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Weekend Java Awards 10.09.15

Apologetics Award:Reading with Charity” – Derek Rishmawy has some incredible thoughts to share about how to read charitably. This is the starting point – yes, the starting point – for all apologetics. Most people don’t get here. Do read.

Reading and Literature Award: “Shakespeare in Modern English?” The Oregon Film Festival is modernizing Shakespeare. Here’s why you can’t do that.

Writing Award: “The Rules of Writing are Superstitions” – Harvard prof. Steven Pinker writes an incredible article on what it means to write well. Warning: Writing rule Nazis won’t accept this, only true writers.

Preaching Award: “The Preacher’s Technology” – Even though I’m pretty young, I really resonate with Dr. Murray’s thoughts here. For the last year, I’ve hand-written almost all of my notes, as well as whole sermons and Sunday School lessons. The benefits have been incalculable.

A Glimpse of Truth Award: “What Art Unveils” – What I love about this article is that it deconstructs our assumption that science is the ultimate authority of life. If it’s true that art can reveal more about human nature than science, than we can also acknowledge that theology makes its own unique contributions. A good one to use in a sermon.

Fun Award: “Jack Black’s Goosebumps Music Video” – I love three things about this: 1. I read Goosebumps growing up, and this is totally nostalgic. 2. The playful 90’s throwback sequencing is hilarious. 3. Jack Black.

Theology Award: “Take a Test on the Trinity” – I love this idea by Tim Challies. I got 32 out of 33, because I’m not sure I affirm the ETERNAL subordination of the Son to the Father. I do affirm that the humanity of Christ is subordinate to the Father. And no, I’m not an egalitarian…but I do think the eternal subordination of the Son started to become popular in tandem with the defense of complementarianism. That’s not good.

Spiritual Life Award: “iPhones and Spirituality” – This article is difficult to read for me, but it was much needed. I don’t even have an iPhone.

Christianity and Culture Award: “The Value of Film Festivals” – I always enjoy a good crack on the head at bad Christian films. But I especially enjoyed that this article offered an alternative: Christians need to look away from the big screen to the small screen to begin creating high-quality films.

Church Leadership Award: “The Guys in the Field” – Matt Perman with an excellent article on how we can use our leadership expertise to serve others.

A Micro Book Review: “A Wilderness of Mirrors” – As the tide of postmodernism swells, Christian publishing is in dire need of authors with both a finger on the pulse of culture and a heart beating for the gospel. Mark Meynell is such an author, producing a rare gift suitable for saint and secularist alike. Well-researched, well-written and well-timed, “A Wilderness of Mirrors” is a must-read for anyone learning to swim through the murky waters of postmodernism…and that’s all of us.

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How, Now, Shall We Vote?

I don’t normally take any special interest in politics. This season has been an exception for me. I am fascinated by what’s going on: the temper tantrums, the promises, the devotees. It’s all fresh to me. So why the sudden interest? It’s partially good PR on the part of news outlets, admittedly, and the other part is a sense of responsibility. I want to vote well this coming election season, as I believe is my duty.

The chief reason for my fascination, however, is spiritual: What is this beast called politics which so captivates our hearts? Why does it steal away our emotions like the sudden cut of a Mack Truck on the highway? What is it, in us, which cries out for this? These are the questions that have interested me, and, having no real political allegiance or agenda of my own, I’d like to offer a few thoughts.

First, I think what’s happening now is indicative of the crisis that has crept up on us over the last century: we are, let’s be frank, a secular society. We are more like the French Revolution now than the American one, because we are pursuing a secular democracy, not a theistic one. This has implications in politics, as it does for every field of interest. It means that when we cast our ballots, we are basing our decision on secular aspirations, not theistic ideology. I say that not to one side or the other, but to all of us, and I will say it again: we are caught up in the midst of a secular battle. The fight between conservatives and liberals is not a line drawn between “Christian” and “Non”, but between two competing secular ideologies.

That line will be more offensive to some than others, but I urge you to see the reasonableness of it. Divorced from its Protestant/Catholic/Jewish roots, democracy is nothing short of a balding theory regulated by the notion: “Blessed are those who shout the loudest, for they shall be heard”. Liberals, once concerned with the imago-dei preservation of the poor, have succumbed to the lobbying of special interest groups. This is why, according to studies, the liberal crowd is no longer backed by the underprivileged as it was in the 60’s, but the overprivileged. The wealthy can easily adopt the secular agenda of a liberal democracy which promises to be the great equalizer of the define-your-own-good lifestyle.

The conservatives are, divorced from their roots, subject to the political push of big corporations and the very wealthy. No longer a restrictive force on sinful human power, conservatism has degenerated into nothing more than a blind pursuit of exclusivist greed. This is all the more horrific since politically speaking, in this crowd it is usually a good idea to a give a nod to some semblance of faith-based reasoning. That means we can now cast our secular, materialistic bent ballots in the name of Jesus. Hoorah.

