The Ordinary Means of Grace

At our monthly reading group last night we were thinking together about means of grace – in particular the sacraments and what reformed theology has often termed ‘the ordinary means of grace.’ In using the term ordinary they mean ‘as opposed to extraordinary,’ rather than ‘dull.’ Bavinck (Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 4) discusses the possibility of extraordinary works of grace in, for example, those who die in infancy. However, he argues that God has given us ‘ordinary’ means whereby God converts and grows. For Bavinck these ‘ordinary means’ are the preaching of the word and the administration of the sacraments (Matt 28:19-20; 1 Cor 11:23-26). Bavinck is clear that Christ is the mediator of Grace, but that he has chosen to gift us with regular means through which he is pleased to work. In Grudem’s Systematic Theology he broadens out the ‘means’ to include things like prayer, fellowship, and personal ministry among other things. What was encouraging for us, as we talked it through, was some of the applications of this idea. Here’s a few the group came up with:

  1. If God chooses to give grace through his ‘ordinary means’ it means they are, in another sense, quite extraordinary. The gathering of the church to worship, pray, hear from God’s word and partake of the sacraments is always a special thing.
  2. If God uses ‘ordinary means’ it means we should make the most of them personally. We should make regular Sunday attendance a priority.
  3. If God uses ‘ordinary means’ it means we should have more confidence in inviting our friends to church. Courses are great too, but let’s not under-value the potential power of simply taking a friend to church.
  4. If God works through the ‘ordinary means’ then it puts into perspective the latest programme, tool, course, or slick approach. All of these things may be helpful, but the ‘ordinary means’ encourages us to trust in those things God has already gifted to his church.
  5. It’s humbling for those of us who are church leaders to recognise that God works through his means, not through our methods.
  6. It’s reassuring for those of us who are church leaders to recognise that God works through his means, not through our methods.
  7. And just to throw a grenade into the mix, I suggested that if God uses his ‘ordinary means’ we perhaps then ought to think quite carefully before taking children out and away from them (that generated some good discussion!)

What else might you add to this list of applications of ‘the ordinary means of grace’?

Schaeffer on our ‘Ash Heap Lives’

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I recently read this little essay by Francis Schaeffer and found it very challenging. Here are a few quotes:

‘Tragically, all too many of us live out this antithesis [practical materialism] of true spirituality. We all tend to live ‘ash heap lives’; we spend most of our time and money for things that will end up in the city dump.’

‘Death is a thief. Five minutes after we die, our most treasured possessions which are invested in this life are absolutely robbed from us.’

‘There is a peculiar kind of right of private property in the Bible – a private property, an acquired property, an accumulated property that cares for people. And this we have forgotten. Our choice is not between an accumulated property, which is hard, cold and unloving, and a socialism in which the state owns everything. The Christian has a third option – property acquired and used with compassion.’

‘To the extent that wealth (or power) is our reference point, we are spiritually poor.’

‘What is involved is not just the amount of money we give to ‘the church.’ What is involved is the way we spend it all. We have a right to spend money – do not misunderstand me and start feeling guilty for the wrong reasons. . . There is a time to buy flowers and take a vacation. What is important is not despising acquired wealth; it is using all our money wisely before the face of God.’

Three Simple Ways To Be An Encourager in Your Small Group

tumbleweed_rollingSmall groups are great! They’re a place where we can connect with others, share, pray, grow, talk, study, explore, and go deeper in our faith. Except sometimes they aren’t. Sometimes, for various reasons, they can be places where people aren’t great at sharing, talking, praying, and encouraging one another. So I want to offer three simple ways you can get the most out of your small group, and you can be a great encourager to others.

  1. Be there! I know its tempting sometimes to skip small group. We may be tired and busy with a million other things to do. We may just want to crash out on the sofa in front of Netflix. But one of the best ways we can encourage others is simply with our presence. I’ve been the leader in groups where two people have turned out – it doesn’t feel great. And I’ve also been at those meetings where everyone has turned out, and we’ve had an amazing time. So if you want to get the most out of your small group, and you want to encourage others, commit to being there whenever you’re able. You may not realise it, but you will be a huge encouragement to others, especially the leader.
  2. Talk! There’s nothing more awkward than prolonged silence in response to a question. As a leader or group member its painful to be in that moment where a question has been asked and everyone simply looks at the floor, or their Bibles. I know some of us are more reserved than others, but turn up to small group planning to speak and contribute. Perhaps you could think ahead, maybe as you walk or drive to your group, what will you be talking about, and what might you have to share. Try being the first person to answer, at least once each week. It doesn’t matter if you don’t say the most profound thing, or it doesn’t come out quite right. Nobody minds. As with your presence, your participation will encourage everyone in the room, and the leader will love you for it.
  3. Pray! As with #2, how often has the leader initiated a time of prayer only to be met with a deafening silence. Again, I know for some of us praying in public is scary. We’re afraid of saying the wrong thing, or not getting the words out. But, as with #2, nobody minds. Even more importantly God doesn’t mind. He delights to hear us talk to him as children to a father, and in fact Jesus commands us not to babble on like pagans (Matt 6:7). So when you come to your group plan and be prepared to share and pray. Don’t worry about how long or fancy your prayers are – just pray, something short, something simple, maybe just a sentence. You wouldn’t believe how much that would encourage others in your small group. It’s also a good way of helping others begin to learn to pray in a small group setting.

