The Local Church and the Missionary

The relationship between the local church in the West and the missionary sent to a far-off land has always been unique.  In one respect, the roles in this relationship may soon be reversed.

In some cases, the local church has revered missionaries and almost idolized them.  When visiting their home country, they are honoured as they regale the congregation with tales of life in exotic far flung lands. 

In other cases, the local church has felt awkward around missionaries and almost ignored them.  When they visit they have a token opportunity to “show their slides” and they sometimes feel like fish out of water – trying to communicate in a culture that is no longer their own.

Cultural Awkwardness

Whether the missionaries are somewhat celebrated or generally forgotten, they will speak to one another of the cultural awkwardness they feel when they return to their sending country.  They arrive and hear passing questions like, “is it nice to be home?”  But often missionaries feel far from home and uncertain of how to fit into the culture that has moved on from the one they left years ago.

In contrast, the local church in the West has typically felt very much at home.  It has always been the missionary’s context that has seemed strange and hard to comprehend.  The church in the West might wonder about the missionary: How do you live in a culture dominated by that strange and zealous religion?  How do you communicate to people who see the world completely differently?  How can the church exist and grow in a culture that considers Christians to be a danger and a threat to society? 

Times are Changing!

In recent years, western cultures have been experiencing significant changes.  The shift feels very rapid.  Years of preparatory work in education, the media, and entertainment culture are now bearing fruit as a much more activist-driven cultural upheaval is quickly turning everything upside-down (or right-side up, depending on your perspective!).  This is no superficial shift.  The very foundations of Western society are being replaced so that we now face a totally different worldview and a whole new morality.  Our culture is radically different than it was even at the turn of the century.  Truths everybody knew until a few minutes ago are now dogmatically dismissed and everyone is increasingly required to agree with the new truths. No debate is permitted.

Times have changed and now the home church does not feel like it is at home.  Increasingly, it feels like our culture is strange and hard to comprehend.  In the next few years we will be asking ourselves, how are we supposed to live in a culture dominated by another ideology that feels almost religious and fundamentalist in its zeal?  How can we communicate with people who are conditioned by their education and media to see the world very differently than we do?  How can our church exist and grow in a culture that is increasingly antagonistic to its very existence and considers the church to be dangerous and a threat to the safety and unity of society?

Maybe if we are not already asking ourselves these questions, we will be asking them soon.  Perhaps we should think about asking our missionaries how they would answer them.  Their experience of life and ministry in some foreign countries may become more relevant to life in “the West” than it would have been forty, or even ten, years ago. 

In the past, we may have asked the missionary about the dominant religion in their mission field because we saw families with that same religion moving in locally.  This is still true.  But maybe there is much more we can learn from them now that our culture is moving so far away from its Judeo-Christian roots and worldview.  Our culture will increasingly feel like the ideologically dominated cultures we used to think of as foreign mission fields.  Maybe we should be asking the missionaries how we can effectively reach people here.

(Photo by Roman Denisenko on Unsplash)

Asking Better Questions

As preachers we often think in terms of giving answers. After all, we are the ones who need to study for hours in order to communicate God’s Word in a way that emphasizes its relevance to the people in front of us. Here are a few quick thoughts, not about answers, but about questions.

1. Every unit of thought in the Bible is answering a discernible question. In preaching terms, this would be the Subject-Question – that is, what is the passage about? We need to discern that question in order to then identify the answer being given – the Complement-Answer, that is, what is it saying about that? We will always help people with our preaching more effectively if we discern the implicit question being answered by the text we are preaching.

2. Every listener of a sermon has questions. Some may be technical theological questions stirred by hearing the Bible passage read. Most will be more mundane, but critical: why should I listen to you? Is this message relevant to my life? Is there any hope for someone like me? We need to make sure we are not so soaked in academic thinking that we preach only answers to questions that most will not be asking.

3. Our culture is training us to be controlled by certain questions. Take the situation we find ourselves in today. Our culture has proactively shaped the question that dominates our thinking and therefore our lives. Where the question maybe used to be, “how can I be happy?” or “what will satisfy me?” or whatever variation of self-concerned worldviews were dominant, now the question seems to be: “what must we do to stay safe?” In just a few months our culture has made this question absolutely dominate the thoughts of the people in our church.

