Category Archives: Ministry

Do Nativity Scenes Help Us Worship God?

On December 24, 1223 Saint Francis of Assisi made the very first living animal nativity scene in an Italian grotto. I imagine that Saint Francis made a live nativity because he loved animals so much (note the picture).This tradition carries on today; however, do living nativity scenes actually help us worship God come in the flesh? My wife and I visited her family last weekend and we went to the local church’s live nativity scene. I had never seen an actual nativity scene acted out like this, where there were literal animals. It was pretty intense, this Church went all out. Living animals, a choir, young girls as angels, men as wise men, little boys as shepherds, a young man and woman as Mary and Joseph, and the little baby Jesus being acted out by an anonymous newborn child.

My question still remains, do nativity scenes like this actually help us worship God come in the flesh? Saint Francis of Assisi would have said yes. As I reflect upon the nativity scene my wife and I witnessed, it is very hard to say. I was partially distracted by the 4 year old girl who kept waving at everyone and the wise men who had denim pants and sneakers underneath their robes, and the fact that there were horses eating hay…I always pictured more sheep, cattle, and camels in the real version.

The narrator read parts of Matthew and Luke, and the choir responded with songs of worship, including most Christmastime favorites (all of which were centered on Christ, nothing like Rudolph).There were several attending the nativity scene who were not a part of the Church, and the pastor invited them to join for their Sunday gatherings. After the nativity, people gathered together in the church building for more hot chocolate and cookies. This Church obviously saw this as a huge ministry and outreach, taking it very seriously.

At the end of the day, I have to say that attending the living nativity scene did bless my soul. My wife and I were able to wear our pea coats and scarfs, drinking hot chocolate underneath a portable heat stove, while singing worship songs and laughing with the little kids’ short attention spans and being able to spend time with old friends whom we had not seen for over 6 months. Praise God that He came in the flesh so we could worship Him, recalling His birth on that evening.

When is the last time you went to a living nativity scene? did it help you worship God Emmanuel?

Do I have to write my own sermons?

In On Christian Doctrine, Augustine raises the question of what to do with people who are gifted communicators, but not gifted teachers. In other words, they can present a sermon powerfully, but they can’t write a powerful sermon. And he argues that it’s perfectly legitimate for them to memorize sermons written by other people and present them to the congregation (presumably without suggesting that they’d actually written the sermon themselves).

There are, indeed, some men who have a good delivery, but cannot compose anything to deliver. Now, if such men take what has been written with wisdom and eloquence by others, and commit it to memory, and deliver it to the people, they cannot be blamed, supposing them to do it without deception For in this way many become preachers of the truth (which is certainly desirable), and yet not many teachers; for all deliver the discourse which one real teacher has composed.  On Christian Doctrine 4.29

Augustine doesn’t elaborate, but he seems to envision a situation in which one gifted teacher prepares a sermon that is then presented by several different preachers, each in their own community. And, since these are preachers who aren’t cut out for writing their own sermons, this appears to be an ongoing situation. In other words, these aren’t preachers who just borrow an occasional sermon, but people whose entire preaching ministry would be based off material written by someone else.

When I first read this years ago, I rejected it out of hand. Of course preachers should prepare their own material. I could see presenting some famous, historical sermon on occasion. But for at least three reasons, I could ever see the value of doing this regularly:

  • A good preacher needs to be shaped by the text.  Before preaching the sermon, preachers need to soak in the text and allow it to shape their lives.  And the only way to do that is to do your own homework. You have to wrestle with the text yourself before you can challenge others with it.
  • A good preacher needs to contextualize the text. A good sermons is written for a particular audience. Granted, the greatest sermons hit on universal themes, making them applicable to a wider audience. But in general, good preachers write the sermons they do because they know that these are the sermons that this people needs to hear at this time.
  • A good preacher needs to adapt the sermon. Even people who manuscript their sermons know that a good preacher should be able to adjust the sermon on the fly. Reading the audience, you can tell when you need to dwell on a point just a bit longer or explain something just a bit more clearly. But that means you have to own the material well enough to make such adjustments without losing the thread of the sermon.