Speaking of Jesus, I’d be hard pressed to find a special interest group which doesn’t claim him as their forerunner (or perhaps mascot) in some fashion or another. This leads me to my second point: even those of us who claim to be Christian voters have such a bifurcated, disintegrated and cacophonic view of life, voting as a “Christian” can essentially be whatever you well want it to be.

The problem here is one of the church: we have not, in the good tradition of Abraham Kuyper and others, taught Christianity as a “life-system”. We have taught it as a personal experience, and as such, it does not touch our families, our workplaces, or our ballots. But it is also a cultural flaw. In a sound-byte world filled with memes, tweets, texts and e-mails surrounding us from every which way, it seems we’ve lost our ability to think for more than a paragraph. This means our own philosophy of life is never strung together – we have each become like eccentric button collectors, pinning everything we digest to the wall of our worldview, failing to see the ugly incoherence. We’ve seen this phenomenon in the recent “I’m a Christian but…” trend – it is a tribute to the fact that we can will-nil embrace and exclude any given aspect of Christianity we so please (or as pleases others, more likely). It is a buffet line, like everything owned by the very rich.

And that leads me to my third point. It seems to me that all of us – conservative, liberal and independent alike – fail to see how thoroughly we are controlled by a materialistic philosophy of life. Each party seems to presume that the wealthy are omni-competent gods and goddesses: “Those who have the gold make the rules.” This is delusion at best, hubris at worst, and destructive at least. Case in point: competence as a hollywood actor, profitable though it may be, does not make one a philosopher.

But materialism also infects the essence of each party’s aims: monetary good is seen as anyone’s penultimate good, a notion once spoken of by the philosopher of Ecclesiastes: “He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity.” I think of a recent article in the NY Times which, aptly I thought, compared one candidate to a “prosperity preacher”, offering promises of affluence by mere association with his savvy business acumen. We are all, in our own way, fools for this kind of gimmick: “The heart is deceitful above all else” said Jeremiah, and “out of the heart the ballot is cast” or some such trope spoke a Jewish carpenter 2,000 years ago.

It might be tempting to see me as a stewing nay-sayer. But this is far from the truth. The truth is, I am wildly optimistic. Not in politics, it is true. I am optimistic about another institution, the one issued by Christ 2,000 years ago, which brings me to my final point: The church is Christ’s chosen institution – not liberalism, conservatism, and certainly not secular democracy.  This is “good news”, you’ll recall: Christ rejected the political crown much in the same way we would reject McNuggets on the way to a four-course meal. He did not reject authority altogether, but rather the short-sighted and bureaucratic notion of man-made power in the politic. He was, you’ll remember, quite alright with “every knee shall bow”.

So yes – man-made institutions are doomed to failure. But the exceedingly good news is that Christ’s idea has already succeeded: “The gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” A high promise, yes. But unlike the political pundits and puppets of our time, it’s one with a proven track record: “The candidate did, after all, raise himself from the dead.” Ah, yes. I’ll take your candidate and raise you a theocracy, thank you very much.

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Weekend Java 10.02.15

Happy forthcoming weekend.

A note: I’ve been examining your reading trends (creepy I know, right?) over the last couple of months, and I’ve concluded I can serve you better by conflating my writing articles into one category, that is: platform building, fiction, nonfiction and motivational will all be under the simple headline: “Writing Award”. Enjoy.

Apologetics Award:A Debate Between the Archbishop of Canterbury and Philip Pullman” – In celebration of the anniversary of “His Dark Materials”, I present to you the most quirky, interesting and engaging conversations I’ve ever…read. This puzzles the mind, as a theologian “debates” (that’s English for – has a polite conversation with someone of another viewpoint, something we might learn) Philip Pullman over religious education and the intersection of faith and art. Whatever you’re expecting out of this article, it’s not that.

Reading and Literature Award:Some Thoughts on the Reading of Books” – This article by SBTS president Al Mohler actually inspired some significant change in my life this week. I set aside time – lets of time – to read voraciously. Mohler explains why that’s a good thing.

Writing Award: “Six Authors Look Back on Their First Novels” – This article got me thinking about a few things. First, I think about Tim Keller’s advice not to write until you’re older. Then again, I think of how these authors really cherished their beginning stages of writing, and how the feedback of others helped develop them even further. All in all, there are some gems here.

Preaching Award:Sometimes It’s Best to Say I Don’t Know” – Taking a cue from Martin Luther, Rishmawy says one of the best things he ever did in preaching to students was say: “I don’t know.”

A Glimpse of Truth Award: “Donald Trump is Not Going Anywhere” – This article, posted in the NY Times this week, as some amazing insights into the culture behind the Trump Phenomenon: “[A one-hundred dollar bill] is a fitting souvenir from one of the high priests of the nation’s secular religion: aspirational consumerism…There is a certain prosperity-­theology aspect to Trump’s appeal, the idea that you follow a minister because he is rich and has his own plane and implicitly and sometimes explicitly promises that you, too, will be rich.”

