Jake Belder
Oct 20, 2014

One of the things I hear every now and then from newer preachers is that they have an ambition and desire to be able to preach with simple notes, or even without notes. At our college Communion service at St John’s College the other week, the visiting preacher preached without notes, and many people said afterwards how amazed they were by this. And rightly so – she didn’t stumble at all, the words ‘uh’ and ‘um’ were pretty much absent from her vocabulary, and the sermon was clear and structured.

Does this mean that all preachers should aim to preach without notes? When people suggest to me that they should, there are a few things I usually say in response. That is not because I presume to be an expert on preaching, but having done it regularly over the past three years, I have a few thoughts borne out of experience.

In the first place, every preacher has different abilities. The preacher at our Communion service clearly had the sort of memory that could just absorb things as she prepared, which could then be distilled verbally without any written prompts. My brain doesn’t work that way, however. It’s not that the stuff I take in while I prepare to preach doesn’t stay there, but the way my memory works, were I to go into the pulpit without notes, I would have a lot of difficulty calling it all back to mind. Give me a pen and paper and I can probably write it all out again, but to share it all verbally without prompts would be difficult for me. As a result, I use a script when I preach, and I’m unapologetic about that fact. I’ve worked hard during the week to expound the text and to put the sermon together, and when I get into the pulpit I want to make sure that everything that needs to be said gets said clearly.

Secondly, in response to this, some new preachers are concerned that if they use a script it will sound like they are reading an essay. That will only be true if you write it like an essay. One of the things you learn when you preach is to find your own voice. For me, that means that when I write a few sentences or a paragraph for a sermon, I read them back to myself to make sure it sounds like something I would say. It means I don’t always use proper grammar, that I don’t worry too much about colloquialisms, and that I sometimes write in a sort of ‘stream of consciousness’ style. And because I try and write in the way I speak, when I get into the pulpit, I only need to glance at a line I’ve written to remember what’s there. That frees me up from having to focus too much on it to make sure I read it correctly.

Sometimes after I’ve made these points, those who advocate preaching without notes might make one final comment, and that is to suggest that to preach a scripted sermon is to stifle the work of the Holy Spirit. Honestly, I think that is nonsense. When I preach, I can think of at least four distinct ways I depend on the work of the Spirit: first, to sanctify me; second, to write the truths of the passage I’m preaching from on my own heart first; third, to guide me in my study and preparation; and fourth, to take my words and to use them to open up the truth of God’s Word so that his people will be built up in faith. If that’s not depending on the Spirit, I don’t know what is. And yes, that means that sometimes when I’m preaching I will feel prompted to say things other than what I’ve written. But more often than not, it means I stick to what’s on the page in front of me.

If you can preach with bullet points or without notes, that’s great. But I don’t think that is a goal that every preacher needs to aspire to. God uses you as you are, with your unique abilities and gifts. And if your desire is simply to proclaim his Word faithfully so that his people are transformed more and more into the likeness of Christ, and so that others come to know the risen Lord Jesus, then he will do that work by his Spirit whether or not you need to have notes in front of you.

(And yes, that's a photo of me preaching from a couple of years ago. With notes.)

Oct 18, 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 12-18 October 2014.

  1. Christian worship is boring – An interesting post on the formative role of worship. The author says it is meant to be 'a long term education in becoming un-excited.'
  2. Church Planting Essentials: Patience – Great post from Phil Whittall on learning to be at peace waiting to see God work: 'We believe that Jesus intends to build His church and has asked us to help. So we do what we’re told and we wait.' He's writing from the vantage point of a church planter, but I think this applies to just about everyone in ministry in the West.
  3. Tom Wright on Dooyeweerd and KuyperSteve Bishop posts an interesting Google Translate-translated article from a Dutch website (hint: it's a bit hard to read) in which Tom Wright talks about the ways he has been influenced by Dutch Reformed thinkers such as Herman Dooyeweerd and Abraham Kuyper.
  4. Why Study Theology? – Here is an good and thoughtful piece from John Webster on why the study of theology is so crucial for ministry.
  5. Forget Facebook, Abandon Instagram, Move To A Village – This is an interesting piece on the benefits of village life, particularly in terms of social and societal factors. There are potentially some insights for the church here, not least the discussion of the ideal size of a village.
  6. Retirement Home ChristianityRichard Mouw offers a really helpful post on why you can't preach the same thing in every context.
  7. Ladies: Give Us Your Most Productive Years, We'll Hold Your Eggs For You – If you need yet another example of how broken the world is, here are some companies who are willing to pay to freeze a woman's eggs during her most productive working years so they can get the most out of their female employees. Yes, this is for real.
  8. When a Pastor Resigns Abruptly – In light of a rather big event in the American evangelical world this week, here is a really thoughtful piece on the dangers of pride in ministry. Always check your character, or better, have someone do it for you.

