Menu Monday (10/16-10/20)

It feels like fall here and so it’s time to break out the warming-your-insides recipes.

Monday–Fried Rice and Trader Joe’s Potstickers
(Check out my Instagram feed for my favorite short-cut fried rice recipe.)


Wednesday–Pasta with Creamy Pumpkin Sauce, Green Salad
(recipe in development, if it’s good, I’ll post it)

ThursdayChicken Pot Pie with Cream Cheese Biscuits

FridayButter Chicken, Rice, Cauliflower

Happy Fall!


Menu Monday (10/9-10/13)

Here’s what we’re enjoying this week. May your table be filled with good food and friends to share it.

Monday- Parmesan Crusted Chicken, Roasted Brussel Sprouts

Tuesday- White Bean and Kale Soup, Homemade Rolls (use the Twice a Week Bread recipe)

Wednesday- Leftovers

Thursday-Cheddar French Toast with Sizzled Tomatoes (Recipe coming! Check back soon)

Friday-Beef Stew Ala Julia, Crusty Bread


Five Points on Calvinism

I wanted to share some thoughts on Calvinism and defense of it. This is topic that is often mentioned, but I wanted to put down a little more detailed description of my beliefs, and maybe something that can be discussed on top of these points. But first, let me clearly say that this is indeed a challenging topic that many have debated, and I hope to express some humility: I certainly don’t have the answers. However, I believe it is still worthwhile to think about and discuss with an attitude of humility. So here it is, my Five Points on Calvinism (sorry for the pun ūüôā ):

1. I consider myself a Calvinist. But I would also warn against Calvinism if it leads you towards fatalism or against the belief in free will and responsibility for your decisions. If you believe that predestination means that you have no agency or opportunity to shape the future, then reject predestination. The reality and truth that our will decides the future is a hundred times more important than any truth found in Calvinism. And any errors of Armianism or open theism is a hundred times less significant than the errors of fatalism.

And furthermore, if you have any tendency to believe that just because God sovereignly ordained past events, that they prove and demonstrate God’s pleasing will, what he desires, then run from Calvinism. There are countless evil situations, evil leaders appointed, and tragedies that have occurred that God has sovereignly allowed. Let us not think for a second that this even suggests that this means God is pleased by these tragedies and evil. If you are prone to look at events in the world or your life and accept them as good simply because “God is in control”, I would suggest reconsidering what God’s sovereignty means. If these two dimensions of God’s will are confusing, Calvinism is not worth the confusion.

I would also warn against middle ground fallacy here, and seeking a compromise in semi-Calvinist views. I think the most reasonable alternative to Calvinism really is open theism. From my perspective, “middle grounds” seem more like mix and matching different views of God in whatever way is convenient. It is equally pernicious when we freely define some things as unavoidably according to God’s will and others as outside of His will based on whatever we like and dislike.

2. It is my conviction to avoid using the term “reformed” to describe my beliefs in predestination and free will and instead use the term “Calvinism”. I believe it is disingenuous and historically inaccurate to use “reformed” to describe a specific understanding of predestination. The reformation was not primarily a movement for or against a position on free will, but is best summarized by the five “solas” of the reformation, a dissent against other elements that were being added to the notions of grace, faith, and salvation. The primary debates about predestination actually consisted of reformed theologians on both sides (Arminius was definitely reformed). Declaring one side as true “reformed” is an example of “no true scotsman” rhetoric, not only a logical fallacy, but a underhanded means of attributing falsehood to dissenters by exclusion.

This is shady rhetoric, but it also blurs the focus of what being reformed should really be about. It is not a commitment to a specific understanding of sovereignty. What being reformed means to me, and what I prize is a commitment to the five solas: salvation defined by scripture alone, received by faith alone, through grace alone, by Christ alone, for the glory of God alone. These are the fundamental ideas that shape my theology and life, apart from any debates on the nature of sovereignty.

I also recognize that “Calvinism” is also not a historically accurate term either. John Calvin certainly taught on many subjects, and distilling it down to beliefs on predestination is simplistic. But, at least this term is also widely known, and I would rather misrepresent one person than the entire reformed tradition.

So, back to Calvinism…

3. The question of the nature of God’s sovereignty is not only a theologic question, but deeply intersects with the philosophy of determinism, and how we define the meaning of free will. Free will is the process of how we come to make decisions in our life. According to libertarian free-will philosophy, free will is only free if it is not predetermined. However, I believe this is confusing our feelings and perception of free-will, the feeling or experience of free-will as being from external constraints in our decision-making. However, as a Calvinist, I believe that our decisions are actually the direct result of our (mostly) internal thoughts, feeling, and goals. Every action, decision in the world is either the result of existing causes, or it is not, and when something is not meaningful related to some cause, it is by definition, randomness. Every decision is primarily either the result of our meaningful decision-making deterministically driven by our characters, values, and desires, or it is primarily randomness, unmeaningful rolls of the dice, coming out of nothingness.

Philosophically, Calvinism is known as compatibilitism. If God gives us the desire for chocolate ice cream, is our free will violated when then go to an ice cream shop, and gladly choose chocolate ice cream? No! If God gives us a passion for dance, and knows we will use it, have we then lost our free will if we then joyously choose to dance? No, absolutely not! God’s sovereignty over a deterministic universe and our free-will are not incompatible concepts, rather they point to the fact that our free-will is our experience of who we are, determining our decisions.

