5 Passages Your Pastor Wishes You’d Stop Taking Out of Context

How we get them wrong and what church leaders can do about it.

Chris Maxwell, director of spiritual life and campus pastor at Emmanuel College in Franklin Springs, Georgia, recalls a troubling episode during his pastoral tenure in Orlando: “In March 1996 I almost died of encephalitis. A group of people came to visit me and read Matthew 7:17–18: ‘Every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.’ For them, admitting I had brain damage and needed medicine was lack of faith. This was the reason I became sick and wasn’t being healed. I told them, ‘If that caused my sickness I would’ve been sick long before.’”

John Koessler, professor and chair of pastoral studies at Moody Bible Institute, is all too familiar with scenarios like this. “I find that people tend to be one-sided in their handling of the Bible. They ‘lean into’ certain texts or truths to the exclusion of others. Some focus only on a portion of a verse. Others use one text to cancel out another.”

This isn’t surprising to most church leaders, who often see verses plucked from their homes to serve other purposes. To better understand these tricky situations, I asked several pastors to share the misused passages that make their skin crawl and how people in ministry can model healthy biblical interpretation.

Jeremiah 29:11

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

An entire cottage industry has developed around this decontextualized verse. It adorns t-shirts, knickknacks, and the walls of our churches, written in graceful, soothing script. “Having …

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Immigrants Are Reshaping American Missions

Latino congregations are launching their own international partnerships to support ministries and churches in their homelands.

The knocking roused Valentin Salamanca from bed around 4 a.m. He was not sleeping anyway. He feared they would come, and now they had.

Valentin walked a few steps from his bedroom and opened the front door to a man in a black ski mask holding an assault rifle, demanding he come with him. Though the man appeared alone, Valentin could hear other voices in the dark.

The 60-something pastor was overseeing a growing ministry in western El Salvador; he had planted 26 churches with a combined attendance of more than 900 worshipers. The congregation Valentin led personally, a Pentecostal group 130 strong, was finishing a new building and planning another to house a sponsorship program for around 75 local children.

In many ways, he was a victim of his own success, a pastor on the frontlines of a flourishing international partnership between a church of immigrants in the United States and an ambitious mission effort in El Salvador. It had been years in the making.

Valentin had met Jesus after he came to America in 1988 and eventually opened a church in downtown Los Angeles. He worked in construction until an injury took him out of commission. When he returned with his wife to El Salvador in 1995, their son, Mario, took over the Los Angeles church.

In El Salvador, Valentin planted a new church near the city of Santa Ana, setting his sights on the crowds of youth who were being drawn into the violent gangs overtaking his country. Mario and his US congregation began investing heavily in Valentin’s church, pioneers in what missiologists call “transnational ministry.”

By 2010, the father and son had a thriving if humble partnership. “We’re a single body,” Valentin said. The church in Los Angeles, a blue-collar …

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Seven Myths Perpetuated by Missions People

Like being one degree off course, the negative outcomes increase in severity.

Over the past thirty years I have noticed that many of us have a tendency to inadvertently promote half-truths that we think advance the cause of world missions. By half-truths, I mean concepts that are partially true or seem true on the surface, but in fact are myths.

At times, I have inadvertently perpetuated these false beliefs myself, for which I wholeheartedly repent. I offer this short article as part of my restitution. I believe that when we participate in spreading these myths, we unintentionally hinder the spread of God’s kingdom. While the myths may seem miniscule and inconsequential, over time, like being one degree off course at the start of a long journey, the negative outcomes increase in severity. Here are seven common myths perpetuated by missions people.

Frontlines

We frequently talk about the frontlines of spiritual warfare as if they are geographically defined (i.e., the mission field). As followers of Jesus, we are called to simultaneously participate in both the seen and unseen world. We are always on a potential frontline. When people use the word “frontline,” they imply there is a safer place, a place less dangerous.

Sure, some places can be darker, more evil, and more dangerous than other places, but let’s not falsely assume that the mission field is a frontline while your home church neighborhood is not. Let’s be prudent; spiritual frontlines cannot be defined geographically or by outward appearance. Scripture seems to imply that everywhere is a potential frontline (see 1 Peter 5:8-9).

Calling

What do we mean by calling? Many missions people think it means having a strong conviction or foreknowledge in regard to a specific place, people, path, or purpose God has for us. Our …

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In ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming,’ Greatness Starts with Becoming a Servant

Peter Parker has finally entered the Marvel Cinematic Universe—but he can’t join the Avengers until he practices the heroic discipline of humility.

