Jul 21, 2014

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Jul 12, 2014

Every week I use Twitter to share a variety of articles and posts and other interesting things I have seen and read across the web. They are then collected here and posted at the end of the week.

As you can see, the past couple of weeks have been either been very slow, or – and this is much more likely – I have been very out of the loop.

Here are the links from the week of 29 June-12 July 2014.

  1. Should we preach like a TED talk?Chris Green has an interesting post on what preachers can learn from the TED method, as well as some things they ought to avoid. The timing of this post was perfect, as I had just linked to something else about the TED method a couple weeks ago and was thinking about what preachers could learn from this.
  2. Why disagreement is not goodMartin Davie has a thoughtful post here on Justin Welby's idea of 'good disagreement'. He largely disagrees with Welby's approach, and makes the case that instead the Church ought to be a community that pursues truth, and that aims at coming to agreement in the truth. (I would note as well that if Davie's reading of Welby is correct, the former is arguably more Anglican than the latter!)

Feel free to comment on any of these items or recommend further articles or posts related to the content above using the space below.

Jul 8, 2014

Several weeks ago, Anthony Bradley tweeted this:

Anthony makes what I think is a profoundly important point that needs to be taken seriously if we are to think about what it looks like to be faithful in our Western context. Yet amongst the myriad of books and articles and whatever else claiming to have the answer to why the church in the West is declining and increasingly being marginalised, this point is seemingly never made. Liberal Christians often contend that the church’s decline is a result of having not kept up with the values of our culture and society, and thus being perceived as completely irrelevant and out of touch. Conservative Christians often contend that the church’s decline is a result of the influence of liberal Christianity and the watering down of the gospel.

To some degree or another both of these factors could be taken into account, but neither is sufficient to answer the question altogether. The problem with these conclusions is that they only look at our action in history. They fail to point to the action of God in directing the course of history.

I have always been fascinated by Acts 16:7-8, which has sometimes been called the most pivotal event in Western history, when the Spirit of Jesus prevented Paul, Silas, and Timothy from going into Bythnia on their missionary journey and prompted them to go Macedonia instead. One of the things that is striking about Luke's narrative here is that it solely focuses on the action of God in directing history in relation to the spread of the gospel and the growth of the church. Nothing is said about Paul, Silas, and Timothy's response to this prompting, nor about the reasons God sent them where he did. And Anthony’s question is simply this: If God has directed that the gospel would spread to certain places and not others before, why could he not do the same today?

My point is not that we should not always be on the move, going where the church is growing the most. Paul, Silas, and Timothy had a unique call, and other examples from the book of Acts show Christians labouring faithfully where they are. Nor is my point that we should not consider any other factors in trying to come to grips with what has happened in the West. What we need to understand most of all, though, in this context where the church is not growing in the ways it is in other parts of the world, is that we will only remain faithful and avoid discouragement if we simply remember that God is in control. If you don’t have confidence that God is directing the course of history and that he is at work in the world to build his church, you will ultimately think that it all depends on you. And when you then find yourself in a 'time of small things', as one of my colleagues likes to say, your response will be to either give up on the means God has given us to do the work he has called us to, or give up entirely because you are so discouraged.

Ministry is always hard work, and there are always challenges. In many of those parts of the world where the church is flourishing, Christians face significant opposition and persecution. Our challenge is, amongst other things, significant apathy. It's helpful for us to remember Paul's instructions to Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:2: 'Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season.' Paul goes on to tell Timothy that he will find himself in a time that sounds very similar to our own. And what is Timothy to do then? He is just to press on faithfully with the work he has been entrusted with.

We certainly ought to pray that the church will again grow and flourish here in the West. But in the end, that is not up to us. Right now we are simply called to be faithful, whatever the situation. And no matter what it looks like around us, there are many other places in the world that remind us we can be confident in Jesus' promise: 'I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it' (Matthew 16:18). God is always at work.

Jul 3, 2014

Preaching aims, in part, to confront the sin in the lives of the hearers, in order that they might be convicted to turn from sin and turn to Christ. Often the idea of fighting sin is equated simply with behaviour modification, and while that is partly true – turning from sin should change our behaviour – it goes much deeper than that.

