This Easter, Become Conversant With the World’s Largest, Most Diverse Religion

This article originally appeared in our local paper, “The Manchester Journal.”

Easter is here again, and with it comes global celebrations of Jesus’s resurrection. It may be shocking to find out that Christianity is the world’s largest, most diverse religion today. But it should be equally shocking to imagine that probably the majority of residents in our well-educated town have never read one of the four Gospels that lays out what Christianity believes, including the resurrection of Jesus. A 2017 Lifeway survey found that over half of Americans have read none or little of the Bible.

In her book Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions For the World’s Largest Religion, New Englander Rebecca McLaughlin explains the global diversity present in Christianity today: “But, ironically, our habit of equating Christianity with Western culture is itself an act of Western bias…if you care about diversity, don’t dismiss Christianity: it is the most diverse, multiethnic, and multicultural movement in all of history.” (45) She goes on to explain that around the globe, the people most likely to be Christians are women of color. Projections by sociologists don’t see this changing anytime soon. McLaughlin elucidates: “…by 2060, the latest projections suggest, Christianity will still be the largest global belief system, having increased slightly, from 31 percent to 32 percent of the world’s population.” (12)

But what is the basis of what so many Christians from so many backgrounds around the world believe? Citizens of today’s world should be conversant with a faith that pervades so much of society. The Bible calls the basis of what Christians believe “the gospel,” while “The Gospels” are the four foundation documents of the New Testament: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The term “gospel” can be translated “good news.”

The good news about Jesus is that he died on the cross to atone for the sins of all who will believe in him. He suffered and died publicly on the cross as the punishment for the sins of all who believe in him, so they will never have to pay for those sins themselves. The Gospel of John famously makes this good news clear: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16) 

The Bible teaches that our sin separates us from God, but that Jesus is the bridge that brings us back to God. We can have forgiveness of sins today, and forever in heaven with God precisely because Jesus died, but also rose again. As the resurrected Jesus himself proclaims: “I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.” (Revelation 1:18) Jesus literally claims to have the key that can close the door to death for you, and give you eternal life. 

This is why Christians celebrate Easter. We believe that Jesus didn’t stay dead. The story of Easter is that Jesus rose from the dead again. Those who believe that this really happened call themselves Christians. In identifying that their lives are united with Christ and in calling him “Lord,” they are identifying themselves with him in his death and resurrection.

No one really finds this easy to believe. His disciple, Thomas, who had been with him for three years, did not believe when the other disciples said they had met Jesus who was alive again. When Jesus appeared to Thomas and challenged him to put his fingers in the nail marks, and his hand in his pierced side, Thomas fell down at Jesus’s feet and confessed, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28) Christians around the world, Christians of all ethnic backgrounds, Christians in our own community, are people who have said to Jesus after they have believed that he is their savior, risen from the dead: “My Lord and my God!”

So, what do you know about Christianity? Have you ever read one of the four Gospels that lays out the foundation of the world’s largest, most diverse religion? I challenge you this Easter to become conversant with Christianity by reading the Gospel of John. But beware. Within its pages, you will hear Jesus say this: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.” (John 5:39-40) Jesus is not content for us to simply come to learn about him. He also wants us to know him today. As Christians around the world will be celebrating this Easter, he didn’t stay in that tomb. He is alive today. That is not only worth celebrating, it means that all that he said is true.

Bruised Reeds and Smoldering Wicks Are Not Useless to Jesus

bruised reed 1

This article was featured at For The Church and then at

The scene is astonishing. Jesus has just given his magnum opus, the Sermon on the Mount. The people are amazed at his teaching. He begins to walk down the mountain, and great crowds follow him. His teaching ministry coupled with his healing ministry seems to be making many wonder if he is indeed the Messiah. Then it happened.

As Jesus walked with this crowd around him, suddenly the crowd parted as gasps of horror were heard. Then perhaps the bravest began to express what was on the mind of many: “What is he doing here?” “Get away from the Teacher!” “Go back to where lepers belong, outside of the city!”

But it was too late. The man who was not supposed to be near others, the man nobody was supposed to touch, was kneeling in front of Jesus. I imagine that he was louder than the accusers. He had nothing to lose and he knew that Jesus was his only hope: “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.”

