God can’t do it that way again?

Often I hear things like: “we can’t do it that way anymore”, “that would never work today”, or even “God won’t do it that way anymore”.  Times have changed, we’re told.

As someone who does not go in for innovation for innovation’s sake, this line of reasoning doesn’t quite sit with me. And not just for the sake of the theological principle that God can do whatever pleases Him.  For historical reasons as well. Consider that in 1946 the dean of Harvard Divinity School had counted the tradition of large-scale evangelistic preaching to be discredited entirely.  It was the realm of hucksters and hacks.  The very idea of evangelism was loaded with images of charlatans who used big tent revivalism for personal gain.*

And then a few short years later, a young Billy Graham rose up in the public eye. His ministry could at the very least be described as, ahem, fruitful.

The lesson?  No one gets to tell God who He’ll use or how He’ll use them.  And no one gets to say what is over and that God can’t or won’t work that way again.

Billy Graham in 1955

Billy Graham in 1955

 

 

*see page 35 of Ross Douthat’s excellent book Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics

“Revive us again, O Lord” – history knows no straight lines

George Whitefield preaching

George Whitefield preaching

 

Will you not revive us again,
    that your people may rejoice in you?

Psalm 85:6 ESV

 

I once heard someone remark that history does not move in straight lines. We imagine that there is either general progress or general decline, and that pleases or discourages us depending whether we think one or the other is happening.

For instance, we imagine that our culture is becoming steadily less Christian. This can cause trepidation or panic in believers (“look how few people go to Church!”,  “Here are some sure-fire marketing techniques to attract and retain!”, “what about our young people?”).  Or it can cause gloating arrogance in the decidedly non-believing (“look how few people go to church!”, “it’s the triumph of science!”, “down with silly, bronze-age myths!”).

The truth is that history indeed knows no straight lines.  I once heard an offhand remark about American church involvement. I have no way of confirming but it did intrigue me. Around the time of the American Revolution (1776ish), only 17% of the population were involved in church life.  That’s way lower even than today.  But by the time of the American Civil War, about 90 years later, church-goers were almost 60%.  No straight line of decline.

So what happened in between?  A revival happened.  A revival of Christian faith that changed the face of the culture.  It can happen again.  This ought to keep the gloating of the secularist in check.  It should also encourage the believer who longs to see the world come to know God.

A little knowledge of Church history helps us to not be discouraged.  Times for Christian faith have been worse off before.  Read up on the 9th Century – it was arguably the most corrupt time in Christianity (for example)  And low church attendance (a good indicator of Christianity’s health in a culture) has sometimes dipped.  Apparently, on Easter Sunday, 17th of April, 1740 only 6 people were present for communion at St Paul’s Cathedral in London, England.  (source – mention made at approx. the 17-19 minute mark).  Times have been lean before.  History knows no straight lines of decline or increase.

No one knows the future but God alone. But we do know that we must be – and, by God’s grace, can be – faithful witnesses in the times which we’re given to live in.  And we can pray for God to “revive us again…”

 

 

 

Listening Has Its Limits – Called to Speak

Listening to others is important.  Listening to others for the sake of God is important too.  Francis Schaeffer once said that if he had one hour in which to share the Good News he would spend 55 minutes just asking questions and listening.  To truly know how to share Christ in a “non-canned” way we must listen to the concerns, backgrounds, and objections of the people we want to communicate with.  We also need to have our ear to ground when it comes to the culture around us; individuals are not culture-less after all.  What are the objections?  What are the concerns?  What are the longings – both spoken and unspoken?  To be an effective witness of Jesus in the real world we need to be careful listeners.

But when does the listening stop?  When does it hit its limits?  The idea of not imposing, carefully listening, being merely “present” has been en vogue in Christian circles.  It has launched a 1,000 buzz words and mini-movements such as “emergent”, “missional”, and so on.  The result is that there is such an emphasis on listening to those around and seeking to be a “presence” in their midst, that we’ve forget what we’re supposed to say.  Or that we’re to speak at all.

“I’m finished listening and being a ‘presence’ to you. Now, if you’ll allow me, I have some Good News to share with you.”

John Stott, writing fifty years ago, had an almost prescient view of much of what is going on today.  He writes in his superbly compact, Our Guilty Silence: the Church, the Gospel, and the World:

Others are actually equating evangelism with silence. They are not altering the gospel, but asserting that there is no gospel. ‘We have nothing to say,’ they affirm. ‘Our calling is to sit down alongside secular man and let him teach us. We cannot aspire to more than a Christian presence in the midst of the non-Christian world.’ But this is to abandon evangelism altogether. The need to penetrate into non-Christian society is agreed, but what is needed is penetration with a view to proclamation, not silence. Nothing to say? When did the gospel cease to be ‘good news’ and the Church cease to be the ‘herald’ God has appointed to announce it?

So when all the listening, asking, and being present is at an end, when all our understanding of where people are coming from is completed, what are we going to say?  Do we still have a burden to ‘proclaim’?  Do we still have good news to tell?

