God’s Goodness in a Dumpster Fire of a Year

I’ve been neglecting written content here for a while. I’ll admit, I’ve been struggling in these “unprecedented” times to do more than just get through podcasting and my regular work responsibilities. But no more. At least not for today.

Okay, yes. 2020 has been a dumpster fire. It’s been more than that, actually. I believe the CNN commentators describing the first presidential debate described it best with their rather salty language.

But whatever.

I’m not going to talk about why 2020 is awful. There’s enough of that out there. There’s also enough generic platitudes about God’s goodness in the midst of awfulness. So instead, here are a few places where God’s at work in my life and ministry that I want to celebrate.

Family

First and foremost, God is continuing to be very kind to us as a family. While I know that many people have had some serious relational struggles over the last seven plus months, Emily and I are more on the same page than we’ve ever been over the last 20 years. This is something God started doing in us pretty heavily toward the end of last year, but we’ve been able to communicate in a really healthy way, achieve longstanding goals and set new ones, and begin to plan for our future here in the United States. Or at least as long as the Lord will have us here, anyway…

Side note, we are both exceedingly grateful that we are prohibited from voting in this election. American friends, we love you and feel for you all.

Church

Second, I was asked to lead a community group at my church. The group of which I was/am a member is multiplying as we try to continue to spread gospel culture throughout our entire congregation (something needed now in this season more than ever for so many reasons). We’re a few weeks into this new ministry season, and while it is early days, I will say that God has been very kind already. Just meeting together in person after several months of primarily online meetings—man oh man! God’s given me a good group of people to call my gospel family.

Personal Ministry

Third, I’m praying that a writing opportunity will come to fruition soon. I submitted a book proposal to a publisher a few weeks back, and should be hearing back within the next couple weeks about whether or not they’re interested. If you’d pray that the Lord’s will would be done there (and that I would rejoice in that either way), I would love that.

I am also hoping to get back to producing content on this blog on a more frequent basis, but only as my professional obligations (and other writing) allows.

Professional Ministry

Fourth and finally, my role at LifeWay will be changing (in a good way). For the last four years and change, I have served as the Brand Manager of The Gospel Project, which I have loved and continue to love. About three years ago, my job changed to include leading the creative team within our marketing group, which has been a great joy.

Over the last several months, there’s been a lot of transition at LifeWay (some good, some challenging because, well, COVID). With all that transition comes a change for me, and no, I am not leaving LifeWay. I am also not moving on from the Brand Manager role. Instead, it’s a bit of good news: On November 2nd, I will be joining our publishing team for The Gospel Project for Adults as its new publishing team leader.

So what does that mean exactly? Well, a big piece of what I’ll be doing is working with Daniel Davis and Josh Hayes, our content editors who have been faithfully developing this resource for years, to help us prepare for the next study cycle that kicks off in September 2021. In that, I’ll be doing a mix of content creation, editing, product development, and author relations & development as well.


Okay, that didn’t end up being quite as short as I had planned. But thankfully, that’s where the -ish comes in helpful. 2020 has been a dumpster fire in a lot of ways. None of you reading are likely to be surprised by that. But you know what? Even in a dumpster fire, God is good.

S3, Ep. 7: What you really need to know about Millennials

Reading Writers

Reading Writers is back in the studio this week with a new episode—and a special guest! On this episode, Dave and I are joined by our pal Chris Martin, content strategist and co-creator of LifeWay Social, and author of the upcoming book, Ministering to Millennials from Rainer Publishing. In this episode, we spend a LOT of time talking about Millennials, aging, and, of course, reading.

Among the many books we discuss:

Sharing is caring!

Please consider leaving a rating and review on iTunes. This only takes a second and will go a long way to helping other people find the show. Finally, if you know someone who would benefit from listening, share it on your favorite social media network.

You can also connect with me on Twitter at @aaronstrongarm, on Facebook or via email to share your feedback.

The gospel is everything

Imagine you’re getting ready for a big race. Say you’re competing in the Olympics. Where do you start? Typically on the starting blocks, which help hold your feet in place as yo push off to start running.

Now, many of us have been taught, whether implicitly or explicitly, to think of the gospel in this way. After all, if the Christian life can be thought of as a race (Phil. 2:16; Heb. 12:1), it makes sense to view the gospel as our starting point. After all, we can’t start the race without hearing and believing the gospel.

But here’s the danger this kind of thinking can create: it makes the gospel too small. It limits the gospel to simply being the starting point, but having no practical value for us after we believe. But the gospel is more than a starting point. In the race of faith, it’s not just the blocks our feet start off in, it’s the track we run on. And more than that—the gospel is shoes on our feet. It’s the air we breathe. It’s the oxygen being carried through our blood vessels. It’s the food that provides our muscles energy to run the race. The gospel is everything to the Christian life.

Should we teach kids about sin?

As part of my job, I am involved in a couple of Kids Ministry groups on Facebook. The conversations I see are fascinating. Usually they’re about best practices for discipling kids, occasionally folks are looking for different curriculum options… and then every so often there’s a question about what we should and shouldn’t be teaching kids.

