Whatever Happened to Evangelism?

In 1973, psychiatrist Karl Menninger published a book with the provocative title, Whatever Became of Sin?  His point was that sociology and psychology tend to avoid terms like “evil,” or “immorality,” and “wrongdoing.” Menninger detailed how the theological notion of sin became the legal idea of crime and then slid further from its true meaning when it was relegated to the psychological category of sickness.

It’s time someone wrote a book for the church titled Whatever Became of Evangelism?

The point would be how we tend to avoid terms like “lost” or “hell” or “salvation.” It would detail how the Great Commission became the Great Rhetoric and then finally fell into the category of the Great Community. 

It wouldn’t take long to lay out how it all happened. It fits nicely into a short equation: Virtue of Tolerance + Emphasis on Social Ministry = Diminished Evangelism.

Let’s break the equation down.

First, tolerance. 

There is little doubt that tolerance is our culture’s uber-virtue. Specifically, tolerance defined as “acceptance” of other people’s beliefs and lifestyle; then, defining acceptance as “equally valid.”

This flows from a confusion of the idea of tolerance. When we speak of tolerance, we usually mean social tolerance: “I accept you as a person.” Or, at times, legal tolerance: “You have the right to believe what you wish.” 

We do not, however, tend to mean intellectual tolerance. This would mean that all ideas are equally valid. No one believes that ideas supporting genocide, pedophilia, racism, sexism, or the rejection of the historical reality of the Holocaust, are to be tolerated. But it is precisely the idea of intellectual tolerance we find ourselves sloppily embracing under the overarching mantra of “tolerance.”

The dilemma with such a position, as T.S. Eliot rightly pointed out, is that “It is not enthusiasm, but dogma, that differentiates a Christian from a pagan society.” 

Then there is our emphasis on social ministry.

In what is arguably a reaction against the previous generation’s emphasis on social morality – namely abortion and same-sex marriage – younger Christians (and now older ones as well) are giving renewed emphasis to matters of social justice, including a new interest in public policies that address issues related to peace, health and poverty. 

The reaction is not hard to understand. 

Few eras of American Christian history are reviled as much as the Moral Majority of the 1980’s and its attempt to impose Christian values on culture through political maneuvering. The idea at the time was simple and attractive: If we could only have Christians in the White House, Congress, and the Supreme Court, or populating other leadership elites, then morality would be enacted and faith would once again find the fertile soil needed to establish its footing in individual lives. 

The moral majority “won” through the election of Ronald Reagan as president, and his subsequent Supreme Court appointments throughout the 1980’s brought great anticipation for substantive change. Yet there has been little real change to mark as a result. Even the prime target – the striking down of the Supreme Court decision, Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion – remains the law of the land to this day. 

What was achieved was cultural division and Christians feeling more vilified than ever. The “culture wars” of the 1980’s and 1990’s is now widely viewed as one of the more distasteful episodes in recent memory, and many younger evangelicals want nothing to do with what was often its caustic, abrasive and unloving approach toward those apart from Christ. 

So what is the result of tolerance as the supreme virtue coupled with a new emphasis on social justice?

We’ll buy Tom’s Shoes, but not witness to Tom.

Let’s get the necessary qualifier out of the way. Social ministry should not be paired against evangelism. We should extend the Bread of Life as well as bread for the stomach. But we must never begin, and end, with the stomach alone.

I suspect some of this is tied to our need to be accepted by the secular culture. The scandal of the cross – and humanity’s desperate need for it – doesn’t play as well as the hip work of IJM or supporting Bono in Africa. We get a taste of doing something that plays well in culture, and we become like Sally Field at the Oscars: “You like me! You really, really like me!”

We should lock eyes with the poor and the hungry, the sex-trafficked and the destitute. We should care for them, deeply, and serve them in the name of Christ. But we must not forget to give them Christ. Because once this life is over, the food we gave them for their stomach will mean nothing compared to the food we could have given them for their souls. How tragic it would be to have compassion for the immediate needs of this life, but not the eternal needs of the life to come.

So yes, buy a pair of Tom’s Shoes.

Just don’t forget Tom.

