Wives, wives and more wives
Away at the moment on our spring wives' conference: one of our favourite conferences. There's me and Jonathan Carswell (so, 1½ men then). Oh, and 100 wives. It's a joyous occasion seeing these ministry wives supporting and encouraging each other. A happy and useful time. If you're in the first few years of ministry, then we've got a wives conference just for you. It runs from July 8 to 13 at Hothorpe Hall in Leicestershire. It was a nice place anyway, but they're doing it up a bit more. This is a luxury place to relax, make and keep friends and sit under God's word. And in July, Hothorpe is even nicer than in March. Perhaps you're reading this and you're a ministry wife just starting out? It would be good to see you. Perhaps you're married to one? Find a way to invest in her and let her come. She'll benefit and so, indirectly, will you. This year's teachers are Christopher Ash and Carrie Sandom. You can book online here. We're filling up, but at present there are still some places left. And if you are coming, who else could you bring along for her encouragement?
Facebook and all that
Sat down last night and watched a Channel 4 drama on a few weeks ago in a series by Charlie Brooker called Black Mirror: Be right back (available on 4oD here). The one off dramas are set in the near future and pick up and develop some current themes. Last night's viewing was mixed. Warning: some bad language and a couple of scenes of sexual nature (but no nudity). However, the message was very thought provoking. Essentially this is the plot.
A facebook addict dies in a car accident and his widow is able to recreate his personality and voice through signing up to a service that takes all his online information and processes it into a computer generated voice avatar. Doesn't sound so crazy. This guy had posted an enormous amount of stuff online. And ironically, his wife had been fed up with his phone use before his death, but afterwards became addicted herself because she wanted to hear his voice. She was then offered a pilot programme where, using synthetic skin, his actual body could be reproduced.
It was a dark tale touching on death, grief, relationships – but above all, social media. Mrs R and I found it fascinating in the sense we talked a lot about it afterwards and that rarely happens with TV shows. It also got me thinking about Tim Chester's very useful posts about Facebook which are now in a book, Will you be my Facebook friend. Short, punchy and also thought provoking (without the bad language and sex!). We're also running a seminar on the pastoral implications of technology at this year's EMA led by Ed Brooks and Pete Nicholas: really, really important stuff for every pastor. You can book online now.
Yorkshire preachers training
We're coming north! We've arranged a Yorkshire preachers day with the Yorkshire School of Christian Ministry under the umbrella of the Yorskhire Gospel Partnership. The date is Saturday 23rd March and the day will be held in Otley, North Yorkshire, starting at 10.30am and running until 4.00pm. We'll spend a day looking at teaching and preaching the prophets. I hope you will be able to join us.The day is particularly geared towards occasional or lay preachers, small group leaders etc who would benefit from some training on handling the Bible well. Why not think about who in your church could come along? It's part of our regional day training which in 2013/14 will extend to Ireland as well. Watch this space for more details. The cost is £15 for the day. See you there. More details here.
What do you need to preach Revelation?
Enjoying a good day with Steve Wilmshurst and our Cornhill+ team looking into Revelation. Who has ever preached a series on Revelation? All of it, I mean, not just the letters (you've done that too haven't you?). Here are Steve's tips for preaching:
- The key tool for understanding Revelation is a good understanding of the Old Testament quoted/alluded to possibly 600 times (on average once every verse)
- You need to understand numbers, 2, 3, 4, 7, 10, 12 and so on to get to grips with the book
- remember the genre, apocalyptic, prophecy, letter, all at the same time
- keep in mind the big picture before getting wound up about the details, messages that don't fit this big picture are probably wrong
- Make the scriptural connections and help listeners do so as well
- Preach Christ who is the heart and focus of the book, despite there being many other 'supporting' characters
- Don't be sidetracked, the book is full of potential red herrings
- Don't solve the sudokus like some kind of airport puzzle book rather than a book written to encourage God's beleaguered people
- Don't be too clever or dogmatic about things that can justifiably be disagreed upon, e.g. some views on the millennium (certain views at least). More importantly we need to show people that by looking at the text, reading Scripture with Scripture and with the Holy Spirit in our hearts, we can all come to a proper understanding of the text
The most misused verses in the Bible
THE MOST MISUSED VERSES IN THE BIBLE
The preacher as juggler
I've just come back from a very useful and encouraging week in India. We took a Cornhill team along and got up to all kinds of bible teaching work. It's one step removed from real pastoral ministry of course, but nevertheless it got me thinking about juggling. I took some editing work with me, and what with teaching, preaching, fellowship groups, morning devotions, family devotions, etc I think we managed to cover Matthew, Romans, Mark, Ezra, Nehemiah, Numbers and 2 Corinthians.
