Will There Be Scars in Eternity?

Last week, I wrote about my journey of healing from my heart episode this past winter and how thinking about my PTSD experience like a burn on my leg has been a helpful way for me to conceptualize my experience. I ended by saying that, someday, my mental scar will be all that remains of my experience. But that got me thinking: will there be scars in eternity?

This is admittedly a speculative question. But as I thought about this, one scripture came to mind: Luke 24.39.

After His resurrection, Jesus appears to His disciples and they’re not sure who He is. But He says to them, “Look at my hands and feet. It is I myself!” Jesus expects His disciples to know Him by His scars from the crucifixion. But those scars aren’t debilitating anymore. They’re not holding Him to the cross anymore. They’re part of His story, absolutely. But they no longer limit His resurrected body.

So will there be scars in eternity? Luke 24 seems to say yes. But they’ll be scars that won’t disrupt our lives anymore. And I think this reality matters for how we live our lives.

Following Jesus isn’t a way to escape what’s happened to you. We won’t leave everything about ourselves and our experiences on earth behind at the Resurrection of the dead. Our scars will still be with us. They’ll just be redeemed and restored. The pain that those scars brought will be finished and done. But the parts of who we are forged by those scars won’t magically disappear.

In this way, scars seem a beautiful reminder of the hope of eternity for those who follow King Jesus. Because in Him, someday all of our pain will be the past. It will still have forged us. But all that will remains are our scars.

Like a Burn on My Leg

Since my heart episode and subsequent surgery this winter, I’ve been in counseling. (Yes, a pastor has been in counseling. But that’s a different subject for a different post.) It’s been hard. It’s been eyeopening. It’s been helpful. It’s reaffirmed my belief that people benefit from someone walking with them when they’re experiencing hard times.

One of the best parts of my counseling experience (aside from the ever important, “that’s normal and you’re not completely crazy” reminders that we all benefit from) has been the naming what’s going on with me. This feeling or that experience or this issue–it has a name. It’s something that can talked about and understood and addressed. That’s been an exceedingly helpful practice for me.

And perhaps the most helpful side of those conversations is the recognition that part of what I’ve been dealing with is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Very basically, PTSD is a disorder (confusion or non-systematic functioning) that someone experiences as the result of a traumatic experience or event. We might assume that PTSD is something that happens to military veterans or those involved in natural disasters (which is often very true). But various kinds of PTSD can happen to anyone who’s experienced something traumatic. Like someone who had an emergant heart malfunction at age 29, for example.

For me, realizing that I’ve been dealing with PTSD (among other things) over the past several months has been a helpful paradigm for making sense of my experience. It’s contextualized my experience. It’s helped me find tools that let me address what I’m thinking and feeling. And–most recently–it’s provided me a metaphor to better understand my life over the past several months.

You see, for me, PTSD is like having a burn on my leg.

Let me explain. Several years ago, I was in a biking accident where I got friction burns over about 60% of the skin on one of my legs. (It was not something I’d recommend to anyone.) When the accident happened, there was immediate treatment for my injury. It hurt and it was obvious that something needed to be done about it. And after the initial treatment, there was lots of less-than-pleasant follow up, mostly involving regular debridement of the wound. But after a few weeks, something happened: I began to treat my leg like normal again. Healing was taking place. I was getting mobility back. Things were returning to normal.

Except they weren’t really. Because I still had a huge wound on my leg. It still hurt from time to time. It took months to really heal and during those months, there would be moments of pain. As my skin grew back, it would pull and shoot pain. I’d bump my leg on something and the pain would all come rushing back. The healing process caused tension, and sometimes the healing caused pain.

And my PTSD is the same way. When my heart episode happened, there was immediate treatment and (almost immediate) surgery. And there was follow up treatment as well. But then the pain of recovery continued. Except it wasn’t just physical recovery–it was mental and emotional recovery. And like the occasional pain and tension caused by my leg as it healed, I’ve experienced occasional mental pain and tension too. I’ve bumped my mental pain into things that have caused the pain to all come back. The healing process caused tension, and sometimes the healing caused pain.

My PTSD has been like having a burn on my leg. The healing has taken time. The healing has caused tension. The healing has caused pain. But healing is happening. And some days, I just need to remember that. Some days, I’m going to bump into something that’s uncomfortable or painful. Some days, that’s going to be rough. And other days, I’ll be like nothing ever happened. And that’s okay. Because that’s part of the healing process.

And someday, my PTSD will be like my leg. If you look closely, you can still see the scar outline. And if you’re really observant, you’ll notice that my leg hair grows differently where I was burned. My leg was forever changed by my injury. But it still works. And it doesn’t hurt anymore. The healing is as complete as it will be in this life.

I’m looking forward to the day when I can say the same thing about my mind and spirit. I’ll be forever changed by my experience. But I still work. And someday, the pain will be something in the past.

An Ode to a Home

For the past six years, you’ve been our home. You were our first truly adult decision and purchase. We brought our two kids home for the first time to you. We’ve laughed, cried, sheltered, played, and worked within your walls. You’ve been the place we’ve grown and nourished friendships. You were our haven during lockdown and the craziness of our past year.

You’re old. Many times you were broken. You’ve been the source of many long days of work and nights of frustration. But we learned lots because of you. We learned how to demo walls. We learned how to swap support beams. We learned how not to roof low pitch surfaces. We learned how to care for someplace that belonged to us.

