By / Jul 16

On Send Relief Sunday, recognized on July 19, Send Relief encourages Southern Baptists everywhere to join together in meeting needs and changing lives through serving others across the world. 

There are a variety of ways you can be the hands and feet of Christ. We have heard countless stories of Southern Baptists who are making a difference through their acts of service, even as churches continue to navigate the challenges brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. Send Relief Sunday provides a specific opportunity for you to tangibly express the love of Christ, even if your churches remain closed. You may want to implement these ideas on July 19 or use the day to start promoting the idea(s) you choose.

Ways to serve neighbors during a pandemic

Here are a few quick and easy ideas:

For churches

Create care packages for grocery, delivery and other essential workers: Show kindness by giving employees small bags with healthy snacks, gift cards, etc., and a thank-you note from your church. Your church can also consider packing bags in advance and working with the manager of a nearby store to arrange delivery to all of the store’s employees. 

School supplies: Even though many school districts are still exploring how to execute a return to the classroom this fall, one certainty is that students will need school supplies. Start a collection of school supplies, pack them in bags, and then work with your local school’s principal to determine the best way of delivery. 

Be a prayer warrior: Make lists of needs, people, etc., that are specific to the community your church is in, and spend specific time praying for them, asking God to show you ways to provide ongoing encouragement and ministry to them.

For families

Social distancing may currently keep us from offering hugs and other expressions of personal care, but it doesn’t have to hamper our creativity when it comes to serving. Connect with your church to discover the best contacts for the ideas below. 

Send Relief Sunday provides a specific opportunity for you to tangibly express the love of Christ, even if your churches remain closed.

Create a donation box, and fill it up: Help your children sort through clothes, toys, books, and other items in good condition to find things that could be given to those who are less fortunate. Read Matthew 25:34-41, and talk about other ways you can help “the least of these.”  

Support foster and adoptive families: Send an encouraging card in the mail, and order a meal to be delivered to their home. If they do not have a church family, invite them to visit your church in the future.  

For your children

Children learn best and feel empowered when they engage in projects that allow them as much hands-on activity as possible. Give guidance, but encourage their creativity.

Write thank-you cards: In additions to these notes, your kids can draw happy pictures for the medical staff at a local hospital. Include a simple Bible verse or reminder that God sees them and loves them. Contact the hospital to determine how best to deliver these. 

Get crafty: Let your child create items—pasta necklaces, painted stones, cookies, etc.—that they can share with neighbors, along with a note or drawing to encourage them, and ask them to let you know of any specific prayer requests they have.

Use Send Relief Sunday to start preparing your church for the Southern Baptist National Day of Service on Oct. 4, 2020. This will be another amazing opportunity to meet needs and change lives through tangible service that, we pray, opens up avenues to share the gospel. 

Ultimately, it is the lovingkindness of God that draws men and women to himself (Jer. 31:3). Yet, we are all called to be extensions of his lovingkindness to the world. For more ways you and your church can provide compassionate care to others, visit SendRelief.org

By / May 12

All church ministries should include sharing the good news of the gospel with those we love.  The story of God’s perfection, our sinfulness and separation from God, and the saving work of Jesus is the greatest need of every person. As Christians, our love and value of people go hand in hand with sharing the good news.  But, does the good news of the gospel apply to those with intellectual disabilities? Should we share about Jesus’ death and resurrection with them when we don’t know if they can respond?

As a mom of a child with autism and speech and language communication disorder, it is often tempting to do everything for my son and simplify his life. For instance, my husband and I can tell that he wants milk when he is looking in the refrigerator, so we get it for him. We can tell when he is frustrated at the sound of thunder, and we quickly grab his headphones for him. Though his therapists continuously remind us of the hindrance we can cause when we assume instead of having him ask us for things verbally, we still occasionally take over. Since each word and thought he has is slowly articulated, we often answer for him when we are in a rush or not thinking.

People that teach individuals with special needs can sometimes make this mistake, as well. The gospel may not be preached because of the assumption that the learner doesn’t understand right from wrong or the concept of God and his good story. While merely singing songs and loving students or our children is well-intended and may well be appropriate for some, often the most growth comes from not placing limits on them and raising expectations for them in a reasonable way. 

A good starting point in a special needs ministry is to ask the parents about their expectations. Watch them and observe the students for potential opportunities to teach them about God in a deeper and meaningful way. Most importantly, don’t assume that God cannot work amazing things in and through people with cognitive differences. Colossians 1:16 says, “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.” 

Just like when we share the gospel with neurotypical individuals, we want to describe God, man, sin, Jesus, and ask if they want to make a decision to place their trust in God. However, sharing the gospel with someone with a cognitive disability can be difficult. My son, for instance, thinks in a very concrete and literal way. Therefore, I try to speak in a way that he can understand.  Just as we have gospel tracts for children or in other languages, I believe it is valuable to try and discover ways to share the gospel with thinkers like my son. I like to keep a few helpful things in mind when I do this, whether with my son or anyone with a cognitive disability.  

First, I try not to overcomplicate things. Just like when I modify curriculum for individuals with communication disorders, I make sure I use language that is easy to understand and direct. 

