Self-Control, the Leader’s Make-or-Break Virtue

Is it possible to build willpower like a muscle?

Mark was one of the most talented pastors our church had ever hired. He had two advanced degrees (two more than anyone else on staff), but he was no out-of-touch academic. Gregarious and personable, he was equally confident preaching or leading worship. But preaching is where he excelled.

One time, our senior pastor was scheduled to speak at a retirement home in our community, but he came down with bronchitis. He called Mark. Could he fill in? The residents of the retirement home were expecting a sermon on heaven, and the service was starting in an hour.

Forty-five minutes later, Mark showed up at the retirement center with a Bible tucked under his arm. Our senior pastor stuck around, hoping Mark could deliver a passable sermon on the spot. He didn’t.

“It was incredible,” the senior pastor recalled. “It was one of the best sermons I’d heard on the topic. By the end, I was ready to go to heaven right then and there!”

Unfortunately Mark’s surplus of talent hid an insidious deficit: a lack of self-control. Though he was married with two children, Mark seemed to look at every woman except his wife. He couldn’t resist making inappropriate comments. “What kind of underwear do you think she’s wearing?” he once asked a parishioner, pointing to a woman across the foyer. One Sunday after church a colleague asked Mark how he thought the service had gone. “I don’t know,” he responded. “I was too busy undressing all the women with my eyes.”

More than Moral Failings

Within a year, Mark was exactly where he needed to be: out of the ministry, a reminder that capability can never replace character. I wish I could say Mark’s story is unusual, but ...

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Sexual Violence: Whose Fault Is It?

In case it's not crystal clear, let us be emphatic: The sole individual responsible for sexual violence is the perpetrator.

In the movie Good Will Hunting, there is a poignant scene in which Will (Matt Damon) talks with his therapist Sean (Robin Williams) while Sean cradles Will’s counseling file. The folder is jammed with gruesome pictures of injuries Will experienced at the hands of his alcoholic dad.

Sean quietly declares that the pictures exposing Will’s brutally beaten body were not his fault but Will quickly dismisses Sean’s statement and remarks that he knows that already. Yet Sean sees through Will’s veneer of disregard and continues to proclaim Will’s innocence.

Will suddenly erupts in anger as he backs away from Sean, but eventually Sean’s words seem to penetrate his soul and he begins to weep as Sean embraces him. Yet, even though Sean repeatedly tells Will that the abuse was not his fault, Will cries out three seemingly perplexing words: “I’m so sorry” (Schultz & Estabrook, 2012).

What incited Will’s words? Why was he sorry?

In a different culture, in a different time, penned on the pages of Scripture, Tamar, the daughter of King David, who was on the precipice of being raped by her half-brother Amnon, cried, “Where could I get rid of my disgrace?” (2 Sam.13:13).

Discussions about this deeply felt sense of disgrace or shame that survivors frequently experience regarding the violence done to them are resurfacing through the #MeToo movement and the sundry of sexual violence stories perpetrated by both male and female clergy who victimize girls, boys, women, and men within sacred places.

However, the question remains: Why are people who are sexually violated and victimized sorry about what was done to them?

The reasons for the self-condemning experience of shame among ...

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Our Response to the Eschatological Dream of Martin Luther King Jr.

Dr. King had a hope that was out of this world.

Today, we remember the life and legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—a man who sacrificed much to advance the causes of the civil rights movement in the mid-twentieth century.

It was a time in history when most African Americans living in the states weren’t given their due as U.S. citizens or image bearers of God.

After the Civil war in the late 19th century, Jim Crow laws were established in the south keeping them from accessing the same basic public goods (education, public facilities etc.) as whites living in their town. In addition, voting rights were limited by voter literacy tests that were clearly put in place by states as a means to prevent African Americans from getting to the polls each election cycle.

But King saw all of this—a messy mass of racism, discrimination, and untold abuses of power—and still could somehow utter the words, “I Have a Dream.” His dream was founded on a scriptural understanding of justice and our response to the Kingdom of God at hand. In his famous, often quoted, ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, King referred back to the prophesies of old, calling for a day to come when justice would “roll on like a river” and righteousness like a “never failing stream” (Amos 5:24).

