep have gone astray. Each of us has turned to his own way. (Isaiah 53:6) We know what needs to occur to fix things: Reconciliation with God. Jesus took care of that Himself, as that Isaiah passage predicted: But the Lord has laid upon Him the iniquity of us all. Or as Colossians 1:20 puts it, through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. We don’t know what will happen next, and that’s where faith comes in. We trust that a God who loved us enough to die for us will do what is best. Like kids in the back seat of a car on a long trip, we know that since our Father is at the wheel, the final destination is secure. Even if the trip takes longer than we thought, and there are some unforeseen troubles along the way (and there will be), we know He had a reason for taking us in that direction, and we can trust Him to get us home.

So let’s enjoy the journey, instead of demanding to know the exact road map. Let’s represent Him well, not latch on to the latest social media message that gets our blood up. Let’s love our neighbors, not blame them for our problems. Let’s trust that the Gospel has the answers the world is looking for, not internet scare-mongers. Pray for discernment, my friends…and put it to good use!

My Favorite Books of the Year

I’ll say this for 2020: It sure encouraged me to read more than usual. And I read some really great books in the year that just ended. Here’s my list of favorites…I’ll try and describe them well enough that you’ll know whether you’ll be interested too.

Confronting Christianity: Twelve Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion. Rebecca McLaughlin


For years, my go-to book for anyone who thinks Christianity is intellectually ridiculous–or any Christian who struggles with doubts about our faith–has been The Reason for God, by Tim Keller. I now have a second book for that situation. McLaughlin is a terrific writer, and does not shy away from the core objections people have about biblical Christianity–in other words, she delivers on her title. The fact that she was born in England (a substantially less religious country than our own) combined with her relative youth makes this book a great companion piece to Keller’s masterpiece. Bonus: If you buy the audiobook, McLaughlin narrates herself, and her accent is lovely. The chapter titles reveal the twelve questions at the heart of the book:

Chapter 1: Aren’t we better off without religion?

Chapter 2: Doesn’t Christianity crush diversity?

Chapter 3: How can you say there is only one true faith?

Chapter 4: Doesn’t religion hinder morality?

Chapter 5: Doesn’t religion cause violence?

Chapter 6: How can you take the Bible literally?

Chapter 7: Hasn’t science disproved Christianity?

Chapter 8: Doesn’t Christianity denigrate women?

Chapter 9: Isn’t Christianity homophobic?

Chapter 10: Doesn’t the Bible condone slavery?

Chapter 11: How could a loving God allow so much suffering?

Chapter 12: How could a loving God send people to hell?

The chapter on homophobia is especially insightful, as McLaughlin shares her experiences as a same-sex attracted woman who has chosen to live according to biblical sexual ethics. I would recommend this highly to if you want to think through the intellectual objections to Christianity, or if you’re trying to engage someone who is skeptical of our faith. Follow her at @RebeccaMcLaugh or check her website: https://www.rebeccamclaughlin.org/

The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz. Erik Larson

The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz by [Erik Larson]

Imagine being a young woman on the cusp of adulthood. Your beloved father has just reached his lifelong goal of becoming your nation’s Prime Minister…just as World War II begins. For teenager Mary Churchill, that was reality in 1940. There have been countless books written about the War, and almost as many written about Winston Churchill. But Larson, an author who writes nonfiction that reads like a novel (my favorite Larson books are Isaac’s Storm and Devil in the White City), stays focused on the personalities of Churchill, his family and close friends, and what life was like for them in that pivotal year. They lived in a city that was bombed every night for months on end. They faced excruciatingly difficult decisions every day. They grieved the deaths of friends and neighbors that seemed to mount with each passing day. They wondered when the United States would join the war effort; and whether their tiny island nation could hold out against the Nazi onslaught until then. But they also had dinner parties and dances, fell in and out of love, dreamed, hoped and prayed. Larson makes us participants in the story. I finished the book feeling immensely grateful to the Churchills and all of the English people for standing up against tyranny alone for as long as they did. This is a gripping read even for people who don’t love history.

Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World. Tara Isabella Burton

Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World: Burton, Tara Isabella:  9781541762534: Amazon.com: Books

This is not a Christian book (although its author is a fairly new Christian herself). But its subject is of great interest to Christians: We all know the polls say Americans are becoming less religious than ever, but Burton says that’s not necessarily true. They’re simply finding meaning, purpose, community and ritual in new places. Those are the four things Burton says Americans traditionally found in organized faith–and her book does a great job of recounting the religious history of our nation in a way I hadn’t seen it presented before. But today, the “spiritually remixed” (who include “spiritual but not religious” types as well as “nones”) are finding meaning, purpose, community, and ritual in the strangest places: Alternative religions like wicca, non-religious entities like self-care and fitness companies, and especially politics. Toward the end of her book, Burton names the three fastest-growing religious movements in America today, and two of them are political: The Social Justice Movement on the Left, and Atavism on the Right. Sad to say, most churchgoing Christians don’t know many of these people, and they know few of us beyond what they see on cable news or social media. Burton’s book is an interesting read, but more importantly, it helps people like us understand those who are drifting (or, in some cases, galloping) away from our faith.

The Unsaved Christian: Reaching Cultural Christians with the Gospel. Dean Inserra

The Unsaved Christian: Reaching Cultural Christianity with the Gospel:  Inserra, Dean: 9780802418807: Amazon.com: Books

Strange Rites and The Unsaved Christian made an interesting combo for me. One gave me insight into the minds of thousands of my neighbors who want nothing to do with organized religion. The other was a reminder that thousands more of my neighbors remain “religious,” without any real relationship with Christ. That is especially true in the Southern United States, and Inserra, who pastors a church in Florida, helps us see the different types of “Unsaved Christians.” They range from the CEO (Christmas and Easter only) types, to people who attend churches where the Gospel is not preached, to cultural Christians for whom Christianity is all rolled up in citizenship and patriotism. You will recognize many of your friends, neighbors and relatives in this book. It will make you uncomfortable at times, but it will expand the number of people you begin to pray for. And Inserra has some great conversation starters and other tips to help us reach people who think they don’t need the Gospel.

Peace Like a River and Virgil Wander. Leif Enger

Peace Like a River: A Novel: Enger, Leif: 9780802139252: Amazon.com: Books

I have a new favorite novelist. For several years, I have heard about this book, had intentions to read it, but this year, I finally did it. I wish I hadn’t waited so long. Enger’s first novel, written in 2002, is narrated by 11 year old Reuben Land, an asthmatic boy in 1950s Minnesota. When his older brother becomes the focus of a criminal manhunt, Reuben, his father and younger sister strike out on a cross-country journey to try to find him before the authorities can. This is not a “Christian book,” in the sense that it’s not written specifically for a Christian audience. But it is a book about people of profound and authentic Christian faith, and that is something I haven’t seen in any other literary novel since Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead series. The father, Jeremiah Land, is especially memorable. A man of such powerful faith, he can literally work miracles, he nevertheless lives as a simple high school janitor. Little Reuben adores his dad, but has to wonder sometimes why he can heal a local bully, but not his own son. Of course, God’s people have been asking questions like that about our Heavenly Father since the Garden.

Peace Like a River reads at times like a pulse-pounding thriller, and at other times like a sweet family memoir. It has moments of tenderness, and gritty images of life’s deepest evils. Enger has that rare ability to write beautifully without seeming like he’s showing off. When I finished this book, I was immediately sad that it was over.

Virgil Wander was written just two years ago (Enger has only written three novels; I picked up his middle book, So Brave Young and Handsome, at the library yesterday). It’s quite different from his first book. Whereas Peace Like a River had a central question that drove the plot along (Will the Lands find Davy before the authorities do, and what will happen to him?), Virgil Wander has a plot that is much harder to define. It is also set in the present day, and the faith of its characters isn’t nearly as key to the story as in Peace. Still, I enjoyed it just as much. Virgil Wander is the name of the book’s narrator, a middle-aged movie theater owner in a one-stoplight town in northern Minnesota. The book starts with Virgil surviving a terrible car crash, an event that leaves him with some strange after-effects; he can speak, but can’t remember adjectives. His memory is mostly fine, but some of his friends and surroundings seem strange to him. He refers to his former life as “the previous tenant.” In other words, this is a man who has a second chance at life.