I believe that Calvinism, properly understood, should in no way diminish the consequences of our actions, or the responsibility that we bear in our actions. If we point a gun at someone, the decision to pull the trigger will leave the victim every bit as alive or dead, and leaves with every bit as much responsibility for the action, regardless of whether God knew or ordained it ahead of time. If our free-will is compatible with God’s sovereignty, so are the consequences and responsibilities that go along with it.

Therefore, I believe that our free will is primarily meaningful and deterministic, not caprice and randomness. And my belief in Calvinist determinism is a belief that God is directing a meaningful world, not a random world of people making decisions out of nothing, without cause or meaning.

4. Of course, the nature of God’s sovereignty is indeed very much a theological question, and receives such attention because it is crucial to theodicy: how does suffering and evil exist, if God is good?

It is worth actually considering two aspects of this question. First, does evil originate from God? And second, why does he allow suffering to persist in this world?

The Arminian answer is to appeal to human’s free will as the source of evil, in order to vindicate God. To these questions, the suggested answer is that our free will is the origination of evil, and suffering persists because of our sinful actions.

I simply don’t find this to be a very compelling. This vindication of God sounds like a child declaring that it is not “his fault, it is the thrown ball that decided to arc downwards into her sisters head that is to blame”. If you set something in motion, knowing how it will (or likely will) result, I believe there is (at least, to some degree) a responsibility for the outcome.

And while defining evil as originating from our wills may provide some semantic separation from God in origination of evil, it is does very little to answer the second question. The reality is that the majority of suffering and pain we experience is not due to direct evil actions on the part of others, but rather natural forces like disease, natural disasters, etc. Excusing a small part of our suffering to free will is like providing a 25% discount on God’s evilness. He may not be terribly bad, He is just really bad. And arguing that these diseases and disasters are somehow the actions that God had to inflict as a result of our sin is like the child who argues that he had to hit his sister in the face, because she was saying bad things. This is constructing an arbitrary and unnecessary cause and effect. It strikes me as a pretty weak answer to these questions. Do we really want to strip God of sovereignty to the point that he is relatively impotent demi-god, losing most of his battles, for the sake of excusing himself? Does this realistically offer much assurance of future victory?

Rather than making excuses for and lessen God’s control of the world, I believe it is far more compelling to look towards transcendent purpose and meaning in the meta-narrative of this world. I find a compelling analogy in God as an author. An author isn’t evil because he has crafted a story with evil characters, these are part of what provide the contrast, the challenges, the twists for good to be displayed most vividly, for good to be victorious in a meaningful way.

The Biblical analogy of light and dark points to the value of contrast to bringing meaningful illumination. Indistinguishable light may be comforting, but does not fully and truly reveal the light source, and our show the beauty of colors against the backdrop. And this is meaningful in time as well, God’s progressive and gradual revelation brings greater significance and clarity to His righteousness. ¬†In answering the question of why suffering persists, it is because of the beauty of contrasts, and gradual unfolding of His story.

Scriptures make no effort to obscure God’s role in ordaining and creating those that who are perpetrators of evil, and clearly indicates the purpose of showing the contrast of good and evil, to fully show His goodness. Paul (Rom 9:22-23) plainly says that He is made “vessels of wrath” to contrast against those that act merciful, which He “prepared beforehand” in order to make “known¬†the riches of His glory.”

But how do we answer the first question, of the origination of evil? Does this mean we are claiming that God created evil? This would indeed be the case, and would be an unacceptable claim (Psalms 92:15, 1 John 1:5), except that this conclusion is actually based on a false assumption: that evil needed to be created to exist. But again, the scriptural analogy of light and dark is revelatory: darkness is not an actual entity that is created, it is the absence of light. And likewise, evil is really the absence of righteousness. In other words, God created a world, in which His righteousness is not fully and instantly revealed and applied. And because His righteousness has not entered every part of the world, the absence of righteousness, evil, is plainly visible and common. God didn’t create evil, he create a world that was not fully imbued with His righteousness, and the manifestation of this world lacking righteousness, is man acting evil. This doesn’t mean that evil isn’t an active and powerful force, it certainly is, but it is a force that consists of suppressing light, oppressing good, a force defined in the negative.

In short, rather than trying to vindicate God by trying to remove or lessen His role in precisely and exactly ordaining a world that has tragedy in it, I think we should see creation, in its current form, as a point in a path, the necessary and meaningful way for God to destroy evil with the progressive unfolding of His goodness and righteousness. While acknowledging this may feel uncomfortable, this seems to me, to align most closely with scriptures.

5. As hotly debated as this topic is, from my observations, the behavioral implications seem pretty small (whereas beliefs like cessationism, dispensationalism, prosperity theology, and Zionism seem to have more substantial and observable negative implications). This is a key reason why I try to refrain from being dogmatic about this issue (and as mentioned earlier, would even push people away from my belief if it would cause fatalistic or other negative implications). However, that being said, I think there are a couple implications that I believe should result from Calvinism (although they certainly don’t always).

First, I believe that acknowledging others’ lives and decisions as inevitably affected and shaped by the numerous forces and experiences they have lived through, helps us to empathize with them. Ignoring this often results in looking at others, judging them by an isolated view of the “bad decisions they have made”. But this implicitly involves superimposing the expectations derived from the benefits of our own life experiences, education, and upbringings, than expecting the same outcome in others. A deeper view of how our decision making actually works brings us greater sympathy towards others.

