Say, “Father!”

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!

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Please see the new series of videos for 2023 – Enjoying the Word . . . all about enjoying Bible reading and Bible study.

Bible Reading Basics – Part 2

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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Bible Reading Basics – Part 1

When you first open the Bible, it is an overwhelming tome, to say the least.  Over time we can start to find our way around the Bible, just like we can learn to find our way around a big city – one landmark at a time.  In fact, the Bible gives us a great example of such landmarks right at the start of an important chapter.

Why do so many believers lose their love of Bible reading before Valentine’s Day?  Could it be that they are trying to read and study simultaneously?  Have you ever found yourself struggling through Leviticus and taking very little in while longing to be in Philippians (and knowing you won’t be there anytime soon)?  Perhaps it is time to make a helpful separation.

The Bible speaks of delighting in the words of God.  Other Christians sometimes seem to sound so delighted by the word of God.  So why do some of us never seem to reach those heights?  Perhaps a simple suggestion relating to concentration might prove helpful.

7 Reasons Guests Don’t Return

Why don’t guests return? This is a question most church leaders will ask themselves. It is encouraging to see visitors come into the church, but it can be discouraging when the vast majority seem to only be one-time visitors. Here is a list of possible reasons that may be helpful as you evaluate what is happening in your church. Some churches run guest services every week for years with hardly any outsiders ever coming in – that is a different situation that will also benefit from honest evaluation. But if your church gets lots of one-time visitors, what could be contributing to their reticence to return?

1. It is not the church for them. Not every visitor is new to church world. Some will be new to the area, or leaving a local church and considering their options. Your church might not be what they are looking for, and that might be perfectly alright. Your church should not be trying to attract and keep every possible churchgoer. They might want a legitimately different type of church, and you do not want to become that type of church in order to attract them. Or they might be troublemakers that continually need to find a new church to get their hooks into, and hopefully, your church might seem too healthy for them to be able to influence in the negative way they prefer. For good reasons or bad reasons, let’s recognize that no church is ideal for every visitor. And some visitors are just visiting their family members. Change whatever you like, they will not be joining a church that is hundreds of miles from their home!

2. It is not a friendly church. It is so hard to sense this when you are in a church. When you walk in, people smile, people talk to you, etc. But what about the visitor? I am amazed at how unfriendly some churches are. No conversation, no welcome, no friendly questions, no clarity on where to go or what is happening with the children. Some churches are also effectively unfriendly by being awkwardly friendly – putting visitors in the spotlight is not helpful. Don’t ask visitors to stand up and feel awkward, it doesn’t help. And don’t expect them to just enjoy the service and return without any meaningful connection with other humans – they might, but it would not be normal. If church culture is new to them, then look for ways to make them feel comfortable, don’t just underline their awkwardness.

3. It is too much of a mystery. The sub-culture of a local church is very alien to some visitors. If they come from a similar church, then they already know the language and rituals, but if they are new to church it could be like a foreign country to them. If they spend their time guessing when to stand at the start of a song, guessing where a Bible reference is without any page number to help them, guessing when they are supposed to say something out loud with everyone else, guessing how long the service will go on for, etc. then their experience will be draining.

4. The children did not have a good time. If a family comes, then every voice in that family matters. But some voices can be louder than others. If a parent feels uneasy about the children’s program for any reason, that will be a loud voice in their decision making. Does this church look after the children? Are they safe? Is it clean? And the children’s voice will speak loudly too. If they loved it and made friends, they will push to return. If they didn’t, then parents will probably keep looking rather than try to convince them. The children’s ministry of your church matters – whether it is three volunteers in a room or a purpose-built facility with paid staff.

5. The environment was offputting. Was it easy to find the church? Was it easy to park? Was it easy to find your way in? Did you feel safe? Was it easy to find seating (the front row does not count)? Was the atmosphere before and after conducive to conversation and connection? Did the place have a strange smell? Was it warm enough? There are so many details that can have a bearing on the suitability of a church facility. Whether you have your own building or are renting the space, you need to somehow see it through the eyes of a first-timer. Ask family members who visit what they noticed. When people keep coming, ask them, before they get used to everything, what they noticed their first week.

