Maybe The Most Important Three Minutes of Your Church Service

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When was the last time you visited a church for the first time? If you had to identify the most important three minutes of the service what would you say?

I read an interesting article earlier this week in which the author suggested that, for a visitor, maybe the most crucial three minutes of the service were the three minutes immediately after the service has finished.

Now don’t misunderstand me – of course the singing, prayers, reading, and preaching are all arguably much more important. But if you’re a visitor, maybe not a Christian, or been away from church awhile, what (in addition to the quality of the aforementioned) might make the difference between a return visit and trying somewhere else (or nowhere else!).

We tend to think the few minutes before the service, or at the start of the service are key (and they are). But if you’re a visitor you’re most focused on finding somewhere to park, finding the right door to go in, picking up the bits of paper, finding a seat, getting your bearings, perhaps flicking through the notice-sheet or watching the screen, and generally getting yourself ready for the start of the service. But what happens as soon as the closing prayer is done?

I watched it happen recently. I was playing in the music team and I noticed a first-time visitor near the back. The two people next to her both turned away from her to talk to someone else. She sat there. Looked around a little, fidgeted in her seat – 30 seconds. She looked in her bag, fidgeted some more – another 30 seconds. She looked around again, to either side, at the screen, back into the bag – another 30 seconds. Then she picked up her things, put on her coat, slowly stood up, and slid past the people next to her – another 30 seconds. She’s now making her way to the door and cool air of a dark night. Will we ever see her again? Thankfully, at this moment someone moved over toward her and spoke with her just as she was reaching the door. They bought her back in and got her a coffee. She had three or four conversations with different folk. I’m hopeful we may see her again. Can you see how crucial that first couple of minutes are? If she’d left without being acknowledged by anyone around her I suspect she wouldn’t have felt too inclined to return.

It’s happened to me on a couple of different occasions. I’ve visited another church and at the end of the service no-one spoke to me. I smiled politely at a couple of people, said a quiet hello. They smiled politely back and nodded at me, then carried on with their conversation. After sitting for a couple of minutes and feeling like a complete nugget I got up and left. I wouldn’t go back.

We encourage the folk at Grace to ‘take five’ after every service to look out for and speak to someone they haven’t met before. As you can see it doesn’t always work, and we have to keep working on it. But it strikes me as something that’s perhaps more important than we realise, and something that we could improve relatively quickly and easily. I’d encourage you, in your church to be intentional about improving in this area, and to work on something similar. Encourage your folk to ‘take five’ – look for someone new, and just say ‘hi’. It could make all the difference.

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Did People Really Live That Long in Genesis?

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Yesterday we picked up our series again in the book of Genesis, having left off at Genesis 22 at the back end of last year. In Genesis 23:1 we’re told that Sarah died at the age of 127. We’re going to see that Abraham died at the age of 175 (Gen 25:7). And these ages are nothing on Methuselah who lived to be 969 (Gen 5:27). These large numbers inevitably make the modern reader wonder, ‘did they really live that long?’

The two most common approaches to answering that question are as follows:

  1. The literal approach. If it says 969 years, that’s exactly what it means. Maybe there’s a delay in full effect of the fall. Maybe the flood dramatically changed living conditions and thus life expectancy. Just because we can’t get our heads round it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.  You can read the ‘Answers in Genesis’ folks answer here: https://answersingenesis.org/bible-timeline/genealogy/did-adam-and-noah-really-live-over-900-years/
  2. The symbolic approach. In ancient cultures numbers were used symbolically and figuratively to represent fullness or perfection for example. The Sumerian ‘sexagesimal’ system (the number six and multiples thereof) accounts for the large numbers we find in Genesis. Hill states:

“All age-numbers (30 in all) from Adam to Noah are a combination of the sacred numbers 60 (years and months) and 7. No numbers end in 1, 3, 4, 6, or 8—a chance probability of one in a billion. Thirteen numbers end in 0 (some multiple or combination of 60), 8 numbers end in 5 (5 years = 60 months), 3 numbers end in 7, 5 numbers end in 2 (5yrs + 7 yrs = 12), and 1 number ends in 9 (5yrs + 7yrs + 7yrs = 19). All of this cannot be coincidental. The Mesopotamians were using sacred numbers, not real numbers. Therefore, these numbers were not meant to be (and should not be) interpreted as real numbers.”

You can read more in her article here: http://www.theopedie.com/IMG/pdf/pscf12-03hill.pdf

Neither approach answers all the questions we might have, but they do begin to offer plausible accounts of why these numbers, which seem so unusual to us, appear in the ancient text.

