So many people seem to want to listen to preaching that is “applicational.” I understand the impulse. After all, who would want to listen to non-applicational preaching? That sounds like preaching that is not relevant to my life and will not make a difference.
Actually, if we are talking about preaching that is relevant to life and genuinely transformative, then I am completely on board with that desire. The problem is that when we talk about “applicational preaching” it can fall short of what we really need. Here are some of the potential weaknesses:
1. Applicational preaching can place emphasis on action points and to-do lists. Now, there is certainly a place for knowing what is expected of us at the end of a sermon. If a passage gives an instruction that applies to us, then we should certainly note it and look to obey it. However, is the Bible primarily an instruction list for life? Some sermons give that impression, but perhaps that is missing something of the richness and purposefulness of God’s revelation.
2. Applicational preaching can point the listener in the wrong direction. When our preaching emphasizes what we must do, then the focus will tend to move toward our own willpower. Sermons that point the listener to their own discipline, their own choices, their own efforts, etc., are not the best sermons. And I don’t just mean they are not the most theologically impressive sermons. I also mean they are not the most effective sermons. Lives are not transformed by to-do lists. They can help, but they remain mostly on the surface. God is in the business of transforming lives from the inside out.
In order to see the full potential of any preaching or teaching ministry, I would encourage you to think about the ABCs of Application. Here is a brief explanation:
What does gathered worship do? Sometimes it can make our souls soar. Other times not so much. It is easy to understand why non-believers scratch their heads at Christian worship. If I saw a small group of people awkwardly singing, listening to someone talk about an old book, and sharing a tiny amount of bread and wine, I’d scratch my head too.
As I anticipate returning to Poland for the European Leadership Forum, I am reminded of the sacrifices made by so many during the Communist era. Russian Baptist pastor, Yuri Sipko, remembers Christians who were sent to prison camps or lost their jobs or their children. “Without being willing to suffer, even die for Christ, it’s just hypocrisy. It’s just a search for comfort.” Challenging words, but ponder this thought: “You need to confess him and worship him in such a way that people can see this world is a lie.”
What does gathered worship do? It declares that this world is a lie.
At the end of Revelation 3, we find that famous verse about Jesus standing at the door and knocking. He was knocking on the door of the church at Laodicea, but would they open the door and let him in? They thought they had everything they needed, but actually, they desperately needed Jesus. As we turn to chapter 4 and John’s great vision from Jesus continues, we find the heavenly door is open for John to come up and participate in the ultimate worship gathering.
In Revelation chapters 4-5, we get to glimpse the ultimate worship gathering, and it reminds us what gathered worship does. Here are five things that gathered worship does:
1. Worship centres us around God’s throne. (4:1-2) In worship, we are invited, by Jesus, to gather at the throne of God. In Eugene Peterson’s Reversed Thunder, he points out how we live in a world that feels like a storm-tossed sea. We are thrown all over the place by every wind, every wave, every advert, every news story, every problem, and every threat. But as Christians, we have an anchor that holds us firm, gives us a circumference, and centres us. God is on the throne, so there can be a constant source of stability in my heart and life. Gathering with God’s people to sing his praise is an anchor point in the frenetic chaos of life.
2. Worship gathers God’s people around his throne. (4:3-11) In this glorious vision, there is layer upon layer of rich meaning. The vibrant colours seem to reflect God’s holiness and justice, as well as his life-giving nature as the Creator. The 24 elders probably represent the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles of the Church (there is debate on all these details, of course). Perhaps they represent God’s great work through the centuries to reveal his plan and rescue people for himself. Then there are the four living creatures – a picture of God’s creation (noble, strong, wise, and swift), and some have seen here four glimpses into the person of Jesus Christ. God’s people, God’s creation, all falling down and worshipping God on the throne. In worship, we are united together, not only with one another but also with God himself, in the uniquely trinitarian worship we find in the Bible.
3. Worship points us to Christ and his payment. (5:1-7) At the start of chapter 5, John is struck by the disconnect between God’s greatness and the need of humanity. The sealed scroll, Earth’s title deed, God’s plan of judgment – its existence underlines that no human is worthy to open the seals. Even apart from the judgment context of Revelation, our gathered worship cannot be satisfied with just lauding God the Creator for his power and majesty. Christian worship always points us to Christ and his payment. John turned to see the Lion of the Tribe of Judah and was confronted by the slain Lamb.