Fun Award:Mark Hamill’s Original Star Wars Audition” – It’s Hamill’s 64th birthday. This is his first audition with Harrison Ford. Pretty cool – also interesting to hear some dialogue that never made the final cut. 

Theology Award: “I Don’t Want Your Good Vibes” – Riffing of the pope’s off the cuff comment about “sending good wishes” his way, this surprisingly bold and grounded article in Christianity Today is a beautiful rebuke to our thin perceptions of prayer.

Spiritual Life Award: “Not All Doctrines Should Divide“: This may seem a strange choice for ‘spiritual life’, but honestly, as a seminarian, I need to keep this in perspective. Although I don’t embrace essentialism per se, there is a certain truth to the fact that not all doctrines are equally clear, or important, in scripture.


Christianity and Culture Award: “The Silent War of the Church” – Dr. Peter Lee shows us how the seeming lack of persecution in America had led us to embrace deception.

Church Leadership Award: “How to Respond to Criticism” – These thoughts are by Seth Godin, not a church leader, but a humble leader. He gives a quick, practical way to respond to criticism without being defensive or uncritical.

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The True Story Behind My Book, “Faker”.

I was sitting in the car, on the verge of tears.

I had just been rejected – not by a girl, not by a church: I had been rejected by a publisher.

“No big deal,” you say. “Toughen up.” But you don’t understand. This publisher came to me. They came to me asking me to write a book for them, and I tried. And I tried again. And I tried again.

Until finally, one morning I’ll never forget, I received the e-mail: “Nick, we just don’t think you’re the right person for the job. This is awkward, since we contacted you to write for us, and you have a blog on writing…but we just don’t think it’s working out. Look forward to working with you in the future.”

My dream, shattered. My pride, broken. Everything I thought I knew, disintegrated.

“Not right for the job? Who do they think they are? I’m a literary genius for crying out loud, they just don’t recognize it! What’s wrong with them!?” But then, slowly, it dawned on me: I wasn’t really asking what was wrong with them. I was asking: “What’s wrong with me?”

I spent the next few days praying, and fasting, and mourning. Had I really deceived myself this whole time? I had already told all my friends and family I had a book deal, and now…I had to come crawling back to them: “Um, this is embarrassing, but you remember that book deal handed to me on a silver platter? Well, I screwed it up.”

And what about my readers? You know – the readers who came to me wanting to learn about WRITING? I felt like all the carefully constructed masks I’d created were tumbling, slowly, down.

I prayed some more.

I spent the week worshiping, calling out to God, asking for His help. Then, out of nowhere, I experienced sudden illumination: “Nick, who are you to declare yourself righteous?” At first I was angry at this question. Oh really, Lord? You’re going to play hardball with me when I’m down?

Of course he was. It was surgery time.

“I’m no one, Lord,” I said. But I knew I didn’t believe it. I thought I was somebody. I thought I deserved this. I thought I had a right to declare myself righteous. And because of that, I was totally wrong. So, right then and there, I repented: “God, I’ve been trying to make myself righteous through attention and applause. I haven’t been treating you like the God of the Universe you are. Forgive me.”

And then, more illumination: “You’re already justified, Nick. Through Christ, you’re already declared precious in God’s sight.” I basked in those words day in and out, all week.


That Saturday morning, I went to Starbucks. I started writing down everything I had been processing all week. I wrote, and wrote, and poured my heart out, thinking back on my life and all the myriad ways I’d tried to be righteous on my own; I’d tried to justify myself; I’d ridden this roller coaster over and over again, and I was getting sick.

And as I wrote, a single word came to mind, encapsulating the whole thing: “Faker.”

That’s what I was. That’s what I had been. That’s what I was cocooning out of. I wrote the words: “It’s time to leave Fakerville, forever.” I started scribbling thoughts on the first passage that came to mind: The parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.

I wrote all day. As I did, it suddenly dawned on me: “Nick – this is your book.” I protested: “No, it’s not. My publisher said they didn’t want to work with me, they’ve been trying for months. I even asked if I should try again, and they said ‘No!’ This is not my book. This is just for me.”

So I ignored that. Until Monday morning.

Because that morning, I uttered two words to myself that changed my life: “Why not?”

So I hacked up an apologetic e-mail, attached about ten pages of my bleeding heart, and clicked ‘Send’”.

I didn’t hear back all week.


Friday morning, I was playing with my kids. I was really okay without the book – I knew it. The Lord had spoken to me in a powerful way. I didn’t need it anymore. God was God, not me. And he said I was justified, with or without a book. So I was.

But then, around noon, I casually checked my e-mail. At the top of the list was a message from my publisher. I winced. I almost didn’t even open it, because I expected it to say something like: “Dear Nicholas, we are now putting you on our spam mail list, and your messages will be blocked heretofore and forevermore. Please do not write again.”