That summary makes the book sound like countless other plots, from A Christmas Carol to the movie Family Man. In reality, the book is more focused on the forsaken town where he lives, a place so known for heartache that their local festival is called “Hard Luck Days.” As Virgil tries to renew his own life, we get to know other people who live there–the widow of the baseball star who mysteriously disappeared, the former banker who got elected sheriff and wishes he hadn’t, the mayor who is obsessed with Bob Dylan, the teenager who starts surfing the icy waters of Lake Superior, the loser who wants to win his wife back, and the little boy determined to catch the huge fish he is convinced killed his dad. There’s also a scandalous local celebrity who has recently come home, and a mysterious kite-flying stranger who seems to draw people like a pied piper. I know “quirky small town” has been done an infinite number of times before, too. But Enger makes each of these characters so real, you find yourself yearning to know what happens to them, and to their community. In the process, you might feel inspired to seek a little renewal of your own.

The Chosen


Okay, this isn’t a book. I just have to share my experience with this series. Let me start with this: I don’t enjoy most “faith-based” movies. I confess I am a bit of a movie snob. Faith-based movies tend to be made with the best of intentions, but they just aren’t made well. So when I heard about a series about the life of Jesus that is entirely funded by donations, that would only be available on an app on one’s phone, tablet or computer, I figured it wasn’t worth my time. After numerous friends–some of whom are movie snobs too–kept telling me how good it was, I relented and gave it a try. Man, am I glad I did.

Most movies about the Bible fall into one of two categories: 1) The Hollywood approach, that changes the story to fit a particular agenda, or 2) The devout approach, in which the characters only say and do the things mentioned in Scripture. It’s hard to criticize this second category; The Jesus Film is a good example. These films have their purpose, but they don’t really work as movies. The Chosen is different. It presents the people of the Gospels in a realistic way. They speak in contemporary language. This takes some getting used to, but it works because it makes the viewer feel a part of the drama. These aren’t just characters in an old story, they are real people. The series presents things that aren’t mentioned in Scripture, but which are plausible: Simon and Andrew being worried they will lose their fishing boat because of debt; Matthew hiring a man to pull him in a wagon through the marketplace so that the people won’t spit on him; the woman at the well asking her latest husband for a divorce so that she can get remarried. Because these ideas aren’t in the Bible, we don’t know exactly how they will turn out. And since the characters are well-written and exceptionally well-acted (This is the best portrayal of Jesus I have ever seen), we care deeply about their stories. Every episode featured at least one moment that moved me deeply, but there is also genuinely funny humor.

I highly recommend The Chosen. Season Two should be out soon, and I can’t wait. Check out their website here: The Chosen.

Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers. Dane Ortlund

What can I say about Gentle and Lowly? If you only read one book on this list, read this book. If you struggle with feelings of inadequacy, or you fear that your life is disappointing to God, read this book. If you know someone who thinks of the God of the Bible as angry and vengeful, read this book…and then share it with them. If you just want to know Jesus better (trust me, you do), read this book.

The title is based on Matthew 11:28-30. Ortlund’s premise is that to really know someone is to discover their heart; Jesus in Matthew 11:28-30 reveals that His heart is “gentle and lowly.” The rest of the book shows that this truth is not a fluke; it’s found throughout the Bible, in both Old and New Testaments. Over and over again, in simple, memorable prose, he shows us that God doesn’t just tolerate us…His heart is for us. He delights in us. Ortlund is not following the path of some authors who ignore or downplay the passages about God’s wrath and our sin. Instead, He shows how the entire Bible points to a God who is unfailingly on our side. Let me say it again: Read this book. Thank me later.

