LifeWay to close bricks and mortar stores

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News broke yesterday that LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention has decided to close all 170 of its bricks and mortar stores. Christianity Today has the story. The news comes after the publishers retail division posted another year of losses:

LifeWay hadn’t had sales exceed its operating expenses in more than a decade, Baptist Press reported, and the margin between the two grew from $2.3 million in 2010 to $35.5 million in 2017.

It’s big news, mostly because LifeWay seemed (at least to casual observers) as though it was the one chain that might possibly weather the disruptive changes in book retail.

The Marks of the Christian

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And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, 10 so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, 11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.

Philippians 1:9-11, NIV

The Marks of the Christian

Regularly reading the New Testament ought to remind us of the ways contemporary Christians fall far short of the vision of the Christian life found among the early Christians.

I’m convinced that this shortfall is rooted, at least in part, by our neglect of the Bible as our rule of faith and life.

Faithful friends

As the Apostle Paul writes to the Christians in Philippi, we note his obvious affection for them (verses 3 and 8) and his gratitude for they way they have come alongside him in his gospel ministry (verse 5). Despite the personal cost and the difficulty of the Apostolic work entrusted to Paul, the fellowship of Christians like those in Philippi have made the burden more bearable as together they have entrusted themselves to the grace of Christ.

Personal transformation

These faithful brothers and sisters in Christ Paul reminds of God’s transformative purpose. “[H]e who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion in the day of Christ Jesus” (verse 6b).

Who among us doesn’t need to be reminded of Christ’s promise to work in us by faith the transformation we need so that when we meet him face to face we may step into a new creation free from the curse of sin and death?

We’re not yet the people we will become, but those who have placed their faith in the Lord Jesus are moving–if at time haltingly–in the direction of Christ-likeness.

Paul’s prayer

Paul shares with his readers the content of his prayer for them and I suspect that Paul would pray the same for us today. This prayer shows us at least three marks of the Christian, that is characteristics of one who is a growing disciple of Christ. 

Able to discern (verse 9-10a)

Christians ought to be loving. And the love that marks our lives must be, according to Paul, a love that has some attendant qualities. Christian love is marked by growing “knowledge and insight.”

Knowledge and insight of what? It’s difficult to know precisely what Paul means here. At the very least it would seem to imply an experiential knowledge of God and of God’s revelation of Himself to us in the Bible. It is this knowledge that enables us to “discern what is best,” that is what most closely aligns with God’s revealed will.

Pure and blameless (verse 10) 

This discernment, rooted as it is in a love that is marked by knowledge and insight, produces in our lives a purity and a blamelessness. The concepts of purity and blamelessness seem to be neglected in contemporary Christianity.

All Christians are positionally pure and blameless because the obedience of Christ and his sacrifice on the cross have been credited to our account. However, what Paul is talking about here is volitional purity and blameless–it is based upon choice and upon actions that together form a way of life.

Fruit of righteousness (verse 11)

Christians are expected to produce the “fruit of righteousness” that is the product derived from the above and that is expressed inwardly before it is expressed outwardly.

It’s not difficult to see how we all have a long way to go on this. Ask God what needs to change in your life so that you’re not only willing, but able to devote yourself to Him in a way that leads to transformation.

No one deserves to be treated this way

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The truth is that all of us will need a little help along the pathway of life. It’s also true that some of us are fortunate to have families who can help. Others aren’t so fortunate so let’s have a little more compassion and give others the benefit of the doubt.


My path of healing

The almost two years since leaving full-time pastoral ministry have been a time of immense healing. It started with grief at what seemed like a failed call. And then mellowed into a sense of loss and periodic anger. And then, almost unlooked for, a calm peace began to settle deeply into me. I began to notice the hard edge that I had allowed to grow up around me as emotional armor became to soften. This truly is God’s gift and I am thankful for it. I feared that my soul had been permanently wounded in my last call, but God proved stronger.

A look of pure spite

It was in this heightened sensitivity that I stopped at the store this evening. I jumped into a line that looked short only to find myself behind a woman in some distress.

English was clearly not her first language, which sounded like it might be Polish or Ukrainian. She was attempting to pay for her grocery order with cash and also with an Illinois WIC card. Like many people she found herself at the check out with price tag higher than her cash and card. Unlike others she clearly was limited to a very precise amount.

She struggled with the cash. She fumbled with the card. I wouldn’t have known it as a WIC card (ignorance of such things is a clear sign of my fortunate personal history) except that the cashier loudly told her “you can’t pay for that with your FOOD STAMPS.”  And as she said it, she turned to me and rolled her eyes with a look of pure spite. I did my best to ignore that eye roll.

Raise your voice

In that moment I decided that should she (that is, the cashier) say anything to me about this other woman I would gently remind her that she might want to cut this other woman some slack. She didn’t so I didn’t.

What’s in a stare? 

I’m no arbiter of social exchanges and there’s a good chance that I read too much into all this.

All I know is that at the cash register I was sure of two things.

The first is that no one–regardless of their language, gender, nationality, or economic status–deserves to be embarrassed, shamed, or worse, abused in any way. 

