Category Archives: Education

Trends Among Evangelicals Entering Ministry

What trends characterize young evangelicals entering pastoral ministry today? Three Christian higher education presidents—Michael Lindsay, Albert Mohler, and Phil Ryken—discuss in this new roundtable video what they observe among the rising generation.

“I see a real questioning among young people regarding the value of theological education,” observes Lindsay, president of Gordon College in Massachusetts. This of course carries “implications for how they will do ministry going forward.”

Mohler is largely encouraged, pointing to both an upbeat passion for the gospel and a recovery of ecclesiology. “The local church is increasingly seen as an attractive and important place for ministry,” the president of Southern Seminary in Louisville explains.

In terms of caution, Ryken doesn’t always see a strong commitment to personal holiness as an essential part of ministry preparation. According to the Wheaton College president, however, this commitment is crucial. ”We need to have more young people known for what they give up than for what they do,” Lindsay adds. “The witness of self-sacrifice is essential.”

Watch the full seven-minute video to see these three leaders discuss intramural basketball, virtue formation, conversation changers, and more.

Young Evangelicals in Ministry from The Gospel Coalition on Vimeo.

Evidences of a Maturing Evangelical Mind

In 1995, Mark Noll opened his The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind with an unflattering observation: “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.”

Now, almost two decades later, has anything changed? In a new roundtable video, three Christian higher education presidents—Michael Lindsay, Albert Mohler, and Philip Ryken—consider evidences of a recovered and maturing evangelical mind in the years since Noll’s landmark work.

“We’re no longer trying to prove ourselves, trying to get a seat at the table,” observes Lindsay, president of Gordon College in Massachusetts. “I think evangelicals have demonstrated they can do the highest level of scholarship in fields like history, philosophy, and sociology.” As Mohler adds, it’s important to recognize the number of fields deeply indebted to evangelical contribution. Evangelicals are “more acculturated into the life of the mind than earlier generations were,” the president of Southern Seminary in Louisville says.

There’s an irony in all this too, Ryken points out. Given the reigning secularism in many elite institutions, you’ll often find more freedom on Christ-centered campuses to pursue the life of the mind. Far from being restrictive and parochial, the president of Wheaton College outside Chicago contends, Christian institutions are positioned to provide unique latitude for pursuing rigorous intellectual engagement and debate.

Watch the full five-minute video to see these three leaders discuss the state of Christian higher education globally, concerns about biblical illiteracy, and more.

Evangelical Mind from The Gospel Coalition on Vimeo.

Rethinking the Student’s Place in Missions

Most college students like me hear “missions” and immediately think of handing out tracts, putting up buildings, or feeding impoverished kids. While I do not question the enthusiasm or sincerity of those who hold this view, I cannot help but wonder if we are missing far greater opportunities to effectively share the gospel.

Let me explain. For my generation, missions has become conflated with acts of service. Take, for instance, the following descriptions found on prominent missions websites.

“Focuses vary by location,” notes one organization, “but most are centered on continuing the building of campus ministries, bringing the gospel to unreached villages, or serving a community by comforting the sick and the lonely.”

Another explains, “Some days will be packed full with construction, VBS, building relationships with orphans, or praying for the sick at a hospital.”

Yet another offers students the opportunity of “teaching life skills, doing medical work, youth ministry, construction, [and] Bible camps” for orphans overseas.

But none of these tasks is specific to collegians. Most anyone could help lead a VBS or hand out literature on the street. In other words, student missions appeal to the lowest common denominator. It doesn’t need to be this way. I believe academia is positioned to open doors for the gospel in ways no other discipline can.

Increasing Hostility

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life recently released a study that warned of increasing government restrictions and social hostilities to religious activities. Missionaries in the 10/40 window have told me how difficult it is becoming to stay in-country without good reason or an evident source of income. Government officials tended to look warily on such foreigners, they added.

Students, however, have almost unfettered access to these same locations through the network of higher education. With an array of study abroad programs, cultural exchanges, and international conferences, college students have ample opportunity to initiate conversations about faith in closed countries without arousing suspicion.

I have experienced this firsthand through a program called International Ventures, which enables students to engage in purposeful conversation in academic settings overseas. After we finished a conference with a local university last year, we traveled together to visit a nearby historic region. Among the various sites we visited were several ancient churches. When we stepped inside one, a few of the local students wondered about it. “So this is a church,” they said. “Tell us all about it.” The questions initiated a discussion about Christianity and the importance of the faith to members on our team.

Our experience was typical of the program. Friends of mine who took a similar trip shared the gospel with Communist officials. Once again, this opportunity resulted from teaching foreign students about Western values and beliefs at the university level.