Furthermore, a naive idea of others decision making as an equal isolated islands of free-will, allows us to free ourselves from any responsibility in our lives. But a fuller perspective of a deterministic world, with every life developing from many complex inputs, in a complex web of interactions, where we are all deeply intertwined, should cause us to recognize the ways that our interactions with others is significant and meaningful.

Again, it is easy to look at someone’s broken life, and blame them for their “bad decisions”. But along the way, did they grow up in a disadvantaged home, that we ignored? Was their education neglected in ways, that we could have helped out with? Did they go hungry, when we could have fed them or advocated for them? Those living with their poor decisions, certainly bear responsibility for their own decisions, but in a Calvinistic worldview, so do we, if we have neglected them.

Second, Calvinism brings focus on the glory of God as the highest and central goal of God and us, as followers. This stems from the fact that in a universe sovereignly and deterministically ordered by God, defining any smaller goal, any of the battles we try to win, as the ultimate goal is nonsensical, as God could simply end or win such battles instantly. Calvinism forces us to see that the only truly coherent overarching goal of God is one in which the struggles of humanity persist because the process of, and the way they are overcome, can be manifested, showing God’s glory.

An analogy might be to consider how a shift in goals affects our own behavior. First, imagine the goal of driving across the country to get to New York. This goal, wholeheartedly pursued, simply involves getting across the country as quickly as possible, with as little interruption as possible. Now imagine changing the goal to driving across for the purpose of writing a book about it. This second goal, while on the surface may look similar, is actually very different. Taking the time to make the trip significant and memorable, and doing the trip well, become the primary objectives, so that the journey can be fully appreciated. In other words, the “glory” of the trip, and how it can be shared, takes precedent over simply getting to the other shore. Having a higher, transcendent purpose overarching the goal of getting across America completely transforms our approach.

Likewise, pursuing God’s glory properly shapes our view of goals like evangelism, discipleship, church growth, social justice, and other pursuits as subordinate to the ultimate goal. And consequently how we do them, in a way that reflects God’s ways, is as important as the results of the subordinate goals.

To be clear, these implications of Calvinism are perspectives that I believe Calvinism should hopefully point people towards. However, in reality these perspectives can be shared by non-Calvinists as well, I simply think it is more of direct implication of Calvinism.

Regardless of how we attempt to understand and make sense of mysterious concepts of determinism and free-will, I do hope we can grow in our understanding of how deeply our lives are intertwined, and that we can more fully appreciate and enter in to God’s beautiful story of revealing His goodness, and make that our ultimate vision.

Theology of Evidence-Driven Research

I wanted to go through the exercise of attempting to develop a theology of my vocation. Several years ago, I read Darrow Miller’s book, Lifeworks, in which he challenged readers to do this, and since then I have wanted to jot down how that might look for me. My intent is not to write this to justify or self-congratulate my work, but rather I believe it is a worthwhile exercise to think through the principles that drive our work and different goals of that work, and as a result, hopefully, bring focus on the right goals and motives, and talk about the theology that shapes our work with you.

I believe one of the core concepts that undergirds the purpose of work is the creation/cultural mandate (Gen 1:26-28, 2:15): We are called to join God in the continuing project of creation, and furthering the work of creating and innovating for the sake of building a better world. We join God in every aspect of this mission, from technology, to health, to ecology, to economics, reflecting the heart of a creator God, who created a world of beauty and purpose, by continuing to build with beauty and purpose. My job is focused on the medical/health and technological pursuits of this mission.

There are different aspects of my work. I am a software developer, so I spend my work hours programming. However, I also work on software designed to accomplish something specific. I work for a company (Doctor Evidence) that does analysis of clinical medical studies for the purpose of evidence-based decisions. I thought it might be more interesting to focus on the theological principles that speak to and intersect with the goals of our industry and what our company (should) hope to achieve within this field (this post is not really focused on the technology I work on to accomplish those goals). Here is my attempt…


An intelligent heart acquires knowledge, and the ear of the wise seeks knowledge.
Proverbs 18:15

The Bible repeatedly upholds the virtue of seeking truth. And this is and should be the driving force behind research, to understand, to gain knowledge, to discover the nature of reality, to uncover what we have not yet understood. I believe the pursuit of truth is not something we should presume to be easy, as if we can sit back and declare truth based on our own intellect. The pursuit of truth and understanding requires hard work and careful investigation. It involves thinking through questions and problems. It involves learning from the work of others, researching prior efforts, and building on that.

Evidence-Based Research

Taste and see that the LORD is good
Psalms 34:8

Research is the discipline, the starting point of seeking truth, but ultimately truth is about discovering reality, and determining if our ideas really match with reality. This means that we do not simply settle for ideas that sound good, but we seek to actually test those ideas against reality. We (not our company, but those we work with) run in experiments against the real world (with patients), to see if our ideas are really true or not. Evidence-based research and decision-making, means looking beyond our conclusions that may sound logical and good, and checking them against the hard-reality of experiments and studies. It means letting our decisions be based on real data, rather than just our intuitions or even logic. A genuine pursuit of truth begins with humility: we may be wrong, so let us test our idea.

Seek to Disseminate Information

But seek the welfare of the city
Jeremiah 29:7

Knowledge, just for our its own sake, puffs up (1 Cor 8:11), but when knowledge, that is valuable for others, is sought and shared for the sake of others, this is following in the path of love for those around us. When we do research, and share our discoveries, we can, God willing, seek truth not for our own pride, but for the benefit and welfare of our society. It is exciting to be in a place where we can help reveal things that will actually help the sick and hurting around us!

