Scripture and Neuroscience Agree: It Helps to Lament in Community

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

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

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

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

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

My reader was exposing a common ...

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ed: Who did you write this book for?

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

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

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

I’m also writing for those who are considering ...

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One-on-One with Warren Smith on MinistryWatch, Accountability, and the Need for Christian Journalism

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” That sentence also describes American journalism today. 

Today I am glad to welcome Warren Smith to The Exchange. Warren is president of MinistryWatch. Here we talk about the ministry and why it is needed today.

Ed: What is MinistryWatch?

Warren: MinistryWatch is an independent advocate for donors to Christian charity. We’re 20 years old and maintain a database of financial statements and analysis of the 500 largest Christian ministries in the country. We use this analysis to rate ministries on a 1- to 5-scale based on financial efficiency.

So, for example, ministries that spend more on administrative and fundraising activities will see their ratings lowered. Ministries that have large endowments will also likely see their ratings affected negatively. The rating system rewards ministries that use donor money directly for ministry activities.

We also issue “Donor Alerts” when ministries engage in bad behavior, or when we think donors need to beware or ask additional questions. We do not issue donor alerts often, usually a couple of times a year to warn donors (and focus media attention) on bad actors or questionable activities.

An equally vital part of our work has been to raise the profile of lesser-known ministries doing great work. We call these ministries "Shining Lights," after Matthew 5:16, which encourages us to "let your light so shine before men that they would see your good works and glorify your father who is in heaven."

Ed: I’ve used the ministry to look up certain charities. Can you explain to people who might not be familiar why that matters?

Warren: The financial analysis is unique to MinistryWatch. Ministries and other non-profits are required by law to disclose publicly certain financial information. However, most people are ...

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Black Pastor Candidate Withdraws After Controversial Vote at SBC Megachurch

First Baptist Church of Naples, Florida, continues to investigate whether Marcus Hayes’s rejection was the result of racial prejudice or preexisting turmoil following its previous pastor’s departure.

A black Southern Baptist minister has withdrawn his name from further consideration at the Florida megachurch that failed last month to achieve the supermajority vote required to call him as pastor, sparking accusations of racism from within and outside the congregation.

First Baptist Church of Naples, Florida, announced yesterday in an email to members that Marcus Hayes “has asked that his name be removed from consideration to be our next Senior Pastor.” The email, signed by the congregation’s eight-member senior pastor search team, called the withdrawal of Hayes’ candidacy “a major disappointment to several thousand members and supporters of First Baptist.”

Hayes has declined to make a statement to media regarding his decision.

Search team chairman Neil Dorrill had told the congregation November 2 he hoped Hayes, an African American, would allow himself to be considered a second time as a candidate for the senior pastor vacancy.

Currently a campus pastor at Biltmore Baptist Church in Arden, North Carolina, Hayes was presented October 26 and 27 as the candidate for the top leadership spot at the predominantly Anglo church. Its bylaws require “at least an 85% majority vote by secret ballot” to elect a senior pastor. But Hayes garnered only 1,552 of the 1,917 votes cast (81%).

Following the vote, FBC Naples’ executive pastor John Edie claimed in an open letter to the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) that there were “racial prejudices” behind the vote, which manifested themselves in a “campaign that started just days before.” The church, he said, had already begun “to make sure that this sinful cancer is dealt with.”

That week, First Baptist’s ...

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Why Black Protestants and Evangelicals Still Preach Politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Six Ways Pastors Struggle: You Are Not Alone

Pretending pastors don't struggle is a recipe for disaster.

When pastors go into ministry, we don't leave behind all of the struggles that define the human reality in which we live. Like others, we struggle with any number of things each day—interpersonal relationships, our marriages, as parents, with our health, with our self image.

And for some pastors, our struggles can go in one of two directions—either we hide them and try to deal with them in isolation, or we openly share that we, like everyone else, have a lot on our minds.

The unfortunate reality is that too many of us choose the former option. This is not necessarily because we don’t want to share, but because we either don’t know how, or we don’t feel safe. It is not easy to preach a sermon on healthy marriages even as our own is hanging from a thread. Nor is it easy to talk about the impact of sin when we are wrestling ourselves with our own addiction to porn, alcohol, technology…you pick your poison.

As a pastor, let me share six unique ways that pastors struggle. My hope is that this short list will allow both leaders and their congregations the opportunity to begin to ask, “How can we change our situation?”

First, pastors struggle with identity.

Pastors generally have three identities they need to balance: their perceived religious identity, their cultural identity, and their own identity. I remember some years back going over to a neighbor’s house. We didn’t know them well, but they knew I was a pastor. When we first came over to their house, they said it was like Jesus was visiting the house.

Well, I assure you that there is a big difference between Jesus and me! Yet because of my religious identity, this was how they perceived me. It was as though I had ...

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Interview: The Faith Behind the Crown

Queen Elizabeth’s belief is deep and sincere, says biographer Dudley Delffs, and Netflix gets it right.

When Season 3 of Netflix’s The Crown releases on November 17, viewers can expect plenty of changes as new actors tackle the lead roles and ferry the royal family through the tumultuous waters of the late 1960s and early 1970s. But they might also expect a reprisal of past scenes, including Queen Elizabeth kneeling beside her bed and praying. That practice “has been verified by numerous staff members throughout the years,” says author Dudley Delffs. “It really is part of the fabric of who she is and isn’t so much a matter of show.”

