Notes from another country part 1
I’ve been leading a small Cornhill missions team this last week. We’ve been abroad somewhere hot and somewhere increasingly difficult to be a Christian. It’s probably not appropriate for me to say where (or necessary, even) because I don’t want to put believers at risk. But, as ever, my heart has been stirred and my faith has been challenged by being with believers from a different culture. For sure, other cultures have their blind spots – and they are painfully obvious. But, more to the point, being with Christians in another culture allows us to see our own blind spots more clearly. And it’s this I want to write about this week.
The preaching of the word is the thing. I know we think we know this. But do we really? At best, I sometimes wonder whether it’s just the ministers of western churches who appreciate this truth. Church members perhaps go along with it, maybe even some sign up for it – but on the whole it’s an alien concept. What struck me about this last week is that most church planting in this place comes stripped down. There are not fancy arguments about strategies, buildings, locations, music, evangelistic courses, staff and so on. That’s a luxury that most church planters don’t have. It tends to me one man and his Bible. And his church planting work is to go and preach.
Now I know the situations are not identical. There needs to be some culturalisation, sure. But is it not possible we overdo things? And church life here is often simpler. The churches where things are more complex tend to be those which have been influenced by the west. It’s quite possible for services to be not hugely different from a service back home: same song, same order, same jobs (there is a welcome rota!). But get out of the western influenced city-centre and church feels more raw, more basic. And in its basic form, it’s the preaching of the word that is at its centre.
I wonder if we did a little exercise in our churches and we stripped out things one by one, taking a vote each time – a kind of Church edition of Big Brother. Would preaching be last in? I somehow doubt it. And we have to admit that some of the fault for that comes from the front. I recently participated in a service where there was no sermon, nor any thought that one might be needed. That’s extraordinary. But might some of our people feel the same. And how are we going to grip them again with the centrality of the preached word? It’s a thought that is weighing heavily on me.
Too much of a good thing
Most ministers are reasonably well educated or, at least, have the time to immerse themselves in some richly rewarding reading. But it’s easy for us to make the mistake of thinking that our people have the same access and time to make such reading rewarding. I recently had a conversation with a mature Christian (a believer for 50 years+) who told me that they had never read a Christian book. I was surprised, but perhaps I should not have been.
Casual recommendations in our sermons then, can sometimes do more harm than good. For one thing, that may be because we make Christianity seem a very cerebral and academic study. I worry about this a lot: increasingly in our time poor culture, our pastoral strategy seems to be “let me recommend a book on that.” Don’t get me wrong: I love books and want to promote them, and promote Christian reading. But the books are not our pastors.
The other concern is the kind of thing we are often recommending. I’ve been reminded about this because I’ve just been re-reading Calvin on prayer (Book 3). I love it. I remember first reading it and this one chapter making more difference to my prayer life (and still doing so) than anything I had read before or since. But reading it again, I realise that some of it (much?) is impenetrable. In fact, a long term wish project of mine that I pick up and put down every now and again is to produce a paraphrase of the chapter as a separate book.
But reading through one sentence this morning again and again I realise I have absolutely no idea what it means. Am I allowed to say that? After a while, a light will dawn (I hope!). But for me to stand at the front of church and say with enthusiasm “you must read Calvin on prayer” is profoundly unhelpful to the majority of our congregation. I am not serving them at all.
The Reformers and Puritans, huh? You can have too much of a good thing.
How do preaching and corporate prayer work together
Reformation Heritage Books have sent me this snappily titled little book (just 25 pages) on a very important subject. I wanted to like this book very much for it is a subject dear to my heart. But here’s the problem: the point is, sadly, not made.
The book is, essentially, a Ryan McGraw sermon on John 14.12-14. Ryan says some very useful things on preaching and some very useful things on prayer (together with some sharply pointed application for the corporate prayer meeting, all of which – as it happens – I agree with).
But his thesis turns on the fact that Jesus words in John 14 are describing corporate prayer. He begins this explanation by saying that “the book of Acts illustrates that it is not simply prayer in view [in John] but corporate prayer.” Really? Given how much we make of the tension between the normative and descriptive in Acts, that needs to be proved. And Ryan tries to do this next: “The plural form of the verbs in John (“ye ask”, “if ye shall ask”) indicates this as well….Jesus did not tell His apostles simply to pray as individuals, but together, asking as one body. This shows that He envisioned His people praying together with one heart and one compelling purpose.”
