7 Ways Church Helps Healthy Thinking

The last couple of years has created a whole set of experiences that were new to most of us.  Lockdowns, social distancing, virus testing, online church, and so much more.  Whatever we may think of the measures that have been taken by our governments, it is always good to evaluate the impact of circumstances on the health of the church congregation.

Last week I listened to a discussion between two scientists and a clinical psychologist.  One of them raised the issue of churches and “faith communities.”  In a society marked by social isolation, a widespread lack of meaning, lots of anxiety, increasing aggression and polarized society, he noted the potential benefit that participation in a church might have for the thinking of the congregation.     

Without getting “too psychological” – here are seven ways that church participation can help people to think well and live life in a healthy way:

1. Preaching: The Anchor – Preaching is not merely an educational exercise, although good preaching will help people learn, of course.  Regular Biblical preaching also functions as an anchor in the storms of life.  People are bombarded with intense messaging all week, but when the Word of God is preached, they are reminded of ultimate realities.  Everything else may seem upside-down, but that only reinforces the value of preaching as reminding.  God is still God.  God is still good.

2. Singing: The Crowd – After the disruption to congregations meeting, or being able to sing together, I hope that we have all recognized just how significant corporate worship is in the life of a healthy believer.  Whether the “crowd” is twenty people or a thousand people, it does us good to stand together and sing out our worshipful response to God’s goodness.  When that is taken away, believers suffer in numerous ways.

3. Fellowship: The Family – So many in society suffer from having no meaningful relationships.  The statistics are staggering.  Being part of a local church family is incredibly significant with respect to our sense of sanity.  The regular interactions, the sense of belonging, the familiarity of weekly connections, even the warmth of a handshake or hug . . . it all makes a difference.  During the first half of 2021, churches here were allowed to meet.  While others chose not to do so, our church continued to meet. I am sure this made the negative impact of lockdown far less significant for our church family, even if there were numerous inconveniences along the way.  Who can measure the negative impact of isolation psychologically, relationally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually?

4. Service: The Role – Healthy thinking does not simply flow from good teaching input.  Serving refreshments every third Sunday, greeting people on the welcome team, participating in church set up, hosting a homegroup, teaching the 3–6-year-olds, etc., all these specific roles in the life of the church make a difference in the life of those serving too.  When that is taken away for a season, some will struggle with a reduction in their sense of meaning.  It is personally healthy to be contributing to the life of the community.

5. Unity: The Conversation – When people are forced apart, they will tend to lose a sense of conversation and perspective.  Some may lose touch with anything outside their family unit.  Others will keep the TV news on for constant company.  Still, others will select a small set of voices to hear, or distractions to enjoy.  But the church is not a social club uniting like-minded people.  God has a way of bringing different races, different interests, different political views, etc., into one gathering of people.  We need to be engaging with and hearing from each other to help us have a healthy perspective.  Solitude is not God’s design for the primary context in which we should think.

6. Pastors: The Shepherds – Christians need each other’s gifts to stay healthy and to grow spiritually.  And churches also need the feeding, leading, caring, protecting and mentoring of the shepherds too.  The example, the teaching, the perspective, the courage, the gentleness, and the faith of the pastors all have a tangible impact on the members of the flock.  Sometimes this may be felt in a direct and personal challenge, but week by week exposure and encounter is also highly beneficial.

7. Weekly: The Rhythm – How many churches are struggling because the normal schedule was disrupted for too long?  Maybe for some people, the rhythm of life has shifted and they now need to reconsider how healthy it is to try and do life without meaningful church involvement.  Maybe for others, the fear of Covid is still keeping them away from the many healthy benefits of church participation.  After significant disruption, it might take some deliberate effort to re-establish healthy habits as far as the priority of church involvement.

I am making no comment here on what churches should do regarding safety in these Covid-sensitive times – that is another discussion for another day.  I am making a big comment that the church itself is incredibly important for believers to be healthy in every regard. 

The discussion I was listening to was focused on human thinking.  I hope that as we take stock after two years of Covid-19 disruption, we will see how local church involvement is critical for all aspects of a healthy life: mental, psychological, emotional, social, relational, even physical, and of course, spiritual.

What have the last two years taught you about the value of the local church?

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Join me for a journey through the Psalms! One detail to help us read the Psalms Today, and one detail to help us apply the Psalms Today. Hopefully, you will want to then read the Psalm and share your highlights with someone else!

Christian Living Reoriented

There is a well-worn path in evangelical Christianity.  It begins with the presentation of wonderful news – that God has done everything necessary, in Christ’s death on the cross, to make it possible for us to receive salvation.  All we have to do is trust in Christ and we are saved.  To put it another way, we don’t have to do anything, because Christ has done it for us. 

The path then makes a surprising turn.  Having trusted in Christ for salvation, we soon find the path turning steeply uphill as we discover that living the Christian life is another matter entirely.  Living as a Christian is presented as a list of disciplines, activities, new habits to start and old habits to kick.  The sunny days of gospel invitation give way to storm clouds of pressure and obligation.

A superficial reading of the Bible only seems to reinforce this idea.  After all, there is plenty of instruction and lots of commands directed at believers. 

But a more careful reading of our Bibles will yield a more helpful set of directions.

