Fingerprints of God: Lessons from the Book of Esther

Last year, I had the privilege of preaching through the book of Esther at Roosevelt Community Church. The sermon series was such a reminder of God’s sovereign hand at work behind the scenes and his providential care for his people living in exile. The tagline that we said repeatedly to sum up this great book was “God is active even when we don’t directly see it.” Our lead pastor, Vermon Pierre, was on sabbatical for a couple of months, so he allowed me to preach this narrative to our congregation. (So big shout out for churches that allow their pastor to take sabbaticals for rest, refreshment, and nourishment. Also, big shout out to pastors entrusting the pulpit to younger preachers to equip and edify the body of Christ.)

Through prayer and help from the Holy Spirit I mapped out the series in 11 sermons. I titled it “Tracing the Fingerprints of God,” because I was struck by the providential fingerprints of God throughout the book. I define a fingerprint of God as those things you fail to understand in the moment, but with hindsight, see clearly as God's working. For instance, Esther becoming Queen in Persia is a fingerprint of God.

Though it’s odd for a Jewish orphan woman to replace Queen Vashti (Es 2), it’s not till later in the book we see the full significance. This position allowed Esther to play a major role in saving the Jewish people from destruction. I’m sure she did not know what God was doing when allowing her to become Queen, but looking back, there is no mistaking why he sovereignly allowed this to happen, for the redemption of His people. What a great fingerprint!

Here are three things I learned from preaching through the book of Esther:

God is truly in control over everything

Psalm 115:3 says, “Our God is in the heavens, and he does as he pleases.” Yahweh is fully and truly in control from every aspect of life even the things we do not understand. In Esther, we see how he is sovereign over Esther becoming Queen (Es 2), Mordecai discovering the plot (Es 2:19–23), and Mordecai challenging Esther to go to the King (Es 4:14). God is even sovereign over King Ahasuerus’ insomnia (Es 6), which leads him to listen to the story of Mordecai foiling the plot of two eunuchs against the king. The king then wanted to honor Mordecai, which eventually leads to him replacing Haman as the second in command in the kingdom. God is in the details!  All of these are fingerprints of God.

Systemic injustice has historic roots

In Esther 3, there is an intriguing story between Mordecai and Haman. Essentially, we see the reality of how systemic injustice occurs. It happens in three movements.

  1. Systemic injustice occurs when there is a certain disdain for a group of people (Es 3:1–6). Haman hated Jewish people. His hatred was rooted in historical tension between the descendants of Agag and the descendants of Saul (Ex 17:14–16; 1 Sam 15:32–33). As an Agagite, Haman’s lineage was linked to Agag.
  2. Systemic injustice occurs when a person (or people) abuses power and authority (Es 3:7–11). Haman was second in command in the kingdom. He has access to the King and advocated for a Jewish Holocaust way before Nazis in Germany. His prejudice towards Jews led to his abuse of power.
  3. Systemic injustice occurs when laws harm a certain group of people tremendously (Es 3:12–15). After the king agrees to permit this future massacre, Haman put this into an edict—what we would refer to as an executive order. This threw the city into confusion.

Systemic injustice still occurs today, and we see the same steps for its inception and execution.

God cares and loves his people

In the book of Esther, we see that God cares for and loves people. He set a plan in motion to save his people from their enemies. Esther goes to the king to intercede on behalf of the Jewish people; she reveals Haman’s wicked plot, and he is thwarted. In chapter 8, God uses Esther as a representative to save the Jewish people through a new edict.

An intriguing question: could Esther be a type of Christ? Could she be foreshadowing the great salvation that we see in Christ Jesus? Throughout the Holy Scriptures, God uses all sorts of people for his ultimate glory, and these mini-narratives of salvation point to the greater deliverance at the cross. God cares and loves his people—so much so he gave his only begotten son (Jn 3:16).


The book of Esther is amazing! It’s a great book for pastors to preach and teach through. There are so many different things that I’ve learned and I encourage pastors to prayerfully consider preaching through it. I’m confident their congregations will be encouraged by the heart of God. His name is not directly mentioned, but he is always active even when we don’t directly see it.

John Talley III serves as the Executive Pastor of Mission & Vision at Roosevelt Community Church in downtown Phoenix. He serves on the Executive Leadership Team of the Surge Network, a movement of local churches putting Jesus on display in Arizona. Also an adjunct professor at Arizona Christian University, he graduated from Grand Canyon University with a Bachelor of Arts in Christian Studies and Phoenix Seminary with a Master of Divinity with an emphasis in Biblical & Theological studies. He, his beautiful wife, Celeste, and their daughter reside in Phoenix, AZ.


Is Work Good? Exploring Creation and Economics

There are a few questions related to work and economics that I field regularly. They all center around whether work, money, and economics in general are inherently good, neutral, or necessary evils in our post-fall world. Faithful followers of Christ want to know, how should I think about my relationship to God and my work? Is money just for funding missions and ministry? Is my workplace merely a field for evangelism and discipleship, or is there any inherent value in my work?

We cannot answer all of these in this short space, but we can explore key elements of a biblical vision of work and economics that can serve as a foundation for an answer to these important questions. Although there are resources throughout the Scriptures, this short article will focus on what the account of creation can teach us about work and economics.

Clues from Creation

In the early Genesis narrative, we often skip over details in order to focus on humanity’s creation. However, in those details we find some subtle, but really interesting perspectives on creation, work, and economics. The description of the land in Gen 2:10–14 indicates that some locations had gold, bdellium, and onyx, which means there were also places where these natural resources did not occur. Additionally, the note that the gold in Havilah was good, implies there were places that had gold of a lesser quality. These textual details suggest to the reader that variations of resources occurred intentionally and were not post-fall in origin. We learn that even without the presence of sin, creation’s design included economic diversity.

We can press further and see the roots of economic activity in this diversity. If, before the fall, humanity had obeyed the command of Gen 1:28 and moved to fill the whole of the earth, different communities and individuals would have had radically different resources. One community would have had quality timber, while another good stone. Thus trade, the most basic form of economic activity, would have been necessary. Trade would have been required to meet the needs of each and every community.

Additionally, individuals would likely have developed unique strengths working with the resources that were most abundant in their local communities. This would have naturally led to the various skilled trades and crafts. What this teaches us is that work, specialized vocations, and other economic activities like trade were part of the inherent goodness of creation.

Beyond this general glimpse of how the creation might have unfolded before the fall, we see Adam engaged in work, carrying out the divine mandate to tend the garden. Three key components of his work are helpful as we seek to address the question of whether work has any inherent value. First, we see that Adam’s work is imitative of God’s work. His first task, naming the animals, has him ordering his world by speaking. The divine work of chapter one was done through God’s speech. Part of Adam’s expression of being made in the image of God is his creative work. Second, we can see that in naming the animals, Adam is obedient to the Lord’s creation schemes. He correctly concludes that none of the animals were suitable for him. Work can be a place where we live out our obedience to the Lord. Third, careful attention to the narrative details of Adam’s work reveals that Moses intended us to see his garden work as worship. As I recently wrote elsewhere:

Intentional word choices in the text indicate that we should understand Adam’s work as worship. Adam was placed, literally ‘caused to rest’, by God in the garden in order to work and keep it. Rest points forward literarily to Noah and the deliverance from the flood, and to the rest Israel would have from their enemies in the land. The terms ‘work’ . . . and ‘keep’ . . . are understood literally in the garden, but later they will be used to describe temple service and the people’s relationship to God’s revelation. Adam’s work is his intentional, reverential response to God’s provision and a pointer forward to later work and worship.