Such efforts reveal the potential in treating academia as vocational ministry. Rather than staying stateside, graduates might elect to study abroad for an advanced degree. Professors might opt to teach a semester overseas or attend international conferences related to their discipline. Like Christians doing business as mission or medical missions, Christians in academia—whether professors, staff, or students—can combine their faith and work in intentional cross-cultural engagement.

Natural Opportunity

Academic missions bolster the effectiveness of ministry overseas for two key reasons. For one, interaction typically occurs within the same age bracket, which provides ample opportunity to build deeper relationships. Not only do students connect over classes and concepts, but they also share similar experiences, aspirations, and frustrations.

Moreover, academia traditionally serves as the clearinghouse for ideas. Questions are welcome, debate encouraged, truth sought. Imagine how many natural opportunities already exist for conversations about faith. None can find more fertile ground for the gospel.

There is no doubt that we could continue to employ traditional methods as well. We could find ways to share the gospel by assisting long-term missionaries or helping fledgling church plants. We could likewise do traditional campus ministry, where groups of students roam the university in search of a willing conversant. I do not deny that God uses these efforts to bring himself glory. But we could also leverage our skills with an academic-based approach.

This strategy for academia in turn helps my generation develop a more robust theology of work. Academic life need not be divorced from missions. Rather, by bringing them together, students better embody sociologist James Davison Hunter’s idea of “faithful presence” in society. With many doors closing for missionaries abroad, it is increasingly important for students and ministries to think beyond the conventional.

In a changing missions landscape, the church must fully examine our available resources and opportunities. College students represent one such underutilized asset. If we expand our efforts there, who knows where else the gospel might go?

I Wouldn’t Trade Seminary for Anything

Editors’ note: This is the fourth in a series of brief articles from students and graduates answering the question, “What do I wish someone had told me before seminary?” Previously:


I associate my seminary years with a wide range of emotions and experiences. I went through a period of unhindered excitement and joy, of grave disillusionment, of utter heartbreak, and ultimately of satisfied contentment. I experienced a new appreciation for my church, the personal heartbreak of divorce, the camaraderie of lasting friendships, the frustration of academic hardship, and the satisfaction of slowly discovering my place in God’s kingdom. It wasn’t anything close to a utopian experience, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

Like any of God’s good gifts, seminary can be rightly appreciated, but it can also be idolized and mismanaged. Your time will be temporary and focused, and as such, the atmosphere is uniquely specialized for the specific task you face. Your primary challenge is to find your identity in Christ rather than in academic, social, or vocational success. Embrace your seminary experience, just not too tightly.

Seminary is a great gift, given to us that we might do even better jobs as ministers than we might have otherwise. As a result, it’s our job to steward that gift appropriately and with the proper perspective. This, of course, is a balancing act for anyone. Here are five things I’ve learned that, by God’s grace, will help you along the way.

1. Be Comfortable as a Mere Church Member

Seminarians often spend their first few months looking for a church that’s not a “seminary church,” then gunning for some kind of leadership position or teaching opportunity within that church a few months later. Stop. The best thing you can do for your growth as a leader is to serve your church in ways that are commonly overlooked. Be the sound guy for a while. Wash dishes after church supper. Sit in the pews, take in the sermon, and talk about it with others in the congregation—especially those who tend to be ignored. Servant leadership is more than an abstract leadership philosophy; it’s a concrete series of actions you’re in the perfect position to live out at this stage of your life.

2. Have Other Hobbies or Interests Besides Theology

If all you care about is theology, biblical studies, and the inner-workings of kingdom ministry, non-seminarians will find you insufferable. Such friends and family have all sorts of interests, and while you may not have a vested interest in popular culture, fashion, decorating the house, or sports, they do. Therefore, if you fail or refuse to engage these subjects, you’ll seem like a bump on a log at best and a jerk at worst. Caring about people extends even to caring about the things they care about, even if it may feel trivial or like a waste of time.

3. Embrace Empathy, Not Merely Conviction

Seminary tends to be a safe space to share your convictions with your seminary buddies without having to “walk on eggshells,” but after a while it’s easy to forget those eggshells are often the fragile hearts of hurting people. Discussing hot topics may be a fun intellectual exercise, but in the real world those hot topics are usually attached to genuine human pain. Abortion, gay marriage, welfare, drug use, and other polarizing subjects are more than just abstract philosophical-theological-political footballs. They’re tied to realities we may not be able to readily comprehend until we put in the work. So put in the work. Don’t merely seek out the opinions of those different than you; seek out their stories and their company. Listen carefully to the struggles of those whom Jesus came to seek and save, laboring to understand exactly what experiences have made them so adamant about their position.