4. The Lion/Lamb Redeemer stirs greater songs of worship. (5:8-13) When God’s people encounter God’s goodness and grace, they sing. Moses, Miriam, Deborah, David, Mary, Angels, Jesus and the Disciples, Paul and Silas – they all sang. When we become aware of who he is and what he has done, then we will sing too. In chapter four, there were two songs to the Creator (4:8, 4:11). Now the singing swells as more voices join in and more richness is reflected in two songs to the Redeemer (5:9-10, 5:12). Finally, there is one song to both the Creator and the Redeemer combined (5:13).
5. Worship finishes with a great Amen! – the ultimate reality of God’s person and plan is definitively affirmed! (5:14) If you think about it, we humans have a history of saying no to God. We are all quite adept at saying no. But Revelation 4-5 underlines that in the end God’s great yes will overcome every one of our noes. In worship, we are confronted by the reality of God the Creator King on his throne, and of God the Redeeming Lion/Lamb, and we cry out, “Yes!” When we worship together, we get a pre-taste of what is to come. “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Gathered worship is like an anchor to both the future, when all our questions will be answered, and to the ultimate reality in the present – that God is on the throne and he has redeemed us.
So what does gathered worship do? It declares that this world is a lie. More than that, it centres us around the throne of God – for God is on the throne whatever we may be facing down here. It gathers God’s people around his throne – for God is worthy of every note of praise that can be uttered by any part of his creation. It points us to Christ and his payment – for we worship not only in response to the majesty on the throne but also to the scars on that Lamb. It stirs us to sing greater songs of worship – for God the Creator and our Lion/Lamb Redeemer. It definitively affirms the ultimate reality of God’s person and plan – for in the end we will cry out our great “Yes!” and “Amen!” to God.
Whether we are gathering in a great crowd at a Christian event, or with a handful of dear saints on a Sunday, let us appreciate the privilege of gathered worship and declare with joy that this world is a lie.
Sipko quote from Live Not By Lies, by Rod Dreher, p185-6.
In part 1, we set the scene and considered how a crisis can be used to wrest control, but the tyrants taking charge may not be impressive to all. In part 2, the thin veneer of tyranny does not protect subjects from the harsh realities of the suffering that always follows. In part 3, we scratched at the religious veneer to see that the biggest question in life is the right question at any time of change. However, asking the right questions will not be welcomed, but oppressed. Thus, the truth matters, even if everyone seems to be buying into the lies. This brings us to this final post. Surely the truth will set society free? Ultimately, yes. But we should not be shocked when a hypnotized people choose to stay under the spell.
20. Revealing the lie does not automatically break the spell. “The light is dawning, the lie broken.” It seems so simple. Show everyone how they have been lied to and everything will be alright. Well, not necessarily. After defeating some captors, the king cried, “Now, Dwarfs, you are free. Tomorrow I will lead you to free all Narnia. Three cheers for Aslan!” But, Lewis goes on, “the result which followed was simply wretched.” If everyone rallied to the side of the king, there was hope. But not “if half the Narnians – including all the Dwarfs – just sat and looked on? or even fought against him.” Would the German population have rallied to the side of truth if there had been time for it to be revealed? How many might have been saved if the populations of the communist soviet countries had revolted sooner? And what if our own population does not react when lies are revealed? The result of apathy to truth will be simply wretched.
21. When a lie is revealed, there may well be more sinister aforethought than previously realised. By chapter 9, Jewel recognizes how much planning had taken place. “We see that the Ape’s plans were laid deeper than we dreamed of. Doubtless he has been long in secret traffic with The Tisroc.” It is hard to fathom the depths of evil conspiratorial planning that may exist, but where is the benefit in believing everything is driven by good intentions and some accident? Will we look back and wonder why we were so naively accepting of the lines we were fed? Perhaps we would do well to ask questions sooner, rather than just having to take stock of the damage once it is done.
22. When a lie is revealed, the evil tyrants will continue to spin yet more lies. It is the most infuriating plot twist, but it is repeated time and again. When the lie is revealed, it is met with yet more lies. The Ape explained how a beast had dressed up and pretended to be Aslan. “Jill wondered for a moment if the Ape had gone mad. Was he going to tell the whole truth? . . . It was seen last night, but it got away. It’s a Donkey! A common, miserable Ass! If any of you see that Ass—” The Ape lied to cover his lies, and so retained control of the population! “Jill looked at the King: his mouth was open and his face was full of horror. And then she understood the devilish cunning of the enemies’ plan. By mixing a little truth with it they had made their lie far stronger.”
