Category Archives: Church
An interesting opinion piece in this morning’s Sydney Morning Herald, ‘University Lectures Are A Legacy of Our Pre-Digital Past’, got me thinking about preaching. Is preaching as a medium of communication also a legacy of the pre-digital past? This one-person monologue, delivered in countless churches week-by-week – isn’t it also something we should reconsider given the proliferation of the type of instant, multi-sensory digital means of communication that we are consuming every other day of the week? If university lectures need re-examination, then surely so does preaching, right?
I guess a broader question is: of all the different kinds of valid means of reading and teaching the Word of God (e.g. public reading of Scripture, personal encouragement, one-on-one Bibles study, small groups, video and net-based ministries), why privilege preaching?
In the next series of posts, I thought I’d rehash a seminar I delivered at a preaching conference last year and get the conversation going (so please comment away).
In this first post, I’d like to begin with definitions. What do we mean by Biblical preaching?
Here are a number of definitions I came across:
- Sociological: ‘A public formal monologue to the congregation.’
- Peter Adam: ‘The explanation and application of the Word in the assembled congregation of Christ.’
- John Stott: ‘To open up the inspired text with such faithfulness and sensitivity that God’s voice is heard and God’s people obey him.’
- Phillip Jensen: ‘Preaching the gospel by prayerfully expounding the Bible to the people God has given me to love.’
Not ever content with just going with what someone else said, I feebly attempted my own amalgam of the above and came up with this as a definition of Biblical preaching:
Biblical preaching is declaring God’s Word to people by faithfully expounding the Scriptures through the power of the Holy Spirit for the glory of Christ.
With my definition I’m trying to capture three elements:
1. I want to define BIBLICAL preaching. Preaching as a means of communication is pretty universal. Parents can preach to their kids; sales-people can preach to their prospective buyers; other religious leaders can preach to their congregants; motivational speakers are preachers too. But I want to attempt to capture what Biblical preaching is. It is, first of all then, tied to faithful exposition of the Scriptural text.
2. I want to capture the VERTICAL dimension of Biblical preaching. God is actually speaking his Word through the preacher. There is therefore a power that must be at work for hearers to change. I guess this vertical dimension is what old-school preachers (like Martyn Lloyd-Jones) would call ‘unction’ or ‘anointing’. John Calvin wrote:
It is certain that if we come to church we shall not hear only a mortal man speaking but we shall feel (even by his secret power) that God is speaking to our souls, that he is the teacher. He so touches us that the human voice enters into us and so profits us that we are refreshed and nourished by it.
3. I want to capture the HORIZONTAL dimension of Biblical preaching as well. The preacher is preaching to God’s people in order to edify them. As he expounds Scripture and applies it, he is simultaneously exhorting his hearers (Peter Adam). Both the vertical and horizontal dimensions are key. Without the vertical, preaching is powerless. Without the horizontal, preaching won’t grow the church and bring about conversions.
Put simply I believe that Biblical preaching is PROPHETIC TEACHING. By this I am referring to prophecy in the broadest terms. (Note: I do believe in the continuation of the gift of New Testament prophecy as a smaller subset of this, but that’s for another post on another day perhaps). Here I simply mean prophecy in the ‘men spoke from God’ sense of the term (2 Peter 1:21). This is the vertical dimension in operation.
But preaching is also teaching because of that horizontal dimension. Therefore preaching is anchored in study, preparation, understanding and analysis of both the world of Scripture and the world of the hearers (John Stott).
Now the mix of prophecy and teaching can vary from preacher to preacher or even from sermon to sermon. It’s unimportant to distinguish which bits of a sermon correspond to which. However, I believe that Biblical preaching must have both elements. In other words, it is not just a spontaneous prophetic message; nor is it just a prepared lecture or seminar or workshop. It is God speaking to his gathered people through a prophetic teacher who expounds and applies the Bible. Nothing less than that will fulfil God’s mighty purposes for this ministry for the glory of Christ.
(Another note: different church traditions seem to privilege one over the other. Charismatic/Pentecostal traditions tend to emphasise the prophetic element of preaching and will tend towards spontaneity and less systematic exposition of the Biblical text, while Reformed Evangelical traditions tend to emphasise the teaching element of preaching and will sometimes be indistinguishable from a lecture. Which does your church tradition lean towards?)
So why privilege preaching? Well, I’m not quite at a full answer just yet. Next post I’ll be proposing that preaching as a mode of communication best reflects God’s own primary speech-act. But in the meantime, I’d love to hear your comments and critiques, so fire away!
The longer I’ve been a pastor, the more I find that not everything nor everyone is as it seems. Call it naivety or inexperience, but my view of people in earlier times tended to be far more black-and-white. Now I find that layers of complexity tend to lie beneath almost every person that I meet and minister to.
