Don’t be afraid to preach to the affections
Don’t be afraid to preach the beauty of God
I am reading Tim Chester’s outstandingly helpful and important book on porn (Captured by a Better Vision). I am going to encourage every Cornhill student to buy and read it. Even if it is not a problem for them, it will most certainly be for people they are seeking to encourage and help.
I was struck yesterday by the following quotation, from a Christian who has struggled with porn:
Modern conservative evangelicalism fuels sex addiction because it has come to focus on the externals of religion, not the affections. By externals I mean such things as confessions, dogmas, personal priorities, church growth strategies, church attendance, training courses, evangelism, Bible study groups and son on: things that are visible in a believer’s life. By affections, I mean those things that cannot be heard or seen directly – fears, loves, joys, delights, hates, anxieties: the currents that swirl in the waters of a believer’s heart; the hidden desires that lie deep beneath our decisions… If we are going to help people struggling with sex addiction, we need to recognise that the manger in which their sin is cradled is not the intellect, but the heart, the seat of their desires. They therefore need something more than mere information: they need to be wooed by the true and pure lover that their heart secretly seeks. (pp74-6)
I suspect this speaker’s portrayal of conservative evangelicalism may be a bit jaded and one-sided, but I also suspect there is something important in what he says, and that it applies much more widely than just to sex addiction. One of the traditional markers of real evangelicalism is a concern with the heart rather than externals (as John Stott expounded in his magisterial older work Christ the Controversialist chapters 5 & 6). If we have drifted into emphasising externals (perhaps as an over-reaction to charismatic excess and error?), let us return to a healthy focus on the heart in our preaching.
One related problem I have noticed at Cornhill is that we tend to think of “application” rather narrowly, in terms of what I ought to do in response to the word of God. We must not forget that to be moved to wonder and adoration at the sheer beauty of God and of the gospel of the Lord Jesus is a deeply valid “application”.
Tim Chester is speaking on issues of the heart, with particular reference to pornography at the Spring Younger Ministers Conference. There are one or two places remaining. Also, look out for a future EMA on this important subject.
How attentive hearers assist loving preachers
Why do we find it easier to preach to eager hearers? We know from 2 Timothy 4:3,4 that often people will not endure healthy teaching. And it’s very hard to go on giving healthy teaching when people don’t want to hear it. But why is it hard? Is it just that we love the praise of men and we hope that their attentive listening during the preaching will translate into praise for us after the sermon? That would indeed be an ungodly motive. But that is not the only possible reason. In his wonderful little Treatise On the Catechising of the Uninstructed, Augustine says this:
A sense of weariness is … induced upon the speaker when he has a hearer who remains unmoved, either in that he is actually not stirred by any feeling, or in that he does not indicate by any motion of the body that he understands or that he is pleased with what is said. Not that it is a becoming disposition in us to be greedy of the praises of men, but that the things which we minister are of God; and the more we love those to whom we discourse, the more desirous are we that they should be pleased with the matters which are held forth for their salvation: so that if we do not succeed in this, we are pained, and we are weakened, and become broken-spirited in the midst of our course, as if we were wasting our efforts to no purpose.
We want our hearers to be instructed and moved by the gospel truths we preach, partly because we love them. We should pray that this motivation of love will sweep away the ungodly motive of wanting their praise.
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Encouragement in tough pastorates
Here’s the last of my posts prompted by re-reading William Still’s The Work of the Pastor, at least for the moment. Writing to encourage a man in a possibly lonely and small pastorate, he writes,
Your quiet persistence – this charge, or parish, or living is not a mere stepping-stone to a better appointment: God has caused you to become pastor to some souls here who are as valuable to Him as any in the world – your quiet persistence will be a sign that you believe God has a purpose of grace for this people, and that this purpose of grace will be promoted, not by gimmicks, or stunts, or new ideas, but by the Word of God released in preaching by prayer. (my italics)
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You are not the Saviour of the World
When my wife Carolyn and I debrief at the end of a day, one of us often feels burdened by some painful pastoral situation in someone we love and for whom we care. And then the other says, “Remember, there is only one Saviour of the world; and it’s not you.”
It is a healthy reminder and perhaps especially for preachers. I came across this honest wisdom from William Still in The Work of the Pastor, speaking of how to deal with really hard cases: “Some meddling ministers want to sort out everybody. God is not so optimistic. There are some who will die mixed-up personalities, and they may be true believers. (In some ways perhaps I am that, and have no hope of ever sorting myself out. Indeed my salvation is to live with my oddities and partly put up with them…).”
So he says to ministers, “Don’t try to do the impossible … Know what God is about, especially in respect of your calling, and keep within it. Most people crack up because they try to do what God never intended them to do. They destroy themselves by sinful ambition, just as much as the drunkard and drug addict. Ambition drives them on.”
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Preachers in goatland
I have been re-reading parts of William Still’s classic The Work of the Pastor and came across this wonderfully robust exhortation to preachers to make sure they feed the sheep:
It is to feed sheep (on the Word of God) that men are called to churches and congregations, whatever they may think they are called to do. If you think you are called to keep a largely worldly organisation, miscalled a church, going, with infinitesimal doses of innocuous sub-Christian drugs or stimulants, then the only help I can give you is to advise you to give up the hope of the ministry and go and be a street scavenger; a far healthier and more godly job…
The pastor is called to feed the sheep, even if the sheep do not want to be fed. He is certainly not to become an entertainer of goats. Let goats entertain goats, and let them do it out in goatland. You will certainly not turn goats into sheep by pandering to their goatishness.
