The danger of attending conferences (I’ve just come back from the Evangelical Ministry Assembly in London) is that you return home in awe of certain leaders. You wish you had the ability, the insight, the godliness and the gifting of those who were invited to speak and the conclusion you are tempted to reach is that there really are a very few people capable of achieving great things for God.
Thom Rainer studied the growth of nearly 300 churches and set out his conclusions in High Expectations: The remarkable secret for keeping people in your church. His conclusions challenge the assumption that only exceptionally gifted leaders grow exceptional churches.
Rainer argues that it is true that we should recognise that there really are some exception leaders out there. But we also need to celebrate the fact that God grows his church through the faithful leadership of ordinary pastors willing to persevere in their situations and grow their churches one small step at a time.
Here is the big take home for me:
Most successful leaders have learned to eat elephants.
How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. You are willing to make incremental gains which result in long-term blessings.
From the inside the growth and progress can look painfully slow. But for ministers who are faithful and are willing to persevere their ministries can be very fruitful.
The secret then is not to try and be something you’re not or to spend your time wishing you were other than the leader God has gifted you to be but to be faithful and persevere because it is God who gives the growth!
In the study of growing churches Rainer comments of their leaders;
They had a long-term perspective of their ministries where they presently served. Though they were always open to the will of God, they did not try to leave every time a problem developed. They did not suffer from the “greener-grass syndrome.”
These leaders were persistent. They did not give up easily. They were willing to take two steps backward to go three steps forward.
We may not be able to expound the Scriptures like Vaughan Roberts or have the insights of Tim Keller but as the apostle Paul writes
Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential.
Why so? Because that is the way God delights to work, therefore;
“Let him who boasts boast in the Lord”
Dr. Peter Saunders certainly thinks there is a case to answer to.
I’m enjoying reading Joe Thorn’s Note to Self: The discipline of preaching to yourself at the moment.
Here’s a big insight in his introduction;
It is not just gospel that we need to preach to ourselves, but law and gospel….the believer [cannot] grow in grace apart from the preaching of both law and gospel.
What does he mean? Well we preach law to ourselves in the sense that law is
God’s revealed will and standard of righteousness…Essentially, the law shows us three things: it shows us what’s right, what’s wrong, and what’s needed.
In preaching the law to ourselves we see and admire God’s will and way, while exposing and confessing our sinfulness. This leads us toward the gospel where we find our only hope of redemption and restoration. Preaching the law to ourselves breaks our pride, leads to humility, and calls us to cry out to God and depend on his mercy.
And as we do so we find that it drives us to the gospel and to Christ himself. We find our only hope in him because he alone is our righteousness, our forgiveness and our victory and so as we preach law and expose our own sinfulness so we cling ever more tightly to him.
This brings me to my main point and the question I’m sometimes asked;
If Christians are forgiven should we confess our sins?
Once we understand that we confess our sins not to secure our justification but as a means to sanctification the answer has to be a ‘yes’. The aim in confession for the Christian is not the desperate seeking out of every sin as a form of penance. But secure in our standing before God it is a means to holiness as we continue to preach law and gospel to ourselves.
So we confess because Jesus tells us to confess our sins regularly. The Lord’s prayer is our pattern for prayer. Jesus introduces it by saying to his disciples ‘This then is how you should pray’
Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation.
So a crucial aspect of the Christian life calls on us to ask God’s forgiveness for our continued sin and to seek his enabling power not to sin.
Not only do we find Jesus calling on us to confess sin but the apostle John writes in 1 John 1:9
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.
We don’t just confess our sins ‘once for all time’
The present tense of the verb calls for an on-going practise of confessing rather than a once and for all.
Colin Kruse notes in his commentary how authentic Christian living involves ‘honest and ongoing acknowledgement of one’s sins.’
Confessing sins needs to be specific
David Jackman in the Bible Speaks Today series comments;
It is important here to notice the plural, sins, which implies a detailed and specific confession of our wrong thoughts, words, actions and attitudes. It includes the good which we omit, as well as the evil which we do.
Confession of that sort is of course really repentance. It is identifying what is wrong (sin) and who is responsible (us) and asking God in his mercy and grace to deal with both, through the work of Christ.
A true confession of sin asks for and anticipates forgiveness
The Christian who is in a secure relationship with God through Christ’s perfect life and death for us can confess humbly yet confidently because we know that ‘God is faithful and just’
Faithful, Jackman says in that ‘he will carry through on his commitment to forgive and purify those who confess their sins’
Just in that God is acting rightly in forgiving the guilty because we are those who’s sins have been punished through the death of his sins.
