Why Don’t the Gospel Writers Tell the Same Story?

New Testament scholar and apologist Michael Licona’s new book argues that ancient literary devices are the answer—and that’s a good thing for Christians.

Though Michael Licona became a Christian at a young age, he experienced strong doubts while working on a master’s degree in religious studies at Liberty University. That led him to explore the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus in his PhD work, and to engage in public debates with leading skeptics and atheists. Driven by a desire to follow the evidence wherever it led, Licona understood that journey might lead him away from Christianity.

In 2010, Licona released his book The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, which showed that the evidence for the historical resurrection of Jesus is much stronger than any competing explanations, such as the idea that Jesus’ body was stolen by his followers or by his enemies, or that the disciples simply experienced hallucinations of the resurrected Jesus.

Licona, formerly apologetics coordinator at the North American Missions Board, is now teaching at Houston Baptist University and has founded RisenJesus.com. He recently released a new book, Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?: What We Can Learn from Ancient Biography (Oxford University Press).

What was your upbringing like? Did you grow up as a Christian?

My parents were Catholic and split up when I was five. My mom remarried and we started attending a Presbyterian church. When I was very young, I was obsessed with getting to heaven. I was always asking, “How do I get to heaven, Mom?” And she said, “You just have to do more good than bad.” So, I was constantly thinking, Where am I on that scale?

When I was ten years old, the Presbyterian church had a combined youth group event and they brought this Christian magician in. He did magic to illustrate the message of the gospel. …

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Even in Canada, Conservative Churches Are Growing

Mainline churches with evangelical leanings outpace their liberal counterparts, study says.

Amid the decades-long decline in mainline Protestantism in North America, researchers in Canada recently found an “elusive sample” of congregations whose growth has bucked the trend.

The key characteristic these exceptional Anglican, Presbyterian, Lutheran, and United churches had in common? Evangelical theology.

With fewer evangelicals and more secular surroundings than their brethren in the United States, Canada’s mainline denominations collectively lost half of their members over the past 50 years. Last year, a team of sociologists suggested that conservative theological beliefs—including emphasis on Scripture as the “actual word of God” and belief in the power of prayer—may be the saving grace keeping attendance up at 9 of 22 Ontario churches studied.

“Most people, especially academics, are hesitant to say one type of belief system is better than another,” said David Millard Haskell, the study’s lead author. “But if we are talking solely about which belief system is more likely to lead to numerical growth among Protestant churches, the evidence suggests conservative Protestant theology is the clear winner.”

The mainline congregations that kept growing by at least 2 percent a year emphasized markers typically associated with evangelical beliefs. For example, such churches described evangelism as the main mission of their church, were more committed to personal spiritual disciplines such as Bible reading, and saw Scripture as a singular authority.

Haskell’s study was one of the most popular papers published in the Review of Religious Research last year. His findings among Canadian churches echo trends that researchers in the US have been tracking …

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Teams in Mission: Are They Worth It? (Part Two)

TEAM missionaries research teamwork.

Read Teams in Mission: Are They Worth It?, Part One (Disappointments with the Team; Restoring the Team).

Be a Real Team

In global missions practice, team is a nebulous and often misused term. Lewis asks an important question: “While the idea is admirable, what is the difference between a team and a group?” (2015, 415). In interviews with regional directors, country leaders, and teams around the world, I sought to identify a common definition for team. There were almost as many definitions as there were interviews, but the most common way to define team was this: any group of missionaries who happen to live in the same location is a team.

However, there is a critical difference between a group of missionaries who happen to live and do ministry in the same place, and a team of missionaries who work together. The difference is a common goal. It’s the failure to grasp the significance of this difference that leads to the failure of most teams.

We need to abandon the convenient notion that a team is any group of workers who happen to live near each other. What is a team? A team is group of people with a common goal that compels its members to work together. Notice the two elements that are missing from so many teams—the common goal and working together.

It’s possible to have a common goal that doesn’t compel people to work together. For example, a goal such as “to reach our city for Christ” may be too broad to stimulate teamwork. “To reach the city,” I might hand out Bibles. You might teach English. And our colleague might lead a prayer ministry. All are valuable activities, and contribute towards reaching the city. But we are not working together. We are not a team.

A real …

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You Can Debate Franklin Graham on Martyrs, But Not the World’s Persecution Problem

DC summit rallies victims and advocates from 130 nations, including Vice President Pence.

Franklin Graham condemned the “Christian genocide” that’s killing “over 100,000 a year because of their faith in Christ” at a Washington, D.C., gathering of 600 persecuted believers and their advocates from 130 countries.

“I am sure the number of Christians who are in prison or martyred each year would stagger our mind if we really knew what the total number really was,” Graham told the opening session of the inaugural World Summit in Defense of Christians, reports Religion News Service. “And it would send us to our knees in sorrow and in prayer.”