James Emery White




Adapted from James Emery White, The Church In An Age of Crisis: 25 New Realities Facing Christianity (Baker).

T.S. Eliot, Christianity and Culture.

When to Leave a Church

There is a perfect time to leave a church:

           …it’s not when you get disgruntled.

          …it’s not when you get offended.

          …it’s not when it gets too big.

          …it’s not when a decision is made you disagree with.

It’s long before.

The best time to leave a church is,

… before you join.

Think about a plane. You board, and over the loudspeaker, you hear, “Welcome to US Airways Flight #142, heading to Orlando.” If Orlando is not your destination, that would be the time to deplane. Why would you stay on board knowing its going somewhere you do not want to go?

Yet that is precisely what so many do.  They know they are out of sync with the church’s vision and values, mission and structure. They know that they have a profound and substantive disagreement. 

Yet they join, and then begin to cause conflict.

That’s not healthy.

In fact, I’ll go further.

I think it’s sin.

Hear me: Disagreeing isn’t the sin; purposefully joining with an agenda to create division and dissension is. It reminds me of the brouhaha in the Southern Baptist Convention where Calvinists were presenting themselves as anything but to church search committees, only to get the job and then seek to divide and recreate the church in their theological image.

As my sons would say, “Not cool.”

Now, if you join a church that is heading to Orlando, and mid-flight, they change course to, say, Toledo, I can understand needing to rethink involvement at that time. If your church changes its mission, vision, values or doctrine, then okay…

…get the parachute and jump.

But if you know on the front end it’s going where you aren’t, or can’t, or won’t, then that’s the time to leave. Your job is to find a church you can align with, and enjoy the flight.

After all, there are a lot of flights taking off, and surely one of them is headed to a place you would love to go.


James Emery White

Unplug Your Family

My wife and I were in a restaurant having lunch the other day with one of our sons, and couldn’t help but notice a nearby family: a mom, dad, two boys, and a daughter. 

The daughter was middle school age, and clearly in contemporary middle school mode: ear buds securely in place, staring off into space. Every aspect of her demeanor made it clear: I don’t want to be here, and I don’t want to be with my family. So I am going to stay in my world of music and media. 

By plugging in, I’m tuning out.

And her parents were letting her do it.

She’s not alone. 

Children ages 8 to 18 spent an average of 7 hours and 38 minutes a day consuming media for fun, including TV, music, video games and other content, according to a 2010 report from the Kaiser Family Foundation. That was up about an hour and 17 minutes a day from five years earlier. 

About two-thirds of 8-to-18-year-olds said they had no rules on the amount of time they spent watching TV, playing video games or using the computer.

An even later report from Common Sense Media, a child-advocacy group based in San Francisco, found that 17% of children 8 and younger use mobile devices daily, more than doubling since 2011. Thirty-eight percent of children under the age of 2 were using mobile devices like iPhones, tablets, or Kindles.

The New York Times even carried a story on a new milestone for parents: their baby’s first iPhone app.

So no wonder the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recently released a new set of guidelines on children’s use of internet, TV, cell phones and video games, calling for a comprehensive “family media use plan.” The AAP’s guidelines have been spurred by a “growing recognition of kids nearly round-the-clock media consumption.”

Such excessive media use is associated with “obesity, poor school performance, aggression and lack of sleep,” said Marjorie Hogan, a pediatrician and co-author of the new policy guidelines.

The heart of the recommendations? 

Limit the amount of media time for entertainment purposes to less than two hours per day. Children younger than two shouldn’t have any TV or internet exposure. Venturing dangerously into parenting territory, they also suggest having a no-device rule during meals and after bedtime, and keeping television and internet-accessible devices out of kids’ bedrooms. 

But that means Mom and Dad will have to follow the same rules.

“If you go to any restaurant, Family 3.0 is Mom and Dad are on their devices and the kids are on theirs,” says Donald L. Shifrin, a pediatrician in Bellevue, Washington, and an AAP spokesman. “Who is talking to each other?”

Apparently, not many.

So let’s state the obvious, and shame on us for needing pediatricians to step in and tell us:

It’s time for families to unplug.

