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.

The Local Church and the Missionary

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

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

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

Cultural Awkwardness

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

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

Times are Changing!

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

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

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

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

(Photo by Roman Denisenko on Unsplash)

When Preaching Is Restricted

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Judge Jesus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God’s Great Evangelistic Plan

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

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

1. People need to ENJOY God and the gospel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

Rebuilding the Bridge to Life

bridge3Most of us have seen or used the bridge to life illustration at some point.  Maybe you have even preached your way through it.  On one side there is God and on the other there is humankind, and they are separated by a chasm (sin).  Perhaps God is represented by a throne or a crown. Try as we might we cannot leap across the chasm or build a bridge of good works, so God has to do the bridge-building.  The cross is interposed and we can walk across to God.  Many people have come to faith with this illustration, so please don’t see this post as a criticism of it.

It is good to think through what is being communicated and I do think there are some concerning features of the gospel offered here.  For instance, let’s ponder the assumed motivation.  Are people really trying to leap the chasm to get to God?  Are people longing for closeness with the throne/crown authority figure presented in this illustration?  I don’t remember talking to someone who was desperate to get to God and disappointed that they could not.  Furthermore, the relationship offered seems ambiguous – what sort of connection will we have with this throne/crown if we do choose to walk his way?

I’d like to offer another version.  Why? Because it is good to rethink the gospel presentations we use. Even if we end up rejecting my modification, the exercise will surely be helpful in thinking through how we present the gospel.

Instead of having the human figure facing towards God and apparently motivated to move towards God throughout the illustration, let’s draw him or her facing away from God.  We were created for relationship with God but we have turned away.  Introduce the chasm (sin is our rebellion against both God and the love he has for us).  Now the illustration is ready to fill in.

A. On the God side, why don’t we represent God in a more Trinitarian way?  After all, the authority imagery is obviously incomplete, so let’s play with an alternative.  How about a house?  Verbally explain the context of the relationship of the Father and the Son by the Spirit – three persons united in love.  This relationship was the home, the family, the belonging that we were made for.  If it is explained well then the authority of God as creator and ruler can still be established fairly easily.  However this is not a God of conflicting realities. He is not “loving, but also just.”  Because of the perfect love within the Trinity, therefore God is just, etc.

B. In the chasm let’s draw a manger.  Why a manger?  Because God’s goal for us is not merely to change our location from the realm of sin to the realm of heaven.  God’s goal is union with us, which is why God the Son became one of us – the incarnation matters to the gospel!  He had to become one of us so that he could be one with us in marriage, which leads us to …

C. Behind the turned away person let’s draw the cross.  Why here? Because ultimately that is how far Jesus travelled for us.  It was the price that had to be paid, it was the revelation of what God is like that had to be made, and it was the proposal to win our hearts to entrust ourselves to God.  God’s proposal was not in nervousness on one-knee, but in agony with outstretched arms.

Why do I like this adaptation of the classic illustration?

  1. Because it speaks of the three great unions of Christianity – the union of God with God (Trinity), the union of God and man in Christ (incarnation), and the union of Christ with humanity (union with Christ).
  2. Because God is presented more relationally.
  3. Because mankind is not presented as motivated to seek and reach God.
  4. Because God, in Christ, came all the way to us.  (You could also explain that the Spirit points our hearts to the cross and invites us to be united to Christ.)
  5. Because it presents a loving God doing everything for a rebellious and dead-to-God creature like me.
  6. Because the gospel is about trusting in that love, rather than about making a personal commitment to travel to God.
  7. Because in the gospel we are brought back home by a loving spouse – it is not our solo trek on a God-made bridge to a nice place, in a very real sense he carries his bride over the threshold!

My goal is not to convince you of this illustration.  Perhaps you have another classic gospel explanation you have used – why not think through its weaknesses and modify it to better offer the richness of the good news?  (For example, the judge doesn’t simply pay our fine, he also approaches the stand and proposes…)

______________________________________

This post was originally published on www.cordeo.org.uk

10 Pointers for Evangelistic Preaching

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Glen Scrivener – Incarnation: The True Turning Point

Glen-321A-300x267Glen Scrivener is an evangelist with Revival Media.  He writes about evangelism and theology at ChristTheTruth.net and his evangelistic book, 321, comes out in the autumn: three-two-one.org  Glen visits us at Cor Deo for a day during each season of the programme to talk gospel together with us and it is always a real help.  As we continue this series to mark the release of Pleased to Dwell, here is Glen on the significance of the Incarnation for the Gospel and how we communicate it to others.

_________________________________

The centre of evangelicalism is the believer’s “choice for God” – that’s Diarmaid MacCullogh’s opinion, Oxford’s Professor of Church History. When he made this claim during his “History of Christianity” on the BBC, I howled in protest, throwing pillows, shoes, the cat – anything – at the TV screen. Surely the professor has it backwards. It’s God’s choice for us, right? Surely it’s Jesus – the Chosen One – coming down, not us – the mighty decision makers – choosing upwards.

But as the episode unfolded I realised that it wasn’t the Professor who had gotten it backwards – it was evangelicalism. MacCullogh was just being honest. He was describing the movement as it is – not as it ought to be. And who can deny that, on the ground, the actual centre of gravity for global evangelicalism is “our choice for God”?

Think of sermons on Luke 15 and ask where our attention lies today. If an evangelist preaches a “message of salvation”, where will the emphasis be? More often than not, we focus on the prodigal in the pigsty. The sinner must make “a choice for God.” Compare this with the theology of the early church. Where would they see salvation in Luke 15? Primarily they would speak of Christ’s opening parable. God the Son is the Good Shepherd seeking out His lost sheep. Through His incarnation, He takes up our humanity, through His death He takes responsibility for our sins, through His exaltation He marches us – now perfected – home to the Father.

We must learn from the incarnation that salvation is a case of “God coming down.” Therefore, where is the turning point in our relationship with God? Is it our turn to God – praying the sinner’s prayer, for instance? Surely, more profoundly, it’s God’s turn to us in Jesus. Where is the renovation of our human nature? Is it our decision to get right with God? Surely it’s Christ’s decision to hoist us on His shoulders and carry us home. If this is true, what kind of evangelists ought we to be?

Saturday’s Thought: Preaching for Response

No preacher would admit to preaching in order to fill time, or to fulfill an obligation, or to fill a pulpit.  We say we preach for response.  After all, what other motivation could we cite?  I know, some will quickly rush to language of glorifying God.  But God isn’t pleased by time filling or untouched listeners.  So what do we mean?

Do we mean that preaching should get more than a polite thank you from the gathered listeners?  Sure.  Do we mean that preaching should get a positive or exuberant statement of reception from the listeners?  I don’t think so.  The Lord’s preaching certainly seemed to polarize rather than please all.  Some will be stirred and drawn, others will be offended and withdraw.

This is where it gets interesting for me, and here’s the thought for the day.  What is the division or polarization created by our preaching?  Simplistically we might assume that it is a sorting of sinners and saints.  You know, those in sin pushed away by how seriously we address sin and the godly encouraged; the culture upset and absent while the churchy folks pleased and present.  But that didn’t seem to be the result of Jesus’ preaching, did it?

What if we realize that the gospel is not about preaching a message of pressuring responsibility?  That is, what if we preach the glorious loving grace of God that stirs and warms and draws hearts to Christ?  Instead of whipping our listeners with burdens, what if we preach the One who was whipped for them?

This kind of preaching typically offends the religious who feel responsible for their own goodness.  These are the people who don’t see their own efforts and diligence and pride and self-centredness as being at all sin-stained.  This kind of preaching typically draws the broken and hurting and weak.

When we switch from preaching responsibility to actually preaching for a response we may find that the polarization both switches and increases.  When we recognize the difference between responsibility and response, then certainly our preaching will change.  It is so easy to preach to pressure people to be good.  It takes something more to preach how good Christ is, so that listeners might be drawn to Him.  What is the something more?

I suppose it comes down to me on my own with my Bible and my Lord.  Is it all about me?  Or about Him?  Is it about what I must do (responsibility)?  Or about what He is like (response)?

Preaching for response requires clarity on the distinction between response and responsibility.