The figure of 100,000 martyrs that Graham cited originates from the Center for the Study of Global Christianity (CSGC), and includes all Christians “who have lost their lives prematurely, in situations of witness, as a result of human hostility.”

This definition is broad. For example, it includes about 20 percent of the 4 million people killed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s civil war, which significantly skews the 10-year average that the number represents.

It’s also highly debatable, as CT has reported. By comparison, Open Doors, a leading advocate for the persecuted church which verifies every death through witnesses when possible, counted just 1,207 Christians killed for faith-related reasons during the reporting period for its 2017 World Watch List. The prior year, it reported 7,000 martyrs.

However, what is not in dispute is that religious freedom violations have hit record highs in recent years, as extensively documented in the latest reports from Open Doors, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, the US State Department, and Under Caesar’s Sword, among others. (The current …

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When Mother’s Day Feels Like a Minefield

Let’s reimagine ways we can honor mothers without wounding others.

A week ago, as I anticipated this upcoming Mother’s Day, I felt ready to fight for my flower. Each year, I look forward to the carnation and the vague, glowing tribute churches often pay to women who mother. After all, haven’t I earned it? After birthing and raising a daughter and (count them) five sons, after 29 years of the daily dying-to-self that defines mothers’ lives, I am grateful for any Mother’s Day payback—even for the greasy (delicious) donut my church handed out one year.

But I am increasingly recognizing the tremendous cost of that flower (or donut). A few days ago, I posted a simple query on social media: “How do you feel about Mother’s Day celebrations in church?” In one day, 150 women responded with passion and detail—and the messages are still coming. After reading their stories, it became clear to me: Mother’s Day Sunday is, for many, the single most painful day of the entire church year.

Like salt in a wound

Most churches try to honor mothers in some way, but rather than attracting women with its special focus, legions either stay home from church on that day or leave their church service filled with resentment and pain. Many women have told me why. Single mothers describe it as momentary attention that lapses into invisibility again once the day passes, leaving them struggling to raise their kids alone. Bonnie, a mother of a beautiful adopted daughter, tells of one Mother’s Day when her pastor invited children to hand out chocolate kisses to their mothers. He was very specific about who qualified: They were to give their candy “not to the women who are like a mother to you” but only to “the woman who gave birth to you.” …

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How to Liberate Ourselves from the Perils of Platform

For writers, bloggers, and speakers, the pitfalls of self-promotion are offset by a robust vision of women’s gifts in the church.

#AmplifyWomen is a two-month-long series running on CT Women, designed to generate a new conversation about women’s leadership and discipleship. Who’s In Charge of the Christian Blogosphere? launched the series and was followed by an interview with a mentorship expert. This week we hear from Sharon Hodde Miller on how sharing your platform with others is an act of stewardship and a model of discipleship.

For my doctoral research, I met with women at evangelical seminaries to hear about their stories, their hopes, and their dreams. The women represented different ages (ranging from 22 to 65), different races, different life stages, and different church experiences. The one thing they had in common was their evangelicalism. As I interviewed each one, I was surprised by one common theme: the guilt.

Over and over, I heard from women who agonized over their decision to enroll in seminary: Can I justify the huge financial risk? Will I be able to find a job afterward? Is this a self-serving decision? Because of these looming questions, the women cataloged their motives relentlessly. While some women doubted the purity of their ambitions, one woman freely described her education as “selfish,” since she had enrolled in seminary simply “to get closer to [God].” Other women were not so nonchalant; their self-searching had become paralyzing.

What I am discovering, however, is that this female angst is not limited to seminary. It’s also visible in discussions surrounding self-promotion and platform—a term used to describe the size of one’s following or audience, online and elsewhere. As evidenced by recent conversations on social media, scores of women experience similar struggles with …

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Stewarding Knowledge in Crisis

After 33 years, Global Mapping International is closing.

Winston Churchill has been credited with saying “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” Actually, it’s more likely that this idea came from a doctor: M.F. Weiner in a 1976 article, “Don’t Waste a Crisis – Your Patient’s or Your Own,” in the Journal of Medical Economics.

Regardless of who said it, the bigger question is this: “What is our responsibility as stewards of knowledge in the midst of a crisis?” I’m going to apply this to my own situation as CEO of Global Mapping International (GMI), but you can just as easily apply this question to many other scenarios.

Take, for example, the chance to share your faith with someone who is going through a similar significant life event. Or maybe making life changes when confronted with a serious illness or the loss of a job. In crisis, we have the opportunity to evaluate, learn, and change. In fact, it is in (and shortly after) those liminal moments of disequilibrium when the most insight, revelation, and understanding can come.