However, if I had to put into categories, these five kinds of people below are the ones I find most challenging to minister to. They can be vastly different to one another, and yet simultaneously, a person can fall into more than one category. What’s common to each of them is the fact that all of them are more than they appear to be. In each case, there’s the person you meet and perhaps even come to know, but there’s something more that lies beneath the surface. And in each one of these cases, what lies beneath the surface tends not to want to be addressed or ministered to or challenged.
Ok, it’s getting a bit too conceptual so here are the five types of people I’m thinking of:
1. Religious but unregenerate
There are loads of these in every church: those who appear to be Christian, have been baptised/confirmed, receive the sacraments, confess the right creeds, are church members, active in church, and yet beneath it all, they’re simply not born again. The difficulty with this group is that they will deny that they are unregenerate. In fact, when put under pressure, they will gladly give the right answers and cite their Christian resumes to demonstrate that they are ‘really Christian’ but show little or no evidence in changed hearts, behaviour or lifestyle.
2. Converted but undiscipled
By this I don’t mean the newly converted who need to be followed-up on but those who have been Christians for years, perhaps decades, but have never really ‘grown up’ in the faith. And almost always, they’re still immature because they weren’t properly discipled when they were first converted or first understood the gospel. These Christians may have drifted from church to church, with prolonged periods of absences between churches. They will be semi-regular in their attendance and you will see some latent desire to be godly, but because they’ve never known anything but spiritual immaturity, in all sorts of ways, the Word of God will more often than not be choked out by the worries in their lives. Their thinking, feeling and doing have never been properly shaped by Christian discipleship, the church community and healthy modelling. And it’s more difficult because these spiritual babies are really hard to motivate and encourage years down the track to form discipleship relationships, because by now, they are busy parents with young or school aged kids, and spiritual immaturity and laxity in church involvement have become hard habits to break.
3. Hurting but hiding
These Christians know the church too well to be honest with their pain. Theirs is the ‘stained glass masquerade’, often because they’ve tried to be vulnerable and have been shot down with judgement or moralism in the past. They’ve become resigned to the fact that no one will understand, no one will still accept them if their secrets were shared, and in fact, they’re the only ones struggling the way they are. It’s very difficult to identify who they are, let alone gain their trust in order to minister to them, because they’ve become so adept at hiding.
4. Keen but conniving
These are seemingly mature and zealous Christians, probably in leadership, whom you only find out later have been at it with their own agenda in mind. Because they’re keen and want to serve (and often have leadership gifts), they are sought after and placed in positions of responsibility. Only later do the pastor or elders find that that they are anything but servant-like. They’re proud, unteachable, don’t submit to loving authority, have their own agenda, gather their own followers, are great at talking behind people’s backs, and basically undermine the unity of the church when the decisions made or directions taken don’t suit them. What’s difficult about this group of people is that you often don’t know until it’s too late.
5. Busy but barren
Finally there are those who are busy serving in many ways, sometimes in leadership, but have been in a spiritual desert for years. They are the reliable and dependable people you keep turning to, and you turn to them because they rarely say ‘no’. But all the while, they’ve been serving out of duty without any delight, and their spiritual journey is like a car without fuel rolling down the hill towards a brick wall. A spiritual car-wreck is on its way but no one – not they, nor those who ask them to serve – is willing to pay the price of pulling them out of ministry and ask the hard questions. Usually these people will give out subtle ‘cries for help’ or send signals that things aren’t well, but their busyness and yours keeps them going ‘for just a little bit longer’ until the ministry they are serving in is in a better place and they can take a break. By then, it’s too late.
So there they are, and here we are. If you’re reading this and you fall into one (or more) of these categories, please know that nothing would please your pastor more than for you to allow him to minister to you, beneath the surface. This hasn’t been written out of frustration or to shame you. It’s just one pastor sharing to others about his desire to minister better to people like you, but being honest about what prevents it from being done as well as he would like.
But if you’re reading this and you’re a pastor or a church leader, I guess like me, you know how it feels to want to love and serve these people but feel helpless along the way. My encouragement would be to (and I need some of this encouragement too): pray more for them, persevere in ministering the gospel to them in the context of relationship, recruit and train others to look out for people like them and help you in your ministry towards them, and trust that the gospel can reach down deep enough to transform them.
Thinking aloud here:
- Discipline is different to punishment.
- The goal of discipline is restoration and growth; the goal of punishment is retributive justice.
- Therefore discipline, when exercised correctly, is always in the context of grace, regardless of how harsh it may appear to be.
- It is grace because restoration of relationship is always the goal. Justice does not and can not take into account relationship, or it would not be just.
- Discipline stops when a person is restored. Punishment only stops when justice has been served.
- The God-given role of government is primarily that of retributive justice (and therefore ‘punishment’). There may be disciplinary and restorative elements built into a compassionate legal system, but justice must be its primary function. Cf. Romans 13:4.
- God’s stance over his children is always grace, and therefore he does not punish us for the sins that Jesus has already paid for but disciplines us for our good. This is not in opposition to grace, but because of his grace. If God were to punish us, then there would be no possibility of restoration and he would simply ‘give us over’ to our sins and let us suffer their consequences (cf. Romans 1:18-32).