After reflecting on it a bit more, though, I’m wondering if there’s more wisdom in Augustine’s idea than I first appreciated. Over the years, I’ve met quite a few people who fit Augustine’s description. They were gifted communicators, but they were somewhat less gifted (I’m being charitable) in the other skills required for good sermon preparation. And it wasn’t laziness. People are just wired differently. So, rather than saying that such people can’t be preachers–or worse, that their churches should be condemned to bad preaching–why not conclude that sermon preparation can be a team effort and pair them with people who are gifted in ways that they are not? (This would also address the converse problem: people who are gifted exegetes but horrible communicators. And I’m sure we can all think of at least a few people who might fit in this category.)

Assuming that my three earlier concerns are still valid, though, here are some principles that would need to be in place for this to work:

  • The “teacher” must be local. I still don’t think this would work if the person writing the sermon is not connected to the local community of believers. But, if we’re talking about someone who lives and ministers with that local community and works in partnership with the one who presents the sermon, then this gets more interesting.
  • The “preacher” must study. This isn’t a “get out of jail free” card for the preacher. You shouldn’t teach a text that hasn’t first taught you. So the preacher still needs to wrestle with the text. But the preacher no longer needs to do so alone.
  • The “preacher” must own the sermon. And the preacher can’t simply take the completed sermon and present it to the congregation (i.e. no emailing the completed sermon the night before). The preacher will need time to digest and own the sermon so that it can be presented effectively and adapted when necessary.

I know many churches have “preaching teams” where they’ll plan sermon series and discuss ideas for upcoming sermons. But I don’t know many churches where the actual work of exegeting and constructing a sermon is done in collaboration like this.

What do you think?

  • What would you think if you knew that someone was providing significant help in exegeting and writing your pastor’s sermons? Would it affect the way that you listened to the sermon? 
  • Do you think this would be a legitimate way of affirming and using different gifts? Or do you see this as a copout for lazy preachers?
  • Do you know of any churches that are actually doing this?

6 Things I Wish I Had Known When I Started Leading Small Groups

I started leading small groups when I was 16. There I was, barely old enough to drive a car, and I was supposed to lead my group of thirteen-year-old boys on some kind of spiritual journey. Right. I felt good if we got through the meeting without someone making a fart joke.

Since that time, I’ve led small groups for people aged 10 to 40. (High school small groups are my favorite. It’s not even close.) Along the way, I’ve learned a few things. Not as many as I’d like. There’s still a lot about leading small groups well that remains a complete mystery to me. But I have learned. And, reflecting back across the years, here are some things that I really wish I had known when I first started.

1. Ground it in the gospel

For a long time, my small groups were like 12-step programs for believers. Want to grow mature Christians? It’s simple: meet regularly, read the Bible, pray, laugh, eat lots of food, and make sure that you hold each other “accountable” so that you all keep working at it. Do that long enough and something is bound to happen.

What I was missing was any meaningful understanding of how the gospel relates to discipleship. None of these are bad things in themselves. But, if they’re not grounded in grace and empowered by the spirit, then it isn’t discipleship. I’d love to go back and help my younger self catch a vision for a small group of Christians as God’s image bearers in the world, redeemed through Jesus Christ, indwelt by the Spirit, and commissioned as ambassadors of the Kingdom. I’d love to see me helping others understand God’s grace and the transforming power of the gospel. In short, I’d love to convince myself that a small group should be so much more than a support group.

Read the rest here…

 

The Most Important Question?

Leaning back against the soft cushions, book held loosely in one hand, chocolate chip cookie in the other, coffee cup perched delicately on my knee, I snuggled in and looked forward to a quiet afternoon of reading. Does it get any better?

credit: atomicjeep (flickr)

The doorbell rang.

Of course.

Normally I would have ignored it, but I was staying at my parents’ house for a few days, and I thought I should at least see who it was. So, with a sigh, I thumped my cup on the table, set aside my barely tasted cookie, jammed a bookmark in its place, and hoisted myself out of the comfy confines of my parents’ couch.

Opening the front door, I was greeted by three older gentlemen in their Sunday finest. One even held a black leather Bible in front of his red tie. Another fiddled with several small pamphlets that looked suspiciously like evangelistic tracts. And, the third stepped forward with a warm smile: “Hi, we’re from First Baptist Church. You filled out a visitor card last Sunday and we’re following up to see if we can answer any questions for you.”

