Today in Christian History: July 17


On this date in 1674, Isaac Watts was born. Watts changed the way the English church worshiped. Before he came along, Protestant churches in England and Scotland  would only sing hymns that were rhymed translations from the book of Psalms. Which isn’t a bad practice, unless, of course, you want to talk about Jesus, the Cross, the resurrection or anything from the New Testament. 

Watts changed all that. In one sense, he was the English church’s first contemporary worship leader. Thanks to someone who dared to do what hadn’t been done before, we now have “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross;” “Alas and Did My Savior Bleed;” “Joy to the World;” “O God, Our Help in Ages Past;” and around 750 other hymns. 

In his later years, Isaac Watts once complained about hymn singing in church: “To see the dull indifference, the negligent and thoughtless air that sits upon the faces of a whole assembly, while the psalm is upon their lips, might even tempt a charitable observer to suspect the fervency of their inward religion.”

What would he say today?

Today In Christian History: July 8


On this date in 1939, after just a month in America where he was to lecture, Dietrich Bonhoeffer went back home to Germany.  Writing to Reinhold Niebuhr, he explained his decision: 

I have made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period of our national history with the Christian people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people.

Bonhoeffer chose to go back to his home country (booking passage on what would be the last passenger steamer to cross the Atlantic) even though he knew it was dangerous.  He had hope in the gospel. He believed that after the war he could help reconstruct the Christian life in Germany, but only if he shared in the sufferings of his brothers and sisters in Germany. 

Bonhoeffer was ultimately hanged in a German concentration camp in April 9 1945, two weeks before the camp was liberated by US Infantry divisions. 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer chose danger over safety; solidarity over separation; and persecution over personal comfort. Did he fail in his desire to participate in the rebuilding of the church in Germany because he was executed? Not in the least. 

 Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

John 12:24, ESV

Today in Christian History: June 14


On this date in 1910, the World Missions Conference opened in Edinburgh, Scotland. There were 1200 delegates, primarily from North America and Northern Europe. 

People were optimistic and hopeful. The 1800’s was a century of great missionary expansion, with the world’s population of Christians expanding from less than 25% to greater than 35% (note: these figures come from Stephen Lawton’s The Christian History Devotional which has no footnotes or verification). They adopted the theme, “The Evangelization of the World in This Generation.” However, as Lawton notes,

They were unaware that brewing in Europe and elsewhere were totalitarian ideologies whose followers would also show great confidence—and would be willing to change the world by force not persuasion.

So where are we now, more than a century after Edinburgh? Here are a few observations:

  1. Evangelism itself is more global. As mentioned above, the first World Missions Conference in Edinburgh primarily drew representatives from Northern Europe and North America. But at the 2010 World Missions Conference, also in Edinburgh, there were delegates from more than sixty nations. Lawton writes, “the missions scene was dramatically changed with thousands of missionaries from Asia, Africa, and Latin America—some taking the gospel to their own people but some taking the word to an increasingly secularized Europe and United States.” In conjunction with the June Edinburgh meeting there were also meetings held in Tokyo in May, Cape Town in October, and Boston in November. 
  2. Evangelism is more ecumenical.  The first Edinburgh conference was exclusively Protestant. The centennial Edinburgh conference included representatives of the Evangelical, Protestant, Orthodox and Pentecostal churches, as well as the Roman Catholic Church.
  3. The world is less Christian. Like I said earlier, I’m not sure where Lawton got the figures, or by what criteria he says the world was 35% Christian in 1910. That number seems high to me. But for sure, that number seems ridiculous today. The Pew Forum marks the world Christian population at 31%, but that number is inflated with individuals (and even entire countries) that self-identify as Christians but have no concept of a personal relationship with Christ. 
  4. There is still so much work to be done. Edinburgh’s rallying cry of “evangelization in this generation” has to be our cry as well. Jesus said, “The gospel must first be preached to all nations, and then the end shall come.” (Matthew 24:14) Ironically, 106 years after Edinburgh, Southern Baptists are meeting this week in St Louis, and are talking about the very same things. Their theme? “Awaken America. Reach the World.” 

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. 

Today in Christian History: June 10

On this date in 2005, Kenneth Taylor, author of The Living Bible, died at the age of 88. Taylor, the father of ten children, was burdened that his children couldn’t understand the King James Version of the Bible. So he began work on a paraphrase, using the KJV and the American Standard Version as his texts. He began with the Epistles, and released Living Letters in 1962. Since no established publisher would accept his manuscript, he started his own company. He named it Tyndale House Publishers after William Tyndale, the martyr who first translated the Bible into English. 

Living Letters was followed by Living Prophecies (1964), Living Gospels (1967), and other portions of the Bible. Finally The Living Bible, complete with its distinctive green cover, was published in July 1971. Millions of readers loved it, and by 1974 it accounted for 46 percent of U.S. Bible sales. Even as late as 1977 it still outsold other versions.

Here’s the thing: I make fun of The Living Bible a lot. I cringe at Acts 4:36 in “The Green Monster. They’ve changed it online now, but here’s how it reads in my 1972 Second Edition:


I turn my nose up at The Living Bible and say things like, “Well, it’s not a translation. It’s a paraphrase of another English translation, which wasn’t all that accurate to begin with.” I’ve pointed out that Taylor’s ThD was not in Greek or Hebrew. 

But what I forget is that The Living Bible’s publication in 1971 coincides with when I learned to read. The first Bible I remember owning was The Children’s Living Bible. I devoured it. That was followed by my sister’s copy of The Way, which I still have. 