Next, I don’t discriminate based on cognitive ability. Many people are under the assumption that individuals that are nonverbal or that have cognitive impairments can’t understand the gospel, but that is absolutely not that case for everyone. It is incredibly dangerous to assume someone is incapable of making the decision to live for Christ, and the consequences of assuming that are far too great. I have seen many accounts where parents or caretakers are amazed to realize their children understand so much more than they ever thought possible. 

Mark 16:15 says, “And he said to them, ‘Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.’” I trust the Lord’s goodness and grace with those that can’t comprehend, and I believe sharing the gospel with all of God’s people acknowledges their value and dignity.  

Last, I ask if they want to make the decision to trust in Jesus as the boss of their lives. I continue to share the gospel again and again. I pray, before and after I share, that God will open their eyes to his truth.

Sharing the gospel doesn’t have to be a 30-minute conversation, and it doesn’t have to be in a perfect tract format. I like to have a conversation. Here is one example of how I would share the gospel with a child like my son:

God is our creator. Here, look at your windchime. Someone created this windchime. That means they made it. Just like you make silly videos on your iPad. Well, God made us! But God is different than the person that made this windchime. Do you know how? God has never done anything bad, ever.

Can you think of something that you have done that is bad? What about when you hit your brother or when you threw a fit? Those were bad things. The Bible says that everyone does bad things or things that God doesn’t want us to do. You do, the person that made your beautiful wind chime does, and even Mommy does bad things. Everyone does! But not God.

God has a rule about those bad things. Those bad things mean that we can’t be with God now, and we go to a very bad place forever after we die. It means we are in trouble. Mommy’s punishment for bad things is time out. God’s punishment means not being with God forever.

But guess what? God did a very good thing for you. He sent his son, Jesus, to take your punishment for the bad things you do so that you don’t have to get that punishment!

Jesus lived his life without doing anything bad at all, then died on a cross, and then rose up from the dead, and that was the full punishment. All you have to do is believe that and trust Jesus as the boss of your life, and you can be with Jesus forever. You don’t have to go to the bad place when you die; you get to be with God. Trusting Jesus as the boss of your life means listening to God. Mommy can help you to learn about God by reading the Bible to you.

I want to encourage you not to underestimate a student’s ability to learn, understand, or accept the gospel. I believe God is capable of opening anyone’s eyes. I would encourage anyone involved with the special needs community to show value, dignity, and most importantly, Christ’s love, to individuals with cognitive impairment by sharing the gospel with them. I pray many people with cognitive impairment will come to saving faith in the Lord.

By / May 4

One of the bright spots of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the immediate and innovative responses of churches to help their local communities. There are countless stories of Christians caring for vulnerable adults, providing meals to healthcare workers, and offering support to those who have recently become unemployed.  

There are some needs, however, that can easily be overlooked, especially in times like these when the gaps between social circles are disproportionately wide. Our immigrant and refugee neighbors are among those whose needs often fly under the radar. Many of these individuals and families were already facing significant challenges before the coronavirus began to spread. With the virus reaching pandemic level, those challenges have increased exponentially. As U.S. Sens. James Lankford and Patrick Leahy argued in a bi-partisan letter to the State Department, refugees and certain immigrant visa holders “are among the most vulnerable populations during this global COVID-19 pandemic.”  

In addition, several drastic changes to immigration policies and benefits have been enacted during this lockdown period, and many immigration court dockets are delayed indefinitely. This means thousands of cases will remain unresolved for prolonged periods and could even result in expired documentation for many who could have otherwise had their papers renewed. Such complications and the recent executive order from the White House have clearly heightened concerns and insecurity among immigrants and refugees.  

In a recent interview for a Christianity Today article, I broached the subject of practical ways the Church can serve our immigrant and refugee neighbors during this pandemic. I want to expand further on those ideas, and present seven ways we can serve our immigrant and refugee neighbors right now.

We can demonstrate the love of Christ to our immigrant and refugee neighbors by helping to meet their physical, emotional, and spiritual needs in his name, and share with them the most important message they could ever hear.

1. Reach out personally to your immigrant and refugee neighbors. With so many in-person services and organizations closed to the public, including most of those provided by our churches, this is a great time to take the initiative to reach out to someone personally. Many immigrants and refugees are facing higher levels of fear, stress, insecurity, separation, and loneliness. Though we may not be able to visit them in person, most are easy to communicate with using texting, social media messaging, or other social apps such as WhatsApp and Viber.

