Rob Bell’s new video, reclaiming the word “evangelical,” and the choice between power and presence

“I’m an evangelical, and I believe in good news for everybody.”

Rob Bell was written off by many evangelical leaders years ago, so on the one hand, it’s kind of surprising he’d want anything to do with the term “evangelical” now. Yet he’s back on old form in his newest video, unpacking something he taught more than once in his Mars Hill days.

In short:

The term evangelical comes from the Greek word for “good news.” It was the term Rome used to announce each military triumph over their adversaries, as they proclaimed their version of peace on earth. Whether or not it was truly peace, Rob points out, depended on “which end of the sword you were on.”

The early Christian sect reappropriated the Greek word to refer to another kind of victory—Jesus’ triumph over death—and what it meant for the world. For them, “good news” was something that spread “not through coercive military violence, not through crushing your enemies, but through love.”

How a term once used by those who fed the hungry and welcomed outsiders in the name of Christ came to be associated with a mostly white American voting bloc advancing a narrow, exclusionary political agenda is indeed mystifying.

Some of us have wondered if it’s time we gave up on the word “evangelical.”

Others, like Brandan Robertson, have fought to hang onto the term. It’s not been an easy fight, as I’m sure he could tell you.

Some of us have settled into faith traditions that aren’t widely seen as “evangelical.” I’ve been a confirmed Episcopalian for more than four years now. But you almost never leave your past behind entirely. The baggage—good and bad—travels with you. I still value many things about my evangelical heritage. As Rachel Held Evans writes in Searching for Sunday, evangelicalism taught many of us to read the Bible. Granted, it didn’t always teach us to read the Bible well. But I might not have had the same understanding of and appreciation for the Scriptures if I hadn’t grown up evangelical.

Part of me would like to see the word “evangelical” reappropriated. It’s been done before—by the very first Christians, who stole it from Rome. Why can’t it happen again?

What would it take?

To start, those who wear the label “evangelical” (in particular, white American evangelicals) must learn the difference between power and presence—and decide which they really want. Because it can’t be both.

Evangelicalism lost its way when it embraced the pursuit of power—namely, political power—a pursuit, incidentally, that is nowhere encouraged in the New Testament.

Evangelicalism lost its way when it prioritized its own advancement over the good of others, when it stopped valuing others above itself.

Evangelicalism can find its way again—but it has to relinquish the pursuit of power. Relinquishing power doesn’t mean withdrawing from the world, essentially repeating the fundamentalists’ mistake of the early 20th century. Christians are called to love, to serve—in other words, to be fully present.

Scripture puts no qualifiers or limits on who we’re called to love and serve—in other words, who we’re called to be fully present with. The pursuit of power is by nature an exclusionary path. Invariably, it’s about rival groups trying to defeat and displace one another. It’s about othering those you don’t like. It’s a zero sum game.

Choosing presence over power may or may not require rethinking some of your convictions. But whether you identify as conservative or progressive or somewhere in between, choosing presence over power certainly means rethinking what you do with your convictions. Do you use them to keep people out? Or do your convictions lead you to be fully present wherever you are, loving and serving all without qualification?

This, as Rob says, is what it means to be “evangelical” in the truest sense of the word. This is what it looks like to proclaim good news for everyone.

If, instead, you seek to coerce society into becoming more “Christian” through political enforcement, you have lost sight of what it means to be evangelical.

If you view your enemy, whoever you may think that is, as someone to be crushed or defeated or displaced—instead of someone to be loved and served without hesitation—you have lost sight of what it means to be evangelical.

If you’re more interested in keeping the “wrong” kind of people out than offering the greatest possible welcome to all, you have lost sight of what it means to be evangelical.

If you think Jesus’ resurrection changes your eternal destiny only and not everything here on earth, you have lost sight of what it means to be evangelical.

Such a gospel is not “good news.”

There are some who would limit the term “evangelical” along narrow ideological lines. Their “good news” has more in common with Rome than Jesus.

I don’t know whether the term “evangelical” is worth salvaging or not. But I do believe that, as Rob says, “If it isn’t good news for everybody, then it isn’t good news for anybody.”

3 alternatives to saying the sinner’s prayer with your kids


Writer Cindy Brandt recently shared three very good reasons why she hasn’t prayed the sinner’s prayer with her kids. For those of us who grew up evangelical, praying the sinner’s prayer was a Very Big Deal. In my church, when someone was assessing your spiritual state, one of the first things they wanted to know was, “How old were you when you asked Jesus into your heart?” It was almost a competition: the younger you were at the time, the better.

The sinner’s prayer was supposed to give assurance of salvation, an easy way of knowing if you were in or out. But the pitfalls Cindy identified are real—which is why I’m not praying the sinner’s prayer with my kids, either.

So what can you do instead? Here are three ideas for parents who want to nurture their kids’ faith without relying on the sinner’s prayer:

1. Enchant your kids with the goodness of God’s world.

The premise of the sinner’s prayer is that your identity is chiefly and overwhelmingly characterized by sin. You’re not a person. You’re not an image-bearer. You’re not someone who struggles with sin or who’s affected by sin. You’re a SINNER.

It’s the very first line of the prayer, the very first thing you say to God—at least according to the script proposed by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, which is arguably the closest thing evangelicalism has to an official form of the sinner’s prayer:

Dear Lord Jesus, I know I am a sinner, and I ask for your forgiveness. I believe you died for my sins and rose from the dead. I trust and follow you as my Lord and Savior. Guide my life and help me to do your will. In your name, amen.

When we lead our kids in the sinner’s prayer, the first thing they say to God is the opposite of what God first said to us.







Very good.

That’s the Cliff Notes version of Genesis 1.

That’s the first thing God said to his creation.

God’s very first words to us were not a curse but a blessing.

Yes, a lot happens after Genesis 1, but it does not erase the first part of the story. It does not change where the story began—or where we should begin with our kids.

The first thing our kids should know is that the world is good because it’s made and loved by God.

That’s the other thing the sinner’s prayer gets wrong: not only does it start with a faulty notion of our identity; it completely sidesteps the rest of the world. It makes sin and salvation about me and myself.

Growing up, I was taught that “saving souls” mattered more than nurturing life. The prize of salvation was escape—liberation from this body, evacuation from this world…which is just going to burn anyway.