Sometimes, we act like spaces are just the neutral, natural places where we happen to do things. But spaces are formative. They shape what we do, they shape who we are. Spaces shape meaning and experiences. And we’ve been tremendously blessed these past years to have you as our space.

Like the Giving Tree, you gave of yourself to us. And while we say goodbye today, we will always be thankful for you. We’ll miss you and remember you fondly. Thanks 223 W Arlee. You’ll always hold a special place in our hearts.

The Prahlows in front of 223 W Arlee (Summer 2021)

2021 Pixar Movie Rankings

Three years ago, inspired by The Ringer and to commemorate the arrival of The Incredibles 2, I shared some totally subjective rankings of the Pixar films. And I was summarily told, “go watch those movies again, Jacob, because you’re wrong.”

Fortunately, Disney+ arrived on the scene and my now two children love the Pixar films and watch them all the time. So (again inspired by The Ringer) in anticipation of Luca and after many (many) more viewings of these films, here are my updated Pixar Movie Rankings.

Abominations Made in the Name of the Almighty Dollar

23. Toy Story 4
22. Cars 3
21. The Good Dinosaur
I cannot overstate how much I loathe Toy Story 4. It undermines basically every good lesson and story line from the previous three films. And it only kind of tries to hide that fact that Pixar only made it for the money. I literally stop my kids from watching this movie. As for the other films here, they only exist because House of Mouse wants to make more $$$.

Solid, but Not My Favorites

20. Ratatouille
19. Brave

Both of these films are solid entries that I enjoy, but for whatever reason, they’re not my favorites. My siblings ruined Rataouille for me with endless watchings back in the day. And while I appreciate the message of Brave, I’m neither a mother or daughter. Again, I’m not saying these are bad movies (unlike the previous category). But this is where they fall for me.

The Sequels

18. Incredibles 2
17. Cars 2
16. Finding Dory
15. Monsters University
14. Toy Story 2

All of these movies are solid and enjoyable (though some are better than others). The fact that they’re sequels plays for and against them. Some of the stories really suffer, though they receive a nice nostalgia boost because of the well-known characters. I also tend to think of these movies as filling a particular niche service. Do I want to reminisce about college? MonstersU it is. Am I feeling up for spoof-y humor? Toy Story 2 coming up. Do I want to watch a James Bond film without James Bond? Cars 2, at your service.

Let’s Watch Them Again!

13. A Bug’s Life
12. Cars
11. Up
10. Onward

These are movies that I really enjoy and would happily watch with you right now. And they come from different parts of my life. A Bug’s Life was a childhood favorite. Cars was a fun way to connect with my younger siblings while I was in high school. Up came out the year I went off to college and began to figure out my own life’s adventure. And Onward was a tough movie for a tough year that I love for my kids to watch because of the love between Ian and Barley. My only regret with these movies is that I can’t rank them higher.

Supremely Thought Provoking

9. Soul
8. Coco
7. WALL-E
6. Inside Out

Like the previous category, I’ll watch these movies with you right now. But these films get a boost because we can talk about what they’re communicating after we watch it. As a pastor-theologian, these are some of Pixar’s most conceptually thought-provoking films. Soul and Coco are great tools for thinking about death, the afterlife, purpose, and memory. WALL-E raises great questions about what it means to be human and what care for the world should look like. And Inside Out is superb for helping us visualize how our minds, emotions, and memories work. Someday, I’m going to teach a class on the Theology of Pixar. But until then, I’ll constantly use these films to help explain key concepts about what it means to be human.

The Best of the Best

5. Monsters, Inc.
My criteria for this level of movie is that it gets better with each viewing. And Monsters, Inc. passes the test. John Goodman’s Sully and Billy Crystal’s Mike Wazowski are easily Pixar’s second-most iconic duo.

4. Finding Nemo
Moving. Creative. Funny. An accurate representation of what parents will go through for the sake of their kids. I loved Finding Nemo when it came out, and I’ve come to love it even more since. Since 2018, it’s dropped a spot, but it’s still great.

3. Toy Story 3
Perhaps the best sequel ever made aside from Empire Strikes Back. For me, two moments sum up the storytelling power of this movie: when the characters (I can’t just call them toys!) are in the incinerator and when Andy leaves for college. Pure gold that keeps getting better the older I get.

2. The Incredibles
I first saw The Incredibles when I was a teenager. The story captured my attention, and was one of the first films I recall being aware of the second-level, more-for-adults humor that Pixar does such a fine job of weaving into their movies. Plus, super-extra-mega-bonus points for having the best scene of any Pixar movie.

1. Toy Story
The one that started it all, both for Pixar and for millions of moviegoers around the world. Toy Story was the first movie that I remember seeing in theaters, which helped make it the first movie that was “mine” rather than something my parents put on for me. Buzz and Woody, the lessons of friendship, the captivating animation style (that still looks solid almost three decades later)—Toy Story has it all


What do you think? What am I too high on? What am I too low on? Let me know in the comments!

Why?

Why?

Why is this happening to me? Why do I feel this way? Why the anxiety? Why the pain? Why the stress? Why the sleeplessness that makes everything worse? Did I do something wrong? Am I being punished? Am I not cut out for this work?

Why is this happening to me?