James Emery White




“Pediatricians Set Limits on Screen Time,” Andrea Petersen, The Wall Street Journal, October 28, 2013, read online.  

“New Milestone Emerges: Baby’s First iPhone App,” Tamar Lewin, The New York Times, October 28, 2013, read online.

“Limit teens' web access to two hours a day, parents told,” Rosa Silverman, The Telegraph, October 28, 2013, read online.

Five Biggest Things We Did Right Early On

Posted: Monday, November 4, 2013


One of the biggest questions I get from pastors is what we did in the early years that now, looking back with hindsight, we feel made the most difference.

It’s a good question.

Most churches make it or break it in the first five years of their existence. Numerous church growth studies have shown that if you don’t break 200 in average attendance in the first two years, you never will. If you don’t break 500 in five, you never will, and so on.

I don’t understand all of this in terms of the work of the Holy Spirit. All I know is that it is the consensus observation from those who watch how the Holy Spirit tends to work.


What did we do in those early, formative years that we now feel set us free to break through the 200, 500, 700, 1200, 1800, 2500, and more barrier? 

(Meck now has over 8,000 active attenders, and over 25,000 in its data base.)

In no particular order (actually, that’s not true – the fifth may be the most important), here are the five most decisive:

1.       In terms of ministry programs/activity, we focused on two main things: weekend services and children’s ministry. Not small groups, or student ministry, or missions. We built from the ground up, and these two are the foundation for everything.

2.       We waited to build a building, using rented facilities for as long as possible. But we didn’t wait to buy land. This is a crucial interplay. Get your land/campus as quickly as you can, and buy as much as you can. This is a decision you will NEVER regret. Parcels of land get “land-locked,” particularly in fast-growing areas, and you can’t buy more. And you can always sell it later if need be. But make no mistake, the “shoe” can tell the “foot” how big it gets. The mistake that many make is to focus on the building instead, buying a small plot of land in view of building quickly. Don’t. We started in the fall of 1992, raised money for land in a campaign in 1995, bought the land in 1996, and didn’t build until 1998. And even then, this was earlier than we had anticipated or wanted when the high school we were in could not accommodate our size anymore.

3.       We put all of our resources and effort into outreach. I know, you’re thinking, “So do we!”, but make sure. Lots of churches say they do, but then they build their staffs large and quick (instead of using volunteers), have super nice office space in an executive park, and…well, you get my point. For the first year-and-a-half, Meck’s office was my home. Yep, the church’s phone was our home phone. It would ring, I would tell all the kids to be quiet, and then try and answer in the most generic and professional voice possible. It was hilarious. But the point is that we funneled what little money we have into things that would reach people, not serve us. Still do.

4.       We were tenacious in holding to the mission/vision/values, conveying the mission/vision/values, making decisions by the mission/vision/values, and judging everything we did by the mission/vision/values. Mission is the target on the wall in terms of what you are trying to do, vision is what it all is going to look like if you succeed, and values are who you want to be and how you want to live along the way.

5.       Finally, we had a big-church mentality. I know that’s crass, and might invite all kinds of “value the small church” comments, but let me unpack it.

Tom Watson was the leader responsible for putting IBM on the map during its heyday. When asked why the company had become so successful, he said:

IBM is what it is today for three special reasons. The first reason is that, at the very beginning, I had a clear picture of what the company would look like when it was finally done.

The second reason was that once I had that picture, I then asked myself how a company which looked like that would have to act.

The third reason IBM has been so successful was that once I had a picture of how IBM would look when the dream was in place and how such a company would have to act, I then realized that, unless we began to act that way from the very beginning, we would never get there.

In other words, I realized that for IBM to become a great company it would have to act like a great company long before it ever became one.

One of the most important things you can do as a church leader is establish a preferred vision of the future firmly in your mind and spirit, act on it, and then make decisions based on it. And most important of all, let people know your thinking.

In the early days at Meck, we used to say that we were “a small church with a big church mentality.” We saw ourselves, from the beginning, as a church of thousands. So we acted like one. When we were running less than a hundred people, we would prepare for each service as if hundreds would come in terms of quality, effort, attention to detail. And that’s one of the reasons hundreds did. 