This is not the story Scripture tells. And it’s not the story we should tell our kids, either.

All things hold together” in Christ. “All things” will be reconciled to God—yes, even “things on earth.”

We should help our kids fall in love with a world that God thinks is worth saving. We should nurture their sense of wonder, imagination, and inquisitiveness.

The other day, my daughter asked if we could go for a walk in the woods near our house so we could experience the colors of fall together. This is one of the holiest, most sacred things she’s ever asked to do.

Yes, there is evil. Yes, there is brokenness. But that is not the whole story. Instead of teaching our kids that they’re utterly evil, or that the world is utterly worthless, let’s help them see themselves—and the world—as God does.

2. Assure your kids of the constancy of God’s love—by demonstrating the constancy of yours.

Fear-based tactics, like the sinner’s prayer, might deliver a short-term result. (Really, how hard is it to scare a five-year-old into saying a prayer they think will keep them out of hell?) But the long-term results are rarely as satisfying.

That’s why many kids end up praying the sinner’s prayer over and over. As Cindy writes:

I was taught praying the prayer would become the mark of assurance, our get-out-of-hell card. I remember praying it with as much sincerity as I could muster, hoping God hears and receives it. Then I remember praying it again, and again, and again. If praying the prayer was supposed to be reassuring, it certainly did not work on me.

When you introduce fear as a motivator, that fear never goes away. The solution offered—in this case, a loosely scripted prayer—might provide temporary relief. But that fear will come creeping (or storming) back eventually. A God who is willing to throw five-year-olds into hell for lack of saying a few magic words might just as easily throw you into hell for doing something bad after you said them, or for not saying them fervently enough, or not being able to remember exactly when you said the prayer.

The sinner’s prayer becomes a talisman—and not a very good one—a cheap substitute for the real basis of our assurance: the character and nature of God.

The best way to show our kids who God is and what he’s like is to love them the way God does. Most of us do this intuitively—even though we are far from being perfect parents. We tell our kids, “There’s nothing you can do to make me love you less.” We tell them we love them because they are, not because of what they do.

And when we show it, day in and day out, they get a glimpse of what God is like.

If God is the author of love, and if this is the best way to love our kids, then why would we expect God’s love to be any different? The best way to assure our kids of the constancy of God’s love is to love them with the same constancy. As Cindy writes, “Assurance of God’s love doesn’t come packaged in a tidy little prayer, it is delivered through consistent provision of tender care by the children’s caretakers.”

3. Treat your kids as full members of the community of faith.

A third problem with the sinner’s prayer, as identified by Cindy, is that it elevates belief—often a cheap, unformed belief—over belonging. It disrupts the natural timeline of a child’s spiritual journey, forcing a decision on kids before they’ve even had a chance to “count the cost” of being a disciple. (After all, isn’t that what Jesus told us to do before following him?)

The answer, of course, is not to impose an even heavier burden on our children. It’s not to raise the threshold of belief even higher. The answer, I believe, is to give kids a place to belong as they work out their faith.

The problem is that in many of our churches, we inadvertently marginalize our kids instead. It’s just easier to send them off to “children’s church” than to find ways to make the main worship time meaningful for all ages, together. A certain amount of age-appropriate programming is a good thing. But if we wait till our kids are fully grown to welcome them into the “real” church or to upgrade their membership to full status, then we’ve waited too long.

As Methodist pastor Tom Fuerst writes:

From the time my generation was born, we were thrown in the nursery with other babies. Then we went to children’s ministries with other children to be entertained while our parents when to “big church.”

Then we had middle school ministry. Then we had youth group. Then we went away to college and we found a church with a stellar college ministry.

It wasn’t until we graduated college that we were actually expected to be a part of the intergenerational community called “church.” We’d been segregated by age for the first 22 years. And you not only allowed this, you encouraged it.

And now you’re wondering why we don’t want to go to church. Now you’re wondering how to reach us to make us a part of the church?

I’m sorry, but you never really valued us being part of a church before.

We need to show our kids they matter, that their presence matters, that our communities are not quite whole without them. This means creating new ways of “doing church” together. It means welcoming their participation as equals, alongside the adults. At the altar, at the table, at the baptismal font. In the sanctuary and in the fellowship hall. When we pray and when we wrestle with the Scriptures. And, above all, when we serve.

This is, after all, the way it was always done. Children of the first covenant (well, the boys anyway) were marked by circumcision—a sign of their full belonging—before their brains could formulate a single thought about God. The sign of belonging changed with the arrival of a new covenant. It was no longer limited by your gender or your identification with a certain group. But the sign is still a gift that is given before it can be grasped.

Our children need to belong before they believe. There will, of course, be more to their journey than this. The path they take might be more circuitous than we’d like—or take them places we didn’t expect they’d go. But the best thing we can do is not try to rig the outcome in advance by coaxing them into praying the sinner’s prayer. It’s giving them a place to belong, to be loved, and to experience the goodness of God.

Photo by Jake Guild on Flickr

People deserve the right to question


Jesus Questions the Elders, by David Hayward

David Hayward’s earliest memory of himself as an artist is the reaction he got for his Sunday school drawing of Israel crossing the Red Sea. David sketched the scene from the Egyptians’ point of view—in graphic detail. “There were blood and bubbles and beasts and brine because their death had to be a horrible one,” he recalls in his book Questions Are the Answer.

David’s sketch didn’t sit well with his priest or teacher. “I recall the look on their faces,” he writes. “I was being analyzed and I knew it.”

That didn’t stop David from drawing—then or now. But the sense you’re being scrutinized, evaluated, measured up—that sort of thing stays with you. “I continue drawing what I want,” David writes, “but under constant fear of it or me being analyzed.”

The fear of not measuring up, of saying the wrong thing, or asking the wrong question… it’s paralyzing. I’ve had this blog for eight years, but it took me almost four to work up the nerve to share anything I wrote with people I actually knew. I was afraid. Afraid they might not like the questions I was asking. Afraid it might get me into trouble with some of my Christian friends or coworkers.

For most of my career, my livelihood has depended on other Christians. I’ve only ever worked for evangelical organizations, many of whom require you to sign a statement of faith or conform to a code of conduct.