The gospel is by faith from first to last (Romans 1:17).  That faith is both pioneered and perfected by Jesus (Hebrews 12:2).  And as Paul puts it in Galatians 2:20, “the life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

The Christian life begins by faith, and is to continue by faith.  The way we “get on” is the same as the way we “got in” – by faith in Jesus.  (See Galatians 3:1-3 for Paul’s critical evaluation of the idea that we are to grow to maturity by our own flesh effort instead of by faith!)

I would like to illustrate what this means and then suggest three areas where we may need a reorientation of our perspective.

Illustration – An actively engaged faith. Imagine a couple dancing at their wedding.  We are the bride of Christ, he has won our hearts and we are his.  And now we are invited to live by faith, with our gaze fixed on him and our every move lived in response to his loving leadership.  Just as in a dance, there are three options and two of them are bad.  We can imagine that living by faith means being uninvolved – hanging like a dead weight as he leads the dance.  That will never be a pretty sight.  Or we might assume that we must play our part and fight to express our own leadership on perhaps 50% of the steps.  Again, not pretty.  The beautiful way to engage the dance is 100% active, but 100% responsive.  We fix the gaze of our hearts on him and follow his every lead.  Fully involved, but completely responsive.  That makes for a beautiful married dance.

With that image in mind, let me suggest three wonderful gifts that God has given us for living the Christian life.  These are three gifts that perhaps we need in order to reorient our perspectives and enjoy them to the maximum:

Gift 1 – The Bible.  The Bible is a relational prompt, given to us by God, to continually point our hearts toward Christ.  But we tend to view the Bible as a book about us.  We read it looking for the instruction or the encouragement that we need to live our lives.  We settle for the idea that it is an instruction manual for life and then read through it looking for something that will help us.  Our unspoken feeling is often that it is not a very well-organized manual for twenty-first century living.  Our disappointment can lead to us neglecting this wonderful gift from God.

In reality, the Bible is so much more than a manual for life.  It is primarily and ultimately a revelation of the heart of God, culminating in the mission of Christ. (See John 5:39, for example, where Jesus rebuked the Jewish leaders for daily Bible time spent pursuing life for themselves, but neglecting the revelation of God’s Son.)  When we sit down with a cup of coffee to read the Bible, or listen to it on the way to work, or take a few minutes at lunch time to ponder a few verses, we should come to it with a simple prayer, “Lord, please show me your heart as I read this now. I need to know you. Please show me you.”  Coming to the Bible looking for God’s heart and character, looking for God’s plan that leads to Christ, looking for Christ himself – this is the best way to engage with this relational prompt given to us by God.  As a believer, I need to look to Jesus today.  The Bible is a fantastic gift from God to help me do exactly that.

Gift 2 – The Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit is a relational prompt, given to us by God, to continually point our hearts toward Christ.  We tend to view the Holy Spirit as being there for us.  We might focus on the Spirit as a means to experience excitement and miracles for our own sake, or we might reduce the Spirit to a mere source of power as we strive to live as we are supposed to live.  Again, our disappointment with either the miraculous or the empowering work of the Spirit may remain unspoken, but may also lead us to neglecting this wonderful gift from God.

In reality, the Holy Spirit is able to work miracles when he chooses, and he is gloriously empowering.  But the primary passion of the Spirit is to point our hearts to Christ (see John 14:26, John 15:26, John 16:14, Romans 5:5.)  When we wake up in the morning, why not begin the day by greeting the God who has not slept, but has been keeping watch over us, “Good morning, Father – thank you for your good heart and your love for me.  Good morning, Lord Jesus – thank you again for all you did for me on the cross, that you are alive today interceding for me.  And Holy Spirit, make me sensitive to all the ways you point me to trust in God’s good heart today, help me to keep my eyes on Jesus today.”  As a believer, I need to look to Jesus today.  The Holy Spirit is a glorious gift from God to help me continue to do exactly that.

Gift 3 – The Body of Christ.  The Church is a relational prompt, given by God, to continually point our hearts toward Christ.  We tend to view the church as being there for us.  What can I get out of it?  Is it serving my needs?  How easily we become consumers of services offered by the church, reducing our participation to that of a critic posting our negative reviews for others to browse.  Our disappointment with the church is often not kept hidden, and too easily we can neglect this gift from God.

In reality, the local church is a God-given gift, a community where believers can love and be loved in a way that is different from the world around us (see John 13:34-35).  Instead of looking to church as a consumer, ready to evaluate and offer a negative review, let’s see church for what it is.  Who can I love, encourage, and pray for today?  Who can I serve in practical ways?  What responsibility can I take on that will give me the opportunity to point people to Jesus?  When I preach, how can I point listeners to the goodness of God in Christ (instead of pointing them to their own failure and their need to try harder)?  When I teach the children’s class, how can I point them to Jesus so that they might find life to the full?  Who can I send an encouraging text message to today?  Who can I love, and serve, and encourage?  As a believer, I need to look to Jesus today.  The local church is a community of faith strugglers like me, encouraging each other to look to Jesus day by day. “The life I now live, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.”

Lockdowns & Online Church: Time to Evaluate?

