Healthy Revival – 7 Thoughts

You cannot go far in church world before you hear people longing for revival. It gets mentioned in prayer meetings. It gets mentioned in outreach planning. Preachers long to experience it through each new sermon. Reports on social media stir our longings. I want to share some thoughts on the subject.

This is not a technical introduction to the subject. When I refer to revival I am referring to those unusual seasons of heightened responsiveness to the working of God’s Spirit among and through God’s people so that the church is renewed, reinvigorated and revived, resulting in an unusually high harvest of souls.

Seven thoughts for us to prayerfully consider:

1. The Bible does not invite us to live a life of frustration. It is totally understandable that people pray for revival. The state of our church and the state of our world mean that we long for a season of real spiritual breakthrough in our ministry. However, it is important to recognize that the Bible does not anticipate that God’s people will always live in a state of perpetual frustration. As George Verwer, founder of OM International has said, “Personal revival is our daily privilege in Christ Jesus!” By all means, let’s look to God like never before, but let’s not fall into the trap of living life as if we are missing out on something until a bona fide revival breaks out.

2. The Bible does include descriptions of specific seasons of unusual responsiveness. To put it another way, it is not wrong to long. The drift in society, the apathy in the church, and even the coldness of our own hearts should cause us to grieve and to yearn for something more. Paul anticipated the drift when he told Timothy that in the last days people would be lovers of self, of money, of pleasure, rather than lovers of good, or of God. If this does not bother us then we are not reflecting the passionate heart of God. There will always be a longing for revival in any healthy believer.

3. It is healthy to ask if we can be trusted with a season of evangelistic fruitfulness? While “revival” may be primarily about renewing the life of the church, it is often associated with heightened fruitfulness in evangelism. This is wonderful and something we should all long for, but it is healthy to ask whether God would entrust an unusually ripe harvest to our church? Are we committed to the spread of the Gospel, or to defending a Christian sub-culture? Are we offering Christ, or just some type of Christianity? Is our gospel offensively grace-focused, or is it just another version of self-help, law-based religiosity?

4. Part of being prepared is anticipating the aftermath. Jonathan Edwards wrote a book describing the unusual work of God in his town that continued to spark revival across the world even after his own town had slumped into a deeply troubling malaise. How often do we hear of amazing revivals followed by extended periods of spiritual depression? It must be so hard to invest energy into discipleship and training when the evangelistic fruit seems to keep falling off the trees whenever we hint at doing more outreach. Nevertheless, we must learn from history and anticipate the struggles that can follow. How can we make sure people get established in a healthy relationship with Christ, rather than building everything on a foundation that cannot last – namely, faith in the experience of revival rather than in Christ and His Word?

5. Ask God to search your motives. Of course, your motives when praying for revival are pure and perfect, so are mine. But since we are all flesh-naturals at self-justification let us instead ask God to search our motives. Augustine identified the first, second and third precepts of Christianity to be humility. Pride is an insidious destroyer. Indeed, God does not want to fan into flame any hint of pride in you, so if pride were to feature in your prayer for revival, then it is fair to assume that not only would the devil oppose you, so would God (see 1Peter.5:5-7). So does it need to be in your region and not another? Does it need to be your denomination and not another? Does it have to be your church and not the other one down the road?

6. If revival includes an intensification of normal things, what are we waiting for? That is to say, if you dream of a season of revival when you would want to just read the Bible and not be endlessly entertained, if you dream of praying with a persevering intensity, and caring for others more passionately, and loving God more intently, and giving yourself to church ministry more wholeheartedly, then the question could be asked … why wait for revival? God is not excited by your hypothetical and conditional devotion (send revival, Lord, and watch me soar!) – life to the full is on offer now. Maybe your moments of longing are invitations to lean in to what God wants to do in your life.

7. Be a steward of the remarkable present. Maybe this is saying number 6 in a different way, but it is worth saying. Experiencing revival or renewal is a privilege, but also the Christian life is a privilege! Even if you are in a season of sowing, or growing, or preparing, or living by faith with nothing to see, whatever your situation, the normal Christian life is an incredible privilege! We can live today in fellowship with God our Father, in Christ, by the Spirit! We have God’s Word, we have immediate access to the throne room of heaven, we have the indwelling presence of the Spirit. Our salvation is secure whether we are in a time of revival or not, because the greatest revival of all is the new life that God has breathed into us.

