Why Will The Poor Always Be With Us?

Upcoming events and extra content from a recent conference presentation on mercy and politics.

We’re going to start varying up the format of the podcast a little bit—we’ll be trying out some shorter episodes like this one once in a while along with the longer, interview-driven ones. Drop us a comment on Facebook or Twitter to let me know what you think of it.


Mentioned in the Episode

“Lord of the Middle Rings” by Dustin Messer
Light to the World: Making Politics Safe for Christian Community

Q Commons

Information and registration available at qcommons.com. Thanks to our friends at Liberatus for their help coordinating this event.


In This Episode


Episode Transcript

Last weekend, at the Gospel Coalition Mid-Atlantic Conference, I had the chance to give a presentation on “Radical Responsibility: Fostering a Culture of Mercy in a Representative Democracy.” I got to spend an hour with a room full of people exploring ways that our churches can be part of healing our political culture. There was a lot of ground to cover and not enough time—Could there EVER have been enough time? This is such a big topic, you can spend years swimming through it and never hit the deep end.

But as we talked about ways that we as congregants can make our churches into places that foster better politics, there was one point in particular that came up but that we weren’t able to look at in any kind of depth: The fact that the same practices, the same attitudes that turn our churches into engines that drive healing in our communities’ politics ALSO turn our churches into places that are welcoming to the marginalized, the oppressed, the poor, and the voiceless. The people who fill the same roles as the widow, the poor, the orphan and the foreigner in ancient Israel—the people many biblical scholars call “The Quartet of the Vulnerable.”

And since we didn’t have enough time to pause and think about that fact during the presentation, let’s take a couple minutes to do that now.

This was an important and relevant idea to explore because the theme of the conference was understanding and practicing biblical mercy—what a lot of churches call mercy ministry or diaconal ministry. Ministry that focuses on meeting the needs of our poor, vulnerable or marginalized neighbors.

Why Will The Poor Always Be With Us?

When we talk about making a priority of accommodating the poor, or attempting to alleviate the symptoms of poverty in people’s lives—and especially when we talk about being motivated to do that because of our Christian faith—one question that I’ve been asked a few times is, “Didn’t Jesus say the poor would always be with us?”

The first and most obvious response to that question is that the whole sentence is, “The poor will always be with you and you can give to them whenever you want, but I am only here for short time.” The conversation started because a woman poured out expensive perfume to anoint Jesus, and the disciples chastised her for wasting it. She could have sold it and given the money to the poor.

This was obviously an act of extravagance. The type of perfume she poured out was expensive and relatively rare. Some scholars speculate that, to put things delicately, the perfume might also have been part of the woman’s professional equipment, and that pouring it out was sort of a renunciation of her former work.

Either way, it’s important to remember that Jesus wasn’t rebuking the disciples for their impulse to think about the poor. We know that, because his response indicated that they’d continue wanting to give to the poor in the future and that they are morally and practically able to do that. If anything, he was rebuking them for trying to tamp down on this woman’s zeal. For not stopping to take stock of just how wonderful his presence is. Regardless of whether the perfume was a “professional aid” or not, it was an expensive luxury. It was an item of great value, and maybe an indicator of or vessel for social capital. For glory. She was laying her glory down at Jesus’ feet, just as the kings of the world will one day.

That’s the low-hanging fruit, and I’m not equipped or qualified to claim that I’m giving any kind of definitive read on this passage, but it’s probably not wise to move on from it until we’ve looked at one other fact: When Jesus told the disciples they would always have the poor with them, he didn’t make that phrase up. He was quoting scripture.

Deuteronomy 15 is addressed to Israelites who might be tempted to be less generous to the poor among them because they know that a year of debt forgiveness is coming up.

Let’s look a the passage real quick:

“If there is a poor man with you, one of your brothers, in any of your towns in your land which the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart, nor close your hand from your poor brother; but you shall freely open your hand to him, and shall generously lend him sufficient for his need in whatever he lacks. Beware that there is no base thought in your heart, saying, ‘The seventh year, the year of remission, is near,’ and your eye is hostile toward your poor brother, and you give him nothing; then he may cry to the Lord against you, and it will be a sin in you. You shall generously give to him, and your heart shall not be grieved when you give to him, because for this thing the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all your undertakings. For the poor will never cease to be in the land; therefore I command you, saying, ‘You shall freely open your hand to your brother, to your needy and poor in your land.’”
— Deuteronomy 15:8–11

At the start of the presentation, we talked about mercy existing at three scales: The inter-personal, the corporate, and the political.

The interpersonal is direct interaction, close relationships. Relationships that exist because of frequent and ongoing interaction between specific people. It’s either familial or voluntary (or in some cases, both).

The corporate scale are the relationships between people who might not be very close, but are associated with one another in some significant way. A club, a team, even a church. Our team member Dustin Messer wrote a great blog article for us recently about “middle rings” of American society—you should all visit our website and read it—but the corporate scale is basically the scale of middle rings. This one is also basically voluntary.

The political scale is the systems that hold together the relationships between people who might never actually meet, never actually share a specific experience. It doesn’t tend to be strictly voluntary. You’re part of a broader society by default.

The poor were always going to be in Israel by matter of practicality, because Israel existed at a political scale. Go into most societies that existed at the political scale throughout most of human history, and you’re likely to end up lumping in at least some people who have significantly more than others. Some people start out with less. Some people accumulate more. Some people lose a lot or have a lot taken. And some people end up going through all of those things over the course of their lives.

But the apostles were not a nation. Their relationship to one another existed at the personal scale. And they were about to be commissioned to become the founders of the Church, which exists at the corporate scale. If we wanted to, we could probably all structure our lives so that, at the personal scale, we don’t have to interact very much with people who are much richer or much poorer than us. The same is true of our lives at the corporate scale. And, honestly, that’s maybe not that surprising. It’s EASIER to do that.

So, if the apostles’ relationships to one another were at the voluntary scales, but Jesus said that they’d be as sure to have the poor around them as Israel was sure to have poor among them at the involuntary scale, why did Jesus expect them to always have the poor with them? How could he expect that of them?

God’s laws and commandments, his instructions to those who believe in him for how we should best order our personal and corporate lives to reflect his intentions for our flourishing, have ALWAYS resulted in his people forming communities that are attractive to the poor.

In Egypt, at the political level, it was a proactive program to ensure food security during difficult times. In ancient Israel, it was a laws concerning gleaning of the fields, protecting laborers, and periodic economic resets.

But the church is not a nation. The church is smaller communities scattered within and throughout all of the nations at the corporate level, and testifying to his glory at the personal level through Christians living in line with his character amongst people who don’t know him yet. When we’re doing that well, our churches will have no choice but to become attractive places to the poor.

The Roman Emperor Julian attempted to revive a form of Roman paganism as a civil religion, a point of national pride, a sort of rallying point for Roman cultural identity. This wasn’t the first time in history that a monarch wanted to see God’s community wither and die. Nebuchadnezzar wanted to assimilate to God’s people out of existence. When the Babylonian king wanted to digest the people of Israel into the body of his country, God’s people were preserved and kept distinct by God’s intervention on behalf of Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego and Daniel.

When Emperor Julian wanted to do the same thing, God didn’t preserve his people through supernatural miracles. He did it through the persuasive beauty of his character being made visible by the people who had been grafted into his body. Julian couldn’t get his new paganism to take hold because of the way Christians were behaving in Roman cities.

“They don’t just take care of their own poor,” he complained, “But ours as well.”

Their behavior was making them attractive, dear and even precious to the poor. The poor flocked to them, and resisted attempts to persuade them away from Christian identity.

The presentation mostly focused on practical ways to foster Christian community across party lines within a church, and how we as Christians can demonstrate the gospel more clearly when we engage with the public square. The thing we hit on was that the same practices that make us better at dealing with one another and with politics more Christianly are also things that make our communities more attractive and welcoming places to the poor—and that shouldn’t be a surprise.

One day, our Lord’s very presence will provoke political healing. The lion and the lamb will lay down together. All the kings of the earth will kneel and lay their crowns at the great King’s feet. But our Lord is also, in his very nature, relief to be anxious, food for the hungry, hope for the destitute, comfort for the afflicted.

And the church is not just a club of people who are big fans of his. The church is commissioned to actually be his body in this world, his very hands and feet, until he returns. He lives in this world, he makes himself visible in it and interacts with it within and through the local gatherings of members of his body.

Being a healing influence on the culture of our political communities and being the kinds of people or communities that make the poor feel welcomed, the desperate feel like they’ve found refuge—those aren’t two different things. They’re both evidence that we are walking in line with his character. I think we mention this in our Bible study guide, Light to the World, but Scripture calls love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control the fruit of the Spirit, not the fruits of the Spirit. That’s not a typo or an accident. God’s Spirit doesn’t only show evidence in one aspect of our lives. We all have particular gifts and skills, but none of us are one-dimensional. None of us are perfect in every way but one, and none of us are meant to be healed less or restored less or made less perfect than one another when the resurrection comes. If we’re only demonstrating Christian character in our conversations about politics, we’re not actually demonstrating Christian character—we’re impersonating it.

As we grow in our understanding of what it means to be the breath of life to the public square, to our neighbors and communities at the political scale, we will also find ourselves serving as the breath of life to people at more personal scales, too.

Those of us who are not already poor will find that the poor will go from being people who are in our lives once and a while—maybe at our monthly volunteer project, or when our church hosts the occasional mercy meal—to being people who are always with us. People who are regular parts of our hearts and our minds and our lives.

And those of us who are poor, as we grow in grace, as the people around us grow in grace, we will find ourselves less afraid, and less alone. Poverty can be stressful, especially in an individualistic culture in which, for a lot of us, wealth or work or productivity are tied pretty closely to our ideas about a person’s worth, value or dignity. And even if that weren’t true, the practical realities of poverty make it hard to share time with other people regularly. The emotional and psychological effects of poverty make it hard for the time we do spend with people to be comforting or restful or restorative.

Christian character growing not just in the lives of individual Christians but in a specific community of believers serving as Jesus’s hands and feet, his presence, his body in this world, yields spiritual fruit by giving people the opportunity to experience a lighter yoke, a more merciful master. As one of my favorite Christmas carols puts it—and can you believe it’s already getting close to the Christmas season?—but as a Christmas carol might phrase it, Christian character growing within a local gathering of believers offers people a thrill of hope. The weary world rejoices when they see that new and glorious morning.

Q Commons: The Power of “We”

In just a minute, we’re going to close by praying together, but first, I want to give a quick update on a special event we’re hosting in DC on October 25.

The event is called “The Power of ‘We’: Radical Hospitality in a Hostile Age,” and it’s going to bring together thoughtful Christians from all around DC. If you’re listening to this, I hope you’ll be one of them.

