Introducing the Director of the New Send Institute

New institute is a partnership between the Billy Graham Center and the North American Mission Board.

I’m grateful to be chosen as the Send Institute’s inaugural Director and am honored to work alongside Dr. Ed Stetzer at Wheaton College and Jeff Christopherson at the North American Mission Board.

I’ve had the joy of planting a vibrant multi-ethnic church in downtown Toronto. Nothing has changed my life more than the people who make up Trinity Life Church and the vision God gave us to make disciples and to plant churches in Toronto. I also had the privilege of witnessing and contributing to a movement of new churches in our city through Send Toronto—the regional hub of the Send Network. While I’m sad to leave Toronto and the many wonderful friends we have there, I’m glad I’m leaving with a healthy and successful church planting experience in the world’s most diverse (and perhaps greatest!) city.

I believe churches that’ll be planted in the future will be Gospel-centered communities effectively evangelizing the hardest to reach and most forgotten in North America. I also believe they’ll be Kingdom-minded communities that are concerned for the common good of society, being salt and light wherever society needs it the most. These churches, I suspect, will be motivated less by fads and trends of a consumerist church culture and more by a genuine move of the Spirit and concern for the most urgent issues of our time.

But in order for us to plant more effective churches for the future, much work needs to be done to catch us up to speed with the fast-changing missional narratives in North America.

From the Sun Belt of America to the Prairies of Canada, the North American landscape is changing quickly. While demographics isn’t destiny, it does indicate that the diversity in America …

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‘Mommy, Is Gru a Good Guy or a Bad Guy?’

‘Despicable Me 3’ recalls the Apostle Paul’s struggle to ‘do the right thing.’

Shortly before my husband and I got married, someone gifted us a copy of Despicable Me—a movie we had enjoyed so much that we added it to our wedding registry. I don’t particularly enjoy kids’ movies, but Despicable Me was such a perfect balance of sentiment and humor, plot and character, that it resonated with me immediately. I was also, however, disappointed by Universal’s decision to follow it up with a series of increasingly minion-laden sequels—not because the franchise seemed unworthy of revisiting but because it seemed not to need it.

For this reason, Despicable Me 3 surprised me. Three movies in, the franchise still works, and works well: Gru’s relationship with his daughters, as well as the new addition of his wife, Lucy, ground the film with a fitting sentiment—one that keeps the value of community at the forefront of this franchise. I also appreciated the film’s acknowledgement of moral complexity, with its inclusion of a character whose path toward righteousness has been, as it is for many, a struggle.

Despicable Me 3 opens on Gru’s failed attempt to capture the film’s villain—Bratt Balthazar, a vengeful ’80s child star seeking retribution on Hollywood for canceling his television show. Armed with fiendishly strong bubble gum and a keytar that (naturally) plays popular ’80s music, Balthazar quite nearly steals the world’s largest diamond—a feat for which Gru is held accountable and ultimately fired alongside his wife.

Rocked by his unemployment, Gru struggles to stand firmly committed to his new crime-fighting creed—a creed for which his minions ultimately abandon him. Gru and family barely have time to lament this fact, …

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A Theology of Play

We don’t have to always be doing something useful.

I’m standing in the fourth fairway, addressing the ball. It’s over 100 degrees in central California and the course has been freshly watered, making the air unbearably humid. But here I am, standing over the ball and completely focused, sweat pouring off my brow and onto my hands and down the golf club shaft. I need to fade the ball just a tad to work it around the dogleg right. Nothing else matters now. The first heaven and earth have passed away. I’ve been raptured away from the world, the flesh, and the devil. Right now there is nothing so important as getting this little white ball into a small hole some 300 yards ahead of me.

I finish the round and, as usual, the demons come. First, the golf demons: “Why didn’t you keep your head down on that shot? What were you thinking on the seventh tee?” Then, the Christian demons arrive, with their incessant liturgical refrain: “Shouldn’t you be doing something useful instead of playing golf?”

These beings also plague me when I sit to watch baseball, football, or basketball. All is well and good for the first quarter or the first three innings. Then I hear, “Shouldn’t you be doing something useful?” The accusers repeat that refrain until I shut off the TV and find something “useful” to do.

The Court of Self-Justification

But for better or worse, I still succumb to the temptations of golf and fly-fishing. And when the demons bring me before the court of self-justification—“Shouldn’t you be doing something useful?”—I am compelled to account for my time. That’s because I’m an evangelical Christian with Calvinist sympathies, a complex syndrome that even prayer and …

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Want to Help Christians Stay in the Middle East? Start with Your Vacation.

Both pilgrims and pleasure seekers allow Arab believers to resist exodus amid ISIS.

Call Ann Fink crazy, but the intrepid grandmother has a tradition to uphold. She’s toured Israel, Jordan, and Egypt with 8 of her 13 granddaughters. Victoria, a preteen, is number 9.

“Her parents are not afraid,” said Fink, a Pennsylvania native, while visiting Egypt with Victoria. “We believe we can die at any time. Only God knows when and where.”