And then thousands.

It’s very easy for a church to act in accordance with its current status. You prepare a service for 250 because that’s what you tend to have in attendance. As a result, everything is done with that level of quality, that level of decorum, that level of expectation. 

It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

For a church running 250 to become a church of 500, it has to begin to act like a church of 500 long before it actually is one.

Again, I don’t know why these five matter as much as they do, I just know that they do. It isn’t meant to diminish the power of prayer, biblical fidelity, and such. There just seems to be a “street smart” element to things that counts.

And these are five things we would say fall into that category.

James Emery White

Bucket List

Have you ever heard the phrase “bucket list?”

It means the things you want to do before you before you “kick the bucket.”

I recently read an article titled “The Before You’re Forty Bucketlist.” It was a decent list, full of things both spiritual (read the Bible) and temporal (watch every film on the AFI top 100 list).

It got me thinking what a bucket list should entail for someone who is already a follower of Christ (becoming one would be, of course, the only bucket list item that would matter). After all, we are not to count this life for much beyond personal preparation for eternity and making an eternal difference on others.

So what would a top-ten bucket list in that spirit contain?

Here’s my shot. 

1.    Build a relationship with a non-Christian and share your faith in Christ.

2.    Trust God financially in terms of giving.

3.    Take at least one bungee-jump of faith related to obedience.

4.    Love someone to the point of sacrifice.

5.    Discover your spiritual gift(s) and serve accordingly.

6.    Make one spiritual pilgrimage (see A Traveler’s Guide to the Kingdom, InterVarsity Press, for some ideas).

7.    Read the Bible in its entirety.

8.    Mentor someone new to the faith.       

9.    Find a church home and invest yourself in its community and mission.

10.Serve the poorest of the poor.

Let me know what you think I missed. But if I can have those ten things crossed off,

…it would have been a good and God-honoring life.

James Emery White




“The Before You're 40 Bucketlist,” Jesse Carey, Relevant, October 13, 2013, read online.

James Emery White, A Traveler’s Guide to the Kingdom (InterVarsity Press).

Is Google God?

Is Google God?

Columnist Thomas Friedman posed this question in The New York Times in June of 2003. Quoting the vice-president of a Wi-Fi provider, Friedman writes that “Google, combined with Wi-Fi, is a little bit like God. God is wireless, God is everywhere and God sees and knows everything. Throughout history, people connected to God without wires. Now, for many questions in the world, you ask Google, and increasingly, you can do it without wires, too.”

Now Friedman’s question seems prescient. Taken from “googol” (the numeral 1 followed by 100 zeros), signifying how much information Google initially hoped to catalog, “Googling” has now become synonymous with the search for information. 

Interestingly, when Tim Berners-Lee first imagined the web as its inventor, he named it “Enquire,” short for Enquire Within upon Everything, a “musty old book of Victorian advice I noticed as a child in my parents’ house outside London. With its title suggestive of magic, the book served as a portal to a world of information, everything from how to remove clothing stains to tips on investing money.”

His original title was more prophetic than he could have imagined.

There can be little doubt that what began as a graduate project of two 20-something Stanford students is now shaping the world. But how? Few would deny the convenience of the project, and the value it can bring, but there are troubling dynamics. 

One in particular: the trivialization of knowledge.

Consider three of the most popular Google searches for this past Monday (yes, you can even google Google):

*TLC (the musical group)

*Jenna Jameson (the porn star)

*Kelly Clarkson (she got married)

Not exactly the writings of Foucault.

Because of the internet, there is a widening chasm between wisdom and information. Quentin Schultze writes that the torrent of information now at our disposal is often little more than “endless volleys of nonsense, folly and rumor masquerading as knowledge, wisdom, and even truth.”  

Chuck Kelley, president of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, has noted that “Google has changed the relationship of people to information. For the last 300 or 400 years, information has been collected on college, university and seminary campuses … You went to the collected information to learn. Today the information is available anywhere you want, just Google it."