And even though that is somewhat unusual, the normal pattern of church ministry is that at any point the chances are you will be juggling several projects. You may have your own devotions, perhaps a Sunday morning series, another for the evenings, a midweek group series, some personal reading 121 you are doing…the list is potentially endless.
And as a preacher you've got to juggle all those balls. I'm not sure we ever really train ourselves for this. We teach people to rightly handle the word of God, but one book at a time. And when we become curates and assistants we're very often given discrete tasks and projects. But we would do well to train our younger men in the art of balancing several teaching projects at the same time. This is not the same thing as time management and project management (though perhaps those skills have some bearing). This is a spiritual discipline of being able to segregate out study and work on more than one teaching activity at a time.
Of course, in some churches, with large staffs, these issues don't arise so often. But I'm convinced that, in the cut and thrust of normal preaching ministry, it's a real skill to learn.
Does anything really beat a hunger for God’s word? Yes, just one.
Every time I visit India I am amazed and humbled at people's hunger for Gods word. It's really very tangible. I see it everywhere I look:
- some business people have given a week's work time up to come and join our class so that they will understand God's word better
- if you set students some homework, they actually do it!
- people actually know their Bibles; they regularly and really read them
- reading the Bible through in a year is uncommon, most seem to do it every six months or less
- Bibles are well thumbed
- no one complains at longer sermons if they're full of biblical truth
- people remember sermons: "Pastor I remember your last sermon 18 months ago…."
And so on. This is a precious, precious thing and we must pray that we ourselves, and our people, will have a similar hunger. But it's missing one vital ingredient. There is one thing better, of course. It's a hunger for Jesus Christ. We love the word because we love the Word. And we must not let our hunger for the Bible become a bookish irrelevance. We love our Bibles because our Bibles reveal Christ Jesus to us. And one without the other is deadly.
So this recent trip has got me thinking about praying for people in our church. I want them to love Jesus and know him more and more. And because I want them to love him I want them to have a real, tangible hunger for God's word.
And, rest assured, I am praying it for myself too….
Doctrine of ordinary means
OK, so this may be a name I have made up myself, but the point is that God works out his purposes through very ordinary means. We've seen that clearly as we've been working through the book of Ezra with students in Asia. Our Cornhill team has been working with a small group of church leaders and the nine members of an expository preaching course to understand Ezra as a Christian book to be preached. We've got to chapter 6 (two more days to go) and it's been wonderful to see the outworking of God's providence (oh, yes, that's the word) as he moves in the hearts of pagan kings, first Cyrus and then Darius, to achieve his purpose – in this case the temple being rebuilt.
In fact Ezra 6.14 is quite clear. The temple gets finished under the decree of God and under the decrees of Cyrus, Darius and Artaxerxes (included here, though his effect will come later in the book of Nehemiah). It's wonderfully thrilling to have this rounded view of God's work in the world.
- It helps makes sense of the cross of course, as Peter makes clear in Acts 2.23.
