Results tagged “church” from Reformation21 Blog

The Patriarchy Movement: Five Areas of Grave Concern

|
The church is an environment of extremes. The trouble with extremes is that they always contain a seed of truth, making them look and sound plausible to the careless bystander. By virtue of this fact, the church is also often full of susceptible bystanders ready to lap-up the latest and greatest fad. One example of this is seen in the Christian Patriarchy movement. Popular now, for some thirty years, Christian Patriarchy, and its twin the "Quiver-full" movement, contain truths about headship, gender roles, and attitudes towards authority in the home. God has ordained such matters, but the question arises, what has God ordained concerning them?

This posts does not seek to trash the patriarchy movement or those found in it. Neither does it disagree with the biblical truths concerning headship, gender roles and attitudes towards authority. Rather it seeks to identify a number of issues that do great harm to those within the movement specifically and Christ's Church as a whole. To be fair, not all in the Patriarchy movement hold to an identical set of beliefs and so I will, in this post, necessarily paint with a broad brush.

  1. Christian patriarchy tends to supplant ecclesiastical authority. This is manifested when the local church's rightful role and authority is taught (either in word and deed or in function and practice) to be inferior of that of the patriarch of the family. Christian fathers may not usurp the rightful authority and function of the church. For instance, Christ has not entrusted to non-ordained men the public ministry of the word, the administration of the sacraments, church discipline etc. I have known of families, with patriarchal leanings, who determined that they had the right to trump ecclesiastical authority by refusing to allow the church to discipline their rebellious teenager. What the Patriarchy movement often fails to emphasize is that even the patriarch in the home is a man under authority in the church. It stands to reason that so is his family. Moreover, men in general are not the head of women in general. Biblical headship pertains only to the marriage relationship and the parent-child relationship. There are few things more dangerous than a failure to recognize and willingness to submit to the authority of the church. A failure to recognize the authority of the officers of a biblically faithful local church is a failure to recognize the authority of Christ, the Head of the Church.
  2. Christian Patriarchy tends to supplant ecclesiastical community. The Patriarchy movement has far too frequently produced a family that is separate from the local church, rather than a family that is a microcosm of the local church. This is, of course, a natural product of a misunderstanding the authority of the church. When this happens, family is elevated to a place of greater importance than the church. Yet, in Scripture the church is held in the highest esteem. After all, our Lord did not shed his blood for the family, but for the Church (Acts 20:28). Such a misunderstanding frequently produces socially stunted children, as well as carbon copies of "the patriarch" himself--that is, someone in a continuous power struggle with the church. In turn, this becomes the death-knell of evangelism in the church.
  3. Christian Patriarchy tends to pervert the father's God-given role in the home as prophet, priest and king. Anyone familiar with Scripture must agree that the spiritual head of the home certainly holds, in some way, these functions. They are not, however, ecclesiastical offices. Rather, they are parental functions. Acting as prophet, in the home, the father is to teach his family the Word of God. Acting as priest, he is to intercede in prayer on their behalf. Acting a king, he applies the law of God to his family and provides such direction as is rightful. The problem with the patriarchy movement is that it interprets these functional roles as offices. Moreover, it often emphasizes the office of King over the other roles. In reaction, many have turned from these biblical functions and denied that heads of households should function these ways. In short, Patriarchy has damaged, rather than enhanced, true biblical headship.
  4. Christian Patriarchy tends to pervert the mother's God-given roles in the home. Can anyone who has read Scripture--or examined the workings of an average Christian home--deny the reality that the mother is also frequently acting as a prophet, priest and king of the home? The Proverbs frequently call the son to listen to the counsel of his father and his mother. Additionally, the law of God commands children to "Honor your father and you mother." It is the mother who teaches, intercedes for and rules and guides in the home for substantial portions of the day. Is the mother tied to the sink or oven or bed? No! She is a teacher, a counselor, a prayer-warrior, a master in the home, for and on behalf of her children. Does Christian Patriarchy pervert this model? It seems to do so in many cases.
  5. Christian Patriarchy tends to be a man-made, law-based system. There is a great danger for sinful men in a singularity of authority! Nowhere else do we accept it! In American government we have (in theory) a separation of powers, a system of checks and balances. In the legal world we have a series of appeals courts. In the ecclesiastical sphere, God has ordained a plurality of elders for the purpose of keeping authority out of the hands of one man. Patriarchy, ultimately, centers all authority in one man. In order for authority to function, there is need for rules and laws. My fear is that the singularity of authority found in patriarchy, not only creates a system of self-preserving laws (which tend to be man-made), but it also squeezes out the Gospel from daily life. Being most concerned about behavior modification proponents of the Patriarchy movement have often forgotten the real need for heart-modification, not by law, but by the grace of God in the Gospel.

It is simply a poor hermeneutic to find a detailed explanation of how we should live by examining the lives of Abraham and Job. Clearly there is much to learn from the Patriarchs; but they too were sinners (dare we say it, with, "multiple wives!") living in the shadows of the preparatory and anticipatory Old Testament era. Ecclesiology was not fully developed in the Patriarchal era. When seeking to develop a fully biblical ecclesiology, we have to ask what Peter, Paul and our Lord Jesus have to say about these things. After all, redemptive-history finds its fullness in the teaching of Jesus and the Apostles. As we read the New Testament, we find an absence of teaching on anything that remotely resembles most of the principles of the Patriarchy movement. If we want to be biblically faithful, we need to examine all the biblical data, regardless of whether it fits our presuppositions or not. We must be willing to have our presuppositions corrected by the Scriptures if we are to be the fathers and mothers God intends for us to be.

Matt Holst is the pastor of Shiloh Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, NC. He is a graduate of Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Matt is a frequent contributor to the Christward Collective.

What's in a Name?

|
Names have always been important. There's a reason why "Judas" never tops the list of most popular baby names in any given year. When my wife and I were trying to pick out names for our children, we always had the same conversation: How will it sound with our last name, what does it mean, and how does it roll off the tongue when we're shouting up the stairs? All important factors! Whether we like it or not, names get tied to ideas and perceptions. Nobody hears the name of the now defunct company Enron and thinks it was a wonderfully productive service provider that did us all a lot of good. It's fascinating to watch business drop off all over the country when a chain restaurant all of the sudden finds out one of their stores was serving contaminated meat. And who wants to be associated with a name like Watergate?

When it comes to the names of churches, there is something wonderful about holding on to the same name for multiple generations, giving testimony to God's continued faithfulness. Every church has its share of ups and downs, and when they are able to persevere, God ought to be praised and the people of God ought to be thankful. However, there can be times when the name of a church is more of a hindrance than help, and a congregation should consider changing it to remove any obstacles that stand in the way of reaching more people. Let me explain why and how the church that I pastor recently approached this issue.

I have been the pastor of a Reformed Baptist church in a small Georgia community in the suburbs of Savannah for the last 9 years. I was never a fan of the church's name, but I also didn't think it was much of a big deal given a host of other things we were working to change. However, in time it was clear to our elders through discussions with people around the community that it was time to think of something new. When the discussions began, we weren't a declining or plateaued church, but we did have a desire to clarify and renew our identity in the community.

Some people couldn't pronounce our church's name, let alone spell it. The church was started as a primitive Baptist church that eventually had charismatic influences, only to later be dominated by moralistic teaching and practices. Over the span of 27 years, that's a lot to overcome when the last decade has been a concerted effort to be intentionally biblical and confessional in our faith and practice. When I arrived at the church in 2007, I was thankful that they had already left their previous denomination and adopted the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith. However the church itself was far from being what anyone would expect from a reformed and baptistic local church, and the community had no idea anything had changed.

In a transitional community or big city, a church's name is not likely to cause a lot of problems. People come-and-go and neighborhoods change significantly from year-to-year, so reputations based upon a name aren't as entrenched as in smaller, less transitional communities. But all churches should be willing to ask questions about their identity and consider what they are capable of changing to more effectively communicate who and what they are without carrying significant baggage along with them. Changing a church name may be difficult for some people who have been in a local church for a long time, but churches that don't do what may be needed because sentimentality reigns in numerous areas are likely to fall away completely over time. Here are a few questions to ask when considering changing the name of a local church:

1. Is it easy to say, spell, pronounce, and remember? We were Ephesus Church. As hard as you might try, I'd be very surprised if you could create a list that included all the spellings and pronunciations we've heard from people over the years. It's clunky, it doesn't really carry any specific meaning, and I as compelled to regularly emphasize that our desire was to reflect the church of Ephesus in the book of Ephesians, not Revelation! The name of the church added a lot of words to my conversations as I regularly sought to explain and clarify something that should be able to stand on its own.

2. How does your community respond to up-front doctrinal distinctions? When we asked the congregation to submit name suggestions for us to vote on, we didn't want to include "reformed" but were happy to include "baptist" in the name. We're certainly not ashamed of identifying with our confessional reformed tradition, but particularly in the South, there is a lot of misinformation about what that even means, so we'd prefer to have that conversation face-to-face instead of on our sign. However, "Baptist" is a very favored distinction in our context, so we were happy to highlight it. It's one question we were comfortable answering for people up front without assuming it would be a barrier (although, we still have to distinguish that we're not those kinds of Baptists, just like our Presbyterian brothers often point out that they're not those kinds of Presbyterians).

3. What priorities does your church name communicate? If you were given a list of church names, you would likely be able to identify a lot about what they church values before ever looking at their doctrinal statement. A name like The New Hope Center of Healing and Deliverance, Inc. says a lot about where that particular group of people prioritize, just as much as a church called The Porch. We decided on Redeemer because we wanted to emphasize Jesus as our priority, and we wanted the name Church to be included, because we unashamedly identify as a local gathering of God's people.

4. What do people say when you tell them the name of the local church of which you are part? I hope it's obvious to thinking Christians that what everyone thinks of what we call ourselves as a local church is not our top priority, but we shouldn't ignore it either. If unchurched people are unwilling to darken our doors because of a bad experience in the past or because of a long-standing reputation, we have a problem that can and should be fixed.

Changing the name is simultaneously one of the easiest things that a local church can do to restructure in its community. Of course, none of this is helpful if the church doesn't consider and change, if necessary and permissible in Scripture, what gave them a poor reputation in the first place. Hopefully it doesn't need to be said that names are not what makes or breaks a church, but rather its faithfulness to God and His Word. Nevertheless, good leadership includes regularly assessing where the church is at and whether or not changes may be necessary. As for the congregation I pastor, we are very thankful to now be Redeemer Baptist Church and have already enjoyed some tangible results of our transition.

John Calvin on the True Church

|
When is a "church" not a church? How do we recognize the true church of Jesus Christ? And how do we discern the false? Calvin's answer, in the Institutes 4.2.1 - 4.2.12, to what was in his day--and remains--an important question, is, essentially: the ministry of the Word and of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper are the hallmarks of the true church. Where these are lacking, "surely the death of the church follows." 

Why should this be so? Because the church is built on the prophets and apostles (Eph. 2:20). They have a primacy of role in person in the course of redemptive history; but their teaching is the foundation for every generation of Christian faith. Substitute another foundation for the church and the whole building will crumble. 

But in Calvin's eyes Roman Catholic theology failed to grasp this, and effectively transferred the authority of the once-for-all written apostolic word to the questionable strength of a chain of bishops of varying degrees of orthodoxy and reliability. 

Physical succession may be attractive, but it guarantees nothing. That is precisely why we have the written Scriptures, so that the truth of God may be carefully preserved and passed on intact from believing generation to believing generation. Neither biblically instructed Christians of the 16th century nor the Fathers of the church in the early centuries believed that a mere succession of bishops guaranteed that the gospel message would be maintained in its pristine purity. 

This is why Calvin's departure from the community of physical succession was not schism. For how could agreement in the word of God be regarded as schism from the church of God? 

The episcopacy that holds the church together in unity is not man's but Christ's. The unity of the church, therefore, is not a formal, historical reality made concrete in an institution (the college of bishops or the pope). Rather it is a dynamic reality, born out of living union and communion with the one true bishop of our souls, the Lord Jesus Christ. Rome's fault was not only its boast in the historic episcopacy but in its failure to make confession of biblical truth and in its anathematizing of those who did. 

If the truth be told, not Geneva but Rome is schismatic. More than that, Rome harbors idolatry within its bosom in the celebration of "the Mass, which we abominate as the greatest sacrilege" (4.2.9). 

Yet, it remains true, Calvin acknowledges, that there are believers--however confused--within the pale of Rome. Correspondingly there are "traces of churches," but Rome itself cannot be considered a true church or part of the one true church. In fact, Rome gives expression to the spirit of antichrist. 

Here again is Calvin's ability to see with both eyes. In some Roman communities he was sure there were true believers; in that sense they are churches. Even major distortions of truth and failures with respect to grace do not necessarily mean there are no believers in the community. 

The truth is that the heart may be regenerated while the head is not finally cleansed. Calvin appears to have thought that some of them were in fact true believers, however inconsistent theologically and perhaps intimidated personally they were. He understood, and while he disapproved he struggled to exercise wisdom and patience. But in the end Christ was being obscured. And if Christ is obscured for long, man-centered, self industriousness, and ritualism always seems to follow in its train. That is always an explanation for the (ongoing) necessity of reformation. 


*This was first published on Ref21 in September of 2009. You can find the original postings here and here

Ref21 Vault.jpg

Moving Prayer to the Center of Ministry

|
God's people need to be prayed for. They need to led in prayer. They need to be taught how to pray. We all believe that prayer is important. Nevertheless, working our convictions about prayer into our practice of ministry is challenging. The Apostles declared "But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word" (Acts 6:4). Have you noticed that prayer actually comes first in this sentence, but that most often in conversations ministers will speak of "word and prayer." There may be something to this inversion of order in our speaking. Too often we expect that prayer will happen organically or accidentally, or to frame it more spiritually, providentially. And yet, we don't expect other aspects of ministry to unfold without intentionality, planning and leadership. Let us make sure that we are giving the ministry of prayer the same intentional focus that we are giving to preaching, teaching, worship, evangelism and discipleship. Below are five relatively simple, manageable and non-radical (ordinary Christians can do this!) ways to incorporate more prayer into your leadership and ministry. 

1. Pray for Officers--Most pastors already pray for the officers of their congregations. But often I find that our prayers are not specific enough or don't reflect the concerns that the officers have about their own lives. It is a peculiar challenge of ministry that it can be difficult for a pastor to maintain a spiritual fellowship with his officers, especially his elders. Conversations with elders tend toward routine assessments of ministry or analysis of problems in the life of the church. Pastors and elders frequently call each other with matters of concern about the church; matters concerning the soul are much less frequent. 

