Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Haddon Robinson - Expository Preaching

I read this book because a good friend who is also a good preacher strongly recommended it to me. And he was right to do so.

It is just about the best book I've read on how practically to prepare a sermon on a passage of the Bible. It's aimed at an introductory level, but so that it's thought-provoking and challenging for people who are used to it as well. If I was teaching someone to preach, or helping someone to preach better (unless there was a specific issue to deal with), this is just about the number 1 book I'd want them to read. When I was at theological college, I attended several lectures on preaching, and used to wonder how they could be done in such a way that would be accessible to people with a variety of different levels of experience and skill. This is how.

It allows for a variety of styles and outcomes, and acknowledges that good preachers often do things radically differently from the method he recommends for preparation, but it's good to hear how he'd do it, and I've found his method helpful for dealing with the task of writing a sermon when I don't feel in the mood to do so.

I might do a post in the future on how he recommends a sermon should be prepared...

The one thing I thought was a huge and dangerous omission is that he talks remarkably little about the importance of prayer for the preacher. Preaching is not something that is fundamentally our work - it is God's work through us, and while it is of course important to understand the passage and explain and expound it in a way that is relevant to the hearers, it is useless unless God speaks to their hearts by his Holy Spirit. Prayer should permeate the process of sermon preparation through and through. But if you assume that from the start, this gives you a good way to prepare a sermon which will proclaim God's Word faithfully, relevantly and hopefully challengingly.

Monday, June 28, 2010

What Motivates Us?

This is a very interesting film. If that's what the research shows - as well as (un-)common sense, experience and yesterday's TV - then why do people keep on pushing on the silly track?

Of course, there's a lot that can be said from that for running churches...

(HT to +Donald)

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Video Preachers

Krish Kandiah has started an interesting discussion about preachers at megachurches who video their sermons for use in other congregations.

It's long been something I've been uncomfortable with, but not been able to put my finger on precisely why not. Krish suggests 4 problems with the approach:

  1. Cult of personality
  2. Lack of feedback / communication
  3. Lack of relationship
  4. Consumer Church

I think I'd agree that all of those are definite dangers, but I'd push the "personality cult" point further than Krish does. Having video sermons seems to say that not only is the Main Preacher unusually gifted (which may well be true), but it makes it harder to raise up good secondary leaders, or even good primary leaders for other churches / to succeed the main leader.

Consider the following scenario:

A church has 4 main congregations on a Sunday, meeting in different venues. For the sake of unity, the church leader decides that they will all have the same passage on the same day. Main Preacher does 2 of them, and upcoming leaders do the other two. Main Preacher's job is then not only preparing the sermon, but also mentoring the two upcoming leaders in preaching. They do a significant fraction of their preparation together or in discussion with each other, but end up with finished products which are their own. This doesn't add significantly to the workload of Main Preacher, and means that the upcoming leaders get the benefit of being mentored by Main Preacher, improve quicker. After a few years, if they were already fairly gifted and worked hard, they would likely be able to preach at a similar standard to Main Preacher, and probably taking a style of their own, albeit one heavily influenced by Main Preacher, and the result is greater multiplication of the ministry.

If these upcoming leaders are (for example) people who already know how to preach and are fairly gifted in it, that looks like a much better way of doing it in the long term.

I should add that I've got a lot of respect for John Piper, Mark Driscoll et al, and I'm sure they've got good reasons for doing it. I just don't see what those reasons are, and would be interested to know...

On the other hand, I'm aware that the church I'm a minister at does use video sermons from time to time as a way to give staff a month or so off preaching. That seems like a good idea, as long as it isn't regular...

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Orienting Ourselves Right

We ask "Where does God fit into the story of my life?" when the real question is "Where does my little life fit into the great story of God's mission?"

We want to br driven by a purpose that is tailored just right for our own individual lives, when we should be seeing the purpose of all life , including our own, wrapped up in the great mission of God for the whole of creation.

We talk about "applying the Bible to our lives". What would it mean to apply our lives to the Bible instead, assuming the Bible to be the reality - the real story - to which we are called to conform ourselves?

