When Preaching Is Restricted

This year has thrown up all sorts of challenges for the ministry of preaching. Many of us have been learning quickly how to adjust to preaching to a camera, taking church online, etc. But still, something is missing. Maybe we can’t gather, or maybe the gathering is restricted. Is this restriction actually curtailing the work of God?

The Book of Acts offers us an encouraging section to read when we feel our preaching is restricted. As you know, Acts shows the progress of the witness of the Apostles from Jerusalem, to Judea and Samaria, to the ends of the earth (see 1:8).

The Jerusalem section, chapters 1-7, is thrilling. We see the church birthed and growing rapidly. We get to enjoy the boldness of Peter’s preaching, Peter and John before the authorities, even Stephen’s courageous final proclamation. It feels like preaching to crowds is central to the growth of the church. But opposition is building along the way. The apostles are warned in chapter 4, beaten in chapter 5 and then there is the execution of Stephen in chapter 7.

This brings us to the middle section of Acts, the Judea/Samaria section, if you like. It stretches from Acts 8 to Acts 12, where the summary statement is found in v24: “the word of God increased and multiplied.”

So what do we find in Acts 8-12? We see the gospel spreading to Samaritans and then Gentiles – a massively significant step of progression. But we also see a change of ministry opportunity. After the stoning of Stephen, we read this: “…there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles . . . Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word.” (8:1,4)

They went about evangelising – that’s what it is saying here.  They couldn’t bring friends to big gatherings in Jerusalem to listen to a great apostle preaching.  They were scattered.  Challenging circumstances, scattered believers, speaking about Jesus.

We immediately get the example of Philip who took the challenging circumstances as sovereign appointment and proclaimed Christ in Samaria.  He spoke to crowds, but he also spoke to an individual in a chariot.  Normal followers of Jesus speaking to people about Jesus wherever they found themselves.

In these chapters we see the conversion and commissioning of Saul to carry the message to the nations, and we see Peter being coached by God to understand how the gospel had to move beyond traditional Jewish boundaries in order to spread.  But we also see normal believers representing Jesus.  People like Tabitha/Dorcas, who was full of good works and acts of charity.  In their words and in their deeds, they evangelised wherever God put them.

We know from Acts 12:24 that the word of God increased and multiplied, even away from Jerusalem, away from the big preaching events, away from the primarily apostolic pulpit.  But there is one thing we have to recognize to really grasp what was going on then, and what is going on today. Challenging circumstances that scattered believers who then spoke about Jesus. 

It sounds like a fruitful formula.  None of us want the challenging circumstances, but when they come we see how believers find themselves in unique situations to speak of Jesus.  So why do we hesitate today?  Why aren’t we confident that our congregations will all gossip the gospel enthusiastically in these challenging times?  Is it a matter of training, of example, of spiritual gifting? Perhaps, but not primarily. 

Perhaps it is more to do with Acts 8-12’s truth not gripping us as it should. Luke returns for a summary of the ministry of the scattered believers in Acts 11:19-27.  It tells us that the post-Stephen persecution scatterees travelled to Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch.  It tells us that they spoke the word.  It tells us that the message of Jesus spread to Greek speakers as well as Jews. But notice verse 21:

“And the hand of the Lord was with them.”

That is massive. They needed that. They were witnesses in Judea and Samaria because they had received power when the Spirit came upon them (Acts 1:8). They were able to effectively do their part, not because they were really good at it, but because God did his part.

The same is true today. You may not be able to preach to a normal sized crowd this Sunday or next month. The typical autumn and winter events at the church may not be possible this year due to Covid-19. God’s plan may be to place you and me, and the people in our churches, into divinely ordained one-on-one situations where we can speak of Jesus.

Challenging circumstances that scatter believers who then speak of Jesus to anyone that crosses our path. And we can do so with confidence because the hand of the Lord is with us!

If you and your church folks are convinced that the hand of the Lord is with us this week, what difference will that make? Maybe we will discover that God’s plans are not on pause. And even if the pulpit is partially paused, God’s great plan to reach this world for Jesus is marching forwards, even in October 2020!

God’s Great Evangelistic Plan

God’s plan to reach people with the gospel is not primarily evangelists or apologists, although both are vitally important.  God’s plan to reach people with the gospel is the church.  We can make no greater investment of our resources than to help churches become infectious communities of gospel-gripped people motivated and equipped to bring others into God’s family.

So what does a church need in order to be this kind of evangelistic tool in God’s hands?  It seems like there are three vital ingredients in the mix.  These could be seen as three legs on a stool, and the stool needs all three legs to be used as it was intended

1. People need to ENJOY God and the gospel.

It is easy to encourage or pressure believers to share their faith with others.  Many Sunday sermons end with the call to read our Bibles every day and witness to somebody this week.  The problem is that pressure without motivation will produce poor results.  Many will simply default to doing nothing.  Those that try to do as they have been instructed will often give a clear sense of their own obligation and reticence.  The best witnesses and evangelists will always be those that are truly gripped with the goodness of the good news of who God is and what God has done for us in Christ.

We do not want a church full of reticent and obligated witnesses.  We do want as many as possible to be so enjoying God and the gospel that they can’t help but spill that good news out to others.  This is why simply telling Christians to evangelise is never very effective.  We would achieve much more evangelistically if we invest more time in showing them Christ that their hearts become enflamed with love for him.  When someone gets engaged they can’t help but smile big and show off the ring to anyone around them.  O for churches full of people thrilled that they are more than engaged to Christ!!

2. People need to CONNECT with people outside the church.

A highly motivated community of Christians will not have much impact on their local culture if they live in isolation from it.  The New Testament does not instruct us to purposefully make connections with the people around us because it was automatically happening.  Not only is the church in the book of Acts an example to us, so is Jesus himself.  He was known as a friend of sinners.  Sadly too many churches are full of people that feel their main job is to find ways to avoid contact with non-Christians.

As leaders of churches let us lead by example and let us encourage through our teaching.  God is relational and outwardly focused to the core of his being.  Christianity has a missionary and evangelistic inclination in its very DNA.  Many Christian leaders can easily spend all their time with Christians.  Set an example by joining a club or taking a class, finding some way to connect with people that may have no other contact with true Christians.  If you are working alongside not-yet-Christians, set an example to your church by guarding time to invest in those relationships.  Invite a colleague to your home for a meal, socialize together, move the conversation beyond the superficial.  Many Christians seem to have lost the art of conversation, and asking questions seems to be a dying art.  Set an example and even teach believers how to ask questions and care about the answers.  Our local churches need to be communities that connect with those around.

3. People need to be able to COMMUNICATE the gospel when they have opportunity.

We may have motivated and connected believers in our churches that are unclear on how to present the core gospel message.  We can be overt here – tell them the value of a personal testimony that includes the three elements of before conversion, how I became a Christian, and the difference it has made since.  The power of the personal testimony is massively under-utilized by many Christians.

And why not instruct our churches with a simple gospel presentation.  I heard a famous preacher suggest the simple use of John 3:16 with four key points some years ago.  It is still my go-to explanation if the opportunity suddenly crops up.  Obviously I will adjust the explanation in light of what I know about the person I am speaking to, but still it is a useful presentation.  1. God loved so (2) God gave.  3. If we believe, then (4) we have eternal life.  It starts with the kind of God we are presenting, moves naturally into what God did for us in sending Christ to go to the cross.  It keeps the invitation unencumbered with unhelpful baggage by calling us to believe in – that is, not just believe that, but believe in … to entrust the full weight of our lives onto the person and work of Christ, with no backup plan!  And it allows us to define the Christian offer not as a free pass or a ticket to heaven, but rather as coming into the forever relationship that we were designed to enjoy.

So that is the three-part recipe for helping a church to be more effective in its evangelism.  There are other things that could be added.  For instance, it is important for a local church to establish an evangelistic baseline (for our church it is about making every Sunday accessible to guests, and running a regular evangelistic course – we use Glen Scrivener’s 321).  Then there are special events that can be highly effective.  But first and foremost, the church is not the program, it is the people, and if we can help the people in our churches to enjoy God more, be intentionally connected, and be able to communicate the gospel, then we are unleashing God’s great evangelistic strategy on the world: the local church!