We’re partnering with Q Ideas—an international organization dedicated to helping Christians work through hard questions—and this is part of their annual Q Commons event, which happens in about 140 cities all at the same time. We’ll get to hear globally-syndicated talks from Bob Goff, Jo Saxton and Scott Harrison, the founder of Charity:Water. And if you join us in DC, we’ll be hosting exclusive live presentations on-site from three tremendously exciting speakers, including the vice chair of the Capitol Hill Jazz Foundation, who will be helping us better understand the relationship between the arts, hospitality and community identity. We’ll also get to hear from Rev. Thomas Bowen, the director of the DC Mayor’s Office of Religious Affairs, as he discusses specific ways churches throughout our city have helped their neighbors experience Jesus’ healing and flourishing—stories that don’t usually make the news or the local blogs.

There are aren’t many opportunities to meet so many other like-minded disciples in our community, and this is one I hope you won’t miss. Please commit to join us for this exciting evening, where we can learn together, grow together, and leave with at least one specific next step we can take to be agents of God’s healing and flourishing in our city.

Register for the DC event right now. If you’re not in the DC area but this still sounds exciting to you, head to the Q Commons global website to find a similar event near you.


Rich and glorious King,

For our sakes, you became poor, that by your poverty, we might become rich. You poured your glory out for us, but we are honestly pretty often afraid to make ourselves vulnerable to people who lack the things that we take comfort in. We’re afraid that our glory will be tarnished, or our resources depleted, or our comfort disrupted. You’ve promised us that’s not the case. You’ve promised us that your glory is more powerful than our degradation. Your healing is more durable than our brokenness. The flood of your love is more overwhelming than the desert of our hearts and minds. Your resources are vaster than our need.

And our need is great. We are deep into a season of open enmity in our public life. We know that this didn’t happen suddenly—that this is only new evidence of a deep brokenness that has been working its way up to the surface for years. We can’t heal ourselves of this sickness, and we confess that we’ve left it untreated for too long. We come before you humbly, expectantly, and confidently, asking for you to extend your hand and touch us, so that your contagious health can take root in us in this way.

You’ve trusted us to be Christians in this time and this place. You’ve put your name on us, your banner in our hands, and our names on your hands. Help us live out your grace in our lives and in our life together, being the influence on our communities now that functions as a foretaste of the influence you will be on the world when you return. We ask these things so that your name will be made beautiful and glorious and humbling before the peoples and the nations.

And it is in that worthy name we pray,


Donor Thank You

This podcast is only possible because of the support of our partners and donors—a If you’re listening to this and you’re one of our regular supporters, I know you already get bonus episodes, but I want to take a quick moment now on the main podcast to say thank you. You’re a big part of making this ministry possible, and I’m really grateful for the way you make this work happen.

Go Deeper with Recommended Reading

The response to the last few episodes of The Christian Civics Podcast has been very encouraging, but we know that these interviews only scratched the surface. If you haven’t had a chance to listen to them yet, now’s a great time to catch up. Links to the episodes we’ve published this spring and summer are all below. If you’re already caught up and want more, we have recommended reading for each interview—including books suggested by the guests themselves—below!

Episodes: "Embodied Encounters," "Good Friday..." and "Practicing For Heaven"
(Dr. Curt Thompson)

Part OnePart TwoPart Three

What causes that tightening in our stomach we get when we get into an argument about politics? By weaving together science, theology and rock-solid relationship counseling, this three-part interview with Dr. Curt Thompson helped us understand our own reactions to political conflict, cast a vision for reacting more biblically and gave us practical ways to grow into that vision.

Books by Dr. Thompson

Anatomy of the Soul: Surprising Connections between Neuroscience and Spiritual Practices...
The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves

Those interested in learning more about the interplay between our biology and our Christian spiritual life are encouraged to read Dr. Thompson's well-received books on the topic.

Came Up In Conversation

The Gospel in a Pluralist Society by Lesslie Newbigin

During our talk, Dr. Thompson brought up missionary and theologian Lesslie Newbigin. Since Newbigin is one of my favorites, this is a great chance to commend his most influential book. A generation of church planters have been either directly or indirectly influenced by Newbigin's thoughts on how the church can maintain and expand its witness in a changing world.

Curt Recommends

You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit by James K.A. Smith

Dr. Thompson mentioned that we swim through a cultural milieu, and that culture has an affect on us. James K. A. Smith offers us a timely reminder that we aren’t just shaped by what we think and believe, but by what we do, as well. We may not even realize that the routines that shape our days are also shaping our hearts, but learning to identify them and how they are forming us is the first step in following a new pattern.

Episode: "Refuge and Asylum" (Rev. Chris Sicks)

Listen Now

We don't always release episodes that tie into hot-button issues being debated by the national media, but when we do, it's usually by accident. This long-delayed interview with a Virginia pastor was conducted by our friends at Ministry to State, and highlighted powerful stories of God's church acting as Jesus' hands and feet in a very local way. 

Came Up In Conversation

Tangible: Making God Known Through Deeds of Mercy and Words of Truth

Rev. Sicks ended the interview by sharing a letter from a jaded atheist. Years of atrocity and violence had convinced him that “God had quit this world,” but the church’s hospitality toward his son changed his mind. If you’d like to read the letter for yourself, pick up this book by Rev. Sicks, which includes the letter in its entirety.

Episode: "Losing Power is Painful" (Bill Henson)

Listen Now

What if God has something bigger in store for us than winning an election? 

Over the past twelve years, Bill Henson has been helping ministry leaders navigate and witness within a culture that has changed at a breakneck pace. We sat down to talk about his work, but ended up talking about witnessing effectively from a position of weakness.

Bill Recommends

People To Be Loved: Why Homosexuality Is Not Just An Issue by Preston Sprinkle
Us versus Us: The Untold Story of Religion and the LGBT Community by Andrew Marin

Bill has spent a dozen years equipping pastors for ministry to people who identify as LGBT, and when we asked him to recommend books for people interested in learning more about the topic, these are what he recommended. Both books work to offer readers a broader perspective on sex, sexuality and history.

Lord of the Middle Rings: Sociology, Fellowship and Prophetic Witness

A classic work of sociology, modern research into our political life, and fundamental aspects of faith and discipleship come together to form a simple, vital opportunity for witness and stewardship.

"I'm glad you guys moved in by Halloween or it would have been a year before we met!"

Those were the first words my neighbor spoke to my wife and me as her daughter held out a basket waiting for a King Size Snickers (first impressions, etc.). She wasn't wrong: the next time we spoke was the following Halloween as her daughter held out her basket waiting for a Fun Size Snickers (don’t judge us!).

In our hurried, isolated lives, the opportunities to interact with our neighbors grow fewer and fewer. It turns out, this new normal isn’t just problematic for individuals, or even neighborhoods: New research is showing it’s actually a threat to the body politic at large. The communal fabric of America seems like it might be unraveling, but the church is uniquely equipped to mend it by being a prophetic witness for the common good.

Let me back up.

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859) was a French lawyer, politician, statesman, writer and minor noble. He traveled extensively, and his writing covered political economy, current events, and the history and culture of the countries he visited. In 1831, the French government sent him to the United States to write a report on our penitentiary system. As a result of that trip, he co-authored that report and wrote Democracy in America, which is his most enduring book in the United States.

For more on Tocqueville’s life, see Hugh Brogan’s biography. For a short introduction to his ideas, see Peter Augustine Lawler’s The Restless Mind; for an exploration of the relationship between his ideas and the Christian faith, consider Joshua Mitchell’s The Fragility of Freedom.

Alexis de Tocqueville, who would have celebrated his 213th birthday this week, had the keen insight that America’s social life is the hallmark of its Democracy. Instead of being a “top-down” Monarchy, the burgeoning Republic was “bottom-up.” The genius of the American experiment, as far as Tocqueville was concerned, was the idea of “townships.”

In his book The Vanishing Neighbor, Marc Dunkelman refers to this phenomenon by a different name. Instead of “townships” he refers to “middle rings” of social life. “Inner rings” of social engagement mostly include immediate family—your husband, wife, siblings, kids, parents, etc. “Outer rings,” on the other hand, refer to relationships with people you don’t live near or who you might not even know—your status as a citizen, membership in a political party, an affinity group or fandom you’re part of, your professional network, etc.

Middle rings, however, are usually formal or informal voluntary institutions that help shape your daily life—groups like the Lions Club, churches, carpools, or homeowners associations, for example. The strength of these robust middle rings is part of what caused the cleavage between the Colonials and the Brits, leading to the American revolution. And as far as Tocqueville was concerned, strong, healthy middle rings were what made American politics functional.

Today, much is made out of the collapse of the nuclear family (the inner ring), but Dunkelman points to data that paints a more complicated picture. Indeed, parents are actually spending more time with their kids now than twenty or thirty years ago, not less. For example, while 50 percent of parents had weekly conversation with their children in 1986, today some 67 percent of mothers report having daily contact with their adult children. Even as many of us spend more time interacting with our inner rings, social media naturally pulls us toward our outer rings, connecting us with, say, fellow sports fans from across the country.  

The upshot of the problem is this: If we are spending more time with our immediate families (inner rings) and committing more of our identity or our sense of self to looser, larger affinity groups (outer rings), that’s likely to mean we're investing less of our time and energy into our townships, our neighbors, or our “middle rings.” And that’s a problem, because those “middle ring” relationships have always been the best way to learn to talk to, understand and even care about people who think very differently—the sort of cooperation that’s required for a Republic to work.

G.K. Chesterton’s commendation of townships on a human scale is instructive:

The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. He knows much more of the fierce varieties and uncompromising divergences of men. The reason is obvious. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us.

For as tense as family relationships can sometimes be, in the grand scheme of things, our inner ring tends to think and act a lot like we do; and we, of course, largely self-select our outer rings. So if we want to understand the “fierce varieties and uncompromising divergences of men,” we can only get that knowledge from those relationships in the middle ring of society. As goes the middle ring—Tocqueville’s townships or Richard John Neuhaus’ intermediate institutions—so goes politics at large.

The problem is that the one ring that can give us such exposure is currently emaciated, forcing us to exist in louder and louder echo chambers. Says Dunkelman:

A networked society doesn’t bring people with different experiences into contact with one another. Natural rhythms once put Americans from different stations in touch at the store, on the street, in the newspaper, even at church. Until fairly recently, the cross section of people who lived near one another passed the same billboards, watched the same television shows, and listened to the same radio stations. And so, whatever divided them—issues of race or ethnicity, political creed or religious affiliation—they were more familiar, if only perfunctorily, with the way other people approached the world.

It’s here that the church has a unique role to play in the renewal of the Republic. In his book A New Heaven and a New Earth, J. Richard Middleton points out that Revelation 21:3 shifts from the singular to the plural in reference to God’s people:

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man [singular]. He will dwell with them, and they will be his peoples [plural], and God himself will be with them as their God.’