Beating the Covid Blues

Lockdown impact on employees | Covid blues: Employees losing sleep over  rejoining office

There’s a line in the Christmas carol “O Holy Night” that seems to have been written especially for 2020.  “A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices.”  Yes, after a Summer of racial division, a Fall dominated by a contentious election, nine months into a worldwide pandemic, this is indeed a weary world.  But are we rejoicing?  As a Christian, I know Jesus desires for me to live a joyful life.  Joy, after all, is a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22).  In other words, if God’s Spirit lives in me—as I claim—then I should be joyful.  We can’t immediately change the conditions of our present world; complain though we might, the pandemic will be with us for several more months, along with the restrictions that go with it.  But the Bible makes it clear that the joy He gives us is stronger than our circumstances:

So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.  John 16:22

You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy.  Psalm 16:11

Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.  Psalm 30:5

Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice!  Philippians 4:4

Yet, sad to say, joy isn’t one of the first words people associate with Christians these days.  And honestly, I understand.  We often seem just as angry, cranky, bitter or whiney as the rest of the population, if not more.  It’s hard to persuade people that you bear the Good News when you look miserable.  It’s also devastating on a personal level.  As Proverbs 17:22 says, A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.  We all experience times of sadness, stress or grief.  But those should be exceptions.  So what’s keeping us from experiencing the joy that God gives?  I recently spent some time researching the science of happiness.  I found something interesting: The things scientists have discovered which produce long-term, resilient happiness and satisfaction (ie, joy) in people are all things that God commands us to do.  Weird, right?  So I offer this list of ten habits that will enable you to experience more joy in the coming year. 

1. Get more sleep.  The best performance-enhancing substance on earth is free and legal.  It’s getting 7-9 hours of sleep per night.  Adequate sleep leads to improved brain function, job performance, and overall health…including a longer life span.  But it also leads to a better mood.  Psychlogist Norbert Schwarz said, “Making $60,000 more in annual income has less of an effect on your daily happiness than getting one extra hour of sleep a night.”[i]  Scripture takes a balanced approach to the subject of sleep.  Proverbs warns us against sleeping our lives away.  But Psalm 127:2 says, It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep.  Sleep is a gift from God.  Stop binge-watching Netflix and get to bed on time.  You’ll thank yourself later.   

2. Monitor your media intake.  Depression and other suicide risk factors have exploded among American teenagers in recent years.  Researchers said the trend started in 2012, the year smartphones first became widely owned.  Jean Twenge says research shows that’s no coincidence.  In fact, a teenager who spends five or more hours per day on a smartphone is 71 percent more likely to have at least one suicide risk factor.[ii]  So how much time on one’s phone is safe?  Twenge says an hour or less is the sweet spot; two hours is the point at which the negative effects on one’s brain begin to emerge.  Jesus warned us in Luke 11:33, Your eye is the lamp of your body. When your eye is healthy, your whole body is full of light, but when it is bad, your body is full of darkness.  We start to resemble whatever we spend the most time looking at.

But this warning isn’t just for teenagers with smartphones.  I know many Christians who are addicted to 24 hour cable news, political websites, and talk radio.  This is toxic to your emotional and spiritual wellbeing, in my opinion.  Be aware that the business model of each of these media platforms is to keep you watching, listening, or clicking on articles.  They do this by stirring up fear and anger.  Too much news consumption leaves you feeling the world is on the verge of collapse.  Too much political opinion content fills us with the sense that those who disagree with us aren’t just wrong, they’re evil.  I read an article a couple years ago written by a Christian whose elderly parents had started watching a cable news network.  Before this, they were calm, sweet-natured people.  But soon, this man realized that every time he visited his parents, the news was on.  And every time he visited, they seemed more paranoid than before.  They were obsessed by all sorts of terrifying conspiracy theories.  They deeply distrusted their neighbors.  It took some convincing, but the man persuaded his parents to turn off the TV.  Soon, they were the happy parents he remembered. They actually thanked him for confronting them.  Of course, I am not saying we should bury our heads in the sand and ignore current events.  But a quick check of headlines in the morning is all the news one usually needs.  As for the political discussion we consume so much of, ask yourself the question: “Does this make me more or less likely to love my neighbor?”  Try fasting from media for a week or two, and see what it does for your mood.        