Why Should a Church Help Clean the Neighbourhood?

good posterThis Saturday is a community clean-up organized by the neighbourhood in which sits our Church building.  This year we’re taking part – both by encouraging bodies to help out and with a little funding.

Why?  Why is the perennially important question for anything so it’s important to ask it here.  Why should a local Church participate (enthusiastically by the way) in a neighbourhood clean-up?

This post (a repost from a year ago) is mainly for my own congregation’s benefit to help us focus on why we would expend effort on something like this.  Not that we’re cynical or resistant to the idea, by and large, but just to help us be clear.  But if you’re a reader from elsewhere, there might some pearls in it for you too.

So why is The King’s Fellowship participating?  How about for three reasons:

1)  For Us.  We’re doing it in order to help us.  We need opportunities to serve others and taking part together in something like this is to that end.  Many people in the congregation serve wonderfully in their own neighbourhoods and social circles.  It should never be suggested that we are not a serving people.  But corporately, as a congregation, there has never been a strong history of King’s doing service together.  So we need practice at that.  This Saturday is an opportunity for that.  Participating for one Saturday may not seem like a big deal – it’s not! – but it could be a step toward more ways to corporately serve.  Plus, it will be fun!  As someone who used to work in West Broadway take it from me; this community knows how to make stuff fun.  We’ll take part and we’ll be build community amongst ourselves.

2)  For Evangelism.  Picking up garbage with our neighbours is evangelism?  No, it’s not.  It is service.  Evangelism is when we speak the words of the Good News to someone and plead, persuade, and appeal to them to repent and believe.  Evangelism isn’t service but it can be helped by service.  Our Church has owned a building in this neighbourhood for years.  People could come to faith through our witness.  But they need to know we’re here first.  Serving is a way to let our neighbours know that we’re here and that we want to serve them (and serve with them) in Jesus’ name.  In addition to being an intrinsic good on its own, serving can be a way of ‘earning the right to be heard’.  This, I suspect Christians will learn in the decades ahead, is even more important as suspicion of traditional Christianity rises around us.  Picking up garbage this Saturday is a way to get to know our neighbours, be seen helping alongside with their common concerns.  No pressure to ‘share the Gospel’.  We’re there to serve.  But let me just share what a community leader told me once.  I told him that “propagating our faith is always a top priority for us”.  He smiled and replied:  “Hey, we’re all people.  We may see the world in different ways, but if people see you taking part, maybe they’ll be more open to your beliefs”.   Wise words.

3)  As A Stepping Stone To Something More.  One of my constant prayers for my congregation is that God would give us one or two unique ways to serve our neighbours.  That’s an important prayer because WB is a community which has lots of needs but also lots of people, programs, and organizations (both religious and non) who are already meeting those needs.  We don’t want to be redundant and run, for example, a healthy breakfast club or food bank when those things are already being done competently by others.  We also don’t want to shirk responsibility either.  We are to be a city on a hill after all.  It is important to not parachute in with our plans and agendas to help out.  We need to come alongside and participate in what is already going on.  We need to be servants and act like missionaries where we’ve been planted.  We need to not come in wearing our T-shirts but to wear theirs. *Psst, this isn’t just a metaphor – there’s a free t-shirt in it for you!*  If my prayer for one or two specific ways to serve is going to be answered, it almost certainly won’t be answered while sitting still.  If we take part in something as simple as this clean-up , and keep on for maybe a few years, we will be learning, making connections, becoming comfortable with our neighbours, and they with us.  Then, who knows what could come of it?  Oh wait, God knows!  Let’s participate and be in prayer.

An Evangelist’s Prayer

After an extended blog break and online detox, here is an offering that hopefully will set a more prayerful tone.  From Augustine to Baxter, from Paul to King David, and even right back to Jesus Himself there is a long practice of writing prayers to be prayed again and again.  This is an offering for those who want God’s grace in order to speak to others.

There is surely an office of Evangelist in the Church.  Not all are evangelists in this precise sense.  But all Christians are called to speak well of Him who saved them and seek to share that Good News with others.  Anyone who finds that desire can take this prayer (or similar) to themselves:

 

God My Father,

Help me to love all people, who are made in your image,

help me to respect their beliefs and what is true in those beliefs,

let me ask questions first and truly listen for the answers,

let them feel the love of God through the way I love them,

help me to not hide my faults even as my life may be different from theirs.

Help me to love the Good News of Jesus and His Cross and Resurrection,

let me not be embarrassed of Him, or of the Cross, or of the Truth that everyone needs salvation,

let me never be ashamed of the truth that Jesus is the only way to the Father,

and the only name by which men can be saved,

let me never shut my mouth when I need to speak it.

Help me to love You, above all other thing,

above the opinions of others, or success in this world,

remind me how much you love me and of what you have done for me.

We always speak about those whom we love – we can’t seem to stop,

Let it be that way for me.

 

AMEN

 

 

2 Kinds of Good News

You have to have two kinds of Gospel.  No, that doesn’t mean that there is more than one Gospel.  There’s only one great story of Christ the King and His saving work for sinners.  But…  Sometimes there are different ways to of telling it.  The Good News is rich and has lots of implications.  Every situation is different.  Every hearer and speaker is different.  Sometimes you don’t have a lot of time.  But that’s ok, there is encouragement for that.