6. The service needs to make sense. We thought about some elements of mystery in point 3 above. People will be drained trying to work out what is going on. But there is another way the service needs to make sense too. The elements of the service need to be explained and need to fit with the experience as a whole. If the style of the church is somewhat contemporary and appropriately warm (not flippant, but somewhat informal or casual), then it doesn’t make sense to have an overbearing pipe organ to lead the sung worship. And there probably needs to be some consistency between the size of the gathering, the quality of the music, the standard of presentation from the front, etc. It might be fun to hear “quirky Quentin” mess up the notices at the start of the service for people who know him, but for a visitor, his weird manner may be off-putting (especially if it isn’t a cosy group of thirty friends like it might have been when Quentin started “doing the notices” – a church phrase, by the way). Actually, the exact style of music or format of service is probably not as important as the consistency between the size of the church, the quality of the music (whatever style is used), and level of participation. A professional quality band with a congregation that doesn’t seem to care does not make sense. Neither does poor music in a significant-sized gathering.

7. The preaching didn’t connect. The preaching could fit into what was said in point 6 above, but let’s place the sermon in its own point. It really does matter. People will join a church because of the preaching, and they will leave a church because of the preaching. Therefore visitors will stick or move on because of the preaching too. If the manner and style is too lofty, too academic, too angry, or too affected, then there will be a disconnect with the listeners. If the manner and style is too flippant, too humourous, too desperate to sound relevant, or too weak on Bible, then there will be a disconnect with some listeners. Can they follow what is being said? Does it feel like they are being pastorally fed from the Scriptures? Does it lift their gaze away from themselves and point them to God’s goodness in Christ? Unbelievers motivated to find the truth, or believers starving for good food, will be drawn or pushed away by what they hear during the preaching segment of the service.

Ultimately, we cannot cherry-pick our visitors, nor determine who will choose to settle in our church. Jesus is the one who promised to build his church, and he is still doing that. But let’s evaluate our churches and make sure we are not adding any unnecessary barriers for guests that come along. It does not have to be all about the guest. But if we never consider their experience at all, we shouldn’t be surprised if we seldom see them again.

John Wesley’s Advice – Part 3

Continuing our walk through twelve points of advice from John Wesley.  So far we’ve looked at numbers 1-2, and numbers 3-5.  Let’s move on…

6. Speak justly, readily, clearly… Clearness in particular is necessary…because we are to instruct people of the lowest understanding… Constantly use the most common, little, easy words (so they are pure and proper) which our language affords.  Most of us are not preaching to uneducated miners like Wesley did, but don’t let out-of-date phrasing obscure the point he is making.  Our job as preachers is to communicate, not to show off.  If you don’t have a theological and grammatical terminology that is higher than your preaching vocabulary, then you are either aiming too high with your words, or you are too weak in your study.  Say the profound things that the Bible says.  And say those things in the simplest way possible.  Even if ten PhD’s walk into your church, you still need to preach so that people with the least understanding (by means of their education, church being an alien environment, English not being their first language, or whatever) will be able to understand what you are saying.  Be clear.  Simple.

7. Beware of clownishness… Avoid all lightness, jesting, and foolish talking.  Again, good advice.  There is a place for humour in preaching, but we do need to be very wary of entertaining or making the sermon about us.  I suspect that if we avoid jesting and foolish talk, as well as clownishness, then we are on safe ground.  We don’t have to come across as sombre in every moment, but we should speak as if we have a very important message to convey – which we do if we are preaching the text properly.  We need to be wary of inappropriate formality.  Just as wearing a tuxedo can feel out of place, so can a strange and affected formal tone or a presentational gravitas that is not consistent with our personality and natural demeanour.  In our fear of jesting, let’s not come across as unloving, lacking in warmth, or out of touch with the room.  

8. Never scream.  Never speak above the natural pitch of your voice.  This was probably a greater concern before amplification equipment.  Nevertheless, this point still applies.  There is a natural upper limit to your pitch, your power, and even your pace.  Don’t go above that level to achieve some kind of emphasis.  The screamer seldom communicates anything other than a loss of control.  In fact, it is good to consciously work on going down instead of up for emphasis.  Down in pitch.  Down in power.  Slow down the pace.  Emphasis sounds very natural in the opposite direction, but it takes unnatural work to develop the skill!  And even more foundationally, your emphasis and impact is not ultimately determined by your vocal delivery, but by God’s Spirit bringing conviction to your listeners.