Tim Keller, in his book, The Reason for God, says that “sin is the despairing refusal to find your deepest identity in your relationship and service to God. Sin is seeking to become oneself, to get an identity, apart from him” (162). Keller goes on to say that all sin leads to emptiness, because we look to build our identity on things in this world, and turn to them to try and fill a void inside of us. But because that void was only ever meant to be filled by God, these things never satisfy us.

Keller continues:

As Augustine said, if there is a God who created you, then the deepest chambers of your soul simply cannot be filled up by anything less. That is how great the human soul is. If Jesus is the Creator-Lord, then by definition nothing could satisfy you like he can, even if you are successful. Even the most successful careers and families cannot give the significance, security, and affirmation that the author of glory and love can (172-173).

I find Keller's understanding of sin here (and fleshed out much more in his later book, Counterfeit Gods) to be very helpful, and in my preaching, this understanding is often lurking in the background, giving shape to what I say. There is nothing more I want than for people to desire Jesus alone. But I actually find this difficult to communicate. By that I mean that I think it is easier to convince people that they should abandon a certain behaviour because of its negative effects than it is to convince them that underneath their sinful behaviour lies a longing that can only be satisfied by Jesus. As simple as that truth is, it often feels to me like it is really hard to drive that point home.

One of the things I have had to learn as a preacher is that there are limits to what I can say. And that, I think, is what I need to recognise in this case as well. Here is a simple truth, and as a preacher I am just called to point to Jesus as the one who satisfies all our deepest longings and desires, and to let the Holy Spirit go to work in the hearts of the hearers to convict them of that reality. I can only say so much, and need to believe that through the power of the Spirit, those who are listening will grasp the fullness of what is being offered as Jesus is held out to them.

I know my faith in the work of the Spirit still needs to grow, and I keep praying that I will get to the point where I stop expecting my words to do his work. If you are a preacher, do you struggle with this sort of thing too?

Jun 28, 2014

Every week I use Twitter to share a variety of articles and posts and other interesting things I have seen and read across the web. They are then collected here and posted at the end of the week.

Here are the links from the week of 22-28 June 2014.

  1. N.T. Wright on Heaven and Earth, Male and Female – Wright recently raised a bit of a stir when a short video circulated with him discussing some of the problems behind redefining marriage, partly because of some of the analogies he used. Here is a helpful post from Alastair Roberts responding to and clearing up some of those misunderstandings.
  2. Wholiness – Living Holy Lives Wholly – Here is a good post from Chuck DeGroat on living in the freedom Christ has won for us.
  3. Our FatherPeter Leithart discusses how some of the references to Yahweh as 'Father' in the Old Testament, and in Isaiah in particular, can enrich our understanding of what we mean when we talk about God as Father.
  4. A Love that Fills, and a Love that Opens – There is a great example here of a married couple at their wedding deliberately seeking not just to celebrate their love for one another, but for that love to reach out to their friends as well, especially those who are single and celibate.
  5. French Lessons & Secular Indoctrination – Here is a really interesting post from Mark Roques on teaching language as a Christian and how our worldview impacts how we teach different languages.
  6. Reflections on Jesus as LordMike Bird has some reflections on the implications of Christ's Lordship over all of life, noting particularly that in some cultures where authority is often despised, this can be more difficult to grasp.
  7. Friendship in God’s KingdomWesley Hill is one of the people behind the inspiring Spiritual Friendship project, which aims at recovering a biblical vision of friendship for the flourishing of those who choose celibacy for the sake of being faithful to the Bible's teaching on marriage and sexuality. Here is an interview with him about the project.
  8. The Science Behind TED's 18-Minute Rule – Here are some interesting thoughts on how TED came to decide on the 18-minute length for their talks, and the benefits of that specific length of time. There are some important things here for preachers to learn, I think.
  9. Vicky Beeching and the sexuality debateIan Paul has some helpful thoughts here particularly on the forum in which the current sexuality debates are happening, and why he thinks it ought to be different.
  10. A Tale of Different Funerals – A lot of strange things can happen at funerals, and that is because they are places that reveal what we really believe about all sorts of things, including the created order, the nature of humanity, and life and death.
  11. Hey, Church of England: if you want to become a Christian, you have to renounce the Devil – Some time ago, the Church of England decided to change some of the wording in the baptism liturgy, which included removing references to 'sin' and to 'the Devil'. After a lot of protest, 'sin' was put back in, but 'the Devil' remains out. There are some important points in this opinion piece on why reference to 'the Devil' needs to be put back in as well.
  12. Why Plant ChurchesChad Brooks, who I've been connected with online for years but have not yet had the pleasure of meeting, is off to plant a new church in Sterlington, Louisiana. Why? Chad writes, "The average church plant will bring 6-8 times more new people into faith than an older congregation of the same size... Starting new churches is evangelism. If we want to introduce new people to Jesus, we have to start new churches.