Looking in to the Book of Acts we can see several different apostles Gospelling at different times to different people.  The way and setting in which the Good News is communicated differs, even if the mulit-faceted message is always the same.

"Hey man, we've got some time, let me explain all this to you"

“Hey man, we’ve got some time, let me explain all this to you”

In Acts 8:26-40, Philip meets up with an Ethiopian official traveling on the road.  He’s got some Bible background.  He’s actually reading the Bible right then and there.  He’s asking questions.  Philip is invited to sit with him in his chariot and we can assume they’ve got some time.  He can talk with him and unpack the Gospel at leisure.

Maybe you’ve been blessed with opportunities like this.  The Good News is so rich and has many parts to explain.  It’s wonderful to have long conversations about Jesus – Who He is, what He’s done, and what that means for us and the world.  It’s important to know that embracing Christ is not just a simple formula.  To come to know Him is to see how He fits in with  everything else in the world.  You may have to do a little apologetical stuff (that doesn’t mean apologizing for the truth!)  You may have to show someone how Jesus fulfills Old Testament prophecy.  You may get to tell how He’s changed your life.  You may get to unpack how Christianity is important not just for individuals but for the entire course of history – it has changed civilizations after all.

But all of that takes a lot of time.  It is a blessing to be able to have long conversations.  I personally love long Philip conversations.  It is important t know, though, that sometimes you just don’t have that kind of time.  To reflect on that, we can look at another scene from Acts.

 

 

"Look buddy, we don't have a lot of time here.  I'll get right to the point."

“Look buddy, we don’t have a lot of time here. I’ll get right to the point.”

In Acts 16:25-31, the Apostle Paul is given a great opportunity to share the Good News.  He’s in prison with Silas, their giving good testimony by singing in the midst of their hardship.  Then there’s a miraculous earthquake and they’re freed. The jailer is freaking out and asks:  what must I do to be saved?  There is no way to know how much this guy knew and how much he understood.  It’s not like Paul couldn’t expound with the best of them – he’s known to have taken a long time to explain the Gospel.  But Paul, not having much time gets right to the point:  Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved…  Granted later he gets more teaching but in that moment, the jailer gets the elevator pitch.

Sometimes, especially as we learn more about Christian faith, we make it harder to enter into it by complicating it.  There’s a lot more to know than what the jailer first heard, but the basic call to Repent and Believe is there.  It is actually a great test to be able to communicate the Good News is just one or two minutes.  It’s ridiculous to say that you can say everything, but the constraints help to focus.  If you only have 5 minutes with someone – do you get bogged down in Old Testament prophecy for example?

It is important because there are many opportunities to share Good News and they are not all the same.

Can’t we just worship and be a community?


The Church’s worship of God is what we are called to do.  We’re to love Him and sing His praises.  And it’s not wrong to enjoy doing it!  We’re also to be a family of faith – to love one another and draw closer in fellowship.  And it’s not wrong to desire community in Church.

But…  we knock the legs out from under those desires when a congregation forgets that it is to be about the mission of God.  That is, the call for us to make new disciples through proclaiming the Gospel and living it out in the world.  A congregation is not to exist for itself, it is to exist for the sake of God’s mission.

Here’s the thing, which I have suspected for a long while – when we forget that it is to bring others into the fold of God’s People, through evangelism and looking out, we’ll actually begin to miss out on the richness of our worship and fellowship.  I’ve seen it many times – an emphasis on depth, whether in worship or community, to the sacrifice of outwardness.  By outwardness I mean seeking, longing, yearning to let others hear the Gospel, believe, and join the Church.  Maybe this is due to an overreaction to the misguided Seeker-Sensitive philosophies of ministry.  Or maybe it’s because looking inward and caring about the self first can be a corporate as well as a individual failing.  At any rate, when we seek to look out – forget our mission – we begin to die.  We may not notice it at first, but a congregation that does not seek to gather even begins to lose the enjoyment it seeks from its own worship and fellowship.

We forget those who aren’t among us, we begin to lose the purpose of our worship and fellowship.  For a more convincing articulation of this, read this passage from Edmund Clowney’s formidable but wonderful book on Church:

 

"Don't forget those outside the walls of your church. I mean it!"

“Don’t forget those outside the walls of your church. I mean it!”

Jesus came to gather, and to call gatherers, disciples who would gather with him, seeking the poor and helpless from city streets and country roads.  Jesus said, “He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters (Mt 12:30, Lk 11:23)  Mission is not an optional activity for Christ’s disciples.  If they are not gatherers, they are scatterers.  Some suppose that a church may feature worship and nurture, leaving gathering as a minor role.  More often, Christians shrink from affirming such a position, but implement it in practice…  Such a church is actively involved in scattering, for the congregation that ignores mission will atrophy and soon find itself shattered by internal dissension.  It will inevitably begin to lose its own young people, disillusioned by hearing the gospel trumpet sounded every Sunday for those who never march.” Edmund Clowney, The Church, page 159-160.  [emphasis mine for purposes of shock and warning!]