“Oh, I don’t live here,” I responded. “My parents moved to town a few weeks back and they’ve been checking out a few churches in the area.” Looking for a quick end to the conversation I quickly added, “If you want to leave some information, I’ll make sure they get it.”

But, these were men on a mission; they wouldn’t be dismissed that easily.

“Do you know Jesus?” Pamphlet Man asked. It probably wasn’t quite that abrupt, but that’s how I remember it.

Fortunately, I was just about to graduate from Bible college, so I was well-prepared for difficult theological questions like this. With a little smile, I looked him in the eye and confidently replied, “Yes.”

That was four years of college tuition well spent.

But, they still weren’t done. Leaning closer with his Bible clutched in both hands, the third man asked, “But, do you know where you’re going after you die?”

And there it was. The question that trumps all other questions. What could be more important than knowing the answer to a question about your eternal destiny?

Still a bit annoyed that I wasn’t back on the couch with my book, I nearly said, “Disneyland.” But, he didn’t seem like the type to appreciate a joke about eternal destinies. So, instead, I gave him what he was looking for. “I know that I’ll live forever in heaven after I die,” I said, “because I believe in Jesus with all my heart and trust him as my Lord.”

That’s what they needed—assurance that I’d reserved my spot in Heaven forever. So, they gave me some material about the church, shook my hand warmly, and went on about their business.

Too bad. They missed an excellent opportunity to explain what I’d gotten wrong.

Valery Everett (Flickr)

Where did we get this idea that the whole point of the story was to make sure that we make it into heaven, and that our primary concern should be where we go after we die?  Do you know that if you read through the entire New Testament, you’d end up with only a handful of verses that have anything to do with what happens to us after we die? They are there, and we shouldn’t neglect them. But, why make them such a central part of the story? Why make that the most important question you can ask someone?

Interestingly, that’s the one question Jesus almost never asked. And, he asked a lot of questions:

  • Do you really think it’s that impressive if you’re nice to people who are just like you?
  • Why are you anxious about little things like clothing?
  • Why do you spend so much time considering the flaws of other people and ignoring your own?
  • Why are you afraid?
  • Why do you think about evil things all the time?
  • Do you believe that I can do this?
  • Who is truly a part of my family?
  • Why did you doubt?
  • Who do people say that I am?
  • What could you possibly give in exchange for your life?
  • Can you endure what I will have to endure?
  • What do you want me to do for you?

Those are all great questions, just a few of the ones Jesus asks in a single book (Matthew). And, notice their focus: living faithfully in response to the Gospel today. As far as I can tell, in the entire book, Jesus only once asks a question about a person’s eternal destiny (Matthew 23:33). Instead, he focuses almost exclusively on making people think about what they are doing right now.

Jesus came to announce the arrival of the Kingdom. That’s not a message for some far off future, but it’s good news for right now. It has obvious implications for the future. We’d mess up the Gospel just as much if we thought that this story was only about the here and now. That would rob the story of purpose, hope, and direction. But, the mistake we more commonly make is thinking that the most important question we can ask is about where we’ll be in the end.

What’s the most important question that you can ask? It’s not, “Where will you go when you die?” That’s a fine question. And, it’s one that’s worth discussing. But, the most important question? I don’t think so. A far better question is, “Who will you follow while you live?” Answer that question, and the other will take care of itself.

[This is part of my series on unpacking the Gospel.]

Forced Choices: Who are your favorite preachers?

Our last Forced Choice looked at OT genres. And, although Law lost badly with only 12%, the others were fairly close: History 24%, Prophecy 30%, and Poetry/Wisdom 34%.

This week, we’re going to try something a little different. Someone asked me on Facebook the other day which three preachers (outside of Scripture) I held in highest regard. I thought that was an interesting question, so I’d like to throw it out to you. So, instead of doing a Forced Choices poll this week, I’d just like to ask: Who are your favorite preachers? And, I’m specifically looking for both historic preachers and contemporary preachers.

Now, almost immediately, someone is going to ask me to give some criteria for determining the best preachers. And, I’m not going to do that. I just want to know your favorites. You can explain your reasons if you’d like, or you can just drop some names. And, keep in mind that you’re not necessarily saying that they’re the “best” preachers (whatever that means), just that these are the ones you personally hold in high regard for some reason.

