Screen Time Is Changing the Way We Think, Focus, and Memorize

What old wisdom brings to the smartphone era.

The first time I heard a pastor say, “Take out your Bible or phone or iPad and turn to …” was in 2016. It seems like a fairly harmless statement, but given recent evidence that screen time is changing the way we think, perhaps not.

Approximately 2 billion people use a smartphone every day. Many of these use the device for work, scheduling, and organizing their busy lives. With punctual reminders and helpful apps, smart devices easily override our fickle attention span. Sometimes it is difficult to tell how much time one is spending on a device. In fact, one recent study showed that participants underestimated their usage by almost half.

For many, it’s believable that our attention is shorter than it used to be. In 2015, several major news sources reported that humans now have an attention span less than that of a goldfish. The study, however, wasn’t peer reviewed or a properly controlled experiment. In fact, there isn’t any solid evidence that the attention span is shrinking (or that goldfish even have an attention span).

In a recent survey, evangelical pastors and leaders claimed that the average church service should be 75 minutes. After asking preachers about their sermon length, LifeWay president Thom Rainer found that the typical evangelical sermon lasts 20-28 minutes. Should pastors worry about whether church members need even shorter sermons?

It appears, no. Thankfully, from the evidence we currently have, electronic devices (everything from smartphones to iPods) do not seem to be shrinking our attention span. Like a puppy dog in a pet supply store, we are just easily distracted.

What does seem clear is that electronic devices (especially smartphones) are addictive and can easily distract …

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What Arab Leaders Think of USAID Funding Persecuted Christians

Middle East believers pray more American money won’t mean more problems.

Ashty Bahro was one of the first to the scene in al-Qosh, traveling 25 miles over mountainous roads from his base in Iraqi Kurdistan to the town where 850 Iraqi Christian families had been newly displaced.

Only weeks earlier, the families had relocated to Teleskof in the Nineveh Plain, following its liberation from ISIS. But the Kurdish independence referendum sparked a new crisis in the region. The Iraqi government moved quickly to reclaim lands controlled by the Kurdish peshmerga fighters. Shia militias linked with Iran also threatened the Christian areas, forcing families to flee once more.

“They are very tired. They just rebuilt their homes,” said Bahro, head of Zalal Life Civil Society Foundation and former director of the Evangelical Alliance of Kurdistan. “Now they are scared to remain in government-held cities.”

Zalal Life distributed 300 food baskets and bottles of water. The government of Hungary donated $2 million in aid for reconstruction. The United Nations wasn’t there.

“People are not happy with the UN; they are using money for administration,” said Bahro. “The help is coming from churches and Christian organizations.”

The Iraqi Christian leader praised charities like Voice of the Martyrs, Tear Fund, Operation Mercy, and World Vision. And he welcomed American vice president Mike Pence’s statement that the US Agency for International Development (USAID) will start to fund Christian groups in the region directly.

“They are here in the area, they know what’s happening, and they go immediately to help,” Bahro said.

Maan Bitar, pastor of the Presbyterian church in Hama, Syria, confirmed concerns that UN aid was not reaching Christians in the …

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The Faith of the ‘Killable People’

Why “prison Pentecostalism” is flourishing among criminals, gang members, and others on society’s margins.

Whatever doctrine might be preached, when there is Christian worship within the walls of prisons—among the world’s damned—an ancient theology of hell is being recovered, incarnated on earth. It is Christ’s descent to the dead, his triumphant ekklesia conquering the gates of Hades.

We don’t recognize our lived theologies that quickly, though, because we don’t use those words—the damned, the dead—when talking about the human beings we lock away in prisons or dispose of through legal violence. We say “criminals,” “offenders,” “convicts,” “felons.”

But up-and-coming religious studies scholar Andrew Johnson, in his dynamic first book, If I Give My Soul: Faith Behind Bars in Rio de Janeiro, discovers in the poorest Brazilian favelas, or hillside shantytowns, a fresh and direct term for the souls a society deems worthy of torment: the “killable people.”

To kick off his more general investigation of religion in Brazil’s prisons, Johnson spent two weeks living inside two different lockdown facilities. He slept in crowded cells with the inmates. He ate, played soccer, and conducted interviews, while observing and attending religious activities. And he quickly narrowed his study to the primary faith expression that was pouring into the grim prisons from the outside community: Pentecostalism. It is flourishing within the hardest gang-populated units.

For the next several years, Johnson tracked the shape, history, and power of Pentecostalism as “the faith of the killable people.” In Rio, these are the urban poor, those with black and brown skin, those living in the swelling, improvised slum mazes known as favelas, …

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500 Years After Luther, We Still Feel the Pressure to Be Justified

Luther’s law/gospel insight is as brilliant as ever—especially in 21st century America.