Nervously, I clicked it.

My jaw dropped.

“Nick,” it said. “This is exactly what we’re looking for. Get us a couple more chapters by the end of the month, and we’ll send a contract in the mail.”

I re-read it. Then I read it again.

“Brenna,” I said. “You’re never going to believe this.”


As every writer worth their salt knows, that’s just the beginning of the story. The rest is about meticulous research, incredibly painstaking work, and sharpening feedback from editors, over and over again. The little book I wrote, “Faker”, was born about 12 months later, and was fed through the copy machine about 6 months after that.

Just a month ago, the book was released, and…wow. The support has been overwhelming. The book has 5 stars on Amazon. Several of my readers have written me gracious responses, and many people whom I thought wouldn’t give me the time of day have taken time to read, encourage and promote. Here it is, by the way:

Faker Picture

Obviously, I hope you will too. But don’t take my word for it. Here are a few blurbs from some great writers and thinkers, and below that, a list of people just like you and me who’ve taken time to give their thoughts:

“This is a terrific little book whose brevity belies its wisdom. What makes it so helpful is the sheer honesty with which McDonald writes. It’s got such a light touch that disarms the defensiveness that inevitably arises when we start trying to be honest about ourselves.”

Richard Lints, Andrew Much Distinguished Professor of Theology, Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary

“Nicholas McDonald’s Faker is a fast-paced and humorous exposure of how many of us live every day–faking it. It will make you both uncomfortably honest and honestly comfortable as he takes you through the dangers of pretending and performing as well as the balm of gospel remedies. If you want to be challenged and encouraged in the freedom of living ‘real,’ take up and read!”

Brian Cosby, author of Giving Up Gimmicks: Reclaiming Youth Ministry from an Entertainment Culture

“What McDonald does remarkably well is weave in profound theological truths and terms so that his conversational and even humorous tone carries great meaning. This is precisely the kind of book I would have loved to use with the small groups of high schoolers I used to lead. It would be perfect for college students. I strongly recommend this book to you as a reader and for use in ministry.”

Barnabas Piper, Author of The Pastor’s Kid and Help My Unbelief

“This is a great book. I love the fact that Jesus sets us free from a constant life of pretending to be something we are not. And I love the fact that this book helps us see it more clearly.”

Jonty Allcock, Pastor, Speaker and Author of Lost, Hero and Fearless

“We made Faker our camp book on CYFA venture I’m just back from leading. Took 30 copies and sold out! Almost half the camp are going home with the book. It’s certainly touched a nerve, thanks!”

Christian Camp Leader

You can check out customer reviews on Amazon here.  You can check out a few more reviews at the Good Book Company’s website here.

Here are some of my favorite online reviews:

Barnabas Piper’s Review: “What McDonald does remarkably well is weave in profound theological truths and terms so that his conversational and even humorous tone carries great meaning. He shows how propitiation and justification are far more than just $10 words; they actually free a soul to trust God and let go of anxiety and self-consciousness. Readers will come away with more than a sense of a Big God – they’ll get a concise explanation of His nature and His work, all packaged in a way that it is digestible.” Read the whole thing here.

That Happy Certainty’s Review: “It’s a very readable little book offering a refreshing and practical invitation to reject a life of “faking it,” for the “real reality” that knowing Jesus brings. Faker is humorously laced with McDonald’s own story, including typically teenage struggles (as well as present battles), but the heart of his book sees him explain and apply the short parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, which Jesus tells in Luke 18:9-14….” Read the whole thing here.

Visionary Womanhood’s Review: “Teens will appreciate McDonald’s frank, open, easy style of writing, cartoon images strategically placed here and there, and short sound bites divided with headlines, making it easy to start reading and get drawn in to read “just one more.” The chapters are just the right length (McDonald must still have some youth left in him), and there are only seven of them, making the entire book doable for even the most reluctant reader.” Read the whole thing here.

Kevin Halloran’s Review: “This well-written book reads like a conversation and will make you laugh out loud while sharing rich gospel implications for our lives (bonus points for using the word propitiation so much and richly). McDonald intertwines personal anecdotes, helpful illustrations, and biblical truth to cast a vision of a gospel-shaped, authentic Christian life. I wish I had this book when I was fourteen—It would have saved me four years of being a faker!” Read the whole thing here.

You can also read some of my other favorite reviews by checking the book out on Amazon or the home page of my publisher, The Good Book Company.

Would you support me and join me in the journey out of Fakerville by buying a copy of “Faker”? I’d love for you to do so, and to share your own journey with me at: nick.youthwriter@gmail.com.

Check out reviews and buy your copy at Amazon.com

Check out reviews and buy your copy at The Good Book Company (If you’re a pastor or youth pastor, you can also buy in bulk and save 20-60%).

See you on the other side of Fakerville,

Nicholas McDonald

PS – If you’re not sure you’re interested, would you check it out for a young person in your life, to whom you might give a copy? I’ve already heard great stories about this happening.