So, what do you think? Who are your favorite preachers?

What is Revival? The Three Rs of Transformation

Sawdust on the floor. Benches once neatly arrayed, now pushed hastily aside, tracing a chaotic maze through the crowd of people swaying and dancing under the high-peaked tent. Light streaming from the tent’s door into the warm summer evening where more people wait for a small taste of what’s happening within. Taut ropes quivering as thousands of feet stomp to the music.

Revival has come to town.

At least, it looks like a revival. Sawdust? Check. Big crowd? Check. Dancing and singing? Check. All we need now is some preaching, confessing, and maybe a little fainting. Then we’ll be all set.

After all, that’s what a revival is. Right?

Our Revival Roots

Evangelicalism has always had a deep concern for the transformation of individual Christians and the Church itself. Drawing on currents already present in pietism and among the Puritans, early evangelicals like Jonathan Edwards, the Wesley brothers, and George Whitefield feared for a Christianity that seemed to have lost its vitality. People were just going through the motions. They attended church, took communion, and read their Bibles. But, there was no life. No change. No transformation. People, churches, and entire communities went on about their business, everyday lives untouched by the Gospel.

And, that can’t be. Jesus promised that his people would be filled with the Spirit, ambassadors of the Gospel, harbingers of his Kingdom. We are supposed to be God’s image bearers in the world, manifesting his glory everywhere. We’re supposed to be different.

Something was wrong.

So, these early evangelicals prayed, preached, worked, and hoped for something more. Real change. Their desire was that God would come and transform his people so that they would live in the world as he intended. They sought revival.

And, evangelicals pursued revival into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as well. The First Great Awakening gave way to the Second, Third, and even Fourth Great Awakenings, every generation praying for God’s empowering presence to renew his people for more vital living and more faithful ministry in the world. This emphasis on “renewal through revival” is part of the DNA of evangelicalism.

Two Key Questions

But, despite this general agreement, evangelicalism has struggled to understand exactly what this means. And, we’ve had a particularly difficult time answering two fundamental questions.

Is revival lasting or temporary? Some evangelicals focus on the fact that we live in a broken world. And, in this fallen existence, we will always encounter times of sustained, spiritual dryness. The best we can hope is that God will occasionally pour out his spirit onto our dry ground, allowing the plants to sprout and the flowers to bloom for a time, before the dry heat of the desert returns.

But, other evangelicals see revival as more lasting. For them, the promise of real change isn’t fleeting. Rather than seeing revival as a sudden rainstorm, they picture it as a spring continually flowing up from the ground to sustain new life in an otherwise barren land.

Is revival “miraculous” or “natural”? A related question has to do with the source of true revival. Now, we have to be a little careful here because all evangelicals agree that true revival is “miraculous” in the sense that ultimately it comes from God. No one argues that revival is something we simply produce on our own.

But, evangelicals do disagree on exactly how to understand the relationship between the divine and the human in producing revival. For many evangelicals, revival is a miracle along the same lines as bringing someone back from the dead. The dead person doesn’t contribute much to the process. So, renewing them to life must be a gift from the outside. Others can pray, pleading with God to offer the gift. But, in the end, renewal is a miraculous gift.

Others agree that revival is a gift, but they prefer a different analogy. For them, revival is more like a plant growing in your garden. The fact that the plant exists and grows at all is a gift from God. But, to make the plant grow, the gardener needs to work hard: cultivating, planting, weeding, feeding, and watering. And, under normal circumstances, God will not withhold the miraculous gift of life when his people carry out these tasks faithfully.

Different answers to these two questions will give you very different pictures of revival. Is revival temporary and “supernatural,” like the raising of Lazarus? Or, is revival sustained and “natural,” like a farmer growing crops? And, of course, we could also combine the options and argue for something that is sustained and supernatural (like the New England Patriots) or temporary and natural (like any plant I’ve ever tried to grow).

The Three Rs

I think that a lot of the confusion comes from the fact that we’re using one term, revival, to describe at least three different things. So, it may help if we make some important distinctions.