4. The questions controlling our minds must be questioned. Identify what is driving the people you speak to each Sunday. Then question it. Overtly. In fact, let the Bible’s values offer a transformative interrogation of assumptions that nobody dares to question in our culture. For example, how many biblical passages would support something different driving us in these days? Surely there is more to life than just trying to stay alive? Merely articulating that query could stir significant change in people. Yesterday I preached the final message in our Christmas series and we landed on Simeon and his “Now dismiss me…” prayer. His eyes had seen God’s incarnate, controversial, global salvation and he was ready to die. In a time when all are overwhelmingly concerned about staying alive, it was very timely to ask a Simeon-shaped question: “are you ready to die?” and the other side of that same coin: “what does it mean to really live?”

5. As preachers we must continually grow in our ability to ask questions. We need to question the biblical text. We must question the values and thoughts of our listeners. We should be asking lots of questions about the paradigms and agenda driving our culture. We would do well to question our own assumptions, influences, etc. And when we preach, let’s look to not only prepare using better questions ourselves, but also help our listeners to also ask better questions too.

Judge Jesus

“Do not judge by appearances.”  Sound advice.  Sometimes people, books, and even foods can surprise you.  But actually that isn’t a pithy proverb promoting discernment in dating or a more investigative approach to shopping.  Jesus said it.  In fact, he said, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.”  And he said it about himself.

In John 7 we read about the Feast of Tabernacles, the third, and favourite, annual pilgrim feast of the Jews.  The chapter starts with Jesus’ non-believing half-brothers trying to goad him into taking the stage at Israel’s Got Talent and doing some of his miracles to announce himself where it mattered, at the heart of the nation.  He refuses to go to Jerusalem on their terms, but then goes up secretly.  The whole town is talking about him anyway, muttering and wondering if he’ll show.

He does.  In the middle of the Feast he heads into the temple area and starts teaching publicly.  A few verses later he urges everyone to judge him with right judgment (v24).  Let’s note four things that they, and we, should evaluate based on this first part of John 7:

1. Why does the world hate Jesus? In verse 7 Jesus tells his brothers that the world hates him.  In verse 19 he flags the fact that some are seeking to kill him.  We see that hatred all through John’s Gospel, and we still see it today.  Why is Jesus so despised by a world that claims values that Jesus could be seen to champion?  Our world celebrates its own compassion and its action on behalf of the oppressed and hurting – Jesus demonstrated compassion and took action for the sake of hungry crowds, foreigners facing dislike, vulnerable women and children, the lame, the deaf, and the blind.  Our world talks about inter-racial unity – Jesus made a despised Samaritan the hero of one of his most famous stories, fed a crowd of four thousand Gentiles when the disciples didn’t consider that a possibility, and so on.  Jesus could be the figurehead for so many of the values celebrated today, and yet he seems to be hated so easily.  Why is that?

2.  Did Jesus really speak a message from God? In verses 15-17 Jesus explains how he can speak with such learning despite never having studied.  He explains that his message is not his own, but the message of the one who sent him into the world.  Jesus speaks God’s very words?  That is an astonishing claim.  And yet for two thousand years, across every continent, in hundreds of languages and contexts, the words of Jesus have proven to be the key to the human heart.  While he is hated by many, there are also many who have found Jesus’ words to resonate so deeply that they must be uniquely representative of God.  With so many people, in so many places, so massively marked by Jesus, surely it is worth investigating the source of his message?

3. How can Jesus be so pure?  Inverse 18 Jesus claims to have no falsehood.  Again, this is a huge claim.  Every leader you know is flawed.  Every Christian leader you respect is far from perfect.  We know the impurity of humanity because we know the person in the mirror.  We are not as bad as some, but we are still so far from our own ideals, let alone God’s.  We all fall short, desperately short.  But Jesus – not in some later developed mythology, but in a context where his own half-siblings were skeptical and his enemies scrutinized everything about him – Jesus claimed to be without falsehood.  And a few months later, when it came to trial, they couldn’t find any accusations against him.  The Roman authority with no vested interest in Jesus repeatedly declared, “this man is innocent!”  The purity of Jesus is not just a lack of sin, but also a radiant presence of life.  Jesus is captivatingly attractive in his holiness.  What is going on there?

