unity

10 Questions Every Preacher Should Consider Before Preaching on Sunday

10 Questions Every Preacher Should Consider Before Preaching on Sunday

I have been a pastor for almost a decade. I spend between 12-15 hours each week thinking, researching, and writing before I deliver the first words in my Sunday sermon. The process of writing my sermon goes through a lengthy journey each week.  I contemplate several questions from Monday to Friday which force me to edit and re-edit my manuscript. There is no perfect sermon, but a sermon that goes through revisions and asks import questions has a much better chance of communicating with clarity than the self-assured preacher who engages the sermonic task with nothing more than academic lenses.

I have compiled a list of ten questions I ask myself each week at some point or another.

Question #1: Is this language clear? When you write a manuscript ( as I do) you have an opportunity to carefully consider the language you use. I make a habit of reading my sermon out loud which leads me to realize that certain phrases do not convey the idea clearly. A well-written sermon does not necessarily mean a well-delivered sermon. Reading my sermons out loud causes me to re-write and look for other ways to explain a concept or application more clearly.

Question #2: Is there a need to use high theological language in this sermon? Seminary graduates are often tempted to use the best of their training in the wrong environment. People are not listening to you to hear your theological acumen. I am well aware that some in the congregation would be entirely comfortable with words like perichoresis and Arianism. I am not opposed to using high theological discourse. Words like atonement, justification, sanctification are biblical and need to be defined. But extra-biblical terms and ideologies should be employed sparingly. Much of this can be dealt in a Sunday School class or other environments. High theological language needs to be used with great care, and I think it needs to be avoided as much as possible in the Sunday sermon.

Question #3: Can I make this sermon even shorter? As I read my sermons each week, I find that I can cut a paragraph or two easily, or depending on how long you preach, perhaps an entire page. This is an important lesson for new preachers: not everything needs to be said. Shorter sermons–which I strongly advocatea–force you to say what’s important and keep some of your research in the footnotes where it belongs. Preachers need to learn what to prioritize in a sermon so as not to unload unnecessary information on their parishioners.

While in seminary, I once heard a Presbyterian pastor preach the equivalent of three sermons in 55 minutes. I remember thinking, “If he finished now it will be a great sermon.” 40 minutes went by, and I thought, “If he finished his sermon now it will be all right.” After almost an hour I turned to my wife and said, “I pity his congregation.” Mistakes happen. Preachers lose track of time and people are generally very forgiving. But when this is a frequent occurrence it becomes a detriment. Preachers may turn into apologists for the Puritan era when they preached two-hour sermons. My response to this is very simple: “You are no John Owen!”

Question #4: Will my people hear a message about a great God or a convenient God? Sermons that do not lead people to serve God more faithfully have not fulfilled their purpose. The sermon needs to urge people to live more like their Lord and God. They can contemplate God, study or learn more about God (these are important), but if they leave uncertain as to how to serve their God more faithfully, the sermon has not pierced deeply enough. God’s people need to be consecrated by the Word of the Lord, pierced by the sword of the Spirit into action. Communicating only details about God can leave parishioners with a convenient God that demands knowledge but no sacrifice.

Question #5: What can I teach that will increase my people’s knowledge of the Bible? Every preacher must know: your people will remember between 1-5% of your preaching ministry throughout their lives. There is no statistic about this, the evidence is borne by daily experience. Exegesis of a verse in Hebrews will be forgotten perhaps before the sermon is over, but hermeneutical principles will remain if they are communicated succinctly. One common interpretational phrase I have used in many of my sermons is, “The Holy Spirit does not waste his breath.” This phraseb communicates that every detail of the text matters. I want my people to know in every sermon that every word in the Bible is meaningful and put in there for a reason. Many other principles will encourage God’s people to love their Bibles and learn more about it in their own studies and meditations. They may not remember my careful exegesis, but they will remember that the text is to be cherished.

Question #6: Do people follow me from point A to point B and C? I have heard my share of disconnected sermons over the years. Sermons need to have a message that is connected throughout. Themes and illustrations need to be connected to the central message. If illustrations have no purpose in the development of a sermon or if they are only used to get a laugh, people will inevitably leave confused and uncertain of the illustration’s purpose. Preachers need to be very aware of how point A connects to point B. Paragraphs need to smoothly transition, otherwise, you are beginning a new sermon altogether, and people are left wondering what the main point is. This is why manuscript preparation can help with transitional statements. On my last sermon, I repeated this phrase several times, “The future belongs to the child.” In fact, I generally title my sermons after my main point.