Are sin too big for kids? Do we really need to teach them this or that story?

These are good questions, important questions. While some may disagree, it should be no surprise that I will say yes to each.

Yes, we need to teach kids about sin. We need to because they already know about it. They’ve experienced it in some way, but they should know how and why sin is in the world, what God has done to solve the problem of sin. So we teach them about sin to give them context and understanding of the world they live in.

And yes, that also means there aren’t really any stories from the Bible that are off-limits. You can (and should) teach kids about the nastier bits of Scripture, especially when it comes to the people we tend to portray as heroes (Abraham, Jacob, the Judges, David…). We don’t need to expose them to situations way too mature for them, of course, but in an age appropriate way, we should be helping kids see that the heroes of the Bible are people who needed God’s grace and forgiveness just like we do. That God was gracious to them, just as he is gracious to us. If all Scripture is inspired and profitable, then it’s inspired and profitable for all ages. Our responsibility is to teach it faithfully at an age-appropriate level (e.g., we don’t need to talk about adultery necessarily, but we do need to talk about David sinning).

Ultimately, we want kids to see that God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and his gospel is the same yesterday, today, and forever. That Jesus’ goodness and righteousness is what we need to be in relationship with God. That Jesus is the one who paid for our sins. And Jesus is the one who we will spend eternity with by faith.

How do we make what seems impossible possible?

Sunset

At the best of times, engaging in the life of a church (in the sense of the corporate body) can seem difficult. For those who have seen churches torn apart in splits, or been part of congregations where false doctrine or unrepentant sin have been allowed to fester, it can seem almost impossible.

It’s hard to feel safe enough to let yourself be known. To let people in. It’s risky to be vulnerable. But, despite our feelings, it’s not impossible.

I was thinking about something Ray Ortlund wrote after a new friend respectfully asked me a pointed question, to try to better get to know me. This friend’s question, and Ortlund’s article, got me thinking about how is it possible to make what seems impossible possible? Is there a the secret or equation? What are the elements of a healthy church culture that allows for this?

Ortlund boils it all down to these three points: Gospel + Safety + Time. And, as he says in his article, we need a lot of all three, because:

  • The gospel is for messed up people in need of grace, and God supplies it without fail to all who turn to Jesus in faith.
  • We need to feel safe to admit our failures, to be okay with not being okay as it were, and be in relationship with other sinners.
  • We need time, to meet other and be met by patience as we all stumble toward holiness together.

Over the last year, this equation has been what we’ve been looking for. It’s what we’ve needed as we’ve worked to become invested in a church in our community. This aspect of our lives has probably been the hardest of our entire move to America. But one thing I’ve been grateful for is that we’ve been met with these three elements, time and again. They have been so necessary for us as we’ve worked to acclimate into a church. And if there’s anything that makes me believe that what seems impossible really is possible, it’s this.

The “center” in gospel-centered is really important

Sunrise

I’ve been thinking about the term “gospel-centered” of late. It’s one that sometimes gets overused, admittedly. Gospel-centered discipleship strategies and churches and curriculum and publishers and conferences… That no one has unironically described a roast of coffee as gospel-centered is nothing short of a miracle.

All teasing aside, I actually do like the term. I think it’s helpful, and I think it’s necessary, if for no other reason than how it serves as a reminder for me. That there is something to be centered on—something that transcends many of our differences with other denominations and networks (and even within our own, as well). That the gospel is big enough for a certain kind of diversity, whether church polity, preaching styles, or certain secondary sticky theological issues, as long as we remember what matters most. The thing that makes us Christians.

The gospel: the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

That’s been a necessary perspective for me over the last 10 years. For as long as I’ve been working with Christian ministries, I’ve had to navigate the choppy waters of communicating about theological issues to a very diverse group of believers. I used to write for an organization that connected with denominations and networks from across the spectrum of evangelicalism. They could comfortably work with churches that might just as easily identify with a theological system that shall not be named,[1. Let the reader understand.] as those that struggle with the term “evangelical” altogether. With my current role, I’m doing something very similar: working with a diverse group of churches, from a number of different denominations, in order to help them in their mission to make disciples.

Being “gospel-centered” is what helps me do that. It doesn’t make me look for opportunities to separate from healthy believers, or healthy churches. Instead, it makes me look for opportunities to celebrate our common center, and give a strong foundation to partnership in the great commission.

 

 

One of my favorite definitions of “theology”

Sunset

What is theology? Ask five Christians and you’ll probably get six different answers. When some of us think of theology, there’s a tendency to approach it as something abstract, or belonging to the world of academia that doesn’t really matter in the trenches of life and ministry.

But theology isn’t just writing papers on the minutest implications of an accent on a Greek word that may or may not have any impact on our day-to-day lives. Theology is something entirely different. It matters in every area of life. It is practical.

