Jun 17, 2011

The one argument atheists can’t answer

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.



Jun 16, 2011

35 ways to help the preacher improve his preaching

It’s not an easy thing to give or receive (!) feedback on a talk or a sermon but if we want to see gifted preachers improve their preaching it’s a useful thing to know how to feedback well.
So here are some thoughts on what to look for in a talk if you’re being asked or expected to give feedback.
You’re probably only going to pick up on one or two questions from each section in feeding back on any one talk but here are 35 questions to help!

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!)


General Points:

–    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
  • Humour
  • Testimony from own life or example of others
  • Coming full-circle (finishing a talk where it started)
  • Repetition of words, main points, etc.


Jun 15, 2011

Is congregationalism really from Satan?

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.

Jun 13, 2011

‘Listen to your heart’ sang Roxette but Isaac Watts is not so sure

‘Listen to your heart’ sang Roxette but according to Isaac Watts that’s not altogether the best advice – even if your heart is on fire for God!

I’m just finished reading Isaac Watt’s Discourses of the love of God and it’s influence on all the passions.

The big idea is this; Christians cannot afford to neglect God-given ‘passions’ or ‘affections’ when it comes to our  worship of him. In fact God has made us in such a way that the Christian life is only really possible when we seek to love him with both heart and heart.

Watts notes that love is the most powerful passion or affection that we possess as human beings and a love for God ‘will influence all the other affections of the heart.’ A true and right worship of God must not only have at its centre a profound conviction of the truthfulness of the gospel but a deep love for God.

It is a knowledge and belief of the truth of the gospel, joined with love to Christ my redeemer, that makes me zealous to fulfil every duty.

But midway through the work Watts turns to address the abuse of the passions. And it is here that I stumbled across a new thought to me. Our affections, even our godly affections, can lead us away from truth about God. Watt’s comments;

Even the best affections, and those that seem to have a strong tendency towards piety, are not always safe guides in this respect; yet they are too often indulged to sway the mind in its search after truth or duty

And the first example he gives of this could have been written yesterday

Suppose a person should be exceedingly affected with the unlimited goodness and abounding grace of God; if, by this pious affection towards God and his goodness, he is persuaded to think that God has no such severe vengeance for sinful and rebel-creatures, and that he will not destroy multitudes of mankind in hell as the scripture asserts, or that their punishment shall not be so long and so terrible as God has expressly declared; here the passion of love and esteem for the divine goodness acts in an irregular manner, for it takes off the eyes of the soul from his awful holiness and his strict justice, and the unknown evil that is in sin. It prevents the mind from giving due attention to God’s express word, and to those perfections of the divine nature, and his wise and righteous government, which may demand such dreadful and eternal punishment, for the rebellion of a creature against the infinite dignity of it’s creator and governor.

A sense of the profound love of God can, Watt’s argues, cloud our judgement and skew our view of God. It prevents the mind from giving due attention to God’s express word he writes.

When our judgements are built on our passions we are in danger of getting God wrong.

The passions were made to be servants to reason, to be governed by the judgment, and to be influenced by truth; but they were never given us to decide controversies, and to determine what is truth, and what is error.


Jun 12, 2011

Matt predicts a riot

Matt raises a smile after the Archbishop’s remarks this week in the New Statesman

Thanks to Eddie Arthur for the link

Jun 11, 2011

Bringing your people aboard and dealing with the pirates

This e-book is well worth a look when it comes to matters of vision, values & strategy in a church. Not just in shaping your vision as a church but in ensuring ownership of that vision.

Will Mancini comments

There are 4 kinds of people in your church when it comes to vision.

Passengers to nurture and challenge

Crew members to equip and empower

Stowaways to find and convert

Pirates to confront and eliminate


Jun 9, 2011

Stop telling your people to do evangelism (or at least not all of them)

At the ‘loving the lost’ conference yesterday, organised by Midlands Gospel Partnership, Andy Patterson shared with us six growing convictions borne out of years of fruitful gospel ministry.

Here they all are:

1) ‘evangelist’ is a multi-faceted office that should be identified and encouraged

2) God calls non-evangelists to reactive witnessing not driven by guilt but love

3) Social engagement should be a given for any church community

4) Multi-generational and multi-ethnic churches best reflect the gospel

5) ‘Attractional’ church should be a by-product not a strategy

6) Planting new churches rather than enlarging existing buildings is most blessed

The audio of the sessions should be available in the next few days at the MGP site.


Should we all be evangelists?

I want to pick up here Andy’s second point and expand on his conviction a little further.

I’m an evangelist. I’m not a great evangelist but I do look forward to opportunities to share my faith. Andy’s insight is that as church leaders we don’t help our congregations when we fail ‘to distinguish between the gifting of evangelists and the responsibility of believers who have not been gifted in this way.’

So the problem we create as ministers and evangelists is that ‘we seem to think others should be wired as we are’.

What is the result of pushing the evangelism agenda?

Because what we are asking people to be is unnatural to them it results in ‘guilt, inactivity and passing the buck’.