4. What is the significance of transformed lives? In verse 23 Jesus underlines the source of the antagonism that was still rumbling in the crowd: he had healed a man by the pool a few months earlier.  A transformed body walking around Jerusalem stirred the people and the authorities.  And that man wasn’t in any way spiritually responsive. Today we can meet hundreds of people whose lives have been transformed spiritually, personally, temperamentally, morally, etc. (None of us are made perfect, of course, but the change is often undeniable!)

Jesus is hated by the world, claims to speak a message from God, lived a life that was uniquely beyond every reproach, and continues to transform lives all over the world.

Whether you are investigating Christianity for the first time, or are a long-time follower of Jesus, these four questions are well worth pondering.  If Jesus is who he claims to be, and if that is only underlined by the eyewitness accounts of those close to him, the hatred of many, and the transformation of others, then he is worthy of all your faith, your worship, your love.

10 Pointers for Evangelistic Preaching

10 targetepThere are far more qualified voices on this subject, but nevertheless, here are 10 pointers to ponder as you anticipate preaching evangelistically.

1. God can work despite your weaknesses as a communicator, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give your best – this is true in an individual message, and in a lifetime of ministry.  So look for ways to improve and grow in what you do as a preacher of the gospel.

2. The Gospel is good news, so proclaim it – somehow it is easier to talk about it, than to actually proclaim it.  We have great news to share, so let’s take the opportunity to get it presented.

3. The Gospel is a proclamation of what God has done in Christ, not what people should do in response to your message – “Repent and believe” is not good news, it is a way of phrasing an appropriate response to the news.  The good news declares what God has done in sending his Son to earth, to us, to the cross, and what that means for people today.

4. You are representing a person, not just a set of truths – Somehow people can become quite aggressive when they declare sets of truth, but they don’t when they speak of someone they love.  Please ponder the love of God for you before you proclaim the message of his love for others.

5. You communicate by more than your words – There is also your attitude, your expression, your demeanour, your tone, your body language and your personal warmth.  Please align all of these with your message.

6. Make people want it to be true before you try to convince them that it is true – There is absolutely a place for declaring the truth and seeking to be convincing about it, but remember that simply proving your point will never usher souls into the kingdom.  We flatter ourselves if we think the world is waiting for us to be clever and convincing enough before they will respond.

7. Don’t let the truth of the truth be foggy – We live in a relativistic age that assumes you don’t even really believe what you are declaring, so be sure to undermine the fairy tale/personal crutch idea and invite them to engage with truth, history, etc.

8. Be biblical in what you say, whether or not you cite your source – Some like to point to Acts 17 and suggest Paul never quoted the Bible in his message to the philosophers in Acts.  This is simplistic and misleading.  Paul’s message was saturated in biblical truth, he just didn’t give the references all the way through.  Please be biblical.  God is a great communicator.  (There is definitely a place for preaching a passage – evangelistic exposition can be incredibly powerful, but when you aren’t “preaching a passage” please be thoroughly biblical anyway.)

9. Pray for wisdom to blend patience with boldness – It is easy to assume this is the only opportunity and present awkwardly.  It is easy to assume this isn’t the key opportunity and present weakly.  Somehow we need wisdom to find the right blend.  Cumulative evangelistic ministry is very powerful, but for some people this may be a unique moment.  We need both boldness and patience.

10. Always remember that it is the Holy Spirit who changes lives – Not your technique, nor your message, nor your learning, nor your cool persona, nor your stunning powerpoint, nor your well-worked structure.  It is a work of God to save a hell-bound sinner and draw them into his family.  Pray passionately.  Proclaim persuasively.  Depend completely.

I can already think of more to add.  What would you add?

(Previously in this series we have had 10 pointers for younger preachers, older preacherstrained preachersuntrained preacherspreaching Easterteam preaching and special occasion preaching.)