So there it is. It’s not rocket science. If you want to get the most out of your small group, and if you want to encourage others in your group, and if you want to support the leader then work at these three simple things: Be there, talk, pray.

3 Brief Reflections on the Case of the Convicted Street Preachers

Yesterday two street preachers were convicted of public order offences. They were preaching in Bristol’s Broadmead Shopping Centre last summer. They appeared to get into some heated debate, the police intervened, and they were charged under Section 31 of the Crime and Disorder Act – “threatening or abusive words or behaviour or disorderly behaviour within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress, thereby, and the offence was religiously aggravated.” Now, I wasn’t in Bristol that day, and I haven’t closely followed their trial, but here are just three very simple observations/reflections:

  1. Let’s neither divinize nor demonize street preaching. Some may wish to uphold these street preachers as persecuted heroes. From the little bits of evidence I’ve seen and heard (see here) they did appear to be conducting themselves in a way that may have been unnecessarily provocative (whether it was threatening or abusive is unclear). The content of our speech is one thing, the tone another. Their conviction seems to be more about how they said, than what they said (but more on that below). But neither let us demonize street preachers. I have a friend who works for the Open Air Mission and having seen him speak in public, he is one of the most gentle and winsome people I know. Most of his work is done in one-to-one conversation. He’s always respectful and polite, and never rude, pushy, or dismissive.  And, as far as I know, he’s never had a problem with public or police. There surely needs to remain a place for civil dialogue in the public square, whatever our beliefs.
  2. Let’s highlight inconsistencies. If appropriate freedoms are to be enjoyed we should try and help the authorities spot the places where they are being inconsistent or contradictory. An interesting example occurred in this case where the prosecutor, Ian Jackson, stated, “To say to someone that Jesus is the only God is not a matter of truth. To the extent that they are saying that the only way to God is through Jesus, that cannot be a truth.” Take note of the inconsistency. The prosecutor makes a claim about truth – that claiming Jesus is the only God is not a matter of truth, or that Jesus is the only way to God cannot be truth. He uses an absolute truth claim to shut down absolute truth claims. Now, I uphold his right to make a claim for truth, but only on the basis that other truth claims are also permitted. To pick and choose which truth claims are permitted is arbitrary and possibly tyrannical. In public dialogue people should be able to make competing claims for truth, and should be free to respectfully discuss and disagree.
  3. Let’s not be afraid to speak up, but do so with gentleness and respect. The Evangelical Alliance and Lawyer’s Christian Fellowship recently put together a little booklet entitled Speak Up: A Brief Guide to the Law and Your Gospel Freedoms. In the booklet they highlight Articles 9 & 10 of the Human Rights Convention – articles which protect freedom of thought, conscience, religion, and expression. And they also give suggestions on how we may appropriately share our beliefs with others. Advice includes: listen well; be gentle; be respectful; be non-judgmental, be sensitive; treat others as you would have them treat you.

Yesterday’s judgement should not make people fearful of sharing their beliefs and values with others (in public or private), but it should encourage us to think carefully about how we do that. We might not always agree with one another in these things, but we should keep fighting for one another’s freedom to talk about them.

Why Gossip Is So Damaging

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Someone passed me a book by Henry Cloud recently entitled The Power of the Other. I can’t say I’ve read it in great detail, but the bits I’ve skimmed I like. In particular Cloud has a powerful chapter on what he terms the Bermuda triangle of relationships – the place where things go bad.

He’s referring to an older model known as the Karpman Drama triangle in which Bill upsets Ben who then goes and tells Bob. In Ben’s mind he is the victim, Bill the persecutor, and Bob the rescuer. Because Ben didn’t talk to Bill about the issue now Ben and Bob both think Bill’s a jerk. Bob only got one side of the story and, because he didn’t want to contradict or upset Ben he simply affirmed his version of events, which means Bill must have really been bad. Bob and Bill haven’t had any issues but now Bob has secret beef with Bill. Bill all this time is completely unaware of what’s going on. When he finds out he’s going to pull the victim card and find another rescuer, Burt, to confide in. Now Bill’s upset with Ben and Bob, as now is Burt. Ben and Bob are upset with Bill, and now Burt as he’s sided with Bill. And pretty quickly more people get dragged in and more people get more upset with more people. And all because Bill never spoke to Ben. Sad, no!?