The account of creation teaches us that work is part of God’s good design of the world and that vocations, specialized trades, and economic activity in general are not a result of the fall. Rather, they are part of God’s intent for humanity to live communally and cooperatively, supplying one another with goods and services. This is all founded in  creation’s inherent diversity of resources. Further, our work, as modeled by Adam, can be a worshipful, obedient, and reverently imitative response to God’s great acts. Our work is one sphere in which we can live out our creation in his image. From the perspective of creation, work has inherent value and worth despite the challenges we face working in a fallen world.

Other Clues

If we had more time, we could explore the impact of sin on work and the ways in which God countered those effects among his people. We could consider his granting of wealth and the ability to make wealth to Israel (Deut 8:18). We could ponder the repeated assertion that the ability to enjoy work and its fruit is a gift of God (Eccl 3:3; 5:19). We could study the presence of the righteous poor and the righteous wealthy in the wisdom literature. We could wrestle with the tremendous impact of oppression and the misuse of wealth and power in the wisdom literature and prophets. Finally we could venture on into the New Testament and delve into Jesus’ teaching about economics. Economic realities are not outside the kingdom. They are the very things the Lord knows we need. As we seek his kingdom, economic concerns—food, shelter, clothing—are not omitted, they are what will be added (Matt 6:33). We could ask about Paul’s thoughts on work as he deftly moved between times as a missionary supported by donors and as a worker plying his trade while also planting churches. And these suggestions barely scratch the surface.


So how do we move forward? First, I think we acknowledge that like the rest of life, work and economics have been massively impacted by the presence of sin. This means the toil of our jobs, the sinful economic acts we witness, and the question of how to integrate work into our lives as followers of Christ, are legitimate concerns that should not be brushed aside. We can seek to confront sin in ourselves, our workplaces, and our communities as we understand the condemnation of economic oppression found in the proverbs and the prophets. Yet, despite the taint of sin, we can confidently pursue the good of work in light of the way God designed the world and humanity. We can, like Adam, seek to be creative, obedient, and worshipful in our work. And we can learn to acknowledge that work and the ability to enjoy it is a gift from God.

For further reading:

Human Flourishing: Economic Wisdom for a Fruitful Christian Vision of the Good Life by Greg Foster and Anthony Cross

The Bible and Money: Issues of Economy and Socioeconomic Ethics in the Bible by Markus Zehnder and Hallvard Hegalia

Business for the Common Good by Kenman L. Wong and Scott B. Rae

Dr.  J. Michael Thigpen earned a B.A. in Religious Studies from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, an M.Div. from Columbia Biblical Seminary, and an M.Phil. and Ph.D. in Judaic, Hebraic, and Cognate Studies from Hebrew Union College. He is the author of Divine Motive in the Hebrew Bible: A Comprehensive Survey and Analysis. In addition to his academic background, Dr. Thigpen has extensive pastoral and executive leadership experience. He has served churches in South Carolina, Ohio, Kentucky, and California.  For more than a decade, Dr. Thigpen was the Executive Director of the Evangelical Theological Society.  Prior to beginning his academic career he served as an eBusiness senior project manager and call center director for US Bank.


The Simple Gift of Being Present

My wife and I love to open our home to friends and neighbors. We know that our world can be isolating and lonely, so we want our hospitality to open the door for community and conversation. One of the results of our hospitality (and certainly being a pastor) is that friends will ask us for advice when they are going through a tough season.

We always start with one question: “are you involved with a church?” A few years ago, this would not have been as big of an issue. But the pandemic truly impacted the simple grace of being together in a church family. Christian friends who know that they are out of the habit of gathering at a church need the gentle nudge—and sometimes stern push—to gather with their church every week.

We begin our counsel with being a part of a church because Christians who are isolated are outside of God’s good design. And then they are left to face trials and troubles without the help that God ordained in his church. Truly, the first thing a Christian needs to do is show up in a church. And there are three reasons to trust in the grace of gathering with God’s people.


God’s Command

Hebrews 10:22–25 invites believers into the grace of being a part of God’s church. The phrase “let us” gives the blessings we encounter in community. The invitation also comes with a command to “not [neglect] to meet together.” Neglecting the gathering means that believers miss out on the good gifts that the community comes together to celebrate. When occasionally skipping the service becomes a habit, Christians become isolated from the teaching of our confession of hope, they miss out on encouragement, and they end up discipled by the world instead of the church. We gather because God has invited us into the goodness of the community of faith.


God’s Purpose

Showing up matters because God’s command has a purpose; we encourage and build one another up when we gather. Hebrews 10:24 says that we “stir one another up to love and good works.” The blessing of gathering with the church is far more than what we get out of it, and includes what we give to our brothers and sisters as well. When we meet, we stir one another up. When we pray together, we intercede for the needs in our community. And when we sing praises to God, we also sing to one another the truth about God. Ephesians 5:19 tells us that we are not singing to God alone, we sing to one another. When we sing “Great is thy Faithfulness” we are proclaiming the glory and faithfulness of God. But we are also reminding our brother, who did not think that God was all that faithful this week, that he can trust God despite changing circumstances .


Christ’s Nature

Perhaps the strongest reason for showing up is the truth that the church is the body of Christ. And we know that Jesus came in the flesh. Jesus was born and grew up; he ate and drank; he met with and taught people. Jesus did these things because he is the Word made flesh (John 1:14). If Jesus came in a physical body, then the church, as the body of Christ, should come together physically, too. If a part of a human body is missing, it alters life significantly. Take out the wrong body part and it will end a life.

In the age of sermon podcasts and live-streamed worship, we can get some of the good that comes from a service but still miss out on all that God provided for us in the gathered church. It may seem like a small thing, but showing up is a way of living out the nature of the church as the body of Christ. He showed up more than 2,000 years ago in Bethlehem, and we show up each Lord’s Day to experience the grace of the gathered church.


So, when you feel strung out or tired, come to church. When your kids won’t listen and can’t get ready on time, come to church. When people are visiting from out of town, come to church. When you have been every week for years and feel burnt out, come to church. When your marriage is in a rough spot, come to church. When your career is going sideways, come to church.

You don’t need to have your life in order. You don’t need to wear your Sunday best. You don’t need the church bumper sticker on your car. You don’t have to feel in the mood. The simple gift of being present will bring you encouragement and community (while doing the same for your brothers and sisters) because that is how God designed his church to work.

Andy Shurson is a church planter and pastor of Desert Ridge Church in Phoenix. He is a graduate of Belmont University and Dallas Theological Seminary. Andy has served in the local church for years as a lead pastor, youth pastor, and in many other volunteer roles. He is also a writer who has written resources and curriculum for churches across the country.

Three Medieval Theologians You Should Read

C .S. Lewis once wrote that we should read two old books for every new book. The reason for this is that old books are able to lead us towards different ways of thinking, to say nothing of providing us with different perspectives than the ones bombarding us every day. But surely this advice doesn’t include books that were written from a worldview in which there are obvious errors? Should we, for instance, read medieval texts? Some authors, after all, believed the earth was at the center of the universe. Their periodic table of the elements included earth, wind, fire and air. And as for medieval views on medicine, well, let’s not go there! True, there were some odd ideas floating around in the Middle Ages, but in his influential book, The Discarded Image, Lewis makes the persuasive case that no worldview is an infallible catalogue of ultimate realities just as none is mere fantasy. This is a stark reminder that even in our own day we have bought into and include certain fantasies in our thinking that we don’t, can’t, or won’t see.