Renewal. Nothing is more pathetic than a child’s toy when the batteries are running low: it slows down; the already annoying music turns into a mind-numbing warble; and the lights flicker erratically like a firefly with a mental disorder. I think we all feel like that at times. We run down spiritually, emotionally, physically, and even missionally, needing to be reminded and renewed so we can be reengaged in what the Gospel is all about. We sometimes need to have the “joy of your salvation” restored (Ps. 51:12) so God can continue the process of renewing us in his image (2 Cor. 4:16). Praise God for rechargeable batteries.

Renewal refers to the revitalization of God’s people for faithful life and ministry. And, in this way, it’s distinct from rebirth, which is a word that we should reserve for the beginning of one’s Christian journey. But, renewal shares one common characteristic with rebirth: it’s a gift. A battery does not recharge itself, and life does not arise on its own. Renewal, as the overall process of revitalizing God’s people, always comes as a gift of God’s grace.

Reformation. Even though renewal is always a gift, God’s people have long recognized the importance of working faithfully to address our imperfections and weaknesses. That’s reformation: the ongoing practice of bringing every aspect of life and ministry into greater conformity with the Gospel. And, whether it’s Paul calling for reform in the Corinthian church, the early church working toward reform in a series worldwide councils, the medieval church with its many reform movements, or the Protestant Reformation itself, reform efforts have always been with us. Because, of course, reformation didn’t end in the sixteenth century. It continues today as God’s people labor to address their flawed attempts at faithfulness.

Does this mean that reformation stands at odds with renewal? By no means. The Gospel of grace entails neither quietism nor passivism. We are called to action. Reformation by itself cannot produce renewal any more than going to church alone can produce sanctification. But, they are both expressions of Christian faithfulness that God uses in the process of growing and renewing his people.

Revival. If “reformation” is the active and ongoing process by which God’s people seek to live faithfully in light of the Gospel, then we can reserve the term revival for those more special occasions in which God uniquely empowers a particular group of people for Gospel-centered living.

I’ve experienced revival in my own life: on the shore of a lake at summer camp, in a sanctuary filled with God’s people singing his praises, on a sofa praying with friends. Special times of experiencing the powerful presence of God in ways that renewed and re-energized me as one seeking to follow God obediently and live out the Gospel faithfully.

And, I’ve seen the same dynamic at work in entire churches. Whether we’re talking about a Great Awakening that sweeps across an entire country, or a special work of God in a particular congregation, revival renews God’s people for carrying out God’s purposes.

Grounded in the Gospel

So, returning to the two questions I asked above. Are we talking about something that is lasting or temporary, supernatural or natural? Yes, we are. Renewal is all of the above.

And, what holds it all together is the Gospel. Overemphasize reformation and we’ll approach the church and the Christian life as a task that must be accomplished, a goal we can achieve if we just work hard enough. Down that road lie pride, frustration, and eventually exhaustion.

Overemphasize revival and we’ll approach the Christian life as something that can only be truly lived during times of heightened excitement, passion, and felt empowerment, something that must be continually stirred up and sought after. And, down that road lie pride, frustration, and eventually exhaustion.

Two different roads. Same tragic end.

The Gospel rejects both approaches because it recognizes that true renewal is always a gift of God, but it is one that involves his empowering Spirit and our faithful response. In the end, sustained transformation, both personal and corporate, involves our renewal through both reformation and revival.

[This is an article I’ve written for the next issue of Western Seminary’s magazine, focusing on revival in the life of God’s people. This article is supposed to set the stage for the others by talking about what “revival” is and how it relates to the Gospel. I still have time to make some final edits before I send it in, so let me know if you have any feedback.]

A Prayer for Sunday (Jonathan Edwards).

[Jonathan Edwards birthday was last week (Oct 5), so today’s A Prayer for Sunday comes from him. But, instead of posting one of Edwards’ prayers. Here is an excerpt from his sermon “The Most High a Prayer Hearing God,” a reflection on Psalm 65:2.]