To move toward specificity in ways that are meaningful to the men you shepherd, ask your officers to write down on an index card how you can pray for them. Offering some categories may be helpful: career, family, fruit of the spirit, etc. Pray daily for these items, adding your own prayer emphases as well (emphases that you may or may not chose to share). At some regularly interval, ask again using the same plan. An intentional plan for prayer provides a clear way for a pastor to insure that he is ministering to his elders, and not simply with his elders. If there are differences in emphases or philosophy of ministry, a pastor's prayer for an elder will help keep his heart soft toward him as a brother and fellow elder. 

2. Make Corporate Prayer part of Your Stated Session Meetings--Prior to your stated meeting gather requests for prayer from the congregation, officers and staff. Before moving toward proposing ideas or developing plans for ministry, bring the life and ministry of the church before the Lord in prayer. Do a very brief devotion from Scripture to set the trajectory for the time. Twenty to thirty minutes in corporate prayer is a tangible way to keep in step with the Spirit as he seeks to minister Christ to the church. There may be concern over making the meeting longer, especially if you have a busy docket. However, praying together about ministry tends to shorten meeting. We are more likely to agree in the Lord with one another when we have sought the Lord with one another. Struggles for power and influence tend to dissipate when there is a shared sense that God is present and moving us forward. 

3. Have a Monthly Prayer Meeting for Elders to Pray for the Church--"Once a month!" you say. "Shouldn't elders pray daily for the church?" Yes. But this meeting is different. A monthly meeting provides a clear space in the life of the church where the congregation knows that the elders are praying specifically for them. Elders ask members to provide requests for prayer so that the elders can intercede for them. Elders can personally initiate with folks in the congregation, asking them how they can pray for them at the monthly meeting. Each elder can write a hand written note to the people that they prayed for. A stated monthly meeting also provides a place for elders to pray with people in times of crises or distress. A significant amount of prayer can take place in 45 minutes. No preaching. No Scripture reading. No discussion of ministry. All those things are already happening elsewhere. At this meeting requests that have been prepared beforehand are distributed quickly and prayed for. 

4. Have a Weekly Congregation-Wide Time of Prayer--For reasons we won't discuss here, let's acknowledge that it is difficult to get people to come to meetings designated for prayer. However, while folks won't come to a meeting to pray, they will pray when they come to a meeting. People will come to a meeting with good Biblical teaching/preaching and singing. Taking 15 minutes for corporate prayer in an evening service or mid-week meeting can be transformative in the life of a congregation. This time is led best by a pastor who sets the site of the congregation upon the kingdom of God. Prayers for the sick will inform the time, without overwhelming the meeting. The scope and gravity of the matters considered will be on par with the New Testament's own emphases for prayer. Consider having folks form small groups for prayer in this time. There are few things more encouraging than hearing the quiet rumble of a room full of folks praying. 

5. Lead with Prayer--Each one of the occasions for prayer listed above becomes an opportunity to pray for God's mission in and through the church. If you have a burden for your church, lead spiritually by praying with others before you develop plans for ministry. "Let's pray that God would draw young people in our city to Christ" is a burden. "I am starting an evangelistic Bible study downtown at Starbucks" is a plan. People in the church can be genuinely impressed with plans and supportive of our ministry without ever becoming partners in ministry. A principal form of partnership in ministry in the New Testament is prayer. Pray and lead with prayer in such a way to allow folks to become partners in ministry with pastors, elders, and ministry leaders. 

There is certainly more than one way to pray more in your ministry. We have found these five practices to be a blessing in our congregation for a number of years now. We have also seen how God has acted in very tangible ways among us as a result of moving prayer more to the center of ministry in our church. God delights to hear the prayers of his people and will bless your congregation as you move prayer toward the center of your ministry. And, it may be a lot easier than you think. For starters, you can share this post with some elders and pray about it!              

Jay Harvey is the senior pastor of Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Newark, Delaware. Jay has written articles for Tabletalk Magazine. He is also a contributor to Don't Call It A Comeback: The Old Faith for a New Day.

Church Revitalization

|

Effective Strategy? Biblical Mandate? Both! 

In 1980 a young Pastor, fresh from seminary, arriving at his first pastorate encountered some startling realities. Thinking he was informed as to the condition of the church, he soon learned just how uninformed he was. When you get "onsite" you soon gain "insight." Church attendance had diminished from over 1,000 to an average of 55. There were no children's Sunday School classes because there were no children. The average age in the congregation exceeded 70 and its past had become glorified nostalgia. On his first Sunday, the service ended at the expected 12:00 hour. As he and his wife made their way to the lobby. Amazingly, in spite of the infirmities of age, the congregation had exited and rapidly emptied the parking lot. The church attendance box for the week had been checked and they were ready to move on. There were no sounds of fellowship from lingering crowds only an empty sanctuary and parking lot within five minutes of the benediction. He went outside to try and speak to the departing congregation before and found himself embarrassingly locked out of the church building by the equally rapid exit of the part-time church janitor. After breaking into his own church to obtain his Bible and car keys, the pastor and his wife looked at each other with the sudden realization of just how enormous this pastoral challenge would be. But, there was more to come.

While all other churches in the area had monthly accounts at the local office supply store he soon learned his church was excluded and designated as "cash only" due to past payment delays. The first Session meeting revealed that not all of the elders had a personal saving relationship with Christ. They seemed to be well-meaning but did not "know the Lord." Of the two elders who exhibited some spiritual maturity, one was transferred within three months and the other died of leukemia. The church had not met its budget in years. Perhaps the most startling event was a phone call from one of the previous nine pastors revealing a tumultuous past. This pastor, while graciously welcoming the new pastor to his charge asked a strange and probing question. "Did you pray before you accepted this call?" After answering "yes" the obvious question was, "Why did you ask?" The answer was stunning. He informed the new pastor that he believed the church "had the mark of Satan upon it."

He then began to share the "horror stories" of what had happened to the previous pastors. All of which was not encouraging for a new pastor in his first pastorate. So what do you do?

While grateful for his seminary education he realized he was unprepared for this moment. But thankfully his seminary preparation had been framed by a relentless commitment to the inerrancy and the sufficiency of God's Word. So to his study and to the Scripture he went. I can verify all of the above since I was this young Pastor. So how would God's sufficient Word (which cannot be broken) instruct me to respond?

Here was a church in decline and its demise imminent. It could be said one flu season would put the church out of business. The Presbytery's counsel was to sell the property and use the proceeds to plant another church. Yet the neighborhood was full of unreached people. The daily vandalizing of the church revealed two factors. One, the neighborhood viewed the church as a derelict unused building. Two, there were people to be reached. Could this church be revitalized?  The Word of God was clear that I must preach and pray for revival but only the Lord could bring it. But I soon discovered a Biblical roadmap from Christ as to how pastors can lead a church back to spiritual vitality? Here is how that happened.

As mentioned, this took place in 1980, a year which also witnessed the rise and proliferation of "church growth" publications. Clearly, these resources were of interest to me and I devoured them. In doing so a few things became obvious. First, the writers of these publications were intelligently insightful and well-meaning. Second, most of the proposed remedies were "best practices" drawn from psychological, sociological and demographic ministry analysis. Of course, all of the recommended practices were "checked out" against the Scripture to make sure that no Biblical truths were being violated. Yet, few were actually derived from the Scripture. They were commended with the assurance that they would produce "statistical church growth" which surfaced another concern. While the Bible, in the book of Acts, records "statistical growth" in the church there is no indication that the leadership focused their ministry philosophy upon statistical church growth. The clear evidence is that 1st century church leaders focused on the spiritual vitality and health of the church with "statistical growth" recorded as a consequence of the apostolic ministry, not the objective of their ministry.

Furthermore, in my study, I was intrigued by the recorded expansion of the Kingdom of God through the church and the strategy employed by the Apostle in the Book of Acts.

First, the Gospel of the Kingdom proclaimed in Jerusalem by the Apostles established the church of Jerusalem (Acts 1-8). Then the Kingdom powerfully expanded as promised by the Lord to Judea and Samaria resulting in the church at Antioch (Acts 9-12). This eventually expanded the Kingdom to the world through another key church at Ephesus (Acts 13-28). At each step of the ever-expanding Kingdom through vibrant and healthy churches, statistical growth was a result of Gospel vitality furthered through the effective ministry of Gospel-healthy leaders and churches.

In Acts 13 Saul (soon the Apostle Paul) along with Barnabas are sent by the Church at Antioch on the first missionary journey. They employed a four-fold Gospel ministry strategy expanding the Kingdom to city after city. This recorded strategy was:

  1. Gospel evangelism and discipleship
  2. Gospel Church planting
  3. Gospel deeds of love, mercy and justice
  4. Gospel leaders multiplied and mobilized (at times they would leave leaders from their team because of the importance of leadership in the church.)

Later in Acts 15:36-16:5, after the conclusion of the first General Assembly of the New Testament Church in Jerusalem, Paul suggested to Barnabas that they take a second missionary journey. The narrative records their "sharp disagreement" as to whether John Mark should accompany them. The result was two mission teams instead of one. John Mark and Barnabas depart on their ministry while Paul takes Silas and later recruits Timothy on his second missionary journey. Now what would he do on this second missionary initiative?

Paul, repeated his four-fold strategy of expanding the Gospel of the Kingdom and he intentionally added another strategy - Gospel church revitalization to fulfill his repeatedly stated objective "let's return and strengthen the churches" - the same churches they had planted on their first missionary journey.

Gratefully Paul's strategy of church planting has been received and embraced with passion and energy but his emphasis on a strategy of intentional church revitalization is not embraced by today's denominations. For the most part struggling churches are left to fend for themselves and in some cases I have encountered they are encouraged to close the church while the denomination energetically pursues the planting of churches. But Paul, while remaining committed to church planting also intentionally and strategically sought to "strengthen the churches" who were stalled, plateaued or declining by leading them to spiritual health and vitality.


A Closing Challenge


In the book of Acts there are thirteen words uttered in frustrated anger from an enemy of the Gospel in Europe less than 25 years after the Ascension of Christ which I would love to hear once again - "these people who have turned the world upside down have come here also." We know who turned the "world upside down" - the people of God empowered by the Spirit of God. We know what turned the "world upside down" - the power of the Gospel. We even know how they turned the "world upside down" -- Gospel evangelism and discipleship; Gospel church planting AND church revitalization; Gospel deeds of love and mercy; and Gospel leaders multiplied and mobilized. We are not in need of new strategies we simply need to implement the Apostolic strategy to "turn the world upside down." So let's be specific. To reverse the two decade decline in the number of churches each year the evangelical church needs to do two things.

Focus upon the means of grace to produce Christ-exalting, Spirit-filled, prayer-saturated Bible-shaped, Gospel-healthy churches which are on mission, message and ministry.
Every church, presbytery, association and denomination ought to be fully committed to a two-fold Gospel ministry of church planting AND church revitalization. Not to do so is to embrace continued failure. More importantly not to do so is to at best ignore Christ and His Word and at worst to disobey Christ and His Word as well as the tried and true Apostolic strategy to fulfill the Great Commission. Let's plant more by closing fewer.

So what is church revitalization and how is it done? Glad you asked. In the next blog let's examine the church revitalization roadmap revealed by Jesus for us in His sufficient Word.


Dr. Harry L. Reeder, III is the Senior Pastor of Briarwood Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, AL. Harry completed his doctoral dissertation on "The Biblical Paradigm of Church Revitalization" and received a Doctor of Ministry Degree from Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte, North Carolina (where he serves as adjunct faculty member). He is the author of From Embers to a Flame: How God Can Revitalize Your Churchas well as a number of other published works.

Last week I posted a piece suggesting three principles by which the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) may respond to the call to confess racist tendencies in the years leading up to its founding.  One of these principles was to carefully observe the doctrine of the spirituality of the church.  I have noticed recent objections to this principle, including from fellow ministers in the PCA.  This surprises me, since the doctrine is plainly expressed in the Westminster Standards.  It has also surprised me to learn that in recent presbytery meetings of the PCA motions have been made to form permanent social justice committees.  At least one presbytery also received a motion for the PCA to publicly call for financial reparations from white people to African Americans in compensation for the institution of slavery that existed in America prior to 1865.  These actions would seem to oppose the spirituality of the church.

The Westminster Confession defines the spirituality of the church in this language:

Synods and councils are to handle, or concern nothing, but that which is ecclesiastical: and are not to intermeddle with civil affairs which concern the commonwealth, unless by way of humble petition in cases extraordinary; or, by way of advice, for satisfaction of conscience, if they be thereunto required by the civil magistrate." WCF 31:4


Every officer in the PCA has taken a vow to this confession and thus to this language.  Therefore, unless an exception has been sought and granted, one might expect church officers to support this doctrine.  Even more significant is the strong biblical basis for the spirituality of the church.  It turns out that this doctrine was not invented by racially-insensitive white Christians but by Jesus Christ and his apostles.  One way to see the biblical teaching is through the proof texts of the Confession.

The first proof text offered is Luke 12:13-14, where a man came to Jesus asking him to become involved in an inheritance dispute: "Master, speak to my brother, that he divide the inheritance with me."  Jesus' answer revealed his priorities: "Man, who made me a judge or a divider over you?"  Here was a civil justice matter involving important principles, not to mention the impact on the people involved.  We may presume that Jesus was fully away of the correct solution.  But Jesus declined to speak publicly on the matter because his office was not concerned with civil justice.  The logic is that if Jesus declined to "intermeddle with civil affairs," this same principle would extend to the officers of his church.

The second proof text is more familiar.  In Jesus' public trial, Pontius Pilate demanded to know if Jesus claimed kingship.  Our Lord answered, "My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence" (Jn. 18:36).  Here we have a plain statement from Jesus about the spirituality of his kingdom: it is not pertaining to the matters of this world.

A third proof text is Matthew 22:21, Jesus' famous declaration, "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's."  Here, Jesus acknowledges a secular realm and a spiritual realm, refusing to intermingle them in the matter of taxation.  Jesus would have known full well that Caesar used taxes unjustly.  But he told his hearers to pay them because that was Caesar's responsibility and not his.