This shift, says Middleton, shows, “the general thrust of the biblical story, which expands the boundaries of the covenant people to include all humanity.” In the Old Testament, we learn that the children of Abraham will be as many as the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore. (Gen 22:17) The surprise of the New Testament is that, through the New Covenant, those children will be made up of people from every tribe, tongue and nation. (Rev 5:9) In retrospect, God’s all-embracing mission could be seen in the earliest pages of Scripture, as Old Testament scholar Alec Motyer puts it:

From the very beginning we see that whenever God narrowed his purpose down to the particular, it was in order that he might bring his grace to the universal… The Covenant which began with one man Noah, came to be expressed, after the Flood, in worldwide terms (Gen. 9:12–13) and to be symbolized by the world-embracing rainbow.

Thus the biblical story from Abraham forward can be summed up as moving from a person (Abraham) to a people (Israel) to a person (Jesus) to all peoples (the multi-ethnic church). Currently, we’re living in the “peoples” part of the story, the final and climactic act. This can be seen by looking at where the church is located globally: 26% in Europe, 37% in the Americas, 24% in sub-Saharan Africa, and 13% in Asia and the Pacific. Of course, you can see the same reality by looking at local churches in which multiple families, races and cultures are represented.

While Revelation 21:3 reminds us that the global church is not an inner ring made up of a particular family or blood type, it should also remind local churches that they are not outer rings united by shared political or socio-economic factors. At its best, the local church will reflect at least some of the beauty and diversity of the global church.

Indeed, the church is nothing less than a sign of the present in-breaking of Jesus’ inclusive reign. It’s a sign that when Christ went down to the grave he secured the treasure once buried in a field. It’s a sign that the leaven of the kingdom is working its way through the dough of the world. Indeed, the melting of homogeneous worship can only mean the Spring of Pentecost is here; the King is summoning his peoples. Even if every other middle ring crumbles, local churches can stand firm as places where people of every color and background gather. The saved can’t be siloed.   

While a local church should by no means be the only middle ring to which a Christian belongs, it is the only one with such a supernatural origin, and thus the only one in which a Christian can fully trust, particularly at a time in which mediating institutions are eroding at such a dizzying speed. After all, it was not the Lions Club that Jesus told us could stand against the gates of hell. Unlike other mediating institutions, "the Church does not live by its organisations and its programmes" as Lesslie Newbigin reminds us. Rather, it "lives by the word of God given to it as the word spoken and acted.”

It behooves Christians committed to stewarding their civic responsibilities well to rededicate themselves to the local church. I’m preaching to myself here: Why do I feel the need to wait until next Halloween to talk to my neighbor when I’m trained each Sunday to show hospitality to those I don’t know? Simply in the act of breaking bread and drinking wine with the proverbial other, the church not only undermines the tribal zeitgeist that seems to have gutted our middle rings, we also mend the tear in the fabric of the Republic—thus fulfilling our calling to be a prophetic witness for the common good.

Losing Power Is Painful (an interview with Bill Henson)

Bill Henson, founder and president of Lead Them Home, discusses mission and witness form a position of weakness.

On this episode of the Christian Civics Podcast, we welcome Bill Henson, founder and president of Lead Them Home, to talk about what it feels like to lose to power, lose relevancy, yet still maintain your witness and your confidence.


00:00-09:15 Introduction, terms of conversation, power.
09:20-27:45 Interview
27:55-32:30 A foreign country
32:32-35:15 Prayer
35:17-37:46 Bonus episode, endnotes

Interview Transcript

(Transcript has been lightly edited and abridged for clarity and length.)

Rick: I'm really excited to have the chance to sit down and talk to you. So let me start by asking: You've worked with something like 45,000 pastors over the last 10 or 12 years, and the bulk of them have been in the past five years. As we're in this period where, not just about sexuality but about a whole host of issues, the U.S. Is really going through a major conversation about what our cultural priorities are, as we go through this period of conversation where Christians think it might be important to be involved in the conversation, but we might not necessarily have the critical mass—or even the agreement within the church!—to establish terms of debate that we think are healthier than what the majority of people are using, how have you seen pastors respond to that difficult circumstance?

Bill: Sure. I think that a tremendous amount of change has occurred in culture and in the church in the last 15 years, with the bulk of that change occurring in the last really seven or eight years. In the founding of Lead Them Home, there was a realization as early as 2003 that what we might term "the culture war" is not working. This may be doomed for defeat. This model, even if it was successful, it might not actually achieve gospel gospel principles—if a religious majority actually does achieve power, will we use that in a generous way? Or will we mistreat people?

So as early as 2003, there are deep convictions that the conversation has to be recaptured through the gospel not through debate. Not through a particular ideology, but through the revelation of the presence of Christ in people's lives who we may have different views [from].

At that time, from about 2003 to 2006, it became increasingly apparent that the culture war was lost. Our country, cultural norms shifting at such a rapid pace. We're so far behind the curve. There's no way to really stop that. Now what was interesting is, we were realizing that, starting to form a missionary organization that would be able to operate well in that context, but much of the Evangelical Church really not recognizing that there was a loss to the culture war until about the years 2010 through 2013. There's a huge gap in that timeframe where culture is winning and is going to win on certain laws around the country at the state level, at the federal level. The culture is going to win. The church with its "conservative" view, if you will, is going to lose. But it hasn't played out yet.

So in that time period, Lead Them Home decided to establish a missionary organization that would be beyond the debate and would focus on equipping the church to be prepared to operate possibly as a minority voice in culture rather than a majority voice.

Now, shifting from a majority voice to minority voice, that's not just something we easily accept. Usually, the power has to be stripped out of your hands before we'll let go of it. And indeed it feels like power has kind of been stripped out of the hands of evangelical leaders in this area. And there's a backlash against evangelicals. There's a sense in which we have not treated people so well. There's a sense in which the way we express what we call God's love is done in a way that makes people feel rejected or excluded or hateful, that kind of thing.

So, the first step in this process is realizing that, what if what if we didn't just lose by the world's standards? What if we didn't just lose power out of happenstance? What if God had bigger plans for us than to win a debate or to win in regards to a regulation or law? What if there was something much deeper he wanted to accomplish, but he could not accomplish it if we held Earthly power? What if he could only accomplish it if we actually lost all Earthly power?

So Lead Them Home was founded on a principle of laying down our lives for people that we may have a difference of opinion with. We were founded on the principle of laying down our lives for people no matter what, dying a thousand deaths to contextualize the presence of Christ to people where they are as they are, beyond or transcending these issues of debate and who's the majority voice who's the minority voice?

That's a painful process. They don't call it "dying a thousand deaths" for nothing. To die a thousand deaths, to lose power, to have nothing left, is actually a very painful process. The great thing is God can resurrect something from that. So whereas many evangelicals might bemoan the idea that we have lost cultural power, from a gospel/kingdom perspective, it could be a tremendous work of God that is about to unfold. And I think God's people losing their power is the beginning of God being able to do something amazing.

If you look in the Old Testament, there's this trajectory of God's people (1) being close to him, and then (2) being close to him and comfortable, and then (3) being comfortable and moving away from him, and then (4) remaining to be comfortable and away from him, that then (5) suddenly Devastation starts to occur in their lives, but they (6) still don't return to him. They keep persisting. They keep pushing forward. Until finally (7) they get to a place where they are such a minority voice—so persecuted, so oppressed, so attacked—that they actually get desperate enough maybe not even to repent of their own sins! They get desperate enough initially to cry out to God.

And every time that they cry out to God, God's voice returns, "For my name's sake, I heard them." "For my name's sake, I heard them." Not, "Because they were good, I heard them." "For my name's sake, I heard my people cry out and I will answer their prayer."

So as we've navigated this, Lead Them Home has cultivated a desperation of crying out to God for solutions rather than looking for Earthly Solutions. Now, in the Earthly realm we have to live in the here and now, and do things that will cultivate a gospel witness in our world. But we need to desperately cling to him and depend upon him to do things that we don't have the power to do.

Rick: If the church loses cultural authority and loses cultural power, it might actually make our church communities less attractive to the power-hungry  and more attractive to people who are desperate for salvation.

Bill: Oh, I just think that that's a great point! I think it's kind of like the refining fire. Maybe God takes away false forms of power we rely upon to cleanse—maybe not initially culture, [but] to cleanse us, his people. And those that remain are those that are faithful and willing to go through that process. And not that others that walk away won't eventually have a born-again experience or come back to God or whatever that looks like, but maybe it will be a certain refining fire. If God ultimately wants his power to be perfected in our weakness, we can expect to be put in situations where we will be the weak or the minority or the persecuted or the oppressed.

And in the history of God's people, our brothers and sisters in Christ have fallen into those categories over and over again. We're the exception, not the rule. I don't want persecution. I don't want oppression. I kind of like having power, to be quite honest. But there's something very beautiful that I've experienced in losing my power. The kind of power that I lost was not at the corporate/systemic level of society, although I felt the pain of those things, too. It was more in the work with individuals, watching how little impact I had to be able to change what people believe.

Now, I gave up trying to "change what people believe" a long time ago, but in the early days of the ministry, I kind of thought that's what it was about. And I quickly was learning that the more that I attempted to try to change what people believe, the more that absolutely nothing was accomplished. There was no fruit of the work. When I had to let go of that idea, there were days when I was in a fetal position under my desk, just wondering, "What else do I have to offer? If I can't seem to accomplish change in people's lives, what else do I have left?"

And guess what? At that time, early in my work, I had nothing left.

And it was in the nothing left that I became desperate. "What on Earth am I here for, then?" "Why on Earth did I leave this nice corporate job that was so comfortable?" "What is this mission about?" And it's in that nothing place, that desperate place, that crying-out-to-God place, that he raised up a calling that was entrusted to Lead Them Home that has become beautiful.

In other words, losing power is painful. But on the other side of losing power, if God lifts us up and perfects his strength in our weakness, there's something amazingly beautiful that rises out of those ashes.

Rick: One of the things we're called to do as Christians is follow in the pattern of Jesus, run the race set before us with our eyes fixed on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith. We tend to—and I say "we!"—I frequently tend to forget that following in the footsteps of Jesus means  being rejected, marginalized and still pouring myself out for the people who rejected and marginalized me to make more room for the Holy Spirit to work in their lives.

That was the pattern for his life, but it's also been the pattern for, in a lot of cases, his church after him. The church gained ground and grew in Rome as they were rejected and marginalized but still kept serving Rome's  poor, Rome's destitute, Rome's sick. A lot of the most vibrant churches I know similarly started with a small remnant of people seeing a community that was not served at all and praying. It's always, "A group of 15 to 20 people who prayed for 20 or 30 years for a church in this town or in this neighborhood to start!" And looking back to the Old Testament, there's constantly that pattern God works out in his people, in Israel, of, like you were saying, the desolation but a faithful remnant that then rebuilds the—I don't want to use the phrase "spiritual dynasty"—rebuilds the community of faith. God works through them to make his name known and his character understood again. And then when it's time to  spread his word and make himself known in a new empire or in a new region or in a new country, he sends one person out with his family or the whole community gets devastated and brought in as refugees and rebuilds again.