Then the unthinkable happened. Jesus touched him. Jesus talked to him. Jesus healed him. Matthew 8:3 continues, “And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, ‘I will; be clean.’ And immediately his leprosy was cleansed.

Jesus never turned away a person who came to him broken, hurting, and deemed “useless” by society and religious people. In fact, it seems that he often gathered these people around him. Think about how staggering this is. Lepers. Prostitutes. The blind. The physically disabled. The demon possessed. Jesus did not crush them, but rather healed them. Spent time with them. Forgave them. Put them into his service.

Jesus loves bruised reeds and smoldering wicks. Sometimes we do, sometimes we don’t. Bruised reeds can seem useless. Smoldering wicks can make a lot of smoke and give little light. Yet since when did God love us based on what we can offer him? The Apostle Paul goes out of his way to make sure the Corinthians–and we–understand that it is only because of the grace of God that we are in Christ, not because of our own wisdom, status, or great things we have done (1 Corinthians 1:26-31).

When we know and remember the mercy, grace, patience, and love that Jesus has given to us, we will be able to reflect his heart. Pouring out mercy, grace, patience, and love to those who cannot or will not pay it back to us mirrors Jesus and shows him to be the strong and gentle Savior that he is.

Bruised Reeds, Smoldering Wicks, and the Love and Gentleness of Jesus
Matthew 12 helps us to understand how Jesus simultaneously fulfilled prophecy and showed God’s heart towards those who are hurting, broken, and looking to Jesus. Jesus has just healed the man with the withered hand in the synagogue, even though the Pharisees disapproved since it was the Sabbath. This compassion to a hurting person during a “worship service” made them want to destroy him.

So “Jesus, aware of this, withdrew from there. And many followed him, and he healed them all…” Then Matthew explains that this was to fulfill what Isaiah wrote in chapter 42, part of which describes how the Messiah would treat people: “…a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench…” (Matthew 12:20, Isaiah 42:3)

Isaiah, in his expressive word pictures and poetic prophecy, describes hurting people as bruised reeds and smoldering wicks.

Bruised reeds were useless. Shepherds would make small musical instruments from reeds and once they were cracked, they would no longer make music. So they would be thrown out. Nobody would blame the shepherds for that. But when it comes to people who are like bruised reeds, Jesus does not despise or reject them. He will not break them, but he welcomes them and offers them healing if they will but come to him.

Smoldering wicks were useless. In a time that people depended on lamps for light, smoldering wicks did nothing but create smoke in the house and give little or no light. So they would be snuffed out. This made sense. But when it comes to people who are like smoldering wicks, people who create more smoke than light, people who seem to create more problems than they are worth, Jesus does not despise or reject them. He will not snuff them out, but he welcomes them and will make them a light for him if they will but come to him.

Reflecting Jesus’ heart towards broken and hurting people does not mean that we are never appropriately firm with someone who needs boundaries, and this does not mean that we believe in a squishy love that does not love someone enough to tell them the truth. Jesus was perfect truth and perfect grace all the time. But it does mean that we will see broken and hurting people as people who need Jesus like the rest of us.

This is part of what Ray Ortlund calls a “Gospel Culture” in a church. In other words, a church professing the gospel should have a church culture that encourages reflecting the gospel in the way we treat each other. It is easy to love others who love us. But I need Jesus to help me love those who cannot seem to offer myself or my church anything but brokenness and smoke.

Jesus, help me to reflect your heart towards bruised reeds and smoldering wicks. Jesus, may the bruised reeds and smoldering wicks in my life, in my church, and in my community know that you are a gentle, patient, and loving Savior through the way we treat them. They are not useless to you; may they never be useless to us.

Feed the Sheep – No Matter How Many Are in the Pasture

This article was featured at For The Church and LifeWay Pastors.

One of the last ministry conversations I had with my grandpa is one that will stick with me for the rest of my life. I was driving home from Prayer Meeting. I was tired. I was discouraged.

I had been pastoring for five months in Vermont, and Prayer Meeting had slowly shrunk as the excitement of having a new pastor ebbed and as summer activities and travel amped up. I had decided to begin a “How To Study the Bible” series in the Fall that we would dip into each Wednesday evening before our time of prayer. It was the first Bible study that I had created a graphic for. I advertised it for weeks and sent out special e-mails. I studied and prepared and prayed. Four people showed up that first night.