- Part of God’s discipline for us may be for us bear the legal ramifications (i.e. punishment) of our actions (e.g. when we commit a crime), but as far as God is concerned, he is exercising grace in his relationship toward us, because he is seeking our repentance, restoration, and growth.
- Church discipline and parental discipline are mirrored on God’s discipline. We don’t punish our church members or our children for the sake of justice, we discipline them out of love. This is grace. Cf. 2 Corinthians 2:5-11.
- To ask: ‘How do I show grace in discipline?’ is the wrong question. To discipline is to show grace. Seeking a person’s restoration after an offence is always more than that person deserves.
- Therefore parents and church leaders need to remember that the same hand that deals discipline is also simultaneously dealing grace. They are not in opposition to one another; and you do not undermine discipline by showing grace, nor undermine grace by exercising discipline.
One of my pastor friends in ministry was recently notified that his contract as pastor with his church would not be renewed. I’m not privy to the inner workings of the church and their decision-making process and so I don’t want to comment on that, nor do I want to defend either him or his church in this post.
I do, however, want to examine the pros and cons of the contractual nature of many independent churches’ call for their pastors. I know my Anglican and Presbyterian friends don’t have to really deal with this issue, as their pastors basically have tenure. However at my own church that I’ve been serving at for the past 7 years, pastoral staff are called with terms of either 3 or 5 years. It hasn’t been an issue for me and I’ve been quite happy having my term renewed every 3-5 years. Even though I don’t have tenure, my church has never given me any doubt that they would keep me as long as I’m willing to serve there (provided moral or doctrinal failure doesn’t disqualify me).
So here’s an attempt at a working list of pros and cons to contract / limited term callings for pastors:
- It’s an automatic mechanism that ensures pastors get reviewed by the leadership in terms of suitability and performance. Many times pastors with tenure get too comfortable and just keep the ministry on ‘cruise-control’ because there isn’t a likelihood in their lifetime of losing their “keep”.
- It’s a safety net to rid a church of pastors who may have more serious doctrinal and personal problems in an easy way. Denominations with tenure tend to cement in bad teaching or doctrinal compromises that don’t disqualify one from the ministry (because definitions and doctrinal statements can always be flexed and re-interpreted). Within a generation liberalism and real heresy creeps in and then it’s nearly impossible to change the course of that church. Many denominations then have to put up with a diversity of parishes within its region/diocese – i.e. some high church, some broad church, some liberal, some charismatic, some conservative.
- It’s a way for congregational-model churches to make sure the balance of power still lies with the laity rather than the clergy. Without tenure, the clergy are very aware that they are there to serve the congregations and must empower the congregations to make the right choices. Democracy isn’t perfect, but it’s a good system when we know that all power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
- It gives the pastor a chance to re-examine his calling to that particular ministry every few years without leaving the congregation with the uncertainty that he will just up and leave with 3 months notice. Contracts cut both ways. The pastor is forced to re-think whether God wants him to stay in his particular church after a contractual term expires. It’s always a good thing for pastors to think about getting radical rather than comfortable, and this may be a good mechanism for reflection.
- The ‘automatic mechanism for review’ doesn’t work very well in actuality. Most church boards will rely on the automatic mechanism to relieve the pastor of his duties rather than actually face the pastor and do a brotherly and detailed review. It becomes a ‘cop-out’ way of terminating a pastor’s call without actually ‘speaking the truth in love’. Furthermore, by the time his contract has expired, usually the level of dissatisfaction in a church board has already risen to boiling point because an issue that should have been resolved earlier has been left to simmer. It’s easy just to think: ‘Let’s all save ourselves the trouble and save him face by just not renewing his contract in a year or two’s time.’ This isn’t how a church should operate.
- The contract renewal can be used as blackmail and control. I know of pastors who have essentially been asked to ‘tow the line’ on a non-doctrinal or Biblical issue or else his contract will not be up for renewal. That’s pretty despicable but yes, it does happen!
- In actual fact the congregational nature of the church gets eroded though the system is supposed to protect it. The reason is because most churches with contract terms put the renewal of contracts in the hands of the board, rather than the congregation. In other words, if the board decides the pastor shouldn’t be up for renewal, the congregations can’t really do anything about it short of sacking the board by a big majority vote. So even though the congregations have to vote to approve a pastor’s renewal of contract, the actual motion to renew lies in the hands of a few, not the many. Ironically what is supposed to protect congregational power actually undermines it.
- The pastor can be encouraged to be a people-pleaser every time his contract is up for renewal. In an ideal world pastors don’t have to ever bow to the pressure of people. In reality the longer a pastor has been in ministry, the less likely he is able to find secular work and the more likely he has a family to support. Furthermore the older he becomes, he is also less likely to have other churches knocking on his door offering him a job. This can create a situation whereby the pastor will decide to compromise rather than fight in order to retain his job. So churches have to really ask the question: do you want a pastor who is potentially going to be a people-pleaser every time renewal comes around?