I don't know if I've ever really in any kind of formal way been asked to wrestle with what that pattern of a faithful remnant means for life in a country that has been largely Christianized.

Bill: I want to be careful that no one feels criticized, because it hurts to lose power. But, oh, do we have to manage our heart attitude as we're in that unexpected place! So imagine what it looks like to a secularized world that kind of views us as the oppressors. In the context of my ministry, the people group we seek to reach is, are, LGBT people. So clearly for years LGBT people would assign a lot of the reason for why they've been persecuted to religion; and Christianity, in particular; evangelicals even more specifically.

So imagine in a world that now sees this power dynamic shift in a very rapid amount of time—although we can't under-estimate the decades that LGBT activists worked for their human rights. From their perspective, it might not seem like the culture shift happened so rapidly! But from an even evangelical or conservative perspective, it seemed to happen very rapidly. To have that happen so quickly leaves us very prone to acting out or expressing attitudes or saying words that are not so helpful.

If God is the one who possibly even stripped Earthly power from us, then we need to be submitting to the idea that he may be wanting to do something deeper of a work in the church. But it's not easy to lose power. So it's easy to complain. It's easy to to whine—and some of the language that we use as evangelicals as this cultural shift has changed so rapidly is we whine. And it does not come across good. If we want to have an active witness of Christ, if that's our primary purpose, we need to be the last people that are whining at the loss of our cultural power. I'm not saying that every listener is a whiner. I'm saying in all of us, the process of losing power can trigger us to act with emotion and with attitude and with words that are not so helpful.

So I think that it starts with humility. A humility of acceptance of the reality of what's happened. I think we need to live in the humility of accepting the current circumstances and asking the forward question: "Where do we go from here?" "How do we carry forward the gospel from here?" "How do we reach this culture from this point forward?"

In other words, we always need to be re-centered, surrendered to Christ at the cross. Oh, he has an invitation for us! "Come to me all who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest for your soul." So when we are burdened and we are grieving the loss of all these shifts in our culture, well, we have an invitation to come to Christ in that. And if we come to Christ in that, he will empower us to have the right attitude, the right ideas, and the right words to say to accomplish his kingdom. Because it may not look like it, but his kingdom is forcefully advancing into this world. And that mission that he pronounced thousands of years ago is still occurring today. And we have to place our hope, our entire faith, in that. God does not need our cultural power to accomplish the kingdom coming on Earth as it is in heaven.

Rick: Every Christian is called informally to be a missionary, to be a witness for Christ in the time and the place God has put them. If you're looking around at the time and place around you and you're complaining about it, it could be honest lamentation. There's a difference between honest lamentation and whining. But if you're complaining about the direction it's going in, or wishing that it was more like it was earlier in your life or for a previous generation, that seems to me almost like wasted energy. It seems to me tantamount to—and I think this is something I might have said on the podcast before—tantamount to complaining about the mission field god has given you.

Bill: Yes. Yeah, to put this in context, we've thought of America as a Christian nation. That makes it distinct from foreign mission lands. But compared to the Kingdom of God, America is not a Christian nation. It is a foreign land. So we are foreign missionaries in a foreign land. And  missionaries trying to reach people in foreign lands—whether they're unreached, unengaged or marginalized in some way—missionaries understand that to reach people you have to get to know them. It's not about only having something to tell people, it's about posturing yourself as a listener and a learner of people's history, culture and language. And learning from that. And making modifications, optimizations, improvements in how I speak to people, how I engage them, how I serve them, because now I know the love language by which they speak, the culture by which they speak, what language means to them or doesn't mean.

So in this question about history. It's really important if we want to be effective missionaries to all the people in our world...


Interested In Reading More?

The Christian Civics Newsletter is coming back in August, and will include recommended reading from Bill on some of his influences as a missionary. Subscribe today so that you don't miss the next issue!

The Sabbath Mutiny

The "palace intrigue" of a political campaign offers a young staffer the chance to learn courageous discipleship.

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
— Exodus 20:8–11

For ancient Israel, Sabbath rest probably seemed dangerous.

Like that of most of their neighbors, Israel’s economy was predominantly agrarian. No one worked for a salary, with weekends off and paid sick leave. Most Israelites were farmers. Every day they spent sowing, tending or reaping translated into healthier, more productive harvests—and thus a safer, healthier lifestyle. Voluntarily limiting the fruits of their labor by taking one day a week off from tending to the land and keeping it, and then giving up an additional 20–30% of the fruits of their labor in the form of sacrifices and donations, was a clear statement that the community of faith believed that their flourishing and livelihood depended on something more than just their labor. It had to seem insane to Israel’s neighbors, and it likely had a measurable negative impact on most peoples’ “bottom line.”

This can be hard for some Americans to get our heads around. But it should not be a foreign concept to people who work in politics.

The schedule on my first campaign was absolutely punishing. Monday through Saturday, we would arrive at the office between 7:00 and 8:00 AM, and we wouldn’t usually leave for home until at least 9:00 PM, sometimes later. Sundays were a little easier: Roughly 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM, giving me just enough time to get to a 7:00 PM worship service and get one full night’s sleep before starting the process over again. But I was a brash college graduate, conditioned by Campus Crusade to be bold in my declarations of faith, so I made sure before I took the job that senior staff would give me Thursday nights off so that I could make it to my small group for prayer, fellowship and Bible study.

By the middle of the summer, the campaign was not going well.

For weeks—or maybe months, I can’t remember—my colleagues and I were convinced that our boss, the regional director, was unsuited for his job. On more than one occasion we found him sleeping at a local coffee shop when he claimed to be going to meetings. As the campaign wore on, his day-to-day directives bore less and less resemblance to the strategy we were hearing from senior staff. And on top of all of this, his conversation around the office was becoming increasingly vulgar and sexually explicit.

We grumbled. We considered quitting. We talked about breaking rank and bringing our concerns to senior staff. More than one teammate spoke openly with me about helping to lead  “a mutiny.” If I helped them make their case to senior staff that the current regional director was a liability, they would support me as the new regional director. The conversation felt comically dramatic and conspiratorial, maybe even a little lurid. And so, despite our boss’ increasingly erratic behavior, I declined.

My Breaking Point

Then our boss physically assaulted one of my colleagues during a staff meeting, shoving him violently against a wall for questioning our strategy. After my colleague stormed out and called senior staff to announce that he was quitting effective immediately, a member of senior staff asked to meet with me privately at a campaign event to discuss the incident. I took the opportunity to...well, to mutiny. I was honest about what happened, and I was open about the larger pattern of behavior that led up to the incident. When the senior staff member asked what I thought they should do, I told him, “Honestly, I think the office would run a lot better if Anita or I were in charge.”

“Anita” was and is a friend from college—brilliant, talented, funny and brutally hard-working. We had gone through our program together and just graduated that spring with ambitions to make our careers writing plays, movies and short stories. Neither of us had ambitions to work in politics or public service. I had taken a job with the campaign as a stopgap, something to pay rent and rack up interesting stories before getting a day job closer to my actual field. Not long after I took the campaign job, Anita was looking for temporary work while she applied for her own day jobs in entertainment, and I suggested she join me. I thought that, at best, this campaign would be something that would come up as a near-forgotten anecdote when one of us gave an interview to The New Yorker about our "early years" a few decades down the line.

But by the time our boss attacked our colleague, I had become deeply invested in the work we were doing. I had stopped applying to other jobs and had begun trying to figure out what it might look like to pursue a career in politics when the campaign was over. Anita was talented. I was passionate. And I thought either of us could probably do our boss’ job better than he could, so I made the suggestion.

The senior staff member took my suggestion in, thanked me for being frank with him, and told me he’d probably be giving me a call that night with an update.

After the meeting, I went back to the office and, while our boss was out, I told my colleagues that I’d reached a breaking point. I was tired of how untrustworthy, unreliable and off-strategy our boss was. I was going to spend the rest of the day re-organizing the office so that I could be well-prepared to follow-up on that day's campaign event the next morning, and that they were free to join me if they’d like. They did. When our boss returned and told us we could leave for the night, my colleagues looked at me for a response. I told him we were going to stay and finish the work we had assigned ourselves. He walked out, and we never saw him again.

Later that evening, I got a phone call from a member of senior staff. Our boss was fired and they were going to promote...Anita...to take his place.

“We appreciate your work,” he told me, “but you take those Thursday nights off for your church group, and we can’t have the person in this role doing that.”

When I tell this story, I usually skip over the part where someone else got the job, because it didn’t last very long. Like I said, Anita is brilliant and talented and hard-working. It was only a few more weeks before she got offered a full-time job at a movie studio and my boss’ position was open again.

I got the job this time.

Sort of.

Because there had been so much turnover in our office, filling the role quickly was important and I was the natural next choice. Keeping the region running uninterrupted was worth sacrificing one night of work a week. But me continuing to take that one night off a week meant I had a lower title and a lower salary than Anita or her predecessor.

The message was clear: Give yourself entirely to this work or the work won’t reward you.

Declining to Keep Up

For Christians who believe we are made in the image of a God who both worked and rested, and who believe we are called to embody his rhythms and character, successfully navigating a career in any field might mean achieving less than our ambition demands or talent allows. This is especially true for those of us who work in fields that offer the potential to make a disproportionate amount of money, garner national acclaim, or wield significant influence over the lives of others—fields like finance, media, the arts, technology, and, of course, government and politics.

I spent a decade of my life in New York City. I went to college there. My first campaign was there, along with most of my jobs until I moved to DC. If you’re a college-educated white-collar twenty-something, you probably have at least 100,000 peers in New York who are all as smart as you, as talented as you, as motivated as you, and who all want the same things as you. The rhythms of life in New York and in many industries train you to understand that staking your claim for a day off is insane, that the day you take off is the day someone else will surpass you.

And while the idea of “self-care” is rising in popularity, for many people, those moments of restorative stillness come erratically. Rest, sabbath, self-care—whatever words you might use to describe taking time off from your work mentally and physically, for most people, it is still functionally a luxury. There is social pressure and career pressure against it. Making it a consistent part of one’s life is usually aspirational at best.

This isn’t a triumphalistic story. The message isn’t, “Be obedient to the things God says and he’ll give you the things you really want.” Yes, I earned more trust and more authority on each campaign, and sometimes that did mean I was able to guarantee myself a night off or a Sunday morning off with less pushback, but not always. And there wasn’t actually any making up for lost time or missed relationships. While my teams won more often than we lost, several of my peers and colleagues surpassed me in their work and in their careers. I think that even Anita, who left politics entirely, has probably had more of a tangible, positive influence on politics and policy through her work in entertainment and her associated charity work than I've had through my political and nonprofit career.