May we live as the most grateful people of all, irrespective of whether we experience a heaven-sent revival during our years on earth or not.

Advertisements

Preaching Bigger Books in Shorter Series

Let’s say you want to preach from a bigger book, but you like the idea of shorter series – is that possible?  Here are a few suggestions:

1. Preach a shorter section – instead of feeling obligated to preach a whole book every time, why not preach a contained unit from a book for a series.  You don’t have to give equal coverage to the whole book in this particular series, you can always come back for another section another time.

2. Have a Gospel/book of the year – we had a season in our church (over a year) where we were in Mark’s Gospel, but we didn’t want to be preaching it for months on end.  We planned so that we had the Easter section at the right time of the year, but in the months before that we had covered some sections in midweek groups instead of on Sundays.  This meant that our shorter series on Sundays were more focused and could be “branded” separately to allow for renewed energy in each mini-series.  We also had breaks from Mark to spend time in other types of series and other types of biblical literature.

3. Preach a landmark tour – this is a way to preach a book without giving every verse equal attention.  You can preach the landmarks of a Bible book over the course of a few Sundays.  For example, you might preach Romans by starting in 1:16-17 to launch, and then touching down in other keys texts like 3:21-25; 5:1-8; 8:1; 12:1-2, etc.  Obviously, you will need to give some overview of the flow for this approach to work, but it allows you to zero in on the golden passages. If done well then the church will be motivated to read the whole book.  You can also supplement with midweek discussions that cover more ground, although that is only one approach to take.

4. Preach different sized chunks – this is similar to number 3, but is more intentional about covering the whole book.  You could launch a Romans series with 1:1-17, but then cover greater ground with a couple of the messages in a series covering several chapters.  For instance, you might have a message covering 1:18-3:20, then maybe one covering 3:21-5:21, etc.  You could preach an 8-week series with three or four of the messages covering three chapters and then the other four focusing in a bit more – i.e. chapter 8 on its own, or chapter 12.

Have you found other ways to run shorter series on longer books?

Hungry People Pay Attention to Food

I read an article Jeffrey Arthurs wrote about getting and keeping listeners’ attention. He built his article around the point that hungry people pay attention to food. It is so true. Recently I sat in a home where I was being hosted for a meal, waiting for the final guest to arrive so that we could sit down and eat. I was hungry. Consequently every waft from the kitchen, every comment about final touches to the meal, every hint about what was to come had my full attention.

The same is true of preaching. Listeners can ignore Bible passages for years, but when a preacher helps them to see that this passage is relevant to their deepest needs, they will give it their full attention. But this is not easy to do. Too easily we settle for an introduction that is interesting, but doesn’t surface a need. It is not enough to introduce the context for the text back then, we need to show the context for its relevance today.

How can we do that? One key skill is to incorporate awareness of what Haddon Robinson calls the Depravity Factor into our passage study. What is the impact of Genesis 3 on this passage? How does fallenness in this passage mirror brokenness in our contemporary world? It is not always sin that presents itself, sometimes it is hurt, it is need, it is fear, it is inadequacy … but always the fallenness of this world shows in the passage you are studying.

A study of the passage and of our listeners should yield complementary facets of fallenness. Help people to taste their need for security, for hope, for forgiveness, for life, for whatever this passage will address, and then watch them care about the passage like never before.

“Welcome to today’s sermon, turn with me to Bible Book chapter 4, verse 1…” Stop. Start that sermon again. Not just with a joke or an anecdote, but with a real taste for the goodness to come. Help the listeners sense their inner craving for that goodness and your sermon will be off to a much better start!

John’s Letters

John’s Letters: Living in the Light of God’s Love (10Publishing, 2017) is now available from 10ofThose.com. I was privileged to contribute Galatians: The Life I Now Live to this Undated Devotions series in 2015 and am thankful that I could contribute this volume on John’s Letters.