PPS – For those who’ve read, would you post a candid review of your thoughts on Amazon, Goodreads or The Good Book Company’s website? This not only helps promote “Faker” – it also helps me develop as a writer. Thanks for your support in buying the book, sincerely.

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Weekend Java 09.25.15

Apologetics Award: “A Protestant Response to Pope Francis’s Address” – A guest post, courtesy of Philip Melanchthon. Genius.

Platform Building Award:The Science and Psychology of Shareable Content” – Here’s What Neuroscience, Psychology and Relationships tell us about highly shareable content.

Reading and Literature Award: “Tips on Reading Better While Retaining More” – Trevin Wax has some killer tips on how to really read a book (you’re probably NOT doing these things).

Motivational Award: “Imagination Doesn’t Crop Annually” –”The imagination doesn’t crop annually like a reliable fruit tree. The writer has to gather whatever’s there: sometimes too much, sometimes too little, sometimes nothing at all. And in the years of glut there is always a slatted wooden tray in some cool, dark attic, which the writer nervously visits from time to time; and yes, oh dear, while he’s been hard at work downstairs, up in the attic there are puckering skins, warning spots, a sudden brown collapse and the sprouting of snowflakes. What can he do about it?” -JULIAN BARNES

Preaching Award: “If You Can’t Take it Into the Pulpit…” – My good friend Alex, who is studying for his Ph.D in homiletics at Princeton, has some wise words on the task: “If you can’t take it into the pulpit, how will they take it out of the pew?” 

A Glimpse of Truth Award: “Brene’ Brown and Owning Our Mistakes” – This is one of those areas where I’m doubly convicted, because someone who doesn’t necessarily know Christ is speaking more Christianly about honesty than I am.

Fun Award: “Everything is Remixed” – This is an incredibly interesting, 30 minute documentary on how everything from Star Wars to Rock and Roll is an amalgam of copied ideas…Nothing’s new under the sun.

Theology Award: “Why John Piper is Right on the Necessity of Works” – Piper has recently received flack for his assertion that good works are necessary for heaven. Well…he’s absolutely right.

Spiritual Life Award: “Re-Ignite Stale Bible Reading” – David Murray with some wonderful insights on how to keep it fresh and focused.

Non-Fiction Award: “How to Immediately Become a More Productive (And Better) Writer” – This article from copyblogger has some great, fresh insight on what it takes to both get the work done and get it right.

Fiction Award:Some Children’s Books are Worth Waiting For” – Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse is a favorite in our household, and Henkes’ words on writing for children are sweet and timely.

Christianity and Culture Award: “Fatherhood in Video Games” – A brilliant survey of father figures in video games, and what they say about the culture at large…and our desire for more.

NEW! Church Leadership Award:Nine Relational Evangelism Methods that Work” – These are things to practice as a leader, and to train your team to do as well.

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Your Circle of Responsibility.

You’re freaking out. You can’t pay the bills, your marriage is out of touch, and your cat just acquired a weird skin disease.

Even worse, you’ve acquired a bad case of the “What ifs”? You know: What if you don’t have enough in the bank account? What if your supervisor doesn’t like your work? What if your loved one responds with disdain? What if this impacts the children’s delicate psychological state? What if the cat is the first specimen of the new black plague which will surely break out in your household and spread to your neighbors who will never forgive you and then what will your mother think and not to mention how it will destroy western civilization as we know it?

Never fear – Dr. Paul Tripp is here.

In one of the most useful chapters in his book, “Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands”, Tripp introduces us to a tool which I’ve found incredibly helpful over the years: the circle of responsibility. What’s that? A knock at the door? Oh, look who’s here to visit – Mr. Responsibility Circle (ENTER MR. RESPONSIBILITY CIRCLE)! (If you can’t see it in the e-mail, click through):


Okay, now study that. No, really. Did it? Good. The point of the circle is to teach us that, while God takes ultimate responsibility for everything, He takes sole responsibility for some things. Which means: all things are meant for prayer, but some are meant for prayer alone. Now think about this in your own “What if” areas:

I can’t always control my income, but I can control my budget.

I can’t force us to have a great marriage, but I can be a great spouse.

I can’t hand-craft my kids to be perfect little Christians, but I can faithfully read to them from God’s Word.

I can’t control my grades, but I can hand my work in on time.

I can’t force myself into good health, but I can exercise and eat right daily.

I can’t make my supervisor approve, but I can do my work with excellence.

I can’t control that person’s behavior, but I can gently, prayerfully and privately address it.

I can’t control my neighbor’s salvation, but I can share the gospel with her.

I can’t make the mechanic be honest, but I can do my research on mechanics!

You get the point: it’s important that we learn to recognize what really is and isn’t within our circle of responsibility. When we let God be God over the places we can’t control, we soon realize the “What if’s” disappear – because “What if’s” are all outside of us. As one saint has put it:

God, give me grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.
Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.