Given that there are pros and cons, what may be the solution for independent churches who don’t have to lean one way or another on the issue of tenure?
One solution is this: offer tenure to the most senior pastoral leadership but not all pastoral workers. In other words, lead pastors and associate pastors can have tenure, while fresh-out-of-college graduates and others can be on a contract basis with a view to becoming an associate with tenure at a later date. This creates a balance whereby the ones who are required to really lead and guide the church can have security in doing so, even at the expense of popularity. Jonathan Edwards’ example shows us that some difficult decisions that are vastly unpopular were in fact the right ones. It’s a pity for a pastor to be easily ‘sacked’ over any decision that can be unpopular in the here-and-now.
However if any pastor is given tenure, then the process leading to his appointment must be given due care. It can’t be easy to ‘hire’ a pastor just on the decisions of a few. It should be a process that involves the whole leadership and the whole congregation, with lots of time for examination and prayer. The flip side is also true. If a pastor is found to be unsatisfactory on grounds other than doctrine or personal morality, then it should be equally ‘difficult’ to get rid of him. Again, the mechanisms must be in place to be able to take these issues to the congregation for careful examination and prayer.
What about accountability then? In order to safeguard accountability (and with it, doctrine and practices), the church should have in place a good policy of periodic review of each pastor’s personal life and performance. This means that he is given a brotherly examination by the board and other lay (and staff) leaders whether there is a ‘problem’ or not, and this must happen periodically (at least annually). In this way, he knows if he is under-performing in some way when measured against the (written) expectations of his calling when he was called. It also means that neither the congregation or the pastor can use the contract as a ‘cop-out’ so that no contentious issues have to be really dealt with because the contract is coming to an end soon anyway.
As I said, I haven’t worked all of this out. I would be interested in your thoughts and opinions on this matter. As you can tell, I have assumed that there is no particular Biblical mandate for either tenure nor contract when it comes to the appointment and calling of full-time church-funded workers of the gospel (thus you might have noticed the utter absence of Bible-references in this post). You might think differently on that and if so, I’m happy to consider your arguments as well.
We’ve all been there. A gorgeous wedding. Perfect day. Bride and groom look sparkling and splendid. Guests are enthusiastic. Wedding service goes off without a hitch. Then… the wedding sermon ruins everything.
It’s too long. It’s too preachy. It’s too generic. It’s too vague. It’s too specific. It’s too cringe-inducing. It’s frankly just soooo boring.
Now it is a wedding so out of politeness, people will put up with it. But chances are there are a large number of unchurched in the congregation as well. And their impressions of the church, your church, and especially the preached Word can be seriously damaged by that one bad wedding sermon.
So what do we do as preachers?
Well, I don’t have all the solutions. But I did have an excellent mentor when it came to teaching me how to craft better wedding sermons. My MTS trainer Dominic Steele of Village Church Annandale and Christians in the Media preached at our wedding in 2000, and since my very first wedding sermon in 2005 (I’m now up to sermon #24 this weekend), I’ve been rigorously applying his ‘formula’.
So maybe it’s time to share what I’ve learnt in the hope that it would improve this very important public ministry of our churches.
- Keep it short. A wedding sermon should be no more than 15 mins (Dominic went for under 10 mins at my wedding!). No matter how accommodating the bride and groom are (or even if they request a full 30 min sermon), resist the temptation to go for more than 15 mins. No matter what you tell yourself, no one’s interested in anything longer.
- Be realistic about your aims. Your aim is not to exegete a passage or lay-out Two Ways To Live. A more realistic aim would be to plant a gospel-seed in the hearts of unbelievers there, or perhaps give a glimpse of God’s wonderful blueprint for marriage, or maybe even both. But whatever it is, be modest in your aims.
- Be winsome, humorous, and don’t be preachy. Treat it like an evangelistic sermon that you’ve been invited to speak at. Don’t take audience interest for granted. Help them ‘get aboard’ the train before you go on your sermonic journey.
- Try and steer clear of Ephesians 5 and 1 Peter 3 Biblical submission passages. It’s not that we don’t believe them or are shy about standing up for male-headship in the home. However with a 15 min wedding sermon with lots of unbelievers and believers from all walks of life present, you have to cover a lot of ground to make sure people see these passages as God intends. You are fighting a defensive battle from the get-go from the moment these passages are read aloud. I’ve preached wedding sermons on them, but I strongly prefer not to.
- Choose instead a passage that highlights marriage themes such as love, grace, commitment etc. It’ll also be easy to then take that nugget of an idea and relate it to the gospel. And of course it means that we must…
- Preach the gospel. Regardless of what your other aims are, the wedding is an excellent opportunity to speak about Jesus and plant that ‘gospel-seed’ in people’s hearts.
