Back to Basics
Last week I was at “The Basics,” a pastors conference run by Alistair Begg and hosted by Parkside Church, Chagrin Falls, near Cleveland, Ohio. This is a wonderful example of a church to whom much blessing has been given by God, giving generously to encourage pastors of (mostly) much smaller churches. Under Alistair’s faithful ministry over the past thirty years (so far), Parkside has grown remarkably. In addition, the “Truth for Life” radio programmes (broadcast from hundreds of radio stations in the USA) have spread the blessing of his ministry far and wide.
The 48-hour conference is, in many ways, modeled on our Evangelical Ministry Assembly, and is a good example of how to run a straightforward conference for the focused encouragement of pastors in their leadership and – in particular – in their preaching ministries. There is no hype or razzamatazz; just straightforward preaching, generous hospitality, and plenty of time for personal conversations for encouragement. Most of the pastors there seem to be from smaller churches, and some of them needing to be tent-makers. They – like us – face the uphill challenge of commending the gospel of the Lord Jesus in a culture which is moving fast away from real Christianity.
Alistair Begg gave us helpful pointers to why and how we might preach Ecclesiastes, and a moving exposition from Ecclesiastes 12. Gary Millar gave two perceptive and pastorally sensitive expositions from the Elijah narratives in 1 Kings 18 and 19. A feast for hungry pastors.
Oh, and the weather: we had a tornado the first evening. We don’t get that at EMA.
The sermon: a cultural oasis in a Christian’s week
This is from David Wells’ recently published God in the Whirlwind: How the Holy-Love Reorients our World:
‘the rapidity with which the whole of the media-filtered, technology-delivered world is changing. It never stands still long enough for us to take our bearings on it. What is important and what is not, what is weighty and what is ephemeral, what is tragic and what is trivial, meet us with about the same intensity. It becomes hard, sometimes, to tell which is which. Our world blurs amid the rapid flow of facts, factoids, images, voices, laughter, entertainment, and vapid commentary. We slowly lose the capacity to see the connections between things. Life seems to have no shape. It looks like a sequence of fast-moving random experiences with no center and little meaning. Not only does a Christian worldview disappear; the very capacity for such a thing becomes tenuous. How then will we hear this other music from another place [i.e. the voice of God]? How will we hear the Drummer’s beat above the sounds of this world?’ (pp.184-85).
In this cultural context, simply to stand and proclaim Christ from the Scriptures every week uninterrupted for a stretch of time, relatively free of technological gimmick and change of image or topic every thirty seconds, will itself have a cultural impact. It will be an oasis in the week for the Christian, in which the blur of information-flow and entertainment-options is deliberately stopped, and in which that which is most significant in the world is relentlessly portrayed to them.
Indeed, if Wells is right that our world makes it especially difficult for people to give meaningful shape to their lives, then weekly preaching is likely also to be the crucial place in which, over the weeks and years, a coherent Christian worldview is built up in their minds and souls. And, at the risk of getting too grandiose, it may well increasingly be, as a result in part of such preaching, that young Christians find that they can articulate and defend a consistent worldview in a way that very few of their unconverted peers can.
I'm working slowly through Job in my devotions, making much use of Christopher's forthcoming Preaching the Word volume (available at the EMA). I've got as far as chapter 16 where Job replies to Eliphaz.
Then Job replied: “I have heard many things like these; you are miserable comforters, all of you! Will your long-winded speeches never end? What ails you that you keep on arguing? I also could speak like you, if you were in my place; I could make fine speeches against you and shake my head at you. But my mouth would encourage you; comfort from my lips would bring you relief. Yet if I speak, my pain is not relieved; and if I refrain, it does not go away."
It is a mark of a disciple of Jesus and an heir and successor to Job that, even as we long to be comforted, our hearts contain a matching longing to bring comfort to others in pain. Faith turns us outward even in pain.
Man’s search for something…
Mrs R and I reading The History of the World in 100 Objects, one short chapter each night before sleep. Or, rather, I am reading Mrs R a chapter each night. Who said romance is dead? Neil McGregor, the author and director of the British Museum is no particular friend of Christians, I don't believe. But some of the early chapters are intriguing, especially the discovery of very old (however you count) stone spear heads in the North American continent. What is amazing about these finds, apart from their antiquity, is the way they spread south very quickly. McGregor (as you may recall from the BBC Radio 4 series if you heard it), calls upon Michael Palin to explain this movement:
I've always been very restless and, from when I was very small, interested in where I wasn't, in what was over the horizon, in what was around the next corner. And the more you look at the history of homo sapiens, it's all about movement, right from the very first time they decided to leave Africa. It is this restlessness which seems a very significant factor in the way the planet was settled by humans. It does seem that we are not settled. We think we are, but we are still looking for somewhere else where something is better – where it's warmer, it's more pleasant. Maybe there is an element, a spiritual element of hope in this – that you are going to find somewhere that is wonderful. It's the search for the perfect land – maybe that's at the bottom of it all.
Interesting. Or, as Mrs R said as she nodded off, "he has put eternity into the hearts of men,"
Jack’s back again.