As I drove home, I remembered that my grandpa had pastored faithfully for over 40 years in several small churches. Surely he had been discouraged at times with the number of those he preached to or taught a Bible study to, so I called him. Here is what he said that I will never forget:

“God’s job is to worry about the number of sheep. Your job is to feed the sheep.” – Cordell Baker

What my grandpa taught me that night has echoed in my mind again and again since then, because it was backed up with the faithfulness of his life. He had consistently fed the sheep that God gave him even as he served in hard places like a small town in Utah.

As Jesus told Peter, “Feed my sheep.” (John 21:17) Jesus didn’t tell Peter to only feed the sheep if the pasture was overflowing. If we think that Christ is only worthy of being preached to a larger church, we are committing two major errors: not valuing Christ highly enough, and not valuing people that Christ values.

The Value of Preaching Christ is Not Dependent on The Number of Listeners
When we tie our value as preachers to the number of people that we are preaching to, what we don’t realize is that we are devaluing the Christ that we preach. Jesus is all-glorious and he is worthy of being proclaimed in both small churches and mega churches, both small towns and large cities.

The reason that we devalue Christ when we look down upon preaching him to a small congregation is because we are essentially telling him, “You are worthy of being proclaimed when there are lots of ears to hear, but when there are fewer ears, I don’t see you for who you are.” When we promote missions we will talk about the fact that Christ is worthy to be proclaimed in a small village among an unreached people group in another country. But do we remember that the same Christ is worthy to be proclaimed in our small churches on Sunday morning?

All things were created through him and for him.” (Colossians 1:16b) Since all things were created for him, he is Lord of our small towns today. Jesus is worthy of being proclaimed in all places.

The Value of the People You Preach To is Not Dependent on the Size of Your Church
The other error that can creep into our thinking is not valuing people that Christ values. You don’t have to read far into the Gospels to realize that Jesus often ministered in the small places. He did travel to Jerusalem now and then, but he spent the bulk of his time in out-of-the-way places with people that were often looked down upon by the cultural elite. Yes, Jesus preached to thousands. But Jesus also healed one man with a withered hand in one small synagogue in small town Galilee. And he preached in the small towns again and again (Mark 1:38).

I had to wrestle with this before I accepted a call to the least reached state in the U.S., to a church that had 50 people in the pews on a larger Sunday. The church I was in at the time had 300 on an average Sunday. Would I be wasting the gifts that God had given me by preaching to fewer people? As I prayed through this, I was struck by who I would be preaching to there: brothers and sisters in Christ who need to be fed the Word week in and week out, and people who desperately need to know Christ as Savior. The needs of both believers and unbelievers are the same in any church, no matter the size. And the Savior who meets their needs is the same One.

Don’t Disdain What Christ Values
I was encouraged in the importance of preaching Christ in the small town the Lord has placed me in at a recent Gospel Coalition Small Town Summit. Just as my grandpa reminding me to feed the sheep–no matter how large the flock–continues to shape my view of preaching week in and week out, there is one phrase I heard there that keeps echoing in my head:

“The gospel does not disdain what is small.” – Stephen Witmer

At the Small Town Summit, Whitmer reminded us that God often works through the small. God saved the world through sending one baby. Jesus trained 12 disciples. The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. Only the Lord knows what he will do with an army of preachers who are committed to expositing God’s Word with precision and passion week in and week out in small churches across America.

Brothers, remember that the value of preaching Christ is not dependent on the number of listeners hearing you preach, but dependent on the value of the Christ that you preach. The supremacy of Christ over all things is what makes preaching him valuable, whether it is to 30 or 3,000 people. So study, and pray, and preach with all the strength that you have, to the glory of God–no matter how many people are in the room.

Four Things I Love About Jesus

This post appeared at For The Church and Top Christian Books.

