Who Watches the Watchmen? Notes on Ministry Leadership

If we are to fulfill this mission and do what a human cannot do—be the Watchman God calls us to be—then we need to finally let others watch over us. 

Nearly 2000 years ago, the Roman poet, Juvenal, asked the question “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” Or, “Who watches the watchmen?”

Five years ago, after my husband and I birthed two babies and a church plant, I started asking the same question.

It didn’t happen overnight—the hopelessness that carved a hole in my insides in the fall of 2014. We celebrated our small but seemingly sturdy church plant launch in the summer of 2012. Our leadership team was made mostly of college students and a handful of young families, all new to ministry and life.

No one knew how this should go, but what we lacked in experience, we made up for in arrogance, energy, and mediocre ideas.

I worked in a nearby hospital, bringing in the primary income. Meanwhile, our boys tagged along with my husband while he tried to build an organization with young leaders with trust issues and no money.

The launch team were at first our friends, and at times, our roommates when someone needed a place to land. But one by one, our friends left town or left the church, often blaming us for a failure or theological disagreement on the way out.

Initially, we received enthusiastic support by our sending church and denomination as they saw us reaching college students and Millennials—the then-impossible demographic other churches struggled to reach. When several other church plants from our district closed soon after our launch (including our sending church), we knew we had to stick it out to prove ourselves.

But we didn’t know how to make it. Our attempts at outreach were met with disdain by our leaders, and the money was running out.

All this during the grim news cycle of 2014: ISIS, Ebola, and Ferguson. Unrest and uncertainty …

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The Quiet Liturgy of Fred Rogers

‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood’ taught us to love—not fear—our neighbor.

“Would you be mine, could you be mine, please would you be my neighbor?” The threefold question repeats for nearly 900 episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. It’s the recurring song Fred Rogers sings as he enters the front door, removes his jacket, replaces it with a zippered cardigan, and makes his way down the stairs of his television set home to swap out his dress shoes for canvas sneakers.

Growing up watching the slow-moving, soft-spoken Fred Rogers on PBS, I could not have imagined his resurgence in my mid-thirties. Yet Won’t You Be My Neighbor, the 2018 documentary on Fred Rogers’ television show, is already the highest-grossing biographical documentary of all time.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood releases on November 22, a dramatic retelling of the unexpected friendship between a journalist and Rogers, starring Tom Hanks as the most beloved neighbor in America. With an estimated budget of $40 million and one of Hollywood’s most amiable stars in the lead role, the man in the red sweater has become an unexpected commodity. But why the sudden popularity now?

Notably, Fred Rogers’s television entrance always climaxes with the same subject: “neighbor.” Specifically, it is an invitation to be a neighbor. In a way, it’s an echo of Jesus’s conversation with a lawyer in Luke 10, where he asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“What is written in the law?” Jesus asks in reply.“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind,” the lawyer replies, recalling Deuteronomy 6:5. “And your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18).“You …

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Knowing God’s Love is Impossible

At least for us. But for God, nothing is impossible.

Knowing God is maybe the most central thing in the Christian life. Also, possibly the hardest.

The other day I was talking to a student, relatively new to a life of discipleship, who confided just how frustrating it is that he’s taking so much time to grow. He lamented how much he struggles to trust God when others seem to do so with ease.

As I struggled to think of how to encourage him, I remembered one of the most curious prayer requests in all of Scripture, found in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, which I had just been working through.

Towards the end of chapter three, Paul asks “out of his glorious riches may [God] strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all God’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:16-19).

We’re tempted to glance over this and think, “Okay, great, Paul prays that they understand God’s love. Typical Paul prayer. What’s the big deal?”

I was stopped short, though, when I realized Paul is asking that they be strengthened, that they have “power” to be able to know this love that surpasses all knowledge.

Now perhaps it’s because I’m a grad student who happens to study the doctrine of God, but if I were writing Ephesians, I might have rendered the relationship differently. I might have said that coming to know God takes weakness (and not just because you spend all your time in the library and not …

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Love Thy Extraterrestrial Neighbor

The burgeoning field of astrobiology and what it tells us about the meaning of life.

Every week that somber gatekeeper of human knowledge and wisdom—the internet—is abuzz with UFO sightings and strange alien encounters, all in an effort to bring the truth that is out there to the rest of us. Although these world-changing images are often more fizzle than flash, they serve as a testament to the fascination people have for the possibility of life that is out of this world.

Popular speculations like these, coupled with pronouncements every few years that scientists have found new evidence of alien life, lead us to believe that we are on the cusp of great discovery.

One of the recent advances making the news and fueling our interest in alien life is the recent discovery of exoplanets in the “Goldilocks,” or habitable, zone. As of this month, out of the 4,118 exoplanets now confirmed, 55 exist in the habitable zone. As new astronomical technology comes online in the next decade, this number is expected to rapidly increase.