Helping to raise our gaze beyond the horizon of contemporary culture are medieval authors such as Thomas Aquinas, Anselm of Canterbury and Gregory the Great. At different times in history each of these has received equal measures of praise and disdain. Aquinas, for example, has found both admirers and detractors amongst evangelicals. Anselm is both beloved and eyed with suspicion by Christian readers. Gregory has been loved for his pastoral sensitivity and despised for being a pope. Truly, great spirits have always encountered opposition from mediocre minds. What I find encouraging, however, is that there is a growing, healthy interest in medieval theology. There is a line of faithfulness to God’s Word that extends from us back through both the Reformation and the Middle Ages, and we ignore it to our detriment because of the riches deposited there by the Holy Spirit.

Now that you are excited and ready to get reading, where should you begin? Here are three short samples that will whet your appetite for more.

Gregory the GreatThe Pastoral Rule

Gregory the Great was the pope from 590–604 and well deserved the title, “Great.” Gregory overcame tremendous obstacles in a world that was crumbling politically and economically as the Roman Empire was in the latter stages of its collapse. He cared deeply about planting churches, training pastors and spreading the gospel. He may be most famous for sending a monk named Augustine (not the famous author of the Confessions) to England along with about 40 other people to help in the work of evangelizing pagans. The Venerable Bede records the essence of these men’s hearts by preserving the letters Augustine and Gregory wrote to one another as they grappled with the practical issues of church planting and discipling new converts.

Among the works for which Gregory is best known, at the top of the list is his work, The Pastoral Rule. If you are tired of the drumbeat, that seems to be growing incessantly louder these days, that propounds a version of pastoral ministry that glorifies personality, extroversion, magnetic charisma and enthusiasm, this will be a balm for your soul. Here Gregory speaks of Christ likeness, character, integrity in public relations as well as in private living, and piety that flows from the work of the Spirit.

I commend to you the translation published by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2007. For further reading on Gregory you could begin with R.A. Markus’ Gregory the Great and his World.

Anselm of CanterburyMeditation on Human Redemption

At the beginning of his life, no one would have guessed that Anselm would one day become the Archbishop of Canterbury in England. Born to an upper middle class family in north Italy, Anselm seemed destined for anything but the ministry. After his mother’s untimely death and due to a deteriorating relationship with his father, Anselm struck out on his own and wandered Europe for three years. After that time, he settled down and pursued studies with the most famous teacher of his day who eventually convinced him to become a monk at Bec in northwest France. Anselm’s evident intelligence, administrative acuity and political savvy led to him climbing the ranks from monk to prior to abbot to archbishop. Even with the demands and distractions that come at the highest levels of leadership, Anselm continued to pastor and write.

Anselm is probably most famous for two works: his Proslogion in which he argues for God’s existence and his Cur Deus Homo in which he sets out a satisfaction model of the atonement that is a precursor to later expressions of substitutionary atonement. While I heartily recommend both of these, I have found his very short (8 pages) Meditation on Human Redemption to be very rewarding. Like so many of Anselm’s works, it is best read slowly and contemplatively. Consider, “O hidden strength: a man hangs on a cross and lifts the load of eternal death from the human race; a man nailed to the wood looses the bonds of everlasting death that hold fast the world.” (my emphasis) As friends of mine might say, “That’ll preach!”

I commend to you the translation published by Penguin Classics that, happily, not only contains the Meditation on Human Redemption, but also Anselm’s other prayers and meditations. For further reading on Anselm, Eileen Sweeney’s contribution is the most recent, Anselm of Canterbury and the Desire for the Word.

Thomas AquinasThe Sermon Conferences of St. Thomas Aquinas on the Apostles’ Creed

On the one hand, Thomas Aquinas needs no introduction because, of all the figures in medieval Europe, Aquinas casts the longest shadow. On the other hand, while many have heard his name, their knowledge of who he was and why he matters is less clear. Much like Anselm, Aquinas was born into a well to do family in Italy who sent him away for an elite private school education. When political troubles erupted, Aquinas was forced to move and studied first at Naples and then at the University of Paris. In both places he outpaced his contemporaries, but because of his quiet, introverted demeanor, he was mocked by his fellow students as the “Dumb Ox” (he struggled with a weight problem). Eventually, when one of the greatest theologians in Europe overheard this mocking he upbraided the students telling them that one day the whole world would hear Aquinas’s voice. And so we have!

The text for which Aquinas is most famous is his systematic theology, the Summa Theologica. A similar work, but written with a more apologetic edge, is his Summa Contra Gentiles. Both of these are worth reading, but both of them are, well, about 1,500+ pages longer than the average tome. Among the myriad options of other works by Aquinas, it would be worth settling down with The Sermon Conferences of St. Thomas Aquinas on the Apostles’ Creed. As you would expect from the title, this is a collection of sermons Thomas preached on each line of the Apostles’ Creed. Here you will find a down to earth, street view of the great man’s theology in bite-sized morsels.

I commend to you the volume edited and introduced by Nicholas Ayo (for those of you eager to brush up on your Latin, this edition has the Latin text on the left page and the English translation on the right). For further reading on Thomas Aquinas a good place to start would be Denys Turner’s Thomas Aquinas: a Portrait.

Dr. David Hogg serves as professor of Church History and director of Library Services at Phoenix Seminary. Prior to joining Phoenix Seminary, Dr. Hogg taught at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in North Carolina and Beeson Divinity School in Alabama where he was also the Academic Dean. In addition to his academic pursuits, Dr. Hogg was an Associate Pastor and then Senior Pastor over an 11 year period. Dr. Hogg and his wife Sarah have three boys and, as a family, represent three different nationalities.

Hope in the Face of Temptation

Temptation is a part of all our lives. The serpent’s appeal, so crafty and surgical, has been repeated by the enemy every day since the Garden. Like Eve, we hear the whispers, the lies, the subtle voice of the Enemy. He peddles the myth, that to sin—to yield to the voice of Satan and indulge our desires—is the essence of being human.

And yet we must not only see ourselves as Genesis 3 people, fallen, but as Genesis 1 people as well. Attempting to be like God is sin and makes us less than human. Eve should have resisted the serpent, but in her indulgence she didn’t become like God. She became like an animal instead. There is a reason that evil is depicted in the book of Revelation as a dragon. Temptation preys on animal instincts. It tells us we are nothing more than our desires.

So what can we do in the face of temptation? How can we resist the advances of the enemy? Corrupted by the fall, we can’t help but sin. Religion, in a way, has us back in fig leaves, using our own efforts to fix the messes we make. But we know that even on our best days we often say yes to sin. “Not today, Satan” is a myth. At least for you and me.

Our Source of Hope

But Jesus, the seed of the women who took on human flesh, was “tempted in every way, yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15).” Jesus alone walked through a desert of temptation, assaulted with the same lies as Eve and yet emerged sinless, the perfect God man. 

Thankfully, Jesus offers more than just a good example of how to resist the devil. Paul writes in Colossians 2:15, that Jesus “disarmed the rulers and authorities and disgraced them publicly; he triumphed over them in him.” Yes, Jesus said “no” to Satan, but then He went beyond that, to the cross. In his agony, He cried “It is finished.” 

So while we can’t go back to Eden, we also don’t walk through the desert of temptation alone. Jesus went before us. Jesus resisted Satan’s overtures. Jesus went to the cross then rose again. Jesus defeated sin, death and the grave. 

The Fate of Our Enemy

Satan still roams the earth seeking to devour, but he is on a leash. His status as prince and power of the air is temporary. And though we should not underestimate him, we also should not live in fear. 