And that’s actually okay.

We’re not called to win. And we’re not called to reshape the world in our image. We’re called to witness—courageously, counter-culturally, and even sacrificially. Sabbath is scary, but it is necessary for living a godly life. And it is survivable.

Learn to Practice Sabbath and More

If you are "in the trenches" of politics, public service or advocacy, you're facing a unique set of stressors and challenges, including balancing idealism against career goals, staving off cynicism, sharing a Bible study with professional opponents, or finding rest when you're not allowed to turn off your phone.

We want to support you as you navigate the tensions between Christian growth and the demands of a modern political lifestyle. Visit our events page for more information on booking a class that can help you live out your faith "in the trenches" in restorative and life-giving ways.

Refuge and Asylum (Pastor Chris Sicks and Ministry to State)

A Virginia pastor shares the story of how his church engaged with a national questions in a personal way.

The latest episode of the Christian Civics Podcast features pastor Chris Sicks of Alexandria Presbyterian Church in Alexandria, VA. Chris shares stories and insights from years of shepherding a congregation that accidentally incubated a robust community of refugees and asylum-seekers, and accidentally witnessed to their town and the world in the process.


Rev. Sicks mentioned several photos in his talk. A few of them are shared below.



00:00-01:07  Intro
01:07-04:35 Personal reflection
04:38-07:33 Why we aren't usually newsy
07:33-12:21 Interview Takeaways
12:26-34:04 Interview
34:09-36:04 Prayer
36:06-38:07 Closing/Notes

In This Episode



More by Chuck Garriott

Practicing for Heaven (Curt Thompson, Part Three)

The third and final part of our conversation with Dr. Curt Thompson.

In the first two parts of our conversation with Dr. Curt Thompson, we discussed why it is important to have "embodied encounters" with our civic systems and our political opponents, and what Good Friday can teach us about dealing with the challenges those encounters present. In this third part of our interview, Dr. Thompson gets into what Christian eschatology means for our attempts to deal with political diversity in the church. 

The Christian Civics Podcast explores how the gospel empowers us to think, speak and act differently in the public square. 


00:00–03:15 Introduction
03:15–23:09 Interview
23:10–25:53 Practicing for heaven
25:54–27:20 Light to the World
27:29–29:15 Prayer
29:15–31:49 Further reading, upcoming episodes, bonus episode


Dr. Thompson
For more information on Dr. Thompson and his work, visit beingknown.com. His books Anatomy of the Soul and The Soul of Shame are both available online.

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100 Years Ago in Jerusalem

With the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem and a week of celebrations, demonstrations and tragic violence on the border of Israel and Palestine, I've been thinking about an anniversary that passed by mostly unnoticed last December. On the 11th of that month in 1917, General Sir Edmund Allenby, Commander of His Majesty’s Egyptian Expeditionary Force, entered Jerusalem through the Jaffa Gate. Although he was a cavalry officer, he dismounted, and together with his officers, entered the city on foot out of respect for Jerusalem as a city sacred to all of its inhabitants, Muslims, Christians and Jews.

He also chose to enter on foot in order to contrast British ways and attitudes to those of the Germans: In 1898 Kaiser Wilhelm II visited Jerusalem, entering upon a horse and accompanied by all the accoutrements of the German military, including mounted cavalry wearing spiked helmets.

For generations, Jerusalem had been the goal of Crusader armies and the dream of schoolboys, but only the first wave of Crusaders got there at all—and they were expelled within a century. As part of the third wave of Crusaders, King Richard the Lion-Hearted caught a glimpse of the Holy City twice, but strategic and diplomatic considerations meant he had to turn around before he could draw closer. When Saladin, his great adversary, was finally in a mood to negotiate, they agreed that Richard and his army would simply depart. No subsequent Crusader got any closer.

And then suddenly, more than 700 years after King Richard went home, the Ottoman Army withdrew from Jerusalem and the British Army entered the Holy City.

In terms of the horrible slaughter on the western front, this victory on December 11, 1917, was unimportant. But it was of immense symbolic significance for a people weary of war and in desperate need of good news. Every church bell in Great Britain rang.

General Sir Edmund Allenby—known to his friends as “The Bull” because he was a large, burly fellow—gave assurances to all religious groups in the city that their holy places would be respected. After the ceremonial entrance, General Allenby put Muslim soldiers from his Indian troops in charge of patrolling the city and keeping the peace among its mostly Muslim population at that time. 

 Major Hyde and Mrs. Hyde on honeymoon in 1946.

Major Hyde and Mrs. Hyde on honeymoon in 1946.

This is how many of us like to think of this event in 20th Century history: The kindly, benevolent, fair-minded English-speaking peoples defeat the militaristic, arrogant, goose-stepping Germans—along with their Turkish allies—and spread the influence of Anglo-Saxon justice a little bit further. This is certainly how I like to think of it. My father served in the American Army Air Corps in India during World War II, at a Royal Air Force base outside of Calcutta. He flew in little two-engine airplanes—DC 3s—over the Himalayas to deliver supplies to China. It was the adventure of his life. The British officers there must have been kind to this young man who had never before left the Midwest, for Dad always spoke highly of the British military.

I also spent a year in England during college and was fortunate to be adopted by an English family for the Christmas holidays. Mom and Dad came to visit in the spring, and Major Hyde was pleased to meet Colonel Irvine, who was a British Army doctor during the war, and whose wonderful family had taken me in.

General Allenby did his best after the end of hostilities to bring peace to the British Empire’s new and wholly unexpected possession. Though they were not exactly allies, Great Britain and the Ottoman Empire had traditionally been on quite friendly terms. British policy was to support this ancient polyglot empire as a barrier between Russia and the long route to India. 

But when World War I broke out, the Ottoman Empire could not decide what to do. While Sultan Mehmed V favored remaining neutral, his senior advisors thought neutrality would be impossible. After much back-and-forth, the majority, led by Minister of War Enver Pasha, decided that the Axis Powers had more to offer and were the most likely to win. Thus the Ottoman Empire attacked Russia, its ancient enemy, on October 29, 1914, thereby entering the war against Great Britain, as well.

When the war ended, Great Britain gained control of the fragments of the Ottoman Empire. One of few British subjects who knew much about this area was a most remarkable woman named Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell (1868 – 1926). She had explored and charted a great swath of Arabia, from remotest Syria to the waters of the Persian Gulf. She traveled well, usually with enough camels, servants, aides-de-camp and supplies to dine at table every evening off the finest porcelain with crystal wine goblets, engraved silver, linen napery and vintage wines. There was a reason for the show: She impressed the various Arab chieftains when she came a-calling and got good information. The maps she made were used by the British military during the war and were among the reasons for their success in the field—they had better maps than the Turks.

She fell in love with a British officer who died in the early days of the war, and though she was a boon companion to many and despite rumors of something between her and Colonel T.E. Lawrence (better known as Lawrence of Arabia), she never had another serious relationship.

After the war, she made Baghdad her home. She helped to organize elections, write a constitution, draw borders and found the Iraqi National Museum—even contributing items from her own personal collection. If you read a few years ago about a great museum in Baghdad that was looted during the recent hostilities, that was it. She was made a Commander of the British Empire for her efforts and is still fondly remembered by Iraqis; her grave site in Baghdad is well taken care of.

Then she had to watch the whole edifice of her efforts collapse. Around 1925, the Iraqis could not agree among themselves on a government and the British could not impose one.  British promises during the war to Arabs, Jews and French that it could not fulfill made matters all the worse. 

She summed up her experience as follows: 

“I suppose we have underestimated the fact that this country - Iraq - is really a mess of tribes which can’t as yet be reduced to any system.  The Turks didn’t govern and we have tried to govern  . . . and failed.  . . .  No one knows exactly what they – the people who live there - do want, least of all themselves, except that they don’t want us.”

I don’t think that anyone who has been there more recently has added anything more succinct or accurate. 

We look to this part of the world as a source of endless frustration and, at the same time, inspiration. The lands mentioned in the Bible have lifted and broken our hearts for centuries. We dream of good and decent government, both at home and around the world. It is a good dream and it comes from the Middle East, from the events and stories and prophecies related in the Bible, from Abraham, Moses, Jeremiah, Isaiah, and, of course Jesus, the Prince of Peace.

No prophet is appreciated more in the Christian world than Isaiah, thanks to Handel’s Messiah.  The following lines (Isaiah 9:6) inspire us every year at Christmas and Easter:

For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given:
and the government shall be upon his shoulder:
and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor,
The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.

Though not set to music, line seven continues:

Of the increase of his government and peace
there shall be no end,
upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom,
to order it, and to establish it
with judgment and with justice
from henceforth even for ever.
The zeal of the LORD of hosts will perform this.

Elsewhere Isaiah prophesied:

A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.

The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,

the spirit of wisdom and understanding,

the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.

Christians believe this shoot from the stock of Jesse, the father of David, was Jesus. He was of the house and lineage of David. His teachings, his life, his death, inspire us to this day—as does the city in which his work came to a climax and he was executed. His life and death are the events around which our lives revolve.

These lines tell us that there is a moral force behind and within the universe, working its way throughout history. It is an idea that provides comfort through thick and thin. We must admit that it is at times hard to believe, but it is even harder, if not disastrous, to disbelieve it. Perhaps every country, and the whole world, is really a mess of tribes which can’t as yet be reduced to any system of organization or administration. Perhaps the world order that was constructed in the second half of the twentieth century will collapse, and all the work of so many people before and after two world wars will seem to be in vain.

But whatever the case, we Christians continue to pray for the peace of Jerusalem, for peace on earth, for peace in our own divided society, having faith that God does have something to do with it all. At the end of each day, we trust in God’s Providence. How could we not?

More from Guest Writers

Richard Hyde is a guest writer for the Christian Civics Blog. If you'd like to read more from Richard and other guest writers, see some of the articles below.

Theology That Carries On In The Dark

The lights didn’t flicker before they went out, and it illuminated the difference between people from developed countries and people from developing ones.

As a delegate to the conference in Indonesia from Laos, where I had worked the previous year and a half, I stood speaking with others from Southeast Asia and Africa accustomed to power outages. When the power went out, we continued chatting, unfazed, while delegates from Europe and North America, uncomfortable with being plunged into darkness, ran after solutions to fix it.

To me, this episode highlighted a core difference in outlook between the "haves" and the "have-nots," between those accustomed to comfort and those who—in more ways than one—could carry on in the dark. It suggested an orientation toward the world and suboptimal conditions I only really learned while living in developing countries.