I don’t know. Sure, I could talk about the problem of evil and try to explain why living in a fallen world as a fallen human being means that sometimes, I’m going to suffer the consequences of sinful brokenness, including with my health and sanity. But down here in the trenches, that doesn’t help very much. I’m not asking things like this happen. I’m asking why this is happening to me.

I know others have it worse. And in my more lucid moments, that brings some comfort. But not tonight. Not as a look at the clock and see that I haven’t been able to really sleep for nearly four hours and that in another four hours, I’m supposed to be waking up to go preach in the morning. Others may have it worse, but this is my particular burden to bear and I don’t like it.

It’s wearing me down. First the back problems. Then the heart problems. Then the panic attacks. And now whatever this is, whether a different manifestation of anxiety or stress or some yet discovered problem. It’s exhausting. I’m exhausted. I’m tired of being exhausted. I’m weary and heavy laden, and I just want to rest.
I suppose this is part of the journey. I suppose that this is my small, Jacob-sized cross to bear right now. Taking that perspective helps sometimes. This too shall pass and when it does, I pray I will be more like my Lord. He too had sleepless nights too, you know.

I wonder if Jesus had anxiety and stress that kept him for resting. I suppose that Hebrews statement about Him being like us suggests that in some sense (Hebrews 4.15). The Gospels references to Jesus spending nights in prayer also seem like possible inferences as well (e.g., Luke 6.12). Those statements at least raise the possibility.

But it’s the Garden of Gethsemane that’s on my weary mind right now. Good Friday must have been the hardest day for anyone in the history of humanity—willingly taking on the universe’s sin and shame while restraining your phenomenal cosmic power. And yet, what does Scripture say? That Jesus didn’t sleep the night before (Matthew 26.36-46).

Here I am, stress upon stress, worried that I won’t be able to do my job tomorrow (well, later this morning) because I’m not well rested and won’t have enough sleep. And my King, the one I’m following and trying to be like, He took on all of my anxiety and stress and brokenness (to say nothing of everyone else’s) with no rest the night before.

If nothing else, this reminds me of a simple, yet crucial fact that I always seem to need reminding of when my life is not perfect: Jesus suffers with me. I’m not alone in this. My Lord walks this road with me. He might not always take my problems away. He might not always say yes to my prayers. But He’s here. And He will give me the grace to make it through and point others not towards myself, but to Him.

Maybe I do know why this is happening to me after all.



Composed around 2am on Sunday, May 23

Four Reasons to Learn about Other Worldviews

I’m a nerd. Accordingly, I love learning about all kinds of things, most often, things that require me to learn a lot of fascinating information. One such realm of nerd-dom is world religions and worldviews. Everyone has a specific way of viewing the world: that’s a worldview. And some of the most prevalent worldview systems are the world’s major religions.

But I’m also a Christian (a Christian pastor, to boot). And sometimes, I’ll have a conversation with someone who isn’t quite sold on the importance of learning about nerdy things like non-Christian worldviews. “What’s the point?” “Seems dangerous.” “Why would I waste my time with that.” These are all responses I’ve heard when I suggest learning more about how non-Christians understand and approach the world.

But there are many good reasons for learning about non-Christian worldviews. Below are four of my favorite reasons: wisdom and witness, defense and discernment.

First, learning about non-Christian worldviews increases wisdom. Not only does it further your understanding of the world but learning what other people believe inevitably helps you better understand what you believe too. To quote A.G. Sertillanges, “To understand a single thing thoroughly, we should understand all things.” Of course, there’s a practical side to this wisdom too: you will be less likely to be confused or mislead by an idea or practice that sounds wise, but really is not. And this, in the words of the Apostle Paul, is a wise decision: See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. (Colossians 2:8)

Second, learning about non-Christian worldviews is a necessary part of a Christian witness. In practice, worldviews function like languages: we make meaning through them and we communicate meaning with them. People with different worldviews, then, are basically speaking a different language. And we cannot effectively share the good news of Jesus with someone unless we speak their language. Understanding other worldviews thus allows us to translate the Gospel into other languages and be effective witnesses for Jesus. Only then can we fulfill our Great Commission mandate: Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Matthew 28:19-20)

Third, learning about non-Christian worldviews allows for a reasonable defense of the Christian faith. Scripture and reality both make clear the importance of explaining and defending the truth espoused by faith in the Risen Son of God. Whether in the form of defending against attacks from other worldviews or simply helping to explain the substance of faith or answering questions about why we believe what we believe, this is the task of informed apologetics. Peter calls us to undertake this task in the following way: Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. (1 Peter 3:14b-16)

Finally, learning about non-Christian worldviews furthers our spiritual discernment. If we believe that Christianity is more truthful or better suited for life or explains reality more fully, then we need to know how it compares to other ways of framing reality. As Robert Bellah points out, “One can make judgments of better and worse with respect to any religion, but they are more likely to be on point if one has seriously tried to understand them in their own terms.” How do we know? This is the path of discernment, which Paul also talks about: Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2)

For these reasons, it’s appropriate (and necessary) to learn about non-Christian worldviews.

