Was blind, but now I see.

2 : 7 June 2003


George Foster

George Foster and his wife Dolly were missionaries to Brazil for 25 years in several roles: pastor, publisher, writer, and National Director of Bethany Fellowship Missions. Presently George and Dolly oversee mission outreach in Europe and South America. George's writings have been published in several languages. George Foster's e-mail address is

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In Spirit and Truth

George Foster

"Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem."
Jesus declared, "Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth"(John 4:20-24).


A MAN AND A WOMAN sitting beside a well beneath a scorching sun-what an unlikely setting it was for the first serious New Testament discussion about worship. And isn't it interesting that it starts in the context of controversy ("Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.")

The previous New Testament references to worship had nothing to do with true worship as this passage does. They are about:

  • Eastern worship (We saw his star in the east and came to worship him.)
  • Deceitful worship (Go and make a careful search for the child. When you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.)
  • Devil worship (All this I will give you, he said, if you will bow down and worship me.) To which Jesus replied (Away from me, Satan! For it is written: Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.)

The talk by the well about worship didn't seem to be planned. Jesus had asked the woman about her husband in order to discuss her inner dissatisfaction, evidenced by five failed marriages and a current illicit relationship. She avoided talking about it by switching the subject to worship. Jesus recognized her evasive tactic, and let it take them into a discussion about the heart of a relationship with God. By so doing, he gave us the New Testament's most instructive discussion about worship.


Jesus at the Well

I find this conversation fascinating for several reasons.

  1. The place it occurred: Jacob's well, about one kilometer from the town of Sychar in Northern Samaria, was not a forum for theological discussion. There were no synagogues, schools of prophets, or courtrooms.
  2. The people involved: There were no clergymen, theologians, scribes, Pharisees, media types-just Jesus, a Jewish man, and an unnamed Samaritan woman who was not yet a believer-two races, two genders, two opposing points of view.
  3. The occasion: Why at noon beneath a blistering sun? Though Jews normally skirted Samaria due to racial tensions, Jesus felt compelled to go through the country, arrive in the heat of the day, and send the disciples to town in search of food. On her side, many marriages and the illicit relationship made her socially undesirable. She probably avoided going to the well at cooler times when other women would be there and make her the object of their scorn.
  4. The controversy: The mountain or the temple? Jews or Samaritans? As is usually the case with prejudice, there were wrong assumptions on her part and misinformation. Samaritans assumed that Jews only worshiped at the Jerusalem Temple while, in reality, they worshipped at synagogues in many cities. The controversy was about place, race, and lack of grace.
  5. The conclusions: From this discussion, several conclusions can be drawn: The Father seeks true worshipers. The Father seeks our worship. True worship is not defined by form but by focus. Worship is not born of external display but of internal reality. Worship is not confined to a sacred setting. Worship is not self-initiated but a response to Spirit inspiration. Worship is both cognitive and intuitive. Worship is spiritual, emotional, intellectual, and can be physical.
  6. The relevance: This encounter speaks to the issues we face today. Worship still is controversial. Worship still is impacted by racial and cultural factors. Worship continues to be affected by preference and prejudice. Discussion still takes place at unexpected places and occasions. Worship still is a heated subject among lay people and theologians. As with the Samaritan woman, the less we know about worship the more dogmatic and outlandish our declarations sometimes become. Finally, our argument may not be with common people; it may be with God.


The Spirit

Worship is what the spiritual side of us longs to do-exalt God by serving Him. And it sometimes degenerates into a means of doing what the religious side of us loves to do-display "spirituality" while hoping to gain the approval of God and of those around us. True, sincere worship draws us together in humble unity. Misguided worship tears us apart in factious disunity. When Jesus stated that the Father seeks people to worship in Spirit and in truth, He implied several possibilities:

Some worship without spirit and without truth. There is a worship tendency within each of us as evidenced by the number of religions in the world. It is not something that has evolved with time, rather it degenerates as it suffers ungodly influences. Its inspiration seems to have nothing to do with academic achievement or technological advancement. The post-modern return to syncretistic worship reminds us of the conditions in ancient Athens, the citadel of learning, where Paul said, "Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown God" (Acts 17:22-23). Paul was courageous in saying that they worshiped a god they did not know. Jesus said the same thing about the Samaritans: "You worship what you do not know."

It's impossible to worship "in spirit" unless the human spirit is inspired by God's Spirit. It's impossible to worship in truth unless our mind and heart have been enlightened by God's Word and by the Holy Spirit.

