When Smart People Are Stupid

We’ve been doing a mini-series at church based on Mark Meynell’s excellent book A Wilderness of Mirrors: Trusting Again In A Cynical World. 

I was struck by something Meynell observes about the power of propaganda. He says the following:

‘We might assume we are immune to propaganda, but as renowned French sociologist Jacques Ellul warned, it is the educated who are most vulnerable to its effects. Because they absorb more secondhand and unverified information than others, they like to have opinions about everything while at the same time entertaining a high view of their own ability to make judgments. What Ellul grasped, and what countless others have exploited, is that when reality is mediated (as it must be in a world of mass communication), the potential for deception is great. Of course, some argue we are more sensitive to this now, but even that is problematic. The greater our sensitivity becomes, the greater our anxiety about being able to discern the “really” real.’ (pp. 45-46, emphasis mine)

Ouch! The smarter you are, the more susceptible you may be to imbibing secondhand unverified information and passing it off as your considered opinion, in essence, to make yourself look clever.

One of the main lessons I learned in doing further study is that you come to see just how much you don’t know. Every foray down a rabbit hole reveals a hundred tunnels, each with a hundred more, that you simply don’t have time or capacity to explore. What you come to know is how much you don’t know. This is, I’m sad to say, a lesson I forget too quickly, and to which I need to keep returning.

I need, by God’s grace, more humility, more discernment, and the peace to rest content in the things I can know – his liberating truth (John 8:32).

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John Newton’s Advice on Family Worship

I occasionally pick up Letters of John Newton and remind myself how much wisdom is contained therein. In the 1960 Banner edition, letter XV is entitled ‘Family Worship’ where he addresses a question that appears to have been asked regarding the specifics of how, what, where, and when.

What I love is Newton’s realism – he recognises, presumably from his own ministry, the realities of life. He is initially reluctant to lay down much at all in the way of prescription. He says the following:

“The circumstances of families are so various, that no determinate rules can be laid down, nor has the word of God prescribed any; because, being of universal obligation, it is wisely and graciously accommodated to suit the different situations of his people. You must, therefore, as to circumstantials, judge for yourself. You will do well to pursue such a method as you shall find most convenient to yourself and family, without scrupulously binding yourself, when the Scripture has left you free.”

Everyone’s family life and routine is different. So don’t play comparison games, and don’t beat yourself up if it’s a struggle at the moment. For us, there are times when someone is elsewhere, or sick, or tired, or grumpy, and we miss. There are other times when, mid-prayer, one child omits an astonishingly long and loud flatus with all effort causing everyone to descend into laughter with family Bible time blown (literally) to smithereens. Life happens. Think direction of travel rather than arrival at perfection.

None of us are perfect. But we can keep encouraging one another in our humble efforts.

Having been reluctant to lay down specifics, he does suggest (most of) the following things, which I’ve paraphrased and expanded upon.

  • Do it often – daily if possible
  • Keep it brief (Newton: “If you read and sing, as well as pray, care should be taken that the combined services do not run into an inconvenient length”).
  • Keep it simple – Newton advocates using simple prayers of thanks for the day past or prayer for the day ahead. Nothing too long or grand. Simple prayers that all can follow and understand.
  • Do what you can – read a bit of the Bible, pray, and use music if you like (Here’s Newton again: “sing a hymn or psalm at discretion; provided there are some persons in the family who have enough of a musical ear and voice to conduct the singing in a tolerable manner; otherwise it may be better omitted.”) So maybe don’t sing!!
  • Use resources if it helps (“Helps may be procured” where there is a lack of confidence to do your own thing – either in reading or prayer). There’s loads of great resources available. We’re currently using David Helm’s Big Beliefs. It’s short and consists of a Bible reading and short devotion. Our kids are at an age where they can read either, and often argue about who gets to read, which we’re not going to discourage 😉
  • Music can help. Newton advocates singing a hymn or psalm. In our day you may enjoy putting on some favourite music – use YouTube or Spotify or whatever medium you like really. Our kids love taking turns to choose their favourite church songs for us to listen to. We often do this just after dinner using a smartphone and YouTube to find songs.
  • Keep it enjoyable. (“the great evil to be dreaded and guarded against in this exercise of every duty that returns frequently upon us is formality”). I don’t know if Newton would put it quite like this, but keep it fresh, change it up, try different things, see what works.
  • Find the time that works. Newton cautions against times that are busy or inconvenient, where it may be easily interrupted or children are too tired or distracted to participate. For us that means tea time generally works better than breakfast due to the madness of the school rush. That’s just us. You may be different.
  • Here’s one more, which Newton doesn’t mention, but I’m sure would agree with. Don’t feel guilty. If you struggle with this, or miss days, don’t beat yourself up with legalistic guilt. Get back on the horse and give it another go. I suspect most of our kids, in the long run, won’t remember the times we missed. They’ll more likely carry a general impression that as a family we read and prayed together. And that taught them that our faith isn’t just a Sunday formality, but something that affects everyday. And however failing and faltering we may be, that would be a good thing, right?