Why is it important to confess our sins?
‘There are many warnings in Scripture about the danger of concealing our sins. And many promises of blessing if we confess them.’
‘Moreover, what is required is not a general confession of sin but a particular confession of our sins, as we deliberately call them to mind, confess and forsake them (cf. Ps. 32:1-5; Pr. 28:13)
Joe Thorn writes;
The deepness and consistency of your repenting will have a direct impact on the liveliness of your faith and the brightness of your confidence. This is not because you repent so well, but because in repenting you know the darkness and trouble of your own sin, and the great work of grace in Jesus that overcomes it all.
What might it mean for you to confess your sins?
It means making the time to preach the law to yourself so that you know God’s will in every area of life.
It means you need to examine your life and consider where you are disobeying Jesus
It means seeking out sins you’ve committed in breach of God’s law where you have done what you ought not to have done.
It means seeking out sins of omission, those very things we have failed to do that we ought to have done.
It means being specific.
It means looking at all of life. Church, family, work, as well as our relationship with God.
It means a true repentance. Not just saying sorry but seeking God’s transforming grace to change.
What is the result of confessing your sin?
Quite simply the daily recognition that I need Jesus more than I needed him yesterday
A short clip from the film Tree of Life starring Brad Pitt and Sean Penn. Looks a really interesting film.
The Guardian gave it 5 stars after reviewing it at Cannes film festival describing it as ‘visionary cinema on an unashamedly huge scale: cinema that’s thinking big‘. The film won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and is due for release in the UK on 8th July.
Randy Newman waited a long time to see his 75 year old mother come to faith in Christ. That’s what makes him the ideal author of Bringing the gospel home – sharing your faith with family and friends. From his personal experience he writes;
I’ve seen the value of patience, the significance of prayer, the marvel of grace, and the power of love.
Most Christians find sharing their faith a challenge at the best of times but sharing faith with family as Newman testifies ‘seems infinitely more daunting.’
The book is a great resource to help all of those who like myself have the responsibility and challenge of being Christians in a family who are mostly not Christians. The book isn’t about technique or methodology but about how the gospel meets the unique challenges of witness to family. So Newman begins the book saying;
How we think about our family while telling them the good news is almost as important as how we think about our message.
So here are 8 take homes from his first chapter to help us think a little more about a tough topic.
1. Family is at the heart of God’s purposes.
It is designed to be a special place with unqiue ‘family dynamics’. We should have a special concern for family. When it works well it is a real blessing.
Families were instituted by God to foster intimacy, to build trust, to be the springboard from which all relationships should work.
2. Families are often where we feel the effects of the fall most acutely.
The closer the relationship the greater the pain when sin spoils or even fractures relationships that are designed to run deep. Nowhere is the consequence of sin greater or more disturbing than in the home. When we have been hurt by members of our family through arguments, divorce, abuse and so on it has profound effects.
3.When family works well it makes witnessing hard.
If our family is a truly happy one then who wants to be the person to break it apart? When we come to faith it adds a new dynamic. There is a new person in our lives, we now have a relationship with Christ, not shared by our family.
Witnessing is understandably hard if we love our parents. We are desperate not to upset them or disappoint them. When a particularly close relationship with a sibling is suddenly altered by our new relationship with Christ it threatens to drive a wedge between you. No wonder if our first attempts to witness are not met with an enthusiastic reception, out of love for our family, we begin to want to hold back.
4. When family goes wrong it makes witnessing hard.
If we have been hurt or betrayed by our family, because the pain runs so deep, we might well run from family. Maybe we cut off connections with certain family members or choose to spend less time at home or simply emotionally disconnect. To protect ourselves from the pain we seek independence from our family.
How helpful to be reminded that Jesus was rejected by his own family only to see them come to faith later. Most notably, James, his own half-brother who would become a key leader of the church in Jerusalem.
5. For those blessed by a loving family the gospel teaches us that family is not ultimate
In becoming Christian we find new reasons to thank God as we see for the first time that a loving family comes from his hand in order to bless but we also learn that we have to stop idolizing family relationships as we serve God.
Jesus said in Mark 3 ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.’
Jesus’ placing of family underneath kingdom relationships serves as both a rebuke and an encouragement.
6. For those saddened by broken family relationships the gospel teaches us that family is redeemable
The Bible also teaches us to not give up on even the worst of families.
Remembering how Christ in the gospel refused to give up on me and continuing to rely on the love of God that first changed me is crucial to empowering .
