A brief book review for a brief book: Godly ambition
Godly ambition is Alister Chapman's new assessment of the ministry of John Stott: 'critical yet sympathetic' so the dust jacket goes. It was written in Stott's lifetime, with access to his private papers, and promises insights into something of the man. There is a sense in which it doesn't disappoint. Although much of the material is very familiar to anyone who has read any of Dudley-Smith or the other biographical volumes, there is more here than a simple biography. We get into a little more of the motives and passions. The insights I found particularly helpful were:
- why the ministry at All Souls was initially so fruitful but slowed up considerably in the 1960s
- the failure of Stott to reach much outside his class
- the struggle to make NEAC successful
- the Lausanne showdown with Billy Graham over inclusion of what Chapman calls 'the social gospel'
- Stott's changing views on, say, women's ordination (becoming less conservative, p123) and abortion (becoming more so, p124)
These are assessed in a gentle, loving but critical way. You don't feel at any point that Chapman is having a go at the man at all. He should be praised for that.
However, to be perfectly honest, I found it all a bit brief. The issue of women's ordination for example, and why Stott changed his position, warrants more than 3 paragraphs even though it is set in a broader canvas. The Lausanne issue gets a whole chapter and is, to be fair, dealt with much more thoroughly. I suppose I am saying, I wanted more. Much of the history, of course, is well rehearsed. But it is the additional insights that we need to hear….and I closed the book thanking God for a man who reintroduced some academic vigour into evangelicalism (Chapman says this is one of his major achievements), but still wanting to know a little more about what drove this remarkable servant, not least to ensure we hold onto what is good with objective, thankful and discerning minds. I felt more was also needed on his preaching.
This is a 160 page book, brief I would suggest. And at £35, you can't help forgetting that each page turn costs you 42p. So, I enjoyed it, found it illiuminating and stirring…..but I just wanted and needed more. More pages. More analysis. More of everything, really.
Saturday was a good day. I really enjoyed the interaction with occasional preachers. Good for me, at least. Hope it was good for them too. If you live in the Colchester area, your moment is coming! Our next preachers day is up the A12 on Saturday 21 April. Robin Weekes will be leading a day on preaching wisdom literature, and who doesn't need help with that? You can find out more details and book online here. And if you live in the Midlands we're working on coming up with an autumn date to kick off there. Watch this space.
The Old Covenant is not the New
Spent a day on Saturday teaching occasional preachers about how to teach from the psalms. It's an interesting topic – most occasional preachers might be asked to preach every now and again when the vicar or minister is away and they think to themselves, what can I preach that is standalone and straightforward. The irony is that many choose the psalms which are neither standalone nor straightforward.
One very common error is to forget that these are, for the most part, Old Covenant psalms, rooted in the language of blessing and obedience. Those blessings and curses in, say, Deuteronomy, help explain the unashamedly prosperous language:
7 He raises the poor from the dust
and lifts the needy from the ash heap;
8 he seats them with princes,
with the princes of their people.
9 He settles the barren woman in her home
as a happy mother of children. (Psalm 113)
But it also explains the so called imprecatory psalms when the psalmist calls down judgement on his enemies. God promises, as part of Old Covenant blessing to afflict his people's enemies with the same curses they will suffer if they do not obey his commands. So, when the psalmist asks for God to bring down judgment he is saying, fundamentally, "Sovereign Lord, be faithful to your covenant promises."
It's simply not possible to preach the psalms faithfully without grasping this (or indeed, much of the Old Testament). The Old Covenant is not the New and though there are links, lines, similarities, shadows, copies and so on (what we might call continuity) there is also discontinuity and we need to be able to answer the differences to be able to preach the psalms faithfully.
If only more preachers (occasional and otherwise) knew that!
One of the things about preaching is that it involves words. You may have noticed. I guess that many of us who are preachers don't use full manuscripts; even those who do probably stray off piste. Which means that we need to train ourselves to be careful with words. You see words can very easily be meaningless. This was brought home to me by the latest Vodafone ad. They have followed the rather tired route of licensing the Star Wars characters (come on, Vodafone, everybody seems to have done that!). Here's one I pass cycling on my way to work.
It says, "We'll fix any mobile device (almost)." Almost? Not much of a Jedi master, this Yoda. The ad is trying to be clever, saying we can't fix light sabres. But not everyone makes that connection – it took me at least a dozen cycle pasts until I realised that Yoda was holding said light sabre instead of a Motorola Razr.
And the words are meaningless. Almost any device? What assurance is that? It's like the sales "up to 50% off" or "most items £2" – these are sales pitches that promise the earth and deliver nothing. Likewise, the preacher – especially the off piste preacher – needs to be careful with words. Words are beautiful, powerful, delicate things. The gospel is full of them, loaded with meaning. Don't let yours be robbed.
Happy World Book Day!
As if there aren't enough celebratory days already…..but here's one that's worth celebrating. Since the times of the printing press, Christians have loved books. That's no surprise, really, because we are people of The Book. So, here's an idea for world book day which is entirely focused on The Book. A few years ago a small team called The Bible Design Group with input from John Kohlenberger (not Andreas, this is the typesetting guru) put together a version of the TNIV without chapter numbers, verse numbers, headings, footnotes and single column – so no heavily hyphenated narrow columns. We used these with some guys in our church who were dyslexic. They found them much easier to read.