The biblical pattern is that all Christians are called to be witnesses but not all are gifted to be evangelists. So on Colossians  4:6, Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone,  Dick Lucas writes in the Bible Speaks Today commentary on Colossians;

Paul’s advice to the Christians is not along the lines of possessing oneself of better techniques with which to approach people. Rather he turns the problem right around so that the Christians can see their responsibilities in a much more promising light. Their privilege, simply put, is to answer everyone. That is to say they are to respond to the questions of others rather than initiate conversations on leading topics; they are to accept openings rather than make them.

This is emphatically, not to sound the retreat. Paul evidently believes that opportunities for response and explanation are to be found everywhere, for everyone is looking to discover answers about life and its meaning.  And Paul evidently things that believing Christians should be found everywhere too, ready to take up these frequent opportunities.


What is the result of encouraging witness rather than pushing evangelism?

Patterson suggests at least 8;

  • It recognises God’s sovereignty
  • It leads to prayer as we seek God given opportunities
  • It encourages holy living as we look to live lives that adorn the gospel
  • It removes strain and false guilt
  • It encourages excellence in our tasks
  • It develops genuine friendships
  • It allows effective, relaxed and open conversations
  • It embraces all personality types


Dick Lucas again;

It is obvious what strain this removes from conscientious Christians. The pressure to raise certain topics and reach certain people can make it difficult to live or talk normally. In any case, we go to the office to work, not evangelize. But by being ready and willing to respond the way is opened in a more serene, and successful, approach to each day’s opportunities. It opens the way, too, for a greater dependence on God’s leading as well as for a more relevant and sensitive witness, suited to each individual.



Jun 8, 2011

The secret to successful marriage from Piper, Carson, Keller

Jun 7, 2011

Never underestimate the place and power of godly women!

Check out this fantastic insight from Glen Knecht a pastor who visited the Ukraine after the collapse of communism;

How mistaken the Communists were when they allowed the older women to continue worshipping together! IT was they who were considered no threat to the new order, but it was they whose prayers and faithfulness over all those barren years held the church together and raised up a generation of men and young people to serve the Lord. Yes, the church we attended was crowded with these older women at the very front, for they had been the stalwart defenders and maintainers of Christ’s Gospel, but behind them and alongside them and in the balcony and outside the windows were the fruit of their faithfulness, men, women, young people, and children. We must never underestimate the place and power of our godly women.

Jun 6, 2011

Why looking after parents in old age is a gospel issue

I’m a husband, a father, a church-minister. But i’m also still a son. My parents are both in their seventies and are enjoying an active retirement. But in preaching 1 Timothy 5 on Sunday evening I was reminded again that a time is approaching when I may be called upon to do far more than I do now to care for parents in old age.

What I think I had underestimated was this challenge from the apostle Paul that whether or not you are willing to look after your parents in their old age is a test of your sincerity of your faith.

I can’t remember anyone impressing this on me in a sermon before. I can’t think of the last time I ever taught on the subject. I wonder for how many Christians it is a completely new idea that how you treat your parents, long after you have left home, is a sign of the reality of your faith.

For Paul caring for parents and grandparents is practical theology. Our Christian faith begins at home.

And had I forgotten that Jesus himself left us that example to follow?  Even as he was suffering in agony on the cross, for your sin and mine, John tells us of how Jesus was thinking of the needs of his own mother and that he spoke to ensure that his mother, a widow, would be provided for in her old age. John writes;

Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Dear woman, here is your son,” and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on this disciple took her into his home.

In 1 Timothy 5:3-16 Paul gives four reasons why children need to provide for their parents.

If your mother is in need then v.4 ‘put your religion into practise’ by providing for her.

1) Looking after parents is a form of repayment.

Caring for your parents is repaying them what you owe according to Paul in v.4. The word for repaying means ‘to render what is due’. We all owe our parents an enormous amount for everything they did and continue to do for us.  A report in the guardian suggested that the cost of raising a child through to 21 years of age has now risen to £210,000!

But we all know it’s not just the money it’s the time, energy, emotional commitment, constant vigilance, sleepless nights, wisdom and advice, discipline, etc.

And what’s more the word for repaying is a word written in the infinitive form which really means ‘to keep on giving back’.

So Christians should not have to need our parents to say to us ‘after all we’ve done for you’ for we know and are thankful to God for all they have done.

It is the responsibility of children to make sure that their parents receive the best possible care in old age.

That’s going to look different for each family. Some parents are going to be fit and healthy, independent maybe for all but a few months. Some will need a great deal more care, you might have to give up a job to care for them, you might have to build an extension or move house.

But it matters and not just because you owe them but because honouring your parents in this way is also pleasing to God, v.4

2) Looking after parents is part of true worship of God.

You glorify God by loving your family.

And we shouldn’t be surprised because the commandment of God says ‘honour your father and mother’ and Paul here reminds us that the command doesn’t stop when you leave the family home and it doesn’t stop even when you marry.  The commandment is for life.

