Ephesians and the church on fire
I've just been doing the final editing for Teaching Ephesians, due out in a couple of months and ably written by Simon Austen. What I love about his book is that he relates everything in Ephesians (especially the well known passages) to the big ideas that are going on – especially the purposes of God in Christ and the power of the Spirit to make one new man – and that the church is the foretaste of the ultimate purposes of God – no wonder it attracts Satan's demonic activity. It is surprising how much difference this makes to well known passages ("be filled with the Spirit", "put on the full armour of God" even "wives, submit to your husbands"). I'm reminded once again that knowing how something fits into its context makes a big difference as we wrestle with both meaning and application.
The church, therefore, in all its wonder, is the present expression of eternity, a demonstration of where history is heading. She has been described as ‘God’s pilot scheme for the reconciled universe of the future.’ But as such, the church is under attack. If it is by our love one for another that the world might see we are disciples of Jesus (John 13:34, 35); if the church thereby becomes the most powerful apologetic for the gospel, then it will be the church which finds herself under attack. No wonder it is so difficult to ‘be church.’ Our battle to be what we are in Christ is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Satan does not want the church either to be formed (by gospel proclamation) or to live as it should (in gospel ethics). And he does not want the church to live as the church (what we might call ‘Gospel living’). And so we need the armour of God, the armour he gives to his Messiah in battle; the armour of Christ. As we put on his armour, as we understand who we are in Christ, so the battle can be won. For Christ has been exalted far above all rule and authority, power and dominion. It is in him that the battle to be the church is won. No wonder Paul is so keen to make it clear that we have every spiritual blessing in Christ and that we have been raised with him. We can be the church and we understand the significance of our identity being in him.
And so Ephesians does have a single theme, from which many implications flow; a theme of what it means to be the church, in Christ, reconciled and raised with him; and what that new community, created in the heavenly realms, should look like in the earthly realm. ‘A proper understanding of God’s intention in Christ has to do with each of these two spheres and what is represented by them, as well as the bond between the two.’
It is wonderfully heartening to know that the churches of which we are a part and within which we minister are not the irrelevant rumps that society would have us believe, but a profound picture of where history is heading and a living apologetic for the gospel. When we unlock Ephesians we set the church on fire.
Speeding up through the Exodus tabernacle passages
Hands up whose preached through Exodus and got faster when it comes to all the Tabernacle building regs (chapters 25-30). Thought so. Me too. But these chapters are hardly incidental. In fact, wondrously and almost beyond our imagining, the tabernacle they describe "what is in heaven" (Hebrews 8.5). "That is why Moses was warned when he was about to build the tabernacle, 'See to it that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown you on the mountain.'"
So, back in Exodus, we need to have a fundamental shift in our thinking in order to do justice to what is going on. In the words of Ed Clowney (and I paraphrase): "At Sinai, God gave not only his law but his presence" – and that is why so much is written about the tabernacle. Now, slow down in those chapters, preacher.
A colourful phrase
I suggested on Tuesday that using notes allowed one to make use of one or two memorable phrases, phrases with colour and life and vitality. Here's one example I've just read in our forthcoming book Teaching Ephesians by Simon Austen. It is on the section Ephesians 6:10-20:
When the church lives as the church, Satan sniffs the smoke of the lake of fire (Rev 20).
Ooh! I love that. That is a phrase with colour and impact.
I was asked this week what books I was taking away at Easter (a week's holiday then a five day trip to the US for T4G, but back at home base for Good Friday and Easter Sunday). I must confess I hadn't given this too much thought and so listed some books I need to read for reviews and for possible EMA stage recommendations. I was rightly told by Mrs R when I got home that work books should stay at work. She was right. When you're in ministry you're reading a lot and I find it is actually quite hard to take Christian books away and not be in work mode – so in order to relax and unwind I need to take some non Christian stuff. Good old Mrs R. If you're a heavy reader AND you find it hard to leave work behind, I recommend this – at the very least take some Christian material that is very different from the normal kind of thing you might read. I know some mighty men read John Owen on the beach, but for most of us mere mortals, something else works better to refresh and recharge our minds as well as our hearts.
(Please no postcards about my lack of spirituality)
Here, then is my reading whilst I am away. Not sure how much of it I will manage, but I will have a go:
- Between the assassinations by Aravind Adiga. I enjoyed his first book (White Tiger) and I love anything about India
- Double Cross: Ben Macintyre: this is the story of double agents in WWII. I love anything he writes and this is right up my street.