Feel free to comment on any of these items or recommend further articles or posts related to the content above using the space below.

Jun 24, 2014

A couple of weeks ago I posted on Alexander Schmemann's suggestion that secularism is a heresy, and the resulting implications for how the church deals with secularism. His main point was that as the Church grapples with heresy, it should lead us deeper into truth. In passing, I also noted that it was suggested to me that there is something of the spirit of Anglicanism reflected in Schmemann’s approach.

Over the past couple of months, I’ve been working my way through Paul Avis’ book, Anglicanism and the Christian Church, which is largely a historical survey attempting to draw out a distinctly Anglican identity. As I was finishing the book last week, I was intrigued to see Avis make an observation about the Anglican approach to doing theology, which fits with the comment posed to me earlier about the spirit of Anglicanism. Avis writes,

Anglicanism acknowledges the authority of scholarship: this qualifies its reformed catholicism as a liberal reformed catholicism. At its best this liberalism, or better, liberality, implies no casual attitude to Christian truth. It is not the same as [the] ‘liberalism’ that reduced all dogma to mere opinion. It has a strong moral dimension: Anglicanism is committed to the pursuit of truth and not to the blind defence of traditional positions. It appears to follow that no reasonable question, however disconcerting, is out of order in the church’s theological explorations.

[This posture] is consistent with the claims of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries for the competence of scholarship to modify tradition. Anglicanism is, and always has been hospitable to rigorous theological enquiry. It attempts the bold experiment of combining the traditional disciplines of personal piety, parish worship, and creedal orthodoxy with the most radical questioning in pursuit of truth (292).

Avis continually emphasises both that when Anglicanism makes room for theological exploration, it does so in the the pursuit of truth, with the purpose of moving towards deeper agreement, and that this exploration is with respect to non-fundamental matters. For that exploration and pursuit to flourish, he says, it must be rooted in “those areas of deep agreement that provide the parameters within which theological argument can take place” (306). When you look at Anglicans today, you sometimes wonder if this has been forgotten; claims of being a ‘broad church’ sometimes seem to be taken as a license to believe whatever you want. But as Avis clearly demonstrates in his book, historically this has never been the case with Anglicanism. There has been much discussion on what constitutes the fundamentals, yes, and the different traditions within Anglicanism have disagreed on how far-reaching the boundaries of this orthodoxy should be (for example, is it something basic like a simple, creedal orthodoxy, or more extensive, like the Thirty-Nine Articles?), but the consensus has always been that there is a fundamental orthodoxy at the root of Anglicanism.

"Theological exploration" is, in many ways, a scary and dangerous idea. Because of that, some traditions, particularly the confessional traditions emerging out of the Reformation era, have sought to be much more extensive in defining the bounds of orthodoxy, allowing less room for theological exploration. Partly because of the history and nature of Anglicanism, this uniformity in all matters of theology and practice has never been something the Anglican Church has aspired to. Instead, Anglicanism has first sought to bring Christians together in worship, and then to engage together in the pursuit of truth. To be sure, this ideal can be fraught with difficulty and no end of conflict, and can open the door to a sort of theological relativism that takes the place of seeking truth together when that endeavour becomes too difficult. At the same time, there are merits in this Anglican approach to theology, most notably the humble acknowledgement that we never have all the right answers. Schmemann, as I quoted last time, makes this point helpfully:

Heresy is also always a question addressed to the Church, and which requires, in order to be answered, an effort of Christian thought and conscience. To condemn a heresy is relatively easy. What is much more difficult is to detect the question it implies, and to give this question an adequate answer. Such, however, was always the Church’s dealing with ‘heresies’ – they always provoked an effort of creativity within the Church so that the condemnation became ultimately a widening and deepening of Christian faith itself.