The point?

Stop asking “What if?“. Start asking: “What now?” 



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Why Most Sermons Fail in the First 5 Minutes.

The preacher walks to the pulpit. He’s got his notes. He knows the greek, the hebrew, the narrative flow, the syllogisms, the symbolism and, hopefully, the main point. He opens his mouth, he gives a bit of background, and then…

They’re gone.


Because he broke the five-minute rule. Not the one about leaving if your professor doesn’t show up after five minutes, because that one self-destructs after college. The other five minute rule, which is this: If I don’t absolutely need to hear what you’ll say after five minutes, I won’t listen.

The Space Cowboy for Experimental Chimps

Think of it this way. You are a space cowboy. You are preparing to launch a rocket. You have spent three years making the necessary calculations – one inch off, and you’ll end up miles from your target. The spaceship is duly aimed.

It’s launch day. You step into the spacecraft. But you have one final task: you still need to get all the experimental space chimps on board.

You might say, “But the rocket is aimed properly, nothing else needs to be done.” Well, if you’re working with professionals, that may be true. But you’re not. You’re working with space chimps. And now, all of your brilliant expertise concerning the navigational trajectory of space crafts needs to be set aside because, after all, the mission is wasted if you don’t get the space chimps aboard.

Now you see the analogy. Jesus said we were like sheep, I’m being modern, so I say we’re like space chimps. The pastor’s spent all week getting the trajectory right: but if he doesn’t take the first five minutes to get the chimps on board, it’s all a waste.

And that requires meeting the space chimps where they are. It requires speaking their language (work with me here). It requires dangling the banana before their eyes, so they’ll get on the ship. And if you start pressing buttons and firing cylinders and barking orders before everyone’s on board, you’re going to be a lonely space cowboy.

What this means, humanly speaking, is that before we hear what the preacher says about the text, we have a hook. And by “hook” I don’t mean cutesy story you found in the 1984 version of “Sermon Illustrations for Absolutely Desperate Pastors with No Creative Bandwidth and Little Shame”. I mean HOOK, as in, Hook, Line, and Sinker. A hook is not a suggestion. It is not an invitation. A hook forces my eyes on you – I cannot look away, because I absolutely need to hear what you’ll say next.

And if you don’t do that in the first five minutes – well, have a nice boat ride, but you’re not catching any fish.

Creating the Hook

So, how do we create this hook in five minutes? Let’s take a tip from my good man Blaise Pascal. Pascal was a brilliant 17th century mathematician who invented the vacuum cleaner, the first working computer, and Oxiclean (as seen on TV). He later had a born-again experience, and gave up his contributions to every other field to pursue Christian apologetics.

Here’s what Pascal says in his brilliant work, Pensees, about the five minute rule: “Men despise religion. They hate it and are afraid it may be true. The cure for this is first (1) to show that religion is not contrary to reason, but worthy of reverence and respect.” 

Now by that Pascal doesn’t mean the first task is to show the reasoning for Christianity (that’s actually step 3). What he means is that the first task of an apologist is to show that Christianity is not against common reason. How? According to Pascal, this was done by showing that Christianity shares the concerns of the world. This is, in fact, how Pensees begins – and its what makes it such a brilliant apologetic for the faith.

So, taking our cue from Pascal, what must we accomplish in the first 5 minutes of our sermon?

We need to demonstrate that Christianity shares the concerns of the world. In fact, we need to articulate the concerns of the world in such a compelling way that everyone seated in the room says, “Yes. THAT’S my life. I need to listen to this. Preach on, preacher.”

And when that happens, the monkeys are on the ship. It’s time for launch.

The Space Monkey Dance

Now – how does one do this? Well the more I teach, the less prescriptive I’m inclined to be, but here are some thoughts on general do’s and don’ts:

  1. Don’t begin your sermon with exegetical background or context. Now admittedly, some preachers with extraordinary storytelling gifts may be able to get away with this, if they tell the story in a way that is so real it resonates deeply with our own concerns. But most, frankly, don’t have this capacity.
  2. Don’t begin a sermon by illustrating your main point. I’ve been guilty of this a few times, but it’s been a mistake every time. It’s the equivalent of giving your own spoiler 30 seconds into the film…and we haven’t even been given the chance to care whether it’s spoiled.
  3. Don’t begin with something irrelevant. It would hardly seem this needs to be said, but it does: your introduction is making a promise. Yes, a promise: you are bringing up a need, and in doing so, you are eliciting our trust to listen to you for the next 30-40 minutes. If you don’t deliver the solution to that problem, you’ve lost credibility. Your introduction needs to be painted all over your sermon, communicating, in essence: “See? I told you we would talk about this. We’re talking about it. That’s what this is about.” We’re chimps, okay?