10 Pointers for Preaching Easter

10 targetfEaster is a critical season in church ministry.  There may be people in church who would normally not be in church. There will be regulars who need to be captured by the Easter story afresh.  Here are 10 pointers for preaching Easter:

1. Tell the story – whether people are first-timers, once a year attenders, or regulars, they need to hear the basic Easter story.  Jesus told his followers to have a regular reminder in the form of communion, so we can be sure that Easter itself should include a clear presentation of what actually happened.

2. Pick a passage – while you can preach a blended harmony of accounts, why not pick a specific passage and preach it properly?  At the very least, it will be a blessing for your own soul.  For instance, Luke’s account of the trials, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus is marked by his distinctive “two witnesses” motif . . . underlining the certainty of what took place.  His use of the term “it is necessary” underlines the ‘must-ness’ of God’s plan.

3. Undermine familiarity – the frequency of reference to the death of Christ, combined with serene artistic impressions and popular jewellery, has made most people unaware of the reality of that first Easter.  Carefully pick a fact or two to help bring it home: Jesus was probably crucified at eye-level; the condemned had to lift his body weight to take a full breath.

4. Beware of shock and awe – people won’t be drawn by your graphic description of gory medical detail.  Rather, they will be won by the Spirit.  Be sure to preach Christ and him crucified, don’t try to shock people into a response.  Some may be hardened by exposure to Hollywood special effects, but others may grow faint at the mention of blood.

5. Recognize there is emotion in Easter – we certainly don’t want to manipulate emotions, but neither should we deny them.  Easter stirs emotions.  There will be sadness at what Jesus went through and why it was necessary (my sin). Yet also the joy and celebration of the resurrection – Easter mixes and stirs the emotions.   Preach in such a way as to make evident the emotion within the text you are preaching, while engaging with the mixture of response from those listening.

6. Make clear the truth of Easter – it is hard to think of a good excuse for not making clear the truth of Easter, including the fact of the Resurrection.  Apologetically this is ground zero for our presentation of the Gospel and Christianity.  Don’t miss the opportunity.

7. The Resurrection is more than proof – be careful that the Resurrection does not become simply the proof that theologically Christ’s sacrifice was accepted, or apologetically that Christianity is true.  Yes and yes, the Bible presents this truth and offers unparalleled historicity, but there is more.  The Resurrection introduces the wonder of New Covenant spiritual life now, and hope for the fulfillment of God’s plans in the future, and so much more.

8. The Crucifixion is more than payment – just as the Resurrection can get reduced to a source of proof, so the Crucifixion can be reduced.  Some will make it just an example for us.  That is very weak.  Some will present it purely as the payment for the penalty of our sin.  This is stronger, but still incomplete. Consider John’s Gospel emphasis on the cross as the revelation of the glory of God’s character, or as the means by which people are drawn to Christ.  (Obviously, if your passage is focused on satisfying the wrath of God against sin, then don’t fail to make that your emphasis!)

9. Clarify the ultimate identification – preaching any narrative will naturally lead to listeners identifying with characters in the story.  The Easter story is full of potential points of identification: deserting disciples, denying Peter, doubting Thomas, betraying Judas, power-hungry Caiaphas, self-protective Pilate, hurting Mary, mocking soldiers, shouting crowds, repentant thief, etc.  But don’t miss the central character: Jesus Christ came to identify with us, to bear our sin, to take our place, and to invite our trusting and adoring gaze in his direction.

10. Never lose the wonder – be sure that if you are preaching Easter to others, that it has first refreshed and thrilled your own soul.

Helmut Thielicke described Spurgeon’s humour as “Easter laughter,” that which comes as a “mode of redemption because it is sanctified – because it grows out of an overcoming of the world.”  May Easter so grip our hearts this year that our preaching points others to the wonder of the cross and the empty tomb, and so that our own souls burst out in praise to the God who would make such an event the centerpiece of His glorious redemptive plan!

What Should You Be Delegating?

In calling for pastors and preachers to take up their apologetic mantle as theologians for the church, Loscalzo makes a passing comment that I agree with wholeheartedly.  Let me quote first, comment second.