And that’s OK. No one forced me to work for these organizations. Having a shared set of beliefs or values isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Besides, compared to some, I’ve had it pretty easy. I’ve never been fired for something I said or wrote. (Though I’ve landed in hot water on one or two occasions.) I’ve never been scrutinized or marginalized because of my skin color or gender or orientation.

Some people aren’t merely punished for asking questions; they’re not even allowed in the door.


Questions-Are-The-Answer-Hayward-2David Hayward’s journey and mine are different in some respects. He left the ministry and the institutional church—a journey he describes in Questions Are the Answer. I’m still there. I still draw strength from its creeds and sacraments. I still want to be part of a community that unites around certain shared convictions—namely, that there was a man called Jesus who conquered death and invites us to join him in making all things new.

But the church has burned out and chewed up far too many people, for asking the “wrong” kinds of questions, or because they were the “wrong” kinds of people.

We do it because we’re afraid. We’re afraid someone might ask a question we don’t have a good answer to. We’re afraid we might come into contact with someone whose very existence challenges our tidy, narrow view of the world. We’re afraid that if we let that happen, we might start asking the wrong questions too.

So we spend our lives on the defensive. As David writes,

My life used to be characterized by standing firm on certain beliefs that I would defend like my castle from all attacks. It really was living life from a defensive posture.

I was the same way. And one thing I’ve learned is that living from a defensive posture is exhausting.


“People deserve the right to question,” David writes. Not just by themselves, on their own. “But also within the communities of which they choose to be members.”

Questioning can be a vital part of our development. Maybe one reason spiritual formation has stagnated in the evangelical church (and it has) is because we don’t know how to ask, much less handle, good questions. David argues in Questions Are the Answer that a progression from simple, closed-ended questions to more open-ended inquiry is one sign of maturing spirituality. But he writes, quoting José Saramago, that “the church’s specialty has always been the neutralization of the overly curious mind.”

What if churches became the kind of place that welcomed—even celebrated­—people’s questions? Not because we’ve forsaken a common identity, but because we recognize the beauty of inquiry and mystery?

If we’re going to be more than just “spiritual consumers looking for anything to substantiate our egos and sense of separateness,” we must open ourselves to other people’s questions—and our own. We shouldn’t hesitate to overturn every rock (to paraphrase Jay Kesler) out of fear that something might jump out from underneath and eat God.

Curiosity, wonder, inquiry, and even doubt—these might do wonders for the church and for the broken, battered people who comprise it.

Disclosure: I received a free review copy of David’s book. I was not compensated for this post, nor was I required to write a review (positive or otherwise) in exchange for my copy.

When we defend the Bible, but refuse to read it (by Jayson Bradley)


Columnist George Will tells and interesting story about the battle of Dunkirk in WWII. The German army was bearing down on more than 300,000 allied forces trapped against the ocean. On the evening of May 25, the commander of the British sent this simple, three-word message to London, “BUT-IF-NOT.”

It was immediately recognized as an allusion to the book of Daniel. When faced with execution for not worshiping an idol, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego responded by saying, “Our God who we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and He will deliver us out of thine hand, O king. But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods . . .” (Daniel 3:17)

These three words were instantly recognized as words of faith . . . and acceptance. These trapped troops were praying for deliverance, but not willing to surrender if it didn’t come. The British responded with an evacuation that included destroyers, passenger ferries, hospital ships, and even fishing vessels. In nine days, 338,226 men were rescued in what has been called the Miracle of Dunkirk.

What’s amazing was that Britain’s biblical literacy in 1940 was strong enough that the import of these three words was immediately recognized. In less than 75 years, things in Britain have changed dramatically. In a recent study of biblical literacy in the UK it was found that:

  • Nearly 30% of adults don’t know that Adam and Eve, David and Goliath, or the good Samaritan are Bible stories.
  • 46% don’t recognize the story of Noah’s Ark as biblical.
  • 54% thought the Hunger Games had a biblical storyline.
  • Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code was recognized as a biblical story by 46% of adults.
  • 27% thought Superman might be a biblical character.

Things stateside aren’t that much better.

In a country where people constantly talk about their reverence for the Bible, not many are reading it. Surveys of American biblical literacy reveal that:

  • Less than 50% of adults can name the four gospels.
  • 60% of adults can name 5 of the 10 commandments.
  • 82% of Americans believe “God helps those who help themselves” is a Bible verse.
  • 12% of adults believe Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife.

What is the church doing to combat this phenomenon? How are we championing an understanding of the book that we’re passionate about defending? There was a time when Sunday school was the church’s answer to biblical education, but it’s getting harder and harder to find church plants that include a Sunday school program or regular, in-depth Bible studies as part of their discipleship strategy.

Many churches offer small groups, which can be a powerful and effective way to grow a sense of community, but often fail to include deep scriptural discussion.

Rescuing the Bible from obscurity

There’s no question that the church needs to find ways to champion and encourage Bible study again. But how? Can we recognize the obstacles? And if so, can we find strategies to overcome them?

I think so.

1. Get people reading again.

Sadly if it isn’t coming through the average person’s Facebook news feed, it’s not getting read. According to the Pew Research Center, only 8% of Americans hadn’t read a single book in 1972. Since 2012, the number of non-book-readers has jumped to 23%—not one print book, ebook, or audiobook.

The church needs to be encouraging people to read as a discipline—particularly Bible reading. The same Pew Research Center study found that about 50% of American adults owned a tablet or e-reader, and over two-thirds of them own a smartphone.

There are so many amazing apps available to help people rediscover the scriptures, many of them absolutely free. Some offer so many helpful tools that people download them and are so overwhelmed that they never use them.

Why not hold a two-week class on some of the apps available? Or maybe find a Bible app that your church loves and work them into the life of the church, including a class on how to get the most out of them?

2. Encourage people to get more involved in kids ministry.

One way to get people into their Bibles is to put them into a position where they need to teach. Kids ministry is a great place to start. And let’s face it, our kids need to have a good grasp of Scripture too.

I don’t know of many churches that don’t have someone working hard just to recruit people to teach our children. It’s a challenge that most of us have experienced. What if your church had a drive to get everyone to spend some time teaching children?

It doesn’t need to be difficult or overwhelming. There is no lack of free lessons to help teachers get the job done, as well as many other places to find great curriculum.  