- Personalise the wedding sermon around the couple’s courtship and relationship. This is the most important thing I learnt from Dominic. I find out as much about the couple’s courtship as I can, especially details like first impressions, how they first starting dating, funny stories, engagement stories, how they’re different etc. Then I weave their story into the main idea of the Bible passage and use their story as an extended introduction to the idea of the passage. This is quite a lot of work, especially initially. I do it via email. I ask the couple the same set of questions and get them to email me back detailed answers separately (it’s more fun if they don’t show one another). Then I do the hard work of integrating the relevant bits into the sermon. Sure it’s more time and effort, but I see it as my personalised gift to the newlyweds. Also be assured that you’ll have all of the congregation still with you when you bring their attention to how this story (of the couple) relates to a bigger story (of the gospel).
- Did I mention, keep it short?
When I was in high school in the early 90s, Japanese was the language to learn. Given Australia’s proximity to Japan in the Asia-Pacific region, and given the economic and technological leadership that Japan had provided the world in the previous decades, it was the obvious choice.
Now, Mandarin Chinese is the language to learn. On the 100th anniversary of the birth of modern China (see Xinhai Revolution), China has eclipsed Japan and almost every other nation to be the global and economic powerhouse in the world. In the sci-fi futuristic film Serenity, the common speech is a combination of English and (bastardised) Mandarin Chinese. This is not so hard to imagine now that China is on the ascendancy and the U.S. is on the wane. Who knows what the world will look like in 50 years?
So I’m writing as a bit of a ramble, but not in any sense of being Chinese and feeling pride about it. In fact, China’s ascendency can be somewhat of a worry, since there’s no Christian worldview that undergirds its morality (unlike the post-Christian West), and the influence of Christians in China, though they number millions, is a shadow of their influence in the West. In other words, I worry that the growth of China in the world stage is not happening with any checks and balances that even a post-Christian worldview can provide. That’s a matter of prayer.
What I want to ramble about is Australia and Chinese ministry in Australia over the next few decades. In a conversation with RICE director Steve Chong, former Deputy PM John Anderson commented that the importance of a ministry like RICE, with its networking of Asian churches, lies precisely in the ascendancy of China in world influence, along with the strategic placement of Australia as a nexus between East and West in the Asia-Pacific region. And so I wonder if churches in Australia have thought about Chinese ministry in light of that.
My impression is that many churches are hopping on to Chinese ministry and perhaps even working with Chinese churches in order to reach the growing migrant and international student population flooding our shores. But most, as I understand it, see it primarily as meeting a current need. Rather, I think the tide of world events should make us prayerfully think about Chinese ministry in terms of the future. If, as John Anderson predicts, Chinese influence is only going to gather momentum both in the Asia-Pacific region and in the world, then doesn’t it make sense to invest heavily in Chinese ministry in order that Chinese Christians can be placed in positions of leadership and influence in the secular world both here in Australia and in China? If Australia, geographically and politically, as a nation bordering the East and West is going to be strategic for this next phase of development, then doesn’t it make Chinese ministry in Australia even more important, not just because of the needs now, but because of the possibilities in the future?
I have no idea what this might look like in detail but here are just some general initial ramblings:
- More genuine partnerships need to be forged between Chinese churches and Aussie churches; between the RICE network and other movements and networks.
- We need to raise up the next generation of Chinese leaders within the church, especially those who speak or are willing to learn Mandarin.
- Strengthening weak and under-resourced Chinese churches, rather than just taking away the best of their leadership in order to serve Anglo churches, may actually be an important strategic move for the next few decades, as bridges to the Chinese community and the key influencers there are more likely going to come from Chinese churches than Anglo churches.
- Australian-born or -raised Chinese who are part of Chinese churches ought not feel defensive or ashamed about their churches. Rather, they ought to see the opportunities advantages that lay (perhaps dormant) within their churches. In other words, I’d love some to decide to stay in Chinese churches not out of personal preference but out of a desire to be strategic in where they serve.
- Allowing Chinese congregations in Anglo churches which are growing and outgrowing other congregations not just to play ‘second-fiddle’ but actually to take the lead and drive the ministries of the entire church has got to be a consideration, though it might be met with resistance.
- We need to give existing Chinese churches a vision to reach beyond their own ethnicity, especially to cross into other minority cultures, in order to allow God’s blessing to them to overflow to others.
- Promoting and investing in Chinese (language) theological scholarship both within Asian seminaries and Western ones.
Okay, enough of my rambling. What are your thoughts? I’d genuinely love to read some interaction along these lines.
I don’t like writing book reviews. The main reason is, I’m a quick reader but not a detailed reader. I assume that for a book review to be decent, some attention has to be paid to the details, and I don’t particularly want to do that.
However, as someone who is one of the first in my circles to have gotten hold of this book (via Kindle) and read it, I thought it would be worth putting some thoughts down on a page somewhere. There will no doubt be better reviews than this one, and when they turn up, I’ll link them to this article.