It is a story that has been told again and again. The Ape in its glory. So much harm is done along the way, but eventually, every dressed-up Ape will be brought down. May we learn from the story before we live unnecessarily through another chapter of the same old tale. May we never accept any self-declared-wise old ape who sets himself up as the better leader to take us toward utopia. The world does not need a year zero, a new beginning, a great leap forward, or a reset, no matter how great it might sound, or how urgently the need is portrayed. What the world needs is truth, as well as humble leaders ready to serve the people, and for those who have met Aslan to make sure they are never fooled by a doddery donkey dressed up as divine.
14. Different gods are treated as one. A Lamb spoke up, “Please, I can’t understand. What have we to do with the Calormenes? We belong to Aslan. They belong to Tash. They have a god called Tash. They say he has four arms and the head of a vulture. They kill Men on his altar. I don’t believe there’s any such person as Tash. But if there was, how could Aslan be friends with him?” The underlying impulse of tyrants is always a collective uniformity. There is no space for diversity of thought or diversity of religion. And so, like a recurring refrain, the religions are pushed together and effectively true religion is pushed out. It was true in Narnia. It was true in Nazi Germany. It was true in the Soviet Union. It is true in China. It is always the same. There is always one version of religious thought allowed, and the new leaders get to define it.
15. The God question is the best question to ask. Once the Lamb had spoken, we are told that they knew this was the best question anyone had asked yet. It always is. In a world where the boundaries are blurred and the gods are blended together, the most important question is always to ask about the true God. After all, He will always be different, and better, than their imposed amalgam deity.
16. Good questions incite aggressive answers. The Ape jumped up and spat at the Lamb. “Baby!” he hissed. “Silly little bleater! Go home to your mother and drink milk. What do you understand of such things?” The subjects are ridiculed if they dare to question. The experts know best. They always do. If you question them, then you discover that you are questioning “The Science” itself. Abusive relationships do not always require shouting and overt aggression. However, the presence of shouting and overt aggression tends to be a good indicator of an abusive relationship.
17. The blending of gods will always mean the diminishing of the true God. The Ape declared, “Tash is only another name for Aslan. All that old idea of us being right and the Calormenes wrong is silly. We know better now. The Calormenes use different words but we all mean the same thing. Tash and Aslan are only two different names for you know Who. . . . Tash is Aslan: Aslan is Tash.” The true God always seems to be reduced when the proud claim to have new insight. They know what is best and they should be trusted with the future. But Lewis described how every tail was down, and every whisker drooped. Except one. The Ginger Cat asked a clarifying question – “Aslan means no more than Tash? . . . I think I am beginning to understand.” When we add another god to the true God, the true God becomes nothing more than that other so-called god. You can add nothing to the true God and make him better. Some might use the ecumenical impulse for their own gain, but the Narnian beasts were right in their downed tails and drooped whiskers.
18. Silencing of contrary voices is always required for a tyrannical coup. King Tirian cried with a loud voice and was silenced. “If he had been allowed to speak, the rule of the Ape might have ended that day; the Beasts might have seen the truth and thrown the Ape down.” Instead, with violence, the Ape put down the truth-crier. “Take him where he cannot hear us, nor we hear him.” Which is more important, that he not hear their lies? Or that they do not hear his truth? Since tyranny is always a fragile house of cards, it must surely be the latter. Therefore, there will be ruthless silencing, censoring, cancelling and de-platforming of any counter-opinions. After all, it is for the good of the people. The destruction of free speech should always be a big red flag to thinking people.
19. The pantomime leader is ridiculous, but you may be tempted to believe that he is real until you remember the truth. In the next chapter, the Beasts are crying out to Aslan as he is paraded in front of them, briefly. King Tirian looked on from a distance, “He had not expected Aslan to look like that stiff thing which stood and said nothing. But how could he be sure? For a moment horrible thoughts went through his mind: then he remembered the nonsense about Tash and Aslan being the same and knew that the whole thing must be a cheat.” The doddery old donkey in fancy dress almost fooled him, but the truth won out.
7. True authority is always kept out of reach. A Boar asked the Ape about seeing Aslan properly and talking to him. But it was not allowed. In a truly free modern society, the authorities serve at the pleasure of the citizenry. Ultimate power lies with the people, not in a palace, nor a secret government discussion. In a dictatorship there is really no access for thinking subjects, only a carefully staged presentation that will have an impact on the crowds. The Roman Caesars would go into hiding and then appear in a spectacular show of splendour. “He is a god!” The crowd would cry. But it was all staged.