On Approaching Culture

I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. – Jesus in the Gospel of John 17.15-18 (ESV)

With these words from the Upper Room Discourse of John’s Gospel, Jesus (probably intentionally) set the stage for how His followers should interact with the world. Often characterized as a call for Christians to “be in the world, but not of the world,” these words (along with various New Testament statements by Paul and James) have been used as the basis for Christian cultural engagement.  That is to say, Scripture sets the parameters for how Christians should live in, participate in, and relate to the world in which we live.

Unsurprisingly, exactly what this engagement looks like has varied even among faithful followers of Jesus. In fact, over the years, various Christians have crafted and lived different interpretations of what Scripture communicates about the appropriate relationship with the world. Today, there are five basic approaches that Christians take:

Five Approaches to Culture

First is what we might call the Antagonistic Approach. In this view, the expectation is that followers of Jesus should generally oppose the world and its culture, norms, and practices. Think of the Amish or ultra-conservative Christians who eschew many modern practices and technology. For the sake of comparing all five views, I want to use the Harry Potter books. If for no other reason that the clarity of the example, since their release, Christians have had very clear reactions to these books (and the movies). So they make a solid test cast. For the antagonistic approach, since the Harry Potter books are not explicitly Christian, they are something in culture that should be personally avoided and perhaps even widely opposed.

A second option is the Accommodating Approach, where the expectation is that followers of Jesus should accept and welcome the world and its culture, norms, and practices. This is a more prevalent and often “Christian-lite” approach, although ancient Christians such as John Chrysostom reveal that there is nothing particularly new about this approach. The perspective on the Harry Potter books here is that they’re all good, something to be enjoyed and accepted and adopted without any thought to the contrary.

A third option is the Countercultural Approach, where followers of Jesus should forge alternative, Christ-centered options for cultural expression and practice. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is largely the approach taken by Christian bookstores and the Contemporary Christian Music movement. Here, rather than reading the Harry Potter books, you should instead read some Christian fantasy, perhaps The Lord of the Rings (for the fifteenth time) or the Chronicles of Narnia or something similar.

The fourth option is the Two Worlds Approach. Here, followers of Jesus live between two worlds (sometimes called Two Kingdoms), where sometimes we prioritize the culture of Christ and other times we prioritize the culture of this world. This is the historic view of the Reformation, as this approach was fostered by Martin Luther, John Calvin, and their theological descendants. To continue our example, the first question for this view would be which world do the Harry Potter books belong to? If you’re going to use them for mere entertainment, they’re probably safe, since they belong to that world. But if the books are going to form your worldview, they have overstepped the boundaries of their world and should thus be returned to their proper place.

And finally, there is the Redemptive Approach. In this view, followers of Jesus should seek to redeem the world and reorient its culture, norms, and practices toward Christ and His Kingdom. Not everything is redeemable, of course. But many things are. In this approach, Harry Potter gets recast in various ways. Perhaps the books get celebrated for encouraging literacy or maybe parts of the story are mined for lessons about the battle between good and evil. In this view, culture is engaged for the purpose of finding and drawing out what is true and good and beautiful.

Which Approach?

Now, there are faithful Christians who attempt each of these approaches. And in my experience, there’s typically some overlap in approaches by individuals, families, and communities. (Here I should also not that the accommodating approach seems likely to be the kind of thinking that Jesus and James push back against in Scripture, so it’s probably best to not default to that approach.)

But personally, I lean toward attempting a redemptive approach to our world. A redemptive view takes seriously the reality that culture tends toward sinful brokenness and thus we should not be easy friends with the world. But it also focuses on the fact that our world consists of people made in the image of God who need redemption and whose cultural output is often worthy of redemption too. A redemptive approach understands that not everything is beneficial for the follower of Jesus, but that our world must be engaged and redeemed, nonetheless. This is why, for example, the church as pastor at often uses video clips to open messages. It’s why we spoof culture to make points. It’s why we have message series that use pop songs from the 90s as ways to think about the book of James.

There is much about culture that is not great and should be cautiously engaged by Christians, yes. But there’s also a lot that can be redeemed for the Kingdom of God, not ignored or feared or cast aside.


What about you: what are your thoughts on approaching culture? What boundaries or indicators to do you use?

Semi-Charmed Life: Lessons from James

Things have been busy, fun, and hectic over at Arise Church, were I serve as pastor. We’re in the midst of a series right now called Semi-Charmed Life: Lessons from James, where we’re using hit songs from the 90s as the hooks for our lessons from James. It’s been a ton of fun so far.

If you want to check out our recent messages, you can watch them here.

Book Review: New Girl at Church

Questions. We all have them. About life, about our world, about why things are the way that they are. Asking questions is an important part of life and an integral part of learning about something new or unfamiliar. This is especially true when it comes to questions about faith. There are a lot of truth claims out there about God, the world, and where we’re all headed. How do we know which claims are right? And what does it mean to follow this Jesus guy?

In New Girl at Church, Stacey Martin offers a questions-based explanation of Christianity from the perspective of a new believer. This is not your standard-fare work of apologetics determined to overwhelm questions with philosophical answers, nor is it a fluffy account of how someone very different than you had a crazy Jesus experience that miraculously transformed their life. No, New Girl at Church is a story how someone with real questions found real answers in Jesus. It’s a story that’s happening all around us—a story that can happen to you too.