Question #7: Is this sermon going to connect to particular concerns of my people? I firmly believe that sermons need to connect in some way to everyone, from the young convert to the university professor. The more you preach, the more you begin to see people in your congregation with unique needs. When a pastor says “I have no one in mind when I preach,” he is likely ineffective in his preaching. Pastors are shaped by their conversations, counseling, and context. People I pray with and meet each week come to mind when I make applications. Of course, we need to be careful not to use the pulpit to deliver a privatized homily. A sermon on divorce the week after a congregant was divorced is unwise. Preachers need to consider the need of his own flock. For instance, “Does my congregation have a tendency to pride in their intellect or status?” A preacher is always preaching locally, though he can minister broadly. New Christians need to see their pastor’s words as applicable and rich to their own unique situation and this requires a good dose of wisdom and knowledge of particular needs in the congregation. Pastoral application becomes richer when there are pastoral encounters and engagement with the people. It is important to note also that we have our failures and shortcomings, but these should not keep us from addressing them corporately.c

Question #8: Is my argument persuasive? The sermon ought to leave the listener convinced that the Bible’s claim is right and true. Arguments can be phrased differently in every sermon. Some arguments will be demonstrably more persuasive than others. The preacher’s role is to give enough context and substance, so the main point becomes attractive. Persuasion is a difficult skill and needs to be considered again and again, which is why sermons need to be revised several times before they are delivered. One common problem is pastors trying to persuade people to death. Sermons are not commentaries. A preacher does not need to make his congregation turn to several Bible passages. A sermon is not an informal Bible study. Make your point. Make it desirable and succinct and move on.

Question #9: Where is the Gospel? A Gospel-less sermon is no sermon at all. Ask yourself, “Where is the Gospel?” Will my people be saved from their sins and misery after hearing this word? Will they find hope in Messiah Jesus? Will the broken-hearted see Jesus with greater joy? Will the single mom find refuge in Jesus and his Kingdom? Preachers cannot end a sermon in the desert. The Gospel is promised land. The sermonic journey takes the parishioner from darkness to light; death to resurrection.

Question #10: Is my application too general? Jesus says, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be added unto you.” My closing question is a question about how my applications speak to my congregation. There are a thousand ways to speak the truth, but not many ways to speak the truth in love. Application is truth in love. Love your congregation by applying specifically and carefully. It is one thing to say Trust God, it is another to say, Believe his promises in the middle of your cancer. Generalities sometimes are inescapable, but try to escape them as much as possible when applying the Word. If there is one part of the sermon that deserves great concentration, it is in the application of the Word to God’s people. Pastors should read good counseling books. Pastors should know their people well in order to apply God’s truth in love (see #7).

You may consider each question every Sunday, and after some time these questions will be a natural part of your sermon preparation each week. Not all sermons are created equal. Just delivering content is not the goal of preaching. Preaching is an art, and we can all learn to grow.

  1. By this I mean sermons no longer than 30 minutes  (back)
  2. I think first used by James B. Jordan  (back)
  3. I hope to address pastoral fears in another post  (back)
Should Reformed People Read N.T. Wright?

Should Reformed People Read N.T. Wright?

It doesn’t happen quite often, but once in a while when I recommend a book or a quote by N.T. Wright on facebook, I will receive a question that goes something like this:

“Do you approve of N.T. Wright? Do you think it’s fruitful to endorse N.T. Wright? Or don’t you know that N.T. denies Justification by faith alone?”

I addressed the first question on facebook and I thought I’d make it available here. My response goes like this:

I think the question ought to be more nuanced. In other words, humans and their ideas, especially new humans recreated by God, ought to be analyzed more carefully and charitably. As a pastor I recommend Wright to my parishioners with the same enthusiasm I would recommend C.S. Lewis, Schmemann, and Martin Luther. I have disagreements with all of them, but charity allows me to communicate with these great thinkers and gain from what they offer, while expressing sometimes strong disagreements on some of their contributions.