Simplicity and love in preaching
I have been reading Henry Chadwick’s biography of Augustine of Hippo, and was encouraged by a number of things. One was Chadwick’s observation that, ‘All the masterpieces on which later centuries looked back were without exception written during his busy life as bishop, not while he was a leisured young ‘don’.’ Let’s beware of the idea that long leisurely withdrawal from active pastoral work into the groves of academe is the ideal context for scholarship.
Another is Augustine’s splendidly clear attitude towards teaching the uneducated. Of whom there are plenty. Echoing 1 Corinthians 1 and 2, Augustine wrote to a friend, ‘Educated Christians like myself expect God’s grace to prefer people of greater natural ability, higher standards of behaviour, and superior education in the liberal arts. In fact God mocks my expectations.’
So how are we to preach and teach to ‘simpler’ people? Augustine wrote a short treatise ‘On Catechizing Simple (i.e. less educated) People’ in reply to this question from an intellectual deacon in Carthage. He gently chides his intellectual friend on feeling frustrated at having to teach below his natural level of sophistication. If we really love people for whom Christ died, he says, we will gladly sacrifice our own intellectual satisfaction for the sake of their understanding.
And in fact it will do us good, for just as when we show a visitor around a landscape with which we are over-familiar, we ourselves notice the beauty of it afresh, so when we teach Christian truths to others. In Augustine’s words, ‘Is it not a common occurrence with us, that when we show to persons, who have never seen them, certain spacious and beautiful tracts (i.e. views), either in cities or in fields, which we have been in the habit of passing by without any sense of pleasure, simply because we have become so accustomed to the sight of them, we find our own enjoyment renewed in their enjoyment of the novelty of the scene?’
Chadwick writes about Augustine’s attitude to the arts of oratory: ‘Ciceronian eloquence has three aims: to instruct, to please, to move, and has three styles for doing this – simple, or florid, or pathetic. The Christian orator alters the order of priorities; it is more important to instruct and to move, and only lastly to please. Elaborate language and convoluted sentences will defeat the object, and therefore a Christian teacher should use direct speech, and take the Bible as a model for form as well as the source of his content.’
And again, ‘In his own preaching Augustine … is careful to avoid long sermons with complex sentences. Nothing is said indirectly or ironically, or to entertain. His eyes are not on his script or notes if any, but on his hearer’s faces, and he is ready to stop or to shift the direction of his discourse immediately if he is losing their attention.’ ‘His directness to his flock is a consciously adopted simplicity which knows just what effect monosyllables may achieve.’
Let’s hear it for simple, loving, clear preaching and teaching.
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Simplicity in preaching
My attention has been drawn to this short piece pleading for simplicity in our preaching. I thought it had a number of helpful observations and practical common sense.
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Bringing the Psalms back into use
I’m just finishing a teaching series on the Psalms at Cornhill and have been very struck by how God has given us the Psalms to teach us how to pray and to praise him. Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his little booklet “Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible” makes the point that we need Jesus to teach us how to pray (Lord teach us to pray) and that one of the main ways in which Jesus teaches us to pray is through the Psalms which are supremely his own prayers.
But the Psalms have fallen into disuse in many of our churches, so that we neither know them nor learn how to pray them. It was very encouraging to hear from Greg Strain (Spicer Street Chapel, St Alban’s) that for the past 150 Sundays they have focused on one Psalm each week in their Sunday morning meetings. They say a few words of introduction about the Psalm, and then the leader reads the Psalm, after which they all sing a paraphrase of the Psalm (often from the Praise! hymn book). After that the Psalm is used as the basis for the main corporate prayer. After 150 weeks, Greg tells me that they’re about to go back and start again at Psalm 1 and that this time they will all read the Psalm together aloud. Greg has told the congregation that they’re going to keep going through the Psalms until they’ve memorised them! Greg comments to me that they have found this very very helpful and that the Psalms “are teaching us to pray”. And also that “(corporate) praying is shaped by Scripture every week and yet is different every week”.
Puritan wisdom for today’s Church
I’ve just been sent “Pilgrims, Warriors and Servants: Puritan wisdom for today’s Church” which is the transcripts of the St Antholin lectures from 1991 to 2000 edited by Lee Gatiss. I’ve not had time to read it yet but it looks to be a feast of fascinating historical nuggets with all sorts of points of contact with issues in the contemporary church. Lee Gatiss is a prolific, talented and immensely capable scholar and has put together these lectures including J.I. Packer on Richard Baxter, Gavin McGrath on the pastoral theology of John Owen, Peter Jensen on Puritan attitudes to combat with Satan, J.I. Packer on William Perkins, Peter Adam on the Puritan dilemma of serving within or without a church “halfly Reformed”, and others. I’m much looking forward to reading it.
I had one ear open at breakfast today (15thSeptember) when the Radio 4 Today programme was discussing the Pope’s visit. Various reports and interviews focussed mainly on the numerical decline of the Roman Catholic Church in the UK (ignoring the large increases from Polish and other immigrants). What interested me was the reason given for this decline, which was the uncompromising stance of the church (and especially this Pope – so deeply loathed by the liberal media) on contentious moral issues such as abortion, euthanasia, and contraception. If only, they suggested, the RC Church relaxed this stance and came more into line with ‘the values of our culture’, then this numerical decline could be reversed.
I hold no brief for the Roman Catholic Church, (and consider the ban on artificial contraception to be a flawed deduction from the Bible), but the liberal ‘logic’ of this report struck me as deeply illogical. Is the answer to numerical decline to take our ethical stance from ‘the values of our culture’? This seems to me absurd. Why bother to join a church, if it believes just what the surrounding culture believes? I can think of better things to do with my Sundays. Besides, there are Anglican churches whose ethics appear pretty much indistinguishable from our culture, and they seem to be declining pretty fast too.