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

Oct 15, 2014

Why do we need a gospel that transforms all of life? Because otherwise our witness in the world is compromised.

As for me, I will believe in no belief that does not make itself manifest by outward signs. I will think no preaching sincere that is not recommended by the practice of the preacher.
– Signora Neroni, in Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers (p. 275)
How can any one remain interested in a religion which seems to have no concern with nine-tenths of his life?
– Dorothy Sayers, 'Why Work?' (p. 8)
I am still convinced that one of the major reasons why people reject the Gospel in the West today is not because they perceive it to be false but because they perceive it to be trivial.
– John Stott, ‘The Mind, the Spirit, and Power’, in A Faith and Culture Devotional: Daily Readings on Art, Science, and Life (p. 46)
There seems little point in a religion which is merely a weekly social event (apart, of course, from the normal pleasures of a weekly social event), as opposed to one which tells you exactly how to live, which colours and stains everything… What’s the point of faith unless you and it are serious – seriously serious – unless your religion fills, directs, stains and sustains your life?
– Julian Barnes, Nothing to be Frightened Of (p. 64, 81)

We are always quick to deny the assertion made by so many in our culture that Christianity is irrelevant. But perhaps they are just keenly observant, and see a Christianity in which our lives don't look all that different from theirs. People notice when the gospel does not transform the whole of your life, and they will simply write it off. No, if Christ is Lord, everything matters, and everything must change.

Oct 13, 2014

Recently I have been working my way through Anthony Trollope’s series of novels collectively known as The Chronicles of Barsetshire. One of the things I enjoy about Trollope’s writing (although it took me a bit of time to get used to) is the way in which he intersperses comments from his own perspective into the narrative. In the middle of telling the story, he will pause and take a minute to reflect on something the story has drawn out, often something to do with human nature, and it is almost as if you are sitting there actually having a conversation with him.

Sometimes those reflections are more poignant than others, such as this from Barchester Towers:

Considering how much we are all given to discuss the characters of others, and discuss them often not in the strictest spirit of charity, it is singular how little we are inclined to think that others can speak ill-naturedly of us, and how angry and hurt we are when proof reaches us that they have done so. It is hardly too much to say that we all of us occasionally speak of our dearest friends in a manner in which those dearest friends would very little like to hear themselves mentioned; and that we nevertheless expect that our dearest friends shall invariably speak of us as though they were blind to all our faults, but keenly alive to every shade of our virtues (194-195).

Trollope is right, of course. A good mix of James 4:11 and Matthew 7:12 would do us all well.

Oct 11, 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 05-11 October 2014.

  1. These 75 Iconic Photos Will Define The 21st Century So Far – The title is pretty superfluous (and I even left off the worst part of it), but this is a great collection of photos, and I think a lot of these will certainly be enduring images of this century.
  2. The Image of God & You – A great post from Jordan Ballor, who writes, 'As great a challenge and responsibility as it can be to recognize and affirm the image of God in other people, it is likewise often difficult to see God’s image in ourselves... We must [learn to] live in a way that is worthy of our honored status as God’s imagebearers."
  3. Pursue God: How God Pulls Us to Himself – Here is an excellent piece by James K.A. Smith on the relationship between vocation and worship. He rightly says the two are inseparable, as worship trains our hearts to desire the right things, equipping us to do our work for the sake of Christ and his Kingdom.
  4. Richard Hays and the New Testament’s Witness on Homosexuality – A summary of the chapter on homosexuality from Richard Hays' book, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, which N.T. Wright suggests is the best brief treatment on the issue.
  5. Sexuality and Silence – This is a helpful post from Andrew Wilson on why churches should not remain silent on controversial ethical and moral issues. We need to be a voice of clarity amidst all the confusion.
  6. Bible in the Raw – Here is a good piece on the Fulcrum blog on the subject of Bible translation, which includes a bit of a call to consider learning the original languages.