I picked up this book because of its premise and its recommendations. Its premise is to “make sense of social justice, shalom and the Great Commission”. The first two items: social justice and shalom, have been the flavour of a new generation of young evangelicals who have been exposed to writers such as N.T. Wright and Christopher J.H. Wright (among others – those are the two who have influenced me). The recommendations of this book come from such respected luminaries as Mark Dever, D.A. Carson, Michael S. Horton, Thomas Shreiner, and P.T. O’Brien. When they write in such glowing terms, you gotta take notice.
Having read the book in nearly one sitting (I spent a lot of time on the train yesterday), I can say that it’s been ultra-helpful for me personally as I’ve been wrestling theologically with some of these issues for awhile now, ever since I picked up Surprised by Hope by N.T. Wright. I can say now that it’s probably one of the top three books I’ve read this year and I hope its influence will spread and its central thesis carefully chewed over, examined and appraised by my generation of socially active younger evangelicals.
Rather than going through a chapter-by-chapter analysis, here are my highlights from the book.
1. Attention to exegesis. The authors don’t allow us to be swept into convincing rhetoric that stays at the big picture level without dealing with specific texts.They do this so deftly, since this is not intended to be a scholarly work. Don’t be fooled though! Though they write as pastors, the exegetical work no doubt lies in the background and surfaces just enough to make their case very convincing.
2. Clarifying important concepts and ideas. The book rightly identifies that there is a lot of murkiness and slipperiness in a lot of recent talk about this issue. Much of the recent literature is very enthusiastic about concepts such ‘mission’, ‘social justice’, ‘shalom’ and ‘kingdom’ but never spend time to defend it exegetically or even clarify what is meant by these terms. They very helpfully ask (and deal with) important questions such as: Is there a difference between God’s mission and the church’s mission? Is the gospel primarily about cosmic renewal or forgiveness of sins? Is it biblical to speak about Christians ‘building the Kingdom’ through social or other means? What do we mean by ‘social justice’? Is ‘incarnational’ ministry a valid way of speaking about what Christians are called to do? What is biblical shalom and how does it come about? Will the new creation be continuous or discontinuous with this old one? Those are exactly the kinds of questions discerning young evangelicals should be asking in the midst of current enthusiasm for social concerns.
3. Recovering the centrality of the gospel. The best thing for me is that DeYoung and Gilbert show that the ‘old stuff’ that we young evangelicals have been taught isn’t that wrong: the mission of the church is essentially the Great Commission. Our mission is primarily that of bearing witness to, proclaiming and preaching a good news of forgiveness and reconciliation achieved by the work of Christ and calling people to repentance and faith in him. Our mission is to make disciples of all nations. That’s it. To summarise their central thesis:
The mission of the church is to go into the world and make disciples by declaring the gospel of Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit and gathering these disciples into churches, that they might worship the Lord and obey his commands now and in eternity to the glory of God the Father. (p. 62)
4. Locating our social and mercy ministries under the category of ‘love’ rather than ‘social justice’. The authors are very clear that what they do not want to do is to discourage or deflate a concern for the poor, socially disadvantaged or enslaved peoples of the world. However, they want this concern to be Biblical both in its source and in its demonstration. Rather than locating it under the blurry term of ‘social justice’, they see that Christ’s command to ‘love our neighbours’ is sufficiently important as a motivator to get moving to care about those around us in holistic ways.
The Christian will be generous and compassionate toward the suffering and the disadvantaged, realizing that all we have is a gift from God and that we share God’s image with the poor. But in the constrained vision, this care is a matter of love and compassion, not automatically a matter of justice. (p. 182)
5. A call to Biblical realism. Some of the calls for Christians to social action is enjoined with a grand vision of ‘participating in Kingdom building’ on earth as it is in heaven. It is the classic liberal vision of bringing God’s Kingdom here on earth through radical transformation of social structures. A lot of this talk neglects to take into account the ‘not yet’ aspect of eschatology, as well as (most importantly I think), the way in which the Bible speaks about God’s Kingdom. God’s Kingdom is God’s work, God’s mission, God’s accomplishment through Christ, not ours. We receive the Kingdom, enter the Kingdom, but are never told to ‘build the Kingdom’. In their words:
God certainly uses means and employs us in his work. But we are not makers or bringers of the kingdom. The kingdom can be received by more and more people but this does not entail growth of the kingdom. We herald the kingdom and live according to its rules. But we do not build it or cause it to grow because it already is and already has come. (p. 134)
There is a tendency towards a sort of triumphalism when we think of being able to ‘transform cities’ and ‘build God’s Kingdom’ in the here-and-now before Jesus returns. That’s a great vision but has always made me a little uncomfortable, as I don’t see that in the mission of the disciples in Acts or in the pages of the New Testament. The authors argue that Jeremiah 29 is a better way of understanding God’s call to his people while we live in the tension of the ‘now and not yet’. We’re to seek the welfare of the cities we are in, love people around us, do as much good as we can, but our hope is in God’s new city coming from heaven to earth, not in our ability to transform our cities to be the New Jerusalem before Jesus returns.
