Why Return to Church In Person?

I have friends in places where the church is now able to meet again.  Here we are able to have small groups gathering for home groups (limited in number, and only outdoors).  Eventually we will be able to meet on Sundays as a whole church.  But even then, there will be limitations and hassle – social distancing measures, some restrictions, some unable to meet because of heightened personal vulnerability.  It is going to feel complicated for quite a while!

So, after months of “meeting” online, or even just watching some elements of church services online, we have all grown accustomed to a much freer Sunday.  It has become normal to just tune in on a Sunday, or if anything else is going on, to not bother at all without anyone knowing.  And most churches will presumably continue to livestream in some way because some people can’t be there in person.  So why return to church and meet in person if possible?

I was thinking about this and then saw David Gundersen’s article on the Crossway site giving 10 reasons to return to church.  His reasons are: we’re embodied creatures, the church is one body, the Spirit is drawing us, we’re a spiritual family, preaching is a sacred moment, there’s nothing like singing together, we need baptisms and communion, you have a job to do, our worship is a witness, and greetings change lives.

Without repeating too many of those good reasons, here are 5 more reasons to meet, in person if possible, from me:

1. To let your shepherds shepherd you.  I think I can speak for most in church leadership when I say that we have been trying, but it is much harder to care for people you can’t meet.  So we have been praying for you, trying to stay in contact with you, and learning how to put elements of church online for you.  But we’ve also discovered even more keenly how hard it is to shepherd without the regular interactions of normal church life.  That is where little conversations and interactions allow people to notice when each other are struggling, or just “not themselves.”  Meeting in person if possible is key to knowing where to pour pastoral energy.

2. To play your part in building the body of Christ.  What is true for those in pastoral positions of responsibility is true for us all.  Your brothers and sisters at church need you to care, encourage, ask questions, greet, smile, check in, share life, and every other aspect of lively fellowship.  A normal Sunday may not seem spectacular, but just as others can make a difference in your life, so you make a difference in theirs.

3. To show yourself who you are.  I’m not sure how to write this one, but let me try.  You can say you belong to Jesus and are trusting Him for your salvation and with your eternity.  But if active in person participation in the body of Christ becomes an option again, but instead you would rather be less inconvenienced and just watch a bit of church online, or maybe not at all … what are you really declaring to yourself?  I’m trying not to move into guilt trip zone and twist your arm to be there because you should.  I just mean what are you saying to yourself?  We are all capable of self-justifying with the “I can worship God just as much on a walk in the woods or in my living room at home as I can at church” type of statements.  But do you?  Maybe it would be healthier to be honest with ourselves, “I love Jesus and his people a bit, but I love my own comfort and this TV show more.”

Drifting spiritually is a danger for us all and being honest about it is much more helpful.  The red hot coal soon cools off when separated from the fire.  Maybe you have decided you aren’t trusting Christ for salvation any more and don’t want to be part of his people after all – that is desperately sad, but say so, say it so you can hear it yourself and make sure you are settled on that course.  Don’t just drift and deny you are drifting – that is such a rubbish way to go.  And if you aren’t giving up on Christ, then jump back into in person church when you can – its actually only a small statement to yourself in the big scheme, but it is an important one.

4. To reconnect with family.  Your church may have handled the lockdown differently.  We have combined livestreaming with some Zoom gatherings.  But some people really struggle with Zoom for various reasons.  You may not have interacted with those choosing to only view the church service elements for months.  In person if possible will be a family reunion.  You are part of the family and it will be precious to be together.

5. Because the Bible knows nothing of solitary religion.  John Wesley said that and he was right.  As you read through Acts and the epistles you will see reference after reference that assume ‘in person if possible’ is the context for church life and health.  Lockdown hasn’t changed that.

7 Quick Ways To Improve Your Preaching

Sometimes a quick change can make a big difference.  Let’s say you drive your car with the handbrake only partially released.  Release it properly and your driving will immediately improve.  Here are 7 quick fixes to markedly improve your preaching.