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

Oct 9, 2014

I have just finished reading The Integrity of Anglicanism, a book by the late Bishop Stephen Sykes, which is a fascinating and incisive work aimed at addressing the question of whether or not Anglicanism – and more specifically, the Church of England – has a distinct theological standpoint. The book is in part a sustained critique of the idea of 'comprehensiveness', the notion that the Anglican Church should be a place where (in some cases, radically) different theological perspectives can exist in unity. Sykes essentially concludes that as attractive as this idea is in theory, it is simply incapable of working in practice, and undermines Anglicanism's integrity.

As popular as the idea of comprehensiveness is, Sykes ends up arguing that Anglicanism actually does have a shared theological standpoint, 'whether or not its theologians are aware of it and are prepared to think carefully and critically about it’ (74). He suggests that this standpoint is most evident in its liturgies and canon law.1 If this is true, though, Sykes wonders, why then is there no ‘genre of Anglican theological literature corresponding to Roman Catholic systematic theology’ (74)? He continues,

I can only imagine three explanations; it may be that Anglicans have special insight into why the whole enterprise of systematic theology is a waste of time… But so far from this being the case, we would more easily be able to show how pathetically grateful Anglicans are to have some writing on which to cut their theological teeth and how parasitic Anglican theological education is on the existence of such literature. Or secondly, it may be that my argument about the existence of an Anglican standpoint is fallacious. And in this case I hope it will not be long before its errors have been exposed. Or, thirdly, and I can see no further possibilities, it may be that the contemporary Anglican communion is in gross dereliction of its duty to foster the critical study of its own standpoint as a church participating in the universal Church of Christ, to its own impoverishment and to the impoverishment of its contribution to the cause of Christian unity (74-75).

These are strong words, but an important challenge. I find myself sympathetic to much of Sykes' critique of comprehensiveness and the need to articulate a distinctive Anglican theological standpoint. This is not to diminish the way in which Anglicanism has always sought to make room for theological exploration, but a recognition that this process should not result in what can end up looking a lot like relativism. When it does, it fosters a unity that is only institutional, and in many ways illusory. This, I think, is the situation we find ourselves in today. And we are left, as Sykes says, impoverished.

True unity is rooted in shared belief. To be sure, Anglicanism has never been a confessional Church in the sense of the Reformed and Lutheran Churches, and has always been characterised by a degree of diversity, largely owing to its nature as a national Church. Nor should it necessarily be. However, as Paul Avis demonstrates in his book, Anglicanism and the Christian Church, early post-Reformation Anglicanism did have greater commonality in its theological foundation, but this has eroded over time as different movements and traditions, particularly those influenced by liberalism, have become more prominent. Sykes' call, then, is to recapture a shared foundation – not that we try to recapture the 16th- and 17th-centuries as a sort of 'golden age', or that we become a confessional Church, but simply that Anglicans take up the task of doing theology, to work out and express our theological standpoint, and from there to draw all the traditions of the Church into the process of discernment and refinement so that we will come to build our unity on a common faith. Sykes is happy to affirm that Anglicanism by nature has always been a broad Church, but he also recognises that we need to draw boundaries and establish foundations if our unity is going to be real and lasting.

Sykes wrote these words in 1978, but as far as I know, his call has yet to be answered, at least within the Church of England. And certainly, with all that's going on today and the way the fractures in the Church are growing, it is more urgent than ever that we seek unity in the way Sykes calls us to – indeed, in the way Jesus calls us to.

1 There is an intriguing tension that emerges when a Church that prizes diversity of theological perspectives and traditions claims to hold a 'common' form of worship. Sykes is right to note that our liturgy embraces a particular theology, as you cannot say something that means more than one thing at the same time. This results in different traditions either attempting to interpret the liturgy to fit within their tradition's theological framework, or to simply ignore the tension, such that only keen observers will note the dichotomy between the theology professed in the liturgy and the theology articulated by the church/tradition.
Oct 6, 2014

Stories of people who have given up their Christian faith because of science are not uncommon. In his recent book, How (Not) to be Secular, James K.A. Smith, interacting with Charles Taylor’s tome, A Secular Age, makes this observation about such people (page numbers in the paragraph reference Taylor’s book):

If someone tells you that he or she has converted to unbelief because of science, don’t believe them. Because what’s usually captured the person is not scientific evidence per se, but the form of science: ‘Even where the conclusions of science seem to be doing the work of conversion, it is very often not the detailed findings so much as the form’ (p. 362). Indeed, ‘the appeal of scientific materialism is not so much the cogency of its detailed findings as that of the underlying epistemological stance, and that for ethical reasons. It is seen as the stance of maturity, of courage, of manliness, over against childish fears and sentimentality’ (p. 365). But you can understand how, on the retelling, the convert to unbelief will want to give the impression that it was the scientific evidence doing the work. Converts to unbelief always tell subtraction stories (76-77).