3. Start a Sunday school equivalent.

Okay, maybe your church isn’t able to set aside time in the morning for Sunday school, but is there another time to when people can gather to study? Can your church host Bible-related classes one night a week? Is there someone who can bring a class into their home? A coffee shop?

If you think people get overwhelmed teaching kids, try asking them to teach other adults. You might have to bust out the smelling salts to revive them. The idea that they have to have all the answers about every biblical mystery can fill the most well-read Christian with dread.

But here’s a secret that I’ve seen reinforced time and time again: creating a culture of people interested in reading Scripture is caught as much as it’s taught. There is something that seems to happen organically when people begin reading the Bible together. They grow in their enthusiasm, and the people around them start to get interested too.

Leading a class doesn’t have to be overwhelming. There are plenty of books and curriculums available—leaders can even create their own lessons quite easily.

Don’t just defend it; read it.

Millar Burrows, biblical scholar and leading authority on the Dead Sea Scrolls, once said, “What we really need, after all, is not to defend the Bible but to understand it.” This couldn’t be more true.

The church doesn’t need people who simply venerate Scripture, she needs people who are so familiar with it that they can’t help but live by it. It’s time to make that a priority again.

e33c314673cdfa6616b6c5d89d3439bcJayson D. Bradley is a God-botherer, writer, audiophile, musician, social media consultant and strategist. You can find him at and on Facebook.


Image credit: Patrick Feller on Flickr

How my daughter is teaching me to pray again



I suck at prayer.

I know how to do it. Like many Christians, I know the Lord’s Prayer by heart—in both King James and New International Versions. I’m fluent in the evangelical, freestyle form of prayer, and I’m increasingly conversant in the more liturgical collects of my new(ish) spiritual home, the Anglican tradition.

But outside of church and putting my daughter to bed at night, I pray very little. And I’m not sure how much weight those bedtime prayers carry; most are little more than a laundry list of people and things we want God to bless.

Often when I tell someone I’ll keep them in my prayers, I whisper one under my breath right then and there—just so I (technically) haven’t broken my promise when I fail to pray for them later.

The older I get, the harder it is to pray—or maybe the easier it’s become not to pray.

Maybe as we get older—and as uncertainty mingles with our once-childlike faith—it becomes harder to pray to a God who might not even be there, as that voice in the back of our head reminds us.

Maybe all those self-absorbed prayers of my youth—God, help me find a spouse. Help me find a job. Help me do this. Give me that.—have lost whatever fleeting therapeutic power they once held.

For whatever reason, I don’t pray as much as I used to.

But lately, my daughter is helping me learn to pray again—by reminding me how very little control I actually have at any given moment.

Nothing dramatic has happened… well, not in the grand scheme of things. Like a million other kids, she started kindergarten this fall. That first day, we dressed her in her uniform (thank God for school uniforms—now there’s a genuine prayer), took the obligatory “first day of school” pictures, and sent her on her way.

Just like that.

For the first time in her young life, she spends most of her waking hours apart from us—beyond our ability to carefully orchestrate her life, to filter what she’s exposed to, to regulate how she spends her time.

To put it another way, we’ve lost the illusion of control.

Which is what got me praying again. Normally, I’m too busy trying to write the script to my own life. When I feel things slipping out of control, my first instinct is to tighten my grip, to maintain the illusion.

But there is no illusion to maintain this time. I’m not in control.

I can’t determine how my daughter turns out or what kind of experience she has at school. I can’t ensure she befriends the “right” people—the ones who treat her and others with kindness. I can’t protect her from every bad experience or influence.

I am so not in control.

So I find myself praying while she’s at school. Praying that God will go with her throughout the day. Praying that she will be unfailingly kind—especially to those on the margins. That she will be strong and outspoken. That she’ll be accepted for who she is and that she will accept others for who they are, too.

I find that our bedtime prayers are changing as well. We still ask God to bless the same laundry list of friends and loved ones each night. But we also pray about what kind of person she’ll become. We pray for refugees from Syria. We pray about things great and small.

Prayer is still a spiritual discipline I’m not very good at. Those lingering doubts in the corners of my mind still cause me to wonder if there’s anyone listening on the other end.

But the more I come to grips with my lack of control, the more inclined I am to pray. Prayer settles me, at least for a moment or two. I don’t get any of that illusory control back. But when I pray, I find it just a bit easier to live with my lack of control. I find it easier to let go—even if it’s just for a minute.

Image: Gadini on Pixabay

Why do evangelicals like Trump? Because he’s one of us.


Donald J. Trump the leading choice for president among evangelical voters right now. This isn’t going down well with some of the gatekeepers—and for good reason.

Russell Moore, head of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, summed up nicely the problem with Trump:

He’s an unrepentant serial adulterer who has abandoned two wives for other women. He’s someone who has spoken in vulgar and harsh terms about women, as well as in ugly and hateful ways about immigrants and other minorities. I don’t think this is someone who represents the values that evangelicals in this country aspire to.

Moore is right. Yet for now at least, a plurality of evangelicals want just such a man—a serial adulterer who disparages women, immigrants, and minorities—to be their next president.

A lot can change between now and the first primaries. But how did so many evangelicals come to support a man whose values are so very far from theirs?

Maybe it’s because they’re not as far apart as we think.

You see, Donald Trump is a living, breathing, blustering manifestation of our culture’s addiction to outrage.

We live to be outraged, and Christians are no exception. In fact, we’re often the worst offenders.

We’re addicted to outrage because, as Tim Kreider observed, it feels good to be angry. “Somatically it feels a lot like the first rush of an opiate,” he wrote.

Outrage is a means of coping with our fears—rational or otherwise. We’re afraid of those who are different from us. We fear the loss of our cultural dominance. So we turn to outrage because it’s cathartic.

Not surprisingly, rage-filled posts spread more rapidly on social media than any other kind of content. Posts conveying other emotions, such as joy, trail far behind, according to a 2013 study.

Outrage isn’t always bad. It can be a healthy response to real injustice. But like any drug, it can be toxic. We use outrage to dehumanize those we don’t like. Conservatives use it to demonize Muslim refugees; progressives use it to hillbilly-shame Kim Davis.