4. Be Yourself

Seminary should be a place for discovering how to best use your gifts and interests to further God’s kingdom, but for many it’s simply a place to learn how to mimic the gifts and interests of others. Time in seminary can be incredibly clarifying and freeing if you’re not too wrapped up in pleasing other people. Unfortunately, the seminary atmosphere often seems to invite uniformity to a damaging degree. If you’re not careful, you’ll subtly bend your personality to match the whims of others. Change should come from humble obedience to Jesus Christ, not social pressure and unbiblical expectations.

5. Be Ready to Change Course

When I started my seminary career, I had every intention of being a full-time minister. All my desires, counsel, and intuition pointed in that direction. I’d done ministry before seminary and found it to be fruitful and rewarding. And yet, as I neared the end of my seminary career, my life had changed to such an extent that I no longer envisioned myself in a traditional, full-time ministry position. I quickly switched my degree program from an MDiv in theology to an MA in theology and the arts and graduated much sooner than expected. It was one of the best decisions I’ve made, even though it meant not finishing my language classes.

You may feel convinced in your call to ministry now, but God doesn’t always make his plans for us as clear as we’d like. Sometimes he has another kind of ministry for us in mind that doesn’t involve being formally employed by a church or ministry. Sometimes this means cutting our losses and leaving seminary. Other times it means finishing and moving on. Either way, it’s up to you to be honest with yourself as the time spent in seminary reveals—whether through confirmation or redirection—the concrete reality of God’s glorious plan for the rest of your life.

Studying Doesn’t End with Classes

Editors’ Note: This is the fourth in a series of brief articles from students and graduates answering the question, “What do I wish someone had told me before seminary?” Previously:


The funny thing about answering the question, “What do I wish someone had told me before seminary?” is that I was often told those things, but I simply didn’t hear them. Which is why I don’t imagine I’m going to tell you anything a good seminary professor hasn’t already attempted to say. If I had to boil down my advice, I’d say that studying doesn’t end when classes are over—it’s only begun. Faithful ministers need to be continual students of the Word and of their people. 

Study the Word

I work with college students, and most of them know me to be something of a bookworm—but not all of them appreciate this about me. Upon seeing some of my shelves of books, one of them asked, “So, if you’ve read all these, why do you need to read more? I mean, don’t you know it all already?” Some seminarians go into school with the same idea: they believe that once they’re done with their classes, they’ll know everything they need to know about their job. After enough Greek and Hebrew classes or essays on doctrine, they have arrived—if not spiritually, then intellectually.

I hate to break it to you, but seminary is more about teaching you how to continue to learn, rather than rendering further learning unnecessary. Faithful pastors and elders are perpetual students of the Word, theology, and church history if they are to going to be “able to teach” (1 Tim 3:2), guard the deposit of the faith (1 Tim 6:20), and keep their congregations rooted in the truth of the gospel. Case in point, the same student who thought I already knew everything went on to ask an important question that required research from me. Fight to give yourself time to be constantly engaged with the Scriptures as well as some studies beyond what you might be currently teaching.

Study Your People

While many might be tempted to think the pastorate releases us from study, others mistake the pastorate for a professorship. I would not have admitted it at the time, but this was my mistake in my early months of college ministry. After getting hired, my first order of business was buying two thick commentaries on Ephesians and spending way too many hours studying that epistle so I could cram way too much of it into a nine-week series. Two years later, I’m convinced my students probably would have profited more by me taking 40 minutes to grab coffee with them that week.

Why? Unless pastors spend a significant amount of time “studying” their congregations through actual time spent with individual members—getting to know their hopes, dreams, and besetting sins—they won’t have a good sense for what the Word of God says specifically to this people. While some New Testament epistles are more general than others, they were written to specific congregations with specific issues and contexts in mind. To preach a text you have to study it, and to preach to a people you have to study them.

Seminary graduates, especially early on in any pastoral position, please spend time with your people. If you’re worried about your content, seminary should teach you enough to prepare you to begin instructing your congregation in the Scriptures so that you don’t spend 40 hours each week in your study. Cut it to 30 and spend 10 with your people. Or more realistically, cut it to 15 and spend 5 with your people, and lobby to get your 20 hours in meetings cut down. (Meetings deserve another article.)

To summarize, then, seminary is not the end of your studies, but the beginning of them.

Seminary Is Not the End

Editors’ Note: This is the third in a series of brief articles from students and graduates answering the question, “What do I wish someone had told me before seminary?” Previously:


I received a lot of good and helpful advice prior to starting seminary. I turned down great ministry opportunities because I was certain God had called me to pastoral ministry. My wife and I knew seminary would be tough. We entered full of realistic expectations and prepared for hard times. But the hard times never came.