In capitalist society, many jobs offer compensation in proportion to their benefits that they can bring to their customers. However, research can be unique in that may bring a fair compensation from a paying customer, but that same knowledge can then be limitlessly and freely shared with others who may benefit as well. In other words, research brings benefits to society that vastly outweigh the natural compensation that markets may offer the researcher. It is my hope that our research/analysis can and will do that.

This actually intersects with our technology practices as well. As software engineers on our team, when we write individual software components that we believe could be of value to and reused by others, we try to open source these components, make them freely available for others to use. This often does require extra effort; for software components to be reusable, we have to put extra time into make sure they are well-documented and tested for others to be able to efficiently use them. However, I believe this pursuit is something of value, in seeking the welfare of our community of software developers, aside from our efforts in medicine.

Ruthlessly Counter Biases (randomized and blinded trials)

The heart is deceitful above all else.
Jeremiah 17:9
Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age,
let him become a fool that he may become wise.

1 Corinthians 3:18

Humility in our pursuit of knowledge should drive the next principle as well. We recognize that even in earnest pursuits of knowledge through research and experiments, that we are still prone to biases, and that confounding variables can still skew data. We must relentlessly look for and seek to work against biases in our research.

In our industry, that means that the preferred approach to studying treatments is through randomized control trials, an experiment where have researchers have intentionally limited themselves from their own selections biasing experiments. Through randomization, researchers eliminate sources of biases by handcuffing themselves from any designs that would introduce additional confounding factors.

Most RCTs go further and are “double-blind” experiments, where not only are the patients randomized, but they are “blind” to which treatment they are receiving (an intervention or placebo), and even the researchers that are assessing the outcomes are “blind” to which patients are receiving treatments, to further prevent biases.

Of course, there are still many ways biases can be introduced (like reporting bias). One of our goals with our software is to help identify when and where factors like funding or study design may introduce biases so we can know where to focus on eliminating them. There is much work still to be done.

Meta Analysis

In an abundance of counselors there is safety.
Proverbs 11:14
And I went…in order to make sure I was not running or had not run in vain.
Gal 2:2

As honest, careful, and earnest as our research and efforts may be, we are still finite in our ability to measure, assess, and determine reality. Scriptures wisely instruct us that the pursuit of truth is a collective effort. And this is certainly the case in the world medical research. Any given study may be useful, but there is much more insight that can be gained by a looking at as many studies that address a question as possible. By looking at numerous studies, and combining their results, we can evaluate questions and create recommendations that are far more robust, less prone to any individual bias, and more reliable than any single researcher or study could provide.

Helping to create this type of analysis of numerous studies, or “meta-analysis” is one of the principal goals of our software that we build. Furthermore, our goal is to facilitate continuous meta-analysis, create an analysis that can easily be updated and re-executed as new studies are performed and become available.


For there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed
that will not be known or brought out into the open.

Luke 8:17

Finally, the pursuit of knowledge and truth is something that should be done with transparency. If we simply claim to have done a good job with research and analysis, but fail to show others how we came to our conclusions, we are not showing our claims as verifiable. Any honest effort at showing new claims must be done in such a way that others can examine and critique the claims, and how we arrived at them. This is something we should, and hopefully do pursue in all our work, clearly showing every step, and every calculation that we made to arrive at our results, so they can be examined and verified by others.

Again, my intent with this is not pride or vindication in what we are doing. Examining our goals, from a Biblical standpoint, should help sharpen my aspirations as an engineer, and be a reminder of where I can improve my efforts. And hopefully this is an encouragement to others to look at the goals and efforts you make a work, and how they can align with God’s mission.

Evangelism: Discipling Nations

This is the second part in a series on evangelism. For better understanding, please read the previous post first. 

Biblical Strategy of Evangelism

What is the Biblical strategy for evangelism? Is evangelism a spiritual discipline that we practice for its own sake, or is it part of a greater purpose? A clear universal mandate for relational evangelism, or even personal evangelism, may be missing in scriptures, but the Bible is heavily focused on the spread of the gospel. A strategy focused only on using friendships may be absent, but the Bible is actually full of evangelistic strategy. The book of Acts certainly contains the most examples and direction for strategic evangelism.

So what is this strategy? In Acts, we see God strategically moving people over and over to reach out to those who had not heard, those who had previously been cutoff from God’s Kingdom, and those in different cultures.¬†This strategy could be “going” as an ambassador. The great commission uses “go” as an imperative participle, “making disciples” is the central mandate, and “go” is the evangelistic strategy component of this mission. However,¬†it is certainly not always a geographic “going”. No one boarded ships, carriages (or plains or trains) at Pentecost, it was a breakthrough of the gospel, right in their midst. The “going” was about reaching people that previously had no access to God.

We see this continuing theme of Acts, from Pentecost where the Holy Spirit is miraculously and emphatically revealed in all languages. It is the reason behind the persecution-driven scatterings, leading Christians to outreach in Samaria, where people who had previously been despised, driven away, marginalized, were welcomed to hear about Christ. It is the driving force behind the missionary work of the church of Antioch, who continued to push the gospel into places where they had not heard.

Continuing into the epistles, Paul states¬†his desire for evangelism and his¬†strategy clearly, when he says that it is his “ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known” (Romans 15:20). The dissemination of the gospel through existing relational connections was assumed to be a natural consequence of discovering Christ. This didn’t require an intentional strategy, the focused strategy was on reaching those who would not naturally hear and find¬†Christ, those in different ethnic groups, and social groups. This strategy was not just expanding our circle of friends, but intentionally looking to see who was in need of¬†hearing of the hope of Christ, who had been marginalized from the existing connections to God’s kingdom.