Playmobil, the German toy company, made unexpected headlines in 2015 when it released a limited edition Martin Luther figurine. Outside of how smiley it cast the cantankerous theologian, the toy itself wasn’t especially newsworthy. What got everyone’s attention was how quickly it flew off the shelves. Overnight little Luther became the fastest-selling item in the company’s 40-year history. While factories scrambled to catch up with demand, consumers descended on eBay in search of what they knew was the perfect gift for the pastor in their lives. At least, the ones with a sense of humor.

In retrospect, irony might have been the better word. It was not the first time Luther had been at the center of a collision between demand, expectation, and gift. Thankfully, the stakes were quite a bit lower this time around. The same cannot be said for those raised by his theology.

A few years ago, in response to a spate of suicides on its campus, the University of Pennsylvania put together a task force to explore the mental health of its students. What they found was tragic, but sadly unsurprising. “The pressures engendered by the perception that one has to be perfect in every academic, co-curricular, and social endeavor can lead to stress and in some cases distress,” the task force’s report said. “[I]n turn, [distress] can manifest as demoralization, alienation, or conditions like anxiety or depression. For some students, mental illness can lead to suicide.”

The mercilessness described here hints at a tragic escalation of a phenomenon experienced not just by college students, but by everyone today—the pressure to perform, to make something of oneself, to become acceptable, to make a …

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Why Critics Are Wrong to Scold Evangelicals for Historical Rootlessness

A new book demonstrates the movement has been “a perennial and recurring feature of Christian history.”

About 20 years ago, theologian D. H. Williams wrote a book called Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism: A Primer for Suspicious Protestants. He focused on a certain sector of evangelicalism—the free church tradition, including many Baptists, independent Bible churches, nondenominational churches, and the like. These churches were admirably devoted to preaching and studying Scripture, but they were dangerously neglecting the rich legacy handed down to them from the church’s past. Williams worried that this disregard of the historical church’s wisdom would spell disaster, gradually resulting in shallow worship, superficial discipleship, and weak missional and social engagement, among other ills.

Accordingly, he issued a clear warning: “If the aim of contemporary evangelicalism is to be doctrinally orthodox and exegetically faithful to Scripture, it cannot be accomplished without recourse to and integration of the foundational Tradition of the early church. . . . Tradition is not something evangelicals can take or leave.”

Since Williams’s dire warning, contemporary evangelicals have made significant strides in linking their theology and practice not only to the early church, but to the church of the past two millennia. But critical voices still scold evangelicalism for its historical rootlessness. Such criticism often comes from adherents of Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy, especially those who were formerly evangelicals.

In 2002, observing the recent drift of evangelicals toward Roman Catholicism, theologian Scot McKnight speculated on the cause:

Many feel they are isolated in the faith, in a modern evangelical movement that has cut itself off from the history of the Church. …

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A Call to Faith in Action: Mass Incarceration & The Church’s Response

IPM, CACE, and FPE hosted the GC2 Summit on Mass Incarceration

On Wednesday, the Institute for Prison Ministries (IPM) of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College hosted the GC2 Summit on Mass Incarceration. This event was co-sponsored by Wheaton College’s Center for Applied Christian Ethics (CACE) and Center for Faith, Politics, and Economics (FPE).

The first session began with a presentation by Dr. Nancy La Vigne, Director of the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute in Washington, DC. Her topic was “What Is Mass Incarceration.” The second segment was an interview with Dr. Vince Bacote, Director of CACE. He addressed “Is This A Christian Obligation?” The next speaker was Joseph Williams, Executive Director of Correctional Ministries & Chaplains Association, who spoke on “Reintegration and Collateral Sanctions.”

Jon Kelly, a local pastor and Colson Scholar, shared his experience of incarceration and post-incarceration. He was followed by Dr. Dean Trulear, National Director of Healing Communities in Philadelphia, PA, who spoke on “The Role of the Church.” The first session ended with an interview with Pete Leonard, Founder and Roast Master of I Have a Bean, which employs formerly incarcerated individuals.

The second session began with Professor David Iglesias, Director of FPE. A former federal prosecutor, he spoke on “Politics and Mass Incarceration.” The next presenter was Dr. Karen Swanson, Director of IPM, who focused on a survey of Protestant pastors’ views on correctional ministry. The next segment was an interview with Miea Walker, Engagement Coordinator for the Second Chance Alliance of the North Carolina Justice Center. She encouraged attendees to develop a new mindset on the issues of mass incarceration …

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Saturday is for Seminars and Church Signs: Monterey, Manhattan, and around Illinois

Please tweet your church signs to @EdStetzer!

November Speaking Engagements

November 1-2
Homiletical Lectureship at Moody Bible Institute
Chicago, Illinois

November 4
Life Answers
West Chicago, Illinois

November 7-8
Exponential Regional – Chicago
Naperville, Illinois

November 7-8
Illinois Baptist State Association Pastors’ Conference
Decatur, Illinois

November 9-11
Organic Outreach Conference
Monterey, California

November 15-16
Church Planting Leadership Fellowship
New York, New York

November 25
Highpoint Church
Naperville, Illinois

Church Signs

And here are church signs! Back by popular demand.