This is of course not a comprehensive list of mistakes. But moving on. Things to do:

  1. Tell a story. Think Nathan the prophet. A story is simply the most effective way to show every dimension of the problem your text is addressing: emotional, spiritual, physical, mental, relational, etc.
  2. Use the words of others. Taking a cue from Tim Keller, the best way to show you empathize with the world’s situation is simply to repeat what it says about itself. Rather than saying: “You know how corrupt our world is (we don’t, see Romans 1)”, you might say, “According to (insert author, artist, singer, professional your community respects), this is a major problem we are facing today.”
  3. Give examples. I learned this one from my preaching professor Dr. Jeff Arthurs: you can make a huge impact in your sermon in 30 seconds if you simply think of three, quick examples. I recently heard a sermon on idolatry, where the pastor gave three quick vignettes about people struggling with idols – the effect was powerful (and done in the first 5 minutes, as well), and I was on the edge of my seat the rest of the sermon because of it.
  4. Get into the text. Now that you’ve introduced the problem, step aside. It’s time to hand off the football. I choose that metaphor carefully, because this is a careful act: you must thread the line, now, between the crisis you’ve just introduced, and the text at hand. In order to do that, you need to know your text’s Fallen Condition Focus (see Bryan Chappell’s “Christ-Centered Preaching for more), and you’ll need to be able to articulate the crisis faced by the original hearers at the time. You should be able to use this simple phrase: “Jesus/Paul/Moses saw a similar problem in their day. Let me tell you about it.”

That’s it. Five minutes of magic. It’s not everything – but it’s nevertheless crucial. It may not take you to the moon, but it will get the chimps on the ship.


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Weekend Java 09.18.15

Apologetics Award: Carly Fiorina on Planned Parenthood – Apologetics isn’t just about giving answers for our faith; it’s also reasoning out our ethics. No matter what you thought of the Republican debate, we can all celebrate this impassioned one-minute defense of the unborn by Carly Fiorina. It’s simply the best I’ve ever heard, in ethos, pathos and logos (and if you’ve heard rumors that the video she’s referencing doesn’t exist, you can watch it here. HT: @Justin Taylor, thanks for the video)

Platform Building Award:How I Convinced Cosmopolitan to Publish My First Blog Post” – I’m not interested in publishing with Cosmopolitan per se…but guest posting is a helpful way to drive readers to your site. Here’s some great tips on getting in the door, even without a record to speak of.

Reading and Literature Award:The Most Misread Poem in America” – “I took the road less traveled…”, well, turns out that might have been not such a good idea.

Motivational Award: “Our Fractured Days” – How do you find time to write in the midst of the busyness? You become flexible.

Preaching Award: “Preaching by Tim Keller” – Well, he’s here again. The book is a lot to soak in, though, and we need to have a community discussion.

A Glimpse of Truth Award:The Wonderless World of Dismaland” – Banksie’s latest project has some good counter-truth to the Disney myth. As always, the critique itself falls short of truth.

Fun Award: “5 Year Olds Dig Tunnel to Escape from Preschool” – True story: “According to Komsomolskaya Pravda, which interviewed the preschool’s staff after the incident, the boys had been digging a hole under the fence using toy shovels for days before they finally managed to escape. It was half an hour before anyone noticed they had disappeared.” Their plan? To purchase a Jaguar. Naturally.

Theology Award: “Why Does Redemption Come Through Patriarchal Society?” – A great, concise explanation of the analogy of patriarchy to Yahweh’s plan of salvation. 

Spiritual Life Award: “Your Child is Your Neighbor” – Jen Wilkin totally nailed this one. Great message, great application.

Non-Fiction Award: “The Sort of Demise of Declarative Sentences” – I loved this little piece from, of all places, the Art of Manliness. Go figure. Omission”

Fiction Award: “Dear Self-Published Author” – Very refreshing to hear a voice from the field saying what needs to be said. Self-published authors need to stop discrediting themselves.

Christianity and Culture Award:Have Evangelicals Who Support Trump Lost Their Values?” – Russell Moore nails it on this one. What is discouraging to me is how many of us “evangelicals” are showing our true colors: we don’t worship Jesus. We worship the almighty American dollar.

NEW! Church Leadership Award: “Top 10 Characteristics of Lousy Leaders” – Michael Hyatt surprisingly hard hitting here…I really appreciated it.

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Weekend Java 09.11.15

Apologetics Award: “Discipleship and Mission” – This is less about apologetics, and more about how engaging with unbelievers is absolutely crucial to our own discipleship. So: motives to apologize.

Platform Building Award: “How to Use the ‘Rule of 3’ to Create Engaging Content” – Brian Clark on how to use an ancient communication tactic for effective webzies communication today.

Reading and Literature Award: “Christians Can’t Ignore Fun Home” – Karen Swallow Prior with a controversial one, here.

Motivational Award: “No Amount of Advice Will Make a Difference” – Mark Jenkins bringing it hard.

Preaching Award:A Thousand Sorrows Teaches to Preach” – Carson, Keller and Piper in a video conversation on preaching…this is as good as it gets, people.