Satan, Michael Heisler reminds us, “remains active in the world until the final judgement, blinding the minds of people to prevent them from joining the kingdom of Jesus, but he has no accusation to bring against those who belong to Christ. His rightful claim over their lives in the realm of the dead is nullified through the resurrection of Christ and the union with Christ for all who believe the gospel. In the final judgment, Satan’s domicile, the realm of the dead, is transformed into the place of his torment.[1]

Those who are in Christ can take comfort in the words the aging Apostle John wrote to a church beleaguered by persecution and despair: “Greater is he that is in you than he that is in the world (1 John 4:4).” The Bible tells us that Satan’s ultimate end is hell. He will be banished there forever when Jesus returns and tempt the nations no more (Revelation 20:3). 

Facing Temptation

Until then, we can rest in spiritual power, refusing to fight the devil on his terms or in our own strength. The Bible promises us that the Spirit of God empowers us to overcome temptation:

No temptation has come upon you except what is common to humanity. But God is faithful; he will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to bear it. 1 Corinthians 10:13

That way of escape is not self-sufficiency or the ability to help ourselves, but the resources we have as citizens of God’s new kingdom. Escape comes through spiritual power. “ For although we live in the flesh, we do not wage war according to the flesh, since the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but are powerful through God for the demolition of strongholds (2 Corinthians 10:4).” 

We fight sin. We resist temptation. We throw back the lies of the enemy with God’s full armor (Ephesians 6). Every battle may not be a victory—We will follow Eve’s example daily—but on this side of Calvary, we don’t have to sit in our sin, drawing instead upon God’s rich provision of mercy. There we find forgiveness and freedom (1 John 1:9). And the devil, whose name means “accuser” cannot claim our souls nor pin guilt on us because Christ has taken our guilt and shame (Revelation 12:10). 

Parting Thoughts

Satan is powerful. He’s a lion who roars. And yet we should not ascribe God-like characteristics to him. He’s not all powerful. Or all knowing. He cannot read our thoughts and does not know the future. He captains a horde of demons, but they are on the losing side. In the power of the Spirit of God, the devil can be resisted. 

The serpent has unleashed evil in God’s good creation, but we can say, with the reformer Martin Luther: “The prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him. His rage we can endure, but lo, his doom is sure. One little word shall fell him.”


[1] “Demons: What the Bible Really Says About the Powers of Darkness: Heiser, Michael S.: 9781683592891: Amazon.Com: Books,” 192–93, accessed July 21, 2021,

Daniel Darling is the director of the Land Center for Cultural Engagement at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Assistant Professor for Faith and Culture at Texas Baptist College. He is the author of several books, including The Characters of Christmas, The Characters of Easter, The Dignity Revolution, and A Way With Words. He has pastored churches in Illinois and Tennessee and currently lives with his wife and four children in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. The article above is adapted from an excerpt of his new book The Characters of Creation.

3 Dangers to Avoid as a Christian at a Secular University

Perhaps more than ever, today’s Christian students face a significant question: How do I maintain my faith, and even grow spiritually, at a secular university?

This is a topic I explore in my new book, Surviving Religion 101: Letters to a Christian Student on Keeping the Faith in College (Crossway, 2021). In many ways, the book is a personal letter to my three children, especially my oldest daughter, Emma, who started as a freshman at my alma mater, the University of North Carolina, in 2019, and is now a junior.

The book focuses on a particular demographic within Christianity—students who are struggling—but it’s really for everybody. It will benefit any believer who is asking key questions about why they believe what they believe, and who is trying to survive a secular environment with their faith intact. You don’t have to be 21 to feel that. You can be in your late 20s in the business world. You can be in your 40s and in the peak of family life. At some point, we all ask these hard questions, and as Christians, we need to know how to answer our questions biblically, rather than letting the world dictate the answers to us.

As we discuss the dangers inherent to a Christian student entering a secular university, let me briefly say a word about the book’s title, because I think it plays into the discussion. The word “surviving” prompted much discussion between my publisher and me. Some thought the word was too modest, perhaps even passive. They asked, “Don’t we want to encourage people to do more than just survive?”

It’s a legitimate question. But I think the word captures the reality for a lot of Christian students in college. They feel like they’re sinking below the waves and fighting for their life. And honestly, the whole college experience is one of spiritual survival. The first step is not to conquer the world; it’s simply to take the next step and make it through with your faith intact. For many young believers, the immediate issue is to stay in the game. Don’t retreat. Don’t fall away. Then, as you survive and grow, you’ll get to the next stage of the Christian life.

Not a New Problem

Struggling with faith in college is not a new thing. A man named Philip Wentworth once published an article in The Atlantic entitled “What College Did to My Religion.” He begins the article as follows:

To say that college does something to the average student's religion is to state a truth which will be conceded by anyone who has given the matter a moment's thought. Nine young men and women out of ten who will receive their degrees this June would probably admit, if they were called to testify, that education has acted as a poison to their faith. In many instances the virus generated by the reasoning processes induces only mild distemper of skepticism, but in others it works like an acid, eating its way into the bump of credulity until in the end this estimable organ is completely corroded. Devout parents and clergymen have frequently observed this phenomenon and deplored it. When they discuss it, however, as they often do, they betray a common failure to understand the intellectual chemistry which has produced this wholesale apostasy of the younger generation.

Wentworth went on to share how four years at Harvard turned him from evangelical Christianity to secularism. His article was published in June 1932.

It’s clear that struggling with secularism at university is not new. However, the problem has not improved. Today, things are moving quickly in a post-Christian direction, both in the academic environment and in society in general. In prior generations, a Christian student could take some solace in knowing he or she wasn’t the only believer on a secular campus. But today’s students very much feel like the minority, and it’s only becoming harder for them.

Many Christians struggle in college because they can’t get past the statistical anomaly that all the smartest people in their little world don’t believe the Bible—and that they are seemingly the only ones who do. When they look around at their campus, they see all these people with PhDs who think the Bible is crazy. And they think to themselves, What’s the statistical likelihood that I’m right and all of them are wrong?

This is the key issue. But we need to consider how people form their beliefs, why they believe what they believe, and the role of worldviews. College professors are not neutral. No one is. You can’t just count noses to figure out what to believe, because people don’t form their beliefs exclusively on evidence. They do it on many other factors as well. Beliefs are formed based on earlier, more foundational beliefs, that someone already has. Understanding this will help set the tone for the whole college experience.

A 2007 study entitled “The Social and Political Views of American Professors” revealed that only 9.2 percent of respondents categorized themselves as conservative, compared to 46.6 percent as moderates, and 44.1 percent as liberals. Since then, it has only gotten more polarized.

Such statistics reveal that universities are more lacing in diversity than we might realize. Our culture talks about diversity mainly in terms of ethnicities, race, and gender. While those are indeed important issues to discuss, universities are supposed to look at a diversity of ideas. This is what they were originally founded to do—getting all the ideas on the table so they can be discussed and debated.

Unfortunately, in the last several decades—maybe even 50 years—universities have become more ideologically driven, and they’re not interested in all the ideas. College professors, and therefore classrooms, have become intellectually homogenous. People who are intellectually homogenous tend to hire others who think just like they do. These days, it’s very difficult to get hired at a secular university while professing evangelical Christian ideas.

Three Dangers to Avoid

These issues of homogeneity and competing worldviews present great challenges that our culture is going to have to face sooner or later. But college students—and their parents—need help today. As Christian students enter the collegiate fray, here are three dangers to avoid:

The first is naïve overconfidence. This is the first of two extremes I’ve noticed among Christian students at secular universities. Here’s the line of thinking: I grew up in a Christian home. I was raised in a good church. I’m impervious to spiritual challenges. I don’t have to put up my guard. I can handle anything thrown my way.