As we embrace this idea of stewarding knowledge in a crisis, let’s first define stewardship. I’ve learned much from my good friend Dr. Kent Wilson, who, in his recent book Steward Leadership in the Nonprofit Organization, defines it this way: “A steward is anyone who manages the property and resources belonging to another in order to achieve the owner’s objectives.” I’ve underlined several sections to emphasize important points that have impacted me.

First, anyone can be a steward of resources if the owner extends the opportunity. Second, a steward can never forget that he/she is not the owner. And finally, the steward’s use of resources must be in line …

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What the Church Says to Terrible People

‘Welcome to the club.’

When asked why it was important to him to have a cabinet that was 50 percent female, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau coolly responded, “Because it’s 2015.” In other words, “It should just be obvious to any decent, thinking person.”

In 2017, this sort of rhetorical flourish is even more common. Online discourse is littered with listicles like “9 Steps to Becoming a Decent Human Being.” A quick Google search for the phrase “being a decent person doesn’t cost you anything” yields dozens of unique memes.

How did the charge to be a “decent human being” become so persuasive?

In his book A Secular Age, Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor suggests we are making up for the motivation gap in what he calls the “modern moral order.” At its heart is a sort of “secularized agape,” a universal benevolence and moral burden towards all people. This burden is rooted not necessarily in God or the divine but in our shared sense of dignity. Recognizing the universal dignity of all becomes essential to affirming our own.

The shared acknowledgement of mutual human dignity is an undeniably positive development. It has motivated and reinforced international humanitarian efforts, anti-racism initiatives, and other beneficial movements.

But Taylor questions whether this source of moral energy is really enough to sustain our universal “benevolence.” After all, Taylor notes, “never before have people been asked to stretch out so far . . . as a matter of course, to the stranger outside the gates.” In the long term, without the fundamental energy of the gospel, what would broadly fuel these measures?

The answer is shame.

One way to gin …

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‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Wants Us to Heed the Threat of ‘Fundamentalism’

The question is: Which one?

It’s no coincidence that The Handmaid’s Tale, the Hulu original series based on the Margaret Atwood book of the same name, is being released now, more than 30 years after the book’s publication. Capitalizing upon a the parallels between its fictional American dystopia and the distress that many people feel at the current state of American politics, The Handmaid’sTale has been celebrated as a timely entry into the conversation about where we are headed as a nation. In particular, the show makes an uncomfortable connection between the contemporary political language of a “war on women”, as heard in the last several presidential election cycles, and the actual war on women in The Handmaid’s Tale, where women are enslaved, mutilated, raped, beaten, and killed.

The villains of The Handmaid’s Tale are fundamentalist Christians who, after a violent revolution, run a totalitarian theocratic republic called Gilead in place of the secular state—an echo of the Islamic Republic established in Iran after the 1979 Revolution, around the time when Atwood penned her novel. The highest function of women in this fearful new world is to bear children. Infertility and infant mortality rates, however, are through the roof, so when a member of the pious ruling class cannot have a child, the state sends her a “handmaid” to conceive in her place.

The handmaid system provides sexual surrogacy, the depiction of which, once seen, will not soon be forgotten—especially as it is set against a track of “Onward Christian Soldiers” in the show’s most heavy-handed moment. The whole scenario is reminiscent of the story of Hagar in the Old Testament, in which Sarah arranges …

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The BGCE Gospel Life Podcast (Ep. 13)

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

Episode Thirteen | Listening: The Beginning of Love

Christina Walker, Associate Director of Academic Programs at the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism, discusses Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together and the first service we owe to others. We must begin with listening to others. In the cacophony of noise, will we be the kind of people who will truly love others best by actually getting to know them? When we talk with non-Christians, our first step might just be closing our mouths.

Episode Twelve | Inconvenient Evangelism Moments

John Richards, Managing Director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism, discusses inconvenient evangelism moments and how we can begin to step into them in order to see God change lives. John uses personal examples to encourage us to actually pray for ‘inconvenient’ moments for the furtherance of the gospel and the potential of changed lives. We must remember that one moment can impact someone’s eternity.

Episode Eleven | Why Do Words Matter?

Ed Stetzer, Executive Director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism, discusses the intersection of showing AND sharing the love of Jesus. Why did Jesus come, and how do we hold in tension serving others and proclaiming Christ to others? The gospel isn’t something we do; it’s something Jesus did. How are we responding?

Episode Ten | Is There Really a Need for You in Kingdom Work?

Colleen Cooper, Development Coordinator at the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism shares that too often it’s easy to compare ourselves to others and assume we aren’t good enough or prepared enough to share Jesus with others. But what if where you are right now is good enough, and if God needs you to impact our world for Christ? How would …

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