A Glimpse of Truth Award: “Why do our dreams become so much smaller when they finally come true? We read fantasy to find the colors again, I think. To taste strong spices and hear the songs the sirens sang. There is something old and true in fantasy that speaks to something deep within us, to the child who dreamt that one day he would hunt the forests of the night, and feast beneath the hollow hills, and find a love to last forever somewhere south of Oz and north of Shangri-La.” – George R.R. Martin

Fun Award: “Dad’s Photos Capture the ‘Seemingly Unimportant’ But Beautiful Moments’” – This is a cool story. Not only beautiful, but absolutely precious. I’m not so sure a deer feeding from my child’s hand is ‘unimportant’…but these are all gorgeous, all the same. I didn’t used to cry before being a Dad. What’s wrong with me? 

Theology Award: “An In-Depth Interview with Poythress on the OT” – Just reading this guy’s degrees is exhausting. Try to keep up, here – it’s worth it.

Spiritual Life Award: “Go For It. Or Don’t.” – Tim’s article hit me right where I needed it this week. I know in my head I’m not “missing God’s will” for my life, but sometimes my heart makes my head wonder…if you know what I mean.

Non-Fiction Award: “Omission” – One of the greatest articles on writing I’ve read in a very long while. Long, but tight, on the writer’s chief task after the first draft: omission.

Fiction Award: “The Writer’s Duty” – “The first duty of an Author is — I conceive — a faithful allegiance to Truth and Nature; his second, such a conscientious study of Art as shall enable him to interpret eloquently and effectively the oracles delivered by those two great deities.” – CHARLOTTE BRONTË

Christianity and Culture Award:The New Religious Legalism” – We Christians are often accused of being Pharasaical, but I sometimes wonder if mainstream liberalism has more in common with our Pharisee friends than we do. 

NEW! Church Leadership Award: “Vanhoozer’s 55 Theses on the Pastor as Theologian” – Take these slowly, one by one. There are some gems in here.

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Love is Not a Verb.

I think it’s time to dispel a popular platitude infecting many Christian pop songs, sermons, blog posts and other half-baked but well-intentioned mediums.

Love is not a verb.

The obvious and true counterpoint to that is, “Yes it is.” Okay, yes. True. But love isn’t THAT kind of verb. It’s not like saying, “sit”, “stay” and “roll over”, as you do to your dog, cat, or incredibly acute but maladjusted hamster.

Why? Because love doesn’t mean, “Do something on someone else’s behalf.” We would have it that way, wouldn’t we? It tames the command: “Ah, I can do that.” But it’s not that easy.

Riddle me this. If love is simply altruism – just the action of some bland, stoic do-gooder – than how can this be true: “If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing” (1 Cor. 13:3)?

Now, follow me here: a guy can give up everything he has to the poor, but not love anyone (and I’m sure giving all to the poor is on your bucket list, even if it is last). Which means: altruism isn’t love. Service isn’t love. Charitable giving isn’t love. Not necessarily. Why? Because love is, at root – get ready for this – an affection.

“But!” you qualm. “God can’t COMMAND me to have an affection for my neighbor, especially when my neighbor is a crotchety old woman who picketed my yard with Donald Trump paraphernalia!” Well, I have bad news and good news. 1. Yes He can. And 2. Yes he does.

In fact, here’s another affection God commands: “Rejoice”. That little verb is found over 200 times in the Bible, according to my whiz-bang google-search calculations. Maybe it’s just me, but I’m having trouble picturing someone ‘rejoicing’ without registering somewhere on the emotional richter scale (you might argue that point, in which case I would see your argument and raise you an incredulous “Please just don’t be that guy”).

Love, as Johnny Edwards once put it, “presupposes affection.”

The point is, love is a verb, sure. But it’s an impossible verb. It’s the kind of verb that pulls us out of our Western enlightenment secularistic bubbles into the country of the supernatural. It’s not as easy as mechanical servitude – it’s whole-hearted affection for others, flowing from our whole-hearted affection for God. It’s as difficult as feeding the 5,000 on a loaf of wonderbread, as a camel passing through a needle’s eye (picture it), as the paralyzed getting up to walk.

It’s the kind of command so crazy it should probably induce a hysterical fit of laughter, something like God telling Sarah she would have a baby (or for a modern example, see the jelly-of-the-month club incident in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation). But God didn’t ask us to do something possible. He asked us to do something supernatural. 

And the God who said “let there be light” ex nihilo (out of nothing) can certainly do the same in us: “Let there be love”. 


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About Me.

Hi. I'm Nicholas McDonald, and I'm a student pastor, blogger, preacher and author of the forthcoming book, "Faker" (Good Book Company 2015). I've studied creative writing and mass communication at ONU and Oxford University, and am finishing up my M.Div at Gordon Conwell along with my lovely wife and two hearty boys. I write about all of the above.

My New Book!

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