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!

Why We Pray

PrayingHands5The church is the greatest news story, even though it is never reported.  Lives are changed, peoples are united, society is helped, and preaching is at the heart of all of it.  But preaching is not inherently powerful.

The church is not a society generated by, united through, and stirred to give of itself by human social engineering.  It is possible to produce something by the skill of natural man as we exhort, encourage, celebrate and direct from the front.  But ultimately preaching is not the true story because the church is not about sales technique, social engineering, or motivational speech.

The true church is supernatural and therefore the true story of the church is the story of God at work. God opens blind hearts to see the glory of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  God unites believers as the Spirit unites their spirits with Christ and with each other.  God’s love spills over from churches that are loved by Him so that His love can make a mark in society through social care and moral influence.

Preaching the Word of God is at the heart of the life of the church, but preaching in and of itself is not powerful.  And that is why we pray.

A Bible Soaking

BibleMug2Yesterday evening a group of us enjoyed four and a half hours of Bible reading together.  No preaching, just reading.  We read John’s Gospel, and then from James through to Revelation.  We paused briefly to share reflections three or four times, followed by brief comfort breaks, but otherwise kept reading.

Here are a few reasons why I think mini-marathons like this one, or even longer Bible reading marathons are a great idea for your church:

1. It is good to experience Bible books as a whole, instead of only ever hearing them in shorter sections.  For example, the letters were written to be heard in one go.  We can easily lose the overall flow when we only ever focus on one section at a time.

2. It is good for people to experience Bible reading “in the zone.”  To put it another way, even the most diligent Bible in a year reader may only ever experience reading the Bible during the relatively noisy first 10-15 minutes.  A Bible marathon is a group experience of reading beyond that noise and enjoying the feast that comes when you are reading “in the zone” (i.e. focused).

3. It is good to have a proper soaking.  Most people live in a noisy and busy world these days. This means it is difficult to carve out longer chunks of time to pursue God in His Word.  A Bible marathon like this is like a spiritual spa, allowing the washing with the water of the Word to cleanse at a deeper level.

4. It is good to enjoy God together.  Too often Bible reading is treated as a lone ranger experience, but it is good to have the gentle spur to focus of being in the group.  Last night our group included an 11-year-old, as well as a student who is rarely home.  Another time maybe we will get someone who struggles to read (and can therefore enjoy listening), or a brand new Christian, or someone in a highly pressurized career, or whatever . . . every group will be special because of the individuals involved, because of the group dynamic, and mostly because of the God we are encountering in His Word!

If you want to know how long books take to read out loud, here is a helpful list.  Dr Garry Friesen has some helpful guidelines here.

Preaching and Other Ministries

Cogs2Preaching may be the most visible ministry in the church, but it is certainly not the only ministry in the church.  How does your preaching relate to the other ministries?  Here are some possibilities:

1. Casting Vision – The big church together biblical preaching slot is probably the main time that most people are together during the week.  Consequently the leadership functions of the church can be offered in a unique and biblically grounded way during the preaching.  If your church divorces leadership from preaching, it will suffer for it.  But when a church feels led more by the Bible than by a personality, health can be generated.

2. Creating Atmosphere – Lots of other ministries are massively significant in the life of the church.  Small group ministries, age-specific ministries, one-to-one discipleship, mentoring and counseling ministries, evangelism in many forms, etc.  But all of these can happen more effectively in the space and atmosphere created by the Sunday preaching of the church.

3. Offering Gratitude – Lots of other ministries can easily go unnoticed.  Investing in children in the nursery or children’s programs, one-to-one ministries, practical work – setting up church, maintaining the building, etc.  The preaching is a good place to lift up other ministries of the church so that people know the preacher doesn’t buy the hype that can so easily be assumed of the pulpit ministry.

4. Providing Vocabulary – An effective illustration or thought through wording can become vocabulary for the church.  Recently I used an illustration of living in our thimble while Jesus has an ocean perspective – there may be some “thimble” conversations going on as a result.  Sometimes even just offering permission to start a conversation, for instance, “I may be completely misunderstanding this situation, but the preacher on Sunday encouraged us to use him as an excuse for coming and raising it with each other, so here’s my ‘help me understand you on this little thing’ . . .”  Big church preaching can prompt the one-to-one conversations that need to happen in a church community.

5. Building Unity – Churches are filled with humans and humans bring their lifelong saturation in the brine of Fallenness along with them.  So people distrust people.  Ministries will easily compete with ministries.  The preaching is an opportunity for the wise preacher to let God’s Word build unity and trust within a church by offering both vulnerability and vision.

6. Co-Labored Stirring – The preaching can and should co-labor with other ministries.  It may be that a sermon unlocks an apparently unresponsive individual, or offers new hope to an apparently committed-to-drift couple, etc.  Then it may be another ministry that continues the work toward fruitful life change.

7. Setting Example – Probably this is already covered implicitly, but let’s be overt: the preaching can set the tone for other ministries . . . i.e. submission to the Word, honoring others above ourselves, vulnerability, tenderness, courage, etc.  Can the church leadership ask others to minister in a way that the pulpit does not demonstrate?