3. Seek contentment.  These days, it’s popular to compile a bucket list: A checklist of places to go, things to accomplish, stuff to own, experiences to have before we “kick the bucket.”  I believe bucket lists are joy-destroyers.  Research backs me up on that.  Arthur C. Brooks, in an article for The Atlantic, sums it up in this equation: “Satisfaction = What you have divided by what you want.”[iii]  The more things you put on your list of “must haves” the unhappier you will be.  Or as Spanish clergyman Josemaria Escriva put it, “He has most who needs least.  Don’t create needs for yourself.”  It makes sense, doesn’t it?  The more we focus on what we don’t have, the less we will enjoy the blessings we already possess.  Too many of us live like a married man with a wandering eye; even if he never physically cheats on his wife, his idealizing of other women will poison his love for his her. 

So how do we become content with what we have?  In Philippians 4:11-13, Paul wrote I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.  To Paul, contentment was a skill that could be learned.  But unlike such skills as mastering a foreign language or learning to hit a sand wedge, we need supernatural help with this one.  Christ can teach us how to be content. The question is, are we willing to let Him?  A great first step is to pray every day, “Lord, I know that if I truly need something, you’ll give it to me.  So teach me to be happy with what I’ve been given.”

4. Practice gratitude.  The Bible is so full of commands to be thankful, one might think that God is insecure and in need of affirmation.  Fortunately, that’s not so.  God desires our gratitude because He knows it’s good for us.  An article from Harvard Medical School cites one study in which people were asked to write a few sentences about their lives each week.  One group was asked to write about things they were thankful for.  Another was told to write about irritating or annoying things that had happened to them.  The third group was given no instruction on what to write.  At the end of 11 weeks, the thankful group showed significantly more optimism and cheerfulness.  They also exercised more and reported fewer visits to the doctor.  In another study, 411 people were asked to write a letter of gratitude to someone who had been kind to them in the past.  The participants reported a huge surge in happiness, greater than any of the more standard psychological treatments.  Even three months later, the participants’ brain activity showed that they were mentally healthier than they had been before the experiment.  Other studies show that thankful people have better relationships and do a better job motivating employees.[iv]

Here’s one way to bring more gratitude into your life: Every night, before you fall asleep, think of four things you’re thankful for.  It could be four good things that happened that day, or four things you’re glad are part of your life.  Say a prayer of thanks to God for those four things.  I’ve done this before, and it’s a great way to end a day. 

5. Serve others.  Katherine Nelson-Coffey helped lead a study in which one group was told to do something kind for themselves daily: Get a message, buy something they’ve been wanting, order dessert, spend more time doing things they enjoyed.  A second group was told to practice “random acts of kindness”: Visit an elderly relative, pay for someone’s order at a restaurant. A third group was told to do things that help humanity: Volunteer or donate to a charity.  Researchers called these “prosocial” activities.  At the end of four weeks, the results were striking.  Groups two and three reported drastically increased levels of joy and wellbeing.  Whereas the group that had spent four solid weeks playing “treat yourself” didn’t enjoy life any more than they had before.  This goes against everything we tend to believe.  Nelson-Coffey summed up the study, “This research does not say that we shouldn’t treat ourselves, show ourselves self-love when we need it, or enjoy our relaxation when we have it. However, the results of this study strongly suggest that we are more likely to reach greater levels of happiness when we exhibit prosocial behavior and show others kindness through our actions.”[v]

This shouldn’t surprise any follower of Jesus, the one who told us one of the two most important commands was Love your neighbor as yourself.  Contrary to what we may think, Christ didn’t say this because He was trying to separate the good people from the bad, or to arbitrarily make life harder for us.  He said it because He loves us, and He knows that a life of putting others ahead of oneself is actually much happier than a life consumed with fulfilling our own appetites.  Happiness is like a butterfly: The harder you try to catch it, the more it eludes you.  But if you take your eyes off of yourself, you will discover to your surprise that joy has landed on you.  This is one reason why I’m so excited about our church’s vision of creating transforming relationships. Not only will it serve our community; it will produce greater joy in us.  Wake up in the morning and ask God to show you, “Who can I serve today?” 