- It helps us make sense of life today under God's rule. In fact, all that is good in the world comes from the Father of lights and he often achieves his good purposes through ordinary men and women, even those like the pagan kings who refuse to acknowledge him. We visited Gandhi Smriti with the team, the place where Gandhi was shot. Whatever you think of his politics and views on partition, you have to agree that at certain moments in his life God used him for his good purposes. He was not a believer. But he was part of God's work in the world.
I wonder if we preach the Scriptures faithfully enough to convey this awesome truth?
Why learning to be translated could be good for your preaching
Here in India at the moment and our Cornhill team has done some teaching in both Hindi and Nepali. It's not as easy as you might think (we're talking phrase by phrase translation, rather than simultaneous translation). They've done a good job though. Here are some of my translating tips I gave the team before we started:
- speak in whole but short sentences. I call this Readers Digest preaching. Long sentences, half thoughts, subordinate clauses – these are all hard to translate. You make the translation work much better if you use short, full sentences, even if it doesn't sound like the best BBC news.
- speak with simple words. Both Nepali and Hindi have smaller vocabularies than English. Our rhetoric style makes much of synonyms. That rarely works in translation.
- speak slowly. The translation itself introduces a slower pace to your speaking. But don't be so excited about the next phrase that you leave the last one still being translated.
It strikes me that all these tips have relevance to simple preaching in our mother tongue. It's no bad thing to keep sentences simple and short. Long subordinate clauses that look good on paper are much harder to digest when listened to. It's commendable to avoid complex language. It's good to introduce pause to counter pace. Of course, there is an art to rhetoric in our own language but I've heard enough UK speakers who ought to learn to listen to these tips carefully. They would be a nightmare to translate and that may well mean that they hard to listen to, even in their mother tongue.
Rethinking small groups
I'm a great small groups fan. I think they are a necessary part of church if church is to do all we hope and expect of it (see, for example Hebrews 10.19-25). I think there are certain elements of that kind of Hebrews fellowship that are very, very difficult to make work in a congregation only setting. But here's the thing. I wonder if some of us are wedded to a small group model for the sake of it. It's not because we've thought through what's best to satisfy biblical mandates, but because that's the model we've inherited and is expected of our kind of church. Fresh from attending a small group in India last Friday, here are a few thoughts:
- is an interactive Bible study the best way to learn? For some groups it will be. But I am sure that this method works best in a middle class educated background. We have groups at our home church in East London for whom this is decidedly not the best way to learn, and others for whom it is. I don't think there's one size fits all.
- I'm preaching on Matthew 21 this weekend and the quote Jesus uses from Psalm 8 to refute the chief priests who object to the children's singing has got me thinking. If the logic of Psalm 8 is pursued, there is an element of singing that is spiritual warfare (Ps 8.2). That needs some teasing out, of course, but is there a reason why you don't sing in your small groups?
- One thing in my Indian experience struck me very sharply: the willingness to be open about struggles and sin and pray for one another along those lines. (Ironically, afterwards, one member said to me that it was shame that they were not more open!). Does your small group make this kind of work possible? I know it's difficult for us repressed Brits, but if there is not building up and gracious challenge, the group idea seems to fall at the first hurdle. How can you encourage that?
- Is your group big enough? Is it small enough? It's hard planning a small group. There will always be weeks when people are away (though we want to encourage people to prioritise this mid week meeting). Too small and it is less likely to be representative of the church. Too large and there is limited opportunity for close fellowship. Do you have an optimum number in mind that you work towards?
- Do you pray enough? Small groups are not just Bible study groups. They are surely for prayer too, perhaps (arguably) more so. How do you structure your time to make this work? How do you keep prayer time from being about people's felt needs all the time (though there is a place for this?). I'm not sure we've got this right. Time for a rethink.
When, as church leaders, we tend to rethink church small groups, we tend to do so on the basis of size, location, membership, leadership – all important, of course. But perhaps we need to stand back and ask, what are small groups for and how does that answer shape our approach?