This creates a new challenge for educators. Rather than primarily dispensing information, Kelley said educators must spend much more of their time helping students evaluate information. He’s right. It is as if we’ve dropped a library card onto the world, but removed the classroom that gives us the literacy to read its contents, much less the education needed to interpret its contents.

For example, google almost anything, and the top of the results will almost undoubtedly be its Wikipedia article, the online encyclopedia which is written entirely by unpaid volunteers. 

Though praised for “democratizing knowledge” by such luminaries as Stanford University law professor Lawrence Lessig, Wikipedia has had more than its fair share of detractors. The site first drew unwanted attention when journalist John Seigenthaler exposed gross errors and fabrications in the entry on his life. Numerous scholars have voiced concern that the encyclopedia is an unreliable research tool, and lament students’ use of the resource. A paper by a University of California at Merced graduate student revealed many of Wikipedia’s flaws, including often indifferent prose and some serious problems with accuracy. 

Regardless of the accuracy of certain articles (and in fairness to Wikipedia, a study by the journal Nature found Wikipedia’s articles on science nearly as accurate as those that appear in the Encyclopaedia Britannica), and separate from the movement advocating free access to information online, political satirist Stephen Colbert has put his finger on the real issue in his coining of a single term:


Wikiality is “reality as determined by majority vote,” such as when astronomers voted Pluto off their list of planets. Colbert notes that any user can log on and make a change on any entry, and if enough users agree, it becomes “true.” If only the entire body of knowledge could work this way, offers Colbert. And through a new “wikiality,” he maintains it can. “Together we can create a reality we can all agree on. The reality we just agreed on.”

And that is the problem.

So is Google our new god?

Let’s hope not.

It would be a wiki one.

James Emery White




Adapted from James Emery White, The Church in An Age of Crisis: 25 New Realities Facing Christianity (Baker).

“Is Google God?” by Thomas L. Friedman. The New York Times, June 20, 2003, read online.

Tim Berners-Lee, Weaving the Web.

Habits of the High-Tech Heart by Quentin J. Schultze.

“Theological ed. is “being redefined,” Gary D. Myers, Baptist Press, April 20, 2011, read online.

“’Wikimaina’ Participants Give the Online Encyclopedia Mixed Reviews,” by Brock Read, The Chronicle of Higher Education, September 1, 2006.

Stephen Colbert, “The Word - Wikiality”, ColbertNation.com, watch online.

Five Missional Misfires

Every church would say they are in it for the mission. Which is why misfiring on that mission is something to be avoided at all costs. Yet it happens all the time.

Here are five of the most common misfires:

1.       Seeing other churches as the competition.

When I started Meck in Charlotte over twenty years ago, there was a large and once-thriving church experiencing stagnation and severe financial struggles. In an interview, the pastor was asked why the church was facing such difficulty, and his response was telling: “When we started, we were the only good Bible-teaching church around. Now there are more to choose from.”

I remember being stunned at the complete orientation toward transfer growth from existing believers, and the complete blindness to the vast numbers of lost/unchurched people.

But even more, I was taken by how strongly so many people involved in local churches view other local churches as the competition, as if it’s McDonald’s against Burger King.  

I remember saying to our earliest core group, and have continued to say ever since, “We could have a hundred churches around us, and it wouldn’t matter. We’re not after churched people!” I would often go further and add, “We’re not even primarily after people looking for a church…we’re after the person who, right now, the last thought on their mind is being in a church this weekend.”

Bottom line: If you see other churches as the competition, you are reducing the mission to reaching the reached. That is not the Great Commission. Instead of being fishers of men, you’re just keepers of the aquarium.

2.       Criticizing “seeker” churches for being all evangelism and no discipleship.

It used to make me mad, now I just sigh at the ignorance.   First, that they would bring out the tired moniker “seeker” when it is so passé, even among those churches that once consciously wore the label. Second, that they insist that if you prioritize the lost or unchurched in your outreach, you are somehow de-prioritizing the existing believers in your community or those who have moved into your area and are in need of a good church home.

Why the insistence on a false dichotomy that it either has to be evangelism, or it has to be discipleship?