The whole experience was wonderful. I loved seminary. I mean, I really loved seminary. The classes were stimulating. The professors were brilliant and caring. My classmates were encouraging. I did well in my classes. I looked forward to school every day. My family even thrived in seminary. But then I graduated. Suddenly there were no more classes, professors, or classmates. Everything I’d grown to love was gone.

I wish someone had looked me in the eye before seminary and told me it’s a means to an end, not an end unto itself. The goal of seminary isn’t a piece of paper that says Master of Divinity. On the contrary, seminary is simply a conduit through which you reach the goal of the calling God’s placed on your life. This fact is likely self-apparent to many. I knew it to be true, but even in my knowledge I didn’t truly believe it.

Had I genuinely understood that seminary is a means to an end, I would have spent more time preparing for the calling placed on my life and less time trying to be spectacular at the preparation. Simply excelling at the preparation doesn’t prepare you for real life theological crises that come hard and fast in the pastorate.

“My teenager has a gluten allergy. How can she take communion? Does it still count?”

“I just found out my husband has been having an affair. Should I get a divorce?”

“I’m in the ER. I just had a heart attack. I need help.”

“I’m pregnant and afraid I’m going to lose the baby.”

“My father just died, and I don’t know what to do.”

I’ve listened to each of these difficult situations. I’ve empathized with the individual. And I’ve thought, Wow, what an incredibly hard situation. You really should talk to your pastor about that. Then I realized I’m their pastor. Their real-life theological crisis had rightfully landed on my desk.

I believe if I’d better realized the calling God had given me, then I would have spent more time in seminary praying for those to whom I would minister. I didn’t even know where I would end up. When I daydreamed about the future I didn’t necessarily envision my current scenario. But the Lord is sovereign over my life. He knew the where, and he knew the who.

Not a single one of those scenarios caught God off guard. I would have prayed more so that I’d be able to rest in his will for my congregation. I would have prayed for compassion and wisdom for people who hurt and need the gospel. I would have prayed for greater faith to believe the calling God had entrusted to me.

I also would have spent more time with real people in my neighborhood and at my church instead of gravitating toward people who liked to read dead Dutch guys and use phrases like “hypostasis,” “hapax legomenon,” and “the chthonic thralldom of sin.” I need those people too, but in seminary it’s entirely too easy to get lost in the academic world and lose contact with why you are there.

Once again, I wish someone had emphasized to me that seminary is a means to an end. I gained all the biblical and theological tools to be able to think through these crises. But real-life theological crises require more airtight theology. Real crises that real people in the real world face need not only good theology, but also one who understands his calling to pastor them. In short, acting like seminary isn’t the end would have helped me better prepare to step into the pastoral calling God has graciously given me.

Perspectives on Our Children’s Education: Homeward Bound

Editors’ note: We asked three moms of school-age children to share their families’ perspectives on education. Jen Wilkin, Jenni Hamm, and Amanda Allen are three friends who attend the same church and raise families in the same geographic area. All three share mutual respect for each other as parents trying to raise children with intentionality, in the fear and admonition of the Lord. In this series, you will see their perspectives on how and why they chose to educate their children through public school, private school, or homeschooling. Today Amanda Allen writes about why she homeschools her children.




We are the Allens, a homeschooling family of eight. We have five forever kids and one foster baby. The “A Team,” the nickname our friends have given our family, has five boys and a girl, ranging in age from 12 years to 9 months. We decided to homeschool our children after being around other homeschool families and after my husband’s experiences teaching in the public school system. Here are a few reasons homeschooling is a fit for our family.

We have more time together.

Homeschooling is a lifestyle the whole family embraces. Our biggest reason for choosing this lifestyle is the amount of time we have to spend together, especially now that our family has grown in size. We have more time reading good books with the kids, playing outside, and developing character within our family. We have also found that homeschooling affords the kids much more time to be creative and participate in extracurricular activities, while still having plenty of time with the family.

The price is right.

When we made the decision to be a single-income family we realized that private school would not be an option for us in terms of affordability. The idea that our children could benefit from specialized courses and services in small classroom environments with a similar worldview has always been appealing but monetarily out of reach. Homeschooling fit the bill.

We choose the curriculum.

Incorporating worldview into our children’s instruction was important to us. Choosing their curriculum enables us to do so. I enjoy being able to teach history chronologically, allowing us to tie in biblical events with mainstream history. We like the number of curriculum choices and the level of freedom we have in choosing the best style of learning for each child in our family.

We set the schedule.

My favorite aspect of homeschooling is the flexibility we have as a family. We control our schedule. If we see that it is a beautiful day outside we can decide that class is taking place at the park. We can take a field trip on a moment’s notice or sometimes just take a day off if mom needs it. We can also take vacations during less-traveled times of the year, saving money—something we always have to consider for our large family.