The book is available in paper or e-book format from the site, and from some other booksellers too.  Each day traces the flow of thought in the section, highlights the main idea and leaves the reader with a reflection question to ponder.  I hope it can be a blessing to some!

7 Things Preachers Never Say – pt.4

Here is the fourth in our series of things preachers tend not to say:

4. I feel the force of real temptation, and I am not always victorious.

This is a tricky one, isn’t it?  We are told that people love to hear a preacher being vulnerable and authentic.  At the same time if the preacher simply lays it all out there, then credibility tends to fade through the floor.  One person suggested on this site that it is not good to be vulnerable about sin that is currently still in process.  Work it out and then share appropriately.  That is probably wise.

But whether we tell recent stories or not, there is a struggle with temptation that is current and that is real.  Some preachers may be struggling with their fleshly reaction to others.  Some preachers may feel like lust is in full attack mode.  Some preachers may feel like their victory over some private temptation is less than all-conquering.  That is not to say that the preacher is therefore living in sin.  They may be living in victory and yet still feel worn down by the constant temptation.

We tend to focus talk on sin in areas of overt misconduct – lust or theft or whatever.  But what about the more “sanctified” sins … the popular churchy ones.  It is not easy to talk about ongoing struggles with pride, or poor self-worth, or unresolved conflict, or temptation to gossip, or whatever.

The truth is that while there may be no disqualifying disaster sin lingering like a skeleton in your preacher’s closet, there is a daily and weekly battle with temptation that is wearying and real.  We may not be losing control and assaulting others in fits of drunken rage, but there may be some self-protective habits in life, and there may be some tensions in the home or the church that tempt us to lash out, or numb the pain, or escape, or whatever.

Sometimes people treat the preacher in such a way that the preacher is the only person in the church who feels unable to share their struggles.  After all, not only is the preacher potentially not being vulnerable, but in some churches there is nobody else creating hope of grace and love if the preacher were to express their own struggle or failure.

Preachers struggle with temptation too, and preachers sin too, and it would be really helpful to get some real conversations going.

Easter Does Not Fade

Easter has come and gone for another year.  But Easter will never fade for God’s people.  Think about the Apostle Peter, for instance.  He was a rugged fisherman called by Jesus to become one of his core followers.  He watched and experienced all that we read about in the Gospels.  He was at the heart of most of the action.  When it came down to it, he wanted to be there for Jesus.  When it came down to it, he couldn’t make it faithfully through the night.

Then things went from bad to worse.  Jesus was killed.  The disciples were in hiding.  Peter had not been able to say sorry for his denial of the man he so dearly loved.  Saturday passed.  Sunday morning came.  Women came to report that the tomb was empty.  Peter raced John to the tomb and that day he met the risen Christ more than once.  Surely in their private conversation, Peter would have expressed his heart to Jesus over what had happened?  Two weeks later, on a Galilean beach, Peter was given the chance to express publicly his love for Jesus.  He had failed, but he was not finished.

Every encounter with the risen Jesus must have thrilled their hearts, but before too many weeks had passed by Jesus returned to His Father and they waited in Jerusalem.  On Pentecost, it was Peter that boldly stood to declare what was going on.  Peter pronounced persuasively that the pangs of death could not keep hold of Jesus and he had risen from the dead!

Easter was very real for those who saw the real Easter.  And for a few weeks, their enthusiasm is to be expected. But surely the delight must fade?  Every event eventually fades, doesn’t it?  Not for Peter.

Fast forward over three decades and Peter writes a letter to some dispersed and discouraged Christians in Turkey.  As soon as he launches he is gushing about the reality of Easter again!  Thirty-plus years and his passion remains undimmed!  Peter could not help but write about the covenant mercy of God that led Him to cause us “to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead!”

Peter went on to write about that hope: an inheritance kept where it cannot die, be defiled, or disappear.  The heavenly hope was, for Peter, no “pie in the sky when we die” – it was a real and life defining certain expectation.  But the hope Peter spoke of was more than just the heavenly inheritance to come. It was also a present tense living hope.