Sorry to burst your bubble but skipping lightly through the halls of academia just doesn’t work. You’ve got to be ready. It’s spiritually challenging out there, and you need to take it seriously.

Christian parents, therefore, need to be thinking carefully about how their child is being prepared for the university environment. This doesn’t mean we have to create little Ph.D. students, but it does mean we need to give students the basic categories and tools to know how to deal with non-Christian beliefs.

Generally speaking, I think most parents and churches struggle in this area. We tend to think our kids are best served by protecting them from any exposure to non-Christian thinking. Some worry that if they have certain conversations, they’ll upset their child’s nascent faith.

But I think this mentality can be counterproductive. It’s not all that different than parents who overprotect their children from germs. Germaphobe parents who wipe down every counter with disinfectant and make sure their kids wash their hands 30 times a day might think they’re being helpful. But if a child doesn’t get exposed to certain germs early on, their immune system can stall. They actually need some exposure to germs for healthy immunity.

The second extreme is unbridled suspicion. While some students have naïve overconfidence, other students can enter the university context with a type of paranoia, and perhaps even a martyr’s complex. They think everyone is out to get them, and that their professors are like Darth Vader.   

But this simply isn’t the case. Most professors, even if they don’t have a Christian worldview, are not trying to destroy people’s faith. They are not intentionally trying to target evangelicals.

Moreover, this attitude can prove to be very counterproductive. It makes a Christian student defensive, overly sensitive, and unwilling to listen to other people’s viewpoints. That sort of posture will make university life very, very difficult.

Finally, there’s the danger of what I call the horror-movie mistake. If you’ve ever watched a scary movie—I happen to love scary movies—you know the protagonist always makes the same mistake. They go off alone… in the dark. Even though it defies common sense, and even though the audience is yelling, “Don’t do it!”, they make the same mistake every time.

The same lesson is true spiritually. If you are struggling with what you believe, don’t make the horror movie mistake. Don’t wander off into the dark alone. Stay in a group and stay in the light.

How do you do that? You find a good church. You find good Christian fellowship. You tackle your questions and doubts in community. You work through them in groups, in the light, with people who love Jesus.

Dr. Michael Kruger serves as president of Reformed Theological Seminary’s Charlotte, North Carolina, campus, as well as the Samuel C. Patterson Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity. Dr. Kruger is the author of several books, including Christianity at the Crossroads: How the Second Century Shaped the Future of the Church (IVP Academic, 2018), Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books (Crossway, 2012), and Surviving Religion 101 (Crossway, 2021).


What Is Death?

Do you remember how you learned the Alphabet? A, B, C, D… and so on, right? At some point, you probably had a nice picture book to help you out: “A” is for apple you dutifully learned. “B” is for ball. “C” is for cat.

The acrostic wasn’t always so cute. In seventeenth-century New England, A was not for apple. No, you’d learn “A” is for Adam along with the couplet, “In Adam’s fall, we sinned all.” Yes, “C” is for Cat, but the poem went, “The cat doth play, and after slay.” It’s darker, isn’t it?

By the time you get to “G,” you’re learning that “As runs the [hour] glass, man’s life doth pass.” “T” is not for toy or tricycle but for “Time,” which “cuts down all, both great and small.” By the time you get to X the point has been made: “Xerxes the great did die, and so must you and I.”

These dour little couplets are from the New England Primer, one of the most famous books printed in the American colonies—a book used to teach countless children to read.

Can you imagine if an elementary school tried to use these today? Parents would revolt and say these are too morose and morbid for children. But I wonder if they weren’t onto something back then when they began teaching children about the reality of death early on.

Today, we don’t much like to talk about death. We prefer to avoid, ignore, and deny it. But we can’t. In a three-part series of blog posts for Shepherds and Scholars, I want to look squarely at death and answer three key questions from Genesis 5: (1) What is it? (2) What causes it? and (3) What, if anything, can be done about it?

Let’s begin with the nature of death. Is death great and terrible, or is it simply part of life? It is perhaps even a positive good as it’s portrayed in The Lion King’s opening song, the “Circle of Life.” Are we all just “on the endless round,” “the path unwinding”? Is death simply part of the inevitability of it all?

First, death is universal.

The first thing to say about death is really the most obvious: it’s universal. Frankly, I don’t think you need the Bible to tell you this. You certainly don’t need to be a Christian to believe it. There is the old joke that only two things in life are guaranteed: death and taxes. Recently I came across a riff on this: Death and taxes are inevitable, but death doesn’t repeat itself.

Behind those jokes lies a serious point. Death is universal and inevitable. All of us will experience it at some point—no exceptions.

The Bible makes this clear. In Genesis 5, there’s quite a lot of death. In fact, the most notable phrase in the whole chapter is the one that gets repeated eight times: “and then he died.” As the New England Primer said, “Time cuts down all, both great and small.” No exceptions.

This is one thing that makes our society’s deafening silence about death so astonishing. Think about how much energy and effort we put into thinking about other things that are far less certain. We expend enormous energy planning and thinking about our careers, our marriages, our children, our retirement, and our savings. And yet none of these have outcomes half as certain as death. Your marriage is not as certain as death. Nor is your job. Your children’s success or failure isn’t as certain. Death is. Death will come. And when it does, it outweighs every other circumstance of your life. Nothing will change your life as much as death and yet nothing is as certain as your death.

Second, death is personal.

Death isn’t only a universal experience. It is also inescapably personal. And this separates it from most other experiences in life. Unlike cheering for your favorite sports team, watching the election results, or getting a promotion, our death is something we must experience for ourselves—and all by ourselves.

No one makes this point better than the film-maker Woody Allen who once quipped, “I’m not afraid to die. I just don’t want to be around when it happens.” Once again, the joke gets at something very serious, doesn’t it? Of course, Allen will have to be there for his own death. I can’t die for you, and you can’t die for me. You must die your own death; I must die mine.

Again, we see this in Genesis 5. Though God had promised death to Adam for eating the fruit (Gen. 2:17), death was not limited to him. Adam dies, yes. But then Seth dies. And he dies his death. Enosh dies. And he dies his death. Kenan dies and he dies his death. And on and on. When Enoch escapes death, he is the exception that proves the rule.

Finally, death is bad.

Death is both universal and personal. And since it’s universal, it’s tempting to think that it’s also normal, not a bug so much as a feature of this software we call life. Many people—not just The Lion King—have taken this view through the ages.

Some think that death is merely non-existence. You did not exist before you were born, they say, and you will simply return to non-existence when you die. From this, they conclude that death isn’t really such a big deal in the grand scheme of things. After all, no one dreads their non-existence before birth, so we need not dread our non-existence after life either.

The fatal flaw, if you’ll pardon the pun, is, of course, that all-important part in the middle: life. Experiencing life changes everything about death. After all, it’s one thing to say that non-existence doesn’t matter when you’ve never experienced life; it’s quite another to experience life and then have it taken away. Unless you think that life itself is bad, you must conclude that death is bad, since life and death are opposites. Anything else is literally suicidal logic.

We see this, too, in Genesis 5. A genealogy might seem like skim-worthy material made to skip by as fast as you can. But don’t. The genealogy found in this chapter is unique. What’s unique is the constant refrain that marks each person in the list: “When so-and-so had lived so many years, he fathered such-and-such. He lived after that so many years and had other sons and daughters. Thus, all the days of so-and-so were so many years, and he died.” Over and over, a man lived for so long and he died. And his son died. And his son also died. Moses wants us to feel the weight and finality of it. We’re supposed to affirm the wrongness of death.