For years, King paddled up that stream with the currents of culture and legal precedent pressing towards him. He dealt with insults, abuse, imprisonment, and ultimately death for the sake of the cause he cared for so deeply. Despite the many forces fighting against King and his companions, their relentless pursuit of justice ultimately gave way to many of the governmental and societal reforms they had hoped for.

What about White Clergy?

King had to push other (white) ...

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Can We Handle the Truth About Racism and the Church?

Before racial reconciliation can happen, says Jemar Tisby, American believers need to reckon honestly with the sins of the past.

At the climax of the 1992 classic A Few Good Men, Colonel Nathan Jessup (Jack Nicholson) famously screams, “You can’t handle the truth!” Responding to questions from Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise) about a military cover-up, he confirms his role in the scandal but maintains that the public would rather not know the ugly and gory details of his job. In The Color of Compromise, Jemar Tisby (president of the black Christian collective The Witness) adopts the posture of Lt. Kaffee, demanding that American Christians learn and teach the hard truth about the church’s complicity in racial injustice.

For far too long, some in the church have assumed the defiant pose of Col. Jessup. Because this history is so painful to remember, many believers would rather bury it. Others, confronted with the church’s inadequate response, shift attention to a multiracial cast of heroic figures—like William Wilberforce, Francis Grimke, or Martin Luther King Jr.—whose contributions paint the church in a better light.

Of course, as Tisby points out, that these exemplars were small in number and greatly abused by fellow Christians for speaking against racial bigotry. And admirable as they are, they can’t be allowed to obscure the underlying truth: Many white Christians actively participated in racism, and many more sat idly by as it infected every inch of American life. Brutal racial injustice would not have persisted as long as it did, Tisby writes, without “the relative silence, if not outright support, of one of the most significant institutions in America—the Christian church.”

The Path of Least Resistance

The Color of Compromise corrects the record by surveying key points in American ...

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Clean Water or the Gospel?

The answer is both.

Today, there are 844 million people around the world without access to clean water; 2.5 billion do not use a toilet to manage their waste. And 3.4 billion people are unreached with the gospel.

The intersection of all three of these is predominately rural villages dominated by animism and other folk religions. What should be our priority as Christians? Provide communities with access to clean water and improved health, or proclaim the transforming truth of the gospel?

As the leader of a Christian water organization, I’ve struggled with this dilemma for years. I firmly believe that we must serve the whole person (body and soul), and I also believe that Christ must be central to all our efforts. If we solely preach the gospel, we ignore their basic physical needs. If we only give them water, teach about hygiene, and build toilets at schools, we feel like we’ve neglected the Christian nature of our work.

How can we meaningfully address people’s physical needs while fulfilling the Great Commission? Here are some guiding principles we have found helpful:

First, clarify our categories.

I don’t believe drilling a well, installing a pump, and teaching people to wash their hands fulfills the Great Commission. It is important work worthy of our support. It can drastically improve people’s lives. However, by itself, it isn’t what Christ commissions the church to do.

I also don’t believe preaching the gospel while ignoring the crisis and hurt people are experiencing is consistent with biblical ethics. Jesus makes it clear that we have a responsibility to help the person who has been attacked by robbers and left for dead (Luke 10:25-37). To simply walk past is not consistent with the teaching of Jesus ...

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How to Lead Well as a Church Planting Leader

Three tips from my own experience as a church planting leader.

Many frequently joke about the turnover rate in church planting leadership. It seems that whenever I’m at a conference or church event, someone new will come up and say, “Hey, Ed. I’m the new leader of church planting at [insert denomination name].”

To be fair, this issue happens across denominations—it’s not just certain ones in certain parts of the country. It happens at the district, network, and denominational levels.

Church planting requires a certain set of skills—organization, initiative, patience, and passion, just to name a few. These skills are especially required for a church planting leader. To last long term in this capacity without burnout requires some forethought and consideration. Here are some thoughts on how to lead well in this position

First, dedicate yourself to being an advocate.