Next time we will finish the list.

John Wesley’s Advice – Part 2

So last time we started this list of 12 points of advice to preachers from John Wesley.  Let’s keep going!

3. Choose the plainest texts from the Bible to preach on.  Again, if I were purely speaking to non-believers then I would completely concur.  However, in a typical church setting, we will be speaking to both Christians and non-Christians.  A steady diet of the same evangelistically oriented passages will lead to some malnourishment among God’s people.  I think it is good to help our churches experience the full breadth and scope of God’s Word.  You might preach more from the New Testament than the Old, but if they never hear the Old Testament preached, why would they read it?  And if they don’t read it, what a vast vista of theological truth is lost.  Different types of text are also important for the health of the church.

So on the one hand, I would agree that every passage has a redemptive force that should be brought out because believers never move beyond the need to hear the gospel being applied to their lives.  On the other hand, while every passage is useful, not every passage is equally useful on every occasion.  Don’t be stubbornly preaching through Jeremiah when people are coming for a Christmas Carol Service.  Bottom line?  Be selective and choose what you are going to preach appropriately for the listeners and the occasion, but in a church choose from the whole Bible because people need more than your favourite five passages.

4. Take care not to ramble from your text but to keep close to it.  Can I just say I agree and move on?  Of course not, otherwise this would be a “Quote” rather than a “Blog!”  It is quite remarkable how little weight the Bible passage will have in some sermons.  Some will leave it behind to ramble into excessive personal anecdotes and humorous illustrations.  Others will leave it behind to ramble into theological presentations that resemble explosions in a concordance factory! (Hyper cross-referencing is very common in some circles!)  Few seem to recognize that this passage is uniquely powerful and should not be missed by superficial coverage in the sermon.  Your church may not be back in that passage for several years.  Keep close to it, do it justice, allow time for clarity to emerge and its impact to be felt.

5. Be sure to begin and end at the time appointed… People imagine the longer a sermon is, the more good it will do. This is a grand mistake… the Methodist rule is to conclude the service within an hour.  Several points in this one.  Let’s go one-by-one – (1) begin and end on time.  I understand that different cultures have different expectations in terms of time.  But the point still applies.  Abide by the expectations of the culture.  Once we break the general expectation, then we distract attention from the sermon.  If we go 10 minutes over, parents are concerned about children in kids’ groups, volunteers in kids’ groups start to lose their joy in serving, and others are concerned about their plans, their lift home, etc.  Generally speaking, stick to time.  Seems fairly simple.

(2) Longer is not necessarily better.  Again, agreed.  Haddon Robinson was captivated by how some preachers preach for ten minutes and it feels like an hour, while others preach for an hour and it feels like ten minutes.  Length tends to become the key focus when too little attention is given to clear, engaging and relevant content and delivery.  Generally speaking, longer sermons could be sharpened into shorter sermons.  But shorter is not automatically better either.  Some things take time.  Just as an illustration might be lost in two sentences, but really capture hearts in two minutes, in the same way, a sermon can be technically precise in a shorter timeframe, but more vivid and engaging with enough time given to let the listeners’ imagination flourish.  There is no right length of sermon.  It depends on preacher’s skill; listener’s background, expectations and focus; and the occasion too.

(3) Service length should be less than one hour.  That feels quite arbitrary and culturally bound.  I imagine that didn’t translate effectively in some other global contexts!  But, service length should be considered for the sake of church attendees, as well as their perception of service length for potential guests they might invite in the future.

Ok, let’s leave it there for this time.

Look Out! Preparing for ‘23!

Solomon wrote thousands of proverbs. So when he writes, “Above all else…” – that should get our attention. What is “above all else” from Solomon’s perspective? In Proverbs 4:23, he tells us: “guard your heart.”  That is huge. He recognized that the heart is the governor of all our activity, but strangely he did not simply say, “control your heart.”  If we could just control our innermost desires, then we would have no problem living holy lives (or even being successful in any other pursuit of our choosing). Perhaps at the core of our being, we are responsive to external stimuli and not simply responsible free agents who can consistently choose whatever is best. The wise advice in this section of Proverbs is profoundly important for us as we head into another year.

