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The Year of Living Hopelessly

2016 tempted us toward nihilism. We dont have to go there.

A cartoon of a dog sitting in a room, calmly declaring “This is fine” while engulfed in flames, has circulated widely on social media and become the symbol of 2016.

Our public discourse has often included hand-wringing and outrage, but these days, we’re tempted to despair more than ever. As the US presidential campaign took a series of particularly absurd turns, the #lolnothingmatters hashtag rose to prominence among journalists, political operatives, and Christian leaders alike. One writer looked back on the 2016 Republican National Convention as a “raging dumpster fire,” that is, an irredeemable situation.

The metaphor was co-opted by up-and-coming Nebraska senator Ben Sasse in a press release: “Sen. Sasse will not be attending the convention and will instead take his kids to watch some dumpster fires across the state, all of which enjoy more popularity than the current front-runners.”

Meanwhile, the candidates model the worst of political discourse. Trump is largely known for his name-calling, while Clinton lobs Twitter taunts like “Delete your account.” And all this preceded the final stretch of the election cycle, which took a sudden turn into a rhetorical and moral abyss.

CT readers may not be immersed in the world of Twitter or glued to 24-hour news channels, but we can nonetheless be shaped by these media. In an election with Twitter as its backbone, existential angst has become a national posture. Every day a new headline proclaims some gaffe, tragedy, or scandal, free of foresight or historical context. Breathing in this nihilistic pollution day in and day out can inadvertently cause a kind of cancer in us as well.

How are Christians called to breathe in this atmosphere?

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Trick or Treat or Tracts: 1 in 3 Evangelical Pastors Want Gospel Given on Halloween

Meanwhile, 1 in 4 evangelicals said they skipped Halloween entirely last year.

This Halloween, millions of Americans will carve pumpkins, dress up in costumes, decorate their yards, and gobble down the candy they get while trick-or-treating.

America’s preachers also hope they’ll consider coming to church, according to a new phone survey of 1,000 Protestant senior pastors from LifeWay Research.

While a minority (not quite 1 in 10) of Protestant pastors tell church members to skip Halloween altogether, two-thirds say they encourage church members to ask their neighbors to a church-related event like a fall fair or trunk-or-treat.

Half tell their church members to befriend those who trick-or-treat at their doors.

Most pastors see Halloween as an opportunity to reach out, says Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research.

“This is a time when your neighbors literally come to your doorstep,” he says. “Pastors don’t want their church members to waste that chance to make a connection or invite someone to church.”

Halloween has become a major social and retail event in American culture. Seven out of 10 Americans (69%) plan to celebrate Halloween this year, according to the National Retail Federation. The average American consumer will spend about $83 on candy, decorations, and other goodies. That’s up from $74 in 2015.

Most pastors want church members to take part in the season’s activities as well.

Two-thirds (67%) encourage church members to invite friends and neighbors to a fall festival, trunk-or-treat, or judgment house. Pastors at bigger churches (those with 250 or more in attendance) are most likely to ask church members to invite their neighbors (86%) to an event at the church. Those from small churches (50 or fewer in attendance) are least likely ...

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Rural Church Planting and Coaching Church Planters: November CPLF Gathering

If you're a church planting leader in your denomination, you should join us for this gathering.

For the past few years we have hosted a gathering of denomination and network church planting leaders from across North America to consider process and practices of church planting. We call this group the Church Planting Leadership Fellowship (check out our new website!). This is a peer group, specifically focused on those who are leading church planting efforts in their denomination and/or network. This group is unique; in fact, I’m pretty confident that it’s the only one of its kind. It regularly features leaders who represent around 75% of all North American Evangelical church planting in a given year.

In the past we have featured speakers like Tim Keller, Rick Warren, Linda Stanley, Neil Cole, Dhati Lewis, Leonce Crump, Derwin Gray, and many, many others. What makes this gathering so special, though, is not just the learning we get (though it’s pretty spectacular), but the opportunity for peers to sit down and learn from each other.