Some worship with more spirit than truth. There is an intuitive approach to worship and a cognitive approach. The intuitive side thrives more on emotion than on information, learning more about worship by feeling it and doing it than by studying it. The danger, of course, is that we form opinions by the way we feel and don't always want to be confused by the facts. Many of our worship responses such as kneeling, raising hands, clapping, closing eyes, saying amen, and murmuring approval are learned by worshipping with other people. We've never bothered to seek instruction, and we're not quite sure why we do it, but we like it. Churches that are seen to worship more in spirit are sometimes called charismatic. This kind of church thrives in the United States where our cultural and educational systems are shifting to less classic academic emphasis. That's not to say there is no concern about truth, but there is more concern about spirit. Services and dress are informal.

Some worship more in truth than in spirit. A friend said that he came from a church where you had better not raise your hand unless you had a question to ask. That was, no doubt, a church where lots of questions were asked and lots of things were questioned, a church that would likely be called traditional. The advantages in such a church are concern for correct theological content in worship and the centrality of the Word of God in the service. Hymns that affirm the character of God are preferred over songs that express the way you feel about Him. Bible exposition is preferred over testimonies and topical sermons. Structure is valued and services follow a plan. People dress more formally. And, while members learn by doing, there is ample of teaching about worship in Scripture along with the experience. Consideration is given to the experience of others both in historical and in contemporary settings. The disadvantage is that while God may be carefully studied, He may not be actively engaged.

God calls us to worship in spirit and in truth and this can be done. Our worship can and should involve our whole being-spirit, soul, and body. It involves our intellect, emotions, and will. Blockages to worship, whether spiritual, emotional, or intellectual, should be confronted and treated. While some external atmospheres are more conducive to worship than others, and that varies from person to person, the most important atmosphere is internal-"Who may stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to an idol or swear by what is false" (Psalm 24:3-4). God is not calling us essentially to analyze, criticize, or prioritize; God is calling us to worship. We must go back to the words of Jesus: "A time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks."



Worship is arguably the most arguable subject facing the church today because it is at the heart of our identity as Christians. We don't just say, "I attend a Lutheran or Methodist church." We say, "I am Lutheran," "I am Methodist," "I am Christian." The church I attend has the word "missionary" in its name. It is, as the name implies, a strong missions church. How important is worship to us? A church that is good at missions, must also be good at worship.

John Piper has written, "Missions is not the ultimate goal of the church. Worship is. Missions exists because worship doesn't. Worship is ultimate, not missions, because God is ultimate, not man. When this age is over, and the countless millions of the redeemed fall on their faces before the throne of God, missions will be no more. It is a temporary necessity. Worship abides forever." That is the debatable but prevalent thought in the world of missions today. Worship is central to all we do.

It is said of A. W. Tozer,

"The real focus of his daily life centered on the worship of God. Nothing else so occupied his mind and life. This worship of God was not something tacked on to a busy schedule. It became the one great passion of his life. Everything revolved around his personal worship of God. He was completely committed to this one solemn activity and pursued it with all his passion." "Worship," Tozer explained, "is to feel in your heart and express in some appropriate manner a humbling but delightful sense of admiring awe and astonished wonder and overpowering love in the presence of that most ancient Mystery, that majesty which philosophers call the First Cause but which we call 'Our Father Which Art in Heaven.'"



The New Dictionary of the Bible provides an enlightening text from which I cut, paste, and edit rather freely:

The essential concept of worship in the Old Testament is 'service,' originally referring to the labor of slaves or hired servants who prostrated themselves manifesting reverential fear and adoring awe and wonder of their masters.

In the Old Testament there are instances of individual worship, but the emphasis is upon worship in the congregation. In tabernacle and temple worship, ritual was prominent. The ritual acts would tend to emphasize the ceremonial to the detriment of the spiritual aspects of worship, and even tend to introduce tension or conflict between the two attitudes. But many in Israel would be able to take the public praise and prayers and use them to express their love and gratitude to God.

This highly developed public worship is a far cry from early times when the Patriarchs believed that the Lord could be worshiped wherever He had chosen to reveal Himself. But that public worship in the temple was a spiritual reality is clear from the fact that when the sanctuary was destroyed, and the exiles found themselves in Babylon, worship remained a necessity, and to meet this need the synagogue service was created. Later, in the second temple, daily services, the Sabbath, annual festivals and fasts, and the praises of the Book of Psalms ensured that worship remained a vital factor in Jewish national life.

In the New Testament, temple and synagogue serviced are again found. Christ participated in both, but He always inculcated the worship that is the love of the heart towards a heavenly Father. The approach to God through ritual and priestly mediation is not merely unimportant, it is unnecessary. At last worship is true, a service offered to God not only in terms of temple worship, but of service to one's fellows. Christians did not abandon temple worship; and probably continued to attend synagogue services too. When the break between Judaism and the church finally came, Christian worship may have been modeled on the synagogue service.