The Great Commission makes it clear that we are to do both. Why can’t people see that if a church prioritizes the lost with outreach, as Jesus said we are supposed to, it doesn’t mean they aren’t strengthening existing believers for life in Christ and the cause of Christ? And why insist on taking shots at churches that are oriented toward the unchurched in their outreach as if they don’t care for the believer, or discipleship? 

It’s such a straw man.

Bottom line: If you can’t make evangelism and discipleship a “both-and” instead of an “either-or,” you will never fulfill the “both-and” nature of the Great Commission, which was to “make” disciples and then “teach them everything.” And if you insist on this misfire, you will end up dropping the ball with one or the other side of Jesus’ marching orders.

3.       Saying you’re after the unchurched, but clearly targeting the already-convinced.

For most churches, this isn’t conscious. They talk about reaching the lost, or going after the unchurched, but when you examine their “front doors” – meaning their weekend services, website, mailings, ads – they are targeting the person actively looking for a church home, or someone already in one. Regardless, it is clear that it is assumed they are a Christ-follower.

“Dynamic preaching!”

“10-week series on James!”!

“Communion this weekend!”

“Looking for a good church home?”

“Fifty-voice choir!”

Really, who is attracted to any of this? Only the already convinced, and often already-churched.

If you think touting that your church is bigger, better, more dynamic, has better Bible study or its own worship band with CD’s is going to reach the “nones” that are now the second-largest and fastest-growing religious segment in the country, then you need to get out and meet a few.

Bottom line: If you say you’re after the unchurched, and want to reach the unchurched, then for heaven’s sake (literally), try targeting them.

4.       Substituting social justice for evangelism.

In what is arguably a reaction against the previous generation’s emphasis on social morality – namely abortion and same-sex marriage – young Christians (and now older ones as well) are giving renewed emphasis to matters of social justice, including a new interest in public policies that address issues related to peace, health and poverty. 

This is all well and good.

The misfire is when the mission of the church is reduced to social justice. In other words, we’ll buy Tom’s Shoes, but not witness to Tom.

Bottom line: Social ministry should not be paired against evangelism. We should extend the Bread of Life as well as bread for the stomach. But we must never begin, and end, with the stomach alone. The scandal of the cross – and humanity’s desperate need for it – doesn’t play as well as the hip work of IJM or supporting Bono in Africa. Yet think how tragic it would be to have compassion for the immediate needs of this life, but not the eternal needs of the life to come.

So yes, buy a pair of Tom’s Shoes.

Just don’t forget Tom.

5.       Thinking outreach is offering them what they already have.

A flyer recently arrived in my mailbox from a new church plant, promising me relevant and practical messages; contemporary “urban” music and great coffee. The idea is that if you offer such things, people will come who wouldn’t normally come.

It’s a subtle and enticing temptation. All we have to do is encourage casual dress, offer Starbucks coffee, play rock music, and then deliver a “felt needs” message in a style similar to the popular speakers of the day and we will automatically grow. 

And if you want to guarantee your growth comes from a younger demographic, just throw in skinny jeans, designer t-shirts, and a noticeable tattoo. It will instantly turn the most middle-of-age pastor into a Millennial magnet.



People already have those things. They do not need to go to church to find them. If they want Starbucks, they’ll go to Starbucks; if they want to hear contemporary music, they have iTunes and their iPod. They may appreciate those things once they attend, but it is not what will get them to attend. 

This approach may have worked back in the 80’s and 90’s, but that was because the typical unchurched person was a Baby Boomer who had been raised in a church, just starting to have kids. They had the memory and the experience; once they had kids, they actually wanted to find a church. When churches took down the cultural barriers associated with attending (eliminating stuffiness, boredom, irrelevance, empty ritual, outdated music), Boomers were attracted. 

And yes, back then, if you built it, they came.

But this is no longer our world, and hasn’t been for quite some time. 

As uber-marketer Seth Godin notes, “The portion of the population that haven’t bought from you...is not waiting for a better mousetrap. They’re not busy considering a, b and c and then waiting for d. No, they’re not in the market...As a result, smart marketers don’t market to this audience by saying, ‘hey ours is better than theirs!’”