This November, we will host our next gathering, focusing on Rural Church Planting and Coaching Planters. As you and I know, much of the focus on church planting these days is on the urban center and the cities. While this is definitely important, we cannot forget the fact that, for many of our denominations and networks, the majority of their churches are rural! So what’s unique about planting in rural settings? What’s the state of rural church planting? Also, how do we coach and care for church planters effectively? What are the best practices?

On November 14-15 in Nashville, we will be learning and discussing both topics: rural church planting and the coaching and care of church planters. This year, we will work through the following topics with the following ...

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Died: Jack Chick, Cartoonist Whose Controversial Tracts Became Cult Hits

This was his life!

Jack Chick, the cartoonist who wanted to save your soul from hell, died Sunday at age 92.

The biggest name in tract evangelism, Chick distributed more than 500 million pamphlets, nicknamed “chicklets,” over five decades. His signature black-and-white panel comics warned against the dangers of everything from the occult to Family Guy.

Chick’s messages were controversial—including among evangelicals—but his work enjoyed a global reach. His most popular tract, This Was Your Life!, was translated into more than 60 languages.

Chick came to faith shortly after World War II through Charles E. Fuller’s radio show, “Old Fashioned Revival Hour.” The former technical illustrator began drawing and funding his first comic books and pocket-sized tracks in the early 1960s, according to Christian Comics International. Chick Publications grew to start its own print shop, and took off in the ’70s.

His evangelistic furor was inspired by sermons from revivalist Charles Finney, whose theology continues to underline Chick’s tracks, according to researcher Daniel Silliman. He quotes Chick as saying, “When everything is caving in, and when the world laughs at the church, that’s when we need revival…. Christians are self-satisfied and complacent. God’s got a handful of people out there who really mean business, but the rest are playing games.”

Among comic artists, Chick rose to a level of fascination as one of the bestselling underground publishers in the world. Early news of his death on the site Boing Boing launched Chick’s name as a national trending topic on Twitter on Monday afternoon.

In the late 1990s, a media watchdog site described the secular fascination ...

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Interview with Kent Shaw, Executive Director of Harvest Bible Fellowship

"We want to plant 1,000 churches in our lifetime."

Kent, how would you describe what you’re doing? What’s the Harvest Bible Fellowship “way” of church planting?

We want to plant vertical churches.

A vertical church is, as you know, based on James’s book. We’re looking to plant churches that have the same DNA distinctives that we do.

Basically those are the four pillars of:

  1. proclaiming the authority of God’s word without apology,
  2. lifting high the name of the Lord Jesus in worship,
  3. sharing the good news of Jesus with boldness, and
  4. a firm belief in the power of prayer.

We’re looking to plant churches wherever God opens doors for us. First we thought around the country, but now around the world.

How many churches have been planted through the movement, and how many are in the network?

We have planted 150 churches, we probably have about 170 churches that would be included in the network that have affiliated with us. We have about 100 in the States and about 50 internationally.

We’re at Harvest University today, you have 40 residents training here, so tell me about the residency, and then tell me about Harvest University. How do those two relate?

Our residency program is our beginning, initial, almost boot camp, training.

We’ve got four months of training where we want to teach guys what it means to plant a Harvest Bible Chapel. How do you plant, how do you grow as a preacher, how do you grow as a leader? Once we’ve done that, then we send them out to where they’re going to be planting. They’re assigned a coach and we trust the Lord to do great and take it from there.

Harvest University really was our church planting conference. Still is, but it’s almost a reunion too, because all our churches come in. We’re ...

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Let's Kiss Dating Hello

A sociologist reveals her research about 'ring by spring' culture on a Christian college campus.

At Whitworth University, a Christian liberal arts college in Spokane, Washington, one hears faint echoes of a social expectation that’s common to Christian campuses: “ring by spring.” It’s the idea that college students should have given or received an engagement ring by the spring of their senior year. “Ring by spring” is not encouraged in any official way, and it’s generally invoked with a heavy dose of derision. But as sociology professor Dr. Stacy Keogh George has observed in a recent study, this dismissive humor belies a very real pressure felt by some students to measure success by finding a marriageable partner. According to George, this “not-so-hidden culture” emphasizes engagement instead of “encouraging men and women of faith to live out their individual vocations, which may or may not include marriage.”