To these clear proof texts, we may add the fact that in Philemon, Paul appeals to his reader not on the basis of civil justice but on the principle of love.  Paul did not issue statements about the institution of slavery but suggested a personal course of action befitting a Christian.  To be sure, Philemon does not endorse or defend the institution of slavery (as many 19th century Christians falsely taught).  But it does show how the apostle restricted himself to the spiritual realm pertaining to the kingdom of Christ.  This principle is seen in all of the apostle's ministry, in which he did not address himself to the profound social injustices around him but instead preached the gospel and planted churches.

Perhaps most important of all is Jesus' Great Commission, where the church receives its mission directly from the Lord: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you" (Mt. 28:19-20).  Here, the mission of the church - which its organization and activities should reflect - is evangelism, discipleship, and church building.  This is the great work of all history to which we are privileged to be called.  There is no evident biblical basis for the church to add other missions, such as social justice, to the commission given by our Lord himself.

Some might read these materials and conclude that Christians have no civil duties at all.  But this is mistaken, as Jesus emphasized in Matthew 22:21.  Christians have civil duties as citizens.  As Christian citizens, our involvement - including political activity - should reflect the ethics and values of God's Word.  But the church as the church does not have civil authority and does not have a warrant, as the Confession says, "to intermeddle with civil affairs."  When there are extraordinary cases to which the church will speak, it should restrict itself to "humble petition," whereby it declares the express teaching of Scripture, with its good and necessary consequences, and avoids comment on political strategies and endeavors.  The PCA has carefully observed this distinction in the past with respect to such vital matters as abortion and sexual/gender perversion, often refusing at its general assembly to issue political statements.  We will be blessed to follow this biblical approach in other important civil matters, including racial strife and purported matters of social injustice.

Jesus commanded the church to "teach [disciples] to observe all that I have commanded" (Mt. 28:20).  This ought to make Christians model citizens whose public and private conduct reflects the teaching of God's Word and the presence of God's gracious Spirit.  With this in mind, Christians should be urged to oppose racism and its institutions and exert their influence in the direction of racial reconciliation.  But the church has a vital spiritual mission, the eternal importance of which mandates its entire attention and resources.  Our mission, which ought to be reflected in the church's public statements and permanent structures, is well stated by the apostle Paul: "We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God" (2 Cor. 5:20).

In his Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation of 1520, Luther takes aim at the Roman Church's "flimsy and worthless" claim to possess the exclusive authority and ability (by virtue of some unique spiritual gift) to interpret Scripture. "It is a wickedly invented fable," the Reformer writes, "and they cannot produce a letter in defense of it, that the interpretation of Scripture or the confirmation of its interpretation belongs to the pope alone." Against that "fable" Luther produces biblical texts that emphasize the distribution of spiritual gifts throughout Christ's entire body and equally emphasize every Christian's need to humbly submit himself to, and benefit from, insights into the meaning of God's Word that Christ's body collectively produce. He also notes how persons in Scripture occupying legitimately authoritative roles in the life of the church -- Peter, for instance -- occasionally required correction from others. So much, Luther puts it elsewhere, for the pope's claim to get wine from the same cask that gives everyone else water.

Upon the surface, it may seem curious that Luther chases these comments about Rome's presumptuous claim of some exclusive prerogative to discern Scripture's meaning with equally fervent comments denying Rome's exclusive right to convene ecumenical councils of the church. "They have no basis in Scripture for their contention that it belongs to the pope alone to call a council or confirm its actions." Against this further presumptuous claim on Rome's part Luther recalls that both the Jerusalem Council (in Acts 15) and the Council of Nicaea (325 A.D.) are generally regarded as "Christian" (i.e., legitimate and authoritative) despite their having been convened by persons other than Peter or pope respectively. Luther also employs some common sense, in the form of an analogy for the problems presently pressing upon the church, to suggest how absurd such a claim becomes when popes refuse to actually call councils (for fear, perhaps, that such councils might point a correcting finger at them): "Would it not be an unnatural thing, if a fire broke out in a city, and everybody were to stand by and [let] it burn on and on and consume everything that could burn, for the sole reason that nobody had the authority of the burgomaster, or because, perhaps, the fire broke [out] in the burgomaster's house?" Translation: If the building's on fire and there's buckets and water standing by, you don't wait for the fireman to show up and shout directions, you just get busy throwing water in the general direction of the flames.

Why, one might ask, the concern for a church council -- why, in other words, the concern to address the church's theological and moral failings -- once one has succeeded in stripping Rome of any exclusive right to interpret Scripture? Why not just wash one's hands of the whole Roman affair and commit oneself to doctrinal purity and proper charity with like-minded individuals who embrace Scripture as the only infallible source and norm of Christian beliefs and practices?

For one thing, because in wresting the exclusive authority to interpret Scripture from the papacy's grip, Luther didn't intend to turn it over to himself or any other individual. He intended, rather, to return that right and privilege of biblical interpretation to the church (properly defined). Luther by this point in his career freely admitted that church councils can get it wrong. But he believed they were far less likely to than any discrete individual, not just because there's safety in numbers, but because the church enjoys specific promises from God that inform (without making infallible) her efforts to understand and apply God's Word to her own corporate existence. Luther's desire for a church council stemmed, then, from his perception that the true catholic church might, in relation to his own difficulties, exercise her prerogative of biblical interpretation in such a venue and decide in his favor on the issues of authority and salvation that now separated him from Rome.

But also reflected in Luther's call for a church council -- beyond the hope that such a council might, on the basis of Scripture, decide in his favor on the controverted issues of the day -- is Luther's simple love for the church. Luther, quite simply, wasn't willing to give up on the church as a (western) whole, or to rest content in the knowledge that at least a large part of that church agreed with him. This was true even after his excommunication and the establishment of state endorsed evangelical churches throughout the Holy Roman Empire and in Scandinavia. For years beyond Worms -- even when a peaceful resolution to the Reformation controversies no longer seemed possible -- Luther continued to call for a church council.

In recently re-reading and teaching on Luther's Address to the Christian Nobility, I began to wonder whether we as Protestant heirs of Luther today possess any part of his love and zeal for Christ's bride, or specifically for her catholicity and unity. I wonder, in other words, if we haven't grown too comfortable in our fragmented Protestant existence, and in the opportunity that our stretched-thin and mobile and consumeristic lifestyles present to walk away from problems in the church (at least as such problems present themselves to us in concrete congregations and denominations). To capitalize on Luther's analogy, it seems to me that the church -- no matter what form she takes in our particular lives -- is always on fire to some extent, or at least, there's almost always a fire brewing. How often are we waiting for someone to come and shout directions, or simply walking away entirely, instead of grabbing a bucket and getting to work? Is indifference our principal response to a burning church -- indifference rooted, perhaps, in the fact that in our day we think not in terms of church but of churches, and are fairly confident when fire breaks out that we can find a different congregation or denomination where things are less hot (at least for another five minutes)? As for the fires we've just walked away from when we move on -- well, as they say, someone else's problem.

We need more bucket grabbers in the church these days. And bucket grabbing, I think, looks like greater commitment to the church in its local expression and, simultaneously, commitment to the church on a much larger scale. We need less rhetoric of "service to the church" these days -- rhetoric that often masks rather blatant exploitation of the church by "Christian" organizations and individuals -- and more genuine service to the church; service, that is, driven by love; service that might leave us with singed eyelashes and splinters in our hands, but might equally save a few people from getting burned.

 

During a recent evening worship service at our church, the Rev. Scott Cook was ordained to the gospel ministry.  Scott is a recent graduation of RTS (Charlotte) and had previously been an outstanding intern at our church.  I had the enormous privilege of preaching from John 3:22-30, on the theme, "The Friend of the Bridegroom."  Ordination services are important, and I'd like to note just a few reasons why I love them.  

  1. The Church.  An ordination service reminds us that the church is not just a social body where we have all decided to hang out for a while.  Rather, it is the household of God and the repository of the means of grace.  God is always acting in the church through the means of grace, but in an ordination service we especially see God's hands resting on the man he has called.  It reminds us of God's presence in all that we do according to his Word.  An ordination service also reminds the church members that it is Christ's church more than it is their church.  Few things helps communicate to the church better than an ordination service the spiritual authority invested in the church, to which Christians are to yield proper submission by receiving God's Word from the minister's mouth.  It is also most wholesome in these gender-confused days for the church to see faithful and loving men exercising biblical leadership for the good of the whole church.  (My wife says that ordination services are her favorite: "It makes me feel like a woman to see all those faithful men in God-given authority," she says.
  2. The Gospel Ministry.  An ordination service involves the exalted Lord Jesus' on-going fulfillment of his promise to provide ministers to his gospel.  Paul writes that when Christ ascended into heaven "he gave gifts to men" (Eph. 4:6).  Among these gifts are "the pastor/teachers" (Eph. 4:11).  So to see a faithful man called and ordained into Christ's gospel ministry is to realize that our Lord continues to provide for the needs of the gospel in this world.  It gives me chills to lay hands on a new minister and to realize (without imbibing any Romish apostolic succession theories) that we are today carrying on a divine provision that goes back to the apostles and to Christ himself.  It reminds us what history is really about.
  3. The Gospel Minister.  An ordination service speaks extremely powerfully to those already ordained.  It reminds us of our high calling and its divine origin.  It points out to us the privilege and thrill of being a minister of the gospel.  It also invokes a fearful sense of responsibility and inadequacy that drives us to the grace of our Lord for our lives and ministry.  Just as, when conducting a wedding, I always make eye contact with my wife when the bride comes down the aisle -- seeing with crystal-clear memory the glory of my own wedding day -- during an ordination service I lift my eyes to my Savior and Master, letting him know that I do realize the privilege and obligation that he has given me by making me a steward of his grace.
RonDiNunzio 2.jpg
For over 60 years, the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals has been known for its commitment to the Reformed tradition. One of its seminal works, The Cambridge Declaration is a standard for the faith. As the culture continues to erode the Church, the Alliance calls pastors and churches back to the "faith once for all delivered to the saints." We are an Alliance of committed pastors, scholars, and churchmen fostering a Reformed awakening in the Church; an awakening that promotes robust, biblical, historic, confessional Christianity though media, events, and publishing

To that end, we are pleased to announce the appointment of Dr. Ronald DiNunzio as pastor-in-residence. This new position is being created to better meet the needs of local pastors and churches by both gathering and providing resources including: websites, podcasts, publications, and conferences designed to assist them and their leadership team in ministry.

The Alliance is grateful for the opportunity to come alongside the local church to help equip its members with the riches of biblical truth.  

If you would like more information on how the Alliance can help serve you and the local church please contact Pastor Ron at RDinunzio@AllianceNet.org or 215-546-3696 x20.

Text links:
http://www.alliancenet.org/cambridge-declaration
http://www.alliancenet.org/media
http://www.alliancenet.org/events
http://www.alliancenet.org/publishing

The Church in the World

|
If we're awake, we will have a keen sense of the powerful undertow of a culture that has discarded almost every reference to, or value of, Jesus Christ. To the world, the church is too often considered an obsolete community with little to say and even less to offer by way of 'relevance'. Given room to breath this thought has the potential of leading believers to forget that the church is the place where we keep fellowship with the almighty God.

It was Donald MacKinnon who once said, 'The Church is an eschatological society. It is a society which is concerned primarily with the bearing witness to the triumphant Passion of the Son of God... This witness the Church bears in virtue of her character as the mystical body of Christ'. As such, MacKinnon reasons, 'The Church's action is conditioned by her essence'. To put it otherwise, we could say that unless the church understands her identity as established and upheld in and through the person and work of Christ, then how she lives in the world - how she acts - will be inevitably determined by outside voices. 

The current series in our article section, written by Garry Williams, addresses this deep concern and examines what it means to be the church in a post-Christian culture. The first article, found here, shows just how distracted by technology the church really is and how this distraction affects our ability to hear the read and preached word of God. His second entry, published yesterday (and found here), explores how the church must have a cruciform existence, that is, living in the shadow of the cross. When the church loses her distinctiveness as a community of the cross, she becomes 'ordinary' - or, to use MacKinnon's language, she loses her 'essence'. 

I encourage you to read Garry's first two articles and anticipate the following two. We trust that you will be edified and moved to appreciate even more the wonderful fellowship of the saints that we are blessed to share in by virtue of the deep love of God.

In the Nicene Creed we confess that the church is "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic." Of these four marks, the third mark--the catholicity of the church--is probably the most susceptible to misunderstanding among evangelical Protestants.

The catholicity of the church, according to common Protestant confession, concerns the "universality" of the church. Under the authority and blessing of her risen Messiah, the church is commanded to make disciples of "all nations" through Word and sacrament (Matt 28.18-20) so that a chorus composed of every tribe, tongue, and nation may with one voice offer praise to God and to the Lamb (Rev 5.9-10). 

But the catholicity of the church is about more than just the multi-national nature of its membership. The catholicity of the church also refers to the "wholeness" of its doctrine and virtue. According to Cyril of Jerusalem, the church 
is called Catholic . . . because it extends over all the world, from one end of the earth to the other; and because it teaches universally and completely one and all the doctrines which ought to come to men's knowledge, concerning things both visible and invisible, heavenly and earthly; and because it brings into subjection to godliness the whole race of mankind, governors and governed, learned and unlearned; and because it universally treats and heals the whole class of sins, which are committed by soul or body, and possesses in itself every form of virtue which is named, both in deeds and words, and in every kind of spiritual gifts.
The church "teaches universally and completely one and all the doctrines which ought to come to men's knowledge." The church "treats and heals the whole class of sins." And the church "possesses in itself every form of virtue which is named . . . and every kind of spiritual gifts." In other words, the church teaches "the whole counsel of God" (Acts 20.27) in order that, through its teaching, Jesus Christ might redeem and renew the whole human person according to the image of God. In doing so, the church fulfills its catholic identity.

The church is called to catholicity in membership and in maturity. Both aspects of catholicity honor the supreme and universal Lordship of Jesus Christ. Both aspects of catholicity are essential to the church's well-being (see Eph 2.11-22; 4.11-16). 

In recent days we have become increasingly alert to the church's failure to pursue and realize the universal nature of its membership. In seeking to address this failure, let us also seek to address our failure to pursue and realize the fullness of Christian doctrinal and moral teaching in our ministries. The two failures, after all, are often related. Whether it be "attractional churches" or "radical grace churches," both are especially suited to the sensibilities of old white guys.