Delffs, who describes himself as a “lifelong Anglophile,” wrote The Faith of Queen Elizabeth: The Poise, Grace, and Quiet Strength Behind the Crown (Zondervan), which releases on December 3. Megan Fowler spoke with Delffs about the Queen’s faith and how The Crown gets it right.

You note that Elizabeth publicly asked her people to pray for her when she turned 21 and again when she was anticipating her coronation. This seems particularly striking, considering what a private person she was.

Elizabeth’s request for prayer from her subjects and from others has been a way to ground and demonstrate her faith and the fact that it is personal. She’s not just going through the motions, she does want their engagement and their support, and prayer is an incredible way to do that.

I think she’s keenly aware of her great, great, grandmother Queen Victoria, who had a very active, dynamic Christian faith and was very transparent about Bible reading, evangelism, and prayer. During the male monarchs, in between Victoria and Elizabeth, perhaps they were not as demonstrative or open about having a personal faith. That’s not to say that they ...

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Church Leaders: A Work in Progress

If we see ourselves as the director of the work, we will become vulnerable to the weight of ministry.

Earlier this year, my family moved to Wheaton, IL. As we familiarized ourselves with the town, it became apparent that the roads are a work in progress. Throughout the town, road construction was being done. We’ve said multiple times over the last month or so, “We’ll be glad when they get done!” As you know, sometimes road work can be an inconvenience. If it lingers long enough, it becomes downright annoying.

When it comes to the life of a believer, we too are a work in progress. The Apostle Paul pens this idea when he writes, “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil 1:6). So, our whole lives are lived “Under Construction.”

As one who is a work in progress, I can attest to how many times I feel that my “work in progress” (or lack thereof) is inconvenient, tiring, irritating, and annoying. Honestly, I just want to be complete; I just want to be whole.

As a pastor, I’ve had to face the reality that both the congregation and I are a work in progress—under construction. As a result, ministry can be met with struggle, heartache, loss, affliction, disappointment, difficulty, opposition, and suffering.

Such can lead to cynicism, fatigue, burnout, and depression. In addition, it can have negative effects on our mental health, personal health, marriage, relationships, and overall view of ministry.

Anyone who has ever been in ministry knows it is tough, difficult, and weighty. Things don’t go according to plan. What you thought was…isn’t. You thought you would be further along than you are. Some of the people who were with you in the beginning aren’t with you ...

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The ‘Self-Actualizing’ Spirituality of Søren Kierkegaard

How the Danish philosopher takes an idea that’s congenial to modern ears and turns it upside down.

Protestants don’t have saints. Or at least we claim we don’t. But if we consulted our eyes, fingers, and hearts, they would tell us otherwise. Perhaps we don’t own up to having saints because we worry it might impugn our identity, which is often anchored in the notion that we are those who resist and protest the ways of our elder brothers and sisters in Rome. But no matter what our minds tell us, our eyes, fingers, and hearts tell the truth. We are closet saint-admirers.

Which writer do you read when you are existentially famished? Whose thoughts do you continually find yourself pondering while putting away the dishes? Whose words do you break down and repeat with thrill and delight? Whose life inspires you? Who makes you want to be a better human being? That’s your saint. One of mine is the Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard.

Ever since Kierkegaard’s writing was introduced to an American audience (through the translations of Walter Lowrie, David Swenson, and Howard and Edna Hong), we’ve seen a near-bottomless amount of scholarship focusing on Kierkegaard the Philosopher. And over the past decade or so, the theme of Kierkegaard as Theologian has received a good deal of attention.

With the release of Kierkegaard and Spirituality: Accountability as the Meaning of Human Existence—the newest volume in the “Kierkegaard as Christian Thinker” series from Eerdmans press—C. Stephen Evans has hopefully opened up a new chapter in Kierkegaard studies: Kierkegaard the Spiritual Director. Evans, who teaches philosophy at Baylor University, brings philosophical grit and pastoral sensitivity to this book, making it a work on spiritual formation with a spine. ...

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One-on-One with Bryan Jarrett on Resourcing Rural America, Part 2

Pastor Bryan Jarrett and his team have created a safe space for children who have been victims of sexual exploitation.

Ed: Tell me about your camp and your program for children.

Bryan: I was a victim of childhood sexual abuse. For years, when I first started ministry almost 30 years ago, I did a lot of youth ministry and as I began to heal, I began to feel the freedom to talk about it. I say this all the time: rodents and roaches play in the dark, and when the lights come on, they all go find a place to hide.

There was freedom for me in being able to talk about it. As I shared my story, I realized that thousands of kids across this country were connecting with my story, and then I started looking into the numbers of people who admit to being sexually abused. This doesn't count all those who are not saying anything about it.

This has been a dream in our hearts for years. We actually started a camp with Royal Family Kids' Camp, which is a nationwide organization that helps local churches engage children who have been abused and neglected. I didn't start out to engage kids in the foster system, but identifying children who have dealt with sexual abuse is hard outside of the foster system.

A lot of the kids in the foster system are there because of some level of abuse, much of it sexual abuse. We founded Lonesome Dove Ranch in 2015 to serve the needs of children who have been exploited and sexually abused. It was born out of my own pain.

Ed: Tell me about how the camp runs. How many kids come in and out? Where do they come from?

Bryan: When we first began, we started by making inroads to organizations that serve the orphan. We set ourselves up at the camp for the worst-case scenarios. Our clinical counselors, are all Christian and counsel from a biblical and gospel-centered framework.

That's one thing we let the state know. Here in ...

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