Thoughts on Socialization

A big question that is usually raised with homeschooling is, “What about socialization?” Our family has no desire to be isolationists “protecting” our children from the outside world, and our children enjoy plenty of social interaction. We participate in a co-op that meets for half a day, one time a week with kids all about the same age. We have a network of many families that keep each other informed of field trips, lake days, or time at the park with friends. We are also involved in swimming, flag football, Boy Scouts, music, and church.

There are so many opportunities for interaction outside our family that we really have to guard our time. Our six children have many opportunities to deal with each other’s uniqueness and diversity, as well as that of many other families we interact with on a regular basis—families whose kids are schooled at home, privately, or publicly.

Finding Balance

I consider homeschooling to be a full-time job. It is quite hard to find time to go grocery shopping and clean the house. The house is usually a mess with the kids at home all the time. Solitude is a scarce commodity, and date nights are “golden.” As the kids are getting older and activities cost more, we consistently evaluate the opportunities and services offered in the public school system.

Even so, homeschooling is an exciting and memorable experience. We have enjoyed the journey and all of the craziness. Education is a personal choice that each family has to prayerfully make. We re-evaluate our decision regularly as we make plans for the upcoming school year. With six unique children, we must also consider what is best for each child. These years are precious, and we consider them a gift from God for however many years we homeschool.

The War Over Rights Is a Door for the Gospel

In his book Center Church, Tim Keller identifies the idea of “rights” as a key cultural entry point for helping our neighbors understand the gospel and its implications. That may sound like a strange claim, but I think he’s correct.

Notice how “rights” are constantly in the news. The decision to file criminal charges against the Boston bomber meant he had to be granted Miranda rights. Gay marriage advocates claim “marriage equality” is a fundamental right. Believers claim religious liberty is a fundamental right. Everyone from gun owners to hair braiders to taxpayers to welfare activists is out there on TV, demanding rights.

Rights can also determine what doesn’t make the news. Kermit Gosnell murdered babies after they were born, chopped them up, and put their little hands and feet on display in his office as trophies—like some barbaric warlord building a pyramid out of his enemies’ skulls. But some media didn’t want to cover this sensational story, for fear that public attention to these realities would threaten the right to abortion.

Rights matter so much because they determine how our society governs itself. Nothing wrong with that; naturally we all want to recognize and respect legitimate rights claims. But for just that reason, everyone who wants something demands it as a right! “Rights are trumps over the majority will,” political theorist Ronald Dworkin put it. Once you establish that what you want is a right, you’ve already won the game, no matter how your victory may affect others or the community.

So how do we make sense of this seemingly chaotic war of rights, and how does it create a cultural entry point for the gospel? That’s a complex question, but here are some basic principles to start the discussion.

1. The modern concept of rights was first articulated in Christian moral theology.

As Brian Tierney and others have shown, the modern concept of rights was not cooked up by nefarious Enlightenment deists as a scheme to destroy moral order. It was first articulated in the late Middle Ages by moral theologians and ethicists, as a necessary consequence of individual human responsibility. If people have duties, by definition they must have rights: If you have a duty not to murder me, then I have a right to life (i.e. a right not to be murdered by you). If I have a duty to worship God sincerely according to my conscience, then I have a right to religious freedom (i.e. a right not to be prevented from worshiping according to my conscience or forced to worship insincerely).

2. Nonetheless, this concept had important pre-Christian roots and is now widely understood and practiced by non-Christians.

Although our current understanding of rights did grow from Christian ethics, we should not try to claim it as exclusively Christian. For one thing, there are clear previews of it in the classical Greco-Roman moral philosophers; Aristotle and Cicero gave the medieval Christian ethicists important help in seeing the logic of rights. And once the idea “if people have duties, they also have rights” is articulated, you don’t have to be a Christian to grasp that and live it out. Non-Christians around the world today are strongly dedicated to respecting rights claims.

3. Conflicts about rights are really conflicts about duties.

If rights are a consequence of duties, then the question “who has a right to do what?” is really just another way of asking “who has a duty to do what?” Suppose two people are stranded on a desert island after a shipwreck, and one has lots of food, but he withholds the food from the other person unless the other person agrees to do whatever he wants. He claims the right to do this on grounds that “I have a right to my property,” i.e. “you have a duty not to steal my food.” The other person can reply, “I have a right to life and liberty,” i.e. “you have a duty not to force me into a choice between slavery and death.”

4. Conflicts about duties are really conflicts about religion, but people usually can’t see this.

In real life, our desert islanders would probably never realize they’re making religious claims—just as the people on TV claiming they have rights to everything under the sun don’t think they’re making religious claims. But if they talked out their differences, questioning assumptions and uncovering presuppositions, they would eventually realize that the food hoarder is claiming “God commands you not to steal” while his companion is claiming “God commands you not to remain idle while your neighbor starves.” Or if they come from a non-theistic culture, instead of “God” they may say “the gods” or whatever their conception of the transcendent is.