"There's one more thing I hate more than lying and that's skim milk, which is water that's lying about being milk." Ron Swanson's attitude toward skim milk should be our attitude toward skim milk Christianity. We confess the unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity of the church. Let's not be content with our failures to realize either the universality or the wholeness of the church's identity. And let's pray that the Lord of the church will grant us grace, under his Word and by his Spirit, to realize the promise of the church's identity as "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church."
I begin every semester in my Church and Sacraments course with the following quotation from Martin Luther, which Karl Barth used "In Place of a Foreword" to introduce Church Dogmatics, volume 1.2. The quotation says so much about the relationship between Christology and ecclesiology in Protestant dogmatics. And it offers so much by way of encouragement to ministry-weary pastors. So, rather than adding further comment, I will let Luther speak for himself:

It is not we who can sustain the church, nor was it our forefathers nor will it be our descendants. It was and is and will be the one who says: 'I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.' As it says in Heb. 13: 'Jesus Christ, heri, et hodie, et in secula.' And in Rev. 1: 'Which was, and is, and is to come.' Verily he is that one, and none other is or can be.

For you and I were not alive thousands of years ago, but the church was preserved without us, and it was done by the one of whom it says, Qui erat, and Heri.

Again, we do not do it in our lifetime, for the church is not upheld by us. For we could not resist the devil in the papacy and the sects and other wicked folk. For us, the church would perish before our eyes, and we with it (as we daily prove), were it not for that other Man who manifestly upholds the church and us. This we can lay hold of and feel, even though we are loth to believe it, and we must needs give ourselves to the one of whom it is said, Qui est, and Hodie.

Again, we can do nothing to sustain the church when we are dead. But he will do it of whom it is said, Qui venturus est and in secula. And what we must needs say of ourselves in this regard is what our forefathers had also to say before us, as the Psalms and other Scriptures testify, and what our descendants will also experience after us, when with us and the whole church they sing in Psalm 124: 'If the Lord himself had not been on our side, when men rose up against us,' and Psalm 60: 'O be thou our help in trouble, for vain is the help of man.'

... May Christ our dear God and the Bishop of our souls, which he has bought with his own precious blood, sustain his little flock by the might of his own Word, that it may increase and grow in grace and knowledge and faith in him. May he comfort and strengthen it, that it may be firm and steadfast against all the crafts and assaults of Satan and this wicked world, and may he hear its hearty groaning and anxious waiting and longing for the joyful day of his glorious and blessed coming and appearing. May there be an end of this murderous pricking and biting of the heel, of horrible poisonous serpents. And may there come finally the revelation of the glorious liberty and blessedness of the children of God, for which they wait and hope with patience. To which all those who love the appearing of Christ our life will say from the heart, Amen, Amen.

Do you attend a perfect Church?

|
You're in a faithful church, but someone complains about this, that, and the other, and so wants to leave. What do you say? 

#1 I agree this church isn't perfect...

#2 This is a perfect church, why would you leave a perfect church?

#1 and #2 are possibilities, but my sympathies are with #2. Why?

Based on what the Scriptures teach about the local churches in the New Testament, we need to be realistic that all churches have various problems (Rev. 2-3). The Westminster Confession of Faith rightly draws attention to more or less pure churches (WCF 25.4-5). Yet, even the Corinthian church, with all of its problems, and there were many, was still addressed as "the church of God that is in Corinth" (1 Cor. 1:2).

So, yes, we could focus on the fact that churches throughout the world are beset with problems. But we could also focus on the fact that faithful, biblical churches, where the three marks exist (see also Acts 2:42), are nonetheless perfect churches. 

How is this possible?

There are different ways to understand "perfect": the perfection of sincerity; the perfection of parts; comparative perfection; evangelical perfection; legal perfection; high-priestly perfection. What do I mean?

We are the Apple of God's eye (Zech. 2:8), his treasured possession (Ex. 19:5; Mal. 3;17; 1 Pet. 2:9). In Christ, fully justified and accepted before God, we are perfect (legally speaking). And even in our sanctification, there is a type of perfection that exists among God's people who have the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit dwelling in their hearts (Matt. 5:48; cf. Greek of Phil. 3:15 [teleioi]; also see Francis Turretin, Institutes, 17.2.4 or this post on "perfection" in believers).

Christ gave himself up for the church in order to sanctify her, "having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish" (Eph. 5:25-27). This is a present reality.

When people are disgruntled with their local church, they likely could use a healthy dose of reality from the perspective of God and Christ. If he loves the church, despite her shortcomings, who are we to hate it? Doesn't he know the sins and shortcomings of the church better than we do? And yet he loves the church infinitely more than we can. You can't love Christ but hate his bride. And where the Spirit of Christ dwells among God's people, there Christ dwells as if he were physically present himself. Would you leave a church with Christ physically present?

Christ is the head over the church, but we, his bride, are described as the "fullness of him who fills all in all" (Eph. 1:22-23). Think about that! We are the fullness of the God-man. Without us, Christ is empty. Now if that much is true, and I believe it is, how can faithful, bible-believing churches not be perfect?

We should also keep in mind that sin in the church is necessary for us to deal with our own sins. We're to love all of God's people, warts and all, all the time. Try inviting the most obnoxious person in the church over for lunch. When someone does something stupid or annoying, are you not faced with having to show patience, love, and compassion (Gal. 5:22)?

We could also apply this to faithful pastors in churches. Indeed, they are sinners who make mistakes. But they are sinners whom God has given to your church. These pastors feed God's sheep by faithfully preaching a perfect Saviour. You might do well to remember that if God has given you a faithful pastor, he is the perfect pastor for you. Indeed, his weaknesses can actually be a benefit to you (see 2 Corinthians). And let's face it, with all of the charlatans out there masquerading as preachers, when in fact they are thieves and robbers, it isn't too out of place to say you have the perfect pastor if he does what Paul commands Timothy in 1 Timothy 4:16.

People who are looking for the perfect church are sometimes told that if they find it the church will no longer be perfect because they (a sinner) are now there. But maybe they need to be told, when they're feeling grumpy, unwanted, unloved, under-appreciated, etc., that they are in the perfect church because, after all, it doesn't matter so much what they think, but what Christ thinks. 

And maybe, just maybe, if we started to look at our church more from the perspective of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we might be less ready to criticize a place that is actually perfect for us. 

At bottom, my natural inclination and temptation is to focus on #1 (i.e., the problems and sins of the church). But I need to focus on #2 otherwise I'd get depressed, give up, and constantly complain. Do you attend a perfect church? I hope so.

Our Church Plant Welcome Video

|
After 8 months of attempting to plant a church in Richmond, Virginia, by God's grace, we had our first service on October 26, 2014. Crown and Joy Presbyterian Church meets each Sunday at 2pm.

Here is our welcome video.
Offline eighteen days and Trueman vanishes from the site, Turk takes on Jones's and Levy's presbyterianism, and I miss "Deviant Calvinism week." Conspiracy theorists (and perhaps certain biblical theology practitioners) might discern a theme, but enough about what everyone else is discussing.

I thought the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong were going to fade before I was back online, but they continue. In mainland China the headlines are mostly on other issues or about how these pesky youths are frustrating commuters in the once orderly colony. (Such party-supporting spin is exactly the sort of thing Hong Kongers are trying to resist.) Meanwhile, WSJ online ran Ned Levin's piece under this headline: "Hong Kong Democracy Protests Carry a Christian Mission for Some."

Levin reports that many of the protest organizers self-identify as Christian, "including the 17-year-old leader of a student group and two of the three heads of Occupy Central." One of the latter two is a baptist minister, the other a professor. Also, one of the most outspoken supporters of the Occupy Central protest group is the city's former Roman Catholic bishop. Reports from other quarters indicate that both evangelical and more liberal protestants are participating in disproportionate numbers relative to their share of the general population, and the whole affair has a clear, but not exclusive, Christian cast to it with Jesus-themed signs, barricades doubling as chapels, public Christian prayers, and the like.

Yet, one of the leading critics of the movement is the Anglican Archbishop, who seems to cast the organizers as uninformed and misguided in a heavily-criticized sermon; and Joshua Wong, the 17-year-old student organizer, has reportedly been frustrated over the refusal of church leaders to take a more activist stance. But there are very good reasons for church leaders, however sympathetic their personal political convictions may be, to hold back:

First, democracy is not the church's message or her mission. The church, as the only institution on earth entrusted with God's word, has things to say to civil magistrates and she must be willing to say those things even when it will cost her dearly (in worldly terms). Democracy, however, is neither her message nor her mission. Confusion on this point will undermine her ability to care for God's people and maintain the purity and potency of her witness; it will also do real harm to the wider society. The world needs the church to be the church, not some sort of political action committee. Besides, she will mangle whatever political activism she does attempt because she was not designed and ordered for that work; her work is to glorify God by proclaiming the gospel to all people in all places and to gather in and perfect the elect as worshipers through the ministry of word and sacrament.

Second, politicizing the church seems unlikely to do any good for the cause of Christ in China or the world. To closely associate the church with disruptive democratic protests in defiance of the rulers in Beijing, especially in the wake of recent disputes over church property in some locations, seems likely to undermine those voices within the party that lobby for a more moderate stance toward the tens of thousands of unregistered churches that fill the mainland. In recent decades, an unofficial but clearly evident (and very welcome) tolerance has emerged. It remains as fragile as the party is paranoid, and any unnecessary politicization of the church or Christian identity in China could do serious and perhaps permanent harm to millions of Christians who love their country, strive to live peaceably under its rulers, and seek the welfare of their neighbors. 

I do not judge our brothers and sisters who have made the decision to join the protests in Hong Kong--on the contrary--but I hope they are clear that they do so as citizens of Hong Kong and China and not as a matter of Christian mission. More to the the point of this post, I hope this helps you pray well for the church in China, in both Hong Kong and the mainland, not only in light of recent headlines but also in view of the continuing integration of Hong Kong and her churches into mainland China.




Less Gushing, More Blushing

|
Biographical description many pastors write for the web site of their church: "Married to the most beautiful woman in the world."

"We have the best youth pastor in the country."

"He's the smartest guy in every room..."

I often joke that the most beautiful woman in the world must be getting very tired.  How would you like to be the wife to thousands of pastors?

The line about the youth pastor came out of the mouth of a seasoned pastor.  He clearly wanted us to know how special our youth pastor was. I remember thinking that our senior pastor could not possibly know every youth pastor in the country to make such an assessment. Even if that were possible, it would mean our senior pastor would be God, for only God can determine who is really best, or more importantly, faithful.  

The last quote is a direct quote from the address of an evangelical leader about another evangelical leader. Both guys certainly have much to offer, but it shows how even good people can get caught up in hyperbole.

When I was doing radio, one of my most faithful listeners told me that I "was the smartest guy on radio."  I told him that was depressing to hear. Was the bar really that low?  A bit more seriously, I gently asked him if he had listened to every single show on American radio.  He was simply trying to encourage me, but again it demonstrates how much we Americans love superlatives.  "Good, better, best.  Never let it rest.  Till your good is better, and your better is best."  

There is nothing wrong of course with shooting to do excellent work.  I attempt to do so myself.  But the amount of cheerleading among Americans, including us evangelicals, needs to be seriously monitored.

Evangelicals aren't the only ones doing this sort of thing.  Sure, many of us continue to say D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones was the "greatest preacher of the twentieth-century," but Baylor University got in the act when it posted its "12 Most Effective Preachers."

We Americans love this stuff. Who are the people that really matter?  Perhaps we know one of them. Maybe if we follow them on Twitter they will return the favor. Spoiler alert: D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones does not have a Twitter account.

Not only do those who supposedly matter get our attention, but big things do as well.  Big Christian conferences are a cottage industry in America. Good things surely happen at such events. I've attended and spoken at some.  However, are we enamored, even being seduced by these big events?  Are we in danger of trumpeting the impressive numbers as a barometer for their legitimacy? It's hard to even entertain such questions, especially when lots of money and jobs are tied up with them. 

About a year ago I was talking with a dear friend who does men's ministry in Canada.  He is Canadian, but has spent quite a bit of time in the US. As we talked about various ways to minister to men, he mentioned that Canadians are suspicious of big things. It is why Promise Keepers was not a big deal in Canada, but was the thing for many years here in the States.  Promise Keepers has now gone the way of the Dodo bird, but other big things are amply filling the vacuum that was temporarily left.

Perhaps a restaurant chain can help us gain a better perspective.  Here in Austin we have several places which serve barbecue.  One in particular stands out for its tagline.  Rudy's bills itself as "The worst barbecue in Texas."  You can't set the bar any lower than that.  Actually, the barbecue is quite good as the consistently brisk business attests.

Maybe Christians ought to consider a little less fanfare about how great their particular organization does things. Triumphalism is endemic in American culture, but do Christians really need to go along with such silliness?

Years ago, I interviewed Cal Thomas on his important book, Blinded by Might: Can the Religious Right Save America? Thomas co-authored the book with Ed Dobson. Both authors served in positions of influence during the heyday of The Moral Majority.  When Jerry Falwell died, Cal Thomas wrote a moving obituary, but still was willing to say what needed to be said:
The movement [The Moral Majority] also had its downside, because it tended to detract from a Christian's primary responsibility of telling people the "good news" that redemption comes only through Jesus Christ. At times, this central message seemed to be replaced by one suggesting that a shortcut to moral renewal might come through Washington and the Republican Party.
My only disappointment with Blinded by Might was that its message did not get out earlier.  Imagine if Thomas and Dobson instead of being vilified or marginalized for writing were honored by The Moral Majority for having the courage to speak truth to power.  Now ask yourself this diagnostic question: How many people do you know who have given a pointed critique to their own Christian organization and not suffered repercussions for doing so?

"Less gushing, more blushing" would furnish the kind of culture where people can appropriately raise concerns within their organizations without being labelled a troublemaker.  A sign of real health in any organization is where concerns, even pointed ones, can be openly discussed without any fear of reprisals.  

  

David George Moore is the author of three books, most recently, The Last Men's Book You'll Ever Need. For those who would like to interact with Dave (no yelling or rants, please) you may find his blog at www.twocities.org  
Having been raised on the cartoon television show, Tom and Jerry, I am accustomed to seeing Tom's curiosity lead to his demise. Time after time, he could not seem to learn that Jerry was craftier, perhaps wiser, and determined to make him look foolish. I do not think the old adage, "Curiosity killed the cat" derived from this cartoon show, but it was surely emphasized repeatedly.

Tom, however, is not the only one who is drawn by curiosity. We are, too. At times, walking down the aisle of curiosity can be good (e.g., trying an accent pillow on your sofa or attempting to duplicate a faux finish that you saw on a television show), but there are times when it is not. I have seen this version of curiosity lead to much damage in the church. What is it, you ask? It is in the title of this blog: "listening when you shouldn't."