How does the resurrection of Jesus shape our lives today?  What do we have as well as the hope that lies ahead?  Peter writes that we have perspective in the midst of challenging trials.  The suffering that besets God’s people now has purpose – it proves the miracle of our faith.  The suffering we endure now with faith results in greater glory to the God we look to in the midst of the trials.

As well as perspective, Peter writes that believers have an unexplainable love for Jesus.  Because he rose from the dead, Jesus is not simply the object of our nostalgia, like a spiritual Elvis or JFK.  Jesus is alive and that means that while we do not see him, we do love him.  As hard as it is to explain the hope that characterizes God’s people, it is even more difficult to explain the love that we have for Jesus Christ.  It is a first-rate spiritual miracle for a self-absorbed and incurved human heart to be turned inside-out so that it doesn’t hate Jesus (our natural condition), but loves him from the heart!

Finally, as well as perspective and love, the believer also has inexpressible joy.  When we see Jesus our joy will overflow, of course, but now, even though we do not see him, we rejoice with a joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory.  True believers suffer, true believers endure, but true believers are people of joy.  It comes from the perspective we have, it comes from the love that is birthed within us, it comes because Jesus has conquered the greatest enemy – death itself.

Since death is defeated we live, present tense, with a living hope, with victory-shaped perspective, with unexplainable love, and with inexpressible joy.  We live, present tense, because Jesus lives, present tense. Since death is defeated, Easter must not and cannot fade for us.

Preaching and Perspectives

When we preach, we present a perspective.  When we preach, we provoke a perspective.  Here are five perspective prompts to help us consider the perspective we give in our preaching:

1. God spoke vs God speaks

We need both perspectives.  We need to know that God has definitively revealed and communicated his very being through the incarnation and the work of the Holy Spirit in revelation that we can access with confidence in our Bibles.  That canonized revelation is priceless and people need to be confident that we can stake our life and eternity on what it says in The Book.  At the same time we do not have a God who is far away and unengaged.  As we engage with the Bible we are engaging with God in the present.  Some preachers speak only as if God spoke long ago and far away.  Others preach as if God’s voice is heard predominantly today apart from the Bible.  Both extremes are problematic.  God spoke and through that, God still speaks.  Our mission is to offer both to our listeners.

2. My World vs The World

Ever since the Fall we have all fallen inward like human-shaped black holes. We naturally think our world is the whole world, when actually there is a whole lot going on beyond me.  As a preacher you address both.  You speak God’s Word into a personal sphere that God does, in fact, care deeply about.  God’s personal love and concern for each of us is nothing short of astonishing.  At the same time we all need to have our horizon expanded beyond the sphere of self to see there is so much more beyond my life, my issues, my concerns, my comfort. The preacher speaks a message that is intensely personal, yet also expansively global in scope.

3. Past vs Future

People live in the bubble of their present concerns.  Preachers point outside of that bubble.  We point back to the world of the Bible and God’s definitive invasion in the person of His Son.  The incarnation, the crucifixion, the resurrection and the ascension are all definitive points in past history.  At the same time we point through preaching into the future to the historical moment when Christ will again enter into our world.  Past events, future events, all shaping our present lives.  Preachers point backwards and forwards and listeners need us to do both.
 
4. Under The Sun vs Under The Throne

We live our lives in light of what we can see, but there is more.  The preacher points to both.  As well as offering divine commentary and insight into the visible world around us, the preacher also pulls back the veil and shows the reality above.  Stephen lived, preached and died in a terrifying whir of political tensions and angry voices, but above the sky there was a reality that he got to glimpse before his death – the Son of Man standing at the right hand of the throne on high. Daniel 7 is such an important passage – while we live in the raging foment of kingdoms rising and falling, terrifying the saints and waging war against them, all the while there is a higher throne, God is on it, and judgment is given into the hands of a human who is there at the side of the throne.  We can live our lives and die our deaths in light of that reality … but preachers need to help people to see what is unseen.