I think most of us, if we let ourselves really think about it, know this truth. Alfred, Lord Tennyson once wrote, “No life that breathes with human breath, has truly ever long’d for death.” I think he’s right. If we know the goodness of life, we must affirm that death is bad.

Someone more recent who makes the same point is Peter Thiel. He is a billionaire who made his money investing in tech companies. Thiel founded PayPal and then sold it for a large sum. He was also one of the first to invest in Facebook. He’s considered something of a guru for spotting promising young tech companies.

A few years ago, Thiel did an interview in Silicon Valley and, surprisingly, the topic of conversation was death. Thiel—visionary that he is—has set his sights on trying to get us to live longer; in fact, he wants to literally beat death. Forbes magazine writer reflected on the interview this way:

“I think the thing that’s really incompatible with life is death,” [said Thiel.] The line drew laughter, but one got the feeling the joke was unintentional. For Thiel, life is a self-evident good and death is the opposite of life. Therefore death is a problem, and as he says there are three main ways of approaching it. “You can accept it, you can deny it or you can fight it. I think our society is dominated by people who are into denial or acceptance, and I prefer to fight it.”

I think Thiel is right. Death is universal, personal, and bad. When it comes to death, we have three options: you either accept it, deny it, or fight it. Modern Western society works hard to deny it. Others try to accept it as somehow natural to life. But we know deep down that neither option works. The only option, then, is to fight it like Thiel. The question is how we do that. To understand that, we must first understand where death came from in the first place—something Genesis has a lot to say about.

Look for parts two and three of this series on “Death’s Refrain” at the Shepherds and Scholars blog in the coming weeks.

Peter Gurry joined the Phoenix Seminary faculty in 2017 and teaches courses in Greek Language and New Testament literature. His research interests range across the history and formation of the Bible, Greek grammar, and the history of New Testament scholarship. He has presented his work at the Society of Biblical Literature, the Evangelical Theological Society, and the British New Testament Conference. He and his wife have six children, two cats, and a tortoise. They are members at Whitton Avenue Bible Church. He has been known to enjoy cheap fast food, good typography, and Jack London stories.

Master and Be Mastered By Scripture

I have more understanding than all my teachers, for your testimonies are my meditation. (Ps. 119:99)

Some of my favorite seminary classes were the electives I took with the learned, insightful, near-legendary Dr. Peter Gentry, including the Hebrew exegesis of Isaiah. The set text was Isaiah 1–11 and 54–56. We were required to read the Hebrew text of all those chapters, using grammars and lexica as our only aids. The final exam consisted of several portions of those chapters, chosen by Dr. Gentry and hidden from us until the day of revelation when the secrets of our hearts were judged. In that exam, we had to read and translate the selected portions and answer questions about word formation, verb forms, and sentence structure. Our only help on the exam was a set of definitions for words used less than five times in all of Isaiah.

To prepare for the exam, I spent hours pacing back and forth in empty classrooms on the  Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s campus, reading the Hebrew text aloud to myself. I would read along with an audio recording and then read it alone. Some of the phrases still roll off my tongue eight years later. You could approach that test with confidence only if you had immersed yourself in the length and depth and breadth of all the assigned chapters of Isaiah. The only way to pass the test was to master the text.

Nearly every day that you serve as a pastor will test your ability to interpret and apply Scripture. Church members will ask you about the thorniest ethical quandaries in the Pentateuch. They will entrust to you their most intimate, complex struggles. You will need to recall, on short notice, passages that can shine light through narrow gaps into dark places of the soul. And on the last day, God will judge your work by whether you built with the precious materials he has given you in his Word (1 Cor. 3:10–15). The only way to pass both the daily exams and the final exam is to master and be mastered by Scripture.

How can you master Scripture? Know Scripture deeply and broadly. Aim to grow constantly in your grasp of Scripture’s depth and breadth. For breadth, I would strongly encourage you to read regularly through the whole Bible, at least once a year, for several years. The M’Cheyne reading plan is a great way to do that, and there are countless others. “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16–17). How can you equip people from all of Scripture if you don’t know all of Scripture? How can you know all of Scripture if you don’t read all of Scripture?

I was a freshman in college the first time I finished reading through the whole Bible. To my shame, I remember thinking, “Now what?” Thankfully, it quickly dawned on me that those wells had plenty more water to draw out, and always will.

Another way to pursue breadth in reading Scripture is to read through whole books in a single sitting. Read Isaiah like you would read a novel. Lock into its rhythm and flow. I guarantee it will be an edifying two hours.

What about depth? Here crucial habits are repetition, meditation, and memorization. I have profited from John MacArthur’s advice about how to master a book of the Bible. Take a decent-sized book, like the Gospel of John, which has 21 chapters. Break the book into thirds and read a third every day for a month. So in January, that’s John 1–7, then February is John 8–14, and March is John 15–21. In three months, you will have read the whole book thirty times. Try it. See how deep under your skin the book gets with that many repetitions. See how much of it you memorize without even trying.

Meditation is the art of patiently pressing the truth into your mind and heart.[1] Meditation is thought aimed at the heart. Meditation is savoring the truth until it flavors your soul. When you make bread or pasta by hand, as my wife and my kids and I often do, you have to knead the dough. Kneading changes the chemical structure of the mixture. Kneading forms gluten strands, which give bread its texture. Meditation is spiritual kneading. Meditation is working the truths of Scripture into your soul until they alter the structure of your heart, creating new strands of faith, hope, and love.

I would also strongly encourage you to memorize Scripture.[2] Verses are good, chapters better, and whole books best of all. If you memorize a passage, the sheer repetition required virtually guarantees that you will also meditate on it. And memorizing puts Scripture on the tip of your tongue like nothing else does. For more than fifteen years now, I have found memorizing Scripture—especially whole books—to be an exceedingly profitable spiritual discipline. And its benefits for pastoral ministry have been immediate, lasting, and wide-ranging.

If you have never memorized a whole book before, I would encourage you to pick something short and sweet, like Philippians or 1 Thessalonians. Set a time that you will work on it each day. If you can, get a partner—like a believer you are discipling—who will memorize it with you. That way you can hold each other accountable and recite the text to each other. And, in my experience, a helpful way to memorize an extended passage of Scripture goes something like this. Start with the first verse. Say the whole thing out loud while looking closely at the words. (If the verse is long, then say the first sentence or section.) Repeat a few times. Then, without looking at the words, say the whole verse out loud. If you can do this successfully, do it five or ten more times. There. You have memorized the verse. You have it word-perfect, and now you need to keep it that way. So, the next day, start by reviewing, out loud, without looking, what you memorized the day before. If some is already rusty, brush the rust off by repeating a briefer version of yesterday’s work. Then repeat the acquisition process with the next verse. Each day, repeat everything you have learned so far, and then grab the next verse. The kicker, of course, is that the more you memorize, the more time you need to spend reviewing. But you can get creative. Review while washing dishes or folding laundry or sitting in traffic.

Allowing for a few missed days and a few when reviewing takes all your time, if you stick to it, you will memorize Philippians in four months. But if you want to retain what you have memorized, you need to regularly review the whole thing. It is especially important to review the book right after you have learned it. My track record on this has been mixed. I would recommend reviewing the whole book every day for at least a month. The good news is, once you know it well, you can say it a lot faster. If you want to master Scripture, memorizing it will force you to dwell on every word, and it will cause every word to dwell in you (Col. 3:16).