In the fall of 2014, George gathered some initial data on students’ attitudes about “ring by spring.” The results of her study are forthcoming in Christian Reflection. I had the chance to talk with George about her research, the surprising sticking power of “ring by spring” culture—especially at a time when the age of first marriage in the US keeps climbing —and its implications for Christian college students.

How did you get interested in studying ring by spring culture in the first place?

I am a graduate of a Christian college in the US, and when I was a student, I heard this “ring by spring” thing was happening on campus and I had no idea what it was. I realized very quickly that Christian colleges are seen as a place for women to find their spouse. And I say that very intentionally—for ...

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3 Mistakes Churches Make When They Talk Money

Ministry leader wants to spread the biblical message of generosity in order to grow generous givers.

It may be one of the most dreaded and uncomfortable sermon topics—both to preach and to hear. Money and giving can stir all kinds of emotions and reactions in even the most faithful Christ followers.

While I’m no preacher, I spend a good deal of time with Christians who want to understand generosity better and the opportunities they have to impact God’s kingdom with their money. Through my experiences and many conversations and stories, I’ve become familiar with some of the pitfalls of talking about money in church and how to navigate them.

Not Talking about Money at All

The first mistake is to avoid the topic altogether. Although I understand the urge to avoid this conversation, Jesus modeled talking about this important issue more than any other. The Bible has a lot to say about money. It’s closely tied to our hearts, to our relationship with Jesus, and to the work he’s called us to do.

Jesus said money is the primary competitor for Lordship in our lives. He said, “you cannot serve God and money” (Matt. 6:24). He actually didn’t say this about any other issue. So avoiding the topic is likely a disservice to those we are called to lead and instruct.

Unfortunately, many pastors put the conversation off until they are forced to talk about money because of a shortfall in the budget or an upcoming capital campaign. This is not the ideal time to talk about money. Jesus didn’t talk about money because he needed to raise money. He talked about money because it is a key to our hearts and affections.

I’ve observed people are not resistant to learning about handling money in a God-honoring way; however, they can be resistant to being asked for money.

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C. Peter Wagner (1930-2016), Some Thoughts on His Life and Passing

Missiologist, missionary, writer, teacher, and Church Growth specialist

I was sad to hear Peter Wagner died yesterday. He was always a fascinating and brilliant man... and he loved the Church.

Who is Peter Wagner?

For those of you who don’t know who he was, I first knew him as a professor at the School of World Missions at Fuller Seminary. His Wikipedia article has more.

I remember when I first met him. He was lecturing at the Billy Graham School at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. If I recall correctly, he said that Thom Rainer and the Billy Graham School now had the “mantle” of the Church Growth Movement. (Peter was a key leader, if not THE key leader, in the Church Growth Movement before he moved on to other emphases.)

We started corresponding after that meeting. He once sent me a long email, walking through a book I wrote few years before his email, and being so encouraging. He contrasted my thoughts with his own (and others), always encouraging, and making me think. And it came out of the blue on a book I published many years earlier.

The Lives of Peter Wagner

I mostly knew him as a Missiologist and an academic. And yes, he (and Donald McGarvan) partly inspired me that a missiologist needs odd facial hair (true story).

Peter would later change his views and focus on things other than missiology and the Church Growth Movement and, yes, we disagreed. Interestingly, the book I co-wrote on spiritual warfare is, in some ways, a very different view than his and a response to some of the ideas he helped popularize.

But he was always a kind man and a friend.

For example, when I wrote a critique of some of his views, he reached out and said he was thankful for my interaction. Even when you disagreed (and we did), he was kind and open to different views.

Which Peter Wagner?

If you ...

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Why I Forgave the Man I Once Plotted to Kill

Revenge fantasies were darkening my heart before I trusted in Jesus.

We had heard the distant gunshots for a few weeks. But that morning they were close and seemed to ring out with purpose. I looked to my older brother and the other adults for reassurance. Their eyes were full of anguish and frustration. All we could do was wait.