Whether by intentional design or by default we pastors have relegated our task of being a theologian to some unknown entity while we spend our energy on matters that someone else in the church could better handle.  In other words, too many pastors spend their time organizing vacation Bible school while neglecting Karl Barth [ed. insert your theologians of choice here].  Too many ministers aspire to be better managers of church programs.  Many pastors have their hands in every administrative pot in the church.  Every committee action must have their stamp of approval.  These pastors micromanage everything from the church’s budget to Wednesday night suppers to the selection of wallpaper for the nursery.  No wonder churches languish from theological malnutrition.  The one charged with feeding them persists in obsessing over matters that they could delegate to abler hands.

What is true in terms of theological reading, reflection and output is equally and overlappingly true of Bible study, reflection and output.  I remember one pastor I was influenced by encouraging me to always break what I do into four categories, and then delegate one of them.  Probably sound advice.  What do you do?  Whether or not you’re a pastor, or in full-time ministry, or in secular employment . . .  considering the work you do in the church, what do you do?  Four categories?  Which one can go?  What can and should you delegate?  Squeezing bible, theology, apologetics, etc., is too great a price to pay to keep your finger in all those pies.

Looking Back on Modernity

Craig Loscalzo, in his chapter on postmodernity and preaching (in Apologetic Preaching), looks back on preaching under modernity and describes it in this way:

The modern pulpit was steeped in a reasoned homiletic, marked by point-making sermons, alliterated outlines and a third-person descriptive logic.  Sermons of the modern era often talked about God, about the Bible, about life, viewing these matters like specimens under a microscope.  This pulpit philosophy, saturated with rationalism, focused on factual knowledge as the sole medium for communicating religious truth. . . . For modern pulpits, faith often became unwittingly a synonym for rationalism.  In Tom Long’s estimation we thought we were the children of Abraham but discovered we were merely the children of Descartes.

Quite a description!  Some of us are blissfully unaware of postmodernity (neither every preacher, nor every local community is yet thoroughly beyond modernism).  However, whether your community is showing signs of the shift or still stuck in the 1950’s, it’s important to hear Loscalzo’s description.  What is abundantly clear here, wherever we may stand on the issues of postmodernity and its impact on our listeners, this description of preaching under modernity is anything but an ideal to which we should long to return.

You could probably list concerns about postmodernity, most Christian readers can.  Hopefully you could also list opportunities that it presents to us as the church.  But lest any of us simply dig in to fight against postmodernity, let’s not hold a rose-tinted view of what has gone before.  As well as recognizing the strengths and weaknesses of what is coming, let’s also recognize strengths and weaknesses of what we may be leaving behind.  It was not a golden age to which we must seek a return.  The Bible, of course, is not anti-rational, incoherent or unthinking.  Yet it is not merely rational.  It goes much deeper.  So must our preaching.  While some may seem to check their rationality at the door, let’s not fight for rationality at the expense of every other aspect of the human soul’s functioning.

Fearful Preaching?

I just started Apologetic Preaching (Proclaiming Christ to a Postmodern World) by Craig Loscalzo (do you pronounce that the way it looks – anyone know?)  In the first chapter Loscalzo enters the arena of defining and engaging with the broad issues of postmodernity.  In the process he writes of the fear of many contemporary preachers.

This fear comes from seeing other churches successfully growing, while seeing apathy, lethargy, and empty pews up close.  It is a fear of pushing too hard or demanding too much.  It is a fear of being labeled as narrow-minded by colleagues, by the media, by academics they have studied under, or by intellectuals in their church.  Their ecclesiastical vocabulary, in its progressive state, is now purged of terms like sin, judgment, immoral, evil, righteousness, faith and commitment.  They fear offending sensibilities or being stereotyped on either the religious right or left.  He writes, “we have become so hypercautious that our sermons at best offend no one and at worst merely bore.” (p12)  What’s more, a fear of being irrelevant leads to nothing more than mundane chatter.

Obviously he’s writing about other preachers and not us, obviously.  Of course.  Clearly.  Without any doubt.  But rather than get defensive, why not ask God to show us if any fear has crept into our preaching ministry?