Dolezal’s All That Is In God

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I’ve recently finished reading James Dolezal’s All That Is In God. Thoroughly enjoyed it. Messed with my head a bit. Worthwhile, stimulating, and right (imho)!

It’s caused a bit of a stir in the States, mainly because he’s critical of such saints as Don Carson, John Frame, and Bruce Ware. I’d pretty much agree with the reviews given by Andrew Wilson and Kevin DeYoung.

It’s worth getting hold of if you’ve never thought through issues of divine simplicity, immutability and eternity. He also has some great things to say about how language works in describing God. Its only 130 pages long and it will do all sorts of important, wonderful, and useful crazy-making to your brain.

Don’t Scrimp on Your Theological Education

I know, I know, there’s plenty of different ways to get training, and some ways will naturally suit some more than others for all sorts of reasons. And everything I’m about to say should be read in the light of my commitment to the importance of practical, on-the-job, training. And of course character and gifting are more important than which mode of training you opt for. And, and, and, however many more caveats you need to read this in the spirit in which its intended . . .

. . . But here’s little thought experiment if you do happen to be thinking of investing significant time and money into full-time theological training. It is expensive. It does take you out of frontline ministry in some ways (though not totally I’d want to argue). So is it really worth it? Here’s three basic questions to answer:

  1. How long will it take you out of the game for? Depending on how you do it, then probably 2, 3, or 4 years (though a good college will give placement opportunities that will enable you to learn and serve the local church regularly and often throughout your studies)
  2. How much will it cost? If you do 3 years, by the time you factor in fees and living costs, probably not much short of £100k (though there are trust-funds out there specifically to help with some of these costs)
  3. Is that really worth it? Sounds like a lot of time and money? Think of it this way. If a church can afford to set you aside as a full-time worker, if they pay reasonably, make pension contributions, cover expenses etc it’ll probably cost the church around £35-40k per annum. If they’re able to keep doing that for the entirety of your career (let’s say you enter ministry aged 30 and stop at 67) it’ll cost them not far short of 1.5 mn (not accounting for pay increases, inflation etc). So I suppose here’s the real nub of it. If it costs roughly 8% of your career earnings to send you to college for roughly 8% of your ministry years, will the remaining 92% be 8% better? Will your preaching for the other 34 years be better? Will your skill in pastoring and leading be better? Will your ability to network and tap other resources be better. Will your peer support be better making you less likely to blow up or burn out? Will your understanding of doctrine, history, exegesis, hermeneutics, culture, mission and ethics be better? Will your ability to train and equip others be better? Just 8% better?

Think about it like that, and I’d suggest its a no-brainer!

I know there’d be some curmudgeons out there who are suspicious of theological education who’d like to argue it might actually make you worse. But c’mon. Really! I know seminarians can develop bad habits, and not every student benefits to the same degree. But for me, and pretty much all of my peers, I think we’d all say a few years full time theological education has made us all quite a lot more than 8% better in lots and lots of areas.

So as tempting as it is to scrimp on your theological training, I’d suggest that whatever short-term gains may be on offer, are significant outweighed by the long-term gains of full-time theological training.

To be clear, I’m not saying its the only way, or necessarily the best way for everybody. And I know for some finding that kind of money is pretty much impossible. But I do think its an option you should seriously consider if you’re thinking about a lifetime in ministry. Take a long view. Do the maths. And, if you can, don’t scrimp on your theological education.

Maintenance or Frontline Prayer?

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In our reading group at the moment we’re working through Tim Keller’s Center Church. Last Monday evening we looked at his section on gospel renewal. At the start of chapter 6 (p. 73) he describes signs or precursors to renewal as including ‘extraordinary prayer’. He cites a distinction made by C. John Miller between ‘maintenance prayer’ and ‘frontline prayer’. Here’s a quote . . .

“Maintenance prayer meetings are short, mechanical, and focused on physical needs inside the church. In contrast, the three basic traits of frontline prayer are these:

  1. A request for grace to confess sins and to humble ourselves
  2. A compassion and zeal for the flourishing of the church and the reaching of the lost
  3. A yearning to know God, to see his face, to glimpse his glory.