My point is that it never occurred to me that the Bible wouldn’t be easy to understand. Because of Kenneth Taylor’s boldness, vision, and dedication, I grew up loving God’s Word. 

As a pastor I’m often asked which translation of the Bible is “best.” My answer: the one you’ll read. Because the most scholarly, literal, accurate translation of the Scripture that sits on your shelf is inferior to the most basic paraphrase that you hide in your heart. 

Today in Christian History: June 9


Two deaths happened on June 9, separated by about 1800 years. One was an emperor; the other a missionary. Both contributed to the spread of Christianity.


In AD 68, the Roman emperor Nero cut his own throat at the age of 30. Nero was a notorious persecutor of Christians. According to Tertullian, he was responsible for the deaths of both Peter and Paul.  The early pagan historians Tacitus and Seutonius describe Nero’s persecutions in gory detail, including setting Christians on fire to light his garden parties at night. But although these historians were not Christians themselves, they both acknowledged the role Nero’s bloodlust had in generating sympathy for the martyrs. Two hundred years later, Tertullian would write, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”


Nearly two millennia later, on June 9, 1834, missionary William Carey died. Carey spent nearly 40 years in India without a furlough– leaving England in 1893 and remaining in India for the rest of his life. He translated the Bible into Bengali, Oriya, Assamese, Arabic, Hindi and Sanskrit. Considered the father of modern missions, Carey laid the foundation for how missionary work is done today. His best known quote: “Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God.” 

Remembering my Aunt Helen: Leave the Pear Alone

Aunt Helen was never happy with this painting. But my mom wisely told her to leave the pear alone.

This past Saturday (June 4, 2016), I was with my mother, my brother, and one of my sisters in Parkersburg, West Virginia, to bury my aunt. Helen Hartshorn Youngblood: artist, wife, mother, deacon, sister, aunt, friend. My Aunt Helen had a profound influence on me. This is the first of what may be several blog posts I write as I think about what I learned from her.

2016-06-05 12.57.49There is a painting hanging in my mom’s kitchen that Aunt Helen painted. For years, every time Helen would visit my mom, she would want to take the painting back to Parkersburg with her and work on it some more. She was never happy with it. Specifically, she wanted to re-do the pear. But my mom wouldn’t let her. “This represents who you were when you painted it, not the painter you wound up being,” she told her. “I like it just the way it is.”

If you’ve lived at all, you have a few regrets. You have a few pears you wish you could paint over. Nobody paints it right the first time. And artists can look at paintings they did early in life and say, “But I’ve learned so much since then!” Poets cringe at the sappiness and naivete of their poems from high school. People who journal can look at entries from a certain day (or even a certain season of days) and be tempted to rip those pages out. In those times, we can all do well to remember my mom’s advice to her sister. The artist we were is not the same as the artist we become. Leave the pear alone, and don’t think twice about signing your name to the work.

signature

Paul tells us, in his letter to the Philippians, that he is confident of this very thing: that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus (Philippians 1:6). Consistently in Scripture, we are reminded to forget what lies behind, and to press on to what is ahead (Philippians 3:13-14). That what we will be has not yet been revealed (1 John 3:2). And if there is a sermon you would have preached differently, or a poem you would have written differently, or a pear you would have painted differently, or a day you would have lived differently, then let them all stand as a testimony to where God has led you.

Jesus’ last words on the cross, according to John’s gospel, were “It is finished” (John 19:30). In the Greek, the word is τελέωIt carries the meaning of an action being fulfilled or accomplished according to a command. It’s the last act that completes a process. Significantly, τελέω is also the root of the word for “perfect” that is used in Philippians 1:6.

There will come a day when our work is accomplished, because there has already been a day when Jesus’ work was accomplished. When we will be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. My Aunt Helen had her work completed this weekend, and she heard her Savior say, “Well done, good and faithful servant, come and share in the joy of your Master” (Matthew 25:23).

pearUntil that day, we keep painting, composing, singing, dancing, building, sculpting, and journaling. We are artists, every one of us; contributing our stanzas and quatrains and couplets; our still lifes and studies and portraits and landscapes to God’s great masterpiece. The artists we were are not the artists we will become. But if we are gentle with ourselves, and if we leave the pear alone, we can see how far our God has brought us.

Today in Christian History: June 6

Original and current YMCA logos

On June 6, 1844, George Williams began the first Young Men’s Christian Association in London. Williams was concerned that young men, drawn to urban centers for work, were abandoning their religious upbringing when they met with the temptations of the big city. So the 23 year old Williams began meeting for Bible study and encouragement with eleven other men. Thus the YMCA was born. 
Initially, physical exercise was an afterthought at the “Y”. According to the Christian History Devotional:

At its founding, the group professed itself to be for “the spiritual improvement of young men.” The men engaged in Bible study and attended lectures and religious discussions, although physical exercise in time became part of the program.

What happens to an organization when it forgets the reason it was founded? When a secondary function of the program becomes the driving force of the program?

I’m not knocking the Y.  I’ve been a member for nearly two decades. But I’ve heard enough locker room conversations and walked past enough pickup basketball games to know that the C of YMCA is often forgotten. (For what it’s worth, so are the Y and the M). It is still a great organization, but like Harvard and Yale, which were both founded on Christian principles, or the RMS Titanic, which was built to deliver the mail (RMS= Royal Mail Steamer), it is easy for an organization to forget why it was founded. 

Any lessons for the church today?