- God is back: John Micklethwait. This is more of a thinking book about the resurgence of religion
- Stonemouth: Iain Banks. Never really been an Iain Bnks fan, but I'm going to try again
- Sugar Girls by Duncan Barrett. It's difficult to live in the east end of London and escape the Tate and Lyle factories down at the docks. I smell them as I cycle around. The syrup tin is not only the oldest recognisable trademark, but is also, to my knowledge, the only product in Sainsbury with a Bible text (and associated image) on it.
There, Robin, is your answer!
A few people have asked for examples of sermon notes. I'm extremely hesitant to do this because, quite simply, what works for me is unlikely to work for you. And vice versa. However, having written about sermon notes, I now feel under some sort of moral obligation to reveal my hand. Here are two kinds. The notes on the left I tend to use when I'm very familiar with my material which is not, sadly I confess, as often as it should be. The notes on the right are more common. I tend to use a full manuscript, as you can see, but I highlight certain words in my prep and tend to preach from the highlighted words. I used to go through a state of writing out just the highlighted words, but realised that I was only doing that for my own pride and satisfaction. For those interested, the notes on the right are annotated on an iPad from which I preach. Perhaps I might post on that another time. It will now be my life's work to get the notes of some of my colleagues onto the blog, as I don't want to face the ignominy alone.
Is preaching without notes the most authentic? Part 2
As a follow up to this post about preaching without notes, here are some more thoughts; I've had these because I've just listened to a recording of a sermon. I try to do this fairly regularly to keep in touch with guys and keep in touch with preaching. Contrary to what some people think, there is no PT model of preaching in terms of style etc and so listening to people preach is a great way of learning for oneself as well as hearing the general trends and issues that need addressing.
This particular sermon was one preached without notes and whereas my previous post was theoretical, this one is practical. I want to say again that preaching without notes is not necesarily more spiritual than preaching with. There is, of course, good preaching with notes and good preaching without. There is bad preaching with notes and bad preaching without. But preaching without notes, particularly if you're not suited to it, does not make the sermon necessarily better.
In this particular case, here are some of my observations. I make these cautiously. I wasn't there in person and I know that the Spirit of God takes even my rubbish words and uses them in preaching. Moreover there was lots of good content, it had all the right things. However:
- the sermon was very repetitive; key phrases kept resurfacing. Sometimes this is helpful; but at times it felt like these were just padding time and didn't add anything to the message
- there was little logical flow – more a series of separate ideas. Of course, good prep can negate this. As can even a very brief set of notes.
- sentences were often chopped in half. I'm not sure. Why this was. But it was. And after a while. It became annoying. It may be. Because the speaker. Was thinking of. His next line.
- there were no beautiful words. I know we're not making parliamentary speeches. And our speech needs to be for the farm boy as much as for the scholar. Nevertheless, as many great preachers have observed over the years – a nice phrase here and there with colour and warmth can really bring otherwise solid but uninspiring words alive. (There is a brilliant chapter here on Christian eloquence by John Piper)
- there was little variation. I like variation in tone and speed and volume. Sometimes using notes actually helps this – for example as a preacher feels a bit freer in a section he knows well
The observant will note, rightly, that none of these are necessarily faults of speaking without notes. I agree. And if someone is good at doing so, then all of them can be overcome. But interestingly, in this particular case, these weaknesses (which may be down to lack of confidence or experience) can all be overcome by using notes. So, I'm hestitant to make hard and fast rules for myself, let alone others. But preaching without notes is not the most authentic. This is true theoretically. It is true practically.
It’s all in the projection
Most of us preside over church meetings/services (choose your language as appropriate). And an increasing number of us do that in churches which don't use hymn books or printed sheets but by means of projection. There are good reasons for this being a good idea. People tend to sing into books/sheets. Most churches notice, when switching from paper to projection, that the singing improves and, I think, it is far easier for singing this way to be the encouraging corporate thing it ought to be.
But we'd be naïve to pretend that there were not issues with it. Chief among these is that we project words very poorly. We tend to do so in a way that allows people at the back to see them (very commendable), but that means that verses/sentences and thoughts are often divided. It's very hard to sing meaningfully when this happens. Here's a very basic example:
This is page 1 of my imaginary song. It's very hard to sing this with any gusto, and certainly any meaning without knowing what it is I'm supposed to be praising God for. So it needs page 2:
Ah, now it has meaning. But only when the two are joined together. You might think this is a stupid example, but here is a real one. Ironically, when we were growing up it was also a problem in our hymn book when the hymn crossed the page and we, as stupid teens, used to snigger at the split:
One wonders (if you didn't know the hymn) quite what point is being made. Slide 2 might not help much either:
These slides are not just meaningless without slide 3, they are quite possibly leading you to sing something you don't really mean. Of course, many people probably know the hymn. And no one would expect a hymn to big up sin! But what about those who don't know it? And, anyhow, how are we going to sing meaningfully without the full idea? So slide 3 is needed to complete one of the most glorious lines in hymnody.