7. Evangelising family will feel like hard work
Newman wants us to recognise that witnessing to our family is going to be hard and it’s probably best to acknowledge that up front.
When you know the difficulty of running a marathon, you train for it, eat the right foods, get proper rest, etc. If you think it’s going to be easy, you’ll probably drop out of the race early on.
8. Evangelising family is emotionally charged
Two emotional struggles need to be highlighted – guilt and anger. Both seem to attack from within and without.
It might be guilt that we have not done more to seek the salvation of family members. We’ve not particularly prayed or we’ve stop trying to speak to them about Christ.
It could be guilt that comes from within because we are conscious about the past.
Our family, in other words has seen us at our worst, and the guilt we feel for losing our temper or any other display of sin immobilizes us in our witness.
It could be guilt from without as family members demonstrate their disappointment & disapproval that we have become a Christian or even a threat to disown us. Parents who have sought to control and manipulate their children are unlikely to stop when we reach adulthood.
Anger often rises in the frustration that comes from not being understood as a Christian or when the gospel is not understood no matter how clearly we have explained it.
Several people I spoke to expressed frustration from lack of objectivity. This seems to be in short supply when we’re around our family.
Maybe, Newman argues, objectivity is not only an unrealistic goal but an undesirable one too. Love rather than dispassionate objectivity is a better goal. It is when love is our motivator that
we can let go of the anger, disengage the guilt, and share the gospel so that it truly sounds like gracious, attractive good news instead of haughty, condemning bad news.
Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers. – 1 Timothy 4:16
Three times a year (now for seven years) I spend 24 hours with seven other gospel ministers from around the UK. We meet to pray, chat, laugh, share our fears, concerns and hopes. One of us also volunteers to lead a discussion on a book or topic that we agree at the previous meeting and for which we have read in advance.
A lot has happened in seven years. We have each changed, our families have changed, our ministries have changed. To date I’m the only one of us who has not changed job or moved city at least once. I realise that it is a great blessing in ministry to have such an opportunity to meet with a band of brothers who play a crucial part in watching over my life and doctrine. In ministry terms it is a life-saver.
What does it look like when we meet?
11 am – Coffee
11.30-1.30pm – In turn we each share about life and ministry including our own walk with the Lord, marriages, spiritual development of our children, church ministry and anything else of importance.
1.30-2.30 – Over lunch we talk through issues of theology, seek pastoral advice or wisdom on situations we’re addressing, discuss the wider church scene.
2.30-4.30 – Off on a good walk in which we chat, often in pairs, asking questions and picking up comments shared in our morning session
4.30-5.30 – Tea and conversation
5.30-7.00 – Session 1 on the book or topic.
7.30-10.00 – Meal out. More relaxed time and conversation
8.00-9.00 Breakfast (during which time we often skype the member of our group currently ministering in Australia)
9.30-11.00 – Session 2 on the book or topic
What is the value of meeting with the same small group of friends and fellow ministers on an on-going basis
As Tim Keller in his book, Reason for God, writes ‘It takes a community to know an individual.’
Keller takes up the observation that CS Lewis makes in his book the Four Loves;
‘No one human being can bring out all of another person, but it takes a whole circle of human beings to extract the real you.’
CS Lewis met with the same group of men for many years during his time at Oxford. Writing of the impact of meeting as a group of friends he said;
‘By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets. Now that Charles is dead, I shall never again see Ronald’s [Tolkien’s] reaction to a specifically Charles joke. Far from having more of Ronald, having him “to myself” now that Charles is away, I have less of Ronald…In this, Friendship exhibits a glorious “nearness by resemblance” to heaven itself where the very multitude of the blessed (which no man can number) increases the fruition which each of us has of God. For every soul, seeing Him in her own way, doubtless communicates that unique vision to all the rest. That, says an old author, is why the Seraphim in Isaiah’s vision are crying “Holy, Holy, Holy” to one another (Isaiah 6:3). The more we thus share the Heavenly Bread between us, the more we shall have.”
So in our little fraternal when we meet together we bring out different aspects of our characters, spot different strengths and weaknesses in each other and each in our own way encourage the others.
Thank you my brothers.
When the apostle Peter wrote a letter to Christians who found themsevles increasingly on the margins of society, mocked and even insulted here was his advice;
Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.
In our increasingly secular society how do we respond to the growing numbers of people who are not just sceptical about Christianity but are downright hostile? How do we answer militant atheists who think no good thing comes from believing in God and that the only good religion is a dead one?