2. Ensure individuals and families receive and understand community-wide health and safety communications. Language and cultural barriers make it difficult for some to fully understand the reasons behind the “steps to slow the spread,” such as social distancing. This can be of particular concern for immigrant and refugee churches, some of whom have continued meeting in groups simply because they have not accessed or interpreted CDC or health department guidelines adequately. Those of us who are more connected can help others who are not by disseminating and interpreting this vital information for them. USA Hello has set up a helpful website to help communicate this information. Other helpful resources with multiple languages include DSHS and these COVID-19 facts sheets

3. Look to address job and income insecurity. The economic impact we are all feeling has hit immigrant and refugee households hard as well. It has been well-documented that many immigrants serve in healthcare and other critical support industries such as food supply, transportation, maintenance, and manufacturing. These jobs are often performed in environments where social distancing is not possible, resulting in elevated risk factors for workers and their families. On the other hand, many others are self-employed, small business owners, or employed in nonessential entities. In addition, many immigrant workers are not eligible to receive a coronavirus stimulus payment. Here are a couple practical ideas:

  • Order take out or buy gift cards from immigrant-owned restaurants or businesses as a way to provide them earned income. 
  • Be part of the “Share Your Stimulus” movement where people who continue to receive paychecks or have a stronger financial foundation are sharing stories of using their coronavirus stimulus to help those who are struggling financially, and are encouraging others to do the same. 

4. Keep an eye out for concerns regarding mental and emotional health. Many immigrants and refugees already deal with trauma-related illness or difficulties because of past experiences. Consider the additional strain added to those who have been further separated from loved ones and cannot care for them as they previously could. These problems are often worsened by a lack of education and awareness of basic concerns related to mental and emotional health. In some cultures, there is a stigma associated with seeking mental health treatment. Mental health resources are also limited for those without financial resources. USA Hello’s website is a good starting place for information and resources regarding mental health among immigrants and refugees.

5. Learn from and serve alongside your immigrant and refugee neighbors. One of the most common mistakes made by churches and missionaries is viewing ministry to others as one-directional. Our immigrant and refugee neighbors have much to contribute in many different areas, and they are eager to do so. In our own church, a Chinese Christian couple has provided thousands of N95 masks for healthcare workers in Oklahoma, New York City, and China. We’ve also had a group of refugee women who have been sewing and distributing medical masks and caps for several weeks. It is also important to remember that many immigrants and refugees have survived the gravest of circumstances and can offer a great deal of knowledge and experience to benefit others.

6. Invite your immigrant and refugee neighbors to join your online services. If your church is currently broadcasting services or producing other media content; invite your immigrant and refugee neighbor to watch. I’m confident you will find many who will not only say “yes” to your invitation; they will also follow through by logging on to your broadcasts. Our church has seen a measurable increase in the involvement of our international families during this time. We hope this will help us recapture some of the momentum we’ve lost by not being able to conduct our church and local ministries in person. Online services may actually be a preferred way for some to visit your church for the first time because many of the barriers they may perceive in terms of being welcomed are removed. Subtitles and text banners on videos can also be helpful in improving cross-cultural communication.

7. Look for opportunities to introduce or discuss the gospel to your immigrant and refugee neighbors. I’ve heard from many in our church who have been approached directly by friends, neighbors, or colleagues from another faith asking specifically about how the Christian faith teaches us to navigate these times. I’ve personally been contacted by multiple Muslim-background friends who want to know more about how the Bible addresses our current crisis. There has never been a better time to introduce the good news about Jesus into conversations and interactions with those from other faiths and cultures.

Hearts are open and opportunities abound in times of greatest need. I believe the Church is poised to take the lead in moments like these and provide hope in ways no one else can. We can demonstrate the love of Christ to our immigrant and refugee neighbors by helping to meet their physical, emotional, and spiritual needs in his name, and share with them the most important message they could ever hear.  

Recommended video resource: Kent Annan of Wheaton College’s Humanitarian Disaster Institute interviews Jenny Yang, Durmomo Gary, and Matt Soerens of World Relief on this topic.   

By / Mar 31

The COVID-19 outbreak is without doubt a culture-defining moment in our present time. Much of our society and our routines have become uprooted. For Christians, we can tangibly see this in how we have changed meeting together with our local church bodies. Much of our interaction with one another has moved online for the time being.

These things are no less true for our unbelieving neighbors. The same inconveniences that are affecting us are affecting them too, whether that’s having children at home unexpectedly, losing a job or being put on leave, not being able to interact with friends and family, going to the grocery store and being unable to find basic items, etc.

With the unique challenges of the coronavirus come unique opportunities for Christians to engage with their unbelieving neighbors.

First, Christians have the unique opportunity “to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet. 3:15).

In light of any tragedy, when people’s felt needs are greatest, the world around us looks for answers to those gnawing questions that they might otherwise ignore. This may come in the form of questions such as, “Why would God allow this to happen?” (Here is one article on the “problem of evil” question). However, the questions could even be much simpler and open-ended, like, “What should I do? What should I think about this?” 

Maybe God will even open the door for evangelism more directly when your friend, neighbor, or co-worker asks, “What do you think about these events? What is Christianity’s response to events like these?” These are the kinds of questions we should be ready to answer in order that we might be able to point to Jesus Christ and the sufficiency of the gospel.

One aspect of 1 Peter 3:15 that I want to point out is how it mentions hope (“the hope that is in you”). During challenges such as the coronavirus, it is easy for the world to lose hope because many people do not place hope in anything beyond this earthly life. So, when our earthly life seems to fall apart, hope can seem to disappear right along with it. Again, it is the gospel which gives us hope. Paul wrote that, “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:19). How true this would be! But our hope is not merely in this life only, but for all eternity. Paul writes in Titus 2:11-14:

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.