Screen Shot 2015-09-17 at 8.55.32 AM

We use outrage to delineate the boundaries of our tribe—who’s in, who’s out. As one writer put it, our communities are increasingly “defined by an ‘us’ and a reflexive exclusion of ‘them.’ ”

Christians have been doing outrage for years. We’ve spent decades nursing a persecution mindset and a culture-war mentality. We claim to be outraged by all sorts of injustices—some real, some not—but mostly we’re angry and fearful at the loss of our cultural dominance.

So we treat those who are different as enemies… by which I don’t mean we love them like Jesus actually told us to.

We look upon “outsiders” with suspicion, fear, and contempt.

In sermons and in blog posts, we cultivate a siege mentality among the faithful because, as it turns out, making people angry and afraid is a very effective way to build a platform.

But there are consequences.

When you teach people to be outraged all the time, they might end up voting for someone who is the personification of a YouTube comment section.

To those who are shocked and unsettled by Trump’s resonance among evangelicals, what else did you expect?

Donald Trump is exactly the kind of candidate we deserve. He is a reflection of us.

His popularity is an indictment of our addiction to outrage. It’s an indictment of our culture-war mentality.

All these years, when we should have been encouraging Christians to love and serve their neighbors, instead we told them to prepare for battle.

When we should have been opening our doors to let outsiders in, instead we built walls to keep the world out.

Is it any wonder, then, that a man who promises to build an even bigger wall—the self-aggrandizing mogul who preys upon our fear and outrage—is the most popular candidate?

I can’t think of many good things that can come from Trump’s candidacy, no matter how long it lasts. Whether he makes it to the finish line or flames out tomorrow, his presence in the race hasn’t exactly elevated our political discourse, which was already hovering around junior-high-cafeteria levels.

But maybe there is one good thing about Trump’s popularity. Maybe it will prompt us to look in the mirror, to look at ourselves and how we treat others. Maybe seeing all this venom and bile spill from someone else’s lips will cause us to reconsider all the harsh and dehumanizing language that we use.

There is, after all, one thing worse than voting for Donald Trump. And that is being Donald Trump.

But we can renounce our addiction to outrage. We can jump off this train and stop demonizing those we disagree with—or those we just don’t understand. Instead of building bigger walls, we can welcome others into our communities—and maybe learn something from their perspectives and experiences. We can lay down our fear. We can listen to the apostle John for a change and drive out fear with love.

This won’t be easy. As Daniel Kirk recently observed, “The disease [fear] keeps us from the medicine [love].” But we can try all the same.

Love is the antidote to the Donald Trump in each of us.

Photo: Gage Skidmore on Flickr

For you were refugees…


Do not mistreat or oppress a refugee, for you were refugees in Egypt.
— Exodus 22

Yeah, I know. In your Bible and in mine, it says “foreigner,” not “refugee.”

That won’t get us off the hook.

The Bible is the story of refugees. It’s the story of those who were displaced. It’s the story of a family who sought shelter in Egypt when famine decimated their land.

They weren’t just “foreigners” or “migrants.”

They were refugees.

When the crisis was over, when they were settled comfortably in their homes, they were told to remember what it was like—and to extend hospitality to other refugees.

Centuries later, the children of Abraham became refugees again when their homes were razed and their loves ones cut down by war. Exiled to a faraway land, they were the ones to whom God said, “I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.”

God wants to prosper refugees.

God wants to give refugees hope and a future.

If you’re a Christian, you don’t have the luxury of not caring about the greatest refugee crisis since World War II.

We don’t have the luxury of looking away when drowned children’s bodies wash up on a beach.

We don’t get to treat refugees like an invading force. We don’t get to call them a “swarm.” We don’t get to call them “migrants,” either—as if they casually decided one day it’d be fun to live in our country for a change. Euphemisms won’t shield us from our responsibility to act.

It’s been too convenient to misname it as a migrant crisis, because it suggests these people are voluntarily fleeing, whereas in fact, if you’ve been barrel-bombed out of your home three times, life and limb demand that you flee.
—David Milliband, IRC

If you’re a Christian, you don’t get to prioritize your own comfort and security over compassion for someone else.

You just don’t.



Aylan Kurdi and Galip, who died trying to reach Greece

I get that throwing the doors open might not have been enough to save Aylan Kurdi and his brother Galip. The present crisis requires countries do more than just liberalize their asylum policies.

But some of us have been using the need for “long-term solutions” as an excuse for doing nothing—or not doing enough.

My own country, the United States, has taken in maybe 1,500 Syrian refugees.

Britain has granted asylum to 5,000 or so.

Canada has welcomed about 1,000. Aylan and Galip were not among them.

We have to do better.


The sad thing is, some of us care more about a clerk in Kentucky going to jail because she defied a court order than we care about children washing up dead on a beach.

Some of us are so worked up about imaginary persecution that we don’t even notice the real thing when it terrorizes, uproots, and kills the innocent.

My brothers and sisters, this should not be.


This photo originally appeared on the August 1979 cover of World Vision magazine. In this full frame version, the woman clapping with the scarf over her head in the upper right corner is Vinh's mother. To her immediate right is Vinh's older sister holding one of his younger brothers. ©1979 Kenny Waters/World Vision

© 1979 Kenny Waters/World Vision

Almost four decades ago, millions fled Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Many took to the sea in flimsy boats, hoping to find refuge somewhere, anywhere. One of them was my friend Cat-Dan. She was three months old when her parents decided they had to get out. You can read her story here.

Thousands of refugees died at sea—perhaps as many as 400,000. The world tried to ignore their plight, just as we’ve tried to ignore those fleeing Syria.

Countries tried shutting their borders. They tried cutting their asylum quotas. Back then, refugees were left to drift at sea; today they’re left to suffocate in the back of a lorry.

Eventually the world saw what was happening, thanks in part to efforts like World Vision’s Operation Seasweep.

There was an outcry, and world leaders were shamed into action. The United States wound up taking 1.4 million refugees. And you know what? They made our country better.

It’s time we were shamed into action again.


There are many ways you can help Syrian refugees. You can support NGOs like World Vision and the International Rescue Committee who are working directly with displaced Syrian families.

You can support the Migrant Offshore Aid Station as they work to save refugees at sea.