It’s a powerful miniature portrait of just how destructive and divisive it can be to go sideways with our hurts. So what’s the solution? Here’s a few thoughts which may help:

  • Calm down. Sleep on it and reflect. It might not be all their fault – ‘Tremble and do not sin; when you are on your beds, search your hearts and be silent’ (Psa 4:1)
  • Slow down. Be slow to speak, quick to listen. There’s always another side to every story. ‘ Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry’ (Jam 1:19)
  • Quiet down. Not all things that could be said need to be. ‘Sin is not ended by multiplying words, but the prudent hold their tongues.’ (Prov 10:19)
  • Speak up. Talk to God first. ‘Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God’ (Phi 4:6)
  • Speak out. Talk first to the person with whom you have the issue. Follow the Matt 18 procedure – ‘if your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you’ (Matt 18:15). Matt 18:16-17 tells you what to do if they won’t listen.
  • Speak gently. Win your friend, not an argument. Don’t be confrontational. ‘slander no one, be peaceable and considerate, and always to be gentle toward everyone’ (Tit 3:2)
  • Let it go. Don’t hold grudges. Forgive and don’t keep bringing it up. ‘Without wood a fire goes out; without a gossip a quarrel dies down.’ (Prov 26:20)

Few things harm churches as much as ongoing underlying tensions and conflicts. Satan loves it. Bring it into the light, deal with it. Don’t let it gnaw away at you or others. And rejoice in fellowship restored. If you’ve got an issue with someone don’t put it off; deal with it today. You’ll be glad you did.

Recruit the 6Cs

There’s any number of these kinds of lists, but this is one I’m finding helpful to think through at the moment:

  • Character (godliness)
  • Conviction (sound doctrine)
  • Competence (gifting)
  • Capacity (work ethic)
  • Chemistry (ability to get on with others)
  • Culture (understanding of our context and church culture)

And I think they’re all worthy of careful consideration. For example, if you’d asked me ten years ago I’d have said the first three are what I’m really interested in. A few years down the track I’m increasingly convinced that things like chemistry and culture are enormously important. Someone who constantly rubs others up the wrong way, or who dislikes or disagrees with your church culture is going to be a constant headache. While the person lacking in sound doctrine could do greater harm, the person who has a talent for upsetting others will still do significant harm. And if it’s a task vs. people thing I’m increasingly persuaded that erring toward people is preferable. So next time you’re recruiting, do yourself (and your team) a favour by giving consideration to all 6 ‘C’s.

7 Ideas on Ending a Talk Well

Just land the plane! We’ve all sat in talks where it feels like the speaker is coming in to land, only for them to take off and circle round again. Few things are more jarring for the listener expecting resolution. Too many of us give too little attention to the end of our talks assuming it’ll just ‘come out’ in the moment. In reality it doesn’t. I’d encourage all speakers to spend much more time carefully crafting their ending to ensure maximum rhetorical punch. Why spend all that time prepping only for your message to fizzle out in the closing straight. So here’s a few ideas of ways in which you can end a talk well:

  1. Camera pull-back – summarise the big idea in a pithy and compelling way (craft this well; don’t just presume it’ll ‘come out’).
  2. Call to action – give a clear application of what to do with what has been heard.
  3. Quote – a pithy sentence/paragraph, verse of a poem, a hymn that captures something of what you have been trying to say.
  4. Repetition – perhaps close with a repeated ‘phrase that stays’ that you’ve been using throughout the talk.
  5. Story – a good can illustrate the content of the message (could be positive or negative example).
  6. Key text – re-read your key verse as a way to summarise and close.
  7. Narrative symmetry – loop back to the thing/question/story you started with to bring resolution.

The Ideal Team Player

itpHere’s a little plug for an excellent book by Pat Lencioni entitled The Ideal Team Player. Pat explores the characteristics of those who really shine in a team, and what happens when one of more of those characteristics is missing. In essence his three main characteristics are humble, hungry, and smart (by ‘smart’ he’s more interested in social and emotional intelligence rather than intellectual ability). Having outlined these three he then begins to look at what happens if people are lacking in one or more area. For example what happens if someone is humble and hungry, but not people smart; or what if someone is hungry and smart but not that humble. It’s a revealing little tool that helps you understand self and others, and well worth talking through with the teams you lead. He has a really helpful diagram which I’ve butchered below.

titp

I’d definitely recommend this book as a clear, simple, helpful little tool as you seek to develop the health and functionality of your teams (including yourself!). And here’s a 90 second summary to further whet your appetite.

