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.”
Sex problems for Christians
Marriages sometimes fail or struggle because of unresolved sexual issues or problems. That is a well documented fact. Christian marriages are, unsurprisingly, no different. We think differently about sex itself, of course (which is always, at least, some of the answer). But Christians also suffer from loss of libido, sexual sin, mistrust and physical difficulties.
It’s amazing then, how little Christian help is on offer. I guess most pastors would be prepared to do some marriage counselling, but feel incredibly awkward about any kind of sexual counselling. In one sense, that’s exactly how it should be. Sexual intimacy within marriage is a private picture of a spiritual reality. Any kind of talk or involvement from others outside the marriage feels like a violation. But sometimes such talk is needed. And where’s the help?
You don’t find much Christian sexual help. A very few good books (and Mrs R and I have written another, which is on its way – A biblical view of sex). But very often in these cases couples don’t want or need another book slapped in front of them. There’s little in the way of accredited help. Partly that’s because accreditation means signing up for principles that Christians cannot always accept (as Mrs R and I have discovered), particularly in the case of sexuality, and prayer.
Wonderfully, there is some wisdom in the world. I particularly value the insights of Suzi Godson, writing in The Times. She’s not a Christian, and some of her comments have to be filtered, but very often the advice she offers is rather Christian in its worldview. Take last Saturday. Responding to a question from a woman who has a lower libido than her husband, and worries that “maintenance sex” is less than good and a sign of the end, she replies:
Life would be a lot easier for everyone if married men and women experienced synchronised sexual desire. But in any long-term relationship, sexual appetites are influenced by different factors: stress such as work, or money worries; low mood, poor health or hormonal fluctuations; conflict in the relationship, parenting challenges or family responsibilities. With so many independent variables pulling you in different directions, it is unrealistic to think that you will always feel like having sex at the same time, or indeed as frequently as one another. Yet sex is the very core of your connection. It is what differentiates your relationship with each other from all the other relationships in your lives, so it has to be protected. Maintenance sex could be described as a compromise but it is more constructive to regard it as an investment; a deposit in the love bank that will tide you through times when, for one reason or another, your libidos are out of sync. Most women have been raised to believe that they should never have sex when they don’t want it, so the idea of sex being a marital duty jars.
More pertinently, however, the Bible has a huge amount of light to shed on this subject, not least because all through its pages there is a correlation between the love God has for us in Christ and marriage, in particular sex within marriage (read Ezekiel 16 for a classic example). It seems to me the church needs to be better at talking about these issues and better at helping people resolve them. I would go so far as to say, it’s the Bible way.
A good reading
Sometimes funerals and thanksgiving services have readings that are really out of place. You can think of a few. But here’s one used at Fred Catherwood’s thanksgiving service which is both eminently suitable and profoundly moving when used of a believer.
After this it was noised abroad that Mr. VALIANT-FOR-TRUTH was taken with a summons by the same post as the other; and had this for a token that the summons was true, that his pitcher was broken at the fountain.
When he understood it, he called for his friends, and told them of it. Then said he, “I am going to my Father’s; and though with great difficulty I am got hither, yet now I do not repent me of all the trouble I have been at to arrive where I am. My sword I give to him that shall succeed me in my pilgrimage; and my courage and skill to him that can get it. My marks and scars I carry with me, to be a witness for me that I have fought his battles who now will be my Rewarder.” When the day that he must go hence was come, many accompanied him to the riverside; into which as he went he said, “Death, where is thy sting?” And as he went down deeper, he said, “Grave, where is thy victory?” So he passed over; and all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side.
Taken, of course, from Pilgrim’s Progress
We’re wired as musicians
Music is powerful. Perhaps that’s why it causes such differences as it sometimes does amongst Christians. But despite the negative publicity, we are to think positively about the power of song in the life of the church and the Christian. I’ve thought a lot about this last week. As regular readers know, my precious mother-in-law has just died. Her death was not particularly a surprise, but nevertheless death still stings. Badly. As Mrs R and I have driven back and forth this week we’ve kept returning to Sojourn Music’s Water and the Blood album (Isaac Watts hymns to Bluegrass – I know, not everyone’s cup of tea), and we keep returning to this particular song :
Absent from flesh, O blissful thought
What joy this moment brings
Freed from the blame my sin has brought,
From pain and death and its sting.
Absent from flesh, O Glorious day!
In one triumphant stroke
My reckoning paid, my charges dropped
and the bonds ’round my hands are broke.
I go where God and glory shine,
To one eternal day
This failing body I now resign,
For the angels point my way.
