Do not give up the habit
Hebrews is written to Christians. In fact, to be more precise, it’s written to a particular group of Christians, Jewish ones in danger of returning to their Old Testament roots and leaving the gospel behind. The great message they need to hear is that Jesus is better in every way than their incomplete testament. Amen to that.
Along the way, the author gives some moving and practical applications as to how this better new covenant life is to be lived. This set of practical instructions perhaps reaches a climax towards the end of the book. I am particularly fond, however, of Hebrews 10 and I’ve been reflecting this week on the exhortation to not give up meeting together. This is what some have been doing. Presumably, as it becomes more and more difficult to be a Christian, it is more and more tempting to neglect the gathering of God’s people.
The paradox is that the more difficulty increases (I take it that, in part at least, is what it means to see the Day approaching), the more God’s people should meet together. Not less. More. I think some of our people need to hear this don’t they?
And those called into ministry need to hear it too. Now collections of ministers are not churches. Not even close. And we receive our primary encouragement from our churches, not from ministers’ gatherings. Nevertheless, they have a part to play. For ministry is draining, discouraging and potentially damaging. We need the encouragement of stirring one another up.
This is not an idea unknown in the Scriptures. Read some of Paul’s personal comments to see how he needs and craves the fellowship of others to encourage and be encouraged. Many of those in ministry have less of this kind of fellowship as things get tougher. They find it harder and harder to face peers and be honest about life and its struggles.
Maybe not with us, but with someone Mr Preacher. Do not give up the habit of meeting together.
Disappearing church: an extended review
Mark Sayers’ new book is important. It’s not an easy read. For those used to books padded out with stories about things that happened to the authors, this is remarkably dense. It’s just 175 pages, but that’s 400 pages equivalent for many modern writers. However, the premise of the book – an assessment of where the church is (and why) and where we go now – is essential.
In one sense, as conservatives, I don’t think his conclusions will surprise. At least, they ought not to. Nevertheless, the book is important because he assesses our western culture well and shows how our conservative principles are just what are needed. Along the way he destroys a few shibboleths, notably the insatiable desire for churches to be culturally relevant.
He shows clearly how the church’s desire to evangelise the western (or third culture) in the same way that we evangelise the pagan culture (the first culture) is flawed and ultimately leads to assimilation. This methodology was imbibed by the church in the 1980s and 1990s through those who had worked on the mission field. However, the third culture is not pagan. Rather it is, he argues, an anti-culture – representing everything that our Judea-Christian heritage is not.
What, then, is his answer? It is what he calls “withdraw-return.” Sayers calls for more depth in our Christianity, like a tree that springs up in a gap in the rain forest. Initially, it is the vines and broad leaf plants that occupy such a gap, but eventually the tree breaks through because it has first sent down deep roots. Shallow church, says Sayers, will look good, but do little. It may try to impact in the public sphere but it is doing little in the private sphere, where things really count.
Amen to that. And amen to his argument for institutions! Such an argument is nuanced of course (he is against institutionalisation), but he is pleased to stand up for the church as it ought to be, with deep disciple-making at its heart.
I really appreciated this book. It is thoughtful. It is written by an Australian which means it resonates more with European culture/setting than many US-authored books. It is also deep. Although he makes some of his points scripturally, his argument is more philosophical, but no less compelling for that. Of course, as with any book, it requires a discerning mind. But there is much here to challenge, convict and encourage.
The ploughboy and the brickie
Every now and again, when I’m not preaching, I listen to the Sunday morning service on Radio 4. I often regret it. This last Sunday I listened carefully to the sermon because I thought the text was pretty ambitious for a Sunday service – the LORD revealing his name to Moses.
So here is the thing: I did not understand a word of what was said. Now, I’m not perhaps the brightest spark, but neither am I a complete idiot. And I couldn’t understand what was being said. It was like someone was reading out a page of John Owen. At least in print form, you have the chance to read the sentence two or three times to make sure you know what it means. Not in a sermon. It is, I’m sure you’ve noticed, an oral communication.
In the previous church where I served, there was a delightful old saint, a Welsh brickie, who once told me that a particularly perplexing visitor was a ‘brilliant preacher, just brilliant.’ I obviously raised an eyebrow, for he followed up with his justification for the preacher’s brilliance: ‘I couldn’t understand a word of it.’ I made it my work after that to make sure I was understood by the brickie – he was my measure, my 21st Century ploughboy.
Our trouble, of course, is that we confuse simplicity with profundity. We think that to be simple is to be simplistic. The best preachers are those who communicate the timeless truths of the Scripture in all their depth and wonder but with a clear simplicity that means even the least educated listener can grasp what is being said.
It’s worth reading JC Ryle’s instructions again. And again. And again.
Financial probity and the ministry
I’m not sure church ministers should be publishing their tax returns for their congregations, even if government ministers are now doing so. That sort of degree of scrutiny (and ‘ownership’ by the congregation) is surely overkill. Nevertheless, it is striking that amongst the criteria for eldership in 1 Timothy 3 is the need for prospective candidates to not be those who are lovers of money. Such a desire must be tested and evaluated. And for that to happen, there must be some kind of accountability and enquiry. Quite what it is should perhaps be a matter for individual churches.