Short, accessible, funny, and engaging, New Girl at Church speaks from the perspective of someone who was a skeptic of organized religion for over 30 years. Most chapters center around a specific question that those unfamiliar with Christianity or new to the whole following Jesus thing often ask. It’s a refreshingly honest approach to speaking about faith, an honest articulation of questions, struggles, ups and downs, and the realities that face anyone hoping to find answers to their questions.

One of the best parts about New Girl at Church is how Stacey largely avoids Christianese or delving into secondary issues that might distract from the core of faith. She poses and addresses real questions asked by real people. Throughout the book, she weaves in her own story of God’s grace and transformation, making this more than just an explanation of faith—it’s a personal story of God’s faithfulness and pursuit too.

The first half of the book is probably best suited for those who are not currently following Jesus, as it addresses questions like “who is Jesus?” and “how does following Jesus change your life?” It’s a real, sometimes raw account of how Stacey asked these questions and came to answers. The second half of New Girl at Church is best intended for those who’ve made the decision to give Jesus a try. These chapters focus on connecting to a church community, the importance of baptism, how family life changes when you follow Jesus, the centrality of forgiveness, and the importance of digging in and living our faith.

I highly recommend New Girl at Church for anyone asking about Jesus or what it means to follow Him. Especially if you’ve tried more formal apologetics books and found yourself looking for a more real and authentic perspective, give New Girl at Church a try. One final thought is that this book would make a particularly valuable tool for churches who are looking to provide relational resources for those exploring faith.

Mere Christianity for Today

Or Reflections on the Realities of Big Tent Christianity

“As Christians, we are seekers after truth, not merely its custodians.” Michael Bauman1

The Situation

“Christianity is in trouble,” everyone seems to be saying, for a variety of reasons. The rise of the “nones.”2 Increased dissatisfaction with institutional religion.3 The forthcoming disintegration of American evangelicalism over politics.4 The growth of the “spiritual but not religious” worldview.5 The general failure of the American Church’s members to reach millions of their friends, neighbors, and coworkers.6 The COVID shutdown that threatens some churches with the prospect of never reopening.7

Of course, from one point of view Christianity is not truly in trouble;8 these are largely problems with the American Church, and some may even be viewed as corrections of centuries-old corruptions within the Church. Yet on the other hand, these troubling trends may be fairly interpreted as indicators of the Church’s decline. More and more people see Christianity as boring, antiquated, and even harmful to personal happiness and ongoing social progress. Year by year, the Church becomes more irrelevant for individuals and its cultural influence deteriorates.

Now, I am hardly the first to point out the increasing darkness that surrounds the future of the Western Church. Potential solutions are as common as explanations of what is wrong. Some say we need to double down on our evangelism efforts; others call for a more culturally engaged church and a return to the politically fraught culture wars of years gone by; and still others call the Church to return to the monastery and weather the coming storm.9

Whatever the proposed solution, more and more leaders in the Church see the gathering storm and recognize that something has to change.10 It is no longer enough to thoughtlessly embrace existing patterns of Christian life, worship, and service; it is no longer enough for the Church to proceed as normal. Denominational politics, inward-looking country clubs, ineffective institutions, and church bodies more concerned with money or power than reaching future generations—none of this is enough.11

Fortunately, some Christians have long recognized these realities. The non-denominational reformation12 is a trend that speaks to this awareness, as are the growing number of new, smaller, more historically centered denominations such as the Anglican Church in North America.13 Pushback against “Church Inc.” has grown in recent years with the preaching and teaching of people like Francis Chan, David Platt, Skye Jethani, and others.14 Similarly, the megachurch movement, growth of multisite churches, many church planting movements, and a variety of parachurch organizations exist in large part due to the conviction and awareness that the Church must proclaim the gospel in fresh and engaging ways to a changing and tumultuous culture.

In addition to these existing something-needs-to-change movements, I wish to submit another approach: the establishment of mere Christian churches. Let me explain.

What is Mere Christianity?

The term “mere Christianity” has enjoyed popularity since C.S. Lewis titled one of his most famous works by the same name. In Mere Christianity, Lewis describes the kind of plain Christian faith he believed this way:

The central Christian belief is that Christ’s death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start. Theories as to how it did this are another matter…. We are told that Christ was killed for us, that His death has washed out our sins, and that by dying He disabled death itself. That is the formula. That is Christianity. That is what has to be believed. Any theories we build up as to how Christ’s death did all this are, in my view, quite secondary: mere plans or diagrams to be left alone if they do not help us, and, even if they do help us, not to be confused with the thing itself. All the same, some of these theories are worth looking at.15

Lewis himself did not coin the term, but instead built upon Puritan Richard Baxter’s use of the term and concept. In “On the Reading of Old Books,” Lewis provides his most succinct summary of mere Christianity, saying that it is “a standard of plain, central Christianity which puts the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective.”16

Baxter and Lewis, of course, were far from the first Christians to call for a focused and unified faith. Even within the New Testament, we see calls for the unity of the Church (John 17.20-26; Ephesians 4.1-6) as well as the necessary precondition for such unity: a discerning and nuanced articulation of faith (1 Corinthians 10.5; 2 Timothy 3.1-5; 1 Peter 5.7-9). Fifth-century theologian Vincent of Lerins advocated for the standard that, “in the universal Church… we should hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all.”17 In historical usage, then, mere Christianity is not a desire to return to a golden age of Christian faith and practice (as if there were such a thing); rather, it is a call to major on the majors and minor on the minors when it comes to belief and praxis.