But the real test of whether you are mastering Scripture is whether it is mastering you. The point of studying Scripture is to submit to Scripture. The point of reading Scripture is to be read by Scripture. The point of meditating on Scripture is to be remade by Scripture. So, turn reading into praying. Turn study into self-examination. Whenever you study Scripture, keep your eyes peeled for reasons to praise God and humble yourself. Use Scripture as a searchlight to expose sins in your heart that you have not yet reckoned with. As the late John Webster has said, the canon of Scripture is “a knife at the church’s heart.”[3]

Every pastor must have a thorough, firsthand mastery of the whole of sacred Scripture. And every pastor must be thoroughly mastered by Scripture. Every time you attend to the words of Scripture, aim to claim more territory in your soul for the rule of King Jesus. Engage Scripture in order to surrender to Scripture. Like Jacob with the angel, in all our wrestling with Scripture, the blessing is in the losing.[4]

Editor's Note: This post has been excerpted with permission from Dr. Jamieson's new book, The Path to Being a Pastor (Crossway, 2021). 

Dr. Bobby Jamieson is an associate pastor at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge and is the author of several books, including Sound Doctrine: How a Church Grows in the Love and Holiness of God (Crossway, 2013), Going Public: Why Baptism is Required for Church Membership (B&H Academic, 2015), and The Path to Being a Pastor: A Guide for the Aspiring (Crossway, 2021).


[1] For a wealth of practical counsel on how to meditate on Scripture, see Donald S. Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, enlarged and revised edition (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2014), 46–69.

[2] For some motivation to memorize Scripture and instruction on how to do it, see Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, 39–45. Further, while I have not followed his method exactly, Andrew Davis, “An Approach to Extended Memorization of Scripture,” is a helpful guide. Available at, accessed April 27, 2020.

[3] John Webster, “The Dogmatic Location of the Canon,” in Word and Church: Essays in Church Dogmatics, Cornerstone Series (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 46: “If the canon is a function of God’s communicative fellowship with an unruly church, if it is part of the history of judgment and mercy, then it cannot simply be a stabilizing factor, a legitimating authority. Rather, as the place where divine speech may be heard, it is—or ought to be—a knife at the church’s heart.”

[4] I borrow this image from a sermon by Mike Bullmore, at the 9Marks at SBTS conference in 2013, in which he applied the metaphor to expository preaching. Available at, accessed April 27, 2020.

What Luther's Trip to Saxony Teaches Us about Connecting Church and Home

My grandparents once had a wall of pictures in the long hallway at the top of the stairs in their home. I can remember my mom and aunts standing around the pictures after a new cousin was born, talking about how much the new addition favored one older relative or another. These days it seems like everyone is tracing their ancestry and genetic history. Discovering where we’ve come from helps us to understand something about ourselves.

That’s one of the reasons I love Martin Luther. He’s like a bombastic German uncle who has helped me to understand both the centrality of the gospel and the Bible’s two-fold strategy for family discipleship.

Beginning with a Focus on the Family

Luther’s plan for reaching the next generation began with a focus on the family. He was passionate about parents teaching their children. During the Middle Ages, professional clergy and church institutions such as schools and monasteries had taken pride of place in the role of passing down the faith. But with the dawn of the Reformation, church leaders called for a return to family discipleship, instructing parents, and especially fathers, to take an active role in teaching their children the faith.

Luther led the way. When giving his lectures on the book of Genesis, the reformer famously compared the Christian home to a school and a church:

Abraham had in his tent a house of God and a church, just as today any godly and pious head of a household instructs his children . . . in godliness. Therefore, such a house is actually a school and a church, and the head of the household is a bishop and priest in his house.

Luther helped to move the church from a culture of clericalism to a culture where the work of every believer mattered. The Wittenberg pastor believed that the ordinary labors of life—everything from laboring at a trade to changing a baby’s diapers—are charged with meaning. He was convinced that God is always at work in our labors at home, no matter how ordinary they are, and he was also confident in the gospel’s power to move people’s hearts toward God. He believed that gospel preaching would move fathers to become disciple-makers within their homes and move in children to cultivate a love for God’s Word and his church.

Discovering How the Family Needs the Church

While Luther’s convictions about gospel-driven family discipleship never waivered, his experience visiting the churches of rural Saxony in the late 1520s seems to have convinced him of the need for some institutional safeguards as well. After the visits, Luther wrote the following with his typical fervor:

Good God, what wretchedness I beheld! The common people, especially those who live in the country, have no knowledge whatever of Christian teaching, and unfortunately many pastors are quite incompetent and unfitted for teaching. Although the people are supposed to be Christian, are baptized, and receive the holy sacrament, they do not know the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, or the Ten Commandments, they live as if they were pigs and irrational beasts.

After seeing such depressing conditions, Luther prepared a catechism that could be taught both in homes (in German) and in church-sponsored schools (in Latin). He became convinced that parents couldn’t train up their children alone. They needed support from the church community.

Reaching Youth Culture While Leaving Mom and Dad Behind

In many ways, the story of contemporary family ministry mirrors Luther’s journey.

In 1844, the Young Men’s Christian Association (the YMCA) was founded in London to improve the lives of young working men; soon, churches followed this model by creating their own societies to reach young people—an early precursor to contemporary youth ministry. With the growing youth culture of the 1940s and ’50s, Christian leaders created organizations and ministries that sought to reach teenage culture for Christ. Parachurch ministries such as Young Life (1941) and Youth for Christ (1944) were quickly followed by age-directed youth ministry programs in local churches.

By the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, nearly most local churches had youth ministers who saw youth culture as their mission field. They set up drum sets, used lights and video, and played crazy Nickelodeon-style Double Dare games as a way of becoming “all things to all people that by all means [they] might save some” (1 Cor. 9:22).

One disadvantage of this programmatic youth ministry model was a growing sense among some parents that they themselves would never be able to reach their children. They needed younger, cooler youth leaders who were, one might say, “in touch with kids today.” During the Reformation, Luther had fought against the clergy-laity divide within the Roman Catholic church. But less than five hundred years later, many parents assumed the responsibility for evangelizing and training their children was best left with professionals. Here’s how Timothy Paul Jones described this mentality in his book Family Ministry Field Guide:

"School teachers are perceived as the persons responsible to grow the children’s minds, coaches are employed to train children’s bodies, and specialized ministers at church ought to develop their souls."

Connecting Church and Home

Thankfully, just as it did during the Reformation, the church has once again responded to an overemphasis on overly institutional ministry with a rediscovery of the Bible’s two-fold emphasis. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, a group of family ministry leaders formed what has come to be known as the family ministry movement. These leaders have proposed a number of creative alternatives to programmatic youth and children’s ministry that have put a stronger emphasis upon both church and home.

One key passage for the family ministry movement is Psalm 78:

[Things] that we have heard and known,
that our fathers have told us.
We will not hide them from their children,
but tell to the coming generation
the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might,
and the wonders that he has done.

He established a testimony in Jacob
and appointed a law in Israel,
which he commanded our fathers
to teach to their children,
that the next generation might know them,
the children yet unborn,
and arise and tell them to their children,
so that they should set their hope in God
and not forget the works of God,
but keep his commandments. (vv. 3–7)

This psalm reminds us how God, throughout Israel’s history, had the generations in mind. God wanted Israel’s children to remember what he’d done to rescue and save. He wanted them to remember his laws and commands. He wanted the kids to hope and trust in him. And God gave the responsibility for training kids in the faith to two distinct groups: to Israelite parents and to their covenant community.

