Engaging God’s World

I recently read Cornelius Plantinga’s Engaging God’s World. The book is in essence a theologically rich Bible overview covering creation, fall, redemption, and vocation. It’s different to other overviews I’ve read in that the treatments of each topic don’t just tell the story but consider it theologically, and then apply it to the Christian’s life. Plantinga is an excellent writer with a lovely turn of phrase and ability with metaphor. For preachers there are plenty of quotes, illustrations and metaphors to borrow to enrich our presentation of these theologically rich themes. Here are some of the bits I underlined:

“Well instructed Christians try not to offend the Holy Spirit by scorning truth in non-Christian authors over whom the Spirit has been brooding”

“Learning is a spiritual calling: properly done, it attaches us to God. In addition, the learned person has, so to speak,  more to be Christian with.

“Without costly action, hope can soften into sentimentality. With costly action, hope may harden into reality.”

“Evil is a kind of parasite on goodness . . . The physical power of the assailant comes from the gift of good health. Badness can’t be very bad without tapping deeply into goodness.”

“Satan goes to church more than anybody else because he knows that, at a particular time and place, a corrupt church can devastate the cause of the gospel.”

[citing Lewis Smedes] “the double treachery of self-deception: First we deceive ourselves, and then we convince ourselves that we are not deceiving ourselves.”

Sticky Church

I blogged a while back about a uesful book I’d read by Larry Osborne called Sticky Teams. He’s also written another little gem called Sticky Church. Here are some of his best insights:

  • If a church wants to grow, retention of people is massive. It’s no good having a huge wide open front door if the back door is the same. Let’s take an example. Let’s say a church of 250, over the next 10 years, dreams of doubling to 500. If they retain 3/10 new visitors who show up and give them a go they would need a total of 834 new people in that period (or 84 a year) to eventually add the extra 250 (actually it’s probably more than that factoring in existing people who leave). If they could retain 7/10 they would need 357 new people in the same period (or 36 a year). Attraction isn’t enough. Retention is the game.
  • So . . . how do you go about retaining people. Osborne argues that home-groups are key – get 70% of your folk into a homegroup and velcro them in. [nb. he also argues that the best children’s ministry is a quality adult ministry – amen to that.]
  • Home-groups should discuss the Sunday sermon – result: people more attentive, increased note-taking, applied discussion, worshipful prayer, more stuff sticks – result: growing disciples – winner.
  • Don’t keep adding lots of new people to existing booming groups; start new groups for new attenders
  • What to look for in leaders – spiritual warmth, relational warmth – ask for recommendations, not volunteers.
  • Who to avoid for leader roles – hyperspiritual God-talkers, single issue crusaders

Here are some of his home-group leader training topics

  • Rookies
    • Learning to listen
    • Asking good questions
    • How to run the meeting
    • Group prayer times
    • Study tools
    • Dealing with loudmouth
    • Caring for the flock
  • Veterans
    • Summer sabbath
    • Motivation – push, pull, or plead?
    • Active listening
    • Balance – Covey’s four quadrants
    • Study tools
    • Book reviews
    • Handling the crisis
    • Emotional intelligence
    • Dealing with the crusader

It’s one of the most helpful books I’ve read on this subject and certainly repays the time investment.

Stuff White People Like

Here is an amusing (and slightly painful) read to have lying round on your IKEA coffee table. I can certainly self-identify with many of these – for example: farmer’s markets, proper coffee, tea, wine, 80’s nights, Apple products, irony, kitchen gadgets, documentaries, standing still at concerts, outdoor performance clothing, avoiding confrontation, not having cash, eating outside, books, laminate flooring, and cheese. The book served to highlight to me just how much I am a product of those around me.

It also got me thinking, are there some things on these lists (and perhaps others besides) which we could call ‘Stuff White Middle Class Conservative Evangelicals Like.’ The kind of stuff we like to pretend is biblical, but is really just cultural. For example: People standing still while singing. Preaching aimed at the mind primarily (hopefully with some witty irony in there). Creche. Powerpoint. Three points. Starting on time. Bible study groups. Real coffee. Finishing on time. A hermeneutic of suspicion. Students. For me too these are a few of my favourite things. Reading Stuff White People Like just made me aware of how much my cultural context shapes my views and attitudes. It’s sometimes healthy to stand back and examine (and be amused by) our cultural foibles. That’s something else the book suggests white people like – self-awareness. Oh, the irony.