I wish it were not so easy to get to this point. Our desires to express sympathy, coupled, perhaps, with curiosity, often take us to a place where we should not be. I recall a certain situation when a woman--let's called her, Susie--was extremely upset at one of her pastors. Susie concluded that the course of action this pastor took was wrong. Her response was to tell others in the church about it. Numerous people allowed her to "bend their ear," as the saying goes. One thing led to another and she eventually developed an entourage that supported her cause. There was great damage in the church as a result. Thankfully, the situation was eventually reconciled and Susie repented of her mischievous actions.

Should anyone, outside of those directly involved in the situation, have listened to Susie? She was hurting, had questions, and needed to share her concerns. It seems there is a way to help Susie without letting one's curiosity enable her to share the particulars of the situation. Let's face it. When turmoil is developing in the church, inquiring minds want to know. Unfortunately, trying to hear one side of a situation can too easily evolve into gossip and, as this specific situation demonstrated, additional (and unnecessary) conflict in the church.

If you notice someone is hurting, and that person begins to share the details of the situation, you may want to consider asking that individual to refrain from sharing specifics of the circumstances, which may include names, dates, location, etc. I know it may be difficult, but many times we have no business knowing all of the details. Do not let curiosity lead you down the wrong path. Do not let your desires to be sympathetic cause you to hear details you should not. You may end up getting involved in gossip, hearing false details, and making wrong conclusions. We need to be there for each during difficulties, but even then we must be cautious. 

Yes, curiosity killed the cat, but apparently cats have nine lives. Listening when you should not is easy to repeat. Sometimes the damage is not readily apparent, which seems to justify your sympathetic ear. However, whether the stakes seem high or not, we should all be careful that we do not allow ourselves to listen to details to which we have no business listening. 
"People see me all the time
And they just can't remember how to act.
Their minds are filled with big ideas,
Images, and distorted facts."
                                                 Bob Dylan

Two realities have played a large role in shaping my identity: my blindness and my Christian faith.  I have at times struggled with just how these two things about me coalesce.  

Recently, my wife and I attended a church service, and when it was over, we were approached by an elderly woman who asked if she could pray for us.  

"Certainly," we both said.  She began to pray, and before long, she was asking the Lord to heal us of our blindness.  Let's just say that the experience was very off-putting.  Meaning well is not always synonymous with doing well.  My wife and I had a good laugh over it later, but our initial response to this incident was frankly a sense of embarrassment.  The event also made both of us wonder why it seems sometimes to be the case that one's faith is thought to be stronger if one prays for healing than it is if one simply accepts life as it is and makes the most of it with all of its joys and sorrows.

Dealing with one's identity of course is hard for anyone who faces squarely the question, "Who am I?"  When you give the answer to that question, "I am a Christian," matters do not get easier but harder to the extent that you take the Bible as the Word of God and hence approach it with the seriousness you think it warrants.  So then, how should I feel about passages like Leviticus 21:18 that exclude blind descendants of Aaron from performing the functions of priests?  Granted, other physical deformities are singled out for divine exclusion as well in this passage.  And then, there is the famous narrative in John 9 about Jesus healing a blind beggar.  In the process of healing him though, Jesus does something that would certainly have scared me if I had been the blind beggar in this narrative.  He spits on the ground (John 9:6).  He then takes the saliva and makes mud, putting it on the eyes of the blind man.  How did the man in the story feel initially?  We are not told, and we have no way of knowing.  Had it been me, my first instinct would have been to step back.  The mere sound of someone spitting, regardless of whether I know him or not, if I hear it in a public place, at the very least makes me want to take shelter against the wind that might inadvertently blow spittle in my direction.  

Church leaders at times too have said some very offensive things about the blind.  I cite the following from Charles Haddon Spurgeon's sermon The Blind Beggar as he is answering the question concerning how the blind man came to hear about and place faith in Christ: "It certainly could not have been because he had traveled much through the country, for blind men stay at home; they care not to journey far. There is nothing they can see. However fair the landscape, they cannot drink it in with their eyes; whatever lovely spots others may behold, there are no attractions for their blank survey. They therefore stay at home."

Before I continue, let me say at once that my annoyance with Spurgeon here should not be construed to mean that he should not be read or respected.  Such a response would be uncharitable at best and stupid at worst.  As a teenager, I benefited from Spurgeon's book All of Grace, and I admire him for many things.  And to be fair to him, he was likely making these statements based on blind people he either knew or about whom he had heard.  Nonetheless, the unspoken assumption in his remarks is that the only people who could truly benefit from travel are the sighted since they are the ones who experience the attractions of landscapes.  Again, to be fair, the idea that people as much as possible should have equal access to jobs, media, etc., had not yet penetrated society in the way that it would in the twentieth century.  

It is safe to say that the examples I have offered both from the Bible and from Spurgeon do not go very far in painting blind individuals in a positive light.  The image of a blind person is often that of someone who is incompetent, sad because she has no sight, unable to do the normal things for herself expected from others.  If you live by yourself, no one usually cooks for you, cleans your house, lays out your clothes, washes, or dresses you.  (And to be clear, no one thankfully volunteers to do these things for my wife and me either).  

Even though many blind people are capable of doing these things for themselves and in fact do them, the image for many people remains unaltered even if they know theoretically that blind people don't need this kind of help.  With this image in mind, reinforced by what people hear from the Bible or think they hear from it, often I suspect that many church people decide they just don't know how to treat blind people within their group.  My wife and I have been fortunate to find many church members who have been willing to go to lunch with us or invite us to their homes.  We have of course also felt at times quite alone after a service when everyone is standing around chatting while we are standing somewhat awkwardly off to the side.

The Bible depicts life as it was lived in the first century, but we now live in the 21st century, and political and social culture have changed tremendously.  Technology and helpful social programs in many parts of the United States at least have made it possible for more blind people to hold down jobs and support families.  I think that more people know this, but why is it the case that blind people (and for that matter others with disabilities) often feel more marginalized by the church than they do by those who make no profession of faith of any kind?  Why does there seem to be on the one hand an awareness of progress for the blind by almost anyone who is aware of current trends while at the same time several people within the church who still regard the blind as those who need to be helped instead of equals who can serve with them rather than simply be served?  

That the image still resides in the minds of many of blind people as incompetent and helpless is evident when someone you've just met comes over and exclaims: "Your house is so clean!"  This exclamation is part of a larger issue that we might call the amazement syndrome.  If you are blind, people can be simply amazed if you come across as smart or well-dressed or informed about the latest and greatest television banalities.  Whether it is in the form of too much amazement or too little confidence in the blind, I contend it is largely because that image of the incompetent and helpless blind guy still haunts the minds of many people.  

What then should we do?  The first answer is to conform our thinking to reality.  Blind people now don't have to beg, and none of the blind people I know in fact do.  Because of wonderful advances in technology, blind people now text, use email, make popcorn in the microwave, watch television, and hold down jobs as lawyers, scientists, teachers, pastors, customer service representatives, etc.  

Secondly, rather than worrying about how to act in front of the blind, simply interact with them the way you would anyone else you are trying to make feel welcome.  Invite them out to lunch or into your home like you would a new visitor to church.  Simply put, to the question, "What should I do in the case of the blind person who comes to church?", the answer is: just what you would do for anyone else by showing hospitality and respect.

Just as there is neither Greek nor Jew, male and female, in Christ Jesus, so finally there is neither sighted or blind.  While I by no means wish to sacrifice each individual's uniqueness as blind, sighted, male, female, white, black, etc., to a bland homogeneity, it still remains true that the most important thing for Christians at least is the unity expressed in the faith as we fellowship together.  Starting with this focus might help put some of the other things mentioned in this post in a better perspective.

Cody Dolinsek is working towards a PhD with Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth TX. Be sure to also read Cody here - http://www.reformation21.org/blog/2014/06/what-do-those-with-disabilitie.php

Do You See What I See?: A Glimpse from the Pulpit

|
Dear Church*,

In his book, Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture, Graeme Goldsworthy remarked, "The act of proclaiming, or preaching, was not the giving of opinions or of reinterpreting old religious traditions in new and creative ways. It was proclaiming the word of God. Whatever the form of the proclamation, the content was the gospel of Jesus..." (32). Curiously, the Second Helvetic Confession uses different language to, perhaps, convey the same point. "The preaching of the word of God is the word of God. Wherefore when this word of God is now preached in the church by preachers lawfully called, we believe that the very word of God is proclaimed..."

Do you believe this? I wonder if you do. Hopefully a glimpse from the pulpit will provide insight into my curiosity. 

Some of you sleep throughout the sermon. I would love to conclude that you have a medical condition causing this, but my initial investigation reveals contrary information. The truth is you are busy, busy with childrens' activities, employment, leisurely enterprises that keep you awake late on Saturdays, and a host of other events. It is no wonder you are falling asleep in church. She gets what remains of your energy and attentiveness, which are nearly absent. Perhaps reflection upon and implementation of this section of the Directory of Public Worship will help.

"In order to sanctify the day, it is necessary for [people] to prepare for its approach. They should attend to their ordinary affairs beforehand, so that they may not be hindered from setting the Sabbath apart to God. It is advisable for each individual and family to prepare for communion with God in his public ordinances. Therefore, they ought to do this by reading the Scriptures, by holy meditation, and by prayer, especially for God's blessing on the ministry of the Word and sacraments" (DPW 1.A.3.a-b).

Others of you enjoy lively Facebook and Twitter conversations during the sermon. I am surprised your conscience is not bothering you. I am, perhaps, equally surprised that no one in the pew is stopping you. Maybe they do not notice it, but I do. Sure, you may argue that you are simply reading your Bible on your iPhone. At times that may be true, but your Twitter and Facebook posts correspond to the exact time of my sermon, which gives me reason to believe you are doing more than reading along in your Bible. Can Twitter and Facebook wait? God is speaking. Are you listening?

I might ask the same question but from a different perspective to another group. I know there are many avid note takers in the congregation. I am thankful for your attentiveness, and perhaps taking notes helps you maintain focus, but I hope you know the ministry of the word is much more than information. It is not a classroom exercise. God actually ministers to you through the preaching of the word. That is, he is continually refashioning your heart into the image of the Son. Do you realize that, or have you concluded that sermons are simply another way to obtain knowledge and tell others what you know about the Bible?

These are some of the things I notice from the pulpit. However, if this is all I saw, I might remain in a state of discouragement. 

Many of you sit on the edge of your seat anticipating the progression of the sermon from point-to-point. I can tell, by your facial expression and body language, you are eager to hear the gospel. In fact, based on the conversations I have had with you, you live from Sunday to Sunday. You have embraced, as much as you are able, the words of scripture as mentioned in Hebrews 12:18-24. You recognize the magnitude of what is occurring each Lord's Day. Thank you. You provide encouragement as I minister God's word.
 
Parent(s), I know it can be difficult to have younger children in worship on the Lord's Day. They wiggle, talk, and fidget, but you keep them with you. I know it can be a struggle. Thank you for wrestling through the difficulties of having young children in service. They belong with us. Please do not feel obligated to leave worship at every little noise they make. They are children; we expect it. If people turn their heads to look at you in a dissatisfactory manner, ignore them. It is their issue, not yours. God speaks to them just as much as he does to adults. As you continue to push through these difficulties, rest assured it will not always be this way. As they get older you will have to worry about them less and less in the service.

Do you see what I see? Since most people do not get a glimpse from the pulpit, I wanted to share a few things that I notice.

*This is not directed at any particular church. Rather, it is a collection of observations ministers have shared with me over time.

Cross-Cultural Ministry: Awkwardness and Celebration

|
I have had a change of heart. I wonder if and how it will work.

Days ago, Ed Stetzer wrote a piece at Christianity Today, titled, "More Thoughts on Multicultural Church: 3 Things to Consider About Multiculturalism." It is a great article and worth your time.

Here are several quotations from the article.

"A multicultural church is a foretaste of the family of God we will experience in eternity. Doing multicultural ministry is a gift because it gives us a glimpse of forever."

"If you're going to engage in multicultural ministry you're going to hurt somebody's feelings or have your feelings hurt. Different cultures have different pressure points that are often unknown to those on the outside. Conflict is inevitable, but when it occurs we can apologize and move forward."

"A multicultural church is not simply about skin tone, but about the intentional, effective engagement of cultures. Racially diverse churches may be as culturally homogeneous as churches that lack racial diversity."

Interestingly enough I was recently talking to those in our church plant Bible study about the third quotation. We are ethnically diverse, but we are somewhat culturally homogenous. Our desire is to see people, whose culture differs, become a part of what we are doing in south Richmond, Virginia, but I am certain that as our cultural diversity increases, certain relationships will get a bit awkward. When you fill a room with people whose education preferences differ (e.g., homeschool, public or private school), ideas for how one should dress on Sunday differ, musical tastes/current living accommodations/group of friends/financial tax bracket/English dialect differs, cultures will clash.

Consider your church. In whatever denomination you reside and wherever you happen to be located, imagine if someone visited your church on Sunday with a gold full frontal, dreadlocks, and tattoos on his neck and arms. How would your church respond? I would hope he would be warmly received and invited into your homes. That is the ideal. Unfortunately, his appearance may cause some people to avoid him. For those who do talk to him, however, there will be a period of awkwardness because of his culture. His culture clearly differs from that of those who likely already attend your church. What do you do?

Knowing this, I previously believed that, amid such differences, we should search for our similarities. (I still believe this). What I did not highlight as much during my previous conversations with those in our church plant, however, was our differences. We need to celebrate them. In other words, instead of allowing our differences to divide us, thank God for the diversity he places in our churches and let's take the time to learn about it. It is possible, it seems, that when we gather around different cultures, our awkwardness, due to our differences, can be a fuse to ignite our celebration for having those who differ culturally in our midst.

What does this look like?

Practically, I have no idea. The vast majority of churches of which I have been a part are culturally homogenous. Theoretically, I have some ideas. I wonder if and how it will work.

Lord willing, as our church plant continues to grow, I will let you know if my theoretical ideas actually work. Something tells me that it will but not because I have great ideas but because the Lord has surrounded me with a group of people who desire diversity in all areas. They are willing to be stretched if people enter our midst who are unlike us culturally. They want it! They pray for it! They are active in seeking it! In theory, that is one thing that will help a church become culturally diverse. The people need to desire it, pray for it, and seek it. If it just the pastor who wants to see his church culturally reflect the community in which the church is placed, the church will have a much harder time cultivating that type of diversity.  Everyone needs to want it  from the pastor to the parishioners and they must actually do something about it.