So how should it look? Like this, I think:
Now, immediately you can see a problem. More-words-on-the-screen is harder to read. Font size has to be smaller. Both true. But I maintain that you must overcome those difficulties and project full ideas. Otherwise you'd be better off with books. I happen to like projecting song words – I think it has much to commend it; that's not the point of this post. But if you do project, you need to think about it clearly and theologically. How best can you help people sing together? It may be that you need more than one screen or repeaters. It may be that you need to invest time in arranging songs well. Both are jobs that might get little attention in church. But if singing is as important as we think it is, make the investment.
Human hands, God’s fingerprints
Just scanning through the latest issue of Leadership magazine and came across an article which was asking church leaders to explain how they 'planned worship experiences that generate worshipful people rather than spoiled consumers.' Kevin DeYoung's response is worth repeating in full and should be the mantra for every man responsible for leading God's people:
To be honest this isn't something we consciously think about. Our aim is not first of all to produce an effect in the congregation. Our first aim is to worship God in a way that is biblical and pleasing to him. Of course, we do think through the flow of the service. We want the music and the technical aspects to be conducted with undistracting excellence. But those are things we can control.
The real work is the work we can't control, the work only God can do. For real heart change, conversion, sanctification, and everything else that matters for eternity we rely explicitly and wholly on the Word of God and prayer. This is what God promises to bless and promises to use to build up his people: the Word spoken in preaching and seen in the sacraments, and the prayers of his people to unleash the power the Spirit's power.
Like the farmer who went to sleep and work up to find a crop, we trust the Word of God to do the work of God.
Can we see without special effects?
The same issue of Leadership I mentioned yesterday also contains an interesting article by John Ortberg. He is arguing that we do not need special effects to see Christ. Amen to that. But I'm not quite with him. See what you make of his conclusion:
Clearly in the Bible, spiritual leaders found ways to get people to pay attention. The prophets would use such props as plumb lines and cisterns. They would set a record for most days spent lying on one side. They would bury and dig up undergarments. They would marry women with shady reputations. Their lives often looked like something between performance art and reality TV.
Jesus himself was both a riveting teacher as well a prophet and a worker of miracles. But it's striking that Jesus and the other apostles would sometimes refuse to do miracles. They didn't depend on them for the essence of their message. It seems like celestial special effects have limited impact….. The danger of special effects is that we begin to demand them and to demand more and more spectacular ones. Our attention can be arrested by deeply dramatic moments. But our character cannot be reformed by dramatic moments alone. That demands a longer, slower, less glamorous process.
On the whole, I agree with his thrust. But I don't think it's quite the whole picture. True, occasionally the prophets did use 'props' – but he has outlined above pretty much every prop in all the many chapters of the prophets. Most of the time they spoke and it was always enough. The props might have illustrated the message but they didn't give it power. True, Jesus was a riveting teacher and miracle worker. But there was power in his words, not just interesting stuff. His voice called people to follow him and they dropped everything. His words spoke to demons and they were gone. Similarly in the preaching of the apostles there was power.
Longer? Slower? Less glamorous? Perhaps. But just as powerful. More powerful. Because what drama ever raised the dead? What prop brought power to a prophet's message?
Preach the word, in season and out.
Now, here's an interesting idea. Some churches/groups struggle in meetings without music even though they would like some. There's now an iPhone/iPad app that provides music for songs and hymns broken down into sections and the user can select which section to play in which order, even changing in the middle of a song. The tracks are mixable, so you can have vocals or no vocals, guitars or no guitars etc. It seems really high quality and the transitions between different segments are seamless. There's one free track at the moment – and though it is not a song I would necessarily choose, it displays the abilities of the app very ably. It can also project song words. Each song is not cheap, at £1.49 each. But once you have spent the investment, you have a really good resource. I'm liking this a lot and can imagine situations where it would be very useful – e.g. when we sing in our small fellowship groups (you do this too, right?). Importantly, you can tailor each song to your own style. So if you're dependent on a recorded track you don't have to follow their set up, instrumentation, or repeat pattern. Result. Oh, and it's fun to use!!
More info here or search for iSingWorship in the app store (app is free).