You can buy some of my friend Kurt’s artworkFor September, he’s donating everything he earns to help Syrian refugees.


© Kurt Rahn

You can demand more from your government. You can sign this White House petition calling on the U.S. to resettle 65,000 Syrian refugees. (That’s the number proposed by the International Rescue Committee.)

We can do 65,000. We might even become a better country for it.


As Christians, our story is a refugee story. Never forget that. Never look away. Never fail to show compassion to the refugees in our world.

Photo by Freedom House on Flickr

Even the dogs (guest post)

This week in churches all over the world, we’ll hear Jesus call someone of a different race a dog. The Syrophonecian woman appears in the Lectionary this Sunday for the second time in just over a year.

She came to us last year in a reading from Matthew, just as tensions in Ferguson were boiling over. Now she comes to us again, this time from Mark. Still confronting us. Still challenging us. Still laying bare our prejudices.

She has the audacity to keep shouting when the disciples tell her to be quiet. She will not protest on their terms. She will not submit to their notion of respectability. She resists their attempts to control and dismiss her.

The Syrophonecian woman forces us to think about how we treat the “outsiders” in our world today. As we reject the dignity of others in the name of God, as we close our borders and our hearts to refugees from the same part of the world this woman called home, as we try to silence the voices of those who dare to tell us that “black lives matter”— she is there. Still watching. Still waiting. Still exposing our prejudice.

Below is a homily that one of my friends, the Rev. Daniel Brereton, shared on his blog last year. Daniel is an Anglican priest in Toronto and, frankly, he’s one of the best reasons to be on Twitter. His sermon has stayed with me over the past year, so I asked him if I could share it here. May it challenge us to think about who we’ve silenced—through our actions or mere apathy—who we dismiss as “outsiders,” and whether we’re willing to make room for them at the table, just as God made room for us…


Who was she, I wonder? This annoyingly tenacious, desperate woman, with such quick wit and—as Jesus himself points out—such great faith? 

She has no name. She’s not an individual—at least, the disciples aren’t looking at her that way.  She’s just a label, a representative of an outside and despised group.  Easily ignored and easily dismissed… until she refuses to be.

And that’s when this woman becomes a problem. It’s always a problem for the dominant culture when people who differ refuse to stay quietly on the margins, especially when what they say—what they are—offends, challenges, or chastens our prized sense of superiority.

This woman, whoever she was, not only appears in different gospels, but she appears in every age, in every culture, in different guises. You can still see her today: a hand outstretched, trembling with fear at being reviled, or with anger at being mocked, or weariness at being continually silenced. She still seeks a blessing, and she is still told to go away. She is no longer a Canaanite, but she is a Christian being persecuted in Iraq, a Palestinian killed in Gaza, a gay person beaten and arrested in Russia, a black person in Ferguson apparently so threatening to the authorities that the police brought out tanks and tear gas.

All because she still won’t shut up and go away.  

Demanding to be heard and seen causes problems, for those doing the shouting and for those who just want them to be quiet and go away. But according to today’s gospel, this steadfast refusal to be silenced also opens the door to healing, not only for the woman’s daughter, nor even just for the woman herself but perhaps most for the disciples, whose vision of God’s kingdom is suddenly expanded, however tightly closed they’ve closed their eyes.

That’s the blessing. But first, the problem: 

The woman is a Gentile, so she is automatically “unclean” according to all the religious rules. She is also unaccompanied—no husband, no father, no brother. Any woman who approached a man without a male escort could only be judged as one kind of woman.

Yet driven by concern for her daughter, she strides right up to a man from a people who have despised her and condemned her all her life and implores his help. And then Jesus—our Jesus, the Good Shepherd, the Prince of Peace—calls this woman a “dog.” 

Now that shocks us. But it wouldn’t have shocked anyone else standing within ear shot. “Dog” was a term commonly used as a label for anyone not Jewish. The Jews were God’s chosen people. Encouraged by the Pharisees, most believed this identity obligated them to honour that status with laws and customs that rigidly set them apart. Jesus fully accepted this. Israel is set apart by God.

Where Jesus differed from the Pharisees was not in the belief that Israel had been set apart, but in his idea of what Israel had been set apart for. For Jesus, Israel was set apart not to hold itself aloof from the world nor to condemn it but to show the world, through its own experience, that their God was a God who was more pleased with pure hearts than with pure sacrifices; their God was a God who remained loyally committed to his people, even when they betrayed him; their God was a God who provided for them out of loving concern, not simply as a reward for good behaviour.  Their God would send the Messiah to bring all nations under his just and loving rule. 

Yet the only person there who seems to really believe this is not a disciple, but a dog.

Jesus calls her a dog to show that from the perspective of his religion, she’s an outsider. From the perspective of his kingdom, though, she’s the only one there who is actually inside it. Which begs the question for us: are we in Jesus’ kingdom? Or just part of a religion?

It is no coincidence that Matthew places his version of the story immediately after the feeding of the 5,000. In that story, the disciples want Jesus to send the hungry people away to feed themselves and Jesus tells the disciples bluntly: No. YOU give them something to eat.  

So the disciples have seen the generosity of God with their own eyes—that there is plenty to go around, that all can be fed for the asking. And now, confronted with someone who is asking, their response is still, “Send her away.” How slow, how blind, how hard of heart the followers of Jesus could be! How slow, blind and hard of heart many of us still are!

Then again, Jesus himself comes across as rather hardhearted in this passage. After the woman calls him “Son of David”—a title that indicates her belief that Jesus is the Messiah—he reminds her that the Messiah has come only for the lost sheep of Israel.  At this point the woman could have slunk quietly away, or screamed in outrage at Jesus. She refuses to sacrifice her dignity in either way. She’s come this far. She isn’t going back now. So she kneels at his feet. Its not passive submission I see here, but faith—in Jesus and in herself.

I always thought she simply ignored Jesus’ words. “I don’t care if I’m not an Israelite sheep—help me anyway!” But I wonder. Perhaps what she was actually saying was, “Can’t you see that I AM a lost sheep? Maybe Israel is more than just a plot of land. maybe God’s chosen includes more than just a few tribes. Maybe the kingdom is less about the right genetic code and more about the right relationship with God. And if it is—and if you are the Messiah—then help me!”  