Perhaps the best articulation of the mere Christian approach comes from the statement, “In necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas.”18 That is, in necessary things unity, in doubtful things freedom, in all things love. In other words, mere Christianity focuses on the core, central facets of the Christian faith while allowing for differences of faith or practice on non-central things, all surrounded by charitable understanding where disagreements occur.

Such an approach to faith obviously pushes back against the situation that the Church finds itself in, by positing that a focus on the central necessities of the faith can help limit the infighting, divisions, and distraction of non-essential issues that far too often prevent people from hearing the Good News of Jesus and following Him. Mere Christians contend that Christianity’s image problem—the all-too-common perception that the Church is composed of divisive, sheltered, sexually-repressed, judgmental, political, hypocrites19—is in large part self-inflicted, and can be mediated by the mere Christian approach that emphasizes what Scripture (and Tradition) contend are important, while refusing to divide overe other issues.

Remaining Christian While Being Mere

Of course, it’s one thing to talk about mere Christianity, but another to actually put it into practice. One question that mere Christianity immediately raises is that of boundaries: how are we to distinguish between “plain, central Christianity” or “necessary things” and non-central doctrinal points or non-essential issues? In many instances, this is where mere Christianity runs into trouble.

The mere Christian perspective inherently pushes back against the rampant problem of divisive and sectarian Christianity that has dominated the global Church, and especially the Western Church, since the dawn of the Protestant Reformation.20 Yet adopting a mere Christian approach can easily become fodder for a number of other problematic approaches to faith. In his excellent book Finding the Right Hills to Die On, Gavin Ortlund classifies such viewpoints under the banner of “doctrinal minimalism,” where any doctrine or practice should be treated with skepticism and avoided altogether.21 Using this as a cautionary standard for what to avoid, this means the mere Christian approach should not devolve into theological liberalism, where the theology, history, and morality of Scripture are viewed as negotiable rather than norming.22 Likewise, mere Christianity should not stand in for ecumenical approaches, which are often high on intellectual camaraderie but low on practical unity. The mere Christian approach is also not the same thing as postmodern Christianity, where faith is exclusively personal, service to the world need not be done in the name of King Jesus, and the institutions of the past are viewed as something to be torn down rather than learned from.

As I am describing it, mere Christianity should not take any of these forms, because the mere Christian approach can also affirm that “many doctrines are significant even if we don’t divide over them.”23 Mere Christianity continues to recognize the norming status of Scripture and the Great Tradition of the Church. The central core of the faith and its attendant authorities—Scripture, Tradition, Experience, and Reason—are still recognized as valid by the mere Christian approach (though not all such structures are necessarily of equal validity or value). In short, those adopting mere Christianity must be able to equally label themselves as “mere” and as “Christian,” a test that many doctrinally minimalist viewpoints struggle to pass.

Characteristics of Mere Christianity

How else may we describe and explain the mere Christian approach? I propose the following seven characteristics:

Gospel-Centered. The Good News of the Kingdom of God—that King Jesus, the Messiah of Israel, has come to earth, died on a cross, rose from the dead to defeat death and inaugurate the reign of God, and will soon come again—stands at the heart of mere Christianity. Without the proclamation of this news as the guiding principle and central focus of this approach, mere Christianity would be worse than useless (1 Corinthians 15.1-19). Mere Christianity starts with and focuses on the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—who God is, what God has done, and what God is continuing to do in creation. Bringing the good news to a dark and distorted world is the whole point. The gospel must always stand at the center of the mere Christianity.24

Creedal. As we express, proclaim, and seek to live out the gospel, mere Christianity takes its definitional leads from the great creeds of the Christian tradition, namely, the Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian creeds. The particulars of what we confess and believe are important—so important, in fact, that the creeds formulated by the great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us in faith serve as better guides for the boundaries of our understanding of what is central to faith than any novel statement of faith or clever articulation we devise.25 On the question of what counts as necessary or unnecessary, the creeds instruct us: who God is, what He has done, and life in Him are the essentials. Beyond those issues—and even, quite frankly, in the minutia of those issues—we may (and at times, must) find nuance and theological dialogue. But creedal Christianity forms the core of mere Christianity.

Balanced. Mere Christianity is neither lax nor dogmatic; it finds its place between the polarities of dividing over everything and dividing over nothing. In the spirit of Romans 14, both conviction and charity must bear out. To restate what was said above, mere Christianity recognizes that all theology is important, but not all theology is essential, urgent, or worth breaking community or communion over. Accordingly, when disagreements do occur, they are confronted in a spirit of dialogue and mutual submission, not division or condemnation.26

Embraces Particulars. Mere Christianity is not afraid to get into the nitty-gritty of theology and life. This is not the approach of “avoid disagreement at all costs” or even “let’s just talk about where we agree.” Mere Christianity embraces, converses about, and even celebrates theological and practical distinctives. Differences on non-necessary or tertiary issues are not not important; to the contrary, they are worth talking about and learning from.27 The distinction, however, is that the mere Christian approach engages those divergences and does not divide over them. Perhaps the best example of this aspect of the mere Christian approach today comes in “views on” books like the Zondervan Counterpoints Series. In these volumes, Christians of different convictions and viewpoints come together to discuss issues while continuing to affirm each other’s status as a follower of Jesus.28 This is the kind of embrace of particulars that the mere Christian approach celebrates.