Highlight the Apologetic Value of Details

Sometimes in preaching we will cover details that have apologetic value.  This will probably not be the main thrust of the passage, but if time allows, why not note the inference that can be made so that our listeners are strengthened in their view of the accuracy of the Bible?  Our churches would be stronger in this day and age if more believers had a fact-based robust evangelical bibliology.  We don’t have to wait for the next DaVinciCode-esque attack on the Bible, we can be reinforcing a proper view of the Bible through our preaching.

Consider, for example, Mark’s accurate knowledge of names and languages. The more we study, the more we discover that the gospels have exactly the pattern of names and languages we would expect them to have if they were true.  The more common names in Judea/Galilee at the time of Christ have qualifiers added to help the reader know which John (brother of James / son of Zebedee, or the baptizing one) or which Judas (brother of Jesus, Iscariot, or son of James).  On the other hand, no information needed to identify the Thaddeus (39th most popular name), or Philip (61st).   This may not seem that significant, but at that time, the 2nd most popular name among Jews in Palestine was 68th most popular in Egypt.  The writers (especially Matthew and Mark on this issue) demonstrate real accuracy in their choices of names and when to add clarification details – was this sophisticated research leading to accurate fiction, or was it just plain accurate history?

For another example, consider Mark’s knowledge of local languages. In 14:70 he knows local differences in accent.  In 5:41 he gives the correct Aramaic for that time and place (see also 7:11; 7:34).  In 11:9 he gives the right pronunciation for the locals saying “Hosanna,” rather than the Old Testament “Hoshiana” (in the Talmud the Rabbis apparently complain about the local crowd mispronouncing the “sh” as “s”).  Yet at the same time, Mark knows accurate Roman Latin – see 6:27 (speculator); 15:39 (centurio); 12:42 (quadrans) . . .  all details, but the kind of evidence you’d expect for an eyewitness testimony written in Rome.

As Peter Williams of Tyndale House, Cambridge, recently stated, “The gospels have exactly the pattern of names and languages we would expect them to have if they were true.  The pattern is too complex for an ancient forger to reproduce (it would be a level of sophistication never seen in antiquity!)”

(Thanks to Peter Williams for his great teaching on this subject, and he would point to Richard Bauckham’s book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses as a key source.)

Notice the Details

When you are studying a text and preparing to preach it, make sure you notice the details.  No word is there by accident.  As I sometimes say, the writers of the Bible were neither drunk nor wasteful.  Not drunk means that they were coherent and deliberate in what they wrote.  Not wasteful means that papyrus was expensive, so they didn’t waffle for a paragraph or two before getting into it.

Sometimes the details in a passage are helpful theologically.  For example, why does Mark tell the reader that the grass was green when Jesus fed the five thousand?  Is this mere ornamentation?  Or is it part of a larger package of details and tone that are suggestive of Jesus bringing something of the eschatological feasting and abundance?  It can be hard to discern the difference between allegorical misreading of Scripture and sensitivity to the original writer’s intent.  The goal is not to make it say something Mark didn’t know, but to recognize what Mark intended to communicate both overtly and subtly.

Sometimes the details in a passage are helpful apologetically. In a day when the Bible is roundly mocked, we have listeners who need their trust in the Bible bolstered by our preaching.  Thus it is worth noting apparently incidental details that actually under gird a robust evangelical bibliology.  For example, notice the difference between names used in speech quotations and the same names used by the narrator.  Jesus was the 6th most common name in that part of the world at that time, so naturally in speech his name would be qualified, such as “the Nazarene, Jesus” (Mark 14:67).  Yet in the narration, Mark doesn’t need to identify which Jesus he is writing about, so it is just “Jesus” (eg. Mark 14:62, 72).  Mark could easily have had the servant girl referring to “Jesus,” but he didn’t.  Was Mark phenomenally accurate in making up the story, or is he in fact quoting speech with word perfect exactitude?  (Compare the narrator with the speech quotations in Matthew 14:1-11, for another example of this.)

Tomorrow I’ll share a couple more examples of textual details that offer apologetic value for our preaching.  (I’m indebted to Peter Williams of Tyndale House, Cambridge, for these apologetic examples.)