Since working and doing ministry abroad, my understanding and communication of God’s faithfulness and promises has been shaped by considering what would hold true for “the least of these,” my neighbor living through extreme poverty, corrupt and oppressive governments, famine, war, and disease who, regardless of the strength of their faith, may never materially or temporally know anything else. In his book, The Bottom Billion: Why The Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It, Paul Collier asks of the international development community what I ask of the gospel and God’s promises, “How can we give credible hope to that billion people?”

In considering that question, I’ve come to see just how much our Western understanding of God’s will and promises is cross-bred with worldly optimism, prosperity, short-sided patriotism, and a preference for the temporal.


Even those who reject the prosperity gospel have more prosperity in their gospel than they think. And not the future-glory, all-spiritual-blessings-in-Christ varieties, either. Who doesn’t love the promise of Jeremiah 29:11?

For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.

I know I am guilty of imagining an easy life as the foregone conclusion to my faithfulness and I’m sure I’m not alone. After Hurricane Harvey, I watched on the news as the widow of a minister who was a victim of the storm explained she couldn’t believe this happened to her husband because, “He was a minister; he’d done everything right.” I found two tragedies in this: First, his death, and second, that part of her grief was due to thinking that you might somehow be able to avoid hardship by being good.

If the desperate situation for many around the world were not reason enough to be convinced that the prosperity Jeremiah mentions must mean more than success or happiness, there is also the question Jeremiah raises to the Lord, “Why does the way of the wicked prosper?” The innocent suffer and the unrighteous thrive. Yet in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus lays out the poor as first among the blessed. Earthly success and prosperity cannot be coterminous and neither can happiness and wealth.

So then is the message for the person in hardship perhaps that hope is a better measure of prosperity than wealth? That hope is the measure? That he is richest and most prosperous who is most full of that ‘hope that remains’ that Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 13 that’s rooted in the love of Christ?


It is easy to think that a positive turn will come to us in our lifetimes, if not at least this month, this year, or this presidential term. But I need only to look back to my own heritage to see generations of black slaves, part of America’s own historical bottom, dying before being freed, before having whole families, before having work that used their gifts and full potential. You can also look to generations of poor people who live in conditions that only continue to deteriorate. I often wonder how much of our faith is really worldly optimism—a Disneyesque insistence on happy endings that believes success is the terminus to all trials—or how much really rests on the unseen stability blanket of a strong economy and global power.

When we say that things will work out, we usually mean they will have a happy ending. Here. In this breath we call life. But while worldly pessimism hardly seems the answer, there is a precedent for taking a more sober view of things. As Amy Carmichael reminds in If:

“If I forget that they way of the cross leads to the cross and not to a bank of flowers; if I regulate my life on these lines, or even unconsciously my thinking, so that I am surprised when the way is rough and think it strange, though the word is, “Think it not strange,” “Count it all joy,” then I know nothing  of Calvary love.”

To move from thinking it strange to counting it joy, I need to be able to say with confidence that I serve a God who can even if he doesn’t. I also need to be convinced that if he doesn’t it is neither for lack of love on his part or of worthiness on mine.


In 2008, Michelle Obama was lambasted as unpatriotic for commenting that she felt proud of her country "for the first time." What is it to be a patriot if not to take pride in one’s country and freedoms? We hold our American brand of patriotism up right next to holiness, sometimes even entirely blurring the lines between them. But to someone from a country with a repressive government, what biblical guidance could I offer on living as a child of God there?

I find no pomp and circumstance, no wisdom about flags or anthems, prescribed in the Bible. What I do find suggests that set-apart citizenship requires me to pray for the place I live (Jeremiah 29:7), to reject the idols of the land (Deuteronomy 12:4), to show kindness to the alien, to give Caesar what is Caesar’s, to pursue justice, and to look forward to that promised greater country. Love for country and freedom often morphs into brandishing power and glorifying our rights. To my brothers and sisters who lack representation in their governments, here’s hope: It is better to be without power than to abuse or be corrupted by it.

Not convinced?

Patriotism is about witness.

If Jesus says even your very eye and hand are better parted with than forfeiting our certain eternal joy (Mark 9:45, 47), how much more should we be willing to part with power? And if the words of Jesus do not convince you, then let his life—he “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped ... emptied himself” (Philippians 2:6-7). There was never a man with more power nor with more wisdom about how to judiciously exercise it. This self-subordinating, neighbor-elevating use of power was his glory and it is ours as well. What’s more, no man is powerless who has the ear of God. The Christian may find themselves without resource on earth but never unable to avail themselves of the abundant resources of heaven.

Our English word "patriot" is derived from the Greek patrios (which means "of one’s father") and patris (meaning "fatherland"). This is where we look. For the Christian, patriotism—in the truest sense of the word—is about witness. It is about doing what we can to enlarge, enrich, and diversify the many-nationed kingdom of lasts and leasts we are to inherit.

(In)credible Hope

I am not saying God does not desire to bless people materially or care about our physical well-being. Jesus healed the sick and fed the hungry. But, implicit in the question, “Doesn’t he want good things for us, too?” is the idea that spiritual blessings miss the “good” mark. Spiritual blessings are no consolation prize. Rather, they taste of heaven and they alone unlock the abundance and prosperity we’re promised. So, to my neighbors the world sees as last I offer this: We from the nation of the invisibly-shackled are not to be envied; freedom is more easily yours than ours. Instead, in this hope rejoice: If you mourn, you will be comforted; if you hunger, you will be filled; if you are broken hearted, God is near; if you are oppressed, you have a deliverer. Rejoice and sing the anthem of your country-to-come, the Magnificat of the lowly (Luke 1:46–55). Take heart as this sweet benediction is spoken over you, “Let the brother of low degree rejoice that he is exalted.”

When a cloud came over the temple in 1 Kings 8 and the surrounding crowd filled with fear, Solomon thought back over how the Lord had revealed himself to his people before and said, “The Lord said he would dwell in the thick darkness.” Though there was no light, the Lord was there. This too is credible hope for each of us.

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The Christian Civics Newsletter sends out one to four emails a month, including devotional material, recommended reading, updates on our work and more. If you're interested in exploring how your faith can re-shape the way you think about your relationship to your neighbors and community, this is for you!

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On MLK's "Can a Christian be a Communist?"
History is moved not by economic forces, but by spiritual forces.
— Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

In 1962, Martin Luther King asked his congregation to consider the question, “Can A Christian Be a Communist?” At times sounding more like a professor than a preacher, King warned his congregation that communism—whatever its potential attractions—was inimical to Christianity (indeed, to all religion) because of its essential materialism. Communism, King pointed out, dismisses religion as “wishful thinking… the product of fear and ignorance,” and what is worse, often the tool used by the powerful to exploit the fearful, ignorant, and weak.

Communism presented itself as a philosophical system based on the observable and tangible “facts” of material existence. Such a system is equalizing, in some ways, King admitted (more on that in a minute), but it is a dangerous equality, one that depends upon believing that human nature is defined by the limits of the physical realm. Historically, this pursuit of equality led to horrific violence. But the worst damage done is to the spirits of those who live under such regimes: communism’s denial of any permanent basis for morality (not rights, not God, not reason itself) ultimately means that it undermines human dignity. It demands the whole person’s investment in the political and economic project of making heaven on earth.  As a secular political project, communism denies the essential spiritual freedom of individual human persons—the only reasonable basis upon which men could relate to one another with any kind of dignity.

King’s sermon in no way denies the possibility that specifically Christian experiments in radical community might set themselves apart from the world. It is probably unsurprising to readers of this site that the only historically successful experiments in communistic living have been small, theologically-homogenous social groups. (And one might further note: these have all lived under the protective umbrella of relatively liberal market-oriented societies.) King’s focus here was on what seemed most pressing: the Christian temptation to make common cause with Soviet-style communism.

King's Longer History with Communism

King’s sermon was delivered at his home church, Ebenezer Baptist, in Atlanta as part of a series on love. It was not the first time King had addressed the temptations communism offered to the oppressed: In August 1953, he gave an early version of the same message to the people of Ebenezer. That sermon was retitled and revised for inclusion in King’s first major publication, Strength to Love (1963). King continued to speak against Communism even while opposing the United States’ intervention in Vietnam, arguing in a sermon at Riverside Church in April 1967 that “communism is a judgment against our failure to make democracy real and follow through on the revolutions that we initiated. Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism.”

Ironically, King was often accused of being a communist; he repeatedly refuted the charge and his message remained the same: that Christianity and Communism were irrefutably and fundamentally opposing ideologies, that Christianity alone was actually redemptive, but that Christians, by their failure live out the gospel in love and justice to the poor and oppressed, had essentially created the space within which communism and other false teachings that seemed more responsive to social justice issues could flourish.

Although he rightly notes a Christian cannot be a communist in that vein because of the essential contradiction between materialism and spirituality, King does not end the sermon there. Rather, he carefully addresses the reasons Christians might be tempted by communism in the modern world: their yearning for justice, and their earnest desire for community. In these two areas, he writes, Communism has succeeded in part “due to the failure of Christians to live up to the basic principles of Christianity.”

While Jesus taught his disciples not only to preach the good news of salvation but to serve the helpless widow, help the hungry and ill-housed poor, and defend human freedom, American Christians had far too often failed to match actions to words. Christians must not only “talk about a future good over yonder,” or “in terms of a new Jerusalem, but I want to see a new Atlanta, a new New York, a new America, and a new world right here.” As a system, Communism appeared to offer immediate and practical hope to the oppressed and weary in a nation where Christians had too often been content to offer merely platitudes about a far-off “better place” while remaining complacent (complicit?) in perpetuating a status quo of systematized racism, sexism, elitism, and other forms of injustice. Yet though “The Communist Manifesto might express a concern for the poor and the oppressed,” he argues “it expresses no greater concern than the manifesto of Jesus.”

This leads into King’s second major point about the allure of communism: it’s evangelistic fervor. Communists, King argued, make their philosophy seem attractive in part simply because they are so openly passionate in their commitment. Their zeal is infectious, their camaraderie warmly inviting, their associational structure clear and easy to join in ways that churches—too cold, too formal—were not. Americans, lost in the splendid isolation of individualism, long to be part of something bigger than themselves – but it had become apparent to King that such longings were no longer being fulfilled in the traditional associational settings of a local church or a town meeting.

“The only way that we can defeat communism is to get a better idea, and we have it in our democracy. We have it in our Christianity,” King asserted—but too often, American Christians lack the basic civic and theological literacy to prove it. We relentlessly pursue comfortable material goals, and even our seemingly loftier political goals all too often are too focused on the material needs of our lives rather than our spiritual ones.

 Martin Luther King, Jr. leaning on the lectern at a press conference, March 6, 1964. Photograph by Marion S. Trikosko, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-DIG-ppmsc-01269.

Martin Luther King, Jr. leaning on the lectern at a press conference, March 6, 1964. Photograph by Marion S. Trikosko, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-DIG-ppmsc-01269.

