EMA: first call
It’s time to start planning to come to the EMA this year. Over the last few years, we’ve tried to focus on topics that we think are essential for evangelical preachers. We’ve dealt with the work of the Spirit, engagement, the heart, Christian identity. This year’s topic is probably the least glamorous of them all but the most important: perseverance.
Too many preachers think they will simply keep going. The reality is very different. The dropout rate from ministry is as high as it has ever been. We set ourselves (and churches set us) unrealistic targets and working expectations. We get caught up in the worldly way of thinking about career. We indulge in a spot of Messiah-complex and convince ourselves we are out to save our world/nation/city/locality (delete as applicable) single-handedly.
What is going to stop you from falling away? Unless you have your head in the sand, you need to realise that this is a real and tangible risk – a statistical reality. We’ve planned this year’s programme to address precisely this issue.
And it’s teaching that everyone needs to hear. Those nearing the finish line need help to make it over: one final push. Those in the middle years need help to lift their heads and keep the pace. Those near the start need a dose of reality and an understanding that only in setting realistic patterns will they endure the next 50 years.
And of course all of this is done by fixing our eyes on the author and perfecter of our faith. So, above all, it is a conference about looking to Jesus. And that is certainly something we all need. Book now.
I’ve had the delight this week of preaching at my daughter’s wedding. Song of Songs, thanks for asking. It’s not an easy preaching gig, a wedding, though it is, of course, a delight. Part of the complexity comes from trying to do lots of things at the same time.
First, I’m wanting to bring a specific word to the couple in question. Second, I want to encourage other believers, whether married or not (if married, perhaps about their own marriages, if not, then about how they can support and pray for married couples). Third, I want to speak a word to unbelievers. And all of this in about a third of the time I would normally preach for and with a need to provide more “breathing space” than a regular sermon.
As I say, a tough gig, made more difficult by the fact that there are a lot of distractions. Most people are thinking about the happy couple and you’re just a blip on the landscape until the reception. It’s one of the reasons that I pass onto grooms some advice I first heard from the man Johnny Prime up at Enfield. He tells grooms that the talk their guests will really listen to is his, not the preachers. And so, although the preacher prepares assuming people will listen, it’s the groom’s speech where the gospel work can really be done.
I love this advice and use it liberally myself. But of course we still preach all out. And my 20 minute sermon (“at most,” says Mrs R) needs to do all I’ve described above whilst still being – at heart – a rigorous exposition. That means that prep time is about the same as for a longer more complex passage. It means more illustrations than usual. It means drawing sharp and clear lines of application, even more so than normal. It is a sermon on steroids in other words.
Evangelicals in the media
In the last week there have been two notable bits of media coverage of evangelicals in the UK. The first was a late night BBC documentary, the Battle for Christianity. It presented Christianity as battling to stay alive, but flourishing in some areas. Notably, these were all evangelical. The presenter, a now slightly liberal Pentecostal professor, Robert Beckford, did his best to present the hope for Christianity in its broadest terms, but it was a hopeless case. He pointed out that the only parts of the church flourishing were those that held often unacceptable moral views in our liberal society. He failed to join the dots on this connection and expressed a vain hope that evangelicalism might continue to grow, but his form of it, i.e. with a slightly more liberal approach to issues such as gay marriage – he quoted the now discredited research which shows that a large proportion of under 30s Anglicans supporting same sex marriage.
But, despite the Professor’s best efforts, the reality was there for all to see. The only full and growing churches were evangelicals (of various hues, it must be admitted) which took a conservative line on these moral issues. Join the dots!
The second piece of coverage was more broadly about Christianity. It was the annual survey in The Times on registered places of worship. Now, such a survey is almost completely meaningless for three key reasons. First, Anglicans are excluded from the survey. Second, it is only concerned with registered places of worship and many meeting halls and church buildings are not registered. Third, and perhaps most importantly, no distinction is drawn between the size of occupancy and the building. It could be 4,000 Christians in one place, it could be 4.
In other words, we must not draw too many conclusions from it (unlike The Times!). Nevertheless, there is one clear message because it gives a scale of churches closing (Methodist, Baptist, URC, even Catholic), Mosques growing, but Evangelical/Pentecostal churches also growing. In other words, it is clear where our Christian hope lies. Don’t give up.
Denomination/Buildings/Growth since 2010
Other Christian (7,629/1.5%)
Roman Catholic (3,558/-2.5%)
Salvation Army (830/-3.2%)
John Piper: Money, sex and power – a very brief review
I’ve just finished reading John Piper’s new book with The Good Book Company: Money, sex and power – living in the light. I’m always slightly sceptical about Piper books – I remember him being interviewed by Willie Philip once and saying “If you’ve read one of my books you’ve read them all.” There is some truth in that – but this one is different as it applies more rigorously. Perhaps it’s the focus of having three subjects to work with, but I appreciated the way he worked through each one.
They started as talks at the Co-Mission conference in 2015 and it’s quite possible to appreciate the sermonic and pastoral intent behind each subject. But just because they work as talks does not guarantee they work on paper, as anyone who has tried to make the transition knows. I’m very grateful then for those who helped make this happen.
There are three substantial sections on (no surprises) money, sex and power that we Western Christians need to hear. There is a useful closing chapter on realigning our focus back to Christ. All good. Solid, more than solid, in fact.
Spring Wives 2016 media
The talks from our recent Spring Wives conference are now online in both audio and video form. We had Rupert Bentley Taylor on Judges and Liz Cox on Hebrews. If you want a flavour of the main teaching at our conferences, this is a great place to start. Our summer wives conference is filling up, but there’s still some space (4-7 July). It’s for those whose husbands are just starting out in ministry. Next year’s spring wives conference runs from 6-9 March 2017 and there’s already been a flurry of bookings. It’s never too early to book, especially because planning to come is almost never straightforward but almost always worthwhile.
The ambiguity of the world
There is a sense in which the world is unambiguous in its hostility to Christ. We should not be surprised at this, nor clutch at straws when people say that they do things out of some kind of loyalty to “god” (whoever he may be for them). No, confronted with Christ, he becomes a stumbling block to those refuse to believe.
Nevertheless, we also believe in common grace so that the world is not as bad as it could be and individuals, though steeped in sin which affects every part of them, sometimes do good things. God is good. Dealing with this ambiguity – seeing God working good in those who are not good in relation to them – is not always straightforward.
Broadly speaking, some of us are far too accommodating of such moral “niceness”. Others (and perhaps this is more likely to be an evangelical trait) are far too critical and dismissive. We struggle to hold, in other words, the tension between common grace and saving grace.
I was thinking about this as I watched the BBC adaptation of The Night Manager. It was a very classy affair, and at £3m an episode, deserved to be. But what struck me most was the happy ending – everything resolved cleanly. I like John le Carre books (from which this is adapted). And one of the things I like most is he manages to maintain something of this ambiguity – his books are very thoughtful. The original ending to The Night Manager was much less clean (and, ironically, more redemptive, as one person sacrificed career to save another’s life).
Perhaps it’s because evangelicals live in Hollywood land that we expect everything to be so black and white. At one (spiritual) level they are. You are saved or you are not. But at the moral level at which the world operates, because of common grace, things are a lot greyer. That may make you frustrated, but in the end it is a good thing, for a world without common grace would be desperate indeed.
I mentioned yesterday that Naselli’s conclusion to the Perspectives book on the extent of the atonement is first class. That warrants a bit more explanation. He tries to summarise the argument whilst clearly holding one of the views strongly himself. He has a list of ten warnings which are worth repeating. Some obviously require further explanation, but you’ll have to buy the book for that! These are listed as ten ways to create unhealthy schism over the extent of the atonement.
1. Uncharitably denigrating other positions
2. Setting up and tearing down straw men
3. Viewing other evangelical views as heresy
4. Insufficiently defining a personal position
5. Claiming that a personal view is the result of exegesis and biblical theology but not systematic theology (this one perhaps warrants further explanation; everyone, says Naselli, has a structure of systematic theology)
6. Overemphasising the importance of the atonement’s extent
7. Assuming that only non Calvinists can tell a non-Christian “Jesus died for you”
8. Requiring that others adhere to a particular view when flexibility is appropriate
9. Giving the impression that complete understanding is possible regarding the extent of the atonement.
10. Holding a personal position with sinful pride.
Many of these could equally be applied to some other secondary discussions!
Perspectives on the extentof the atonement – review
I’ve just finished reading the new Broadman and Holman book “Perspectives on the extent of the atonement; three views“. It’s one of those books where each person puts his view (definite, Carl Trueman, general, Grant Osborne and multiple intention, John Hammett) and then replies briefly to the others.
This is a vexed question and one you may have little time for. I urge you to think again. For our view of this doctrine might (not must, notice) lead us down some funny paths. Whilst it is not true, for example, that believing in limited atonement will make you a poor evangelist, it might do so, and so on (every view has a risky outcome).
In other words, we’ve always got to be thinking pastorally about our theological positions. We don’t change our positions because they become pastorally difficult (that’s precisely what some are doing with same sex marriage). But we are not naive either. We do think carefully. This volume really helped me do that – I appreciated both the brief outline of each position and the gracious interaction that followed.
It all felt like an important debate conducted in a proper manner. Top marks all round – and ultimately more helpful for me (I think because of size) than the enormous From heaven he came and sought her. Oh, and the conclusion by David Naselli is absolutely first class.
Dysfunctional families, turn to page…
Teaching the Jacob narrative recently at Cornhill, I found myself describing the account of the birth of Jacob’s children in Genesis 29.31-30.24 as a state of affairs worthy of an appearance on the Jeremy Kyle Show (which of course, I must hasten to add, I don’t make a habit of watching. Is it still on?!). Here is a man fathering lots of children by four different women, two of whom are feuding sisters who end up bartering for his reproductive services with mandrake plants (30.14-16), which according to the commentaries were an ancient aphrodisiac (and not one of those dangerous magical plants from Harry Potter). It’s all rather distasteful, and is probably the low-point for Jacob in his role in the emerging covenant family. It portrays a family that is, to use a modern coinage, rather dysfunctional.
Why is it included in Scripture? (a good question to train ourselves to ask). We might think that this was surely one event which Israel would have liked to airbrush out of its history. I also take it as a small argument in favour of the historicity of this part of Genesis: a nation that indulges in myth-making to account for its own origins is surely going to invent a rather more gilded family life than this for the man after whom it is named.
I asked students what the purpose might have been for Israel, if we take it that this was written for the nation as it stood on the verge of entering the promised land. Two good answers came back:
– an encouragement: God gave birth to the nation in the midst of human mess, so whatever mess they would get themselves into once in the land would not thwart his purpose
– to bring them down a peg or two in their own eyes: God was about to give them other people’s land, taking it from them in judgement. But let Israel not imagine that this was because they were any better than those other nations: just read this story about the kinds of people you’re descended from.
This is of course not the only ‘Jeremy Kyle’ moment in the history of the patriarch’s family: battles between Cain and Abel, Sarah and Hagar, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers; the foolish favouritism of Isaac and Rebekah. It’s a pretty consistent theme through Genesis. I suspect the reason I don’t personally resonate with it much is because the family in which I happen to have been blessed to grow up did not have these kinds of dysfunctionality on display for all to see. But I did notice in pastoral ministry how often people who lived very obviously in midst of dysfunctionality all the time loved these stories: here are people whose lives are as messy as mine! And God’s people are named after one of them!! I discovered that for some people that was a great relief because they really thought that the open secret of the church is that only people whose families appear to be squeaky clean can really be in the top rank of keen Christians.
Now of course, as we track this Genesis family theme carefully through to the NT we’re probably going to want to make sure that we go through Christ first of to the church, the household of God. But it must also be right to speak from these chapters about us and our messed up families, both in warning and encouragement. I suspect that for many, whatever their social status, that will come as a great relief.
Christians in Sport podcast
It’s taken me a while to get round to this, but I’m glad I did. Christians in Sport have a new podcast – a substantial programme exploring the relationship between sport and faith. In the first episode Graham Daniels interviews Cyril Regis. The second and third are with Debbie Flood and Garin Jenkins. It’s well worth spreading the news about these in your church. Why?
First, because there will be many in your church who love sport and these are powerful testimonies. Testimony has an important (but sadly dwindling) place in church life and these may be just what are needed to encourage some of your guys and girls.
Second, they are an important piece of our evangelistic armoury. This works in two ways. Some people are obsessed with sport and will hear nothing else except sport chat – well, if that is the case then why not pass on some Christian sport chat. But there are also another group who think Christianity is so ridiculous that no one could possibly believe it. Such people need to hear their heroes confess – so we need Christian scientists, Christian doctors, Christian poliiticians and so on speaking up for their faith.
And Christian sportmen/women. Here’s a great place to start.