As a leader of church planting, it’s important to remember that you are not actually a church planter; the roles are different. You aren’t the official doer of all things church planting—you are, by definition, the one who helps organize and oversee the work being done by church planters out on the field.

Church planting leaders who enter into the territory of their church planters in a micromanaging sort of way ultimately undermine their own authority at one time or another. Simply put, if you find yourself frequently saying to the church planters you oversee, “this is what you should do” or “this is how I did it” and “this is how I’m going to do it,” know that this approach is unhelpful in the long term.

For many who work under the leadership of a denomination, your advocacy has to be directed upwards. It’s your job to work ...

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Asia Rising: The Top 50 Countries Where It’s Hardest to Follow Jesus

China’s church raids drew headlines, but 26 countries—including India—treated Christians worse in 2018.

Christian persecution has worsened in the most populous countries in the world, China and India, putting millions more believers at risk for their faith.

The two Asian nations moved up on Open Doors’s annual ranking of the 50 countries where it’s hardest to be a Christian. India entered the World Watch List’s top 10 for the first time, due to a growing Hindu nationalist threat stirring anti-Christian sentiments. Meanwhile China, where the Communist government continues closing major congregations and detaining Christian leaders, climbed from No. 43rd to No. 27 on the list.

Researchers calculate that 1 in 3 Asian Christians now experience high levels of persecution for their faith.

Year after year, Open Doors has reported on the decline of religious freedom for Christians worldwide—measuring persecution through government restrictions, social pressures, and outright violence.

“In the north and Middle Belt of Nigeria … at least 3,700 Christians were killed for their faith—almost double the number of a year ago (an estimated 2,000)—with villages completely abandoned by Christians forced to flee, as their armed attackers then move in to settle, with impunity,” wrote World Watch Monitor in its analysis of the list. The news service noted that “of the 4,136 deaths for Christian faith that the List reports, Nigeria alone accounts for about 90% (3,731).”

Overall, 1 in 6 African Christians now experience high levels of persecution for their faith, according to Open Doors researchers.

The latest World Watch List indicates that religious freedom restrictions have also become more widespread, affecting 1 in 9 Christians worldwide. An estimated 245 million Christians in the ...

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Your Plan B Is Still God’s Plan A

What a failed church plant taught me about divine purpose and provision.

In 2015, my husband and I moved from rural Pennsylvania and left a church we loved to do something risky—plant a new church in suburban Texas. Our vision for the church was to welcome people with disabilities. We see special-needs families as an unreached people group, since so many don’t attend church on a regular basis.

Before Lee and I even started our ministry, we partnered with a nearby congregation, got involved in the community, and did outreach events to meet special-needs families. But when it came time to start our church with a weekly Bible study, only a few families had committed to coming with us.

Most weeks we had nine adults, four kids under ten years old (three with special needs), and nine older kids (four with special needs). We loved being together, but we weren’t a self-sustaining church body. My husband worked two jobs in addition to church planting, and I worked three part-time jobs from home. After two years of funding from our supporting church, the local association of churches, and our state denomination, we had to close Journey Church and relinquish our dream.

Very few of us are living our Plan A scenario, whether in our professional or personal lives. Years before our failed church plant, my husband and I heard a psychologist utter words we never wanted to hear: “We believe your son has autism.” In 1977, my parents’ future was upended, too, when they were told that my newborn sister had Down syndrome. All of us sooner or later experience hardships that irrevocably shape our lives.

Although each story is different, Scripture offers us the same enduring truth: Every detour involves God’s presence, purpose, and redeeming power. In other words, our Plan B is still ...

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What Humans Have That Machines Don’t

How a theology of personhood cuts against the mechanical metaphors we use to describe ourselves.

As a literature and theology teacher, I train my students to see and hear metaphors, which are not just a matter of language. As George Lakoff and Mark Johnson argue in The Metaphors We Live By, “our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature.” A metaphor, in classical Greek, means “a carrying or bearing across,” which is why in present-day Greece, metaphora designates a moving van.