The great contributing factor in the break away from the Jewish Sabbath, temple, ritual, etc., was the bitter antagonism of the Jews against the church. But so far as the New Testament is concerned, our notions of Christian worship are vague. Clearly the main day of worship was the Lord's Day, although we do hear of daily services at the beginning. Worship was conducted in the believers' homes. Simplicity was the keynote of these house-church services, consisting of praise, prayer, reading from the Scriptures and exposition. The love-feast, followed by the Lord's supper were also common features of Christian worship, But the emphasis throughout would be upon the Spirit, and the inner love and devotion of the heart."


There was no one activity that dominated Jewish worship. Israel was told...

  • Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name.
  • Worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness.
  • Let us bow down in worship.
  • Let us kneel before the Lord our Maker.
  • Worship the Lord with gladness.
  • Come before him with joyful songs.
  • Sing to the Lord, all the earth.
  • Proclaim his salvation day after day.
  • Bring an offering and come before him.
  • Give thanks to the Lord.

There were times when worship became dry, formal, and ritualistic and times when it was spontaneous and even boisterous. One such occasion is often referred to when David danced exuberantly in the presence of the Lord (pleasing the Lord and displeasing his wife) and went on to organize worship in more extravagant ways than could be sustained over long periods of time.

Chapters 15 and 16 of 1 Chronicles contain a list of the many worship-related activities that David instituted.

David... prepared a place for the ark of God and pitched a tent for it. David told the leaders of the Levites to appoint their brothers as singers to sing joyful songs, accompanied by musical instruments: lyres, harps and cymbals. He appointed Levites to minister before the ark of the Lord, to make petition, to give thanks, and to praise the Lord, the God of Israel.

This worship sounds exciting and appealing, however, it should be remembered that this was a time of special rejoicing at the defeat of the Philistines and the return of the Ark of the Covenant to Israel. Worship took place at a high pitch, with great joy, and in ways that should probably not be considered normative.


The Bible speaks of acceptable and unacceptable worship and says to worship acceptably:

Since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe (Hebrews 12:28).

Cain and Abel. A notable case of unacceptable worship is recorded in Genesis:

Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. But Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast. (Genesis 4:3-5).

Why was Abel's offering accepted and Cain's was not? The writer of Hebrews explains: 'By faith Abel offered God a better sacrifice than Cain did. By faith he was commended as a righteous man, when God spoke well of his offerings' (Hebrews 11:4). Abel accepted God's standards of sacrifice and offered in faith. Cain improvised and was rejected.

Jesus quoted the prophet Isaiah concerning unacceptable worship:

"You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: 'These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.'" (Matthew 15:7-9).

These people wanted to worship, but not according to the ways and will of God. They were insecure and hypocritical. They may have been in touch with the culture of their day, but did not know that the people of God are not necessarily supposed to be culturally or politically correct. The church, in cultural terms, is and must be a subculture. Robert Bork lamented in a 1997 television interview: "The church has been more affected by the culture than the culture by the church."

Acceptable worship does not conform to popular culture, as Paul states in Romans 12:1-3:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God-this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is-His good, pleasing and perfect will.

Many churches are experiencing tension in regard to worship. Unlike the controversy that took place in the time of Jesus between two races, our conflict takes place between generations. Like then, the controversy seems to have more to do with cultural issues than with spiritual ones. It has to do with change that takes place faster than many of us are prepared to handle. It used to be said that it took thirty years to change a culture. Later I heard that seven years were sufficient for sweeping cultural changes to take place. Now I hear that it takes about three years. How can we keep up with such change? Should we keep up with it?



I would like to comment on a few words associated with worship:

  1. Praise. What we often call worship would more properly be called praise. In the Old Testament the words mainly used for praise are halal, making a noise; yada, bodily actions or gestures; and zamar, the playing or singing of music. Praise gives honor and pleasure to God and bears testimony to God's people. Praise is more specific than worship in our discussion about music and such.
  2. Worship includes everything we do to honor God. It means to serve, recognize, admire, honor, declare his worth. It can be done silently, quietly, contemplatively, or exuberantly-with or without music. It includes prayers, readings, offer ings, psalms, hymns, spiritual songs, testimonies, dramas, confessions, affirmations, sermons, invitations, altar ministry, outreach, charity, social work and many other activities. It can be done actively and it can be done passively.
  3. Intensity. There is an assumption among many today that all worship should be intense-that we should involve our emotions to a high degree. But with that idea come subtle temptations: to make intense emotions about God our unconscious goal rather than God himself; to demand stronger and stronger emotions; to evaluate what is said, sung or served on the basis of what emotional state was reached; to equate emotional intensity with spiritual anointing; to utilize intense emotions to make a greater impression on God and obtain greater blessing. With all of that, it is easy to wear ourselves out physically and emotionally and forget that God also wants to give us rest.
  4. Making it happen. To the degree that our desire for God's blessing grows, so grows the temptation to "make it happen." This often comes from the feeling that-I prayed, I did my part, God promised, something must happen and I will insist until it does. We are also aware that other people are watching to see if anything will happen and we feel that God's reputation (and ours) is somehow dependent upon it. We sometimes think that if we say or think the right words and create the right atmosphere, God will just slide into our efforts and do what the last preacher or worship leader tried to do but couldn't. When we do this we begin to impose our will upon people and they resent it.
  5. Instruments. No instrument is more holy than any other instrument. An instrument is holy to the degree that it has been dedicated to promote the glory of God rather than display the talent of the musician. The battles that are fought today about drums, electric guitars, and saxophones, were fought one hundred years ago about pianos and organs. All of these instruments can be used both for performance and for worship. However, when used for worship they should enhance the experience by helping the worshiper focus on God, rather than on the medium being used. It is possible to substitute the voice of God with the noise of the music.
  6. Culture. Churches today tend to be heterogeneous rather than homogeneous. We are multicultural and multigenerational. We have pop culture, youth culture, alternative culture, traditional culture, religious culture, etc. We should be a Christian subculture rather than an expression of an existing culture.
  7. Performance. We live in an age that is strongly impacted by the entertainment industry. We have become accustomed to spectacular shows produced by highly professional artists. Many Christian concerts use similar techniques. Is it safe to say that Christians too are addicted to entertainment, even in church? Is worship best conducted by professional musicians or my well prepared ministers? Do we need great performers to attract great crowds? Is a church an audience? Should there be programs for entertain and edification with more emphasis on performance than worship? Should there also be services with more emphasis on worship than on performance?
  8. Focus. The focus should be on God himself rather than on just how we feel about God or the way we express our feelings to him. We should not worship the practice of worship. Saying that, I don't mean we shouldn't be drawn into worship or experience a longing for it. I don't mean to eliminate songs that express our feelings and even focus on them from time to time. I do think, however, that even when we use both types of music, we should be aware that worship is worship and testimony is testimony. Music and worship are not synonymous.
  9. Diversity. What we can most profitably offer to our brothers and sisters in Christ is our diversity rather than just our similarity. If we give to others what they already have, what have we added to them? We should avoid applying pressure to conform, or to attach more value to certain styles of worship or praise than others. People of all ages should find it possible to enjoy our services. We should have something that appeals to nearly every taste and background. Respect for diversity should be promoted as a virtue.
  10. Moderation. Although it is impossible to please everyone, an attempt should be made to make every child of God feel as valuable as the other. Services should be designed to serve the widest spectrum of tastes possible without going to the extremes that are bound to displease some. That may mean having separate services that better serve those who are on opposite ends of the spectrum, or it may mean designing a service that is closer to the middle, avoiding both ends of the spectrum.
  11. Music. Music has a powerful influence on our lives. It can be used to protest, to promote, to project, to propose, to entertain, to encourage, and to worship. We live in a moment when music media is so specialized that you can hear frequently and, if you so choose, almost exclusively, the type of music that you prefer. However it doesn't seem reasonable to establish churches according to the members' musical taste. The "First Church of Bossa Nova" (my favorite style of music) does not seem like a good option. There may be room in the church for classical, traditional, jazz, rock 'n roll, gospel, hymns, choruses, spiritual songs, and other forms that I can't even describe. Worship time is a time to exalt God, honor others, draw together rather than divide, it is a time to respect and defer to one another. Worship music should help us do that.
  12. God's will. Romans 12:1-2 describes how to experience the good, perfect, and acceptable will of God: Give yourselves sacrificially to God; refuse to be conformed to the culture of the age; be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Following these two verses come three chapters that teach what attitudes we should have toward God and each other in the Body of Christ. These attitude constitute worship:
    • Evaluate where you fit in the Body.
    • Find your spiritual gift and utilize it for the good of all.
    • Be sincere with your love.
    • Hate evil; cling to what is good.
    • Be devoted to one another in brotherly love.
    • Honor one another above yourselves.
    • Keep your spiritual fervor.
    • Serve the Lord.
    • Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.
    • Share with God's people who are in need.
    • Bless those who persecute you.
    • Rejoice with those who rejoice.
    • Mourn with those who mourn.
    • Live in harmony with one another.
    • Do not be proud.
    • Do not repay evil for evil.
    • Do what is right in the eyes of everybody.
    • Live at peace with everyone.
    • Do not put a stumbling block in your brother's way.
    • Do not allow what is good to be spoken of as evil.
    • Do what leads to peace and to mutual edification
    • Please your neighbor for his good, to build him up.
    • Accept one another as Christ accepted you.
  13. Heritage. The church has a rich heritage to pass on to younger members and their children. Many old hymns and the love of hymn singing were born in revival. Our hymnology is the fruit of what God has done for us rather than a means of getting God to do what we want Him to do. Worship is a result of God's work rather than a button to push for obtaining it.
  14. Deference. "From Paul's exhortations in Romans 12, perhaps one should be selected for this discussion, Romans 12:10: "Honor one another above yourselves." It's similar to Paul's word to the Philippians: "Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus..." (Philippians 2:3-5).