Because of the gospel, we have hope in the future return of Christ to rule, reign, and restore all things, where there will no longer be death or pain or suffering (Rev. 21:4-5). We have hope and security in our eternal life in Christ.

With the unique challenges of the coronavirus come unique opportunities for Christians to engage with their unbelieving neighbors.

The amazing thing about having hope for the future is that it gives us hope and purpose in the present as well. We do not merely sit idly by and wait for Jesus to return. Having a future hope gives us purpose today that should motivate us to be zealous for good works, as Paul wrote to Titus. This leads me to the second opportunity Christians have in light of our present circumstances.

Second, Christians have a unique opportunity to love our neighbor as ourselves (Mark 12:31).

With unique challenges come unique needs. I’ve already discussed the spiritual needs, especially the need for hope. Yet, we are also presented with the opportunity to meet people’s tangible needs, whether physical or emotional. This can take different forms:

  • Do you have an elderly neighbor or someone who is part of one of the higher risk categories for the coronavirus? Offer to go grocery shopping for them so that they don’t have to risk exposing themselves to a large group of people.
  • With all the social distancing that is going on, people (especially single individuals, those without families, and the elderly who are being quarantined in care facilities) are more likely to feel lonely and isolated. Thankfully, we live in an age where we have several alternate means of communication. Whether you reach out by phone, text, social media, or meet one-on-one (if circumstances permit), let people know that they are loved and cherished.
  • Are you single yourself? Do you know parents who are overwhelmed with having their children at home 24/7? Perhaps you can help watch them for a few hours.
  • Is someone you know without a job or struggling financially during this crisis? Be generous with your earthly wealth, and, as Jesus commanded, “Make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings” (Luke 16:9).

Of course, in all these suggestions, use wisdom and discernment. One of the greatest ways we can love our neighbor is by not spreading the coronavirus itself. 

Above all else, pray and ask for the Spirit’s leading. Perhaps he wants you to do something else which I have not mentioned. Be obedient to his leading so that you can be a blessing to a watching world and so bring glory to Christ.

Conclusion

We should always remember that in light of the unique circumstances in which we find ourselves, the gospel message remains the same and is sufficient for our needs, as it has been sufficient for the church in its 2,000-year history. Let’s remember that the church has dealt with the challenges of disease and pestilence already (Read this letter from Martin Luther who had dealt with a plague). As before, now in our present time, we should let the gospel point toward the hope found in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and compel us to love our neighbor and meet their needs so that they might ask, “What is the reason for the hope that is in you?”

By / Mar 23

Just a few weeks ago, our fridge was covered to the point of saturation with the latest school artwork, a note from the preschool, memory verses, a color-coded calendar, invitations, and more, providing a visual overview of the busy days of our family, which mostly revolve around our three boys, ages eight, five and two. 

As of this morning, while we have more than enough food inside to make it through the week, only a few photos and one invitation remain on the outside. We scribbled through so many plans on the paper calendar that we just threw it away. 

Like so many, our schools and many other activities have been cancelled in the weeks ahead as our community seeks to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Our family and church are doing our best to follow all the suggested protocols for social distancing, resulting in many more hours at home together than we would normally spend. 

While we are thinking in new and creative ways about how to keep our family organized, entertained, and educated, we want to apply the same energy toward serving others during these unprecedented days. 

For most of us, this societal upheaval has left us with questions of how to love and care for others while we refraining from most places that society gathers. While our community might be segmented into our homes, we believe we can still “do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased” (Heb. 13:16). We want to teach our children that we should always live in obedience to the scriptures, even when we might feel scared or have our own limited resources. 

Below we’ve outlined a few of our plans to stay connected and serve our neighbors in the weeks ahead. As you read the ideas below, would you pray and ask God to show you how he would lead you to be generous to the people and needs in your community?

1. Check on your neighbors

We’ll admit: we have neighbors within walking distance from our house that we do not know. These weeks will provide an excellent opportunity to introduce our family as we take some family walks. We will leave our phone number, our church’s number, and offer help in any time of need. These weeks of separation will be a shared experience across our community that we are praying God will use to open doors for the gospel. A “hello” is always the first step.

2. Donate to food banks

In normal times, an estimated one in nine Americans are food insecure or unsure about how they will get the food they need in the days ahead. The elderly, children, and those in rural communities are some of the most at-risk populations. These months and weeks of disruption could leave many more with limited income for or access to the food they need. 

Food banks are already reporting shortages this month, and now is an excellent time to consider donating financially to support their work. Very often, food banks and similar ministries can benefit more from monetary donations than from food donations. They may have the ability to purchase food at much lower costs through federal services or food distributors and can make your dollars go further than you can. 

If your church has a food bank, consider how to simplify the process for the weeks of receiving food ahead in order to serve more people and also to limit social exposure. 

3. Donate to school feeding programs

As of March 17, EdWeek magazine reports that at least 38 million children are affected by school closures related to the coronavirus. In our community, many children regularly eat two free or reduced-cost meals a day at school and go home each weekend with a backpack of food items, as well. Our city and county schools work together through a Family Resource Center to provide meals for children who may be at risk of hunger, even taking them to their homes at times. Check with your local school systems and other officials about how you can support such programs through giving or volunteering. 