There are few subjects as controversial as Covid-19.  Many churches are feeling the stretch of a full spectrum of views within the congregation. It certainly feels safer to not venture into writing about this subject, but I feel it is important that we evaluate what we do in church world – whatever our view of the actual issue may be.  Obviously, each context is different.  What my church was allowed to do will be different than the rules in your country or state.  What my church decided to do may have been inappropriate for another church in the same town because of different facilities, congregational demographic or local context.

At the beginning of the global crisis in early 2020, most churches saw the situation as a no-brainer.  We were confronted with a new virus and we did not know the extent of the risk (although early predictions were anticipating hundreds of millions of deaths globally).  What we did know was the importance of everyone pulling together to save lives. To illegally meet as a church during those early weeks could easily have been the talk of the town (and it would have made Jesus look very bad).  So for us, and probably for most churches, it was time to get creative and adapt to this unforeseen and temporary lockdown.

Now, 18 months later, we are in a better position to look back and do some evaluating.  In our context we had a long first lockdown, followed by a summer of restrictions, then a shorter lockdown in October/November.  The third lockdown, for the first half of 2021, did not apply to churches (although there were plenty of restrictions). 

Our church experienced the sudden move to “meeting” online without a budget for setting up a high tech studio.  When we were allowed to meet again, we experienced meeting in different venues because our normal venue would not rent to us during the pandemic.  We met in a place where our numbers had to be limited way below our congregation size.  We met in a field, actually two different fields, a large English garden, and as guests of a very kind Anglican church in our town.

Every church will have its own story.  Every church situation is unique.  I am not writing to criticize anyone.  But we should all evaluate.  We are so thankful for the way our congregation responded with flexibility and enthusiasm to the constant changes. As leaders I am sure we made mistakes during these months.  We probably all did.  None of us ever took a seminary class in how to do lead a church during a never-before-seen global health crisis!

So as we look back at online church under various levels of lockdown, let’s take stock of both the costs and the benefits.

There have been benefits – I have spoken with many church leaders and church members who have spoken of learning to be flexible.  Having to adapt to new technology and changing circumstances is probably healthy for all but the most fragile Christians.  Many of us are now as capable of hosting a Zoom call as a business executive, or as familiar with streaming live on YouTube and “speaking to camera” as a social influencer (even if we are still not as comfortable with it!)  Perhaps the reach of your church has extended to people who would never have stepped into your building.  Perhaps, moving forward, the blessing of your live-stream will also be felt by church members at home with a sick child or travelling for work.  

And it is not just about technology and livestreaming.  We have had to think through how to shepherd people that we don’t see in person multiple times each week.  We have had to think about unity more than ever before since Covid has scattered people across a spectrum of responses and perspectives.   We have possibly been given greater clarity on the spiritual condition of many in our churches than was obvious under “the old normal” of predictable church routine.  We have hopefully been pushed to our knees to recognize that we rely on God alone for the health of the flock and not that predictable structure of church life. It is right to recognize the benefits and thank God for His faithfulness during these challenging months of change.

There have been costs – Some people will only speak positively of the impact of lockdown on their church experience.  Perhaps there is something in the air these days that makes it feel forbidden to critique any aspect of Covid response?  But we must evaluate.  Our calling is too significant to do otherwise.  What has been the cost of the loss of fellowship?  What has been the cost of loneliness for believers living alone or as the only believer in their home?  Have people grown to see church as merely watching a sermon and perhaps singing?  What value does corporate worship have in the spiritual life of the believer? What about the relational dynamic at the heart of biblical Christianity?  What about discipleship?  What about serving others?  What about unplanned conversations, warm greetings, handshakes, smiles and hugs?

Have people thrived spiritually with online church, or have they just survived?  There is a cost to not meeting for weeks, or even months on end.  Remember how we would be very concerned pastorally about people who stopped participating in the life of the church for extended periods of time before Covid-19 came along?  That concern still applies.  As churches come out of existing online to meeting in person, they discover that they have lost people.  Some are lost to “pajama church” while others are lost to no church connection at all. Sundays have taken on new rhythms for them.

And what about the loss of opportunities?  We can and should celebrate the people that found church online, but what about guests that never came to church, never experienced believers worshipping together, never experienced the love of a community of God’s people welcoming them warmly?  What about the loss of in-person communion and group prayer?  What about the loss of other opportunities: childhood friendships and life transition moments, mission trips for teens at that key stage of transition to adulthood, youth group heart-to-heart conversations after youth group adventures, and so on?

What do you think? Personally, I believe that online church and lockdown has had far more costs than benefits.  If we had to do it again, what would we do differently?  And are we now happy to switch to online church whatever reason is given for future lockdowns?  Are we really settled with the idea that the authorities can mandate what we do as a church, who we meet with, what we wear, etc.? Is the plan to do what is commanded, or what is culturally popular, whatever the reason? Or are we making different plans to handle what may still lie ahead of us?  Whatever your perspective, it is vital that we all take stock and evaluate. 

I want to recognize that it has been a challenging season to be in church leadership. Thank you for all you have done where you are. It has not been easy. Hopefully, your congregation have expressed their gratitude for all that you have done to make it work in these strange times. Hopefully, you have seen God at work despite the challenges. Jesus promised to build his church!

Our contexts are different and rules seem to be constantly changing everywhere.  How vital it is to think it through, pray it through, and learn lessons in the late summer before another winter comes (whatever that may look like where you are).

(I have sought to gently provoke with questions in this post. I am not looking to stir a political debate, but prayerful reflection. Please do share in the comments anything that could be helpful for others.)

Great Work

In Luke 5, we see Jesus gathering his disciples.  He has already been doing impressive ministry before this point in the Gospel, but this is where we start to see the familiar faces being gathered into his inner circle.  When we look at two brief incidents, we can find real encouragement for today.  This is especially true if you don’t feel particularly impressive as a follower of Jesus.  (And if you do feel impressive, it would probably be good to pray about that!)

In the first verses of the chapter, we see Jesus call Simon Peter to follow him.  Jesus was teaching a crowd and ended up using Simon’s boat as a platform for his message.  Then he asked Simon to head back out to sea and to cast his nets again.  Simon and his friends had just worked all night and caught nothing.  That was not normal (if it were, they would have found alternative employment).   Now Jesus wanted the nets in the water in the middle of the day. Again, this was not a typical request, because everyone knew that fish go deeper when the sun is shining.  However, they did as Jesus asked, and soon their nets were so full they began to break – unusual.  Even their purpose-built fishing boats started to sink – very strange.

We all experience days interrupted by unusual or abnormal events.  It is not normal to have a flat tire on your car, but it does happen.  It is not normal to experience unusual weather, but we have a category for it.  However, this was different for Simon Peter.  This was not the typical kind of unusual event.  This was the kind of combination of strange things that suddenly sent a chill down his spine and caused the hairs to stand up on his neck.

Something bigger was happening, and Simon Peter sensed it.  This is what happens when you suddenly recognize that God is not just out there somewhere, aware of everything.  This is what happens when you realize that God is right here and he is looking specifically at you.

Simon Peter suddenly felt completely undone by Jesus’ presence, the weight of his sin overwhelming him.  “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!”

Jesus knew that he was calling a sinner to be his disciple.  Jesus called that sinner to a greater work.  From now on, he would catch people instead of fish.  Simon Peter and his colleagues left their old life behind and followed Jesus to a new life.  Two thousand years later, we are still naming churches and places after them: from St Peter’s Basilica in Rome to St Andrew’s Church in Chippenham, from St James’ football stadium in Newcastle to St John’s in Newfoundland.  How many little boys have been named Peter, Andrew, James and John in the years since?   What an impressive legacy, especially when we remember that they were just sinful fishermen.

Jesus knows that the people he calls are great sinners.  And he still calls us to a greater work.

But then there is another incident later in the chapter.  Have a look at Luke 5:27-28:

27 After this he went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth. And he said to him, “Follow me.” 28 And leaving everything, he rose and followed him.

There is no miracle story to set up this call, just a simple instruction.  And Levi left it all and followed Jesus.  But Luke tells us a little bit more – see verses 29-32:

29 And Levi made him a great feast in his house, and there was a large company of tax collectors and others reclining at table with them. 30 And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” 31 And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 32 I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”

Notice how Pharisees and scribes are in the scene, adding tension to the meal?  Their complaint was simple: Jesus’ disciples should not eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners.  This little group was not living up to their sinless standards.  Take note of Jesus’ response.  Jesus knew full well that he was dealing with sinners and that they needed healing.  These were works in progress. 

To put it simply, in the first story, we see Jesus calling sinners to a greater work.  In the second story, we see that Jesus knows those he calls need his great work. 

What an encouragement for us!  Before we are anything else in the church world, we are disciples of Jesus.  Whatever ministry we may be involved in, whatever position we may hold, we are disciples of Jesus.  And he knows that we are sinful and broken people.  He knows that when he calls us.  He has a far greater work for us to do.  And he knows that he will need to do great work in us. 

We Need Each Other

Some years ago, I was chatting with my future in-laws about their experiences on the mission field.  They mentioned a couple that they were close to during a challenging season of missionary work.  I asked if their very different denominational backgrounds were an issue.  The response was so helpful: “Secondary things do not matter when you are in the trenches.”

Back in the first century, the Apostle Peter wrote a letter to some believers in the trenches.  They had probably been kicked out of Rome by Emperor Claudius and transplanted to five regions in what we would now call Turkey.  These people had been unwanted back in Rome (troublemakers or guilty by association with others), and they were now unwanted in their new locations.  So Peter wrote his epistle to help them.

Today we live in cultures that are increasingly hostile to Christians.  We can certainly take on board the instruction Peter gave to those first-century believers.  In chapter 4, after the main body of his argument, Peter urges believers to live in light of their situation. God’s great redemption plan is in its final stage; they need to live with disciplined thinking for the sake of their attentive prayerfulness.  But then he gives a not-to-be-missed “above all” point:

“Above all, love one another earnestly.” (1 Peter 4:8)

He is not referring to casual and comfortable fellowship.  The word Peter uses here, “earnestly,” implies a full and sustained effort.  Think of the muscles of a thoroughbred horse working at full capacity as the horse gallops.  Or think of the strenuous and sustained efforts of an athlete in competition.  Peter is not just asking Christians to be pleasant to one another; he is speaking of how much we need each other.