Well, the idea is back. This time Biblica, the NIV copyright holder, has produced a NT version of Books of the Bible together with a reading programme called CBE (community Bible experience). Same formatting, NIV (2011) text and, I think, a great idea. We might try reading together in our home group – that is the idea: to get people reading the Bible together as it was originally delivered, not in bitesize pieces. I believe, of course, in careful verse by verse study. But this is not an either/or choice but both/and. The UK volumes are priced at £3.50 making them very attractive. The scheme can deliver the daily reading to your inbox or you can listen to it in audio version if you prefer.
A great world book day idea.
What is the importance of preaching?
Recently a small group of us were listening to this talk by Peter Adam from the 1993 Senior Ministers Conference. The purpose of our gathering was to explore the question "what is the importance of preaching?" – and Peter Adam very helpfully addresses this by asking what it is that preaching does that other forms of Bible teaching don't. Here are some of the answers he came up with:
Silence is not so golden
So, The Artist is the best film of last year. Not so sure myself, but then they didn't ask me (*). This represents the final nail in the coffin for visual over audio, apparently. The twentieth century is the one that marked our transition from audio experiences (the spoken word, especially) to the visual. TV and movies obviously contributed to that change. So it is interesting that we have come full circle to the place where a silent movie has won the Oscar. Picture is king (**).
That's also the end of sermons then, unless we can make them visual – hoorah for PowerPoint?
No. I don't deny the power of visual. But I do deny that words are powerless, or even that words cannot be visual themselves. This was brought home to me last Saturday. I was speaking at an evangelistic event in Essex and so was only able to watch the first half of England-Wales rugby (***). That meant I had to listen to one of the most exciting internationals for years on the car radio. And you know what? I loved it. It was breathtaking, exciting, visual – all this and more. That was due in part to the excellent commentator (Ian Robertson), but the spoken word need not be dead or dull, boring or irrelevant. It was – dare I say it? – more engrossing that the TV version…..
And of course, The Artist is not a silent film. It has a soundtrack; it's just that the soundtrack is not speech. So, ra-ra-ra for audio and hoorah for radio commentary and three cheers for sermons. Don't let anybody tell you their time has gone. The Sony radio awards do not get the same airtime that the Oscars or BAFTAs do. But they should. And sermons must not be despised. Dull sermons are hard to forgive. But sexing up with video/visual is a wrong reaction to incompetence. The word is still king.
* I'm not bitter about this – just a little disappointed. After all, apparently Denzel Washington's wife gets a vote. Well, he does, but he's too busy so he let's her vote on his behalf according to a newspaper article this weekend. I'm up for voting, if they need help.
** Not everyone can handle silent movies apparently. The official trailer on IMDB has overdubbed speech on The Artist print for John Goodman's character and the dog. See here.
*** For American readers, rugby is a game with an oval ball but without helmets. It's good. Like American football but for real men.
Last chance for London Preachers Day
It's the last chance to book for the London preachers' day here at Willcox House this Saturday. How to preach/teach the psalms….
More information here.
Spring Senior Ministers Conference
Hothorpe Hall, Leicestershire, Monday 30 April to Thursday 3 May 2012
All ministers need encouragement and help to keep going with the gospel and with the task they have been given, of proclaiming the good news of Jesus. These are the twin elements of our ministers' conferences. We long to see people built up in their faith and helped in the practical work of ministry. This unique combination means those who come to ministers' conferences have a chance to get away and be refreshed with the good news once again, and also to sharpen up the skills they are using for God's glory. This year our Bible ministry is led by David Meredith. David is minister of Smithton-Culloden and Nairn Free Church of Scotland and a fine preacher. Last year he was the moderator of the Free Church and he will be leading the expositions. We are also pleased to welcome John Dickson, author, historian and evangelist, from Australia. His sessions at the EMA in 2009 were very helpful and we shall have more of the same as he helps us think through preaching and evangelism. Why not put the dates in your diary and invite a friend along too? More information and booking here.
You can read Carl Trueman's assessment from our last minister's conference here.
'It is a tremendous encouragement to spend time with those who have no patience with pastoral pyrotechnics but who simply want to be faithful servants where the Lord has placed them'
And yes, that really is the Hothorpe Hall food……
Why quotes don’t work
I've been doing some thinking about quotes in sermons and I want to share my conclusions with you. In fact, to be more precise, I want to tell you why quotes rarely work. It's because there are fundamental differences between the written word and the spoken word. Writers rarely write as they speak. Speakers use short sentences. They avoid complex constructions and flowery synonyms. Writers love both and add in subordinate clauses like there was an offer on at Tesco. You probably don't realise this. Get this – that is because when you read out a quote you are in reading mode not speaking mode! But your congregation are in listening-to-speaking mode whether you are preaching or whether you are reading a quote out.
So, here's an excerpt from one of my sermons, word for word:
Imagine this kind of fear! It's fear that comes from being attacked. Attacked by one who was once a friend. Attacked by someone who walked closely with us. And don't think that's just for David. It happens. It happens in churches. It happens in marriages. It happens in families. It happens in Christian relationships.
No sentence has more than 8 or 9 words. That would (or could) look quite different if I was writing it in a book.
Imagine the kind of fear that comes from being attacked, even from one who was once a friend or someone who walked closely with us! It's not something that is unique to David because it happens today in churches, marriages, families and in Christian relationships.
Two sentences and if I'd tried hard it could be one. Same content. Different kind of writing. Some quotes work because people write in very pithy ways or because the story is so gripping the construction matters less (what I call testimony quotes). But these are rare. And this is why quotes often don't work. And we simply don't realise it.