The latest superhero movie can sometimes feel like the last one, with over-quippy dialogue and shallow themes—especially if it’s one of a few recent Marvel Cinematic Universe films. Not so, however, with Spider-Man: Homecoming. This film marks a happy return for Marvel’s popular yet humble hero, and to Spider-Man’s classic themes of power and responsibility.

Newer Marvel stories occupy amazing fantasy settings (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2) or offer up wish-fulfillment glamour (Iron Man). Homecoming, however, returns to basics by counterintuitively skipping Peter Parker’s spider-bite origin and sharing a new perspective on his familiar challenges: Now that Peter can join the broader Avengers universe, he must learn how to become great like the A-list superheroes—by first learning to serve his own people.

A quick recap: To date, this is the third cinematic version of Spider-Man. Sony Pictures licensed the Marvel hero for the first 2002–2007 Spider-Man trilogy starring Tobey Maguire. Then, Sony rebooted the series in 2012 with The Amazing Spider-Man, which starred the earnest Andrew Garfield. But the rebooted series didn’t work well, partly because Sony engineers wanted both a cool, merchandisable story-world and a humble Spider-Man at once, and partly because Iron Man (2008) had kicked off the idea of a shared hero universe, motivating fans to expect a broader story palette. Meanwhile, growing special-effects resources helped push superhero films out of the standard “secret identity” plotlines, which had helped balance epic fantasy battles with the more budget-conscious civilian lives of Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man.

Sony executives thus chose to reboot Spider-Man …

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Wait Upon the Drop

Why churches are turning to club music to elevate praise.

The house lights are dark as bright beams of electric blue scan the crowd. White strobes pulsate to the uhn tiss uhn tiss beat. A pre-chorus of snare-drum 16th notes gradually builds into a turbo-spooled climax of drum machine rapid fire.

Everything is wound in anticipation. The bass drops.

People in the crowd dance, clap, and sing. Others stand statuesque, as if wondering what’s happening.

The Crossing, a non-denominational church in Tampa with a weekly attendance of roughly 3,500 people, is one of many congregations now incorporating electronic dance music (EDM) into its regular worship repertoire. It’s not a full-on rave, and you’ll see more “traditional” instruments like drums, electric guitars, and keyboards. But infused with more familiar modern worship stylings are characteristics of the EDM aesthetic: layers of computer-programmed electronic backing tracks, quarter-note bass thumps, and cycles of musical “builds” and “drops,” much of it set to a tempo around 130 beats per minute.

EDM, once the underpinning of the all-night rave scene, has now become one of the most popular mainstream musical styles, and it is influencing both studio-recorded Christian worship music and live congregational performances.

The Energy Builds

Russ Jones, pastor of worship arts at The Crossing, said EDM has brought a youthful edge to its services and is helping the church reach a younger generation. In an era when secular EDM mega-artists like David Guetta, Diplo, Skrillex, and Calvin Harris are topping a $7 billion music industry and drawing hundreds of thousands of fans to a single festival, the church has taken notice. But it’s the effect the music has on congregants, not its marketplace …

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Actually, Eugene Peterson Does Not Support Same-Sex Marriage

(UPDATED) In retraction, popular author affirms ‘a biblical view of everything’—including marriage.

A day after a Religion News Service interview portrayed retired pastor and author Eugene Peterson as shifting to endorse same-sex marriage, the evangelical leader retracted his comment and upheld the traditional Christian stance instead.

“To clarify, I affirm a biblical view of marriage: one man to one woman. I affirm a biblical view of everything,” he said in a statement Thursday afternoon.

Peterson, best known for creating the paraphrased Bible translation The Message, also regrets the “confusion and bombast” in the fallout of his remarks, which were widely shared and commented on online yesterday.

Peterson stated:

Recently a reporter asked me whether my personal opinions about homosexuality and same-sex marriage have changed over the years. I presume I was asked this question because of my former career as a pastor in the Presbyterian Church (USA), which recently affirmed homosexuality and began allowing its clergy to perform same-sex weddings. Having retired from the pastorate more than 25 years ago, I acknowledged to the reporter that I “haven’t had a lot of experience with it.”

To clarify, I affirm a biblical view of marriage: one man to one woman. I affirm a biblical view of everything.

RNS columnist Jonathan Merritt had asked Peterson, “If you were pastoring today and a gay couple in your church who were Christians of good faith asked you to perform their same-sex wedding ceremony, is that something you would do?” Peterson had responded with one word: yes.