5. Me vs Him

This may be the ultimate perspective issue in preaching.  People naturally focus on themselves and yet do not see clearly.  The preacher shines a light on the true self, and yet aims to draw the gaze of listeners away from self and to Christ.

In all of these ways preachers influence perspective through preaching.  Does your preaching lean one way and not the other in any of these categories?  Is there some perspective shift needed in you so that your preaching can bring about that good in others?

Dig Deeper

digdeeper2Perhaps the hardest thing to know is what you don’t know. One of the huge benefits of formal education is that it tends to open your eyes to what you don’t know. However, most of the time most of us remain blissfully unaware of riches with which we have not yet engaged. This post may be attempting the impossible, but I want to suggest some areas for further study that might be just what your ministry needs to develop to another level. I will not spell out everything, but rather offer some signposts that may nudge you in a healthy direction. Obviously, you may already know more than me about some of these, but that is beside the point. I believe these are fruitful avenues for prayerful study for any of us:

  1. The Fall.  I believe the Fall in Genesis 3 had a far more profound effect on us than we have ever realized. Too many Christians think of sin as being a list of sins. But what about the “non-sin” sins such as self-righteousness and autonomy? Too many Christians think of sin as something they did before salvation with the odd slip up now and again since. But the gravitational pull of fallenness is exerting a huge effect on us all the time.  I believe we would benefit as preachers to prayerfully pursue a full biblical answer to the question, “what is sin?”
  2. “In Christ.”  Far too many Christians, and dare I say it, preachers, see salvation as being essentially only about guilt and forgiveness.  The good news that is offered in too many pulpits is entirely too thin in comparison with the richness of what is actually offered in the New Testament – that is, in the New Covenant.  The context in which our sins are forgiven, and our shame is removed, and our deadness is transformed, and our enmity is reconciled, and so on, is the context of our union with Christ. Lloyd-Jones referred to this as the “ultimate doctrine” and I suspect none of us have been able to exhaust the richness of what it means to be “in Christ” – many perhaps have barely begun!
  3. The Spirit.  Many churches fall into one extreme or another on the Holy Spirit. For some, He is an end in himself, a source of power and a sensational goal to pursue.  For others, He is a reality that deserves a tip of the hat and then is generally ignored (all the while affirming his existence and importance).  Have we really grasped why and how the Spirit is so Christ-focused?  Have we really grasped why and how the Spirit is so concerned with communication and relationship?  Have we wrestled with the Spirit’s role in the Trinity?  Is he just another member of a divine committee of three, or is he uniquely involved in the union of the Father and Son? And what is that to us?

And since my self-imposed word count is more than used up, here is just one more bonus:

Covenant.  What kind of covenants does the Bible describe God to establish with us?  Are they the same as contracts, really?

Feel free to let any of these stir a chase in the Bible and in your study. I suspect any chasing you might do on these subjects will not be wasted, but will only enrich and deepen your preaching ministry!

Deep Questions

deepsea2Our family is soon to enter into birthday season as we celebrate four of our children’s birthdays in four weeks.  Lots of presents, lots of cake, and lots of opportunity to show our children they are loved.  One family tradition we have developed is to always tell the birth story on someone’s birthday.

They never tire of hearing the story of the long labour and sudden arrival, or the perfectly timed birth, or the emergency home birth after the midwife said we were not in labour, etc.  Why is this tradition so appreciated by our children?  I think it is because it speaks to two unspoken but deep questions within each child.  Was I wanted?  Do I belong?

Whether a child entered their family by birth or by adoption, these deep questions truly matter.  They are also important for all of us as Christians.  How did I come to be in the family of God?  Was I wanted? Do I belong?
In Galatians 4:4-7 we find two emphatic answers to these questions.  Paul was writing to new believers who were being drawn away from the true gospel to a non-gospel that put the focus back onto their own performance.  First, Paul answers whether God wanted us or not?  Was it an accident that we came to be in God’s family?  Absolutely not.