Too much. This seems to me, at least, an exercise in rather casual exegesis. True enough, the words are plural. And true that Jesus sometimes addresses a group of believers in the singular when he is talking about private matters (Matthew 6.6 a good example). True even that this verb matched with a plural is a John favourite. But it is also true that he address groups of believers in the plural, even when he is talking about private matters (see Matthew 5.11). In fact, in the very verse Ryan is expounding (v.12) Jesus uses the plural you to describe the greater things that will be done. These are ‘Spirit empowered preaching for the conversion of sinners.’ By definition, this is a singular work. It is not a corporate activity.
In other words, I don’t think the point is made. It certainly – for me – requires more explanation. Shame though, because I’m convinced the overall point is right; it just seems to require of this particular text more than it can bear.
Which is a sober thought for every preacher.
EMA 2015 – New Buddy rates
I first went to the EMA because someone invited me. Thanks Mr G. Most people do. I guess some people see the advertising or get an email, but the most powerful advert for any event is always a personal testimony. And inviting someone else is a great way to serve them and get to know them better. Perhaps there is another minister in the next village alone, beleaguered and in need of encouragement? Perhaps another leader in your own church? Perhaps a potential leader in the making who could take some time off work to taste and see? Perhaps someone on the periphery of our circles who you would like to draw in? Or save from moving away?
For all these kinds of guys, we’ve introduced a new rate at the EMA. We’re calling it the Buddy Rate and it’s for 2 people – as long as one is new. We’re going to trust you on this one, but if you book through the Buddy Rate you get two three day places for £195. Who could you serve this year?
Preaching and corporate prayer
I’ve just been sent a booklet to review from Reformation Heritage Books called How do preaching and corporate prayer work together? Not the snappiest of titles! And I’m posting this before I even read it! That’s because – before I get any answers from Ryan McGraw – I’ve been trying to think through the answer for myself.
How would you answer? There must be a link, mustn’t there? But how many of our prayer meetings reflect it? How many spontaneous prayers are there for the preaching of the word and the preachers? It’s not – I guess – top of the list of petitions.
Surely, given the nature of preaching, it should be? There may be manifold reasons why such prayer is uncommon, but may one be – at the very least – you don’t know the answer to the question yourself? Our people, we have to grudgingly admit, generally take their lead from the front.
Some new small group material
One of the key issues for me with small groups is finding the right material. As regular readers know, recently we’ve overcome this issue by simply reading the Bible together. Other times we’ve used our own home grown material. But I’ve recently had a detailed look at some new material that I’m very excited about. It’s a joint venture between The Good Book Company and The Gospel Coalition producing material for Adult Sunday School or small groups. It’s produced with the US market in mind, and some might possibly think that rules it out for use in the UK. Not a bit of it.
I really like this material. It is thoroughly biblical with – I think – the right amount of didactic teaching and then discussion (often with the applications being worked out in the discussion). I’ve taken a look at Gospel-shaped worship which has Jared Wilson as the main teacher (see a sample video here). The workbooks are well produced and the videos very accessible – or, in a kind of Christianity Explored way, you can do the talks yourself.
One of the things I like about the material is that it is truly innovative. For each session there is a didactic part, a Bible study and some follow up devotional material to use (or not) throughout the week. In other words, the leader can dip into the various elements in a way that is suitable for the group. I think there’s probably too much material in each session for a standard group – I would imagine using the bulk of the material over two weeks for each session.
I think it’s well worth a look and if you’re along at one of our conferences soon, look out for some great pricing that makes the curriculum accessible.
I love small groups. But.
One of the great privileges I have is leading a small group at church. I love it. Small groups are great for many things. They are great for Bible studies (although finding good material can be a struggle – see tomorrow’s post). They are good for evangelism. They are good for developing meaningful relationships where we can encourage one another with the gospel and speak the truth in love. They are superb places to pray in informed and honest ways for one another. They are good for singing. It’s a great opportunity to share a meal. Small groups are brilliant for pastoral and practical care. And more.
We can overreach. A small group is not a church. A small group Bible study is not preaching. A prayer time is not the church gathered to pray together. It is not an insular group that never serves others in the congregation.
In other words, it’s quite possible to overstate the purpose and role of the small group. They are, of course, a relatively recent phenomenon in the church. We should thank God for their development, but the relative newness of the idea should make us cautious about loading all our ecclesiological eggs into this basket.
Small groups are brilliant. But they are not church.
I confess to being a serial sufferer of post Sunday blues when I’ve been preaching. For those who have never experienced this phenomenon (really?) this is the “down” some preachers feel after a hard Sunday or a preach into which we’ve put everything. I used to think it was caused by outside factors – for example, not enough good comments on the door! Or, perhaps, some distractions during the sermon that made me think the message wasn’t clearly heard.