This is, of course, a difficult endeavour, and I think in some ways it is easier to belong to a more robust confessional tradition. But at the same time, there is a sense in which we should never be satisfied with the answers we have. Because Scripture is a treasure mine so vast and so deep that we can never discover all the riches it contains, so our efforts to deepen our theological understanding should never cease. And when our efforts are undergirded by the solid foundation of the gospel, by our worship, and as we prayerfully seek the guidance of the Spirit, we can have confidence that God will bless our pursuit of a deeper and fuller understanding of him and his revelation.

Jun 21, 2014

Every week I use Twitter to share a variety of articles and posts and other interesting things I have seen and read across the web. They are then collected here and posted at the end of the week.

Here are the links from the week of 15-21 June 2014.

  1. The Voices of the Father and the Son – 'Prosopological exegesis' is one mouthful of a term, but it is a very interesting concept focused on discerning the voices of God the Father and God the Son in the Old Testament. Fred Sanders helpfully discusses it in this post.
  2. Reading: The Struggle – Some thoughts on the challenges of reading in this age of distraction: "Every moment of serious reading has to be fought for, planned for... When we read there are more breaks, ever more frequent stops and restarts, more input from elsewhere, fewer refuges where the mind can settle. It is not simply that one is interrupted; it is that one is actually inclined to interruption. Hence more and more energy is required to stay in contact with a book, particularly something long and complex."
  3. Theses on the Revelation of the Trinity – Here is another helpful post from Fred Sanders on the revelation of the Trinity in Scripture. His statements here are based on the assertion that "the mode of revelation of the Trinity has structural implications for the right presentation of the doctrine."

Feel free to comment on any of these items or recommend further articles or posts related to the content above using the space below.

Jun 14, 2014

Every week I use Twitter to share a variety of articles and posts and other interesting things I have seen and read across the web. They are then collected here and posted at the end of the week.

Note: Since I have been occupied with a lot of different things over the last couple of months, not least sorting out some plans for the future, I'm including several weeks' worth of links, with no additional commentary besides what I included in the initial tweet. Normal service will resume next Saturday.

Here are the links from the week of 27 April-14 June 2014.

  1. Church of England is not a church of privilege, but of obligation – Thoughtful post from Archbishop Cranmer on establishment.
  2. Why meetup.com is a gift for church planters – A creative idea from Phil Whittall. Anyone tried it?
  3. The Value of Arguing Without Changing Our Minds – Great stuff from Oliver O'Donovan, via Alastair Roberts.
  4. “I used to be a Christian, but…” and the Importance of Questions in Evangelism – Helpful post from Derek Rishmawy.
  5. Clapham Spirituality: A Model for Contemporary Evangelicals – Personal faith should impact public life. Great piece.
  6. An interview with the Archbishop of Canterbury – Clever piece on what Thomas Cranmer said about reading Scripture.
  7. Church attendance manual (2): singing – Another great set of instructions from Ben Myers.
  8. Andrew White: Being Jesus in the Kill Zone – Interview with the 'Vicar of Baghdad'. All you can say is, 'Wow.'
  9. The Future of Protestantism: A Conversation with Peter Leithart, Fred Sanders, and Carl Trueman – ...is now online!
  10. The Future of Protestantism Full Roundup – If you saw the recent #protfuture discussion, you'll find this helpful.
  11. Not So Secular Sweden – Interesting piece on how secularism is forcing ecumenism among Sweden's remaining Christians.
  12. We Can't Care About Everyone All the Time – God calls us to focus on those around us. Provocative but thoughtful piece.
  13. Eleven Theses on Being a Creedal Christian – This is important and thoughtful stuff from Alastair Roberts.
  14. Is There Such a Thing as ‘Moral Orthodoxy’? – Thoughtful post from Derek Rishmawy. This is an important conversation.
  15. On Church Membership and Theological Disagreement – Really helpful stuff from Jake Meador.
  16. New Song – An interesting post from Peter Leithart on what Scripture means when it talks about singing 'a new song'.
  17. Confession and Anti-Liturgy – Interesting post on why confession is a necessary part of worship.
  18. Dr. David Powlison - On "General Thanksgiving" from the Book of Common Prayer – And how it aids counselling.
  19. A Different Thought On The Essentials – An intriguing take on the categories of essential/non-essential truths.
  20. When books stop taking up space in the world, will they stop taking up space in the mind? – Via J. Mark Bertrand.
  21. What we talk about when we talk about evangelism – Archbishop Justin Welby on a renewed call to witness to Jesus.
  22. Ignatius Meets the Multi-Site GurusAndrew Wilson on why multi-site churches are just confused pseudo-Anglicans.
  23. Children and Worship: Fit and QualifiedUri Brito says the Bible knows nothing of children kept from corporate worship.
  24. Be a 'Food Church' – Great stuff from Andy Stager on why churches must eat together, and often.
  25. Four Modern Versions of the Bible that Are Ruining the Bible – Some really good points here.
  26. Gift of the SpiritPeter Leithart: "Jesus was conceived by the Spirit, and conceives a new people by the Spirit."
  27. Britain is now "a very difficult country" for Christians – Good Pentecost reflections from Archbishop Cranmer.
  28. A Time to DieJennie Pollock on the problem of being concerned with what happens to bodies after death, but not before.
  29. First the Table – Memorials enact now what God has promised for the future. Very interesting post on Christian unity.
  30. Vermeer's paintings might be 350 year-old color photographs – This is absolutely fascinating.
  31. N. T. Wright on Gay Marriage – Good thoughts on the huge problem of redefining words.

