Some ideas to fuel your Bible reading in 2018

For many of us the new year brings a fresh determination to get back into better habits of personal Bible reading. With this in mind here’s a few ideas that may help you get 2018 off to a good start.

  • Get a Bible reading plan – there’s any number of these free to download and print out online (eg. the Murray-McCheyne one year plan).
  • Use an app – something like The Bible in One Year app is free and comes with some notes. You could also try the Read Scripture app, which also has links to some really good YouTube intros to various Bible books.
  • Value quality over quantity – lots of the Bible in one year resources are great, but don’t fall into the trap of reading lots without really taking any of it in. Better to chew over a few verses than mindlessly skim a ton of material.
  • Don’t despair – if you get behind with your plan the temptation is to give up. It normally happens to me around February! Keep going. It doesn’t matter if you get behind – getting going again is what matters.
  • Try a readers Bible – I’ve recently been using the ESV readers Bible. Essentially it takes out the chapter numbers, verse numbers, and headings. I’ve found it a refreshing way to read.
  • Get hold of a devotional – for example Tim Keller’s daily readings in the Psalms – its the business!
  • Try an audio Bible – for example David Suchet reading the NIV. If you’ve a fair commute in the car this can be a different way to take in some Bible in the mornings (or evenings).
  • Find a podcast you like in which you can listen to sermons on different parts of the Bible.
  • Mix it up – there’s nothing to say that once you’ve settled on something you have to stick only to that plan or method for the entire year. If you’re struggling then freshen it up and try something different.
  • If you want to dig a bit deeper try reading a small commentary alongside a book of the Bible – the Bible Speaks Today series is great.
  • If you really want to push yourself, do an online (or app based) course – Reformed Theological Seminary give access to lots of their courses for free.

Hopefully there’s something there you’re willing to have a go at. What other resources have you found helpful you could recommend to others? Please do comment below.

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Maybe The Most Important Three Minutes of Your Church Service

church pew

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.

Did People Really Live That Long in Genesis?

gen 5

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

mic

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

mission church

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.