The new heavens and new earth are not something that we build for ourselves out of the ruins of our fallen world. They are a gift from God to his redeemed people. Christians do not build the holy city, New Jerusalem, from the ground up; it doesn’t rise from the ashes of Babylon (Revelation 18–19). Rather, it comes down from heaven (Rev. 21:2), a gift of God to his people. It is “the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (Heb. 11:10). (p. 206)
There’s a lot more I could write about, but I won’t given the length of this post already. If I have one criticism of this book it would be that I wish they would engage more openly with Tim Keller as they do with Chris Wright when it comes to these issues. They do quote Keller, but only in positive and supporting terms. I wonder however, if there are aspects of Keller’s vision for Redeemer and cultural / city transformation that should stand up to more direct scrutiny. I would also want to read Chris Wright’s Mission of God in more detail so I can see if all their critiques are fair, but I can’t help but feel that he is their main target in terms of evangelical scholarship on this topic.
And before I sign off, I reckon their last chapter, written as a sort of imagined dialogue between a young fiery new pastor and a seasoned evangelical pastor ought to be required reading for every young man wanting to head into the pastorate. I just wish I had read it when I finished Bible College 7 years ago.
Now read a “proper” book review by John Starke from the Gospel Coalition here.
As you know, the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks on the U.S.A. falls on this coming Sunday. Given the significance of this, it would be quite a pity if we didn’t take the opportunity to think through how our corporate gatherings and worship services might include elements that commemorate this event and bring the gospel to bear on it.
These are some of the things I’ve been thinking through for Sunday’s service at my church:
1. Find a way of getting your people to recall the events of 9/11. Can be as simple as getting chatter in the pews about where they were when they heard the news. Ideally it would be good to show some video or stills of 9/11. If you’ve got the skill, perhaps putting some John Piper ‘Don’t Waste Your Life‘ excerpts to the images would work well.
2. Include corporate confession. It’s so important that we’re reminded from Luke 13 that ‘unless (we) repent, (we) too will perish.’ As Piper said last week at ONE, our lives hang by a thread of divine mercy. This is time for personal and national confession.
3. Other intercessory prayers perhaps should have a global focus, with particular attention paid to the Middle-East and Islamic countries. It may be good to have different members of the congregation or leadership each focus on a specific prayer point or region in order to mix it up a bit. Or if your church is up for it, direct people to pray in groups around their seats/pews with sections praying for different parts of the world.
4. Include some Bible readings that really fit well with this mood of reflection, confession and intercession. Obviously you can go for the aforementioned Luke 13 passage about the tower of Siloam. My choice for Sunday is Psalm 90. I think it’s the perfect Psalm for this occasion. Reading it together or responsively could work really well.
5. Highlight the gospel. Speak about God’s plan to reconcile all things in Christ. Speak about forgiveness. Speak about grace. Speak about the cross. Speak about the resurrection. Speak about the final judgement and the new creation. Or alternatively, use music (see point below) to bring out some of these truths.
6. Use some appropriate songs. Two that come to mind are Hillsong’s You Hold Me Now and Keith and Kristyn Getty’s There Is a Higher Throne.
7. Finally, bring the elements together in a way that makes sense. Elements of Sunday services sometimes are jammed together incoherently or are simply disconnected bits done for the sake of putting them in. The elements ought to ‘tell a story’ and follow the dynamic of gospel-response. Tim Keller’s chapter in Worship by the Book is excellent on this kind of thing.
Just a quick note: we’re not doing a special sermon for 9/11 but continuing our series on Ephesians. All of the elements above will likely form the first half of the service before the sermon is delivered.
May your Sunday services be full of God’s glory and the experience of joy in him even in the commemoration of something so tragic.
Crummy church signs: it’s nothing new. There are entire websites devoted to them.
Now I really don’t want this to be a whinge-fest or a hyper-critical church-bagging blog post. But I just wonder sometimes, “Why, why, why, why, why?”
So what got me going was one particular local church (which shall remain nameless) with the sign:
We can’t minimise your tax but we can minimise your sin!
Now I dunno what you think about that, but here are my thoughts about a sign like this:
1. What does it actually mean?
- If ‘minimising sin’ = forgiveness, then it’s not true and not analogous to reducing taxes (unless it’s a matter of someone paying your tax in your place). Forgiveness of sins = a complete wiping out of sin, not a minimising of it.
- If the alternative meaning is taken, then ‘minimising sin’ = making us sin less. The analogy with taxes holds better, but what kind of theology is that? Is the one thing we want to communicate to the world: ‘Hey, come to church, ‘coz we can make you sin less and be more moral!’? If that’s the message, then let’s tear down the sign! It’s moralism and salvation by works. (While I’m on that, I reckon many church signs tend towards moralism. Just take another local church’s sign: ‘Seven days without prayer makes one weak’. Okay, nice pun, but again, what are we communicating to the outsider? You must pray, ‘coz otherwise you’re gonna be weak. Feel guilty yet?)