As Holy Spirit

It is said that Lucifer was once heaven's worship leader. He now attempts to divert worship from God to him. He attempts to substitute worship's most valuable expressions with lesser ones. He seeks to obscure our vision and values regarding worship. He incites us to focus more on "what we are into" than on the God whom worship is meant to exalt. Is Satan not using controversy about worship to divide churches around the world? Is he not busy trying to divide us today?

Worship must have high priority in our church discussions and activities. We need to ask the questions that are raised by Scripture. If we are to love God above all others, we need to be enormously concerned about pleasing God in our worship. If we are to love our neighbors as ourselves, we need to be concerned with the people we minister to. We must know God, know ourselves, and know the people we are trying to reach. Music and worship should be planned accordingly.

Rather than insisting on a style that pleases only us and our affinity group, we must value respect for the traditions, tastes, and needs of others. We must not be exclusive, but inclusive so that each of us can honor God and so that many more will be attracted to worship, honor, and serve Him with us.


Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God (Colossians. 3:16).
  1. We must exalt the Lord and allow him to receive heartfelt, Spirit-inspired, biblically sound, experientially honest worship. He deserves our worship and takes pleasure in it, but does not need it. We need it. He wants our worship for the benefit it brings to us. It deepens our love for Him, allows us to experience intimacy and awe, bringing our life into perspective before Him. It also brings a Spirit-filled atmosphere to our services. (Be filled... singing...and making melody).
  2. We must value all who attend church, and provide means for all to worship from the heart in ways that are natural to them. We have a wide spectrum of musical tastes and talents to utilize in worship. We must value tolerance, diversity, and respect. We must not judge each other for preferences or call one form of worship superior to other forms.
  3. We must stretch every person and provide ways of worship that will help us expand, deepen, and intensify or expression of devotion to God. All of us must learn and give. We all stand to gain from things that are new without abandoning what we already have. "Every teacher... is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old" (Matthew 13:52).
  4. We must enrich every member. Many Christians learn more theology from singing than from study. Young people should not be impoverished by lack of theological content in music. An appropriate mix may not make us the most popular church in town, but it will feed our people. Older people can gain understanding of young people by singing their music. Young people can learn by singing more traditional music.
  5. We must be culturally sensitive. We should worship in ways that are planted in the culture we minister to so those who visit us can move quickly into worship without unnecessary struggles. We do not want to be stumbling blocks by being too traditional or too unconventional. We come in from both ends of the spectrum of musical tastes to avoid offending one another.
  6. We must love and honor one another. More important than music is our need to relate to each other with love, honor and mutual commitment-especially when we are not in total agreement. When we are committed to each we can work out any issue. Love is considerate, respectful, kind. It defers to one another... in honor preferring one another.
  7. We must grow. We must be committed to growth. It should be our intention to: (a) outgrow present facilities, (b) multiply services as growth demands (c) design services that permit more freedom or more tradition as the need demands.
  8. We are changing. We are a heterogeneous group, with a variety of tastes that is multiplying into smaller more homogeneous cell groups that provide opportunities to worship within a narrower range of musical tastes. In small groups worship can be more specialized. In larger meetings, it probably should be more generalized.
  9. We must value unity, not uniformity. Unity comes by a commitment to vision, purpose, values, people, and diversity. Uniformity comes by applying pressure to conform. Unity comes from reasonable propositions. Disunity comes from unreasonable impositions. Let's decide what we can commit to together and go for it with all of our hearts.


George Forster
Bethany College of Missions, Suite C
Bloomington, MN 55438, USA.