The second is that those who are in pain (the cashier here) often inflict that pain on others. 

I don’t have any policy proposals, but I do know that we have to work to cultivate communities of compassion and social support networks that can help those who don’t have the same resources some of us have.

The truth is that all of us will need a little help along the pathway of life. It’s also true that some of us are fortunate to have families who can help. Others aren’t so fortunate so let’s have a little more compassion and give others the benefit of the doubt.

Greenway becomes president of SWBTS

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I was excited to learn that Adam Greenway, my college friend, was appointed the ninth president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Forth Worth, TX.

Adam and I got to be friends through Samford University’s preaching program known as H-Day. Each week we’d travel to different parts of the state of Alabama to preach, often in rural churches. We also served together as officers of the Samford University Ministerial Alliance.

Adam is a man of integrity. He is the person before you. Ask him what he thinks, he’ll tell you. And ask him what he cares about and he’ll tell you that he cares about those who’ve never encountered Christ savingly.

Congratulations to Adam and to Southwestern!

Traditional sexuality is not a panacea

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Fidelity to the historical teaching on human sexuality is not a silver bullet. We do the church as disservice by suggesting that fidelity here is the linchpin on which church growth depends.

Church growth works until it doesn’t

More than twenty years ago I sat with some British Christians in their living room and talked about church growth. They were leaders in the church I had grown up in–a small, building-less congregation affiliated with the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches.

Since moving to the United States some five years before this conversation I had not only felt called into ministry, but had swallowed the pill of American confidence in the inevitable victory of the church over the pressures of culture. 

As we talked I recall saying “if a church is faithful in its ministry it will grow.” Even as the words left my lips I realized my immense hubris.

This was a church that had faithfully been preaching the gospel weekly for years and had neither a building nor had it grown very far beyond 100 attenders. It was ruled by a session and a part-time pastor was responsible for much of the teaching. In an instance I had called all of that into question. I was ashamed.

The recent Methodist decision

This conversation came to mind when I read of the decision of the United Methodist Church to affirm the Bible’s teaching on human sexuality and to continue to bar (in theory not in practice) non-celibate homosexuals from ordained ministry. Make no mistake, it was a good decision and I’m grateful for it. We must, however, guard our rhetoric around this matter lest it betray us further along the line.

Beyond the usual images of people waving rainbow flags in protest, I’ve also heard delegates from the majority world (and here in the USA) saying things like, “Christianity is growing in Africa. We affirm traditional marriage. That affirmation is part of the reason we’re growing.”

My own experience in Presbyterianism

In my own journey out of the PC(USA) into ECO I heard similar arguments. The PC(USA) is declining, we were told, because it has rejected the Bible’s teaching. Make no mistake, the PC(USA) did reject the Bible’s teaching on a variety of doctrines. I don’t dispute that.

What I dispute is that had they not rejected those doctrines they would be growing rather than shrinking.

The implication is, of course, that being conservative means that your church will grow and flourish. That isn’t necessarily true.

More, pursuing this line of argument will inevitably lead to disappointment should decline follow. It fails to recognize that orthodox Christianity is, once more, a minority report.

Don’t be a Bildad

Evangelicals are in danger of echoing the pseudo-wisdom of Job’s conversation partner Bildad. In concern and response to the terrible suffering that had overtaken Job, Bildad offered a defense of God that centered of His justice and implied that, whatever else, God would (almost automatically) reward those who remained faithful to Him.

Bildad queries, “Does God pervert justice? Or does the Almighty pervert the right?” (Job 9.3).

Bildad draws a straight causal line between what is happening in Job’s life and the divine. The implied alternative is that either God is the cause of sin or Job (or his children) have sinned.

In truth God is not the cause of sin nor had Job sinned. 

The remedy, according Bildad, is to remain faithful. Then God will “rouse himself for you and restore you to your rightful place” (8.6). He continues, “Though your beginning was small, your latter days will be very great” (8.7).

And, later, “God will not reject a blameless person, nor take the hand of evildoers. He will fill your mouth with laughter, and your lips with shouts of joy” (8.21).

There’s so much about this that rings true.

Faithfulness is always the best course of action.

Fidelity is the perpetual right choice.

Doing the right thing doesn’t guarantee a positive outcome.

Doing the right thing has inherent value that is enjoyed apart from any possible additional benefit that might accrue to us by doing it.

Turning from sexual sin and trusting in God’s provision of grace in Christ has its own value. It not only saves us from God’s righteous anger against sin, it also frees us to pursue God himself.

Turning from sexual sin does not, however, mean that life will be a bunch of roses. In the case of the same sex attracted person, for example, the immense challenge and pain of unfulfilled longing must be deemed to be a shadow of the blessing of being united to Christ and to Christ’s body, the church.

Every time someone intimates that making the right choice on sexuality will lead to church growth, they make a profound mistake… about the nature of grace, the state of the world, and the nature of the church. And every time we do it we make it more likely that when real suffering does come for the church, we will not be sufficiently formed to be able to handle it.