8. Tyrannical authority always knows better than you. Accused of being an Ape, the Ape declares, “I’m not. I’m a man. If I look like an Ape, that’s because I’m so very old: hundreds and hundreds of years old. And it’s because I’m so old that I’m so wise. And it’s because I’m so wise that I’m the only one Aslan is ever going to speak to. He can’t be bothered speaking to a lot of stupid animals. He’ll tell me what you’ve got to do, and I’ll tell the rest of you. And take my advice, and see you do it in double quick time, for he doesn’t mean to stand any nonsense.” Notice there is no reasoning, no discussion, no debate. The tyrant knows better than you and so you must obey.
9. The subjects of tyranny are always necessarily treated as stupid. Since the authoritative council of stakeholders is made up of experts, it means those under their rule must necessarily be treated as stupid. “Stupid animals!” They are to take what they are given and do as they are told. It has always been true in every dictatorship down through history. When you can smell disdain from on high, know that tyranny approaches again.
10. Freedom is turned into slavery. Some of the horses were speaking about getting the work done quickly, in order to return to freedom. “Well, you can get that idea out of your heads at once. And not only the Horses either. Everybody who can work is going to be made to work in future. Aslan has it all settled with the King of Calormen – The Tisroc . . . All you Horses and Bulls and Donkeys are to be sent down into Calormen to work for your living – pulling and carrying the way horses and such-like do in other countries. And all you digging animals . . .” The Ape had no intention of releasing control and letting the Beasts run free again. When freedoms are taken away, they are seldom returned without a struggle.
11. Slavery is described as for the common good, but it isn’t. When the Beasts howled about being sold into slavery, the Ape snarled back, “None of that! Hold your noise! Who said anything about slavery? You won’t be slaves. You’ll be paid – very good wages too. That is to say, your pay will be paid into Aslan’s treasury and he will use it for everybody’s good.” The repeated commonality in coups across the globe is the utopian vision of the betterment of society. It is for your benefit! Yes, there will be some work involved. There must be, to make things better. But your slavery, that is, your work, will make you free! The Ape made promises to the Beasts of Narnia. The Nazis put that assertion over the gates at Auschwitz. The Communist Party always promises a collective utopia beyond the struggle. And yet, who benefits? It is never the common man and woman. It is always the ruling elite.
12. The goal of the common good is described as a form of utopia, but the cover always slips. The Ape described the goal of their newly imposed future.“And all for your own good. We’ll be able, with the money you earn, to make Narnia a country worth living in. There’ll be oranges and bananas pouring in – and roads and big cities and schools and offices and whips and muzzles and saddles and cages and kennels and prisons – Oh, everything.” Actually, Narnia was pretty good before slavery was imposed. The future only seemed to mean added restrictions and silencing for the subjects, but luxuries and control for the ruling elite. Oh, you will own nothing, and you won’t be able to go too far, but you will be happy. Utopian dreams with revealing slips.
13. The new and false freedom is defined by the tyrant.“You think freedom means doing what you like. Well, you’re wrong. That isn’t true freedom. True freedom means doing what I tell you.” A truly free society is a rare commodity on this earth. Even in Narnia it seemed easily lost. When tyrants take over, they get to set the rules. And when they do, the people suffer.
I feel sorry for the last book in a collection. While many may enjoy the first, and probably the next couple too, not all readers will complete a series. This was certainly true in my case. It is only now, with my last pair of children, that I have finally cracked open The Last Battle and journeyed back into Narnia one last time. What I discovered felt like a commentary on devilish and despotic democracide. I had to check the publication date. Was this written in 2023? Obviously not, for it treads on far too many sensibilities for our day!
However, The Last Battle, the final chronicle of Narnia, remains eerily relevant. I am sure it was to its own day, a day of reflection on the atrocities of National Socialism (Nazi-ism) in Germany, and a day of growing suspicion of the murderous evil of International Socialism (Communism) in the East. Like all great stories, The Last Battle remains eerily relevant today, too. “Narnia faced its fiercest challenge,” the back cover explains, “not an invader from without but an enemy from within.” Indeed, so often the greatest threat to society lies within its own ranks. And that threat does not always come from the most intelligent enemies of the state. Often the mind behind the evil is devilish, while the actors used are less than impressive. His antagonism to all that is good lies behind the puppet leaders used to enact the sinister effort to transform a safe society into something so much more malevolent.