I wonder if at that moment, Jesus thought, “Finally! Someone gets it.” 

Which is why I don’t think that the harsh sounding question that follows is really meant for the woman at all. Many argue that Jesus is struggling with his own prejudices—that this is a moment of revelation for him, in which he realizes his ministry is in fact to more than just Israel. I don’t agree. I think that while Jesus, being human, must have grown in wisdom and understanding just like anyone, he was also God. So I don’t believe Jesus held the same prejudices. Prior to this he had already healed two Gentiles, so I don’t think he saw this woman as a dog. I do believe that his disciples did, however—and that’s the problem.  

Jesus is speaking to the woman, but he’s really asking the disciples: Is it fair to take the children’s food and feed it to the dogs?  

I believe that when Jesus asks the question, the answer he wants—the answer he’s looking for—is, Lord, we’ve been with you long enough to know that in your kingdom, we are all God’s children. She is no ‘dog’ but our sister.”   

Sadly I think Jesus is still waiting for his followers to give him that answer.

This woman, who has finally found the courage to speak, is not about to wait for a bunch of men who have called her a dog her entire life to decide whether she’s worthy or not.  She knows she is, because she, unlike Jesus’ own disciples, seems to understand who it is she’s talking to. So she says: Even the dogs get to eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.

So much lies behind these words. It is not just a witty retort but a profound challenge:

You guys keep saying that your God is Lord of the world. Are you telling me that your God is any less generous than earthly masters? Is your God really deaf to the cry of a mother, because of her religion or blind to a child’s suffering because of its skin colour? Is your God really so prejudiced as to justify cruelty towards anyone because of who they are? 

Does your God really call human beings “dogs”? Or is that just you?   

It’s not just the woman’s quick wit that impresses Jesus—her ability to cleverly turn a phrase. It’s her understanding and acceptance of God’s great generosity, something the disciples themselves are still struggling with.

“Woman, great is your faith,” Jesus says. And her daughter was healed instantly. After all, that’s why she’s there, putting up with all this name calling and theological debating.

That’s often the way it works, isn’t it?  

When it’s only ourselves suffering, we can stay silent. We can justify keeping our heads down and our mouths shut. But when staying silent threatens someone or something we love, suddenly we find the courage to speak. To protest. To challenge even those who claim to speak for God. For the sake of our children and grandchildren and generations yet to be born. As many do today on behalf of all those still excluded by racism, sexism, homophobia, or economic injustice—the Canaanite women and men and teenagers and children that we, in our own fear and prejudices, still want to silence. 

Do we, the disciples of Jesus today, respond any differently from those in the gospel passage? How do we keep in mind that there is enough feast to go around? How do we expand the seating to allow for even more to sit at God’s table?   

Perhaps it begins with remembering that we—God’s people, the body of Christ, the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church—are also Gentiles. And that, brothers and sisters, makes us dogs as well. Dogs to whom God has given far more than crumbs, but seats at the table. Dogs who get to partake in the whole meal. Dogs who are loved, and welcomed and nourished by God because, as it turns out, we aren’t dogs at all, but God’s children.  

And if God has made space at his table for dogs like us, who wouldn’t God make room for?


CFETheNUEAEkaTK.jpg-largeThe Rev. Daniel Brereton is an Anglican priest in Toronto. This sermon originally appeared on his blog. Follow him (no, really—do it now) on Twitter at @RevDaniel.

How to talk to your kids about hell


If you’re a parent and you’re not following Cindy Brandt’s series on raising kids un-fundamentalist, you should. Cindy explains her motivation for the series in her first post:

I am in desperate need of a robust discussion regarding how in the hell to talk to my kids about hell. In other, less eternally-damning words, how do those of us who have grown up evangelical and yet suffer some damaging effects of fundamentalist theology, do the delicate parenting dance of communicating the love of God to our children without transferring some of the harmful teachings we have internalized? 

As the parent of two young kids, one of whom is just starting to learn about God, I need that conversation too. I want to be able to nurture their faith without manipulation or coercion.

I don’t have all the answers, but I do have an idea for how to talk to your kids about hell:


Not just because the biblical doctrine of judgment is more complicated than most of us realize. (Though it is.)

Not because it’s hard to know what we’re even talking about when we use the word “hell.” (Though it is hard, since most Bibles use the same word for three different terms in the New Testament, each of which had a distinct meaning and origin.)

Not just because “eternal conscious torment,” the prevailing view among evangelicals, is hardly the only orthodox view and probably owes more to medieval literature than the Bible. (Though it isn’t and it does.)

You shouldn’t talk to your kids about hell because, as Cindy writes in her second post, kids don’t have “the emotional maturity and logical capability to process a belief in eternal punishment.”

Put another way, their brains aren’t done cooking yet. The young brain is like “soft, impressionable Play-Doh.” What we tell kids about God when they’re young will stay with them for years—even if they grow up to believe something very different.

Pediatric neurologist Marcel Kinsbourne writes:

What we experience contributes mightily to what we are and what we become… what people experience indeed changes their brain, for better and for worse.

Teaching our kids to believe in an angry, vengeful God affects who they grow up to be. In my experience, it tends to yield one of two outcomes. Either they grow up to be angry, vengeful Christians; or they grow up terrified of an angry, vengeful God, convinced they’ll incur his wrath over the slightest infraction.

In my case, it was both. One minute I could be arrogant and dismissive of those who believed differently than I did, the next moment convinced I was destined for wrath myself—that God couldn’t possibly love me, that God might not be loving at all.

My relationship with God (if you can call it that) was based on fear. And make no mistake: I was terrified.

I don’t want my kids to be terrified of God. Have a healthy respect for God? Sure. Reverence and awe? Absolutely. But my impression of Jesus is that he didn’t go around inflicting terror in kids’ hearts.

Which leads me to another reason we shouldn’t talk to our kids about hell: it makes for a terrible gospel.

I can hear the objections already. You’ve probably heard them too.

Truth is hard. We shouldn’t soft-pedal the gospel just because it might scare our kids.

We shouldn’t be afraid to talk about hell. After all, Jesus talked about hell more than he talked about heaven. (He didn’t, actually.)

I’m a firm believer that we shouldn’t soft-pedal, dumb down, or otherwise misrepresent the gospel to our kids. But what if “pray this prayer so you don’t go to hell when you die” IS a misrepresentation of the gospel?