Preaching is important, but it is not the only ministry of the church.  Does your preaching support and strengthen the ministries of the church?  Or does it inadvertently undermine and compete?

50 Summer Preaching Tweaks: 1-5

Summer50bAs we are all about to head into a new (school) year of preaching, how about a big collection of little tweaks for effective preaching?  In no particular order, here come the fifty summer tweaks to sift through and prayerfully consider:

1. Be mastered by a book.  Whether you regularly preach through whole books or not, make sure you spend enough time soaking in a book that it can truly grip you.  Be saturated so that when squeezed, you ooze the content of that book.  Then prepare a series to invite others into that blessing.

2. Invite others into the preparation process.  We all tend to go solo on preaching preparation.  Invite some folks to join you.  Perhaps in a group,  perhaps a series of conversations, perhaps ask for help on facebook or twitter.  Perhaps talk through the message, perhaps ask for help on support material, perhaps find out where others think the points of tension lie.  It will probably be better together.

3. Lean less on your notes.  If you are a manuscript reader, take only an outline. If you are a notes user, experiment with note-less.  Be as prepared as you can, but make the message simpler in structure, stick in a passage and run through it several times.  Going noteless is not as hard as you think, and the benefits might mean you never go back!

4. Stay put, dig deeper.  If you are a concordance freestyler, try preaching a message where you stay put.  You will find that you will tend to dig deeper in the passage and apply more fully in the present.  Both are good things!  Only cross-reference if there is a genuine need to do so.

5. Craft the main idea a little bit more.  Take an hour at some point and work on the main idea of the message for an hour more than you normally would.  How can it be more precise, more memorable, more relevant, more text specific, more encouraging, less wordy, less historic, less theologically phrased?

Preaching Myths #2 – Cool Preaching

myth2Here’s another idea that bounces around in various forms, but I think should be probed a bit:

“Cool preaching attracts people.”

This could be the thinking of church leaders who decide to go with a “cool preaching” option in order to seek growth.  Or it could be the critique of traditional church folks who are looking sideways at a different church which has a perceived “cool factor” and is growing faster than their church is.  When used as a critique, it tends to carry with it the implication that such a church must be dumbing down, softening, weakening, diluting or corrupting the gospel in some way.

Before critiquing the myth, I suppose both thoughts can be affirmed.  Some churches do make superficial style issues a driving factor in their growth strategies and in some cases it does seem to attract people (although any style may well put others off coming in the first place, even a contemporary style).

And indeed, some contemporary styled churches have weakened the gospel leading to shallow conversions and poor discipleship.  But let’s be fair here, some traditional styled churches have weakened the gospel leading to shallow conversions and poor discipleship too!  Sweeping generalizations about contemporary versus traditional are very naive.

So, does cool preaching attract people?  I would say that it might, but probably not.  The primary people who tend to be attracted to “cool Christianity” may well be Christians whose tradition store has become overstocked and they want to try something different.

Three thoughts:

1. Christ attracts people.  Re-read the gospels and notice how normal and broken people were so drawn to Jesus.

2. Christlike communities attract people.  If people are not drawn to Jesus today, it is probably because their exposure to his body is cluttered by other baggage and distraction.  A community being transformed by the love of God so that they love each other (like Christ) will spill outwards in love to the community (like Christ) and thereby be a magnet to broken people (like Christ).

3. Effective preaching engagingly communicates what matters.  Cool preaching without biblical substance is see through.  People may well see through “cool-empty” just as they may see through “traditional-empty” (although sadly there will be those who don’t see through one or the other).  So what then for our preaching?

 A. We must seek to get the substance right: the Bible offered engagingly, the gospel full and clear, and the presentation of God in Christ as clear as the incarnation requires.

B. We must seek to remove unnecessary obstacles: issues of delivery, packaging, presentation, and content need to be carefully evaluated to make sure that people are not choosing to walk away from the gospel because of something other than the gospel.

Being cool is not the goal in preaching, unless you are wanting to temporarily attract young disenchanted Christians.  Cool is really not the issue at all, but recognize that in your pursuit of best substance, obstacle-light preaching, you will probably be critiqued for being “cool” but shallow.  Make sure you’re not.

Preaching [Insert Word] Jesus

Jesus2Preaching Jesus.  This is the calling of the preacher.  It is an incredible calling.  We aren’t called to preach tips or suggestions, mere commands or philosophy, not even just ideas or concepts.  We get to preach a person.  When I met my wife-to-be, I was very capable of “preaching” her to any who cared to listen.  I didn’t struggle for motivation because I knew her, I liked her and I wanted to talk about her.  But over the years I’ve had to do some presentations I wasn’t thrilled about . . . ideas, subjects, topics.  These opportunities were very different.  The personal connection and consequent motivation is far different when we grasp that Christian preaching is primarily about preaching a person.