More immediately, this is not just about entry to ministry, but continuing in it. There is surely an ongoing need for financial probity amongst those who are called to serve God’s people. In other words, the requirements of 1 Timothy 3 do not just work as entry requirements, they operate as descriptions of what an elder or leader is. For example, he must be of good standing in the community, but if that good standing is undermined, then his position is in the church must also be in doubt.
At the end of the day, relationships between ministers and their churches are based on trust and when trust breaks down, the end of the relationship is unavoidable. But trust can break down for a number of often-avoidable reasons; and in today’s pressured world, we must work, plan and pray carefully to make sure that financial probity (or, rather, a lack of it) is not the cause.
Next year is significant
I guess you had realised, hadn’t you, Mr Preacher, that next year is historically significant? It’s 2017 which is of course the 500th anniversary of old Martin putting up his 95 theses next to the church cleaning rota on the notice board at Wittenberg. Perhaps you think that such an anniversary requires little celebration? I disagree.
For one thing, we have much to thank God for in the bravery and wisdom of our spiritual forebears. Indeed, not just in the church but in our society. I think few Christians appreciate just what a difference the Reformation made. Back in 2008, the historian Tristram Hunt (now a Labour MP) made an excellent series about the Reformation with four episodes (I think, on the Reformation and the mind, education, arts and science). It’s sadly unavailable in any format today, though perhaps we should initiate a campaign to have it reshown next year? There’s a great little book too, The Legacy of John Calvin, produced on the 500th anniversary of that reformer’s birth.
But there’s more. We still need to keep learning the lessons of the Reformation and that’s why I’m particularly grateful to Tim Chester and Mike Reeves for their new book Why the Reformation Still Matters. It’s quite superb. A really excellent chapter on preaching, but every chapter is gold dust. They take justification, grace, preaching, the Lord’s Supper, church and daily life and show what the Reformers believed and how the battles are still relevant today.
It’s not a simple read like, say, Kirsty Birkett’s Essence of the Reformation. It would be aimed at the thinking Christian. But it’s one of those books that needs to make it onto your essential list as you lead your church next year and be shaping at least some of what you do as a church.
For the record, I’m no train spotter. At least, I don’t think so. (Can it creep up on you?) There are things I do love about railways. I enjoy travelling on them. I used to prefer driving but these days I prefer to work, read and relax all three of which I find increasingly difficult if I’m driving! I also – and perhaps this is the confession of someone who used to work in logistics, amongst other things – appreciate the way they work. I have a functional admiration, in other words. But bogies, 5 car trains and all that stuff leaves me unmoved. Sorry. For me, the mallard is a duck. Period.
All of which is an introduction to say that it is therefore surprising that I’ve just finished reading a very good book indeed. It’s The Railways: Nation, Network and People, by Simon Bradley and was one of my Christmas presents. It’s taken me over four months to read because I’ve had to do some weight training just to lift it and it’s the kind of book you can only read in small doses.
I got it on the basis of a recommendation in the Saturday paper, as I recall. And the endorsement was justified because it tells the fascinating social history of Britain through the railways since the early 19th Century. Pastors should be interested in this topic, because the social developments of the last two hundred years have shaped church enormously.
For example, the removal of classes in British trains (or, rather a reduction) and then re-introduction reveals something about the social make up of Britain where social class has certainly changed over the last two hundred years, but not (despite what we might think) disappeared. There are comments about privatisation: not who owns the railways, but how people travel – individual compartments etc. It is a curious fact that as construction has removed private compartments we have sought other ways to introduce privacy (in modern terms through the ubiquitous headphones).
I found much to learn as a pastor. For example, picking up that last point, the human nature may be sociable but it always fights against community at one level. Pastors who ignore this battle in the hearts of our people are just naïve.
I’m not necessarily saying you should read this particular book. But we need to understand something of the human nature in order to be able to faithfully minister to others. Maybe not this book for you – no. But something, Mr Preacher, something….
To fly to serve
No, not an advert for a BA campaign (although the more I travel, the more I appreciate the understated professionalism of BA). Rather, this is the title of my new book produced in conjunction with the FIEC. They have commissioned a series of short books to help those starting out in ministry.
Mrs R and I have written one on ministry and marriage (available in the autumn) and I have written another on giving a bible talk. There are lots of good books on the mechanics of preaching and teaching and how we understand the text. I wanted to write a different kind of help guide – something that would assist preachers just starting out (or needing a refresher) in terms of how to put together a sermon or talk.
Without good exegesis a sermon is never going to be a sermon. But it still needs to be delivered and it’s important that we maintain a balance. A good sermon is based on solid, faithful exegesis, appropriately applied. But it is also well constructed and this is what this short book is all about. It will only take you an hour or two to read and I’m praying it will be helpful for those occasional preachers or those just starting out in your congregations.
Perseverance of the servants
Ministers of the gospel sometimes get confused. They assume that perseverance of the saints is the same as perseverance of the servants. In a week when another high profile pastor has been removed from office (not for sexual sin, this time, but self-promotion at the expense of others) we must not fall into the sin of thinking we are invincible.