By the time we reach the third chapter of The Last Battle, we already know that a self-serving Ape and his hapless Donkey have stitched up a lion’s pelt for some nefarious purpose. We also join King Tirian and his Unicorn, Jewel, as they discover that Aslan has returned and ordered the felling of the holy trees and the murder of their dryads. Arriving at the newly cut gash in the Narnian landscape, they discover Calormenes who are mistreating a Narnian talking horse. It is all too much and they kill the two foreigners in a fit of rage.
Struck by their noble consciences, they determine to surrender their fate to the justice of Aslan. Whereupon we encounter “The Ape in its glory.”
I know that this is not directly related to biblical studies or preaching. But if you will indulge me as I share a brief series of reflections on a prescient work of fiction, here are twenty-two eerie parallels to ponder – parallels between Narnia, C.S.Lewis’ day, and even perhaps, our own.
1. A crisis was created and used by the leader of the coup. The felling of trees, the gash in the landscape, the sale of noble tree trunks to the Calormenes, the profound upset of Narnian peace – it was all created by the one who now used that same crisis to wrest control of the territory and to serve his heinous purposes.
2. Death is in the air. In the first chapter Shift cunningly manipulates Puzzle with the notion that he “shall probably die” if he tries to fetch the lion pelt from the pool. Puzzle retrieves it and is “almost tired to death.” In the second chapter the dryad is killed, then two Calormenes. This is a story of death after death so that by the end, all the characters are dead. Multiple characters state that it would have been better to be dead than…, and later on, we see Cair Paravel “filled with dead Narnians.” Death becomes an everyday conversation when societies are taken over by tyrannical forces. Lewis may not have known how accurate his picture was in the Communist east. We may not know all that is swirling in our world today, but it does feel like the subject of death is hanging in the air.
3. Everyone is saying the same thing. The King is struck by the fact that “the Horse said it was by Aslan’s orders. The Rat said the same. They all say Aslan is here.” Even though he had been warned that this was a lie, everyone was repeating the same message. There is a strange power in a common story. It will grow its own legs and generate its own credibility. Sometimes a coup will take over a land by force, but not always. Sometimes it is by stealth and the subjects will carry the tale of their own downfall willingly as if what they say is true.
4. For those that see clearly, it was clearly a charade. There in the clearing, at the peak of the hill, “there was a little hut like a stable, with a thatched roof.” But for those who could not see clearly this charade became their focal point. “On the grass in front of the door there sat an Ape. Tirian and Jewel, who had been expecting to see Aslan and had heard nothing about an Ape yet, were very bewildered when they saw it.” As readers we can see through the whole charade – don’t believe what he says, he is a fancy-dress ape with a dressed-up donkey prop! It is frustrating when others cannot see what is plainly before them.
5. Tyrants always look silly. When the Ape, chewing his supply of nuts, was handed the king’s sword with its belt, “he hung it around his own neck: it made him look sillier than ever.” Did the German population wonder about the short, shouting Austrian tyrant? Did the bigger moustache of Stalin command the respect he may have thought it should? And what of the potential tyrants in our day? If you look carefully, they always look silly.
6. Tyrants are always self-serving.“Now listen to me, everyone. The first thing I want to say is about nuts. . . . I want – I mean, Aslan wants – some more nuts.” The squirrels had already given the Ape more than they could spare. That’s the thing about tyrants: they take everything from the people and lavish luxuries on themselves. Beachfront villas, fine foods, private jets.
In our church, we have just completed an eight-week series in 1 Peter. Here are some brief reflections that may be helpful:
1. This epistle is relevant. I know that is not breaking news to you, but it bears underlining. 1 Peter speaks to people that felt like oppressed outsiders in the society in which they lived. It did then, and it does now.
2. Suffering may be necessary. We have lived through decades of relatively little suffering, but times seem to be changing. Suffering is not permanent, “now for a little while.” And suffering may be part of the plan, “if necessary.” In 1 Peter 1:6 we are introduced to the possibility that suffering is not the result of bad luck, but divine providence. As we come towards Easter we have the ultimate example of deliberate and planned suffering.
3. Biblical background helps. There is the situational background of the readers, forcibly moved from Rome and repatriated to these five regions of modern Turkey. There is the historical background of Peter’s life and experience. Keeping that in mind, as he would have done, is helpful to shine a light on his call to be prepared (3:15), to stay humble and to resist the devil (5:6-9), etc. Then there is the textual background of Peter’s biblical awareness as he wrote. For instance, the situation behind Psalm 34 seems to be shining a light on much of Peter’s writing in this epistle.