This is not only the strategy for evangelism, but it also shapes the impetus for evangelism. While there is a tendency for evangelism to be motivated by saving people from hell, so they can go to heaven, as far as I can tell, this motivation is never actually used in the Bible. When the threat of hell is used as a warning, it is always directed towards individuals, pushing them to repentance, not to go evangelize. Instead evangelism is driven by a vision of all people knowing the greatness of God and His ways (Psalms 145:12), and all tribes and tongues worshiping God together (Rev 5:9, 7:9).

In terms of¬†passages that guide our evangelism, the Great Commission has to rank at the top. Christians rightly¬†regard this as central, due to its summation of Christ’s¬†goals, his parting, conclusive words, and the disciples passion for pursuing this mission.¬†This passage also echos this strategy. First, the great commission is not a mandate to engage in relational evangelism, in fact it doesn’t mention evangelism at all. The universal call of the Great Commission on Christians is for discipleship. Evangelism is often a component¬†of discipleship (depending on who you are discipling), as the first part¬†in the discipleship process. Second, the Great Commission is clearly stated in terms of the strategy above: a distinct focus on intentionally reaching all the nations, or to more precisely translate the Greek word “ethne”, all the ethnic groups of the world. This is is the Biblical strategy of evangelism.

This mission¬†stretches back to the beginning of scriptures as well. From early in Genesis, God declares to Abraham that his descendants would not be the sole recipients of His blessing, but rather that through him “all¬†peoples of earth will be blessed” (“peoples” here is similar to ethne, although a bit more granular, and could point to smaller subcultures and groupings). This promise is repeated three times, and is further specified that the blessing will be through Abraham’s seed (Jesus). The prophets reiterate the mission of Christ to the nations, Isaiah¬†declares that it is too small a thing for him to merely restore Israel, but rather He is a “light for the nations” and His¬†“salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”

And this direction¬†is projected to God’s final vision for his people in Revelations, where again we see an overt¬†focus on every ethnicity being in-gathered. In fact, Rev 5:9, declares this was the purpose behind¬†Jesus sacrifice, that “by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation”. And the final vision of His church is described as “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages”, and this is defined as a¬†central reason for Christ’s sacrifice.

There are several other passages that might be referenced in trying to suggest a universal call for evangelism.¬†By far the most explicit, is the “secondary Great Commission”, Mark 16:15, where supposedly Jesus says to “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.” With more manuscripts discovered,¬†all modern translations have to come to recognize that¬†this passage was not actually in any of the original manuscripts.

Interestingly, Paul actually describes the work of “proclaiming the gospel” as a unique and distinctive calling, such that those who are called to do that should receive compensation from other Christians for their work (1 Cor 9:14). Of course Paul never suggested that those who are called to love others should be compensated, it is universal calling! Nor are those who are called to be grateful to be compensated from other Christians; we are all to be grateful! On the other hand, proclaiming the gospel deserves compensation precisely because it is unique calling, requiring extra attention beyond the universal mandates upon every Christian.

Evangelism then, is not just a spiritual discipline, a motion¬†that we go through to please God, but rather it is a part of a great mission, a vision of God to create disciples from all nations. It is part of the greater, grand story of God’s purpose of His glory to be demonstrated revealed through the nations of the earth. And as part of the body that is called to this mission, we all have different roles to play.

Nikki and I have come to believe that¬†understanding God’s purpose and our role in it, should be a goal of every Christian. This is why we have invested in helping to coordinate the Perspective class here in Utah. This class does such a fantastic job of truly exploring God’s global mission. We would encourage you to consider taking this class if you ever have the opportunity.

If evangelism is merely an obligatory¬†duty to fulfill, this might be of no concern. But if we desire¬†to fully embrace God’s heart and His mission, let us invest in that. And when we truly care about a goal, we look for strategy and vision to guide us. Likewise, let’s aim to understand God’s heart and his strategy¬†into this with all our heart and mind.

Evangelism and Pyramid Schemes

One of the most touted strategies of evangelicals is “relational evangelism”. While this can describe a valuable pursuit, I would like to take a closer look at its roots. In particular, in this post I wanted to offer some critiques of making friendships for the sake of evangelism, while also offering possible ways to make this pursuit more God glorifying, based on scriptures.

Relational Evangelism?

Relational evangelism is typically a strategy of forming friendships for the sake of evangelism.¬†One of the¬†first concerns of the specific strategy of making friendships for the sake of conversion is fairly simple: it seems surprisingly absent from the Bible. From what I can tell there is virtually no examples of or instructions telling anyone to make friends for the purpose of evangelism.¬†The best reason I can find for the strong emphasis on relational evangelism is that it is a relatively successful mechanism for getting converts (lessons learned from the business world, perhaps). This isn’t to say that outcome-justified strategies are bad, in general this would be a strong reason. However, the outcome-driven reasoning for relational evangelism has other problems based on¬†questionable assumptions. The first problem is that relational evangelism can have¬†negative side-effects in the pursuit of its goal, and secondly a singular focus on the¬†outcome of conversions may misrepresent our essential goal as Christians.

In considering possible side-effects, we need to face the potential deceptive nature of relational evangelism. If friendship is pursued, with the implied goal of a relationship, when in fact, the real goal is conversion, this is disingenuous. Often this deception isn’t a sophisticated covert operation, but when underlying motives¬†are hidden in¬†relationships, that can easily lead to feeling¬†slighted by the (apparently) insincere motives.