Bottom line: The foundational way that people divorced from the church and a life in Christ will come to church and find that life in Christ is if a Christ-follower does three things: build a relationship with them, share how Christ has intersected the deepest needs of their life, and then invites them into the community to see, hear, taste and explore.

And actually, that’s pretty much the bottom line for all five.

James Emery White




“Selling to people who haven’t bought yet,” Seth Godin, April 20, 2012, read online.

The Lost Art of Discipline

A recent business article caught my attention. It was titled “The Lost Art of Discipline.” In it, former tech executive Steve Tobak lamented the lack of discipline people have toward their work. Few people today sacrifice what they have to in order to get a job done.

Tobak rightly notes that one of the problems is the explosion of distractions, the “archenemies of discipline.” With CEO’s getting in online debates and ranking Senators playing iPhone games during committee hearings, it seems no one is immune.

“Even highly focused overachievers like me,” says Tobak, “sit down to work only to find that, a few tweets, texts, and emails later, half the day is gone and the work is a long way away from getting done.”

So forget our focus on drug and alcohol addictions. “Today, you can add texting, tweeting, posting, blogging, emailing, gaming, shopping, eating, and of course, porn, to that ever-growing list of addictive activities. To make matters worse, it appears that the threshold for human susceptibility to these addictions is getting lower all the time.”

Tobak’s conclusion rings true: “Discipline, will power, work ethic – call it what you want, it’s why we do what we have to do instead of what we want to do.”  

This isn’t simply important for the workplace. 

It’s the heart of spiritual life.

Historian Mark Noll has designated the founding of the Monastic Rule of St. Benedict (ca. 480-ca. 550) as one of the great “turning points” in Christian history. Noll even goes so far as to say that the “rise of monasticism was, after Christ’s commission to his disciples, the most important – and in many ways the most beneficial – institutional event in the history of Christianity.” 

Penned at the beginning of the sixth century, St. Benedict wished to write a “rule” that would help guide monks to holiness. By “rule,” he intended a guide for optimal spiritual formation. Thomas Moore writes that “Every thoughtful person, no matter what his or her lifestyle may be, has a rule;” meaning a pattern or model for living.

I need a rule. Something that will take the scattered, frantic activities of my life and carve out space and time for God to dwell, the two of us to connect, and from that to have the deepest parts of who I am formed in Christ. 

I need a rule that will reach into the numbing routines of my life, what the French often refer to as “metro, boulot, dodo” – “metro, work, sleep” – and create channels through which spiritual life can flow. 

The key is discipline

This is what a “rule” is – a collected, organized set of practices we determine to follow in order to tend to our spirits and shepherd our souls. We need structure and discipline for our spiritual lives every bit as much as we do for every other area of life. 

Whatever our “rule” may be, it can, and should, be natural to our personality and developed in light of our season of life – but it must be created. If we know that we would be profoundly served by reading, praying, and spending time with a soul friend, then we must work toward establishing the patterns of life that allow it. 


Of course not.

The natural flow of my life is away from discipline. If disciplines come at all, I have found that they must be cultivated.

There are many protests to the demands of living under a rule, but when I think of the challenges of such a life, I am reminded of Evelyn Underhill’s quip that it is a peculiarity of the great spiritual personality that “he or she constantly does in the teeth of circumstances what other people say cannot be done.” 

But the practices themselves are not the issue at hand. The goal is to seek the face of God in such a way that Christ is formed in us.   By themselves the spiritual disciplines can do nothing, Richard Foster wisely reminds us, “they can only get us to the place where something can be done.” 

But that is a very important place to come to. Christ formed in us is what will allow us to bring Christ to the world. So let’s not lose the art of discipline. Otherwise we will have nothing to offer the world that it does not already have.

And it needs so much more than what it now has.

James Emery White



“The Lost Art of Discipline,” Steve Tobak, October 10, 2013, FOXBusiness, read online.

James Emery White, Serious Times (InterVarsity Press).

Mark A. Noll, Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity.

Thomas Moore in The Rule of St. Benedict, Edited by Timothy Fry.