As our focus on these extrasolar worlds become sharper, finding life—of any sort—on any one of them becomes more credible with each passing year. As a result, there has been an explosion of interest in a new field of research, astrobiology, the study of alien life and its origins and occurrences in our universe.

But there’s one thing you need to know about astrobiology: it is the only science that has no subject for study. Internet aside, we have no aliens.

This fact hasn’t dissuaded astrobiologists in the least. Instead, what makes astrobiology one of the most interesting fields of study is that it is in some ways a new kind of science—one that links physics with ethics, astronomy with philosophy, and biology with theology in a unique new way. …

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Is Life Unsatisfying? Augustine Says, ‘You Are Not Alone.’

James K. A. Smith accompanies the church father on a journey through the human heart.

Jack Kerouac’s On the Road is an American classic. It is easily (and often) parodied for its freewheeling style, but it is also full of magical sentences and encapsulations of life in postwar America. At its heart, the book is about longing: for transcendence, for love, for experience, for a sense of place and belonging. And, more deeply, for a sense of self.

In one revelatory scene, Kerouac writes, “I woke up as the sun was reddening; and that was the one distinct time in my life, the strangest moment of all, when I didn’t know who I was—I was far away from home, haunted and tired with travel, in a cheap hotel room I’d never seen, hearing the hiss of steam outside, and the creak of the old wood of the hotel, and footsteps upstairs, and all the sad sounds, and I looked at the cracked high ceiling and really didn’t know who I was for about fifteen strange seconds. I wasn’t scared; I was just somebody else, some stranger, and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost.”

That sense of hauntedness permeates Kerouac’s writing. For most of his life, he was a wanderer. A sometimes-Catholic, sometimes-Buddhist. A chronic alcoholic. A restless soul crisscrossing America in search of a sense of self. And that hauntedness makes him a kindred spirit with Augustine of Hippo, the early Christian theologian who penned that time-honored phrase, “Our heart is restless until it finds rest in thee.”

This affirmation is at the heart of James K.A. Smith’s new book, On the Road with Saint Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts. “In a way,” Smith writes, “it’s a book Augustine has written about you. It’s a journey with …

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Praying for Hong Kong Can Be Politically Disruptive—Even in America

Why Chinese diaspora churches remain silent while Christians in Hong Kong take to the streets.

On the afternoon of Sunday, August 18, about 70 people gathered for a prayer meeting at a church in Vancouver organized by the group Vancouver Christians for Love, Peace, and Justice. Their focus was the same as their three previous gatherings: to pray for the ongoing demonstrations in Hong Kong, for those affected, and for human rights and freedom in the city of 7.4 million people.

Before the meeting ended, the Tenth Street church building was surrounded by as many as 100 pro-China demonstrators waving Chinese and Canadian flags. The attendees inside, according to a spokesperson, feared for their safety and were escorted out by Vancouver police officers.

This confrontation took place more than 6,300 miles from Hong Kong and six months after Chief Executive Carrie Lam introduced a controversial extradition bill that would allow fugitives to be extradited into mainland China. The proposal was seen as a ploy to grant Beijing more power over the city, setting off large-scale demonstrations that have continued to this day.

While Lam canceled the extradition bill in September, unrest has continued as protesters press for Lam’s resignation, an inquiry into police brutality during the protests, the release of those arrested, and greater democratic freedoms.

The situation in Hong Kong hits close to home for the 500,000 Hong Kong immigrants residing in Canada and the more than 200,000 in the US. Many still have relatives and friends in Hong Kong, which is part of China but governed by separate laws. Others have directly benefitted from the freedoms and opportunities offered by the semi-autonomous region.

Pastor John D. L. Young grew up in Guangdong Province in mainland China, and then spent about six years studying for his doctoral …

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One-on-One with Stephen Witmer on ‘A Big Gospel in Small Places’

My conversation with Stephen Witmer in the importance of serving in small town places.

Ed: Why did you write A Big Gospel in Small Places?

Stephen: I wrote this book because I believe the gospel is really big in terms of its importance, power, effects, and centrality, and because I’m very eager for that big gospel to have its full impact in small places.

By small places, I mean communities that are lacking in cultural and economic influence, small towns and rural areas (and perhaps also some communities with larger populations) that are mostly forgotten and unknown.

I’ve pastored for more than a decade in a small New England town, and this book is the overflow of my own joyful, painful, hopeful small-town ministry. At times, I’ve wrestled, struggled, and searched for answers, and I’m recording here some of the things I’ve discovered which will, I pray, be helpful for others.

Ed: Who did you write this book for?

Stephen: I’m writing for the many thousands of small town/rural laypeople and pastors around the world who are ministering for Christ, and who often feel as isolated, forgotten, and unvalued as the communities in which they minister.