The 1960’s gave birth to a cultural revolution. It really marked the birth of the teenager and rebellion. Annie Gottlieb wrote of that time

We truly believed that the family had to be torn apart to free love and the first step was to tear ourselves free from our parents.

For the Christian we need to understand how easy it is to find ourselves conforming to that cultural expectation that we are independent spirits free from commitment and free from obligation to family.

The words of Augustine are sobering when he says;

If anyone fails to honour his parents, is there anyone he will spare?

When we care for our parents into their old age we show that we recognise them for who they are – gifts of God.

Have you made that link in your mind?

God says honour them. I’ve given them to you. And if you think they could have a done a better job then think what your life would have been like without any parents and see how tragic a circumstance that is.

The Christian is to honour Mum and Dad. So respect them, esteem them, value them, prize them, maybe you could actually speak to them once in a while, thank them, pray for them, tell them that you love them and then show that you mean it, care for them, give up your time for them, spend your money on them and if they don’t know Christ speak to them about Jesus and if they do know Christ speak to them about Jesus.

We need therefore to celebrate the lives of those who have given hours, days, weeks, years of their lives to caring for elderly relatives.  We need to pray for them and thank God for their godly example. It is not a wasted life to give a life in love and devotion to the care of another.

Now for some the call to care for family brings particular challenges. Maybe you feel let down by your parents. Maybe you’re really angry with them. Maybe you’ve never known your Dad or he walked out on your mom. Maybe it would be the hardest thing God could call on you to do to care for a parent in old age.

For some of us that might be hard but we remember too how Jesus knew what it was to be rejected by his own family – Mark 3:31-35.

If we are reluctant to give of ourselves to our parents because we either feel guilt at the way we’ve treated parents or anger at the way they have treated us we need to allow the gospel to bring healing and reconciliation.

If we are to prepare ourselves to serve our parents in their old age it might mean we need to put it right NOW. Some of us can’t afford to leave it until the day when we need to care for them.

We need a generous heart towards them emotionally and spiritually now if we are to find a generous heart for the future.

Here’s the advice of one on this theme;

1) Develop a system for prayer for your family

2) Begin your prayers for your family with thanksgiving. Think of every reason you have to thank God for them.

3) You may need to include prayers of confession for wrong attitudes eg cold-hearted, indifferent, proud, arrogant, self-righteous, ungrateful, disrespectful, disobedient

We need to ask God to change our attitude to our parents that we might honour him in our care of them.

Why are Christians under a particular obligation to care for parents? Because the opposite of honour is dishonour.

3) Looking after parents is a gospel issue. To fail to do so is sin against God and to bring the gospel into disrepute v.8

Maybe as a Christian you’re tempted to think well I’m busy serving God. I haven’t got time to care for them.

The Pharisees at the time of Jesus were notorious for putting to one side care for their relatives in order to ‘serve God.’ In Matthew 15:4-9 rebukes them for breaking the commands of God in their refusal to care for family. He calls them hypocrites whose behaviour demonstrates how FAR they are from God.

Paul says when we do that we have v.8 ‘denied the faith’ and we are ‘worse than an unbeliever’ .

Here is the principle..We all owe our parents full respect and we are commanded by God to show it.

All too often, modern society wants us to shove the elderly out of sight.  So if we live in a different town we think we can forget about them.  But this gives the church a wonderful opportunity to say we are different. The very way in which we care for parents and grandparents ought to proclaim the love of God.

Here’s how one journalist reflected on the issues just a couple of days ago;

Pretending and prevaricating is no longer an option. To cling blindly to the notion that benign local authorities will gently take our parents off our hands and rehouse them in cheerful surrounds with lots of stimulating activities and without the smell of boiled cabbage is unrealistic, verging perilously close to irresponsible.

By clinging to this fantasy, we do everyone a grave disservice; especially ourselves,

There in a nutshell is the problem. So what is the solution? I don’t know; but I am certain we need to come up with one. And fast.

She has no solution to the need. Not least because caring for family is simply inconvenient and fights with our ambitions and desires. The Christian refuses to live this way.

4) If we fail to look after our parents we will bring a burden on the church v.16

When Christians fail to care for their parents, if those parents are themselves Christians, in abdicating our responsibility we place the burden of responsibility onto the church of which they are members.

It may be that living in a different town or city that the church is willing and able to provide support of one kind or another to our relatives. That is something we should give thanks to God for but something that we should recognise and not take for granted.

Do we know what a local church does for them? Are we in contact? Do we find ways to at the very least support them, to ensure that what we expect them to do is not unreasonable? Do we demonstrate our gratitude? Are there other more needy individuals who cannot receive the support they need because we are not playing our part?


Let us remember that the Bible takes responsibility for care of parents in their old age very seriously. Paul’s words here in 1 Timothy 5 along with Jesus’ words in Matthew 15 are deeply disturbing.

  • So are we anticipating what we might need to do in the future to care for family?
  • Are we talking it over with our spouse and children?
  • Are we talking with our parents about their needs?
  • Are we praying that we would honour God in how we relate to our relatives and parents?
  • Do we see it as an integral part of our faith, worship and witness that we get this right?
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