1. Stop excessive cross-referencing.

There are lots of reasons we cross reference with other passages, but not many good reasons.  I tend to think that reinforcing a point as biblical when it seems unlikely, or clarifying the background of a text quoted in your text are two of the good reasons to jump out of your passage.  But some of the bad reasons?  To fill time.  Because that’s what other preachers do.  To show off knowledge.  Because older listeners expect it.  These are not good reasons.  I remember someone saying that too much cross-referencing confuses younger Christians because they can’t follow along, and it causes older Christians to sin because it feeds their pride.  There are reasons to cross-reference, but remove the excess and your preaching will improve.

2. Stop excessively quoting scholars.

Adept transitioning between the insights of various commentaries can be like good gear changes in driving.  Referencing every scholar along the way makes those gears crunch.  Generally, it is worth asking what is added by naming the scholar?  If you use particularly specific wording and the name of the scholar is helpful, then by all means name them.  Otherwise generally decide between preaching without any reference, and making a vague reference…”One book I was reading put it like this…” (Remember, people can always ask for your sources, even though they almost never do.)  There is no requirement that you identify three commentaries and include a Spurgeon quote in every sermon.

3. Stop meandering.

Listeners will listen gripped by well organized and well-presented material.  But listeners can also spot meandering and filler like a dog can sniff meat.  Don’t look at your notes and assume it will come out ok when you are preaching.  It is much better to preach it through and make sure it can come out of your mouth and not just look good on paper.  Meandering transitions, conclusions and even whole points are counterproductive.  And with decent preparation, they are really unnecessary.

I will continue the list tomorrow, but what would you add?

5 Post-Lockdown Regrets

The initial novelty of lockdown has worn off.  Now people are settling into this new normal and understandably longing for it to end.  Pastorally we are probably being drawn to people suffering with grief, loneliness, marital difficulties, financial hardship or mental health struggles.  But even those who seem to be doing well need to be shepherded.

What regrets can we all anticipate already and pre-empt with changes now?

Lockdown initially stirred feelings of concern and uncertainty at levels that are rare for most of us.  Some commented about how helpful this time could be, and how they don’t want to come out of lockdown without being changed in the process.  Now as we settle into the rhythm of it, that internal sense of having our world shaken may start to fade.

As I spoke with a good friend yesterday, we were pondering how lockdown does not create new spiritual or emotional issues for us.  It is the kind of pressure that merely reveals issues more blatantly.  So now is a good time to anticipate how we will feel coming out of lockdown.  Why?  Because now we still have time to make adjustments.

Some will emerge grieving.  The very nature of the pandemic means that many will lose loved ones during these weeks.  If you have not lost anyone yet, don’t just cross your fingers and hope you won’t.  As Christians we can do more than just avoid spreading the virus.  Be sure to get close to the One you will need when death does strike closer to home.

Some will miss the simplicity of lockdown.  I don’t think this is as simple as extroverts craving interaction while introverts love pottering around at home, although there may be some truth to be found there.  So much of life is stripped away right now that some people are discovering joy in time with family, or in time spent in the garden/yard, etc.  For some who emerge untouched by personal grief, the lockdown may well be remembered fondly.

But many will emerge saddened by missed opportunity.  I don’t mean the missed opportunities in “normal life” that we are missing by being at home.  I mean the unique opportunity this time is presenting to us, but that we may miss.  How much time are we not spending travelling, commuting, running errands, watching sport, participating in activities outside of work, church ministries, etc.?  And for those furloughed from work – how many hours a week does that add?  When does life ever present us with extra tens of hours in a week, for week after week?  How easily those cumulative hours have already filled with other things!

Here are five post-lockdown regrets to anticipate and act on now:

1. Bible time.  In the busy swirl of “normal” how often do we say, “I was just too busy to read my Bible”…?  Don’t emerge from lockdown saying “Actually, I regret to announce that I have discovered I just don’t have any real appetite for what God has to say.”

2. Prayer time. Again, normal life can so easily squeeze out times of extended prayer, or even any prayer at all.  But with hours added to our weeks, are we finding ourselves to be Daniels normally thwarted by the modern world, or actually just not very prayerful?  That too can be changed now.

3. Fears Revealed But Unaddressed. So much of “normal” life and busy activity insulates us against deeper feelings like fear – we are often simply too distracted.  Don’t emerge from lockdown simply having discovered a fear of death, or of change, or of financial lack, or whatever, but without having gone to God for help to process that fear.

4. Being a Taker More Than a Giver.  “Normal life” may have filled your week so full that one volunteer role at church felt like you were giving a lot.  Don’t emerge from lockdown and realize that you did even less during these weeks.  Inhaling multiple series of a show on Netflix is no achievement.  If you only consume, it will feel empty.  What can you do for others, now?  Practical help?  Prayerful support?  Personal encouragement?  Pastoral concern? (That also applies on social media – don’t just moan personally or politically, don’t simply purvey time-wasting opportunities, instead look for ways to build others up.)

5. Idols Still Standing.  God has stripped away so many things that may have stood as idols in our lives, even without us realising it.  Are you craving clothes shopping, or live sport, or travel, or hobbies, or socialising?  Maybe this lockdown is letting us see the flashing lights of warning on our personal dashboard.  When lockdown ends, will we hold these privileges with a looser grip and more gratitude toward God for every blessing?  Or will we rush to bow at the feet of our dear missed idols that could and should have been smashed during this unique time?

Feel free to add more to this list of anticipated regrets we can adjust now.  The bottom line is really this: Some will look back on lockdown with a deep sense of regret at having missed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to grow closer to God.

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Here is the latest video playlist … Bible highlights from 2 Corinthians:

And a short sermon highlight that may be encouraging (originally preached several weeks before lockdown began, but increasingly relevant)…

7 Ways Our World Has Changed, But God Hasn’t

We are gradually coming to terms with the massive changes that have gripped our world in the last few weeks.  I have written about 7 temptations we will face in isolation, 7 spheres in which we should be confident in God’s Word during this time, and 7 tips for preaching online.

Now, here are 7 changes that we should pray through at this time:

1. New restrictions on travel– My calendar has suddenly cleared for several months. It used to be so easy to jump in the car and drive, or to book a flight and visit another country.  Hopefully this restriction will ease in time, but let’s not simply focus on what we are missing.  God remains omnipresent, even if our attempts to be omnipresent are thwarted.  Maybe this change can stir us to pray more fervently for situations we would love to influence, and to be more present where God has put us (our families are our primary ministry, after all).

2. New humility in plans– Will we be able to hold that conference next year? Will we be able to fulfil that preaching commitment in October?  We don’t know. We don’t know what tomorrow will bring.  So we ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will … do this or that.” (James 4:13-17) God knows what is coming; He always has, and we never have.  Maybe this can stir a greater humility in us all, even when restrictions ease.

3. New uncertainty of life– What James writes in 4:13-17 includes reference to our lives being like a vanishing mist:  “If the Lord wills, we will liveand do this or that.”  When this crisis started, so much was said about only the over-70s or people with underlying health issues dying from COVID-19.  Somehow many people felt relieved, until they started to think about who that might include.  Now we are hearing more stories of younger, healthy people dying from it.  In actuality, death has always been a real and present threat for us all, even before this crisis. And God has always been God.  We may well be immortal until His work for us on earth is finished, but it probably doesn’t hurt us to feel our mortality more and to let that drive us to our knees.

4. New concerns about money– Will we be able to survive these next weeks?  Will our income disappear?  Will government help be enough?  Will our countries recover after this?  The certainty we felt financially just a few weeks ago has evaporated for many of us.  Whether we have a stable salary, or live on completely unpredictable support from others, let’s remember that God is our provider.  He always was, and He has not changed.  Our lives may change.  Our fervency in prayer may change.  But remember John 21, when the disciples were getting used to the fact that everything had changed for them following the death and resurrection of the soon departing Jesus, and then Jesus cooked them a breakfast of bread and fish beside the Sea of Galilee …I provided miraculously when we fed the 5000 here, and I continue to provide for you now.

5. New recognition of need in our churches– I remember a few weeks ago when I could say, “Things are going well in our church … of course there are one or two difficult situations, but generally things are going well.”  Seems like a long time ago now.  Now every family unit that I think about is facing threat of death, loss of income, no work or overwhelming work, marital tensions, parenting complexities, loneliness, etc.  God has always seen our need as it really is.  Maybe this crisis is making vivid to us all just how needy the flock of God’s people really are.  Perhaps this insight should go with us as we carry our people before God in prayer, whatever a future newfound cultural complacency may suggest.  Our people need God.  So we pray.

6. New feelings of restriction and inadequacy in ministry– As the five previous changes hit us, we realise not only the difficulties of those we serve, but also our own inadequacy to really help.  We don’t even have regular church meetings for face-to-face fellowship and those opportunities to sense that someone isn’t doing so well.  As people who minister to others, we should be feeling a profound sense of inadequacy at this time.  We can’t protect anybody from the virus (although we can help by not breaking government guidelines).  We can’t financially carry every situation in our church (although we are called to stand together and share what we have).  We can’t do the job of doctors, nurses, vital delivery drivers, etc. (although we can support them in prayer and encouragement).  We are significantly limited.  But our God is not.  He never was.  He hasn’t changed.  Our experience has just clarified to us that we are not God.

7. New awareness of gospel need all around –Remember when people were comfortable, secure, invincible, and happy in their hobbies?  Now we are surrounded by people with a genuine fear of death, combined with genuine concerns about how they will provide for their families in the coming months.  Our continent is humbled.  And we are stuck in isolation with some restrictions on spreading the gospel.  But God’s Word is not chained.  Over the garden fence, through the internet, by phone call … the good news of Jesus has always flourished most in times of real struggle.  God has faithfully carried His people through pestilence, plague, persecution, and war all through history. And all through history it has been the most difficult times that have led to the greatest growth in the church.  It feels like we are living a key moment in history right now – may it be a key moment in the history of church growth too!

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During this Coronavirus crisis I have started making short Bible reading highlight videos. If you find these helpful, please share them with others.  Thanks.

Expectation and Preaching

Somebody has said that we tend to over-estimate what can be achieved by our next sermon, but we under-estimate what can be achieved through the next five years of faithful preaching.

Here are some thoughts on expectation and preaching:

1. If our confidence is in anything other than Jesus, then our expectations are too high.  It doesn’t matter how well you have prepared, how well you know the passage, how on target the message feels for people in the congregation, etc.  We all have to fight the perennial temptation to trust in something other than Christ for the fruit in our ministry.

2. High expectation tends to lead to disappointment, but maybe it is better to have high expectations anyway. There are nuances to these things, but generally speaking it seems to take a toll to preach with high expectations.  Gradually preachers settle into a safer zone of not expecting too much so that they don’t feel too drained by regular disappointment.  But if having high expectation comes from, or leads to, more prayer for the people and for the occasion, then maybe it is worth the negative cost involved.  Maybe climbing back up again each week and choosing to trust Christ and preach again is worth it.

3. Other factors will influence your internal levels of expectation.  You may be drained from interrupted nights, or pastoral crises, or criticsm, or spiritual warfare, etc.  And there will be seasons where you struggle to expect much at all.  At these times it may be the best you can offer to simply keep going by faith.  (Of course, there may also be a need to seek help, be vulnerable, take a sabbatical, adjust your diet, start exercising or whatever might be needed – simply plodding on is not always the faithful next step – ask God and others for wisdom.)

4. Praise God that it is his ministry and not yours.  There will be times when you are fired up to launch a revival and instead your sermon falls as flat as a paper plane in torrential rain.  God knows what he is doing when he humbles us.  There will also be times when we feel like we have nothing to give and are shocked to find out that God uses us mightily in those meager moments.  God is God and we are not, let’s be sure to be good with that!

What do you experience when it comes to levels of expectation relating to your preaching ministry?

5 Aspects of Feeding the Flock

One of the main responsibilities of the shepherds of a local church is to feed the flock.  What does this involve?

1. A biblical diet, not a provision of pastoral personality – Some pulpits have degenerated into a weekly opportunity for the flock to enjoy the pastor’s eloquence or humour.  He may be a godly man, an inspiring man, a kind man, or whatever, but his job is to point the flock to the Word of God, not his own brand of pious oratory.

2. A consistent diet, not a sporadic scattering of random teaching – Some churches receive an incredibly inconsistent diet – some from the same preacher who shifts and changes with the wind, others from multiple speakers who visit to preach but can never lead.  It is good for a preacher to include variety and to keep learning.  It is good for guest speakers to be used judiciously by a church leadership.  But if the net effect of either approach is an inconsistent diet, then the flock will not be properly fed (and the flock will also not trust the church to be a safe place for bringing guests – an important side effect of inconsistency!)

3. A cumulative diet, not a hodge-podge of unordered repetition – Some churches get to digest a diet that has no cumulative structure.  That is, each Sunday the pastor or varied speakers offer whatever they feel led to bring on that Sunday.  Again, there is place for space in the schedule – buffer weeks to allow for teaching that was unplanned months before but is on target in the moment.  However, when churches lean too much into this approach what they end up getting is not a balanced diet, but an overload of certain favourite subjects and passages.  Repetition can become the name of the game.

4. A healthy diet, not a toxic overload of fast food entertainment – Listeners love to have itching ears scratched with entertainment, experience and surface level applicational teaching.  The shepherds of a church need to recognize that the sheep may not know what is best for their diet.  Too much sugar will poison a person, and too little healthy teaching will do profound damage to a church.

5. A Christ-focused diet, not a pseudo-Christian selection of self-help nibbles – Building on the previous point, people love to nibble on self-help top-tips wrapped in Bible stories and garnished with proof texts.  However, if the preacher is pointing listeners to themselves, to their efforts, to their application, to their discipline, then that preacher is not primarily pointing people to Christ.  The preaching may feel very churchy, but is it actually Christian?

Feeding the flock is an important responsibility.  Let’s look at our own preaching, as well as the preaching plan for our churches.  Let’s prayerfully consider whether we are offering health to our listeners.  Like a good parent you won’t be able to serve up a feast at every meal, but you will look to offer health at every opportunity.

Pride and the Preacher

One of the greatest problems for preachers is pride.  It is an insidious and relentless foe that will look to creep in at every stage of a life spent in ministry.  What might we be proud about?

1. Knowledge.  The preacher is a public speaker who is seen as an expert.  Whether you have a PhD in theology or have simply studied a couple of resources, your listeners will tend to perceive you as an expert.  And while knowledge is not a bad thing, what does knowledge do?  It puffs up.

2. Ability.  Whether it is spiritual gifting, or natural charisma, or learned skill, preaching involves some ability in public speaking – something many people dread deeply.  Thus, there will be countless opportunities for pride as we speak to others.

3. Position.  It may be elevation on a 12-inch podium before less than a dozen listeners, or it may be a prized pulpit for years on end, but pride in position is always knocking at the door of our hearts.  Society may not revere the Reverend anymore, but many in our churches will certainly reinforce the honour of being a guest speaker, or a pastor, or a leader, etc.

4. Influence.  Whether there is position or not, preaching implies influence.  Preachers can influence lives and how they are lived.  Preachers can influence emotions and create all sorts of churning in the hearts of our listeners.  There are guilty folks convicted, there are vulnerable folks attracted, there is plenty of potential influence, both for good or for bad.  Pride seems to be a lingering smell where influence is involved.

As well as what might be a source of pride, there are also some occasions that may provoke it:

A. When preparing.  Do I need to invest the time in textual study?  Do I need to invest the time in preparation of the sermon?  Do I need to invest the time in prayer?  Maybe old notes, or old knowledge, will see me through?  Preparation should be a season of humble study and personal application, but it can easily drift into prideful self-trust instead.

B. When criticized.  How do you feel when someone pokes a hole in your message?  What if they aren’t particularly educated?  What if they are a younger believer than you?  What if their criticism is wrong?  What if they are right?

C. When praised.  This can be worse than criticism.  The best message they’ve ever heard?  Knowledge may puff up, but what then can praise do?  Just as we need to have a plan for criticism, we also need a plan for handling praise.  Both can stir profound pride problems within the preacher.

D. When ignored.  What if your listeners sit through your message and then don’t even begin to apply it?  What if their lives continue as normal?  What if your careful study and exegesis is considered merely your opinion?  What if the follow up conversation is still just about the weather or a TV show when you have poured your life out for their benefit?

What else may stir pride in the preacher?  When else might we be vulnerable to this great enemy?

Preaching: A Platform for Ministries

When we preach we tend to think about the people sitting in front of us.  Rightly so.  Whatever the size or apparent significance of this group of listeners, they are the ones God has prepared and convened for the public preaching of His Word, and so this is a key moment.

However, that Sunday sermon is also a platform for other ministries.  Let’s consider three:

1. Your other ministries.  While we don’t want to develop prideful delusions of grandeur, it is good to consider how to be a steward of your ministry.  The best thing you could do might be to put all your energy into improving what you do as a preacher.  But you might also consider whether the work that went into that sermon might feed into a shortened recorded summary for a different audience, or a blog post, or an article, or a book chapter, or a set of tweets, or whatever.  You may not have the global reach of some famous author/speakers, but if there are some people that would benefit, why not make best use of the work you have already invested in a message?

2. Your listeners’ ministries.  The people listening to you are not just there to be blessed.  They are also there to be developed and launched in their own ministries.  How is your preaching shaping the way they handle the Bible, communicate gospel truth, trust God in their spheres of service?  While every sermon will have its primary goals that you prayerfully hope to achieve which tend to be unique to each sermon, don’t forget that there are some secondary effects that also matter – how your listeners are motivating and trained to handle the Bible, how your listeners are equipped for ministry, etc.

3. Your church’s ministries.  The sermon you preach on Sunday is not just about that slice of time and those people in their response to it.  It also sets the tone for all the other word ministries of the church.  How is the Bible treated in small groups, or taught in Sunday School, or trusted in youth ministry, or seen as relevant in counseling, or birthing spiritual conversations, etc.  Sunday’s sermon will, especially over time, set the tone for the word-based ministries of the church throughout the week – both formal and informal.

Preach to the people in front of you, but prayerfully ponder how the Sunday sermon can shape more than just that moment.

The Power of Testimony

Hearing how God has worked in a life can be very powerful.  Having someone “give their testimony” can also backfire.  Before I explain how we do testimonies in our church, here are a few of the problems that can create the tension:

1. Nerves.  Public speaking is a frightening prospect for most people.  Talking about self so overtly should be a challenge for believers.  Therefore nerves are normal.  While everyone in the audience will understand that the person feels nervous, this doesn’t change the fact that nerves can lead to losing track of the story, or saying something that is not intended, or to shifting into teaching rather than giving testimony, or to losing all awareness of time.  To stand and give a crafted testimony in a set time without reading a script takes the skill of a preacher.

2. Timekeeping.  Some will rattle through their story and be done in a fraction of the time available.  Others will barely be out of their childhood before the time is done and threaten to drift into the work week unless someone steps in.  Keeping to time is a real challenge (even preachers can struggle with this!)

3. Instructing.  So many good testimonies become awkward because the person feels some compulsion to instruct the listeners.  Where the story of God at work is so powerful, the pointed finger and some generalized imperatives are awkwardly blunt.  Once someone drifts into unplanned teaching they can make theological errors, assume something they don’t understand yet is unexplainable, make promises that their experience is how God always works, or whatever.  It can be a minefield.

And yet, despite all that can go wrong, testimonies can be so powerful.  Why?

1. They can stir worship.  Isn’t God amazing?  What a wonderful story of His faithfulness and persistent love!

2. They can generate hope.  I am not the only one who struggles like that, and they have seen God bring change, maybe there is hope for me?

3. They can foster understanding.  I had no idea they had gone through all that.  I am so glad they are now part of the family and God is still at work.

4. They can unite the church family.  I used to struggle with that person, but now I know their story I can actually celebrate God’s goodness instead of feeling so bothered by their quirks.

5. They can convict unbelievers.  Where you were, that is where I am … I need to respond to God’s convicting work in my life.

And so much more.  Testimonies can have such impact, either positively, or negatively!  Next time I will explain how we incorporate testimonies in our church – it might be helpful.