4. Difficult texts still have simple points. Preaching the end of 1 Peter 3 and the start of 1 Peter 4 is not easy territory to navigate. There is the timing, location and content of Jesus’ preaching in 3:19; then the reference to Noah in 3:20; followed by the awkward reference to baptism in 3:21. It is exegetical difficulty piled on exegetical difficulty. I chose to give some minutes to explain that complexity, but not before I emphasised the simple point of this section: Jesus suffered and Jesus was victorious. It helps to keep a clear picture in mind when trying to make sense of the complex.
5. The letter has a strong DNA. God’s pattern is for suffering now to be followed by glory later. It was true for Jesus, it was true for Peter’s readers then, and it is true for Peter’s readers now. Suffering and then glory: this idea works its way through the entire letter.
6. Variation can help a series work well. We had a team of preachers on this series. One of the messages was preached in first-person. It came in the middle of the series and really helped the series to not feel monotonous in style. Different preachers helped the series, although it was important to make sure we were preaching a coherent series.
7. Non-Suffering forms of Christianity lead to harm. We seem to live between two extremes. One is the fatalistic idea that disaster is coming no matter what. The other is the idealistic idea that we should always be healthy, and wealthy and travel in a private jet. What is the healthy middle ground? It is not a gentle form of health and wealth – that is, things should generally go well for us if we simply trust, pray and obey. Many Christians seem to want to live with their basic orientation towards good circumstances. No, the reality is that we live in a fallen world filled with suffering. So let’s turn from gentle forms of health and wealth, and let’s engage a fallen and sin-marred world with our hope reaching out beyond this suffering to the glory to come. Our hope is not in our experience but in the character of our good God and his plan.
8. 1 Peter should prepare us for difficulty, but stir us to trust! Every problem we face in this world is a problem that exists within creation. 1 Peter urges us to look beyond this realm to the eternal realities. We look outside of this realm to the God who is so much bigger, the God who cares for us. “The dog bit me,” ~ yes, but God is bigger. “But it was a big dog,” ~ so what, God is bigger. “But it was a lion,” ~ it doesn’t matter, God is bigger. “Actually it was a killer whale.” ~ Ok, but God is still bigger than any problem we can face in this realm. What’s more, he already came and suffered, and is now sitting in victory. So we can be humble, be watchful, and be hopeful. We get to stand in the true grace of God whatever may come our way.
There are plenty more thoughts generated by two months in 1 Peter. But hopefully this list is a motivational starter for now…
I have a series of videos on 1 Peter 2:1-10 that focus on the interpretation phase of Bible study. You can find them in this playlist:
When churches think about sharing the gospel with visitors, we can easily jump straight to outreach strategies and event planning. But here are seven ways to cultivate a culture for greater gospel growth in the church – foundational pieces that need to be put in place:
1. Gospel Clarity – Make sure your church is clear on the gospel, consistently clear. We can easily fall into using Christian language in a sloppy way. The gospel is good news, not vague news. So do not settle for a gathering of people that are united by church tradition, or who know how to behave a certain way and dress like they belong. Speak about the transforming power of meeting Jesus and following Jesus. Present the good news of who Jesus is and what Jesus did for us on the cross. Feature the importance of the resurrection as a historical fact and the basis of genuine faith. Explain what it means to respond, to repent, to receive, etc. Do not assume a vague gospel agreement in preaching, or in conversation. Too many churches rely on a specific event and a specific speaker to give a gospel message. There is a place for special events and overtly evangelistic speakers, but the church should have the good news of Jesus in its DNA, permeating its culture.
2. Loving Community – The church is not just another social club in a society full of social clubs. The church is a family that does not make sense. Why do these people love each other like this? There should be a level of love, concern, practical support, patience, graciousness, and warmth that is genuine and profoundly different from any social club in society. A healthy church will grow in diversity. Everyone will not be the same. Obviously, if a town is full of very similar people, then that will impact the church. But few towns are! There should be diversity of race, of class background, of education level, etc. Then the unity of believers in a church community will be magnetically attractive to visitors who don’t experience that kind of family warmth anywhere else – in many cases, not even at home. This takes more than labeling to be genuine. It is not enough to say from the front, “we are a church family.” It has to be true. Live it out at the leadership level and encourage mutual care wherever you can. For example, don’t overcrowd the schedule with meetings so that people don’t have space in the week to connect relationally.