Again, I can find no direction in the Bible to pursue relationships for the ulterior motive of evangelism (in fact, surprisingly, evangelism is¬†never even given as a universal mandate for Christians). Instead, within the Bible, I find pages and pages of instructions for how to do relationships for the sake of… good, loving relationships themselves. The God of the Bible doesn’t seem to treat relationships as a means to some other end, but rather something to be cultivated themselves. If it has a further end, it is for nothing short of God’s glory. God seems love to healthy caring relationships simply because he desires this for his people, it is his nature, reflected in humanity, and this glorifies Himself. Relational evangelism, then, runs the risk of degrading the value of relationship, lowering relationships to merely a tool, instead of having intrinsic worth itself (or at least in finding its worth in directly glorifying God).

Pyramid Schemes

I believe a helpful analogy in understanding the concern with relational evangelism can be expressed by comparing it¬†to a pyramid or multi-level marketing scheme. Let’s consider the basic definition of a pyramid scheme: A pyramid scheme is a model in which participants receive rewards for enrolling other people into the scheme, rather than supplying any products or services to the public.

So how can a religion be similar to a concept that we typically apply to a business model? The core analogy is that a religion behaves like a pyramid scheme when it conveys that the highest and most valued activity is the conversion of others into the religion. The problem with this type of approach is that it is an empty cycle of recruitment. When the goal is nothing but converting people who will in turn seek to convert people, we are left with a circular pursuit that lacks any real substance. As a friend once said, we are recruiting soldiers, whose battle is nothing more than doing more recruiting.

The alternative to this empty scheme is that we pursue being obedient followers or disciples of Christ that make meaningful contribution to those around us, bringing blessing and peace. We want to make real disciples.

However, even “disciple-making” can easily shift into pyramid scheme. One can easily teach¬†disciple-making as an alternative to evangelism for the purpose of making reproducing disciples. But again, if the goal is simply reproduction, without meaningful transformation that leads to substantive impact for others, in which case, disciple making has simply become a more sophisticated and effective pyramid scheme.

In a pyramid scheme, marketing (particularly by leveraging friendships) has overtaken the product or service itself, as the central component of the organization. Christianity must not be centered solely on marketing or reproduction, because it demonstrates that the core essence of Christianity (the fruit of the Kingdom, and the King himself) are not worthwhile themselves, and that relational manipulation is needed to grow. Followers of Christ exist to glorify the ways of God, not to demonstrate their own marketing and growth expertise.

To illustrate this further, I like to compare Amway and Apple. The former company is known for relying on multi-level marketing to sell products.¬†No one (except the participants who are trying to¬†sell) really considers Amway to have exceptional products. Rather they are known for exceptionally successful recruitment and marketing push. On the other hand, Apple is a company that has thrived on the reputation of their products. People buy their products not because a friend, who will get commission if he makes a sale, has convinced them they are good, but because of their reputation for, and people’s direct experience with their beautiful, well-designed products (this isn’t always the case, I am actually not a big fan of Apple products myself, but I certainly recognize their high reputation. There are a number of other companies that¬†are perhaps even better examples of being built on product reputation, with very little marketing investment, like Asics, Krispy Kreme, and Sriracha.)

Scriptures frequently use the analogy of fruit to describe the result of meaningful faith. The primary significance of fruit is that it is distinctive in substance and nature from the rest of the tree. A tree consists of hard wood, but fruit is an entirely different substance. When a fruit tree grows, this can be good and healthy, but it is not fruitful if it only increases in size and branches. It must produce an distinct substance (something that can be distinctly tasted as good) from just more wood. Likewise, this means that while it is very good when Christians spread Christianity, and this growth is important, this alone is not fruitfulness. Fruitfulness is demonstrated not when Christianity produces more Christianity, but when it produces distinctive fruits (love, joy, peace, etc.)

Ultimately, the Gospel is good news, not good marketing. To love the gospel is not to be a lover of persuasive communication, but rather a lover of the revelation of the goodness of God.

Ultimate Purpose

The second questionable assumption of relational evangelism is that the outcome of conversions, and the number of conversions, is the central goal of Christianity. Indeed this is a logical conclusion if we assume that all humanity is destined for infinite joy or infinite sorrow, and every other finite matter (reward or punishment) is infinitesimal in comparison. This conclusion makes logical sense to me. But apparently it didn’t to Jesus, as his ministry does not align at all with this conclusion. Jesus, throughout the gospel, consistently pursued a holistic ministry, not a sole focus on conversion. However, this conclusion is perhaps most clearly contradicted in John 6. Jesus teaches that “whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him” (vs 56). The response: “After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him” (vs 66). We are left with one of two possibilities. Either Jesus had no idea how poorly his sermon would go over, or he had something more important in mind than how many people would simply label themselves as followers or “Christians”.

I believe that the Bible makes clear that the central mission of God is to glorify Himself. And He works through the church to reflect his amazing wisdom, grace, love, and justice (Eph 3:10). God is honored and glorified by a church that truly reflects these characteristics. The church in America has reflected many of these characteristics at times, but in contrast we also struggle with dishonoring God as our actions and attitudes build up a reputation of hypocrisy, judgment, arrogance, and selfishness. This struggle for the church to properly reflect God, to pursue His honor, is our most critical pursuit. And it seems nearly absurd to think that this struggle will be solved or even significantly helped by increasing the numbers and size of the American church. In a country where tens of millions, the majority (or nearly majority) of the country, identify themselves as Christians, the quality of the church properly representing and glorifying God hardly hinges on growing or shrinking a few percentage points (and possibly it may even fulfill its role better with fewer numbers).