5. In most cases, people can resolve these differences peacefully only if they discover some cosmic common ground.

Once they realize what they’re really arguing about, the food hoarder might simply say, “nuts to your hippie peacenik God; my God says the strong should rule the weak.” If he does, there is little hope of resolving the conflict peacefully. But suppose instead his companion gets him to realize that even though God forbids stealing, God also forbids standing idle while your neighbor starves. This realization changes his understanding of the duty not to steal; he suddenly sees that it is not actually “stealing” for his companion to demand that he share what he has without attaching enslaving conditions to it.

6. People can discover cosmic common ground even across religious differences.

This happy ending to the story does not require our desert islanders to be of the same religion. Certainly if the food hoarder is a man who claims to be Christian or even just sees merit in Christianity, his starving companion will find it much easier to change his thinking. There are also important variations among non-Christian belief systems; it will make a big difference to the companion’s prospects if the food hoarder is a Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Aristotelian, Confucian, Nietzschean, Randian, utilitarian, pragmatist, or adherent of no organized system of thought. Nonetheless, the important point is that our desert islanders need not reach a total agreement about life, the universe, and everything. They only need to find enough cosmic common ground to settle their conflict.

The Bible teaches us to expect that this resolution can happen. To take only one of many examples, Romans 2 teaches that by God’s common grace, all people have God’s moral law written on their hearts. This does not just make them morally responsible for their sin; it also changes their behavior. You can appeal to this law, within limits, to establish some cosmic common ground among all human beings.

For example, notice how the media were ultimately shamed into covering the Gosnell trial. That didn’t happen because media gatekeepers suddenly converted to Christianity. It happened because pro-life activists appealed to common moral commitments (such as the ethical standards of the journalistic profession) and forced the gatekeepers to recognize their own failure to live up to them.

7. Rights claims grow out of control and destroy society if we don’t debate them morally.

Notice that the happy ending on our desert island only comes after they have a frank debate in which they challenge one another’s moral and even religious assumptions. There are no militant secularists on hand to shut down the dialogue, claiming that moral arguments are out of bounds in the public square. There are also no small-minded Christian conversionists to insist that until the food hoarder accepts Christ, there’s nothing else worth talking about. When people fear or despise moral debate, “nuts to your God” and catastrophic wars over rights are the only possible outcome.

8. Discovering cosmic common ground is a central duty of neighbor-love and good citizenship.

It’s important for Christians to reach out and find cosmic common ground with people of other beliefs. We must never compromise the gospel that divides us from the world. But we must also never betray the common humanity that binds us to our neighbors as fellow creatures with a shared nature, nor our membership in our nations and communities. If Christians took the lead in defusing the disastrous rights-wars by discovering cosmic common ground, that would show how the Spirit has filled us with love for our neighbors and shine in the cultural darkness as a beautiful witness to the gospel.

9. Discovering cosmic common ground forces people to see the elements of truth in others’ worldviews.

Christians can explain why people are responsible moral agents who have duties (and therefore have rights). For as long as history records, secularists have been struggling to come up with some kind of argument to justify moral responsibility (and therefore rights) without reference to a transcendent cosmic order. It’s a fool’s errand. We won’t be able to have that whole conversation explicitly every time rights come up; still, the more we can prompt people to think deeply about where rights come from, the more plausible the gospel will seem to them.

Normally, people who are deeply immersed in a culture with little gospel influence have great difficulty even understanding the gospel. They don’t really grasp its meaning and implications because those things aren’t made real within their cultural world. The gospel is gibberish to them.

But suppose Christians took the lead in defusing America’s rights-wars. Our neighbors, whose social world is defined by those rights-wars, would see the gospel at work. Its power would have been made real in their world. Some of them would admire it, and some of them would resent it, but they would no longer be able to ignore it.

Can God Save a Fundamentalist School?

Most readers of The Gospel Coalition probably aren’t familiar with the story of Northland International University. In fact, many readers of this blog have probably never heard of Northland at all. But for more than 50 years God has been doing some amazing things in northeastern Wisconsin at Northland Mission Camp, then Northland Baptist Bible College, and now at Northland International University.

As the camp ministry grew and a small Bible college launched on the property, the school had a decided emphasis on the proclamation of the gospel and servant leadership. Along with that, however, the college was also connected to the fundamentalist movement. This connection led to an uncompromising position on separation from the world in nearly every way and a strong stance against certain types of music and ministry. Not only did the school take strict positions on many of these less-than-clear issues, but it also drew strict lines of separation from those who did not.