3. Obstacle Removal – Will visitors feel awkward? The church is a very different subculture than the world around. It will feel different, but it does not need to feel unnecessarily awkward. In our church, we have often said that we only want visitors stumbling over the gospel and Christians loving one another. We do not want them feeling like they do not know where to go, what is happening, if their children are safe, if they will be embarrassed, if they are welcome, etc. When I was in seminary, in one class, we were required to attend a religious service of a different religion. The benefit was huge. Most of us had always gone to church so it just felt normal. But thrown into a different subculture, we became profoundly self-conscious. It taught us to try and imagine coming to church as an outsider. What could we do to make that experience warm and welcoming, rather than starkly awkward?
4. Whole Experience – What does a visitor experience when they park their car or arrive at the venue? Do they know where to go? Are they welcomed and introduced to children’s workers if they have children, or helped into conversation with someone who will be sensitive to their being first timers? Will the service itself be explained in non-jargon terms? Will they know if they are supposed to stand for singing and when? Will there perhaps be a simple explanation of why Christians sing at all? Will the location of Bible readings be given in Bible code, or will there be a page number given if people are using the church Bibles? Will “normal people” who are not officially welcoming guests be genuinely friendly too?
5. Assume Visitors – When we started our church, we had a period of several months where we were learning how this new church was going to function. We did not actively promote the church at that time. There was no website, no signage, etc. People were welcome, but our focus was on getting used to functioning in a new way. Every week we opened the service as if guests were present. The small number of believers would sometimes look around with a grin, fully aware that there were no guests present. Why would we do that? Because they needed to grow in confidence that when they did bring someone along, it would be a safe environment. We don’t want our people hesitant to invite others to church. It can be risky to a friendship if you invite a colleague and their experience is poor. So, the experience has to be consistently trustworthy. A number of people in our church had past church experiences where some weeks the preaching was guest sensitive, but other weeks when you would hope no guests were present. We had to work to earn trust and cultivate a culture where guests could come any week.
6. Every Service – Every service is a gospel service. Obviously, there are sometimes church business meetings that are restricted to members. But a normal church gathering on a Sunday (presumably) has the potential to attract visitors. They could be there because they are visiting family members. They could have found the church online. They could be looking for a church, or passing a couple of hours in a one-off visit. But the point is, we should not be wishing they would come back in four weeks’ time when there is a special guest-friendly gospel service. It is possible to make every gathering guest friendly, and it is possible to make every sermon relevant to everyone.
7. Driving Values – Is the church driven by tradition, by the preferences of influential people, or by defined values? If the church is driven by denominational tradition, then there will be plenty of opportunity for what is normal to actually be strange to first-time visitors. At least explain it but consider changing it if necessary. If the church is driven by the preferences of influential people, then there will be plenty of ways in which the church is quirky for guests. It is harder to explain an eclectic set of church features when they are present because of someone sitting in row three. Changing this internal power dynamic will be necessary for genuine gospel growth! As much as possible, seek to define the values of the church and aspire to be a church that God will trust with newcomers and new believers. The whole congregation may find it uncomfortable to be consistently and genuinely welcoming to others. By identifying its value, the leadership can then model buy-in and help the whole church take the steps necessary to live out that church value.
God may bless outreach strategies and special events whenever you implement them. But my sense is that deliberately cultivating a church culture ready for gospel growth in these seven ways will prepare the church for greater fruit from outreach and special events. What would you add to the list?
Click on this image to find the playlist of Enjoying the Word videos from Cor Deo:
When I was a child, we attended a small church in Bristol, England. Outside was a low wall forming a small courtyard where people would gather after church. Teenagers would laugh and chat while younger children would weave in and out, playing tag. It was a happy bubble of fellowship and laughter.
One Sunday, a group of local teenagers was on the other side of the street. One picked up a stone and threw it at the church, smashing a small window high above the door. As the glass shattered, that safe bubble burst. I immediately ran inside and went straight to my Dad. As far as I could tell, he was the tallest and one of the strongest men on earth. I felt fearful and threatened, so Dad was the one I wanted to be close to at that moment.
The idea of a loving and protective father is not just important for children. It is also important for all Christians. In one well-known Bible passage, Jesus uses four words that should influence our lives every day.
In Matthew 6, Jesus addresses the subjects of giving, praying, and fasting. In all three cases, he urges his followers not to make a show of their religious practice but to do them in secret. After all, God knows what happens in secret, and he is all that matters. So with the subject of prayer, Jesus warns against being showy visually or in our vocabulary. And then, he gives a model prayer in verses 9-13.
When you pray, say, “Our Father in heaven….”
Familiar words. You can probably quote the prayer. Maybe you have noticed how it starts with one address, asks two things regarding the Father, and then three things regarding the family. Let’s ponder the “address” some more. “Our Father in heaven.”