As we consider how to glorify God, imagine that we were to make a serious research inquiry into who was the greatest leader in human history. How might we evaluate different leaders? While we might consider the number of followers as a simple filter for who to consider, we would almost certainly value things like integrity, inspiration, morality, and courage above simply the number of followers. For example, who would seriously think that Hitler was a greater leader for leading tens of millions than Oskar Schindler, simply because he only led a few thousand?

After leveling some criticism at relational evangelism, I want to try to now more clearly affirm the positive aspects of relationships and evangelism:

  • God delights in healthy, loving, self-sacrificial relationships themselves. Relationships don’t have to serve some other end, to be God glorifying, relationships that reflect His love and selflessness can honor Him regardless of whether they lead to presenting the gospel.
  • Relationships can authentically reveal the gospel that have developed in the spirit of mutually, humbly pursuing a right, just lifestyle.
  • A true, genuine relationship is characterized by people sharing their deepest cares. If God is the center of our lives, than honestly revealing ourselves should include revealing our passion for Him.
  • A community of healthy, loving relationships can be a brilliant display of God’s character and a great attraction to others.
  • Relationships themselves can communicate God’s hope.
  • Disciples in a mutual pursuit of God, and learning to obey His ways, can be one of the most power foundations of a friendship.
  • We are called to be ambassadors for God. Part of being reconciled to God is helping others be reconciled to God.
  • Evangelism can be one of the higher forms of praise. When we freely proclaim God’s goodness in response to how we have genuinely experienced Him, we are offering one of the greatest forms of worship (more than simply evangelizing out of duty or reward).
  • While I believe the American church doesn’t lack for size, many cultures and regions of the world lack a viable expression of the church. Strategically building trust and relationships that communicate the good news to enable the worship of God in every ethnicity is clearly integral to God’s vision of being glorified and worshiped in great diversity (Matt 28:19, Rev 7:9).

While I have perhaps been a bit critical of some evangelistic strategies, strategy is definitely in the Bible, and next I want to look at some of the strategy that is revealed.

Nikki’s 2015 Book Reviews

Since Kris posted about the books he read or skimmed this last year I thought I’d do the same. I do love reading and so don’t count books if I’ve just skimmed or not finished them. ūüôā

Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers¬†by Mary Roach–I heard about this book on NPR over a year ago and thought it sounded interesting. What a delightful surprise it turned out to be! For what could have been a very grizzly and uncomfortable topic, the author perfectly balances humor with the somberness to keep the reader interested without being disgusted. She is careful to not come across as calloused.
I learned so much about the history of human interaction with death and cadavers. Many, many of the advances we benefit from today are somehow connected to research done with bodies donated to science.
I would recommend this book with some reservation. Anyone who is squeamish might find some of the research described as overwhelming. However, anyone with a fascination with science or the human body will love this book. It’s a fast and informative read, entertaining while you learn something.

How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill–Years and years ago this book was recommended by an instructor during a Perspectives class. I think if I were to title this book I would have gone with: Why Civilization Fell and How the Irish Saved It. A large portion of the book is spent explaining the condition and mentality of the Roman Empire just before it fell. It’s not a pretty or flattering picture. What was once great, refined and outward focused became trivial and perversely inward focused. The civilized world stood to lose nearly all its advances, most of which were recorded in writing, were it not for their savage, uneducated, heathen neighbors, the Irish…and the life-long service of a few extraordinary individuals.
This is a great, great read. It’s a little dry in places but worth pushing through.There’s much to be learned from this book, not just about our history, but also our future.

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo–This summer while we tore out and remodeled our kitchen I spent a lot of hours in the garage stripping, sanding, and painting cupboards. During that time I listened to Les Miserables read aloud. I knew the story and already loved it but I was surprised at just how much I loved this book. Hugo’s observations about humanity, poverty, and inequality feel like they could have been written yesterday, not over 150 years ago.
I will confess that I don’t know if I could have finished this book had I actually been reading and not listening to it. There are many, many passages and whole chapter even that discuss French politics which¬†went way over my head. There are many references to French individuals, locations, and even events that were obviously significant at the time Hugo wrote this but that I didn’t understand.
However the classic story of poverty, crime, corruption, grace, sacrifice, forgiveness, and redemption is so beautifully portrayed that it is well worth struggling through the difficult parts. No wonder this book is a classic.

The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin–Twelve year old Suzanne has lost her best friend and is trying to make sense of a senseless death. To add to this trauma, her last encounter with her friend was terrible, certainly not the last way you want to relate with anyone you love.
This is a quick read–written at a middle school level-but that does not detract from the beauty of this well written story. Kids (and adults) will be able to relate to Suzanne’s grieving process as she tried to find a way to make sense of this death. Suzanne may have mild autism. At any rate she is a very concrete thinker; she likes numbers and lists. Yet she has these strong emotions that she cannot ignore or reason away…but she has no idea what to do with them. I think most of us can relate to that feeling. As the reader we get to join her, see her thought process, while all those in her life are shut out and worried about her.
This is a wonderful story about growing up, people changing, feeling awkward and like everything is wrong with you (who hasn’t felt this way!) and ultimately about grieving and regrets. This will be a book my kids will read when they reach that weird preteen age.