In Proverbs 4:20-27, Solomon urges the reader to pay attention to his wise words – looking at them and keeping them in our hearts (v. 20-21). He underlines the critical role of the heart and the need to guard it (v. 23). He urges the reader to protect themselves from careless speech or from letting their eyes get drawn aside so that they should step away from their path (v. 24-27). Above all else, in 2023, we need to guard our hearts. I believe a great place to begin is with a prayerful eye evaluation.

I have been pondering a scale to help me take stock of what is getting through my eyes and influencing my heart. It is a scale that runs from -2 to +3.

Distractedly Entertained – Level 0? Long ago, this might have involved some children playing a game in the town square or an animal behaving amusingly. It was a break from the norm. Nowadays, we have entire industries actively targeting you with entertaining distractions. Scrolling through Facebook or Instagram, watching random YouTube videos about cats, men throwing CDs into a CD player, the most bizarre incidents in professional sports, and this list is designed never to end. Then there are video games, an endless Twitter stream, etc. Distracted entertainment has become a staple part of our cultural diet in recent years.

I think we can make a case for calling it Eye Level 0 entertainment because there is implicit moral neutrality to some of what distracts us. But once we consider all factors, is there really moral neutrality? Could we be hurting ourselves by believing that we can stand still in a world that is relentlessly moving away from God? Perhaps we would do well to call this entertainment Eye Level -1. The Bible does warn us about time-wasting, which can involve things that are not wrong in themselves. The average weekly consumption of distracted entertainment in our culture is stunning. Perhaps we have become more entangled than we realize. Let’s confess that entanglement and prayerfully take steps away from Eye Level -1 and the regret of lost time as we head into this new year. 

So we have Distractedly Entertained – Eye Level -1.

Sinfully Entertained – Eye Level -2. Any of the above activities can easily slide into sinful entertainment – where we seek satisfaction for sinful desires through what we watch. The classic example is pornography, an industry that has made its content far easier to access than ever before. But even without the things that a good filter will stop on your device, we can also fall into “pornographying” non-pornographic content. Perhaps we think of it as a more sanctified type of lust that does not rely on overtly provocative material – on social media, TV shows, movies, etc. And then there is envious window shopping or jealously obsessing over what the rich and famous wear and drive. There are so many contemporary forms of idolatry. “Search me and try me, O Lord…” – prayerfully ask God to show you where your distracted entertainment has morphed into something even more harmful than time-wasting.

Let’s get back to the positive end of the scale:

Intentionally Entertained – Eye Level +1.  There are legitimate uses of entertainment media. We need to evaluate prayerfully so that we don’t get sucked in by what our world is pushing us to think. However, there is a place for finding a TV show refreshing, a favourite movie can be restful, a shared football game can be social, a good book can be helpfully engrossing, etc. Where Eye Levels -2 and -1 leave us guilty, ashamed, worn down, frustrated, and empty, Eye Level +1 entertainment can be good for us. 

Informed – Eye Level +2.  In the old days, this might be found by listening to a report from a friend who has been travelling, reading the newspaper over breakfast, or watching a helpful documentary on the television. The rarity of access to information placed a premium on this commodity, but today, the situation has changed. We are bombarded with information. A well-chosen news subscription, a select list of Twitter accounts to follow, some helpful YouTube subscriptions, or a select set of blogs, etc., can be beneficial. The key seems to be planning rather than scrolling, or else we end up back in Eye Level +1 intentional entertainment, or even more likely, in Eye Level -1 distracted entertainment, or worse.

We are bombarded with the enticement to fritter away hours in Eye Levels -2, -1, +1 and +2As we get used to and dependent on technology and social media, we may even start to think that our mental health, knowledge and spirituality are to be found somewhere in Eye Levels -1, +1 and +2. Perhaps we even think that our ministry is helped and built up in Eye Levels +1 and, especially, +2. But let’s remember that there is another level.