In this paragraph, Peter gives us three “one another” instructions to help us understand how much we need each other:

1. We need each other’s grace. In verse 8, he urges them to “love one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins.” Of course, some sins should not simply be covered over.  Sometimes the most loving thing to do is to graciously confront the sin of a fellow believer.  Sometimes a sin is so significant that you should inform the authorities.  But here, Peter is speaking about ongoing, every day, frequent annoyances. 

Think about a group of children gathering in a minibus for a day at the seaside.  They will be full of energy and excitement.  They will probably tolerate annoying pokes and name calling from their friends in this state – every comment will be met with laughter and joy.  But fast forward to the evening when they all clamber back into the minibus, exhausted and emotionally fraught.  Now the slightest poke in the ribs, a crossed word from a friend, or another tiny thing might provoke tears and tension.  As adults, we are often more drained by life than delighted.  How easily Christians can aggravate one another.  That is why we need one another’s grace.

Eugene Peterson translated the underlying thought in Proverbs 10:12 like this: “Hatred starts fights, but love pulls a quilt over the bickering.”

 2. We need each other’s generosity.  In verse 9, Peter goes on, “Show hospitality to one another without grumbling.” We tend to think of hospitality in the New Testament as an essential support to the church’s missionary work.  Travel inns were expensive and dangerous, so finding a place to stay with fellow believers was a vital feature of the Gospel’s spread.  However, in this verse, Peter is speaking of hospitality to “one another.” Maybe this is less about helping travelling missionaries and more about supporting one another in the local community of believers.

After more than a year of restrictions and lockdowns, some of us are appreciating the blessing of being in each other’s homes more than ever.  Let us never take for granted the gift that it is to share a meal with fellow believers.  It is not about the performance of the chef or the presentation of a picture-perfect house.  We are not auditioning for a magazine.  We are a family that needs each other.

Sometimes, the gift of time, practical support, and fellowship can make the difference between making it through a challenging season and not making it through.  We need each other’s generosity.

3. We need each other’s gifting.  In verse 10, Peter adds one more “one another” to the paragraph: “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace.” God designed the body of Christ to be interdependent.  We need the gifts that others have.  Some gifts are more visible and up-front, while others are more behind-the-scenes and play a support role.  We need each other.

The gifting may be different for one who preaches and one who sets up the facility, but both are intimately connected to God.  The speaker speaks the words of God.  The server works with the strength God supplies.  And whatever type of gift we have, God is at work amongst us as we benefit from one another’s spiritual gifts.

Whether we are living in a time of relative comfort and ease or a time of growing antagonism and complexity, the reality is that we all need each other.  It is an incredible blessing to be part of a local family of believers.  As we love one another earnestly, we will benefit from each other’s grace, generosity and gifting.  And the impact of all this will be a blessing for us, a powerful witness to a fragmented watching world, and glory to God.

What would it look like if you earnestly loved the people in your church family this week?

The Cost of Diversity

It is such a wonderful thing to look around a church and see the diversity of people that make up the body of Christ.  People from different backgrounds, with different stories.  Some seem to be likely participants in a church; others seem most unlikely! 

One person might say, “I was raised in a Christian home,” but next to them will be someone who might say, “I never went to church until recently.” Someone might say, “You would not believe what I used to be like,” while another will say, “I always thought I was a good person.” The church is a beautiful blend of backgrounds, personalities, cultures, and stories.

In Acts 16, Paul and Silas traveled through Turkey on the second missionary journey recorded in the book. Eventually, they arrived at the coast, and God directed them to cross over into Europe.  We are thankful they did!  Their first stop was Philippi.

In Philippi, we are introduced to three people who encountered the transformational power of the love of God.  In just these three people, we get a glimpse of the diversity to come as God builds the church in Europe. And there is also a challenge for us.

The first person we read about is Lydia.  She seems to have been a successful businesswoman from what we read of her home town and her trade (purple cloth).  Paul met her at the prayer gathering beside the river.  (If there weren’t ten Jewish men in the town, then there could not be a formal synagogue, so this gathering was the informal equivalent of a synagogue.)  We read that Lydia was already a worshipper of the Lord.  It is hard to imagine someone easier to reach with the Gospel!

In reality, even religious people who know the Bible are not easy to reach.  The text reminds us that it is always a miracle when someone accepts Christ because, we are told, “The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul.”  Lydia was a person with a successful life and a genuine interest in God.  What a blessing it is to have this kind of person before us in ministry.  Still, let us remember to pray that the Lord will open their hearts – otherwise, the story will always end very differently!

The second person we read about is the slave girl.  This girl must have had a horrible life.  She was a slave, used by her owners for her demonic powers.  The brief glimpse we get of her in this passage shows that she seemed to be a genuine inconvenience to Paul.  Thankfully, God delivered her from the evil spirit.  We don’t know what happened next, as the story swiftly moves on.  It doesn’t seem unreasonable to imagine believers like Lydia taking care of her.

Europe still has many people that we might find inconvenient, in comparison to the Lydias.  So many people in our continent bring with them a lifetime of brokenness and baggage.  Reaching them might feel more like a spiritual power encounter than a pleasant conversation about spiritual things over a cup of coffee.  And discipling them will always be more complicated for the church.  What a blessing it is to have this kind of person before us in ministry. Let’s pray for eyes to see the broken and the hurting around us. Let’s pray for God’s power to set them free and change their story!

The third person we read about is the jailer.  This man was probably a retired Roman soldier who had served his twenty years and was now responsible for the local prison in this colony.  He was perhaps a hardened man who had seen a lot and was now content to live with his family and experience as little trouble as possible.  This man would be hard to reach.  Thankfully, God knew how to get through this man’s hard exterior and capture his heart.

Reaching this jailer proved to be a costly experience for Paul and Silas.  They were seized, dragged before the authorities and tried by a mob.  They were stripped, humiliated and beaten with rods.  Then their wounded backs were probably pressed against a wall as their feet were put in stocks by the jailer—a horrible few hours, and perhaps a lifetime of scarring to show for it.  Perhaps the jailer heard the Gospel from them as he locked them up.  Maybe he lay in bed wondering what they had to sing about.  And perhaps he had just drifted off when the earthquake shook him awake! Sure that they would have escaped, he prepared to end his life to save the higher Roman authorities the task.  But then Paul called out and brought him into the jail.  They were all still there, after all.  And at that moment, the jailer was turned spiritually upside-down!

If God could release a slave girl from demonic oppression, why did God not do another mighty miracle in the town square and impress everyone with his power?  Why all this suffering for Paul and Silas?  God could have sent a bolt of lightning down during the day, but instead, he waited and sent the earthquake that night.  Why?  Because that hardened jailer perhaps would have joined the crowds and prostrated himself before a display of God’s power, in fear and trembling, grovelling before this foreign god.  Yet God’s goal was not to show his power but to demonstrate his love. 

As the jailer stood before Paul and Silas, he discovered that their suffering was not under compulsion.  They chose to stay in that cell.  Their suffering was somehow voluntary.  That blew the circuits of his hard old heart.  Maybe this is what they meant when they spoke and sang about Jesus willingly suffering for sinners like him!

We should praise God for the diversity of people brought together in the body of Christ.  The “successful” people like Lydia, the people with lots of baggage like the slave girl, and the hardened veterans like the jailer.  Some might seem easier to lead to Christ – praise God when they are!  Some are more inconvenient to rescue and disciple.  And some will cost us a great deal of suffering to reach.

There is an actual cost to make the diverse body of Christ possible.  But ultimately, that cost is not ours, but Christ’s.  He suffered voluntarily to reach the hardest of hearts.  If we keep our eyes on him as we walk whatever path God sets before us, then maybe we can be like Paul and Silas. Perhaps we will also sing hymns of praise as we get the opportunity to represent the voluntary suffering love of God’s heart.

Wanted: Expository Preaching Advocates

Expository preaching is a label that comes with baggage in many churches. And yet it is exactly what our churches need for health. And healthy Bible-preaching churches are what our culture needs for the gospel to spread. Personally I don’t care whether the label is used or not, but I care deeply whether expository preaching happens or not. And if you are willing to take on a role without a label for your LinkedIn profile, consider being an Expository Preaching Advocate.

1. It helps to understand the source of the negativity. A lot of people who are critical of expository preaching have never actually experienced a good example of it. Just like children who refuse something they’ve never tasted, they can be quite determined in their negativity. Especially when they are convinced that they have tried it before. They may be thinking of irrelevant historical lectures they heard in the past. Or perhaps tedious verse-by-verse explanations from a more studious visiting preacher. Whatever the source of negativity in their particular experience, it will help you to know what the issue is in your specific situation. Is it past experience, or present? Is it the perceived irrelevance, or the boredom of predictability, or a feeling of intellectualism?

2. It really helps to know what you are promoting. Expository preaching is not a specific style of preaching. It is not about length of passage, number of points, type of structure, or even tone of preaching. It is really a set of controlling values and commitments. It starts with recognising that God is a wonderfully effective communicator. It is built on the foundational thought that no matter how well you can communicate or how clever you are, you cannot make the Bible say something better than God made it say. Expository preaching is about a commitment to the effective communication of the true meaning and contemporary relevance of biblical text or texts.

If the label “expository preaching” carries too much baggage, why not switch over to “biblical preaching” – Haddon Robinson made that label switch, and I have tended to follow that same path.

3. It also helps to know to whom you are promoting it. Is there a general resistance in the congregation that can be won over by some effective preaching? Or is there a key person resisting change and maintaining the status quo? Maybe that resister is the current senior pastor, or perhaps it is a powerful and wealthy person of influence. You need to think carefully and pray much when you want to bring change to a church.

4. Prayerfully formulate a promotion plan. What goes into a plan to promote change in a church? Lots of prayer. You might think enthusiasm for your subject and in a sense, yes that is important. But many a good plan has been derailed by passion for a soapbox. Make sure you add in submission to those in authority, love and encouragement for those who preach, support for the wider ministry of the church, good example, etc. And then prayerfully consider the seeds you can plant: a carefully chosen book given as a gift, or recommended; a suggestion of a podcast; an invitation to attend a conference together; or a fully prayed through gracious suggestion, etc.