 

 

 

Reflections on the Nashville Statement

Last week in the US the CBMW (Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood) released a statement regarding the biblical presentation of issues surrounding sexuality and gender. You can read it here. It has lots of notable signatories including John Piper, Jim Packer, Denny Burk, Al Mohler, John MacArthur, Don Carson, Rosaria Butterfield, Ligon Duncan etc etc etc.

The statement, unsurprisingly, has elicited plenty of reaction. If you want to get a flavour of the responses (and think a bit deeper about the issues for yourself) then here’s a few links representing a variety of opinion (there’s a bazillion more on the interweb if you really want to go digging!).

What’s interesting in the responses is a general sense of unease (by those sympathetic to the statement) concerning the brevity and tone of the statement. Many of those above fear that the statement hasn’t taken enough consideration of the complexity of the issues, the need for pastoral sensitivity, or the ways in which the church has failed. Anderson has a good quote in his article along the lines of, ‘issues of maximal importance require maximal response.’ I’m sympathetic to the idea of the statement, but the issues really are quite complex, and the statement really is quite brief.

Those who oppose the statement though really fail to engage properly with the argument. Nadia Bolz-Weber tweeted, “Just read the  Perfect example of ignoring the hearts and lives of real people so you can adhere to an idea or doctrine.” Brian McLaren offered, “Need a popular way to avoid talking about race and greed? Keep focusing on sex.” And Shane Clairborne chipped in, “After  & , a bunch of mostly-white, mostly-male evangelicals release a ‘manifesto’ on sexuality. ”.

Of course none of these opposing responses (and arguably those listed above) really engage with the issues. The fact that race and greed may be real issues does not mean the church shouldn’t talk about other things as well. The frustrating narrative that keeps coming is ‘doctrine divides, let’s just love.’ This of course presupposes that their ‘doctrine’ (thought they wouldn’t want to call it that) is true. Because if it isn’t it’s doing people an awful lot of harm, and therefore isn’t really loving them at all.

Truth and love belong together. If I love someone truly I will want to tell them the truth, even if its hard. And to tell someone something that isn’t true, simply because its what they (and maybe I) want to hear is much closer to a hate-crime. The prophets in Jeremiah’s day assured the people, ‘you will have peace . . . no harm will come to you’ (Jer 23:17). YHWH responded, ‘which of them has stood in the council of the Lord . . . who has listened and heard his [YHWH’s] word? . . . I did not send these prophets, yet they have run with their message . . . if they had stood in my council, they would have proclaimed my words to my people and would have turned them from their evil ways’ (Jer 23:18-22).

Sensitivity and nuance are hugely important, but only in the service of truth. Sensitivity and nuance in the service of that which is untrue is not a loving thing to do. The answer is not to keep slinging tweet sized rocks, but for those with the voice and influence to sit down, side by side, pray together, open God’s word, discern what is true, and consider how best to glorify His name.

The Preacher’s Assumptions

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Never assume interest. I recently saw a street entertainer at Covent Garden. Initially I wasn’t that interested – I just wanted somewhere to sit and rest for a few minutes. As this guy started his show I was fascinated by how hard he was having to work to gain an audience. Many just pass by, some stop for a while, others keep their distance. Maybe they’re worried they’ll be coerced into parting with money; maybe they fear some sort of forced involvement in his performance. His sweat and hard work paid off (literally). What started with a dozen finished with over a hundred. And as a cautious, somewhat nervous observer it struck me that when we preachers get up to speak we should never simply assume interest. We should always be thinking about how we can engage folk well to gain their ear. While we should never assume interest, there are a number of things preachers can safely assume:

  • Some are there against their will. Maybe it’s the 15 year old who has been forced to come to church with her parents. Maybe it’s the friend who accepts an invitation to church out of a partial interest and unwillingness to offend. They are there in body, but not necessarily in spirit.
  • Some people aren’t buying it. It’s possible (hopefully probable) that some in the congregation aren’t Christians (yet). As you get up to speak they are erecting their mental defences. To use a cricketing analogy (sorry!), they see your gentle off-spin and are striding down to ‘pad-up’ outside the off-stump. They aren’t persuaded of the truth of anything you have to say, and they may well strongly disagree. They can’t wait to find you afterwards to persuade you of your intellectual buffoonery.
  • Some people are in a bad way. They may be grieving a loss, or suffering with some aspect of their health. There may be a secret struggle sapping their soul. Just being there is a struggle, and their hearts aren’t quite ready to listen.
  • Some people are having a bad day. Having three kids myself I know there are some days when we walk into church, smiling broadly, having just had a blazing row as we’ve walked across the park. I’m still seething as the preacher gets up, and frankly I’m not interested in why this passage is the most amazing, world-transforming, joy inducing, thing in the world ever. Wrong, I know. But sadly the reality I suspect for more than one or two each week.
  • Some people struggle to track. It’s great you’ve been to college and have a PhD and prepped with fat commentaries and a Hebrew Bible. It’s great you know what all those big words means. It’s great that your brain (having spent all week on this) can move swiftly from one idea to the next. But for a good chunk of our congregation they don’t know everything you know. For some their struggle to read or write means they can be swiftly alienated by your speed, depth, abstract ideas, or meaty PowerPoint. It’s not that they don’t want to learn – they just can’t move as fast as you.
  • Some people are cross with you. Hard to believe I know, but sometimes we upset others, and for those people its difficult for them to get on board quickly with us. This is one we can’t necessarily do that much about, especially if we don’t know we’ve upset them, but our tone can significantly help or hinder.

All of this makes us stop and think about how we communicate doesn’t it? All of us probably need to work much harder at engaging our listeners. For all sorts of reasons, as we get up to speak, a gap exists between the speaker and the hearer. We need to be those that work much harder at gaining their ear.

The Mission of the Church

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Here’s a little plug for a book I’ve recently read – The Mission of the church: Five Views in Conversation (edited by Craig Ott). 

The five contributors (and their basic positions are as follows):

  • Stephen B. Bevans – “A Prophetic Dialogue Approach.” Bevans arguing from a Catholic perspective suggests that the church needs to be sensitive in dialogue and confident in its witness. [In my view a tad optimistic about the work the Spirit has been doing in advance of the missionary’s arrival].
  • Darrell L. Guder – “A Multicultural and Translational Approach.” Guder is retired missiology prof at Princeton and argues for a missiological approach that is sensitive to new cultures and contexts. Witness covers the total vocation of the church. As such any one programme or method will not be sufficient to equip the church to witness to diverse situations. [I understand him theoretically but I’m not sure it helps much on the ground!]
  • Ruth Padilla DeBorst – “An Integral Transformation Approach.” Padilla DeBorst is the gen sec of the Latin American Theological Fellowship and proposes an approach to mission that refuses to play proclamation off against social, political, economic, and ecological concerns. Integral mission holds the whole package together [not sure, but think she would reject the idea of evangelism as more important/ultimate/central]
  • Edward Rommen – “A Sacramental Vision Approach”. Rommen is an Orthodox Priest and argues that the church offers not a message but an invitation to an encounter with a person (Jesus). This encounter happens within the walls of the church, and through the sacraments in particular [tbh, this is the view I found hardest to follow and understand – pretty sacramental and mystical – and I’m not sure what he’d make of church as organism]
  • Ed Stetzer – “An Evangelical Kingdom Community Approach.” Stetzer, the President of Lifeway, argues along similar lines to Padilla DeBorst, but would emphasise evangelism as primary [this is the view I personally found most persuasive].

There is also an excellent introduction and summary of recent discussion and debate by Craig Ott – maybe worth the price of the book on its own. At the end of the book each author also responds briefly to the other essays. In general it’s a really helpful book, summarising the contemporary state of missiological discussion and debate. It’s helpful to read people outside of our usual ‘tribe’ and stimulating to engage with other views and practices. I think it’s a book that would benefit pastors generally, but specifically those working or researching in the field. If you’re already somewhat familiar with the terrain, or want to stretch yourself a little, then I’d definitely encourage you to check it out.

Gospel Economics

Here’s a little thought experiment I did at Grace last weekend. We were looking at the parable of the shrewd manager, thinking about how to use our money wisely in light of future realities.

I was encouraging folk to think about how to invest in eternity, specifically in their financial giving to gospel work. Lot’s of us think our little bit won’t really make any difference. But think about it this way.

Suppose someone from Grace earned an average wage across their working life. An average salary where we are (according to the last census) is around 27k.

If they gave a tenth to gospel work that’d work out as follows:

  • 200 quid a month
  • 2,5k a year
  • 25k over ten years
  • 100k over a working life
  • If 10 people did this that’d be 1 million
  • If 100 people did this that’d be 10 million
  • If 100 churches of 100 people did this that would equate to 1 bn to gospel work in a 40 years period

A little faithfulness can go a long way. We just need the vision to see it, and the determination to do it.