God commanded “[Israel’s] fathers to teach their children” (Ps. 78:5). No one has more potential to influence a child’s spiritual direction than their parents. No Sunday children’s ministry will come close to mom or dad’s level of influence. Family ministry leader Reggie Joiner once compared the number of hours an average parent spends with their child to the number his church ministry team spent with the kids in their care:

At best, with those who attended our church consistently, we would only have about forty hours in a given year to influence a child. . . . The same fourth-grader who would spend nearly four hundred hours playing video games and studying math would spend forty hours in our environments with our leaders and teachers. That same day we calculated another number that shocked us: the amount of time the average parent had to spend with their children. It was three thousand hours in a single year.

Joiner’s 3,000/40 ratio is stunning. Family discipleship will happen in planned moments when parents pull out a Bible storybook, and it will happen in unplanned moments when a child is heartbroken, and her parents give comfort. It’s in living rooms and cars, at bedsides and the breakfast table when many kids will hear and see their most consistent presentation of the gospel.

But training the next generation isn’t limited to homes. God’s command for parents to teach their kids was given in the context of a community (“in Jacob . . . in Israel,” v. 5). Christian parents won’t fulfill their responsibility to be generational disciple-makers unless fellow believers support them. Here are a few reasons why church ministry to children and students is necessary that I’ve adapted from Steve Wright and Chris Graves:

  1. To surround young people with godly adults who can provide love and care, truth they can build their lives on, and a model to follow (1 Cor. 11:1; 1 Pet. 5:2).
  2. To reinforce a biblical view of the world. A child will sometimes listen to a children’s or youth ministry volunteer even though they’ve consistently heard the same truth from their parent (2 Tim. 4:2).
  3. Because the family hasn’t been given the keys to the kingdom, the church has. Therefore, the church is needed to affirm the salvation of children, and it’s the ultimate spiritual accountability for the family (Matt. 16:19).
  4. To be a neutral third party when there is a major family conflict, serving as an impartial advisor between parents and kids (2 Cor. 5:18).
  5. To connect believing young people with other Christians, who support, encourage, and keep them accountable (Heb. 10:25).
  6. To provide opportunities for young people to use their gifts to serve (1 Cor. 12).
  7. Because the church fights for truth and sound doctrine. It protects families from being drawn away by false teaching (1 Tim. 3:15).
  8. Because spiritual growth generally happens within the context of community (Eph. 4:11–16).

If kids growing up in Christian homes need the larger church family, how much more is the church needed to reach out and model the gospel for children who do not have Christian parents (Matt. 19:14; 28:19–20)? The Bible is clear. As Luther began to emphasize after his journey, children and students benefit from the combined influences of godly parents and the discipleship ministries of their local church.

Jared Kennedy (Th.M., Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) serves as managing editor of Gospel-Centered Family, a ministry that helps parents and church leaders share Jesus with the next generation. He is the author of Jesus Is Bigger than Me, The Beginner’s Gospel Story Bible, and Keeping Your Children's Ministry on Mission. Jared lives with his wife, Megan, and three daughters in Louisville, Kentucky, where they attend Sojourn Church Midtown.

2 Truths from John Owen about Being Spiritually Minded

While this past year has brought many unexpected difficulties, it has also brought some surprising gifts. One of the surprising gifts of the pandemic came for me when an old seminary friend asked if I wanted to be a part of a Zoom book study. Thursday mornings have now become a place to dig deep into books with accountability to finish them with strength. When the group decided to read John Owen, I remembered how much his works had encouraged me during seminary. Together, we started studying The Grace and Duty of Being Spiritually Minded.

Owen—although he was writing 340 years ago—seems to understand my mind and natural instincts better than any other writer. Owen saw Psalm 119 as the litmus test for someone’s spiritual mindedness. When we are spiritually minded, we delight like David does, in God’s Word. But when I test myself—as Owen says we should—I must admit that when Psalm 119 comes up in my Bible reading, I don’t always delight in the task of reading 176 verses!

So, centuries after he wrote, John Owen is challenging me to live with inward Spirit-mindedness in the face of temptations, natural desires (to rush through my Bible reading), and the pull of outward religiosity. His works are a wonderful gift to the church that helps us experience communion with God and walk with him daily.

This amazingly detailed “short treatise,” as Owen describes it, is particularly worth our time and attention. Here Owen boils down the nature of spiritual thoughts into two categories: their object and their motive.

The Gospel Must Be the Object of Our Spiritual Thoughts

If you’ve read Puritans like Owen or Edwards, you will find them regularly talking about the object of our thoughts. The object is the thing we set our minds upon. When a father tells his son to keep an eye on the ball, he is giving the child the object. Owen tells us the object of our spiritual thoughts must be the gospel: “Whatever ground the gospel loses in our minds, sin possesses it for itself and its own ends.”

We live in a world full of distractions. The world is competing for our attention by giving us objects to put above the gospel. Apps and marketers want to capture our attention and imagination. Living by the Spirit means that we choose Christ and the gospel as the center and focal point of our gaze.

Owen knew the power and danger of temptation. He wrote, “Imagination creates its own object … They who do not think of them [spiritual things] frequently shall never believe them sincerely.” The imagination gives us various pictures and objects that promise a good life but fail in the end because they are not real. When we bump into reality, we find that all objects that promise a good and fulfilling life outside of Christ are counterfeits.

However, the beauty of the gospel is that when Christ is the object of our faith, we do not have to imagine or create something big enough to bear the weight of life. He can bear it.

Delight Must Be the Motive of Our Spiritual Thoughts

Owen calls spiritual mindedness a grace and a duty. It’s grace in that the object of our thoughts is the transforming power of Jesus Christ himself. It’s a duty because spiritual discipline and awareness are required to set our minds on Christ.

The danger with the duty of being spiritually minded is that we can employ spiritual disciplines in such a way that we’re cultivating outward righteousness instead of living by grace. This is where Owen points us to the importance of our motive.

The Pharisees and Jesus clashed time after time because Jesus would not stand for hypocritical, outward displays of righteousness. The problem for the Pharisees was not the letter of the law but the heart behind it. They kept the law so that God and others would see them as righteous.

But the way of Christ is not legalism and outward righteousness. It is not outward displays of good works but rather first an inward reality expressed through delight in the things of God. In other words, the transformation and renewal we receive and experience when we trust Christ make our life into a response and overflow of regeneration.

Owen writes, “To ‘walk with God,’ to ‘live unto him,’ is not merely to be found in an abstinence from outward sins, and in the performance of outward duties… All of this may be done upon such principles, for such ends, with such a frame of heart, as to find no acceptance with God. It is our hearts that he requires, and we can no way give them unto him [except by] holy thoughts of him with delight. This it is to be spiritually minded; this it is to walk with God”

When we know the greatness and the beauty of what God did for us in Christ, we delight in him. Living in that delight is the motive for true spiritual mindedness. When we know God, we then walk by delighting in his works.


Owen finds the distinction between duty and delight in Romans 8:6: “For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” In fact, Owen’s whole treatise finds its origin in this verse. And I can think of no better place in Scripture to lead us into delight in God.

Romans 8 begins with the proclamation that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus; it declares our adoption as children of God; it shares the encouragement that we have in the Spirit; and it ends by glorifying God for the greatness of his love. Delight in God’s saving and redeeming love will power our spiritual mindedness each day.

Take a few minutes today to read through Romans 8. Make Christ’s work for you the object of your thoughts, and allow the Spirit to warm your heart and cultivate within you a motive of delight in him.


Andy Shurson is a church planter and pastor of Desert Ridge Church in Phoenix. He is a graduate of Belmont University and Dallas Theological Seminary. Andy has served in the local church for years as a lead pastor, youth pastor, and in many other volunteer roles. He is also a writer who has written resources and curriculum for churches across the country.