So, here's a thought. What if our introductions and illustrations were not a function of the message but rather of the congregation? It's long intrigued me that some of the great puritan preachers could get away with no introduction whatsoever. Why? Were they that good as preachers? No. But their congregations were eager and hungry. This was brought home to me as two of us here discussed a sermon we'd heard. Hardly any introduction. Hardly any illustrations. But it all worked and was well received.
We think that we need good and engaging introductions to let those listening know why they ought to listen. That's going to be true in many congregations. Don't give up on good introductions just yet! But a hungry, eager congregation: do they really need that five minute story which loosely links to the heart of the message? Quite possibly not.
And illustrations are always good for illustrating hard things. But we also use illustrations as pause points and breathing space. Again, imagine an eager and hungry congregation. Do they really need this second kind of illustration? I'm not sure they do.
Of course, all congregations are different. And we're preaching into different contexts. But increasingly, people are coming to church because they want to, not because they ought to, and so we should not be surprised to see the nature of congregations changing. In which case, I gently ask, might our introductions and illustrations not be quite as necessary as they once were….?
“Of course I believe the Bible’s true”
Premier hosted a debate between Steve Chalke and Andrew Wilson (NFI). Andrew is a good guy and this is worth watching to follow up on the issue I raised last week. It's a great camera angle. Andrew could not be more laid back. This is part one of four. Mark Thompson has also responded to Chalke's paper here. In this first episode, Chalke says some very alarming, but sadly, not unexpected things. I do notice, however, that much of his language is very orthodox-like. The Bible is indeed a library and we read each book in the light of this. But it also has a unifying inspiration, and so to set off, say Isaiah against Ezra/Nehemiah is just plain wrong. He's also rather poor at listening to someone else's argument. "Of course, I believe the Bible's true." Hmm. Yes. But what does that mean? See what you think.
Job, Satan and God’s governance
Many people are puzzled by Satan's appearance in heaven's throne room in Job 1. I'm just reading through Job in my devotions, making use of Christopher's forthcoming commentary on Job in Crossway's Preach the Word series. [It will be published in May and available first in the UK at the EMA – another reason for coming!]. I thought this little section on governance was very helpful. It comes after a rejection of two alternatives – polytheism (which essentially becomes dualism, a battle between good and evil) and monism, where one God rules the world absolutely. He is the only supernatural power, the absolute Power. This, points out Christopher, is essentially Islam. But it is not Christianity, even if it is how many Christians think the world is governed.
Neither does justice to the Bible’s picture, which is more nuanced and complex. The Bible portrays for us a world that lies under the absolute supremacy and sovereignty of the Creator, who has no rivals, who is unique, such that there is no god like him. And yet he does not govern the world as the sole supernatural power. He governs the world by the means of and through the agency of a multiplicity of supernatural powers, some of whom are evil. That is to say, “the sons of God” [Job 1.6] represent powers that are greater than human powers and yet are less than God’s power. They include among their number the Satan and his lying and evil spirits. (p41)
Christian books on sex.
There are LOTS of Christian books on sex. It's useful to know which are worth passing on without having to read them all. Here are Mrs R and my favourites. But it's worth saying that pretty much of all them have a fatal flaw: they never seem to get to Eph 5.32. That seems to me to be an enormous oversight. There is a deep, mystical connection between the union Christ has with his bride and the union enjoyed by a husband and wife who are one flesh. So, if you're giving some marriage prep for couples, make sure any discussion on sex is grounded in this remarkable and essential biblical truth.
The reality is that some disucssion of sex is essential for such prep – but it can be a bit embarrassing, depending on your nature and personality (and, it must be said, marital status). So, a good book can be a great help. Here are three of the best:
- Kevin Leman's Sheet Music: Uncovering the secrets of sexual intimacy in marriage (Tyndale House) is now relatively old in marriage book terms (2003). However, I still think it's the best. Helpfully it also has sections for pre-married couples together with guidance on which chapters to read when (you need to be disciplined to make the most of it). It's frank and you may not agree with all his conclusions (though, as it happens, I do). It also has helpful sections on intimacy later in marriage when other stresses and physiological changes take place.
- Greg and Amelia Clarke's book One flesh: honeymoon sex and beyond is much shorter (153pp), but also very useful. It has the added benefit (I think) of being frank without being cringy. It's published by Matthias Media and is a really good intro for pre-marrieds. Less useful, I would say, for those who have been married some time.
- A different book, but one we find useful to recommend to couples, is Intimacy Ignited by four people, two couples – the Dillows and Pintus's. It's a reading of Song of Songs with the couples interacting with each other. It requires you to read Song of Songs as primarily a love song (which, of course, we understand to have deeper meaning also, given Eph 5.32). Again, it's not one to be left lying down, but it's strength is that its style gets couples talking, as that's what the authors are doing.