We wrestle with "making the gospel relevant to the world". But in this story, God is about transforming the world to fit the shape of the gospel.

We argue about what can legitimately be included in the mission that God expects from the church, when we should ask what kind of church God wants for the whole range of his mission.

I may wonder what kind of mission God has for me, when I should be asking what kind of me God wants for his mission.

CJH Wright, The Mission of God, quoted Total Church p.34

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Tattoos and the Body of Christ

Following on from my previous post, one of the obvious markers of social class (round here at least) is tattoos.

Working class men, especially of my age, tend to have obvious tattoos. Middle class men don't. I don't live in an especially rough area, it's certainly a lot nicer than some places I've lived. But it's a fairly traditional working class housing estate, and I'm conscious that I'm about as middle class as it is possible to be, and I don't really fit in.

Q. What proportion of men aged between 25 and 60 have noticeable tattoos?
A. According to this US page, 40% of people aged between 25 and 40 have tattoos. I can't find stats for Britain. I'd guess at least 50% of men on this estate do... There are 3 or 4 guys in the congregation with noticeable tattoos, and a few women as well.

Q. What proportion of male clergy aged between 25 and 60 have noticeable tattoos?
A. I'd guess very low. I know hundreds of male clergy in that age bracket, and I can hardly think of any with noticeable tattoos. Isn't there a question there about being incarnational?

Because of the way the C of E works, I only get three years here. If I knew I was spending my life trying to reach this sort of estate, I'd seriously consider getting a tattoo, maybe like Pete Postlethwaite's in Romeo + Juliet (see above). Don't know what my wife would say though!

Theologically, tattoos were banned for Israelites in the OT Law (Lev 19:28). But we're not Israelites, and in the NT, we're told Jesus has a tattoo (Rev 19:16), which is probably symbolic rather than literal.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Class Barriers in Church

A couple of days ago, I posted some initial thoughts on the book Total Church by Tim Chester and Steve Timmis. I said that it raised some interesting questions about class and evangelical Christianity.

One church leader commented to me recently: 'Social class is British evangelicalism's equivalent of racism in American evangelicalism.'... It means the leadership in conservative evangelicalism largely runs along lines of social class. Those from a lower social class who achieve positions of prominence do so by adopting the culture of the upper class.

I'm pretty sure that should read "middle class" at the end...

When we look at church throughout the world, God is choosing the weak and lowly to shame the power and wealth of the West. It seems that God's response to the imperialism of global capitalism is to raise up a mighty church in the very places this new empire marginalises and exploits. Let the Western church take note.

One of the reasons we have middle-class churches that are failing to reach working-class people is that we have middle-class leaders. And we have middle-class leaders because our expectations of what constitutes leadership and our training methods are middle-class. Indeed, working-class people only really get into leadership by effectively becoming middle-class. p.117

I think they're right, of course. In one sense it's a symptom of the old problem where attempts to improve education levels in working class areas tend to produce middle-class people who then leave the areas and so create no overall improvement. Chester & Timmis even suggest (probably rightly) that one of the keys to reaching the working classes is for converts to decide to stay rather than to leave.

Another is of course "downward mobility", Christians moving into more working-class areas intentionally instead of following the standard trend of society to try to move out of them.

But there's an awful lot to be said for the massive problem facing evangelicalism in the UK - that it's just too middle class to seem relevant to the working class. Stuff like the "reaching the unreached" conferences help, but there's a long way to go in terms of changing culture, not least in terms of mobility around the country. Generally speaking, working class families are rooted in a specific area over generations, and middle class families move around a lot and are geographically dispersed. For me to be fully part of the community I live in would require my family to have lived there since the 1950s.

There's a big challenge here...

Monday, June 21, 2010

Doing Church Differently

I've read a couple of books recently on doing church differently. They're the sort of book I wish I'd read in book group this year instead of the book we did do, which is best characterised as rich in complex theological language and poor in content. In contrast, I'd strongly recommend both of these for church leaders - not because I completely agree with them, but because they really get you thinking.