If you pay attention at a prayer meeting, you can tell quite clearly whether these traits are present.”

I found this quite challenging. I don’t think Keller is saying ‘maintenance prayer’ is wrong, but if there is never anything that resembles what he describes as ‘frontline’ prayer then there’s a problem – if you’re a church that really wants to see genuine gospel renewal in individuals, the church, and reaching out to the community.

I know for myself personally, and I fear for our smaller and larger prayer meetings, we can all too easily and quickly slip into maintenance prayer. The challenge I think for us as individuals, for our small groups, and for our church more generally is to recapture a more real and earnest expression of ‘frontline’ prayer. I suspect I’m not alone. So if you can’t remember the last time your prayer (individually or corporately) resembled the three traits above, then maybe this is something to share with others, reflect on, and think about how we can incorporate more of a ‘frontline’ spirit in our prayers.

I’d love you to comment below if you’ve had positive experiences of ‘frontline’ praying, and how you’ve managed to instill that in corporate or individual prayer.

Mission and the Sacraments?

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I’ve just finished reading Four Views on the Church’s Mission. It’s good, and well worth reading – in particular the chapters and interactions between Jonathan Leeman and Chris Wright. These sections alone cover a lot of the missiological terrain.

The most stimulating chapter for me though was Peter Leithart’s on ‘Sacramental Mission.’ There’s plenty in there to question or disagree with, but I found some of his comments on baptism and the Lord’s supper especially powerful, and so I’ve quoted them below:

On baptism:

“In a world addicted to autonomy, baptism declares that we belong to another . . . In a word that believes in inherent human goodness, baptism declares that we must die and be buried to live just lives. In a world of scape-goating, baptism calls the baptized to a life of continuous confession and repentance. In a world of tribalism and nationalism, baptism joins men and women from all nations into one body.”

On the Lord’s supper:

“In a world of greedy consumerism, the Supper embodies a community of goods shared in joy and thanksgiving. In a world that pursues self fulfilment, God’s table companions are conformed to the self-giving of Jesus. In a world founded on materialism, the bread of the Eucharist confirms that we do not live by bread alone. In a world that separates religion and life, the Supper demonstrates that the mundane world of eating and drinking is caught up in the life of communion with God.”

If you want to know what all that has to do with mission, Leithart contends that the church’s rituals (and worship more broadly) teach us what it means to be God’s people on God’s mission in God’s world. His closing statement is as follows:

“Here is the mission of the church, then: Set up God’s table. Invite folks to dinner. Make sure they wash up. Teach them how to eat together.”

Personally, I think there’s quite a bit more to say, but I have to admit to finding his comments on the relationship between the church’s worship and mission hugely stimulating.

Overall, the book is well worth reading for pastors trying to get their heads round some of the missiological debates, and the practical implications of what it means to be a church on mission. I suspect most readers will be closer to Leeman and Wright, than Franke and Leithart, but there are things to chew over from each contributor. If the fat books by Bosch, Wright, Goheen or Sunquist intimidate you, this would be a very good place to start.

iGen

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A friend passed this book on to me recently. It’s a really helpful analysis of the views and values of those sometimes called Generation Z, Homelanders, Founders, or in the case of this book iGen (those born after 1995).

The book is based on four major data sources covering several decades and 11 million people. All the data is from US studies so that needs to be taken into account. In summary, Twenge outlines a number of observable trends of iGen’ers as follows:

  1. Adolescence is lasting longer; adulthood starting later
  2. Huge increase in time spent online
  3. Virtual relationships as important as in-person relationship
  4. More anxious and insecure than ever before (linked to the downsides of #3)
  5. Increasingly irreligious
  6. Non-committal – less bothered about marriage, family, stable career etc.
  7. Increasingly inclusive of LGBT, gender, and race issues
  8. Politically disinterested

I need more time to process this in terms of things to affirm and challenge etc. Initial thoughts would be . . .

  • Finding avenues of meaningful responsibility for young people is a good thing
  • Vigilantly monitoring and limiting screen time is important
  • Finding opportunities for hospitality so that iGen’ers meet and socialise with lots of different sorts of people is a good thing
  • Finding creative ways to engage young minds with worldview, religion, politics, and ethics is maybe one of the biggest challenges we face – but one to which we must rise

It’s a really stimulating read – well worth getting hold of a copy, passing it round, and discussing. Anyone else read anything good on iGen?