The “freedom fighters” arrived. By mid-morning we were all lying face down in the house, listening as bullets whizzed through the air. Between bursts of gunfire, our typically bustling neighborhood was eerily silent. In the lull we could hear voices shouting instructions. If they found out my name, they would kill me.

Fantasies of Food

I was born in Liberia, West Africa, where my father served in the Special Security Service of President Samuel Doe (no relation), who had come to power through a violent military coup ten years earlier. His regime suppressed political opposition and rigged elections to stay in power. The “freedom fighters” had come to remove him, starting a war and killing anyone who worked in Doe’s government and anyone from his tribe. This was the situation in Liberia in August 1990. While the world was focused on Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, millions of Liberians were in the middle of a bloodbath.

I was 11. A year earlier I had lost my mother to illness. Now my father’s life was in danger. A few weeks before the rebel soldiers arrived, he had instructed me to go live with my brother, Roosevelt, and his wife. Bewildered and filled with questions, I packed a small bag with a few sets of clothes.

We lived behind rebel lines for three months, the hardest season of my life. The rebels were ruthless, murdering innocent people on the barest of suspicions.

While we hid, we ate one small meal a day, mostly ...

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The Bible Never Says All Men Are Created Equal

How the New Testament offers a better, higher calling than the Declaration of Independence.

An Anglican man rang me out of the blue the other day to ask if the New Testament teaches “equality.” “Not really,” I replied. “The New Testament mentions equality once or twice, but when it comes to social relationships, it is far more interested in concepts like oneness, commonness, partnership, union, and joint-inheritance. If you make all those passages about equality, you flatten their meaning. And in any case, it’s become a blunderbuss word that means everything and nothing.”

Considering the history of the past 50 years, let alone the last 2,000, it might seem unwise to dismiss “equality” so casually. Thankfully, the New Testament presents a better, higher vision.

Two New Testament texts explicitly mention isots, the Greek word for equality, proportionality, or fairness. In 2 Corinthians 8:13–14, Paul urges the church in Corinth to give generously to the Jerusalem church, “that there might be equality.” And in Colossians 4:1, he tells masters to grant their slaves “what is right and fair.”

Most of the famous “equality” passages use quite different language. Galatians 3:28 doesn’t say that there is no Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female because we are all equal, but because we “are all one in Christ Jesus.” Colossians 3:11 doesn’t talk about equality between barbarians and Scythians, but rather asserts that “Christ is all, and is in all.” Ephesians 3:6 doesn’t say that Gentiles are now equal with Jews, but rather that we are now “heirs together.” Ephesians 6:9 doesn’t talk about equality between slaves and masters, but rather that both have the same Master ...

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Paul Doesnt Care Whether You Like Him

An excerpt from 'Paul Behaving Badly.'

There’s no way around it. Paul thought he was special. In his defense, Christ did knock him off a horse with a blinding light and an audible word from heaven. Peter saw Christ transfigured, but Paul also saw the glorified Christ. This put Paul in an elite category.

The remarkable thing, really, is how maturely Paul handled his status. Yes, he boasted of his apostleship, but he did so defending his gospel, not his pride. It was essential that the Gentiles he ministered to trusted his pedigree, because the gospel was their only hope and he was the only person preaching it to them. Before they met Paul, the Gentiles were spiritual orphans. They were trapped in a fruitless way of life, far from God and wandering further. Paul understood that “in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel” (1 Cor. 4:15), and he took that role of spiritual father seriously. That’s why he urged the Corinthians to “imitate me” (1 Cor. 4:16). They couldn’t read a gospel; those hadn’t been written yet. The only way they could see Jesus was to look at Paul.

Today, Paul is often critiqued for paternalism, an unattractive quality in a culture increasingly sensitive to privileged and overbearing (white) men telling everyone else how they ought to behave. Although to us, Paul may sound paternalistic—authoritative and bossy—his audience would have heard him as paternal—offering the instruction and guidance of a loving father. Paul really and truly considered his converts his spiritual children. His frustration with the “Judaizers” wasn’t simply a theological debate. Like any good parent, Paul was angry at those he viewed as a threat to the spiritual health of his ...

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