Why is God so ready to hear the prayers of men? — To this I answer,

First, because he is a God of infinite grace and mercy. It is indeed a very wonderful thing, that so great a God should be so ready to hear our prayers, though we are so despicable and unworthy. That he should give free access at all times to everyone, should allow us to be importunate without esteeming it an indecent boldness, [and] should be so rich in mercy to them that call upon him: that worms of the dust should have such power with God by prayer, that he should do such great things in answer to their prayers, and should show himself, as it were, overcome by them. This is very wonderful, when we consider the distance between God and us, and how we have provoked him by our sins, and how unworthy we are of the least gracious notice. It cannot be from any need that God stands in of us, for our goodness extends not to him. Neither can it be from anything in us to incline the heart of God to us. It cannot be from any worthiness in our prayers, which are in themselves polluted things. But it is because God delights in mercy and condescension. He is herein infinitely distinguished from all other Gods. He is the great fountain of all good, from whom goodness flows as light from the sun.

Second, we have a glorious Mediator, who has prepared the way, that our prayers may he heard consistently with the honor of God’s justice and majesty. Not only has God in himself mercy sufficient for this, but the Mediator has provided that this mercy may be exercised consistently with the divine honor. Through him we may come to God for mercy. He is the way, the truth, and the life. No man can come to the Father but by him. This Mediator hath done three things to make way for the hearing of our prayers.

1. He hath by his blood made atonement for sin, so that our guilt need not stand in the way, as a separating wall between God and us, and that our sins might not be a cloud through which our prayers cannot pass….

2. Christ, by his obedience, has purchased this privilege, viz. that the prayers of those who believe in him should be heard. He has not only removed the obstacles to our prayers, but has merited a hearing of them….

3. Christ enforces the prayers of his people, by his intercession at the right hand of God in heaven. He hath entered for us into the holy of holies, with the incense which he hath provided, and there he makes continual intercession for all that come to God in his name, so that their prayers come to God the Father through his hands….

God even uses preachers who make mistakes

Three seasoned preachers share some stories on mistakes they’ve made while preaching. I have to admit that I was a little disappointed, since I was hoping for something really horrifying. But, it was still a good reminder that ultimately the sermons isn’t about the preacher, even the best communicator slips up, and God uses them anyway.

And, amen to the comment toward the end about using sports analogies in sermons.

The Youth Group movie trailer

We shouldn’t make fun of youth pastors and the painful things they have to go through.

Yes we should.

HT Michael Hyatt via Twitter

Chasing after the Wind

[This is a guest post by Michael Fletcher. Michael is a Th.M.  student at Western Seminary  and is participating in this semester’s seminar on Augustine. He also blogs at the3inone.]

While reading Augustine’s work Of True Religion, I was reminded once again of how vain I can be at times and how my vanity dulls my vision of true beauty. “If you take away vain persons who pursue that which is last as if it were first, matter will not be vanity but will show its own beauty in its own way, a low type of beauty, of course, but not deceptive.”

So often I pursue that which is last as if it were first. How many times have I decided to go mountain biking or grab a coffee or watch a manly movie without first considering God and asking him what his will is? These things are so trivial, yet I pursue the like with such fervor. “It is very easy to execrate the flesh, but very difficult not to be carnally minded.” Or as St. Paul says, “I don’t do that which I want to do, but I do the very thing which I hate.” It is such a difficult thing living as a Christian in the world. There are so many temptations, Lord I pray that you delivery me from these and every other unseemly thing.

“Life which delights in material joys and neglects God tends to nothingness…” Do I really believe this? Of course I do! The 2nd Law of Thermodynamics states that in a closed system order always leads to disorder unless energy is added. When I pursue material joys I am not allowing the energy of the Spirit to enter my life, and when no energy is added, I tend toward disorder and ultimately nothingness. (Yes, I just used physics to defend a theological position…I am a geek.)

Back to the original quote, Augustine was also hinting at something else: beauty. He was saying that created matter is beautiful. He is continually urging us to understand that creation is not evil in and of itself. By our idolatry we create a dualistic belief. We call matter evil, even if not blatantly. We say don’t eat this, don’t drink that, don’t have sex, et al. These things are not bad or evil, if we pursue them as though they are first it has disrupted the beauty and goodness but only because of our vanity. Why do we chase after the wind? We have promoted an idea that the material world is evil and this has caused us to not recognize the beautiful. The beautiful is all around us and all beauty points towards the ultimate beauty, the One Beauty, the 3 in One – glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, both now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.

Now comes the question of True Religion: how do we recognize and enjoy the beauty yet not chase after the wind in vain?