But over the years, I’ve begun to realise that it starts internally not externally. It’s not fundamentally about how the word was received but the heart of the one who delivered it. That’s been a hard lesson for me to learn, and I still suffer. But here’s the landscape of my heart.
I’ve tried to analyse what is going on and here are my conclusions. My Monday Blues are caused by:
– a lack of confidence in the Spirit of God to take the word of God and make Jesus real to people. Of course, I want to preach as well as I am able, to be faithful, to illustrate helpfully and apply appropriately. I labour with all my strength for those things. But the effectiveness of the word of God is not – ultimately – dependent upon those. Praise God. The trouble is that my labours are so energy sapping that I begin to persuade myself that the effectiveness of the sermon is precisely about those things.
– an over-confidence in my own ability to save the world. We have a little saying at PT Towers that we often use to encourage one another. It goes something like this: “you are not the Messiah.” Repeat after me. But the nature of pastoral work is that others often think we are, and we begin to convince ourselves that it is true. It is not.
These are two root untruths that I have to battle and which cause my own Monday Blues. Perhaps yours are different. And here is my antidote: I learnt it from a well known preacher. It is to pray as much after the sermon for the sermon as I do before. Many preachers struggle to pray before, to be honest. But we must learn and cultivate the discipline of praying after. It’s this discipline that has helped me fight the untruths and try (not always successfully) to banish those Monday Blues.
The forgotten cross
I’ve been reading Lee Gatiss’ excellent new little book, The forgotten cross, as part of my devotions these last two weeks. It a series of edited sermons on the cross, focusing especially on those aspects of the cross that a narrow focus on penal substitution alone might sideline. Lee explains carefully in the foreword that the book is not meant to detract from penal substitution as the main paradigm of understanding the cross, but that the Bible doctrine is considerably broader and deeper than just one focus.
The book is relatively short, but does require some thinking. That’s a good thing. The doctrine of the cross is at the heart of the deep things of God. It’s not, therefore, a superficial book, there is depth to it. That’s why – despite its length – it’s taken me two weeks to get through it. There’s plenty to ponder along the way, much to rejoice in and things to repent of as well. I’ve felt all these emotions.
I expect it to feature at this year’s EMA; it certainly deserves to do so. It does use the ESV (making it one step removed from some church congregations), and there is a rather untimely illustration about not being able to treat Prince Andrew with disrespect! But these are very minor niggles. I heartily commend it for your own soul, Mr Preacher, and for those of your people.
Today in The Times
It’s not often that there’s a good Christian article in the otherwise secular press. But today’s Thunderer in The Times is an exception to the rule. CoMission get an honourable mention!
“Justin Welby’s biggest fight to date has been with sharks — the loan sharks he wants the church to drive out of business. But this week the Archbishop of Canterbury took on an even bigger fish: his own church. Speaking in New York, he warned against sermons containing “moral claptrap” that boiled down to “wouldn’t the world be a nicer place if we were all a bit nicer?” This will be welcome news to many who have darkened the doors of an Anglican church from time to time or listened to a bishop on the Today programme’s “Thought for the Day” slot.
“The archbishop is perhaps responding to market forces. Churches that preach conviction rather than claptrap appear to be growing. Research by the statistician Peter Brierley suggests that 83 per cent of churches with congregations of more 350 describe themselves as “evangelical”. Two thirds of churches that describe themselves as “conservative evangelical” have grown in the past decade, with a third growing by more than 33 per cent every year.
“But in a paper on church growth — or, perhaps more accurately, church decline — for next month’s General Synod, the archbishops of Canterbury and York focus on the organisation of the church, the diversity of clergy, credit unions and social media. All useful stuff, but there isn’t a single mention of scripture or indeed belief, save for a concluding Bible verse. Without it, the church becomes a civic social club that happens to have pretty windows and colourful uniforms — and one that will continue to decline at an average of 1 per cent every year.
“The Co-Mission group of churches is excellent at attracting newcomers but it’s the strength of their belief, summed up by Paul in I Timothy i, 15, that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners — of whom I am the worst”, that encourages those newcomers to return. Otherwise people have no more reason to return than they do to stay at home and read a good book rather than the Good Book.
“The Church of England’s first female bishop, Libby Lane, is enthusiastic but clearly wary in interviews of saying what she believes. Yet showing that it believes in something will secure the future of the church. If Archbishop Welby manages to impress that upon his clergy, it will be a far greater victory than over any shark.”