Preaching for Jesus.  And what a person we get to preach!  We get to represent the great object of the desire of all creation, the one who made it all and will bring it all to a close.  The one who brings eternal delight to the Father and who will reveal the delightful Father to all for all eternity.  This is not a political leader with tenuous temporary influence, or a new fad who will soon pass.  This is not preaching some hyped up celebrity, or some high achiever in one area or another . . . this is the wonderful counselor, the mighty God, the everlasting father, the prince of peace.  And we get to preach about him, and for him.  That means he cares, he takes interest, he wants it to go well.

Preaching with Jesus.  It just gets better.  We often think of our ministry being for Jesus, but can forget the great biblical theme of working with God.  He commissioned us to go and make disciples, but he did so with the promise of his presence!  What a privilege to not only speak of Christ and for Christ, but also with Christ.  As we preach to proclaim the gospel, we are doing so with him who is at work fishing for humanity.  As we preach to edify the church, we are doing so with him who is at work building his church.  As we preach to bring glory to God, we are doing so with the eternal Son who is well practiced and ever pleased to bring praise to His and our great Father.  Ministry with.  Seems like we don’t think about that enough!

Mixing the Matters

Proud2You matter.  Preaching matters.  Your preaching matters.  But don’t mix these up.

You matter – you are a person for whom Christ died, a person who has been bought with a price and baptised into the body of Christ to participate in the fellowship and life of God himself.  Just like the people you preach to, your worth and value are to be found in Christ.

Preaching matters – what God has done in Christ for your listeners and you is truly worth sharing boldly and openly.  Preaching matters because God is an incarnationally-minded communicator and as a result, we have something to say.  Preaching the word of God has always been a key part of God’s mission in this world, for there is a revelation and a proclamation at the core of that mission.

Your preaching matters – you may not be so-and-so famous preacher who draws huge crowds, but you are more than just the person scheduled to preach this next time.  The people gathered have a divine appointment with the word of the gospel, so you will want to give your very best for their sake, and for His.  The famous preacher is not scheduled to be there, by God’s providence, you are.

Don’t mix these up – one of the ways we can get into trouble as preachers is to start to confuse these truths.  Since preaching matters, I matter because of my preaching?  Careful!  The moment we confuse our identity in Christ with our role in ministry, we are set for trouble.  I recently heard of a visiting preacher who marred his reputation by his reaction to a circumstance that thwarted his opportunity to preach.  It is good to take your preaching seriously, but never think you are indispensable.  It is good to serve God in preaching, but never let your identity be determined by it.  Your preaching matters, but God can, and does, work apart from your ministry.

Treasure Shifts

TrippI am currently enjoying Paul David Tripp’s Dangerous Calling.  This is my book of the year, so far, and once I finish it I will be sure to review it on here.  There is so much good stuff in this book, but just as a taster, here is a list of five “treasure shifts” that can occur in the heart of a pastor/preacher (this is straight quotation from Tripp):

1. IDENTITY: Moving from identity in Christ to identity in Ministry.

In pastoral ministry, it is very tempting to look hirzontally for what you have already been given in Christ. . . . Rather than the hope and courage that come from resting in my identity in Christ, my ministry becomes captured and shaped by the treasure of a series of temporary horizontal affirmations of my value and worth.  This robs me of ministry boldness and makes me all too focused on how those in the circle of my ministry are responding to me.

2. MATURITY: Defining spiritual well-being not by the mirror of the Word, but by ministry.

Biblical literacy is not to be confused with Christian maturity.  Homiletic accuracy is not the same as godliness.  Theological dexterity is very different from practical holiness.  Successful leadership is not the same as a heart for Christ.  Growth in influence must not be confused with growth in grace.  It is tempting to allow a shift to take place in the way that I evaluate my maturity as a pastor.  Rather than living with a deep neediness for the continued operation of grace in my own heart, I begin, because of experience and success in ministry, to view myself as being more mature than I actually am.  Because of these feelings of arrival, I don’t sit under my own preaching; I don’t preach out of a winsome, tender, and humble heart; and I don’t seek out the ministry of the body of Christ.  This allows my preparation to be less devotional and my view of others to be more judgmental.

3. REPUTATION: Shifting from a ministry shaped by zeal for the reputation of Christ to a ministry shaped by hunger for the praise of people.

. . . My heart begins to be captured by the desire to be esteemed by others, the buzz of being needed, the allure of standing out in the crowd, the glory of being in charge, and the power of being right.  This makes it hard to admit I am wrong, to submit to the counsel of others, to surrender control, to not have to win the day and prove I am right.  It makes it hard to accept blame or to share credit, and it makes me less than excited about ministry as a body-of-Christ collaborative process.

I will finish the list tomorrow.

(NB. This list is found on pages 105-107)

Popcorn?

Popcorn2This week I may be a bit quieter than usual on the site.  I am working on notes for the European Leadership Forum that is coming up in May.  It is a privilege to be involved in the Bible Teachers Network there and your prayers are appreciated as I finish off the teaching notes for that event.  Meanwhile, here’s this week’s Cor Deo post, simply titled Popcorn?