For the Love by Jen Hatmaker–I loved Jen’s previous book, Se7en and had cautiously high hopes about this, her newest book. Yet I’m always a little wary of books that everyone raves about. How can something with any real substance appeal to the masses? Jaded, I know.
It took a little while for this book to convince me that it was worth the time. The first few chapters are entertaining and funny, but not much more than that. However, after about chapter five, I feel like Jen settled down into the meat of the book. The small talk is out of the way and now she can really share her heart. She is a gifted writer with really good insights for any Christ-follower, not just women and moms.
If you decide to read this book I suggest really choosing to invest some time and thought into it. Don’t just read it because everyone is talking about it or because she makes you laugh. She really is very funny and there is an appropriate time and place for that. But don’t miss the important things Jen has to say. She says some hard things and some really encouraging things. Don’t skip over these parts for the next funny section.
As a side note this book has the BEST recipe for Beef Bourguignon I’ve ever had.

Bread and Wine by Shauna Neiquist–This is 100% my kind of book. I’ve never read anything by Shauna but really loved her writing style. Each chapter is like a little vignette into her life, experiences, and what God is showing her. She shares some very hard experiences as well as the rewarding ones.¬†I loved her heart for community, for authentic, real, equal relationships that challenge, encourage, and cause each of us to grow in Christ. She talks about the sweet times together over food, how that is where people relax, open up and are real. Good food feed our physical bodies while good relationships feed our soul and spirit. After reading her book I felt so encouraged to see my love of hospitality and good food no longer as a silly insignificant hobby but as a real gift that can minister to others. I’ve been challenged to open up my home more and be intentional about feeding both the body and soul.
As an added gift at the end of nearly every chapter she shares a beloved recipe. I always love a tried and true recipe.

Yes, Please by Amy Poehler–Parks and Rec is one of my favorite shows so I was excited when this book came out. I wanted to see how authentically funny Poehler is. Her book is entertaining but writing a book is not something that seems to easily flow for her. There are parts that are clever, witty, and insightful but this book is nowhere near as well written or entertaining as Tina Fey’s book.
I did really appreciate Poehler’s down to earth style. It’s clear that she has worked really hard to achieve her goals and she doesn’t seem to be blinded by the glitz and glam of fame. She remains one of my favorite comedians, even if is isn’t that great of a author.

The Seventh Child by Erik Valeur–I read this while on vacation and it’s a good thing because this book frustrated me and wasted my time. Maybe something was lost in translation for me. I feel like I missed out on something. The plot is excellent, a well thought-out web that drew me is. But that was part of the problem. I got restless with the length (600 pages!) and (I felt) needless telling and retelling of the same plot. I also found the many, many references to Fate and God tiresome. They felt cliche-ish and were more a distraction than an addition to the plot.
The author clearly loved Denmark and I assume those native or familiar with the towns and cities found the details descriptions enjoyable. I found them to be long and mostly meaningless, or like perhaps they were referring to a theme or allusion I should have understood but didn’t.
Finally, and again this may be a translation issue more than anything else, I found it confusing to have two major character have such similar names: Ole and Orla and then further confused by often only referring to them by nickname.
In conclusion, had this book been a mere 300 pages instead of double that I would have enjoyed it so much more.

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail¬†by Cheryl Strayed–This was made into a movie a couple years ago but I wanted to read the book before I saw it. I had high hopes for this book just because of the parts of the PCT that I’ve hiked. Many people have hiked the full length of the PCT before, she wasn’t the first to do it. But she may have been the first to do it with absolutely no prior hiking experience and very little preparation or research. Grief makes people do funny things, I get that, but her story is crazy to the point that it almost felt like she did these crazy things simply for a good story. She makes a series of bad choices that lead to more grief and regret and her solution is to go hike… for months. Even while hiking her choices were often unwise and could have gotten her hurt or placed her and others in danger. I found it interesting that her way of dealing with the grief in her life was so extreme and unhealthy (not the hiking part, hiking is good for you, but some of her other choices that came along with the hike weren’t so great), especially after I’d read The Thing About Jellyfish which was such a realistic, graceful look a grief.
Anyway I wouldn’t recommend the book, or the movie for that matter, they are both disappointing.

Harry Potter Series¬†by J.K. Rowling–I was never allowed to read these books growing up (they were banned from our household) but my daughter has mentioned them a few¬†times. Several of her peers are reading them and ¬†I am anticipating the day that she asks if she can read them too. So I thought I’d read through the series first and be prepared to answer that question.
I’ve read three of seven so far and, like everyone else, have found them to be entertaining and well written. I do plan to read all seven, mostly because they are fun reads. I don’t see a lot of dark allusions in the books that make me uncomfortable. The central theme is good verses evil and love and courage verses selfishness and hate. There are good lessons to be learned and there is a pretty clear picture throughout about how dark and powerful hate and the love of self can become. In general, these are good lessons. Yes, there’s magic, lots of it. But I guess it doesn’t bother me because I never feel like the book tries to sell it as real. It’s all very fictitious and as much as some of us would like to travel by broom or cast a spell on that annoying acquaintance, it is all very clearly just make believe.
Having said that, however, I will tell you that it will be quite a few years before Jennika will be allowed to read these books. The scary parts are scary and I while I won’t object to her reading them when she is able to handle that level of intensity, I certainly don’t think she, or most 8-year-olds, are ready to handle such heavy themes.

I think that’s the extent of it for 2015. I am excited about what’s on my reading list for 2016 and sharing it with you next year.