Metaphors efficiently transport meaning when literal language fails us. The poet Emily Dickinson compares hope to “the thing with feathers that perches in the soul, and sings the tune without the words, and never stops at all.” The economist Adam Smith compares the free market to “an invisible hand” that promotes social welfare despite the natural selfishness of individuals. As C. S. Lewis claims in Miracles, “The truth is that if we are going to talk at all about things which are not perceived by the senses, we are forced to use language metaphorically.”

For much of Western civilization, there was a consensus among Christian and non-Christian thinkers about the material and spiritual nature of human beings. The Genesis creation story memorably captures this dynamic harmony when “the Lord form[s] a man from the dust of the ground and breathe[s] into his nostrils the breath of life” (2:7). But the materialism of our time diverges from this consensus, insisting that we are only brains and bodies—nothing more.

When I recently taught Mere Christianity, I was surprised that Lewis frequently deploys a mechanical metaphor for human beings. He is typically alert to imperfect illustrations. And nothing, in my estimation, ...

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Wheaton College, Controversial Speakers, and Some Factivism

Ryan Bomberger brings up another controversial speaker, but it just distracts from the real issue.

Yesterday, I shared an article entitled “Abortion, Black Lives Matter, and Wheaton.” I was responding to several articles from Ryan Bomberger, who spoke at Wheaton College in November of last year. (Be sure to read the original article before this one.)

As I explained in that article, several students were concerned about some things Bomberger said. Those students went to their elected student reps, and the Wheaton students worked with their staff contacts to send an email to their peers. Then, Bomberger started writing multiple articles saying he was silenced, slandered, and more.

Contrary to Bomberger’s comments, this is not about Wheaton “silencing” or “slandering.” It’s about a disagreement between Bomberger and several students concerning a conversation they had after his speech. He strongly objected to the email the student government leaders sent to other students.

As I’ve acknowledged previously, I don’t know exactly what was said—only Bomberger and the students do, since it happened after the video stopped. Perhaps we’d like to hear more, but Bomberger sent an email to several people (including some of the students) saying his organization would talk to their attorneys about whether to pursue this “defamation,” so they may be (not surprisingly) reticent to jump into such conversations now.

Of course, I would be happy to chat with Bomberger anytime. I am not happy, however, to watch him go after the school where I serve without some clarity about what happened.

Why Now?

This was a talk in November—two months ago—so why in the world am I writing now?

Well, because Bomberger continued his writing after the first round, publishing ...

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Running from the Light—and the Snakes

An opera heroine’s conflict with her faith and family has dangerously high stakes.

Serpent-handling churches are, for obvious reasons, perpetually fascinating to those outside them. They’ve been the subject of books, documentaries, songs, photography exhibits, and a reality show.

But opera?

Indeed, Taking Up Serpents, a new hour-long opera commissioned by the Washington National Opera as part of the American Opera Initiative (AOI) Festival, had its world premiere this month at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. To its creators, the fringe religious practice was a more natural fit with the art form than you might expect (though they did choose not to have actual snakes onstage).

“This story is operatic in that the characters’ faith imbues the world with meaning that is larger than life,” explains composer Kamala Sankaram in her program notes. Additionally, the musical format allowed her to incorporate the shape note singing integral to the kind of charismatic church featured in the opera, and rockabilly-infused tunes inspired by the Appalachian region around it. Certain scenes even feature people singing in tongues.

The rough and jagged sounds of this music help shape the gritty story of Kayla (played in this premiere by Alexandria Shiner), a young woman who broke away from her father’s charismatic church in Birmingham, Alabama, only to find herself stuck in a dead-end retail job a couple of hundred miles south. Her escape hasn’t done much for her, emotionally or spiritually. She’s longing for some kind of comfort and certainty, “tired of runnin’ from the light.”

But an unexpected call from home is a painful reminder that the faith Kayla left was anything but safe and comfortable: Her father (Timothy J. Bruno) is dying from a snakebite received during ...

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