Despite Local Imperfections and Dullness

“Surely, if ever there was one who might justly plead that the common worship of the community had nothing to offer him it was the Lord Jesus Christ. But every Sabbath found him seated in his place among the worshipping people, and there was no act of stated worship which he felt himself entitled to discard.

Even in his most exalted moods, and after his most elevating experiences, he quietly took his place with the rest of God’s people, sharing with them in the common worship of the community. Returning from that great baptismal scene, when the heavens themselves were rent to bear him witness that he was well pleasing to God; from the searching trials of the wilderness, and from that first great tour in Galilee, prosecuted, as we are expressly told, “in the power of the Spirit”; he came back, as the record tells, “to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and”—so proceeds the amazing narrative—”he entered, as his custom was, into the synagogue, on the Sabbath day.” “As his custom was!”

Jesus Christ made it his habitual practice to be found in his place on the Sabbath day at the stated place of worship to which he belonged. “It is a reminder,” as Sir William Robertson Nicoll well insists, “of the truth which, in our fancied spirituality, we are apt to forget—that the holiest personal life can scarcely afford to dispense with stated forms of devotion, and that the regular public worship of the church, for all its local imperfections and dullness, is a divine provision for sustaining the individual soul.”

“We cannot afford to be wiser than our Lord in this matter. If any one could have pled that his spiritual experience was so lofty that it did not require public worship, if any one might have felt that the consecration and communion of his personal life exempted him from what ordinary mortals needed, it was Jesus. But he made no such plea.

Sabbath by Sabbath even he was found in the place of worship, side by side with God’s people, not for the mere sake of setting a good example, but for deeper reasons. Is it reasonable, then, that any of us should think we can safely afford to dispense with the pious custom of regular participation with the common worship of our locality?” Is it necessary for me to exhort those who would fain be like Christ, to see to it that they are imitators of him in this?”

 

This is part of an exhortation by Benjamin Breckinridge (B. B.) Warfield (1851 – 1921), who was professor of theology at Princeton Seminary in New Jersey, USA.

The complete article can be found here.

Let-us-not-give-up-meeting-together.Heb-10-25

‘Thin Soup’ Church

Jesus said, “I will build My church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it!”  But because we live in a global business age of organisation, efficiency and profit, there are thousands of books on growth.  If you are more organised, more efficient and more profitable, you will grow….if you stick to our new-fangled formula!

The Western church has been swallowing this bitter pill for decades.  We’ve put down our Bibles, and picked up secular ideas and initiatives – why?  church numbers are declining, people are leaving the church, pews and seats are becoming empty, coffers are down, bills are up, and then someone said, “Hang on a minute, if we just branded ourselves like Nike, or glamorised ourselves like L’Oreal, or popularised ourselves like celebrities, we too can achieve what they achieve!  And should the gates of hell get too close, we’ll just sloganeer them out of town with a TV ad campaign!

What does it mean to be a growing church in this context?  In fact, what does it mean to be a growing church and be faithful?  Can the Church ever be faithful and successful?  Can we do sexy marketing, or shall we just stick with cheesy slogans to do with baby’s and mangers, bunnies and daffodils?  How can we claim to proclaim something better, something the world needs, something unknown and un-buyable?  Can the church compete with a world that clamours for everything but Christ and him crucified?

Can we ever be faithful and successful?  What does it mean to be a Growing Church?

Continue reading “‘Thin Soup’ Church”

Bare Meetings

Below is a section of a Charles Spurgeon sermon from 1856 (he was only 22 years old)!!

The sermon is based on a text in Habakkuk 3:2 “O Lord, revive your work.”

I am putting on this blog because it sounds a little…..familiar don’t you think?

Once you’re done with laughing out loud, you may weep in silence……

Charles Spurgeon said,

“Look at our prayer meetings, with only an exception here and there, there are, possibly, six old women present;  scarcely ever do enough male members come to pray even four times a year.

chspurgeon_youngerPrayer meetings they are called; they ought to be called “bare meetings”, for they are barely attended…….

…. Let me ask you, instead of grumbling at your minister, instead of finding fault with the different parts of the Church, let me ask you to cry out, “O Lord, revive your work.”

“Oh!” one says, “Oh, that we had another minister!  Oh, that we had another kind of worhip!  Oh, that we had a different sort of preaching!”

Just as if that were the simple solution; but my prayer is, “Oh, that the Lord would come into the hearts of the men you have!  Oh, that he would make the forms you use to be full of power!”

You don’t need fresh ways or new structures; you need life in those that you have.

There is a locomotive on the railroad tracks; but the train will not move.  “Bring another locomotive,” one says, “and another, and another.”  The locomotives are brought, but the train still does not move.  Light the fire and get up more steam, that is what you need; not new engines.

We do not need new ministers, or new plans, or new ways, though many might be invented, to make the Church better; we only need life and fire in those we have.

with the very man who has emptied your Church, the very same person that weakened your prayer meetings, God can yet make the Church to be crowded to the doors, and give thousands of souls to that very man.

It is not a new man that is needed; it is the life of God in him.  Don’t be crying for something new; it will no more solve your problem than what you now have.

Cry out, “O Lord, revive your work.”

And he said all this and more in

1856Not much change there then!

Press on, brothers and sisters, and preach the Gospel as the singular urgent priority.

Christian Community

LifeTogetherRe-reading Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I have been re-staggered by his sheer realism of Kingdom perspective.  Bonhoeffer is no religious hack mass producing religious visions of a utopian ideal – an ideal that only serves to wear thin before wearing out the Christian community.

“Innumerable times a whole Christian Community has been shattered because it has lived on the basis of a wishful image.”

Of course, he admits there are those who come in among the community with a definite image of what it should look like and what it should be, and lo and behold, they often have the plans to enable the community to get there!

“But God’s grace quickly frustrates all such dreams.  A great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves, is bound to overwhelm us as surely as God desires to lead us to an understanding of genuine Christian community.  By sheer grace God will not permit us to live in a dream world even for a few weeks and abandon ourselves to those blissful experiences and exalted moods that sweep over us like a wave of rapture.  For God is not a God of emotionalism, but the God of truth.”

The point is quite wonderful.  The genuine Christian community is one that sees, identifies, experiences all the garbage that goes with its own manufactured dreams and visions; its own “great disillusionments.”  The community that clings to man-made visions (even if they are wrapped up in religious language and presented with biblical texts), fails to recognise this inherent idolatry.  Such a community, or church, may look and sound like a religious gathering, may even be great at social action, and evangelism, but the die is cast:  “Sooner or later it is bound to collapse.”

“Every human idealised image that is brought into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be broken up so that the genuine community can survive.  Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself, become destroyers of that Christian community even though their intentions may be ever so honest, ernest, and sacrificial.”

n-BONHOEFFER-large570This is liberating news, it is good news.  The Church is not to succumb to man-made idolatries, nor is she to succumb to fads and gimmicks, visions and utopias that smooth out the necessity and urgency of being the Community of the Christian Church.  God will not be mocked!

“The bright day of Christian community dawns wherever the early morning mists of dreamy visions are lifting.”

Dreamy visions are an idolatrous plague on the Church, especially in the management controlled, targets obsessed West, because they become a means of assessment and measurement.  That is why we often count success in numbers attending, or by the state of the bank balance.  We are conditioned this way, and so we take it into church, devise plans and strategies, and so lose the heart beat of the Christian community.  Bonhoeffer reminds us, the Christian community is not measured by trendy techniques ripped from a secular world, but by the continuing, nurturing, profoundly simple act of thankfulness.

We cannot engineer the Kingdom of God among us.  Pity the fool who tries.  But what we can do is grow into the community by practise and communion.  We are all bent on a self-centred, self-serving, self-focused love.  It is precisely why we need saving.  But when we bring this into the community, unchecked by the Word of God, we masquerade as angels of light among our brothers and sisters, when in Kingdom reality, we are shadowy fools neither under-standing nor standing-under the Word of Christ.

“Christian community is not an ideal we have to realise, but rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate….In other words, a life together under the Word will stay healthy only when it does not form itself into a movement, an order, a society, a collegium pietatis (Association of Piety), but instead, understands itself as being a part of the one, holy, universal, Christian Church, sharing through its deeds and suffering in the hardships and struggles and promise of the whole church.”

Bonhoeffer

“We hold fast in faith to God’s greatest gift, that God has acted for us all and wants to act for us all.  This makes us joyful and happy, but it also makes us ready to forego all such experiences if at times God does not grant them.  We are bound together by faith, not by experience.”

 

Affable Bustle

“Churches that seem to live in an atmosphere of affable bustle, where all is heart and nothing is soul, where men decay and worship dies.  There is an activity which is an index of more vigour than faith, more haste than speed, more work than power.

It is sometimes more inspired by the business passion of efficiency than the Christian passion of fidelity or adoration.  Its aim is to make the concern go rather than to compass the Righteousness of God.  We want to advance faster than faith can, faster than is compatible with the moral genius of the Cross, and the law of its permanent progress.

We occupy more than we can hold.  If we take in new ground we have to resort to such devices to accomplish it that the tone of religion suffers and the love or care for Christian truth.  And the preacher, as he is often the chief of sinners in this respect, is also the chief of sufferers.  And so we may lose more in spiritual quality than we gain in Church extension.

In God’s name we may thwart God’s will.  Faith, ceasing to be communion, becomes mere occupation, and the Church a scene of beneficent bustle, from which the Spirit flees.  Religious progress outruns moral, and thus it ceases to be spiritual in the Christian sense, in any but a vague pious sense.”

P. T. Forsyth, The Preaching of Jesus and the Gospel of Christ, p.119

Healthy Conflict

Church has always been, and is, and will always be a place of tension, dissension and conflict.

word conflict

Of course, conflict isn’t all bad, some is very necessary, but all too often, conflict is done badly – the Old Adam rising to the surface, making demands (without love), speaking the truth (without love), speaking plainly (without love or wisdom) – all the pain, anger and frustration gushing out like an unstoppable Tsunami of muck!

Christians hold in tension a vast array of beliefs and preferences whilst holding to a collective Credal declaration.  A lot (most) of disagreements can come down to the secondary issues and preferences, not to mention ‘historical romanticism’ about the past, or as one friend recently said, historical amnesia!

A great teacher I have leant much from once said to our class, “In life, in Christian ministry, choose the mountains you die on!”  In other words, work out what is primary (die for those things); work out what is secondary (don’t die for them but learn to hold them in a creative and humble tension).

In the book Mastering Conflict and Controversy, the authors highlight six helpful points to dealing with conflict:

1.  Conflict can be healthy and useful for our church.  It is OK for people to differ with one another.

2.  Resolutions for the sake of quick agreement are often worse than agreements that are carefully worked out over time.

3.  Fair conflict management includes:

  • Dealing with issues one at a time.
  • If more than one issue is presented, agreeing on the order in which the issues will be addressed.
  • Exploring all the dimensions of the problem(s).
  • Exploring alternative solutions to the problem(s).

4.  If any party is uncomfortable with the forum in which the conflict is raised, it is legitimate to request and discuss what the most appropriate forum might be.

5.  Inappropriate behaviour in conflict includes, but is not limited to:

  • Name calling.
  • Mind reading (attributing evil motives to others).
  • Inducing guilt (e.g., “Look how you’ve made me feel”).
  • Rejecting, deprecating, or discrediting another person.
  • Using information from confidential sources or indicating that such information exists.

6.  Fair conflict always allows people who are charged with poor performance or inappropriate behaviour to:

  • Know who their accusers are.
  • Learn what their accusers’ concerns are.
  • Respond to those who accuse.

The authors then suggest that if these “rules” can be agreed, a variety of conflicts can be worked through.

For me, the oil in the engine of all conflict must be love, wisdom and grace.  The “rules” above do not cover all bases and sometimes, frankly, pastors and leadership teams deal with rude, obnoxious, immature, repressed and infantile church members.  Pain can go very deep and often come out of nowhere.

Church isn’t perfect (yet), but I’d rather be in the ring fighting than outside the ring offering my tidy suggestions.

CrossinEarth

The People of God

Sunday morning church services always produce the usual eclectic gathering of people.  It was a moment in time for me, a realisation of a greater reality whereby I glimpsed something of God, something of heaven in the strangeness of “God’s people.”

First there is Catholic lady who always comes to our local Baptist church.  Always first in, always waiting to be let in, always swiftly consuming another cigarette.  Sometimes, if she has taken her medication, you will get a “Hello” or a “Morning” and rarely anything more than that.  But, if she has forgotten her medication, she is very agitated, hair slicked back, greasy, face full of menacing scowl, and no words other than what she mutters to herself.  Yet, she’s still there, outside, waiting to come in, always first, and always first to leave the service, during the service, mostly during my sermons(!).  Once I looked at her during the reading of Scripture, she hissed and growled at me and crossed herself three times.  That was weird.  I carried on reading.  She left.

After one particular service at a church in South Wales, I was talking to a couple who had been known to me for two years but only attended church services four times (OK, about four times, I don’t exactly keep a register!).  I’d been to their home on several occasions, to break bread and pray with them, to hear the story of their lives.  Their kids have been taken into care, they’ve attempted suicide, it is a desperate desperate situation.  But they were there, worshipping with us, loving God in all their pain and grief.

Whilst walking with them to get a coffee, I saw another regular.  This gentle giant is always late for services, and when he turns up, he just walks right down the middle of the seating and sits somewhere near the front, fiddles with his Bible and looks around at people.  On this occasion when I saw him, his Bible was on the floor by the fire escape door and he was doing what looked like a rain dance around it as he tried to make a roll-up.  Tobacco drifted to the floor as he danced and I smiled.  It was this moment that I started to get it.

Within ten seconds, even before I had my coffee, another man (I think they all live in the same care-home), another “regular” sprang from behind a door to lament with his usual mischievous sadness that he had already had his allotted two biscuits.  I asked him if he wanted another one, to which he told me he wasn’t allowed anymore because “they told me I’d had enough.”  “Do you want another one” I asked, to which he replied, with eyes now full of teary excitement, “Yeah I do, but it’s very naughty!”

“Come on,” I said.  They don’t call me the “Naughty Minister” for nothing, I thought as I walked with him to the heart of the coffee room and a table full of people and biscuits.  “Help yourself” I said.  He sat down as excited as a boy at Christmas.  They don’t really call me the naughty minister, but I do like to think I can stretch the two-biscuit rule to three or, as was the case, eight, plus an unknown quantity in his coat pocket.

I grabbed a coffee and went off to pray with a couple who had lost everything except God.  They loved God, and here they were.  God sent them to me on this day, a day that reminded me it was all about Him.  These people, these strange, uncouth, demanding, barmy, hurting people – they were the People of God, and I glimpsed God’s love for each and every one of them:

Biscuits and Bibles.

Smoking and sermons.

Pain and prayer.

God was there in it all.

 

Infantilism Evangelism

Immaturity-260x296The following is an excerpt from Dr Robert Knowles’ newly released book ‘Relating Faith – Modelling Biblical Christianity in Church and World’.

Much of what the Church does for evangelism isn’t.  It thinks it is because it is locked in to a way of doing that ignores content and context.  In other words, relational wisdom is sidelined for a program.  Here’s what Rob Knowles says on the matter, and it is just one point within a much larger framework:

“The church confuses evangelism with infantilisation.  It is assumed that ministers and elders are mature and can take profound biblical content, that seasoned churchgoers are almost as mature and can take moderate biblical content, but that most Christians can only take ‘the basics’, and that non-Christians – well – Thomas the Tank Engine is too advanced for them.  What a load of old patronizing and offensive drivel.

It is shameful that I and many others even have to point out that many non-believers have degrees, read text-books, do professional jobs that involve technical language, are familiar with current affairs, and are – quite frankly – very, very often much further on in their thinking that the Christian sloganeers are (by ‘sloganeers, Dr Knowles means the oppressive pseudo-evangelistic sloganeering activism that is devoid of interesting/rich/knowledgable content).

But the sad fact is, these days, many of us do have to point this out to the church.  Worse – when I and many others do point it out, what we say is often rejected as being irrelevant thinking ‘by intellectuals’ who ‘only have academic knowledge’.

[Earlier on in the chapter], we linked infantilisation to the standard strategies of those in power who wish to keep people immature so that their power bases and systems of privilege are not challenged.  Such abusers need to mislabel people who think as ‘mere academics’ so that they can falsely cast aside the genuine criticisms that thinkers bring to the table.  Moreover, such patronisation even assumes that academics or thinkers actually have ‘less real-life experience’ from which to contribute, which is also false and an abuse of power.

Furthermore, it is a genuine breach of etiquette, register and of politeness generally when evangelistic mission deploys speakers who sound like nursery-school teachers.  Frankly, this is insulting to those unfortunate enough to be listening.  Every day, people hear what some sloganeering believers think of as ‘the dreaded long words’ on television.  And yet, I have been rebuked in some church contexts for using vocabulary that would be commonplace on Blue Peter.pedobear-meme-generator-goo-goo-gah-gah-you-say-good-enough-for-me-070774

Only anti-intellectuals and power-hungry infantilisers resist vocabulary, however, for an extension of vocabulary often brings an extension of wisdom and an exposure of sin.  Indeed, it’s funny how anti-intellectuals and power hungry infantilisers are happy to learn a compound word like ‘video-recorder’, which has six syllables; but if one dares to articulate a three-syllable word such as ‘redemption’, then suddenly it’s ‘a long academic word’.  Oh, grow up!

[So what we are saying] for encouraging mission and evangelism, then, is to take the infantilisation out of evangelism and put some cognitive content and some vocabulary back into it.  I’m not saying that we should read out a paper on post-structuralism – I’m just advocating that we say something interesting that doesn’t insult people’s intelligence.

It is often the church that has become infantilised, not the world.”

Relating Faith, p.167-8

relating-faith

To Ministers & Preachers (pt3)

On October 20th 1909, P. T. Forsyth delivered an ordination address based on John 17:6,

“I manifested thy name unto the men whom Thou gavest Me out of the world: Thine they were, and Thou gavest them to Me.“

The sermon is very short and broken down into three parts, The Property, The Gift, The Use.

We conclude with part three….

forsyth1

“I Have Manifested Thy Name to Them.”

What a charge – to be the living man on whom men depend for the living God!  The people say to you as Minister, what Philip said to Jesus, “Show us the Father” (John 14:8).

“I have manifested Thy name.”  That means nature, and nature means presence and action – not truths about God but God Himself in action.  It is not the Fatherhood of God you have to preach but God the Father.  You do not have to preach about God to people, you must preach God into people.  So true preaching is not telling people, but acting on people, making people.

No amount of telling will ever convince people of the Father; it has to be lived into them.  Therefore yours must be a personal ministry.  When the personal God revealed Himself, it was in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ; and when Christ is preached it is by men, by a soul.  You cannot reveal the Holy One by talking about holiness.  “That is true,” says someone, “You can only reveal the Holy One by being holy.”  But he knows little of himself who can say that.  If we cannot preach the Holy God except by being holy, who can preach him?

The holiness that fits you to preach about the Holy is not your personal sanctity and conduct, but your evident communion with the Holy Christ.  It is a life faith you want more than a life conduct.

Why!  Paul addressed such Churches as his by the name of Saints!  Churches in which the grossest sins were evident.  They were not saints by conduct but by faith.