That is one part of my theory. I wonder if and how all the details will work out. I hope to let you know.

Donald Sterling's Racist Remarks?

|
Much is being said about Donald Sterling's alleged racist remarks. From the landslide of articles written, Facebook and Twitter posts, the verdict seems clear. He made racist comments. While I would love to weigh in on the controversy, I cannot. I did not listen fully to his remarks, whether the shortened or extended versions. I must say, however, this is something we can expect from the world. Unbelievers divide themselves based on the color of one's skin. I would further suggest that they also intentionally segregate based on one's socio-economic status and cultural preferences.

Do Christians, however, do the same?

We are in the world but not of the world. We should not be identified as maintaining the same unfortunate patterns of segregation that the world harbors. In most churches, though, it seems that we have succumbed to the world's principles. Put differently, many of our churches are segregated for the same reasons the world divides themselves: ethnicity, cultural, and socio-economic status. To say otherwise would be foolish! Yes, the 11th hour is still the most segregated hour in America. I wish Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s statement was a lie!

Although I believe this is a sad commentary on the church today, there are reformed and Presbyterian churches that desire to do something about it. Without compromising scripture to garner diversity in the various aforementioned areas, these churches desire to accurately reflect the ethnic, cultural, and socio-economic reality in their communities. To name some:

New City Fellowship (Chattanooga, Fredericksburg, and St. Louis)
City of Hope
Soaring Oaks
Grace Mosaic
Living Faith Bible Fellowship
Christ Central
Redeemer (Jackson)

How did they get there? Whether an established congregation or a church plant, they had to ask, "How do we attract the people in our community that are underrepresented in our church?" It is an extremely simple question but one that requires self-examination, research about those in the community, prayer, uncomfortable conversations, and Bible reading.

When confronted with the previous question, some churches have had to realize they are unfriendly. It was their lack of warmth to visitors that caused those in the community to retreat no sooner than they entered the church building. When considering the aforementioned question, others have had to recognize their lack of evangelistic zeal in the community. Since many churches are largely commuter churches, there is no need to reach out to those in the community immediately surrounding the church building because the church building, many times, is nothing more than a place where people meet on Sunday or the pastor meets to conduct counseling and study the scriptures.

Many, I am sure, reading this post thus far would suggest that if those things are present in a congregation, it should be something the session or consistory and congregation immediately need to change. Who would claim that, according to the scriptures, local churches should be unfriendly? Who would suggest, according to the scriptures, the church should not be interested in seeing those in the community surrounding its meeting location come to saving faith? It is a third suggestion, however, with which local congregations have had to deal where many begin to push back--intentionality

With whom do you have close relationships? Since, in my experience, this saying is true: birds of a feather flock together, it is likely that most of your close relationships are with people who look like you (ethnicity) and act like you (culture) . Yes, you may interact with those unlike you in the work place, especially if you work outside the home, but I wonder if those same people are the ones who frequent your dinner table and take trips to the park with you.

You see, it is those close relationships with others where we sometimes feel most comfortable sharing the gospel and inviting people to church. And since those close relationships are often with people who look and act like us it is no wonder most of our reformed and Presbyterian churches are homogenous (whatever ethnicity, culture, or socio-economic status present). By the way, let me go on the record as saying this applies just as much to all black churches as it does any other ethnicity. I am an equal opportunity, "Let's look like the community in which we are planted" pastor. (I probably should add some caveats to those last two statements [e.g., historical realities to segregated churches], but you can make of it what you desire. I hope it is what I intended).

Intentionally building relationships with those who are unlike you will help the church, and you personally, in many ways. If, after building those relationships, you invite someone to your church who is either looking for a church or an unbeliever you desire to see saved, and they visit but do not return, you have a close enough relationship with the person to ask, "Why?" The answer to the question might surprise you.

It might not be the liturgy as some suppose. At our church plant, which is primarily composed of minorities presently, we will have a standard, perhaps some might even suggest, hyper-standard, reformed liturgy. We will have a call to worship, reading of the law, confession of sins while kneeling, various other prayers, singing, an Old and New Testament scripture reading, sermon, confession of faith, Lord's Prayer, Lord's Supper, covenant baptism (when necessary) and benediction weekly. No one, at least to my knowledge, who is committed to our church plant is allergic to this liturgy.

Contrary to popular belief, the reason many people of color or those who differ culturally and socio-economically do not remain at your church may not even have much to do with the music. Yes music helps, and if visitors hear their heart language in the music, it may make them feel more comfortable, but to place all of one's emphasis on the music regarding why visitors are not staying in your congregation is a bit shallow and speaks unfortunate realities about how you, personally, view other ethnic groups. 

At one time my family was a member at an Orthodox Presbyterian Church. The music they employed was a complete shock to me. I was accustomed to either so-called black praise music or contemporary music. To enter a church where people were singing mostly hymns and psalms was unearthing to my previous experiences. Nevertheless, people intentionally befriended my family even from the first day we visited. Although it took some getting used to, we remained at that church for some years.

This is not to say we should not consider altering our musical preferences, which are not biblical standards, to help those in the community feel more comfortable at our place of worship. Rather I am suggesting that it was the intentional relationship building that made it easier for my family to remain at that particular OPC.

I recognize the intentionality that occurred in our visit to that church and the intentionality I am espousing in this post are different. My family visited that church before anyone in that congregation had a relationship with us, but that was a fairly unique situation. Our gateway to that church was seminary. If you take that factor out of the equation, visiting an OPC was not on our radar. In fact, we did not know what an OPC was. This is all the more reason to be intentional in our relationship building.

Please do not misunderstand me. I am not claiming that we need to establish relationships with those who are unlike us for relationship's sake. No! I confess and believe that the gospel transcends all ethnic, cultural, and socio-economic boundaries. The book of Acts proves that (cf. Acts 1:8; 13:1-3). The church at Philippi proves that! What I am saying is that we should build these relationships, as uncomfortable as it may be initially, for Christ's sake! Just as intentional as he was to claim a people who were unlike him, so, too, we should seek to do the same. No, we cannot save people. That is Jesus' service to humanity, but we can walk through our personal Samaria (John 4) and be intentional about building relationships with those who are culturally, ethnically, and financially unlike us. 

I believe the promises God gave to Abraham! "Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations" (Genesis 17:4). In our diverse community in Richmond, Virginia, I desire to see that reality manifested every Sunday! Do you?

A plea to prospective university students

|
From time to time, in the weeks leading up to the beginning of the new school year, I receive enquiries about churches in particular places. They usually go something like this: "So-and-so has got a place to study this-or-that at such-and-such university in such-and-such a city. Do you know of any good church that he or she could go to?"

My initial response is almost always to hang my head in my hands, because I am grieved over the failure of the prospective students and their parents and perhaps their pastors to consider the consequences of their actions and to plan accordingly. In one sense, there is no good time of the year to address this, but hopefully that means that this is not a bad time. For some, I hope it will be timely, and help you to make the right decision in the right way in the right time.

What would you think of someone who told you that they had made arrangements to move to a new planet, and then asked if you knew if the atmosphere was breathable? Or that they were on their way to a new country, but they were not sure if there would be any food there that they could eat, and did you have any recommendations? You would look at them as if they were mad! Air to breathe and food to eat: surely these are your first considerations when planning such a significant step, not the questions that you worry about once the business of getting there has been accomplished!

So why is it that year after year, professing Christians students (and their parents) plan their intellectual, academic, professional or social development (or invest in the development of their offspring), and only subsequently ask whether or not their souls will receive faithful and loving care in the only environment on earth that Christ has ordained as the normal means for the lasting health of his people?

Consider this: those three or more years at university occur at a seminal time of life under peculiarly trying circumstances. For many, this will be the first time away from home, away from the protection of parents and the shepherding of the pastors they have always known. They will go into a stimulating, demanding environment with a host of new enticements, fresh temptations, different companions, peculiar challenges, and unexpected opportunities. For many, the regular and immediate outward restraints of knowing and being known, of parental government and pastoral oversight, will be removed for a prolonged period of time. And all this at a time when the character is only just being formed, when physically, mentally, emotionally and very often spiritually, there is a degree of uncertainty and instability and often immaturity alongside rapid development. The previous anchor points of life are necessarily (and not necessarily unhealthily) being altered, and the soul may drop its anchors in better places, worse places, or simply be cast adrift. And into this potentially fruitful, potentially devastating environment goes the student, and he or she often does so without any notion of where they will find Christian care, compassion, example and instruction over the long haul. Could it be that one of the reasons why we see so many professing Christians falling away or losing their way during their university years is that they have headed off to their colleges and courses without first determining where and how they will obtain their spiritual sustenance?

This is not an argument against Christian unions and the like, nor is it an argument for stay-at-home-or-local schooling, but such a situation reflects a cripplingly low and badly mistaken view of the church, and the Christian's relationship to it. One fears that neither the parents nor the pastors of the church from which the prospective student comes have ever made clear the Christian's priorities, or - if one or other have set them forth - that they have been thoroughly rebuffed. If that is the foundation, what will be the building? How strange to see a Christian parent providing books, clothes, funds, food, and making countless other investments in the success of a university place, and then seeming merely to hope that their child will not make shipwreck of the faith along the way without making any of the appropriate provisions for the care of their souls!

I acknowledge that the prospective student may not be a Christian, and may relish the prospect of finally being out from under the compassionate, concerned and determined government of church and home. Even so, surely a concerned parent or pastor might give well-meaning counsel in the hopes that - whatever the young person's response may be initially - should there ever be a softening, or a need for care, there will be someone on hand to provide it with faithfulness and tenderness? Is there no prospect that a message could be sent to a pastor in the university town to keep an eye open for an uncertain or slightly disgruntled new face in the congregation over the first few weeks of term?

Of course, the same holds true of decisions relating to employment and other spheres. A fantastic promotion, much improved prospects, a more impressive salary, a lovely new home in a much better area, a wonderful school for the kids and so on and so forth . . . and a potential spiritual dryness that may well hold back the spiritual development of a child of God for the rest of their life on earth.

Now, to be sure, we cannot predict or pre-empt the work of God in such things. We make foolish errors often, but believers have a heavenly Father who is working all things together for good, and the battles fought as a result of our mistakes may make significant contributions to our spiritual formation and yet prove a means of blessing. Of course we might make the best plans we can, under God, and discover that a distant or well-meaning recommendation amounts to nothing. People can be mistaken, sometimes badly, and beneath the surface of an apparently healthy church may lurk a looming disaster. Nevertheless, none of this is an excuse to act foolishly or disobediently and expect the Lord to tidy up the mess afterward: "Trust in God and keep your powder dry."

For the Christian who is a prospective student, this may mean more work and hard choices. It may mean sitting down with lists of universities on one sheet and churches on another and working out where there is an appropriate correspondence. It may mean beginning with a long list of universities and doing the research on faithful churches in those towns and cities, with a line drawn through those halls of learning without halls of holiness in the vicinity - no matter how otherwise enticing the prospects or how creditable the courses. It could require a couple of visits to see how the rubber hits the road in a particular congregation. It may mean that you make your plans and decisions with the words ringing in your ears, ratcheted into your mind, or written on your paper: "Those who honour me, I will honour, and those who despise me shall be lightly esteemed." Should unforeseen dangers and trials then come, there is a promise for the child of God to cling to: "Lord, you know that in my heart and in my plans I set out to honour you. Father, please now protect and prosper your child!"

In the coming year, then, as you contemplate any move, whether it be a application for a university place, a shift in employment, or any other such change of place, consider your soul, and therefore consider the church. Make every effort to get yourself into a spiritual environment in which you will not merely survive but are likely to thrive. Before you go among wolves, seek out and set out after God's appointed environment and God's appointed under-shepherds for the salvation, succour, support and safety of his flock.

Guessing and gauging the street preacher

|
A couple of interesting questions have come in following the recent piece on street preaching, and it might be helpful to offer some answers in this same environment.

First, no, I did not have any particular individual or group in mind when I wrote the piece. I began thinking it through a couple of weeks ago, and wrote it without studying or watching some of the more recent reports and pieces of footage, although I think some of them do bear out some of the comments and suggestions made. Also, bear in mind that a brother can be strong in some areas and not so robust in others, and often - for example - the gift that makes one man excellent in one-on-one discussions might not particularly equip him for preaching, or the same spirit that makes one man particularly clear in his gospel proclamations might make him a little cut-and-dried when interacting with the authorities. As I hope was plain, I have seen a number of men do things I think are sometimes unwise, and seek to steer clear of such mistakes myself. If the hat fits, wear it, but it was not designed for any one individual or group in particular.

Second, and more interestingly and valuably, someone asked about the relationship of the street preacher to the local church, and the matter of qualifications and calling. "Who," asks this thoughtful correspondent, "is qualified to open air preach?" It is a good question, and an important one.

Let me begin by stating that this is not the same issue as whether a man is qualified for the office of a pastor or elder. That is a different question, though it may at times be related. The Confession of Faith to which I subscribe, the 1677/89 Baptist Confession of Faith, states the following in its chapter on the church:
Although it be incumbent on the bishops or pastors of the churches to be instant in preaching the Word, by way of office; yet the work of preaching the Word, is not so peculiarly confined to them; but that others also gifted, and fitted by the Holy Spirit for it, and approved, and called by the church, may and ought to perform it. (26.11)
The texts offered as proofs are Acts 11.19-21 and 1 Peter 4.10-11, primarily proving the point that the preaching of the truth is not necessarily restricted to the elders of the church, but ought to be discharged by those gifted for and called to the work. Here the confession bears close resemblance to the Westminster Larger Catechism, which asks in Question 158, "By whom is the Word of God to be preached?" and answers, "The Word of God is to be preached only by such as are sufficiently gifted, and also duly approved and called to that office."

This makes plain that the questions of divine gift and equipment go alongside the issues of ecclesiastical approval and calling in the matter of preaching, but that a man might be gifted for occasional or regular preaching in a variety of circumstances without needing to meet all the qualifications set out in Scripture for the elders of the church, and may and should discharge that gift and responsibility in a responsible and appropriate fashion. In other words, street preaching, like all other preaching, should be exercised under authority and oversight and after proper evaluation of gift and grace.