There are others, of course. And then there are marriage books with useful sections on sex in them (and some not so useful, it must be said). And, if appropriate, do read these before you give them away. Don't take my word for it. The two longer books are also available on kindle.
I can't help thinking that Steve Chalke's "helpful" contributions are rarely that. This is his latest – his views on biblical inerrancy which do little to add to the debates except to bring it down to a more popular level. The thinking reader will be able to easily drive a coach and horses through his arguments. If you're not a thinking reader, don't despair. The coach and horses driver Dan Strange has already done the job for you. Why read this kind of thing? Because, inevitably, this kind of popular interpretation ends up in our churches at some level. Stevey boy may not come and apply for membership at your church, but someone who shares his views – even subconsciously – may. As always, the greatest danger is not from the wolves outwith but those wearing sheepskin coats within.
EMA International Reception
Each year at the EMA we have a special reception to welcome those from overseas attending the EMA. It's important to us to recognise that some people make a sacrifice to come to the EMA, and that we want the EMA to serve preacher in churches in the UK and abroad. It's reasonably expensive to put on; nevertheless, we feel it is important to continue to do so. If you know anyone who'd like to help support this important welcome and sponsor some or all of the reception, please do let us know. Thank you.
It’s that book. Again.
This is a repost of a book review from April 2012. I'm reposting it because I'm just reading this book with someone and have been reminded how useful it has been to me. It's not one of those books that are "out there" or particularly in the public consciousness, so I'm very happy to highlight it and say, what's been good for me may well be good for you. In the meantime, I notice that Andrew Evans likes it too!
This is a hard book review to write. Why? Because in the review I am about to give I will reveal something of my heart and a lot of my sin. That's unavoidable. As soon as I tell you that this was a book for me, I've let the cat out of the bag. So here goes – Pleasing People by Lou Priolo. This was a book for me. There, said it. Why write a review then, if it is all so heart-revealing? For the simple reason that being a people pleaser is a common sin in many pastors and preachers. We tend not to be, on the whole, those who err by thinking nothing of others. We're soft hearted towards others – and so we tend to err by being overly sensitive to others – and very, very often this means overly sensitive when it comes to what others think about us.
In so many ways it's the kind of book I don't really enjoy reading – lots of numbered lists. It's not quite a seven-step-to-success program but at times, because each chapter is often a collection of points, 1., 2., 3. and so on, it does feel like that. But, in one sense, it's very puritan-like – and that's not surprising because Priolo draws heavily on Timothy Dwight, Hugh Blair, Jeremiah Burroughs (hoorah, East End boy!) and, especially, Richard Baxter. That means what you get is warm, biblical wisdom suffused with pastoral punch. I got beyond the lists to the heart of what Lou was saying: and very often I found those lists describing me from lots of different angles.
To be frank, this is the pastoral punch many of us need. OK, let's not beat around the bush. It's pastoral punch that I need. So here, for example, are ten characteristics of an approval junkie:
- he fears the displeasure of man more than the displeasure of God
- he desires the praise of man more than the praise of God
- he studies what it takes to please man as much (if not more than) what it means to please God
- his speech is designed to entice and flatter others into thinking well of him
- he is a respecter of persons
- he is oversensitive to correction, reproof, and other allusions of dissatisfaction or disapproval on the part of others
- he outwardly renders eye service to man rather than inwardly rendering sincere (from the heart) ministry to the Lord
- he selfishly uses the wisdom, abilities and gifts that have been given him for God's glory and the benefit of others for his own glory and personal benefit
- he invests more of his personal resources in establishing his own honour than he does in establishing God's honour
- he is discontented with the condition and proportion that God has appointed for him
Sound familiar? Oh, and the people-pleaser is also often a procrastinator. Did I mention that? You'll have to read the book to find out why. This book was good for my soul. It's the kind of book that I won't lend to you. I'd lend you most of the books in my library should you ask nicely, but not this one. I need to read it regularly, I think. Plus, you don't want to see my scribbled comments and highlights (or rather, I don't want you to see them. I don't think that's just because I'm a people pleaser (!!) but there are some things that are better not shared).
As well as being suffused with the wisdom of the puritans, it's also highly biblical (no surprise that the two go together). If I had a criticism, it would be that there is almost too much Scripture (e.g. on humility, p168-170) which can mean running the risk of taking some texts out of context. But this is a minor niggle. Overall, the tone is gentle, persuasive and focused. And – this is possibly my highest praise – the book is very God-centred: Christ-centred, even. Again, using the puritans makes this less than surprising, but time and time again I found myself thinking less of myself and more of him. That's got to be good, right? And in so doing, my motives and thoughts are laid bare – this quote from Jeremiah Burroughs is typical:
I urge you to consider that God does not deal with you as you deal with him. If God were to put the worst interpretation on all your ways towards him as you put on his towards you, it would be very bad for you.