Evelyn Underhill, The Spiritual Life.

Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline.

The Miracle of the Happening

Few things get our attention as much as speed.

We want the fastest computers, the fastest routes to work, the fastest ways to get rich, the fastest....well, everything.

This is why the fastest growing churches often get attention, but the slow and steady often do not.

Or immediate healings through prayer, as opposed to slower healings through the hands of a doctor with the spiritual gift of healing through medicine.

Or the “Saul” to “Paul” conversion stories, as opposed to those who take months to ask questions and explore, moving gradually to faith.

The point is that we often equate the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit with speed, rather than effect.

A pastor in my city that I respect greatly has been faithfully at the helm for three or more decades. He has been used to build a great church.   

He once told me that his church has never grown more than about a hundred in average attendance a year. No big bursts, no break-out seasons, just a steady growth of about a hundred more people, year after year.

But after thirty or more years, he now pastors a multi-site church with well over 3,000 in average attendance.

I believe he should be honored. I believe that is a church that leaders and planters from around the world should study. I believe that is a church marked by praiseworthy growth from the Holy Spirit and faithful attenders.

But it’s never been “fast” enough to get attention, and thus be seen as a great work of God.

I once read a story about an eastern king who asked one of his counselors to give him a sign of the wonderful, miraculous works of God.

So the counselor told the king to plant four acorns.

The king did, but then fell asleep for eighty years.

When he awoke, he was amazed that the four acorns he had planted had (to him) instantaneously become four fully-grown trees.  He thought a miracle had occurred, because to him, it had only seemed like a moment.

Then the counselor told the king that, in truth, eighty years had gone by.

Then the king looked down and saw that he had grown old and that his clothes were in rags. He said, "Then there is no miracle here."

But then the counselor said, "That is where you are wrong. Whether accomplished in a moment or in eighty years, it is all God's work. The miracle is not in the speed of it's happening, but in the happening itself."

Perhaps that’s what we should be looking for. Not speed alone,

…but the larger miracle of the happening itself.

James Emery White

If Churches Shut Down

People across the United States are finding out what it means for their life when the government shuts down. From this, a new hashtag on Twitter has started: #IfIShutDown. Dentists are tweeting empty dentist chairs, newspaper editors blank sheets of paper, and Moms and Dads messy kitchens and unsupervised children.

But what if churches shut down?

It might be the most “felt” shutdown of all. 


Because if churches shut down,

…food pantries would run empty

…residents in nursing homes would go unvisited, and many would be forced to close

…large numbers of preschools, after-school programs, daycares, elementary schools, middle schools, high schools, and even colleges and universities would have to close

...untold numbers of AIDS orphans in Africa would lose their monthly support

…marriages facing crisis would have to fend for themselves

…homes being built for the homeless would have to be dramatically scaled back

…countless orphanages would be forced to close

…parents with wayward children would be left without support

…the arts would lose one of its greatest patrons, and one of its biggest venues

…arguably the single largest values training program for young children would end

…recovery groups of all kinds would find themselves without places to meet, staff to serve, or support to continue

…one of the last stands of living, breathing bookstores would end

…vast numbers of funerals would go unofficiated and weddings put on hold

…leaders and constituents in the vanguard of ending human slavery and sex trafficking would be sidelined

…teens dealing with drugs and drinking, cutting and bullying, would be adrift without focused support

…people in hospitals would be unvisited, and hospice support would be devastated

…and hundreds of millions of dollars going into aid and benevolence for the poorest of the poor would end.

Oh, and there’s one more little thing: the one message that can alter the entire trajectory of someone’s eternity would lose its most powerful voice.

So what happens if the government shuts down? Arguably, some good things end. But much still goes on, such as the recent purchase of a mechanical bull for $47,000. So at least the important things are cared for.

But with the church?

That’s one shutdown no one would want to face.

James Emery White




“Twitter users share what would happen #IfIShutDown,” TheToday Show, Wednesday, October 9, 2013, read online.

“A Week Into the Shutdown, Government Buys $47,174 Mechanical Bull,” Lacey Donohue, Gawker.com, October 8, 2013, read online.