Yes, Reformed people, in fact, Christians of all stripes should read Professor Wright. His profound insights, his vision for a renewed humanity in Christ, his invaluable defense of the bodily resurrection of Jesus, and his commitment to the historical, Biblical Jesus make him one of the most gifted teachers and scholars of our time and The Jesus Seminar’s worst nightmare.

But what about justification? Shouldn’t we stand for the principal article of the Church? And by standing shouldn’t we reject anyone who denies it?

First, N.T. Wright has written and clarified many of his statements. He stated again and again that he does not deny justification by faith alone. I take him at his word. “But hasn’t he been unclear?” To those who think so, he will always be. “I and many others find Wright’s overall project to be fruitful, despite having disagreements with him at points.” I find Kevin J. Vanhoozer’s humorous, but yet serious points on the Wright vs. Piper debate to be very helpful, and from what I hear from reliable sources, Wright agrees and finds Vanhoozer’s attempt to bridge the two paradigms extremely beneficial.

Secondly, the Reformation did not settle every issue. There are contemporary issues that still must be handled within our context. The Reformers did not exhaust the fullness of justification. There is indeed a robustly corporate view of justification that the Reformers–rightly preoccupied with Romish theological abuse–simply did not address explicitly in the 16th century. In this sense, Wright needs to be read and listened to attentively.

Thirdly, when one poses the question of whether we should eliminate such an author from our library because he is wrong on an issue, no matter how important the issue may be, he is betraying the charitable nature of the Christian vision and our personal libraries. Of course, he may choose to avoid Wright, and other authors who also had some questionable theological presuppositions (like C.S. Lewis), his theological vision will be narrow, and his ability to articulate a vision of the world will stop at the wardrobe (to borrow from Lewis). Those of us who appreciate Wright prefer to open the wardrobe and see Narnia in all its beauty.”

Finally, the West’s over-emphasis on the individual is tragic. The individual matters, but Adam himself knew that the individual is not alone. Just as the Trinity is not alone, so too man needs to be a part of something greater. “Community” is not just a buzzword no matter how often hipster Christian groups use it. In its biblical sense, community is the essence of the Christian experience. Paul’s vision was highly ecclesiastical. The individual who divorces from the community loses his ability to be truly human. He breathes and eats as a human, but his breathing and eating desecrates God’s intention to incorporate him into  a multitude. N.T. Wright offers immeasurable contributions on this subject.

Naturally, there is the possibility of over-emphasizing community, but that hardly seems to be the problem in our day. The reality is if you stress the community you get the individual, if you stress the individual you don’t get the community.

Should we read N.T. Wright? Yes. Read him often with the eyes of discernment. But again, discernment is the Christian’s best friend in any human activity.

Will Confessions Bring Unity?

Will Confessions Bring Unity?

In preparing to lead a man’s study this evening on reclaiming catholicity, I came across this paragraph from my former professor, John Frame:

There are those who think that the way to maintain unity in a church, denomination, or conference, is by having a written confession that specifies in detail what everybody must agree on. I do believe in creeds, and I treasure the great creeds, confessions, and catechisms of the church. But a common written confession is not the key to unity. For one thing, no confession can cover everything. For another, even the best confessions must be applied to current circumstances, and that is not always easy to do. But the most important problem with confessions is this: A written confession is a fallible human document, however much biblical truth it may contain. Unlike God’s inspired Word, the Bible, any human confession may contain errors. So we dare not make the fellowship of our churches depend on agreement to everything in a confession. If you have a rule that people agree to everything in the confession, then you make it impossible to correct the confession in the light of God’s Word. That means the confession becomes equal to the Bible. I think it’s good to have a confession, so that people both inside and outside the church can get an idea of what the church is about. But we dare not make the confession infallible. Our written rule of faith must be, as Luther and Calvin so clearly put it, Scripture and Scripture alone.

Watch Out for the Dogmatic Dogs, Ladies!

Watch Out for the Dogmatic Dogs, Ladies!

Paul addresses his famous three “Lookouts” or “Bewares” in Philippians 3. The reference is likely to Judaizers; those who pollute the law of Yahweh and make the commandments of God unbearable and burdensome. But something else came to my attention as I thought about this text in light of my experiences in Reformedom. And that is that we have built a haven for dogmatic dogs. These dogs are well within the pale of orthodoxy. Their creedal credentials are not at stake. What is at stake is what they add to their creedal credentials.

Let me be honest. I love a good dose of postmillennial, paedo-life, psalmic, and predestinarian theology for breakfast…and lunch, and supper. So I am not discouraging the pursuit and passionate embrace of these doctrines. At the same time, there are some who wear these as fervently as St. Nick’s commitment to the deity of Christ witnessed by many when he slapped a heretic over it. These dogmatic dogs would receive the same rebuke from Paul today. In those days, they would have been wearing their Apollos t-shirts to the marketplace. And here is where things get messy: they truly believe they have a high calling to be apologists for the kingdom of God–that really small faction that intends to take over the world one blog post at a time.

Ladies, watch out!

I love the idea and the application of courtships in my congregation and elsewhere. But what needs to be included in this courtship process is not just whether a young man loves Jesus or contemplates deeply the mysteries of God, but whether this young man contemplates unity as the foundation for loving Jesus and understanding the mysteries of God.

Dogmatic Dogs don’t want unity. They perpetuate the myth that unity is for ecumenical liberals. Their strong and rhetorical vision for a united Christendom involves dogs that bark just like them. Ladies, look out! These are the types of men who will go from job to job, and if they are pursuing pastoral ministry they will go from church to church.

If you are a young lady contemplating sacred marriage and a young man has asked your father permission to court you and get to know you, here are some questions to ponder:

First, what is his on-line track record? Is he known as a contentious dog barking everywhere only to get the world to see his point of view?

Second, is he so dogmatic that his parents–who happen to be on opposite ends theologically–cannot bear to hear the words “theology” or “God” for fear of the conversation that will ensue?

Third, does he have friends from different theological traditions? If not, press him on why not?

Fourth, does he only read 16th century authors? Does he think contemporary theological writing is corrupt?

Fifth, is he able to teach you the Bible without making you feel like a theological infant?

Sixth, has he ever read a story? Tolkien, Lewis, McDonald, Rowling? Or are Systematic Theologies his favorite past time?

Seventh, can he engage in any other type of conversation outside theology? I know, I know, all of life is theological, but you get my point.

Eighth, does he consider human emotions a sign of weakness?

Ninth, does he honor and submit to his pastor when he receives counsel? Or does he always think he has a better way?

Finally, how does he worship? Does he treasure gathering with the saints? Does he treasure singing, feasting, loving, submitting, serving, and sacrificing for the saints?

Ladies, watch out for the dogmatic dogs! There is always the possibility they will see the errors of their own ways and change when they get married, but don’t count on it. Pray that they are able to show you a gentle dogmatism that translates to love, patience, and mercy to fellow brothers and sisters before marriage. Pray that they will repent of their vicious dogmatism and re-orient their words and actions to benefit the body and the unity of the saints. If we treasure our Christian faith, we may have at times failed to answer these questions rightly at one time or another, but the real question is whether we have learned to make our dogma attractive, rather than repulsive.

 

Should Reformed People Read N.T. Wright?

It doesn’t happen quite often, but once in a while when I recommend a book or a quote by N.T. Wright on facebook, I will receive a question that goes something like this:

“Do you approve of N.T. Wright? Do you think it’s fruitful to endorse N.T. Wright? Or don’t you know that N.T. denies Justification by faith alone?”

I addressed the first question on facebook and I thought I’d make it available here. My response goes like this:

I think the question ought to be more nuanced. In other words, humans and their ideas, especially new humans recreated by God, ought to be analyzed more carefully and charitably. As a pastor I recommend Wright to my parishioners with the same enthusiasm I would recommend C.S. Lewis, Schmemann, and Martin Luther. I have disagreements with all of them, but charity allows me to communicate with these great thinkers and gain from what they offer, while expressing sometimes strong disagreements on some of their contributions.

Yes, Reformed people, in fact, Christians of all stripes should read Professor Wright. His profound insights, his vision for a renewed humanity in Christ, his invaluable defense of the bodily resurrection of Jesus, and his commitment to the historical, Biblical Jesus make him one of the most gifted teachers and scholars of our time and The Jesus Seminar’s worst nightmare.

But what about justification? Shouldn’t we stand for the principal article of the Church? And by standing shouldn’t we reject anyone who denies it?

First, N.T. Wright has written and clarified many of his statements. He stated again and again that he does not deny justification by faith alone. I take him at his word. “But hasn’t he been unclear?” To those who think so, he will always be. To me and many others, I take his project to be fruitful, though not always agreeing. I find Kevin J. Vanhoozer’s humorous, but yet serious points on the Wright vs. Piper debate to be very helpful, and from what I hear from reliable sources, Wright agrees and finds Vanhoozer’s attempt to bridge the two paradigms extremely beneficial.

Secondly, the Reformation did not settle every issue. There are contemporary issues that still must be handled within our context. The Reformers did not exhaust the fullness of justification. There is indeed a robustly corporate view of justification that the Reformers–rightly preoccupied with Romish theological abuse–simply did not address explicitly in the 16th century. In this sense, Wright needs to be read and listened to attentively.

Thirdly, when one poses the question of whether we should eliminate such an author from our library because he is wrong on an issue, no matter how important the issue may be, he is betraying the charitable nature of the Christian vision and our personal libraries. Of course, he may choose to avoid Wright, and other authors who also had some skeptical theological presuppositions (like C.S. Lewis), however, his theological vision will be widely narrow and his ability to articulate a vision of the world will stop at the wardrobe, while we prefer to open it up and see Narnia in all its beauty.

Finally, the West’s over-emphasis on the individual is tragic. The individual matters, but Adam himself knew that the individual is not alone. Just as the Trinity is not alone, so too man needs to be a part of something greater. “Community” is not just a buzzword no matter how often hipster Christian groups use it. In its biblical sense, community is the essence of the Christian experience. Paul’s vision was highly ecclesiastical. The individual who divorces from the community loses his ability to be truly human. He breathes and eats as a human, but his breathing and eating desecrates God’s intention to incorporate him into  a multitude. N.T. Wright offers immeasurable contributions on this subject.

Naturally, there is the possibility of over-emphasizing community, but that hardly seems to be the problem in our day. The reality is if you stress the community you get the individual, if you stress the individual you don’t get the community.

Should we read N.T. Wright? Yes. Read him often with the eyes of discernment. But again, discernment is the Christian’s best friend in any human activity.

Lent, Ligon Duncan, and Legalism

Lent, Ligon Duncan, and Legalism

Collin Hansen wrote an article for the Gospel Coalition entitled Should You Cancel Good Friday? which has brought to the attention of many a conversation they have never had before. What is Lent? Why celebrate it?

As a committed Protestant, I am committed to the Church Calendar, not because I want to be a slave to it, but because I am aware of its inevitability. We all follow some calendar. The question is which calendar? I ask that question because Protestantism is grounded in a Trinitarian view of the world. In its best expression it does not isolate ideas; it brings ideas together to form a coherent system.

I suggest that Lent is highly Trinitarian. As the Trinity is a communion of love, so Lent provides a means to express that love to one another in the community. Where sins are confronted and battled, there you find a vigorous Trinitarian community and vision. Lent is service to the community by giving us a season of determined battle against sin for the sake of our neighbors.

It offers a vision of history that undergirds the biblical history and that reflects the normal routines, liturgies, and rituals of human beings. Lent is a form of restructuring our lives. All Christians need a re-structuring of order in their own lives. All Christians need to re-balance and re-form areas where there is disproportionate indifference. We all undergo a Psalmic journey of lamentation and feasting. Lent draws us into this journey.

In essence, Lent reveals the God who suffers in the Person of Jesus Christ. God’s image-bearers are formed from the dust of a fallen Adam to the glorification of the risen Final Adam. To disconnect Lent from the Church Calendar is to disparage history.

It is true we live in the age of an ascended Lord, but this same Lord guides a Church that is still broken, suffering, and healing from brokenness and suffering again and again. The removal of Lent is to proclaim an over-realized eschatology.

It is true that Lent can be abused, and history teaches us that it has. But it is also true, as Luther so memorably stated, “the abuse of something is not an argument against its proper use.” So if Lent can be proven to be profitable, then is there a legitimate way to benefit from it without falling into some its former abuses. Protestant Christians are not bound by Romish structures of food or rituals. We use wisdom in forming healthy habits for a Church and individuals while not binding the Church or the individual to a particular habit.

Lent and Wilderness

Lent teaches us that Satan’s gifts are easy to master. They come with first grade instruction manuals. They are made to be mastered quickly and enjoyed rapidly (fornication, drugs, alcohol; various temptations). God’s gifts are a little harder to master. They require self-control and patience. They anticipate spiritual growth; they demand a kingly attitude to grasp kingly wisdom. God’s instructions mean you have to seek others in the community to understand them properly. You have to exercise and express a theology of patience built into a theology of blessings.

In the wilderness, a garden stripped of colors, fruit, and water, Jesus faced the devil again in a re-match. He knew well that temptation had a triumphant history of subtly winning arguments. Jesus wasted no time and rebuked temptation. just like He would do with the demons and the demonic-like religious teachers of the day.

We are not to sit in temptation’s classroom. God already said we are to flee it; to rebuke it with the only source of authority that is permanent and stamped with divine truth.

The Church finds herself in a wilderness scenario. She is stripped of her former glory. But she is destined to journey from glory to glory like her Lord and Master. As in Luke four, we need to sit in Yahweh’s school house. We need to be instructed by the two-edged sword that muzzles the Tempter and tells him to not come back again. He is not welcome and neither are his offers.

Lent offers us a 40 day class on temptations and the glories and rewards of resisting it.

But Why 40 Days?

Lent follows the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness. His fasting for 40 days speaks to the evil and the hardness of heart of the Israelites who succumbed to the Serpent’s whispers. So as the Church walks with Jesus from wilderness to Golgotha she re-lives the messianic journey. The 40 days are symbolic for that wilderness testing, and as a result it is chronologically set before the Great Paschal Feast, commonly referred to as Easter.

Should Lent be Observed?

Ligon Duncan and others in the Southern Presbyterian tradition argue that Lent has a history based on merit. Lent was a way to earn something. The Reformation fixed this soteriological error, and therefore Lent is no longer to be observed.

Duncan and others also go on to say that celebrating Easter and Christmas offer no such harm (he also believes that a National Holiday like Thanksgiving is also a uniquely American holiday to be celebrated). There is no doubt Easter and Christmas, and even Thanksgiving–to a lesser degree–offer wonderful benefits. But the question and the opening presupposition is that Lent is not biblical therefore it should not be practiced in the Church. If that is the case, then the question is not whether one day (or Season) is more beneficial than the other, but rather is it explicitly stated in the Bible or not? If the “explicit reference” argument is used, then Duncan will have to conclude that this is faulty reasoning.

I concur with Vance Freeman that “each of his (Duncan’s) reasons for not observing Lent are undercut by the observance of Christmas and Easter.” Mr. Freeman also concludes:

The biggest threat to Christianity today is not the church in Rome, or that Americans are prone to elevate traditional Christian rituals, like Lent, over discipleship. The biggest threat to the church is that our rituals are increasingly only secular ones. We are Americans before we are Christians. Super Bowl Sunday not only competes with the Lord’s Day, it dominants it. And when we relegate the Christian life to a mere facet of our American lives we fall into Moral Therapeutic Deism.

The formation of godly habits is the issue at hand. In other words, is there an adequate time of the year where the Church should have an explicit focus on the cross of Jesus and how that cross must shape our understanding of sin? Is there room for setting aside a season for a cruciform hermeneutic? I believe there is.

As Peter Leithart so ably summarizes:

Lent is a season for taking stock and cleaning house, a time of self-examination, confession and repentance.  But we need to remind ourselves constantly what true repentance looks like.  “Giving up” something for Lent is fine, but you keep Lent best by making war on all the evil habits and sinful desires that prevent you from running the race with patience.

If this is true, then Lent serves an enormously important role in the life of the Christian. Naturally, to quote Luther’s first thesis, “the Christian life is a life of daily repentance.” A faithful understanding of the Lord’s Service provides that for us weekly. However, an extended period where our sins are deeply brought to our attention by the preaching of the Word and prayer (and fasting) are regularly considered, practiced and meditated upon can provide great benefits for all Christians on each Lord’s Day and throughout the week.

The legalism concern is legitimate. We are all tempted to fall into this trap, but it does not have to be so. If we view Lent as a time to additionally focus our attention on mortifying our sins and killing those habits that so easily entangle us, we can then consider the cross in light of the resurrection, not apart from it. If we do so, Lent will become legalism’s greatest enemy and repentance’s best friend.

Exhortation Series on Church Membership: Striving for Unity

We have had a couple of extraordinary years as a Church. God has richly favored us. As a sign of this favor, we will be adding new members this coming Sunday. And part of being a member of Providence means abiding by a common covenant; sharing a common agenda.

In the next few weeks I would like to explore very briefly the covenants we make with one another and this congregation.

Our Church Covenant states that we “joyfully and solemnly enter into a covenant with the members of Providence Church.” And this is the first of those covenants:

We commit to walk together in Christian love through the power of the Holy Spirit and to strive for the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

This is taken directly from Ephesians four where the apostle Paul says that we are to be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Eph. 4:3).” In an age where church divisions are quite common, the Bible calls us to do something very uncommon: to work hard at unity. What does this mean? This means as a member you have to do something. You can’t simply sit passively going through the motions of membership. You actually have to work at something, and in this case working to ensure that– for the next 3 months to 30 years, or however long God keeps you in our midst—Providence Church continues to be a model of peace to the world.

The difficulty of keeping the peace is that you can’t simply lock yourself up in a closet, because that would be easy; but walking together in Christian love means loving in context; loving those around you. This is what is expected of you as a member of this congregation: to embody a theology of love. Some of you come from broken environments where divisions were expected and it is your duty to make this into an alternative city; a city that functions differently

One powerful way we begin to exercise this Christian love is by coming together today and walking together in this liturgy: smiling, singing, and striving to make this a house of peace, through the Spirit who is Himself the bringer of peace.

Prayer: Our God, apart from you peace is impossible, but with you peace is our great agenda. Mature this body of believers to love, serve, and bring the shalom of God to one another, through Christ, our Peace, Amen.

Communion Meditation: Manna from Heaven

This marks the end of the Pentecost Season, and thus the end of the church calendar. The Psalmist says that “In God we have boasted continually,

and we will give thanks to His name forever.” This is a day to boast in the God we serve. We boast in Him for who He is, what He has done, and we give thanks because God never ceases to display His abundant love to His children. We are participants in this great thanksgiving agenda. Every time we sit and eat and drink together we are demonstrating to the world that we have abandoned a life of selfishness and pride, and thanksgiving now forms us a people.

The table of our Lord is a table of finality. The table is the final act before God commissions us into the world to serve our Risen Lord. And so as we come to the end of the Church Year, let us respond with thanksgiving, for God has led us through this journey of exile and deliverance, and now He will lead us to the expectation of the Manna who will come from heaven to be given and broken for us.

Quarreling, Machen’s Warrior Children, Reformed & CREC

C.S. Lewis argues that quarreling demands a certain a priori knowledge of right and wrong. Quarreling also demands a certain knowledge of the quarreler.

I follow–as I have for almost ten years–the Reformed wars. I follow these wars as someone who wants to avoid becoming one of Machen’s Warrior Children, but also as someone who receives some thrill from these battles. The problem with being too well informed is that you are sucked into these battles as if someone is picking a fight with you. Pastorally, these battles have little to no profit. They lead to all sorts of misconceptions. They divide. They create a category of people who are known for what they are against, rather than what they are for. They create a class of pugilists. Give them a dose of true Calvinistic sacramentology, and suddenly you are an enemy of the Reformed tradition; a tradition which for many goes only back to Princeton.

I say all these things because people speak past each other quite often in our micro-Reformation circles. I am certainly to blame at times, but I want to listen. I want to heed apostolic warnings. I want to be more Solomon-like in my wisdom: discerning what is helpful from what is not.

Those of us part of a confederation filled with convictions need to learn to deal with those who believe their convictions are typically not worth sharing. If we postmillennialists want the world, we are going to have to start talking and engaging those who don’t want it; and many of those label themselves Reformed. 

Practically, this means attending local associations in town as a start to this unity project. Explaining the C-R-E-C to people has a rather comical affect at times, but then it leads to perfectly natural questions on our view of Christian liberty–which usually entails, at least in the South, our view on alcohol consumption.

There is also the benefit of seeing just how broad the Christian world is. God is using the local charismatic preacher to denounce homosexuality more effectively than a thousand pages of academic journals.

My contention is that the Reformed world is generally small and ineffective due to its inability to see beyond itself. Granted, many of us are trying to take a different trajectory; a trajectory that comes with all sorts of bumps on the road. We have the choice of hitting the bump and keep moving or we have the choice of giving in and self-imploding. The gospel demands more.