4. Donate blood 

The American Red Cross says on its website, “The American Red Cross now faces a severe blood shortage due to an unprecedented number of blood drive cancellations during this coronavirus outbreak. Healthy individuals are needed to donate now to help patients counting on lifesaving blood.” The website also describes their enhanced safety protocols. You can make an appointment to give at a local location through the American Red Cross website.  

While our community might be segmented into our homes, we believe we can still “do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased” (Heb. 13:16). We want to teach our children that we should always live in obedience to the scriptures, even when we might feel scared or have our own limited resources. 

5. Send cards

The elderly among us will be particularly affected by the societal restrictions implemented to protect them from coronavirus. Many nursing homes are not allowing visitors in order to protect the health of those who live there, and senior citizen centers, which often provide meals and activities, have closed across the country. These days together in our homes are an excellent opportunity to create or write cards to mail to those of any age who might feel isolated. 

6. Support local businesses

In many places, and perhaps nationwide by the time this article posts, restaurants and other small businesses are closed or have limited hours. This especially hurts small business owners and their employees who won’t know when their next paycheck will come. With a focus on the families behind those places of business, commit to ordering carryout one day a week or to buying gift certificates to use after the coronavirus isolation is over. 

7. Do what you can 

Pray for God to open your eyes to the needs around you. Offer to pick up groceries for those who are elderly or immunocompromised. Reach out to your friends in healthcare or retail to see if they need any assistance with childcare. Make phone calls to family and church members who might need help or encouragement. 

It is not lost on us that our children are watching every second of how we as a family and as a church are responding to this crisis. It is our prayer that they comprehend deeply that no circumstance excludes us from the scriptural commands to love God and love our neighbors. As we live generously in a time when so many have been struck with fear, we pray our actions create opportunities to share about the one who sacrificed for us, the reason for our hope and the anchor for our souls, Jesus Christ. 

By / Dec 6

Andrew Peterson was a young musician when he posted a message board comment to one of his favorite bands, Cademon’s Call, with a link to his lyrics. This spontaneous act set off a long spiral of events that have shaped him and led him to his vocation as a musician. His story has been anything but linear, but as he understands it, could not have unfolded any other way. 

Over the last 20 years, Peterson has performed thousands of concerts, published four novels, released 10 albums, taught college and seminary classes on writing, founded a nonprofit ministry for Christians in the arts, and served as an executive producer for a film. This lifelong work of creating has taught Peterson lessons about vocation and storytelling that he intertwines with his own story in his new book, Adorning the Dark: Thoughts on Community, Calling, and the Mystery of Making, which was named The Gospel Coalition’s 2019 Book of the Year in Arts and Culture.

Though there are an abundance of books on creativity, Peterson’s stands out as he writes with the wisdom of an expert but the humility of a servant. A spiritual memoir and artist’s manual all in one, Peterson’s beautiful language combines with his Christian theology to shepherd his readers toward a vision of how Christians can grace the world with their gifts. With wit, wisdom, and honesty, Peterson invites all Christians—not just “professional creatives”—into the act of creating as a way of being more fully human. 

Early in the book, Peterson is refreshingly honest, allowing readers into the internal war that rages inside him as he seeks to be faithful to his calling as an artist while persistently fighting to keep the waves of self-doubt at bay. In this beginning section, Peterson also discusses other thoughts on the sacredness of art and the importance of community. Then, starting in chapter nine, Peterson begins to outline his six principles for the writing life: serving the work, serving the audience, selectivity, discernment, discipline, and community. 

Three valuable insights 

One of Peterson’s valuable insights in his book lies in his understanding of creativity as a natural quality of humans created in the image of God. Frustrated by what he sees as a tendency toward elitism in the artist community, Peterson writes on creativity not as a special gift offered to a few but as a spiritual gift given to all. “We’re all creative. There is no “creative class” (168). 

In a culture that often suffers from self-intoxication, Peterson offers a much more meaningful view of the arts: as a way to love our neighbors by pointing them beyond ourselves to the One who fashioned us.

His principles of writing apply to Christians everywhere because of our God-given impulse to fashion together beautiful things— to bring order to chaos. We feel such an urge precisely because we are made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27) who did just that, speaking the world into motion and breathing life into humanity. If Christians have a tendency to elevate the importance of some work while diminishing the value of others, Peterson’s words offer a rebuke and way of dignifying all work, from gardening to beekeeping to raising a family, because like the musician who writes songs for a living, these too are creative works.

A second valuable part of Peterson’s book is that he connects our creativity directly to Christian theology. In a culture that often suffers from self-intoxication, Peterson offers a much more meaningful view of the arts: as a way to love our neighbors by pointing them beyond ourselves to the One who fashioned us. He writes: 

“Art shouldn’t be about self. The paradox is that art is necessarily created by a Self, and will necessarily draw some measure of attention or consideration to the artist. But the aim ought to be for the thing to draw attention, ultimately, to something other than the Self. For a Christian, that means accepting this paradox in the knowledge, or at least in the hope, that my expression, even if it is one of the most intimate chambers of my heart, can lead the audience beyond me and to the Ultimate Self, the Word that made the world” (44-45).