2. What’s the actual purpose of it?
- Attract newcomers? Not sure if a sign like that actually piques anyone’s interest. Gen-X and Yers would probably run for the hills in embarrassment.
- Sell an image? Only if the image is, ‘Hey, we’re trying to be funny and clever but aren’t really.’
- Bring people back to church? That might work if they feel particularly sinful and want a dose of moralism. Of course the problem is that by putting sin in the context of a witty tax-time remark actually trivialises sin and so may work against this.
Now at my church, I have to think about what to put on our signs as well. And I gotta admit, it’s not easy. Our current sign is pretty lame. It just advertises the tagline of our sermon series, ‘Epic Life’. It’s not great, but at least it’s not misleading, too cringe-worthy (I hope), or needs changing week-by-week. (Also it doesn’t use that many ‘Ns’. Ours is an interchangeable lettering sign. We’re always short of that letter for some reason.) However, my principle is: less is more. Better not to say anything than say the wrong thing.
So please, churches, sign-people, let’s minimise the cringe-factor and think well and hard about our signage.
I didn’t plan to take Karate lessons with my son Andrew on Monday nights. It wasn’t even something I was contemplating. But around two months ago, we signed up for GKR Karate and have been going weekly ever since. Now that’s not going to be of great interest to most people, but there’s a reason why I felt compelled to blog about it. ‘Coz the whole experience of getting ‘sucked in’ to sign-up and committed to Karate lessons has provided me a few thoughts as to how this particular Karate club has gained thousands of national and international students.
As Jesus said in Luke 16:8:
For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light.
So here’s my summary of some of the features of this particular Karate club that I believe churches and church leaders can perhaps gain some worldly wisdom from:
- Door-to-door introduction - our first contact wasn’t with a brochure in the letter box, but a karate instructor who visited each house door-to-door. And the difference between this person and a random person selling cheaper electricity plans, is that you knew that this person was doing it because they took part in it and believed in it.
- Prepared materials - when we invited the instructor in, she had a pack of info that she walked us through step-by-step. In the info pack were pictures, testimonials etc. Honestly, our particular instructor wasn’t the slickest and most articulate salesperson. However, she was genuine and she listened to our questions and concerns. That combination of preparation and yet personal interaction was gold.
- Wide appeal - what makes GKR Karate clever is, I believe, the fact that they have wide appeal. It appeals to those who want to get serious about karate and train lots and lots. It also appeals to families who might want to come and train together, but only a few times a month. It has different locations that you pay for on a per-lesson basis and so how much you want to buy-in is dependent entirely on you.
- Upfront but not total commitment - we paid a trial membership for four months and were encouraged to just go along to a few lessons and see for ourselves. If we wanted to upgrade to full membership (for life), we could do so after four months. There was no pressure to buy any gear, uniforms or other things while we were still checking things out. What was clever was you made an upfront financial commitment and yet weren’t signing for a lifetime membership that was more costly.
- Lessons were newcomer friendly - the first lesson recognised that we were new, got us involved, and yet gave us a lot of ‘slack’ when it came to what was going on. The best incentive to keep coming (and buy uniforms etc.) was provided by the other regulars who were there. They obviously enjoyed it, knew what was going on and wanted to be there. We found ourselves coveting uniforms and brightly covered belts before we knew it!
- Follow-up – I received a letter in the post after I joined and got a personal phone call after our first lesson. Imagine if churches all did that!
- Advancement and sense of achievement - GKR makes it easy to advance in the initial stages. It only takes 6 lessons for your first grading. Seeing little kids with higher belts was a great incentive to train and practise.
- Involvement in a community - what you’re drawn into is an extensive ‘GKR family’ that has regular tournaments and events at your disposal. Also, they have an interstate network so that if you wanted to attend training at any other centre, at any other time, you could just turn up. And so what binds you to people you’ve never even met is a shared experience.
- Flexibility - there are scores of regions, training centres, times all around Australia. Some cater more for kids and families, others for adults and higher grades. I’d find it difficult to imagine anyone not being able to find something that could suit them in terms of weekly commitment.
- Operational strategy - this is something we don’t get to see on the ground, but if you go to the website, you’ll find out that GKR seems well-organised. It’s a business with a business plan. And yet, the business serves the little ‘dojos’ that meet in your local high school on a weeknight and manages a host of current participants in its teaching and leadership structure. That balance between multi-million dollar business and intimate ‘congregations’ must be difficult to achieve, and yet I think they’ve done it.
Now how churches might take up or discard some of these observations, I’m not going to bother blogging about. However, I reckon sometimes it is good to look outside at ‘the people of this world’ in order that we might improve what we do in ways that are consistent with the unimprovable and unchangeable gospel.
Have you had similar reflections on the ‘wisdom of this world’ that have helped or might help your church practices? I’d love to hear them.