Street preaching is too often the preserve of the proverbial loose cannon. It may be that the man in question is simply zealous but uninstructed, or perhaps he is a man who cannot or will not be governed, but who is not willing that his voice should not be heard (if the church will not give him a platform, he will go out and make one for himself). He sets himself up autonomously - "Me Ministries International" or "Fire on the Streets" or "The Bellowing Prophets of Doom" would be typical of this approach - and cracks on with the job, apart from or even despising any kind of church authority. But street preachers are not some kind of disavowed secret service, working beyond the fringes of the law by rules of their own making. We need to ensure that this work is exercised under government with appropriate oversight - specifically, that under all normal circumstances it is carried out by and under the auspices of a local church.

Such identification and appointment is not the same as ordination or induction, if you practice such things. It is a recognition that Christ has appointed a particular agency for the spread of the gospel in the world, and that agency is his church. Any man seeking to exercise a gift for the public proclamation of the gospel should begin by submitting himself to the care and discipline of a faithful church. That is the proper environment in which his gifts and calling can and should be assessed. If he cannot or will not do this, then he ought not to be involved in preaching anywhere, for a man cannot exercise authority until he proves that he can submit to it. Now, it is possible that in some circumstances a gifted man, called of God, might be prevented by an unfaithful church or a skewed authority from the proper exercise of his legitimate gift. I am not addressing that situation, because difficult exceptions and hard cases make poor laws. Is it possible that God should raise up a man to preach whose gift and calling is not recognised or will not be recognised? Yes. But we are speaking first of a normal, healthy situation. Note that even the apostle Paul did not go out on his journeys apart from or against the church: under the influence of the Holy Spirit, he was set apart by the church , sent out from the church, and went back to the church to report on the work that he had done.

So, the church - first and foremost - should be responsible for assessing and employing the gifts and graces of a man. At the very least, I would suggest that this requires the intelligent, engaged, consistent oversight of the elders, even if it does not demand the full and formal assent of the church. Any man who stands to preach on anything like a regular basis should give credible evidence of consistent godliness in his life. Other faithful saints - ideally recognised elders of the church - should be aware of both the matter and the manner of his ministry, and able to guide and advise as appropriate. Not least, street preachers need to be sending those stirred or converted toward the local church to be further counselled and instructed and cared for. The church should therefore identify the gifted man, pray for him, send him out, support him appropriately, hear his reports, and anticipate a blessing by his labour.

In practice, I recognise that this might involve tensions. In our experience, I sometimes work with men who are part of a more responsible parachurch organisation. The man who heads up the work is part of a local church in which his gifts have been recognised, and - fortunately - he himself has a robust view of the church. There are men from the church I serve who are involved with me in the work. Not all of them would wish to stand up and preach, but neither would we simply permit one of our men to decide autonomously that he wishes to preach, anymore than we would let him roll up into the pulpit on a whim or - under normal circumstances - than we would want one of our brothers to preach in another congregation without the involvement of both churches and their elders. We would want to encourage, assist and instruct such a man, but not simply abandon him or set him loose in the hope that he will not do too much damage. And if someone else rocked up on the street and asked to be involved, some of our first questions would be about his relationship to a faithful gospel church, because this is one of the ways in which we would determine his credibility as a gospel witness.

This brings us to the proper evaluation of gift and grace. Again, too often street preaching is seen as something apart from or even carried out despite the local church, a work that can be taken up by anyone with a bit of grit and gumption, as if zeal is the only necessary qualification for the work. Perhaps the church can give the impression that a chap might not be quite up to the pulpit in the gathered church, but that he can be safely shunted off to the street to work off his energies. I hope that - in the same way as no-one would think, "We would not want this man to be our pastor, so let's send him off to preach the gospel where Christ has not been named" - no-one will imagine that we put the less gifted or plain awkward men on the street as the place where they can cause least trouble. Identifying genuinely gifted men is the work of the whole church. If I might borrow and redirect the cogent words of the Baptist theologian, John Leadley Dagg, "Every man who believes alone, that he is called of God to the ministry, has reason to apprehend that he is under delusion. If he finds that those who give proof that they honor God and love the souls of men, do not discover his ministerial qualifications, he has reason to suspect that they do not exist" (Manual of Church Order [Harrisonburg, VA: Gano Books, 1990], 248).

The church must therefore discharge this responsibility wisely and well. In doing so, we need to remember that there are degrees of grace and varieties of gift, and in this matter I would submit to the claims of clear revelation and sanctified common-sense. The street preacher must clearly be a soundly-converted man, one who knows and feels the gospel which he proclaims, wherever he does so. There are some particular aspects of the man's spirit worth considering. Unholy aggression, pride, hot-temperedness, machismo and bravado do not serve the man here any better than they do anywhere else. The church should not suspend its assessment of basic Christian graces under the impression that they matter less on the street than any other place.

With regard to practical qualifications, not everyone who is competent to stand in the pulpit and preach for 30, 45 or 60 minutes to a gathered congregation will be equally competent to preach on the street, and not everyone who is competent to preach on the street is necessarily equipped to preach from the pulpit. Of course, we would hope that there would be genuine and significant overlap. Nevertheless, it is possible that a man with a quickfire mind, catching at the attention of the people who hurry past in the street could not sustain the lively yet more systematic structure required to keep attention and make progress in the pulpit. Similarly, the man able to develop an engaging and reasoned discourse from the pulpit might be entirely flummoxed by the give-and-take of the street environment. Some men can do both, some either, some neither. Some of this can be learned, but some will be natural, and the church should take account of this. Again, zeal and desire are important, but are not the only consideration: a man might be full of zeal to play his rugby in the front row, but if he barely reaches five feet in height and weighs in at ten stone (140 pounds, American friends) then he simply has not been equipped for the task, and zeal must give way to prudence.

We must take account of the fact that the environment and dynamics are not the same as in the gathered church, and - while that does provide some room for manoeuvre - I would not go so far as to suggest that this suspends all normal principles for the proclamation of God's Word. I say this because I have heard it suggested that, for example, because it is not the gathered church, it would be appropriate for a woman to preach or 'speak' (i.e. preach but call it something else) on the street. I would not subscribe to this because of what I believe are the spiritual dynamics involved in the authoritative proclamation and application of the Scriptures. I recognise that in Acts 1.12-14 and 2.1-4, for example, all - including the women present - were "filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak." This is in accordance with the prophecy of Joel that  "your sons and your daughters shall prophesy" (Jl 2.28) - they would all declare the saving truth, "speaking . . . the wonderful works of God" (Acts 2.11). However, quite apart from the different setting, I do not think that this act of witness necessarily involved authoritative public teaching. When the time came for that, it was Peter who stood up to make the case. So, while I am always delighted to have the sisters labouring with us in this sphere, I would not anticipate that they would be leading the teaching and preaching, though they would, I hope, be personally engaged with various people passing by, speaking with and to others the wonderful works of God.

Returning to the capacity to preach, testing the gift is always a good idea. While this might be done in measure in the Sunday School class, the pulpit, the small group, or some other similar environment, preaching on the street is sufficiently distinct in some of its dynamics that it may be that a man should be given his opportunity there as well to see whether or not he has some potential. In all this, remember that - as in any other assessment - the man in question does not need to be the finished article, nor (again) are you necessarily assessing him for the pastorate. But perhaps this is a sphere, alongside other appropriate environments, in which a gift can be nurtured and prompted, a way of developing a man's spiritual and practical capacities in ways that would not otherwise happen. It may be that, in due course, you might find yourself with a cohort of gifted, courageous, principled men, all of whom are likely to be better for the experience, and some of whom might in due course serve as pastors or function as evangelists, to the praise and glory of God and to the prosperity and good of his church.

In short, then, without confusing the capacity to preach with the call to shepherd the flock, a church with the opportunity or demand for this kind of witness - whether because there are gifts becoming manifest among the saints, or because the church and her elders see an opportunity, or some other good reason - should consider, assess and employ appropriately gifted men in the work, providing them with the kind of prayerful support that will make the most, under God, of their particular opportunities and capacities. The church should not relinquish this task to some other group or individual, nor abandon her zealous and gifted men to their best but isolated efforts. In this, as in all else, the church is responsible for the identification, nurture and employment of the gifts that Christ has given to her.

When Satan comes to church

|
The famous Welsh preacher, Christmas Evans, once vividly described what he imagined Satan would look like if he came to church:
The way in which a man hears the Gospel is an index to the state of his heart and the nature of his affections and desires. If we were to suppose that Satan came into the congregation, what kind of hearer would he be? He is the inveterate enemy of all truth, righteousness and godliness; and the sanctification of the soul, devotion, and spiritual affections in the worshippers of the house of God vex [annoy] him sorely [greatly]. If one day, then, in human form he took his place amongst the hearers of the everlasting Gospel, we may fancy that, in order to hinder and annoy as much as possible, he would take his seat in a conspicuous place, either under the pulpit or in front of the gallery, before the eyes of all. Then he would pull ugly faces and close his eyes, and appear as if asleep. He would most anxiously guard against giving the slightest indication of being touched by what was said. Not a trace of conviction, submission, peace and joy should on any account ever appear. He would scowl and knit his brows and shake his head, and show every disapproval of the Gospel he hears, as if he would change every man in the place into the same devilish disposition. Such, I say, would be the deportment of the arch-enemy as a hearer of the Word of God. But have we not seen many that have the name of Christ upon them an exact picture of this?
Quoted in Owen Jones, Some of the Great Preachers of Wales (Stoke-on-Trent, UK: Tentmaker Publications, 1995), 179.
What picture do you paint when viewed in the pew from the pulpit? Are you in any way a hearer who militates against not only benefit to your own soul, but the doing of good to all those who can see you, hear you, or sense you when the Word of God is being preached?

If you are a preacher, do you see "an exact picture of this" in front of you when you stand to preach? Perhaps you can tell the tale of the man who huffs and puffs when certain truths are preached, of the woman who would sigh loudly and roll her eyes when certain texts were announced, of the hearer who slammed down his Bible, slumped in his seat and folded his arms when he disliked the emphasis? Some of us have walked - or do walk - with heavy tread to the pulpit, knowing that every sentence will be a fight. It troubles the soul, distresses the mind, grieves the heart, and hinders the effort. It is a hard and painful thing to preach with the devil in the front row, but our task is not - first and foremost - to please the ears of the congregation with their fancies, but to reach their hearts with God's truths.

Rekindling the flame

|
It may be that you often hear of people praying for revival or are encouraged to do so yourself. It may also be that you are frustrated by what this usually means. In my experience, people praying for revival are often sitting with smug confidence in their own healthiness and wholeness, persuaded that they are doing everything right and well, and that there is nothing wrong with them. On the other hand, there are a lot of problems with the big, bad world out there, so would the Lord please kindly get on and do something about other people. Revival, then, is perceived to be something that happens to unconverted people, the means by which they realise that the church is actually a wonderful place where they need to attend in great numbers, confirming the deeply-embedded notion of lackadaisical Christians that we were right all along.

This, of course, is an utter nonsense, substantially divorced from Biblical notions of heart religion and the progress of the gospel in the earth. One of the men well-qualified to provide insights into the nature of revival is the great Victorian preacher, Charles Haddon Spurgeon. In the article that follows, taken from an 1866 edition of The Sword and The Trowel, he gives a helpfully sane definition of what we are speaking of, identifying the need of it, the place of it, the means of it, and the effects of it. It may be a little longer than usual, but I hope it will prove a rewarding read.

Any saint who has ever cried - and many who should so cry - with grief and longing, "My soul clings to the dust; revive me according to your word" (Ps 119.25), will find much here to instruct, rebuke, direct and console. Such a confession and prayer seeks nothing essentially unusual in the nature of religion, but pursues something different in degree: a restored and increasing experience and enjoyment of ordinary blessings (if the blessings we receive from God in Christ can ever be described as ordinary). Spurgeon's description of where most of us are as Christians and churches, contrasted with his portrait of vital faith and vigorous life, ought to make us long for those immediate operations of the Spirit of Christ which are the very life-breath of his church. Here, then, is Mr Spurgeon:
The word "revival" is as familiar in our mouths as a household word. We are constantly speaking about and praying for a "revival;" would it not be as well to know what we mean by it? Of the Samaritans our Lord said, "Ye worship ye know not what," let him not have to say to us, "Ye know not what ye ask."  The word "revive" wears its meaning upon its forehead; it is from the Latin, and may be interpreted thus - to live again, to receive again a life which has almost expired; to rekindle into a flame the vital spark which was nearly extinguished.

When a person has been dragged out of a pond nearly drowned, the bystanders are afraid that he is dead, and are anxious to ascertain if life still lingers. The proper means are used to restore animation; the body is rubbed, stimulants are administered, and if by God's providence life still tarries in the poor clay, the rescued man opens his eyes, sits up, and speaks, and those around him rejoice that he has revived. A young girl is in a fainting fit, but after a while she returns to consciousness, and we say, "she revives."  The flickering lamp of life in dying men suddenly flames up with unusual brightness at intervals, and those who are watching around the sick bed say of the patient, "he revives."

In these days, when the dead are not miraculously restored, we do not expect to see the revival of a person who is totally dead, and we could not speak of the re-vival of a thing which never lived before. It is clear that the term "revival" can only be applied to a living soul, or to that which once lived. To be revived is a blessing which can only be enjoyed by those who have some degree of life. Those who have no spiritual life are not, and cannot be, in the strictest sense of the term, the subjects of a revival. Many blessings may come to the unconverted in consequence of a revival among Christians, but the revival itself has to do only with those who already possess spiritual life. There must be vitality in some degree before there can be a quickening of vitality, or, in other words, a revival.

A true revival is to be looked for in the church of God. Only in the river of gracious life can the pearl of revival be found. It has been said that a revival must begin with God's people; this is very true, but it is not all the truth, for the revival itself must end as well as begin there. The results of the revival will extend to the outside world, but the revival, strictly speaking, must be within the circle of life, and must therefore essentially be enjoyed by the possessors of vital godliness, and by them only. Is not this quite a different view of revival from that which is common in society; but is it not manifestly the correct one?