5. Be patient, but promote positively. Self-appointed church changers often blow their influence by pushing too hard and too fast. Don’t be negative. Criticism and complaining are easy, but they don’t fix things. Patiently and prayerfully implement a God-honouring plan. If you preach, humbly offer the very best example that you can. Look for opportunities to mentor and multiply others. Whether you preach or not, seek to promote biblical preaching – not a certain type of preaching, but a set of values and commitments that are desperately needed in our churches and in our world today.

What have you found helpful in promoting Biblical Preaching?

How Long to Prepare a Sermon?

A good sermon should leave people thinking about God rather than how long it took you to prepare it, but still, the question does arise. Some people have a very definite view on how long sermon preparation should take: a certain number of hours for a certain length of sermon. In reality, life is not so simple. Here are several factors to keep in mind:

A. A shorter sermon may take longer to prepare. We can’t just say it takes an hour for every minute of sermon, or whatever. In reality I can preach an hour long sermon fairly easily, but a twelve minute sermon takes much more effort to craft.

B. Every sermon is different. One passage may be effectively new ground for me to study, while another passage may be very familiar from previous teaching and preaching ministry. One congregation may feel straightforward, while another, or the same one on another week, may feel like a minefield of potential traps to carefully navigate.

C. It is impossible to measure the pre-study. I might take however many hours to work on a message for this Sunday. But what about the time I took on the same passage some years ago? What about the years of life experience and study of other related passages? What about the years I spent in the classroom laying a foundation of understanding? There really is a lifetime feeding into any sermon.

D. No preacher lives in a vacuum. Real life happens, which means preparation is never predictable. Even if you plan well, the realities and crises of church, family and home have a habit of crowding in anyway. There will be times when we all have to stand and preach with a profound sense of preparation deficit (and that is not something that it generally helps to broadcast in your introduction).

I suppose it is worth asking the question: who is asking the question?

If a listener has appreciated the sermon and is interested, figure out how to accept the encouragement of their appreciation and turn the focus back onto the object of your sermon. Don’t let your ego jump into the conversation and hold centre stage. It really isn’t about you, is it?

If a church is asking the question because they want to know what is appropriate to give by way of reimbursement for time invested, then perhaps ponder these quick thoughts: (1) Preaching has cost the preacher, so reimburse generously. (2) If you are unable to reimburse generously, rest assured that all good preachers are motivated by serving God rather than gaining income (but it might be kind to be honest with them ahead of time – they do have bills to pay too). (3) If the preacher is asking about how much they will receive, or setting a fee, usually this indicates something is not right. Be wary. (4) If you are worried about being too generous, remember that the preacher can always give excess funds away (and if you don’t trust them to be good stewards of money, why are you letting them near the pulpit anyway?) You probably don’t withhold business from an optometrist, a plumber, or a surgeon in case they end up with too much, so why hesitate to be generous with a preacher?

If a preacher is asking the question about time, then I am hesitant to give a definitive answer. What if he simply can’t dedicate the time that I can? What if he needs to dedicate longer to be ready? Here is a simple two-part answer:

1. As much time as it takes – to prayerfully select a passage, study the passage in context, determine passage purpose and idea, then evaluate congregation, define message purpose, craft the message idea, design the preaching strategy (outline) and fill in the details, then also prayerfully preach through the message a few times.  Realistically that could add up to quite a bit of time.

2. As much time as you have – You must take into account the reality of life: ministry pressures, other responsibilities, leaking pipes, family illnesses, hospital visits with your injured child, late night crisis counseling with dear friends in marital meltdown, and so on.  God knows about these things and perhaps sometimes allows them to keep us from trusting in our preparation routine.  If you procrastinate preparation and only take a couple of hours, that’s between you and the Lord (in which case, repent and get things right before moving forward!)  But if life hits and you honestly only have limited time, God surely knows and will carry you through.

One thing that I know from many thousands of hours of sermon preparation over the years. It may be a struggle, even a battle at times, but every moment is a privilege.

Endurance

We all knew this would be a long and difficult winter.  The COVID-19 global crisis did not end quickly last spring, and so we knew this winter would be challenging.  The pandemic is discouraging, the various government lockdowns many of us are living under are draining, and even when we look beyond the health news, the rest of what is going on is not uplifting.  As it says in Hebrews 10:26 – “You have need of endurance.”

When I was in school, I enjoyed all of the sports except for cross-country running.  It was a miserable experience.  It was lonely, it was uncomfortable, and it was disheartening.  I could not understand anyone enjoying that weekly run around the perimeter of the school grounds.

Fast forward almost thirty years and I began to find myself enjoying the odd Park Run.  I am no runner, by any stretch of the imagination, but the Park Run event was different.  This weekly global event resulted in hundreds of people gathering together on a Saturday morning to run the standard 5km in my local park.  The community feel meant that everyone encouraged everyone else.  And at strategic locations on the course there were the Park Run marshals, smiling volunteers in high-visibility vests that would clap and encourage us to keep going.