The core of Jesus’ proclamation was not, “Follow me so you don’t go to hell.” It was, “The kingdom of heaven has come.” This is what he told his disciples to proclaim.

Not “you might end up somewhere very hot and very far from God” but “God is near.”

When the children came to Jesus, he didn’t preach them a sermon about hell. He didn’t warn them about God’s impending wrath. He put his arms around them. He blessed them. He said the kingdom already belonged to them.

Instead of talking to our kids about hell, let’s talk to them about God’s kingdom.

Instead of talking to our kids about some terrible place to avoid, let’s talk about what they get to be part of.  

By the way, this doesn’t just apply to kids. This should be the rule whenever we’re talking about the gospel with someone. Look at the great evangelistic sermons in Acts. How many of them mention hell?


If hell was so important, why did the apostles fail to mention it even once as they went from place to place, announcing the—what was it?—good news about Jesus?

If hell is such an indispensable part of our gospel, why was it so utterly absent from theirs?

So don’t talk to your kids about hell as you share the gospel with them. Don’t prey upon their fears just to get them to say a prayer. Instead, talk to them about the life God invites them to experience. Talk about the kingdom they get to be part of.

Who knows? If we do that instead, maybe they’ll stop fearing the world-to-come long enough to start changing this one.

* A few friends and commenters have observed that, given our cultural obsession with hell, it’s likely that many of us will have to talk about it with our kids—if nothing else, to answer their questions about what other people say. That’s true. The good news is, we have a choice how we talk about it. We don’t have to pass on fear-based religion to the next generation. We can seek to prevent unnecessary fear instead of cultivating it. 

Photo by Palo on Flickr

This is what the tortured, twisted logic of patriarchy looks like

The police as God intended, according to Piper—with one exception...

The police as God intended, according to Piper—with one exception

The other day, John Piper fielded a question about whether women should be police officers. His response highlights the tortured logic necessary to make patriarchy “work” in the real world.

Worth noting: the woman asking is a complementarian. She believes, like Piper, that men lead and women follow. Yet she feels drawn to police work and therefore conflicted—presumably because her job would require her to exercise authority over men on a regular basis. She even promised to quit if she gets married someday and her husband objects to her line of work.

Most complementarians don’t go so far as to prohibit women from working—though they often discourage married women from doing so, and some do indeed go farther. (I once had a pastor who said in a sermon he didn’t think women should ever work outside the home, even if they were single. We left that church shortly after.)

Piper himself accepts there are “thousands of possible roles” women can fill in society. But this creates a problem for patriarchy: what about the many roles which might require a woman to exercise authority over a man?

It’s not just police officers.

What about being a college professor? Or a guidance counselor? Or an author? Or a city planner? Or an HR specialist?

What about being a scientist who presents her research at a professional conference and therefore “teaches” men? What about being a financial advisor telling men how to invest their money?

This is where patriarchy ties itself in knots because, on the one hand, it wants us to believe the allegedly subordinate status of women is universally applicable and not limited to a certain sphere, like the church or home. As Piper says in his response to the aspiring cop:

At the heart of mature manhood is a sense of benevolent responsibility to lead, provide for, and protect women in ways appropriate to a man’s differing relationships. The postman won’t relate to the lady at the door the way a husband will, but he will be a man.

Leading—exercising authority over women—is “at the heart” of what it means to be a man, according to Piper. Yet even he must sense the extreme nature of this, because he immediately tries to qualify it so he can allow women to serve in at least some roles outside the home.

Piper concedes the folly of making a list of “acceptable” roles for women—not that others haven’t tried. Instead, he resorts to some breathtaking mental gymnastics in order to explain how a woman can exercise authority without really exercising authority:

If a woman’s job involves a good deal of directives toward men, they will need to be non-personal in general, or men and women won’t flourish in the long run in that relationship without compromising profound biblical and psychological issues. And conversely, if a woman’s relationship to a man is very personal, then the way she offers guidance and influence will need to be more non-directive.

According to Piper, a woman can exercise authority so long as it’s “non-directive” or “non-personal.”

He sees no problem with a woman designing traffic patterns, “deciding which streets are one-way, and therefore… controlling, in one sense, all the male drivers all day long,” because this kind of influence isn’t personal.

But if that same woman were to be a police officer standing on a street corner making sure those traffic patterns are followed? Then she would be violating Piper’s notion of manhood.

Now it’s personal, according to Piper. Now she’s offending a man’s “God-given sense of responsibility and leadership.” Now she’s controverting “God’s created order.”

How does that even make sense? How is that not an artificial distinction designed solely to maintain an unworkable system?

It’s funny, because complementarians like to accuse egalitarians of doing mental gymnastics in order to explain 1 Timothy 2:12—“I do not permit a woman to teach or assume authority over a man.” (There happen to be very good and, I think, convincing ways to interpret this passage from an egalitarian perspective. See here and here, for example.)

But what about the mental gymnastics necessary to maintain patriarchy, albeit in a slightly less terrible form?

Paul doesn’t say, “I do not permit a woman to assume authority over a man unless it’s non-direct or non-personal.” Piper has introduced an unfounded caveat to a text he claims to interpret more straightforwardly than the rest of us.

Piper says this is about being “submissive to the Bible,” but he can’t even follow his own rubric for interpreting it. (He also wants us to believe his is the counter-cultural view, something I addressed in a recent guest post on Jory Micah’s blog.)

Speaking of the Bible, if it’s wrong for a woman to exercise authority over a man, how do you explain the prophet Deborah instructing Barak—who was afraid to go into battle without her?

How do you explain Huldah instructing the high priest of Israel?

How do you explain women being the first to proclaim Jesus’ resurrection? (“He is has risen” is the foundation of all Christian teaching, after all.)


How do you explain Priscilla instructing Apollos in the way of God?

Deborah and Huldah were nothing if not directive. Mary Magdalene and Priscilla were nothing if not personal.

Authority is authority, whether it’s directive or not, whether it’s personal or not. And when it comes to the biblical narrative, steeped though it is in a patriarchal world, we see women exercising bold, prophetic authority—in accord with God’s created order, not against it.

Photo by Dave Conner on Flickr