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Reading Esther in the Shadow of ISIS

A Jewish philosophers perspective on how God delivers his people from radical evil.

Where is God when his people suffer oppression? Why does he seem hidden as ISIS and Boko Haram murder Christians? Does God ever approve of war?

God and Politics in Esther, a new book by Jewish political philosopher Yoram Hazony, addresses questions no less urgent today than in biblical times. Hazony, president of the Herzl Institute in Jerusalem, might be called the Jewish version of Reinhold Niebuhr or Richard John Neuhaus, two 20th-century thinkers who wrote extensively about how Christians can participate in the cities of this world while belonging ultimately to the City of God.

Hazony zeroes in on the Book of Esther, where God is never mentioned by name. In fact, he seems hidden. His people lived in an alien society (ancient Persia, today’s Iran) under despotic rulers. They often felt social and political pressure to betray their faith.

Yet God is present, if only in the shadows. Esther is the Jewish queen (formerly Hadassah) of the Persian king Ahashverosh, traditionally identified as Xerxes I. Her cousin, Mordecai, “had been carried away from Jerusalem among the captives” of Nebuchadnezzar in 586 B.C. (Esther 2:6). He had adopted and helped raise Esther after she was orphaned. When Esther learned from Mordecai that Haman, the prime minister to the Persian king, was planning to annihilate all the Jews in the land, she urged the Jews in the capital to begin fasting, so as to strengthen her prayers for help. Mordecai wanted her to see God’s challenge: “Who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this” (4:14)?

The challenge was formidable. Both Mordecai and Esther had to break the laws of the empire, and the penalty was death. Mordechai had refused to bow down to ...

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Beyond Bono and Eugene Peterson: The Most Searched and Shared Psalms

Fuller Seminary video wants more reading. Here's what people already are.

Fuller Theological Seminary wants you to read the Psalms more. And it enlisted Bono and Eugene Peterson to make the case.

According to research, many Americans already are.

“What is your earliest memory of the Psalms?” asks Fuller professor David Taylor of the U2 singer-songwriter and the author of The Message.

The two friends were sitting down together at Peterson’s kitchen table to talk about why they love the Psalms. The videotaped chat was part of a 20-minute documentary released Tuesday as part of a new Fuller Studio initiative.

“I was totally confused, because I grew up in a culture where every word of the Bible was the word of God literally. Don’t mess around with it. That’s the way it is,” Peterson said. “And I was starting to read that he keeps my tears in this bottle, shields, javelins, rock. ‘God is our rock.’ Come on.”

Bono first remembers the Psalms through hymns at his childhood Church of Ireland congregation.

“I remember thinking, ‘Great words. Shame about the tunes,’” he said with a small smirk. “Except for ‘The Lord is My Shepherd,’ which is a great tune.”

Multiple U2 songs reference the Psalms: “Gloria,” “With a Shout,” “Magnificent,” and, most famously, “40,” which refers to Psalm 40.

Peterson and Bono aren’t the only ones who love the Psalms. Almost a quarter (22) of the 100 most popular Bible verses searched for in 2015 came from the Psalms, according to Bible Gateway.

Leading the way at No. 5 was Psalm 23:4, which in The Message [which CT will cite throughout this post, instead of the usual NIV] reads, “Even when the way goes through Death ...

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Will Ben Carson's Bible Advice to Donald Trump Work? Heres What Americans Think

Can more Bible reading make the presidential election more civil if Trumps favorite verse is an eye for an eye?

Starting Sunday, the entire Bible will be read aloud in 90 hours on Capitol Hill. Hundreds will make their way to the 27th annual reading at the US Capitol, where 100 English and foreign language versions of the Bible will be available.

Former presidential candidate Ben Carson recently told reporter Rita Cosby that his advice to Republican frontrunner Donald Trump on handling his temper was to “read the Bible and pray and learn how to put yourself in other peoples’ shoes.” (Trump recently said his favorite Bible verse is “an eye for an eye.”)

But not even regular Bible reading could make Trump and other presidential contenders more civil, believe 44 percent of Americans.

That’s an increase from 40 percent last year, according to the 2016 State of the Bible report from the American Bible Society (ABS), conducted by Barna Group.

Only 51 percent of Americans said politics would be more civil if politicians read the Bible regularly, down from 56 percent last year.