In American politics today, the specter of communism no longer looms quite as large as it did in the middle of the twentieth century. (Even Bernie Sanders, who reintroduced the term "socialism" to common political discourse, seems to be defending a robust form of market-driven social democracy, as are many of his younger followers.) Yet the very same materialist attitudes that King attributes to communism were already commonplace in the  political culture of his time, and are still present today.

King’s prescience in seeing the threat of materialist philosophy is only too evident when we consider the myriad ways in which we are told every week that our bodies are ourselves, our destiny and identity inextricably wrapped up in our sexual identities, or alternatively, the sort of neurological materialism at work in startups like Nectome. As King said, the only way to succeed in the battle against materialism is to combat it with the better idea of human freedom—an idea that is embedded in our national documents and institutions in a form that was rooted in a Christian understanding of human flourishing. We can do this—but we must understand those documents first. Understanding our principles can help us defend our institutions.

“If a man could tell a lie and turn a nation upside-down toward an evil end, it seems that we could tell the truth about Jesus Christ and turn this world right side-up,” King said. Our goal here at the Center for Christian Civics is to tell that truth boldly and well—and to equip you to do so also.

On this day where we commemorate King, we should be mindful that his political theology should not simply be defined by race: we should also recall his wisdom about the limited ends of politics. Communism (like so many other “-isms” that generate intense partisanship) desired to transform human beings and the world we inhabit to produce perfect justice in this world. As Christians we are called to strive for justice, but should always bear in mind where our real hope lies.

Good Friday, Families and Hospitality (Dr. Curt Thompson, Part Two)

We continue our conversation with Dr. Curt Thompson, exploring what Good Friday has to do with hard conversations about politics in the church, and why our reaction to our political opponents often has as much to do with our relationship to our families as it does to our parties.


00:00–02:29 Introduction
02:30–12:50 Interview
12:51–18:29 What are we afraid of will happen?/The joy set before Christ.
18:30–20:18 Prayer


Dr. Thompson
For more information on Dr. Thompson and his work, visit beingknown.com. His books Anatomy of the Soul and The Soul of Shame are both available online.

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Embodied Encounters (Dr. Curt Thompson)

The Christian Civics Podcast returns with an interview with psychiatrist and ministry leader Dr. Curt Thompson. In this episode, Dr. Thompson discusses why it's important for Christians to have face-to-face, real-life conversations with our political opponents, and how we can get better at those kinds of conversations by understanding how God has made our brains to work.


00:00–03:59 Introduction
04:04–23:40 Interview
23:43–29:28  Assessing our desires, practicing, and sports.
29:30–31:28 Prayer
31:30–35:27 End Notes


Dr. Thompson
For more information on Dr. Thompson and his work, visit beingknown.com. His books Anatomy of the Soul and The Soul of Shame are both available online.

Marist Poll Summaries, January 2018
This interview was recorded during the same week that Marist released the summaries of its January 2018 polls, showing stark divisions between Americans when it comes to their trust in various political, cultural and social institutions. A summary of the polls and the actual polling data are both available on Marist's website.

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A Meditation for Lent
Spare your people, O LORD, and make not your heritage a reproach, a byword among the nations. Why should they say among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’
— Joel 2:7

One of the most infuriating things to see in a politician is hypocrisy—to see them condemn others for wrongdoing that they themselves are guilty of; to see them claim the high road when they are transparently walking the low road; to see them condemn others for "flip-flopping" on promises when they themselves are guilty of the same thing.

When, for example, Congressman Devin Nunes claimed recently to be releasing a memo in the interests of transparency, many rose up in anger, protesting that that memo was anything but transparent—that it aimed, in fact, to control the truth for partisan purposes. Others answered the fault-finders, alleging that the yet-to-be-released alternative memo was bound to be guilty of the same alleged offense. Many of us, watching the back-and-forth from outside the beltway (assuming we hadn’t become so jaded by life inside the beltway that we chose to pay no attention), found our ire rising against one camp, or the other, or both.

There are any number of things we can do with the infuriating hypocrisy we see in public life. A particularly appropriate thing to do during Lent is to open ourselves seriously to the likelihood that we are hypocrites ourselves. And an effective way to do this is to ask someone who knows us well to point out at least one specific way that we are not practicing what we preach. We can ask that person to be gentle but to be honest and specific. We will need to choose not to rush to our own defense, even if we think our friend is mistaken. We will need to choose, rather, to take what he tells us to God then and ask God to search us. And we will need to choose to change in whatever ways God makes clear to us.

Years ago, Joel prayed, "Spare your people, O LORD, and make not your heritage a reproach, a byword among the nations. Why should they say among the peoples, 'Where is their God?'" Joel envisioned the mockery of an invading army. Our context is different. We may not face the mockery of an invading army, but we do face the mockery, the dismissal and the cynicism of our neighbors. When our neighbors discover that we are as hypocritical as the people we condemn as hypocrites, it damages their perception of us—and their perception of the gospel. For the sake of not letting the Lord's heritage become a reproach amongst our neighbors, we must be honest about and aware of the ways in which we have permitted ourselves to be invaded by and held captive to the values of the culture around us, the ways in which we have become as prone to self-centeredness, narcissism, self-advancing spin, and blindness regarding our own culpability as whatever politician we most disdain this week.

When Christians are hypocrites, our message is blunted and our neighbors have every right to say, "Where is their God?"

There is plenty to be judged in our broken political world—and we have an obligation to call those in authority to account. But to do so with sufficient grace, humility, and credibility requires that we ourselves have been brought to account. "Judgement", Scripture tells us, "begins at the household of God." (1 Peter 4:17)

Reaching a New Milestone: Big News About 2018

Ten years ago this fall, I was working on an off-year political campaign and took a call from a reporter who wanted to talk about religion and politics. For the first time, I found myself challenged to clearly articulate where I thought the models I was seeing for "doing politics Christianly" fell short.

Fast-forward to 2016, when a good friend and I began putting a small team together to slowly build the Center for Christian Civics. We saw an opportunity through our friendship across party lines to encourage the Body of Christ to have more fellowship like ours.

Today, we exist to provide the church with an affirmative vision for the public square that is bigger than rank partisanism, develop practical models for putting that vision into practice, and overcome the partisan divide in our churches.

2017 Highlights

After a busy election year that had us writing and teaching classes at a rapid pace, 2017 gave us a chance to start working for the long-term. We grew our board, refined our strategy, and began identifying the right people to fill some of our part-time positions. And along the way, we’ve had some big wins.

“Every time I read the news, I’m re-convinced of the need for your work.”
~Email from a Podcast Listener

We launched a new podcast, providing people who have attended our classes or read our blog a chance to take our ideas with them on-the-go and share them more easily with others. This has been a huge area for growth—we knew from the get-go that producing a podcast well would mean developing a whole new skillset and adding a lot of hours to our time—but it has paid off. Our audience feedback has been very encouraging.

This autumn, we also partnered with the internationally known Christian organization Q Ideas to host an evening of teaching and discussion in Washington, DC, exploring how Christians can be agents of healing in our divided nation. The night was a massive success, with attendees excited to take the ideas presented from the stage and put them into practice in their church lives.

And these big wins happened alongside the everyday work of building relationships with pastors to encourage them and their congregations as well as continuing to bring great content through our website.

2018 Preview

As we look ahead to 2018, we have some big pieces of news to share:

First, and perhaps most dramatic, I am about to leave my “day job” so that I can serve the Center for Christian Civics as Executive Director full-time. This is a big milestone for our team, as I will be Christian Civics' first full-time team member. This is also an act of faith, as we still need to raise at least another $1300/month next year for my position to be sustainable. But that faith is warranted: Our Executive Board sees tremendous opportunity to help the church forge a new path forward next year, and doing that faithfully and well means devoting more time to our upcoming projects and to developing the organization.

What are those upcoming projects that need more time and attention?

  • Developing a new curriculum for pastors and seminary students dealing with the challenges of shepherding politically polarized congregations.
  • Producing a series of podcast episodes guiding listeners through how to think about and engage with the 2018 mid-term elections constructively.
  • Introducing you all to the new team of Christian writers from across the political spectrum who will be engaging in careful, faithful discussion about discipleship and the public square on our blog.

We Need Your Help

As we prepare for 2018, I'd like to ask you for help in a few different ways:

  • Help us meet a giving challenge. A generous first-time donor kicked off the holiday season for us with a one-time gift of $2,000 and a challenge to match it before the end of the year. Will you join other readers and listeners in meeting this challenge by making a one-time end-of-year gift of at least $25 to help us reach this goal? You can make a tax-deductible donation online today.
  • Share our work. If there's someone you know who might be grateful to know that we exist—either a friend who would think our podcast is a breath of sanity or a ministry leader who might think our resources are useful—please let them know about us, and feel free to connect me to them directly.
  • Pray for our organization to find the right supporters, partners and opportunities for this next season of our work. Pray especially for the classes we will be teaching this winter, the new classes we will be piloting in the spring, and all of the new material we will be developing throughout 2018. Pray also for Christians around the country to take the responsibilities of self-government and caring for our neighbors seriously, pursuing them as honors entrusted to us by our Lord.

Thank you all again for your friendship and support. We deeply appreciate it, and we hope that the work we are doing is encouraging to you and useful for your community. I look forward to hearing from you and serving you in 2018.

Have a very Merry Christmas!


Rick Barry
Executive Director
On behalf of the Christian Civics team

Interrupting the Rhythms of Our Lives

Chelsea Geyer, executive director of DC 127, stops by to talk about foster care and what it can teach us about demonstrating our faith in the public square. Then Center for Christian Civics executive director Rick Barry connects those ideas to the Advent season and leads us in prayer.

00:14 Introduction
06:03 Interview
25:34 Restoration is coming
27:18 It's okay to be weird
30:14 Letting yourself be inconvenienced
33:27 Prayer
36:07 Further reading

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After every interview, we take some time to unpack the interview and draw out key ideas, but we can't always fit them all into the podcast. If you want to go deeper into more of the ideas presented in this episode, sign up for our newsletter. We'll be including recommended reading based on this conversation on December 15.

Thinking in a Different Climate: November Recent Reads

This issue of our newsletter gave subscribers a look at what some of our team members have been reading lately:

Foreign to Familiar: A Guide to Understanding Hot- and Cold-Climate Cultures
by Sarah A. Lanier

A seasoned missionary shares one of the biggest insights she's gleaned from decades serving in the Netherlands, the Middle East and South America: The effect that climate might have on culture and social graces. For any southerner who has ever thought that northerners are impatient and rude, or any northerner who has ever bristled at the pace and tone of life in the south, this book might be a big help in understanding your far-flung countrymen. (Makes a great faith-based companion piece to our earlier recommendation of American Nations.)