Feel free to comment on any of these items or recommend further articles or posts related to the content above using the space below.

Jun 10, 2014

Alexander Schmemann, in his book, For the Life of the World, makes some fascinating comments about the relationship of secularism and Christianity, noting particularly that secularism ought to be understood as a heresy, rather than something entirely distinct from Christianity. He writes,

[There is] a very real connection between secularism – its origin and development – and Christianity. Secularism – we must again and again stress this – is a ‘stepchild’ of Christianity, as are, in the last analysis, all secular ideologies which today dominate the world – not, as it is claimed by the Western apostles of a Christian acceptance of secularism, a legitimate child, but a heresy. Heresy, however, is always the distortion, exaggeration, and therefore the mutilation of something true, the affirmation of one ‘choice’, one element at the expense of the others, the breaking up of the catholicity of Truth (127).

As a result, Schmemann suggests that instead of seeing secularism as something we simply need to repudiate or condemn, we need to recognise the opportunity it presents to the Church to witness to the truth:

But then heresy is also always a question addressed to the Church, and which requires, in order to be answered, an effort of Christian thought and conscience. To condemn a heresy is relatively easy. What is much more difficult is to detect the question it implies, and to give this question an adequate answer. Such, however, was always the Church’s dealing with ‘heresies’ – they always provoked an effort of creativity within the Church so that the condemnation became ultimately a widening and deepening of Christian faith itself… If secularism is, as I am convinced, the great heresy of our own time, it requires from the Church not mere anathemas, and certainly not compromises, but above all an effort of understanding so it may ultimately be overcome by truth (127-128).

Schmemann goes on to say that whilst heresies in the early church were a result of Christianity’s encounter with Hellenism, the heresy of secularism is a result of the breakdown within Christianity itself in the modern age. That is quite an interesting observation, and perhaps evidenced in part by the fact that secularism primarily exists in the Western world, in cultures with a Judeo-Christian foundation. But whether or not you would agree with Schmemann's suggestion that secularism is a heresy, he is certainly correct to note that if we are to minister effectively in a secular context, we must first understand it so that the gospel can challenge secularism at its most salient points.

On a different note, someone suggested to me that much of what Schmemann says here quite neatly captures the nature and the spirit of Anglicanism, but that is perhaps for another time.

May 21, 2014

I love what the Heidelberg Catechism says about God being both sovereign creator and Lord, as well as our Father, as it unpacks the first part of the Apostles' Creed in Q&A 26:

Q. What do you believe when you say,
'I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth'?

A. That the eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
who out of nothing created heaven and earth
and everything in them,
who still upholds and rules them
by his eternal counsel and providence,
is my God and Father
because of Christ his Son.

I trust him so much that I do not doubt
he will provide
whatever I need
for body and soul,
and he will turn to my good
whatever adversity he sends me
in this sad world.

He is able to do this because he is almighty God;
he desires to do this because he is a faithful Father.

And I certainly wish I could echo those words – 'I trust him so much that I do not doubt...' – with that kind of confidence much more often.

©2014, Jake Belder. Disclaimer here.