Note: For a couple of months, I was preaching The Gospel of Mark in our Sunday Worship Service, then teaching Sunday School in the Gospels using The Gospel Project, and then teaching our Men’s Bible Study mid-week in The Gospel of John. Usually I am teaching from many different areas of the Bible. But rather than getting bored with Jesus, spending concentrated time in the Gospels has made me fall in love with Him deeper as I have had the privilege of looking to Jesus for hours each week. May a couple of things I have seen in a fresh way from gazing at Jesus, encourage you in your pursuit of looking to Jesus today (Hebrews 12:2)!
Jesus Name
1) His Unlimited Power
Jesus has power like no other. As I have watched him take 5 loaves and 2 fish and feed 20,000 people, I am reminded that He is the One who provides for my needs and the needs of my family and the needs of my church today. As I have watched him talk to a storm and have seen it obey him, I am reminded that even the weather answers to his command. As I have watched him deliver a man who under the possession of thousands of demons broke chains, cut himself, and lived in tombs–I am reminded of his sovereignty over even my spiritual enemies. As I have watched him speak to Lazarus’ stinking tomb, I am reminded that whenever Jesus goes toe to toe with death he always wins.

Did you catch that last part? He doesn’t just have the power to feed a multitude from a little boy’s lunch, he doesn’t just have the power to stop a storm with his voice, he doesn’t just have ultimate power over spiritual darkness, he actually has power over our greatest and final enemy, death itself. We literally have the antidote for death. His name is Jesus. His power is unlimited! 

2) His Unbounded Compassion
If Jesus were all power without compassion, he might not be worthy of worship. After all, Hitler had a lot of power, but he used it to destroy. But Jesus’ unlimited power is wed with his unlimited compassion. And how thankful I am that these two characteristics of Jesus will never be divorced from each other. I need an all-powerful Savior who can conquer Satan, and sin, and death. But I need an all-compassionate Savior who cares about my helpless situation and acts on my behalf.

The same Jesus who wept at Lazarus’ grave is the same Jesus who sees each of my tears. The same Jesus who raised a little girl from her death bed, is the same Jesus who moments earlier stopped in the middle of the road to seek out a suffering and shame-stricken woman. His compassion is unbounded!

3) His Unrestrained Truth
A true friend will tell you if you have broccoli in your teeth. “Friends” who tell us what we want to hear are a dime a dozen. But friends who care about us so much that they tell us what we need to hear are a rare jewel. We tend to remember the resolution to Jesus calming the storm with warm fuzzies. But after Jesus rebuked the wind (!) and spoke to the sea (!), he said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” (Mark 4:40). It was an uncomfortable moment–but one the disciples never forgot–as the Creator looked them in the eyes with water dripping off his beard and asked them why they did not trust in him.

If we read all of Jesus’ words in the Gospels, not just the ones that we want to read, we will be confronted with truths like Hell that we need him to speak unreservedly about. I won’t trust my doctor if he doesn’t want to use the word cancer because it makes me uncomfortable. Jesus not only tells us the truth about our hearts and eternity and our need for him, he IS the truth (John 14:6). In a world of compromise, his truth is unrestrained!

4) His Unmatched Grace
Just as Jesus is both all-powerful and all-compassionate, only Jesus can be all grace and all truth at the same time. This is because this is who the living God is. This is because Jesus is God with skin on. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…full of grace and truth (John 1:1, 14).” It is no accident that one of the few “calling stories” that the Gospel of Mark goes into detail about is Jesus calling Levi, a tax collector, to follow him. And then Jesus has a leisurely meal at Levi’s house along with many tax collectors and sinners. I am so thankful that Jesus eats with sinners. I remember this every time I come to the Table during the Lord’s Supper.

When a deaf and mute man was brought to Jesus, this man who had always been a spectacle was taken aside, one-on-one, so that he could understand Jesus’ simple sign language and read Jesus’ lips without distraction. The Savior who taught the multitudes showed grace to one man who needed it. This grace is yours today because this Jesus is yours today. Through Jesus’ cross and resurrection, you have the grace of forgiven sins, the grace of strength for today, and the grace of bright hope for tomorrow. His grace is unmatched!

If you have been bored with Jesus recently, maybe it’s time to read the Gospels with fresh eyes again. May you be in awe of Jesus. More than that, may you be in love with him.  

Are Universalists, Atheists, and Agnostics the Only Ones Fit for U.S. Public Office? An Open Letter to Bernie Sanders From A Vermont Pastor.

This post appeared at The Family Research Council blog, and later at For The Church.

Note: The following letter has been sent to Senator Bernie Sanders’ office.