By the time I arrived on campus as a freshman in 1998, Northland was a pretty separated place. Most types of modern music were off limits, as were most movies, TV shows, and other popular media. In the classroom, we read books by authors like John Piper, R. C. Sproul, and John MacArthur, but they always came with a disclaimer. I spent my last two years on campus wrestling over the theological and exegetical foundations for these practices and felt like we needed to be somewhere more biblically and theologically robust. So in the summer of 2002, we packed up and moved to Minneapolis, where I started the apprenticeship program at Bethlehem Baptist Church.

But I knew this move would lead to a separation from Northland. While I certainly maintained relationships with many on campus, I assumed that I would never be able to have close ties to my alma mater. There was much about Northland to love: a unique emphasis on servant leadership; a humble administration, faculty, and staff; a strong love for the Word of God; and a radical commitment to world missions. But it seemed like the strict separatism and all that went along with it would keep me, and many other alumni from my generation, from having close relationships with Northland. It was a fundamentalist school in every meaningful sense of the word, and none of us expected that to change.

Deeper Root

But God was at work in ways many of us alumni never expected. The centrality of the gospel was taking deeper root at the school, and the results we have seen are encouraging. Over the course of three or four years, Northland underwent some important transformations, including receiving accreditation and changing some of the unnecessary rules. But more importantly, Northland became a place where the gospel is at the center, and rules and regulations are not.

In a recent letter, outgoing Northland president Matt Olson listed some of the changes the school underwent in the last few years. He explained:

  • Northland went from the exclusive use of the King James Version in the pulpit and classrooms to allowing other translations.
  • Northland went from a demerit system to a discipleship platform for our students. Yes, we still have rules: we still confront, and we still have consequences. We just believe we have a better and more biblical model now. It is built on relationships. We are always looking for better ways to accomplish our mission.
  • Northland went from practicing some forms of “secondary separation” to what we now understand to be a more biblical separation. Where we would not have had men like John MacArthur, Rick Holland, Ken Ham, Bruce Ware, or Mark Dever, we would now. We see no reason to separate from these men. We would consider them to be in the spirit of historic fundamentalism; they believe in the orthodox faith, will separate over it, and live godly lives.
  • Northland went from only allowing “traditional” styles of music to accepting more modern styles as well. A blend of traditional and current music is used in our programs and chapel.
  • We created an overarching name of Northland International University to give our students greater opportunities with the gospel worldwide. The change was driven by our passion to reach every tribe, tongue, people, and nation.

To many TGC readers, these changes might sound obvious. But at Northland, they reflect something deeper. They reflect the way the gospel, rightly applied, will eventually work itself out at the institutional level. While some of the parallels break down, Michael Horton’s explanation of semper reformanda was applied at Northland: “It is not because the culture is always changing and we need to be up with the times, but because we are always in need of being re-oriented to the Word that stands over us, individually and collectively, that the church can never stand still.” In the same way, an institution must always be re-orienting itself to the Word and asking whether its practices and policies could reflect greater fidelity to the Word of God. And when this practice is taken seriously, great things can happen.

Now there is more hope for Northland than ever. Along with a renewed emphasis on the centrality of the gospel, the school is still committed to a unique emphasis on humble, servant leadership; strong love for the Word of God; and radical giving to world missions (in a 2009 survey, 44 percent of the student body planned to serve overseas). So Northland is worth knowing about and praying for. Especially now. The school is facing some significant challenges in the coming months. In just a few weeks, Olson will be moving on from his role as president of the school. Also, it is no secret that most Christian colleges live and die by their constituencies, and making changes means alienating some of those constituents.


I don’t pretend to speak for Northland. I have recently re-connected with some of the leaders at the school and teach an occasional course for their distance program. That doesn’t mean I agree with everything the school says and does. But I have seen the way a re-centering in the gospel can transform a school, and for that I praise God.

Some of my fellow Northland alumni are upset because the school did not change fast enough or pursue change in the way they would have done it. Others are upset because they thought nothing should change. Ever. Still others are upset because of Olson’s departure on the heels of many of these changes. To those alumni and friends, I would simply ask that you to grant the same grace to the institution that you would to a fellow Christian who is growing in grace. We will all make mistakes, and we all have room for growth.

We can all learn from the example of an institution that is willing to further submit itself to God’s Word—in spite of the criticism and challenges these changes will bring. So pray for Northland as it searches for a new president and be praying about God’s continued work there, knowing that when the gospel moves to the center, amazing things can happen to an individual, a church, and even a fundamentalist school.