The number of Americans who believed that reading the Bible regularly would make politicians more effective fell from 58 percent in 2015 to 53 percent in 2016. Those who thought Bible reading would not make a difference rose from 40 percent in 2015 to 43 percent in 2016.

Only practicing Protestants (those who identify as Protestant, attend church at least once a month, and say their faith is very important to them) thought the Bible was especially needed this year: 86 percent said politicians would be more civil if they read their Bible regularly, up from 81 percent in 2015.

Less likely to think regular Bible reading would make politicians more civil were practicing Catholics (63%, down from 70% last year) and non-practicing Christians ...

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Dear Church Planter, I Believe in You

Church planting is a key to advancing the kingdom of God.

My first pastoral role was starting a church. My first book was on church planting. I wrote my PhD dissertation on the subject. My first seminary job was teaching church planting.

Some might say I’m obsessed. But I will say I am convinced. I am convinced that church planting is, and will always remain, a key part in the advancement of the kingdom of God.

Which brings me to you, my reader and, perhaps, a church planter like me. God bless you and your work. You’re headed into the adventure of a lifetime, and I pray that my newly revised book, Planting Missional Churches: Your Guide to Starting Churches that Multiply (newchurches.com/PMC) helps. And, if experience is the great teacher, it will. This book is jam packed with wisdom, insights, and ideas from people as passionate about church planting as I am.

Since the book’s previous publication, much has changed in church planting. I have tried to reflect that here by changing over 50% of the content. Sources range from people who’ve studied the subject to people who’ve learned by doing and were willing to share their blunders as well as their successes. You’ll see new chapters on multisite, residencies, multi-ethnic churches, theological education, and the difference between denominations and networks, including an integration of the research we recently conducted on church planting (which you can download the State of Church Planting report at newchurches.com/register). And what I couldn’t fit into the volume you’re holding spills onto NewChurches.com/PMC, which includes additional resources to help you in church planting and multiplication.

Between the book and the website, you have a toolbox of much more than you’ll need. ...

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Why We Want to Return to Stars Hollow

The weirdest part of the Gilmore Girls hometown? How they did community right.

How I made it so far into adulthood without having watched Gilmore Girls, I'm not quite sure. But with October's announcement that the fast-talking mother-daughter dramedy would reboot for a mini-revival, I knew: It was now or never. As Logan would teach me later, sometimes you just have to jump, and so, jump I did. In good November fashion, I feasted.

Netflix-binged, actually. All seven seasons.

How the scales fell from my eyes. For the first time, I finally understood the key plot points and show references my friends had been bringing up all these years: The young mom and daughter friendship smack at the show's center. The Bermuda Triangle of boyfriends. Diner owner Luke’s cranky likeability. Gilmore was sweeping; it had something for everyone. Over Thanksgiving, when a friend told me she felt as fidgety as Dean at a Friday Night Dinner, I nodded knowingly. The show had done what great shows do: It offered us shorthand.

But Gilmore was always so much more than just these core characters and their choppy relational waters. It built up a whole town of supporting roles: the sassy dance teacher Miss Patty; raspy, big-hearted Babette; ever-entrepreneurial Kirk. It was a bigger townie cast than an audience could possibly care about, and yet, somehow, we did. The “local color” made the fictional Connecticut hamlet exponentially more likeable. Which is why, the days after watching the series finale, and bidding Rory her rainy farewell, I actually felt a little bit homesick. I missed Stars Hollow itself.

Apparently I’m not the only one. Any good writer will tell you a setting this distinctive becomes a character itself, and that's precisely what Stars Hollow does, thanks to it knit-a-thons, ...

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Weekend Edition—April 29, 2016

Jesus' skin color, religion in school, hiring mistakes, and more!

Why Jesus’ Skin Color MattersChristena Cleveland

Context always matters, and this is doubly true when understanding the life of Christ.

Religious Indoctrination and the Proselytizing Public SchoolTrevin Wax

Good words on the balance needed in public school settings.

why the world needs more families done with living safe & ready to risk breaking out of comfort zonesCraig Greenfield (via Ann Voskamp)

A remarkable story what we learn about God’s love through children.

Majority of pastors suffer in silence over financial challenges—RNS

Churches, step up and start thinking through how to deal with this.