Enriched – Eye Level +3.  There is something different about Eye Level +3. In the old days, time spent in the Book or good books was an obvious option in a world with a relatively limited range of alternatives. The significance of good reading was especially true for a serious-minded Christian, and even more so for a minister of the Word. Nowadays, this can be so easily lost. We live in a tidal wave of evil, distractions, entertainment, and information. But even if we avoid the worst of that flood, there is still a qualitative difference between being informed by a screen and being enriched by the page. Personally, I find that even reading the same author on a blog does less for my soul than spending time reading their book – is that just me?

We live in an age of hyper-distracted, entertained, and even a few well-informed, but largely unenriched people. It shows in our world today. Are we also living in a time of well-entertained and sometimes well-informed but largely unenriched believers? It shows in our churches and pulpits. So let’s do something radical. Let’s value that which enriches our souls and takes our relationship with God and others to someplace deeper than the norm.

As we head into 2023, let’s take stock of how God would want us to use our eyes this year. After all, they are an essential gateway by which we can guard our hearts.

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In 2023 I am planning to release short videos related to Bible study. God has given us a great treasure. How can we read and study it for maximum understanding, enrichment and life impact? Please subscribe to this playlist to see the videos as they are released. Please like, comment, and share any that might be helpful to others. Thank you!

8 Pulses to Check this December

As we come to the end of another year, the finish line is in sight.  Christmas plans are in place, and all those events will soon be over.  Before you know it, we will be into 2023 with all the familiarity of a New Year and the uncertainties of a new year.  We know people will join the gym and try to read through their Bible, but we never know what is about to happen.

Between the Christmas events finishing and the launch of 2023, let’s take a moment to take the pulse, actually, several pulses.  If you are involved in church ministry, then here are some pulses you need to be checking:

1.  God.  How does God feel about your church?  How does God’s heart beat for all that matters to you?  God’s heart is your ultimate concern.  Knowing God’s heart doesn’t require mystical guesswork.  It requires time in the Bible and time in prayer.  We should prayerfully prepare every sermon we preach, and I think it is wise to seek God’s heart for each passage and how it should land in the hearts of your listeners.  But why not take the year-end as an opportunity to seek God’s heart about your church, your ministry, and your part in His plans? 

2.  Society.  Are you aware of what is going on in society?  There is a whole edifice presented by the media, the news, and the current catalogue of acceptable issues and concerns.  We need to have our finger on the pulse of society, whether we agree with all of it or not.  That sense of what is normal will throb in the veins of the people you encounter daily.

3.  Reality.  Are you in touch with what you are not supposed to think?  There will usually be significant parts of society that are not convenient for reality as presented in the media.  It is good to have a sense of what people are thinking but not saying.  Or what they are saying but you are not allowed to hear.  It is good to know what is happening, and sometimes others will need you to point beyond the cultural narrative they are constantly hearing.

4.  Congregation.  Your congregation is not a perfect representation of your society.  The culture is pushed along by sophisticated ideas and/or unsophisticated entertainment.  Still, your congregation is a specific group in a particular location.  The country could be thriving while your part of town is economically depressed, or vice versa.  The nation could be gripped by avant-garde notions, while your congregation may seem to be living a generation behind.  Who is in your church?  What are their concerns?  How are they doing?  The culture may be focused on saving the planet, but your people may be more worried about staying warm and paying their bills this winter.

5.  Future Congregation.  It is understandable that we tend to focus on the flock God gave us.  But it is also wise to ponder what the future may look like for your church.  If you have a very established congregation, you still need to preach to people new to the church.  They may not even be coming yet, but preach to them anyway.  Your congregation will not feel comfortable bringing them along if you don’t make it a suitable environment.  So, what kind of people might God want to add to your church in the coming years?  Why not prayerfully think about preaching as if they are already attending so the church is ready to receive them when they do?

6. Co-Workers.  If your church program gives you room to breathe, be sure to prayerfully consider the health of your coworkers.  You know that your church is not your church.  You cannot do everything yourself and your church would be in dire straits if all your coworkers were to quit or burnout.  Whether they are paid staff members, or busy volunteers who give sacrificially of their “spare” time, how are they doing?  Pray for them.  Reach out to them.  Write them a note to thank them.  Make sure that you do not head into 2023 unaware of warning signs from those around you.