The first one is a book I've seen highly recommended - The Trellis and the Vine by Colin Marshall and Tony Payne.

Marshall and Payne basically argue that churches in general and church leaders in particular often spend far too much of their time looking after the existing structures (the trellis) rather than focusing their attention on growing Christians (the vine).

It's basically a persuasive book length plea for church leaders to invest their time in training people in the congregations to serve God better.

Here's an extract:

If we pour all our time into caring for those who need help, the stable Christians will stagnate and never be trained to minister to others, the non-Christians will stay unevangelized, and a rule of thumb will quickly emerge within the congregation: if you want the pastor's time and attention, get yourself a problem. Ministry becomes all about problems and counselling, and not about the gospel and growing in godliness.

And over time, the vine withers.

What we're suggesting is that [the sick and suffering] aren't the only ones that need your time and ministry. If you really want to care for them and see real gospel growth, then the wise thing to do is to train and mobilise the godly mature Christians in the congregation to do some of that caring work.

Another book, and more controversial, is Total Church, by Tim Chester and Steve Timmis.

They argue for a total remodelling of the way we do church, to be far more community-centred, far more about living lives together. There are some very good points in here, but they often raise them in deliberately controversial ways, and don't provide a discussion of what it would look like for a traditional chuch to try to take some of this on board. It works and is convincing as a manifesto for planting radical house churches, specifically in working class areas (I'll post some of their discussion of class at a later date).

This is the sort of thing I'd really like to discuss with other people in church leadership positions.

The communities to which we introduce people must be communities in which "God-talk" is normal. This means talking about what we are reading in the Bible, praying together whenever we share need, delighting together in the gospel, sharing our spiritual struggles, not only with Christians but with unbelievers.

At present the military and economic might of Western nations is struggling to counter the threat of international terrorism. It is proving difficult to defeat an enemy made up of local 'cells' working towards a common vision with high autonomy but shared values. They are flexible, responsive, opportunistic, influential and effective. Together they seem to have an impact on our world far beyond what they would if they formed themselves into a structures, identifiable organisation. Churches can and should adopt the same model with a greater impact as we 'wage peace' on the world.

G.K. Chesterton said: "The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world... The reason is obvious. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community, our companions are chosen for us.

I don't agree with everything they say at all - for example their rejection of the importance of silence on p.139-140 seems a massive over-statement which contradicts the fact that both Jesus and Paul took long periods of such quiet, as well as the fact that I read the book while on a silent retreat. But there's a lot I do agree with, and a lot of thinking to be done...

How much do you have to hate someone to not tell them about Jesus?

Here's a really interesting video from American comedian (and atheist) Penn Jillette. I apologise for the cheesy music at the end...

Here's some of what he says...

I've always said, you know, that I don't respect people who don't proselytize. I don't respect that at all. If you believe that there's a heaven and hell, and people could be going to hell, or not getting eternal life or whatever, and you think that, well, it's not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward... How much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize? How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that? I mean, if I believed beyond a shadow of a doubt that a truck was coming at you, and you didn't believe it, and that truck was bearing down on you, there is a certain point where I tackle you. And this is more important than that...

NB - proselytize = seek to convert someone else to your religion

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

All Loves Excelling - John Bunyan

I've just finished reading this book on Ephesians 3:18-19. It was originally published as "The Saints' Knowledge of Christ's Love", but the folks at Banner have reprinted it under a snappier, more Wesleyan title. There are some really heart-warming bits, as well as some quite dry bits. Bunyan is so good at psychological application! Here are some highlights:

O the length of the saving arm of God! As yet thou art within reach thereof; do not thou go about to measure arms with God, as some good men are apt to do: I mean, do not thou conclude that because thou canst not reach God by thy short stump, therefore he cannot reach thee with thy long arm... It becomes thee, when thou canst not perceive that God is within reach of thy arm, then to believe that thou art within the reach of his; for it is long, and none knows how long.