First Church

Dear Senator Sanders,

I am a pastor in Manchester Center, Vermont, so I am one of your constituents. And I am concerned. You and I both know that Vermont has added to the rich history of religious freedom in our great country. I live 25 minutes from the Old First Church in Bennington, where the following plaque is placed on the side of the historic church building: “First Church in Vermont dedicated to separation of church and state. Congregation founded by those seeking religious freedom.” As you probably know, First Church was “gathered” on December 3, 1762, the first Protestant congregation in the New Hampshire Grants. They were “separatists,” believing that the government should neither establish nor restrict religious freedom. They were seeking religious freedom, not freedom from religion.

Your actions towards and comments to Russell Vought during his confirmation hearing for deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget endanger our rich history of religious freedom as both a state and a country.

Here is why I am concerned, and here is why I write you today: not only because I believe you violated Article VI of the United States Constitution in imposing a religious test as a litmus test for somebody’s fitness to hold a government office, but also because you then released this statement yesterday: “racism and bigotry—condemning an entire group of people because of their faith—cannot be part of any public policy.”

As I have read your comments towards Mr. Vought and watched the video of your interaction, I am astounded at how quickly you have tied together personal faith that Jesus is the only Savior with an individual’s public policy. As Mr. Vought tried to express but was interrupted, Christians believe that all people are made in the image of God and thus should be treated with dignity and respect, even while we hold to Jesus’ statements such as, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)

We do not have to be Universalists theologically to be able to hold public office nor to be good citizens in the Green Mountain State or in the United States of America. I believe that the founders of First Church would have been shocked at your statements as they were leaving a government that told them what they could and could not believe. We have reverted back to a government that has a religious test, but rather than church membership allowing entrance into government office, it is now philosophical membership in secularism that holds the keys.

I ask you to clarify and clearly articulate whether or not you truly believe that a Christian who believes that Jesus is the only way to salvation can no longer hold public office in this country. Are you saying that citizens who are not atheists, agnostics, or Universalists cannot serve as government officials? As you have been reminded already since Wednesday, Article VI of the U.S. Constitution declares, “…no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”

Evangelical Christians who hold to salvation in Christ alone may be a minority in our great state, but we are not racists or bigots, and our elected Senators should not make such broad-brush and intolerant statements.

I will continue to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, which means the “good news” of Jesus Christ. It is a message of reconciliation to God and fellow man. It is good news that we offer to all people who will listen: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16) It is a message that says that although our sin condemns us before the holy God, that Jesus took our condemnation on the cross and rose from the dead so that believers in him will never stand condemned (Romans 8:1). And if somebody really believes that message, they will embrace Jesus not only for salvation but also to help them live a life of service and love to others. Jesus himself said that all of the commandments are summed up in love for God and love for others (Matthew 22:36-40).

I will not only continue to preach that message, I will continue to pray that those of us who believe in this good news will be allowed to serve in public office; not promoted because of our faith but also not prohibited from service because of our faith. I am writing to you today not because you are telling me I cannot preach this message, but because you are telling me that those I preach this message to are “hateful” not because of their actions, but because of their faith.

As a Vermont pastor, I ask my country for freedom to not only preach the gospel–but also for freedom for those I preach to–to hold their religious beliefs while also holding public office. If you return to our roots of religious freedom as a state and as a nation, the religious tests will stop. And you may find that those you classify as racists and bigots today not only believe that Jesus is the only way to personal salvation, but also that His way is a way of love that treats all persons with the utmost love, respect, and service–even in public office.

Tim Counts
A Concerned Pastor in Vermont

Jesus Loves the Little Children

In light of preparing for a new Good News Club to begin in a neighborhood school, a Children’s Ministry Worker’s Training this Sunday, and our High Schoolers recently praying for the unborn and their mothers in front of Planned Parenthood–I wanted to repost this. What does God really think of children? We only need to look to Jesus…

He Must Become Greater

The recent 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, bringing with it the realization that over 50 million children have been aborted in America since 1973, has made me consider again how God views children.  Why did I tell the Children’s Ministry volunteers at our church recently that if they are involved in Family Ministry, they are involved in a ministry that is close to the heart of God?  How do you think about your own children?  Is it true that God has a soft spot of affection for little children?

I could give you verse after verse right now that affirms this truth.  Every verse about little children in the Bible is positive.  But to see what God thinks about children, we simply need to look to Jesus who is God incarnate.picture 14

I used to wonder if the paintings that we often see of Jesus holding children on his lap were true.  Does it…

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