And that word, practical, is really important. It is a reminder that theology is something lived out. This is why one of my favorite definitions of theology comes from John Frame. He says theology is “the application of the Word of God by persons to all areas of life.”

Here’s what I love about this definition, in a nutshell:

  1. It reminds us that everything is necessarily theological, from thought to deed;
  2. It recognizes that we are all theologians; and
  3. It encourages us to appreciate to remember the Scriptures as the starting point of theology.

I’ve known too many people who fail to recognize these truths. Men and women who’ve rarely given their theology a second thought, largely because they’re not entirely sure it makes a difference. I’ve had too many conversations where the Bible isn’t present, and ideas are grounded in opinions. And I’ve seen too many relationships damaged because of it (sometimes by me).

Those of us who are big fans of theology need to help change this. We don’t need to shove a systematic theology book at someone, necessarily. But what we do need to do is simple—we need to show people a better way. And that begins with living out what we believe. If we believe theology matters, then we need to act on that belief. We need to turn to the Scriptures, again and again, and allow them to correct and shape our theology, applying the Word of God to every area of our lives. Let’s keep showing the world just how eminently practical theology truly is. Because when it’s done right, it really does change everything.

Conferences exist to minister to you

Conferences are strange animals. From one perspective, they’re filled with wonderful content delivered by excellent teachers. From another perspective, they’re great times to connect with people you rarely see in person. From another still, there is always so much to hear at these conferences that it’s hard to process it all. And at every event I go to, I see people wrestling with which of these to prioritize. Should they make sure they hit every session? Should they skip one or two for a longer lunch, or get some coffee with a friend? Or should they head back to the hotel room for a while and process what’s already been heard—or maybe take a nap?

Chances are, a bunch of you reading this are going to be heading off to TGC in Indianapolis today. I’m heading there today, too. I’m looking forward to meeting a bunch of you, hanging out at The Gospel Project booth, and generally having a great time.

But maybe you’re wondering what to do about these things, especially if it’s your first time there. For what it’s worth, here’s my advice: Don’t worry too much about the sessions. Choose a few that you really want to attend, and go to them. But give yourself lots of space for processing. Take the time to pray about what you hear, and consider how it affects your ministry. Allow yourself space to be ministered to. That’s what these events are for, believe it or not.

Despite what you might read on a blog, conferences like TGC don’t exist to perpetuate a celebrity culture. They’re intended to be a service to the local church by ministering to you, the attendee. The person who—if you’re a pastor or leader in the church—probably isn’t being ministered to all that frequently because you’re too busy serving others. If that’s you, I truly hope this event is a blessing to you. (And if it is, come by the Gospel Project booth; I’d love to know how my team and I might be able to serve you during the event as well.) Enjoy the rest that this event (I hope) offers. Let it be an opportunity to recharge and replenish you for the days ahead.


Photo: Pixabay

Yes, I really believe this!

Five years ago, I went to Nashville for the first time. I was asked to live blog a webcast for this new curriculum Trevin Wax, who I’d connected with via email, Twitter and a couple of conferences, was responsible for. Something called The Gospel Project.

I was a little nervous coming in. After all, I was just some dude from Canada with an internet website.[1. And not the one who is kind of a big deal.] A weblog, if you will. Plus, my wife was super-pregnant at that point and our son was due any day. As we prayed and discussed, Emily was convinced I should go even if it meant there was a chance she could go into labor while I was away. So, I took the risk. I got on the plane and later that day stepped into the building for the first time.

I furiously took notes as Matt Chandler, JD Greear, and Ed Stetzer each preached a 15 minute message each around the core values of the curriculum, the central components of gospel, theology, and mission. As soon as everything was done, I got on a plane with a backpack, some books and a couple of GooGoo Clusters,[2. Nashville’s gift to candy connoisseurs everywhere.]  fully convinced that this curriculum could be a game-changer for churches, especially in kids ministry. (I also was pleased to see that my son had not yet made his grand entrance into the world when I got home, so that was nice, too.)

I had no idea that, five years later, I would be working as part of The Gospel Project team. Instead, I went back to my normal life. I served in my church. I worked at my job. I lived the dad life. And I told pastor friends about The Gospel Project. When our church was looking for new kids ministry curriculum, I encouraged looking at The Gospel Project (and it eventually one out). Later, I taught the kids in our church using it for three years, while also continuing to tell pastors about the curriculum. And then, eventually, that lead to an opportunity to join the team.

But here’s the thing: I was advocating for the material long before it was my job. I do it as my job because I still believe it’s a game-changer for churches, not just in kids ministry, but across all ages. And if it weren’t my job, I’d still be doing it. Why? Because I genuinely believe that there is nothing that changes lives like the gospel. It shapes how and what we think and say and do and love. It transforms every part of us, moment by moment. I’ve seen that in my own life. I’ve seen it in my family’s. I’ve seen it in friends. And I’ve seen it in entire church communities.

Every time I see it, I’m always amazed. No matter how many conversations I have, it never gets old. Nothing changes lives like the gospel. I really believe that. I pray you do, as well.