A few people emailed me about last week's post about long series. It's quite true, of course, that long series are not necessarily good things without qualification. What – one reader pointed out – the problem was with the recent series of 24 is that the series was unable to sustain interest from viewers because of the quality (or lack of it) and the inability to sustain a coherent plot line.
All of this should ring bells for preachers. Long series can work, I submit, but we need to make some caveats:
- long narrative series will fail if the preacher robs the divine story of its pace, colour, characterisation and detail. Too much narrative teaching does this in spades. Our people cannot cope with a 36 week series on Numbers if we reduce everything to a series of bald propositions. Dull.
- long series will fail if we preachers fail to reflect the detail of the text in the glory of the gospel we are preaching. There are only so many times we can say "…and Jesus is the king we need" when preaching 2 Samuel. David is indeed a type of Christ, but the glory is in the detail as much as it is in the big picture. We need to preach the detail in the context of the big picture. That is not the same as simply preaching the big picture.
- long series will fail if don't allow the tone of the text to drive the sermon. I've been very aware of this preaching through Ezra recently. Sometimes, the text is gloomy. There is not much light. We are so keen to bring each sermon to its own gospel climax that we can fail to do justice to the tone of the text. That's a tough tension to hold, but we must try.
In many of these cases, our people are robbed of the dynamics of the section of Scripture that God intended. Long series can really only ever work if we are true to the way things were written down by the Spirit inspired authors.
We also need to be honest about our own limitations. Some of us will struggle more than others with long series. We are not all equally gifted. In the goodness of God and his sovereign power, that is all right. Preaching is more than what we are able to put in. But we must also think of ourselves with sober judgement, and that includes our teaching gifts. Put simply: some of us are more able communicators than others. That is no justification for the status quo. We must always be working and praying on communicating more effectively. And it's in this context that we can preach long series.
Interesting to read Iain Murray's take on T4G in this month's Banner of Truth magazine:
Archibald Brown [our own church's first pastor and Spurgeon's successor at the Metropolitan Tabernacle] once told the declining congregation at the Metropolitan Tabernacle that, when God revives his work, popular solutions for a recovery would disappear: 'There will be nothing said from the pulpit or platform about "up to date", it will be Bible! Bible! Bible! And the people clamouring, "Let us have the Word of God."'
O for these days in our churches!
Jack’s back. And you can preach long series.
I've not yet watched any of the latest series of 24. To be honest, I got bored 5 series ago. It's recorded and may get watched, but I'd been too engrossed in BBC2's excellent, thought provoking and sobering German series on a group of friends in WWII. Anyhow, back to 24. I noticed one review online with the headline "I learnt so much about London from 24." Frankly, that's hard to believe. The Times reviewer said true travel in London would never be possible in MovieWorld where Jack managed to get from Whitechapel to West Ealing in just a few minutes (try a few hours anyone?). You need to suspend disbelief to enjoy these things.
And this series, I notice, is just 12 episodes instead of the usual 24. Jack's getting old. But never mind. I've heard of people who have been sitting down for marathons and watching all 372 series, each with 24 episodes. And even normal people seem to be able to cope with one hour a week over almost half the year.
And you think congregations cannot take long series?
Hmm. Let the reader understand.
Death before the fall
To be honest, many of us spend a lot of our time reading books we already agree with. That's no bad thing. Reinforcing truth already learnt is an important part of Christian growth and sometimes even familiar truths restated take our breath away once again. But I've just finished reading a book whose foundational premise I don't necessarily agree with. It's called "Death before the Fall" by Ronald Osborn.
It may surprise our brothers down the road but I am not a theistic evolutionist. So a book which seeks to justify whether animal death could occur before the fall in order to allow for an evolutionary perspective on Genesis might seem like something to avoid.
But no. It's true, of course, that having a preconditioned framework for any discussion on Genesis is going to affect your hermeneutic to some extent. I can't believe that any Christian comes to Genesis without some form of presupposition. Nevertheless, this is a book I learnt from, and I say that in the most warm hearted generous way I can think. It got me thinking about literalism as a hermeneutic and how it has dangers as well as strengths. It helped me evaluate how I myself read these exalted texts of Gen 1-3.
I can't say it changed my mind on the whole creation issue. But it got me thinking about reading Scripture in general and I found it astoundingly challenging. It's published by IVP Academic, but you should be able to get hold of it in the UK OK. You're not going to agree with all of it, or even its foundational premise. But that doesn't matter. I say again, it doesn't matter: it will still do you good, I believe.
Go on. Dare you.
There's some BBC news today about sleep – nothing particularly new if you've kept up with other sleep research (what do you mean, you haven't?). Interesting nonetheless. And completely consistent with what the Bible teaches us about the sweetness and necessity of sleep. If only there was a Christian book about sleep….. oh wait, there is. At the risk of being accused of blowing my own trumpet, I would like to point you towards this resource for two reasons. First, sleep is an issue for Christians too. I was surprised when we ran a sleep seminar at church how many people attended and for how many this was a real, live and painful issue; and thinking biblically about sleep actually helps you to sleep. Second, PT get some royalties from this book, so it's an excellent albeit indirect way of supporting our work. Thank you. Thank you.
And sleep tight.
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