Telling the Story from the Bible

Children’s story bibles are not Bibles and, it turns out, neither are they for children.[1] My previous article explores the truth of the first statement.[2] Story bibles are illustrated, abridged, expanded, paraphrased, and fallible versions of the infallible book whose name they bear. They are not Bibles. But nor are they for children, at least, they are not just for children. Several pastors and reviewers recommend both The Big Picture Story Bible and The Jesus Storybook Bible for use among adults.[3]

One reviewer of the latter in Christianity Today says, “I’m hoping to invite my adult friends over for an evening with the Story. It will help some of us (well, me) to retool our theology a bit. We’ll pass The Jesus Storybook Bible around and read it aloud, taking time to look at the pictures.”[4] Tim Keller goes further: “I would urge not just families with young children to get this book, but every Christian—from pew warmers, to ministry leaders, seminarians and even theologians!”[5] Others make similar claims for The Big Picture Story Bible, which one blog-commenter suggests adding to a list of “Books to Read Before You Start Seminary/Divinity College.”[6]

This is a relatively new situation. Prior to these story bibles, it is hard to find any such enthusiastic endorsements. What are we to make of this? On the one hand it could highlight the extent of biblical illiteracy and theological immaturity among Christian adults and, more alarmingly, among seminary students. On the other hand, or perhaps in addition to this, it could speak of the quality of these books, although the lack of any sustained critical engagement with them means that claims of their value are largely untested.

That testing, therefore, is the focus of this article. Although several story bibles have appeared in recent years, the widespread popularity of these two justifies limiting our attention to them.[7] My previous article demonstrates that it is neither an easy nor a quick task to evaluate a story bible. Drawing on the methodology my preceding article develops, this article considers these two popular story bibles with reference to four key relationships:

  1. story bible text and Scripture
  2. story bible images and Scripture
  3. text and image within the story bible
  4. the story bible and the child

Not every review of a story bible need follow this sequence, or do so at such length, but I hope in what follows to build on the previous article in two ways: (1) underline the significance and multifaceted nature of these relationships and (2) demonstrate their usefulness as a framework by which to evaluate story bibles.

1. The Big Picture Story Bible

The Big Picture Story Bible (hereafter BPSB), first published in 2004 by Crossway, now includes a companion audio CD (2010) and an eBook edition (2011), reflecting both the book’s success and technological advances within publishing.[8] Intended for ages 2-7, it is divided into 26 chapters, 11 covering the OT (201 pages), 15 the NT (225 pages).

1.1. The Relationship between BPSB Text and Scripture

There are four sides to the relationship between the text of a story bible and Scripture: omission, addition, reformulation, and transposition.[9] In other words, we ask, “What has the author left out, added, changed, or rearranged?”

Continue reading at Themeliosan international evangelical theological journal that expounds and defends the historic Christian faith. It is published three times per year by The Gospel Coalition.


[1] To avoid ambiguity, this article refers to children’s bibles as “story bibles,” “children’s bibles,” or “bibles” (lowercase) and the Christian Scriptures as “the Bible” (uppercase) or “Scripture.”

[2] David A. Shaw, “Telling the Story from the Bible? How Story Bibles Work,” Them 37 (2012): 211-48.

[3] David R. Helm, The Big Picture Story Bible (illustrated by Gail Schoonmaker; Wheaton: Crossway, 2004); Sally Lloyd-Jones, The Jesus Storybook Bible: Every Story Whispers His Name (illustrated by Jago; Grand Rapids: Zonderkidz, 2007).

[4] Ben Patterson, “A Very Grown-up Children’s Bible.” March 3, 2008. (cited November 1, 2012).

[5] Quoted in Justin Taylor, “The Jesus Storybook Bible,” Between Two Worlds, February 22, 2007,  (cited November 1, 2012). Tullian Tchividjian gives a similar endorsement: “The Jesus Storybook Bible is, in my opinion, one of the best resources available to help both children and adults see the Jesus-centered story line of the Bible.” “What the Bible is Not,” The Gospel Coalition Blog, December 28, 2009,  (cited November 1, 2012).

[6] The suggestion appears in the comments after this post by Michael F. Bird: “Books to Read Before You Start Seminary/Divinity College,” Euangelion, September 14, 2012.

[7] Other story bibles published in the last few years that would merit further reviews include Starr Meade, Mighty Acts of God: A Family Bible Story Book (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010); Doug Mauss, ed., The Action Bible: God’s Redemptive Story (Colorado Springs, CO: Cook, 2010); Marty Machowski, The Gospel Story Bible: Discovering Jesus in the Old and New Testaments (Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2011); The Story for Kids: Discover the Bible from Beginning to End (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011); Champ Thornton, God’s Love: A Bible Storybook (Whitakers, NC: PositiveAction, 2012).

[8] For more information see

[9] These terms derive from Ruth Bottigheimer, “An Alternative Eve in Johann Hübner’s Children’s Bible,” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 16 (1991): 75.