7.  Me.  Ministry can take its toll.  How are you doing?  Are you in a good place with God?  How much has your ministry depleted your energy reserves?  Are any situations weighing heavily on you and setting off warning lights?  Are you letting yourself slide in any areas, succumbing to temptation, or developing unhealthy habits?  The end of the year is an excellent time to take your pulse before launching into another year.  Take your pulse spiritually, physically, mentally, and emotionally.  How is your walk with Christ?  Are you looking after yourself properly?  Do you have the relationships you need to thrive?  Is someone mentoring you?  Are you mentoring someone?  Who can you be open with as a peer?  Who is looking out for your heart?  Are you proactively meeting people outside of church circles?  Oh, and don’t trust yourself to self-evaluate.  Ask God to search you and try you, and ask those close to you for their perspective as well.

8.  Family.  Ministry can take its toll.  How is your family?  It is easy to sacrifice your family on the altar of ministry, but is God honoured when you do that?  Suppose you have a child who is not thriving spiritually. Would it make sense to devote more time to your primary responsibility of parenting?  You might even do well to consider a sabbatical or taking a step back to pursue their heart for a season.  I know it is complicated if you depend on ministry for your income, but many readers are not receiving a salary.  And whether you are or not, it could be a significant example to others to see you put family first and seek to win the hearts closest to home.  It is not a simple decision.  Nevertheless, I raise it because too many of us would not even consider stepping back from the ministry that gives us too much of our identity to care for the people God has most entrusted to us.  Nobody else can be your spouse’s spouse, and you only get a limited window with that child still under your roof.  Of course, you may find such drastic changes are not needed.  But perhaps you need to tweak some things at home so that your church ministry can flow out of greater strength at the family level?

I know we are taking a deep breath before the chaos of Christmas.  I pray that your Christmas events will proclaim the peace that only Christ can bring into this desperately needy world.  And I also pray that we will all get the opportunity to take a deep breath after it is all over.  May we all take the opportunity to check the pulse in these areas and head into the New Year looking to Christ for each of the needs we discover!

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This year’s video quest through the Psalms will soon reach the finish line. Here is Psalm 139:

Different (1 Thessalonians – part 5)

Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians is like a training manual for a young church. He has taught about the impact of the gospel in chapter 1, giving ourselves to build up the body of Christ in chapter 2, and praying for each other to thrive spiritually in chapter 3. Then in chapter 4, he offered some truths that would make a difference in their lives. So now, in chapter 5, he lands the letter underlining some differences that the gospel makes for believers. In a sense, he has come full circle.

How is the church you preach to supposed to be different?

1. Not naïve, but alert & hopeful. How easily we can lose our bearings as believers. Especially as relatively comfortable believers. It is so easy to get caught up in the hype of our society and fall into the naïve trap of thinking, “there is peace and security.”  After all, our country has been free and secure for generations. And the everyday stuff of life is carrying on as it has for as long as we can remember: the sports calendar, the TV series, the progression of seasons, the endless cycle of monotonous news, etc. Yes, our world is declaring certain destruction of the planet and will pat itself on the back for every effort to rescue our future from its terrible fate. Meanwhile, some of the loudest voices continue to buy their beachfront properties while proclaiming the scientific certainty of destructively rising sea levels. And so we must all play along with their panic. But despite all the shouts, most people still have a naïve confidence that nothing will actually change. The news is just noise. There is no credible threat to my safety and sense of peace.

And yet, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 seems to expect Christians to be different. Christians are supposed to be marked by alertness, discernment, sobriety, readiness and hope. Our faith, hope and love are not typical of humanity in any age. We do not stand apart by pretending all is well or spouting nice Christian platitudes. This world is heading for sudden destruction and wrath. And amid a society that tinkers as the empire heats up, we know our salvation is in Christ, so we encourage and build one another up.

2. Not self-absorbed, but purposeful. How easily we can reflect the relational dynamics of our fallen world. When selfish materialism gripped society, it was easy for Christians to play that game with a smug sense of sanctification (God is blessing me!)  What if society is now becoming enchanted by a new, but still self-serving, moral ideology? Well, it will also be easy for Christians to play that game. Many already are. We only need to learn hypersensitivity to certain moral trigger concepts and remember to celebrate brand-new self-defined and unquestionable identities. The morality of intersectional identity politics is replacing the ethics of liberal democracy. However, Christians will still simply add a Bible verse to their version of it and fit right in. 