Building Below the Waterline

Here’s a good book I read last week by Gordon MacDonald entitled Building Below the Waterline. He’s a pastor (with decades of experience) writing to pastors about the importance of having solid spiritual foundations in place. The image, from which the book derives its title, is of the Brooklyn Bridge – the chief engineer wrote of the bridge that the masonry, concrete, and foundations under the water is equal to that which is visible above the water line. The lesson is clear – there needs to be a whole load of foundation material people don’t see supporting what they do see. He talks in the book about the private life of a leader, his devotional life, cultivating the soul, recharging the batteries, “knee-driven ministry”, and much else besides. Here’s a nice quote from the book on wisdom, maturity, and the use of our tongues:

“I have been working hard to stop telling people my latest insights, my spiritual intentions, and my opinions about every leader, every organization and every ministry. I’m not quite as smart or wise as I used to be, and I’m finding that saying less is better. Talking too quickly, too much, and too cleverly is destructive to the spirit. The spiritual men and women I’ve come to admire were generally quiet-spirited and more silent than verbose.”

A good book to take on your next quiet day perhaps.

Three more great world-view questions

In a previous post on world-views I identified 5 good questions to ask. These were:

  1. Where have I come from?
  2. What am I here for?
  3. Where am I going?
  4. What’s wrong?
  5. What’s the solution?
In addition there was a sixth question which relates to all the others – How do I know? How do I know that my answer to any of the first 5 questions is in fact right? Is it just what seems reasonable, or ‘feels’ right, or what the majority decide is true? All those have obvious problems. Related to this sixth question there are 3 more sub-questions worth being aware of and pursuing. These are:
  1. What’s true?
  2. What’s right?
  3. Who am I?
Two things to say about these questions. First, they correspond nicely to John Frame’s normative, situational, and existential perspectives (for those who like this sort of thing). Second, they also correspond to the discussion that takes place in the Garden of Eden between Eve and the serpent (Gen 3). The serpent begins with an attack on truth – ‘did God really say you can’t eat from that tree?’; then conversation moves to the second question – ‘you won’t surely die if you eat a little fruit.’ Third comes the question of personhood – ‘God knows you’ll become like him knowing good from evil.’ This is the clincher in the human mind – I am ‘god’; I do get to determine the answer to the question. What’s revealed here is that answers to big questions aren’t intellectually neutral – they spring from all of our little ‘god’ complexes. The task of the apologist is to lead someone to see their own biases and question them.

Karpman’s triangle

Here’s a little thought provoker for those involved with people – whether it be leading, counselling or communicating. Karpman’s triangle is a diagrammatic analysis of human transactions devised by – you guessed it – Stephen Karpman back in the late 60’s.

Originally it was applied to the classic ways in which stories are told with a victim, a persecutor, and a rescuer. For the communicators out there – this is still a great way to weave a story.

But quite quickly people realised this applied not just to fairy tales, but to real life human interactions. Leaders and counsellors listen up. The ‘game’ usually begins when a ‘player’ adopts the role of persecutor or victim. A third ‘player’  – the rescuer – is required for resolution. Often a transaction is not simple and players switch roles – for example when the persecutor feels like a victim at the hands of the rescuer (who is now persecutor by the way). Incidentally this isn’t really addressing situations where people really are victims or perpetrators of terrible things – I’m really thinking of situations where people adopt roles as part of a transaction ‘game.’

Here are a couple of examples to be aware of. If you’re a team leader and someone disagrees with your decision/leadership they will often play victim and cast you persecutor seeking a rescuer somewhere. If the ‘victim’ seeks rescue from someone else, casting you as the persecutor, it’s your job to cry foul and end the game. Another example would be in counselling a marital breakdown – you will be seen by the victim (often the wife) as the rescuer, but beware – the husband is now playing victim and casting you as persecutor. Don’t be surprised – make sure early on to be explicit about not taking sides. The key as a leader/counsellor is not to fall into the trap of playing the ‘victim’ card yourself. You need to remind yourself it’s a game people play – it’s not personal. Just an interesting little tool to be aware of – once you are aware of it, you’ll see the ‘game’ being played everywhere.

Kingdom Calling

We’ve been doing a series on Ecclesiastes in our evening series at Grace this quarter. A few weeks ago we thought about the subject of work. As part of my prep I read Amy Sherman’s Kingdom Calling. This is certainly one of the best books I’ve read on the subject of vocational calling. Here’s a snippet:

“American workers, on average, spend forty-five hours a week at work. That’s about 40 percent of our waking hours each week – a huge amount of time. If church leaders don’t help parishioners discern how to live missionally through that work, they miss a major – in some instances the major – avenue believers have for learning to live as foretastes.”

Sherman’s basic thesis is that the ecclesia – the community of the righteous (tsaddiqim) – should be living out missional lives in every area (including the workplace) to bring shalom to our communities. There’s a number of great quotes in there from the likes of Miroslav Volf, N.T. Wright, Dorothy Sayers, and Lesslie Newbigin, as well as a host of tools within the book to help people consider their vocational ‘sweetspot.’ I would definitely consider using it as a resource for a series of homegroup studies – there’s so much packed into it.