"Wal-Mart's New Robots Scan Shelves to Restock Items Faster"
by Nandita Bose for Reuters

"Is Your City Getting Ready for Autonomous Vehicles? This Is A Guide To Who's Doing What, Where, and How." 
by Bloomberg Philanthropies Initiative on Cities and Autonomous Vehicles

The next major wave of robotics innovation is likely to have a big impact on what kinds of work are available in communities around the country—and our labor laws, employment policies and job-training programs are going to have to move fast to keep up. The race to put self-driving taxis on the roads is getting the most attention right now, but companies like Wal-Mart are demonstrating how automation and artificial intelligence might affect industries we always thought of as being "human-only," like retail. These are probably going to be the types of stories and questions driving major political debates in our country within the next few years, at both the local and national levels. We'll be exploring this topic more in 2018, but in the mean time, think about what kinds of questions stories like these raise for you about your own work and how your neighbors will make their livelihoods.

Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology
by James K.A. Smith

I think that James Smith should probably be listed among North America's most important living Christian thinkers. Awaiting the King is the long-awaited conclusion to his three-part series of books on the ways that our routines shape the way we think and re-route the directions of our hearts. Like most books on what Christian faith means for public life, the book doesn't quite do justice to the truly complicated nature of US citizenship, but it remains incredibly valuable both for its trenchant insights into how our interactions with the political sector can re-shape us without our realizing it, and for its sober conclusion, which makes four very practical recommendations for how to guard our hearts as we engage with civic life. 
(Blurb by R. Barry) 

"...one of the dangers of eagerly diving into the political sphere is that it tends to underestimate the strength of the currents already swirling around in that 'sphere.'" 
~James K.A. Smith

"What to Say Instead of 'I Know How You Feel' to Someone Who Is Struggling" 
by Celeste Headlee for thriveglobal.com  

Politics in the US is marked by citizens displaying a lack of empathy or understanding for people we disagree with. But this lack of empathy doesn't just run from the top down—the things we say and do in our day-to-day interactions with individuals can reflect or even drive our lack of empathy for broader groups of people. If James K.A. Smith is right when he says that the things we do shape who we are, then this analysis of "conversational narcissism" and how to avoid it might be an incredibly useful tool for forming yourself into the kind of person who thinks about politics in ways that defy the pundits and acts in ways that make the gospel look good to your neighbors. 

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

A Hope in the Unseen by Ron Suskind

On last week's episode of the Christian Civics Podcast, we interviewed Steve Park to learn about how he has managed to remain energized and hopeful over the course of decades of difficult and often demoralizing work. Before the interview, we asked him to share a couple books that have been helpful or encouraging to him over the course of his ministry, including these two recommendations.

NewsletterRick BarryComment
How Do We Endure? An Interview With Steve Park

This autumn has pummeled us with so much bad news that just thinking about what our responsibilities might be to the wider world has to feel intimidating and exhausting.

This week, we welcome Steve Park, head of Little Lights Urban Ministries, to talk about how he's managed to stay active and motivated to do some very hard, dispiriting work for over twenty years.

Then we will call specific attention to a few ideas that came up during the interview before we get led in prayer by Rev. Charles Drew.

00:00 - Intro, a season of endless bad news
04:35 - Interview with Steve Park
27:30 - Burnout
32:13 - Spiritual disciplines
34:58 - Scripture reading and prayer
42:26 - Endnotes


We just ran two blog posts following up on aspects of Steve's interview that we couldn't get into in the podcast:

"Does Your Faith Make You Distinct?"

"Aspiring to Humility"


We'll be sending out the complete interview with Steve to all of our partners and supporters later this month. If you want to hear more from him about the work Little Lights has done and what it's like to lead a faith-based organization using space provided by the government, visit christiancivics.org and make a donation to our work today.

Aspiring to Humility (Podcast Follow-Up)

In the latest episode of the Christian Civics Podcast, we spoke with Steve Park, founder of Little Lights Urban Ministries in Washington, DC. There was too much in the interview to unpack all in the podcast episode, so this is the first of a couple quick blog posts calling out some other ideas that Steve brought up that I think are worth mulling over.

My next big takeaway from that conversation has to do with Steve’s reminder to try to live a humble life. So many times, when we hear someone talk about humility, it's discussed in the negative. We tend to think that humility is something you don't do, the ability to not be prideful or vain. But the way Steve talked about deliberately humbling ourselves before God and making an effort to turn humility into a primary characteristic of our lives. 

This actually got me to pull a book off my shelves that I haven't read in over a decade (The Naked Christian) and look up a passage that made a big impression on me when I first read it. In it, the author (Craig Borlase) is talking about the kinds of lives and stories we tend to glorify in our culture and in our churches—and contrasting it with a conversation he had with an anonymous friend:

I heard about an ambition recently. "I want to live a quiet life. To know God, to love him, to serve and follow." That was it. No specifics, no action plan for saving the world. Nothing that would make it into the news. But it struck me as something wonderful...an ambition built to last. This is not a call to ditch the dreams of doing things for God, not a suggestion that we give up following him or taking brave steps to take the gospel message out. But it is a question mark over just how we think God does use us. ... Are we so sure that God only works through people on the stage, in the public eye, and without failings? Isn't there so much more to him than that?

In times like this, when we're wading through so much dispiriting news, it’s important to remember that you’re not called to fix everything. There’s only one person who is going be called upon to make all things new, and it’s not you or me. Through prayer, we should ask to become more aware of what God is equipping us to do. And as we become aware of what we are capable of, we have to muster up the strength, the courage and the willingness to be inconvenienced that it takes to actually do those things. You might have to do things that involve going a little out of your way—organizing a drive to raise money for the families of shooting victims or people displaced by storms or fire. Or you might be called to make lots and lots of little small changes in your day-to-day life. Like, maybe the stories about powerful celebrities and politicians are helping you to realize you need to make changes to your own behavior.

But then we need to learn to be satisfied with just doing these things and not more.

These aren’t big, glamorous, world-changing acts. People aren’t gonna learn your name because of them. Your Facebook posts about them aren't going to get screengrabbed and then re-shared by strangers. But things at this scale are also things I’m pretty sure most Christians are called to do with our time and our energy. And they affect the lives of our friends and neighbors in ways that are a lot more persistent and a lot more intimate than a lot of the big, world-changing acts our society usually tries to valorize.

Does Your Faith Make You Distinct? (Podcast Interview Follow-Up)

In the latest episode of the Christian Civics Podcast, we spoke with Steve Park, founder of Little Lights Urban Ministries in Washington, DC. There was too much in the interview to unpack all in the podcast episode, so this is the first of a couple quick blog posts calling out some other ideas that Steve brought up that I think are worth mulling over.

First, I want to pick up on something he said at the end of the interview that’s pretty important for Christian civic engagement pretty generally: Steve ended the interview by saying that Little Lights doesn’t want to become “just another social services organization.” They want to maintain their identity as a ministry. They want their faith to make them distinct.

Each service that Little Lights offers is also offered by other organizations in DC. That's a good thing—there's more good work to be done in even the smallest of communities than any one person or group of people can reasonably do. But Little Lights, because of their Christian faith, want to offer those services in a distinct manner. Neighbors or city officials or possible donors shouldn’t look at Little Lights and be able to confuse it with any other organization that’s offering similar services.

That’s also an important priority for Christians when it comes to politics, especially in a country like ours. Because we have a two-party political system, and because that system has so entangled itself into the way government works in so many parts of our country, it can also infect the way we think about government and politics and civic life. But it doesn’t have to. There’s room to be different. There’s room to not conform to the patterns of the world—even the patterns of the people or parties of the world who you might agree with.

A Christian organization can offer the same kinds of job-training programs that a non-Christian organization is offering. But the Christian organization needs to let the light of Christ shine through them. Maybe that means being explicit about praying for their clients. Maybe it means that they treat their clients less like charity cases and more like they’re helping out their friends or family members—their clients are made in the image of God, so they deserve that respect. Maybe it means they are less willing to rush clients into jobs that aren’t a good fit. They’re not as desperate to goose their numbers. 

Similarly, you can be a Christian who thinks your town should outsource trash collection to a private company. And you can have a non-Christian neighbor who thinks the same thing. But people who have a conversation about trash collection with you and then a conversation about trash collection with your neighbor need to be able to see and hear and feel a difference.

Your conversation needs to be more patient, more gracious, more hopeful, more loving and merciful. It’s what’s going to set you apart in a polarized age. It’s how we make sure we don’t conform to the patterns of the world. Right now, the pattern of the world is HATING the people who disagree with you, DESTROYING people who have a different idea. Letting the love of God dwell richly in you, living out the beatitudes, that’s going to set you apart right now.

When Disasters Keep Mounting: November Reflection

Each month, the Christian Civics Newsletter provides subscribers with a devotional reflection and prayer points to help connect your faith to the opportunities and responsibilities that citizenship opens up to us. 

Scripture Reading: Matthew 11:28–30

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."


What do we do when disasters keep mounting? Flood damage in Houston. Earthquakes in Mexico City. Devastation in the Caribbean. Genocide in Myanmar. Mayhem in Las Vegas and Texas. Wildfires in California. Our sympathies rose, perhaps, at news of the first of these tragedies: We sent money, sponsored relief efforts, possibly even traveled to Texas to lend our expertise to lessen the suffering. But then came the next. And the next. And the next.

Jesus has work for us to do— yokes to shoulder that we may plow in the fields where he sends us. But notice, those yokes are bearable because they are of his making (not someone else’s) and he is gentle: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle.”

Burn-out isn't the result of doing too much work, it's the result of working for the wrong master and for the wrong reasons. Take, for example, people-pleasing: Perhaps you took on Puerto Rico relief in order to please someone—and now you are feeling pressured by someone else to respond to Las Vegas. Jesus tells us to love people—but he never tells us to please them. How about the yoke of “results”: The miseries of the Rohingya refugees may exhaust us even before we try to address them. But Jesus never put us in charge of outcomes.

Then there is the yoke of self-justification: We feel the pressure to care for the people because we are seeking by that care to prove that we are worthy and valuable people, or to somehow make up for a bad conscience. Jesus would never lay such a yoke on our shoulders. He lived, died and passed through hell to free us forever from the need to justify ourselves.

There is no simple formula for knowing precisely how Jesus wants us to care. But of this we can be sure: If our efforts to love our neighbors are beating us up, or if we are beating up others as we seek to follow Jesus, then we have taken on the wrong yoke—either we are doing the wrong thing, or we are doing it for the wrong reason, or both, 

Jesus is gentle with us. His yoke is easy and his burden is light.


This month...

  • Pray for the readiness to love your neighbor wherever and whenever Jesus wants you to, and for discernment to see those opportunities.
  • Pray for eyes to see the gentleness of Jesus towards you.
  • Pray for the right motives in your service and for the freedom, joy and energy that arise from them.

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