And yet, 1 Thessalonians 5:12-14 seems to expect Christians to be different. Like many in the New Testament, this passage describes a community gripped by a counter-cultural perspective that shapes a more purposeful and selfless set of relational dynamics. Instead of a subtle rebellion against leadership, there is to be respect, esteem and love. Instead of interpersonal squabbling, whether the garden fence gossiping of yesteryear or the proactive and unfiltered taking of offence and wholesale interpersonal condemnation of today, Paul’s language of living at peace is radically different. And instead of using the community for my selfish goals (think classic networking in strategic gatherings or contemporary social narcissism on the media platform of your choice), the Christian community differentiates need among people so it can selflessly address each need. A loving Christian community should feel radically different.

3. Not worldly, but distinctly His.  How easily we can lose our distinctness as followers of Jesus. We are like fish swimming in a spiritually fallen fish tank and still assume what we experience is normal. And since our experience defines normality, our conduct will tend to reflect it. We compete. We get our own back. We moan. We can be prayerless, thankless, and unspiritual. We can live only by what we see. We can indulge.

And yet, 1 Thessalonians 5:15-28 seems to be urging us to be different. There are instructions that counter the list of normal behaviours listed above. And there is the closing benediction, where Paul prays that the God of peace will sanctify, set apart, make holy, transform, and distinguish. How much? Completely.  How blameless? Every aspect of our being. And is that transformation down to us? No, God is faithful and will surely do it. The Christian church should be radically and progressively more different because we are not called to fix ourselves, but we are called by the One who can bring about the necessary change in us. 

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Prepared (1 Thessalonians – part 3)

The letter of 1 Thessalonians is like a little manual for ministry. Chapter 1 presents the reverberating impact of the Gospel. Chapter 2 lays bare the motives and manner of Paul’s ministry in the city. Now let’s look at chapter 3.

1. Young believers need to be prepared for suffering. Paul understood their context. They were in a city and a society that would react antagonistically to their newfound faith. So Paul had prepared them for suffering, and as time passed, Paul knew that they needed to be supported in their struggle. He knew the enemy would be on the attack against these new believers. Maybe we need 3:1-5 to direct our path more in our ministry? Do we understand our context? Our believers are in a culture that is increasingly antagonistic to their faith. The enemy is very much prowling around today seeking to pick off vulnerable believers. As much as ever, and perhaps more than ever, we need to prepare believers for suffering. There is the immediate and usually subtle antagonism of our time. And surely we can’t be so naive as to think that our cultures can undergo such radical shifts as we have seen in recent years, and yet remain essentially unchanged in the coming years? Are our people prepared for living in a society that may bear more resemblance to countries we used to pray for than the countries we used to live in?

2. Don’t just let vulnerable believers drift. Paul’s team adjusted to offer support to the Thessalonian believers. Timothy was sent back and returned with an encouraging report. Let Paul’s statement bounce around your heart for a moment, “For now we live, if you are standing fast in the Lord.” (3:8) For now we live . . . I wonder how often I hold back from this kind of concern for the sheep under my care? It is true that life change is God’s business and I can’t force it; and it is true that sometimes people need to drift in order to become sensitized to their need for Jesus; and it is true that with limited ministerial resources we will inevitably prioritize the sheep that are leaning in to be fed and cared for, etc. However, with all the practical wisdom of real-life ministry acknowledged, let us never grow calloused and comfortable with people drifting away from Christ.

3. Is there a more important ministry than prayer? Remember Acts 6:4 – the apostles didn’t want to get dragged into serving tables (which included negotiating inter-racial tensions within the new church: a significant and important role!) But what did they not want to be dragged away from? The ministry of the Word and prayer. And prayer! Is there a more important ministry than prayer? For many in ministry, it can appear that the priorities are preaching and leadership. Or preaching and organisation. Or preaching and publishing. May we all gain a secret reputation before God for the priority of prayer in our ministry. And somehow, let’s also encourage our whole church to be prayerful. Look at the Paul-team and how they prayed in 3:10-13. “Most earnestly night and day” and, “may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all,” and “that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God…” Earnest prayer for growing love and established holiness. What believer would not want to be the beneficiary of that kind of concern?

What would you add from chapter 3?