Furthermore, his description of art points the Christian to a more complete understanding of God. Just as God is both immanent (near to us) and yet transcendent (beyond us), for the Christian, art has both immanent and transcendent qualities as it starts at the self and speaks intimately to ourselves and our neighbors, and yet also aims to point beyond, to the Creator. 

A final point from Peterson’s book that I found of particular value is that his view of faith offers forgetful Christians a reminder of the omnipresent nature of God’s character. For Peterson, because God is in all things, the world presents never-ending material to write about—quiet sunsets and worship services are both sources of inspiration. Peterson writes about the annual conference his ministry organizes called Hutchmoot (which I’ve attended, and highly recommend), which aims to “encourage people to look for the glimmer of the gospel in all corners of life” (168-169). His book invites us into the same way of living in the world: to be open to the sacred in the everyday by seeing the Spirit at work in all things. Peterson offers an embodied spirituality that invites us to meet God in the ordinary. We should anticipate this. After all, Jesus came born as a baby in a manger in the small town of Bethlehem, the son of a carpenter.

This book is theological, practical, and a delightful narrative all in one. While Peterson is clear that all people are creative, Adorning the Dark will be an especially helpful read for Christians who want to make good art. His vision of writing as a tangible way of loving our neighbors (what he calls the “audience”) is a compelling one. Peterson writes that he understands his own vocation to be “to use whatever gifts I’ve been given to tell the truth as beautifully as I can.” For any Christian who wants to engage the culture with the truth of the gospel of Christ through the medium of art, Adorning the Dark is an excellent read on how to steward the gifts God has given them for the purposes of his glory.

By / Jul 24

It had to be somebody who’d plow deep and straight and not cut corners; somebody to seed, weed, feed, breed and rake and disc and plow and plant and tie the fleece and strain the milk and replenish the self-feeder and finish a hard week’s work with a five-mile drive to church; somebody who would bale a family together with the soft strong bonds of sharing, who would laugh, and then sigh, and then reply, with smiling eyes, when his son says that he wants to spend his life "doing what dad does" . . . so God made a farmer. – Paul Harvey.

Paul Harvey was a radio host that had a knack for capturing the essence of America. As a young fan of radio, I’d often hear his updates where he’d provide interesting news from around the country. He’d end his updates by spinning a yarn about some unknown tidbit from history. One time, as I was driving down the road, I heard his recorded speech titled, “So God Made a Farmer,” and it instantly became a favorite of mine.

I have never had the privilege of living in an expressly rural context. My time growing up was split between the well-known mountains of East Tennessee and the commercialized coasts of Florida. But as I have gotten older, my professional career in electoral politics allowed me the opportunity to work in some rich agricultural areas. At the same time, my wife’s family lives in an area of the country where farming is a way of life. So whether it’s the cotton farms of West Tennessee or the vast cornfields of the Illinois River Valley, I’ve developed a deep appreciation and love for the rural parts of our nation. And the churches of those communities.

This was brought home to me recently as my wife and I were visiting her family in the Midwest, a part of the country that has been beset with seemingly never-ending rain and flooding. It has devastated farms across the region from Nebraska to Illinois, causing ripple effects in the national economy. It has also resulted in farmers stockpiling what they have, something that is rarely done. 

Whenever we are there, we attend her parents’ small church about 10 miles north of where they live. This congregation has about 40 folks in attendance on any given Sunday, nearly all of them from farm families. Typically, they have a congregational prayer time where members are invited to share their cares and concerns with everyone. 

During this particular service, the continual precipitation was on everyone’s mind. Farmers have been unable to get their crop in the ground because of it. Many were being forced to make the hard decision of whether or not to file for crop insurance. As I heard these prayer requests being made, my thoughts centered on the pastor of this tight-knit congregation. What words would he call upon to address these concerns? What sort of intercessory prayer would he offer for these people? How would he lead on this occasion? 

In a beautiful moment to witness, he reminded the congregation of their Galatians 6:2 responsibility, he talked about God’s sovereignty, and he ended with gratitude for God’s sufficiency. As someone who is a member of a church in an urban setting, where prayer time is more individualized and silent, it was a poignant scene.

Remembering our rural churches 

It was another reminder of just how vital the church is––in any context. Christians called to live and minister in a rural setting are not more uniquely called than someone who is called to minister in downtown New Orleans. Both are confronted with important and complex matters the gospel speaks to. But I do think, perhaps because there are less people or because of the perception that less newsy items occur there, it is easy for those of us in urbans areas to forget about our brothers and sisters in the country. That shouldn’t be so.

In the Southern Baptist Convention alone, small and rural churches make up the backbone of our denomination. Based on the most recent numbers I could find from LifeWay Research’s Annual Church Profile, churches with under 250 members make up more than 85% of all churches in the SBC, and many of those will be in more rural and exurban settings. And while these churches may not have the resources some are accustomed to in 10,000-member megachurches, the Spirit is certainly alive and well in these congregations.