Two Common Hiring Mistakes Churches MakeEric Geiger

This could easily be 200, so I’m glad Eric chose two important ones to address.

Want to read a weekly digest of The Exchange blog? Click here to subscribe to Christianity Today's Newsletter for The Exchange to get weekly wrap-ups direct to your inbox.

You can listen to my interview with Robby Gallaty on The Exchange Podcast. Don’t forget to subscribe to the The Exchange Podcast in iTunes.

Earlier This Week on The Exchange

Evangelism or “Elevator Pitch”?

Dissertations that are Needed Today

Why Christ Our “First Love” Transforms Our Witness

5 Future Trends of Church Planting

Sunday Journeys: Cross Church in NW Arkansas, with Ronnie Floyd

Saturday is for Seminars—Amplify Conference

Theological Education as a Partner in the Mission

Church Signs

Amazing.

This sign is a middle-school boy’s dream.

I took this one and I waited days for them to get the spelling right. When they did not, I assumed they wanted me to share.

Thanks to Kevin Bussey, Jay Morris, and yours truly for this week's church signs. ...

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After Pastor's Wife Buried Alive, Chinese Church Wins Land Battle

Officials decide that bulldozed property does belong to Protestant house church after all.

Nearly two weeks after a Chinese pastor and his wife were buried alive defending their church from destruction, local authorities have ruled in favor of the Protestant house church’s claim to its land.

After a local business wanted to take over the property that Beitou Church in Zhumadian sat on, a government-backed demolition crew was sent to destroy the church. And when the pastor, Li Jiangong, and his wife, Ding Cuimei, stepped in front of a bulldozer, it didn’t stop.

“Bury them alive for me,” a member of the demolition team said, according to China Aid which reported both the tragic incident and the ensuing legal victory. “I will be responsible for their lives.”

The couple were shoved into a pit and covered with dirt, according to China Aid.

Li manage to free himself. But before he could dig his wife out, Ding suffocated.

The demolition crew is being detained while their actions are being investigated, the local police station told China Aid.

While criminal charges are still pending, a government investigation has concluded that the land belongs to the church.

“This is a definite legal victory for the church,” stated China Aid. “The task force concluded the investigation [by] stating … that pastor Li Jiangong's church has the sole authority for the usage of the land as a religious site and should belong to the church for use. It rules no individual or other organization should claim the land from the church.”

"While we are glad to see and commend the local authorities under international pressure acted swiftly and fairly to resolve the church's land with this right decision, we are still deeply concerned about the justice for this family of martyr ...

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News: China Reveals What It Wants to Do with Christianity

Bulldozer death of pastors wife draws attention, but presidents long-awaited speech on religion will impact Chinese Christians much more.

The widely reported death by suffocation of Ding Cuimei, the wife of a pastor in China’s Henan province, has shocked Christians worldwide. Ding and her husband were buried as they attempted to prevent their church from being bulldozed by developers.

Ding’s husband managed to crawl to safety, but she did not. Their case highlights again the lack of legal protection for China’s Christians.

In Beijing, meanwhile, a less noticed but more significant event provides insight into how China’s atheistic regime plans to deal with the country’s growing Christian population, projected to become the world’s largest within the next couple decades.

At a long-awaited national conference on religion, held April 22-23 in Beijing, China’s president Xi Jinping called on leaders to take the initiative in reasserting Communist Party of China (CPC) control over religion.

Xi’s speech, his first specifically on religion since coming to power in 2012, delineates a clear hierarchy in which religion is subordinate to state interests. According to Xi, uniting all believers under CPC leadership is necessary to preserve internal harmony while warding off hostile foreign forces that may use religion to destabilize the regime.

Xi’s insistence is not new, nor is it simply a function of China’s Communist rule. Since imperial times, state power has been seen as ultimate. It is, and has always been, the prerogative of the Chinese state to define orthodox belief and to set the boundaries for religious groups whose doctrines fall outside official limits.

In an environment in which the CPC is moving aggressively to rein in all expressions of civil society Xi’s message on religion comes as no surprise. ...

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Evangelism or Elevator Pitch?

The offer of salvation isn't a sales pitch.

What's the distinction between evangelism and an elevator pitch? If you look at how we actually do evangelism, can you see a real difference in practice?