They sometimes wonder whether their ministries even matter. I’m seeking to answer with a strong ‘Yes!’ – not based on my own wisdom, but on the Bible. The gospel is our clearest window into the character of God, and the gospel shows us that God often works in small ways, on a slow schedule, with lavish, inordinate, ‘unstrategic’ love.

Therefore, the gospel demonstrates that small is probably better than we think, slow is often wiser than we think, and strategic isn’t always what we think. In other words, the gospel makes room for small town ministry!

I’m also writing for those who are considering …

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Scripture and Neuroscience Agree: It Helps to Lament in Community

Through song, liturgy, and communion, the body of Christ inhabits the suffering experienced by its weakest members.

Recently, I awoke suddenly around 1:45am in a tangle of sheets, pillows, and sweat, my body fitfully grasping for peace in the presence of pain. I had just made a medication shift the day before, and after over a decade of living with Ankylosing Spondylitis, I knew my joints were demanding attention and deserving of care.

When one part of the body is inflamed, the body needs pathways to register and sense pain in order to facilitate healing. As I rubbed my swollen, aching hands against each other to quell their raging fire, I remembered Philip Yancey’s words from a recent interview, “A healthy body is not one that feels no pain. A healthy body is one that attends to the pain of its weakest part.”

All too often in our bodies, and in the body of Christ, we’d rather pretend health is the absence of pain rather than the willing care of it. And if Yancey is right, when we order our lives and our worship services around overcoming pain rather than attending to it, we block the pathways that mediate our healing. When the church does not make space for lament, the church is not whole.

Last month a reader on Instagram sent me a long message detailing how her family’s pain felt unwelcome in her church. Her daughter had just been hospitalized due to persistent, intense suicidal thoughts, and that Sunday the sermon was about conquering anxiety with truth. While the pastor enthusiastically bubbled over the victory we can have in Christ, she deflated in the defeat of not hearing the complexity of her daughter’s pain acknowledged. “There was no mention that sometimes depression is clinical,” she wrote. “The only answer he offered was to pray more.”

My reader was exposing a common …

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Why Black Protestants and Evangelicals Still Preach Politics

Amid increasing polarization and shifting church trends, the black church continues to speak out on matters of justice.

Hundreds gathered in a Chicago sanctuary last night to hear Christian leaders calling on believers to engage the political process and advocate for their convictions in the election year ahead.

The Faith and Politics Rally was organized by the And Campaign, a nonpartisan group that says Christians have a “particular obligation” to provide moral leadership and seek the common good—an approach that has become increasingly contentious in the US.

A majority of Americans believe churches should “keep out” of politics, according to a survey released today by the Pew Research Center. Evangelicals and Protestants from historically black churches—both represented at the recent rally—are the only major religious traditions that still want faith communities to “express their views” on social and political issues.

“While a misappropriation of the separation between Church and State has sometimes been used to suggest people of faith are the only people who can’t consider their values when participating in politics, we know that both our faith and the demands of citizenship require that we bring our full selves to the project of self-governance,” And Campaign leaders declared in their 2020 presidential election statement.

Evangelicals (in this survey, a multiethnic sample) and historically black Protestants tend to rank as most devout among religious groups in the US. They share core theological beliefs and a corresponding desire to see those beliefs shape their lives and communities. Evangelicals and black Protestants are the two traditions that consider their faith the most important source of meaning in their lives. But they often come from different racial and cultural …

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Was Christ Tempted in Every Way?

Making sense of Jesus’ humanity in light of fleshly temptations.

According to the writer to the Hebrews, “we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin” (Heb. 4:15). The implications of this statement for Christian theology down through the centuries have been profound. Even today, many a sermon begins by reassuring the congregation that Jesus knows what it is like to undergo temptations as we do because he was like us in every way, sin excepted.

But how are we understand this claim? The Gospels only record temptations that are hard for many of us to relate to: an appeal for Jesus to jump off a building, for instance, or a prayer to avoid the cross. Seemingly absent are the more pedestrian temptations Christians undergo daily, temptations toward cheating, overindulgence, pride, corrupt sexuality, and the like. How should the assurance from Hebrews be of help to Christians today?

The Jesus of the New Testament Gospels was certainly a human being. Human beings are tempted. So he was tempted. That much is like us. Yet Christ is not merely human as we are. For the traditional Christian claim is that he is God incarnate. As Charles Wesley’s Christmas carol puts it, “veiled in flesh the Godhead see! Hail the incarnate Deity!”

But here is the rub: Scripture also says God cannot be tempted. “When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone” (James 1:13). So we have a dilemma. On the one hand, Jesus is like us in every way, being tempted as we are yet without sin. On the other hand, God is incapable of being tempted. Yet Jesus is both fully divine and fully human. …

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