At just the right time, when humanity was fully exhausted in its efforts to self-save, God sent forth his Son into the world to redeem us and to give us the full rights of sonship!  We see that Jesus was born of woman, just as God had predicted back in Genesis 3:15.  We see that Jesus was born under the law – that is, he came to where we were.  Jesus was, of course, a Jew and so was under Jewish Law, but all humanity is under the law described in verse 3 – the elementary principles of this world.  We all live under a system where performance determines success.  It is the way of the fallen world.  Jesus came all the way to us.

Jesus came to us on a mission to pay a price.  He came to redeem us and buy for us the privilege of adoption as Sons of God.  There could be no higher privilege, and there could have been no higher price.  As Christians we must never think we have moved on beyond the glorious love revealed and proven on the cross at Calvary.  The fact of Jesus’ death for us is an objective truth that should grip us and reassure us.  Was I wanted?  Most definitely, yes.  The cross has proven that!

But this objective assurance is not the whole story.  Sadly, many Christians have allowed the Christian gospel to be reduced to just this objective reality.  God sent his son into the world to redeem us and to change our status, but God knows we need something more.

Think of the prodigal son for a moment.  He returned home knowing that his father was a better employer than the man he had been working for.  His plan was to get employed and work his way out of the situation.  But then his father rocked his world by showing amazing grace to him.  The father ran, embraced him and dressed him in the status of a son – the special robe, the sandals, the signet ring.  Oh how that son must have been amazed as he sat at the feast wearing the proof of his undeserved status!

But there was something else.  I can’t help but think he must have touched the side of his face and neck too.  “My father kissed me…”  The prodigal knew the status he had been given, but he also experienced the assurance that he belonged.  God knows we need that too.  God knows your tendency and mine to drift from that place at the table and revert to our old plan A – to work and perform so that we can earn what is already freely ours.  God knows that our flesh would prefer to have God as an employer than a Father, and that we will often trust the status change while drifting from the fullness of sonship.

So back to Galatians.  God sent his Son into the world to redeem us and to change our status.  And because we are sons, God also sent his Spirit, not into the world, but into our hearts, to change our experience.  How easily we diminish the role of the Holy Spirit in the Christian life.  Jonathan Edwards saw that tendency and wrote in A Treatise on Grace of the Trinitarian nature of salvation.  He wrote of how in a transaction the price paid must equal the value of the good purchased.  Here is the logic:

Since God the Father paid the ultimate price (His Son), and the Son paid the ultimate price (His life), then what is purchased must be of ultimate and equal value.  Yes our salvation is infinitely valuable, but salvation is Trinitarian, so where does the Spirit come in?  Too easily we fall into thinking that the Spirit is the mail man delivering the wonderful gift.  A postman?  A courier?  Surely not!  Galatians 3:14 tells us that Christ died so that we could receive the promised Holy Spirit.  Really it is only the Spirit that is equal in value to the price paid at Calvary.  And that is the blessing of Galatians 4:6-7.

God sent the Spirit into our hearts so that from deep within we could know the cry of the Son – “Abba! Father!”

As I write this I am sat on a plane returning from some special days with ELF folks in Hungary.  When I get home my almost five year old will experience something that reassures her that she belongs in our family.  Her status is certain right now, but in a few hours I will hold her and kiss her and squeeze her tightly in an Abba embrace.  This is not a continual experience, but it does happen and it does her good (me too!)

Likewise as Christians God wants us to know not only that we were wanted – the cross has proven that objectively.  God also wants us to know that we belong – the present tense change of experience that is ours because the Spirit of God witnesses within our hearts that we now have the Son’s relationship with the Father.

As we enter into another year let’s stop and reflect on Galatians 4:4-7.  Let us return to the foot of the cross and worship God for His love demonstrated so powerfully there.  And let us be sure to thank God for the Spirit too, that His love is spoken into our hearts.  We need both the reality of the cross and the experience of closeness to God.  Let’s be sure that we don’t reduce our adoption into a mere status change and then start to pressure ourselves to earn God’s favour this year.  How easily we revert to the prodigal plan, but instead may this year be a year where all our ministry flows out of our ongoing close relationship to God, our Abba.

You were wanted.  You do belong.  May life and ministry flow as we rest in the wonderful answers to these deepest of questions!