Is it true most methods of evangelism are little more than elevator pitches? Do you recoil at the suggestion? Most people I know would object. Why?

Elevator pitches are typically associated with business marketers. Perhaps, you think of smarmy salespersons who simply want to sell you a pile of goods with no genuine interest in your well being. What if we project the same impression when sharing the gospel? Regardless of intention, we should be alarmed by this possibility.

The Purpose of Pitching

We know this is a normal expectation because nearly every training or resource used by evangelistic ministries focuses on getting the pitch right at the expense of the biblically faithful and culturally meaningful gospel. Anything requiring more than 2–5 minutes is deemed impractical, wordy, or too theological.

As long as people say something like “God loves you. Jesus died for you. Believe and be saved”, they assume they've preached the gospel in a way that is actually meaningful to the people listening to them.

Accordingly, people confuse the biblical gospel with a mere elevator pitch.

Pitching a Product or a Person?

What if a businessperson only relies on elevator pitches and forgets the real purpose of pitching (i.e. getting a longer, second conversation)? He'd get really frustrated. Also, he likely will mainly sell to the following types of people:

  • those who are already extremely familiar with the product
  • those who are gullible
  • those who buy your product for wrong reasons (to get you to leave them alone, to people-please or win approval, etc.).

What’s ...

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The Major Money Problems of Church Planters vs. Other Pastors

Why your pastors can't save themselves.

Almost one-third of American pastors (29%) have no money in personal savings.

Another third (33%) have less than $10,000 put away for retirement. And half make less than the national median household income of $51,939.

Yet most say they are satisfied with their salaries.

That’s according to a recently released study of more than 4,200 pastors commissioned by the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) and conducted by Grey Matter Research last summer.

“The vast majority of pastors do not have their own radio or TV show, robust church staff, or megachurch attendance,” stated Leith Anderson, NAE president. “Rather they faithfully serve in small churches and face financial challenges stemming from student debt, low salaries, and medical expenses. And sadly, they often feel they have no one to turn to for help.”

Those numbers are even worse for church planters: 3 out of 5 make less than the national average, and 1 out of 5 make less than $35,000, according to a new Barna Group survey on behalf of Thrivent Financial.

It’s not that churches are being stingy, according to the NAE survey. About 4 out of 5 pastors serve congregations with less than 200 people; a quarter of them serve congregations of less than 50. And the smaller the church, the shakier its finances: 17 percent of churches with fewer than 50 congregants are on shaky ground financially, compared to only 2 percent of churches with more than 300 members.

Half of pastors are working with church budgets of less than $125,000 that must stretch to cover facilities and programming along with salaries.

More than most, pastors know the limitations of their church budgets. The majority (63%) reported that their church couldn’t afford to ...

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What Jen Hatmaker Gets Right about Christian Love

Reactions to her message to LGBT people highlight how confused we are about love and repentance.

Religion News Service writer Jonathan Merritt recently noted an apparent “shift” in stance from popular writer and speaker Jen Hatmaker. Hatmaker is best known for her wildly popular books and her and her family’s home-renovation reality TV show. After a speaking event in Raleigh this weekend, she wrote the following post on Facebook:

. . . So whatever the cost and loss, this is where I am: gay teens? Gay adults? Mamas and daddies of precious gaybees? Friends and beloved neighbors of very dear LGBT folks?

Here are my arms open wide. So wide that every last one of you can jump inside. You are so dear, so beloved, so precious and important. You matter so desperately and your life is worthy and beautiful. There is nothing "wrong with you," or in any case, nothing more right or wrong than any of us, which is to say we are all hopelessly screwed up but Jesus still loves us beyond all reason and lives to make us all new, restored, whole. Yay for Jesus! Thank God he loves us. He is not embarrassed of any of us. I am not a scandal, you are not a scandal. We are not "bringing down his brand."

Anyhow, my message to you today is simple, LGBT gang and all those who love you: You are loved and special and wanted and needed.

The end.

The post quickly generated more 35,000 likes, but it also somewhat predictably drew consternation from both the traditionalist and progressive ends of the broader LGBT debate. One commenter, representing the progressive side, asked if the post meant that Hatmaker had come around to an affirming position since 2014, when Hatmaker stated her traditionalist position amid the World Vision story. In that post, Hatmaker wrote:

I want you to know that I land on the side of traditional ...

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