Well we should answer their arguments and there are good books worth reading and giving away on why Dawkins and Hitchens et al. are wrong. But maybe we have one knock-down apologetic argument that atheism cannot answer – the power of a transformed life.
The great defender of the Christian faith, Francis Schaeffer, said ‘the greatest apologetic is love’.
The one thing that atheism cannot explain or understand or rubbish is the extraordinary power of a transformed life.
So when the Guardian this week ran a story on the remarkable work of a church who decided to pour out their lives in sacrificial service of drug-addicts and prostitutes it was a great reminder that maybe Peter was right. When the pastor of a bible-teaching, Jesus-preaching church also says ‘”The real issues are how we should express and find love for the outcasts and the downtrodden” the world even as it accuses Christians of doing wrong still sees our good deeds and acknowledges something remarkable is going on.
John Harris author of the Guardian piece writes;
A question soon pops into my head. How does a militant secularist weigh up the choice between a cleaned-up believer and an ungodly crack addict? Back at my hotel I search the atheistic postings on the original Comment is free thread for even the hint of an answer, but I can’t find one anywhere.
The last Roman Emperor who viciously persecuted the church was Julian. He hated Christians with a vengence but even he conceded;
[Christianity] has been specially advanced through the loving service rendered to strangers, and through their care for the burial of the dead. It is a scandal there is not a single Jew who is a beggar, and that the godless Galileans care not only for their own poor but for ours as well; while those who belong to us look in vain for the help that we should render them.
Essentially in evaluating a talk we’re looking at three things;
1. Matter: What was said?
2. Method: How was the content communicated?
3. Manner: Was it said well?
Matter: What was said? Issues of exegesis and hermeneutics
– What was the main thing or big idea that the speaker was trying to get across? (then ask the speaker what was the main thing they were trying to get across) Did they match?
– Was the main point of the talk the main point of the passage?
– Was the main point of the talk what they said it would be? (i.e. did it match their theme/aim sentence)
– Was the sermon in some sense about God? Is God the hero of the text expounded? Would the passage lead the hearer to think great thoughts about God?
– Did they so obviously skip anything that you think they were ducking the issue?
– Did anything need to be put in biblical context? How well did they do it?
– If it was an Old Testament passage did we get to Jesus as its fulfilment? Did we get to see how the OT pointed us to him in a faithful way?
– Were there additional theological points made in the talk that were NOT from the passage, or a necessary consequence of the passage? Were they justified?
– If cross-references were used were they necessary, were they helpful?
– Was there anything in the talk about the passage that you couldn’t understand?
– Did the speaker, in your judgement, misunderstand anything in the passage?
– Did they anticipate possible objections or difficulties with what the passage taught? Did they deal with those objections fairly, sympathetically and clearly?
– Did the applications follow from the main point and the text?
– Was there enough application?
– Was it too vague? Too narrow?
– Was it applied to ourselves? (and not simply to people out-there!)
– Did the talk misapply the passage?
– Was application (principle) accompanied by ‘Action’ (practical examples)?
– Did the talk address our own reluctance to apply the Bible to ourselves, how did it urge us to apply?
– Were the motivations for application the motivations of the passage?
Method: How was the content communicated
– Was it clear from the talk what the points/headings were?
– Were the main points straightforward and reasonably memorable or verbose and instantly forgettable?
– Did they show where in the text the points came from?
– Was there an obvious flow through the talk so that it was clear how the points related?
– Was there a good balance of explanation-illustration-application or did it feel too ‘light’ or ‘heavy’
– Did the illustrations actually illustrate the points being made? Extra marks for capturing the texture as well?
– Did the illustrations ‘drown out’ the talk?’ i.e. were they ‘too good’ and therefore distracting?
– Did the introduction serve the purpose of the talk?
– Was it too long, too short?
Did the introduction make you want to listen to the rest of the talk?
– Was there a conclusion? Did you know when the talk was ending?
– Did the conclusion function as a conclusion i.e. recapping or was new material introduced in the conclusion? (should not do this!)
– Was there any unnecessary jargon or unexplained terms?
– Did the talk work well for its particular audience? (e.g. Christian/non-Christian or youth group, kids talk, etc.)
– Was there any particularly helpful use of rhetorical devices:
- Posing questions to the listeners
- Testimony from own life or example of others
- Coming full-circle (finishing a talk where it started)
- Repetition of words, main points, etc.
Perhaps James McDonald’s blog was not getting enough hits when he suggested that congregationalism (although not congregationalists!) was a tool in the hand of Satan.
Jonathan Leeman of 9marks ministry has responded in a helpful post.
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