In our church, we have said that we want this winter to feel more like a Park Run than my cross-country experience from school days.  It will be a difficult season either way, but it need not be miserable, lonely, and disheartening.  As believers we have each other, and we need each other, to encourage us to keep pressing on through a difficult season.  And as believers we also need the Park Run marshals: strategically placed personal encouragement for the race that is marked out for us.  So, each Sunday, our church has heard from a book of the Bible offering that special encouragement to keep on going, like a strategically located Park Run marshal.

Here are three quick encouragements to help us during this difficult time:

  1. God the Father understands our need for encouragement.  In Romans 15:5 he is called the God of endurance and encouragement.  Just before that, Paul refers to how God invests in our endurance through the encouragement of Scripture.  God is an active participant in the challenges we face and he wants to help us.
  1. God the Son knows exactly how we feel in tough times.  We are not asked to run a race that God has not run already.  So, in Hebrews 12:1-2 it says that we have a race marked out for us, but it also says we run it while looking to Jesus, who has already run his race and sat down at the right hand of the Father.  Our forerunner, our champion, is Jesus – the one who has first run and suffered for us.
  1. God the Spirit is given to us – exactly what we need when we are exhausted.  In John 14-16, Jesus speaks to his disciples at a time when they are discouraged, drained, fearful, and concerned for the future.  Jesus points them to knowing the Father and to their need to remain connected with the Son.  What’s more, Jesus makes it clear that they are to receive another Helper, the Holy Spirit, for their difficult days to come.  In Romans, when Paul talks about suffering and the need for hope, he then goes on to speak of the help and empowerment of the Spirit (see Romans 5:5; 8:26ff, 15:13, etc.)

The Father, the Son, and the Spirit are all active participants in our lives this winter.  The world will tell us to look within and to find in ourselves the resolute fortitude to keep pressing on.  This is simply not enough.  Maybe the world can give a taste of the mutual support that a community can offer in tough times.  But what the world cannot give is the unique reality of fellowship with the Trinity. 

Yes, in Romans 5, we are called to persevere in the midst of suffering, knowing that our suffering produces endurance, and character, and hope.  But this is not just a passage telling us to dig deeper and hang in there.  Immediately, in verse 5, Paul reinforces this endurance by referencing the active participation of the Spirit inside us.

In that upper room, in John 14-16, Jesus urges his disciples to obey him and live for him in the difficult days ahead.  But Jesus does not give a team talk that is full of enthusiasm and motivation, but with no practical help.  Jesus points them to the participation of the Trinity in their experience, and at the beginning, middle, and end of that section he urges them to do the most logical thing of all in turbulent times: to ask.  Ask God for help.  Ask God according to his will.  Ask God when the world hates you.  Ask.

We cannot get through 2021 alone, but God does not ask us to get through it alone.  Instead, we are encouraged to get through it together: together with other believers, and together with God. 

Maybe 2021 will be a year that stretches some of us in ways we have never been stretched before.  Let’s pray that the challenges of 2021 will push us up close against God.  May this be a year when we learn to lean on God as never before.  May this be a year when we learn to pray to God as never before.  And may this be a year when our strength to endure obviously comes not from within us, but from someone who is at work in and through us.

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Here is a clip from an interview with Neil Todman, pastor of Headley Park Church in Bristol. See video description for information on how to access the full interview.

6 Questions About Illustrations

Good preachers make illustration look effortless, but for most of us it can be a real struggle. Here are a few questions that I find helpful:

1. What’s the purpose of your illustration? Too many preachers default to simply adding in illustrations because there hasn’t been one for a few paragraphs, or because they think they should. It works much better to define your purpose. At this point in the message will your listeners be needing explanation to clarify the point you are making? Or will they need support to prove the point? Or perhaps application to picture themselves applying the point? Generally it is better to identify what you are trying to achieve and you will probably achieve it more successfully. Explain, prove, apply . . . or perhaps give a break in the intensity to allow them to re-group. Decide what is needed and then you are more likely to find it.

2. Are you relying on their knowledge, or does it touch their experience? People will always connect more with what they have experienced than what they know. People are more likely to remember cross-country running at school than have experience of running in the Olympics. They know what it feels like to get stuck in traffic, but probably not what it feels like to step out of a spacecraft. Instead of going for the more exotic, consider if more mundane might connect better.

3.  Have they experienced it, or are they simply having to hear about yours? The best illustrative material tends to be experienced by both speaker and listener. It is easy for you to describe and easy for them to imagine. If this isn’t possible, then consider whether you can do the learning and speak of what they know personally, rather than always asking them to imagine what you have experienced personally. It won’t always be possible, but worth the effort when you can.

4. Are you falling into the laziest and weakest forms of illustration? There are plenty of illustrations that fall outside your experience and knowledge, and their experience and knowledge. The illustration anthologies are full of them. Obscure anecdotes and clever quotes from yesteryear. Wartime speeches, heroic moments, distant pithy quotes. Generally speaking these will seem far more effective on paper than they do in actual preaching. At the very least, can I suggest that if you love this kind of illustration then at least try to balance these with something more immediate and normal? (You may love your 1950’s football stories, or WWI trench poetry, but your listeners may not be so enthused.)

It takes work to illustrate well. Sometimes we have to go with something weaker than we’d prefer. That is preaching. But let’s try to do the best we can. (And tomorrow I will share the final two questions…)