Smith goes on to note that, not surprisingly, those who convert to unbelief usually had an immature faith to begin with, one without any real grounding and therefore easily toppled. And when they paint their conversion as a growth in maturity, this only ‘betrays the simplistic shape of the faith they’ve abandoned’ (77). But it is also important to note that this conversion is not simply about a quest for knowledge. It goes deeper than that. Smith continues:

Such tales of maturity and ‘growing up’ to 'face reality’ are stories of courage – the courage to face the fact that the universe is without transcendent meaning, without eternal purpose, without supernatural significance. So the convert to unbelief has ‘grown up’ because she can handle the truth that our disenchanted world is a cold, hard place. At the same time, there can be something exhilarating in this loss of purpose and teleology, because if nothing matters, and we have the courage to face this, then we have a kind of Epicurean invulnerability. While such a universe might have nothing to offer us by way of comfort, it’s also true that ‘in such a universe, nothing is demanded of us’ (p. 367). Now the loss of purpose is also a liberation: ‘we decide what goals to pursue’. God is dead; viva la revolution (77-78).

In the end, then, despite the narrative told by the convert of a noble quest for knowledge, this new-found belief in science is not entirely about growing up and being able to face reality, but is more an attempt to hide from the brokenness of this world and an excuse to live however you want.

However, with a framework devoid of all meaning and purpose, after the initial rush of 'exhilaration', the end result can only be misery. There is a better way, and that is to move beyond the immature faith these converts once held – not to give up on faith, but to seek a faith that fully and truly embraces the reality of Christ’s Lordship over all of life and all of creation. It is this Christ who has been victorious over sin and death and who now reigns as King who provides the only answer to the brokenness of this world, and who alone provides meaning and purpose. It is this Christ who offers to us life in all its fullness as we surrender ourselves to him, and die and rise to new life with him. And what's more, our lives are invested with new and profound meaning and purpose as we, in the power of his Spirit, are enabled to begin to actually do something about the brokenness of the world by seeking to bear witness to his redemption and his Lordship in everything we say and do.

That, of course, is a conversion story seldom heard in public. But it's far more exciting and life-transforming.

Oct 4, 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 28 September-04 October 2014.

  1. Daily Dose of Greek – If you have studied biblical Greek before and are looking for a simple way to keep up with it, this new resource looks quite helpful. A two-minute video is emailed to you each day in which a verse is translated on screen so that you can follow along and keep your skills fresh.
  2. What's wrong with being Gospel-Centred? – Nothing is wrong with being gospel-centred, says Steve Jeffrey – unless your gospel is too small. This is a great post on the need for a gospel that focuses on the Lordship of Christ and his cosmic redemption.
  3. NT Wright and the Historical Adam – I find the whole question of the historical Adam to be an interesting and important question, and it is always interesting to read what other scholars think on the matter. Here is a summary of Wright's view on the issue, which, although it has some helpful points, feels to me a bit evasive.
  4. Church as (non-nuclear) family – Here is an interesting post from Steve Holmes on what it actually means and looks like for the church to be a 'family'.

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

Sep 27, 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 21-27 September 2014.