My assurance as a saint is precious to me. Indeed, it is my only hope; I’m fully aware of that. The fact that God keeps me is a humbling whenever I’m tempted to think I’m doing well and an encouragement when I feel weak. For the record, such assurance should never be presumed upon. It does not absolve me from working out my salvation with fear and trembling.
God promises me no such assurance in ministry. I cannot – in other words – assume that just because he has called me into ministry he will therefore keep me in ministry. Indeed, whilst my salvation is based on my union with Christ (an unassailable fact) my ministry is more dependent on my communion with him (not, I hope you realise, the same thing). Paul is clear with his young protégé Timothy. It is in pursuing this communion that our ministry will be effective in our own lives and in the lives of others.
All of which is to say that we must not, MUST NOT, presume on the kindness of God in preserving our ministry. Presumption is a seldom mentioned sin, but sin it is. And we must fight it. That’s why we think this year’s EMA is one of the most important we’ve planned. It is, in the grace and goodness, our life’s work to persevere in ministry. Book now, if you can join us.
Praying the Bible by Don Whitney
Regular readers will know that I’m a keen advocate of using the Bible to pray. In fact, I can be a bit repetitive when it comes to the subject. So, bottom line, any book on praying the Bible is welcome. And – to be clear – I like Don’s book, Praying the Bible, when considered in the round. It’s practical, it’s short, it’s readable, it takes you step by step through his thinking and helps you pray, with particular focus on praying the psalms. But for my money, this book’s constituent elements are not always what they might be. I’m hestitant to say this – especially because it is endorsed by so many well known names. And if this is the only book you have on praying the Bible, go for it. But there are some weaknesses. Let me explain.
First, it’s expensive. It is 96 well spaced pages, casebound (hardback to you and me). That’s not much book for £9.99. I wanted it to be £1. And I think it could be.
Second, it’s short. This is both a strength. And a weakness. I understand the need to be short to make what is essentially one point. Ironically, however, it would have benefitted from some clarification, namely…
Third, the emphasis on praying the psalms needs qualification. Don is right to say that when praying the Bible our primary activity is not Bible intake (i.e. understanding a text) but prayer. That’s a useful point to make. But there are lots of things in Old Covenant psalms that do need some interpretation. Prosperity for one.
To be fair to Don, he helps with this by saying he’s using the language of the psalms rather than the thoughts behind the psalms themselves. He uses Psalm 23 as his example. He says that “restoring my soul” is not about evangelism and he would not preach that way. But it’s OK in his scheme to read that verse and then pray “restore the soul of my mate” who is not a believer.
Now, I’m sorry, but I don’t think that is praying the Bible. It is certainly using the language of the Bible. Fair enough. But the real power is surely in praying what the Bible intends, not just what words it uses. Don qualifies this somewhat. “I have enough confidence in the Word and the Spirit of God to believe that if people will pray in this way, in the long run their prayers will be far more biblical than if they just make up their own prayers.”
I happen to agree with that. But there is surely a better way even that this, which is to take the aim of Scripture and pray that in, using the Bible words if possible. That’s the richer seam for me. All of which is to say this is a good book. It just could have been better. In fact, it could have been more like one or other of Rachel Jones’ books, which are cheaper and – ultimately – superior. Go to it.
Hypocrites and Pagans
I meet up with a fellow pastor every couple of weeks and we’ve been having a very challenging time reading through the Sermon on the Mount. We’ve got to know one another well and so there’s a level of honesty and accountability that we all need. Yesterday we got together and read Matthew 6.5-8 – not the Lord’s prayer itself but the section just before. There Jesus tackles two praying sins – hypocrisy and paganism. It quickly became clear that we suffer from both.
Hypocrisy is to do with the motive in our praying. I don’t think I’ve ever stood on a street corner to prayer, nor is Jesus’ hyperbole clearly meant to restrict all public praying. Rather it is getting at the heart of motive and challenging the hypocrites who “love to be seen by others.” We did some thinking and came up with quite a few examples – for instance, what about the quick “arrow” prayer so that we can text someone we know saying “I’ve just been praying for you…” Isn’t that the same thing? Ouch. Not that the praying is wrong, of course, but it is robbed of value when it is done for the wrong motive.
Paganism is emptying prayer of its meaning. Jesus calls this babbling. Some want to make this some kind of anti-charasmatic rant. Rather, Jesus is challenging the prayer of many words which lack any content. (There’s nothing wrong with praying all night – Jesus himself did it.) Once again, this is a cutting application. I can pray on auto-pilot, and to be honest, often find myself doing it. It’s characterised by the kind of praying which takes a list and says “please bless so and so, etc” repeating the same thing for each person. It’s empty. Ouch again.
On this basis, much of my prayer could easily be categorised as both hypoctirical and pagan. Those are hardly two descriptions I would choose myself, but they’re two my Master chose and which challenge me at the deepest level. Thankfully, there is a model. But for now, I must not move too quickly on to it, for I need to reflect and think, confess and plead. I neither want to be a hypocrite nor a pagan. God help me.