6. Find the meaning and dignity in your work.  Brooks, in his Atlantic article, gives another enlightening equation: “Habits (that produce happiness) = Faith + Family + Friends + Work.”  We’ll talk about the first three in that equation below.  You may be surprised to see work included.  But it stands to reason: Once we grow up, we spend more time working than we do anything else.  That’s one reason “adulting” seems so hard.  Christians especially need to realize that our work is not a curse, it’s a calling.  That’s true not just of vocational ministry and charity work, but even tasks we find mundane or miserable (for help unpacking that concept, check this out).  I’ve found it helpful to look at my day’s schedule when I first get up, praying over every meeting, assignment and chore on my plate, asking the Lord to help me do these things with wisdom and excellence, knowing He is my true boss. 

7. Spend more time with people who love you.  These days, when we have time off, we tend to retreat into our own solo bubble, which almost always involves staring at a screen in silence.  We tell ourselves this is “me time,” that we’re feeding our souls by getting away from people, with all their messiness and demands.  But research shows our isolation is what’s making us unhappy, while time spent with people feeds our souls.  Here’s just one example: A study published in the Journal of Socio-Economics found that an increase in the frequency of social involvements was worth an extra $131,000 in actual happiness.  They also stated that, “Actual changes in income, on the other hand, buy very little happiness.”[vi]

If you’re an introvert reading this right now, you might be thinking, “Those statistics don’t apply to me.”  Actually, they do.  Your circle of life-giving people is probably smaller than mine, but you need interaction with them, nonetheless.  So start saying yes to those invitations to Life Group parties.  Play board games or go on a walk with your family instead of turning on the TV.  Go visit your parents more often.  Set a rotating schedule of friends to meet for lunch once a week. 

8. Make relationships right.  One of our biggest sources of stress is conflict in our relationships.  As a pastor, I see so many people who live in a constant state of relationship drama: Betrayal by so-called friends, gossip in the office, toxic employers, longstanding family feuds, custody battles between ex-spouses, friendships collapsing because of one thoughtless word or action.  I’m willing to bet most of you reading this right now have at least one relationship in your life that makes your stomach churn.  In many of those relationships, you know that there is something you could do to make things better between you and that other person; an apology to offer, forgiveness to extend, a gentle conversation to be had.  But everything within you says “Don’t do it!”  Why?  Anger and bitterness are, in a strange way, very satisfying.  You feel validated when you have an enemy.  You tell your friends stories of the awful things she has said or done, and they all shake their heads, agreeing that you are the victim of supreme injustice.  You have imaginary conversations with your enemy, in which you tell him exactly how you feel, and he is left speechless with shame. 

Frederick Buechner puts it memorably: “Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back–in many ways it is a feast fit for a king.”  But he also acknowledges that anger, as fun as it may be, is deadly: “The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.”  This is why Jesus commanded us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.  Again, He wasn’t trying to make life hard for us.  He loves us, and wants the best for us.  He knows that making things right with our enemies is a way to bring more joy to our lives. 

I believe this world would be a much happier place if more of us would follow Romans 12:18: If possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with all people.  Note the first two words: “If possible.”  Sometimes, no matter what we do, some people will hate us.  But think about your enemies right now: Have you done everything you can?  As far as it depends on you, are you living at peace with everyone?  For some of you, the number one thing you can do to experience joy in 2021 is to have an important conversation with someone who you’re currently at odds with, or to begin praying for someone you cannot stand.  Neither of those actions is easy.  But the joy that comes when you live at peace is palpable. 

9. Go to church. Nelson-Coffey says “There is a linear relationship between religious service attendance and happiness.”  Note what she says: Simply identifying yourself as a member of a religion doesn’t make you happier.  But attending worship services does.  Pew Research has found the same thing for years: People who regularly attend worship are much happier than those who are irreligious OR those who are religious, but rarely attend church.  This is true in nations around the world.[vii] This is big news to the millions of people who would consider themselves “spiritual but not religious,” or who have given up being part of a local church, although they still believe in the doctrines of the faith.  It turns out that Sunday mornings really do matter.  If you’re a believer who has at some point dropped out of active participation in a church, it is worth your time to find a church home again. 