So, buy, read and keep.
[And please keep my sin to yourself!]
Oh, and it's got a neat cover.
Spring Ministers Conferences
What are you doing in May? I know, it seems an age away, but both of our Spring Ministers conferences are filling fast. We've got two weeks:
- Week 1 is 28 April through 1 May and is designed for those with over 7 or so years of ministry experience. Book here.
- Week 2 is 6 through 9 May and is for those in the first 7 years of ministry. Book here.
Each week we're focusing on Old Testament narrative (have you noticed there's a lot of it in your Bible?). However, as with every PT conference, these are not just working conferences, but we build in sessions to encourage preachers in their own walk with the Lord. There is time to relax and unwind and – we hope – refresh.
We have a superb line up of speakers including Vaughan Roberts, John Woodhouse, David Helm, Simon Gathercole (Week 1), Tim Ward (Week 1), Michael McLenahan (Week 2) and me (Week 2). There are currently around 15 places left for Week 1 and around 10 for Week 2 and it really is first come, first served. So get the proverbial skates on. See you there!
Last year a small army of volunteers hosted EMA guests for two or three nights to enable people out of London to attend. We'd love to expand that programme this year. It's really helpful for preachers and churches without lots of money to be able to send their guys to the EMA without lots of extra expense. Many of us might know people in London with whom we can stay – but not everyone is so fortunate. So, if you live in London and are able to help, please do! And if your ministering in a London church, could you ask folk in the church whether they might be able to accommodate anybody? This year's EMA runs from 8-10 July. If you can help, then please get in contact with the lovely Rachel, Queen of everything to do with conferences here at PT Towers. Thank you in advance for your generosity and help.
Preaching the floods
You can’t open a newspaper or watch a TV report at the moment without thinking we’re in some kind of post-apocalyptic world. Floods. Storms. Snow (if you’re in the US or Japan). What are we to make of it all? What is the preacher to make of it all? Here are one or two ideas:
God is the judge…
First, we need to let our people know that God is the judge. In that amazing phrase of Abraham, the Sovereign Lord is “judge of all the earth” and he will do right. We can’t let the weather events determine our view of God. The Scriptures – God’s own revelation – do that. And there he is presented as the one who is over all things, sustaining all things, providentially determining all things for his glory and our good. I don’t say that the connections between events and his character are always easy to determine. They are not. Nevertheless, the truth stands unchanged. And for some (at least) the weather they see on the TV news may make them revise their view of God downwards. No, Mr Preacher. He is God the judge.
…but this is not judgement
There is, therefore, a sense in which every action of his is a judgement. That’s what judges do. But we’ve got to keep our people from seeing the weather as a judgement. There are two Bible reasons and one historical reason for this:
- First, a proper biblical theology does not let us make that link. Adverse weather in the OT was a covenant curse (Deut 28.24, for example). So, if you are an OT inhabitant of Israel living under the Mosaic covenant, it’s fine to make the link. But you and your people are not. In fact, Jesus has borne the curse for us. Covenant curses are taken up by him on our behalf. Therefore, linking bad weather with the judgement of God is, in some measure at least, a denial of the cross and what Christ bore for us.
- Second, a high view of Scripture does not let us make that link. At best, some of the prophets were inspired by the Spirit to make such links – but as we’ve already seen, that was under the Old Covenant. The overriding theme of the NT is that God is patient. Then there will be judgement (2 Peter 3, for example).
- Third, a proper view of history does not let us make the link. Some people are quick to see the floods as a judgement because of the same-sex marriage decision. Ignore for a moment the whole question of whether God deals with nations in quite the same way in the new covenant (I don’t think he does – but Christians disagree on this). Rather, look at it historically. There are plenty of disasters (of more significance) where we don’t make the link. Ethiopian famine anybody? Moreover, I would argue there are more serious moral breaches that we don’t link to disaster. 7,000,000 abortions and counting? It’s easy to make links and suits our own moral positions. But we, as preachers, should not be encouraging such speculation.
What should we be saying? Here are two biblical ideas:
- First, we should recognise that the whole world is groaning waiting for the coming Saviour. The creation is affected by sin, just as humanity is. In fact, perhaps you can make an argument for humanity’s greed being partly responsible for some (I say, some) disasters.
- Second, we should follow the example of the Saviour. Luke 13 is very instructive. “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower of Siloam fell on them – do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” Disasters such as these remind us of the fragility of life – and as such, the chief application for preachers is to call people to repentance. Not repentance of same sex marriage laws, but repentance at the offence and stench of all sin against a holy God.
Passion for Life, anyone?