It is a sorrowful fact that many who are spiritually alive greatly need reviving. It is sorrowful because it is a proof of the existence of much spiritual evil. A man in sound health with every part of his body in a vigorous condition does not need reviving. He requires daily sustenance, but reviving would be quite out of place. If he has not yet attained maturity growth will be most desirable, but a hale hearty young man wants no reviving, it would be thrown away upon him. Who thinks of reviving the noonday sun, the ocean at its flood, or the year at its prime? The tree planted by the rivers of water loaded with fruit needs not excite our anxiety for its revival, for its fruitfulness and beauty charm every one. Such should be the constant condition of the sons of God. Feeding and lying down in green pastures and led by the still waters they ought not always to be crying, "my leanness, my leanness, woe unto me."  Sustained by gracious promises and enriched out of the fullness which God has treasured up in his dear Son, their souls should prosper and be in health, and their piety ought to need no reviving. They should aspire to a higher blessing, a richer mercy, than a mere revival. They have the nether springs already; they should earnestly cover the upper springs. They should be asking for growth in grace, for increase of strength, for greater success; they should have out-climbed and out-soared the period in which they need to be constantly crying, "Wilt thou not revive us again?" For a church to be constantly needing revival is the indication of much sin, for if it were sound before the Lord it would remain in the condition into which a revival would uplift its members. A church should be a camp of soldiers, not an hospital of invalids. But there is exceedingly much difference between what ought to be and what is, and consequently many of God's people are in so sad a state that the very fittest prayer for them is for revival. Some Christians are, spiritually, but barely alive. When a man has been let down into a vat or into a well full of bad air, yea do not wonder when he is drawn up again that he is half-dead, and urgently requires to be revived. Some Christians - to their shame be it spoken! - descend into such worldly company, not upon such unhallowed principles, and become so carnal, that when they are drawn up by God's grace from their backsliding position they want reviving, and even need that their spiritual breath should as it were be breathed into their nostrils afresh by God's Spirit.

When a man starves himself, continuing for a long time without food, when he is day after day without a morsel of bread between his lips, we do not marvel that the surgeon, finding him in extremities, says, "This man has weakened his system, he is too low, and wants reviving." Of course he does, for he has brought himself by low diet into a state of weakness. Are there not hundreds of Christians - shame that it should be so! - who live day after day without feeding upon Bible truth? Shall it be added without real spiritual communion with God? They do not even attend the week-night services, and they are indifferent hearers on the Lord's day. Is it remarkable that they want reviving? Is not the fact that they do so greatly need it most dishonourable to themselves and distressing to their truly spiritual brethren?

There is a condition of mind which is even more sad than either of the two above mentioned; it is a thorough, gradual, but certain decline of all the spiritual powers. Look at that consumptive man whose lungs are decaying, and in whom the vital energy is ebbing; it is painful to see the faintness which suffuses him after exertion, and the general languor which overspreads his weakened frame. Far more sad to the spiritual eye is the spectacle presented by spiritual consumptives who in some quarters meet us on all hands. The eye of faith is dim and overcast, and seldom flashes with holy joy; the spiritual countenance is hollow and sunken with doubts and fears; the tongue of praise is partially paralyzed, and has little to say for Jesus; the spiritual frame is lethargic, and its movements are far from vigorous; the man is not anxious to be doing anything for Christ; a horrible numbness, a dreadful insensibility has come over him; he is in soul like a sluggard in the dog-days, who finds it hard labour to lie in bed and brush away the flies from his face. If these spiritual consumptives hate sin they do it so weakly that one might fear that they loved it still. If they love Jesus, it is so coldly that it is a point of question whether they love at all. If they sing Jehovah's praises it is very sadly, as if hallelujahs were dirges. If they mourn for sin it is only with half-broken hearts, and their grief is shallow and unpractical. If they hear the Word of God they are never stirred by it; enthusiasm is an unknown luxury. If they come across a precious truth they perceive nothing particular in it, any more than the cock in the fable, in the jewel which he found in the farmyard. They throw themselves back upon the enchanted couch of sloth, and while they are covered with rags they dream of riches and great increase of goods. It is a sad, sad thing when Christians fall into this state; then indeed they need reviving, and they must have it, for "the whole head is sick and the whole heart faint." Every lover of souls should intercede for declining professors that the visitations of God may restore them; that the Sun of righteousness may arise upon them with healing beneath his wings.

When revival comes to a people who are in the state thus briefly described, it simply brings them to the condition in which they ought always to have been; it quickens them, gives them new life, stirs the coals of the expiring fire, and puts heavenly breath into the languid lungs. The sickly soul which before was insensible, weak, and sorrowful, grows earnest, vigorous, and happy in the Lord. This is the immediate fruit of revival, and it becomes all of us who are believers to seek this blessing for backsliders, and for ourselves if we are declining in grace.

If revival is confined to living men we may further notice that it must result from the proclamation and the receiving of living truth. We speak of "vital godliness," and vital godliness must subsist upon vital truth. Vital godliness is not revived in Christians by mere excitement, by crowded meetings, by the stamping of the foot, or the knocking of the pulpit cushion, or the delirious bawlings of ignorant zeal; these are the stock in trade of revivals among dead souls, but to revive living saints other means are needed. Intense excitement may produce a revival of the animal, but how can it operate upon the spiritual, for the spiritual demands other food than that which stews in the fleshpots of mere carnal enthusiasm. The Holy Ghost must come into the living heart through living truth, and so bring nutriment and stimulant to the pining spirit, for so only can it be revived. This, then, leads us to the conclusion that if we are to obtain a revival we must go directly to the Holy Ghost for it, and not resort to the machinery of the professional revival-maker. The true vital spark of heavenly flame comes from the Holy Ghost, and the priests of the Lord must beware of strange fire. There is no spiritual vitality in anything except as the Holy Spirit is all in all in the work; and if our vitality has fallen near to zero, we can only have it renewed by him who first kindled it in us. We must go to the cross and look up to the dying Saviour, and expect that the Holy Spirit will renew our faith and quicken all our graces. We must feed anew by faith upon the flesh and blood of the Lord Jesus, and so the Holy Ghost will recruit our strength and give us a revival. When men in India sicken in the plains, they climb the hills and breathe the more bracing air of the upper regions; we need to get nearer to God, and to bathe ourselves in heaven, and revived piety will be the sure result.

When a minister obtains this revival he preaches very differently from his former manner. It is very hard work to preach when the head aches and when the body is languid, but it is a much harder task when the soul is unfeeling and lifeless. It is sad, sad work - painfully, dolorously, horribly sad, but saddest of all if we do not feel it to be sad, if we can go on preaching and remain careless concerning the truths we preach, indifferent as to whether men are saved or lost! May God deliver every minister from abiding in such a state! Can there be a more wretched object than a man who preaches in God's name truths which he does not feel, and which he is conscious have never impressed his own heart? To be a mere sign-post, pointing out the road but never moving in it, is a lot against which every tame heart may plead night and day.

Should this revival be granted to deacons and elders what different men it would make of them! Lifeless, lukewarm church officers are of no more value to a church, than a crew of sailors would be to a vessel if they were all fainting and if in their berths when they were wanted to hoist the sails or lower the boats. Church officers who need reviving must be fearful dead weights upon a Christian community. It is incumbent upon all Christians to be thoroughly awake to the interests of Zion, but upon the leaders most of all. Special supplication should be made for beloved brethren in office that they may be full of the Holy Ghost.

Workers in the Sunday-schools, tract distributors, and other labourers for Christ, what different people they become when grace is vigorous from what they are when their life flickers in the socket! Like sickly vegetation in a cellar, all blanched and unhealthy, are workers who have little grace; like willows by the water-courses, like grass with reeds and rushes in well-watered valleys, are the servants of God who live in his presence. It is no wonder that our Lord said, "Because thou art neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth," for when the earnest Christian's heart is full of fire it is sickening to talk with lukewarm people. Have not warm-hearted lovers of Jesus felt when they have been discouraged by doubtful sluggish people, who could see a lion in the way, as if they could put on express speed and run over them? Every earnest minister has known times when he has felt cold hearts to be as intolerable as the drones in the hive are to the working bees. Careless professors are as much out of place as snow in harvest among truly living Christians. As vinegar to the teeth and smoke to the eyes are these sluggards. As well be bound to a dead body as forced into union with lifeless professors; they are a burden, a plague, and an abomination. You turn to one of these cold brethren after a graciously earnest prayer-meeting, and say with holy joy, "What a delightful meeting we have had!" "Yes," he says carelessly and deliberately, as if it were an effort to say so much, "there was a good number of people." How his frostbitten words grate on one's ear! You ask yourself, "Where has the man been? Is he not conscious that the Holy Ghost has been with us?" Does not our Lord speak of these people as being cast out of his mouth, just because he himself is altogether in earnest, and consequently, when he meets with lukewarm people he will not endure them? He says, "I would thou wert cold or hot," either utterly averse to good or in earnest concerning it. It is easy to see his meaning. If you heard an ungodly man blaspheme after an earnest meeting, you would lament it, but you would feel that from such a man it was not a thing to make you vexed, for he has only spoken after his kind, but when you meet with a child of God who is lukewarm, how can you stand that? It is sickening, and makes the inmost spirit feel the horrors of mental nausea.

While a true revival in its essence belongs only to God's people, it always brings with it a blessing for the other sheep who are not yet of the fold. If you drop a stone into a lake the ring widens continually, till the farthest corner of the lake feels the influence. Let the Lord revive a believer and very soon his family, his friends, his neighbours, receive a share of the benefit; for when a Christian is revived, he prays more fervently for sinners. Longing, loving prayer for sinners, is one of the marks of a revival in the renewed heart. Since the blessing is asked for sinners, the blessing comes from him who hears the prayers of his people; and thus the world gains by revival. Soon the revived Christian speaks concerning Jesus and the gospel; he sows good seed, and God's good seed is never lost, for he has said, "It shall not return unto me void." The good seed is sown in the furrows, and in some sinners' hearts God prepares the soil, so that the seed springs up in a glorious harvest. Thus by the zealous conversation of believers another door of mercy opens to men.

When Christians are revived they live more consistently, they make their homes more holy and more happy, and this leads the ungodly to envy them, and to enquire after their secret. Sinners by God's grace long to be like such cheerful happy saints; their mouths water to feast with them upon their hidden manna, and this is another blessing, for it leads men to seek the Saviour. If an ungodly man steps into a congregation where all the saints are revived he does not go to sleep under the sermon. The minister will not let him do that, for the hearer perceives that the preacher feels what he is preaching, and has a right to be heard. This is a clear gain, for now the man listens with deep emotion; and above all, the Holy Spirit's power, which the preacher has received in answer to prayer comes upon the hearer's mind; he is convinced of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment to come, and Christians who are on the watch around him hasten to tell him of the Saviour, and point him to the redeeming blood, so that though the revival, strictly speaking, is with the people of God, yet the result of it no man can limit. Brethren, let us seek a revival during the present month, that the year may close with showers of blessing, and that the new year may open with abundant benediction. Let us pledge ourselves to form a prayer-union, a sacred band of suppliants, and may God do unto us according to our faith.

Father, for thy promised blessing,
Still we plead before thy throne;
For the time of sweet refreshing
Which can come from thee alone.

Blessed earnests thou hast given,
But in these we would not rest,
Blessings still with thee are hidden,
Pour them forth, and make us blest.

Wake thy slumbering children, wake them,
Bid them to thy harvest go;
Blessings, O our Father, make them;
Round their steps let blessing flow.

Let no hamlet be forgotten,
Let thy showers on all descend;
That in one loud blessed anthem,
Myriads may in triumph blend.

Of Dogs and Churches

|

Derek's post really got me thinking . . . about dogs. Just kidding.  He got me thinking about loving the church.  My memories are the same as Derek's but have a different starting point.  They go way back past when I was 17.  Since my dad was a pastor, I essentially grew up in the church, was there all the time, and loved it.

This past Wednesday night we were one of the last to leave the church after a rousing night of Pioneer clubs.  I love teaching at the college.  This semester I have a new freshman course I'm teaching, as well as apologetics.  Great courses.  Great reasons for me to get up every morning and go to work.  But I can honestly say nothing compares to teaching the 1st and 2nd grade boys Voyagers class on Wed nights.  I hope those kids grow up to love the church and to love the Head of the church.  I hope my two boys, who helped me line up chairs and tables and round up all the balls around the gym late into a Wednesday night grow up to love it, too.

The Woman with the Measuring Line

|

I was alerted by Scott Clark's blog to a year-old article by Sally Morgenthaler in which she declares the worship-evangelism mega-church experiment, of which she was such a proponent, to be a failure.  After a generation of seeker-sensitive consumer-driven worship, the unchurched have not been reached, the megachurch has simply gathered the churched through blatant consumerism, and the overall position of the Evangelical movement in America has been greatly weakened.  She writes: "For all the money, time, and effort we've spent on cultural relevance - and that includes culturally relevant worship - it seems we came through the last 15 years with a significant net loss in churchgoers, proliferation of megachurches and all."

 

Random Thoughts on Gender, Based on a Small Sample Size

|
I had the privilege yesterday, along with the other elders of Second Church, of spending the afternoon and evening (before and after evening worship) hearing professions of faith from applicants for membership in our church.  As is usual for a city church, it was an incredibly diverse group and almost half of them are joining by profession of faith.  Among them were two young couples (early to mid 20's), who fit a mold that I increasingly observe.  First, they are very theologically motivated and speak with great doctrinal intensity.  Second, feeling welcomed and accepted is enormously important to them.  Third, they all evidence a very strong, biblical, and beautiful commitment to gender complementarity.  In separate interviews, two young wives said, "I completely agree with my husband.  But I also trust his judgment and want to following his spiritual leadership."

Make that a Doppio

|

Connection Metro Church, Denver, which used its foyer coffee bars to attract visitors to its eight satellite churches in the Denver area, has decided to abandon ministry altogether to focus on coffee.
    "People liked the coffee a lot better than the ministry, according to congregational surveys, so we're practicing what we preached and focusing on our strengths," says former teaching pastor and now chief marketing officer, Peter Brown. Apparenlty, many had reached the conlcusion that the sermons were OK but the coffee and vanilla frappes were dynamite.

    So, I've been thinking, isn't this a good thing:  giving people what they want? Isn't that a Jesus-like principle?  Why bore folks to death with 30 (and heaven forbid, 40-45 minute-long monlogues on the "Ancient Near-Easterm treaty formularies and their impact on genealogical forms" and instead use your gifts where they are best suited: making those swirly designs on the cappuccio foam! Imagine those gifts that are just going to waste! Yes, we should all intoruduce Starbucks-like coffee bars into the church. I've been saying this for years, now.

   First Presbyterian Church, Jackson has nothing to worry about, however. No one comes for the coffee. In fact, Ligon has this policy to avoid this kind of Jesus-like ministry: serve the worst coffee imaginable and ensure "tradition rules here.".