We Are Not Church Sub-Culture Guardians

This morning I was sat in a coffee shop a few hundred miles from my home country.  Behind me there were six or seven elderly men in highly animated conversation.  By highly animated I mean literally shouting over each other and gesticulating wildly.  They were not in a conflict, they were in a normal Saturday morning conversation.

This would have been completely normal for a local observer, but for me as a foreigner it was highly fascinating.  Each culture has its own set of “normal” behaviours and values which will feel anything but normal to an outsider.

Another feature of this visit is the number of conversations I have been involved in that relate to church tensions. To the insiders, each conversation has reflected what they might call deeply held biblical convictions.  To my outsider ears, each conversation has reflected deeply held cultural values.  Of course, you can attach a Bible verse to such things, but at their core these issues have been much more about guarding the sub-culture of a church tradition than promoting the life-giving health of the gospel.

Just like the men shouting over each other in the coffee bar, so also the men shouting over each other in these church tensions … all are very much playing out their own cultural norms.  In the case of the church issues, some of those norms are cultural as per their country, while other norms are sub-cultural as per their denomination.

This presents a challenge for us all.  How can we know when instead of promoting the gospel in our context, we are merely reflecting the cultural and sub-cultural norms of our context?  How can we know when instead of being ambassadors for Christ in a needy world, we are instead being roadblocks to Christ that are getting in the way of people seeing His character displayed before them?

Here are seven questions to ask yourself that may help to identify where your Christianity has devolved into sub-culture promotion or protection.  Actually, it is very hard to see this in the mirror, so be sure to ask these questions in conversation with others, and especially with God – He certainly will want to help you see clearly where you are not effectively representing him.

1. Do people in your church feel comfortable bringing friends into the church community? While all might affirm the importance of inviting outsiders into the church, most will hold back if they sense that the environment is not welcoming and appropriate for their contacts.  One huge barrier will be when believers sense that their church is more about maintaining its own culture than reaching out to the lost.

2. Is there any expectation that certain issues preclude people from getting saved or hearing the gospel? It could be a lifestyle issue, an unacceptable habit, a certain look, or whatever.  Is the gospel for all, or only for those that fit in with us?

3. Do certain issues dominate conversation about church more than the wonder of the gospel, the goodness of God, or the blessing of fellowship? Once you turn on the radar it soon becomes obvious what issues keep cropping up in conversation.  Perhaps if there is more talk acceptable and unacceptable behaviour than there is talk of Christ, then maybe your church or your family is more about the sub-culture of a pure church than the wonder of bride of Christ.

4. Would someone encountering your church community see you as representatives of Christ, or would they see you as guardians of a specific issue / the police for a specific sin? People will notice when they meet a love that is different from anything they have experienced before.  They will also sense when your church comes across with a guardians of purity (as defined by them).

5. Do people have thought-through biblical rationale for issues that come up a lot, or is the Bible brushed aside in conversation about that issue? If a church is dealing with specific issues repeatedly then it is not unreasonable to expect the leaders to have thought-through, biblically solid, but pastorally sensitive rationale for their position.  It is a clear indication of trouble if the Bible is dismissed when it is used to challenge a dogmatically held opinion.

 6. Does the manner of conversation and addressing difficult issues reflect the characteristics of the fruit of the Spirit? If the position that a person is taking is a godly position, then it won’t come across with venom and acrimony.  It will bear evidence of the fruit of the Spirit.  Divisive, critical, grace-less, argumentative or condemning attitudes are not evidence of the Spirit’s work in a person or church.

7. Are those who differ on a non-primary issue considered sub- or non-Christians?  Are their churches considered sub- or non-churches? The primary issues are required agreement for fellowship to exist – that is, the Trinity, the person and work of Christ, the inspiration of Scripture, salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.  No matter how important, we cannot make a non-primary issue into a primary one by simply declaring it as such ourselves.  Your view on clothing, on music, on certain hobbies, on smoking, on divorce, on tattoos, etc., does not make them primary issues.

It is good to prayerfully take stock and make sure that your church stands for, represents and smells of the beauty of the gospel, of the wonder of God’s saving grace, of the other-worldly fellowship of believers and so on.  It is so easy for our churches to become bastions of a sub-culture.  And the frightening thing is that we may not see it, even if we look in the mirror!