I did have a couple of reservations. First, it felt as if vocation was continually being viewed as paid employment. It seems to me (see 1 Cor 7:20ff) that calling is more than just about paid work – calling and vocation can include voluntary unpaid work, raising a family, caring for a dependant family member etc. The situation we’re currently in is the one we’re called to right now, even if it may not be a permanent state of affairs. Second, it also felt at times as if only ‘high-flying’ careers could make a real difference, while packing dog-food is trivial and insignificant. Here I fear Sherman hasn’t worked out the implications of her ecclesiology and missiology far enough. I want to say the bin-man, bringing order out of chaos, making our streets pleasant and safe is doing something wonderfully redemptive – certainly those who lived through the middle-ages would think so.

All in all, it’s an excellent book, well worth reading and pondering, that we might consider how to apply and teach some of the crucial issues raised.

Tim Keller’s top 10 evangelism tips

A while ago on our elder retreat we listened to a talk Tim Keller gave at Lausanne. As part of that talk he gave 10 tips to help our lay folk in their evangelism. They were so helpful I wanted to put them down somewhere, so here they are:

  1. Let people around you know you are a Christian (in a natural, unforced way)
  2. Ask friends about their faith – and just listen!
  3. Listen to your friends problems – maybe offer to pray for them
  4. Share your problems with others – testify to how your faith helps you
  5. Give them a book to read
  6. Share your story
  7. Answer objections and questions
  8. Invite them to a church event
  9. Offer to read the Bible with them
  10. Take them to an explore course

What Keller also advises is that we (generally) start with 1-4. If people are interested and want to talk more you can move them to stages 5-7. If they’re still interested go on to stages 8-10. Sometimes people will want to go straight to 10, but often people start from way back and need some time to think and discuss things in a non-pressured way. We often think that only stages 8-10 count and invest all our energy there. TK suggests that to get people at stages 8,9,10 you have to put the work in at 1-4. Sometimes you’ll have to keep going round the loop multiple times.

TK suggests to leaders that we should aim to get 20% of our folk doing this (of course it should be 100% but let’s be realistic). If we do, we’ll see a steady stream of conversions over the long term, and sustainable church growth.

Some Thomas Boston goodness

Our guided reading group have just finished session 8 – the creation of man. The supplementary reading for the session was the opening chapter of Thomas Boston’s Human Nature in its Fourfold State. It was an absolute joy to work through. Here’s a flow diagram of the chapter with a few lovely quotes thrown in.

The State of Innocence

1. The state of innocence wherein man was created

a) Man’s understanding was a lamp of light

b) His will in all things was agreeable with the will of God

c) His affections were orderly, pure and holy

So . . . that original righteousness was “universal and natural, yet mutable”

a) Universal with respect to subject (whole of man) and object (whole of God’s law)

b) Natural to him, but not essential

c) Mutable

“Let no man quarrel with God’s work in this; for if Adam had been unchangeable righteous, he must have been so either by nature or by free gift: by nature he could not be so, for that is proper to God, and incommunicable to any creature; if by free gift, then no wrong was done to him in withholding what he could not crave. Confirmation in a righteous state is a reward of grace, given upon continuing righteous through the state of trial, and would have been five to Adam if he had stood out the time appointed for probation by the Creator; and accordingly is given to the saints upon account of the merits of Christ, who “was obedient even unto death.” And herein believers have the advantage of Adam, that they can never totally nor finally fall away from grace.”

2. Things flowing from the righteous primitive state

a) Man was then a very glorious creature – shining like Moses’ face

b) He was the ‘darling’ of heaven, evidenced by the covenant

c) He was lord of the world, under God

i) The tree of knowledge was a gracious sign of God’s ultimate sovereignty

“Man being set down in a beautiful paradise, it was an act of infinite wisdom, and of grace too, to keep him from one single tree, as a visible testimony that he must hold all from his Creator as his great landlord; that so, while he saw himself lord of the creatures, he might not forget that he was still God’s subject.”

d) He had perfect tranquillity and calm

e) He had a life of pure delight

“Adam … no doubt had a peculiar relish of these pleasures.”

f) He was immortal

3. The doctrine applied

a) For information

i) Not God, but man was the cause of his ruin

ii) God justly requires perfect obedience

iii) Behold the infinite obligation we have to Christ

“Free grace will fix those whom free will shook down into a gulf of misery.”

b) For reproof

i) To those who hate religion

ii) To those ashamed of religion

iii) To the proud self-conceited professor

“They have eyes behind to see their attainments, but no eyes within, no eyes before, to see their wants, which would surely humble them . . . those men are such a spectacle of commiseration, as one would be who had set his palace on fire, and was glorying in the cottage which he had built for himself out of the rubbish”

c) For lamentation over all we have lost

“Here was a stately building; man carved like a fair palace, but now lying is ashes: let us stand and look on the ruins, and drop a tear.”

“Come then, O sinner, look to Jesus Christ, the second Adam: quit the first Adam and covenant; come over to the Mediator and Surety of the new and better covenant; and let your hearts say, ‘Be thou our ruler, and let this breach by under thy hand.’ “