Intellectually Humble. Mere Christianity emphasizes rejects legalistic approaches to faith while encouraging Christian freedom and recalling our own human fallibility.29 This approach highlights the fact that we—the saints of God and members of the bride of Christ—cannot determine with full certainty the precise articulations of every theological issue or question. We all have our biases; we all have our soapboxes; we all have our experiences; we all have our sin and tendencies toward distortion to overcome. Accordingly, the mere Christian approach champions holding much of what we believe with open hands and takes a spirit of humble submission and speaking the truth in love.30 Truth is contextual, contested, and often difficult to find; thus, while we seek after the Truth, we do so with the knowledge that we might be wrong. Mere Christianity embraces teachability; in the words of Michael Bauman, “The Church rarely prospers more than when its teachers are teachable.”31

Drawn from the Great Tradition. Rather than rejecting wholesale the particulars, lessons, or emphases of denominational Christianity, mere Christianity seeks to learn from the best parts of the Great Tradition of the Church. While mere Christianity does not necessarily embrace (for example) a Baptist view of baptism, a Catholic view of communion, or a Methodist’s view of church governance, mere Christians learn from these particulars. Functionally, this means that many mere Christians find themselves connecting, gathering, growing, and serving alongside Christians from other backgrounds and denominations.32

Faithful and Practical. The mere Christian approach is never just about faith, belief, doctrine, or what’s in your head; neither it is only about practice, praxis, or what you’re doing with your hands. In the words of James 2:16, As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead. Mere Christianity seeks to balance faithfulness and practicality with a living faith that rejects cheap grace and embraces sacrifice and the servant-hearted life. Mere Christians live out their faith and show it by what they do.

Mere Christianity in Practice

At this point, it is natural to ask what the kind of mere Christianity described here looks like in practice. There are a number of churches that can easily be described as having adopted this approach, even some which have self-consciously used this language.33 Below, I provide only the briefest examples of what the mere Christian approach may look like in practice.

Rooftop Church is a nearly twenty-year-old mere Christian church located in St. Louis, Missouri. Rooftop’s take on mere Christian characteristics manifests in its simple doctrinal statement, baptismal practices, emphasis on service to its community, commitment to working with other area churches, interdenominational make up, embrace of skeptics, apolitical posture, and ability to address “disputable matters.” More often than not, Rooftop calls this approach “big tent Christianity,” which is a fitting image of everyone involved gathering under a big tent. This is a useful image to draw on, as it conveys the approachability of such a church, as well the reality that boundaries do exist and the fact that there is a core—the ring where everyone should be focused.

It is this core that Rooftop constantly points people toward: “We take Jesus seriously, but not ourselves” is a constant refrain at Rooftop, particularly when disputes occur. A couple of years ago, the oft-contentious issue of creation and evolution came up. As people joined this side or that, leadership at Rooftop stayed a course of framing the issue as that of a disputable matter: an important theological conversation that Christians should engage, understand, and come to conclusions on, but one that should not divide the church or cause people to break fellowship with one another. Rather than taking one position or another, and rather than saying that this issue didn’t matter, Rooftop took the mere Christian route: they focused on the core of faith, embraced the messiness of the moment, and continued to pursue unity while not denigrating the importance of the non-central doctrine.

Another example of a mere Christian church is Arise Church, a church plant coming to the St. Louis metro area later this year. Obviously, as a plant, Arise hasn’t had the practical experiences that Rooftop has. From a planning and articulation standpoint, however, Arise positions itself as a mere Christian church. Its statement of faith, for example, is very mere, simply saying, “We believe in biblical and historical mere Christianity as expressed in the Apostles’ Creed…” followed by the Apostles’ Creed. When further clarification on a doctrinal or practical question is required, for instance on the question of who may lead in the church or how baptism should be undertaken, Arise begins its explanations with the following statement:

Scripture was written in and for diverse contexts and situations. Accordingly, within the New Testament there exist affirmations of “mere Christianity”— a focus on the core proclamation of the Risen Jesus while simultaneously allowing for freedom when it comes to non-essential beliefs and practices.34 We see this applied to various issues, including baptism, communion, eschatology, leadership structures, how to interpret the Old Testament, and the like. In each of these areas, there is a core idea that allows for a relatively diverse expression of practice. Following the New Testament model for the Church today, then, is not so much about discerning the single way to understand what Scripture says, so much as discerning what is core to faith in the Lord Jesus. Put another way, gospel freedom, when properly focused on the Good News of Jesus Christ as the redeemer of creation, allows for a certain amount of diversity on non-essential issues. Thus, an appropriate guiding principle for Christians is, “In necessary things, unity; in unnecessary things, liberty; in all things, charity.”

Although this brief overview of some key aspects of two mere Christian churches by no means exhausts the characteristics of this approach, Rooftop and Arise do stand as helpful examples of this perspective and its workability in our current context.

Summary

Mere Christianity commits itself to focusing on the core, central aspects of the Christian faith while allowing for differences of faith and practice on non-central things. It’s gospel-centered, creedal, balanced, embraces particulars, intellectually humble, drawn from the Great Tradition, and both faithful and practical. Is this approach perfect? Will it solve all of the problems that contemporary Christianity faces? Probably not. But it does represent a path forward, one that I believe can provide a sound, helpful way forward for a Church that is focused on bringing the good news of Jesus to our world.