Absent from flesh! then rise, my soul,
Where feet nor wings could climb,
Beyond the sky, where planets roll,
And beyond all keep of time.
God has given us songs. Joyful songs help us express thankfulness in ways that cannot be matched with words alone. Mournful songs like this can help us express a confidence in sadness which even the most poetic words cannot sustain.
He has made everyone of us a musician. Thank God.
Preaching crucifixion and resurrection
Over recent months I’ve posted occasionally here on Galatians, although I’d forgive you for not noticing as it’s been very occasional. Galatians is a letter which in various contexts I’ve kept coming back to. One thing I’ve particularly been helped to see is the way that cross and resurrection are held together in the letter.
That’s seen in the ‘top and tail’ of Galatians. It begins with an explicit mention of the resurrection (‘God the Father, who raised him from the dead’, 1.1), followed by the cross (‘Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age’, 1.4). At the end of the letter we get the two again, but now in the order cross-resurrection: ‘the world has been crucified to me and I to the world’ (6.14), followed straight after by ‘what counts is the new creation’ (6.15), a clear allusion to resurrection. In other words, at the top and tail of Galatians, we find (as it were) cross-language enclosed within resurrection language, with the two linked closely together. The opening speaks of them in terms of what Christ does for us; at the end, it’s expressed as what Christ does in us.
We get something similar in the famous verse 2.20: ‘I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.’ There’s crucifixion in the first phrase, and immediately Christ who is alive in the second phrase.
A couple of short-ish books by Richard Gaffin have particularly helped me to see this: Resurrection and Redemption and By Faith, Not By Sight. Gaffin is a fine scholar, who reckons that our union with Christ in his resurrection is at the heart of Paul’s understanding of salvation – without at all denying how crucial the atoning work of the cross is. Many folks, if asked about ‘the heart of salvation’, would go to cross rather than resurrection, and that for some good and understandable reasons. And then (stereotypically) we perhaps rather tack the resurrection on at the end. But maybe, at least in Galatians, cross and resurrection are different aspects, in profoundly linked ways, of God’s one glorious act of salvation in Christ, both for us and in us.
Feeling the provocation
Some of the most profound things God says to us in his written word are expressed in simple words and short sentences. That is especially true of the end of Matthew 11, which I’ve recently come to in my daily reading. They are well known words, of course. What I particularly noticed this time around was the way in which things which at first sight aren’t easy to reconcile are just set out side by side for us.
First off, Jesus praises his Father for being pleased to reveal ‘these things’ to ‘little children’ (vs.25-26). Then in the very next verse he speaks of himself as the one who chooses to do the revealing, so that we can know the Father (v.27). Such wonderful, loving co-operation of Father and Son, so that the Father may be revealed to us. It’s when I notice the seeming contradiction (exactly who is choosing to do the revealing here?) that I am drawn into wonder of what is being said to us here, and to praise the Father the way Jesus does.
Then comes the well-known apparent illogicality of vs.28-29: what the weary and burdened most desperately need is a yoke to be put round their necks by Jesus. What the burdened need sounds quite like another burden! Moreover, Jesus wants to put his yoke on us because he is ‘gentle and humble in heart’. We would hardly expect the truly gentle and humble to go round encouraging others to saddle themselves with a yoke.
Simple observations, I know. But these things provoked me (I think that’s the right word) as I dwelt on them this morning. That is surely part of God’s intention in speaking to us in such provocative ways. I naturally assume that in my weariness and burdenedness (is that a word?) what I need is more ‘me-time’ and chillaxing. In simple and jarring words, Christ provokes me to see that that isn’t so, at least not at the root of things. May the Lord preserve us, both in our own feeding on his word and in our feeding of others, from being so dull that we fail to be provoked by the sheer direct simplicity with which he often speaks.
From the archives
We still have a number of cassette tapes from early conferences which haven’t made it into digital format. We’re planning to make them available gradually over the next few months, as well as improving the indexing of existing talks.
We have just published EMA 1993 and 1994. 1993 features David Peterson (on worship), Dick Lucas (on John 14), Phillip Jensen (on Acts 17), Don Carson (on Jesus) and John Lennox. 1994 features Dick Lucas with some expositions for expositors (on various passages), Bruce Milne on preaching heaven and hell, Chris Wright on Deuteronomy, but perhaps the highlight from that year is Mark Ashton on building a congregation (in two talks) – for anyone who has read Persistently Preaching Christ, this is a much earlier source of similar material. We hope all the talks will be useful and encouraging to you.