A certain closeness to God was evident during my visit to this church. How did they create this culture? Did their rural setting have anything to do with it? Are they more purposeful about making time for God in their lives? Whenever I’m in Washington, Dallas, or Nashville, everyone seems so hurried and consumed by their schedules. That’s not the sense you get with our rural brethren. 

This reminded me of a passage from the English pastor, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, who once stated in a sermon, “One of the curses of (city) life is that we are all kept so busy we have no time for God . . . we are all rushing madly to and from work . . . and then in the evenings pleasure is organized for us, staring us in the face.” Even though he said those words decades ago, is that not still true to this day? In that regard, I am envious of the margin a rural life seems to afford those who are called to these areas. There’s more time to reflect; more time to appreciate; more time to focus on the Lord.

My friends in this particular church have lives tied to the seasons and the rhythms of the sun and rain. And, despite the hardships they’re encountering right now, they are leaning in to God. He is more than enough for their needs. And while they have burdens, they’re committing to come together to overcome them. Those are lessons we all would do well to remember, whether we’re in the country or in the city.

By / Jul 19

John Barry’s Jesus' Economy is a recent release discussing the need for Christians to be involved in holistic poverty alleviation efforts. Barry makes the argument that Christians should be active not only in helping to meet the spiritual needs of people through gospel sharing, but also in working to meet their physical needs and empowering them to be self-sufficient. Barry is the CEO of a Christian nonprofit after which the book is named. Jesus’ Economy was an inspirational, thought-provoking read and included practical tips for Christians seeking to address poverty. Though there were some significant weaknesses to the book, it is clear that Barry’s desire is to be gospel-centered in his approach to poverty alleviation. 

Strengths 

Barry’s contribution to this discussion is truly stirring and intriguing. His experience working with people facing many forms of poverty provided readers with some very moving anecdotes. He has spent a fair amount of time working in impoverished areas both in the United States, such as with homeless shelters, and abroad, specifically in impoverished areas of India. His biblical literacy is well utilized to get people thinking about how Jesus related to the impoverished and how that should inform us today. With this, he clearly strives to keep his approach gospel-centered, modeled after the ministry of Jesus and concerned about the whole person. 

A tendency among some Christian social justice proponents is to lose the message of the gospel and the need for spiritual salvation in humanitarian efforts, but Barry is faithful to fight against that pull. He also offers wisdom from research and experience as to how to effectively help the poor, such as through his knowledge of microloans and their effectiveness, especially emphasizing the need for the creation of jobs. Part four of the book, in particular, includes excellent advice for individual Christians on topics including but not limited to evaluating nonprofits to support and interacting well with the homeless community. These are some clear strengths of Jesus’ Economy.

Weaknesses

One weakness of this book is Barry’s oversimplification of some very complicated issues. There is room for graciousness here in recognizing that he was taking on a broad topic that could really be (and has been) broken up in more narrowly focused books. However, if the aim here was (as it seems) to give a wide overview and a handbook-style guide to the issues of poverty, then more care should have been given to addressing the more difficult and controversial subtopics. 

Two examples are the author’s handling of the topic of capitalism and that of spiritual gifts. These are significant auxiliary topics that come up when discussing approaches to physical poverty alleviation. At points, Barry discusses Western ideas of business and capitalism in ways that come across as critical, but not constructive. For example, he points out that it is the "preference on business trips to set up meetings with the wealthy instead of the impoverished," (Barry 74).

Regarding spiritual gifts, Barry makes bold continuationist statements without making much of an argument for such a view, implying that miraculous healings are an essential part of ministry among the poor. Whether or not such a concept is true, the tone of the text could leave some readers who are either cessationists or simply undecided in their view feeling belittled or confused.

Another weakness of this book was the initial argument for why Christians should be involved in physical poverty alleviation efforts. As someone who agrees that this should be the case, I was eager to hear a well-formulated argument from Scripture, the author’s experience, and reason, yet I was left wanting more. I was inspired, but not convinced. 

Instead of being persuaded or even just affirmed in my view, there was language used that could make one uncomfortable. The author makes statements that the good news of the gospel is “full spiritual and physical renewal,” (7). He speaks of empowering people to “realize their dreams” and Christians “bringing” the Kingdom of God (10, 32). This language is potentially dangerous. It carries some social-gospel and perhaps prosperity-gospel tones that it seems the author does not intend. The context of such statements is within explaining why physical and spiritual poverty ought to be addressed in tandem, but it’s not enough. Readers are left with some phrases that could be troubling to the more theologically minded, and misleading to those who are less so. 

Overall, Barry’s work is a fair contribution to the discussion of poverty alleviation among Christians. His work with Jesus’ Economy sounds worthy of support, and his advice to Christians seeking to serve discerningly the impoverished is generally helpful. Barry’s passion for the cause of the gospel is clear, and we certainly need more voices like his in these conversations. Yet, the shortcomings of this book leave me hesitant to recommend it without some of these several important caveats. 