The interview was published Wednesday under this headline: Best-selling author Eugene Peterson changes his mind on gay marriage.

In his retraction, the 84-year-old said that in nearly three decades as a pastor and in …

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How We Read the Bible Rightly and Get It Wrong

Let’s show mercy to those who ‘misinterpret’ Jeremiah 29:11 and other favorite verses.

Imagine yourself as a seminary student. Now imagine yourself as a young, male seminary student with a semi-educated, somewhat emotional, faithful churchgoing but biblically untrained mother-in-law. You like her well enough, but as your own seminary training has increased your exegetical skills, knowledge of church history, and theological acumen, you have found a corresponding increase in discomfort when talking to her about God and the Bible. She is very passionate about the latest devotional book she is reading and the new insights she has gained into passages of Scripture from looking up Greek words in Vine’s Expository Dictionary.

Every time you see her, you sense with increasing intensity that she could be on the cover of the next edition of Carson’s Exegetical Fallacies. On your better days you just nod and smile politely. In your grouchy moments you daydream about ripping the books out of her hands, mocking them, stomping on them a few times, and throwing them into the fireplace while quoting Greek paradigms.

But then when you arrive at her house one Thanksgiving, you see something that pushes you over the edge. On the refrigerator, holding up her unrealistic diet plan, is a magnet with a nice flowing script of Jeremiah 29:11—“For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.” It is obvious that this verse and this diet plan are organically related in her mind. She is taking this verse to heart every day as a promise from God for her success in shedding a few pounds.

How will you respond? Your exegetically and theologically trained mind immediately populates a list of problems with her use of this …

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Christ’s Transfiguration Is a Sneak Preview of Our Future

Jesus’ transformation on the mountain might have more to do with us than we think.

We sometimes forget how strange Jesus was. He did a lot of odd things during his time on earth—he cursed trees, ordered his followers not to tell anyone who he was, associated with gluttons and drunkards, told parables to deliberately confuse people, and claimed to be equal with God the Father while also claiming not to know certain things the Father knows.

And then there was this moment on a mountain: Jesus’ face and clothes start shining for no apparent reason, and two dead guys show up and have a conversation with him. After Peter’s intrusion into that conversation is cut short by a heavenly voice, Jesus and company head back down the mountain and go on with their day as if nothing happened. No big deal.

Maybe it doesn’t strike us as crazy because we’ve got a name for it—the Transfiguration—as though labeling it suddenly helps it make sense. We also suppress the absurdity of this moment if we assume that its sole aim is to prove Jesus’ divinity. If the point of a story is to show Jesus is God, of course crazy stuff is going to happen, so it doesn’t surprise us, doesn’t grab our attention, and doesn’t merit further thought.

But what if that’s not the whole picture? In fact, what if the point of the Transfiguration isn’t just to show how Jesus is different from us (he’s divine) but also to show something about how he’s like us (he’s human)? What if the glory that burst from Jesus on the mountain wasn’t just divine glory but human glory as well—the kind of glory that all those united with Jesus will one day share? Put another way, what if what Peter, James, and John saw that day in the face of Jesus was a mirror image …

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How to Find Hope in the Humanless Economy

Robots could take half of our jobs in the next decade. Here’s why Christians have nothing to fear.

The goal was to save money,” Ken Dean said. A senior IT manager near Sacramento, California, Dean oversaw Sprint’s mailroom operations in the early 2000s. Inside the data center, one of three in the United States, hundreds of employees folded bills and stuffed envelopes.

“Our two largest costs were postage and people,” Dean said. Over time, he discovered what many large companies were realizing—that electronic bills could cut postage costs and machines could replace people. “Eighty percent to 90 percent of what was done in the data center could be done by a robot,” he said. It was his job, identifying technology to make the data center more efficient, and he was good at it. Naturally, expenses shrank. So did the staff.

The technology progressed dutifully to its inevitable destination: In 2008, Dean shut down the company’s last data center. Another 70 employees lost their jobs. A Christian, Dean took some solace in recognizing their God-given value beyond their roles in the labor market. His employees did not. “They were devastated,” he said. “For many of them, their confidence and worth was based upon their paycheck. They did not think they were valuable outside of their work context. There was a lot of fear.”

That was when mailrooms were still a thing. Today, workplace automation—and the fear it evokes—has expanded to horizons previously unimaginable, vanishing drivers from taxis, writers from journalism, and clerks from grocery stores.

Economists describe our current moment by distinguishing between economic growth and an economic pivot. Growth increases goods and services. A pivot, however, is a fundamental shift in how those goods and services …

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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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