Neither tourist knew just how much visits like theirs support the region’s beleaguered Christians.

From a high-water mark of $7.2 billion in 2010, tourism revenue in Egypt has fallen by 76 percent following the unrest of the Arab Spring. The decline has devastated the economy and, with it, Egypt’s Christians.

Copts, an estimated 10 percent of the population, make up more than half of tour operators and more than a quarter of the tourism workforce, according to Adel el-Gendy, a general manager in the Tourism Development Authority. Christians have better connections to the West, he said, and are often more skilled with languages.

Gendy, a Muslim, has been assigned development of the Holy Family route—25 locations that, according to tradition, were visited by Jesus, Joseph, and Mary as they fled Herod’s wrath. Relaunched with government and church fanfare in 2014, the route is close to being designated as a World Heritage site by UNESCO, he said. But the project has struggled as tourists stay away.

The route runs through Old Cairo, which boasts churches dating back to the fourth century but feels like a ghost town. Souvenir shops are open, but their lights dim. “Our income has dropped by 90 percent,” said Angelos Gergis, the Coptic Orthodox priest at St. Sergius Church, built above a cave where tradition says the Holy Family …

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3 Ways to Prevent Bible Study Dropouts

What really keeps us engaged with the discipline of studying Scripture.

This summer, churches everywhere are weighing which Bible studies to offer in the fall. With all the busyness typical of our lives, churches face the question: What gets people to commit to faithful participation in a weekly Bible study? Though many may start, few of them finish.

The first time a publisher showed interest in my Bible studies, they told me I would need to shorten them from 11 weeks to 6. Women wouldn’t commit that long, I was told. Nor would they do homework unless it was kept simple.

I knew this was not the case. Every week I watched women turn out in large numbers to the study I led. I was not a big-name Bible teacher. My approach was neither clever nor adorable; we were just doing line-by-line study.

During weeks when my teaching was below average, I wondered myself why women kept coming. But after almost 20 years of leading studies, I realized that we need not lower the bar to draw participants. Actually, the opposite is true: People commit better to studies that ask more of them than simply showing up.

Amid a push for catchy themes and culturally relevant approaches to teaching the Bible, the timeless elements that actually cultivate sustainable Bible studies seem so unimaginative that they often get overlooked: structure, accountability, and predictability.

These elements foster commitment more effectively than the factors we assume are most critical for success: exceptional teaching and solid content. I’ve seen groups meet consistently for years to discuss average or poor content simply because these other three elements were in place. But when they undergird a capable teacher and good content, they create spaces where people are willing to commit, and where mature discipleship can occur.

Structure: …

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What Young Black Women Need from Their Black Brothers—and the Church

African American women still face significant challenges in their relationships with men.

In a recent episode of ABC’s dating show, The Bachelorette, Rachel Lindsay, the first black female to participate, broke down in tears. “The pressures that I feel about being a black woman and what that is… I don’t want to talk about it,” she said. The show exposes the fraught dynamics of race, dating, and marriage for black women in America. “Even before the female-led spinoff of The Bachelor … in my mind ‘bachelorettes’ were white women who were brides-to-be or bridesmaids in their best friends’ weddings, throwing parties to celebrate the end of their spinsterhood,” writes Robin Boylorn for Slate. By contrast, “black women were just single and waiting.”

According to Akilah Butler, author of The Love Ethic, in the 1900s, most black adults were married. However, many contemporary black women—especially those who come of age in the inner city—are unmarried and often lack modeling for what a healthy African American marriage looks like. In my region of upstate New York, for example, it’s a rare sight to see a black male under 40 with a black female. (By contrast, my husband’s and my generation, the baby boomers, did tend to date and marry within our race.)

While intermarriage is becoming more common, black women in America still face significant challenges in their relationships with black men, and the problem is doubly difficult for women in the church. According to David Morrow in Why Men Hate Going to Church, “a staggering 92 percent of African-American churches in America reported a gender gap.” According to Morrow’s sources, “75 to 90 percent of the adults in the typical African-American congregation are …

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The BGC Gospel Life Podcast (Ep. 20)

Start each week with this encouragement to show and share the love of Jesus.

Episode Twenty | Are You Seeking to be a Fisherman or a Shepherd?

Colleen Cooper, Development Coordinator at the Billy Graham Center, shares a personal example of working through conflict in order to bring deeper conversation and trust. Colleen reminds us that in evangelism, and in all our relationships, we aren’t called to be quick and judging fishermen, but to be caring and compassionate shepherds who tend to those they are ministered to.

Episode Nineteen | Developing a Spirit of Acceptance When We Reach Out to the Unchurched

Rick Richardson, Professor at Wheaton College and head of academic programs and research at the Billy Graham Center, shares a story of a recent evangelism encounter. Rick explains that once unchurched people know they won’t feel judged or pressured by Christians, their hearts warm to the gospel and the opportunities for faith sharing are endless.