By / Jul 4

The Fourth of July always comes with fireworks, but that’s the case this year in more than just one way. America is in a season of uniquely grating cultural strife. There are fireworks of division detonating all around us. And the more times you scroll through Twitter, or watch nighttime cable news or late-night comedy shows, the more the dynamite of our disagreements are exaggerated, as the debates move well past the point of helpful.

Yet here we are, at a time of great division, with a holiday meant to celebrate our national unity. So, as Christians, what do we make of this Independence Day?

A hometown Fourth

My hometown of Lake Jackson, Texas, was a wonderful place to grow up. The city was founded in 1941 as a meticulously planned municipality with preserved moss-covered live oaks and winding downtown streets literally named This Way, That Way, and Winding Way. The city knows how to celebrate holidays, especially the Fourth of July. Most towns across America celebrate with fireworks, but none compare to the City of Enchantment’s (my hometown’s nickname) display. 

I’ve enjoyed watching fireworks shows from the beaches of Seaside, Florida, to the lake shores of Conroe, Texas, but my hometown’s are my favorite. Maybe this is the effect of nostalgia, but the size of the show is impressive even to visitors. What truly makes the day special to me, though, is the way such a celebration can unify a city as families and friends gather outside.

Each year, my family enjoyed the holiday at a party hosted by a family in our church whose home was perfectly situated for a great view of the night’s display. Their annual party drew families from the church and neighborhood. The word ‘smorgasbord’ was created to describe the spread of hot dogs, burgers, and red, white, and blue desserts. My favorite was the coffee punch, the host’s own recipe of Homemade Vanilla Blue Bell ice cream and cold brew coffee. Those are special memories, especially the year when the wind was strong enough to carry ash from the fireworks and drop it on their driveway. My dad was among those pelted.

Our ultimate citizenship

These memories are part of what it means to be home and have a sense of belonging in a place where you are welcomed in community. I am thankful for the one that has carried my family through the highs and lows of life, like church planting, weddings, and health battles. America is my home, and Lake Jackson is my hometown, but neither will be forever—and that’s actually comforting to me.

As a Christian, I am thankful that many of these people who make up such wonderful memories are my brothers and sisters in the family of God. When Jesus tells us that this world is not our home, he reminds us that while we are citizens of the nations where he has placed us, they will all pass away one day. For the Christian, it is only our citizenship in the Kingdom of God that lasts forever. My colleague Andrew Walker writes more on this in How Augustine helps American Christians understand July 4. Walker writes, 

“Augustine helps us to love our country the way it is supposed to be loved biblically. Augustine helps us understand that we as Christians can love our country, but we must understand what forces drive it, and what separates it from the Kingdom of God. Augustine is concerned with us loving our God more than our country.” 

This means we love this country and celebrate the day of our independence with gratitude, but we do so in ways that honor our citizenship to Christ’s Kingdom above where he has placed us here and now. Walker concludes his article, “on this July 4, be an American, be a Christian American even. But recognize that the former ought to be more defining than the latter.”

Cultivating community where we are

For our second Independence Day in Washington, my wife and I had a friend visiting from Texas. We walked to the U.S. Capitol from our apartment on Capitol Hill for the annual Capitol Fourth concert that airs live on PBS. The show concludes with patriotic songs from the National Symphony Orchestra as the fireworks display fires off above the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. After the show ended, we walked back home through the rowhouse neighborhood. Block after block, neighbors were out and sending their own firecrackers into the sky until late in the night. And in those encore fireworks is a lesson we shouldn’t miss.

Holidays like the Fourth of July offer opportunities to meet our actual neighbors. In an age of epidemic loneliness in our country, the basic things, like knowing your neighbors, become monumental. There are many reasons why researchers account for the increasing loneliness. Technology changes in vocation, declining marriage rates, and even increasingly polarized politics are all, in part, to blame. As difficult as these new challenges and divisions are to face, we must remember that this is the age in which God saw fit to place you and me. This is our country, and though it’s imperfect, it’s ours to steward.

In Onward, Russell Moore encourages Christians to consider our calling as “an engaged alienation, a Christianity that preserves the distinctiveness of our gospel while not retreating from our callings as neighbors, and friends, and citizens.” He continues, “We must put priority where Jesus put it, on the kingdom of God. But while we are a Kingdom First people, we are not a Kingdom Only people. Jesus told us to seek both the kingdom of God ‘and his righteousness’” (Matt. 6:33).

As you celebrate this holiday, take a moment to meet someone new in your neighborhood. Introduce yourself to those also outside celebrating this shared land of ours. There are people all around us who long for the kind of love that some of us know from hometown memories. As the church, we are to be Christ’s instruments of redemption by showing people the way to our Father in heaven beginning with simple, ordinary hospitality. Then, as the fireworks burst above your town, consider praying for our country and, even more importantly, your neighbors by name. Let’s be people of peace in this culture of chaos. Let’s pray for God’s Kingdom to come. This Independence Day, let’s love our neighbor as ourselves.

By / Dec 4

Jen Wilkin has just entered the “empty nest” season of life, so she knows a thing or two about parenting. At our National Conference, she addressed a topic that’s not talked about enough: Building community in the home. We hope you benefit from her experience and wisdom.

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