  1. How to Survive the Secular ApocalypseKevin Flatt suggests that secularism is crumbling around us, and makes some helpful suggestions as to how Christians can respond to that.
  2. On not being converted – Reflecting on Jesus' calling of Matthew to be his disciple, Jeremy Fletcher has some good thoughts on how for so many of us, conversion is an ongoing process.
  3. Where to go to Church – Here is a rather interesting piece on what kinds of things you should consider when choosing a church. The author ends up suggesting that a church should be chosen 'first and foremost, for its theological positions and, secondarily, for all of the other great benefits that it could offer'. There is an interesting conversation to be had here.
  4. Do Christian Schools Produce Good Citizens? The Evidence Says Yes.Cardus, a Canadian think tank, has done some very interesting research on how different types of schools prepare children for life in wider society. You can read some of the results here.
  5. Recreated in Four Dimensions – Here is a deeply encouraging piece from Peter Leithart on what our baptism actually does to us. If you've never really taken the time to stop and think about what your baptism means, do it now.
  6. Children Who Never Play – This is a really interesting piece on the benefits of letting children play, particularly in unsupervised environments, and how it forms them as people and as members of society.
  7. Busy is Blasphemy – We all say we're busy from time to time, but perhaps we ought not to. Here is a great post that suggests saying you're busy is a weapon of pride and self-interest, and you just need to stop it.
  8. The importance of testimonyIan Paul has an interesting post on the role of testimony in sharing the faith. I was interested to read this, as I've reflected on it before too, both on the effectiveness and the necessary content of testimonies.
  9. What do we do when the Bible is ‘wrong’? – Another helpful post from Ian Paul this week, this time on how we deal with parts of the Bible that seem to be wrong based on what we know from other sources, and especially when we want to uphold the authority of Scripture.

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

Sep 22, 2014

A couple of weeks ago, I was listening to a few people talk about the decline of the church here in the United Kingdom, and about different strategies that are being employed to address the decline. One of the leaders in the Methodist Church was talking about what they are doing to re-brand their denomination with a much more distinct focus on mission, and about their experimentations with intentional communities and new monasticism. A local vicar and theologian was later saying that if there is ever to be a renewal of life in the church, it needs to begin with a renewal of the clergy. The overarching concern of the conversation was one very earnest question: How do we stop people leaving the church?

Usually when I am listening to these sorts of conversations, two things go through my mind. The first is that, when we are faced with a situation like we are currently in here in the UK, we will only be able to press on when we have a healthy understanding of God’s sovereignty and a conviction that he is at work in the world even when we cannot see it. I posted about this a few months ago. The second thing that goes through my mind, though, is that maybe we do not need to do anything differently at all. Maybe we need to consider that God allows us to go through times like this in order to help us (re-)learn to depend on him.

I understand the impulse to want to rethink the things we do as the church when we seem to be failing to draw people in. After all, it is our calling to bear witness to Christ and his Kingdom and to seek to bring others in to discover the fullness of life that Jesus offers, and when that is not happening, we should be concerned. But what if too often we end up thinking everything needs to change because we are only looking to fulfil this calling in our own strength?

When listening to these sorts of conversations, you often here the first-person plural employed – we need to do this, we’ve tried this, we should try this. On the one hand, this could simply be understood as wrestling with how to carry out our responsibility to be witnesses and thinking about what that looks like in different times and places. But on the other hand, perhaps we need take a step back and consider the idea that God has already given us all the tools we need to be his witnesses in the world – Word and sacrament, and the empowerment of the Spirit – and have faith that the tools he has given us are the right tools for the job.

I tend to think, as I listen to these sorts of conversations, that although we would not hesitate to acknowledge that these are the tools we have been given, we have lost our confidence in what they can accomplish because they do not seem to be working right any more. But is the problem that the tools are faulty? Or is it perhaps that we simply do not trust God and his Spirit to make those tools effective any more? Few Christians would dare suggest that anything God has given his people to carry out their mission is insufficient. And that is why I suggest we consider that God is allowing us to go through a time of decline in order that we can re-learn to depend on him and the power of his Spirit to do the work he has called us to.

Christians around the world who find themselves in contexts where they are oppressed and persecuted also focus on what they need to do to preserve and grow the church. But I suspect that if you were to ask them what we need to do, their answers would be pretty simple: pray, read the Bible, stop making an idol of comfort and be willing to count the cost that comes with faithfulness, and keep your eyes fixed on Jesus. Certainly that is what animated the early church and why God blessed it with such rapid growth, as the book of Acts testifies to. And again today, with the church growing as rapidly as it is in different parts of the world, there is something for us to (re-)learn here, and it is not about adopting the most innovate strategies and programmes. It is simply about wholehearted dependence on the God who has called us and who is the source of the church’s life.

If we get to that point where our talk about what we need to do lines up with the things we need to do to depend on God, we will find ourselves in a good place. And perhaps, in God’s mercy, we will even find that the decline of the church is something we do not have to talk about any longer.

©2014, Jake Belder. Disclaimer here.