Of course, COVID complicates matters.  At my church some of our most loyal members feel the wisest course is to avoid in-person church attendance until the pandemic passes, even with all of the safety protocols we’ve put in place.  I respect their decision, and I thank God for the technology that enables us to stay connected with them online.  But—I want to say this carefully—I also want them to know that online worship is not a permanent replacement for being here in the flesh.  It can’t be the “new normal.”  That’s not my opinion, by the way.  Hebrews 10:24-25 commands, And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works,not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.  Notice two things: First, even in the first century, there were people saying, “I don’t need to actually go to worship with other believers.”  The author of Hebrews was correcting this false idea.  Second, notice why we need worship: He doesn’t say, “Go to church so you can hear a good sermon” or “Gather together so that you can sing worship songs.” He says we are to stir up one another to love and good deeds and encourage each other.  Those are things that happen when you are with someone in person. You can listen to preaching on your laptop and sing songs along with us on TV.  But in order to encourage one another—and be encouraged—you need to be here.  If you’ve stopped coming to church for health reasons, pray and consult your doctor about when to return.  We miss you, and look forward to seeing you again when it’s safe.  

10. Focus on deepening your faith.  Follow my logic for a moment: The Bible says we were made by a loving God as the absolute peak of His creation, the only thing in the universe made in His image.  Out of all the billions of living organisms in creation, only we can hear God’s voice, cry out to Him in prayer, and know His presence.  He cared so much for you and me, He became a man and died to rescue us, to make possible a personal relationship between us and Him.  He didn’t die to redeem any other creature, only us.  And God is the source of all joy.  God created beauty and laughter, as well as every other pleasant experience in the world, from eating a perfectly cooked steak to kissing the one you love.  None of these things is necessary for sustaining life, by the way; He could have kept us alive and reproducing without creating fun and enjoyment.  These are gifts from a God of love.  And when this God came to earth in the form of Jesus, people—especially irreligious people—couldn’t get enough of Him.  They walked for miles to stand in the sun all day listening to Him talk.  The religious leaders called Him a drunkard and a glutton because they assumed that a man of such infectious joy must be sinning somehow.   If these things are true, then the most important single thing we could do to experience a joyful life is to grow closer to our Creator and Redeemer.  As St Augustine famously said, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”  

Have you considered what new habits you will form in 2021 to grow in your relationship with God?  Most of the suggestions on this list would help, of course. But for sheer spiritual growth, I can’t think of any better habit than reading the Bible daily.  It has never been easier to start.  Bible apps are available for free.  My favorite, Youversion, even allows me to listen as someone else reads the Bible for me.  I can have my daily Bible reading while I drive, get ready for work, or exercise.  Daily Bible reading plans are available online for free as well: Just search “Bible reading plan” and you’ll get options that allow you to read the entire Bible in a year (ambitious), in three years (easier), or more theme-based options.  If you prefer some devotional thoughts to help you understand the Scripture you’re reading, there are tons of options there, too (Click here to see the one I wrote one myself).  Or just do this: Open your Bible to Matthew 1, and read that chapter.  Tomorrow, read Matthew 2.  Continue until you reach the end of the New Testament.  Then start with Genesis.  For many people, a chapter a day is the perfect amount.

Whatever you do, do something that produces joy in your life.  You’ll be glad, and so will everyone you know!    

[i] https://www.purewow.com/news/sleep-better-than-raise-says-psychologist

[ii] https://www.npr.org/2017/12/17/571443683/the-call-in-teens-and-depression

[iii] https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2020/04/how-increase-happiness-according-research/609619/

[iv] https://www.health.harvard.edu/healthbeat/giving-thanks-can-make-you-happier#:~:text=In%20positive%20psychology%20research%2C%20gratitude,express%20gratitude%20in%20multiple%20ways.

[v] https://positivepsychology.com/happiness/

[vi] https://www.bakadesuyo.com/2012/01/what-are-your-relationships-worth-in-dollars/#ixzz2b33s2ANx

[vii] https://www.pewforum.org/2019/01/31/religions-relationship-to-happiness-civic-engagement-and-health-around-the-world/