12 New Year Ideas To Fuel Your Spiritual Growth in 2017

A new year spurs many of us toward resolutions regarding our spiritual growth. So here’s a few ideas to help you strike while the iron is hot.

  1. Consider your attendance. If church or small group has become irregular in recent months the best thing you can do is ink it in your diary and resolve to be there more regularly this year.
  2. Consider your personal Bible reading and prayer. Try a Bible reading plan – there’s loads on line that you can download as an app on your phone or print off paper copies to tuck into the back of your Bible. I like the ‘Bible in One Year’ plan which you can get from your app store for free. Also give PrayerMate a go – another great app which helps you organise your prayers into people/groups/topics.
  3. Consider your outreach. Has this become a bit luke-warm of late. Do you need to invest in some existing friendships. Is there a hobby or group your could start to make some new friendships. Is there someone who you are praying for. Is there a pain-line to cross with someone. Make that invite, have that conversation. Get back in the game.
  4. Consider your character. Is there something in your life which you need to deal with. Perhaps this is the time to talk to someone. Maybe start a little prayer triplet – people with whom you can be accountable in sharing with and praying for one another. Send a text or email to a close friend – do it now!
  5. Consider your wider church family. If your church produces an annual address book and/or weekly notice sheet then why not use those to fuel your prayers.
  6. Consider hospitality – do you regularly extend yourself to others? This is something for all of us, not just some of us (see 1 Pet 4:9). Maybe it’s Sunday lunch, or a coffee, or just a MacD’s after work. How can you bless others. Remember it is more blessed to give than to receive – that implies that you will be blessed, and you will grow as you seek to bless others.
  7. Consider your service – this is a key way for us to grow. Are you a consumer or spectator at your church, or are you serving others sacrificially. Our spiritual growth isn’t just about reading books or having quiet times. We grow as we serve. So perhaps there’s a new opportunity or team you could step into. Pick up a towel, wash some feet, and see how God uses you and develops you.
  8. Consider your worship. Regular attendance at church or small groups is part of that. But also try reading a devotional book – Tim Keller’s Psalms devo book is great. Use some older works as devotionals or prayer prompts – some of my favourites include Valley of Vision, Newton’s Letters, Imitation of Christ (Thomas a Kempis). Or how about some new Christian music – no shortage of options here. For some of us (prob most of us) music lifts our souls in ways that other suggestions here won’t.
  9. Consider your reading. Get to 10ofthose or the GoodBook website and splash some cash. Get some of the old classics on your Kindle (many are free). Maybe you could start a reading group – make a list of 6-8 great books and read together. Maybe meet for Sunday lunch once every other month to talk about what you’ve read.
  10. Consider your digital world. Do a little social media review – how much time are you using it and how are you using it. Anything to action? Try a blog feed – Feedly is my app of choice – enables me to follow a number of helpful resources which feed mind and soul. Subscribe to a podcast – there’s loads of good preaching podcasts which you could use on your commute – again shout out to Keller’s Redeemer podcast.
  11. Consider your giving. Jesus talked about money quite a lot. A new year is a good time to do a financial review and think about whether you’re being sacrificial and generous not just with your time and talent, but with your money.
  12. Make a plan. Take a few of the things above the most strike you and plan to do something. Good intentions won’t be enough. We need to put some things in the diary and put a plan into action. So think about it, pray about it, plan it, and do it. And grow in grace in 2017.

Best Books of 2016

Here’s the obligatory list of good reads from 2016. Enjoy!

  • 5 Voices and 5 Gears (Cockram and Kubicek) – two simply outstanding books on leading and understanding others and ourselves.
  • Understanding Christian Mission (Sunquist); Introducing Christian Mission Today (Goheen) – two excellent, more heavy-weight, missiology texts – must read for anyone doing work and research in the area of missiology.
  • Seeing Beauty and Saying Beautifully (Piper) – lovely stuff on the power of crafted communication, with excerpts from Lewis, Whitefield, and Herbert – what’s not to love!?
  • Justice (Sandel) – excellent, entertaining, informative look at ethics (non-Christian, but that wouldn’t put you off a good book now would it!?)
  • Bringing It To The Table (Berry) – a stimulating look at our relationship with the land and our food. You don’t need to agree with everything here, but it’ll certainly make you think.
  • Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy (Mohler, Enns, Bird, Vanhoozer, Franke) – strange, frustrating, shrill in places – but Vanhoozer’s essay alone is worth your time and money (and Mike Bird will having you laughing out loud too!)
  • Isaac Watts (Graham Beynon) – accessible, heart-warming, practical, and applied – more please Graham!

So there you have it. Now it’s your turn! Comment to tell which books I must read in 2017.

Seasonal blessings and cheer on you all!