Spurgeon Quotes on Preaching

Here’s a few great quotes from a great man on preaching that really connects:

On introductions . . .

“I prefer to make the introduction of my sermon very like that of the town-crier, who rings his bell and cries, ‘Oh, yes! Oh, yes! This is to give notice,’ merely to let people know that he has news for them, and wants them to listen. To do that, the introduction should have something striking in it. It is well to fire a startling shot as the signal gun to clear the decks for action.”

On variety in delivery . . .

“What a pity that a man who from his heart delivered doctrines of undoubted value, in language the most appropriate, should commit ministerial suicide by harping on one string, when the Lord had given him an instrument of many strings to play upon! Alas! alas! for that dreary voice, it hummed and hummed like a mill-wheel to the same unmusical turn, whether its owner spake of heaven or hell, eternal life or everlasting wrath. It might be, by accident, a little louder or softer, according to the length of the sentence, but its tone was still the same, a dreary waste of sound, a howling wilderness of speech in which there was no possible relief, no variety, no music, nothing but horrible sameness.”

On appealing to interests . . .

“I suggest again that in order to secure attention all through a discourse we must make the people feel that they have an interest in what we are saying to them. This is, in fact, a most essential point, because nobody sleeps while he expects to hear something to his advantage. I have heard of some very strange things, but I never did hear of a person going to sleep while a will was being read in which he expected a legacy, neither have I heard of a prisoner going to sleep while the judge was summing up, and his life was hanging in jeopardy. Self-interest quickens attention. Preach upon practical themes, pressing, present, personal matters, and you will secure an earnest hearing.”

On stories . . .

“I have often seen some poor fellow standing in the aisle at the Tabernacle. Why, he looks just like a sparrow that has got into a church, and cannot get out again! He cannot make out what sort of service it is; be begins to count how many people sit in the front row in the gallery, and all kinds of ideas pass through his mind. Now I want to attract his attention; how shall I do it? If I quote a text of Scripture, he may not know what it means, and may not be interested in it. Shall I put a bit of Latin into the sermon, or quote the original Hebrew or Greek of my text? That will not do for such a man. What shall I do? Ah! I know a story that will, I believe, just fit him.”

On feedback . . .

“Get a friend to tell you your faults, or better still, welcome an enemy who will watch you keenly and sting you savagely, What a blessing such an irritating critic will be to a wise man, what an intolerable nuisance to a fool! Correct yourself diligently and frequently, or you will fall into errors unawares, false tones will grow, and slovenly habits will form insensibly; therefore criticize yourself with unceasing care. Think nothing little by which you may be even a little more useful. But, gentlemen, never degenerate in this business into pulpit fops, who think gesture and voice to be everything.”

On preaching Christ . . .

“Of all I would wish to say this is the sum; my brethren, PREACH CHRIST, always and evermore. He is the whole gospel. His person, offices, and work must be our one great, all-comprehending theme. The world needs still to be told of its Savior, and of the way to reach him… We are not called to proclaim philosophy and metaphysics, but the simple gospel. Man’s fall, his need of a new birth, forgiveness through an atonement, and salvation as the result of faith, these are our battle-ax and weapons of war.”

On brevity . . .

“Brevity is a virtue within the reach of all of us; do not let us lose the opportunity of gaining the credit which it brings. If you ask me how you may shorten your sermons, I should say, study them better. Spend more time in the study that you may need less in the pulpit. We are generally longest when we have least to say.”

On character . . .

“We have all heard the story of the man who preached so well and lived so badly, that when he was in the pulpit everybody said he ought never to come out again, and when he was out of it they all declared he never ought to enter it again… We do not trust those persons who have two faces, nor will men believe in those whose verbal and practical testimonies are contradictory. As actions, according to the proverb, speak louder than words, so an ill life will effectually drown the voice of the most eloquent ministry.”

On prayer . . .

“Prayer will singularly assist you in the delivery of your sermon; in fact, nothing can so gloriously fit you to preach as descending fresh from the mount of communion with God to speak with men. None are so able to plead with men as those who have been wrestling with God on their behalf.”

Disciplines necessary to good hermeneutics

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Grant Osborne in his The Hermeneutical Spiral outlines four disciplines necessary to good exegesis. These are:

  • Exegetical theology – understanding of biblical languages, semantics, grammar, structure, backgrounds etc etc.
  • Biblical theology – understanding the wider narrative arc, and the progression of themes and ideas through the canon of Scripture. It won’t necessarily make it any easier to answer questions regarding the place of the law in the Christian life – but it will at least make you aware of trajectories and fulfilments.
  • Systematic theology – understanding the overall relationships and syntheses of ideas and doctrines across the entirety of Scripture. Systematics helps you exercise proper caution when you read, for example, ‘you see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.’ (Jam 2:24)
  • Historical theology – understanding of the ways in which the church has understood passages and ideas throughout history. If you’re the first person to ever see something that should at least encourage you to pause for thought.