Your goodness is not equal to your task as a minister but your faith must be.  You must realise that “My grace is sufficient for you” (2 Cor 12:9).  So it is!  Not even your faith is sufficient, but only His grace, for you have to reveal Christ as Christ revealed, in this sense, that in both cases it is the soul that tells.  But there is this difference:  He revealed God to us by the resources of His own soul, while you cannot do it from the resources of your soul but only from His.  Nobody was for Him what He is for you with God.

The greatest thing you can give any man is your God and your Saviour.  The reason why some ministers are valuable for other things than preaching, even valuable in spite of their preaching, is that they preach about God, and about Christ; they do not preach Christ.  They are only messengers, not Sacraments.

A favourite type of preaching today is to analyse your soul; it is subjective, psychological preaching.  It is weak, it is exhausting, it is dangerous.  Analyse the Gospel in reference to the soul.  You are a minister of the Word, not of the soul.

And that Word will be selective.  There is real truth in the doctrine of election.  You will not appeal to all alike.  To try to do so is to make your Gospel colourless.  There will be some whom you will not touch.  On the other hand, there may be some given to you whom others have never touched.

If your Church were smaller, it might be more powerful.  If you could shed off people as Christ did, you might be stronger, like Gideon’s host.  Christ alone has the promise and reversion of all men, and He only at the last.  At first, all forsook him and fled.

You have but a corner of the vineyard, and cannot appeal to all men.  Humility then is better equipment than ambition, even the ambition of doing much good.  And remember as a last word:  in the Christian ministry, all self-seeking is fatal.

 

*** With gratitude to Jason Goroncy in his excellent book containing published and unpublished sermons by Forsyth, the one I am posting (in three parts, part one here, part two here) is previously unpublished (p.352-355), and I whole-heartedly commend the book, as I have already done in a previous post, not least for an outstanding introduction (worth the book money alone)!

To Ministers & Preachers (pt2)

On October 20th 1909, P. T. Forsyth delivered an ordination address based on John 17:6,

“I manifested thy name unto the men whom Thou gavest Me out of the world: Thine they were, and Thou gavest them to Me.“

The sermon is very short and broken down into three parts, The Property, The Gift, The Use.

We continue with part two….

 

blueforsyth-5

 

“Thou Gavest Them to Me.”

Your ordination is an act and gift of God.  He is putting His people into your hands.  He does not so much give you a position as a trust.  He puts His Church in your care.

But it is also true that He entrusts this Church with you.  If they treat you ill, it will affect your whole life, and just the same if they treat you well.  A Minister is very much what his first Church makes him.  But let them remember this, that to treat you well they must treat your Gospel better than you.

Therefore it is not popularity you must think about first.  Do not crave morbidly for your people’s love.  Craving does not bring it, and often arrests it.  Do not beg for sympathy.

Think of your Church from the other point of view, as a trust from God to whom you must be faithful in it.  This flock is committed to you by God.  You do not simply take each other but, as in true marriage, God has given you to each other.  This is really a marriage ceremony.  You are being married to the Church.

This will comfort you when you are doubting if you should be at this work.  Say to yourself, “Thou hast given them to me, the responsibility is Thine.”  Da quod jubes et jube quod vis (“Give what you command, and command what you give,” St Augustine, Confessions 10.29.40).  I am not worthy.  Yes that is true, but what is that to thee, follow thou Me!

Of course you are not worthy to preach the Gospel; none of us is worthy.  But then your people are not worthy to hear it.  If it depended on worth, there would be neither preachers nor listeners.  The worth is where the power is, in Christ and God, who does not give us according to our deserts.

Lest you be overwhelmed with the greatness of your task, remember no Church is given to any man without the Saviour of the Church and of Him.  After all, it is Christ’s Church more than yours.  He is the real Pastor of every real Church, and the Bishop of its Minister.  You are but His curate.

[Next] the use of gift.

 

With gratitude to Jason Goroncy in his excellent book containing published and unpublished sermons by Forsyth, the one I am posting (in three parts, part one here) is previously unpublished (p.352-355), and I whole-heartedly commend the book, as I have already done in a previous post, not least for an outstanding introduction (worth the book money alone)!

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