Were all the saints on earth, and all the saints in heaven to contribute all that they know of this love of Christ, and to put it into one sum of knowledge, they would greatly come short of knowing the utmost of this love...

know they self, what a vile, horrible, abominable sinner thou art. For thou canst not know the love of Christ before thou knowest the badness of thy nature... He that sees most of what an abonimable wretch he is, he is like to see most of what is the love of Christ... So then, if a man would be sure and steadfast, let him labour before all things to see his own wretchedness.

Why then do not Christians devote themsevles to the meditation of this so heavenly, so goodly, so sweet, and so comfortable a thing, which yieldeth such advantage to the soul? The reason is, these things are talked of, but not believed: did men believe what they say, when they speak so largely of the love of God, and the love of Jesus Christ, they would, they could not but meditate upon it.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Oh that God would make us dangerous!

We are so utterly ordinary, so commonplace, while we profess to know a Power the Twentieth Century does not reckon with. But we are "harmless," and therefore unharmed. We are spiritual pacifists, non-militants, conscientious objectors in this battle-to-the-death with principalities and powers in high places. Meekness must be had for contact with men, but brass, outspoken boldness is required to take part in the comradeship of the Cross. We are "sideliners"--coaching and criticizing the real wrestlers while content to sit by and leave the enemies of God unchallenged. The world cannot hate us, we are too much like its own. Oh that God would make us dangerous!

Jim Eliot


Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Sir Terry Leahy

There's an article here about the retirement of one of the most successful CEOs in British history.

How the article ends is very instructive when it comes to leadership in whatever capacity as well as the problems besetting the British corporate (and public for that matter) sector...

Sir Terry frequently says that there is no secret to his success – apart from paying attention to what customers want (as head of marketing, he pioneered the loyalty card). But I suspect that what really sets him apart from peers who are also bright, energetic and driven is that he has avoided many of the traps that lie in wait for the unwary CEO.

First and foremost, he is more interested in Tesco than in himself. As one person who has worked with him told me: "It's not that he doesn't have an ego – they all have an ego – but he doesn't have the personal vanity that afflicts almost every other chief executive."

Another said: "After a while, so many of these guys think they are supergods. He doesn't." The decision not to sit on the board of any other company typifies this attitude: he thinks he should dedicate himself to Tesco and does not consider himself above dealing with the nitty-gritty of the business, as well as the big picture. He has not sought to maximise profits in the short term: Tesco's margins are low, but by investing in lower prices for customers, the business has inexorably built market share.

Sir Terry's unremitting obsession with all things Tesco may also be the reason why he is often called boring. I have met duller men, but it is true that he is neither charming nor charismatic.

Caution, obsession with detail, genuine love of the business. It is not rocket science. But it is depressingly rare.

(emphasis mine)

Friday, June 04, 2010

Kent & Barbara Hughes Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome

This book was given to me as a Christmas present, and I've greatly enjoyed reading it over the last few weeks. It's basically about how the most important thing in ministry is staying close to God rather than growth in numbers and so on. I've found it very good for devotional reading.

The book itself is very good - some of the quotes from other writers are outstanding.

Someone once asked George MacDonald why, if God loves us so much and knows everything we need before we ask, must we pray. MacDonald's magnificent answer remains wonderfully instructive.

What if he knows prayer to be the thing we need first and most? What if the main object in God's idea of prayer be the supplying of our great, our endless need - the need of himself? What if the good of all our smaller and lower needs lies in this, that they help drive us to God? Communion with God is the one need of the soul beyond all other needs; prayer is the beginning of that communion.


(quoting Malcolm Muggeridge)

If it were ever possible to eliminate affliction from our earthly existence by means of some drug or other medical mumbo-jumbo, as Aldous Huxley envisaged in Brave New World, the result would not be to make life delectable but to make it too banal and trivial to be endurable.


GK Chesterton once described a paradox as "truth standing on its head crying for attention."


(quoting Bruce Thieleman)

The pulpit calls those anointed to it as the sea calls its sailors; and like the sea it batters and bruises, and does not rest... To preach, to really preach, is to die naked a little at a time, and to know each time that you must do it again.


Thursday, June 03, 2010

School of Theology 4

The audio of the fourth school of theology session, on God's promise to David, can be downloaded here.