Osborne’s little grid is a really helpful reminder of the various disciplines we need to keep working on – particularly those of us who are pastor-generalists. It encourages us to engage in the various areas regularly and often, and it warns us against dismissing one or other, or becoming fixated on one as the most important thing.

A gently growing understanding across these four areas will help the pastor-theologian grow in wise and faithful handling of Scripture in public and private.

Jesus’ Cleansing of the Temple: Where Wrath and Mercy Meet

Part of my PhD work has been in the Major Prophets and Luke-Acts. In revising I came across something mind-blowingly cool in Jesus’ cleansing of the temple in Luke 19:45-46.

As he drives out the traders, he combines quotations from Isaiah 56:7 and Jeremiah 7:11. To anyone familiar with those texts we’d have to say, on the face of it, those two texts don’t belong together.

Isaiah 56:1-8 speaks to a day of restoration, when foreigners will be welcomed into God’s temple and given an enduring name. They will be brought to God’s holy mountain, and there will be great joy as God’s house is called a ‘house of prayer for all nations.’ It speaks of a great joyous restorative in-gathering.

Jeremiah 7 on the other hand is a word of judgement. The people are called to reform their ways, to put away their oppression, and to stop basing their security on the fact the temple exists. God’s anger and wrath will be poured out because of the people’s idolatry and injustice. This is a judgement text.

So, back to Luke 19:45-46, we find Jesus announcing that the temple was to be a house of prayer for all nations, but instead it stands as a den of robbers. Jesus’ triumphal entry brings together a word of salvation and a word of judgement in the same breath. As we anticipate where this story is heading we may ask the question, ‘how will Jesus bring salvation through judgement? How can wrath and mercy meet?’ And for those of us who know where the story is headed we know that the cross will provide the answer to this apparent riddle.

Cool, no!?

Notes from Andrew Heard on the Importance of Clarity in Leadership

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I was fortunate enough to be at a conference last week listening to Andrew Heard on leadership. He has loads of great practical wisdom and insights, and I thought I’d share some rough notes from his first session, in the hope they may be of some benefit to someone somewhere. Here are his seven areas in which clarity is important for good leadership:

  1. Be clear on our role as heralds. First and foremost we are heralds of a message of good news. Never let that become secondary.
  2. Be clear on the priority of ministering for response. Numbers matter. Metrics matter (see early chapters of Acts). Numbers represent people, and people’s lives and eternities matter enormously. It’s not ungodly or unfaithful to think numbers, because numbers represent souls.
  3. Be clear on our role in growth. We’re not hyper-Calvinists. Our inputs do correlate to outputs. In Acts 13:48 we’re told, ‘all who were appointed for eternal life believed.’ In Acts 14:1 we’re told that Paul and Barnabas ‘spoke so effectively that a great number of Jews and Greeks believed.’ Both-and not either-or. We need to take much more seriously our part in the results (or lack of) we’re seeing. Hiding behind God’s sovereignty and just ‘being faithful’ isn’t actually being faithful.
  4. Be clear on our role as pastors. Pastors aren’t primarily chaplains. The end of Psalm 77 and Psalm 78 tell us that Moses and David were shepherds of the people. Therefore shepherding isn’t just about the one-to-one. It’s also about large scale organising.
  5. Be clear on what the church is. It’s both organism (Acts 2) and organisation (Acts 6). To provide well for sheep requires a fair degree of organising, management, and leadership. Don’t neglect this aspect.
  6. Be clear on discipleship. This isn’t just for gifted Bible-teachers. Everything we do in church should be helping people learn, grow, and develop more and more into the likeness of Christ. The whole church should be a disciple-making ecosystem. It shouldn’t be seen as the preserve of those who are good at intensive one-to-one work.
  7. Be clear on outcomes. Most of think about the inputs – the things we want to do. We need to be much clearer on outcomes – why are we doing these things? What are we aiming for? How do we get there? Don’t fire an arrow and paint the target afterwards!

I appreciate we may not all agree with everything here, and may want to add nuance to this or that, but I find Andrew Heard immensely stimulating, and I think in the main I agree with his basic theses. If you get chance to check out some of his stuff online its well worth your time.