Episode Eighteen | Two Practical Ways to Show and Share the Love of Jesus with Others

Wes Holland, Program Administrator of the Rural Matters Institute at the Billy Graham Center, reminds us that God went on a rescue mission for us, and that we must do the same for others. He shares two challenges that will help us truly serve God. These two simple steps – being present instead of just occupying space and writing down our gospel moments in order to share them with others – can make all the difference in seeing those around us come to faith.

Episode Seventeen | When It Seems as Though God Is Up to Nothing

Laurie Nichols, Director of Communications at the Billy Graham Center, reminds us that even when we don’t see God working, He is. And if we remain faithful in prayer and seek ways to reach out to those who don’t yet know the love …

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Buffet Discipleship: Picking and Choosing in Unbiblical Proportions

The root of being a disciple is discipline.

The allure of a well-stocked buffet is that you can load up on the foods you love and avoid those you dislike. For most of us, this means plates over-laden with entrees and desserts and void of foods we find unpleasant. We don’t include foods we don’t like, such as (for many of us) brussel sprouts, or even foods we think are boring, such as cottage cheese or gelatin. When faced with so many gastronomic options, we lack the discipline to fill our plates with well-balanced choices or to avoid sugary treats that really aren’t good for us. What we eat is based on our personal preferences, not based on the guidelines set forth by the USDA.

Arguably, many of us treat our spiritual lives like a buffet. Instead of following the entire menu of spiritual disciplines, we pick and choose what biblical guidelines we will or will not follow. While we know God prescribes a balanced diet of numerous disciplines, we tend to pick and choose in our spiritual lives just as we pick and choose in a buffet. Correspondingly, just as continually ignoring certain types of food at the buffet will result in us being physically malnourished, so continually ignoring mandates from God will result in us being spiritually malnourished.

Here are some reasons we suffer from spiritual malnourishment.

1. We don’t understand what we need to be healthy.

Since their inception, the USDA dietary guidelines have been presented in wheels, squares, pyramids, and plates. The recent iteration, My Plate, was launched in 2011, when the USDA abandoned the rainbow-banded pyramid that festooned our cereal boxes. After almost 20 years of redesign, they discontinued the graphic because people just didn’t understand what the pyramid meant in relation …

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Commentary: You Have God’s Blessing to Say ‘God Bless America’

Why a faith that transcends all nations leaves room for patriotic devotion.

Back in college, I belonged to a campus Christian fellowship. One night, at our weekly Bible study, a regular group member arrived looking frazzled. Evidently, it had been a hectic day. When we went around the room sharing prayer requests, she volunteered, in a voice both weary and playful, “The whole world—and everyone in it.”

We all shared a good laugh. “Guess that pretty much covers everything! We can keep prayer time short tonight.”

I thought back to that moment several years later, when I first encountered bumper stickers reading, “God Bless the Whole World. No Exceptions.” You can see why someone might find that sentiment attractive. “God bless America”? Too narrow and chauvinistic. We’re better off not beseeching the Almighty to play favorites.

Still, the new slogan left me discontented. Why imply that there’s anything unseemly, even ungodly, about loves and loyalties less than universal in scope?

We understand this readily enough in our prayer lives. If I ask my fellow small group members to lift up my ailing grandmother, no one expresses bafflement or outrage that I haven’t asked God to heal all the ailing grandmothers. No one imagines that I harbor indifference or ill will toward any other old folks. In other words, no one scolds me for failing to remember “the whole world—and everyone in it.”

In all likelihood, my ailing grandmother isn’t the world’s most meritorious grandmother. God doesn’t love her any more, or less, than your own kith and kin. But being my grandmother, her welfare naturally lies uppermost in my mind, and weighs heaviest on my heart. So it is with nations. You cherish your homeland—you …

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Why Christian Scholars Loved Peter Berger

His sympathetic treatment of faith made him a rock star among Christ-following academics.

In 1966, a Viennese-born sociologist, not quite 40 years old, produced a scholarly work that changed the world. Or more precisely, it changed the way we see and shape the world.

The Social Construction of Reality, named one of the top five sociology publications of the 20th century by the International Sociological Association, became required reading for graduate students around the world soon after its publication. Moreover, Peter Berger (who coauthored the book with Thomas Luckmann) became one of the most recognized social scientists of the last century.

On June 27, Berger passed away at his home in suburban Boston, concluding a lifetime of scholarly influence and a career that made him one of the most notable scholars of his generation.

It was Berger’s fascination with religion that made him and his work so significant to evangelical Christians. He called himself an “incurable Lutheran,” and his liberal Protestant theology might have placed him at odds with many evangelical leaders 100 years ago. But in our increasingly pluralistic world, Berger’s sympathetic treatment of spirituality and faith made him something of a rock star among Christ-following academics.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Berger’s work underscored the importance of social structures—and how they come to be through human actions (what social scientists refer to as individual “agency”). Culture, he argued, is most powerful when it is taken for granted. In The Sacred Canopy (1967), Berger explained how religion helped people make sense of the world by providing a “sheltering” tent under which all of life could make sense.

But over time (in Europe, tracing an historical arc from the 1755 Lisbon earthquake …

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