Thanks, @johnstonalanc!

Thanks, @gabebernal!

Please tweet your church signs to @EdStetzer(or email to stetzerblog[@]gmail[.]com).

Ed Stetzer holds the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College, is executive director of the Billy Graham Center, and publishes church leadership resources through Mission Group.

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We Need to Take Jesus’ Metaphor of Being Born Again More Seriously

It’s easy to ignore the painful, messy, universal experience of birth that Jesus was referring to.

Sometimes I tell people I’m an E. K., an evangelist’s kid. I heard my father use the words born again all the time. By the time I was an adult, the term had lost any meaning beyond the idea of “coming to Jesus” or praying a prayer that led to spiritual change. Born again was a label for the moment of conversion, but I had never thought of it as related to the concept of birth itself.

That was until I was studying the Gospel of John for my PhD and became pregnant with my second child, my son, Atticus. I came upon that familiar story in John 3 where Nicodemus meets with Jesus to speak with him.

I was struck by how many times the words born or birth are repeated in John 3, in part because I was preparing for my own son’s birth. I was also surprised that scholars describe John as mixing his metaphors when talk of being born again (v. 7) turns into talk about the wind of the Spirit (v. 8). I had started rethinking how metaphors work and I wanted to know what was with all of this birth language, and were these actually mixed metaphors or were they something else?

The way we interpret metaphors has recently shifted. Where previously metaphors were understood as equivalent statements (for example, “the man is a wolf” could be made into “the man is aggressive”), metaphor scholars such as George Lakoff, Gilles Fauconnier, and Mark Turner now argue that it is as important to pay attention to how the metaphor speaks to us as what the metaphor means. In fact, the how often provides a deeper understanding of the what. If we say “the man is a wolf,” it matters that wolves are not only aggressive but also sly and known for trickery. Thus, it matters that the man is compared …

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Pence: US Will Bypass UN and Aid Persecuted Iraqi Christians Directly

Vice president reveals USAID will provide direct assistance to religious minorities targeted by ISIS.

During a speech to advocates for the persecuted church, Mike Pence unveiled plans for the United States to provide more direct aid to Christians and other minorities facing genocide in the Middle East.

The vice president reiterated the Trump administration’s commitment to defending religious groups persecuted by ISIS, announcing plans to visit the region in December and a strategic shift away from funding “ineffective” United Nations programs. Instead, Pence said President Donald Trump has directed the State Department to send aid directly through USAID and faith-based partners.

“We will no longer rely on the United Nations alone to assist persecuted Christians and minorities in the wake of genocide and the atrocities of terrorist groups,” Pence told the crowd gathered in Washington, DC, for the annual summit of In Defense of Christians (IDC).

“The United States will work hand in hand from this day forward with faith-based groups and private organizations to help those who are persecuted for their faith. This is the moment, now is the time, and America will support these people in their hour of need.”

The Christian population in the region has dwindled significantly, with two-thirds of believers in Iraq and Syria fleeing since 2011. A 2014 CT cover story by Philip Jenkins assessed how Iraqi Christians were “on the edge of extinction.”

“This is good news and we want to thank President Trump, Vice President Pence, and all those who have been working diligently on this issue,” said Frank Wolf, distinguished senior fellow at the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative. “This should impact humanitarian aid for those living as internally displaced persons and refugees …

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Our Silence Is Music to God’s Ears

The most joyful noise God desires from us may be none at all.

I visited a monastery in Kentucky for a quiet weekend earlier this year. The chapel and guest rooms perch on a wide, green hillside overlooking a small, peaceful lake. My room was simply furnished, with a chair by the window overlooking the trees. The sisters there live in prayerful silence as they eat and work and walk gracefully around the campus. Their silence is interrupted only by singing and prayer at regular intervals throughout the day. This visit was a respite for me.

In my real life, I live in the city with my two lively, elementary-age children. They also move through life with grace—grace made gritty by frequent childhood conflicts, questions, and requests. When I first entered motherhood, I was surprised by how distressing it was to hear my newborn baby’s cry. I don’t know if I was distressed by the cry itself or by the weight of responsibility it represented, but his cry broke the silence of my old life.

Even with the best efforts, I don’t think one can ever fully prepare for life’s sudden seasons of change: the first day of school, a new city or apartment, a wedding, a funeral, walking into a new job. A certain clamor always accompanies change.

These days, I crave more silence than ever. But stillness takes practice as the force of life pulls us along. It’s uncomfortable at first. When I’m quiet, things float up to the surface from the shadow places in my heart that I haven’t wanted to deal with. But after a time, I can tune my ears to hear the still, small whisper of God. In silence, prayer comes up as wordless petitions and attentive expectation. In this, we affirm that prayer is a two-way conversation. Silence is the waiting posture that helps us to be poised …

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