Many things should be true of a father. Let’s be simplistic. On the one hand, a good father is supposed to be an authority figure with power and strength. On the other hand, a good father is supposed to be loving, kind, and close. That immense strength has to be under control for the good of those under his care.
A.Our Father on Earth – Sadly, we live in a world where so many Dads have done a poor job of impersonating our heavenly Father. They have been missing, angry, drunk, and even abusive. Many Dads resemble the devil more than they do God. But even if we did have an honourable Dad or even a Christ-loving Dad, we probably all feel a lack in our hearts. Whether that is a slight lack or a gaping wound, it only underlines how we were created for closeness with a father. We long for a father who is powerful and strong so that we can feel safe and secure. We long for a father who is loving and close so that we can feel held and happy. Our father on earth may not have been what we needed, but what about our Father in heaven?
B. Our Father in Heaven – Jesus was on a mission. It was not just a mission to rescue us from sin and bring us into a relationship with God. It was also a mission to reveal God’s heart to us. What is our Father in heaven like?
i. Authority & Power – When the stone bursts the safety bubble of life, we need a Father who is big and strong. In Matthew 8:23-9:8, we read three stories that show us a glimpse of God’s authority and power. Jesus rebuked the winds and the sea during a great storm, and they obeyed him. Jesus commanded demons to leave the two demon-possessed men on the other side of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus forgave and healed the paralytic. Jesus demonstrated his divine authority over creation, the spiritual forces of evil, physical healing, and forgiveness. At the end of this trio of stories, we read, “When the crowds saw it, they were afraid, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to men.” (To one man in particular! – see Matthew 9:8)
ii. Love & Closeness – When the bubble bursts and the glass rains down, we need a Father whose heart is towards us. In Matthew 7:7-11, Jesus encouraged his followers to pray and ask because of God’s good heart. Who gives a child a slice of slate to chew on when they ask for toast? Who thinks a poisonous snake is a suitable alternative to a healthy protein and omega-3-laden fish for a hungry child? We are fallen creatures in a fallen world, but we know how to give good gifts to our children. So “how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”
iii. Who is in Heaven – There is one moment in Matthew’s Gospel where heaven bursts onto the scene. In Matthew 17:1-7, Jesus takes three disciples up on a mountain, and the curtains are pulled back. Suddenly they see Jesus in his heavenly impressiveness, conversing with Moses and Elijah. Peter panics and suggests a tent-building plan. Then there is a bright cloud and a booming voice from heaven. “When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were terrified.” Quite right. It was terrifying. But notice that Jesus was not on his face. Why not? Because he knew the voice and the heart of the one who spoke. On that mountain, they got to experience God’s terrifying power and authority, but take note of what they heard! “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” (v. 5). Our Father in heaven is both terrifyingly powerful and wonderfully loving. Jesus has made him known to us! That is why it is crucial to be sure that he is not just The Father in Heaven, or even Jesus’ Father in Heaven, but Our Father in heaven.
C. And What About Us? – Whenever we think about prayer, we tend to start thinking in terms of a religious burden. “We are a month into a New Year, and I should do better at praying. I need to be more diligent, more purposeful, etc.” Maybe there is another way to look at this.
If God has all authority and power, then that means I can come to him as one who is frightened and weak. If God is loving and close, then I can approach him as one who is childlike and weary. I don’t need to impress him. I can just come as I am, start with “Our Father in heaven…” and then pour out everything on my heart. What a privilege!
Please see the new series of videos for 2023 – Enjoying the Word . . . all about enjoying Bible reading and Bible study.
If you have a good Bible reading and study plan that works well, that’s great. But what if you don’t? What if others don’t get on with your approach? Well, for you, or for someone else, this video might be helpful. It shares a reading and study approach that I believe has a lot to commend it.
There is flexibility – you choose what time to give to it.
There is motivation – you choose where to put your energy.
There is potential – I’ve not found a plan that seems more likely to build solid Bible-shaped believers.
One of the challenges of Bible reading is maintaining momentum. There are a number of momentum killers, like long lists of names and unpronounceable places. What should we do?
One way to evaluate your Bible times is by checking in on what is happening in your mind and heart the rest of the time. What does it mean to meditate on God’s Word day and night? Check out this video for more:
The question that I hear more than any other is this, “what should I do when I don’t feel like reading my Bible?” It is an important question. We all need a decent answer that can help us when we inevitably get those days. Here is a video that may be helpful.
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