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.

The Challenge of Consistency

I tend to agree with the notion of there being a difference between small church and big church.  A small church, perhaps under 100 people, will tend to have strengths that can become weaknesses in a larger church, perhaps over 200 people.  For instance, in a small church, low standards of music and preaching will be smiled at since everyone knows the individual who is “trying their best.”  But once that church grows through the transitional stage and becomes bigger, such low standards become more counter productive.  Visitors (and there will probably be more now) don’t know the individual up front and the whole dynamic doesn’t work quite so well.  While fellowship is often a strength in smaller churches, it takes deliberate work to achieve that in a larger church.  The emphasis on “up-front” standards inevitably increases as a church grows.

This provides a challenge.  I suppose it is a challenge for all churches of all sizes.  It is especially a challenge for churches with some creative capacity (people, skills, people-hours, etc.).  When you have a guest service of a certain standard, then people will bring guests along.  If that service is done well, then some of those guests might return the next week.  There’s the problem.  If all the effort to be clear and relevant and engaging and effective in the music, the preaching, the presentation, etc., if all that effort is spent on one Sunday, what about the next?

The challenge is consistency.  If your church has a goal of bringing the unchurched to a particular service, then it is worth thinking through whether greater consistency could be achieved in that service 52 times each year.  At that point people would be much more inclined to risk their own relationships and bring people along to the guest events.

There has to be flexibility in this.  Different churches have different capacities for guest events.  The vast majority cannot live up to the standards seen in the small number of “megachurches.”  There also has to be balance in this.  The primary role of the church service may not be evangelism.  Nevertheless, taking into account the specific ethos of a church, it would be worth giving some thought to greater consistency between guest events and normal Sundays.

One Thing Worth Copying

There seems to be an epidemic of copycat mentality in church ministry today.  I’m not referring primarily to pulpit plagiarism, although that is a real issue (only exacerbated by the availability of online sermons from the very good to the very poor – all of which are readily copied by some).  I’m thinking more generally.  If a church is successful (measure that however you choose), then methodology is deemed worthy of mass representation for the benefit of others who in some way seek to reproduce something of that methodology or vision in their own local context.

By the way, please don’t think of this simply as a feature of one brand of Christianity.  I have heard the sneers and comments at the expense of Willow Creek or Saddleback, but some who sneer in that direction would affirm and delight in, for example, Redeemer Presbyterian’s Church Planting Center, just to cite one example.

While some are quick to mock some of this, it is certainly not bad.  Many churches have been helped and strengthened (not just in numbers) by learning from other church leaders in respect to methodology and ministry vision.  Some of the contemporary attacks on Christian consumerism have an element of irony about them inasmuch as there seems to be a band-wagon of consumerism-bashing.  Nevertheless, we should ask ourselves after the next seminar we attend, or “this-is-how-we-did-it” book we read . . . am I copying the right thing?

I’m not condemning all the seminars and books on methodology.  We can, if we are discerning and aware of our own context, learn from what others are doing in theirs.  We should certainly think carefully about that if we are inclined to use methodology as a short-cut, a cut and paste approach to doing church, a photocopied church program from another place, another culture, another context.  Learn from others, but recognize their context, and implement prayerfully in recognition of your own context.

But the greater focus, the one so often missing today, is the one Jethani points to at one point in his book, The Divine Commodity, an engagement with the pervasive consumerist distortion of Christianity.  “Rather than reproducing a leader’s ministry methodology, we ought to focus on reproducing his or her devotion to God.” (p98)

Why don’t we give more attention to that?  Why do we look at “successful” church leaders and copy their method, but not yearn to reproduce their spiritual devotion?  If they don’t have that, then what is the method really worth?  If they do have that, what is it about us that fails to be stirred by it?  Look around for a great Christian leader, one with a deep devotion to God.  Don’t cut and paste.  You can’t fake that, although you may be tempted to try.  Don’t fake.  Don’t ignore.  Don’t methodologize.  In the right sense: Copy.