Notes

1 Michael Bauman, Pilgrim Theology: Taking the Path of Theological Discovery (Manitou Springs, CO: Summit Ministries, 2007), 11.

2 Nathaniel Peters, “The Rise of the Nones,Public Discourse, 18 August 2019.

3 Peter Beinart, “Breaking Faith,” The Atlantic, April 2017.

4 The best example of this is probably the Donald Trump-Christianity Today-Mark Galli kerfuffle from December 2019 and its ensuing fallout.

5 Barna Group, “Meet the ‘Spiritual but Not Religious,’” Barna Group, 6 April 2017.

6 Derek Thompson, “How America Lost Its Religion,” The Atlantic, 26 September 2019. See also Noah Meyer, “The Failed Influence of the American Church,” The Meyer Standard, 10 June 2018.

7 Charles F. McElwee, “Easter’s Empty Basket,City Journal, 10 April 2020.

8 Nor will it ever be—at least, insofar as something labeled Christianity follows the Christ who promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against his Church (Matthew 16.17-19).

9 For Exhibit 1A, see Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian World (New York: Penguin Random House, 2017).

10 This is literally the title of a David Platt book sitting on my desk right now: Something Needs to Change: A Call to Make Your Life Count in a World of Urgent Need (Colorado Springs: Multnomah, 2019).

11 Please note that this is not a condemnation of all forms of Christianity in America, simply a statement of the general malaise and ineffectiveness of a Church that’s supposed to be advancing the kingdom.

12 Jacob J. Prahlow, “The Non-Denominational Reformation,” Conciliar Post, 11 April 2018.

13 See the ACNA website.

14 See Francis Chan, Letters to the Church (Colorado Springs: David C Cook, 2018); David Platt, Radical (Colorado Springs: Multnomah, 2010); and Skye Jethani, Immeasurable (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2017) for three prominent examples.

15 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperOne, 2000), 54, 55-56.

16 C.S. Lewis, “On the Reading of Old Books.”

17 Vincent of Lerins, “Commonitory,” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Volume 11, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Buffalo: Christian Literature Publishing Company, 1894), rev. Kevin Knight, II.6

18 Often attributed to Augustine, this quote likely originated with Marco Antonio de Dominis (d.1624) and was popularized by Lutheran theologian Peter Mederlin in his 1626 work, Paraenesis votiva pro pace ecclesiae ad theologos Augustanae.

19 For a helpful overview of this perspective, see David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007).

20 For a brief history of denominationalism, see Roger Olson, et al, Handbook of Denominations in the United States, 14th Edition (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2018). Also helpful is Michael Patton’s article, “Why are there so many divisions in the Church?” Finally, for a helpful review of the problems of the sectarian approach, see Gavin Ortlund, Finding the Right Hills to Die On (Wheaton: Crossway, 2020), 27-43.

21 Ortlund, 45-59.

22 Kevin DeYoung, “Seven Characteristics of Liberal Theology,The Gospel Coalition, 26 September 2017.

23 Ortlund, 47.

24 On the hermeneutic appropriateness of gospel centered approaches to scripture (a key interpretive underpinning of this approach), see Christian Smith, The Bible Made Impossible (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2012), 93-126.

25 Scot McKnight, The King Jesus Gospel (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 45-62. See also McKnight’s ongoing conversations about what is central to the gospel on The Jesus Creed.

26 For more on what this approach to balance requires in terms of scriptural interpretation, see Christian Smith, 127-148.

27 In the words of D.A. Carson, “Every generation of Christians faces the need to decide just what beliefs and behavior are morally mandated of all believers, and what beliefs and behavior may be left to the individual believer’s conscience.” D.A. Carson, “On Disputable Matters,” Themelios 40.3 (2015): 383.

28 In theory, I’d be willing to suggest this as a useful test for determining what a necessary issue is or is not. The actual core of Christianity would be things that never get a “views on” book. I’m reticent to make this any sort of test, however, not because I don’t think it’s useful, but because I’m reasonably certain that Zondervan (and other publishers) will eventually extend into the territory of “necessary things” to make some necessary money.

29 Helmut Thielicke, A Little Exercise for Young Theologians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016). See Gilbert Meileander, The Freedom of a Christian: Grace, Vocation, and the Meaning of Our Humanity (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006), 57-88. See also, Bauman, 35-48.

30 See Ruth Koch and Kenneth Haugk, Speaking the Truth in Love (St. Louis: Stephen Ministries, 1992).

31 Bauman, 15.

32 Mere Christianity thus has strong parallels to interdenominational or trans-denominational churches, though the approach is not strictly limited to those particular manifestations.

33 N.T. Wright immediately springs to mind as someone who, especially in recent years, has intentionally adopted this posture. In Simply Christian, for instance, he writes that “the book isn’t ‘Anglican,’ ‘Catholic,’ ‘Protestant,’ or ‘Orthodox,’ but simply Christian. I have also attempted to keep what must be said as straightforward and clear as I can, so that those coming to the subject for the first time won’t get stuck in a jungle of technical terms.” See N.T. Wright, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2006), xii.

34 1 Corinthians 15.1-34; Romans 14.1-23. See also C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity.